Monday, August 12, 2013

NOW AVAILABLE: Aristotle on Method and Metaphysics


Aristotle on Method and Metaphysics, an anthology I've edited for Palgrave Macmillan’s Philosophers in Depth series, is now available.  The book is a collection of new and cutting-edge essays by prominent Aristotle scholars and Aristotelian philosophers on themes in ontology, causation, modality, essentialism, the metaphysics of life, natural theology, and scientific and philosophical methodology. Grounded in careful exegesis of Aristotle's writings, the volume aims to demonstrate the continuing relevance of Aristotelian ideas to contemporary philosophical debate.

The contributors are Robert Bolton, Stephen Boulter, David Charles, Edward Feser, Lloyd Gerson, Gyula Klima, Kathrin Koslicki, E. J. Lowe, Fred D. Miller, Jr., David S. Oderberg, Christopher Shields, Allan Silverman, Tuomas Tahko, and Stephen Williams.  Here are brief descriptions of each of the essays:

The first three essays in the volume are concerned with the questions of what metaphysics is and what method is appropriate to it.  In “The Phainomenological Method in Aristotle’s Metaphysics,” Christopher Shields considers the role that appearances (phainomena) -- what seems to be the case -- play, for Aristotle, in determining what is the case, whether in metaphysics or in other contexts.  As Shields explains, Aristotle is committed to a “Principle of Phainomenological Conservatism” according to which the fact that something appears to be true provides considerable evidence for believing that it is true, though not infallible evidence. 

Stephen Boulter’s “The Aporetic Method and the Defence of Immodest Metaphysics” defends the traditional view that metaphysics is indispensible to philosophy, that at least some substantive metaphysical claims can be justified without appealing to science, and that some accepted interpretations of mature scientific theory can justifiably be rejected on metaphysical grounds.  Central to his defence is an appeal to what Aristotle called “aporia” -- real or apparent conflicts between claims that we have independent reason to accept, and which must therefore be resolved in some way.

In “Metaphysics as the First Philosophy,” Tuomas E. Tahko addresses the question of what it is for metaphysics to be “the first philosophy” (as the Aristotelian tradition characterizes it), and examines its relationship to natural science.  He considers the notion that metaphysics is “first” insofar as it deals with what is fundamental in the sense of being ontologically independent or not grounded in anything else, but argues that it is the notion of essence rather than fundamentality that is key to the priority of metaphysics.

The next several essays examine some of the central notions of Aristotelian metaphysics -- being, essence, substance, necessity, and the like.  Robert Bolton’s “Two Doctrines of Categories in Aristotle: Topics, Categories, and Metaphysics” argues that there are two different and incompatible doctrines of categories in Aristotle.  Bolton maintains that this is not because of a development in Aristotle’s thought, but instead reflects the different needs which these doctrines were intended to meet, in one case the needs of the practice of dialectic and in the other the needs and practice of metaphysical science.

In “Grounding, Analogy and Aristotle’s Critique of Plato’s Idea of the Good,” Allan Silverman examines the ways in which Aristotle and some contemporary Aristotelians have spelled out the idea that some entities are grounded in more fundamental, foundational, or basic entities.  He appeals to the notions of focal meaning and analogy, particularly as these are applied by Aristotle in explicating his notion of energeia or actuality and in critiquing Plato’s Idea of the Good, as a way of making sense of grounding relations.

In Aristotle’s thought, the notion of essence plays both a definitional role, specifying what it is for a thing to belong to a certain natural kind, and an explanatory role, accounting for why a thing has and must have certain properties.  In “Essence, Modality and the Master Craftsman,” Stephen Williams and David Charles consider why essence should play both roles, how the explanatory role figures in Aristotle’s account of essence, and how essences might be said to explain why things of a kind necessarily have certain properties.  In doing so they make use of the notion of what the “master craftsman” or artisan uncovers about the natural materials he works with.

Gyula Klima’s “Being, Unity, and Identity in the Fregean and Aristotelian Traditions” compares the understanding of the notions of being or existence, identity, and unity operative in post-Fregean logic and metaphysics, on the one hand, and in the work of Aristotelian thinkers like Buridan and Aquinas on the other.  In Klima’s view, precisely because these respective notions of being, identity, and unity are so different and address different questions, we are not forced to choose between them, and in any event we ought not to suppose that the post-Fregean notions are “the” right ones merely because they are modern. 

According to the Aristotelian doctrine of hylomorphism, unified wholes (for example, organisms) are composites of matter and form.  Substances, in Aristotelian thought, are taken to be ontologically independent in the sense of not being “said of” or “in” anything else.  In “Substance, Independence and Unity,” Kathrin Koslicki considers the apparent tension that exists between these doctrines insofar as hylomorphism might seem to make substances dependent on their matter and form, and explores some possible resolutions.

E. J. Lowe’s “Neo-Aristotelian Metaphysics: A Brief Exposition and Defence” examines how a complete metaphysical foundation for modal truths can be provided by combining a neo-Aristotelian account of essence with Lowe’s neo-Aristotelian “four-category ontology” of individual substances, modes, substantial universals and property universals.  Lowe argues that such an account avoids any appeal to “possible worlds” and renders modal truths mind-independent but humanly knowable.

The next two essays in the volume examine the relationship between Aristotelian metaphysical ideas and some key issues in modern science.  In “Synthetic Life and the Bruteness of Immanent Causation,” David S. Oderberg provides an exposition and defence of the Aristotelian doctrine that living things are distinguished from non-living things by virtue of exhibiting “immanent” causation, causation that originates with an agent and terminates in that agent for the sake of its self-perfection.  He argues that life, so understood, cannot be given a purely naturalistic explanation, and argues against claims to the effect that synthetic life has been or is bound to be created in the laboratory.

