Monday, February 24, 2014

Descartes’ “preservation” argument


In previous posts I’ve critically examined, from a Scholastic point of view, some of Descartes’ best-known arguments.  Specifically, I’ve commented on Descartes’ “clear and distinct perception” argument for dualism, and his “trademark” argument for God’s existence.  We’ve seen how these arguments illustrate how Descartes, though the father of modern philosophy, in some respects continues to be influenced by the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition, even as in other respects he abandons it.  It’s the novelties, I have suggested, that get him into trouble.  This is evidenced once again in what is sometimes called his “preservation” argument for God’s existence.

The argument is presented in Meditation III (specifically, in paragraphs 28-36 of the version linked to), in the context in which he presents the “trademark” argument.  It is not clearly set off from that argument, and has perhaps gotten even less attention from commentators.  But then, as André Gombay notes in his book Descartes, “in the history of God’s proofs, Meditation Three is not a significant event” (p. 54).  While the “trademark” argument makes use of Scholastic notions and the “preservation” argument is not completely dissimilar to earlier arguments for a divine First Cause, both arguments are nevertheless idiosyncratic, reflecting the epistemological situation Descartes has put himself in in the first two Meditations.  It is no surprise, then, that they did not catch on with later modern philosophers who did not completely share Descartes’ approach to epistemology.  Nor, given the significant philosophical differences between Descartes and the Scholastics, is it surprising that his proofs were not appealing to thinkers who remained within the Scholastic tradition.  The arguments were perhaps destined to be orphans.

By the beginning of Meditation III, Descartes knows I think, therefore I am, but he has yet to establish that anything else exists.  That God created him with the faculties he has and is not a deceiver is going to be his key to regaining knowledge of the external world, but how is he going to prove that God exists?  He cannot do so via arguments like Aquinas’s Five Ways, since they begin with premises that appeal to observation, and Descartes does not yet know as of Meditation III whether his senses are reliable.  If he is going to establish God’s existence, then, he is going to have to do so on the basis of what he does know, viz. that he exists and that he has various ideas.  The “trademark” argument begins with the second of these bits of knowledge, specifically with the fact that he finds within himself the idea of God.  The “preservation” argument starts with the first, the fact that he exists.

Granted that (as the Cogito shows) I exist, Descartes asks, what caused me to exist?  Of course, the natural answer would be to say that his parents did, but as of Meditation III Descartes still does not know whether his parents or anything else about his previous life is real.  But what Descartes is concerned with in any event, as he goes on to make clear, is what conserves him in existence here and now and at any moment.  What causes him to keep existing, instead of being annihilated?  His parents cannot be the answer to that question, and it is a question that arises however long he’s existed and whether or not the material side of his nature, or indeed the material world as a whole, turns out to be real.  Sounding not unlike Aquinas, Descartes writes:

In truth, it is perfectly clear and evident to all who will attentively consider the nature of duration, that the conservation of a substance, in each moment of its duration, requires the same power and act that would be necessary to create it, supposing it were not yet in existence; so that it is manifestly a dictate of the natural light that conservation and creation differ merely in respect of our mode of thinking [and not in reality].

Now “creation,” as that is understood in traditional theology, is causing the existence of a thing in its entirety rather than merely modifying pre-existing materials.  It is creation out of nothing, and it is for the Scholastic what God does in the act of conserving the world in being, not merely something he did at some beginning point in time.  Descartes is thinking of creation in similar terms, his point being that causing a thing’s sheer existence out of nothing at any particular point in its lifespan -- that is, conserving it in being -- is for purposes of the question at hand in no relevant respect different from having created it out of nothing at the time of its origination. 

So, what is the cause of his being preserved in existence at any moment?  Is he is own preserving cause?  Is something other than him but still non-divine the cause?  Or is it God?  Descartes argues that the first two answers cannot be right, leaving the third as the only remaining possibility.  One way to summarize the reasoning is as follows:

1. I am preserved in existence or continuously created out of nothing at every instant.

2. Causing the sheer existence of a thing out of nothing requires greater power than causing any other perfection does.

3. So if I were preserving or creating myself out of nothing, I could also cause myself to have any perfection, including the perfections characteristic of the divine nature.

4. But if I could give myself the divine perfections, I would have done so, and yet I have not.

5. And since I am a thinking thing, I would be aware of creating myself out of nothing if I were doing so, and I am not aware of doing so.

6. So I am not preserving or continuously creating myself out of nothing.

7. Anything that is preserving or continuously creating me must, like me, be a thinking thing, since there cannot be less reality in the cause than in the effect.

8. Since any possible non-divine preserving cause of my continued existence also lacks the divine perfections, it could not be the preserving cause of its own existence either.

9. The only thing that could terminate this regress of preserving causes is something which does have all the divine perfections, which would be God himself.

10. So God exists.

What should we think of this argument?  Let me begin by noting three objections which are, in my view, no good.  First, it might be suggested that the continued existence either of the Cartesian subject or of anything else requires no cause at all.  One basis for this claim might be a rejection of the principle of causality, which says (in what I take to be the most fundamental formulation) that a potential that is actualized must be actualized by something already actual.  But there are no good objections to the principle of causality and decisive arguments in its favor, as I have argued in several places and argue at greatest length in chapter 2 of Scholastic Metaphysics.  Another basis for the claim might be the suggestion that though the generation of a thing requires a cause, its continued existence at any moment does not.  This would be an appeal to what has sometimes been called “existential inertia,” the notion that in general a thing will just continue to exist unless something positively acts to destroy it, without its requiring any positive causal action to conserve it.  But there are no good reasons to believe in existential inertia, and decisive reasons for rejecting it, as I argue in my ACPQ article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways.” 

