Thursday, April 3, 2014

Welcome to the machine


Not too long ago I attended a conference on theology and technology sponsored by First Things.  Unsurprisingly, the question arose whether modern technology is on balance a good or bad thing, and the general view seemed to be that it was in itself neutral -- its goodness or badness deriving from the circumstances of its use.  As Fr. Thomas Joseph White pointed out, however, from a Thomist point of view, while circumstances can certainly make the use of technology bad, of itself it is actually good rather than merely neutral.  It is the product of the practical intellect, the exercise of which per se helps perfect us (even if, again, circumstances can make technology, like other products of practical reason, evil). 

Naturally I wholeheartedly agree, being not only a Thomist but a confirmed city dweller and something of a technophile.  Still, it is worthwhile considering whether there is something special about modern circumstances that makes technology morally problematic.  I think there is, though by no means do I think these circumstances suffice to make modern technology on balance a bad thing.  On the contrary, I think on balance it is a very good thing.  But all good things can lead us to hubris if we are not careful, and there is a special way in which we moderns need to be careful.

To see how requires some metaphysical background.  I’ve written many times about the Aristotelian distinction between “nature” and “art,” as set out in Book II of Aristotle’s Physics.  What is “natural” in Aristotle’s sense is what has an intrinsic principle of operation.  To use one of my stock examples, a liana vine (the kind of vine Tarzan swings around on) is a “natural” object insofar as its vine-like activities -- taking in water through its roots, exhibiting certain characteristic growth patterns, etc. -- are the result of tendencies inherent to it.  By contrast, a hammock that Tarzan might make out of living liana vines is an “artifact” rather than a natural object insofar as its distinctive hammock-like function -- serving as a comfortable place to take a nap -- is not intrinsic to the vines but has to be imposed from outside by Tarzan.  That is why, left to themselves, the vines will tend to lose the hammock-like arrangement Tarzan imposes on them.  Tarzan might have to keep re-tying the vines and/or to prune them to keep them functioning as a hammock, but he will not have to interfere with them to keep them functioning as vines.  That is, of course, just what they are inclined to do on their own, without interference. 

As I’ve noted many times, the distinction Aristotle is getting at here is really the distinction between substantial form and accidental form, and whether something came about through human interference or not is at the end of the day a secondary issue.  For there are man-made things that have substantial forms and are thus “natural” in the relevant sense (e.g. new breeds of dog, water synthesized in a lab) and there are things that are not man-made but rather the result of natural processes that are nevertheless not “natural” in the relevant sense but have only an accidental rather than substantial form (e.g. a random pile of stones or dirt, qua pile, that has formed at the bottom of a hill).  The usual cases of things with merely accidental forms are man-made, though, so that we tend (wrongly) to regard the man-made as per se “unnatural,” and the usual cases of objects that occur apart from human action are “natural” in the sense of having a substantial form, so that we tend (wrongly) to assimilate what is “natural” in the sense of occurring apart from human action to what is “natural” in the sense of having a substantial form or intrinsic principle of operation.

Metaphysically speaking, only “natural” objects, i.e. those with substantial forms, are true substances.  For example, a liana vine, a stone, a tree, a dog, or a human being are all true substances.  The acquisition of a mere accidental form cannot generate a new true substance but merely modifies a preexisting substance.  A hammock that Tarzan makes from the vines, for example, is not a true substance.  Rather, it is the vines that are the true substances, and the hammock-like arrangement is a mere accidental form that the substances have taken on.  A watch is also not a true substance.  Rather, the bits of metal and the like that make up the watch are the true substances, and the time-telling feature is a mere accidental form (or collection of accidental forms) that have been imposed upon them.  (And the bits of metal, in turn, are true substances only qua bits, and not (say) qua gears, for the form of being a watch gear is also a merely accidental form.  The bits have an inherent tendency to behave as metal -- conducting electricity, being malleable, etc. -- but not an inherent tendency to function as parts of a time-telling device.) 

True substances -- “natural” objects in the relevant sense, objects with substantial forms -- are thus metaphysically more fundamental than accidental arrangements, or “artifacts” of the usual sort.  There could, perhaps, be a world with only things having substantial forms, but certainly not a world with things having only accidental forms.  (This is why it is a deep mistake to think of the world on the model of an artifact and of God on the model of an artificer, after the fashion of William Paley and ID theory.  That gets the world fundamentally wrong and it gets divine creative activity fundamentally wrong.  But that’s an issue I’ve addressed many times in other contexts.) 

Even if atomism or some modern variation on it were the correct account of the ordinary objects of our experience (which it most definitely is not), that would not eliminate the distinction between substantial and accidental forms, but merely relocate all substantial form to the level of the atoms (or whatever the fundamental particles turn out to be) and make of everything else in the universe mere accidental forms.  The idea that modern science “refuted” the doctrine of substantial form is one of the many urban legends of modern intellectual life. 

Obviously these are large claims, but the point isn’t to expound and defend them here; I‘ve already done that elsewhere.  (See my book Scholastic Metaphysics, especially chapter 3, for my most detailed exposition and defense of the Aristotelian-Thomistic view of substances and substantial forms.  See also David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism.  I’ve discussed these issues several times here on the blog, e.g. here and here.)

The point, rather, is this.  That there is a difference between “nature” and “art” -- or more precisely, a difference between objects having substantial forms and those having merely accidental forms -- and that the former are metaphysically more fundamental than the latter, is easier to perceive in a low tech society than in a high tech society.  Just think of the examples Aristotle gives in the Physics of objects that are not “natural” in the relevant sense but have merely accidental forms -- beds, cloaks, and the like.  And think of how crude a bed or a cloak of Aristotle’s day would be compared even to the cheap sort of thing you can buy at Ikea or Target today.  It would wear its “natural” origins on its face.  You would see the rough and knotty wood of the bed, say, or the animal skin out of which the cloak was made, and perceive right away that the wood or the skin was the real substance and the bed- or cloak-like shape and function as a relatively superficial pattern imposed on it.  The metaphysically secondary nature of such accidental forms would be manifest.  And you would be living in a larger environment in which, even in the cities, “natural” objects in the relevant Aristotelian sense -- wood, stone, dirt, etc. -- would surround you, and would not look all that terribly different from what they were like before the sculptor applied his chisel or the carpenter his hammer.

By contrast, the objects that surround us in everyday life in the modern city are almost always things whose underlying “natural” substrates -- those things which are the true substances and which underlie the accidental forms -- have been highly processed.  They do not wear their “natural” origins on their sleeve.  This is true even of the most “natural” (in the sense of non-man-made) materials.  The wood and metal that make up the pieces of furniture now right in front of me, for example, are so highly processed and have been so slickly painted or varnished or otherwise made so sleek that what strikes you most clearly is not this is metal or this is wood, but rather this is a filing cabinet and this is a desk.  It is even more obviously true of the great many everyday objects made out of plastic.  As I have noted in a recent post, plastic is plausibly “natural” in the Aristotelian sense of having a substantial form, since it has irreducible causal powers (a mark of the presence of a substantial rather than accidental form).  The same can be said of other common man-made materials (Styrofoam, glass, etc.).  Since they don’t occur “in the wild” but are man-made, that they are “natural” (in the sense, again, that they have substantial forms) doesn’t hit you in the face as it does with the wood or stone you’d see in the wild; and since plastic etc. have, on top of that, all sorts of accidental forms imposed on them (e.g. the shapes, colors, textures, etc. of cups, Frisbees, computers, and the like, and the associated observer-relative functions) their underlying natural/substantial form basis is far from obvious to casual inspection.

Moreover, even when objects that are clearly natural (again, in the relevant sense of “natural”) are present in the modern city -- trees, grass, etc. -- they are present in a way that is often so much the result of human planning that the accidental forms -- the shape of the lawn and the uniformity of the length of the blades of grass, the shape of the hedges, etc. -- strike you as much as the natural object itself does.