Edward Feser’s “Motion in Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein” considers whether the Aristotelian principle that whatever is in motion is moved by another is incompatible with Newton’s principle of inertia, or has been falsified by Einstein insofar as the latter is sometimes held to have shown that change is an illusion.  Feser argues that the Aristotelian principle (better expressed as the thesis that any potential that is being actualized is actualized by something already actual) is not only compatible with Newton’s, but that there is a sense in which the latter presupposes the former; and that relativity at most affects how we apply the Aristotelian principle to the natural world, not whether it is applicable.

The final two essays in the volume raise questions about ultimate explanation and Aristotelian natural theology.  In “Incomposite Being,” Lloyd P. Gerson examines Aristotle’s notion of a divine Prime Unmoved Mover which just is perfect actuality without any potency, which is thinking itself thinking of itself, and yet which is in no way composite.  Gerson considers the views of later Platonists who objected that thinking cannot be attributed to that which is incomposite, and discusses the difficulties facing possible responses to this objection.

Fred D. Miller, Jr.’s “Aristotle’s Divine Cause” considers whether Aristotle’s Prime Mover is supposed to be merely the final cause of motion or also its efficient cause, and if the latter, then what the relationship is between the Prime Mover’s final and efficient causality.  Miller examines various approaches to these issues that have been defended over the centuries, and concludes that the main interpretations all present difficulties.

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I'm a member of the 99%.

Anonymous said...

That's not too bad a price for this kind of book. Any word you can give us on paperback and e-book, Doc?

Scott said...

Excellent! Congratulations.

Kiel said...

Tuomas Tahko's essay is available on his web site.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

I have three questions about Aristotelian metaphysics, and perhaps this is a good place to ask them:

1. What keeps the naturalist from embracing Aristotelian metaphysics, and hold that the unmoved mover is the ultimate natural law, which is metaphysically necessary, simple and with no parts, unchangeable and eternal, that which grounds all causations including final causation, etc?

2. What reason is there for rejecting the idea that there is not one but several unmoved movers?

3. Given that Aristotelian metaphysics are the deliverance of reason, why should one hold that reality is such as to comport with reason?

Anonymous said...

For 3, this post is somewhat related.

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/02/can-we-make-sense-of-world.html?m=1

Scott said...

@Dianelos:

Short answers to short questions:

1. This question would need to be unpacked further for a longer answer, but offhand, to whatever extent "natural law" by itself could be said to do anything, I would think it would have to be pretty much equivalent to the divine intellect/will.

2. The Unmoved Mover is Pure Act. If there were two such movers, they'd have to differ in some way, and in that case one would be in potential with respect to something actual in the other and therefore not Pure Act.

3. The (axiomatic) principle of non-contradiction is a law not just of thought but of being.

Anonymous said...

These post might also be relevant:

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/11/william-lane-craig-on-divine-simplicity.html

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/05/davies-on-divine-simplicity-and-freedom.html

Mr. X said...

Kind of OT, but I've been looking round the 'net to try and get an answer to this question, and haven't been able to find one.

Basically, I was wondering how long it took for Enlightenment philosophy to "trickle down" into society as a whole, as opposed to being the preserve of a few philosophes and scientists. It takes some time, after all, to uproot a deeply ingrained worldview from a society, so I assume it must have been some decades at least, although I can't see any indication as to when exactly the process occured. Any info on this would be greatly appreciated.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

@ Anon 6:10 am

Thanks. It took me some time to understand why brute facts are supposed to be instances of non-intelligibility, for prima facie many brute facts strike me as perfectly intelligible. I now understand that intelligibility is meant in an absolute sense, and given that brute facts do not allow for further explanation they are in that sense non-intelligible.

Now Ed’s argument appears to be that only a reality that is thoroughly intelligible in itself (i.e. cases A or B) is coherent. Suppose this is true. What follows from it? Why should the D reality (partially intelligible in itself and partially intelligible to us) be coherent? Since by definition it is only partially intelligible it may well not be coherent.

But this is not my main objection. The argument for the non-coherence of D is given in this section:

Suppose I told you that the fact that a certain book has not fallen to the ground is explained by the fact that it is resting on a certain shelf, but that the fact that the shelf itself has not fallen to the ground has no explanation at all but is an unintelligible brute fact. Have I really explained the position of the book? It is hard to see how. For the shelf has in itself no tendency to stay aloft – it is, by hypothesis, just a brute fact that it does so. But if it has no such tendency, it cannot impart such a tendency to the book. The “explanation” the shelf provides in such a case would be completely illusory.

The key idea here seems to be that if the shelf has not in itself the tendency to stay aloft (which would be intelligible) but only stays aloft as a brute fact about it (which is not intelligible) then it cannot impart such a tendency to the book. Well, why not? What is incoherent in there being the brute fact that the shelf stays aloft and also the brute fact that it imparts the same tendency to whatever lies on it? After all we are not looking for thorough intelligibility but only for partial intelligibility, not complete explanation but partial explanation.

I may be mistaken, but I think Ed uses “partial intelligibility” to refer to a reality where every bit is either thoroughly intelligible or else ultimately unintelligible – like a grey picture made up of black and white dots. But one can naturally enough suggest that the grey picture is made up of gray dots. That on D every bit is in general only partially intelligible. Thus, for example, that the book on the shelf does not fall on the ground is partially intelligible since it is explained by the fact that it lies on the shelf, even though the fact that the shelf itself does not fall down is unintelligible.

