Sunday, March 2, 2014

An exchange with Keith Parsons, Part IV


Here I respond to Keith Parsons’ fourth post.  Jeff Lowder’s index of existing and forthcoming installments in my exchange with Prof. Parsons can be found here.

Keith, as we near the end of our first exchange, I want to thank you again for taking the time to respond to the questions I raised, and as graciously as you have.  You maintain in your most recent post that explanations legitimately can and indeed must ultimately trace to an unexplained “brute fact,” and that philosophers who think otherwise have failed to give a convincing account of what it would be for the deepest level of reality to be self-explanatory and thus other than such a “brute fact.”  Unsurprisingly, I disagree on both counts.  I would say that appeals to “brute facts” are incoherent, and that the nature of an ultimate self-explanatory principle can be made intelligible by reference to notions that are well understood and independently motivated.
 
Now, a number of philosophical issues come up in your post that are bound to arise in a discussion of this topic -- laws of nature, the principle of sufficient reason (PSR), the principle of causality (PC), Humean and other objections to PSR and PC, and so forth.   Obviously we cannot address all this in any depth in a series of blog posts, especially given the word count Jeff has asked us to abide by.  I have addressed all of these issues in detail in my new book Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction.  For the moment let me summarize a few key points.

First, I would say that appeals to laws of nature are far more problematic than most naturalists seem to realize.  For what is a law of nature, and why does it operate?  Like some contemporary philosophers of science and metaphysicians who have no theological or Scholastic axe to grind (e.g. Nancy Cartwright, Brian Ellis, Stephen Mumford) I would say that what we are describing when we talk of “laws of nature” are really just the ways a thing will tend to operate given its nature or essence.  In that case, though, the existence of a law of nature presupposes, and thus cannot explain, the existence of the concrete physical things, with their distinctive natures, whose operations the law describes -- in which case laws of nature are not available to the naturalist as a terminus of explanation (“brute fact” or otherwise).

Suppose this neo-Aristotelian account of laws is rejected.  What alternative views are there?  None that help the naturalist who thinks laws provide an ultimate explanation.  For example, early modern philosophers and scientists like Descartes and Newton regarded laws simply as divine decrees.  (I do not accept this view myself, by the way; indeed, it was intended by the early moderns as an anti-Scholastic approach to understanding nature.)  On this view, laws of nature cannot be ultimate explanations because they are merely the expression of something else, viz. God’s commands.  That -- and, of course, the theological presuppositions of this view -- make it unavailable to the naturalist looking to make laws ultimate.

How about a Platonic view of laws?  On this view laws are abstract objects that concrete physical phenomena “participate” in.  But what is it that brings it about that the phenomena participate in the laws?  And why is it these laws rather than some others that the phenomena participate in?  On this view it is not the laws themselves, but rather whatever it is that answers these questions (a Platonic demiurge?), that will be the ultimate explanation of things.  On this view too, then, laws are not available to the naturalist as an ultimate explanation (again, “brute” or otherwise).

How about a regularity view of laws?  On this Humean view, to say that it is a law that A’s are followed by B’s is just to assert a regular correlation between A’s and B’s, perhaps together with something else (such as a counterfactual conditional to the effect that had an A been present a B would have been present as well).  The trouble here is that laws so understood, whether “ultimate” or otherwise, don’t explain anything at all.  If it is the case that A’s are always in fact followed by B’s and that a B would have been present had an A been present, then to call this a “law” merely re-describes this fact, rather than making it intelligible. 

Nor does it help to say that the “law” in question is a special case of some other law, because that just relocates the problem rather than solving it.  If to say “It is a law that A’s are followed by B’s” doesn’t by itself explain anything, then it doesn’t help to say that this is a special case of a law relating C’s and D’s, if the statement “It is a law that C’s are followed by D’s” also by itself doesn’t explain anything.  And this is true no matter how far down you go, as long as what you stop with is itself just some further “brute” regularity.   The “bruteness” is not confined to the bottom level but exists all the way up and down the series.  To suppose otherwise is like supposing that a set of IOU’s counts as real money as long as you stack them high enough.  The IOU’s at the top of the stack are no more real money than the ones at the bottom are, and the higher level laws on a regularity theory are no more explanatory than the bottom “brute” level laws are.

Hence while the regularity theory might be claimed to provide an account of explanation alternative to those implied by the Aristotelian, Platonic, and theological accounts of laws, in fact it is not an account of explanation at all but, implicitly if not explicitly, the giving up of the possibility of explanation (ultimate or otherwise).  And it is hard to see what motivation there could possibly be for a theorist of laws of nature to accept it, other than as an ad hoc way of avoiding commitment to an Aristotelian, Platonic, or theological view of laws.  (Ockham’s razor is certainly not a good motivation, for Ockham’s razor is a principle of explanation, and the regularity view makes laws non-explanatory.)

So, Keith, it seems to me that your position has the following serious problem.  You want to endorse a form of naturalism according to which real explanations are possible at levels of physical reality higher than the level of the fundamental laws of nature, yet where these explanations rest on a bottom level of physical laws that have no explanation at all but are “brute facts.”  But this view is, I maintain, incoherent.  For if you endorse a regularity view of laws, then you will have no genuine explanations at all anywhere in the system.  All of reality, and not just the level of fundamental physical laws, will amount to a “brute fact.”  Whereas if you endorse instead an Aristotelian, Platonic, or theological view of laws, then you would be acknowledging that all laws of nature, including even the fundamental laws, are dependent on something else and thus cannot provide ultimate explanations -- and you would also in each case be taking on other commitments incompatible with your naturalism.

Now that’s just one problem for your position.  There are others.  For example, I would also argue (and argue at length in the book) that Humean and other objections against PSR and PC all fail.  For instance, when Humeans argue for the conceivability of something existing without a cause or explanation, and then take that to entail the real possibility of something existing without a cause or explanation, they are committing a very crude fallacy.  The most that Humean arguments show is that we can conceive of a thing without conceiving of its cause or explanation, but to conceive of A without conceiving of B simply doesn’t entail that A can really exist without B.  We can conceive of something’s being a triangle without conceiving of its being a trilateral, but any triangle must also be a trilateral; we can conceive of a man without conceiving of his height, but any actual man must have some height or other; and so forth.  (Humean arguments are problematic in other ways too, as I show in the book.)

I would also argue that PSR, rightly understood -- that is, in its Scholastic version rather than in the Leibnizian rationalist versions usually considered in contemporary discussions of the subject -- cannot coherently be denied.  Consider that whenever we accept a claim as rationally justified, we suppose not only that we have a reason for accepting it (in the sense of a rational justification), but also that our having this reason is the reason why we accept it (in the sense of being the cause or explanation of our accepting it).  We suppose that our cognitive faculties track truth and standards of rational argumentation, and that it is because they do that we believe the things we do.  But if PSR is false, then we can have no justification for supposing that any of this is really the case.  We may in fact believe what we do for no reason whatsoever, and yet it might also falsely seem, again for no reason whatsoever, that we believe things for reasons.  And our cognitive faculties may have the deliverances they do for no reason whatsoever -- rather than because they track objective truth and standards of logic -- and yet it might also falsely seem, for no reason whatsoever, that they do track the latter.

In short, either everything has an explanation or we can have no justification for thinking that anything does.  No purported middle ground position, on which some things have genuine explanations while others are “brute facts,” can coherently be made out.  If there really could be unintelligible “brute facts,” then even the things we think are not brute facts may in fact be brute facts, and the fact that it falsely seems otherwise to us may itself be yet another brute fact.  We could have no reason to believe anything.  Rejecting PSR entails the most radical skepticism -- including skepticism about any reasoning that could make this skepticism itself intelligible.  Again, the view simply cannot coherently be made out.

Finally, as to your claim, Keith, that the accounts Scholastics and others give of something’s being self-explanatory make use of “obscure” notions, I would deny that there is any good reason for this charge.  Take the Aristotelian theory of actuality and potentiality, on which is based the Scholastic thesis that God is pure actuality.  When you say that such claims “sound… like verbal formulas devised to obviate a problem rather than solve it,” that gives the impression that they are spun out of whole cloth in an ad hoc way in order to give the theist something to say in response to his critic -- as if the theist were saying:  “How can something be self-explanatory?  Hmm, er, well now, let me think… Oh, wait! How about this: A self-explanatory terminus of explanation would be one that is pure actuality!  Yeah, that’s the ticket…”

But of course that’s not at all what is going on.  The theory of actuality and potentiality was originally developed for reasons that have nothing to do with natural theology, but rather as a way of responding to Parmenidean arguments against the possibility of genuine change.  It is also a theory that is recapitulated in other contexts having nothing to do with natural theology.  For example, the revival of interest in the notions of active and passive causal powers in contemporary metaphysics and philosophy of science is largely a recapitulation of the ancient theory of actuality and potentiality (in ways I discuss in my Scholastic Metaphysics book).  If the jargon seems “obscure,” it is obscure only in the way the jargon of any philosophical or scientific theory is “obscure” -- obscure when considered in isolation and outside the context of the theory, but not at all obscure once one has studied the ideas and arguments and seen how the terminology works in its theoretical context.

Now, the same thing is true of other notions made use of to account for what would make something self-explanatory -- the essence/existence distinction, the notion of being simple or non-composite, etc.  They are not at all obscure or ad hoc but have a worked-out theoretical justification independent of their application to natural theology, though when unpacked they turn out to have theological implications.  (Scholastics would not agree, by the way, that all necessity boils down to logical necessity.  Rather, logical necessity itself presupposes metaphysical necessity.)

Anyway, I thank you again, Keith, for a very useful and civil exchange.  As per the agreed format, the last word in this first round is yours.  I will brace myself!

162 comments:

Lamont said...

Since Parsons does not like Aristotelian metaphysics, perhaps he would respond to a simpler argument which almost anyone should be able to understand.

1. All material things are complex and composed of a parts on which they depend for their existence.
2. There must be something which is simple and not composed of parts or there would not be anything that exists.
3. That which is simple and not composed of parts is the ground of all Being and the source of everything else that exists.
4. Absolute simplicity is what classical theists call God.

Greg said...

Great post, quite substantive.

Jinzang said...

There's a gap in your argument. Even though everything composite is composed of what is simple, there is no reason to suppose it is numerically single or even of a single kind. In fact, there is every reason to suppose it is not. Since God is numerically single, you can't get from step 2 to step 3 and 4.

John Moore said...

Talking about stacked IOU's is a rather unfortunate example - that's how money really works!

You wrote, "... a set of IOU's counts as real money as long as you stack them high enough. The IOU's at the top of the stack are no more real money than the ones at the bottom are."

Sorry to tell you - money doesn't get any realer than that.

Greg said...

John,

I don't think that is the way Feser was making the analogy. Money has real buying force. The buying force of IOUs, though, is dependent on my getting money to pay you back later.

If my explanations are reductionistic, then they are dependent on successively lower levels of reality being able to pull their own explanatory weight. But if there are IOUs all the way down, then up top I have never really explained anything. If I hand you a new IOU each week, you never get paid. The payment only arrives when I hand you some money. If the bottom level of reality is a brute fact, none of the upper levels of reality are explained.

Lamont said...

@Jinzang,
The argument I made does not depend on there being only one kind of simple thing to get to steps 2 and 3. As for step 4, there is a gap between saying that there must be at least one thing that is simple and the belief that it is God. But that gap can be filled by other arguments or by faith. For example, the harmonious interrelatedness of all natural laws implies that our universe has a single source.

Edward Feser said...

John Moore,

take a stack of IOU's into a McDonald's and try to pay with it. Tell us how it goes.

monk68 said...

Quick question. Does anyone know whether the "Cursus Philosophicus" of John of St. Thomas has been translated into English? I can't find an English edition in the usual places, but wanted to make sure there wasn't an academic outfit somewhere that I am overlooking before I give up.

-Pax

John Moore said...

Money is nothing more than an IOU. That's what I was trying to say. Maybe we should go to the barter system. Would McDonald's accept a live chicken in exchange for McNuggets?

Jeremy Taylor said...

There are many competing and conflicting monetary theories, but just about all of them would say money is ultimately founded upon real goods and labour (whatever other psychological and sociological factors are involved).

An IOU is only of any worth if the one in possession of it feels what is being owed will meaningfully be supplied, eventually, in one form or another.

Kirill Nielson said...

Lamont,

is a quark not a material thing? What is it composed of?

Scott said...

@John Moore:

"Money is nothing more than an IOU."

No, money is not "nothing more than an IOU" according to any economic definition of "money." It's not accepted as final payment of a debt.

"Maybe we should go to the barter system."

If all you're trying to say is that "money" is an alternative to a barter system, then what you really mean (or should mean) is that money is a medium of exchange.

John Moore said...

OK, you're right about money, but I still think it's an odd example for Professor Feser to use. Remember how money used to have written on it that the bank promised to pay you a certain weight in gold? That's how cash is an IOU, because the bank will pay you gold for it. Except they figured out that they didn't even need the gold, which itself has little intrinsic value anyway. Yes, the real value of money is as a medium of exchange, but we still don't have anything of ultimate value that the money is based on.

Greg said...

I think you might be taking the analogy a bit too literally.

Scott said...

So do I.

Bob said...

@Prof. Feser

I would say that what we are describing when we talk of “laws of nature” are really just the ways a thing will tend to operate given its nature or essence. In that case, though, the existence of a law of nature presupposes, and thus cannot explain, the existence of the concrete physical things, with their distinctive natures, whose operations the law describes -- in which case laws of nature are not available to the naturalist as a terminus of explanation (“brute fact” or otherwise).

Aren't you really just saying that the "laws of nature" cannot explain existence, but must presuppose it?

I am not sure that anyone would really disagree, naturalist or not.

It looks like the real issue is with the explanation of existence itself.

Why does anything, whatever, exist at all?

Related to this question:

1. One might work logically backwards from existent stuff to a necessary existent, but isn't the most you get is that things exist because something necessarily exists?

