Friday, March 7, 2014

Can you explain something by appealing to a “brute fact”?


Prof. Keith Parsons and I have been having a very cordial and fruitful exchange.  He has now posted a response to my most recent post, on the topic of “brute facts” and explanation.  You can read his response here, and find links to the other posts in our exchange here.  Since by the rules of our exchange Keith has the last word, I’ll let things stand as they are for now and let the reader imagine how I might respond.

Another one of my old sparring partners, Prof. Robert Oerter, raises an interesting objection of his own in the combox of my recent post, on which I will comment.  I had argued that if we think of laws of nature as regularities, then no appeal to such laws can explain anything if the most fundamental such laws are regarded as inexplicable “brute facts.”  Oerter writes:

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?

End quote.  Now, let me first reiterate that my remarks in the earlier post were about, specifically, laws of nature understood as regularities.  Even if Oerter’s example were a case of a brute fact serving as a genuine explanation, that wouldn’t affect the point that laws understood as regularities wouldn’t be true explanations if the fundamental level of laws were a brute fact.  (And Oerter may well agree with that much, for all I know.) 

But Oerter’s question is still a fair one.  Whatever we think of the regularity view of laws, we might yet wonder whether other kinds of thing might be genuinely explanatory even if they were brute facts.  Wouldn’t Oerter’s imagined bolt of lightning be a good example? 

I would say that on analysis it would not be.  Consider first that we can distinguish a metaphysical sense in which something might be claimed to be a “brute fact” from an epistemological sense in which it might be.  Something would be a brute fact in the epistemological sense if, after exhaustive investigation, we did not and perhaps even could not come up with a remotely plausible explanation for it.  Something would be a brute fact in the metaphysical sense if it did not, as a matter of objective fact, have any explanation or intelligibility in the first place.  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.

Now I do not deny that there could be epistemological “brute facts,” but only that there could be metaphysical brute facts.  But it seems clear that whatever plausibility Oerter’s example has derives entirely from the possibility that a bolt of lightning of the sort he imagines might be an epistemological brute fact.  For we can certainly imagine cases where a bolt of lightning strikes and causes a forest fire but where there was only clear blue sky and no storm clouds present, nor even some bizarre cause (a gigantic Tesla coil, say, or an angry Thor flying about).  But that by itself is just to imagine unexplained lightning appearing.  It does not amount to imagining lightning that as a matter of objective fact has no explanation suddenly appearing.  (And as I have argued in several places, and at greatest length in Scholastic Metaphysics, in fact we cannot, contra Hume, coherently describe a case where this latter sort of thing happens.)

Indeed, it isn’t even quite right to say that what Oerter is describing is a case of a cause that is entirely epistemologically “brute,” let alone metaphysically brute.  For of course, the reason why we’re willing to regard an unexplained instance of lightning as a cause of a forest fire is that we know a lot about lightning in general, such as that it can cause forest fires.  So, whether or not we know the source of the lightning Oerter asks us to imagine, we know at least that it is lightning, and it is because we know that it is an instance of that general class of thing that we regard it as the sort of thing that could cause a forest fire.  We know, in effect, its formal and material causes insofar as we know that it is lightning rather than (say) a hallucination or some atmospheric condition that merely superficially resembles lightning.  And we know also its final cause insofar as we know that it has certain causal powers such as the power to ignite wood, where casual powers are “directed” toward their outcomes as toward an end.  What we lack is, at most, merely knowledge of the lightning’s own efficient cause.  Precisely for that reason, though, the lightning is not a “brute fact,” full stop, either metaphysically or epistemologically, even if there is an at least epistemologically “brute” aspect to it. 

But we can say more.  For the lightning causes the forest fire precisely insofar as (the Aristotelian will say) it actualizes the potentiality of whatever foliage it strikes to catch fire.  But the lightning can do this only insofar as it is itself actualized (for, since the lightning is not a necessarily existing thing, it too has to go from potential to actual).  And whatever is actualized (so the Aristotelian will also say) is actualized by something already actual.  Now what we’ve got in any case where C is actualized by B only insofar as B is in turn actualized by A is an essentially ordered causal series, in which the action of the members lower down in the series is unintelligible apart from the impartation to them of causal power by members higher up in the series.  This, of course, is the basis for Scholastic arguments to the effect that the lightning could not exist and operate at all even for an instant apart from a purely actual (and thus divine) conserving and concurring cause, who is first in the essentially ordered series in question.  But that conclusion can be bracketed off for present purposes.  What matters for the moment is just that on the Scholastic analysis, the lightning cannot intelligibly actualize without itself being actualized (whether or not this regress leads us to a divine first actualizer).

So, to conceive of the lightning as a cause of the fire, we ultimately cannot avoid thinking of it as having an efficient cause of its own -- at least to conserve in being, and concur in, its causal activity at the moment at which it actualizes the fire.  Hence our grasp of its being a cause of the fire entails bringing in all of the four causes, in which case it is hardly an unintelligible “brute fact.”  Of course, this analysis brings in specifically Aristotelian-Scholastic metaphysical notions, but there is nothing suspect about that.  For in order to evaluate a claim like Oerter’s claim that a bolt of lightning can be a genuine explanation even if it had no explanation of its own, we need to ask ourselves what it is to be an explanation in the first place, and in particular what it is to be a causal explanation (since the lightning is in the case at hand claimed to provide a causal explanation of the fire).  And the Scholastic holds, on independent grounds, that formal, material, final, and efficient causes are all part of a complete explanatory story. 

If Oerter or anyone else wants to reject this metaphysical picture they are free to do so, but then they have to provide an alternative metaphysical story about how explanation and causation work -- and it has to be a story on which the lightning could be a genuine explanation of the fire without having an explanation of its own.  Merely suggesting that the fire would be an explanation even if it lacked an explanation of its own is not enough, for this either fails to describe the situation in sufficient metaphysical detail to allow us to conclude anything from it (if no account of explanation and causation is given) or it will beg the question (if some non-Scholastic account of explanation and causation is implicitly being presupposed). 

I would say that what would clearly make Oerter’s case is an example where it is evident both (i) that A genuinely explains B, and yet (ii) that A has no formal, material, efficient, or final cause of its own.  In such a case A itself would clearly be a “brute fact.”  But I submit that no such example is forthcoming.  For the more we peel away formal, material, final, and efficient causality from our conception of A, the more we, by that very fact, peel away anything in A that could make of it an explanation of B or of anything else.   A cause is intelligible as a cause only insofar as it is intelligible in itself

[For earlier posts on related matters, go here and here.]

95 comments:

Scott said...

@Robert Oerter:

Some of the replies you received in the previous thread may make better sense in light of this post.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see that the exchange with Parsons happened. I didn't think it would, but Parsons is a much better man than I thought. Miles ahead of Dawkins, Coyne, etc.

Ty said...

Wouldn't any coherent, non-vacuous explanation of a "Brute Fact" take precedence over the bald assertion that said "Brute fact" cannot be explained?

For discussion's sake, couldn't we stop claiming that everything *must* have sufficient reason, and instead argue that some pertinent thing *does* have sufficient reason? I do think that the PSR can be easily demonstrated, but trying to convince others of that is more difficult.

It's a lot harder to say "X is a brute fact. Attempts to make it intelligible are trivially true/vacuous/empty/etc" when you offer an intelligible description of X that is neither trivial/vacuous,empty/etc.

Edward Feser said...

Hello Ty,

Lloyd Gerson has made a similar point (see his -- excellent -- book Plotinus). When someone puts forward a purported explanation of X, it's no good for the critic to respond: "Well, maybe X has no explanation." The proper rejoinder is: "What are you talking about? I just gave you one." A serious critic must therefore show that there is something wrong with the purported explanation of X; merely to suggest that X might not have one is not a serious response at all.

Johannes said...

The issue is IMV very simple: if the starting point in the explanation of the whole of reality is a brute fact ("the universe exists with these laws"), then the whole of reality is a brute fact and is not rationally explained as a whole, even when, starting from that brute fact, the explanation of the internals of reality proceeds rationally.

Thus, we are dealing with the hypothetical situation in which there are rational explanations within reality, but reality as a whole does not have a rational explanation. IMV, we have to ask ourselves two questions regarding it:

1. Is that situation possible at all?

2. If answer to 1 is "yes", then: what is the probability of that situation?

Without thinking hard on it, my preliminary answers are:

1. Possible, but extremely unsatisfactory.

2. Very low, because the fact that everything within reality can be explained rationally is a strong clue that reality as a whole can be explained rationally.

Johannes said...

Re Prof. Feser 6:55 PM comment:

That response is serious because it is based on the serious assumption that the view that the whole of reality has a rational explanation is an unwarranted extrapolation from the fact that everything within reality, taking as a starting point the universe and its laws, has a rational explanation.