Now, given that engineers are able to build airplanes and that philosophers disagree about almost everything, it is clearly the case that reality is partially but not thoroughly intelligible to us. It follows that reality is either thoroughly or partially intelligible in itself. I cannot imagine any way for reality to be thoroughly intelligible in itself except if what’s metaphysical ultimate is itself intelligent. Thus I agree that if reality is thoroughly intelligible then theism or something like it is true. But this, it seems to me, is as far as Ed’s analysis brings us.

Or perhaps one more bit: If it is possible that reality becomes thoroughly intelligible to a creature then, given Ed’s analysis, it must be the case that reality is thoroughly intelligible in itself, and hence that something like theism is true.

monk68 said...

DG,

“Well, why not? What is incoherent in there being the brute fact that the shelf stays aloft and also the brute fact that it imparts the same tendency to whatever lies on it?”

Because if the shelf stays aloft as a *brute fact*, it does NOT stay aloft because of any *tendency* it has to stay aloft. And if there is no ground for positing a tendency of any kind to the shelf, how can one speak of its imparting something it does not, itself, possess? How can one go from stating that the shelf stays aloft as a matter of brute fact, to talk about the shelf having some manner of tendency toward this or that? It just stays aloft – period – no explanation. Accordingly, if the shelf is aloft as a brute fact, the claim that the shelf would be in the business of imparting a *tendency* of any kind, to anything at all, is simply ad hoc. Positing that the shelf is aloft as a brute fact, gives absolutely zero grounds for talk about the shelf imparting tendencies to things on or touching the shelf. Hence, the fact that things lie on the shelf, or are in contact with the shelf, or are in any relation to the shelf would have zero causal import.

All that could be said is that the shelf is aloft and things on or touching the shelf are also aloft. But what causes (i.e. explains) the aloft-ness of the shelf or the book or anything else touching the shelf is just so much “brute fact”. Talk about tendency impartation involves slipping in a notion which the brute fact-ness of the shelf being aloft does not afford. That is why the scenario Ed posits in the paragraph you quoted does not amount to a *partial* explanation; rather, it involves no explanation at all. There is no be-cause anywhere in the picture.

Pax

Tony said...

Reminds me of a high school chemistry text book I came across which, in introducing the concept of "explaining" matter, told the student that science consists in identifying the bits that stuff is composed of, and then identifying the bits those are composed of, etc.

Beware of logical magic wands contained in "etc."

Glenn said...

Now, given that engineers are able to build airplanes and that philosophers disagree about almost everything, it is clearly the case that reality is partially but not thoroughly intelligible to us.

1. Whereas most engineers do their level-headed best to adhere to 'best practices', many philosophers turn their backs on A-T.

Still,

2. Given that some engineers try their hand at philosophy, it is understandable why some philosophers appear to be only partially intelligent.

Nonetheless,

3. An engineer willing to let others inspect his work is an ethical engineer.

machinephilosophy said...

"3. Given that Aristotelian metaphysics are the deliverance of reason, why should one hold that reality is such as to comport with reason?"

Are you seriously asking for reasons for why reality comports with reason?

This is like someone over at Vox Day's blog declaring his rejection of reason as an ideal because I had not provided sufficient reason for it.

Maybe we should just stop asking questions about reality, since inquiry itself may not comport with reality either.

Comportational indeterminacy: the gift that just keeps on giving. (Ask me about my argument against argumentation! Free Home Trial!)

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

monk68,

Because if the shelf stays aloft as a *brute fact*, it does NOT stay aloft because of any *tendency* it has to stay aloft.

Right, I understand that – that’s why I wrote that “shelf has not in itself the tendency to stay aloft [..] but only stays aloft as a brute fact”.

how can one speak of [the shelf] imparting something it does not, itself, possess?

The answer is that there is no “how” there. It’s just a brute, unintelligible, unexplainable, fact.

Accordingly, if the shelf is aloft as a brute fact, the claim that the shelf would be in the business of imparting a *tendency* of any kind, to anything at all, is simply ad hoc.

I am not claiming anything – I am just describing a state of affairs in a hypothetical type “D” reality based on an example Ed suggested. So what’s wrong with this description: In D and as a matter of brute, unintelligible, unexplainable fact the shelf imparts the tendency to stay aloft to anything that lies on top of it.

All that could be said is that the shelf is aloft and things on or touching the shelf are also aloft.

No, of course not. One can also explain that the things on top of the shelf are aloft because they are sustained by the shelf. Or say that the shelf causes the things on top of it to be aloft.

Suppose you are speaking with the engineer who built an airplane and ask her to explain how A (say, how does it come about that the plane flies). She will readily explain A based on B, but then you ask her to explain how B. If you keep asking “how” questions the point will come where the engineer will answer “There is no how Z anymore – Z is just how things are as a matter of brute fact”. At this point you may claim that this proves that her explanation of A is incomplete, and that the fact that the airplane flies is not thoroughly intelligible – to which she will happily agree. But it would be absurd for you to argue that since Z is a brute and therefore unintelligible fact, it follows that her entire account is unintelligible, or that nothing in her account explains anything, or that she has zero grounds for claiming that anything her account refers to causes anything, or that her account is incoherent.