2. What's the difference between that and a "brute fact" when the question is why anything exists at all?

I am just not clear on the distinction you are trying to make.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Personally, I think that the question of explanations brought up by Parsons was a distraction. It isn't directly relevant. Yes, a full discursive explanation of God's existence is not possible (because of the very nature of discursive thought). However, this doesn't mean one can simply argue the universe is a a brute fact without need of explanation, unless one deals with the Thomistic (and other) arguments to the contrary - that is does does need and does have such an explanation.

The rest is just a distraction, in my opinion. It adds nothing to the naturalist position.

Unknown said...

Strictly speaking, it can no longer be said that money is a kind of IOU. Today the value of money is determined mostly by market forces, with an occasional central bank intervention.

Historically, money could be said to be an IOU, that is, during periods when governments defined currency in terms of gold (and sometimes silver). Theoretically, if the holder of currency was uncomfortable with it, he had a legal right to exchange it for a fixed amount of gold. Hence, the IOU. Today if you try to exchange a dollar at a bank for something tangible, that is, to actualize its putative IOU nature, you would get a puzzled look from the bank teller and a visit by the bank guard.

The following might be Aristotle's take on money, using the concepts of potency and actuality.

1. Money is not wealth. Money is a claim on wealth not yet possessed.
2. Wealth is the possession of goods and services. Money is wealth held potentially. The possession of goods and services is wealth held actually.
3. Goods and services are species under the genus wealth. Money is not a species under the genus wealth. If money were a kind of a good or a service, it would behave like other goods and services. It does not. In commercial trade, money flows from high cost areas to low cost areas in exchange for goods and services, which flow in the opposite direction. During times of inflation, the value of money decreases while the value of goods and services increases. During times of deflation, the value of money increases while the value of goods and services decreases.
4. Hence, money, considered either as a flow or as a valuation, has a kind of inverse relationship to the flow or the valuation of goods and services. They are mirror images of each other.
5. Moreover, in order for someone to become wealthy, he or she must actualize the potentiality in money. Money must be converted into wealth. When money is spent to acquire a good or a service, one's money account looses a proportionate amount of its potency to acquirekoi additional wealth.
6. That which applies to the relationship between money and wealth applies likewise to the relationship between wealth and power. Wealth is not power. Wealth is a claim on power not yet possessed. Wealth is power held potentially, not actually. The country that has much wealth is not necessarily powerful. It must convert its stock of wealth to acquire power.

David T said...

The current system of fiat currency is the opposite of an IOU. It's a "U owe the Government."

The old greenback was a legitimate IOU exchangeable for a fixed quantity of gold. The current Federal Reserve Note is merely a paper with a number on it ("dollars") that is the only form of payment accepted by the government for debts owed it. The way it works is the government creates paper "dollars", then tells the citizen "You owe me X number of dollars." This forces the citizen to value otherwise worthless paper on pain of going to jail. It's a neat trick. And by using notes similar to the old gold-backed notes and calling them by the same name ("dollars"), it's not obvious to most people what happened.

This system strikes me as very "modern", in the sense that, like modern philosophy, it is an attempt to improve on a classical system by removing its natural foundation (gold on the one hand, metaphysics on the other) under the mistaken belief that the absence of a foundation "liberates" the modern to improve on classical structures.

David T said...

If there really could be unintelligible “brute facts,” then even the things we think are not brute facts may in fact be brute facts, and the fact that it falsely seems otherwise to us may itself be yet another brute fact.

"Brute facts" is another instance of modern philosophers introducing a radioactive notion with the intention of using it to destroy classical philosophy, then hoping they can safely quarantine it while getting on with their own philosophical projects. But the dangerous notion always gets out of hand and becomes an Intellectual Doomsday Machine, destroying not just classical philosophy but thought itself, requiring subsequent philosophers to try and contain the damage. Kant's realization that Hume's skepticisim not only eliminated classical metaphysics but also modern science itself is the classic in this regard.

Once "brute facts" are introduced, who says the only alternative brute facts are God or the universe? Why isn't the apple falling from the tree a simple brute fact rather than due to Newton's "gravity", an occult idea introduced by his imagination? (I am playing the devil's advocate here, of course). An explanation explains something only to the extent that it needs an explanation; a "brute fact" is something that has no explanation whether one is possible or not, and that can apply to anything.

Sami said...

How would you respond to an argument that creation can't be a caused event?
I read some atheist saying: "Nothing contributed to the universe. Not even God's power. The Church says God is his power and denies he made the universe from himself. So God did not make the universe after all. Thus the universe popped into existence whether he wanted it to or not. Nothing becoming something means it popped."
obviously the way he posits the argument is super question-begging. But I would like to at least understand what his intuition might have been. Maybe he thinks that causes require a transference of something? Or maybe he thinks a causal interaction is always between two existing things? I hate arguments without premises.

Greg said...

I find it very confusing to suggest that the causal closure of the physical is consistent with a universe that pops into being uncaused but inconsistent with a universe that is created.

Arthur said...

Why isn't the apple falling from the tree a simple brute fact rather than due to Newton's "gravity", an occult idea introduced by his imagination?

A similar thought occured to me about the 'brute facts' approach, too. Why couldn't a caveman witnessing lightning just say:

'Don't worry, my fellow cavemen, it's just a Brute Fact! Don't think about it too hard.'

Of course, it's a good thing most people didn't think like that or we'd never have, y'know, science.

I suspect a Brute-fact-ist would respond by saying that no, of course they don't think that just anything is a brute fact, they have rational criteria to determine when something is Brute and when it isn't.

I'll leave it to believers in Brute Facts to finish that thought.

Greg said...

@Sami
To phrase it somewhat differently, the argument seems to rely on a premise that the universe is of such a nature that it can pop into existence uncaused but could not be created. I don't see any support for that premise in what your interlocutor has written, and I think it is doubtfully consistent.

It's worth noting that not all cosmological arguments argue that the universe did pop into existence.

He also says: "The Church says God is his power and denies he made the universe from himself. So God did not make the universe after all. Thus the universe popped into existence whether he wanted it to or not." I am not sure if the second sentence here is meant to follow from the first. But if it is, it appears to be a non sequitur. Your interlocutor would seem to be saying that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo implies that "God did not make the universe after all." I don't see it.

David T said...


I suspect a Brute-fact-ist would respond by saying that no, of course they don't think that just anything is a brute fact, they have rational criteria to determine when something is Brute and when it isn't.

Right... and the problem is that the only way to establish those criteria is to bring the brute fact under some category of inteliigibility. But the brute fact is by definition unintelligible, so any attempt to categorize it is self-contradictory. Your caveman example is apt: The assertion of brute factness only appears to be an intellectual assertion. It is really an act of the will arbitrarily choosing to end inquiry.

Bob said...

the problem is that the only way to establish those criteria is to bring the brute fact under some category of inteliigibility. But the brute fact is by definition unintelligible, so any attempt to categorize it is self-contradictory.

I don't really agree. A brute fact may not be intelligible as an effect, but this does not necessarily make it unintelligible as a cause.

So, perhaps not completely unintelligible.

Greg said...

A brute fact may not be intelligible as an effect, but this does not necessarily make it unintelligible as a cause.

What is a brute fact an effect of?

The only way we could consider a brute fact to be "an effect" of something is if it is the effect of some more basic brute cause. But that seems to concede that the unintelligibility of brute facts is transferred by causation.

Bob said...

@ Greg

I said that a brute fact is not intelligible as an effect. That's why it is considered a brute fact.

Charles said...

Monk68
The only translations of John of St. Thomas I'm aware of are:
Wade's translation, called Outlines of Formal Logic, of the beginning of the first volume
Simon et al. translation, The Material Logic of John of St. Thomas, of the rest of the first volume
John Deely's Tractatus de Signis also of the Logical part, available here: https://archive.org/details/tractatusdesigni00johnrich

Lamont said...

@ Kirill

Quarks are the smallest material particles. They are wave packets which condensed out of the intense energy present during the earliest stages of expansion following the Big Bang. Physicists would generally hold that energy in the form of “strings” or “vacuum energy” is what is ultimately simple. What they neglect to say to say is that energy that exists independently of matter would by its very nature be self-organizing. Since we have no direct knowledge of how energy would behave in a self-organizing field apart from matter, this is an area of knowledge or lack of knowledge if you prefer, that can only be addressed through mathematics and metaphysics.

The mathematics of the Big Bang depend on positing an organizing principle such as gravity to produce the Big Bang. The choice of gravity as the principle that organizes energy I find strange and more than a little arbitrary since there is no matter prior to the Big Bang.

In any case, from the metaphysical perspective, there is no limitation or restriction that can be placed on the kind self-organization that might be present in a matter independent field of energy. Such a field could be internally responsive to the point where every area of the field would know what interactions were taking place in every other area of the field. Hence consciousness may very well exist in an a matter independent field of energy that has no limitations on the number of dimensions it might fill or the 'size' or power to which it might obtain. In the end, it is easier to say that the source of all Being is God, but that should not prevent one from asking questions about what type of Being could be self-existent by its very nature.

Kirill Nielson said...

Then your first premise needs serious reworking. Ask any physicist -- they'll tell you two things:

1. there is no distinction between matte and energy. So long as X is in space and time and is measurable, it is matter.

2. virtual particles jump into reality from the quantum field seemingly randomly.

On both counts, your 1 premise fails.

What you need to do is establish why virtual particles and quantum field itself need God to sustain them.

Scott said...

@Sami:

"I would like to at least understand what his intuition might have been."

I suspect it's that in order to be caused, something must be made out of pre-existing materials.

I see two possible responses consistent with an Aristotelian account of causation.

(1) Suppose that (e.g.) a clay statue is created ex nihilo. The clay of which it's composed didn't pre-exist it but came into being at the same instant. Does that mean the statue has no material cause in the Aristotelian sense? Surely not. The statue is made of clay; it just wasn't made from clay. As far as I can see, nothing in Aristotle's account of causation strictly requires that a material cause pre-exist that which is made out of it.

(2) Some (e.g. William Lane Craig) respond instead by arguing that creation ex nihilo doesn't require a material cause at all. As I've said, I think that's wrong; it just doesn't require a pre-existing material cause. But even if it's right, the other three causes (efficient, formal, and final) are intact and the doctrine of creation ex nihilo doesn't imply that the universe is simply uncaused.

Arthur said...

I was suspicious of Parsons' seriousness before, and this latest post has, I think, confirmed my suspicions.

It sounds like he, in common with most critics of Thomism, isn't even trying to understand it. He complains that Thomistic notions seem 'obscure' (obscure to whom, I wonder?), and tells us what they 'sound like'. He's pretty much admitting that he's working with appearances and has no idea what underlies them.

His post asks a lot of bemused questions, but doesn't seem that interested in the answers.

What could it possibly mean to say that something is self-explanatory?

How can there be a concept that guarantees its own instantiation?

...why should we accept the PSR?

The sad thing is, this approach of coming up with questions and then blithely presuming there are no worthwhile answers is pretty common.

One thing's for sure, whatever I eventually decide about Thomism, it'll be based on actually trying to come to grips with it. Guys like Parsons aren't going to help with that.

DavidM said...

@Arthur: "One thing's for sure, whatever I eventually decide about Thomism, it'll be based on actually trying to come to grips with it. Guys like Parsons aren't going to help with that."

I agree. And the interesting thing, it seems to me, is that most(?) (academic) philosophers are like Parsons.


Re. IOU-stacking:

Lovely analogy. It seems like some people have a problem with governments constantly borrowing money. The problem is that we either have to keep borrowing or be forced to make some real 'concessions' (or 'sacrifices') to reality (the real nature of things). If we don't, then the IOUs keep stacking up and the next generation will have to pay. But I think Zeno would have an answer for us: We may feel bad for saddling our children with debt, but why should we? They can just, in turn, saddle their children with debt, so they'll no more have to make real concessions than we do. And we don't need to worry about the grand-children either, for they can just do the same, and so on - no one ever has to actually pay. So who cares if we have an 'infinite' stack of IOUs?

Likewise, if you have credit-card debt, what could possibly be wrong with paying off your debt using another credit card? So let's eat, drink, and be merry. I guess there might come a point when McDonalds refuses to accept your credit card any longer, but so what? Possibly we'll have to accept 'brute facts' at some point, but why should that point be now?

David T said...

Arther, DavidM,

We should remember that modern philosophy had its origin in the view of certain philosophers (e.g. Descartes, Hume) that philosophy as traditionally conducted was a colossal waste of time, a dialog of opinion that led nowhere. As Descartes put it, the philosohers argued the truth rather than discovered it.

So the whole impetus of early modern philosophy was to find a way to put an end to the interminable dialog of opinion and put philosophy on a firm foundation of method from which results could be cumulatively attained. In the end, this never worked because all it did was change the conversation to an argument over whose method/beginning to philosophy was the best (empiricists vs rationalists, etc.)

In any case, the point is that the whole idea was to find a way to avoid having to trudge thru all that Scholastic and ancient philosophy to refute it. So the fact that philosophers in the modern tradition like Parsons have no inclination to learn Thomism in refuting it is not an accident or an indication of laziness; for them, conceding that they need to spend the time deeply learning Thomistic philosophy in order to refute it contradicts their whole philosophical project.

Now I am not defending the modern philosophical project - far from it. But we should understand that the ability to dismiss Thomsitic philosophy without understanding it is a feature, not a bug, of modern philosophy according to its adherents.

Greg said...

@Bob

My bad, I thought you were saying that a brute fact can be construed as an effect, just not as an intelligible effect.

But then the issue arises of what it means to say a brute fact is intelligible qua cause. My knowing that A is a brute fact and A causes B might lend some intelligibility to B, but it seems to me a mistake to suggest that A is therefore intelligible under some description. (Knowing that a brute fact causes something is extrinsic to the intelligiblity of the brute fact itself.) I have added something to my knowledge of B, but A is still a brute fact.

On top of that, it is a stretch (as I think the IOU analogy shows) to say that B is thereby made intelligible. To know that B rests on something unintelligible seems to suggest that my knowledge of A qua cause is descriptive rather than explanatory.

Greg said...

@Arthur
One thing's for sure, whatever I eventually decide about Thomism, it'll be based on actually trying to come to grips with it. Guys like Parsons aren't going to help with that.

