Friday, April 26, 2013

Around the web

Metaphysician E. J. Lowe discusses ontology, physics, Locke, Aristotle, logic, laws of nature, potency and act, dualism, science fiction, and other matters in an interview at 3:AM Magazine

Over at The Montreal Review, Alex Sztuden responds to Leiter and Weisberg’s review of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos.

Frank Beckwith replies to David Bentley Hart on natural law in The Catholic Thing.

Colin McGinn reviews Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind at The New York Review of Books.  (HT: Siris)

The Table is the new blog of Biola University's Center for Christian Thought.  The Center is sponsoring a conference on Neuroscience and the Soul, to be held May 10 - 11.

Classifying Reality, an anthology edited by David Oderberg, is forthcoming in May.

Welcome to Angelico Press, a new publisher of new and old books in theology and philosophy.

New Atheist Sam Harris discusses atheism and martial arts.  (HT: Dave Lull)  As it happens, there is some footage available of Harris in martial arts action -- pretty impressive!


  1. "As it happens, there is some footage available of Harris in martial arts action . . . "

    I see what you did there. Priceless.

  2. Atheism and martial arts.... damn he must be running out of topics to tak about XD.

    Or he is trying to promote atheists in sports *another big one for any atheist militant... seriously XD...*

  3. I will definitely cop Oderberg's anthology.

    P.S. Allow me this small but exquisite off-topic question. Prof. Feser, I just finished your book "Philosophy of Mind" and I was a little curious as to why (especially in the postcript) there was no mention or discussion of Burnyeat's paper "Is an Aristotelian Philosophy of Mind Still Credible?" (on Nussbaum,
    ed., "Essays on Aristotle's De Anima") and the thesis defended therein, especially when it came time to discuss and dispel the alleged affinities between functionalism and hylemorphism. I mean, after all both you and Burnyeat agree that Aristotle, or an Aristotelian philosophy of mind, couldn't be further from being functionalist but I am not sure that it is for the same reasons. Burnyeat contends that the functionalist interpretation of Aristotle fails (you do as well) But he, however, argues that Aristotle's philosophy of mind is not credible, and even goes on to claim that Aristotle's philosophy of mind fails because Aristotle's physics fails (something with which, I presume, you would disagree) and that "to be truly Aristotelian, we would have to stop believing that the emergence of life or mind requires explanation."(p.26) I think this is the main reason he has for thinking Aristotelian philosophy of mind untenable. In any case, he gives reasons for this, citing Aristotle's text and stuff, and I am sure you're more than aware of his argument so I won't even rehearse it. But I was curious as to why no mention or discussion of it, since here's a guy that would concede your point about that stark differences between functionalism and hylemorphism but yet perhaps not for the same reasons (since his reasons lead him to conclude that Aristotelian philosophy of mind is not credible). Now, I am not at all confident that I have fully understood Burnyeat's point nor that his argument against hylemorphism isn't question begging. But in any case, it would be interesting to know your opinion on Burnyeat's thesis.


  4. I think I must have been channeling Beckwith in my recent responses to Rank Sophist.

  5. Appreciate the links.

    Here's a link in return that many of you have probably received in your own e-mail boxes. But for those who haven't ...

    I don't know that it's dispositive of a recurring issue that has come up with what ya'll are calling the GNU atheists, and their "Who made or came before God" questions. But if it doesn't settle anyone's hash, it certainly provides some interesting material for logical ruminations on the various time and causal chain questions that have been introduced here repeatedly. And that goes whether as "most physicists think" time does not exist, or it alternatively does.

    I was not aware by the way that "most physicists" actually thought that time was just a psychological an illusion ... I guess if that were so, it would seem to make those temporal series questions regarding God's "priority" meaningless on the consensus physicalist's own terms.

    One wonders then, why anyone taking such a view of time, and who is even semi-serious in intent, would raise a hackneyed objection in the first place.

    Re Harris. I've been shocked to learn that when it comes to self-defense he is not one of the mutually assured mildness crowd; and that he has reasoned rather effectively concerning the keeping and bearing of firearms, and their usefulness in resisting predation.

    Almost like he imagines there are some "natural rights" politics should respect.

    His temperamental then, if not intellectual unwillingness to become an outright values nihilist, might be what led him logically astray into that astonishing bit of values status question begging during his debate with William Lane Craig, as Harris tried to salvage the notion of an objectively ascertainable morality in the face of his own larger worldview.