If I am right in the above, then A-T metaphysics appears to use the implicit assumption that reality is thoroughly intelligible. (And it is easy to see – and perhaps also easy to prove - that if reality is thoroughly intelligible then something like theism is true.) But it is not given that reality is thoroughly intelligible. The immediate reaction of the typical naturalist will be that reality is probably *not* thoroughly intelligible.

Scott said...

@Dianelos:

"[I]t would be absurd for you to argue that since Z is a brute and therefore unintelligible fact, it follows that her entire account is unintelligible, or that nothing in her account explains anything, or that she has zero grounds for claiming that anything her account refers to causes anything, or that her account is incoherent."

But it wouldn't be at all absurd to argue that Z must not be a brute and therefore unintelligible fact after all, even if she herself is unable to explain it—and that this must be the case if her explanation is ultimately going to count as an explanation at all. It's perfectly fine to say that she's offered a partial explanation; it's not perfectly fine to go on to say what you need for your own argument, namely that her partial explanation is therefore all there is and the phenomenon itself is in itself only partially intelligible.

Analogously to a per se causal series, which must begin with an uncaused cause in order for the series to exist at all, a series of explanations has to terminate in something that requires no further explanation, not in something that merely happens to lack one. Otherwise the series can't get started at all.

Matthew Petersen said...

I'm not sure this is on topic with your article, but it seems to me that whereas Aristotle only thought of velocity, today, we think of the interplay between velocity and acceleration. But that given that difference, there is a similarity between the positions

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

machinephilosophy,

Are you seriously asking for reasons for why reality comports with reason?

Yes. Let me elaborate.

Reason is a cognitive faculty of ours that at least in some contexts appears to track truth. Or in other words, there are some contexts where our reason gives us reason to believe that it is reliable. Including the fact that we find we can consistently profit from its use.

But why think that our reason is capable of tracking truths about reality *itself*, the subject matter of metaphysics? What reason does reason give us for believing that it is reliable when used for reasoning about reality?

Indeed, some hypothetical views about reality, such as naturalism, appear to imply that our reasoning faculties would not be reliable at least in matters metaphysical, in other words that reality is ultimately unintelligible since it does not comport with our reason. This produces a self-referential epistemological problem for naturalists, but a possible way out for them is to shrug it off saying that even though they recognize that their belief in naturalism is not rationally justified, they simply assume that naturalism is true. And they find it is quite rational to live by that assumption, especially given that the theistic assumption strikes them as both absurd and distasteful.

The point is that they may be right. It is perhaps the case that naturalism is true. It may be that reality is only partially intelligible in itself, in the sense that it ultimately rests on unintelligible brute facts. But then by supposing that reality is ultimately intelligible A-T theorists are in fact begging the question and thus committing one of the oldest fallacies in the book.

Now Ed Feser, in the post anon 6:10 AM pointed me to, reasons that it can’t be the case that reality is only partially intelligible in itself. The naturalist may object that reason is not reliable in the context of questions like this. My argument is that even if one assumes the reliability of reason, Ed’s reasoning strikes me as invalid in a crucial point – as I explain in my posts to anon and to monk68 above.

Anonymous said...

Scott,

I agree that the engineer has not offered a complete explanation, and I agree with your reasons why.

It's perfectly fine to say that she's *offered* a partial explanation; it's not perfectly fine to go on to say what you need for your own argument, namely that her partial explanation is therefore all there is and the phenomenon *in itself* is in itself only partially intelligible.

That’s not my argument. I agree that her partial explanation says nothing about whether reality is thoroughly or only partially intelligible in itself. I was just reacting to the curious claim that if an explanation ultimately rests on some brute fact then it is no explanation *at all*. I gave the example of the engineer to make the point that it is absurd to say that the engineer knows how to build an airplane but can explain nothing whatsoever about the airplane. Ed appears to make the same curious claim when he writes that if law of nature C is explained by B, and B by A, and A is given as a brute fact – then the appearance of having explained C is “completely illusory” (in this post here http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/02/can-we-make-sense-of-world.html?m=1 ). By the same measure Ed would have to say that the engineer’s explanations about the airplane she just built are “completely illusory”. But this can be right – it’s simply a bad and misleading way to use language.

So I am not arguing that it is the case that reality is only partially intelligible in itself. Rather, my argument is that the scholastic claim that “a cause cannot give what it does not itself have in the first place” begs the question. For in a D type reality it can. (Incidentally even though I agree that a thoroughly intelligible reality must be theistic or something like it, I think the opposite does not hold. A theistic reality must not necessarily be thoroughly intelligible. Suppose, for example, that God has good reason to allow for random physical events to obtain. Then reality is not thoroughly intelligible since there is no explanation of why some events obtain; there’s only an explanation why God would allow for such unintelligible facts to obtain. Thus if A-T assumes thorough intelligibility it does not only beg the question of naturalism, it even begs the question of some versions of theism.)

Now, re-reading Ed’s post I see that he isn’t actually claiming that it can’t be the case that reality is only partially intelligible in itself. He only claims that this cannot be a “truly coherent position” about reality. Further, that such a view does not entail any “ultimate explanation at all”. And finally, that with any only partially intelligible account “one can hardly claim to have provided a more rational account of the world than theism”. I disagree with the first claim on semantic grounds. For me an account is coherent when its various parts fit with each other, and it seems that an account of reality D is coherent in this sense. Perhaps it does not cohere with the intuitions of the scholastics, but this does not make it incoherent in itself. I agree with the second claim, since by definition reality D is only partially intelligible in itself and thus any D account cannot offer an ultimate explanation. Finally I disagree with the third claim, since even though on the particular point of ultimate intelligibility D suffers in comparison to a theistic account, it may well be the case that on other grounds the theistic account suffers much more in comparison to D.