The dialog goes like this:

Atheist: "Well, maybe the whole of reality has no explanation."

Theist: "What are you talking about? I just gave you one. Can you show that there is something wrong with it?"

Atheist: "Oh, there is nothing wrong with the explanation itself. What may be wrong is your assumption that the whole of reality has an explanation."

Matt Sheean said...

What is 'reality as a whole' or 'the whole of reality'?

I see this happening elsewhere with the word 'universe', too, in statements to the effect that the universe is not its contents (Oerter, for instance says that universes are not in time, time is in universes).

This sort of thing reminds me of that character from the movie "Mystery Men":

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKGX9tdPeN0

Scott said...

@Johannes:

"That response is serious because it is based on the serious assumption that the view that the whole of reality has a rational explanation is an unwarranted extrapolation from the fact that everything within reality, taking as a starting point the universe and its laws, has a rational explanation."

Well, that assumption is false; the view in question is based on no such extrapolation. But in any case an explanation has been offered for "the whole of reality." Offer all the responses you like based on the "serious assumption" that the explanation isn't correct; you still have to show that there's something wrong with it before your response counts as serious.

David T said...

Scott,

But in any case an explanation has been offered for "the whole of reality."

I'm going to play the devil's advocate here, not necessarily because I agree with the following objection but that I am not sure how to handle it.

In the case of the lightning, we can examine its material, formal, final and efficient causes independent of its causing a fire in any particular instance and see that, in fact, it is of a nature suitable to accounting for the start of a fire. We're not just supposing, on no other basis, a being in existence with the just the properties we need to account for the fire.

But when it comes to God and the universe, we have no independent way to assess the being of God other than through the particular instance of the creation of the universe. So the properties we attribute to God are just those properties we need to take care of our problem of accounting for the "whole of reality." Our "explanation" isn't much more than saying that there must be a being that provides the explanation, and it has the properties it does precisely because we think those are the ones needed to provide our desired explanation.

This sounds a little circular or tautological. It's like finding the fire and then, on no other basis, positing a "fire-starting" being with the property of being able to start fires, because that's just what we need to account for the fire. That's not showing that the fire has an explanation, but the mere positing of an explanation because we demand that there must be one. Similarly, offering God as an explanation of the universe, on account of the fact that we need such an explanation, isn't to show that the universe in fact has an explanation, but only shows our inventiveness in creating "explanations" when we demand them.

Johannes said...

@Scott & grodrigues:

The atheist does not say that the explanation is not formally correct, i.e. according to reason. He is saying that it is possible that it does not actually correspond to reality, because the assumption that reality as a whole corresponds to reason may be unwarranted.

I will have another try at explain it. We have a fact and an assumption:

Fact A: within the universe, there is an actual correspondence of physical reality with reason through the laws of physics. This is evident in instances such as:

- Based on Gravitation law, the existence of Neptune was predicted in 1803, and discovered in 1846.

- Based on General Relativity and basic Quantum Mechanics, the existence of the Cosmic Microwave Background was predicted in 1948, and discovered in 1964.

- Based on the Standard Model of Quantum Mechanics, the existence of the Higgs boson was predicted in 1964, and discovered in 2012.

Assumption B: the theist philosopher holds that reality as a whole, including, but not limited in principle to, the physical universe, actually corresponds with reason through the laws of metaphysics (or of philosophy, or of whatever is the precise name that goes there).

The atheist philosopher, on the other hand, argues that Assumption B is an unwarranted extrapolation from Fact A.

Therefore, when the atheist says, as in my previous comment, that "the whole of reality has no explanation", he means that reality as a whole may not actually correspond with reason through the laws of metaphysics, so that, while the explanation offered by the theist philosopher is formally correct, i.e. in accordance to reason, it may not actually describe reality as a whole.

David T said...

My point isn't psychological. I drew a contrast between explaining lightning on the one hand - where our understanding of lightning is independent of our need for it to explain an instance of fire - to our understanding of God, which is based entirely on what we need it to be to serve as the explanation we are looking for. Well, in that case you can immediately explain anything, simply by supposing into existence a being defined by the requirements of your explanation.

grodrigues said...

@Joachim, David T:

Sorry, I ended up deleting my comment because I was not happy with it on further thought, but it seems you have replied to it before seeing the deletion; I will get back to you (not enough time atm).

grodrigues said...

And of course, it is not Joachim but Johannes. Grrr.

Greg said...

@Johannes,

Fact A: within the universe, there is an actual correspondence of physical reality with reason through the laws of physics. This is evident in instances such as:
[...]
Assumption B: the theist philosopher holds that reality as a whole, including, but not limited in principle to, the physical universe, actually corresponds with reason through the laws of metaphysics (or of philosophy, or of whatever is the precise name that goes there).

The atheist philosopher, on the other hand, argues that Assumption B is an unwarranted extrapolation from Fact A.


It would be helpful if you clarified what you hold "the physical universe" to be. I am not aware of theist philosophers start by designating this physical universe as some subset of a larger "reality as a whole" which ought to be intelligible as well. Thomist cosmological arguments, for instance, argue that this physical universe would not be intelligible if it were not sustained by an immaterial, simple being. The arguments do not proceed by extrapolating from the universe but from arguing that the universe is not intelligible in itself.

Greg said...

I believe that Bertrand Russell had another retort to the effect that causality is only defined in the universe, and we can't suppose it to apply "outside" the universe, whatever that might mean. That retort is, I think, similarly misconceived, for it suggests that the theist begins by dividing between physical and nonphysical causes/explanations. The theist, rather, argues that based on the intelligibility of physical causes, it is necessary that there be a first cause, which cannot be material.

At the start, the theist does not extrapolate and say that "the whole of reality" is intelligible because the physical universe is intelligible. But in order for the physical universe to be intelligible, there must be something more. (So the argument goes.)

rank sophist said...

I find brute facts to be one of the more interesting ideas in analytic philosophy. It takes guts to rename a contradiction and make it sound like a logical concept. The brute fact brigade insists that, at the source of reality, there is just an inexplicable cause from nowhere--one susceptible to every "what caused God?"-style argument used by the Gnus. But, unlike even most theistic personalists (save people like Swinburne), they seal off any further critique by calling it "brute". If I remember correctly, Prof. Feser has called this an appeal to magic, which is apt.

Anonymous said...

"the assumption that reality as a whole corresponds to reason may be unwarranted"

This is a big reason why I could never be an atheist. I would have to throw my hands in the air and give up on reason itself.

Scott said...

@David T:

"[W]hen it comes to God and the universe, we have no independent way to assess the being of God other than through the particular instance of the creation of the universe. So the properties we attribute to God are just those properties we need to take care of our problem of accounting for the 'whole of reality.' Our 'explanation' isn't much more than saying that there must be a being that provides the explanation, and it has the properties it does precisely because we think those are the ones needed to provide our desired explanation."

That's right, because in the case of God we're drawing an inference about something to which we don't have direct empirical access. But if that inference is sound, then we're on solid ground in saying that, metaphysically, God is the full explanation even if, epistemologically, we don't have the full explanation ourselves.

Moreover, I don't think we're postulating an explanans just because we want or need one. We might be doing so if we denied the principles of causality and sufficient reason and still insisted on there being an explanation anyway, but that's certainly not how the argument goes.

"[I]n that case you can immediately explain anything, simply by supposing into existence a being defined by the requirements of your explanation."

I don't think this is problematic as long as we're careful to distinguish between the order of being and the order of knowledge, that is, the metaphysical and the epistemological. Your statement is a good summary of what the principle of sufficient reason tells us about the (metaphysical) existence of an explanation. That doesn't mean we (epistemologically) have that explanation or that we're intellectually satisfied just by knowing that an explanation exists—either in the case of a fire caused by lightning or in the case of a creation caused by God.

Scott said...

@Johannes:

I don't have anything of substance to add to what Greg has already said. (Just didn't want you to think I was ignoring your post.)

grodrigues said...

@David T:

If I am understanding you right, you make two points.

(1) God as an explanation for the creation of the universe is circular. We need a being with X, Y, Z, etc. to fill in the role, so we postulate the existence of such a being to account for the existence of a Universe. But strictly speaking, this is circular. While in the case of lightning, we have independent reasons to think lightning as the cause of fire, we do not have such reasons in the case of God and the universe.

(2) Because we already presuppose that a given fact needs an explanation, we scrounge for an explanation even when the explanation does not really explain nothing, meaning, it is not really an advancement over what it is supposed to explain (e.g. fire versus a fire-starting being).