A second objection might be that there is no reason to think a regress of preserving causes would have to terminate in a first cause, divine or otherwise.  But such a series would be what Scholastic metaphysicians call an essentially ordered (as opposed to an accidentally ordered) series of causes, and the former sort of series (unlike the latter) must have a first member.  More precisely, for such a series to exist there must be a cause which is “first,” not in the sense of standing at the head of a queue, but rather in the sense of having underived or intrinsic causal power, since everything else in the series has only derivative or “secondary” causal power.  I have expounded and defended this idea in several places, once more at greatest length in Scholastic Metaphysics

A third objection would be to reject the principle (appealed to in step 7 of the argument above) that what is in the effect must in some way be in the cause.  Commentators on Descartes call this the Causal Adequacy Principle and Scholastic metaphysicians call it the Principle of Proportionate Causality.  I have defended this principle too in several places, and (yet again) at greatest length in Scholastic Metaphysics.

In short, these objections are directed at aspects of Descartes’ argument that it has in common with Scholastic arguments for God’s existence, and those aspects are in my view all sound.  So if these were the only objections that could be raised against Descartes, the argument would in my view succeed.  However, those are not the only possible objections, and the argument is seriously problematic in other ways -- in particular, it is problematic precisely in those respects in which it departs from Scholasticism.

Implicit in Descartes’ argument is the idea that a thing might be the cause of its own existence, and indeed that God is the cause of his own existence.  Now this notion of a causa sui is one that Scholastics like Aquinas explicitly reject, and for good reason since it is incoherent.  (It is sometimes suggested that science, or at least science fiction, shows otherwise, but as I have argued elsewhere, such suggestions are confused about what is being ruled out when one rules out the notion of a causa sui.)  But when Descartes considers the proposal that he might be his own cause, he doesn’t say: “No, because self-causation is impossible” --as, in the Scholastic view, he should have said.  Rather, he says: “No, because if something could cause itself to exist, it could also cause itself to be God, and I haven’t done that.”

Now the conditional appealed to here -- that if something could cause its own existence then it could also give itself the divine attributes -- is one for which Descartes gives an interesting argument.  The argument is that causing something to exist out of nothing requires greater power than causing any other attribute.  That is certainly plausible, because to cause a thing to have some attribute is merely to modify some pre-existing substance, whereas to cause a thing to exist ex nihilo is to cause the substance itself together with its attributes, and not merely to add something to the already existing substance.  And substances are, metaphysically speaking, more fundamental than attributes.  So, if you could cause the sheer existence of a substance ex nihilo, then surely you could, Descartes with at least some plausibility holds, also cause it to be omniscient, or omnipotent, or omnipresent, or indeed to have all the divine attributes together.  And thus, if you could cause yourself to exist ex nihilo then you could cause yourself to be God.

The trouble is that the antecedent of this conditional is false.  Nothing can cause itself in the first place, so the whole idea of something causing itself to be God is just a non-starter.  But Descartes not only does not reject the antecedent, he makes it essential to his whole argument.  For the way he gets to his conclusion is by way of the idea that there is and must be something that causes itself, only it cannot be you, me, or any other non-divine thing but has to be God, since a self-causing being would be one that causes itself not only to exist but also to be omnipotent, omniscient, etc. 

From a Scholastic point of view, this is, metaphysically speaking, just a complete mess.  To be sure, there is for the Scholastic a sense in which God is self-explanatory, insofar as that which is pure actuality, being itself, and absolutely simple must also be absolutely necessary.  God’s existence is in that way explained or made intelligible by his nature.  He is by no means an unintelligible “brute fact.”  But that is very different from being self-caused, in the sense of being the efficient cause of one’s own being.  That, again, is for the Scholastic simply incoherent.  (Notice that to be the efficient cause of a thing is not the same thing as to be the explanation of a thing.  An appeal to an efficient cause is merely one type of explanation among others.)  And it certainly makes no sense whatsoever to think of God somehow imparting to himself omnipotence, omniscience, or any other attribute -- as if he could in principle have existed without these attributes, but decided not to. 

Why would Descartes proceed in this bizarre fashion?  After all, existing Scholastic arguments would have gotten him to a divine conserving cause without appealing to the notion of self-causation, and that he starts with his own existence as a Cartesian subject rather than with the preservation in existence of ordinary material objects would make no difference.  A Cartesian subject may not be material, but it is still a compound of essence and existence and thus a compound of potency and act.  And that is all one needs to get an argument for a conserving cause going.  Descartes even makes use of the language of potency and act earlier in this very Meditation.  So why not just go the whole hog and adopt an Aquinas-style argument for the purposes of Meditation III?

The answer, perhaps, is just that while Descartes does not entirely abandon the Scholastic metaphysical apparatus, he wants to make as little use of it as possible, especially where it is closely tied to the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy of nature that he is very keen to overthrow.  And the traditional Scholastic arguments for divine conservation of the world are definitely tied to that philosophy of nature.  (As I argued in my lecture at Franciscan University of Steubenville some time back, I think you are not going to get from the natural world to God unless you make use of the theory of act and potency.)  So, though for the purposes of arguing for God’s existence he could have narrowed his application of the key metaphysical concepts to the Cartesian subject and kept them out of his philosophy of nature, perhaps he thought it better just to make a clean break and try a new approach.  But this is speculation on my part.