In any case, rationality has its limits even on theism. One knows Christ only by meeting Him, and one meets Him only by walking with Him. Thus it is ultimately love and not rationality which leads one to knowledge of God. Let’s be careful lest we make of rationality a graven image.

Brandon said...

But why think that our reason is capable of tracking truths about reality *itself*, the subject matter of metaphysics? What reason does reason give us for believing that it is reliable when used for reasoning about reality?

(1) The subject matter of metaphysics is not "reality itself" but being, considered as such. If, on the other hand, you simply take 'reality itself' to be a locution for that, then if reason 'tracks' any truth, it necessarily does so about 'reality itself', because any such truths will either be truths about being or imply truths about being as more abstract.

(2) The question you are asking is analogous to one made in external world skepticism, and suffers from the same weakness noted by Berkeley (although the point is general and does not depend on idealism): that depended crucially on arbitrarily positing some other external world from what people think they know and asking how we could know anything about it (necessarily we can't, since it's arbitrarily distinguished from anything we know). But in fact, we obviously do know things about the external world; there's a whole bunch of things we know directly that are our original reason for talking about any external world at all, which themselves serve as the foundation for further discovery, and it is this foundation and the truths discovered by them that are what anybody not making things up calls 'the external world'. So here: 'reality itself' is itself something only reason can consider in any way at all, so in order to get to the point in which we can take it seriously we have to be able to identify at least some truths about it; and anyone who claims that reason properly used cannot even track truths about reality itself is simply making up a different 'reality itself', as a philosophical fiction, from anything that anyone else means by 'reality itself'.

(3) Truth-tracking and reliability are, in any case, not the right vocabulary for this level of analysis; they are statistical notions depending on contextual factors. Even a broken clock tracks truth twice a day, and even excellent clocks capable of keeping time excellently have conditions under which they will be unreliable. The real question is not a matter of truth-tracking or reliability but simply a matter of what can actually be known and under what conditions.

monk68 said...

DG,

“I am not claiming anything – I am just describing a state of affairs in a hypothetical type “D” reality based on an example Ed suggested. So what’s wrong with this description: In D and as a matter of brute, unintelligible, unexplainable fact the shelf imparts the tendency to stay aloft to anything that lies on top of it”

There is nothing wrong with that *description* – so long as you recognize it as a description. But description is not explanation, and that is the problem with your line of thought. To simply describe a state of affairs is not at all the same as *explaining* why that state of affairs obtains. Moreover, given Ed’s scenario of the shelf and the book, and considered strictly according to *description* (which is what you have provided here) there are – as I said before – no grounds for introducing the notion that the shelf “imparts the tendency . . .” . Given nothing but the raw description of Ed’s original scenario, where do you find the notion that the shelf has a tendency or imparts anything to anything?

The scenario gives no evidence that the things within it have tendencies, nor that they have the ability to “impart” tendencies, even if they had them. Of course, you can simply *assert* that the shelf has a tendency to impart something. You can simply *assert* - as a “brute fact” that the book stays aloft be-cause the shelf imparts a tendency from itself – to the book. But in that case, you are randomly positing a causal relationship without providing any grounds for the assertion. It would be just as easy to assert that the book stays loft because it is in love with the shelf. Neither assertion is an explanation – even a partial one – because both assertions are ungrounded. To simply describe states-of-affairs is not to explain. And to introduce causal-sounding terms (like “imparts a tendency”) with the caveat that the notion of imparting a tendency simply *describes* or points to a brute fact, is simply to mask what is really nothing but description as if it were explanation. So long as one hedges that all causal-like terms in an alleged explanatory narrative are really just a brute facts, one shows that the narrative is not really explanatory, but descriptive only.

“No, of course not. One can also explain that the things on top of the shelf are aloft [because they are sustained] by the shelf. Or say that the shelf [causes the things] on top of it to be aloft.”

Given the descriptive elements within Ed’s scenario, those causal notions [which I have bracketed] would be ad hoc, since you provide no reason as to why anyone looking at the descriptive state-of-affairs within the scenario should come to the conclusion that the shelf “causes” aloft-ness or is in the business of “sustaining” anything. I think you are unintentionally smuggling background causal assumptions from your wider world of experience into the tight confines of Ed’s scenario, But the point of Ed’s scenario is to propose a state-of –affairs isolated from wider or prior background notions of explanation and causality for the purpose of thinking about the nature of explanation.

monk68 said...

Cntd from above

“Suppose you are speaking with the engineer who built an airplane and ask her to explain how A (say, how does it come about that the plane flies). She will readily explain A based on B, but then you ask her to explain how B. If you keep asking “how” questions the point will come where the engineer will answer “There is no how Z anymore – Z is just how things are as a matter of brute fact”. At this point you may claim that this proves that her explanation of A is incomplete, and that the fact that the airplane flies is not thoroughly intelligible – to which she will happily agree. But it would be absurd for you to argue that since Z is a brute and therefore unintelligible fact, it follows that her entire account is unintelligible, or that nothing in her account explains anything, or that she has zero grounds for claiming that anything her account refers to causes anything, or that her account is incoherent.”