So, you might say that the world around us modern city dwellers is so covered over with accidental forms that the substantial forms that underlie them are visible only with effort.  And as a result, it is easier for us to fall prey to the illusion that there is no deep difference between substantial and accidental forms, and indeed no such thing as “nature” in the Aristotelian sense.  That this is an illusion there can be no doubt, because on analysis it can be seen that we cannot even make coherent sense of a material order that did not at some level exhibit what Aristotelians call substantial forms.  (Again, see Scholastic Metaphysics.)  But it takes more work for those immersed in highly technology to see that it is an illusion -- or it does, anyway, if (as is so often the case) their natural metaphysical sensibilities have been dulled by the post-Cartesian, post-Humean assumptions that they have picked up from the surrounding intellectual culture.

Now, when I made this point at the conference referred to above, Prof. Peter Lawler made, in response, the important point that even the modern city dweller knows one natural substance very well indeed, namely himself.  But I think even our awareness of ourselves as “natural” has been dulled in the modern world by the layers of accidental forms, as it were, through which we have come to perceive ourselves.  There are, for one thing, the perfectly legitimate adornments and grooming practices -- clothing, jewelry, coiffed hair and trimmed nails, shaving, bathing, perfuming, etc. -- that have always been a part of human culture.  Then there are the morally more problematic bodily and psychological alterations familiar from modern life -- extensive plastic surgery, extensive tattooing and body piercing, heavy use of drugs to alter behavior, etc. 

These practices are problematic, for the natural law theorist, when they cross the line separating beautifying adornment or correction of defects (which are perfectly legitimate) from deliberate mutilation (which is not legitimate, except when done to preserve the whole organism).  Where exactly the line is to be drawn would take some careful analysis to determine, but the morality of bodily modification is not, in any event, our present subject.  What is important to note for present purposes is that the more we modify ourselves -- even when we do so legitimately -- the less obvious is our status as “natural” objects in the relevant, Aristotelian sense.  We can even start to take seriously the suggestion that we are “really” just “machines” of a sort -- a machine being a paradigm instance of something having a merely accidental rather than substantial form.  (On that subject, some relevant posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here.)

The moral implications all of this has from a traditional natural law perspective are obvious.  For good and bad as objective features of the world are, for natural law theory, determined by what is “natural” in the technical Aristotelian sense of what tends to fulfill the ends toward which a thing is directed by virtue of its substantial form.  To the extent that we lose sight of the “natural” in the sense of that which has a substantial form or intrinsic principle of operation -- an intrinsic principle by virtue of which it is naturally directed to the realization of certain ends -- we thereby also lose sight of “good” and “bad” as objective features of the world, and thus lose sight of the preconditions of an objective moral order.

(Critics are asked kindly to spare us the common stupid objections to the effect that everything is really natural since everything is governed by the laws of nature; or that a consistent natural law theorist would have to reject eyeglasses and ear plugs as unnatural; etc. etc.  I’ve discussed the sense of “natural” relevant to natural law theory in previous posts, such as this one, this one, and this one.  For more detailed exposition and defense of traditional natural law theory, see chapter 5 of Aquinas, my Social Philosophy and Policy article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation,” and my forthcoming article “In Defense of the Perverted Faculty Argument,” an excerpt from which recently appeared in National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly.)

So, to the extent that modern technology dulls our awareness of the natural, it poses a moral hazard -- not in itself but by virtue of circumstances.  But it is possible to overstate the hazard, and people do not (and, I think, never could) consistently treat themselves or the world as if there were no such thing as “nature” in the Aristotelian sense.  (For example, I suspect that the fad for “organic” goods reflects a confused sense of the natural in something like this sense.)  As Horace wrote, you can throw nature out with a pitchfork, but she’ll come back in through the window.  Until she does, welcome to the machine

72 comments:

יאיר רזק said...

From your perspective, I think the biggest kind of such a threat is computer systems. I, for one, completely fail to see why a Roomba does not tend "to fulfill the ends toward which a thing is directed by virtue of its substantial form", whereas an organism does.

Yair

Anonymous said...

I, for one, completely fail to see why a Roomba does not tend "to fulfill the ends toward which a thing is directed by virtue of its substantial form"

What do you think a substantial form is?

יאיר רזק said...

"What do you think a substantial form is?"

A possibly-useful abstraction that is mistakenly granted metaphysical existence by Thomists :D More seriously - a kind of essence that is used to ground predispositional properties, e.g. plastic having irreducible chemical/physical properties qua plastic.

Regardless of how horridly mistaken I am in this, I think at the intuitive level the growing directed-like behavior of computers is causing people to reject the idea that there are essences, and the "substantial form" smells like one, above the fundamental-particles level.

Yair

Cale B.T. said...

" That is why, left to themselves, the vines will tend to lose the hammock-like arrangement Tarzan imposes on them"

E.coli have been genetically modified by human beings to produce insulin. As far as I know, they don't have to be "re-done" like the vines. Are they therefore a different substance?

Anonymous said...

Your post reminds me of the Hopkins poem "God's Grandeur", especially the part which goes:

"Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod."

Our feet our now shod in ways that Hopkins could never have imagined. It is easier for a modern person to fall into the habit of thinking that nature is finally spent.

davidus said...

Quick question that I hope Dr Feser (or anyone else who knows) could answer: Have you addressed anywhere the criticisms that Rob Koons & Paul Gage have directed towards you regarding your claim that ID fundamentally misrepresents God by seeking to represent him as an 'artificer' in relation to the world?

It's kind of unrelated to the post, but hopefully there is a very quick answer to that question. I'm curious because I read the article by Koons and Gage a while back and it seemed like a reasonable A-T defense of ID theory and its compatibility with A-T metaphysics. Your reference to ID in this post again made me think of the article.

Greg said...

@Cale
E.coli have been genetically modified by human beings to produce insulin. As far as I know, they don't have to be "re-done" like the vines. Are they therefore a different substance?

They are still substances, ie. they have substantial forms rather than accidental forms. It seems to me like they would still be e. coli; having a new feature does not mean that they are no longer the same substance as those non-insulin-producing e. coli from which they descended. Different populations of humans, for instance, can possess novel traits without becoming substantially something different.

Brandon said...

I think at the intuitive level the growing directed-like behavior of computers is causing people to reject the idea that there are essences

Well, people said things that were more or less equivalent about hydraulic systems in the seventeenth century and advanced clockwork in the eighteenth century and industrial factories in the nineteenth; in all such cases the evidence is that the reverse course is actually the case -- rejection of substantial forms led people to place this kind of significance on machine behavior, and historically is due entirely to thinking of the world on the model of an artifact made by a craftsman God. Once one starts treating the world as a crafted machine, it is very unsurprising that one ends up taking crafted machines to be the way everything works; intelligent design thinking leads to intelligent design thinking even when one mentally suppresses the 'intelligent' part.

Of course, it does indeed seem that, given the fact that all of us human beings regularly use our imaginations as crutches, better machines make it harder for us to think more rigorously in these matters rather than just rely on our vague sense of analogy.

David T said...

The return of Detroit to a feral state is a good visual example of what Feser is talking about.

Christopher said...

'As Fr. Thomas Joseph White pointed out, however, from a Thomist point of view, while circumstances can certainly make the use of technology bad, of itself it is actually good rather than merely neutral.'

What about calculators? The usage of the brain in processing numbers would be rendered useless by the immediate response given by calculators. Would for example, it be classified as Sloth for seeking the quick answer at the neglect of utilising your own brain as a calculator?

Anonymous said...

@Christopher

Calculators (and even more so computers) are routinely used to perform calculations which exceed the ability of human beings to do by themselves. It is not sloth which motivates e.g. a specialist in operations research to use a computer implementation of the simplex algorithm to solve a linear programming problem with say 1000 decision variables and 500 constraints. Such a problem would easily involve many millions of basic arithmetic steps, all of which would need to be done correctly if the final result is to be reliable.

David T said...

Would for example, it be classified as Sloth for seeking the quick answer at the neglect of utilising your own brain as a calculator?

Only if you waste the time thus freed up rather than using it in further pursuit of the good.

Christopher said...

Anonymous, David T.

There's just the criticism among the general use. The argument of sloth is based on basic arithmetic being processed by calculators rather than the brain itself. Calculators in themselves seem to be merely neutral.

rank sophist said...

This is a really, really great post. I've thought before that this question could be tackled from a Thomistic viewpoint, but not this systematically. Postmodernists make similar comments about the obsession with techne over against episteme in modern society--only without this much clarity, and with a lot of bad metaphysics.

