Friday, May 2, 2014

School’s out forever?


John Farrell, Forbes science blogger extraordinaire (and friend of this blog), comments on my recent talk at Thomas Aquinas College, over at his own personal blog.  As you know if you’ve read or listened to the talk, I call for a return to Scholasticism within Catholic intellectual life as essential to sound theology and apologetics.  John has some kind words about my talk, for which I thank him, but he also expresses skepticism about the prospects of the metaphysics of the School and its Schoolmen (to use the jargon of the good old days).  Writes John:

My own sense is that Scholasticism can't work now because it presupposes an Aristotelian philosophy of nature that is simply not adequate to support what modern science has uncovered about the natural order.  Which is not to say it is no longer valid, but rather that it is too limited. [No one says Newtonian physics is wrong, but it only addresses a limited aspect of a much wider, broader nature.]

He qualifies these remarks in an update to the post as follows:

I think what fascinates me most is not the degree to which science has moved on--and that was a poor analogy on my part if that is how it came across. But rather, to the degree that Aristotle's philosophy of nature was itself inspired to some degree by his science (in particular his observations as a biologist), in what ways could a modern philosophy of nature be inspired by science now? And could it be useful in apologetics? 

End quote.  So, the School’s out forever?  Naturally, I beg to differ, and if John is channeling Alice Cooper I guess I’ll have to play Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School.    

I’m a bit puzzled by John’s statement that “Scholasticism presupposes an Aristotelian philosophy of nature that is simply not adequate to support what modern science has uncovered about the natural order,” since I and other writers whose work John knows and respects (e.g. William Carroll) have argued that there is no conflict between an Aristotelian philosophy of nature and modern science.  Indeed, we argue that the latter is best interpreted in light of the former.  I’m pretty sure John is familiar with those arguments in at least a general way, so it would be interesting to know exactly what he thinks is wrong with them.  Unfortunately, he not only doesn’t tell us, but doesn’t give the reader an indication that the arguments even exist! 

I’m also puzzled by the rhetorical question about how an Aristotelian philosophy of nature might be useful in apologetics, given that I never shut up about how crucial the theory of act and potency is to causal arguments for God’s existence, how crucial immanent teleology or final causality is to Aquinas’s Fifth Way, the role hylemorphism plays in the Third Way, etc.  (I’ve explained all this at length in Aquinas and in various academic articles, and of course here at the blog.)

Since I deal with the question of the compatibility of modern science and Aristotelian philosophy at some length in Scholastic Metaphysics, and since David Oderberg does the same in Real Essentialism -- to cite just two sources (there’s also, of course, the work of Bill Carroll, William A. Wallace, James Weisheipl, Charles De Koninck, and others) -- I’ll direct the interested reader to those books. 

It is also worth reminding the reader that it is not just Scholastics like me who think that a broadly Aristotelian philosophy of nature is, not only “adequate,” but indeed necessary in order to account for what we know from modern science.  For example, we find a recapitulation of the Aristotelian notion of causal powers in the work of non-Scholastic philosophers of science like Nancy Cartwright, John Ellis, Anjan Chakravartty, and Rom Harré and in the work of non-Scholastic metaphysicians like Stephen Mumford, Rani Lill Anjum, C. B. Martin, John Heil, George Molnar, and U. T. Place.  (You’ll find a primer on this recent work in Scholastic Metaphysics, and some of the important work being done in the mini Aristotelian revival currently underway in analytic philosophy can be found in anthologies like Tuomas Tahko’s Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics, Ruth Groff and John Greco’s Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism, Daniel Novotný and Lukáš Novák’s Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives in Metaphysics, and my own Aristotle on Method and Metaphysics.)

It also needs to be emphasized that it is simply not the case that modern scientists have thought through the philosophical issues raised by their work and have found a non-Aristotelian way to answer them.  The truth is rather that they have in general become so hyper-specialized that they have largely lost sight of the most fundamental philosophical issues, and do not realize how amateurish, naïve, and conceptually sloppy their remarks often are when they do deign to address them.

To take just one example, consider that most fundamental notion of modern science, that of a “law of nature.”  It is routinely tossed around as if it were obvious what it meant for something to be a law of nature, and as if it were obviously unproblematic to think of scientific explanation as a matter of appealing to laws of nature.  In fact the notion is fraught with philosophical difficulty, as writers like Nancy Cartwright and Stephen Mumford have shown.  As I have noted many times, the notion of a “law of nature” was originally (in thinkers like Descartes and Newton) explicitly theological, connoting the decree of a divine lawmaker.  Later scientists would regard this as a metaphor, but a metaphor for what?  Most contemporary scientists who pontificate about philosophical matters not only do not have an answer but have forgotten the question.

One contemporary scientist who does see the problem is physicist Paul Davies, whose essay “Universe from Bit” (in Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregersen, eds. Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics), I happen to have been reading a few days ago.  Davies there writes:

The orthodox view of the nature of the laws of physics contains a long list of tacitly assumed properties.  The laws are regarded, for example, as immutable, eternal, infinitely precise mathematical relationships that transcend the physical universe, and were imprinted on it at the moment of its birth from “outside,” like a maker’s mark, and have remained unchanging ever since… In addition, it is assumed that the physical world is affected by the laws, but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe… It is not hard to discover where this picture of physical laws comes from: it is inherited directly from monotheism, which asserts that a rational being designed the universe according to a set of perfect laws.  And the asymmetry between immutable laws and contingent states mirrors the asymmetry between God and nature: the universe depends utterly on God for its existence, whereas God’s existence does not depend on the universe…

Clearly, then, the orthodox concept of laws of physics derives directly from theology.  It is remarkable that this view has remained largely unchallenged after 300 years of secular science.  Indeed, the “theological model” of the laws of physics is so ingrained in scientific thinking that it is taken for granted.  The hidden assumptions behind the concept of physical laws, and their theological provenance, are simply ignored by almost all except historians of science and theologians.  From the scientific standpoint, however, this uncritical acceptance of the theological model of laws leaves a lot to be desired… (pp. 70-1)

Now the naïve atheist reading this blog for the first time may suppose that at this point I am going to exclaim triumphantly that there cannot be law without a lawgiver and proclaim victory for theism.  But in fact, like Davies I don’t accept the theological account of laws.  I think it is bad philosophy of nature and bad theology (insofar as it tends toward occasionalism).  I want rather to make the following two points.  First, when scientists like Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, and Victor Stenger confidently proclaim that we can explain such-and-such in terms of the laws of physics rather than God, they show only how comically clueless they are.  What they are saying, without realizing it, is: “The explanation isn’t God, it’s rather the laws of physics, where ‘law of physics’ originally meant ‘a decree of God’ and where I don’t have any worked-out alternative account of what it means.”  Hence the “alternative” explanation, when unpacked, is really either a tacit appeal to God or a non-explanation.  In short, either it isn’t alternative, or it’s not an explanation

Second, the original, explicitly theological Cartesian-Newtonian notion of “laws of nature” was intended precisely as a replacement for the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy of nature.  The Scholastics held that the regularities in the behavior of natural phenomena derived from their immanent essences or substantial forms, and the directedness-toward-an-end or immanent teleology that followed upon their having those forms.  In other words, regularities reflected the formal and final causes of things.  The early moderns wanted to get rid of formal and final causes as immanent features of nature, and thus replaced them with the notion of “laws of nature” conceived of as externally imposed divine decrees.   To keep talk of “laws of nature” while throwing out God is thus not to offer an alternative to the Scholastic view at all, but merely to peddle an uncashed metaphor.  So, “science has moved on” from Scholasticism (as John puts it) only in the sense that it has not only chucked out Scholasticism but has also chucked out its initial proposed replacement for Scholasticism, and has offered nothing new in its place.  This is hardly a problem for the Scholastic; on the contrary, it is a problem for anyone who wants to resist a return to Scholasticism.

Like other contemporary Aristotelians, I would say that the right way to interpret a “law of nature” is as a shorthand description of the way a thing tends to operate given its nature or substantial form.  That is to say, “laws of nature” actually presuppose, and thus cannot replace, an Aristotelian philosophy of nature.  There are other accounts of laws, such as Platonic accounts and Humean accounts, but these are seriously problematic.  Platonic accounts, which treat laws of nature as abstract entities in a Platonic heaven, push the problem back a stage.  To appeal to such-and-such Platonic laws as an explanation of what happens in the world only raises the further problems of explaining why it is those laws rather than some others that govern the world, and what makes it the case that any laws at all come to be instantiated.  Humean accounts, meanwhile, interpret a law as a statement that such-and-such a regularity holds, or would have held under the right conditions.  But in that case an appeal to laws doesn’t really explain anything, but only re-describes it in a different jargon. 

There is, of course, more to the story, and I discuss these issues in detail in Scholastic Metaphysics.  The point for the moment is just that whatever the right view of laws of nature turns out to be, contemporary scientists seem to be mostly unaware that there is even a problem here.  And that’s just one area where modern science raises philosophical problems that its practitioners mostly neither perceive nor try to solve.  As Paul Feyerabend once complained:

The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrödinger, Boltzmann, Mach, and so on.  But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth… (See Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend, For and Against Method, p. 385)

Needless to say, Hawking, Krauss, Stenger, and Co. are even worse than the generation Feyerabend was complaining about. 

As if calling in reinforcements, a reader alerts me today to philosopher of biology John Wilkins’ recent remarks about the Aristotelian hylemorphism implicit in the free use physicists and biologists make of the notion of “information” and related notions.  This is a point I’ve been making for years, e.g. in The Last Superstition and in earlier posts like this one and this one.  (James Ross has made a similar point as well.)  Wilkins is, accordingly, suspicious of “information” talk, whereas my view is that in at least some cases it does track what Dennett would call “real patterns” in nature, and thus points to the reality of immanent formal and final causes.  (In re: what Wilkins says about atomism and hylemorphism, see Scholastic Metaphysics, chapter 3, especially pp. 177-84.)  Either way, it reinforces the point that, the standard “heroic age of science” narrative notwithstanding, the Aristotelian philosophy of nature is by no means the historical relic John and so many others suppose.

198 comments:

ccmnxc said...

Quick question. What would your response be if someone argues (or asserts) that Thomists hold to a sort of "metaphysical laws" which would parallel physical laws. For example, say that use of act/potency, essence/existence, a series per se or per accidents, etc. is really just using some metaphysical law without any sort of grounding other than them just being the way they are (in short, it is inexplicable as to why reality works in the way described as opposed to some other way). One might try to ground such things in God, but then, using them in the Five Ways, for example, would be circular since their use already presupposes God.

I'm pretty sure I'm missing something here (as in, I have absolutely no idea as to what I'm talking about), but how would you answer that objection? Thanks.

TheOFloinn said...

As I recollect, the old term was "the common course of nature."

Tom said...

You've argued here and in other places that the laws of physics depend on an object's substantial form/final causality, and also that the laws of physics are not necessarily true.

On this account, I have a few questions, similar to ccmnxc's: Is it logically necessary for a given object to have the substantial form that it does? Is it logically necessary for a given object to behave the way it does given its substantial form? Would it be possible for the universe to have slightly different laws of physics (e.g. the rate of gravitational acceleration on earth being 9.9 ft/second/second instead of 9.8)?

If an object has to behave the way it does given its substantial form, then it seems that the laws of physics are, in fact, logically necessarily, but if it doesn't, it would seem to make the laws of physics merely arbitrary.

Crude said...