In this scenario, nothing in her account *explains* anything. Her account might be intelligible as a *description*, but not as an*explanation*. Notice how you naturally assume (rightly) that the engineer will “readily *explain* A based on B”. Suppose at the very outset, she did NOT reflexively explain A based on B, but instead, stopped the conversation short at the very beginning by “explaining” that A is just a “brute fact”. Would you say, in that case, that she has explained A or anything else? I doubt it. You would likely argue that her designating A as a brute fact; far from being an explanation, amounted to little else than an unsupported assertion. But as you seem to indicate, the engineer instinctively realizes that such an approach would not count as an *explanation*. Hence, she “readily explains A based on B”.

Now the listener also instinctively understands that A needs to be explained by B, or else nothing like an *explanation* for A would be on the table. Accordingly, her listener will generally stay tuned to her story as she begins to explain A based on B, content to accept that A is *explained* by B, so long as he *eventually* gets a causal explanation for B. But suppose she stops the story short at B and positively asserts that “B is just a brute fact” – the end. Has she explained A? Not at all, she had tentatively and temporarily secured the listener’s attention to her explanation of “why A” in terms of B; but because, when it came time to “explain” B, she defaulted to the brute-fact shtick, the listener will rightly complain that she had not only cheated him with respect to an explanation of B, but had also cheated him with respect to an explanation of A. Why? because she bought the listener’s sustained attention to her causal story about A by giving him a causal promissory note, to be ostensibly cashed in upon providing an explanation of B.


Cntd . . .

monk68 said...

In any essentially ordered causal series, the causal explanation of a later effect is always dependent upon the causal efficacy of a prior agent in the series. No matter how many intermediary “explanations” happen between A and Z in an essentially ordered causal series; if in the end, the engineer simply asserts that Z is a “brute fact”, the same evaluation of her story will apply as if she had simply declared A to be a brute fact to begin with; namely, no *explanation* at all! She will merely have provided a long narrative which seemed *as if* it might [eventually] provide an explanation of A. The listener, while listening to the narrative may tentatively agree to play along *as if* the engineer’s account has the purpose of explaining A. But when the engineer explicitly asserts that some agent Z, in the essentially ordered causal series, is simply a brute fact; the listener will rightly regard the entire narrative as a story which never really explained A – not even in part. Just a long string of promissory notes about an eventual explanation of A which are never made good on.

Imagine if I began handing you, one after another, 1000 sequential promissory notes, each “paying off” the next, while simultaneously assuring you the whole time that I would eventually come to a promissory note that you could actually exchange for real, spendable, cash. But then imagine that, after I hand you the last promissory note, instead of pointing out the bank where it can be cashed, I simply assert that there is no such thing as cash. Would you say that the 1000 promissory notes that I gave you amount to a partial payment? They would be no payment at all.

Assuming we are dealing with an essentially ordered causal series, the KEY explanatory problem with the engineer’s A-thru-Z argument is her positive and explicit assertion that Z is a “brute fact”. That is the key assertion which turns her narrative into no explanation at all. But suppose she does NOT assert that Z is a brute fact, but rather, holds out the possibility that Z also has an explanation, just not an explanation that we (humans) fully understand at present. In that case, the listener might indeed consider her story a partial explanation, precisely because she has not formally pulled the causal foundation out of her causal series by positively asserting that the foundation just is a brute fact. She has, instead, merely admitted that we do not fully understand Z, where presumably Z DOES have an explanation – at least in principle. In this case, the unstated and implicit assumption which would lead the engineer and the listener to rightly regard the story as a partial explanation rather than no explanation at all, is the notion that the things of our experience are - in principle – explainable or intelligible in some ultimate sense. If people did not assume this to be the case - if it were possible for things simply to pop in or out of existence without a cause - there would be little point in trying to explain anything.

Cntd . . .

monk68 said...

The real issue here is the nature or definition of “explanation” per se. With respect to essentially ordered causal series, if some agent anywhere in the causal chain is arbitrarily declared to be a brute fact (not just that we don’t currently understand its causes – but literally an unintelligible brute fact in principle), there remains no possibility of anything like “explanation” of the effects. All one could possibly achieve is more or less accurate description (which is what most of the modern empirical sciences, including mathematical physics, are engaged in – descriptions of things and their relations).

The underlying principle behind my understanding of what “counts” as “explanation”, is that IF there is to be anything like real explanation according to causes, then reality must ultimately be intelligible – in principle. This does NOT mean that reality is or must be entirely intelligible to human beings, especially in light of the weakness of our intellects and our immersion in matter. There are many things that are currently unintelligible to us, and there may be things that will always be unintelligible to us. But neither of those situations entails that anything is unintelligible in principle. What A-T metaphysics establishes in the First Way, is that without arriving at a Reality which is Pure Act, then one has nothing which counts as an “explanation” for the evident change we encounter in things all around us.

As an A-T proponent, I think the epistemological and metaphysical situation forces one either to admit the success of that argument (vis-à-vis essentially ordered causal series), or else give up attempts to *explain* the “why” of things according to causes, and turn exclusively, instead, to the business of description. But if one admits the success of the First Way, then there are reasons for thinking that reality is ultimately an intelligible Reality through and through – though not necessarily intelligible to us.

-Pax

monk68 said...

DG,

Upon reflection, I realized that I kept referring to the case of an essentially ordered causal series in my previous posts, perhaps overlooking the possibility that your engineer/airplane example is not meant to be such a series. The problem is that you don’t say much about what you have in mind concerning the details of the engineer’s narrative, but instead transition almost immediately into the abstract through use of A, B, Z, etc.