I agree. Parsons has said that he finds the arguments of Thomists gratuitous. He also has said that he agrees that it's unfortunate that many contemporary philosophers of religion have not seriously engaged with its arguments. He also seems to think that the philosophy of religion he is familiar with, which concedes a lot of his premises (as he is at pains to point out), is a "fraud" (in whatever way he has now qualified that statement).

It seems like he is quite ripe to dive into a tradition he is unfamiliar with and try to take it seriously. But instead he just, as you point out, asks a bunch of questions like, "What does this term even mean?"

If he's genuinely disillusioned with theistic personalism, if he acknowledges that he is not aware of arguments against the major tenets of classical theism, if he admits that contemporary philosophers of religion have not sufficiently addressed those arguments--then why not attempt to engage rather than request that Feser explain its basic tenets in short blog posts?

DavidM said...

@David T:

"the ability to dismiss Thomistic philosophy without understanding it is a feature, not a bug, of modern philosophy according to its adherents."

...well, yes, except not actually "according to its adherents," surely? (And you mean "liability," not "ability.")

Lamont said...

@ Kirill

Only a hardcore materialist would claim that there is no distinction between matter and energy. Energy by its very nature moves at the speed of light, matter does not. Matter by its very nature has gravitational mass, energy does not. Therefore materialism is false. The first premise in my argument is sound.

David T said...

Modern philosophers want a way to dismiss classical philosophy without taking the time to understand it... because they think that time is wasted and would be better spent on more productive philosohpical endeavors. So, yes, they want the ability to quickly write-off Scholastic philosophy. Their worst nightmare is to get bogged down in an endless discussion of metaphysical minutiae that leads nowhere but sucks all their time.

This attitude is, in my opinion, constitutive of modern philosophy. And of course I think it is seriously misguided. But if we want to understand thinkers like Parsons, we need to understand why he doesn't take the time to delve into Thomism. My point is that he does this for principled (but in my view misguided) reasons and not just because he's lazy or bad intentioned.

monk68 said...

Charles,

Thanks. That's what I discovered as well. Perhpas someday we'll get the CP in English.

-Pax

Bill said...

My point is that he does this for principled (but in my view misguided) reasons and not just because he's lazy or bad intentioned.

I must completely disagree with this assessment. Dismissing a view one does not understand is not only misguided, it is dishonest. If I know that I do not understand a concept, I have no legitimate basis for dismissing it.

The best thing that Parsons can do is to simply say that he doesn't know whether classical philosophy answers his strongest objections to theism. If I say, "If you like your health plan, you can keep your health plan," when I admit that I have no clue whether you'd be able to keep it, I'm being dishonest.

DavidM said...

Parsons certainly had a few days there where he behaved in a way that was shamelessly lazy and bad-intentioned. But the guy may well be quite industrious and well-intentioned most of the time. He just seems to be a lousy philosopher.

And no, you can't have principled reasons for being a lousy philosopher - and anyone who stubbornly pretends to know what he in fact doesn't know is a lousy philosopher. Descartes sure as hell wouldn't be impressed by some twit claiming he had no familiarity with classical metaphysics but was justified in simply dismissing it as ill-concordant with his, like, intuitions or whatever about what the, like, 'important' stuff to think about was. What a caricature!

Anonymous said...

Lamont

Wouldn't energy itself be considered "Matter" in the context of Aristotle, even if not considered such by modern physics? Even if considered apart from a specifying quark?

I guess what I am getting at is energy is something with an essence. Right? If we can understand it, then it has form. And that form is specifying some thing.

Hopefully this makes sense.

Cheers,
Daniel

David T said...

Descartes sure as hell wouldn't be impressed by some twit claiming he had no familiarity with classical metaphysics but was justified in simply dismissing it as ill-concordant...

I'm not going to defend Parsons, but you give Descartes too much credit. He wrote off classical metaphysics as a young man after getting some passing familiarity with it in school…

"I will say nothing of philosophy except that it has been studied for many centuries by the most outstanding minds without having produced anything which is not in dispute and consequently doubtful and uncertain." Discourse on Method, First Part.

Not exactly a balanced or mature appraisal of classical metaphysics. The point is that Parsons dismissal of classical metaphysics isn't unusual, but is foundational to modern philosophy.

Christian said...

Hey Dr. Feser,

I was wondering if we could get your thoughts on William Lane Craig's recent comments about Thomistic metaphysics and the demonstrability of God's existence. He made these remarks in a q&a session during his debate with Sean Carroll. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXdYtAwH33k The relevant question and comments run from about the one hour and thirty one minute mark to the one hour and thirty eight minute mark. It seems to me that Craig completely confuses the distinction between metaphysical demonstration on the one hand and scientific/mathematical demonstration on the other. It also seems at least from these remarks that he's implicitly beholden to the prevailing mechanistic metaphysics of the moderns. It's hard to see how he could square all this with his views about God and His nature.

Lamont said...

@Anonymous-Daniel

Aristotle agrees with Plato that Form is ontological prior to Matter. Form is the source of actuality, it is what makes things exist and be what they are. Matter is the source of potency and of change. If matter is a wave-packet and a wave is a Form, then Form makes matter to be what it is at the most fundamental level. It follows that for Aristotle, energy is Form not Matter. Energy then is the source of actuality and of efficient causality. Energy seems illusive because we can only measure it by measuring the changes it produces in matter. But it is energy that is fully actual and in that sense it is more real than the matter which it forms and changes.

Gyan said...

Parson writes that
"Let’s suppose that the Holy Grail of physics is found and a satisfactory TOE is one day established. We will then have some set of ultimate facts for which no deeper explanation exists, and this is precisely what we have hoped all along to find."

Now Fr Jaki had argued that TOE is a delusion that physicists are fond of.
Suppose there is a TOE candidate but how sure you can be that the next instant the universe is not going to spring a surprise on you?

Also, TOE suffers from implications of Goedel's Theorem. That was Fr Jaki's point. Even if there is a TOE, one can not be sure that it is the one.

Regarding the equivalence of God or Universe as the ultimate Fact, may I suggest that the Argument from reason could be effective here. This argument shows that naturalism is not self-justifying and that intellect is something immaterial. Thus, universe as understood in the physical sense is not all that there is.

יאיר רזק said...

I realize that word count is a limiting, but I wanted to bemoan the fact that I found about half of Feser's post too condensed to follow.

I found the argument raised to defend the PSR too abridged - why "if PSR is false, then we can have no justification for supposing that any of this is really the case" (indeed, what is a "Scholastic" PSR?), and even if this is so, why is this a problem (rather than, e.g. a Transcendent argument in favor of adopting these beliefs, rather than the more demanding PSR)?

Similarly, Feser tells us that description of self-explanation "are not at all obscure", but doesn't actually show us this. He doesn't provide a specific account and demonstrates that it isn't obscure.

I realize space constraints are significant, and I am sure the recent book goes into greater detail. I'm just frustrated in that real answers are lacking here.

The topic Feser does seem to cover well is explanation. Here, I deny that a Humean explanation of the tides based on the - description! - that water is attracted to the moon constitutes "giving up of the possibility of explanation". Rather, Humeans are giving up on metaphysical (as opposed to merely descriptive) explanations. Things simply are the way they are physically, and we describe them as being "explanations". I would suggest that this metaphysical austerity is the motivation for a theorist of laws of nature to accept this position.

Yair

Anonymous said...

Hi Lamont,

Would you equate energy with actuality and with esse as Aquinas conceived it? If yes, then I'm not sure about that this would be right. Would this be the same energy that would actualize immaterial spirits like human intellects and angels?

Cheers,
Daniel

Anonymous said...

Is Craig's recent debate with Carroll worth watching? Carroll seems to be more calm, knowledgeable, and level-headed than Krauss, so I would think he could give Craig trouble on issues of cosmology.

Arthur said...

So the whole of philosophy since Descartes has been one long exercise in not-understanding what Thomists have to say?

It's disturbing how much sense that makes.

bitvast said...

It's disturbing how much sense that makes.

Agreed. But I wonder whether modern science would have evolved as it did if the scholastics had held sway?

They certainly neglected inductive logic.

Scott said...

@Yair:

"I found the argument raised to defend the PSR too abridged - why 'if PSR is false, then we can have no justification for supposing that any of this is really the case'[?]"

Because without PSR, we couldn't be sure that we had really arrived at any believe for the reasons we thought we had.

"[I]ndeed, what is a 'Scholastic' PSR?"

That everything has a sufficient reason for its being. More formally: Everything which is, to the extent to which it is, possesses a sufficient reason for its being so that it is capable of explaining itself to the intellect.

"[E]ven if this is so, why is this a problem[?]"

See above.

"Similarly, Feser tells us that description of self-explanation 'are not at all obscure', but doesn't actually show us this. He doesn't provide a specific account and demonstrates that it isn't obscure."

His point is that self-explanatoriness is not described in ad hoc terms invented for the occasion and with meanings that are themselves obscure. He specifically mentions three examples: we need potency and actuality in order to account for change; we need to distinguish between existence and essence in order to account for the fact that we can know (say) what a unicorn is without knowing that any unicorns exist; we can distinguish between simple and composite beings. In none of these cases were the concepts in question coined specifically in order to deal with theological questions, and in none of them are they "obscure" when understood in their contexts. But in each case they do happen to tell us something about what must be true of a self-explanatory being (that it must be purely actual, that its essence must be identical to its existence, and that it must be simple). Call me easily satisfied, but I think that covers the point sufficiently.

"I deny that a Humean explanation of the tides based on the - description! - that water is attracted to the moon constitutes 'giving up of the possibility of explanation'."

And I deny that that's a Humean explanation at all, at least in the sense in which the term is usually used. We don't observe "water being attracted to the moon," so we can't very well observe that tides are regularly accompanied by it.

I also deny that the "description" you give actually constitutes the explanation. The explanation is something more along the lines of The gravitational attraction of water to the moon [that's your "description"] makes large bodies of water like the oceans bulge in certain mathematically describable ways. And even that much is only a partial explanation, accepted as such on credit, and losing its explanatory force if water's attraction to the moon turns out to be merely a "brute fact."

"Things simply are the way they are physically, and we describe them as being 'explanations'."

I suppose you can use words however you please, but—to borrow and adapt an illustration from Abraham Lincoln—a dog with no legs doesn't become a one-legged dog just because you decide to call a tail a leg.

Scott said...

Of course "at any believe" should be "at any belief."

Jinzang said...

"Rather, Humeans are giving up on metaphysical (as opposed to merely descriptive) explanations. Things simply are the way they are physically, and we describe them as being 'explanations'"

Consider a flag pole and its shadow. The height of the flag pole explains the length of the shadow, but the length of the shadow allows you to calculate, but does not explain, the height of the flag pole. There's an asymmetry in causal explanations and they cannot be identified with correlations, which are symmetric.

יאיר רזק said...

@ Scott:

Thanks a lot for your reply.

"without PSR, we couldn't be sure that we had really arrived at any believe for the reasons we thought we had."

Why? The negation of "All things have sufficient reason for being" [in Aristotelian logic] is "Some things don't have sufficient reason for being". This is not at all "This thing does not have this specific reason for being" (as in "our belief in X is justified by the valid logical deduction Y" or so on). I fail to connect the dots.

"Everything which is, to the extent to which it is, possesses a sufficient reason for its being so that it is capable of explaining itself to the intellect."

*scratches head* What is "the extent to which it is"? Isn't something either is, or is not?

In what sense is the "being so" intended here? Is it for existing as such, or for existing in a particular state? If the latter (given e.g. the broken window example in your link), doesn't this imply a commitment to determinism (which if I remember correctly Feser denies)? Are you sure this is what Feser is referring to?

In what sense is the reason "sufficient"? I can understand sufficiency in the statistical sense. But I get the feeling that you're intending something far deeper, akin to the logical sense. I fail to see how something like a logical reason for some thing being (or being in a particular state) is possible. As Hume noted, not existing or existing otherwise is always a logical possibility.

"See above."

My question was why can't we assume the things the negation of the PSR supposedly denies us, such as the reliability of our logical faculties, rather than the PSR itself?

"His point is that self-explanatoriness is not described in ad hoc terms invented for the occasion and with meanings that are themselves obscure [...] none of them are they "obscure" when understood in their contexts"

I grant that Feser showed that the concepts are not ad hoc, and perhaps these concepts are not obscure in their contexts. It does not follow that the process of self-explanation is therefore not obscure, and I'm afraid to me it still is.

As an example: In trying to parse out your explanation, I resorted to familiar ground (for me) - quantum physics. I can understand how someone would say that a quantum system's basis (its repertoire of states) is its potential, and that its actual state is its actuality. Its essence would then be its Hamiltonian (including interaction terms), which describes how the state will change in different circumstances. A system will be complex if its Hamiltonian is composed of adding together subsystems.

All these things are rather well defined, not "obscure". But what does a system being "purely actual" mean? We might consider a system with just one quantum state, so it cannot change state. But it still has a trivial basis, and hence still has a "potential" by our definition above. It remains completely obscure how a quantum system can have no basis (no potential) yet have an actual state (have actuality).

(Note that this structure may "explain" why the state of the system remains as it is, but this is hardly the same as explaining why such a system is instantiated in the first place, so I think explaining being simply does not follow from the division into potentiality and actuality.)

Similarly I can make no sense of the system's essence being identical to its existence. Its essence is its Hamiltonian, its existence is its actual state (the actuality of its states in the world). These are just two different things, they cannot be identical. Even though they are not obscure, the idea that essence is identical to existence in this context is obscure.

Finally, being simple here may not be obscure but how this relates to self-explanation is.

יאיר רזק said...

@ Scott:

"We don't observe "water being attracted to the moon," so we can't very well observe that tides are regularly accompanied by it."

I think you're caricaturizing the Humean view. We certainly do infer that everything is gravitationally attracted to everything else, in the Newtonian sense of force component (in this Newtonian level of explanation), and such regularities are within the Humean purview.

"The gravitational attraction of water to the moon [that's your "description"] makes large bodies of water like the oceans bulge in certain mathematically describable ways."