Pardon my being blunt, but I think you're going to quickly find that when it comes to determining what is and is not intellectually acceptable for people to believe about metaphysics, the universe, science, humanity and more, John Farrell will more often than not prioritize the views of Jerry Coyne and the like over detractors.

I know, I know. Friend of this blog, science blogger extraordinaire, and all that - his resume outshines my own, in part because mine is non-existent. But whenever I read Farrell, I notice he absolutely adores various Thomists and the like... insofar as they're firing salvos at creationists or ID proponents. Once those enemies are off the radar, then it's right on back to soft-selling what amounts to New Atheist claims about science, God, religion and nature, often light on argument as opposed to 'these guys are scientists so they know what they're talking about.'

JesseM said...

It is not hard to discover where this picture of physical laws comes from: it is inherited directly from monotheism, which asserts that a rational being designed the universe according to a set of perfect laws.

The Pythagoreans seem to have come to the conclusion of a universe following a mathematical plan without first assuming a monotheistic creator God. While it's certainly true historically that the founders of modern science were monotheists, I think the idea of a universe obeying mathematical laws is an "attractor" which would be likely to catch on in any possible history where people began to discover similar mathematical laws of nature (say, a history where the Chinese or the Romans were the ones to discover gravitational laws equivalent to those found by Newton), and the example of the Pythagoreans shows that such ideas can be appealing philosophically even before they have much empirical support.

JesseM said...

The Scholastics held that the regularities in the behavior of natural phenomena derived from their immanent essences or substantial forms, and the directedness-toward-an-end or immanent teleology that followed upon their having those forms. In other words, regularities reflected the formal and final causes of things.

It seems to me that if one wishes to maintain a view like this in light of modern science, one is forced to take one of the following two options:

1. Deny that reductionist mathematical models of natural phenomena--distinct from any sort of metaphysical reductionism, merely a theory that the measurable behavior of composite objects can always in principle be predicted from laws governing the dynamics of the particles/fields that make it up--are correct even in this purely predictive sense. If you deny this, you are indeed saying there is something empirically wrong with the models that modern physics is based on, a prediction that is in principle testable.

2. Accept that reductionist models make accurate empirical predictions, which would mean embracing something akin to epiphenomenalism when it comes to metaphysical entities like "forms", "final causes", etc. Just as a believer in mental epiphenomenalism will tend to agree it's logically possible there could be a world physically identical to ours but with no conscious experience (a "zombie universe"), so an A-T advocate who accepts that reductionism may be adequate for predicting the behavior of physical systems should agree it's logically possible God could create a world where all the fundamental particles/fields etc. moved through space in exactly the same patterns as in our world, but where truths about forms and final causes were completely different. For example if in our universe a certain collection of atoms are virtual components of the form of a tree, there could be a possible world where the atoms were arranged in exactly the same tree-like pattern but there was no form of a tree, only separate forms for branches, trunk, roots, leaves etc. If there would be absolutely no difference between the two worlds perceivable by intelligent beings in each, then any statement about which apparent collections of atoms are actually parts of a single "form" would have to be purely a matter of faith.

TheOFloinn said...

@JesseM
Re 1. Recall Box's aphorism that "all models are wrong" although "some are useful." The thing to remember is that mathematical models are [usually continuous] approximations to [often discrete] physical reality; not vice versa. And in any case, one may draw more than one model through the same set of data.

Re 2. The Tychonic model made correct predictions regarding the positions of the stars and planets, in many cases better than the Copernican system. That a model makes correct predictions is no assurance that the physical world matches the internal structure of the model.

Crude said...

Based on my understanding of Aristotileanism, 1 is an absolute non-starter, and 2 misunderstands what the Aristotilean is contending. From what I've read, the A-T view simply regards a predictive model based on reduced entities to be incomplete on its own - it 'leaves things out', some of which are important and which are not captured by that model. This doesn't mean that what's 'left out' has absolutely no connection to the natural world whatsoever.

And it's certainly not 'purely a matter of faith'. It's 'logically possible' that just about every scientific theory is wrong, but no one would say that one accepts any given scientific theory then purely as a matter of faith. If a given arrangement of atoms is arranged treewise, it seems reasonable to conclude that one is dealing with an actual tree. Try to imagine some logical possibility where one can nevertheless be wrong about that, but 'purely a matter of faith'? Really?

Finally, I don't think one can embrace a reductionist materialist view and still get away with talking about "perceiving by intelligent beings".

Anonymous said...

We can't really expect scientists to delve into Scholistic Philosophy or any Philosophy at all. But one would expect those running around claiming " philosophy is dead, " to be intellectually honest. And I agree that at least Christian intellectuals should be well versed in Aristotelean/Thomistic Philosophy.

Linus2nd

Crude said...

Anon,

We can't really expect scientists to delve into Scholistic Philosophy or any Philosophy at all. But one would expect those running around claiming " philosophy is dead, " to be intellectually honest.

I think the practical problem is that this suggestion amounts to saying, 'Hey, willingly give up this amount of social, cultural and even political authority you currently have that intellectually you really shouldn't!' That doesn't add any defense to any scientist to continue to talk about things they don't know much about - or to overstep their intellectual boundaries while still offering themselves up as experts - but it helps put the situation in greater relief.

(See Stephen Hawking making headlines today as he opines about the dangers of artificial intelligence. Why does his opinion matter? Well he's a scientist. Sure he's in a different field and for all we know couldn't even program an AI to play poker, but he's a Smart Scientist Man and therefore we should take him seriously when he talks about anything involving a machine.)

That said, I think the real solution should come from the other direction: we're not going to get the scientists who abuse their authority to stop it. But maybe we can encourage people to stop taking them quite so seriously, and to even be cautiously skeptical of claims made by scientists. Horrifying stuff, I know, but it seems like the most promising course of action on this front.

rank sophist said...

Farrell's objection is somewhat strange, and I'm not exactly sure what his point is. I think Prof. Feser is misinterpreting several of his remarks, but, given their vagueness, that's understandable.

More interesting is the Pieper quote that is the bulk of Farrell's post. The question raised is whether Aquinas's delicate balance of faith and reason (i.e. rational argument and the acceptance of authority) can survive outside of the historical period in which it was created. Even the more systematic Church Fathers, such as Augustine and John of Damascus, didn't share Aquinas's rationalistic precision. And Aquinas's emphasis on the faith-based and empirical character of daily life, which he shared with the Fathers, was too often ignored in favor of rationalism by later Scholastics. Aquinas's careful synthesis was controversial even in its own time, and, with the rise of voluntarism during Aquinas's life and after his death, Catholic theology was destabilized for centuries. Thomism wasn't spared from this storm. The main attempt to return to Aquinas's "stable" synthesis of faith and reason was the quixotic Aeterni Patris, and the manualism it spawned. Needless to say, that didn't last very long.

There's an argument to be had about the historical possibility of a stable Thomism, and I would have been interested to see Farrell and Prof. Feser explore it. Not that arguments for the rational superiority of Thomism over contemporary philosophy aren't necessary as well.

Crude said...

And just to comment more on the meat of the OP itself...

The only area I can think to disagree with Ed over is with regards to his suggestion that the Cult of Gnu can only be effectively rebutted by Aristotilean/Thomistic thought. I'm a big fan of A-T reasoning, at least what I've read of it, seen of the arguments, and more. I think they're extraordinarily powerful, both in terms of what intellectual grounding they offer for belief in God, and what criticisms they offer of 'modernist' reasoning - again, particularly Gnu thought, or what passes for it.

But I think the Gnus are in worse shape, intellectually, than Ed offers. I know a lot of time Ed argues that this or that atheist critique doesn't get off the ground against the classical theist, and if it has any chance of success, it's against the personal theist. I agree with him on that front: but I also think the personal theist typically is able to squash these criticisms and concerns outright. Ed himself may not care to do that (and with good reason - he's got his hands full with classical theism, etc) and they may ultimately have things wrong (as I'd further believe), but just because someone is wrong doesn't meany every argument purporting to demonstrate such work. To put it another way: I think Ed has, ironically, shown that if anyone can successfully argue against the Personal Theists, it's Classical theists. Not New Atheists.

Now, I'd agree that the Gnus have encouraged responses to their criticisms of theism, and as a result have accidentally encouraged the rise of some powerful apologetic approaches, probably including some newfound respect for arguments of the kind he promotes. But that has more to do with their being loud than with their arguments being powerful - see the Ultimate Boeing 747 argument for an example. (What's that? You DON'T see it anymore, typically? Oh, that's because it was horrible and easily dismantled, to the point where most people have given up on it.)

That last part is important here: the arguments the Gnus offer up are typically pretty rotten, often awkward mangling of the very concept of God (again, see Ultimate Boeing 747), or outright abuses of science (see Jerry Coyne yammering about how evolution is unguided by God, then notice the complete and utter lack of science or experiment showing this.) It wasn't their powerful arguments or scientific data that stirred an intellectual response to them - it was largely their loudness. And even that has been fading over the years.

I suppose the short version of my Ed critique is that even he gives the Gnus too much credit. But hey, if they accidentally set off a reaction that has resulted in a rejuvenation of appreciation for philosophy, particularly critiques of modern philosophy, well - at least there's that.

Jeremy Taylor said...

JesseM,

I am a Pythagorean-Platonist and can say you greatly misunderstand Pythagoreanism. It is a doctrine ultimately very close to Platonism (which I'm no sure Dr. Feser does complete justice too). Number is at the centre of Pythagorean thought, of course, but at the centre of number for the Pythagorean are the ideal numbers (especially the One and the Dyad), which are not quantitative but very much like the highest forms in Platonism (indeed, Platonism tends to make these ideal numbers the highest forms). The universe, including quantitative number, reflect these ideal numbers.

This is not the sort of mathematics based physics of the moderns.

The Deuce said...

Ed:

I’m pretty sure John is familiar with those arguments in at least a general way

I think you'll be unpleasantly surprised. I've seen him talk about issues related to A-T (such at teleology), and it's pretty obvious that he's philosophically shallow and hasn't got a clue what A-T actually says. He just links here occasionally out of the vague impression that you're making unfriendly noises at the IDists, who are his great sociopolitical foe. He's got no real interest in actually learning anything about it. That's why he can't give you any specifics.

dover_beach said...

John Heil, you said? His brigade has just arrived: http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/the-universe-as-we-find-it/

JesseM said...

Jeremy, I would consider myself a sort of Platonist too, it's just that I don't think that there is such a thing as a "physical world" separate from the world of ideal Platonic forms--I think our universe is essentially an extremely complex mathematical form, fundamentally no different from other simpler ones (an idea sometimes called the mathematical universe hypothesis). Both Plato and neoplatonists did apparently believe in some kind of primal "something" that was shaped by mathematical forms, but distinct from them--neoplatonists tended to follow Aristotle in believing in "prime matter", whereas this page suggests Plato's "chora" (the basic preexisting 'something' that was then shaped by the demiurge in Timaeus, with the demiurge copying the realm of ideal forms) corresponded to a concept more like a kind of "spatial nothingness" that was receptive to form. But it isn't clear that Pythagoreans would have favored this view of a preexisting "something" which was separate from ideal forms over a more idealistic vision where the mathematical forms are ultimately the basic substance of everything--one of the famous Pythagorean sayings is "all is number", and it seems at least plausible that they meant this literally, not just that physical forms copied ideal numbers.