Anonymous said...

I can't help wonder about the ancient man on the street's natural perception of things as having substantial forms; it just seems speculative to me. (I know you're not saying every ancient man on the street had in mind the explicit distinction between substantial and accidental forms, but still.)

In any event, I know you think the jettisoning of Aristotelian physics to be the main sin of modern thought, but stressing this issue (and hence natural law) in relation to technology seems to me to overlook a much more dramatic effect of technology on us in terms of lived experience: a change in our moment to moment mental processes, a feeling of perpetual distraction, making technology a serious obstacle to "recollection" in the spiritual sense, and, insofar as such recollection is highly conducive to happiness and moral behavior, a problematic phenomenon vis-a-vis morality. I see this as entirely distinct from, and more pervasive and fundamental than, technology's making it more difficult for us to perceive the foundations of natural law.

Greg said...

(This is why it is a deep mistake to think of the world on the model of an artifact and of God on the model of an artificer, after the fashion of William Paley and ID theory. That gets the world fundamentally wrong and it gets divine creative activity fundamentally wrong. But that’s an issue I’ve addressed many times in other contexts.)

I think this is a misreading of design theory. God as watchmaker is an analogy which seeks to explain the empirical questions associated with the origin and diversity of life; it needn't be construed as a complete metaphysical explanation which can account for the essences of different natural entities, final causality, and the like.

Why couldn't God have created the world such that natural things have an essence, i.e. plants naturally photosynthesize, while still leaving empirical evidence pointing to a creator/designer, for us to find in the form of irreducibly complex biological systems/parts and information-rich DNA?

Gene Callahan said...

"I know you think the jettisoning of Aristotelian physics"

Anonymous: I think you mean Aristotelian METAphysics: no one holds to Aristotle's theory of force or gravity!

Mr. Green said...

What does "irreducible power" mean and what's a specific example? An "unreduced" power I can understand — it's something that does not, as a matter of fact, happen to be a composite effect of multiple substances working together; but to be irreducible indicates that no groups of substances could ever produce the same effect. That may be physically true — a certain substance might have a certain power that just so happens to be unique, and no other actual substance(s) can produce the identical effect — but it surely cannot be metaphysically true: for any power, God could create some sort of ad-hoc "part(icle)s" that combine to produce exactly that effect. But that means it's not possible to determine for sure whether some given power is irreducible just by looking at it, unless we already knew independently whether God had in fact created other substances that could do the same thing in a reducible fashion.
(Not that we can't have reasonable or probable justification for classifying certain things as substances, of course; I'm just not sure our instincts would be that reliable when it comes to something like plastic or styrofoam.)

Mr. Green said...

Davidus: I'm curious because I read the article by Koons and Gage a while back and it seemed like a reasonable A-T defense of ID theory and its compatibility with A-T metaphysics. Your reference to ID in this post again made me think of the article.

I've said before that the basic idea behind ID is a perfectly good one as far as it goes, despite being typically wrapped in unfortunately modern reductionism. And of course Ed has always acknowledged that whatever legitimate scientific or other points lie mixed in with the bad metaphysics will stand (or fall) on their own. I would go farther and claim that the underlying insight is a good and worthy one in its own respect (with some connection to the Fifth Way and more interest apart from it). However, at first look, Koon and Logan's paper on ID doesn't strike me as a great response — it seems to fall into some of the very traps about Thomism that Feser has dealt with time and again (as well as dealing with mistakes about ID that Ed himself has never made). I do think a good Scholastic approach to the question of empirical design needs to be undertaken.

Greg: it needn't be construed as a complete metaphysical explanation which can account for the essences of different natural entities, final causality, and the like.
Why couldn't God have created the world such that natural things have an essence, i.e. plants naturally photosynthesize, while still leaving empirical evidence pointing to a creator/designer, for us to find


Well, there's a problem getting from "designer" to "creator" in the empirical realm, but I agree that there is a legitimate question there. (The Fifth Way may answer a better question — and indeed it does — but it doesn't answer this one.) As for being a misreading of design theory, I would say it's not a misreading of how it's always presented. But that brings me back to my call for a presentation that digs out the real 'design' part and situates it in a proper metaphysical context.

Staircaseghost said...

"Even if atomism or some modern variation on it were the correct..."

"If" it were?

I'm sure by "atomism" here you must mean to refer to some very historically specific formulation of a philosophical doctrine, and not anything like any specific empirical result I would find in my high school chemistry textbook. Or is that what you mean, in which case, wow.

Since your meaning is not clear, let me ask a question you've no doubt heard a thousand times before: is salt a "substantial form", or are sodium and chlorine substantial forms? Or both, or neither?

Greg said...

@Staircaseghost

From context it seems rather evident that Professor Feser is not referring to chemistry but to a philosophical doctrine. Why would he say "atomism or some modern variation" if he were referring to chemistry? He is obviously anticipating an objection, and it is unlikely that he would have to anticipate an objection from an 18th century chemist.

Ty said...

http://currentlogic.blogspot.com/2012/07/universals-and-argument-for-existence.html


This is the only "serious" critical review I've read of Feser.

I think Arithmoquine's making a few hasty mistakes, but some of his arguments seem sound. Does anyone want to jump in and go over it with me?

Staircaseghost said...

"From context it seems rather evident that Professor Feser is not referring to chemistry but to a philosophical doctrine."

As you can see, that was my first guess.

"Why would he say 'atomism or some modern variation' if he were referring to chemistry?"

Because sincere, educated readers could plausibly interpret "modern atomic theory" to be within the scope of reference of "modern variants of atomism"?

"He is obviously anticipating an objection, and it is unlikely that he would have to anticipate an objection from an 18th century chemist."

But as you can see, I have just given such an objection, in the form of a request for clarification. Prima facie, none of the examples of substantial forms given in the OP are substantial forms if chemistry is true, which it is. And yet, this objection is so trivial and obvious that the person who literally wrote the book (chapter) on it must have a ready reply, but one which is not obvious to this reader. So I am tentatively proceeding with the latter assumption, to be revisited as future evidence warrants.

davidus said...

Mr Green,
Ed has always acknowledged that whatever legitimate scientific or other points lie mixed in with the bad metaphysics will stand (or fall) on their own.
—I agree; the question, though, is simply whether or not *there is in fact* any bad metaphysics mixed into the typical claims of ID.

...at first look, Koon and Logan’s paper on ID doesn’t strike me as a great response — it seems to fall into some of the very traps about Thomism that Feser has dealt with time and again
—Out of curiosity, what are some particular instances of their ‘falling into traps about Thomism’?

As for being a misreading of design theory, I would say [Feser’s reading is] not a misreading of how it’s always presented. But that brings me back to my call for a presentation that digs out the real ‘design’ part and situates it in a proper metaphysical context.
—It’s in response to this kind of view that I found Koons and Gage to be *prima facie* compelling. For instance, their observation that there are similarities *in phrasing* between typical ID claims and those of Aquinas. (Here’s some examples from the paper. First, paralleling the ID claim that an (apparently) purposeful arrangement of a multitude of parts is evidence for design, Aquinas writes, “It is impossible for things contrary and discordant to fall into one harmonious order always or for the most part, except under some one guidance, assigning to each and all a tendency to a fixed end” (*SCG* 1.13). Second, paralleling the ID claim that the designedness of nature is analogous to the (artificial) designedness of artifacts, Aquinas writes, “all creatures are related to God as art products are to an artist, as is clear from the foregoing. Consequently, the whole of nature is like an artifact of the divine artistic mind” (*SCG* 3.100).

Greg said...

@Staircaseghost

Because sincere, educated readers could plausibly interpret "modern atomic theory" to be within the scope of reference of "modern variants of atomism"?

Perhaps they could. But since the referent of "atomism" is clearly a philosophical doctrine rather than a scientific theory, it seems far more plausible that "modern variants of atomism" are also philosophical doctrines, viz. species of materialism. That Feser regularly disputes the idea that materialism is science, it would seem to be a mistake to read him as comparing atomism (a philosophical doctrine) to scientific theories.

Prima facie, none of the examples of substantial forms given in the OP are substantial forms if chemistry is true, which it is.