Here’s another interesting fact about Descartes’ argument.  Like the better-known versions of the First Cause argument, Descartes’ version does not amount to the stupid straw man: “Everything has a cause, so the universe has a cause.”  However, Descartes is arguably committed to the claim that “everything has a cause” -- not as a premise of the argument (he doesn’t explicitly say in Meditation III that everything has a cause) so much as an implication of it.  For he’s argued that the continued existence of any thinking thing has to be traced to the causal activity of a thinking thing which gives itself the divine attributes.  He also regarded non-thinking or extended things as having a divine sustaining cause as well.  So, everything other than God has a cause on Descartes’ view.  But he also characterizes God as a causa sui.  So God has a cause too, namely himself.  So, Descartes’ argument seems to imply, everything has a cause.

This does not make Descartes subject to the standard atheist retort to the straw man First Cause argument, though.  That retort is summed up in a remark made by Bertrand Russell in Why I Am Not a Christian:

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.  If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.  (pp. 6-7)

Now in response to this a Scholastic would say: “We never said ‘everything has a cause’ in the first place; in fact we deny that.  You’re attacking a straw man.  Furthermore, there is nothing whatsoever arbitrary in saying that things other than God require a cause while he does not.  For what makes something in need of a cause is that it has potentials which need to be actualized, or is metaphysically composite and is in need of a principle to account for how its parts are conjoined, or has an essence distinct from its act of existence and thus has to acquire its existence from something other than its own nature.  This is true of the material universe and every part of it.  However, what is pure actuality devoid of potentiality, or absolutely simple and without any parts, or has existence itself as its very essence, not only need not have a cause but could not have had one.  There might be other objections one could raise against First Cause arguments, but Russell’s objection just completely misses the point.” 

Descartes, however, might reply instead as follows: “But God does have a cause.  I’m not making any exception for him.  It’s just that he is his own cause, whereas other things are caused to exist by things distinct from themselves.  Nor is there anything arbitrary in my saying that God causes himself while other things do not.  For the reason I say that they do not cause themselves is that anything that causes itself to exist would also cause itself to have the divine attributes and thus would cause itself to be God, and neither the universe nor any part of it has done that.  Only God himself, naturally, has done that.  There might be other objections one could raise against this argument, but Russell’s objection just completely misses the point.”

Descartes’ “preservation” argument is also interesting, then, for what it tells us about vulgar criticisms of First Cause arguments, like Russell’s.  For Russell’s objection is so very feeble that it fails even as a response to Descartes’ crazy version of the argument!  That’s some kind of achievement.

68 comments:

Daniel said...

Not that I haven't said this before whenever Descartes comes up, but I suspect he drew most of his material from later Scotists and Bonaventure rather than St. Thomas.I can't remember why now (isn't that helpful) but I think there was a connection between the Conservation Argument and Bonaventure's epistemology - something to do with the Saint's virtually innate idea of perfection?

I know the Descartes wuz a sk00lastik Bbit is old hat now what with the work of Carriero, Hoffman and co. but at some point I really want to check out Roger Ariew's huge volume on the subject, Descartes among the Scholastics

Daniel Joachim said...

The picture by itself made me laugh out loud in the quiet study hall. Oh, the shame!

Got to...stop reading...Feser...at school. I suggest using dull generic pictures of kittens in the future to become more student-friendly. Like Coyne!

Charles said...

Daniel,
Somebody gave a paper at a colloquium at the Center for Thomistic Studies arguing that Suarez' version of Scholasticism was particularly influential in the school Descartes studied at. I'll see if I can dig it up.

Charles said...

It was Helen Hattab from the university of Houston who gave the paper "Suárez and Descartes: A Priori Arguments Against Substantial Forms and the Decline of the Formal Cause". Here's an article by Ariew on Suarez' influence on Leibniz and Descartes: http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199583645.001.0001/acprof-9780199583645-chapter-3

Sandymount said...

Why must what is in an effect be in its cause? take consciousness, I presume that at some evolutionary point we had no consciousness and it evolved over time... It came out of a process that we dont need consciousness to explain ..

Vincent Torley said...

Hi Ed,

Interesting article. I believe, however, that you have mis-characterized Descartes' position. You write:

"To be sure, there is for the Scholastic a sense in which God is self-explanatory, insofar as that which is pure actuality, being itself, and absolutely simple must also be absolutely necessary. God’s existence is in that way explained or made intelligible by his nature. He is by no means an unintelligible “brute fact.” But that is very different from being self-caused, in the sense of being the efficient cause of one’s own being. That, again, is for the Scholastic simply incoherent. (Notice that to be the efficient cause of a thing is not the same thing as to be the explanation of a thing. An appeal to an efficient cause is merely one type of explanation among others.)"

You might like to consult the following books: (1) "Between Two Worlds: A Reading of Descartes's Meditations" by John Carriero, Princeton University Press, pp. 217-222; and (2) "The Cambridge Companion to Descartes - Meditations" edited by David Cunning, Cambridge University Press - see especially the article, "The Third Meditation" by Lawrence Nolan, pp. 142-145. (I've just been reading them online via Google Books, except that unfortunately, I can't access pp. 221-222 of Carriero's book.)

First, Descartes does not claim that God is the efficient cause of Himself. On the contrary, as his correspondence (available online at https://archive.org/details/philosophicalwor017682mbp ; see "The Philosophical Works of Descartes" Vol II, eds. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross, Dover Publications, 1934, pp. 107-109) with Antoine Arnauld (who upbraided him sharply for referring to God as self-caused) makes clear, Descartes explicitly declares in his "Reply to Objections IV" that "God requires no efficient cause in order to exist." Later he adds: "Therefore I can readily admit everything M. Arnauld brings forward in order to prove that God is not His own efficient cause, and that He does not conserve Himself by any transeunt action, or any continual reproduction of Himself; and this is the sole conclusion of his argument."