Now, it's true that the Pythagorean version of seeing everything as defined by numbers was often more "numerological" than the modern conception of everything behaving according to mathematical laws, with different numbers being metaphysically linked to different non-mathematical concepts as discussed in this article:

To the Pythagoreans, one is the number of reason, two is the number of opinion, three is the number of harmony, four is the number of justice, five is the number of marriage, six is the number of creation, seven is the number of awe, and ten is the number of the universe.

So I'm not trying to say that what Pythagoreans meant by "all is number" is identical to the modern concept of a lawlike universe whose measurable properties all obey a unified mathematical law. Still, from what I've read they were aware of at least a few empirical ways in which natural objects obeyed mathematical patterns, and that this is relevant to understanding what they meant by "all is number". The article I quoted above says:

A third possibility comes from astronomy, a subject that was studied by Pythagoras. In studying stars, one observes that each constellation can be characterized by the number of stars composing it and the geometrical figure that thy form. The fourth possible reason comes from music. The members of the school practiced music. Pythagoras observed that musical notes produced from a vibrating string of some length could be characterized by (ratios of) numbers. Dividing a vibrating string by some movable object into two different lengths produced different types of musical notes. These notes are then described by the ratios of the lengths of the parts of the vibrating string. Explaining musical notes and describing stars by numbers may have then led the Pythagoreans to think that numbers can also be used to explain other phenomena.

JesseM said...

@TheOFloinn:

Re 1. Recall Box's aphorism that "all models are wrong" although "some are useful." The thing to remember is that mathematical models are [usually continuous] approximations to [often discrete] physical reality; not vice versa. And in any case, one may draw more than one model through the same set of data.

But many (most?) physicists believe it is likely that all these approximate laws will turn out the be approximations to an exact final unified theory--that's the ambition of superstring theory for example. Of course we don't know if this will work out, but would you suggest that the A-T philosophy makes a definite prediction such an exact model will never be found, so that A-T be falsified if it did? I've always interpreted Dr. Feser's various statements about the compatibility of A-T metaphysics with modern science to mean that there aren't any purely physical observations that could really "falsify" A-T ideas, since those ideas are properly understood as metaphysical. But if one takes that view, I think it leads to the "epiphenomenalism" problem I described in option #2.

Re 2. The Tychonic model made correct predictions regarding the positions of the stars and planets, in many cases better than the Copernican system.

But not exactly correct--sufficiently careful measurements would give examples where it fails to predict phenomena that are correctly predicted by Newtonian gravity, which in turn fails to predict phenomena that are correctly predicted by general relativity.

That a model makes correct predictions is no assurance that the physical world matches the internal structure of the model.

I think physicists would understand the word "model" to refer to nothing more than a set of mathematical predictions about measurable dynamics--if you can make predictions with different sets of equations they would see these as different mathematical ways of expressing the "same model", not distinct physical models.

BM said...

Michael Augros's article from the Thomist a few years ago, RECONCILING SCIENCE WITH NATURAL PHILOSOPHY, is worth noting in connection with this topic. I don't believe philosophers or theologians (at least not Catholic ones) can do away with what was traditionally understood as the Philosophy of Nature and still have a branch to sit on. On the other hand, reconciling modern scientific theories in their particulars with reasoning rooted in the 'more known' looks to be a Herculean task...if not a practical impossibility at this stage of scientific theorizing. Who understands both the necessary scientific data and models as well as the philosophy of nature perfectly enough to find where they overlap in their real particulars (and not just apparently/hypothetically/in-a-model)? Who can resolve the tension?
Anyone, anywhere?

JesseM said...

@Crude:
Based on my understanding of Aristotileanism, 1 is an absolute non-starter, and 2 misunderstands what the Aristotilean is contending. From what I've read, the A-T view simply regards a predictive model based on reduced entities to be incomplete on its own - it 'leaves things out', some of which are important and which are not captured by that model. This doesn't mean that what's 'left out' has absolutely no connection to the natural world whatsoever.

I don't really know what you mean by "no connection to the natural world", I didn't use any phrasing like that. Do you disagree with my central contention in #2, that if indeed all measurable motions of matter and energy could be accurately predicted by a purely mathematical theory, then it would be logically possible to have two distinct possible worlds where these measurable motions were exactly identical, but where there'd be completely different metaphysical truths about whether different collections of measurable particles were actually (virtual) parts of unified "forms"? (or different truths about the final causes of various forms, etc.) If you deny this is possible, do you mean it wouldn't even be within God's power to create a world where different collections of atoms were united into forms, that it would somehow be logically impossible like making 1+1=3? If on the other hand you agree it's at least logically possible, then what basis can there be other than faith for any assumption about which of these empirically identical worlds corresponds to the one we are actually living in? For example, what reason would there be to have any confidence in the A-T claim, which has been discussed by Dr. Feser in the past, that living organisms have forms but machines such as cars do not, if God could just as easily create an empirically identical world where the opposite is true?

rank sophist said...

Jesse,

It can't really be said that Platonists or Aristotelians believe in a "primal 'something'" prior to form. For Platonists, the khora is simply an opening: the indeterminate, incomprehensible clearing in which contingent beings always already find themselves. It's more accurate to call it "nothing" than "something". Aristotle took a slightly different route, in that he believed this opening (privation, as Aristotelians call it) to originate from prime matter--but prime matter, in its original formulation, was viewed as a non-rational chaos that could not at all be called "something". An entity is only "something", strictly speaking, if it has a form.

Now, you could suggest that Pythagoreans reject khora-like concepts in favor of a numbers-all-the-way-down approach. But then you're claiming that they don't address the conditions of existence into which numbers fall, and thus that they have an incomplete, incoherent philosophy. Which is what your own philosophy is, as you've explained it here. If you leave out the idea of a "space" separate from form or number or what-have-you, then you make it impossible for form or number or what-have-you to present themselves to us at all. There is, quite simply, nowhere for them to be.

rank sophist said...

I should clarify that the relationship between the khora, prime matter and privation is complex. Prime matter and privation together provide the function of the khora: the opening in which substances exist and move. I was slightly mistaken on this matter in my previous post, since I hadn't read the relevant texts in quite awhile. Regardless, it remains true that prime matter and the khora stand between being and non-being as the receptacles and conditions of existence. If you remove them, then there is no space in which beings may appear.

Anonymous said...

How can A-T philosophy account for and enrich the core principle of quantum mechanics - the principle of superposition - by which Schrodinger's cat is actually both dead and alive until someone observes it (a "superposition" of macroscopically distinct states prior to the instant of observation)?

Quantum weirdness seems to throw metaphysics and "philosophy of nature" into disarray at worst, and irrelevance at best.

Crude said...

JesseM,

I don't really know what you mean by "no connection to the natural world",

No connection to the natural world, as in, there's nothing physically 'about' this or that which can reasonably used to determine its form.

And I'd ask this one more directly: it's logically possible that all scientific theories are wrong. Do we therefore say that we believe in any/all scientific models purely on faith?

Do you disagree with my central contention in #2, that if indeed all measurable motions of matter and energy could be accurately predicted by a purely mathematical theory, then it would be logically possible to have two distinct possible worlds where these measurable motions were exactly identical, but where there'd be completely different metaphysical truths about whether different collections of measurable particles were actually (virtual) parts of unified "forms"?

Why the qualifier of "all measurable"? That seems a bit like 'a theory where everything can be predicted, except for the stuff we can't predict'. More than that, I don't see where having such a theory in hand matters to your question at all - it's not 'doing any work.' Remove all talk of the "purely mathematical theory", and it doesn't change your question.

Anyway, I'm the rank amateur about Aristotileanism here compared to many here, so I'll happily take any correction to my response that would be offered by the others. Still, your question seems to be asking me something along the following lines: 'Is it reasonable, given A-T, to think that George Washington actually had the form of a duck?' And I think the answer is, no, not really. We have various investigated facts of the matter on one hand (what George was, his physical makeup and history, his capabilities, how his body worked, what his body did) and A-T concepts and distinctions on the other hand (the difference between natural and artificial, the general concept of form, ideas of how empirical discovery informs our views), and putting those together makes Duck Washington pretty hard to swallow.

Now could you dig in your heels and say 'Ah but you can't raptly and thoroughly demonstrate this beyond a shadow of a doubt, it remains a logical possibility!'? Now, the more informed (ha ha) A-T thinkers here may have a better answer for that, but I'm right back to asking my science question: does the logical possibility of a theory being wrong make acceptance of that theory 'purely a matter of faith'?

grodrigues said...

@Anonymous:

"the principle of superposition - by which Schrodinger's cat is actually both dead and alive until someone observes it (a "superposition" of macroscopically distinct states prior to the instant of observation)?"

The principle of superposition does not say that.

"Quantum weirdness seems to throw metaphysics and "philosophy of nature" into disarray at worst, and irrelevance at best."

How would you know, since quite obviously you do not understand QM?

TheOFloinn said...

But many (most?) physicists believe it is likely that all these approximate laws will turn out the be approximations to an exact final unified theory... would you suggest that the A-T philosophy makes a definite prediction such an exact model will never be found, so that A-T be falsified if it did?

A-T philosophy does not, for the excellent reason that it is philosophy, not physics. Metaphysics deals with matters that are preconditions for physics -- for any physics, even those with different rules. It is physics itself and mathematics which puts the kabosh on those hopes. One of the implications of Gödel's Theorem is that, to the extent that physics is expressed in the language of mathematics, it is impossible to know whether you have actually found a GUT or not.
http://theor.jinr.ru/~kuzemsky/JakiGodel.pdf

sufficiently careful measurements would give examples where [the Tychonic model] fails to predict phenomena that are correctly predicted by Newtonian gravity

It also fails to give predictions made correctly by Maxwell's electrodynamics -- because it was not a model of gravity. It was intended only to predict the positions of the heavenly bodies in the sky. It outperformed the Copernican model because it used better data, but mathematically the two were equivalent, being only a tranformation of coordinates.

But, which phenomena did you have in mind where the Tychonic model failed? (It was superceded by the Keplerian model -- not because of any predictions fulfilled or not, but because the Rudolphine Tables were easier to use -- well before Newton and co. came on the scene.)

[The first consideration in model building is the context: what are the boundaries of the physical that the model is supposed to embrace? Newton's equations do not have a term for speed o'light, not because the speed of light doesn't exist, but because he was concerned only with sensible motion, and that leaves out motions in the sub-particle realm and in the near-light speed realm.]

if indeed all measurable motions of matter and energy could be accurately predicted by a purely mathematical theory...

...which Heisenberg tells us can't be done. But there would still be the problem of motion as such. Physics deals in changes in motion, changes in magnitude or direction, but motion as such is taken as a given. Newton's first law states that if a body is in motion in the first place, it will continue in that motion indefinitely in vacuo. But motion itself is simply assumed.

JesseM said...

@rank sophist:
Now, you could suggest that Pythagoreans reject khora-like concepts in favor of a numbers-all-the-way-down approach. But then you're claiming that they don't address the conditions of existence into which numbers fall, and thus that they have an incomplete, incoherent philosophy. Which is what your own philosophy is, as you've explained it here. If you leave out the idea of a "space" separate from form or number or what-have-you, then you make it impossible for form or number or what-have-you to present themselves to us at all.