How can the attraction *make* the water do anything? The attraction *is* part of the dynamics of the water, it isn't something external nor does it have powers to determine reality.

The explanation consists of cashing out what "attracted to the moon" means in this context, and showing that it implies tides. The existence of the attraction is what carries the explanatory weight in explaining the existence of the tides.

"losing its explanatory force if water's attraction to the moon turns out to be merely a "brute fact."

Not at all. Even if the water's attraction to the moon is a brute fact, the actual existence of such a force component would still imply the actual movement corresponding to tides.

יאיר רזק said...

@ Jinzang:

You raise a strong point against the Humean account. I respectfully ask your forgiveness, but I won't get into this topic at this time, due to my time constraints.

Yair

Anonymous said...

As I learned it years ago, matter is pure potentiality. Energy is a specific sort of act. Aristotle himself invented the word "en-erg-eia" by combining being (en) and work/force (erg). Energy is act which brings a potential into being. Among beings' internal energies are the operations which activate powers (potentialities).

If I remember correctly the article about his invention of the word was by someone named Barrett, and it appeared in the Harvard Philological Review somewhere around 1960, give or take about 5 years on either side. (Hope that isn't a wild goose-chase for someone.)

Scott said...

@Yair:

I'll have to pick and choose what to respond to here so that the topics don't get out of hand and I don't run out of time.

"Isn't something either is, or is not?"

A full reply to this question would require me to present Aristotle's account of change. The short (and somewhat misleading) answer is No. You can find longer answers all over this site or by Googling "Aristotle Parmenides".

"I think you're caricaturizing the Humean view."

Not at all; I simply took it that you were using "Humean causation" with what I think is still its most common meaning (constant conjunction). If that's not what you had in mind, okay.

"How can the attraction *make* the water do anything? The attraction *is* part of the dynamics of the water, it isn't something external nor does it have powers to determine reality."

The state of affairs This molecule of water is attracted by the moon is not the same state of affairs as The overall shape of this ocean is a certain mathematically describable bulge. A whole lot of states of affairs like the former "make" the latter be the case, in what I take to be an unobjectionable sense of "make" however we decide to articulate or elucidate it.

"The explanation consists of cashing out what 'attracted to the moon' means in this context, and showing that it implies tides. The existence of the attraction is what carries the explanatory weight in explaining the existence of the tides."

In saying that "attracted to the moon" implies tides, you're granting the point I made just above while expressing it in different language. The implication doesn't run the other way, and that fact is closely related to Jinzang's point.

"Even if the water's attraction to the moon is a brute fact, the actual existence of such a force component would still imply the actual movement corresponding to tides."

But not, I think, without any reduction of explanatory force.

Prince Randoms said...

Random Question, but are there any Continental Thomists?

Brandon said...

Prince Randoms,

Quite a few; Lublin Thomism, of whom Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) was the most famous proponent, would be one example: the contemporary philosophy it primarily interacts with is the phenomenological, rather than the analytic, tradition.

Gene Callahan said...

I don't think Yair actually knows his Hume!

Anonymous said...

Parson's has a response to this post up.

Scott said...

So he does. It's here.

Robert Oerter said...

To change the example, consider: "The cause of the forest fire was the lightning that hit that tree."

Suppose the lightning was a brute fact (a bolt out of a clear blue sky, as it were). How does its brute-fact-ness in any way decrease its explanatory power? It's still the cause of the forest fire, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Robert,

The explanatory power of the brute fact is not diminished by the fact that it is a brute fact; rather, the argument is that the brute fact itself cannot be explained (the explanation OF the brute fact is diminished, and by diminished I mean destroyed). To use your example, this would be to say that the lightning bolt really did just come "out of the blue." Many people would not find such an explanation of the lightning to be satisfying (as it is not an explanation at all),and they would be right to look further into the issue.

Robert Oerter said...

Feser wrote:

"The “bruteness” is not confined to the bottom level but exists all the way up and down the series."

This would imply that if the lightning is just brute fact, then so is the fire brute fact. But that doesn't seem true at all: if I have an explanation for the fire (namely, the lightning bolt), then it is NOT a brute fact.

Greg said...

To add to that, consider a chain of dominoes.

In case 1, domino 1 is pushed, and results in domino n falling over.

In case 2, domino n-1's falling is a brute fact, which causes domino n to fall over.

If we admit that case 2 is intelligible, then in case 1, we have a sufficient explanation of domino n's falling by referring to domino n-1's falling (which in case 1 is not brutally factual). That renders domino 1's falling inessential to an explanation of domino n. But clearly domino 1's falling is essential to an explanation of the falling of domino n.

The same is happening with the lightning bolt. I don't think anyone would deny that the proximate cause of A give us some understanding of A. But that seems to rely on the supposition that A's proximate cause is not brutally factual.

Robert Oerter said...

A brute fact is, by definition, a fact that doesn't have an explanation. So to accept that the fire has an explanation is to accept that it is not a brute fact. So are you agreeing that Feser is wrong?

Greg said...

Regarding the fire, I said, "I don't think anyone would deny that the proximate cause of A give us some understanding of A. But that seems to rely on the supposition that A's proximate cause is not brutally factual." If the proximate cause of A is brute, I think we only equivocally have an "explanation." The "understanding" is knowledge of a cause.

Scott said...

@Robert Oerter:

"How does its brute-fact-ness in any way decrease its explanatory power? It's still the cause of the forest fire, isn't it?"

Sure, but that alone doesn't suffice to make it an explanation. We accept it as a partial explanation on the assumption that it isn't "turtles all the way down." If it is, or if we bottom out in an unsupported turtle, then the explanation fails.

That doesn't mean the lightning didn't cause the fire; of course it did. but it does mean (and this is the key point; we don't have to phrase it in terms of explanations) that the occurrence of the fire is not a fully intelligible event.

@Greg:

"I don't think anyone would deny that the proximate cause of A give us some understanding of A. But that seems to rely on the supposition that A's proximate cause is not brutally factual."

Exactly. As I put it earlier, it's a partial explanation, accepted as such on credit.

Greg said...

Here is perhaps another way to think of things.

Suppose r causes s. r&s conjoins s and part of what would have to constitute an explanation of s, but r&s is not necessarily a complete account of s (ie. if r is the falling of domino n-1, and s is the falling of domino n).

If p is a brute fact, and p causes q, is p&q a brute fact? I don't think we could deny that it is; part of the conjunction is inexplicable, so there is no other fact which could explain p&q.

In the brute fact case, p is supposed to be a complete explanation of q (there is nothing else to explain it). But by conjoining q with p, the proposition that is supposed to explain q, we are supposed to have a complete account of q. But if p&q is brutally factual, this cannot be correct.

David Ezemba said...

Robert

I agree with Scott and Greg and Anonymous, but wanted to add:

If [a] brute fact is, by definition, a fact that doesn’t have an explanation[,] then when you suppose some thing to be a brute fact, you are denying the thing is what it is.

The principle of sufficient reason is stated most generally as “Everything that is has its reason for being in itself, if of itself it exists; in something else, if of itself it does not exist.”

But the generality is understood in analogically different senses. In one sense, to say that some thing was lightning is to say that the characteristics of that thing had their reason for being (that way) in the nature (or essence) of lightning. To deny this just is to deny that the thing was lightning. And yet you must deny this to assert a brute fact.

So in supposing the lightning was a brute fact your example becomes: “The cause of the forest fire was the lightning that wasn’t lightning that hit that tree.” I’m not even sure if the fire is a brute fact because the lightning was a brute fact, but the explanatory power of that statement is obviously decreased.

David T said...

Scott,

I'm not sure what to think here, but it seems to me that allowing brute facts anywhere at all threatens to make all explanations unintelligible, even partial ones.

Talking about bruteness is as hard as talking about nothing. It's very difficult to talk about nothing without inadvertently talking about something. Similarly, it's difficult to talk about "brute facts" without inadvertently ascribing some level of intelligibility to them.

For the sake of argument, let's admit the possibility of brute facts so we can say the origin of the universe is a brute fact. Now consider the lightning that we say starts the fire. Hume must be taken seriously here. What we experience is only the lightning and then the fire; we have no direct experience of a causal relationship between the two - that is inferred. But how do we make this inference given the possibility that the lightning, the fire, and their relationship might some or all be brute facts? Because we know brute facts don't work that way? Then we know something about brute facts after all - they are intelligible to the extent that we can rule them out in certain situations. Something only explains something else if that first something stands in need of an explanation in the first place - and for that you need the PSR.

Kant saw this problem and solved it by moving the PSR from external reality to the structure of the human mind. Our causal inferences are really -says Kant - inferences about the structure our minds put on the blooming, buzzing confusion. But for those who want science to say something about real, objective causes, it seems to me you can't allow unintelligibility - bruteness - anywhere or you don't even get partial explanations - just the mirage of them.

Scott said...

@David T:

"[I]t seems to me that allowing brute facts anywhere at all threatens to make all explanations unintelligible, even partial ones."

I agree. That's why I say we accept partial explanations only on credit: we expect that in principle they can be cashed out in explanations of the further facts on which they're based. If they can't, then they turn out not to be explanations after all.

Alec Beattie said...

This is somewhat off-topic, but in TLS Prof. Feser emphasises that the arguments he puts forward aren’t some kind of inference to the best explanation or induction, but rather they are philosophical demonstrations.

What if it turns out that anthropological data indicates a gradual evolution of the faculties which are allegedly enabled by the possession of the soul, rather than a discrete event at a particular point in history?

It seems to me that this is a case where there really is an intersection between the scientific evidence and philosophical demonstrations.

Doesn’t the potential falsification of the view by archaeological evidence show that there are at least some intersections between inductive scientific reasoning and deductive philosophical demonstration? (thus rendering metaphysics vulnerable to Rosenberg’s Inexorable March of Science)

Greg said...

What if it turns out that anthropological data indicates a gradual evolution of the faculties which are allegedly enabled by the possession of the soul, rather than a discrete event at a particular point in history?

It is the intellective faculty that requires the human immaterial soul, particularly with regard to its capacity for determinate abstract thought and extraction of universals. I do not think that those faculties could be "partially" present; such "judgmental understandings" are determinate and could not be determinate only to a limited degree (then they would not be determinate).

As such, if Feser's understanding of the faculties of the soul could be falsified by data revealing a gradual accrual of such faculties, it would be a problem with the nature of the faculties, and should in principle be addressable today regardless of future scientific discoveries.

Bob said...

@Scott

That's why I say we accept partial explanations only on credit: we expect that in principle they can be cashed out in explanations of the further facts on which they're based. If they can't, then they turn out not to be explanations after all.

To your mind, what is the practical difference between no possible explanation (a brute fact, if you will) and an incorrect explanation?

Robert Oerter said...

This is starting to become an argument about the definition of "explanation." You guys are saying that if an explanation is only partial, then it isn't an explanation at all.

But this is not normally the way explanations work. If I say the flying rock was the cause of the window breaking, I don't additionally need to explain why the rock was flying in order to claim I have an explanation of the window breaking. It doesn't matter if the rock was thrown by my little brother or tossed up by the wheel of a truck: the fact remains that the flying rock was the cause of the broken window.

If you insist that no explanation is really an explanation unless it is a complete explanation, then I would say we never have any explanations at all, because we never have complete explanations.

If that's what Feser means by an explanation inheriting the brute-fact-ness at the lowest level, then it's really a silly and trivial point: akin to the objection that "Naturalism doesn't work because scientists don't know everything."

Alan said...

Robert, following your analogy, if you had only one window, and it was broken by a rock and you never plan to repair it, then further explanations are unnecessary. As that situation is unlikely, it would be in your interest to understand more about your window being broken. While Feser examines the extreme case, anything you don’t know has implications up and down the chain of everything you think you know. Just as Galileo turned cosmology on its head and Einstein physics. You simply cannot know how bad your assumptions (brute facts) until they are revealed.

David T said...

Dr. Oerter,

I'm not with the others in saying partial explanations don't work unless you have a complete explanation.

My problem is that I don't see how you constrain "brute facts" to do the job you want with respect to the origin of the universe without it undermining other facts.

For instance, we come upon a window with a hole in it and shattered glass on the ground. We conclude something broke the glass. But why can't the shattered glass just be a brute fact? Because we know glass just doesn't break on it's own, which is another way of saying we know enough about glass to exclude brute facts with respect to them? But given that they are by nature unintelligible, how can we say one way or the other how brute facts behave with respect to anything? Even if we see a ball fly and glass subsequently break, I don't see how we intelligibly rule out a mere coincidence of brute facts since such facts are, well, unintelligible. (This was Hume's point, I believe).

It seems like we want to have it both ways: We want to introduce the brute fact of the universe as a way to silence metaphysical speculation about it, but to simultaneously quarantine "bruteness" so it doesn't affect our ability to make genuine causal inferences within the universe. But then we've got to know something about "bruteness" to know it will only affect the existence of the universe and not its internal workings, which can only be done to the extent that bruteness is intelligible, which is a contradiction.

Greg said...

But this is not normally the way explanations work. If I say the flying rock was the cause of the window breaking, I don't additionally need to explain why the rock was flying in order to claim I have an explanation of the window breaking. It doesn't matter if the rock was thrown by my little brother or tossed up by the wheel of a truck: the fact remains that the flying rock was the cause of the broken window.

If you insist that no explanation is really an explanation unless it is a complete explanation, then I would say we never have any explanations at all, because we never have complete explanations.


I am not insisting that all explanations need to be complete. I am saying that if an explanans is a brute fact, than the explanandum is brute as well.

If p genuinely renders q intelligible, then it does not make sense to say that p&q should be unintelligible. But if p is a brute fact which explains q, then p&q is a brute fact. You might have a causal description of q now; no one denies that. The problem is not that your explanation is incomplete, but that it does not render the explanandum intelligible.

Scott said...

@Robert Oerter:

As I said in passing above, we don't need to make the point in terms of "explanation" at all. What's at issue here is intelligibility.

Ed has written about this before, and you'll find the most relevant bit in the discussion of option D.