Starting with (2), because that is what I responded to in my deleted comment, I do not see how this responds to Scott's point that an explanation *has* been offered. After all, is not that how we proceed to explain things? To keep with your example, we already know that it is the nature of lightning to be able to start fires, so if we witness lightning followed by fire, we have good grounds to blame the lightning as opposed to whatever other concurrent causal factor was operative at the same time. The *reason* why lightning is a good candidate is because of its nature; it is within its causal powers to cause fire, and it is in that capacity that it can fill the causal role. Similarly, in the case of say the universe. Quite obviously, whatever it is that can stand in the causal role is not *in* the universe, so it is not a something we have direct experience of, but why should that be a problem?

Well, it would be a problem if (1) is a cogent rebuttal, but I think it gets the nature of the arguments for the existence of God wrong. Take the First Way. It is an a posteriori deductive argument, taking the existence of change as a premise (a premised argued for on other, independent grounds) and concluding to the existence of Pure Act. The point of the argument, or one of the points anyway, is that change, or the reduction of potency to act, could not even exist without the concurrent action of such a being. So your analogy fails on two grounds: there is deductive chain from the explanandum to the explanans, and the explanans is doing non-trivial, non-tautological work in the precise sense that whatever else is needed for a *particular* change to happen (e.g. the lightning bolt to start the forest fire), the concurrent action of Pure Act is needed for *any* change *at all* to occur. Moreover, it seems to me that it is simply not the case that God is just the "being defined by the requirements of your explanation".

Subsequent analysis of the argument reveals to us that God is impassible, metaphysically simple, omnipotent, omniscient, etc. You could retort that these is just what you mean by God being just the "being defined by the requirements of your explanation", in which case I will retort that it is inevitably so because of what exactly God is supposed to explain. By the principle of proportionate causality, just as whatever is the cause of fire must have in itself the power to cause fire, whether directly, virtually or pre-eminently, so God, as the explanation of change, must have the power to be the ultimate, primary cause, and because it is so, we can deduce that it is such and such. Conceivably, we could have a non-metaphysically simple, non-omnipotent, etc. demiurge as cause of the universe, but it is neither the primary cause nor the conclusion of the arguments.

Scott said...

@David T:

"This sounds a little circular or tautological. It's like finding the fire and then, on no other basis, positing a 'fire-starting' being with the property of being able to start fires, because that's just what we need to account for the fire."

Or like positing that opium causes sleep because of its "dormitive virtue."

However, in each of these cases the conclusion is actually correct. We're right to infer, from the existence of the fire, the existence of something that can cause fire; we're right that if opium causes sleep, that's because the opium itself contains some power to do so (and in fact we now have a good chemical explanation of that power). We'd just be wrong to take either of those conclusions as an (entire) explanation, rather than as an assurance that an explanation is there to be found and an indication of where and how to look for it.

Have we addressed the concerns of the devil's advocate?

Johannes said...

Greg said:

"It would be helpful if you clarified what you hold "the physical universe" to be."

What any physicist means by that. If I need to define the term here, we have a problem.

"I am not aware of theist philosophers start by designating this physical universe as some subset of a larger "reality as a whole" which ought to be intelligible as well."

No, they say that the physical universe as a whole is not intelligible if it alone is the whole of reality, but that to be intelligible it has to be part of a larger reality, which includes the Subsistent Being. Which is exactly what you said right next:

"Thomist cosmological arguments, for instance, argue that this physical universe would not be intelligible if it were not sustained by an immaterial, simple being."

Regarding your last sentence:

"The arguments do not proceed by extrapolating from the universe but from arguing that the universe is not intelligible in itself."

The arguments do not, but the assumption underlying them does. I.e. the assumption that the whole of reality should be reasonably intelligible through the laws of metaphysics is, or at least seems to be, based on the fact that the internal workings of the universe are reasonably intelligible through the laws of physics.

Robert Coble said...

"Prof. Keith Parsons and I have been having a very cordial and fruitful exchange."

I am very heartened so far by the general tone of the "debate" between Dr. Parsons and Dr. Feser. Both parties are respectful of the other's position, while continuing to disagree. That is much more helpful to those of us who are struggling to learn.

I've read The Last Superstition and Aquinas, and am very thankful for the insights provided into Thomist metaphysics. I am eagerly looking forward to the publication of Scholastic Metaphysics.

As Dr. Feser has written, it is very difficult (if not impossible) to understand the Scholastic arguments unless one understands the underlying metaphysical assumptions. Unfortunately, the terminology used by the Scholastics (in particular, the term "final cause") have a different modern connotation than was intended by the Scholastics. In an analogic sense, it is much like the change in meaning associated with the word "gay." Previously, it meant something along the lines of "happy", "bright" (not in the Dennett sense), etc. "Gay" now is synonymous with "homosexual." To read the older literature with the modern meaning is to produce a complete muddle.

I think the same kind of thing happens when modern mechanical assumptions are read back into Scholastic metaphysics. For instance, the modern reads "final cause" as meaning the end of a regress backward in time. Dr. Feser addresses this in Aquinas (pg. 71):

"Causal series ordered per accidens are linear in character and extend through time, as in the begetting example, in which Abraham's begetting Isaac occurs well before Isaac's begetting Jacob, and Isaac's begetting Jacob occurs well before Jacob's begetting Joseph. Causal series ordered per se are paradigmatically hierarchical with their members acting simultaneously, as in the staff example where the movement of the leaf occurs precisely when the movement of the stone occurs, which is precisely when the movement of the staff occurs, which is precisely when the movement of the hand occurs."

As long as this chasm exists between assumed meaning of terms, I doubt there can be any satisfactory resolution (i.e., agreement in principle) to the differences between Dr. Parsons and Dr. Feser.

As suggested by another commenter, maybe the solution is a joint book!

Scott said...

@Johannes:

"[T]he assumption that the whole of reality should be reasonably intelligible through the laws of metaphysics is, or at least seems to be, based on the fact that the internal workings of the universe are reasonably intelligible through the laws of physics."

Why do you think so? Is it, for example, your impression that (say) Aquinas looked at a well-established body of physical laws and inferred that there must therefore also be "metaphysical laws" that apply "outside" the universe? (And is "outside the universe" really what you think he meant by "metaphysical"?)

Alan said...

@ Johannes
No, the internal workings of the universe are reasonably intelligible through the laws of physics as predicted by Aristotle and Aquinas. It was not intelligible to them.

Greg said...

@Johannes
What any physicist means by that. If I need to define the term here, we have a problem.

Well, to define "physical" or "material" in the vein of physicalist or materialist theory is neither trivial nor obvious. Hempel's dilemma and all that. The fact that "physics" is a scientific discipline does not entail that "the physical universe" is well-defined or that the facts disclosed by physics are the only facts which disclose the intelligibility of reality.

No, [theists] say that the physical universe as a whole is not intelligible if it alone is the whole of reality, but that to be intelligible it has to be part of a larger reality, which includes the Subsistent Being.

That is what theists argue. But the basis for it is not an anterior supposition that because the physical world is intelligible, the "nonphysical world," so to speak, must be too. Scholastics formulate the intelligibility of the physical world in terms of the law of causality etc. and then argue that the causality in the physical world requires a nonphysical simple sustaining cause. They conclude that the physical universe on its own would not be intelligible without Subsistent Being, but that is not an "assumption."

The arguments do not [proceed by extrapolating from the universe], but the assumption underlying them does. I.e. the assumption that the whole of reality should be reasonably intelligible through the laws of metaphysics is, or at least seems to be, based on the fact that the internal workings of the universe are reasonably intelligible through the laws of physics.

Again, the reason that the immaterial entities that Thomism posits are taken to be intelligible is not an "underlying assumption." It is argued to be necessary if the principles formulated with regard to directly perceivable physical entities are true.

Thomists also don't hold the laws of physics to be the only reason that "the internal workings of the universe are reasonably intelligible."

Johannes said...

@Robert Coble

I have also noticed the importance of the issue of terminology that you raise, which can be a hindrance to productive dialog with non-Thomists, or at least non-Scholastics.

E.g. "supernatural", in the way non-Scholastics use it, means usually "spiritual" or "anything beyond or above matter" in Scholastic terms.

Last year I suggested that it could be useful to have a convention to denote whether a term is to be interpreted according to its Scholastic or its common/everyday meaning,
just as there are a number of conventions in computer programming to denote whether a numeric constant is to be interpreted according to the hexadecimal or the decimal system, so that e.g.:

0x100 = decimal 256

A possible convention could be the S' and E' prefixes, using S' for "Scholastic" and E' for "Everyday" or "Everybody Else". Thus e.g.

E'supernatural = S'spiritual
E'natural = S'physical

where when writing to a Scholastic audience the S' could be assumed and the E' made explicit, whereas in a dialogue with the external world the E' could be assumed and the S' made explicit.

Johannes said...

@Greg

"They conclude that the physical universe on its own would not be intelligible without Subsistent Being, but that is not an "assumption.""