I don't know how Pythagoreans would address this, but as for myself, I think space can be defined relationally rather than as an independently existing background, as Leibniz argued in his responses to Newton's arguments for absolute space. We can have simulated 3D worlds in computers where the program defines the positions of different objects in numerical terms, and the simulated dynamics depend on the spatial relations of simulated objects (for example, there might be simulated forces that depend on distance). If you accept that simulated organisms with sufficiently complex simulated brains might be conscious, then their perceptions of the simulated space they experience should be completely independent of the real-world positions of the various components of the computer that store the simulation's data. After all, if you ran the same simulation on two different computers, then even if the physical arrangement of computer components was very different, the output should nevertheless be identical since both computers are running the same program, and that output would include reports the beings make about their experiences, along with their simulated brain activity (and I think there are good arguments for believing that functionally identical systems would have identical conscious experiences). This means that the spatial perceptions of beings in the simulation would only depend on the computational relations (a form of logical/mathematical relation) between events, not the "real" spatial relations between 1's and 0's in the computer memory. So, I find it natural to hypothesize that even a Platonic instance of that computation (since computations are types of mathematical forms) would give rise to exactly the same conscious perceptions for any beings within the simulation, and our own perceptions could be of exactly the same type.

Anonymous said...

grod,

From wiki:

"Quantum superposition is a fundamental principle of quantum mechanics that holds that a physical system—such as an electron—exists partly in all its particular theoretically possible states (or, configuration of its properties) simultaneously; but when measured or observed, it gives a result corresponding to only one of the possible configurations"

This is pretty much what Anon said, and this is also my understanding of it (I took a QM course in college). What's wrong with it?

Anonymous said...

(I'm a different Anon, btw)

grodrigues said...

@Anonymous:

"What's wrong with it?"

This:

"Quantum superposition is a fundamental principle of quantum mechanics that holds that a physical system—such as an electron—exists partly in all its particular theoretically possible states (or, configuration of its properties) simultaneously;"

What the principle of superposition says is that the state space of a quantum system is (the projective space of) a Hilbert space.

One could *interpret* QM as implying the quoted sentence. The only problem (or one problem) is that, at least on a natural reading of the interpretation, it is easy to show that it is inconsistent.

note: edited to point out the ambiguity.

JesseM said...

@TheOFloinn
One of the implications of Gödel's Theorem is that, to the extent that physics is expressed in the language of mathematics, it is impossible to know whether you have actually found a GUT or not.
http://theor.jinr.ru/~kuzemsky/JakiGodel.pdf


I don't think mathematicians who have really analyzed the issue would agree with this conclusion (indeed, the idea that Godel makes a physical "theory of everything" impossible is one of the "abuses" attacked in Gödel's Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to Its Use and Abuse by an author who specialized in the field of mathematical logic). One way to see the problem is to look at examples of simulated worlds with very simple underlying laws that can nevertheless be set up to perform arbitrary computations, like Conway's Game of Life which made of a giant grid of black and whites squares that decide their shade on each time-step based on the shade of their neighbors and themselves on the previous step. Since this simulation is computationally "universal" it is susceptible to Godel's theorem too, but this would only mean that an arrangement of black and white squares which was designed to churn out arithmetical proofs could go an infinite time without ever deciding whether certain statements about arithmetic are true or false, it wouldn't suggest any problem with understanding the dynamical rules which determine how the squares themselves change over any given (finite) time period.

It also fails to give predictions made correctly by Maxwell's electrodynamics -- because it was not a model of gravity. It was intended only to predict the positions of the heavenly bodies in the sky. It outperformed the Copernican model because it used better data, but mathematically the two were equivalent, being only a tranformation of coordinates.

Do you have any reference for that claim? I don't think it's true that they are completely equivalent and related by a coordinate change, the models involve differing numbers of "epicycles" for example.

But, which phenomena did you have in mind where the Tychonic model failed?

I just meant that it wouldn't be as accurate as the Newton/Kepler model of orbits at predicting the positions of planets in the night sky as seen from Earth. Were you under the impression that Tycho's or Copernicus' models made exactly correct predictions about this, as opposed to just "good enough" ones for astronomers at the time?

JesseM said...

Reply to TheOFloinn, continued:
...which Heisenberg tells us can't be done.

If "motion of matter and energy" is allowed to include the notion that matter/energy are distributed in a wavelike way with different probability amplitudes at different locations, then the uncertainty principle isn't incompatible with perfect prediction (indeed, the uncertainty principle has a direct analogue in classical waves, dealing with the fact that a waveform more localized in position is less localized in frequency and vice versa). Whether perfect prediction is possible depends on one's interpretation of quantum mechanics, whether the "collapse" of the wavefunction on observation is taken as a real physical phenomenon for example. Even if there is a genuine random element, it still might be true that mathematical rules dealing only with underlying particles/fields give the most accurate possible statistical predictions about the arrangement of those particles/fields at later times, that knowledge of forms and final causes would give you no help with predictions. I think my 1/2 dilemma would apply just as much to this case as to a case where reductionist mathematical models allowed for perfect prediction. I'm not claiming this would be fatal to A-T metaphysics, just that if you bite the bullet and accept #2 you have to admit that even if we take for granted the existence of forms and final causes in the world, there'd still be no empirical basis for choosing between different claims about what the forms/final causes in our world actually are, like a claim that there is such a thing as a "form of a car" and a claim that there is not.

rank sophist said...

Jesse,

I'm not sure what the detour about functionalism has to do with my post, so I'll just address the opening passage.

I don't know how Pythagoreans would address this, but as for myself, I think space can be defined relationally rather than as an independently existing background, as Leibniz argued in his responses to Newton's arguments for absolute space.

The problem is that space, in the relevant metaphysical sense, is going to be a problem even if you try to explain it away in terms of relations.

Think of it like this. Let's say you have A, B and C. A and B are two people, while C is a body of water. A and B are related to C, which bridges the divide between them. The example could be reformulated to cover bodies in spacetime, or particles in a Higgs field, or what have you. Seemingly, metaphysical "space" has been accounted for: substances connect to substances forever, without any need to appeal to a background condition. Everything is "full". But you still haven't addressed the very possibility of those substances connecting in the first place. For determinate reality to be present, it must appear against some spacial horizon that does not itself require another spacial horizon. That is, even if particles and the Higgs field are related, their relation cannot be self-sufficient, such that they do not require a larger, more basic "place" in which to exist. You could say that the Higgs field appears against the horizon of some more basic physical phenomenon--and so on. But an infinite regress of this kind is tantamount to denying the spacial presence of anything.

This is one of several reasons that you need to posit an indeterminate receptacle like the khora or prime matter. They provide the metaphysical background conditions that allow determinate entities to have place. Newton's absolute space is not a particularly good analogate, because, as a determinate and rational reality, it would itself require the khora or prime matter to be present.

Brandon said...

I don't think mathematicians who have really analyzed the issue would agree with this conclusion (indeed, the idea that Godel makes a physical "theory of everything" impossible is one of the "abuses" attacked in Gödel's Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to Its Use and Abuse by an author who specialized in the field of mathematical logic).

It should be pointed out -- because the modality makes a major difference in this context -- that TOF did not say that Godel makes a physical theory of everything impossible but that "to the extent that physics is expressed in the language of mathematics, it is impossible to know whether you have actually found a GUT or not." This is a radically different claim, and should not be confused with the claim you are confusing it with.

Jeremy Taylor said...

JesseM,

For the Platonist and Pythagorean, matter is ultimately the Dyad, the principle of separativity and individuation that brings out the distinctions possible but unified in the One and in the forms. It is, in the end, just a reflection of the One that is beyond being, in combination with the One that is the highest form.

TheOFloinn said...

I don't think it's true that they are completely equivalent and related by a coordinate change, the models involve differing numbers of "epicycles" for example.

Doesn't matter if they did. As long as they gave like results, the mechanics of how they achieved those results don't matter.

JesseM said...

@Brandon:
that TOF did not say that Godel makes a physical theory of everything impossible but that "to the extent that physics is expressed in the language of mathematics, it is impossible to know whether you have actually found a GUT or not." This is a radically different claim, and should not be confused with the claim you are confusing it with.

Well, the claim that Godel proves we couldn't discover it is just as wrong as the claim that no such theory can exist. Again, Godel just deals with the inability of any formal system to correctly decide all statements about arithmetic. In no way does that suggest that simulated beings in a simulated world following a given set of rules (like those of the Game of Life that I mentioned) would be unable to discover the rules that would allow them to predict what state some system will be in after a given number of time-steps after a known initial state--doing so would not help them to decide all statements about arithmetic, so in what way is this supposed to run afoul of Godel's theorem?

The book I mentioned by a specialist in mathematical logic (Torkel Franzen), Gödel's Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to Its Use and Abuse, has on p. 88 a quote from another author saying that the incompleteness theorem "reveals that no matter what progress is made in our science can never in principle completely disclose nature", to which Franzen responds:

This doesn't follow, since nothing in the incompleteness theorem excludes the possibility of our producing a complete theory of stars, ghosts, and cats all rolled into one, as long as what we say about stars, ghosts, and cats cannot be interpreted as statements about the natural numbers.

Note that he refers to "our producing a complete theory", not merely the existence of a complete theory.

JesseM said...

@TheOFloinn:
Doesn't matter if they did. As long as they gave like results, the mechanics of how they achieved those results don't matter.

It's true it might in principle be possible for two theories with different number of epicycles to give identical predictions, but I doubt that this was true in the case of Brahe's system vs. Copernicus', since I've never heard of such a thing in my reading on the subject, and it seems like it would be a rather large coincidence (and I know for a fact that both made somewhat different predictions from the earlier Ptolemaic system of epicycles). As I asked before, do you have a specific source for this claim that they make identical predictions, or are you just saying this based on a vague memory or something?

Brandon said...

It's really not a matter of interest to me what precisely can be determined on this subject, but you are again being logically sloppy; the passage you quote from Franzen does not include anything equivalent to TOF's claim that 'to the extent that physics is expressed in the language of mathematics, it is impossible to know whether you have actually found a GUT or not'; producing a complete theory and knowing whether you have found are not in any way logically equivalent. Your translation, "unable to discover the rules that would allow them to predict what state some system will be in after a given number of time-steps after a known initial state" is not in any way logically equivalent, either. They don't even share the right kind of modal operators.

TheOFloinn said...

That Franzen better clue in Hawking, Gell-Mann, and Jaki. Them physicists is really dumm.

JesseM said...

@Brandon:
Your translation, "unable to discover the rules that would allow them to predict what state some system will be in after a given number of time-steps after a known initial state" is not in any way logically equivalent, either.

But as I understand it, a unified theory would just be a theory that allows you to predict the dynamics from one time to another. Given a precise state at one time you predict the state at another--that's what all quantum field theories do, for example. So in a universe where the underlying rules were those of the "Game of Life", if you discovered the basic rules about how each square decides its color on a given time-step based on the color of its neighbors and itself on the previous time-step, that would be equivalent to discovering the "fundamental physics" of that universe. Nothing in Godel's theorem would prevent an intelligent being in that universe from discovering these rules, and likewise it wouldn't prevent us from discovering the fundamental dynamical laws of our own universe. Do you disagree with this, or do you think that physicists intend an ultimate unified theory to do something more than predict what the future state will be some finite amount of time after a given initial state?

JesseM said...

@TheOFloinn:
That Franzen better clue in Hawking, Gell-Mann, and Jaki. Them physicists is really dumm.

It's not a question of being dumb, but of stepping outside one's field of expertise and making some quasi-philosophical speculations in a nontechnical work aimed at the general public. If you disagree with some of Hawking or Gell-Mann's statements about philosophy or theology in their popular works, does that mean you're calling them dumb?