If we know that a fire was caused by lightning, do we know more about the fire than we did otherwise? Sure. And if you want to call that a partial explanation, that's fine; no one (that I know of) is saying that partial explanations don't count as explanations in any sense.

However, I agree with Greg that the word is equivocal, and that if the lightning is a brute fact, we don't have an "explanation" in the sense required for an intelligible universe. (And really, it's not that we don't have one, it's that there isn't one.)

Scott said...

I should also add that, as David T. said earlier, the existence of brute facts threatens even partial explanations: we may not be justified in thinking the lightning did cause the fire.

Moreover, as I take Ed to be arguing in the piece to which I linked, if the lightning itself were just an unintelligible brute fact, then it couldn't serve as an explanation for fire: the lightning's tendency to produce fire would itself be just a brute fact.

So, to summarize my point more clearly, it's not that we can't have partial explanations in any sense or that only a full explanation counts as an explanation at all; it's that brute facts render explanations moot and even partial explanations must therefore assume that full explanations are in principle possible (i.e., that the world is intelligible).

David T said...

Another puzzling question is: If we are going to start with a brute fact (or facts), which one(s) do we start with? Can we measure brute facts against each other, a task that seems problematic as it involves the intelligible comparison of the uninintelligible?

Kant started with the brute fact of human consciousness, the case for which is that everything else, including our ideas about the universe, are conditioned by consciousness. That seems a more principled basis for "bruteness" (if there is such a thing), than taking the universe as a brute fact because the universe doesn't, or perhaps can't, have an explanation in terms of the naturalistic worldview.

It's interesting that besides the metaphysical origin of the universe, the other major stumbling block for the naturalistic view is turning out to be human consciousness - just the thing Kant said was the real brute fact. The latter threatens to re-emerge as a "brute fact" as the philosophical arguments of Nagel, et. al., build up the case that it is not explainable in principle on naturalistic principles as currently understood. I wonder if someday Kant's view may again predominate as philosophers decide its better to only have one brute fact than several.

DavidM said...

Robert Oerter wrote: "If you insist that no explanation is really an explanation unless it is a complete explanation, then I would say we never have any explanations at all, because we never have complete explanations."

I think the point here is really that no 'explanation' is really an explanation unless it is a true explanation. Of course partial explanations are genuinely explanatory, but it makes a great deal of difference whether or not they are true. You can of course just give up on truth and declare yourself satisfied with any kind of explanation, regardless of truth - or with only one particular kind of explanation (say, a 'naturalistic' or 'scientific' one), again, regardless of truth. But if you believe that the lightning is not just an explanation of the fire, but that it is a true explanation of the fire, then it seems you must have some grounds for believing that the processes of belief formation which you rely upon (whatever they might be) are truth-conducive. And if you don't accept the requirement of 'sufficient reason' as a principle (underlying all your belief formation), then it seems that you owe the rest of us (who do) some explanation of the ad hoc (unprincipled) way in which you do (at least some of the time, when it suits you) invoke the requirement of SR.

DavidM said...

Where did Kant say that human consciousness is a 'brute fact'?

David T said...

DavidM,

He never used those exact words, but that is effectively what he means in the Critique of Pure Reason. We must interpret the world in the structural terms that our consciousness imposes on it, but how and why those conscious structures are the way they are is not something we can ever deterimine, because we can never step outside them to examine them. All we can do is determine, through pure reason, what they are but never why they are.

Scott said...

@The Davids:

I can't cite chapter and verse either, but David T is giving a pretty standard reading of Kant and it's not hard to find commentators who do use that exact phrase.

DavidM said...

The reading of Kant as endorsing a 'brute fact' view of 'human consciousness' sounds suspiciously like a psychologistic (mis-)reading of the man.

Matt Sheean said...

If we take Hume seriously, shouldn't we always put the word cause in scare quotes, like "cause". I'm tagging along with David T here, I think. The Humean view is that A's are always followed by B's, or if that there was an A there would have been a B. It's a way of translating the old causal descriptions into more modest statements of fact. But Hume's no dummy, so I'm wondering why Oerter thinks that the story about the lightning and the fire thinks that it's more than just a story. Where, pray tell, do these spooky things called causes (without scare quotes) and explanations and reasons come from?

Matt Sheean said...

oops...

"The Humean view is that A's are always followed by B's, or if that there was an A there would have been a B. It's a way of translating the old causal descriptions into more modest statements of fact."

the above statement is really meant to be more of a question.

and there are one too many uses of the word "thinks" in the second to last sentence of my previous post.

Robert Oerter said...

With regard to intelligibility, Feser writes this:

"If it is the case that A’s are always in fact followed by B’s and that a B would have been present had an A been present, then to call this a “law” merely re-describes this fact, rather than making it intelligible."

This again seems to miss the point of an explanation. Suppose I notice that whenever I eat pizza I get heartburn. (Regularity) Now, this could be a brute fact, or it could have some deeper explanation. But whether or not the regularity itself has an explanation, it remains true that the regularity explains why I am having heartburn right now: namely, because I ate pizza for lunch. Feser seems to be confusing the explanation of this particular event (my current heartburn) with the explanation of the regularity itself.

Again, his point only seems to make sense if you assume no explanation is a "real" explanation unless it is a complete explanation. But I see no reason to assume this is true: I am satisfied that I have explained this case of heartburn with the regularity in question, even if I have no understanding of the physiological processes that explain WHY I get heartburn every time I eat pizza.

And if he thinks that only complete explanations are real explanations, he's in just as much trouble as the naturalist. What, for example, is the theist's explanation of the mass of the Higgs boson?

Scott said...

@Robert Oerter:

"[T]he regularity explains why I am having heartburn right now: namely, because I ate pizza for lunch."

I wouldn't regard that as an explanation at all. You don't have heartburn after eating pizza because you regularly have heartburn after eating pizza; you just have heartburn after eating pizza.

Strictly speaking, I'm not even convinced that you can know the generalization to be true without already taking this specific case into account anyway. The fact that you have heartburn after eating pizza in this instance is nothing more than confirming evidence that the regularity occurs; you can't turn around afterward and say that the regularity itself therefore "explains" this special case.

"And if he thinks that only complete explanations are real explanations . . . "

Some of us have addressed this misunderstanding in previous posts.

DavidM said...

Scott wrote: "Some of us have addressed this misunderstanding in previous posts."

This is true.

Matt Sheean said...

"I am satisfied that I have explained this case of heartburn with the regularity in question, even if I have no understanding of the physiological processes that explain WHY I get heartburn every time I eat pizza."

Here is an explanation (1) translated into a loose list of facts (2)

1. Downtown is a theater that my wife and I like to go to because the cost of admission is cheaper and we do not have a high income.

2. Regularly, Matt and his wife attend the theater downtown. The theater costs less than other theaters. Matt is an artist. Matt's income is variable.

or, put another way:

1. Every time I take my daughter for a walk, we see a passenger jet.

2. I am satisfied that the sight of passenger jets is because I take my daughter for walks.


I think it is fairly clear that if you are ignorant of the actual causes of your heartburn, you don't simply mean to refer to a regularity when you say "I ate pizza" but rather "some aspects of the pizza and my own makeup which I do not understand"

Brandon said...

the regularity explains why I am having heartburn right now: namely, because I ate pizza for lunch.

This is indistinguishable from the usual 'explanations' for lucky and unlucky practices. In reality, assuming that your attitude toward pizza isn't exactly the same as someone's attitude toward jinxes, you have to be holding that the regularity in question is the right kind of regularity; and typically the basis for that woud be that you already for independent reasons take pizza to be the sort of thing that is capable of causing heartburn. (This is one of the most fundamental issues with relying on regularity in this way; serious regularity theorists have to do considerable work to handle the problem even for simple cases. And this was recognized very early; one of the standard objections to Hume's account of explanation was that it's ridiculous to say that you can explain day by saying it always follows night, to take just one obvious example.)

Glenn said...

But whether or not the regularity itself has an explanation, it remains true that the regularity explains why I am having heartburn right now: namely, because I ate pizza for lunch.

Question 1: How many times need I have heartburn after eating pizza before I am on firm ground in saying that there exists a regularity of 'eat pizza, have heartburn'?

Answer 1: Since one time a regularity does not make, at least twice, i.e., two or more times. The actual number may be represented as R, with the understanding that R > 1.

Question 2: What explained why I had heartburn after eating pizza the first R-1 times?

Question 3: Why does the pre-R explanation fail to suffice once R is reached?

William Dunkirk said...

You can take the fact out of the brute fact, but you can't take the brute out of the brute fact.

William Dunkirk said...

What are these alleged brute facts? We know from science or natural history at least in part why the world is the way it is today or how the things we see developed or formed. The universe then is hardly a brute fact. So just what is?

Step2 said...

@Glenn
Q1: Until you have a reasonable degree of certainty that eating pizza is the cause. Preferably you will discover what specific things in the pizza are causing the heartburn: the dough, sauce, cheese or other toppings.
Q2: The explanation was the same; you just didn’t know what it was yet.
Q3: You were trying to determine the cause so all of the explanations were hypothetical until they were filtered out by testing.

יאיר רזק said...

@Scott:

"I'll have to pick and choose what to respond to here so that the topics don't get out of hand and I don't run out of time."

:) Always a problem. I will note that I continue to be baffled why denying the PSR amounts to denying the presuppositions of Reason, which you unfortunately did not address.

I'm frustrated that I can't seem to get the explanatory model I'm advocating across. Yes, "[t]he implication doesn't run the other way" - that's the point, explanation isn't a symmetrical relation! Yes, "[t]he fact that you have heartburn after eating pizza in this instance is nothing more than confirming evidence that the regularity occurs", but this is precisely who you can "turn around afterward and say that the regularity itself therefore "explains" this special case" - it's precisely this reversed relation that is how explanation works!

To turn back to the example of "bachelor" - the fact that bachelors are unmarried is explained by showing that analysis of the concept "bachelor" already contains within it the truth that bachelors are unmarried. In the same way, analysis of the fact that "water is attracted to the moon" already contains within it (through the invocation of what "attraction" means in Newtonian dynamics, what the "moon" is, and so on) the fact that there are "tides" (bulges described by certain mathematics and so on).

This is the "implication" that I spoke of. The tides are already contained in the general laws, under the specific circumstances. And it does not matter one whit whether the water's attraction is a brute fact or not; the implication will still be as strong. (Although we'll lack further explanations, explanations for the attraction itself.)

This is precisely the opposite direction to induction. We inductively come to believe all things are attracted to each other by examining the tides (and other phenomena), precisely because universal attraction explains the tides. Induction goes from the specific to the general, explanation from the general to the specific.

It seems so clear to me, I'm frustrated I can't seem to get the idea across. :(

Yair

donjindra said...

Does PSR have an expanation itself? If not, why isn't it yet another "brute fact?"

When I hear talk of change or act/potentiality, why shouldn't I consider that more rhetoric about "brute fact?"

What gives actuality its actuality? More "brute fact?"

David M said...

PSR ['the principle of sufficient reason,' remember?] is a rational principle - in other words, it is the opposite of a brute fact.

David M said...

@Yair:
"The tides are already contained in [implied by] the general laws, under the specific circumstances. And it does not matter one whit whether the water's attraction is a brute fact or not; the implication will still be as strong. (Although we'll lack further explanations, explanations for the attraction itself.)"

That sounds reasonable. But isn't the point that there is no reason to think that the water's attraction could actually be a (metaphysically) brute fact? "Gravity is a (metaphysically) brute fact" just means that gravity is something which in principle cannot be explained. How then do you explain the nature of the intellect and the nature of gravity such that gravity might actually be something which cannot in principle be explained? You have to give some story justifying this claim (the way Hume did), one that is coherent (the way Hume didn't).

David M said...

...or rather that last bit should read: "...(the way Hume's wasn't).

Scott said...

@Yair:

I think I understand your claim; it's essentially the same one Oerter makes when he says the lightning can still explain the fire even if the former is a "brute fact."

The problems with that view have already been briefly addressed earlier in this thread, and Ed addresses them in more detail in his reply to Oerter.

The point is that we're able to use gravitational attraction to "explain" tides only because we already understand enough about it to recognize that it isn't a "brute fact"—even epistemologically, let alone metaphysically. To put it the other way around, if it were really "brute," it wouldn't be intelligible enough to form part of an explanation.

While it's true that for practical purposes we can end our (epistemological) explanation at that point, the explanatory power is still dependent on the (metaphysical) existence of a full explanation that goes all the way to the self-explanatory being we call God. Our partial explanation is an explanation as far as it goes—if (and only if) we can trust that a full explanation exists even though we don't need it and possibly can't in principle ever get it.

Scott said...

(To get a bit more specific: when we know that water is gravitationally attracted to the moon, we know something about at least the formal and final causes of the water.)

Scott said...

Also:

"In the same way, analysis of the fact that 'water is attracted to the moon' already contains within it (through the invocation of what 'attraction' means in Newtonian dynamics, what the 'moon' is, and so on) the fact that there are 'tides' (bulges described by certain mathematics and so on)."

I wouldn't say "contains within it" here. There's certainly more to understanding why there are tides than just unpacking what we already mean by "water is attracted to the moon." And if you're not talking about strictly psychological or definitional containment, then a better word would be "entails."

יאיר רזק said...

@Scott:

"There's certainly more to understanding why there are tides than just unpacking what we already mean by "water is attracted to the moon." "

But no, there isn't! Well, not in the main. That's the core of what "understanding the tides" is, I believe.

"To put it the other way around, if it were really "brute," it wouldn't be intelligible enough to form part of an explanation."

See, this is why I find these conversations so frustrating - the Humean model of explanation is founded on the idea that the underlying regularity can be explicated enough (i.e. has a well defined form, in Aristotelian terms) to serve as a basis for explanation.

Again - the tides are contained in the general rules, given the specific circumstances. For this the rules have to be very well defined!

"the explanatory power is still dependent on the (metaphysical) existence of a full explanation that goes all the way to the self-explanatory being we call God."

The tides are already contained in the fact of universal attraction. A fuller explanation (whether it reaches God or just one more step) won't change that. The explanatory power lies in the fact of universal attraction, not in the explanation of universal attraction.