I never said that was an assumption. It is the second time that you put in my keyboard and then refute concepts that I had not said.

"Thomists also don't hold the laws of physics to be the only reason that "the internal workings of the universe are reasonably intelligible."

And three's a charm. I had said "through the laws of physics" not "based only on the laws of physics".

Over and out.

Johannes said...

@Scott

"Is it, for example, your impression that (say) Aquinas looked at a well-established body of physical laws and inferred that there must therefore also be "metaphysical laws" that apply "outside" the universe? (And is "outside the universe" really what you think he meant by "metaphysical"?)"

No to both questions.

And it has become quite clear that, for me, it is time to leave. Have a nice day, gentlemen.

Greg said...

I am sorry if it seems like I have misrepresented you, Johannes. I said assumption because that is how you originally characterized the theist's belief that physical reality is not all there is and is not all there is that can be intelligible:

Assumption B: the theist philosopher holds that reality as a whole, including, but not limited in principle to, the physical universe, actually corresponds with reason through the laws of metaphysics (or of philosophy, or of whatever is the precise name that goes there).

The atheist philosopher, on the other hand, argues that Assumption B is an unwarranted extrapolation from Fact A.


As I have shown, this is not properly an "assumption," nor is it an "extrapolation" from what you gave as "Fact A."

I had said "through the laws of physics" not "based only on the laws of physics".

In context, I don't really see the difference. You said: the assumption that the whole of reality should be reasonably intelligible through the laws of metaphysics is, or at least seems to be, based on the fact that the internal workings of the universe are reasonably intelligible through the laws of physics.

- Modify my claim to say: "Thomists also don't hold the laws of physics to be that through which "the internal workings of the universe are reasonably intelligible." The point still holds.
- You used the word "based." I did not, even where you quoted me. (Unless I used it elsewhere and am missing something, in which case I apologize.) You say that the "assumption" that metaphysical laws should apply to all of reality (including nonphysical reality) is (or seems to be) "based" on the intelligibility of the physical world through the laws of physics. (So you use both terms which you accuse me of putting in your mouth.)

Scott said...

Johannes: [T]he assumption that the whole of reality should be reasonably intelligible through the laws of metaphysics is, or at least seems to be, based on the fact that the internal workings of the universe are reasonably intelligible through the laws of physics.

Greg: [T]he basis for [the theist's argument] is not an anterior supposition that because the physical world is intelligible, the "nonphysical world," so to speak, must be too. . . . They conclude that the physical universe on its own would not be intelligible without Subsistent Being, but that is not an "assumption."

Johannes: I never said that was an assumption.

Me: Huh?

Greg said...

I never said that was an assumption. It is the second time that you put in my keyboard and then refute concepts that I had not said.

It strikes me that perhaps you would not liken the Thomist's position here ("that the physical universe on its own would not be intelligible without Subsistent Being") to your "Assumption B", and that is why you are saying that you never called it an "assumption." But in that case, your "Assumption B" should not be attributed to classical theists, for they clearly (as you would then be conceding) do not rely on it.

Matt Sheean said...

Even though he is probably gone, I'm trying to think of what Johannes is saying like an argument:

1. Theists conclude that God exists from arguments that depend on the ultimate intelligibility of reality
2. possibly, reality is not ultimately intelligible
...
3. Atheism is true

I don't see how one can get anything stronger from that line of argument than 'might'. Think of it another way, though:

1. Theists conclude that God exists from arguments that depend on the ultimate intelligibility of reality
2. possibly, reality is not ultimately intelligible
...
3. I am a three sided square

Ty said...

"1. Theists conclude that God exists from arguments that depend on the ultimate intelligibility of reality
2. possibly, reality is not ultimately intelligible
...
3. I am a three sided square"


I lol'd.

Johannes said...

One last try.

Re Scott 9:41 AM:

***
Greg: ... They conclude that the physical universe on its own would not be intelligible without Subsistent Being, but that is not an "assumption."

Johannes: I never said that was an assumption.
***

In my response, it is clear that "that" refers to the statement "the physical universe on its own would not be intelligible without Subsistent Being". THAT statement is totally different from my assumption B, and also it is clearly a conclusion, not an assumption.

Greg got it right in 9:43 AM:

***
It strikes me that perhaps you would not liken the Thomist's position here ("that the physical universe on its own would not be intelligible without Subsistent Being") to your "Assumption B", and that is why you are saying that you never called it an "assumption."
***

Exactly! The statement between () is totally different from my assumption B! And also, as I just said, it is clearly a conclusion, not an assumption.

***
But in that case, your "Assumption B" should not be attributed to classical theists, for they clearly (as you would then be conceding) do not rely on it.
***

So, classical theists do NOT "hold that reality as a whole ... actually corresponds with reason through the laws of metaphysics (or of philosophy, or of whatever is the precise name that goes there)"? That is new to me.

@Matt Shehan

First, the position I am describing is not mine. I am Catholic. I was trying to help understand the agnostic position. (BTW, I should have said "agnostic" instead of "atheist" in my previous comments.)

Second, the agnostic's conclusion is clearly not that "Atheism is true" but, as I wrote in 5:49 AM, that "while the explanation offered by the theist philosopher is formally correct, i.e. in accordance to reason, it may not actually describe reality as a whole."

Which is exactly what you said, just changing "may" to "might":

***
I don't see how one can get anything stronger from that line of argument than 'might'.
***

Finally, it is amusing, and sad at the same time, that I got so much flak when all I was trying to do was to help understand the agnostic position in order to help develop a more effective exposition of the theist position. Not regarding its formal rigor, but the plausibility of its agreement with actual reality.


Johannes said...

My last comment should have ended with:

"the plausibility of its actual agreement with reality."

Now yes, time to leave.

Greg said...

The statement between () is totally different from my assumption B! And also, as I just said, it is clearly a conclusion, not an assumption.

I don't think it is "totally different." If it is true that the theist can demonstrate "that the physical universe on its own would not be intelligible without Subsistent Being," then it is false that the theist relies on your Assumption B, or that Assumption B is an extrapolation from Fact A. (If the theist can locate the source of being and intelligibility in God, then he has no need for assuming "that reality as a whole ... actually corresponds with reason through the laws of metaphysics.")

William Dunkirk said...

Friendly fire. Which is about as aptly named as civil war.

Scott said...

@Johannes:

"In my response, it is clear that 'that' refers to the statement 'the physical universe on its own would not be intelligible without Subsistent Being'."

No, that's not clear at all. In the post of Greg's to which you were replying, it is clear that Greg meant something like this: "The basis for the theistic argument is not the assumption you describe. It does come to a conclusion that superficially resembles it, but that's a conclusion, not an assumption." Greg wasn't misrepresenting your statements; you just seized on the final sentence of the paragraph and ignored the rest of the context.

"THAT statement is totally different from my assumption B, and also it is clearly a conclusion, not an assumption. . . . The statement between () is totally different from my assumption B!"

No, it isn't, but Greg has already covered that.

"So, classical theists do NOT 'hold that reality as a whole ... actually corresponds with reason through the laws of metaphysics (or of philosophy, or of whatever is the precise name that goes there)'? That is new to me."

I'm not quite sure what you mean by "corresponds with reason through the laws of metaphysics," but if you mean that theists don't hold that reality as a whole is intelligible, then no, you're still mistaken. Classical theists most certainly do hold this—just not as an assumption.

"[I]t is amusing, and sad at the same time, that I got so much flak when all I was trying to do was to help understand the agnostic position in order to help develop a more effective exposition of the theist position. Not regarding its formal rigor, but the plausibility of its agreement with actual reality."

The only "flak" you got was for misunderstanding/misrepresenting the arguments of theists. If your point was just that atheists/agnostics misunderstand those arguments in the same way, then you should probably have made that clearer. But I don't think that's what you meant; as far as I can tell, you just misunderstood the arguments and got tetchy when people told you as much.

Scott said...

"Now yes, time to leave."

Your opinions and questions are welcome here, and I'm sure I'm not alone in saying so. But frankly, if you can't put up with a bit of disagreement: heat, kitchen, door, ass.

David T said...

Scott,

Yes, I'm seeing it now. Even in my example, it's true to say that the fire must have been started by a fire-starting thing, even if you didn't know about the lightning. And it's not circular since it reflects a genuine metaphysical insight… it only seems circular since, being metaphysical, it's not subject to empirical disconfirmation (since it is about the very nature of being empirical.)

Scott said...

@David T:

Good, it sounds like the devil's advocate has been satisfied. ;-)

donjindra said...

"A serious critic must therefore show that there is something wrong with the purported explanation of X; merely to suggest that X might not have one is not a serious response at all."

This is a straw man. The critic is not merely saying X might not have an explanation. He's generally saying one of two things: The so-called explanation doesn't explain anything, or the explanation needs just as much explanation as X if it's to be taken seriously.