It's also possible that if you asked them, these physicists would say they are defining "theory of everything" more broadly than physicists normally define it--not just as a set of rules to tell you how any arrangement of the fundamental building blocks of nature will behave over some finite time, but as an algorithm to decide whether some physical process would ever end up in a given state in a potentially infinite amount of time. If you define things that way, then it's true that no theory can tell us, for example, whether an arbitrary computation will ever halt or keep running forever. But as I said to Brandon above, this just isn't what physicists normally mean by "unified theory" or "theory of everything"; and for the purposes of my original 1/2 dilemma about A-T philosophy, all that's needed is the assumption that you have a reductionist theory that can perfectly predict the later state a finite time after an initial state.

Jim S. said...

Ed,

As I have noted many times, the notion of a "law of nature" was originally (in thinkers like Descartes and Newton) explicitly theological, connoting the decree of a divine lawmaker.

To Descartes and Newton would you not also add Jefferson, as in "… and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them ..?"

Vaal said...

I find it fascinating how much Prof. Feser claims to know about God, especially against the apparently enormous proportion of humanity, including a great many of Prof. Feser's fellow Christians, who just haven't managed to understand God's revelation.

God revealed Himself in Nature, and yet the Almighty's Work wasn't successful enough and we must turn to folks like Prof. Feser to make this revelation cogent.

God even came down and tried to reveal Himself directly - unfortunately He chose to do so in the middle east thousands of years ago, not apparently the most successful strategy given most people still aren't Christian and Christianity itself has been unable to come to cohesive understanding of God. So, still...here we are, requiring the efforts of people like Prof. Feser with his specific interpretations of Thomistic/Scholastic theories, to really help us understand God.

God sure needs a lot of help.

Weird how hard a time an All Mighty Being has making himself understood - even to Christians! - let alone known to all.

Now...on to a Protestant Christian web site, which will just as confidently explain the nature of God, in a manner that contradicts Feser's version of God

It seems just a bit...convenient...that there will always be people eager to jump in to instruct us about God's nature, for poor old God who just can't seem to do the job.


Vaal

Anonymous said...

Vaal shows up to demonstrate that if you get out-argued at every turn, don't give up hope. Show up again and wait to be out-rhetoriced too!

Harrison said...

Vaal,

Well that was juvenile and rude and utterly pointless. You consistently pop up to argue against a position that Dr. Feser has not taken. Your religion-slaying complaint appears to be your annoyance that the Christian God revealed Himself "thousands of years ago" in a way that you, Vaal, would not have done had Vaal been God. The dumb Christian God just keeps on revealing Himself in an obviously inadequate way compared to the really bitchin' way that the Vaal-as-God would have; therefore, the Christian God is patently false. Well consider your complaint registered. For those of us who care about deeply about this issue and are totally on the fence regarding the existence of God, your New Atheistic prissiness is revolting.

Brandon said...

But as I understand it, a unified theory would just be a theory that allows you to predict the dynamics from one time to another....Nothing in Godel's theorem would prevent an intelligent being in that universe from discovering these rules, and likewise it wouldn't prevent us from discovering the fundamental dynamical laws of our own universe.

You're simply repeating the same logical fallacy; having a unified theory is not logically equivalent to knowing that you have it, and discovering a unified theory is not the same as knowing that you've discovered it. The claims you are addressing are not logically equivalent to the claim TOF made; indeed, their logical structure is very different, and this is even before we get to the fact that you keep dropping TOF's qualification 'in mathematical terms' (which is, incidentally, another reason why your Franzen quotation wasn't relevant, since Franzen in the passage quoted makes a more restricted version of the same qualification).

As I said before, I don't really have an opinion on the subject, or find it very interesting one way or another, for that matter; my point is that your argument is logically messed up, and doesn't actually address the claim to which you are directing it, but only claims that look verbally somewhat similar to it but aren't really.

TheOFloinn said...

In fact this was noted also by Jaki, who had schooled Gell-Mann in the Theorem at a Nobel colloquium back in the day. Of it, he says:
"It seems that it [the colloquium] was the first time that Weinberg, Weisskopf and Hoyle [other panelists] heard of Gödel's theorem. A month later I gave a paper on Olbers' paradox and cosmology at Boston University and mentioned Gödel's theorem. After my lecture somebody walked up to me and said that I merely presented what he had heard a week earlier in a lecture given by Gell-Mann at the University of Chicago. There, with a reference to Gödel's theorem Gell-Mann warned that a final theory of fundamental particles was not possible to formulate. Gell-Mann was wrong. Such a theory is possible to formulate, but when it is on hand one cannot know rigorously that it is a final theory. [Emph added]

But the key point is that modern science does not lay a glove on Aristo-Thomistic philosophy and in many ways seems to be inching back toward it. Dark matter looks suspiciously like the aether. The "observer effect" was covered by Aristotle in the proper and common sensibles. And Schroedinger's cat (assuming the Copenhagen interpretation) is a clear example of potency being reduced to act. What is lacking is a scientist with the GUT [lol] to express modern science in Aristo-Thomist terms. Wallace's book was a shot in this direction.

Edward Feser said...

What is lacking is a scientist with the GUT [lol] to express modern science in Aristo-Thomist terms. Wallace's book was a shot in this direction.

Heisenberg was pretty clear about the Aristotelian act/potency distinction being implicit in QM. And Henry Stapp, in an essay in the Davies and Gregerson volume I mentioned in the OP, emphasizes the same point.

Vaal said...

Harrison,

My intent was not to insult, but to point out how bizarre this situation is.

I believe my post characterized a warranted skepticism raised by the problems in religious "knowledge of God" in general, and Christianity - with the example of Prof. Feser's blog - in particular. My post seemed absurd because it describes an absurd situation regarding God's purported revelation, both natural and special.

When you spend as much time as Prof. Feser does correcting others for getting God wrong, including showing unbelievers as comically ignorant about God, and correcting both fellow philosophers and fellow Christians about God's nature, it's reasonable to look at the pretty bizarre implications this has in the wider context.

An All Powerful God who is purportedly revealed by nature and human reason itself, our intellect having the the end of knowing Him, and this God actually having made an effort to manifest special, specific knowledge of Himself…just hasn't seemed to done the job very well. Leaving a relatively small number of mere human beings like Prof. Feser to set us straight about God. It's hard not to notice this just seems absurd.

Of course there are Christian excuses for this state of affairs - e.g. appeals to problems of human material existence, a posterior appeals to The Fall's effect on our will, etc, - but these are as unconvincing to any rational outsider as the apologetics of any other faith is to Christians. It all just come off as obviously ad hoc.

Vaal

SanJoseTennisDude said...

On a completely unrelated note, Dr Feser is speaking at a colloquium in Berkeley this summer (July 16-20) --What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?
http://dspt.edu/conversation2014

So far, the stars are in alignment for me to attend. I got buy-in from my wife, the price isn't exorbitant, I think I figured out where I might stay, etcetera.

I know about Transcendental Thomists, Peeping Thomists, and Hillbilly Thomists. Against my better judgment, I am becoming An Accidental Eastern Orthodox Thomist. Are there other readers (Thomists of whatever ilk) who planned to attend? It might be fun to hook up in Berkeley!

JesseM said...

@Brandon:
You're simply repeating the same logical fallacy; having a unified theory is not logically equivalent to knowing that you have it, and discovering a unified theory is not the same as knowing that you've discovered it.

Are you using "knowing" in the sense of absolute certainty, as opposed to just the usual high degree of confidence we have in theories that have uniquely and correctly predicted the results of many observations? We cannot really "know" any scientific claim with absolute total certainty, not even the claim that the Earth is round or that objects will continue to fall when we drop them tomorrow, but this seems to have nothing to do with Godel's theorem. Do you have a specific argument in mind that Godel's theorem should be the reason we can never know we have the correct theory of everything, or you only saying that you think I've got the claim wrong, without judging whether it's correct or not?

The claims you are addressing are not logically equivalent to the claim TOF made; indeed, their logical structure is very different, and this is even before we get to the fact that you keep dropping TOF's qualification 'in mathematical terms'

I did a control-F to search this comments page for the phrase "in mathematical terms", TOF never used that phrase. Nor did he use "know" in a way that clearly suggested he was using it to mean absolute perfect certainty as opposed to the more usual sense in which we say we "know" that any scientific claim is true, based on strong empirical evidence. However, I had another more careful look at the paper by Jaki that TOF linked to at http://theor.jinr.ru/~kuzemsky/JakiGodel.pdf and it does seem that Jaki was talking about absolute certainty that the laws of physics must necessarily be described by a certain equation, independently of any evidence. For example, on p. 9 he says that "Such a theory is possible to formulate, but when it is on hand one cannot know rigorously that it is a final theory", and on p. 11 he says that "Gödel's theorem does not mean that physicists cannot come up with a theory of everything or TOE in short. They can hit upon a theory which at the moment of its formula- tion would give an explanation of all known physical phenomena. But in terms of Gödel's theorem such a theory cannot be taken for something which is necessarily true."

My own response to this would be that #1, it seems like an odd strawman argument, since I don't think any physicists claim we could have a proof that some TOE is necessarily true in the sense that there would be a logical contradiction in any possible alternate theory (indeed, we have plenty of examples of simple simulated worlds with different fundamental laws that obviously aren't logically contradictory). At best some hope that we could show that if we want a theory with some broad characteristics that we have observed to be true in our universe (say, a quantum theory which approaches agreement with general relativity in the limit as energy densities become much lower than the Planck scale), then there is a mathematically unique theory with those characteristics. And #2, although I don't believe that we could ever prove that a certain physical theory was necessarily true, I don't believe there's any rigorous argument that invokes Godel's theorem specifically to demonstrate that we couldn't; certainly Jaki never presents one in that paper.

Anonymous said...

Vaal,

As far as I can see, the vast majority of mankind has had an appreciation of the existence of the divine.

Anyway, do you think anyone here is impressed by your empty rhetoric? Do you not think they've heard it all before. How about you make an argument against classical theism or go away?

Edward Feser said...

Vaal,

Your problem is that you're all over the place. Let's focus. Consider just one question, viz. whether an Aristotelian argument for an Unactualized Actualizer of the existence of a thing at any instant (such as the argument I present in places like my ACPQ article "Existential Inertia and the Five Ways," or in a talk you can find on Vimeo) actually works.

Now, I argue that the usual objections against First Cause arguments can be seen to fail completely against the argument in question when one understands the underlying metaphysics of the argument (the act/potency distinction, essentially ordered causes, etc.) And I argue that those metaphysical background ideas are independently defensible, indeed unavoidable.

Well, the argument either works or it doesn't, my responses to the usual objections are either cogent or they are not, and the underlying metaphysical notions are either correct or they aren't. It seems to me that a rational response would be to focus on those issues.

Instead, you want to focus on complete irrelevancies. "Why did this Unactualized Actualizer actualize a world in which it is hard for so many people to understand the argument for his existence?" "Why would we need to look to a guy like Feser to find out what's wrong with criticisms of the argument?" Etc.

What does any of that have to do with whether the argument or the responses to objections really are in fact cogent? Nothing. They may be interesting questions in themselves or in other contexts, but they're simply not relevant to questions about whether this or that philosophical argument for God's existence is sound.

This is a common move in what might be called "vulgar atheist apologetics." Call it the "change the subject" maneuver. When a certain kind of atheist finds that he doesn't know how to respond to a certain argument, or is not familiar with the philosophical concepts underlying a certain argument, he tries to come up with rationalizations for not addressing the argument head on. E.g. "Why would a good God not make such arguments more easy to understand?" "Why should I take this argument seriously when it isn't more widely defended among apologists?" "Even if the argument worked it wouldn't by itself get you to Christianity" Etc. etc.