To be continued...

Vincent Torley said...

(Part II)

Second, Descartes makes it quite clear that he regards God as the formal cause rather than the efficient cause of His own existence:

"In the same way I have at all points compared the formal cause or reason derived from God's essential nature, which explains why He Himself does not need any cause in order to exist, with the efficient cause, without which finite things cannot exist; consequently the difference between the two may be learned from my very words."

And again:

"Hence, when a thing is derived from something else it is derived from that as from an efficient cause; but what is self-derived comes as it were from a formal cause ; it results from having an essential nature which renders it independent of an efficient cause."

In the above passage Descartes uses the term "cause" interchangeably with the term "reason". Nolan argues that Descartes writes in this way because he sees the principle of causality as a version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason:

"I. Nothing exists concerning which the question may not be raised 'what is the cause of its existence?' For this question may be asked even concerning God. Not that He requires any cause in order to exist, but because in the very immensity of His being lies
the cause or reason why He needs no cause in order to exist." (Replies II, Axiom I, p. 55)

Nolan argues that Descartes (unlike Spinoza and Leibniz) doesn't use PSR elsewhere because he is a voluntarist, but he can use it here, because the reason for God's existence lies not in His Will but in His very Essence.

Third, the reason why Descartes rejected the Scholastic practice of describing God as uncaused rather than as self-caused was because it struck him as an ad hoc argumentative move. He argued that we can't make God an exception to the rule that everything requires a cause before we have even established that God exists. Better, he thinks, to start off with a universal statement (everything that exists requires a cause) and then ask whether this cause is internal or external to the thing:

"But I think that it is manifest to all, that to consider the efficient cause is the primary and principal, not to say the only means of proving the existence of God. We shall not be able to pursue this proof with accuracy, if we do not grant our mind the liberty of asking for an efficient cause in every case, even in that of God; for with what right should we exclude God, before we have proved that He exists? Hence in every single case we must inquire whether it is derived from itself or from something else and indeed by this means the existence of God may be nferred, although it be not expressly explained what is the meaning of anything being self-derived. For those who follow the guidance of the light of nature alone, spontaneously form here a concept common to efficient and formal cause alike. Hence, when a thing is derived from something else it is derived from that as from an efficient cause; but what is self-derived comes as it were from a formal cause; it results from having an essential nature which renders it independent of an efficient cause." (Replies to Objections IV, p. 109.)

I have to say that I prefer Antoine Arnauld's way of arguing for God to Descartes'. However, I think it should be acknowledged that Descartes' version of the First Cause argument is not as crazy as Scholastics commonly allege.

Scott said...

@Sandymount:

"Why must what is in an effect be in its cause?"

Briefly, because if the cause didn't have the power to confer the effect, it wouldn't be the cause.

Of course that doesn't mean anything in the effect is present in the cause in the very same way. (In your example, the proposed causes of consciousness need not themselves be conscious, but they at least have to have the power to confer or generate consciousness.) You'll find some further explanation here; see the discussion of the second point under The origin of life.

Scott said...

@Vincent Torley:

"In the above passage Descartes uses the term 'cause' interchangeably with the term 'reason'."

Fair enough, but in the end I think this is probably just another way to state the same problem.

And at any rate, in the passage Ed is explicating (again, paragraphs 28-36 of Meditation III), Descartes certainly seems to be talking specifically about causal powers rather than just (other sorts of) "reasons."

Brandon said...

It's true that when pressed Descartes says that the relation is one of formal causality, but it's clear that his reason for doing so is merely to deny that in this case the cause has to be distinct from its effect (which is what Arnauld had insisted on), and in every case he immediately goes on to insist that in the case of God the formal cause will be strongly analogous to an efficient cause -- sufficiently that calling it an efficient cause is perfectly fine. And he also argues that this is essential to his argument. That is, he makes quite clear that he means something other than the efficient cause when we take it to be part of the definition of 'efficient cause' that it is distinct from its effect. But he himself has no qualms at all about calling God the efficient cause of Himself; because, as he makes clear in the reply to Arnauld, the formal causality he thinks is involved is so similar to efficient causality that it can reasonably be called such.

Anonymous said...

Third, the reason why Descartes rejected the Scholastic practice of describing God as uncaused rather than as self-caused was because it struck him as an ad hoc argumentative move. He argued that we can't make God an exception to the rule that everything requires a cause before we have even established that God exists. Better, he thinks, to start off with a universal statement (everything that exists requires a cause) and then ask whether this cause is internal or external to the thing.

But his position doesn't really advance past that of the Scholastics, then. The Scholastics would argue that everything has a sufficient reason, and Descartes seems to agree. It's not like the Scholastics were required to formulate a causal principle that admits of an exception.

Ian said...

Hi Prof. Feser,

I enjoy posts such as this one where you analyze a bit of philosophy from one of the past great philosophers.

Off-topic, but how scholarly will your forthcoming Scholastic Metaphysics be? I've read The Last Superstition, Aquinas, and Philosophy of Mind and got a lot out of them. However, I have no formal training in philosophy and am wondering if I'd be biting off more than I can chew with Scholastic Metaphysics.

Christian said...

Sorry for the thread jack, but I'm super excited. I don't know if you remember Dr. Feser, but in 2012 around thanksgiving you responded to a comment of mine and said I should check out Fordham for a good medieval/Thomistic graduate philosophy program. I am happy to say that they just accepted me!!! I could be working with Gyula Klima and/or Brian Davies in 6 months time. How cool!! O and by the way, great post!!

Scott said...

@Christian:

Congratulations!

John Thayer Jensen said...