I am fairly confident that Ed had an essentially ordered causal series in mind when proposing the shelf/book scenario. I suspect he had the same situation in mind with respect to the laws of nature when he wrote that bit about:

“if law of nature C is explained by B, and B by A, and A is given as a brute fact – then the appearance of having explained C is “completely illusory”

You call such a conclusion “curious”, but I really don’t see how that conclusion is avoidable. If you admit that in order to explain C, one needs first to explain B, and in order to explain B, one needs first to explain A. Then to tell a story, however long and however detailed, which ultimately arrives at A and declares: “brute fact!” ; necessarily entails a failure to have explained either B or C.

All one has done is pass the explanatory buck through the telling of a story where the end leaves the whole plot untied. It almost sounds as if you are arguing that the mere telling of prolonged narrative where causal language is used is sufficient to establish that some sort of (partial?) explanation has occurred. The mere fact that one can understand the elements and alleged relationships which are part of some narrative which starts out pretending to be in the business of explanation does not entail that any explanation, partial or otherwise, actually results from the narrative. What determines whether any explanation has occurred depends firstly on the nature of explanation, not the mere telling of an alleged causal story. And in the case of an essentially ordered causal series, what determines whether any explanation has occurred is whether or not one can point to causality “all the way down” - as it were.

-Pax

Anonymous said...

They are in in love with the sin.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...
I have three questions about Aristotelian metaphysics, and perhaps this is a good place to ask them:

1. What keeps the naturalist from embracing Aristotelian metaphysics, and hold that the unmoved mover is the ultimate natural law, which is metaphysically necessary, simple and with no parts, unchangeable and eternal, that which grounds all causations including final causation, etc?

Tony said...

Perhaps monk's point can be illustrated with one of my kid's high school physics book's introduction, effectively discussing what it is to "explain" something. The author uses an analogy to illustrate a form of explaining: in describing gravity, he has the student recall the old egg tossing contest, except that here the object is to pass the egg back and forth as many times as possible within a certain period of time. What you notice is that the to throwers keep moving a half-step closer to each other, both in an effort to make sure that they don't drop the egg and to exchange the egg faster. Then, imagine that as applied to 2 bodies with mass - that's why (how?) bodies with mass pull toward each other.

Later on the book will tell the student to lose the anthropomorphic "inention" or "desire" of a human or an animal wanting to do something, like wanting to win the contest by moving the egg back and forth quickly.

But when you lose the intention or desire you lose the only thing that ever drove the story as having intelligibility, and you lose all semblance of an analogy. Which means that the account ceases to actually *account* for anything, the story is just a long drawn out way of saying "we know not why" or maybe "we have no reason to think there is a why".

Now, maybe the author never intended to let that analogy for gravity to be the in any sense his accounting for gravity, he was just illustrating what an explanation would be like. The odd thing is that physical scientists mainly repudiate analogy with human desires as having any explanatory capacity at all, preferring to posit that "explanation" means agent cause and material cause only. In any case, one would think that the author could construct, for his introduction to physics, an example of "account for" that includes the kind of accounting for that actually (according to his own work) DOES explain a physical reality.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

monk68,

Let me unpack the example (which is only based on Ed’s, but is not identical to his):

Description:

1. As a matter of brute (and thus unintelligible and unexplainable) fact, the shelf stays aloft.

2. As a matter of brute fact, the shelf imparts to anything that lies on top of it the tendency to stay aloft. Or, should you prefer: As a matter of brute fact, the shelf causes anything that lies on top of it to stay aloft.

Suppose now somebody asks: “Can you explain why this book stays aloft?” To which I answer:

I have put the book on top of the shelf. The shelf causes anything that lies on top of it to stay aloft. Therefore the book stays aloft.

I understand you argue that this is not an explanation, not even a partial one. Or at least that it is not a “real explanation”, not even a partial real explanation. Ed suggests that such explanations are “completely illusory”. Well, I have problem with that since in real life virtually *all* explanations one gives or takes or learns about and on which one builds important chunks one life, are precisely of this kind. Partial explanations which stop at something which is taken to be a brute fact. Scientific explanations on which our technological civilization rests are of this kind too: they stop at some brute facts – be it brute facts about fundamental laws and constants, or even brute facts about the state of the world such as, say, the size of the Earth or the initial state of the universe at the Big Bang.

Finally, when the engineer explains why her plane flies, she is not just giving a description of the plane or of what happens when it flies. Rather she is expressing the same explanations that *guided* her when designing the plane. If there weren’t for the understanding expressed in such explanations neither would there be a plane to describe.

Indeed the understanding inherent in explanations is pragmatically useful. Suppose you want to have the book stay aloft (perhaps there is danger of some inundation and you want to make sure it stays dry). Then the understanding of the two brute facts described above will lead you to a solution, namely to put the book on the shelf.

This much is clear: Brute facts may be “unintelligible” in the sense used by A-T theorists (namely in the sense that they do not completely satisfy reason since one doesn’t know how to explain them, and perhaps there isn’t any explanation). But from this little follows. We know brute facts, and it useful to know them. Indeed, virtually anything useful we do in real life is ultimately based on brute facts. Brute facts are unintelligible in one sense, but to know brute facts and to know how to use them is the very mark of intelligence.

And anyway I have this question: How do A-T theorists interpret, say, the axioms of classical logic. Aren’t they “brute facts”? By definition we can’t explain them so they are brute facts at least in the epistemological sense. Are then logical proofs, or ultimately mathematical proofs, “completely illusory”?