This strikes me as an awfully strong claim, and not at all prima facie true. None of the examples in the OP are substantial forms if chemistry is true? There would only be a prima facie inconsistency between chemistry and the scholastic doctrine of substantial forms if the latter required a full repudiation of the idea that substances have independently analyzable integral parts, which it is not.

Scott said...

@Staircaseghost:

Sodium and chlorine are material substances, each of which has (not "is") a substantial form. When they combine chemically to make sodium chloride, they change into a new material substance that has its own substantial form and in which the sodium and chlorine exist only virtually and potentially, and no longer as separate substances.

I'm not sure the question is really to the point, though, as it's fairly obvious what Feser means by "modern atomism," namely the reductionist view that atoms are all that exist and that all supposedly higher-level "substances" are basically fictions. His point is that even if such atomism were true, it still wouldn't do away with substantial forms; it would merely locate them at the "bottommost" level of the indivisible atoms (whatever these turned out to be), which would still be substances with substantial forms.

Edward Feser said...

Staircaseghost,

Of course I am not rejecting modern chemistry, but referring to a philosophical doctrine. Jeez.

Why you think that chemistry shows that none of the examples in the OP are really substantial forms I have no idea -- you don't bother telling us -- unless it's because you're not familiar with what the theory of substantial forms actually says but are thinking in terms of the usual caricatures.

As I indicated in the OP, you have to keep in mind, first, that there is a distinction between (a) the claim that we cannot make sense of the material world apart from the substantial form/accidental form distinction and (b) specific claims about whether this or that particular form is really a substantial form or an accidental one. These issues are commonly conflated, so that people take an argument to the effect that such-and-such is not really a substantial form after all to show that the doctrine of substantial form per se is wrong. that doesn't follow at all.

Hence even if atomism in the Democritus/Leucippus sense were true, that would just mean that atoms as they understood them have substantial forms and everything at a higher level of description is really an accidental form. It would, as I said in the OP, show at most only that the Aristotelian was wrong about which things have substantial forms and which don't. It wouldn't show that the Aristotelian was wrong to say that there are and must be substantial forms at some level of physical reality.

A second thing to keep in mind is that, as I indicated in the OP, a mark of the presence of a substantial form are causal powers that are irreducible to those of the parts of a thing. A stock example is water, which has causal powers that are irreducible to those of hydrogen or oxygen. Water is not merely an aggregate of hydrogen and oxygen; its causal powers are not merely the sum of those of separate amounts of oxygen and hydrogen thrown together, since it has powers neither of them have and the oxygen and hydrogen lose some of their powers when combined in water. Hence water has a substantial form.

(continued below)

Edward Feser said...

(continued from above)

So too do oxygen and hydrogen themselves, but they exist as true substances only when they are not combined to form water. In the Scholastic jargon, they exist "virtually" in water -- which does not mean they don't really exist in it, but that their mode of existence is different in this context than when in isolation. Understanding this mode of existence requires understanding the theory of act and potency, according to which there is a middle ground of reality -- namely potency -- between actuality and nothingness. Oxygen and hydrogen are in the water in potency insofar as they can be drawn out of it. Other substances cannot be drawn out of water in that way, and thus do not exist in it even virtually or in potency. (Philosopher of science Paul Humphreys, writing from a non-Aristotelian point of view, arrives at a similar result when he says that the parts of a chemical composite are "fused" in the whole and give rise thereby to "emergent" causal powers. This, like other emergentist analyses of chemistry, is essentially an independent, partial rediscovery of the Scholastic position.)

The same would be true of sodium, chlorine, etc. But the analysis of this or that particular chemical phenomenon is secondary to the more general question of whether substantial form must exist at some level, and the latter question does not ride on what we say about the former.

In any event, the basic issue does not ride on anything in chemistry, because it has to do instead with what sort of metaphysical interpretation to give to what chemistry tells us. I can imagine all sorts of further responses to this coming next -- that metaphysics involves dubious "conceptual analysis," that natural science makes metaphysics otiose, that it is unfalsifiable, etc. etc. -- none of which is true and all of which have been answered by Aristotelians and Thomists like myself, Oderberg, Stump, et al. As I said in the OP, take a look at my book Scholastic Metaphysics, or at Oderberg's Real Essentialism, if you want to know what Aristotelians actually have to say about these issues, how they would respond to various objections, etc.

Anonymous said...

It never ceases to amaze me how people with a science background will toss out these half-baked, easily answered objections, and as they do so, they act like a slugger who just hit the ball out of the park and is now stopping to admire it as it sails into the parking lot....And this is in spite of the fact that they just whiffed.

Mr. Green said...

The Profeser: Water is not merely an aggregate of hydrogen and oxygen; its causal powers are not merely the sum of those of separate amounts of oxygen and hydrogen thrown together, since it has powers neither of them have and the oxygen and hydrogen lose some of their powers when combined in water.

I'm still not convinced — not that water couldn't or shouldn't have a substantial form, but that we found out because of some causal power it has. Physics has of course explained many of the properties of water in terms of the properties of hydrogen and oxygen, but even if there's something left unreduced (and what exactly would that be?), how is not an argument from ignorance to suppose that it's not simply a property the reduction of which we haven't figured out yet? A man is a substance because he has an intellect, which can demonstrably be shown not reduce to something else; but physical properties could be parcelled out in all sorts of ways. (I'm not even sure "physical irreducibility" works at all, empirically speaking — even if reducing water required that, say, hydrogen had some special property that manifested itself only in conjunction with oxygen, we could argue that such an explanation was suspiciously ad hoc, but not that it was metaphysically impossible, right?)

DeusPrimusEst said...

Would i be right in saying that the terms "form" and "essence" and "universal" are NOT interchangeable?

I was thinking that a proof for the reality of essence stemmed at least partially from the realist's solution to the problem of universals; ie if realism is true, then, universals exist and hence so do forms, and also hence (and here I'm not so sure) so do essences.

Additionally, IF it were true that form and essence are interchangable, one could demonstrate essences exist objectively by establishing the reality of final cause- as a thing can't intelligibly be said to have a final cause with ca formal cause.

Bottom line: does my Aristotelian approach work, and if not, how does one argue that essences are in fact real, and not mere conventions?

Thanks

Scott said...

@davidus:

"It’s in response to this kind of view that I found Koons and Gage to be *prima facie* compelling. For instance, their observation that there are similarities *in phrasing* between typical ID claims and those of Aquinas."

It's a pity that even though Koons and Gage refer to Feser's reply to Marie George, they don't seem to have bothered reading p. 7 of it.

davidus said...

Scott,

It's a pity that even though Koons and Gage refer to Feser's reply to Marie George, they don't seem to have bothered reading p. 7 of it.
—It's worth noting that just as much of the Koons and Gage article does not concern Feser (and understandably so, because their article is not directed *solely* at him), likewise much of Feser's reply to Marie George does not address the criticisms of Koons and Gage (and understandably so, given that it was written prior to the Koons and Gage piece). I'm not sure what bit of Koons and Gage you think is answered by Feser's reply on p. 7. K&G say that Feser emphasises *differences* between Paley/ID and Aristotelian-Thomistic arguments, but that these differences that don't amount to *inconsistencies* or *contradictions* between the two, and therefore that they are compatible. What Feser writes in p. 7 seems to amount to more of the same: differences but no contradictions.

But perhaps you think Feser has answered all of K&G's criticisms? Perhaps you (or better, Dr Feser) could elucidate?

Lamont said...

@ Mr Green,
When two hydrogen atoms combine with an oxygen atom it forms a bipolar molecule with a positive charge on one end and a negative charge on the other. This is a new form that is substantially different from either hydrogen or oxygen. In particular it enables water to dissolve a wide variety of other substances. That is something that neither hydrogen nor oxygen can do.

So the properties of water are not reducible to the properties of hydrogen and/or oxygen. The causal properties of water tell us that it is something different from either hydrogen or oxygen. Once we know the form or structure of water, then we understand why it is different from hydrogen and oxygen.

Scott said...

@davidus:

"I'm not sure what bit of Koons and Gage you think is answered by Feser's reply on p. 7."

That would be the part you described in the sentences I quoted in my reply to your post. Page 7 isn't, of course, a "reply" to Koons and Gage because, as you've correctly noted, Feser wrote first. But it's not as though he was blind to similarities in phrasing between Aquinas and IDists.

davidus said...