I have always wondered why Descartes' argument doesn't simply boil down to solipsism. "I think, therefore I am" - if that is all you have, then, surely, the simplest way of understanding that is that I am the only thing there is - I am self-existing.

Probably I don't understand :-)

jj

Steven Garmon said...

Couldn't the proposition that God's existence is explained by his nature be pushed a step further? Granted that God's existence is explained by his nature, what explains God's nature? Don't we have the makings of an infinite regress of explanations, or worse, a dead end of explanations that ends in at least one brute fact?

Scott said...

@Steven Garmon:

"Granted that God's existence is explained by his nature, what explains God's nature?"

What, in this context, would it mean to "explain" God's nature? If it means to "explain" why it exists, then we already have that explanation: it's that God's essence is identical with His existence. That's where the explanatory regress ends, and it's not a brute fact; God is self-explanatory in a way that nothing else is or can be.

Anonymous said...

What is "God's nature"?
The dead end "brute fact" is that the entire cosmos including planet Earth is a relentless death machine. Everything gets eaten or reduced to rubble or dust. Billions of biological entities get snuffed or eaten in every moment. Every human being that has ever lived has died. Where is the evidence for the usual naive belief in a "creator"-God in the midst of all of that carnage?

And yet everything keeps on arising too. Billions of biological entities are born every minute, and despite all the deaths the newly bloomed flowers are as fresh, and vunerable, as on the "first day", whenever that was.

Steven Garmon said...

@Scott:

Perhaps not necessarily to explain why it exists, but to explain why it has the nature it has. For example, if it is God's nature that his essence is identical with his existence, then couldn't one ask why exactly that is his nature is that way?

Glenn said...

Every human being that has ever lived has died.

Speaking from beyond the grave, are we?

Scott said...

@Steven Garmon:

"Perhaps not necessarily to explain why it exists, but to explain why it has the nature it has. For example, if it is God's nature that his essence is identical with his existence, then couldn't one ask why exactly that is his nature is that way?"

Well, I'm not sure what it means to explain why a nature "has the nature it has," but let's take your second question as exemplifying your meaning.

No, I don't think one can legitimately ask that, if one accepts the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) and denies that there can be infinite explanatory regresses. If there can't be such regresses, then every explanation ends somewhere, and if in addition the PSR holds, then an explanatory regress must end not in a brute fact but in something self-explanatory. Anything thus self-explanatory must be simple, and its existence must be identical to its essence, and so forth. In short, it must be the God of classical theism.

If you deny or doubt either the PSR or the impossibility of infinite explanatory regresses, well, that's another discussion—which I'm happy to have if necessary and I'm sure others will chime in as well.

Scott said...

And on further reflection I thin it's misleading to say that "it is God's nature that his essence is identical with his existence." God is His nature/essence.

Steven Garmon said...

@Scott:

Thank you for your response. I am satisfied with your answer.

Scott said...

@Steven Garmon:

Glad to hear it. Thanks.

Christian said...

@ Scott:

Thanks! :)

Scott said...

@Christian:

You bet -- thanks for sharing the news! If I had it to do over again and I were thirty years younger . . .

Nubester said...

Scott: http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.com/search/label/Principle%20of%20Sufficient%20Reason

Enjoy,

BSZ.

Note: I'm going to have to read Dr. Feser's article again. His article will be my treat after i'm finished studying for my physics exam.

Sandymount said...

@Scott... thanks for the link but I am afraid it just seems like an assertion to me. Maybe it is true but it doesnt seem that it must logically be so. Meaning to say, Ed Feser says 'what is in an effect must be in its cause' except, using consciousness, and other emergent phenomena, we can explain how things develop properties that were not necessarily present a few million years ago. I doubt we had consciousness a few hundred million years ago and at some point it gradually emerged from the complexity of the matter of our minds. Why therefore do we have to say that all properties in effects have to be in their causes, it seems not.

Same with markets. If you read Hayek there are many emergent phenomena that are not 'in' matter from which they came, say, the market price system, morals, ethics and so on.

Ilari said...

Sorry to interrupt, but I want to say something to this comment:

"Meaning to say, Ed Feser says 'what is in an effect must be in its cause' except, using consciousness, and other emergent phenomena, we can explain how things develop properties that were not necessarily present a few million years ago. I doubt we had consciousness a few hundred million years ago and at some point it gradually emerged from the complexity of the matter of our minds. Why therefore do we have to say that all properties in effects have to be in their causes, it seems not."

Consciousness may not be the best example, since there are some very acute philosophers out there who argue that strong, radical or brute consciousness from non-consciousness emergence is impossible (i.e. Nagel, Strawson). This is one reason why these thinkers go for panpsychism, according to which consciousness have been here since the beginning. (The other option here is of course theism.) The arguments of Strawson, Nagel and other anti-emergentists are quite similar in spirit to the Scholastic principle of proportionate causality.

Scott said...

@Sandymount:

Again, though, whatever is present in the effect needn't be present in the cause in the same way. When it's present "virtually" (as opposed to "formally" or "eminently"), it's present only as a power to bring about that effect.

And if an "emergent" phenomenon emerges from things that have no power to cause it in the first place, then in what sense are they its cause?

(By the way, if you're interested in Hayek, you might enjoy this book.)

Scott said...

@Nubester:

Thanks for the link. I have Pruss's book on the PSR and I'll be interested to see his YouTube talks.

Sandymount said...

@scott thanks for your thoughts but i am not sure it is helpful to say whatever is present in the effect is present in the cause not in the same way, it begs the question. Then you say it has power to cause, well, ok, but we dont know how consciousness for example is caused. we can talk about hylemorphism and so on but these just shove the issue into a 'maybe' realm and are handy constructs to fry and resolve mind matter but they arent really very helpful. What do they explain? More descriptive?