It may appear that I'm trying to convince you the Humean model of explanation is correct. This is not my intent. I'm trying merely to show how this model of explanation works, whether you agree with it or not. I'm striving, desperately, to convey the power of it. How by seeing, by truly comprehending that a certain pattern actually holds you also see that a certain phenomena actually holds. How, once you truly understand Newton's law of universal gravity, and you truly understand the derivation of the tides from it, you come to see that the tides exist, you come to understand them as they truly are, in the full richness of the exacting mathematical description.

It is a wondrous, comprehensive level of understanding. To my dismay, I apparently lack the words to convey its power.

Yair

David M said...

@Yair:
Seems like you're just missing Scott's point: Of course the covering law-mathematical description explanation is a wonderful and efficacious explanation (Scott can tell us if he thinks it's not) - but the further claim that this explanation is (or could be) ultimately characterized as a 'brute fact' is not!

יאיר רזק said...

@David M:

""Gravity is a (metaphysically) brute fact" just means that gravity is something which in principle cannot be explained. How then do you explain the nature of the intellect and the nature of gravity such that gravity might actually be something which cannot in principle be explained?"

I'm not sure I'm following you. How can I "explain the nature of gravity", regardless of whether it's a brute fact?

In this toy example where we consider (Newtonian) gravity to be a Humean brute fact, there is a cosmological fact that gravity is not a part of some greater regularity (such as Einstein's field equations, for example). This plain fact about the structure of nature leads the Humean to conclude that there would never be an explanation for gravity, we would always have to accept it as an axiom in our physics theories. It will never be scientifically explained since there is no greater regularity from which it can be derived, no more fundamental theory to which it is the effective theory.

This is the "nature of gravity" in this case. And the nature of the intellect, in rough terms, is statistical reasoning - accepting hypothesis to the degree that they statistically fit the data. This combination assures that gravity will and can never be rationally explained.

This toy example doesn't explain why gravity is like this [of course it isn't], nor why intellect is - or should be - like this. But it does demonstrate rather well, I feel, that there is no reason to think a similar state of affairs cannot hold for some underlying fundamental laws of nature, laws that would be brute, inexplicable, facts.

Yair

Glenn said...

Yair,

In reply to Scott's There's certainly more to understanding why there are tides than just unpacking what we already mean by "water is attracted to the moon," you reply with, But no, there isn't! Well, not in the main. That's the core of what "understanding the tides" is, I believe.

But then later say, "[O]nce you truly understand Newton's law of universal gravity, and you truly understand the derivation of the tides from it, you come to see that the tides exist, you come to understand them as they truly are, in the full richness of the exacting mathematical description.

If "water is attracted to the moon" suffices in the main, then isn't Newton's law of universal gravity irrelevant?

And if Newton's law of universal gravity is needed to truly understand the tides, then isn't "water is attracted to the moon" insufficient?

Scott said...

@Yair:

DavidM is correct; this isn't about appreciating the wondrousness of understanding how tides follow from Newton's Law of Gravitation.

In one sense that's even more wondrous than you say. As Glenn has observed, you aren't in fact saying that the tides follow from nothing more than the fact that a bit of water is attracted to the moon; I'd say putting together a non-tautological understanding of how tides work is far more amazing that putting together a tautological one.[*]

But in another sense it's ever so slightly less. You say this level of understanding is "comprehensive," but I think it's not. It's true that it's a great accomplishment to bring the operation of gravity under a universal rule, but it would be an even greater accomplishment to see also what it is in the nature of matter (for there must be something) that entails its conformity to this rule. That means understanding something further about the formal and final causes of matter, because for Aristotelians that's where the "rules" come from.

Perhaps that's what you mean when you say that "the Humean model of explanation is founded on the idea that the underlying regularity can be explicated enough (i.e. has a well defined form, in Aristotelian terms) to serve as a basis for explanation." But if so (and leaving aside any questions about whether this view is really "Humean"), you're mistaken in saying that the regularity alone has a well-defined "form" that suffices to ground an explanation. For the Aristotelian, that regularity simply describes or indicates something in the formal cause(s) of the substances whose behavior it's supposed to capture and summarize.

Even you characterize the mathematical rule as a "description." For you, though, the rule seems to hang in mid-air, so to speak, and to be capable of providing a basis for "explanations" even if it is itself a "brute fact" with no intelligible basis in the natures of the substances involved. We've already tried to explain why that can't be the case, and Ed's latest attempt is pretty thorough and detailed.

The bottom line is Ed's: A cause is intelligible as a cause only insofar as it is intelligible in itself. If you understand a supposed "brute fact" well enough to use it in an explanation, it is to that extent not "brute" after all.

----

[*] I'm not sure why you want to insist that the tides are "contained in" (rather than e.g. "entailed by") the fact that water is attracted to the moon.

(1) Surely such containment is not psychological. Someone could know that water is attracted to the moon without having any clue that there even were such phenomena as "tides," just as someone could observe that a certain triangular was equilateral without also noticing that it was equiangular.

(2) Neither is it a matter of objective reference or meaning. "Whatever is colored is extended." Two books are, let's say, the same in shape but different in color. But if "being extended" were part of the meaning of "being colored," then they'd also be alike in color, which would be absurd.

(3) And if all you mean is that one fact/proposition implies or entails another, then why not say so? What does the misleading language of "containment" add here?

Scott said...

@Yair:

"In this toy example where we consider (Newtonian) gravity to be a Humean brute fact, there is a cosmological fact that gravity is not a part of some greater regularity (such as Einstein's field equations, for example). This plain fact about the structure of nature leads the Humean to conclude that there would never be an explanation for gravity, we would always have to accept it as an axiom in our physics theories. It will never be scientifically explained since there is no greater regularity from which it can be derived, no more fundamental theory to which it is the effective theory."

Here you are (or your hypothetical Humean is) quite explicitly assuming that regularities can be "explained" only by other, more general regularities. That is of course precisely the view that the Aristotelian rejects, and it's at just this point—where you both beg the question and ignore/misunderstand the arguments/explications already offered—that your disconnect is occurring.

For an Aristotelian, the regularity is to be explained with reference to the natures of the substances whose behavior it describes, as for example the "dormitive virtue" of opium is explained (at least in part) by its chemical affinity for certain sorts of neuroreceptor.

Until you understand that point, you'll continue to be frustrated by Aristotelians' apparent (and only apparent) fail to grasp the wondrousness of your own Humean account.

Scott said...

(Oops. In my final sentence that should be "failure to grasp.")

Mr. Green said...

יאיר רזק: See, this is why I find these conversations so frustrating - the Humean model of explanation is founded on the idea that the underlying regularity can be explicated enough (i.e. has a well defined form, in Aristotelian terms) to serve as a basis for explanation.
The tides are already contained in the fact of universal attraction.


Perhaps I'm missing something, but I don't follow the wondrousness of this example because it seems to contradict itself. "Attraction" is a final cause, so how did it get into a Humean model in the first place?

If we're driving down the road alongside each other, and our cars are slowly moving closer together, that's just a coincidence (one which I hope will be remedied before we smash into each other). There's no "attraction" between our cars, not even if Newton comes up with an elegant equation to describe the motion he observes. The "regularity" is not a teleological one. So it doesn't explain anything. As soon as something teleological like gravity enters the picture, it's an Aristotelean model of some sort.

Glenn said...

(Oh, just noticed that David M had already made the point I was getting at. Had I been fully current with all prior comments at the time, I either would not have posted my comment, or would have acknowledged that I was making the same basic point, albeit in a slight different way, already made by David M. Sorry.)

David M said...

@Yair:

Here's what most stood out to me in your remarks: "And the nature of the intellect, in rough terms, is statistical reasoning - accepting hypotheses to the degree that they statistically fit the data."

I'll admit that I'm simply incredulous to hear the nature of intellect so roughly described. Do you really want to make that claim? I'd say it's patently false.

donjindra said...

"PSR ['the principle of sufficient reason,' remember?] is a rational principle - in other words, it is the opposite of a brute fact."

Meaning it requires no explanation because there's none to be discovered? This looks like confirmation that it is a brute fact according to Feser's definition: "With a metaphysical brute fact, it’s not merely that we can’t discover any explanation, it’s that there isn‘t one there to be discovered."

dguller said...

Donjindra:

First, to ask for a reason for the PSR is to presuppose the PSR.

Second, to affirm that there is no reason for the PSR does not turn it into a brute fact. It actually falsifies it, because it would be true that there is something -- i.e. the PSR -- that does not require a reason for its existence, which contradicts the PSR itself.

Third, the justification for the PSR is intrinsic to the PSR itself in a virtuous cycle. To affirm that everything has a reason for its existence would have to include the PSR, and thus the PSR has a reason for its existence, and that reason is the PSR itself.

DavidM said...

@donjindra,

'brute' means: not characterized by intelligence or reason; irrational.

It seems rather 'brutish' of you to try to classify a fundamental rational principle as a 'brute fact.' A rational principle, as such, cannot be a 'brute fact.' I think you need to actually think about the meaning of the words you are using.

Scott said...

@donjindra:

"Meaning it requires no explanation because there's none to be discovered?"

Meaning that once it's clearly understood, no additional explanation is needed because it's self-evident. So no, pretty far from "brute"; just the opposite, in fact.

donjindra said...

"thus the PSR has a reason for its existence, and that reason is the PSR itself."

To presuppose the PSR doesn't preclude asking for a non-circular explanation. If no_reason_for_the_PSR really does falsify it, I suppose we should consider it falsified.

"A rational principle, as such, cannot be a 'brute fact.' I think you need to actually think about the meaning of the words you are using."

I'm using Feser's definition: "the expression 'brute fact' is typically used in philosophy to convey the idea of something which is unintelligible or without explanation."

Rational principles are not specifically excluded and I don't see how they can be without resorting to a double standard of truth.

"Meaning that once it's clearly understood, no additional explanation is needed because it's self-evident. So no, pretty far from 'brute'; just the opposite, in fact."

But it isn't clearly understood. It's used without serious challenge because we think it's "self-evident" but if that's "understanding" then I likewise understand the universe/LawsofNature exist without serious challenge. And let's face it, the structure of the universe gave rise to our "self-evident" PSR in the first place. That is, in my view, out of the ultimate "brute fact" the PSR was born.


David M said...

"Rational principles are not specifically excluded and I don't see how they can be without resorting to a double standard of truth."

How could rational principles not be specifically excluded? How can a rational principle, as such, be unintelligible? What 'double standard' are you referring to?

Scott said...

@David M (and dguller):

Just FYI, in case you didn't already know it either: I've learned from Jeremy Taylor on another thread that donjindra has been told not to post on this site.

Anonymous said...

"So, Keith, it seems to me that your position has the following serious problem. You want to endorse a form of naturalism according to which real explanations are possible at levels of physical reality higher than the level of the fundamental laws of nature, yet where these explanations rest on a bottom level of physical laws that have no explanation at all but are “brute facts.”"

Keith's position is the standard in the atheist/agnostic camp. See e.g. this comment on a recent exchange between Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig:

http://letterstonature.wordpress.com/2014/02/06/carroll-vs-craig-3-on-contingency/

"The short story: Carroll needs to make clear his objection to the Craig’s version of the principle of sufficient reason. In particular, why think that the universe is an exception (perhaps the only exception)"

donjindra said...

DavidM

"How can a rational principle, as such, be unintelligible? What 'double standard' are you referring to?"

There is a double standard if you think your "rational" principles need no explanation (they're just intuitive) whereas my "brute fact" needs one -- as if an ultimate physical fact itself is necessarily incomprehensible.

David M said...

@donjindra,

You don't need to explain why a square is square. You don't need to explain why a 'rational principle' is 'rational.' Do you?

But it seems you do need to explain why we should regard any 'physical fact' as 'brute.' Can you? (And can you without ignoring all of the reasons that have already been given against this possibility?)

@Scott:

Unless Feser objects, I say we give donjindra a chance. I think he's sincerely trying. He's no Socrates, but gadflies are important in philosophy.

יאיר רזק said...

"Perhaps I'm missing something, but I don't follow the wondrousness of this example because it seems to contradict itself. "Attraction" is a final cause, so how did it get into a Humean model in the first place?"

As I explained above, the force component in this case is what has constant conjunction. If you think this makes the picture somewhat Aristotelian, well, I'd answer that (a) these kinds of regularities don't actually appear in more advanced descriptions of nature, so it's a problem only for this toy model, and (b) this particular Aristotelian aspect isn't germane to the example's point, which is to highlight how explanation through general law + specific circumstances works.

So with all due respect, I see discussing this point as a side-discussion. This is why I dropped this discussion above, and I intend to do so again.

@ David M: "the further claim that this explanation is (or could be) ultimately characterized as a 'brute fact' is not!"

The explanation consists of cashing out what "water is attracted to the moon" means. I hope you agree that formally one can prove that from assuming such regular attraction one can deduce the tides. (That is simply a mathematical/logical point; if we disagree on that, I see no recourse.) This derivation will remain sound regardless of whether the attraction is a brute fact or not. In this sense, it constitutes a partial explanation even if the regularity it is founded upon is a brute fact.

You may very well believe the underlying regularity is not a brute fact, or that there other aspects such an explanation misses (like the nature of the substances, which Scott raises). What I am striving to convince you is that these are higher-level points. That the explanatory model above works regardless of their truth - that it supplies some kind of explanation, and a powerful one at that, even if you are right and it misses the nature of the substances or the deeper regularities or final causes or whatever.

So the Humean explanation works, and it sets up a chain of more-general regularities that culminates in the most general regularities, which are then "Humean brute facts" in the sense that they have no further Humean explanation. Maybe you are right that they'd have some other type of explanation; maybe not. Regardless, the explanation works based on a brute fact in this, Humean, sense of lacking further Humean explanation.

Yair

יאיר רזק said...

@Glenn:

"If "water is attracted to the moon" suffices in the main, then isn't Newton's law of universal gravity irrelevant?

And if Newton's law of universal gravity is needed to truly understand the tides, then isn't "water is attracted to the moon" insufficient?"