The fact is, whatever the metaphysics, there's always going to be some base we'll have to call X which cannot be explained. To call this base unintelligible" is to misuse the word.

The issue is really this: is X ultimately an empirical base or a logical base?

Scott said...

@donjindra:

"This is a straw man. The critic is not merely saying X might not have an explanation."

Since Johannes (speaking on behalf of the critic) said precisely that, it's pretty clearly not a straw man.

Scott said...

"The fact is, whatever the metaphysics, there's always going to be some base we'll have to call X which cannot be explained."

. . . or is self-explanatory. If you have an argument that the latter isn't the case, let's hear it; otherwise you're just begging the question.

Greg said...

@donjindra
The critic is not merely saying X might not have an explanation. He's generally saying one of two things: The so-called explanation doesn't explain anything, or the explanation needs just as much explanation as X if it's to be taken seriously.

You are saying that the critic is questioning the adequacy of a "first cause" sort of explanation for reality--either it does not explain, or it needs explanation itself.

While Parsons has questioned whether it makes sense for there to be a "self-explanatory being" (and I imagine Oerter would be similarly skeptical), he has not really spelled out the objection in much detail (he refers to some modern philosophers and asks whether "actuality" can be extended to the contexts in which Ed uses it). What they have both asserted is that brute facts are coherent and can act as the basis for an intelligible reality. Parsons, for instance, says:

I see no reason why that ultimate reality cannot be the original, fundamental, or primordial—and brutally factual—physical reality. Where is the incoherence? A brute fact would be a state of affairs that just is, with no cause or explanation of its existence or nature. There seems to be nothing about the idea of a brute fact per se that entails a logical contradiction.

And that was of course the whole point of Oerter's example:

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?

So the bulk of the critiques seems to be focused on asserting the possibility of brute facts (or the possibility of an intelligible reality that bottoms out brute factually).

So Ed's comment does not at all seem to be a straw man, for both of those whom he has recently engaged have made the claim that "X might not have an explanation" because, possibly, X is a brute fact.

donjindra said...


Greg,

"So Ed's comment does not at all seem to be a straw man, for both of those whom he has recently engaged have made the claim that 'X might not have an explanation' because, possibly, X is a brute fact."

I didn't read through all the comments so maybe this was covered. But it seems to me that Oerter's lightning example was not meant to show lightning has no explanation, but that the fire has a good explanation in the lightning. And that to understand the cause of the fire, we don't have to look for that butterfly in Argentina that set off the chain of events that culminated in a thunderstorm in California which produced the lightning. The fire is perfectly intelligible and coherent without looking further than the lightning.

So it's not that the lightning -- considered as brute fact -- has no explanation. It's that no explanation of the cause of the lightning is required to make the cause of the fire intelligible.

It's not that X might not have an explanation, it's that it doesn't necessarily need one.

No matter who is speaking, there's always going to be a fundamental, "we don't need to explain this." That certainly goes for Aristotelian metaphysics too.


Glenn said...

donjindra,

So it's not that the lightning -- considered as brute fact -- has no explanation. It's that no explanation of the cause of the lightning is required to make the cause of the fire intelligible.

Au contraire.

It's not that no explanation of the cause of the lightning is required to make the cause of the fire intelligible. It's that lightening as a brute fact does not make the cause of the fire intelligible.

OP:

"Whatever we think of the regularity view of laws, we might yet wonder whether other kinds of thing might be genuinely explanatory even if they were brute facts. Wouldn't Oerter’s imagined bolt of lightning be a good example?

"I would say that on analysis it would not be. Consider first that..."

Whereas you provide a crisp assertion, without analysis, that lightening as a brute fact is explanatory, Dr. Feser provides a cogent argument as to why, on analysis, lightening as a brute fact is not genuinely explanatory.

donjindra said...

Glenn,

I'll pass over the contrived dual standard of "epistemological brute fact" versus "metaphysical brute fact." When a news reporter says lightning caused a fire, everyone -- including a naturalist -- knows exactly what the meaning is. They don't have to consult Aristotle's metaphysics. My objection is to Feser's misuse of words. When the man on the street understands perfectly well what the news reporter says, it's kind of silly to say the report is unintelligible or incoherent.

Furthermore, if --

Lightning "actualizes the potentiality of whatever foliage it strikes to catch fire"

-- then how is this "potentiality" anything more than another "brute fact?"

IOW, please explain to me where the potential to burst into fire came from? Why not the potential to freeze solid? Please explain how it got this tendency rather than the other.

The short answer is that it just does. Another "brute fact." That's all this "potentiality" is.


dover_beach said...

"I'll pass over the contrived dual standard of "epistemological brute fact" versus "metaphysical brute fact.""

You shouldn't just pass over it. Your incapacity to recognize the possibility of the former and the impossibility of the latter is the cause of your misunderstanding about brute facts as discussed in this post.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Yoy're wasting your time arguing with donjindra.

Greg said...

@donjindra,
But it seems to me that Oerter's lightning example was not meant to show lightning has no explanation, but that the fire has a good explanation in the lightning.

I acknowledged this when I said: "What they have both asserted is that brute facts are coherent and can act as the basis for an intelligible reality," and: "So the bulk of the critiques seems to be focused on asserting the possibility of brute facts (or the possibility of an intelligible reality that bottoms out brute factually)." The question is about whether a brute fact can have intelligible effects.

And that to understand the cause of the fire, we don't have to look for that butterfly in Argentina that set off the chain of events that culminated in a thunderstorm in California which produced the lightning. The fire is perfectly intelligible and coherent without looking further than the lightning.

So it's not that the lightning -- considered as brute fact -- has no explanation. It's that no explanation of the cause of the lightning is required to make the cause of the fire intelligible.

It's not that X might not have an explanation, it's that it doesn't necessarily need one.
[...]
When a news reporter says lightning caused a fire, everyone -- including a naturalist -- knows exactly what the meaning is. They don't have to consult Aristotle's metaphysics. My objection is to Feser's misuse of words. When the man on the street understands perfectly well what the news reporter says, it's kind of silly to say the report is unintelligible or incoherent.


I originally responded to Oerter's example of the lightning by saying, "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." And: "If the proximate cause of A is brute, I think we only equivocally have an "explanation." The "understanding" is knowledge of a cause." So what I am not saying is that if the lightning is a brute fact, then when we look at the lightning striking the tree, we cannot make understand that it is lightning striking a tree.

What you seem to be doing is conflating the interest relativity of causes with intelligibility. Take two cases. In case A, a man's house burns down due to a forest fire, which was caused by arson. In case B, a man's house burns down due to a forest fire, which has no explanation for its beginning.

Clearly if all the man cares about is saving his house, then in either case he can stop the fire before it burns his house down, and that will satisfy his own interests. That does not imply that the cases are equally intelligible.

There is a huge explanatory difference between a fire caused by arson and a fire with no explanation. Try telling the man that the fire was the proximate cause of his house's burning, and that is explanatorily sufficient, so he does not need to worry about the arsonist.

To take your butterfly example in connection with "stopping" the fire: the knowledge of the butterfly effect is somewhat relevant if we think of it in this respect. A brutally factual fire initiates a causal chain that can only be stopped by quenching the fire. If the chain initiated with the butterfly, then we could stop it at any point (say, by killing the butterfly). In a given case, we might not be able to, but again, there is a world of difference. No one is saying that it doesn't make sense to say that the fire burnt down the house. But the fire's burning down the house is unintelligible if the fire is unintelligible.

This suggests another point: to allow brute facts in our ontology has the result of massively overdetermining everything that is the result of a causal chain, since we could excise particular causes and say that it is sufficiently explained by the remaining, brute-factual chain.

Scott said...

Jeremy Taylor wrote:

"Yoy're wasting your time arguing with donjindra."

Yeah, it's a bit like chasing a parked car.

Glenn said...

donjindra,

When a news reporter says lightning caused a fire, everyone -- including a naturalist -- knows exactly what the meaning is.

Sure.

When a news reporter says 'lightning caused a fire', it means:

a) that the reporter isn't mentioning that lightning is not a necessary cause of fire [1];

b) that the reporter isn't mentioning that lightning is not a sufficient cause of fire [2];

c) that the reporter isn't mentioning that knowing that fire can follow a lightning strike neither constitutes an explanation as to why nor entails an understanding as to how lightning may be a contributing cause in an incident of fire; and,

d) that the reporter isn't mentioning that, "Whether or not lightning will actually start a fire once it hits the ground depends on a lot of factors." [3]

- - - - -

[1] Flick a Bic lighter.

[2] Better than 99.9% of cloud-to-ground lightning flashes are not followed by fire (see here and here (some assembly required)).