I wonder what other properties there are out there like consciousness that unless you have the first person experience of it you wouldnt know it was there.

Scott said...

@Sandymount:

You didn't answer my question. If an "emergent" phenomenon emerges from things that have to power to cause it, then in what sense are they its cause? If you don't have an answer for that, I don't think you're on very firm ground in talking about question-begging.

"What do they explain?"

I find that your misconception here is a fairly common one, but it's a misconception all the same.

The proposition in question here (that an effect is virtually, formally, or eminently present in its cause) isn't intended as an explanation. It's a principle of reason/thought that tells us where to look for an explanation. If we want to understand the cause(s) of a certain phenomenon, we should look for things that have the power to bring it about. Finding what those things are and understanding how that power works—well, that's where the real effort goes.

(Likewise, the Principle of Non-Contradiction doesn't tell us which of two contradictory propositions is true, just that they can't both be.)

For example, no scientist would be satisfied with knowing that (say) if opium causes sleep, that's because of some power it has. It's chemistry, not metaphysics, that tells us what that power is and how it works (it has to do with the shapes of the molecules and how they fit onto certain neural receptors).

But we can know that something is caused without knowing how it's caused. And we can know that if A causes B, then B is in some sense present in A—even if only virtually, as the power to bring about B. We can know this even if we don't know, and never find out, exactly how (or even whether) A really causes B. The latter is science's job.

Scott said...

(When I say the principle in question is one of reason/thought, I do not of course mean that it's only a principle of thought and that reality might be otherwise. It really does tell us something, and something important, about how things are. My point is that it tells something to our reason and thus serves to guide our thought.)

Sandymount said...

@scott says

You didn't answer my question. If an "emergent" phenomenon emerges from things that have to power to cause it, then in what sense are they its cause? If you don't have an answer for that, I don't think you're on very firm ground in talking about question-begging.

I am not answering because i dont know, and nor do you.I am aware of emergent pheonomena and i agree that guides my reason to look for an explanation but i think pulling a hylemorphic answer isnt really an answer.

I think we can speculate but im more modest about what we can explain

Scott said...

@Sandymount:

"I am not answering because i dont know, and nor do you."

Then perhaps you're misunderstanding the question. I do know the answer; there is no sense whatsoever in which an "emergent" phenomenon can properly be said to have, as its cause, anything that doesn't have any power to cause it. My question was intended to get you to consider the contradiction involved in thinking otherwise.

You can believe in "emergent" phenomena all you please, but if they "emerge" from things that don't cause them, then they're uncaused and that's that[*]. And it's also not clear in what sense they're "emerging" from anything.

Conversely, if we ever do come to understand how X "emerges" from Y, then we'll also, at the same time and for the same reason, understand how Y has the power to cause X.

----

[*] As far as secondary causation is concerned, that is. They'd still have God as their primary cause.

Scott said...

@Sandymount:

"i think pulling a hylemorphic answer isnt really an answer."

What do you understand hylemorphism to mean, and what question do you think it's intended to answer? You seem to have something in mind here about hylemorphic dualism as an answer to the so-called mind/body problem, but that's not what I've been discussing with you. (So far as I can see, the principle that causes in some sense contain their effects doesn't even entail hylemorphism.)

"I think we can speculate but im more modest about what we can explain"

No, you're not. As I said a few posts ago, the principle in question here isn't intended as an explanation and takes no position whatsoever on whether we're capable of discovering an explanation in any given case.

Anonymous said...

Nagell in Mind and Cosmos agrees that the cause of an effect must somehow contain something like the effect within itself, and because matter is totally non-conscious it cannot cause it. But there is consciousness in the cosmos in people at least. Therefore, there must be a level of reality (some call it spirit) that is the cause of consciousness in this cosmos. For Nagel, however, this is not God.

Could we please adopt the convention of using "cs." for consciousness".

Prince Randoms said...

Totally off topic, but has Prof. Feser ever addressed the Multi-verse /Many Worlds topic?

I'll admit I find it very entertaining Sci-Fi; I'm quite a GURPS Infinite Worlds fan.

Anonymous said...

I have heard the following interpretation of Descartes with respect the trademark argument:

Descartes argues that thinking is essentially limited because it can produce false judgments. The imperfection of most judgments requires that Descartes' meditator has an idea of God, who is perfect. The source of this idea, which is perfect and cannot be added to or subtracted from, must be God himself. But since thinking is essentially limited, and God is not limited, God cannot think, as that would make him imperfect. (Support is offered for this with respect to Meditation I, four paragraphs from the end, where Descartes insinuates that people are sometimes deceived, so it is not necessarily repugnant to God that they should be always deceived. I think, however, what Descartes refers to here is not rightly termed "deception.") Thereby Descartes advances an antiteleological conception of God, which is hidden from his contemporaries.

Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Also--

This is off topic, but what are people's thoughts on this argument? The author claims that the Thomist argument against things being self-changed requires a false principle and is not saved by applying the principle of proportionate causality.

Scott said...

"This is off topic, but what are people's thoughts on this argument?"

As far as I can tell from a quick skim, he hasn't considered the well-known A-T account of how something (say an animal) moves itself: namely, by some of its parts moving others of its parts. That point alone destroys his objection to the Oderberg/Feder reading of Aquinas's First Way.

(I've also never seen Aquinas's Summa Theologica referred to as the Summa Theologiae. Is that a standard alternative name?)

Scott said...

"Feder" = "Feser." Sorry, Ed!