Sure, I agree with you on that. But it would seem that, contra your earlier comment, Koons and Gage haven't *ignored* Feser's own attempts to explain the similarities between Aquinas and ID claims. Rather, as I said, they acknowledge it in a footnote but argue that it is not much by way of response at all (because Feser points out mere *differences* as opposed to *contradictions* between Aquinas and ID). Eg the fact that Aquinas also goes on (in other parts of his writings) to describe in detail the specific differences between creatures and artifacts. Even if IDers don't do the same, that is not a point of contradiction, just a point of difference in expression.

Scott said...

@davidus:

And I'm afraid an assertion in an endnote isn't sufficient to refute Feser's own positive claim and argument to the contrary. I mean the one that begins:

"The uninitiated reader might nevertheless wonder whether a Paley-like view of
creation is suggested by a passage from Aquinas cited by George, in which he says
that 'just as artifacts are compared to human art, so also all natural things are
compared to divine art,' and gives arrows and clocks as examples of artifacts. In
fact the passage suggests just the opposite" [my emphasis].

Let's also be clear here (at least clearer than Koons and Gage) that the essential burden of Feser's argument is just that Aquinas's Fifth Way and Paley's Design Argument are different arguments and shouldn't be assimilated to one another. I don't think any very strong demonstration of "contradiction" is required for that.

Mr. Green said...

Lamont: This is a new form that is substantially different from either hydrogen or oxygen. In particular it enables water to dissolve a wide variety of other substances. That is something that neither hydrogen nor oxygen can do.

Sure, hydrogen by itself is not the same as hydrogen stuck with oxygen (or vice versa), but that can't be what we're talking about here. Me + my bicycle can do things that neither my bicycle can do by itself (move) or I can do by myself (get places as quickly), but my bike and I are not a new substance.

davidus said...

Scott, I'm (at this stage) also inclined to think that Paley's design argument is 'different' to Aquinas' fifth way (insofar as they ought to be treated as distinct, non-identical arguments). I'm more interested in Feser's claim that ID arguments presuppose a metaphysics that is at odds with Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics. (Which is essentially what Feser has hinted at in his brief mention of ID in this present post, and is also hinted at in the quote you just excerpted from Feser's response to George). That's really where I'm interested to hear Feser's own response on the matter. (And that's where it's necessary for an opponent of ID theory to demonstrate inconsistency/contradiction between ID and A-T).

Gil Sanders said...

Mr Green,

Except for something composite to be irreducible, not only must there be some power that cannot be reduced to either substance, but the two substances must themselves become one substance and not an aggregation of substances. Whenever two substances come together to make one substance, those two substances are only present within the substance “virtually” and not actually. As that new substance, they effectively have a new power that is immanent to it, which is irreducible to their “virtual” parts. The bicycle and you are not one substance or virtually present in one substance but are simply two substances working together.

Scott said...

@davidus:

"That's really where I'm interested to hear Feser's own response on the matter."

As Ed says in the OP, the problem as he sees it is that ID gets the nature of divine creativity wrong and therefore (as he's argued elsewhere numerous times) doesn't get anyone any closer to the God of classical theism. If you want to know what he says about the subject in detail, follow the link he's already provided and check out his previous posts—especially (I'd say) this one and this one, but don't limit yourself to those.

Then go back to Koons and Gage and see whether you think they've even begun to address the issue. (It should be in their reply to Objection 1 in their essay, but it isn't. Not only that, but they even quote the same passage of Aquinas that Ed does on the aforementioned p. 7 of his reply to Marie George, without dealing with his argument even though they've read that essay.)

Scott said...

@Gil Sanders:

"The bicycle and you are not one substance or virtually present in one substance but are simply two substances working together."

Sure, but Mr. Green's misgiving is about how we know (or think we know) that that's not the case with e.g. hydrogen and oxygen.

In that example, Lamont points out that when combined into water, hydrogen and oxygen can do things that they can't do separately, like dissolve other substances. But he also notes in passing that this occurs (in part) because hydrogen and oxygen combine to form a polar molecule, and I'd add that this property can be explained, arguably "reductively," in terms of the separate properties of hydrogen and oxygen.

What Mr. Green wants to know is: how do we know that not every property of dihydrogen oxide can be explained in this way?

For it does seem that there must be some property of water that can't be thus explained, if water is going to count as a substance in its own right, over and above the hydrogen and oxygen it comprises. As the Mr.-Green-and-bicycle example illustrates, in order for some combination to be a substance with a substantial form of its own, it doesn't seem to be sufficient that a combination of two substances have causal powers that neither has alone; there have to be causal powers that are, as you say, immanent to the new substance, and Mr. Green is asking how (and whether) we know that's the case. It's demonstrably true of human beings, but he's not so sure about chemical compounds.

Scott said...

@davidus:

In looking over Ed's "ID vs. A-T ID roundup" again, I'd add this post to my list of the ones to start with.

Scott said...

@davidus:

And this post is a good one to read after you read the two on Dembski.

Greg said...

Looks like my copy of Scholastic Metaphysics is going to ship in 2-3 weeks... exciting.

Scott said...

Same here. Looking forward to it!

Timotheos said...

Can't wait either; I'm glad it's coming early!

Mr. Green said...

Davidus: Out of curiosity, what are some particular instances of their ‘falling into traps about Thomism’?

I hadn't seen that paper before, so now that I have read it all the way through, here's my partially-solicited load of criticism:

You referred to the similarities of phrase that Koons/Gage list, but that's too broad without a lot of clarification as to context and interpretation. For example, the passages from Thomas that show "God as acting analogously to a human artificer" — but it seems to me that this is not really analogy but rather metaphor. God does not "tinker" or "manipulate" the way an artist does, so there are crucial differences. I think to be analogous, properly speaking, God would have to achieve a comparable result in a comparable way. But the parallels do not hold for both sides of the equation. Or at a minimum, the analogy, if it be one, does not apply in all the ways they are taking for granted.

This semantic content points beyond itself to the only currently known cause of semantic content: minds

That strikes my ear discordantly. It's a common enough sentiment in ID circles (as far as I have seen, which admittedly is limited), but it's not the kind of thing a Thomist would say.The intentionality in "semantic content" of course comes from a mind (intellect), but what's this "only known cause" — what else could they "mean" by semantic? Arguably it's phrased that way for scientific consumption, but aren't they supposed to be showing how ID can be suitably clothed in Scholastic fashion?

If his argument holds, it may well open the door to renewed thinking about formal and final causation—even within the sciences.

But even if it doesn't, science still needs formal/final causes! This is one of Feser's central points, so lines like this do not inspire confidence that they really understand where he's coming from. (And Aristotle is making a comeback in various ways from various directions anyway.)

talked of physical and intelligent causation as “acting in tandem”

Hm, that does't sound quite right either... primary vs. secondary causation are not equals co-operating in some endeavour; they work on completely different levels at the same time. (Perhaps that's what they were trying to get at, using "tandem" in the common but inaccurate sense, but what Real Thomist™ would resist pointing out the proper Latin etymology?!?)

are non-intelligent mechanisms (including the Darwinian mechanism) capable of explaining the sort of functionality we find in the biological order?

Of course they are... because God can create a universe that works any way He wants. So sure, this is a legitimate questions for Thomists, but the answer is probably not what ID folks are looking for. Or you can point out that the secondary mechanisms are capable of such feats only because of the intelligence of the primary cause, but then you're not doing ID, you're doing the Fifth Way (indeed, the fact that ID can be a scientific question shows this, because science deals only with secondary causes).

clearly, the Darwinians are the reductionists

More than once they toss out the dreaded Darwinist as if to cry, "the enemy of your enemy must be your friend" (or "Darwinists are the real mechanists, so ID can't be!"). But of course they can both be wrong.
Now, we must distinguish "scientific" Darwinism from "philosophical" Darwinism (unwarranted extrapolations from the legitimate scientific aspects that are frequently blurred by those who can't or won't make the proper distinctions in their desire to push bad philosophy as Scientificagilisticexpialidocious) — but I half-got the impression that if Thomists don't embrace ID, they must be endorsing metaphysically bankrupt Darwinism!