[3] See here.

donjindra said...

There's a lot I could respond to, but I'll stick to the crux of the matter, the matter no one addressed.

Feser wrote: "Something would be a brute fact in the metaphysical sense if it did not, as a matter of objective fact, have any explanation or intelligibility in the first place. 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."

So let me ask again. How is "potentiality" not that metaphysical brute fact?

I'll elaborate. Lightning can cause a dry tree to ignite. We're told the lightning activates one of the tree's potentialities. The tree doesn't double in size when lightning strikes it. Lightning doesn't seem to be able to activate that potentiality, or the tree doesn't have it at all. How do we know all this? We observe what trees do when lightning strikes. We assume, since we've never seen it happen, that trees don't double in size when lightning strikes. There's no "metaphysical" reason they couldn't. In fact, if lightning did strike a tree tomorrow and it doubled in size, from then on we would feel justified in saying, when it happened a second and third time, that we have an explanation as to why the tree doubled in size. But we don't expect to see this happen. We see regularities in tree behavior and assume we'll always see the same regularities. We assume our limited sample of observations covers all cases we'll observe in the future. This, we are told, is because trees have a nature, or "potentiality" to behave only in a limited number of ways under certain circumstances.

But why do trees behave so consistently? Why don't they behave randomly? There's no "metaphysical' reason they should doggedly stick to their patterns. The fact that trees have only a limited number of outcomes (whatever they might be) depending on inputs looks suspiciously like a brute fact in itself. "Potentiality" in nature, in the general sense, has no explanation. In Feser's words, "it’s not merely that we can’t discover any explanation, it’s that there isn‘t one there to be discovered."

I could substitute "final cause" or "efficient cause" for "potentiality" and ask similar questions.

Glenn said...

donjindra,

There's a lot I could respond to, but I'll stick to the crux of the matter, the matter no one addressed.

The matter which you say no one has addressed is frequently addressed on this blog, both in OPs and in comments. And though you have been reading here for years, i.e., though over a period of years you have read many OPs and comments in which the matter is addressed, and though you have previously claimed on this blog to have an adequate understanding of the chip on your shoulder and your obdurate attitude blind you to it.

Feser wrote: "Something would be a brute fact in the metaphysical sense if it did not, as a matter of objective fact, have any explanation or intelligibility in the first place. 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." **

So let me ask again. How is "potentiality" not that metaphysical brute fact?


That "potentiality" is not that metaphysical brute fact is so for two reasons:

1) "potentiality" does not lack an explanation; and,

2) "potentiality" is not lacking in intelligibility.
- - - - -

** Note that it is not a corollary of Dr. Feser's brief, quasi-definition of what qualifies a metaphysical something as a metaphysical brute fact that a metaphysical brute fact is a metaphysical something the explanation of which Don Jindra does not understand and the intelligibility of which he denies.

Glenn said...

Oops. s/b "...and though you have previously claimed on this blog to have an adequate understanding of Aristotle, if not A-T, the chip on your shoulder..."

Greg said...

@donjindra,

Glenn made good points, but a couple others are worth mentioning.

But why do trees behave so consistently? Why don't they behave randomly? There's no "metaphysical' reason they should doggedly stick to their patterns. The fact that trees have only a limited number of outcomes (whatever they might be) depending on inputs looks suspiciously like a brute fact in itself.

There's no metaphysical reasons for trees to behave consistently on the Humean understanding that regularities are themselves brute facts. But if, as the Aristotelian claims, regularities are rooted in intrinsic dispositions, then regularities are only "brute" modulo an entity's existence and subsistence. But since an entity's existence and subsistence can and must be explained, regularities aren't brute at all.

"Potentiality" in nature, in the general sense, has no explanation.

In the general sense, perhaps. But that is because potentiality does not properly exist apart from actuality, and the potentialities of a substance are parasitic upon what it is, which is not brute.

donjindra said...

"1) "potentiality" does not lack an explanation; and,"

I note you haven't given that explanation. It has not been explained here in the past, either -- except possibly in vague terms which suffer the same problem.

donjindra said...

Greg,

"In the general sense, perhaps." -- Exactly, and it doesn't matter why you think it needs no explanation. It doesn't matter that you want to tie it "parasitically" to this or that, which just muddies the water from where I sit.

Glenn said...

donjindra,

I note you haven't given that explanation.

As your view of metaphysical explanations and/or explanations of metaphysical things is that they amount to nothing more than rhetorical games, I'll take it that you are saying that you note that I haven't played rhetorical games, and so will thank you for this apparent compliment.

And since you don't like rhetorical games, perhaps you can clear something up for us.

You have claimed to have an adequate understanding of Aristotle, if not A-T, and you have claimed to not understand potentiality. As these two claims are incongruous, either your claim to adequately understand Aristotle, if not A-T, is a pretense, or your claim not to understand potentiality is a pretense.

Inquiring minds would like to know: which of your two claims is genuine, and which a pretense?

Kirill Nielson said...

Glenn,

Allow me to ask, as I'm still learning about Thomism.

Is it not true that any metaphysical account of existence is based on "that's the way it is?" I mean, the chain of explanation cannot go on forever. At some point, you have to stop and say, "It just so happens"?

So it just so happens that any object has potentiality and actuality. Is that not a metaphysical crude fact?

And more importantly, who cares if there are metaphysical crude facts? That does not affect the First Way, as it deals with PHYSICAL crude facts.

Greg said...

@donjindra,

"In the general sense, perhaps." -- Exactly, and it doesn't matter why you think it needs no explanation. It doesn't matter that you want to tie it "parasitically" to this or that, which just muddies the water from where I sit.

I am sorry, but my slight concession does not appear to get you anywhere near where you want to be. I mean that potentiality in the abstract--apart from any substantial form--does not have an explanation, in that there is not some general explanation for all potentiality as such.

But that is because potentiality in the abstract and apart from any substantial form does not exist. So it is the case that any particular potentiality is adequately explained by the actuality of the existence and subsistence of its respective substance, which is precisely what the Aristotelian claims.

Glenn said...

Kirill,

Is it not true that any metaphysical account of existence is based on "that's the way it is?" I mean, the chain of explanation cannot go on forever. At some point, you have to stop and say, "It just so happens"?

Briefly, the chain going back doesn't stop because "it just so happens [that]", but because "it must be the case that".

So it just so happens that any object has potentiality and actuality. Is that not a metaphysical crude fact?

That an object has potentiality and actuality may be taken, i.e., held, as a crude fact, but that the potentiality and actuality have an explanation and are intelligible means that that an object has potentiality and actuality is not a metaphysical brute fact.

And more importantly, who cares if there are metaphysical crude facts?

People who think that such facts are serviceable in an explanatory capacity, and people who think that such facts are not so serviceable. This does not meant that everyone is obligated to care, but does indicate why some people do care.

That does not affect the First Way, as it deals with PHYSICAL crude facts.

They are used as a starting point in the ratiocination of the First Way, yes.

dover_beach said...

"Briefly, the chain going back doesn't stop because "it just so happens [that]", but because "it must be the case that"."

Precisely. You concisely and elegantly distinguish a conclusion which is a brute fact, from one that is both self-explanatory and intelligible.

dover_beach said...

Actually, a brute fact is not a conclusion, properly speaking, because it is a placeholder that in principle can never be cashed-out, being, as it is, unintelligible.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Glenn,

Don is a troll who has been told not to post here. He most certainly does not have a good understanding of A-T, but this does not stop him making assertions about it whilst avoiding real, constructive discussion.

Glenn said...

Jeremy,

My last question to him was a rhetorical one. But, yes, I had completely forgotten that he had been banned. Thank you for the reminder. Accessory no more.

Scott said...

@Jeremy Taylor:

My thanks as well. I didn't know he'd been told not to post here.

Step2 said...

There is a huge explanatory difference between a fire caused by arson and a fire with no explanation.

That's only true if there is a way to prove beyond a reasonable doubt it was arson. If there is no strong evidence it is better to conclude there is no explanation rather than try to unjustly blame someone.

Similarly, offering God as an explanation of the universe, on account of the fact that we need such an explanation, isn't to show that the universe in fact has an explanation, but only shows our inventiveness in creating "explanations" when we demand them.

I would say the main problem is when skeptics ask for a sufficient reason why God created this particular universe and as an explanation we get a bunch of negative theology riddles wrapped in a Trinitarian mystery inside an infinite enigma with a dash of intrigue.

Greg said...

@Step2,

That's only true if there is a way to prove beyond a reasonable doubt it was arson. If there is no strong evidence it is better to conclude there is no explanation rather than try to unjustly blame someone.

You're right that we should not conclude that it was arson if we don't have evidence for that. That does not imply that "it is better to conclude there is no explanation," though; it implies that it is better to conclude that there is some other explanation (or to remain agnostic about what the particular explanation is).