Scott said...

On a second pass, I'm also not too happy with Yousif's treatment of the principle of proportionate causality, and in particular with his incomplete and quite loose analysis of "virtually" vs. "actually."

If heat is "virtually" present in (say) a match head, then, I would want to say, the causal power (or, in more current terms, the "disposition") to produce heat is actually present in it even if it's not being exercised right now and needs something else to put it into motion. In that case, heat is actually present in the match head as the end of a causal power (that is, virtually), and it's the exercise of the power itself, not the "heat," that wants actualizing. Or so it seems to me.

Timotheos said...

That essay was painful; it was so carefully written, taking in all the subtle distinctions and answering all of the standard objections, and then he swoops in with a basic objection that has a classic Aquinas 101 answer at the very end, spending only about a paragraph on the issue compared to all of the pages he spent on other objections.

It's actually easy to see how he made the mistake, and if there is anyplace where Aquinas thought his Principle of Causality needed the most defense, that would be it, since he usually defended his principle just by proving that wrong. Nevertheless, it's an objection that Aquinas has an easy answer for, as Scott has canvassed above.

And Scott, I'm pretty sure that Summa Theologiae is the old-school way of spelling it, but I'm not 100% about that.

Timotheos said...

@ Scott

If I had to take a guess, Yousif was drawing this account from MacDonald, who in turn was not defending it, but was merely trying to outline how Aquinas might have understood virtual presence. So Yousif was probably just repeating what he read in MacDonald who in turn was probably being a little too fast and loose with those terms.

I actually don't fault Yousif too much for this, since he goes on to acknowledge that Oderberg both says that this principle is not techincally required of the first way and that Oderberg is at least probably right in this.

And that's why this paper makes me so sad; Yousif was so careful to look into all of the so called "fatal" objections to the first way and found adequate responses for all of them; right up until he gives one that Aquinas himself answered in numerous places and was in fact what Aquinas was trying to prove impossible in the first way.

Scott said...

@Timotheos:

"And Scott, I'm pretty sure that Summa Theologiae is the old-school way of spelling it, but I'm not 100% about that."

Thanks. Just wondering. It appears with the ica spelling in the heading on the page.

Anonymous said...

@Scott
If heat is "virtually" present in (say) a match head, then, I would want to say, the causal power (or, in more current terms, the "disposition") to produce heat is actually present in it even if it's not being exercised right now and needs something else to put it into motion. In that case, heat is actually present in the match head as the end of a causal power (that is, virtually), and it's the exercise of the power itself, not the "heat," that wants actualizing. Or so it seems to me.

Thanks, that is helpful.

@Scott
As far as I can tell from a quick skim, he hasn't considered the well-known A-T account of how something (say an animal) moves itself: namely, by some of its parts moving others of its parts. That point alone destroys his objection to the Oderberg/Feder reading of Aquinas's First Way.
@Timotheos
That essay was painful; it was so carefully written, taking in all the subtle distinctions and answering all of the standard objections, and then he swoops in with a basic objection that has a classic Aquinas 101 answer at the very end, spending only about a paragraph on the issue compared to all of the pages he spent on other objections.

I was surprised by that as well. Since Feser and Oderberg both consider self-movers pretty thoroughly, it was surprising that he used his free motion as a counterexample.

Scott said...

@Timotheos:

"And that's why this paper makes me so sad; Yousif was so careful to look into all of the so called 'fatal' objections to the first way and found adequate responses for all of them; right up until he gives one that Aquinas himself answered in numerous places and was in fact what Aquinas was trying to prove impossible in the first way."

That's it exactly. His dropping that ball at the end was what jumped out at me first, even on just a quick perusal. It's too bad, because if he'd responded to that last objection as he did the others, he'd have provided a defense of Aquinas's First Way and the title (and aim) of his essay would have been different.

Timotheos said...

@ Anon

That's true too; Yousif made it sound like Feser never thought of the self-mover objection but he actually very clearly discussed it in his book, although it was in a different place than when he discussed the Principle of Proportional Causality.

Timotheos said...

@ Scott

If it weren't for the fact that most modern philosophers only have to give knee jerk reactions to the first way, I'd imagine that this would be a very common objection to the first way, especially by analytic philosophers. The reason I think this is because of their tendency to collapse the distinction between being a substance and being a mere being, one that is absolutely crucial and plagues their debates over Universals.

Anonymous said...

@ Scott and any other interested parties:

"Summa" is a Latin noun, having any of these meanings (non-exhaustive):

1.top, summit, highest point or place
2.the principal or main thing
3. sum, summary, total

theologia is where the English word theology is derived from.

Hence "Summa Theologiae" seems the most appropriate rendering, since the latter word is in the genitive, ie "of theology".

therefore Summa Theologiae means "the summit of theology", or variations on that.

Cheers,

a Latin scholar.

Scott said...

Thank you, Anonymous Latin Scholar.

Scott said...

In searching further I do find books (e.g. one by Rudi te Velde) that refer to it as Summa Theologiae.

Glenn said...

Have a look at fourth item from the bottom under "Aristotelico-Thomism and Neo-Scholasticism: Online resources" on the right side of this page. Wink.

Bob said...

@Scott

As far as I can tell from a quick skim, he hasn't considered the well-known A-T account of how something (say an animal) moves itself: namely, by some of its parts moving others of its parts. That point alone destroys his objection to the Oderberg/Feder reading of Aquinas's First Way.

It seems to me that the author may have considered this counter argument.

He is arguing that:

Something can be changed by something actual whilst not be changed by something numerically distinct from itself.