Similar "objections" could be raised against any argument for anything. They are blatant red herrings, and they are indicators that the person raising them is not really interested in finding out what truth there may or may not be in the arguments of his opponents, but merely in upholding a certain agenda.

Of course, that may not be what you're trying to do here. Perhaps you're just raising what you take to be a fair (though, I think, actually confused) point. But it strikes me as a clear red herring, whether intentional or not.

JesseM said...

@TheOFloinn:
In fact this was noted also by Jaki, who had schooled Gell-Mann in the Theorem at a Nobel colloquium back in the day. Of it, he says:
"It seems that it [the colloquium] was the first time that Weinberg, Weisskopf and Hoyle [other panelists] heard of Gödel's theorem. A month later I gave a paper on Olbers' paradox and cosmology at Boston University and mentioned Gödel's theorem. After my lecture somebody walked up to me and said that I merely presented what he had heard a week earlier in a lecture given by Gell-Mann at the University of Chicago. There, with a reference to Gödel's theorem Gell-Mann warned that a final theory of fundamental particles was not possible to formulate. There, with a reference to Gödel's theorem Gell-Mann warned that a final theory of fundamental particles was not possible to formulate. Gell-Mann was wrong.


If Jaki really "schooled" Gell-Mann on Godel's theorem at that Nobel Colloquium, how could you possibly take Gell-Mann as an authority when a mere three weeks later he was claiming Godel's theorem has implications for the search for a final theory? Or do you take back your sarcastic "Them physicists is really dumm" response to anyone who doubts their understanding of a subject they had apparently never studied in any detail? Jaki himself says Gell-Mann gets the implications of Godel's theorem wrong, does that mean Jaki calling Gell-Mann a dummy in your view?

But the key point is that modern science does not lay a glove on Aristo-Thomistic philosophy and in many ways seems to be inching back toward it. Dark matter looks suspiciously like the aether. The "observer effect" was covered by Aristotle in the proper and common sensibles. And Schroedinger's cat (assuming the Copenhagen interpretation) is a clear example of potency being reduced to act.

You say "assuming the Copenhagen interpretation", but do you still think Schroedinger's cat would exemplify "potency being reduced to act" in the many-worlds interpretation? Most physicists these days tend to doubt the idea that the "collapse of the wavefunction" on observation (which may be what you mean by 'the observer effect') is a real physical phenomenon, whether they adopt the many-worlds interpretation or some other one (or simply take the pragmatic 'shut up and calculate' approach which treats interpretational issues as irrelevant to experiment). Many physicists suggest that the appearance of a nonlinear "collapse" on measurement is really an example of a quantum phenomenon called decoherence which is a consequence of the linear and deterministic Schrodinger equation, for example. And since you referenced Hawking as an authority, you might be interested to know that in the 1983 interview quoted here he said he regarded the many-worlds interpretation as "self-evidently correct", although from his subsequent comments in the interview it seems to me he is talking more about the basic idea that an observer's interaction with a measured system should be treated using the same quantum rules as interactions between quantum systems (no special 'collapse of the wavefunction', just entanglement), without worrying about whether there are multiple equally real "worlds". Gell-Mann also rejects the idea that observation causes a "collapse" of the wavefunction without necessarily assigning any reality to other "worlds", see the consistent histories approach.

JesseM said...

Reply to TheOFloinn, continued:
In any case, are you saying that your belief that "modern science does not lay a glove on Aristo-Thomistic philosophy" depends on taking a particular side in active scientific debates, or would you say that no matter which scientific ideas end up winning out, they still wouldn't create any doubts about A-T philosophy? If the latter, then as a thought-experiment are you willing to consider the possibility that we could turn up strong empirical evidence for a reductionist, deterministic fundamental theory that would in principle allow for completely accurate predictions about the time-evolution of any physical system if we knew its exact initial state? If you agree that this is at least possible and that such a discovery wouldn't shake your belief in A-T metaphysics, then again it would seem that in this case you'd have to take option #2 in my original comment about this, which would make it seemingly impossible to use empirical observations to support any claims about forms or final causes, since all manner of different claims might be true (cars might have forms and final causes while living organisms might not, for example) without it changing our empirical observations one bit. If you disagree, please explain your reasons for thinking we'd still be able to have confidence that certain claims about forms and final causes would be right and others wrong, even in the hypothetical case where there was strong evidence that a reductionist, deterministic mathematical theory was the last word in accurately predicting the motion of matter and energy.

Harrison said...

Vaal, OK.

I apologize if this is off-thread, but can someone offer thoughts? In the first exchange between Dr. Feser and Dr. Parsons, Dr. Parsons asserted that certain A-T metaphysical assumptions were gratuitous and unnecessary to explain reality in light of modern physics. Dr. Feser stated that, far from being gratuitous, Aristotelian metaphysics were required to answer the Parmenidian charge that change is impossible. (I apologize if I'm misinterpreting in any way, and I apologize for the recap). But at this crucial point, I don't believe Dr. Parsons offered a rebuttal. Meaning, is there a naturalist explanation for change or motion? If this whole edifice of A-T metaphysics is built upon an act/potency distinction that was needed to answer Parmenides, then the naturalist simply needs to show that A-T metaphysics is not needed to account for motion. Right?

Brandon said...

Are you using "knowing" in the sense of absolute certainty, as opposed to just the usual high degree of confidence we have in theories that have uniquely and correctly predicted the results of many observations?

This is not complicated: I am not using 'knowing'; I am pointing out that TOF's claim included the modality.

did a control-F to search this comments page for the phrase "in mathematical terms", TOF never used that phrase.

Yes; I was paraphrasing. You do realize that I've told you in two comments that I was referring back to the claim TOF had made, and that I quoted it in the first comment, and that, of course, you could just go back to the original comment for the exact statement? You know, the same comment that you apparently went back to in order to get the link, where he actually makes the statement I was referring to? The exact claim was "to the extent that physics is expressed in the language of mathematics, it is impossible to know whether you have actually found a GUT or not". I suppose one could make some major distinction between 'in mathematical terms' and 'to the extent it is expressed in the language of mathematics', but you'll have to explain it to me, because I'm not seeing it. In any case, the point remains: you keep dropping the qualification.

As I said before, I'm not arguing against your argument against TOF's claim, but am instead pointing out that you have failed to formulate it in a way that applies to any claim even logically equivalent to it. (Which is still true, incidentally.)

TheOFloinn said...

make it seemingly impossible to use empirical observations to support any claims about forms or final causes,

Why would you suppose formal and final causes would have much to do with empirical observations? Physics does not prove Metaphysics. The latter provides the underpinning for the former. Modern physics concerns itself almost exclusively with formal causes (albeit a weak version), but takes formal causes as a given. Similarly, Existence and Motion are also taken as givens. Physics concerns itself with changes in motion, not with motion itself. (See Parmenides.) Like any science, physics cannot demonstrate its own presuppositions.

Crude said...

JesseM,

I know you're focusing on your exchange with TOF, but I've asked a question twice now which I'm waiting for an answer to:

"And I'd ask this one more directly: it's logically possible that all scientific theories are wrong. Do we therefore say that we believe in any/all scientific models purely on faith?"

I ask this because of your claims about your 'option 2':

If you agree that this is at least possible and that such a discovery wouldn't shake your belief in A-T metaphysics, then again it would seem that in this case you'd have to take option #2 in my original comment about this, which would make it seemingly impossible to use empirical observations to support any claims about forms or final causes, since all manner of different claims might be true (cars might have forms and final causes while living organisms might not, for example) without it changing our empirical observations one bit.

Your claim that it would be 'seemingly impossible to use empirical observations' previously turned on the idea that it was logically possible for forms to have been different while atoms, etc, were in 'the same shape'. But likewise it's logically possible for scientific theories to be ultimately wrong regardless of the position, etc, of the atoms in our universe. When your claims about believing this or that claim about the universe is 'ultimately a matter of faith' based on the logical possibility that you could be wrong even if atoms, etc, retained their position, then it seems like you have to conclude that belief in scientific theories is also a matter of faith. The logical possibility of being wrong is a very low bar.

Likewise, you talk about "the possibility that we could turn up strong empirical evidence for a reductionist, deterministic fundamental theory that would in principle allow for completely accurate predictions about the time-evolution of any physical system if we knew its exact initial state?" I think it's a mistake to talk about scientific theories being 'reductionist and deterministic' in the sense you mean, particularly with regards to the 'reductionism'. It seems to me that any final scientific theory in principle which you could conceive as 'reductionist' can likewise be conceived as 'non-reductionist': your models could emphasize different levels being key to the consideration even if all of the models ultimately make the same physical predictions.

If I produce an exhaustive (putting aside for the moment sticky questions of how to know when you've exhausted everything) physical model of Jack deciding to go to the grocery store - every quark accounted for - it's still not the case that I've therefore proved that the reductionist details are all there is to say about Jack. You could say 'well, the non-reductionist details are epiphenomenal', and with regards to that model, it may well be true. On the other hand, you could also construct a non-reductionist model, and say the reductionist details are epiphenomenal where it's concerned as well.

Mr. Green said...

JesseM: are you willing to consider the possibility that we could turn up strong empirical evidence for a reductionist, deterministic fundamental theory [...] which would make it seemingly impossible to use empirical observations to support any claims about forms or final causes, since all manner of different claims might be true

As far as I understand where you're going, I'm happy to consider the possibility of a reductionist model, just as I'm happy to accept a model in which you can calculate the earth's gravitational pull by treating the earth as though it were a point mass. It makes the mathematics a lot simpler, and it works. But of course it would be foolish to extrapolate from that model a claim that the earth really is a point-mass. Likewise, a grand reductionist predictive theory would be nifty, but wouldn't by itself lead to the dilemma you seem to think it would. At most, it would simply indicate that there's more to the world than is captured by such a model. (Or to recall TOF's recalling of Box: such a model would be useful in one particular way, but not others.)

As to whether any conclusions outside of the model would be based solely on "faith"... well, for starters, our grand reductionist theory would based entirely or almost entirely on faith. But I take it you're suggesting we'd have no grounds on which to claim a standard A-T view as opposed to some "degenerate" A-T-ism. But that problem isn't unique to Thomism: you can't give me a mathematically rigorous proof that solipsism is false, but that doesn't mean it's reasonable to believe in it. (I'm taking it for granted that you don't think solipsism is reasonable — please correct me if I'm wrong — even though I'm sure that under any worldview you subscribe to, it's hypothetically "possible".)

Tom said...

Not to beg for attention, but uh...any chance of a response to my or ccmnxc's questions? Even to tell us (or at least me) that that we're a bunch of hacks asking ridiculous, nonsensical questions?

Side note: Hey, the captcha was "Edward". Maybe it can be "Thomas" next time.

ccmnxc said...

Tom, thanks for the bump.

For reference to anyone else reading, they are the first and third comments in the thread.

Greg said...

I can give it a shot.

@ccmnxc

What would your response be if someone argues (or asserts) that Thomists hold to a sort of "metaphysical laws" which would parallel physical laws. For example, say that use of act/potency, essence/existence, a series per se or per accidents, etc. is really just using some metaphysical law without any sort of grounding other than them just being the way they are (in short, it is inexplicable as to why reality works in the way described as opposed to some other way). One might try to ground such things in God, but then, using them in the Five Ways, for example, would be circular since their use already presupposes God.