Scott said...

@Step2:

"That's only true if there is a way to prove beyond a reasonable doubt it was arson. If there is no strong evidence it is better to conclude there is no explanation rather than try to unjustly blame someone."

Epistemically, sure, but that leaves the metaphysical issue untouched. Again, the fact that we don't have a satisfying and 100% warranted explanation doesn't mean there isn't one.

The point of Greg's example was that the homeowner's interest affects what he'll take to be a sufficient explanation for his purposes. Even if we couldn't identify an arsonist beyond reasonable doubt, or even be sure the cause was arson at all, the homeowner trying to identify the cause of the fire isn't going to be satisfied by being told that "the fire was the proximate cause of his house's burning, and that is explanatorily sufficient." He thinks there is (metaphysically) a more complete (indeed comprehensive) explanation even if we don't yet have one (epistemologically), and even if, practically speaking, we can't get one.

I see Greg has replied while I was typing this, so please take the preceding paragraph as an amplification of/addendum to his post.

Scott said...

(I should perhaps clarify that in saying, "Epistemically, sure," I'm agreeing just that it would be better under those circumstances to conclude that an explanation isn't be epistemologically available to us, not that there isn't one at all.)

donjindra said...

Greg,

"I mean that potentiality in the abstract--apart from any substantial form--does not have an explanation, in that there is not some general explanation for all potentiality as such...But that is because potentiality in the abstract and apart from any substantial form does not exist."

And I'm accused of a rhetorical game?

If "potentiality" is "actualized" in the same manner every time then it does indeed "exist," not as material substance but as a Socratic "form' or a pattern or whatever you want to call it. If you cannot explain why that regularity happens, it boils down to a brute fact.

"any particular potentiality is adequately explained by the actuality of the existence and subsistence of its respective substance"

IOW, you have found something you feel does not need explanation, like I find laws of nature need no explanation.

Of course some people don't want me around here. And, honestly, I've lost a lot of interest in this A-T stuff since it's clear there will be no serious answers forthcoming.

David M said...

@donjindra,

"If "potentiality" is "actualized" in the same manner every time then it does indeed "exist,"..."

Hmmm... But 'potentiality in the abstract' (which is what Greg was talking about) is not 'actualized in the same manner every time' - that's a ridiculous claim.

It's rather amusing and embarrassing when you consistently and dogmatically interpret your own lack of success in understanding various concepts and explanations as evidence that the people explaining those concepts are not giving you any clear answers. Can't you see that there are other possibilities - e.g., that you're just not getting it? - and that in light of this the sensible thing to do would be to evince a little more humility? Do you think it might be a 'brute fact' that you just don't get it? And that if you were more open to learning, and less prone to jumping to the conclusion that you understand what you're talking about, regardless of how many people tell you that you don't, then maybe you would be able to 'get it'?

Greg said...

@donjindra,

And I'm accused of a rhetorical game?

As DavidM indicates, I'm talking about potentiality in the abstract. I found your original usage of the term--""Potentiality" in nature, in the general sense, has no explanation."--vague. To speak of ""potentiality in nature, in the general sense" seems not to directly distinguish from particular potentialities.

If "potentiality" is "actualized" in the same manner every time then it does indeed "exist," not as material substance but as a Socratic "form' or a pattern or whatever you want to call it. If you cannot explain why that regularity happens, it boils down to a brute fact.
[...]
IOW, you have found something you feel does not need explanation, like I find laws of nature need no explanation.


A tree tends (lets say) to light on fire when struck by lightning. You are saying that even given Aristotelian forms (I suppose--I don't know where "Socratic" comes from), this regularity remains brutally factual.

But you seem to be inverting the order of explanation in Ed's argument. We observe such regularities. We posit forms with final causes because we don't believe that they are brutally factual. And contrary to your insistence, the Thomist does not then throw up his hands, believing that hhe has "found something [he feels] does not need explanation," for this is precisely where arguments like Aquinas's Second and Fifth Ways begin.

You say that the invocation of Aristotelian substances as an alternative to Humean causation is still the invocation of brute facts. But the Thomist explicitly argues that explanations of substantial unity and finality are still required, and that those explanations terminate in God.

Greg said...

To speak of ""potentiality in nature, in the general sense" seems not to directly distinguish from particular potentialities.

Sorry, I mean that to speak of potentiality "in the general sense" does seem to distinguish from particular potentialities. It seems to accuse potency (as opposed to act) as lacking in explanation "globally." That was my interpretation, but since it seems entirely foreign to you, I'm guessing it was not your intention.

dover_beach said...

"If "potentiality" is "actualized" in the same manner every time then it does indeed "exist," not as material substance but as a Socratic "form' or a pattern or whatever you want to call it. If you cannot explain why that regularity happens, it boils down to a brute fact."

It looks to you like a brute fact because you continue to wear Humean spectacles where dispositions still look to you as if they Humean regularities that lack explanation.

"IOW, you have found something you feel does not need explanation, like I find laws of nature need no explanation."

Again, no, within A-T metaphysics, the laws of nature do have an explanation; however, the laws of nature understood within a Humean background appear brutally factual.

donjindra said...


DavidM,

It's possible I don't understand. It's possible you don't understand. It's more likely neither of us understand. I'm regularly astonished at how much I don't know. But I prefer to stick to pertinent issues rather than looking for personal faults.

"But 'potentiality in the abstract' (which is what Greg was talking about) is not 'actualized in the same manner every time' - that's a ridiculous claim."

I admit I don't understand what you mean by that. It's true that sometimes when we strike a match it doesn't ignite, but I think we all agree that when it doesn't ignite it's not because the match itself changed its set of potentialities.


David M said...

donjindra:

"It's possible I don't understand. It's possible you don't understand. It's more likely neither of us understand."

I don't know Greg, we aren't collaborating behind your back, and it seems from his response to both of our comments that I understood his comment (and understood what it was that you failed to understand) and you did not. That's one reason why it can be helpful to get third party input. In this case it indicates that you are indeed the one not understanding the claims being made (whether or not those claims are ultimately true).

"I'm regularly astonished at how much I don't know. But I prefer to stick to pertinent issues rather than looking for personal faults."

Which begs the question: why do you assume that your personal faults (e.g., your arrogance, your lack of willingness to learn) are not a 'pertinent issue' here?

"It's true that sometimes when we strike a match it doesn't ignite, but I think we all agree that when it doesn't ignite it's not because the match itself changed its set of potentialities."

Yes, we agree about that. But what does that have to do with anything Greg (or I, or Feser, or anyone) said? Matches, as such (assuming they are non-defective), always have the potentiality of igniting when struck. But 'potentiality in the abstract' is not always actualized in 'the potentialities of matches'! That would only be true if everything other than God was a match (which, I believe, is not the case).

Scott said...

To put the relevant point another way (and, I hope, succinctly and accurately):

The actualization of every potency has its own explanation. That doesn't mean there's a single explanation for the actualization of potency as such, because there's no such thing as "potency as such."

donjindra said...

DavidM

"But 'potentiality in the abstract' is not always actualized in 'the potentialities of matches'!"

What in the world are you talking about? Either matches have the same set of possible potentialities from moment to moment or they do not. These potentialities are actualized in the same ways when excited by the same externals or they are not. If they are not, you cannot possibly be a follower of Aristotle.

That consistency is indeed a 'brute fact.'

As for my "arrogance," that's your invention and has nothing to do with these issues.

Ty said...

Methinks the trouble lies in different understandings of "explanation". It's been awhile since I've read TLS + Aquinas, and I'm getting lost here.

Can anyone give me a brief summary?

You don't have to. It would just be nice.

Thanks,

Ty

Robert Oerter said...

As usual, I'm late to the party.

Since my comment got rather long, I've posted it on my blog:
http://somewhatabnormal.blogspot.com/2014/03/facts-brute-and-otherwise.html

Scott said...

@Robert Oerter:

"As usual, I'm late to the party."

Not at all. The party doesn't start until you're here. ;-)

In the interests of space I'll just offer a couple of short replies that I think go to the heart of the matter. You write:

[W]e can provide a [deductive-nomological] explanation of the forest fire as follows:

1. L1: Lightning causes fires.
2. C1: There was a lightning strike.

Under the D-N model, the lightning strike is an explanation of the forest fire, even if we have no explanation of the lightning itself (i.e, it was a brute fact).


Now, I see two major problems with this.

The first problem is that according to Ed (and me, for whatever that's worth), if the lightning really were a "brute fact," you wouldn't have L1 at all. In accepting L1, you're already implicitly acknowledging that lightning is intelligible (and indeed known to you) at least as a cause of fire, and therefore also as something whose own potencies require actualization by something else. (Ed already discusses these points at some length in the OP in this thread, and I don't see that you've given any response to his arguments.) If, that is, we know what lightning is well enough to know that it can cause fires, then we already know that it (or its occurrence, or the fact that it causes fires) isn't a "brute fact."