[...more to come! isn't the suspense killing you?!]

Mr. Green said...

[...continued, regardless of whether anyone wanted it to]

The "big tent" talk is a little out of kilter, too; Buddhism is pretty largely-tented, but it would be hard to argue that it's "compatible" with A-T. Indeed, even if Thomists and Buddhists co-operated in some practical measure, that wouldn't entail that there is therefore some sort of "Thomist interpretation" of Buddhism.

Aquinas’s commitment to essentialism rules out most meanings of “evolution.”

I'm also suspicious of this claim. Their quotation from ST 1.65.4 is referring to the creation of new forms by God — so if a new animal evolved from some different species, God would indeed have to create the new form, just as He creates new forms (souls) every time a new human being is conceived. But that is transparent or irrelevant to the biological view (and rightly so, for biology is a physical science, not metaphysics). And it has nothing to do with chance or not.

Now, they claim that complexity is "relevant to Aquinas’s argument for design", but of course the "harmonious order" they mention does not mean "complex order". They come up with the notion that for Aquinas, order "may well be"(!) Ptolemaic epicycles, which suggests they aren't familiar with Feser's point at all, which is that even something as un-complex as a single photon wending its merry way in an otherwise empty universe would be enough to ground the Fifth Way. They do admit that "it would only demonstrate that there is more than one kind of design argument", but obviously there are all sorts of arguments that might mention "design" in some way... so what?

we would expect some such correlation [between mutations and adaptivity] to result

I don't understand this from their second interpretation of van Inwagen. Why would we necessarily expect that? (And "what possible motive would God have?" is a silly question.)
(I'm not familiar with van Inwagen's argument they discuss, but I have to admit, as presented their first interpretation sounds more like an approach to ID rather than any criticism of it!)

[quoting the Fifth Way against Feser... hm, really??]

They offer design's being empirically detectable as another point against Feser. But I don't know where Ed has ever said it can't be so, somehow, in some context, under some circumstances. Indeed, the Fifth Way is "empirical" insofar as, like Aqiunas's other proofs, it starts from observation, and then proceeds to a metaphysical conclusion. Yet the Fifth Way is still not ID, and the design framework is still not Thomistic creation. And they seem hazy on what Feser means when he points out that the major proponents of ID accept the mechanist view.



Anyway, some of these issues will of course have suitable responses or clarifications, and some simply take us off on tangents; it's only one short paper, trying to cover a variety of issues. And my own thoughts here hardly constitute a formal academic response. If you read the posts Scott linked to, you will probably get a better sense as to why Koons & Gage come across as a bit tone-deaf. To be fair, some of the non-Feserian positions also strike me as a rather off-key, but I can see why someone in Ed's position would not feel especially challenged by this paper (other than perhaps the rather exasperating challenge of "how can I possibly make this any clearer?!").

Mr. Green said...

Scott: Sure, but Mr. Green's misgiving is about how we know (or think we know) that that's not the case with e.g. hydrogen and oxygen. [...] It's demonstrably true of human beings, but he's not so sure about chemical compounds.

Once again, Scott has admirably presented my case.

Interestingly, there is a complementary question in the case of human beings — how do we know that anybody in particular is one? The correct answer is the pragmatic "Maybe I can't supply a mathematical proof that solipsism is false, but given that the intellectual-substance hypothesis is entirely possible and plausible, common sense dictates that we apply it to supposed other people."

So I'm quite happy with a response along the lines of, "Who knows, we can't see substantial forms under a microscope, but water sure feels like a substance, so let's just go with that." Unlike the case with people, it doesn't even really matter about water — but I've never seen anyone officially saying that it's merely a reasonable assumption.

dguller said...

Mr. Green:

Interestingly, there is a complementary question in the case of human beings — how do we know that anybody in particular is one?

I agree, especially when you incorporate evolutionary theory into the account. For all we know, at this time, there are human beings and their evolutionary offshoot, numan beings, the former being distinguished by the power of intellect, and the latter being distinguished by the power of (say) X. Perhaps in order for a numan being to actualize X they must do the opposite of what would be proper for a human being. In that case, what would be wrong for a human being would be right for a numan being. Until X is actualized, we wouldn’t know if someone was a numan being rather than a human being, but the lack of actualization does not necessarily mean that the power to do X is absent.

Mr. Green said...

DGuller: Perhaps in order for a numan being to actualize X they must do the opposite of what would be proper for a human being. In that case, what would be wrong for a human being would be right for a numan being.

That's true. Of course, common sense applies here as well... if it walks like a human, and quacks like a human, then substantiae non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. And insofar as the two are not distinguishable, we can draw parallel conclusions (for instance, if numan digestion and biology is negligibly different from the human equivalent, then it will be equally wrong to consume cyanide and equally good to consume applesauce, etc.).

Mr. Green said...

Having picked on Koons and Gage, let me also note some of the good points about their article:

First of all, they do note the Aristotelian relevance of information, which is a favourite apophthegm of my own.

Of course miraculous "interventions" are kosher; it's really bizarre that people so frequently miss the entire point of ID in this respect. It's even more inexplicable that theists who wrongly think ID says "evolution couldn't do it so God did" would furthermore have a problem with the imagined miracles. (I'm not sure what's so Thomistic about such objections either. Needless to say, these silly mistakes are not ones that Feser has ever made.)

That they may "talk" a bit mechanistically for the sake of speaking a common language is, I think, defensibly pragmatic (up to a point — one must of course be careful that this does not conceal actual materialism slipping into the argument).


Now, there are a couple of points that I only recently figured out. One shows that ID is obviously not the same as the Fifth Way, and yet that they are definitely connected: for ID is in fact a premise of the Fifth Way. To say that "this is evident from [natural bodies] acting always, or nearly always, in the same way" is to make a "design-inference" — it is obvious to us, of course, but simply because we are automatically reasoning that some patterns are just too unlikely to be attributed to chance. Although many everyday instances of this are clear to us without whipping out sliderules and statistical tables, this is clearly a scientific question that can be posed in more rigorous terms. (Just as can the arc described by an object thrown in the air, even though we do not need to perform Newtonian calculus to catch an thrown object.) The paper touches on this in the shortest section, §4, which probably should be expanded into a full article on its own.


The other interesting thing to note is that it turns out that God is an artist after all. Now did I not myself point out all Feser's arguments and the vital distinction between primary and secondary causation, the incontrovertible inconvertibility of substance and artifact? But I do not deny all that. Those points all stand. The artistic-designer line cannot lay a finger on them. But both claims can be true. God is more than an artist, a cosmic watchmaker, a tinkering demiurge. But He is not less! It doesn't matter if the apparent "machinery" of the living organism is virtual, or even if it were illusory — to cause the appearance of artifact, one must be a designer or more, as much as to cause the real thing. God did not have to create substances with virtual "cellular machinery", but He did. And that machine-like appearance could not be the result of chance (or so the ID argument goes, and pretty plausibly on that score). That is why the proponent of ID cannot claim to discover the source of that apparent design. But he can say what it isn't. Random chemistry at work? No. An intelligent artificer? Yes. Pure Act? Also yes, of course. The fact that Pure Act would cause this effect in a very different way from some powerful artificer doesn't matter. And that's what the ID arguments miss, and that's what a Scholastic approach needs to address. The dispute is always presented as one approach vs. the other, but there are two different levels going on, and each is valid in its own way.

davidus said...

Guys (Scott and Mr Green) thanks for the thoughtful comments & pointers to Ed's earlier posts, most of which I hadn't read. I think Koons and Gage definitely don't take on board the extent to which Dembski seems (at least from the quotes Feser has shown) to adopt a decidedly non-Aristotelian metaphysics.

Some further comments:

First, a general point - A lot of the points that have been raised so far seem to me to arise from relatively uncharitable readings of Koons and Gage. Now I'm not out to *defend* K&G for any particular reason, just as I'm not out to attack Feser for any particular reason. I am not an ID theorist. My sympathies are with Thomism. (Also, Koons is a Thomist).

So, Mr Green - when you make observations about 'awkward' un-Thomistic phrasing in Koons and Gage, I simply interpret them as I would if it were Eleonore Stump or some other Thomist writing (and this happens often... reading Stump's *Aquinas* requires some charity of this sort given her intended audience, for which reason she uses terms like 'property' in a decidedly non-Thomistic way).