    It almost makes him seem sympathetic.

  6. Edward Feser writes,

    "Welcome to Angelico Press, a new publisher of new and old books in theology and philosophy."

    That's good. I wonder if they intend to, or are able to, republish "Being and Some Philosophers"?

    There's a nice hard cover copy in Canada for 100 bucks, which is probably better than either nothing, or one covered in pizza sauce and marginal scribbles.

    But it would be nice to pick something up for under $50 with "real" printing rather than that wavy/skewed photo reprint format one sees in a number of re-issues

  7. Okay, so Hart's essay has been discussed to death, but Beckwith makes the claim that at the heart of Hart's point, pardon the pun, is Hume's claim you cannot get an ought from an is. Is this really the case? I personally found that Hart wasn't clear. But why would Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, make such a claim? Surely, such a claim really amounts to their being no meaningful oughts at all. Surely, such a claim has little in common with the traditional moral and metaphysical position of the Eastern Church. And surely, such a claim amounts to suggesting that all traditional thinkers, from Plato to Aquinas, and even including Islamic, Indian, Far Eastern figures as well as most wise men and social mores of just about any pre-modern civilisation I'm aware, have made a basic mistake in their moral thinking (or, perhaps, have ignored the mistake deliberately) and it took David Hume to point it out. For traditionally minded people this would seem an extraordinary claim and should surely make someone like Hart very skeptical that Hume and the moderns haven't made basic mistakes in how they frame these issues.

  8. @Anonymous: "Beckwith makes the claim that at the heart of Hart's point, pardon the pun, is Hume's claim you cannot get an ought from an is. Is this really the case?"

    Are you asking whether it's really the case that this claim is at the heart of Hart's case, or are you asking whether Hart supports the claim at all? If the latter, then there's no question about it:

    "For one thing, as far as any categorical morality is concerned, Hume's bluntly stated assertion that one cannot logically derive an 'ought' from an 'is' happens to be formally correct. Even if one could exhaustively describe the elements of our nature, the additional claim that we are morally obliged to act in accord with them, or to prefer natural uses to unnatural, would still be adventitious to the whole ensemble of facts that this description would comprise."

  9. Okay, so Hart's essay has been discussed to death, but Beckwith makes the claim that at the heart of Hart's point, pardon the pun, is Hume's claim you cannot get an ought from an is. Is this really the case?

    Nope. I read Beckwith's article and was far from impressed. He expressed a near-total ignorance of Hart's position. Whatever else you might think about what Hart is saying, that much remains objectively true.

  10. Scott, I have trouble seeing how any relatively traditional Eastern Orthodox theologian could make such a point, for the reasons I gave in my last post (and I can think of a few more), unless what Hart really is getting at is that if you define is, ought, and the general terms of discussion as Hume and moderns do then you cannot derive an is from an ought. Dr. Feser has made a similar point, I believe.

    Hart, in this discussion, seems to need to explain himself better. He spends a lot of time hinting at much that needs a fuller explanation. He also seems to have placed rather strange emphasises on certain points. I just can't really see where he is coming from in this whole discussion: and I'm someone, who though respecting both Hart and Dr. Feser a lot, generally sides with Orthodoxy over Thomism.

  11. I should add, I'm not saying he cannot have made such a point - if he did, he did, of course- but I'm just perplexed about how an Eastern Orthodox theologian could do so.

    I'm perplexed by Hart's position throughout this discussion.

    I can agree with him that converting people to Christianity is one of the best ways to advance Christian moral, social, and cultural positions. But, on the other hand, a certain general respect in society for those positions would itself be a great boon to missionary work in the Western world.

  12. Rather than simply criticizing Hart for throwing out such a poorly formed argument, I think it would be far more helpful if everyone concerned would try a little harder to understand why Hart wrote what he did. The current situation is such that atheists, relativists, secularists, utilitarians, pragmatists, and natural law theorists all claim to be able to be able to defend moral values based on reason alone. The problem for Catholics in particular is that natural law theorists have not been able to successfully counter the attacks on Christian moral theology through reason alone. Hart’s conclusion is that every form of moral rationalism has failed, and that Christians in general have no choice except to follow the eastern Church in defending moral theology through a rigorous defense of Divine Revelation and natural theology. The important point is that Hart maybe correct in his conclusions even if is argument is not sound.