The other problem is that, despite Ed's careful and explicit distinction between "metaphysical" and "epistemological" brute facts, you seem yet again to be equating our not having an explanation with there not being one. At most, your example (if otherwise sound) would show that your proposed D-N explanation is successful as far as it goes even when we don't have an explanation for the occurrence of the lightning, a point with which I don't think anyone has disagreed.

In other words, if you omit your final parenthetical remark equating our not having an explanation with something's actually being a brute fact, your example isn't on point—and if you include it, you're begging the very question at issue while ignoring the fact that Ed has already explicitly addressed it.

[S]cientific explanations of the kind I've been talking about have a stunning record of success. Engines, TVs, computers, cell phones - all of modern technology stems from our ability to explain things in terms of unifying regularities. In contrast, Aristotelian explanation has been around for more than 2000 years: what practical successes can it claim?

Explaining why science has such a stunning record of success—and encouraging it not to cut off the branch on which it's standing by adopting incoherent messes like the D-N model.

Here again, you seem to think that Aristotelianism/Thomism is supposed to offer some sort of alternative to ordinary scientific explanations. On the contrary, any A-T philosopher worth his or her salt will refer anyone who asks to those very explanations (and, in general, to defer happily to empirical science on empirical questions).

But the fact that those explanations are successful doesn't mean they're not partial. They are so, in the sense that, in order for them to be genuine explanations, they have to be part of an overall intelligible system. At least that's what's under discussion here, and to recast the matter as though science and A-T were offering rival scientific explanations is to miss the point.

David M said...

@donjindra:

"What in the world are you talking about?"

Brute fact: If you still don't know, then I fear it may be a waste of time (for me, Scott, Greg, or anyone else) trying to explain. (Is it possibly possible for you to try harder to understand?)

"Either matches have the same set of possible potentialities from moment to moment or they do not. These potentialities are actualized in the same ways when excited by the same externals or they are not. If they are not, you cannot possibly be a follower of Aristotle."

That is false and irrelevant. And the all-too-obvious fact remains that 'potentiality in the abstract' is not the same as 'potentiality in a match.'

"As for my "arrogance," that's your invention and has nothing to do with these issues."

No and not so. (And I think you really need to pick up a few books and ground yourself in some fundamentals if you want to engage in any kind of intelligent, constructive debate on these issues. I think people would be more ready to overlook your belligerence and arrogance if you weren't so ignorant.)

Scott said...

(I should probably clarify that I don't think the D-N model is an incoherent mess considered purely as a "model" and applied strictly within its fairly narrow scope. But it's an incoherent mess to whatever extent it's taken to be a complete metaphysical account of what "explanation" is.)

Brandon said...

[S]cientific explanations of the kind I've been talking about have a stunning record of success.

This is a pretty serious elision of two different topics. We aren't talking here about scientific explanations as opposed to other explanations; we're talking about what is required to have a genuine explanation at all, which means that the point at hand is what is actually involved in scientific explanation that makes it explanation at all. The D-N model has only been around since Hempel, and its problems are widely recognized: it needs to distinguish between universal law and accidental generalization and no attempt to distinguish them in a way that stays within the D-N framework has ever succeeded; it allows 'explanations' that appear to be irrelevant; it treats explanation as a symmetrical relation in contrast to common practices of explanation; it doesn't handle statistical explanation well; it apparently cannot give an adequate account of explanatory reduction and elimination; it consistently makes an utter mess of biological and historical explanations; and the kinds of explanations it seems to fit best are often pseudoscientific rather than scientific. It has largely been dead in the water as a serious account of scientific explanation even among strong naturalists for the past thirty years.

So the D-N model of explanation does not share at all in the success of scientific explanation itself; and it pretty clearly does do a worse job of accounting for a wide variety of scientific explanations than the Aristotelian model of explanation does, even if (as serious naturalists today generally hold) there is another model of explanation that is better than either.

David M said...

@Scott, addressing Oerter:

"[S]cientific explanations of the kind I've been talking about have a stunning record of success. Engines, TVs, computers, cell phones - all of modern technology stems from our ability to explain things in terms of unifying regularities. In contrast, Aristotelian explanation has been around for more than 2000 years: what practical successes can it claim?"

Explaining why science has such a stunning record of success—and encouraging it not to cut off the branch on which it's standing by adopting incoherent messes like the D-N model.


For the most part I think Scott's reply is accurate, sufficient, and elegant. But I'm not sure Aristotelian explanation explains any 'stunning record of success' of 'scientific' explanation, as if 'scientific' explanations, qua explanations which we can (usefully) invoke when making stuff, directly depended on the deeper (Aristotelian) framework of explanation. The reason for this is that these 'explanations,' insofar as they can be instrumentalized, are insensitive to whether or not the person using them understands the necessary conditions for their existence. But when it comes to understanding and assessing the very notion of something like 'practical success,' 'scientific' explanation is of no use (there is no purely 'scientific' (non-teleological) account of anything like 'practical success'), so for Oerter to demand an account of the 'practical success' of any kind of 'non-scientific' explanation already proves that he is in need of some kind of 'non-scientific' explanation in order to intelligibly pose his question in the first place. So the question to him becomes: Do you really want to ask that question?

Scott said...

@David M:

"I'm not sure Aristotelian explanation explains any 'stunning record of success' of 'scientific' explanation, as if 'scientific' explanations, qua explanations which we can (usefully) invoke when making stuff, directly depended on the deeper (Aristotelian) framework of explanation."

I think you're absolutely right that scientific/technological explanations don't depend on Aristotelian explanations in that sense. But I'd call that an epistemological sense rather than a metaphysical one, and make much the same distinction we've already made in the previous discussion: the A-T framework of explanation accounts metaphysically for the fact that practical explanations work, even though we don't epistemologically have to know that ourselves while developing and using those explanations. And it was the former that I had in mind.

"[F]or Oerter to demand an account of the 'practical success' of any kind of 'non-scientific' explanation already proves that he is in need of some kind of 'non-scientific' explanation in order to intelligibly pose his question in the first place."

That is true and an excellent point.

David M said...

@Scott:

"I think you're absolutely right that scientific/technological explanations don't depend on Aristotelian explanations in that sense. But I'd call that an epistemological sense rather than a metaphysical one, and make much the same distinction we've already made in the previous discussion: the A-T framework of explanation accounts metaphysically for the fact that practical explanations work, even though we don't epistemologically have to know that ourselves while developing and using those explanations."

Okay, but it seems to me that there is an order of instrumentalization, i.e., the order strictly of being able to make neat stuff that 'works' - and this is the level of reality that people like Oerter always appeal to. And the explanations required at this level - that of 'art' (or technology) - are insensitive to whether or not the person using them understands the necessary conditions, i.e., broader explanations, metaphysical or epistemological, for their existence.

David M said...

...IOW, the person tempted by philistinism points to the success of the 'craftsman' and say, "Behold; there is our foundation - what more need have we for understanding reality (metaphysics) or for justifying our knowledge (epistemology)?"

Scott said...

@David M:

"Okay, but it seems to me that there is an order of instrumentalization, i.e., the order strictly of being able to make neat stuff that 'works' - and this is the level of reality that people like Oerter always appeal to. And the explanations required at this level - that of 'art' (or technology) - are insensitive to whether or not the person using them understands the necessary conditions, i.e., broader explanations, metaphysical or epistemological, for their existence."

Fair enough; I certainly agree that this level exists. I'm less sure, though, that it's the level to which Oerter is appealing; such an appeal wouldn't appear to support his claim that it was Science® (and not just "know-how") that made all this neat stuff technologically possible. At the very least his claim seems to depend on our being able to articulate general laws—someone's ability, that is, not necessarily the artisan's/craftsman's. But I may be wrong.

donjindra said...

DavidM,

"That is false and irrelevant. And the all-too-obvious fact remains that 'potentiality in the abstract' is not the same as 'potentiality in a match.'"

Please explain what was false, why it is false, and how the second sentence has meaningful content.

David M said...

@donjindra:

"Either matches have the same set of possible potentialities from moment to moment or they do not. [That's true, but irrelevant.] These potentialities are actualized in the same ways when excited by the same externals or they are not. [That's true, but irrelevant.] If they are not, you cannot possibly be a follower of Aristotle. [That's false, and irrelevant. Where do you think Aristotle claims that natural potencies are always actualized in the same ways when excited by the same externals?]"

To your second question, I take it you don't understand the meaning of the phrase 'in the abstract'? For some reason you think it is synonymous with the phrase 'in a match'? With due respect, dictionaries are often helpful in such a situation.