Mr Green, you raise some interesting objections to what K&G claim regarding the relevance of complexity to design. I agree with you (and I'm sure Koons would as well) that design doesn't *only* consist in complexity of parts in substances. Hence, it's possible to identify design (read: teleology) in the behaviour of a simple particle (e.g. a quark or electron, if they are simple).

However, as far as I can see, K&G are making a slightly different claim. They say that identifying genuine order involves, to some degree, identifying 'the purposeful arrangement of parts' (to quote Behe) *in some way or other*, and that (1) this is what is meant by complexity, and (2) doing so requires making probability judgments.

Regarding (1), I think both electrons and 'the Ptolemaic system' could count as instances of complexity, because identifying the orderliness in an electron requires identifying regularity in behaviour across time. But this is simply diachronic complexity (as K&G define complexity), as opposed to synchronic complexity in the case of the Ptolemaic system. In both cases, order is inferred from the observation of *what seems like harmonious order* in an arrangement of parts.

So, to me K&G seem correct to say that there's a place for complexity and probability in identifying design. I don't think Feser denies this: it's just that both parties are using terms in different fashions.

But if that's the case, then there's no real disagreement, in which case K&G are correct (not about Dembski and other crypto-mechanist IDers, but about the compatibility of ID as they defend it, and A-T).

Bob said...

A stock example is water, which has causal powers that are irreducible to those of hydrogen or oxygen. Water is not merely an aggregate of hydrogen and oxygen; its causal powers are not merely the sum of those of separate amounts of oxygen and hydrogen thrown together, since it has powers neither of them have and the oxygen and hydrogen lose some of their powers when combined in water. Hence water has a substantial form.


I am trying to understand causal power.

What causal power do either hydrogen or oxygen actually have?

If we had a vacuum and placed a hydrogen atom in it, what could it cause? Likewise, if we placed an oxygen atom in a vacuum, what could it cause?


How about if we placed an H2O molecule in a vacuum?

Sean said...

It would be interesting to know your opinion of the "small is beautiful" school refard technology. E.g., E. F. Schumacher, Kirkpatrick Sale, Andrew Kimbrell, etc. One interesting claim Andrew Kimbrell made in a talk was that technology is not neutral, but can be good or bad. For instance, he speaks about "totalitarian technology" such as a nuclear power plant that requires a military and scientific elite, massive bureaucracies to regulate safety and to distribute the energy created, centralized control of energy, etc. This is also based on the concept that we cannot take responsibility for these kind of technologies, nor can they be truly responsive to us. He calls the kind of systemic evil that comes from them "cold evil". It's a kind of destructive or evil act that is systemic and distant.

His talk is interesting. A written synopsis is here, with the audio. I would appreciate any thoughts on it.

http://neweconomy.net/publications/lectures/kimbrell/andrew/cold-evil

Greg said...

@Bob

I am trying to understand causal power.

What causal power do either hydrogen or oxygen actually have?

If we had a vacuum and placed a hydrogen atom in it, what could it cause? Likewise, if we placed an oxygen atom in a vacuum, what could it cause?


How about if we placed an H2O molecule in a vacuum?


A hydrogen atom or H2O molecule in a vacuum has the same causal powers that they have when they are evaporated in normal air, or when the H2O molecule is in a glass of water.

It's true that 'an H2O molecule in a vacuum cannot dissolve salt,' because there is no salt to be dissolved. But it is not true that every modal statement discloses a causal power (or lack thereof).

If you uproot a tree and strip it of its leaves, it can no longer obtain nutrients, and it will cease to grow. But until it actually dies, it still has the power of growth.

Scott said...

@davidus:

As Stephen Barr puts it: "The ID claim is that certain biological phenomena lie outside the ordinary course of nature." That's the whole point of the ID claim that certain sorts of "specified complexity" can be identified as the result of design: they're the sort of thing that we can be sure didn't occur "naturally." If that weren't the case, the "design inference" would be nugatory.

I'll let you read the rest of that Barr piece (and this one)to find out why Barr thinks that view is pretty fundamentally at odds with not only A-T but Catholicism generally. But if you've read all those blog posts by Ed, you probably already have a good idea.

(Please note also that both of those essays are listed in Koons and Gage's bibliography. I see no serious engagement with either of them.)

Scott said...

@Bob:

Adding to Greg's reply:

One causal power (potency) that hydrogen has is to combine chemically with oxygen in certain ways, but that potency isn't actualized unless oxygen is there to actualize it. Another causal power that oxygen has (or perhaps it's the same causal power looked at from a different angle) is to actualize the potency of oxygen to combine chemically with hydrogen in certain ways, but it can't actualize that potency unless the potency is there to be actualized (that is, unless there's oxygen around).

In the absence of oxygen, hydrogen still has those causal powers. They don't simply vanish just because they're not being exercised; if they did, how would they ever come to be exercised at all?

Michele Arpaia said...

Guys
Have a look at this interesting piece:
www.roughtype.com/?p=2090

Mr. Green said...

Scott: As Stephen Barr puts it: "The ID claim is that certain biological phenomena lie outside the ordinary course of nature." That's the whole point of the ID claim that certain sorts of "specified complexity" can be identified as the result of design: they're the sort of thing that we can be sure didn't occur "naturally."

But that's not right — unless you count all "intelligence" as supernatural. ID only states that certain things lie outside the ordinary course of certain other things — or outside the course of unintelligent things, anyway — which is rather obviously true.

(I think that article is pretty bad. It seems to be mainly a political or PR complaint about the ID "movement" not being good enough, even though he admits it's not really their fault. And he says some silly things, like, "Science must fail for ID to succeed." (?!?) And in the end he admits that, "None of this is to say that the conclusions the ID movement draws about how life came to be and how it evolves are intrinsically unreasonable or necessarily wrong." Well, yeah.)

I'll let you read the rest of that Barr piece (and this one)to find out why Barr thinks that view is pretty fundamentally at odds with not only A-T but Catholicism generally. But if you've read all those blog posts by Ed, you probably already have a good idea.

Not really; Barr doesn't get into any of that in the first article you cited, and the second barely deals with ID, though it it is a good piece about randomness and providence. He does say:

Catholic theology has never really had a quarrel with the idea that the present species of plants and animals are the result of a long process of evolution”or with the idea that this process has unfolded according to natural laws.

Just like ID!

The possibility of an evolutionary process that could produce the marvelously intricate forms we see presupposes the existence of a universe whose structure, matter, processes, and laws are of a special character. This is the lesson of the many “anthropic coincidences” that have been identified by physicists and chemists.

...which, if not simply a statement of ID, is something approximating it usefully enough in the given context.


Anyway, he certainly address neither of the points I brought up: that ID is a souped-up version of "things act (almost) always in the same way", and that virtual design points to a ("virtual") designer. That's where claims of (in)compatibility between ID and Thomism need to focus, and if anyone has ever addressed that head-on, I'd love to see it.

Scott said...

@Mr. Green:

"But that's not right — unless you count all 'intelligence' as supernatural."

Well, that's the flipside of the same problem, isn't it? To get us any closer to the God of classical theism, ID (of the "design inference" variety) has to treat intelligence as supernatural; otherwise it can't claim that "specified complexity" and/or "irreducible complexity" can't arise through natural processes, and we're left with Ed's complaint that it leads at most to theistic personalism, or deism, or space aliens, or something.

"...which, if not simply a statement of ID, is something approximating it usefully enough in the given context."

I wouldn't say so; that's a statement of intelligent design, not of Intelligent Design®. If that were all ID said, there would be nothing distinctive about it.

Barr's own Modern Physics and Ancient Faith discusses such evidence for design (favorably) at some length, and no Thomist is going to have a problem with "intelligent design" in the general lowercased sense—just with what ID proponents have claimed to be their distinctive account of it.

Scott said...

"[T]he second [...] is a good piece about randomness and providence."

Indeed, and it therefore addresses the difference between ID's (implicitly) "mechanistic" account of nature on the one hand and Thomism's understanding of primary and secondary causation on the other.

Somebody thought the piece had something to do with ID; Koons and Gage list it in their bibliography.

ccmnxc said...