Take another look at the example he uses to support this argument:

For example, I can, through sheer volition, change myself from the state of potentially thinking about a math problem, to the state of actually thinking about a math problem. In this case, I—qua thing—am changed; however I changed my self—nothing numerically distinct from me changed me.

It seems to me that he is not referring to something like a shoulder moves the arm that moves the hand.

He is saying that a mind can change itself which, in the end he says, contradicts the premise:

Whatever is being changed is being changed by something actual and distinct from that which is being changed.

At least that is how I read it.

Glenn said...

Some while ago one contributor wrote, "I have cited in one of our previous discussions on this subject a number of prominent contemporary Thomists who agree with my characterization, such as Joseph Owens, W. Norris Clarke (whose work Hart recommends in his latest book), Gregory Rocca, John Wippel, and so on."

This brought me up short, and I wanted to ask, "Do Owens, Clarke, Rocca, and Wippel know you? Have you made them aware of your characterization? Have they, or someone on their behalf, conveyed to you their agreement with your characterization?"

I don't doubt that this might be seen as a sign of anality, and I'm not entirely sure that I would disagree.

Still, it was something which snagged my mind, and when something snags my mind, I tend to wonder about that something, even if only for short while.

Of course, it was back in December that my mind was snagged by the statement above, and that I'm now mentioning it indicates that I may have been wondering about it, even if only off and on, for two months. As best I can tell, two months does not exactly qualify as a "short while", at least not when wondering about such a minor statement as the one above, and so the sign of anality may be a bit more ominous than might at first be thought.

In my defense, however, or perhaps from my defensiveness, I will say that I had mostly forgotten about it, so that I really haven't been wondering about it for two months -- not even off and on. In fact, I can say that I've been getting along fairly well for the better part of a whole month without a recollection of having been snagged tumbling about in the back of my mind, never mind actually wondering about that by which I had been snagged.

As I was reading through Yousif's paper, however, I came across, "Wippel agrees with me[.]"

Uh-oh.

Hadn't I read something like that somewhere before?

I think so.

But now it is this that I wonder:

Is there an unwritten rule I'm not privy to? "If you think I agree with you (or with your characterization of what I had said), then you may say that I do. You don't need to check with me first. For it is not important that you verify that you haven't overlooked some nuance in what I was saying, and it isn't important that I have a chance to see if some nuance in what you're saying might be at variance with what I was getting. If you think I agree with you, then you may say that I do. In fact, I would very much appreciate not being burdened with having to say, 'Yes, I agree with you (or with your characterization of what I had said).'"

Is it really a sign of anality to think that it is a simple matter of courtesy, more accurate, and, perhaps, also a protective hedge, to say, "Given what So-and-So says here, I think he would agree that...", or some variation thereof?

And doesn't the time-line of events -- the very fact that So-and-So said it first -- indicate that, actually, it is the current writer who agrees with So-and-So, rather than the other way about?

Glenn said...

I had been racking my brains trying to remember the famous statement made by that guy in the picture in the OP, and -- finally! -- I remembered:

"I drum; therefore, I percuss."

Scott said...

@Glenn:

"Wink."

Ah. Yes, I see it. Thanks.

Scott said...

@Bob:

"He is saying that a mind can change itself[.]"

Sure, but even for that specific example he doesn't consider Aquinas's account of the relationship between intellect and will or even acknowledge that he provides one.

Scott said...

@Glenn:

"Is it really a sign of anality to think that it is a simple matter of courtesy, more accurate, and, perhaps, also a protective hedge, to say, 'Given what So-and-So says here, I think he would agree that...', or some variation thereof?"

I don't think so, but if it is, then I'm anal too.

Bob said...

@Scott

Thanks for the response.

For my own edification and if you don't mind, did Aquinas consider intellect and will distinct parts of the mind, that a mind is composed of parts, for instance?

Scott said...

@Bob:

According to Aquinas, the intellect is a power of the soul. The will is a distinct power, inferior to the intellect in an absolute sense although sometimes superior to it in a relative sense. He gives this account of their interaction.

Relevantly to the present discussion (though not quite to your question), see also here.

Scott said...

(By "distinct power" I mean a power distinct from the intellect.)

Bob said...

@Scott

Very cool. Thanks.

Step2 said...

I drum; therefore, I percuss.

There were limited repercussions since he wasn't top secret.

More relevant to the topic, this from the SEP article on the PSR:
"So there is no possible reason for God making anything less than the best. Everything has a reason. Thus God makes the best possible world. Abelard's opinion was rejected as heresy and mainstream opinion of philosophers during the Middle Ages appears to reject the PSR. God, on the mainstream medieval view, enjoys freedom of indifference with respect to his creation. Thus there is no sufficient reason for why God created what he did and the PSR slips from prominence until its early modern revival at the hands of Spinoza and Leibniz."

Matt Sheean said...

This is to do with the discussion over the paper by Yousif.

It seems to me that invoking something like a mind changing itself still falls flat without recourse to the distinction between intellect and will (though I agree it is an important one!). Who ever thinks that the 'phrase 'I changed my mind' really has to do with my mind changing itself tout court? The example he gives is of two mental states, which either simply are the mind (just the aggregate of the states) or are states actualized by me. In the first case, the mind is not changing itself, it is simply changing. In the second case, I am numerically distinct from my mental states (or why doesn't he just say that when I eat, I change myself from not fed---> fed?). I might be missing something, but I was miffed that he propped up this really idiosyncratic picture of cognition as if it was a fatal objection to defenses of the first way.

Scott said...

@Matt Sheean:

"It seems to me that invoking something like a mind changing itself still falls flat without recourse to the distinction between intellect and will[.]"

I agree.