First, I don't think that metaphysical laws could be analogous to physical laws in the required sense for the objection. Physical laws essentially describe regularities (at least in the impoverished Humean sense) or are at least the observed dispositions of things to act in determinate ways, while metaphysical laws (ie. that things are composed of act and potency) are claims that there are corresponding ontological principles. It isn't merely a regularity that things are composed of act and potency; it is a precondition of the reality of change.

The act/potency distinction is really fundamental, and many of the other "metaphysical laws" follow from that. The reason a per se series requires a first mover is rooted in what actuality and potentiality are. Final causes are rooted in substances' potencies to be other than they are and their consequent directedness toward some ends rather than others.

Second, I don't think there is really a threat of circularity anyway, at least in terms of something like the Fifth Way. If there were metaphysical laws analogous to physical laws, then they would stand in need of explanation just as much as the physical laws which (it could be argued) are the basis for the Fifth Way. Such an argument would not presuppose God but would claim that God is needed ultimately to explain "metaphysical laws" just as much as physical laws.

Greg said...

@Tom

Is it logically necessary for a given object to have the substantial form that it does?

Yes, but that is because form is an identity condition for substances. You are you because you continue to have the same form (even if some or all of the matter composing you changes over time). So long as an object exists, it has the form it has; when it loses its substantial form, it is basically by definition another object.

Is it logically necessary for a given object to behave the way it does given its substantial form?

No, logical necessity is too strong at least for the scholastic principles of causality and sufficient reason. An obvious case would be human beings. Human beings have human substantial forms, but it is not logically necessary that you act the ways you do.

However, one could also argue that an indeterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics is consistent with the principle of causality. Quantum events would follow from the substantial form of things as enmattered entities, but would not be logically necessary.

Would it be possible for the universe to have slightly different laws of physics (e.g. the rate of gravitational acceleration on earth being 9.9 ft/second/second instead of 9.8)?

Well, sure. The accidents and dispositions that ground the laws of physics may not be proper accidents, in which case the substances which bear them could be "the same substances" but with some different accidents.

Also it seems plausible that some dispositions (ie. to be attracted to massive objects) are not entirely intrinsic; they may have to do with how an object interacts with other objects or with space, in addition to some internal disposition, in which case a difference in the other objects or space would result in different laws of physics, though the particular object under observation is different.

Matthew Kennel said...

So, I find it interesting how well Ed's comments also answer Sean Carroll's arguments against William Lane Craig (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/some-reflections-on-the-sean-carroll-debate). Carroll says, "This kind of Aristotelian analysis of causation was cutting edge stuff 2,500 years ago. Today we know better. Our metaphysics must follow our physics. That’s what the word “metaphysics” means. And in modern physics, you open a quantum field theory textbook or a general relativity textbook, you will not find the words 'transcendent cause' anywhere. What you find are differential equations. This reflects the fact that the way physics is known to work these days is in terms of patterns, unbreakable rules, laws of nature." It seems to me that Ed's analysis of what "laws of nature" mean does a fine job of answering Carroll. But I'd be interested in hearing what he has to say about it. The other thing I found fascinating about the exchange was that Craig thought the Aristotelian view was "perfectly defensible" and in fact referred to the work of Alfred Freddoso as an example of defending it. I guess that Craig's criticism of Thomism doesn't necessarily extend to Aristotelianism.

JesseM said...

@Brandon:
This is not complicated: I am not using 'knowing'; I am pointing out that TOF's claim included the modality.

But you evidently have some fixed idea of what TOF meant by the word "know", so by asking how you were using the word I was asking what meaning should be attributed to it, in your understanding.

You do realize that I've told you in two comments that I was referring back to the claim TOF had made, and that I quoted it in the first comment, and that, of course, you could just go back to the original comment for the exact statement?

The comment you made there about what TOF had said didn't specify which comment of TOF's you were referring to.

The exact claim was "to the extent that physics is expressed in the language of mathematics, it is impossible to know whether you have actually found a GUT or not".

I don't see how that comment suggest he was using "know" in the sense of absolute logical certainty, as opposed to the far more common sense of "know" in scientific contexts where it just means we have overwhelming evidence, as in "we know that electromagnetism obeys an inverse-square law". The laws of electromagnetism are certainly "expressed in the laws of mathematics", but that doesn't change the fact that "knowing" there is dependent on evidence, rather than on us having some airtight mathematical proof that all logically possible universes must have an electromagnetic force that obeys an inverse-square law. I can't think of any examples of scientists using "know" in the latter sense when discussing scientific claims.

JesseM said...

@TheOFloinn:
Why would you suppose formal and final causes would have much to do with empirical observations?

To take an example, as I understand Dr. Feser's description of the subject, living organisms are thought to have forms while inanimate objects like rocks and stars and cars do not have forms of their own but are just collections of smaller forms, much like piles of sand. Didn't Aristotle base this idea to some degree on his observations of nature, and how living organisms can be observed empirically to function as organic unities? (Aristotle is certainly known to have been very interested in the empirical study of biology, and I thought it was generally accepted that these studies influenced his metaphysics.) Do Aristotle, Aquinas or others ever present a purely a priori philosophical argument for why living organisms have forms but machines, say, do not, one which in no way depends on any observations we make of them? (and if they do, can anyone give me a pointer to where in their writings I could find it?)

JesseM said...

@Crude:
Sorry, I had somehow missed your earlier response to me from May 3rd. I'll respond to that earlier comment now:

No connection to the natural world, as in, there's nothing physically 'about' this or that which can reasonably used to determine its form.

OK, then in that sense I do think that forms and final causes would have "no connection to the natural world" if it were the case that we had a fundamental mathematical theory that was perfectly predictive.

And I'd ask this one more directly: it's logically possible that all scientific theories are wrong. Do we therefore say that we believe in any/all scientific models purely on faith?

No, because despite the logical possibility we can at least say it's very unlikely statistically that all our tests would consistently have large errors that all conspired to create a high degree of illusory agreement on some incorrect quantitative values or equations. In contrast, if we start with the basic non-empirical premises of A-T metaphysics like forms and final causes but without making any a priori assumptions about what the forms and final causes in nature actually are, then if you're not allowed to refer to empirical observation (the fact that living organisms' parts all function together in a unified way and that organisms seem to strive for certain ends in a purposeful way), I don't see any basis for declaring any claim about forms/final causes more "likely" than any other. If a hypothesis that cars have substantial forms while plants do not is logically possible, and the reasons A-T advocates would judge it "unlikely" have nothing whatsoever to do with observations about how plants function and behave, and also have nothing to do with just accepting Aristotle and Aquinas' beliefs on faith, then what are the reasons?

Why the qualifier of "all measurable"? That seems a bit like 'a theory where everything can be predicted, except for the stuff we can't predict'.

Sorry if that was unclear, by "all measurable" I meant all the aspects of nature that are in principle measurable (according to the fundamental laws of physics), it wasn't meant to be restricted to things we could measure in practice with our current technology. I was just trying to exclude things that have no empirical basis in physics at all, like "substantial forms", or the "hidden variables" in certain interpretations of quantum mechanics which are in principle un-measurable according to the interpretations themselves.

JesseM said...

Reply to Crude, continued:
More than that, I don't see where having such a theory in hand matters to your question at all - it's not 'doing any work.' Remove all talk of the "purely mathematical theory", and it doesn't change your question.

If we didn't have a mathematical theory, then it might well be that the fact that living organisms have essential forms and inanimate objects do not would be crucial to predicting differences in how they'll behave--then someone like me could no longer say that forms and final causes were "epiphenomenal" in the sense I discussed. And again I'm using "epiphenomenal" in analogy with philosophy of mind, where if something like Cartesian interactive dualism were true there'd be no way to predict the behavior of a person without reference to the non-physical mind controlling the brain. But if physical reductionism is true then we can in principle predict behavior based on knowing the exact arrangement of all the fundamental physical units making up the person. While there may still be a non-physical mind associated with the body in this case, it would have to be epiphenomenal, and it would thus be logically possible to have a "zombie universe" where all the physical motions (including speech and other intelligent behavior) were still present but the non-physical mind was absent (or was qualitatively different, or associated with a different set of physical entities).

Anyway, I'm the rank amateur about Aristotileanism here compared to many here, so I'll happily take any correction to my response that would be offered by the others. Still, your question seems to be asking me something along the following lines: 'Is it reasonable, given A-T, to think that George Washington actually had the form of a duck?' And I think the answer is, no, not really. We have various investigated facts of the matter on one hand (what George was, his physical makeup and history, his capabilities, how his body worked, what his body did) and A-T concepts and distinctions on the other hand (the difference between natural and artificial, the general concept of form, ideas of how empirical discovery informs our views), and putting those together makes Duck Washington pretty hard to swallow.

But your "investigated facts" are empirical observations, I don't see how it can be legitimate to refer to these if it's logically possible for the facts about forms/final causes to be totally different while all empirical observations would be identical. Are you saying it's part of the very definition of forms and final causes that they are correlated with certain empirical properties and behaviors? If so my question would boil down to whether there are philosophical arguments for accepting such a definition, or whether it's just a matter of trusting Aristotle and Aquinas' intuitions as authoritative. Even if empirical properties are "baked in" to the metaphysical definitions in this way, then there'd still presumably be plenty of aspects of the metaphysics that don't assume anything specific about the empirical world, so if someone accepted this "bare bones" version of A-T metaphysics but didn't accept any additional claims about necessary connections between the metaphysical concepts and empirical behaviors, what arguments could you make from your shared premises to convince him?

JesseM said...

@Crude--I think my reply to your May 3rd comment above covers most of what you were saying in your more recent comment, but I just want to reply to this part:

Likewise, you talk about "the possibility that we could turn up strong empirical evidence for a reductionist, deterministic fundamental theory that would in principle allow for completely accurate predictions about the time-evolution of any physical system if we knew its exact initial state?" I think it's a mistake to talk about scientific theories being 'reductionist and deterministic' in the sense you mean, particularly with regards to the 'reductionism'. It seems to me that any final scientific theory in principle which you could conceive as 'reductionist' can likewise be conceived as 'non-reductionist': your models could emphasize different levels being key to the consideration even if all of the models ultimately make the same physical predictions.

If I produce an exhaustive (putting aside for the moment sticky questions of how to know when you've exhausted everything) physical model of Jack deciding to go to the grocery store - every quark accounted for - it's still not the case that I've therefore proved that the reductionist details are all there is to say about Jack. You could say 'well, the non-reductionist details are epiphenomenal', and with regards to that model, it may well be true. On the other hand, you could also construct a non-reductionist model, and say the reductionist details are epiphenomenal where it's concerned as well.

That's why in my initial comment about the 1/2 dilemma I said that I was talking specifically about "reductionist mathematical models of natural phenomena--distinct from any sort of metaphysical reductionism, merely a theory that the measurable behavior of composite objects can always in principle be predicted from laws governing the dynamics of the particles/fields that make it up". In other words, I was intentionally defining "reductionist" in a narrow way to refer only to using fundamental laws to predict behavior, not to any metaphysical claims that the fundamental particles are more "real" than higher-level entities we might describe, or that once you have predicted a system's behavior using the fundamental laws you have "explained" it completely or learned everything interesting about it. Incidentally, this purely predictive definition of "reductionism" is what most scientists I've read using the term seem to mean by it, see this comment and this one from Sean Carroll for example.

Brandon said...

But you evidently have some fixed idea of what TOF meant by the word "know", so by asking how you were using the word I was asking what meaning should be attributed to it, in your understanding.