If someone would be willing to answer a totally non-relevant question of mine (at least, non-relevant to the immediate discussion):
I've noticed that Amazon lists Scholastic Metaphysics as having been published but gives a 1-3 week waiting period. Could anybody possibly explain to me why that is? I know the initial publication date had been set for later, so that might have been a relevant factor, but I'm just curious as to the reasoning behind the wait.
Thanks.

Mr. Green said...

Scott: Somebody thought the piece had something to do with ID; Koons and Gage list it in their bibliography.

Yeah, but they don't cite it anywhere in the essay. Barr's piece does refer to "Intelligent Design" a few times — usually to call it "anti-darwinian".... and if "ID" automatically refers to a specific position with lots of baggage, why doesn't "Darwinian" refer to the specific anti-providential position that (a) it so often is used to mean by certain atheists, and (b) it so often is explicitly identified as when being criticised by ID folks? (Any ID stuff I've seen makes it quite clear that they have no problem with darwinism in Barr's sense.)


otherwise it can't claim that "specified complexity" and/or "irreducible complexity" can't arise through natural processes, and we're left with Ed's complaint that it leads at most to theistic personalism, or deism, or space aliens, or something.

That's a fair conclusion, but I don't think it's a fair complaint, because ID doesn't claim to get any further than that. Especially when framed in a scientific context, it has a specific limited scope, and there's nothing wrong with that. Theoretically, any sound argument is worthwhile; and practically, some people will come to the correct conclusion about God anyway — it doesn't matter that it's not the "best" argument (only that it is not a false argument).

that's a statement of intelligent design, not of Intelligent Design®. If that were all ID said, there would be nothing distinctive about it.

Is it supposed to be distinctive? (Well, there is that attempt to pose it formally as a scientific question.) But that is actually one of the problems — there is no trademark on the term, so no two people ever use it to mean quite the same thing. (It's as badly abused as "creation" or "evolution" in that respect.)

Barr's own Modern Physics and Ancient Faith discusses such evidence for design (favorably) at some length, and no Thomist is going to have a problem with "intelligent design" in the general lowercased sense—just with what ID proponents have claimed to be their distinctive account of it.

Again, I'm not sure what's so distinctive; but of course if people really mean "ID™" (or "The Discovery Institute" or whatever else), then they should say so. I didn't, because I am referring only to "general" intelligent design. And in that case, the problem should be easy to solve: instead of criticising "design", the critics should make it clear exactly which distinctive additions are the problem, and note that design itself is not a problem for Thomism (and here's how a correct, unencumbered, A-T design argument would go). But I'm not seeing that, and so the natural inference is that there is no compatible argument.

Mr. Green said...

Something else I just thought of (that you were probably already thinking of): there are cosmological arguments for design — since the solar system is a machine (in Thomistic terms, I doubt it's a substance, certainly!), such arguments are unproblematic. But the ID people clearly take it that those arguments count just as much as "intelligent design" as the biological ones. Which makes it even less reasonable to insist that the term "ID" can be interpreted in only an anti-Thomistic way.

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Anonymous said...

On water:
The human body is structured water - it is 75-80% water.
The principle of Spiritual Life has to do with the transformation of water by which you free up your solid, mortal presumptions, and through which you become transformable, watery, alive, and your Spirit-life begins.

The life-force is water. Emotion is water. I is H2O. I = H20, meaning the sense of independent consciousness, or body-mind, equals water.
Whatever water can be discovered to be, if you do a thorough-going samyama on it, if you enter into its molecular and atomic domain, then there is only H or uncaused Happiness.

All of THIS is the Radiant Water of Consciousness Itself.

DS Thorne said...

I second Feser's notion that substantial forms never went away. Any "atom", if it is truly a unit, is ipso facto a composite of form and matter: to be extended is to have parts - say, a center and extremities - and to be moreover one is to have a principle that unifies those parts. And the principle can't itself be a physical part, because it would stand in need of yet another thing to unify it with the rest of the atom.

So I am at a loss when I read something like paragraph 46 of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations:

-----
46. What lies behind the idea that names really signify simples? --Socrates says in the Theaetetus: "If I make no mistake, I have heard some people say this: there is no definition of the primary elements -- so to speak -- out of which we and everything else are composed; for everything that exists in its own right can only be named, no other determination is possible, neither that it is nor that it is not..... But what exists in its own right has to be ....... named without any other determination. In consequence it is impossible to give an account of any primary element; for it, nothing is possible but the bare name; its name is all it has. But just as what consists of these primary elements is itself complex, so the names of the elements become descriptive language by being compounded together. For the essence of speech is the composition of names."
Both Russell's 'individuals' and my 'objects' (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) were such primary elements.
-----

Maybe I need to bone up on Russell to see how he defends this. But for all I can see, an essence-free, uncomposed atom is an oxymoron.

~DS Thorne, kindlefrenzy.weebly.com

Kevin said...

Nonsense. The practical intellect does not guarantee the overall fitness or desirability of its products. Discernment is crucial. This should be common sense. Clearly, industrialism leads to ecological suicide de facto in the hands of very fallen and very ignorant humans. We live in an age where any fool with a laptop riding in a jet plane can feel superior to St. John who was innocent of chemistry and quantum physics but intimate with the Logos, not to mention Christ himself, who never thought it was worth promoting investigations leading to technological advances. We live in an age where men are amazingly clever and amazingly stupid, or if you prefer, "intelligently stupid", to such a degree that the devil doesn't even have make much of an effort any longer. In truth, science-technology is modern man's real religion, it is what he really believes in, what anchors his sense of being at the summit of humanity, what makes him recoil at the thought of "medievalism" or at the material lack of "development" of traditional civilizations. As if any of this contributed one iota to man's true and final ends, or as if they could help him in the slightest when he has 5 seconds left to live. It's as if Christ never mentioned "the one thing needful", or as if the inner life were a luxury, an appendage to the monstrosity which is the modern way of life.

Pete said...

Looks like moderator is asleep at the wheel. Check out the car advertisement. Helllloooooooo!

Ned said...

I am a neophyte with a few questions about Aristotelian final causes. A classic example is an acorn being ordered towards "oakness." The highest good for the acorn is to become an oak. This seems perfectly self-evident. The argument is used against homosexuality in that sodomy is a violation of the nature of humanity and is therefore against reason and unjust as it violates the good toward which human nature is ordered. So far so good.

I began to ponder what kind of objections that homosexual activists could raise, and considered the practice of cutting the oak down and turning it into a violin, piano, boat, house, etc. When this is done, is it not a violation of the oak's telos and against the nature of the thing? Yet, it seems hard to say that the practice is unjust, appearing to produce such good ends. Or is the oak somehow ordered towards "violiness?" It seems problematic to go there. Why not say it is ordered towards "totem poleness" or "spearness?"

So, were I a practicing homosexual looking to justify myself, my argument would be that just as violiness transcends the nature of the tree for aesthetic purposes, even though it destroys the tree, so does homosexuality transcend humanness for the sake of aesthetics. We transform one thing to the other because it pleases us to do so, regardless of the consequences to the thing itself.

Likewise the radical environmentalist could use the argument to say that a tree should never be cut, since it is (apparently) against tree teleology.

Having painted myself into a corner, I am now trying to reason my way out. Another counter argument I considered is that, since humans are rational, then it becomes just to subjugate the nature of the tree for our own purposes, as long as the tree is used for good ends. But this seems like a bare assertion. On what basis is such an assertion justified from natural law? Just because we can? What seemed clear at the outset is now considerably muddled, and much harder to defend.

In the midst of this thought process I found Dr. Feser's present post, which is precisely relevant. He says that the practice of cutting the tree is an accidental cause, and concerning body modification, states "These practices are problematic, for the natural law theorist, when they cross the line separating beautifying adornment or correction of defects (which are perfectly legitimate) from deliberate mutilation (which is not legitimate, except when done to preserve the whole organism)."

But this seems to set up a contradiction, wherein the good order of the tree ("the whole organism") is disregarded, while human order only is regarded.

So, I am looking for input. I have read Dr. Feser's book "The Last Superstition" (thanks to Tom Woods' recommendation) and I have Aquinas on my list to read.