    The best response to Hart would be to explain teleology or final causality in terms that restore the natural law to its position as the only way in which to explain the fundamental moral principles which all men of good will hold in common. That as yet has not been done, but it is a project worth working on.

  13. Is Harris still using that "if people grieved correctly, we wouldn't need God" argument?

    Here I was thinking:

    1. There are a load of good arguments he's never addressed, let alone refuted,

    2. There are quite a few other reasons why God is important to the human condition,

    3. Seeking comfort about the death of loved ones is rather natural and healthy (suggesting otherwise seems much closer to pushing repression),

    4. For all the emotional self-help advice I seem to be getting from atheists, there seems to be some clear signs of unbalance from the people giving this advice, and

    5. I really have no idea why Harris, who is convinced that moral good is centered around "the well-being of conscious creatures" should have a problem with false comfort.

    So long as it makes people happy, a lie is as good as the truth, on his view. I really don't see why he's concerned about this.

  14. This is a very minor issue, but I wish people would stop attributing the is-ought thing directly to Hume. There is no "bluntly stated assertion" that you can't derive an 'ought' from an 'is' in Hume. In context he is not considering general questions of obligation but one particular theory of obligation, the rationalist version according to which obligation is (1) a relation like the logical copula and (2) directly perceived by reason. The passage on which the is-ought claim is based is merely summarizing Hume's argument against this particular position. (As people have noticed, he goes on in the very next section to argue that you can derive 'ought' from 'is' if you base your moral theory on moral sense rather than rational perception of relations.) And it's not bluntly stated -- he merely raises the problem and challenges the rationalist to give his explanation. Hume's point is not that it's logically impossible to do, but that people do it without giving any explanation for how they can. (In Hume it also couldn't have any general moral implications, because Hume doesn't think morality consists primarily of obligations.)

    The is-ought claim that gets attributed to Hume is based on this passage, but it's not a Humean idea; it's a twentieth-century positivist claim. It's also difficult to pin down: logically speaking, there is no problem with deriving an 'ought' from an 'is' -- all the standard forms of deontic logic, for instance, have inference rules that force you to derive 'ought' from 'is' under some conditions. Thus the claim actually is based not on any logical facts but on an implicit account of obligation or 'ought' -- namely, a positivist one. Hume never says anything that requires the positivist account of obligation, though, and his moral sense theory requires rejecting the is-ought and fact-value distinctions as the positivists understood them.

  15. rank sophist, Hart claims that one cannot derive an ought from an is, since mere descriptions can not give way to prescriptions. That's his claim. Now, of course, his essays are far more rich and layered than that one point. But it is a point that plays an important part in his case. To show that this point can be refuted, if not seriously challenged, does not answer all his criticisms of NL. My project--which had a limitation of 850 words--was not intending to engage the latter. That, I am happy to report, was dispatched quite effectively by Professor Feser.

  16. Francis,

    My concern was that you misunderstood his reference to Hume. Even a cursory glance at Hart's body of work reveals that he's no follower of Hume, and that he's quite an extreme classicist when it comes to metaphysics. He would not make the sophomoric skeptical argument of which you accused him. Further, "Is, Ought, and Nature's Laws" itself refutes your reading. In the very first sentence, Hart clearly establishes that traditional natural law is "perfectly coherent" on a logical level, despite his own distaste for it. In the third paragraph, he explains traditional natural law's presuppositions with regard to final causality and the rest.

    Then, in the fourth paragraph, he criticizes those who "[insist] that the moral meaning of nature should be perfectly evident to any properly reasoning mind, regardless of religious belief or cultural formation" (emphasis mine). He is saying that nature, when separated from the cosmic metaphysics he outlined in paragraph 3 (summarized here as "religious belief or cultural formation"), is a fact without value. This is when he brings in Hume: to criticize those who would separate natural law from its presuppositions and then use nature as an "objective" middle ground. He is not using Hume to argue that descriptions are never prescriptive: he is saying that only descriptions qualified by more fundamental presuppositions are prescriptive. And, on this point, I think we can all agree.