[continues]

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Some further comments. You write:

But suppose she does NOT assert that Z is a brute fact, but rather, holds out the possibility that Z also has an explanation, just not an explanation that we (humans) fully understand at present. In that case, the listener might indeed consider her story a partial explanation, precisely because she has not formally pulled the causal foundation out of her causal series by positively asserting that the foundation just is a brute fact.

Explanations refer to an epistemic state of affairs, causality to an ontological state of affairs. One may always hold out the possibility that Z has an explanation – but I don’t see how this affects the issue at hand. Suppose two engineers would happen to give exactly the same account from A to Z. But one would hold that Z is a true brute fact, whereas the other would hold that there is perhaps an unknown or even unknowable explanation for Z. This doesn’t mean the former engineer’s account is completely illusory as an explanation, whereas the latter’s is a partial explanation – even though both explanations are identical.

As for the essentially ordered causal series. Here indeed if there is no first cause there isn’t any causal series at all. But why assume that a brute fact cannot be a first cause? It usually is. In the D reality the shelf is the first cause of the book’s staying aloft. Which, interestingly enough, brings me back to question #2 in the first comment of mine in this thread. It seems that every single brute ontological fact is an unmoved mover, an uncaused cause. For if it weren’t then there would be something to explain it. So it seems a D type reality would have at least one but perhaps many unmoved movers.

All one could possibly achieve is more or less accurate description (which is what most of the modern empirical sciences, including mathematical physics, are engaged in – descriptions of things and their relations).

Yes, but descriptions are entailed in any explanation. Description #2 above explains why the book stays aloft. Physics describes the order present in physical phenomena, and such descriptions are not used in powerful explanations. Actually, I think a good definition of what constitutes an explanation is that through an explanation one compresses information, one makes a description shorter. Thus to say “the shelf causes anything on it to stay aloft, the book is on the shelf” says the same as “the shelf causes anything on it to stay aloft, the book is on the shelf, the book stays aloft” – but is shorter. Thus the former explains the latter.

[continues]

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

The underlying principle behind my understanding of what “counts” as “explanation”, is that IF there is to be anything like real explanation according to causes, then reality must ultimately be intelligible – in principle.

A-T theorists are free to define “real explanation” as they like (namely that in order to have real explanation one must arrive at a reality which is pure act), but why should that matter to others, given the fact that many everyday explanations are not recognized by A-T theorists as “real” ones?

Then to tell a story, however long and however detailed, which ultimately arrives at A and declares: “brute fact!” ; necessarily entails a failure to have explained either B or C.

I disagree. To explain C on B, and B on A – does constitute an explanation, albeit not a complete one. (And, as I argued before, not even theism entails that there are always complete explanations.) Take again the example of the shelf and the book, this time in the real world. We actually know why the book does not fall through the shelf, but rather the shelf keeps the book aloft. The reason is the repellent forces of the electron clouds around the molecules that constitute the shelf and the book. But knowing that explanation is not necessary for the basic explanation “the book stays aloft because I’ve put it on the shelf”. And as a practical matter it does not even add anything to the basic explanation: It’s not like those who know something about the atomic structure of matter know something useful for handling shelves and books.

Scott said...

@Dianelos:

"Well, I have problem with that since in real life virtually *all* explanations one gives or takes or learns about and on which one builds important chunks one life, are precisely of this kind. Partial explanations which stop at something which is taken to be a brute fact."

Well, there's your problem, then, because that's just plain wrong. Our stopping an explanation at some point doesn't imply even that we take the stopping point to be a "brute fact," let alone that it really is one.

Scott said...

@Dianelos:

"How do A-T theorists interpret, say, the axioms of classical logic. Aren't they 'brute facts'?"

Even assuming that there's nothing wrong with treating first principles of being as "facts," it would sound pretty silly to say that principles that we can see to be necessarily so haven't been satisfactorily "explained."

Scott said...

@Dianelos:

"Suppose two engineers would happen to give exactly the same account from A to Z. But one would hold that Z is a true brute fact, whereas the other would hold that there is perhaps an unknown or even unknowable explanation for Z. This doesn't mean the former engineer's account is completely illusory as an explanation, whereas the latter's is a partial explanation – even though both explanations are identical."

There's an equivocation here. If by "both explanations" you mean "the explanation from A to Z" without the additional claim that Z is (or isn't) a "brute fact," then yes, of course the two explanations are identical as far as they go. But if each explanation is taken to include the explainer's claim that Z is (or isn't) a "brute fact," then of course they're not identical and we're justified in treating them differently.

Mr. Green said...

Mr. X: I was wondering how long it took for Enlightenment philosophy to "trickle down" into society as a whole, as opposed to being the preserve of a few philosophers and scientists.

I don't think there's any simple answer to this question. It's still happening — most people today have some awkward mix of post-Enlightenment[sic] and more traditional views. Mass media and mass education certainly are important factors, but I also think there was plenty of apathy in taking for granted that people would simply continue to hold the established positions.

mashsha'i said...

prof. Feser,

I wondering how Avicenna responds, if he responds at all, to Plotinus' criticism of Aristotle's characterization of the Unmoved Mover as thinking. what I specifically have in mind is Plotinus' objection that if the First principle were thinking, it would be complex; for thinking is essentially self-reflexive, which implies complexity. as such, the First principle would not in fact be the First principle of all. i've taken a number of courses with L.P. Gerson and he emphasizes this crucial point a lot.

thanks in advance.

mashsha'i said...

sorry i meant how Aquinas* (or Thomists generally) would respond