Newton's law is another layer of explanation, an explanation of the proposition that water is attracted to the moon. It isn't really needed for understanding the tides, but it is necessary to place this understanding in context and to justify our belief that water is attracted to the moon.

Yair

יאיר רזק said...

@Scott: " ...it would be an even greater accomplishment to see also what it is in the nature of matter (for there must be something) that entails its conformity to this rule."

Yes, granted. And "comprehensive" was a bad choice of word. But I wish to focus right now on the accomplishment of understanding the tides as stemming from the water's attraction to the moon.

" For you, though, the rule seems to hang in mid-air, so to speak, and to be capable of providing a basis for "explanations" even if it is itself a "brute fact" with no intelligible basis in the natures of the substances involved."

I suggest we should replace "explanation" with "Humean explanation" or "Aristotelian explanation". Perhaps that will clarify things.

I fully agree that the Humean explanation does not constitute an Aristotelian explanation. My point is that the Humean explanation is, nevertheless, a powerful sense of "explanation".

The Humean explanation is founded on the existence of a hierarchy of detailed regulairities, that culminates in the most general regularity. This most general regularity has no Humean explanation, and in this sense is a "brute fact".

What I'm striving to make you see is that this mode of explanation is powerful, which means that Feser is unjustified in claiming that the Humean is "giving up of the possibility of explanation", as the Humean only gave up on Aristotelian explanation, not on all (i.e. Humean) explanation.

Similarly, you are still unjustified in claiming that such explanation is "accepted as such on credit, and los[es] its explanatory force if water's attraction to the moon turns out to be merely a "brute fact"", or "If you understand a supposed "brute fact" well enough to use it in an explanation, it is to that extent not "brute" after all", or so on, since you're not careful to distinguish the two meanings of "explanation". The explanatory power of the Humean-sense "brute fact" of regularity is just as strong even if there is no higher regularity, and the explanation works regardless of how you, as an Aristotelian, want to understand the regularity it assumes.

The point is that Humean explanation should not be conflated with Aristotelian explanation or explanation most generally, and that that Humean explanation is powerful and can work to provide a partial explanation based on what the Humean will call brute facts.

"What does the misleading language of "containment" add here?"

The containment is mereological in the sense that the tides are already a part of the general pattern of water being attracted to the moon (a point you yourself raised above in discussing heartburn), and analytical in the sense that it is tautologically contained in said regularity. So I think it's a better choice of word then "entails", which suggests a kind of logical primacy and distance from the phenomena that I don't want to convey.

Yair

יאיר רזק said...

David M: "I'll admit that I'm simply incredulous to hear the nature of intellect so roughly described. Do you really want to make that claim? I'd say it's patently false."

That's a side-discussion I'm afraid I can't go into. Suffice it to say I'm sympathetic to Bayesianism, and think it is somewhat simplistic but certainly not "patently false".

Cheers,
Yair

Scott said...

@Yair:

"Humean explanation is powerful and can work to provide a partial explanation based on what the Humean will call brute facts."

I think you can safely stop striving to make me or anyone else here see this. The point of (our side of) the discussion is that this sort of "Humean" explanation, however impressive and wondrous, doesn't stand alone but presumes that such partial explanations can in principle be completed—that, to rephrase it in terms of the distinction you say I've ignored, a "Humean" explanation presumes the possibility-in-principle of an Aristotelian one. We've given you arguments to this effect (Ed most thoroughly) and you've had hardly a single word to say in reply. In other words: we're way ahead of you, pal.

Glenn said...

Yair,

To what Scott has already said I'll superfluously add the following:

1. "Water is attracted to the moon" either is or is not a brute fact, and cannot both be a brute fact and not be a brute fact.

2. If "water is attracted to the moon" has an explanation, then "water is attracted to the moon" is not a brute fact.

3. If "water is attracted to the moon" has an explanation, then none of the following will convert "water is attracted to the moon" into a brute fact:

a) being unaware of its explanation;
b) failing to understand its explanation;
c) not needing its explanation;
d) having no use for its explanation;
e) treating its explanation as if it did not exist; or,
f) restricting oneself, even if only temporarily, to some view within which acknowledgement of its explanation is impossible, impermissible or preferably held in abeyance.

Scott said...

And I'll superfluously add that I agree with what Glenn has superfluously added.

donjindra said...

DavidM,

'You don't need to explain why a square is square. You don't need to explain why a 'rational principle' is 'rational.' Do you?"

A square is a square by definition. If you're claiming rational thought is rational simply by definition then we've merely defined the truths we "discover" through reason. That is, we define truth as we please. That's great news for relativists. (I'm not a relativist and I doubt you are either.)

"But it seems you do need to explain why we should regard any 'physical fact' as 'brute.' Can you?"

Maybe you misunderstand me. I'm not saying we should regard any fact as 'brute.' I'm saying, even after diligent searching, we may have no choice. This is a debate on epistemology. In my view the absolute foundation and crown, the starting and ending point, has to be observation. We try to explain what we observe, and we usually explain a lot. Even when we get it wrong we can satisfy ourselves we've found explanation. But ultimately we have to rely on the 'brute fact' that something happened (or some thing exists or works) whether we can explain it or not.


יאיר רזק said...

@ Scott:

I was sorry to read your response. It seems we'll need to end this conversation on that sour note. I will add only that I hardly said a word about the arguments you speak of because they're so off the mark that they're irrelevant, and I tried to stick to the main topic.

Yair

יאיר רזק said...

@ Glenn:

I agree with all your propositions. I would add, however, that

1.Y "Water is attracted to the moon" either is or isn't part of a greater regularity and in this sense either has or doesn't have a Humean explanation.

2.Y If "water is attracted to the moon" doesn't have a Humean explanation, then it is a Humean brute fact.

3.Y If "water is attraction to the moon" doesn't have a Humean explanation, then none of the following will reduce the explanatory power of the Humean explanation of the tides that is based on "water is attracted to the moon":

a.Y) The fact that "water is attracted to the moon" is a Humean brute fact.
b.Y) Any non-Humean kind of explanation that may (or may not...) exist.
c.Y) restricting oneself to some view within which the Humean explanation presupposes non-Humean metaphysics

as well as

a) being unaware of the Humean explanation,
b) failing to understand the Humean explanation,
c) not needing the Humean explanation,
d) having no use for the Humean explanation,
e) treating the Humean explanation as if it didn't exist,
f) restricting oneself to some view within which acknowledgement of the Humean explanation is impossible, impermissible or held in abeyance.

Cheers,
Yair

Scott said...

@Yair:

"I hardly said a word about the arguments you speak of because they're so off the mark that they're irrelevant, and I tried to stick to the main topic."

Well, great heavens, man, what in the blooming hell did you think the "main topic" was? The arguments you acknowledge ignoring are the main topic of the OP, and they're elaborated at greater length in a follow-up post specifically in reply to Robert Oerter's posts in this very thread, in which he raises an objection essentially indistinguishable from yours.

Perhaps you'll encounter fewer "sour notes" if and when you do decide to address them. Not only are they the point, but they are also, after all, replies to your repeated efforts to get everyone to appreciate that those wondrous "Humean" partial explanations needn't be backed by full explanations.

And you might find your strivings on that score less frustrating if you were willing to consider the possibility that most of us have already understood you—and that it is you who have failed to grasp even the relevance, let alone the trenchancy, of the replies you've already received.

Glenn said...

Yair,

I agree with all your propositions.

Thank you.

I would add, however, that

A question, if I may:

If "water is attracted to the moon" provides a powerful Humean explanation for the tides, would it not be right and proper to expect -- i.e., would it not be rational and reasonable to expect -- that there would be a low tide when the moon is on the opposite side of the earth, rather than the high tide that actually occurs?

יאיר רזק said...

@Glenn: No. Not when the proposition is cashed out in mathematical rigor. Score 1 for physicists using the exact language of mathematics :-)

Yair

dguller said...

Yair:

The reason why people here at less than impressed with Hume is that his views of causality are basically insane.

Hume claims that reality consists of a sequence of completely disconnected empirical events such that one particular empirical event has absolutely no intrinsic bearing upon any other empirical event. In other words, there is nothing about one event that could be used to predict another event, other than the fact that our minds impose an order upon them based upon the constant conjunction of certain empirical events.

For example, there is absolutely nothing about one billiard ball striking another billiard ball that would explain why we should expect one particular outcome. If one billiard ball striking another billiard ball resulted in the billiard balls suddenly transforming into a bunny rabbit, then we may be surprised, but that tells us more about ourselves than reality, because in reality, there is no fundamental reason why such an event cannot happen, especially since there are no natures or essences of billiard balls, or anything else, that would fundamentally restrict the possibilities open to them. The best that we can say, according to Hume, is that such events have never happened … yet. But we cannot infer that the absence of such events tells us anything about the powers or capacities of billiard balls, because there is no such thing as power or energy of material entities that would account for the necessary connection between cause and effect.

And the only reason why he has to make such radical claims is that he will only admit conceptual truths and empirical truths, and nothing else. Since power is something that is neither conceptually true nor empirically observable, it follows that it is a confusion of the mind and has no bearing upon reality. And one huge problem with this account, particularly that the truth that there are only conceptual truths or empirical truths is neither a conceptual truth nor an empirical truth, as Feser has pointed out on numerous occasions, which makes it incoherent.

So, not only is Hume’s views on causality based upon a dichotomy that is self-refuting, but it leads him to a view of reality in which there is literally nothing about one empirical event that has any bearing upon any other empirical events. Every empirical event basically stares into an empty future and does not have any particular tendencies or directedness towards specific outcomes, because to admit otherwise would admit both formal and final causality, both of which are impossible on Hume’s account.

David M said...

David M: "the further claim that this explanation is (or could be) ultimately characterized as a 'brute fact' is not [a wonderful, efficacious explanation]!"

Yair: "The explanation consists of cashing out what "water is attracted to the moon" means. I hope you agree that formally one can prove that from assuming such regular attraction one can deduce the tides. (That is simply a mathematical/logical point; if we disagree on that, I see no recourse.)"

And yet I see no such 'formal deduction' being possible: "water is attracted to the moon; therefore there are tides." Or perhaps your 'formal deduction' would run thus: "water is attracted to the moon; we know this because of the existence of tides; therefore there are tides"?

"This derivation will remain sound regardless of whether the attraction is a brute fact or not."

Could you clarify: which derivation?

"In this sense, it constitutes a partial explanation even if the regularity it is founded upon is a brute fact."

Ah, I see: begging the question. (I'm afraid that's not very convincing.)

"You may very well believe the underlying regularity is not a brute fact, or that there other aspects such an explanation misses (like the nature of the substances, which Scott raises)."

But the point is that you have been given an argument (a purported demonstration) that it is in fact *not* a 'brute fact.'

"What I am striving to convince you is that these are higher-level points."

Needlessly.

"That the explanatory model above works regardless of their truth - that it supplies some kind of explanation, and a powerful one at that, even if you are right and it misses the nature of the substances or the deeper regularities or final causes or whatever."

Regardless of their truth? But you're just ignoring the fact that the coherence and power of the 'Humean' explanations has nothing to do with your question-begging assertion that its fundamental constituents are (or possibly are) 'brute facts.' This assertion is idle; it is extrinsic to the explanatory power of any 'Humean' explanation.

"So the Humean explanation works, and it sets up a chain of more-general regularities that culminates in the most general regularities, which are then "Humean brute facts" in the sense that they have no further Humean explanation."

But it seems you have just begged the question by arbitrarily characterizing the nature of 'Humean' explanations in a way that your interlocutors do not accept.

What is the criterion for determining whether or not a regularity is one of 'the most general regularities'? You can simply declare certain facts to be 'Humean brute facts,' willy-nilly like, but what would be the point? You can't just say: "*This* is a brute fact - and the fact that I declare it to be a brute fact is another brute fact, and the fact that you don't think it is a brute fact is another brute fact - but the fact remains that *this* is a brute fact -- it is, I say, and nothing will shake my brute insistence that it is a brute fact (albeit a wondrously efficaciously explanatory brute fact)" - you can't just say that, can you?

David M said...

@donjindra:

"A square is a square by definition."

Yes.

"If you're claiming rational thought is rational simply by definition..."

Yes. A 'rational thought' is, by definition, 'rational.'

"...then we've merely defined the truths we "discover" through reason. That is, we define truth as we please. That's great news for relativists. (I'm not a relativist and I doubt you are either.)"

I don't understand what you mean here. We are not free to say that a rational principle is irrational, surely. You can argue that a particular purported rational principle is no such thing, but you have to use rational principles to do so, do you not?... And you can't decide which rational principles to use based on 'observation,' can you? I don't see how 'rational principles' are subject to whatever you mean by 'observation' (your alleged "absolute foundation and crown, the starting and ending point"), but if you think they are, please explain how exactly that works. How does one make such an 'observation'?

David M said...

David M: "I'll admit that I'm simply incredulous to hear the nature of intellect so roughly described. Do you really want to make that claim? I'd say it's patently false."

Yair: "That's a side-discussion I'm afraid I can't go into. Suffice it to say I'm sympathetic to Bayesianism, and think it is somewhat simplistic but certainly not "patently false"."

I suppose you're right: nomina significant ad placitum, so its not patently false. Would you be happier with "wildly idiosyncratic," or "hopelessly divorced from the reality of what we usually refer to as 'intellect'"? Certainly intellect may include a capacity for "accepting hypotheses to the degree that they statistically fit the data"; but to say that that is what intellect *is*?? That's just sounds like nonsense.

Ty said...

I'd like to hop in and thank Yair for taking the time to reason with us. I haven't done much on this thread, but save for a few slip-ups, everyone's managed to keep their cool and have a fruitful discussion. That's not too common on the internet.

So, stay cool Yair (and everyone else)





P.S I'm still not sure what Scott said to make the conversation end on "a sour note", though. I'm confused. No matter! What's done is done.

donjindra said...