  17. Hart does not claim that one cannot derive an "ought" from an "is." Rather, he claimed that moderns will raise such an objection, right or wrong. Furthermore, he did not claim that the natural world is an "is" that we must foist a metaphysical and theological tradition upon in order to get an "ought" out of it. Rather, his claim was that moderns, because of a disordered will – see the distinction he makes reference to in his most recent article between the "natural will" and the "gnomic will" – and a poorly cultivated heart, cannot see the truth and have erected so many philosophical structures in order to justify themselves. That's it. It's a claim about the limits that a discourse of natural law faces in the contemporary West, not a comment about its integrity. This was very clear in his most recent piece.

  18. If I can add a new post to Prof. Feser's end-of-the-week Internet round-up, there's an interesting essay by Prof. Anthony Esolen at Providence College that looks at the recent controversy regarding the possible admission of homosexuals to the Boy Scouts from a Thomist perspective. I'd welcome Prof. Feser's comments on the piece.

  19. As I have said before, Hart is not clear in his exact points, at least as far as I can see. However, Anon April 27, 2013 at 5:23 PM, if what you say is true, and it seemed to me that Hart did hint at such a position, isn't he really getting at a Platonic argument about levels of consciousness or Nous and how these shape how we view and interact with the universe? Something like Blake's "A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees." ?

    If this is the case, this point and its relationship to classical natural law would be a fascinating discussion. I just wonder why Hart could not have been clearer and why he has to approach the subject in the way he did. I can't help but thinking at the bottom of it all is the ancient divisions between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.

  20. Bobby Trosclair,

    I think the metaphysics of gender is fascinating and under-explored by contemporary traditionalists. It seems it could help shed an important light on some current controversies.

    On so called gay marriage it seems to me that it is essential to respect homosexuals as persons. That is, like all human beings we should wish them to find salvation. We should at all times treat them with the dignity that befits all men. However, that said, once any respect is given to homosexual acts themselves or homosexual relationships (whether they should be illegal is another matter - I don't think they actually need to be, but I do not consider it a great injustice if they are), then the battle over so called same sex marriage is half lost. By the time you're granting homosexual relationships the status of civil unions and most of the rights of marriage then the battle is basically over.

    The problem is, next to no Western supposedly Christian and conservative politicians, unless they're far right, these days will do anything more than oppose the fait accompli of gay marriage - they not only tend to support civil unions but they will usually express support for homosexual relationships and an active homosexual lifestyle.

  21. This is the Anon who posted at April 27, 2013 at 5:23 PM.

    Yes, precisely. Hart is very Platonizing. This should be clear in the last two paragraphs of his most recent article at First Things. One's ability to understand truth depends on how far one has cultivated the inner eye of the heart. Sin, as Saint Paul suggests in the first chapter of Romans, can blind us from the truth. To argue in a purely logical way is not practical according to Hart.

    In other words, Hart is writing about the limits to come to the truth of those mired in sin and a tradition hostile to reason. He in no way holds to the fact-value or is-ought distinctions.

    I would suggest my very long multi-part post on the most recent of Feser's posts about Hart for more details. I only put it up a few hours ago.

  22. I like this TEDTalk about materialistic dogma. Seems to me the tide is beginning to turn, albeit slowly:!

  23. rank sophist quoting Hart: NL theorists "[insist] that the moral meaning of nature should be perfectly evident to any properly reasoning mind, regardless of religious belief or cultural formation"

    No NL theorist believes that. That is a straw man. In fact, years ago MacIntyre published a chapter--based on a lecture he gave--in which he points out that the NL tradition has within it resources to account for how someone can reject the NL while it remains in principle accessible to all. MacIntyre argues that this actually shows that the NL is superior to its alternatives:

    Doesn't mean, of course, that MacIntyre is right. But it does show that before Hart starts issuing such judgments about NL he should become conversant with the literature on the subject rather than just sounding like the atheists he so eloquently critiqued in Atheist Delusions.

    But, alas, even the most vociferous and skeptical critics will find themselves in the clutches of the NL See, for example, my analysis of Dawkins on "first philosophy":

    Hart is certainly correct that some materialists will trot out Hume. So what? Is Hart actually suggesting that we should not offer our case until all our adversaries are rendered preemptively mute?

  24. Dear Professor Feser: Just found "Being and Some Philosophers" last weekend, in a used bookstore in Davenport, Iowa. Second edition, hardback, excellent condition. Seven bucks. Nil desperandum. Best, cp

  25. Oops. that last comment should have been addressed to DNW. Best, cp