DavidM,

If 'rational thought' is, by definition, 'rational,' then it's free to be defined any way we choose, regardless of observation, that is, regardless of reality (or 'brute fact'). It means rational argument maybe 100% detached from observed reality and we have no way of saying the one has anything at all to do with the other. And because of that, the 'irrational' might fit nicely with observed reality. I don't think you want to go there.

Scott said...

@Ty:

"I'm still not sure what Scott said to make the conversation end on "a sour note", though."

Nor am I. But if Yair thinks that's what happened, there must have been something.

David M said...

@donjindra:
"If 'rational thought' is, by definition, 'rational,' [it is!] then it's free to be defined any way we choose, regardless of observation, that is, regardless of reality (or 'brute fact'). [Etc.]"

No, it's not. Your antecedent in no way implies your consequent here. In light of this reality, we are not free to go ahead and 'choose' to regard your claim as an instance of 'rational thought.'

יאיר רזק said...

@dguller:

Thank you, that's a very clear and concise exposition and critique of Hume. I understand your disdain for the Humean worldview, but I don't share it. Perhaps it is because of my familiarity with quantum field theory, which I find comports with it rather well. I also find it impossible to accept the alternative - when examined closely, relations such as "properties" or "cause" appear to me to be unclear and incoherent, essentially due to the arguments that Hume raised.

I am not convinced that the fundamental problem you raise against Hume, that the proposition "all truths are empirical or conceptual" is self-refuting, is so telling. I suspect it can be considered a conceptual truth, and even if not the Humean can retreat to a weaker thesis (e.g. to also allow meta-truths about basic truths, indeed an infinite hierarchy of those) without significantly altering his worldview.

Ultimately, the question is whether there really are "causes", and "objects", and "properties", and so on. Not on whether sentences like "there are only empirical and conceptual truths" are true. I think it'd more productive to focus on positive arguments for the former, rather than negative arguments against the latter, which (because they are negative) can't advance our knowledge of metaphysics much.

Thanks for adding to the discussion,

Yair

יאיר רזק said...

@David M:

""water is attracted to the moon; therefore there are tides"" is indeed the deduction I refer to. It's been done to death, numerous times, in introductory courses on Newtonian physics all over the world.

""water is attracted to the moon; we know this because of the existence of tides; therefore there are tides"?"

What does our knowledge have to do with anything?

The argument is that GIVEN that water is attracted to the moon, there ARE tides. Whether the assumed proposition is true is a different matter, unrelated to the deduction.

Now, explanation and induction indeed work in opposite directions. But this has nothing to do with the structure of the deduction as-such.

"Ah, I see: begging the question."

The above sense of being a sound deduction of the tides establishes the existence of the tides, and that they are due to gravity. It establishes the dynamics of the tides, and reveals how to gain a greater and more detailed understanding of the tides (by e.g. better modeling of "Earth"). Through counter-factual reasoning, it allows us to predict the tides in future scenarios, and to predict the tides in historical abnormal scenarios. And it leads us to put the tides in a wider context, that of universal Newtonian attraction. I think that's more than enough for it to deserve to be considered a (partial) explanation. Indeed, I think my account of explanation is basically what scientific explanations (often) consist of.

"But the point is that you have been given an argument (a purported demonstration) that it is in fact *not* a 'brute fact.'"

The very sentence you quote said that you may hold that these arguments work (I don't); it doesn't matter to my case.

"Regardless of their truth? But you're just ignoring the fact that the coherence and power of the 'Humean' explanations has nothing to do with your question-begging assertion that its fundamental constituents are (or possibly are) 'brute facts.' This assertion is idle; it is extrinsic to the explanatory power of any 'Humean' explanation."

Huh? My whole point is that the coherence and power of the Humean explanation is significant, and culminates in Humean brute facts, REGARDLESS of whether these are REALLY brute facts (e.g. the Aristotelian metaphysics is correct).

"But it seems you have just begged the question by arbitrarily characterizing the nature of 'Humean' explanations in a way that your interlocutors do not accept. "

This is the standard Humean-influenced account of explanation, the DN model of explanation. If my intelocutors don't accept it, they need to argue against it, not to simply assert it isn't their model and hence isn't a kind of explanation.

"What is the criterion for determining whether or not a regularity is one of 'the most general regularities'?"

Whether it can be described as a part of a more general pattern. In other words - whether it can be derived as an effective theory of
a broader theory.

This is an ontological, not epistemic, distinction.

Yair

יאיר רזק said...

@David M:

"Certainly intellect may include a capacity for "accepting hypotheses to the degree that they statistically fit the data"; but to say that that is what intellect *is*?? That's just sounds like nonsense."

Very well - let us say that, then. With the understanding that "capacity" here means actively doing so whenever that's relevant.

Yair

יאיר רזק said...

@ Ty:

"I'd like to hop in and thank Yair for taking the time to reason with us."

Why, thank you Ty.

David M said...

@Yair:

"""water is attracted to the moon; therefore there are tides"" is indeed the deduction I refer to. It's been done to death, numerous times, in introductory courses on Newtonian physics all over the world."

Has it? I've taken a few physics courses and I don't recall any of the subject matter relating to 'formal deductions.' Could you clarify what you mean?

"The argument is that GIVEN that water is attracted to the moon, there ARE tides. Whether the assumed proposition is true is a different matter, unrelated to the deduction."

Right. I just don't see the 'formal deduction' aspect (without adding premises, as I tried to do).

"The above sense[?] of being a sound deduction of the tides..."

I don't understand what this is supposed to refer to.

"...establishes the existence of the tides, and that they are due to gravity. [etc.]"

I don't understand what you're trying to argue for here. It seems that you're saying we 'establish the existence of the tides' (i.e., 'know that they exist') on the basis of knowing about gravity or knowing that water is attracted to the moon. Is that what you think?

"The very sentence you quote said that you may hold that these arguments work (I don't); it doesn't matter to my case."

But your 'case' misses the point.

"My whole point is that the coherence and power of the Humean explanation is significant, and culminates in Humean brute facts, REGARDLESS of whether these are REALLY brute facts (e.g. the Aristotelian metaphysics is correct)."

Right, and you're continuing to ignore the fact that the only point of dispute here is whether your labeling of 'Humean brute facts' as 'Humean brute facts' is unobjectionable, or whether it is misleading and nonsensical. Of course you can use arbitrary labels willy-nilly. You can call your car a 'Humean brute fact' and tell us how you drove to work in a 'Humean brute fact,' and tell anyone who objects that that's irrelevant, because regardless of whether your car is REALLY a 'Humean brute fact,' you still got to work in it. Well, hey, good for you, make that argument. But don't pretend that you are thereby responding to an argument that is addressed precisely to explicating the REAL nature of 'Humean brute facts.'

"This is the standard Humean-influenced account of explanation, the DN model of explanation. If my interlocutors don't accept it, they need to argue against it, not to simply assert it isn't their model and hence isn't a kind of explanation."

You're just missing the point again: the whole argument has been precisely to show that the 'Humean brute fact' interpretation of DN-style explanations is mistaken.

"Whether it can be described as a part of a more general pattern. In other words - whether it can be derived as an effective theory of a broader theory."

In which case you have no justification for artificially exempting your 'Humean brute facts' from broader metaphysical analysis.

"This is an ontological, not epistemic, distinction."

Sure - how it that relevant?

Ty said...

Yair,

I'm a math major. I'm almost certainly not as much as a hot shot as you are, but I know a thing or two about mathematical argumentation and mathematical language.

I don't think you can appeal to functions and the like as replacements for teleology. Why? Because much of the mathematical language you're appealing to *is* teleological. Take the idea of a function. If f(x) = y, then (in Aristotelianese) x is directed towards y under f. The function represents a very deterministic kind of teleology, to be sure, since each x is only directed towards a single y. Still, the underlying idea is nothing if not teleological.


So, I would contest that your mathematically precise descriptions avoid the pertinent metaphysical issues. In fact, I would argue that the math you use is saturated with them.

יאיר רזק said...

@ David M:
"Sure - how it that relevant?"

It's relevant in that you keep bringing up words like "know", where I never intended them. So I was worried they may be a confusion at this level.

" the whole argument has been precisely to show that the 'Humean brute fact' interpretation of DN-style explanations is mistaken."

Here is how I see the argument: in my original post in this thread I objected to the hyperbole of saying Humeans abandon explanations. Scott replied that the Humean explanation presumes it isn't based on brute facts and loses its power if it does, and later that it depends on a full explanation going back to God. He later also complained that the direction is opposite to induction, and that it isn't symmetrical.

You, on the other hand, kept insisting that the ground level isn't really a "brute fact" at the metaphysical level.

I responded by trying to explicate my notion of explanation and show how its strength derives from the assumptions it relies on being true, assumptions that can be true regardless of which metaphysics you support. It thus constitutes an explanation, rather than abandoning explanation as Feser alleges. I furthermore showed why it has all the features such as reversing the direction of induction and so on.

Thus if the Aristotelian is right and there are further kinds of explanation then yes, of course you are right and the Humean brute fact isn't really a brute fact. But if you'd accept the mere possibility of being in error, if for the sake of argument you'd entertain the case that there is no other kind of relevant explanation here - then the explanatory power would be just as strong. The DN model's explanatory power works even if it is based on metaphysically brute facts - regardless of the question whether these exist.

The DN explanation, as I understand it, thus doesn't rely on the further metaphysical analysis at all. All the arguments about how the DN account cannot be founded on real brute facts are just development of the basic metaphysical disagreements between Humeans and Aristotelians, and rise or fall on those disagreements. They have nothing to do with the power or nature of the DN explanatory model as such.

I stand by my first comment - the Humean did not abandon explanation, only "metaphysical" (e.g. Aristotelian) explanation. The Humean explanation is founded on descriptions of general regularities, that thus assume no particular metaphysics, and constitutes a powerful sense of "explanation".

"Has it? I've taken a few physics courses and I don't recall any of the subject matter relating to 'formal deductions.' Could you clarify what you mean?"

I refer to mathematical derivations of the tides, usually starting from Newton's universal law of gravity and applying it to Earth's water under the affect of the moon. The first pretty-decent one Google finds:

http://books.google.ca/books?id=t77juT326MYC&pg=PA355&lpg=PA355&dq=Newton+tides+gravity&source=bl&ots=qb3UY_MYQR&sig=_O56HMCMBEASt0big6CYx3fa3R8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=6dQxU8O2HpPy7AbMwYHoDA&ved=0CE0Q6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=Newton%20tides%20gravity&f=false

["Secrets of the Tide: Tide and Tidal Current Analysis and Predictions, Storm ... "]

It's of course not a rigorous logical deduction, but it's essentially something approaching that with poor rigor and a lot of explanatory text and side-topics explored along the way.

Yair

יאיר רזק said...

@ Ty:
"I'm a math major. I'm almost certainly not as much as a hot shot as you are, but I know a thing or two about mathematical argumentation and mathematical language."

I hope that's sarcasm, because I'm not a hot shot and I apologize if I come off as one. Your mathematical skills and talents are probably far superior to my own.

"So, I would contest that your mathematically precise descriptions avoid the pertinent metaphysical issues. "

Oh, I completely agree on that. Mathematics is much more precise than spoken language, so it helps us avoid some confusion, and to draw implications better. I am not claiming at all that merely using mathematics in any way resolves the deeper philosophical questions, that aren't due to confusion. These are due to genuine metaphysical disagreement, and I don't believe the mere use of mathematics can resolve them one way or the other. For example,

"ake the idea of a function. If f(x) = y, then (in Aristotelianese) x is directed towards y under f. The function represents a very deterministic kind of teleology, to be sure, since each x is only directed towards a single y. Still, the underlying idea is nothing if not teleological."

But is a function really a teleological relation, or is it a correspondence of a certain sort? I don't think you can resolve that question mathematically. This is a question in metaphysics - or at least, the metaphysics of mathematics. The fact that maths is more precise doesn't help resolve it.

Yair

David M said...

@Yair: Thanks for the summary. That's always helpful. Now:

"It's relevant in that you keep bringing up words like "know", where I never intended them. So I was worried they may be a confusion at this level."

I worry about this too. Part of my concern is that you're not appreciating why it is sometimes necessary to bring up words like 'know' in this kind of discussion.

"...I responded by trying to explicate my notion of explanation and show how its strength derives from the assumptions it relies on being true, assumptions that can be true regardless of which metaphysics you support. It thus constitutes an explanation, rather than abandoning explanation as Feser alleges. I furthermore showed why it has all the features such as reversing the direction of induction and so on."

Okay. But Feser argues that noting a regularity (A is followed by B) then re-labelling it as a law ("A's regularly follow B's") doesn't actually explain anything, since it doesn't lend any actual advance in intelligibility to our original observation of the fact of regularity. I don't see how you are proposing to respond to this argument.

"...if you'd accept the mere possibility of being in error, if for the sake of argument you'd entertain the case that there is no other kind of relevant explanation here - then the explanatory power would be just as strong."

...or, just as weak. The problem that you're ignoring here is that Feser has argued that there is no intelligible, non-self-defeating way to actually entertain such a case. IOW, the very "entertaining of such a case" is indicative of confusion, of a lack of reflective awareness of what it is you are actually doing while attempting to enjoy such entertainment.

"The DN model's explanatory power works even if it is based on metaphysically brute facts - regardless of the question whether these exist."

Right. So its 'explanatory power' may be entirely illusory, but it still 'works.' Is that your claim?

"the Humean did not abandon explanation, only "metaphysical" (e.g. Aristotelian) explanation"

It's true that the Humean did not abandon explanation; but I think Feser's claim would be, that to the extent that he did not, he also did not abandon "metaphysical" (e.g. Aristotelian) explanation (he just said some false and nonsensical things about its nature qua explanation).

Matt Sheean said...

"I am not convinced that the fundamental problem you raise against Hume, that the proposition "all truths are empirical or conceptual" is self-refuting, is so telling. I suspect it can be considered a conceptual truth, and even if not the Humean can retreat to a weaker thesis (e.g. to also allow meta-truths about basic truths, indeed an infinite hierarchy of those) without significantly altering his worldview."

I don't see how this helps Hume. I suspect you are gilding the objections others have raised with exultant prose and repackaging them as demonstrations.