Yes, that it's a modal operator such that 'knows that a theory is GUT' is not logically equivalent to 'has a theory that is GUT', as I already said. This on its own suffices for every point I have made.

The comment you made there about what TOF had said didn't specify which comment of TOF's you were referring to.

See May 3, 2014 at 5:41 PM; then again at May 3, 2014 at 8:59 PM, both cases where I explicitly quoted, thus specifying exactly; since you responded to both of these and I then responded to your response, it's really not difficult to figure out.

I don't see how that comment suggest he was using "know" in the sense of absolute logical certainty, as opposed to the far more common sense of "know" in scientific contexts where it just means we have overwhelming evidence, as in "we know that electromagnetism obeys an inverse-square law".

I have no idea what you are talking about here; I said nothing about any of this, nor does any of this seem to have any relevance for addressing the logical concern in question.

JesseM said...

@Brandon:
Yes, that it's a modal operator such that 'knows that a theory is GUT' is not logically equivalent to 'has a theory that is GUT', as I already said. This on its own suffices for every point I have made.

It could be equivalent, depending on what one meant by "has a" and "knows that" (I've never heard of either phrase having a technical usage in modal logic, which is normally used to discuss possible and necessary truths, if these words are assigned meanings in some branch of modal logic please elaborate--but even if that's the case, it seems rather silly to assume that TOF's colloquial statement was meant to be a technical statement in modal logic). In ordinary speech, both could be taken to mean that one has a convincing amount of empirical evidence that a particular proposed unification theory accurately describes the fundamental physics of our universe, and that's the sense I took TOF to be using it in his statement "to the extent that physics is expressed in the language of mathematics, it is impossible to know whether you have actually found a GUT or not". You have never explained what alternate interpretation of the words you have, you just seem to treat it as self-evident what they mean without ever telling me.

See May 3, 2014 at 5:41 PM; then again at May 3, 2014 at 8:59 PM, both cases where I explicitly quoted, thus specifying exactly

Yes, but as I said I have no idea why you think the phrase you quote from TOF must mean something different from the interpretation above, and in any case I don't go back and reread all your previous posts each time you make a new comment so it doesn't seem reasonable to chastise me for failing to make a mental connection between your paraphrase "in mathematical terms" and the statement of TOF you had quoted earlier.

I have no idea what you are talking about here; I said nothing about any of this, nor does any of this seem to have any relevance for addressing the logical concern in question.

TOF's statement was in colloquial English, not formal logic. There would be many different ways of translating the statement into a symbolic statement in formal logic (modal logic or otherwise), you seem to have some very specific one in mind but you always leave it implicit rather than explaining your thinking. If both "know" and "discover" are defined in terms of the evidence supporting a particular fundamental theory passing a certain threshold, and by "fundamental theory" one means a theory that can predict later states of the fundamental entities in physics a finite time after an initial state, then a formalized version of my statement "unable to discover the rules that would allow them to predict what state some system will be in after a given number of time-steps after a known initial state" (which you claimed was 'not in any way logically equivalent' to TOF's claim) could certainly be formalized to mean exactly the same thing as "can't know that you've found the correct unified theory". There aren't any well-defined algorithm for translating colloquial English statements into formal logical ones, it always depends on the interpretation of what was meant by words based on context.

Brandon said...


It could be equivalent, depending on what one meant by "has a" and "knows that" (I've never heard of either phrase having a technical usage in modal logic, which is normally used to discuss possible and necessary truths, if these words are assigned meanings in some branch of modal logic please elaborate--but even if that's the case, it seems rather silly to assume that TOF's colloquial statement was meant to be a technical statement in modal logic)


In order for them to be equivalent you would have to be assuming closure of the epistemic operator; this is not ever assumed except where omniscience is an option. One of the most important branches of modal logic deals with epistemic operators. I find it amusing that you think that colloquial English has no logical structure. It is also not in any way surprising that my argument turns on them since I mentioned them in the very first comment.

As I've repeatedly pointed out, my point is not against your argument in general but a logical one about the relation of your argument to the claim in question; as a logical point it is not suprising requires only looking at the relevant logical properties.

in any case I don't go back and reread all your previous posts each time you make a new comment so it doesn't seem reasonable to chastise me for failing to make a mental connection between your paraphrase "in mathematical terms" and the statement of TOF you had quoted earlier.

Given that there is in fact only one claim at all on the table -- it was the one you yourself originally quoted and responded to, then the one that I quoted twice -- it's a matter of you not even remembering what claim is under discussion, and yet still arguing anyway.

TOF's statement was in colloquial English, not formal logic. There would be many different ways of translating the statement into a symbolic statement in formal logic (modal logic or otherwise), you seem to have some very specific one in mind but you always leave it implicit rather than explaining your thinking.

Again, I am amused that you think that colloquial English involves no logical constraints. Epistemic operators not having the logical properties on which my argument turns are extremely rare in colloquial English, especially when talking about human knowledge. Nor have your arguments in fact assumed that TOF's use is one of these rare cases, so you are merely kicking up dust here.

Nor is the argument very difficult or technical: in responding to TOF's claim "One of the implications of Gödel's Theorem is that, to the extent that physics is expressed in the language of mathematics, it is impossible to know whether you have actually found a GUT or not," you several times dropped the epistemic operator entirely, meaning that you only formulated your argument against claims that don't even have the right logical structure to be TOF's or any claim equivalent to it. In addition, you dropped an explicit qualification. You have not reformulated your argument so that it avoids these logical errors.

Since this is a logical point about the relation of an argument to the claim it is an argument against, if you don't have such a reformulation, then everything you've said on the subject is irrelevant jibberjabber that in fact contributes nothing to the discussion, including the topic you are interested in; if you do have such a reformulation, then everything else was just unfortunate imprecision about what a formally precise argument does or does not imply, and the reformulation, assuming it eliminates the logical errors, is more than adequate response to my concern.

Brandon said...

In order for them to be equivalent you would have to be assuming closure of the epistemic operator

Sorry, that should be collapse, not closure; the rest of the point remains the same.

JesseM said...

@Brandon:
In order for them to be equivalent you would have to be assuming closure of the epistemic operator; this is not ever assumed except where omniscience is an option. One of the most important branches of modal logic deals with epistemic operators.

Since I haven't studied this branch of modal logic I don't know what is meant by "closure", or the substitute "collapse", so obviously I have no way of knowing why you think I'd have to be assuming collapse of the epistemic operator in order for the statements to be equivalent. I doubt many readers of this comments thread know either, since formal modal logic isn't normally used in A-T philosophy. If you want to speak to your audience, including me, rather than speaking exclusively in technical jargon that few if any people reading will likely understand, you should make at least a basic effort to explain the meaning of these statements. (links to useful introductions might also help) Why is "collapse" required for the statement "we know that we have the correct unified theory" to be equivalent to "we have discovered discover the rules that allow us to predict what state some system will be in after a given number of time-steps after a known initial state". If I define both "know" and "discover" in terms of having some sufficient amount of empirical evidence to convince me, does that mean I am assuming collapse of the epistemic operator? And what does assuming collapse have to do with omniscience?

I find it amusing that you think that colloquial English has no logical structure

That is most certainly not what I said. My point was that the decision of how best to translate a colloquial sentence into a formal logical statement requires interpretation of context-dependent words and phrases, for example in some contexts (mathematics, say) the word "know" may imply absolute certainty while in others it may just mean you are convinced "beyond a reasonable doubt" by the evidence you've seen.

it was the one you yourself originally quoted and responded to, then the one that I quoted twice -- it's a matter of you not even remembering what claim is under discussion, and yet still arguing anyway.

I didn't remember the exact wording of the specific claim, but I remembered the gist of it, specifically that TOF was talking about "knowing" that we have found the correct mathematical theory that describes fundamental physics (as an aside, it's not actually correct to refer to such a theory as a GUT, since in physics-speak GUTs only unify electromagnetism with the strong and weak nuclear forces but leave out gravity--the term for a theory that unifies all forces is a 'theory of everything' or TOE). I didn't remember that he used the specific phrase "to the extent that physics is expressed in the language of mathematics" so I didn't understand that your own paraphrase "in mathematical terms" was supposed to refer to this, but I interpret the idea that "physics is expressed in the language of mathematics" to just mean we are dealing with a physics theory that's expressed in terms of mathematical equations, which is something I've been assuming all along so I still don't understand why you think I'm ignoring that qualification. Perhaps you interpret TOE's phrase to have some other implications but you've never explained your interpretation.

JesseM said...

Reply to Brandon, continued:
(BTW, minor typo in the final sentence of the last comment, I meant "interpret TOF's phrase", not "interpret TOE's phrase")

you several times dropped the epistemic operator entirely

Maybe I dropped the specific word "know", but I've always been assuming that when we talk about whether physicists can "find" or "discover" an ultimate unified theory, we mean whether they can find sufficient empirical evidence to convince them with a high degree of confidence, which is the same as how I interpret the word "know". Since you avoid responding to my questions about how you interpret "know", I don't know if your argument is with my interpretation of the word or if you think that even if such an interpretation is taken as the correct one, I would still be misrepresenting TOF's claim.

In addition, you dropped an explicit qualification.

If you're talking about "to the extent that physics is expressed in the language of mathematics", as I said above I interpret this to just mean we're talking about a "unified theory" that's expressed with mathematical equations, which I have always been assuming even if I don't explicitly repeat it in every post. Perhaps you interpret that qualification differently, but again you refuse to explain what your interpretation is when I ask you about it.

Incidentally, given that I am specifically interpreting "know" in terms of a high degree of confidence rather than perfect certainty, wouldn't that imply that to accurately translate my statements into logical terms, one would have to use fuzzy epistemic modal logic rather than the standard non-fuzzy version which presumably requires a binary yes/no answer to whether I "know" something?

Crude said...

JesseM,

No, because despite the logical possibility we can at least say it's very unlikely statistically that all our tests would consistently have large errors that all conspired to create a high degree of illusory agreement on some incorrect quantitative values or equations.

We can say it, but demonstrating it is another issue altogether. Any claim about that is going to necessarily involve a variety of assumptions that are required to get the arguments and measurements off the ground to begin with, including assumptions about what is or isn't empirically relevant, even possible - as well as what factors beyond the hope of investigation can or can't be factored in. Again, the 'logically possible' is an extraordinarily low bar to use when discussing this sort of thing. But if you say that concerns about the logically possible don't create worries about your scientific theories owing to the assumptions you're starting out with, then the question is whether A-T considerations (and this is putting aside the other criticisms pointed out in this thread) can help themselves to any assumptions as well. And if they can, well, so much for the faith charge.

If we didn't have a mathematical theory, then it might well be that the fact that living organisms have essential forms and inanimate objects do not would be crucial to predicting differences in how they'll behave--then someone like me could no longer say that forms and final causes were "epiphenomenal" in the sense I discussed.

That 'might well be the case' whether or not we have a mathematical theory. That's part of the problem here: the theory itself is irrelevant. You're making much of the fact that a 'mathematical theory' may be interpreted in a reductionist way, but you don't seem to realize that not only can it be interpreted in a non-reductionist way, but the science alone won't tell you which way to interpret it to begin with.

Even if empirical properties are "baked in" to the metaphysical definitions in this way, then there'd still presumably be plenty of aspects of the metaphysics that don't assume anything specific about the empirical world,

One claim at a time. If the empirical informs the A-T view on what a given formal or final cause was, then it would seem that your talk about formal/final cause talk being 'nothing but faith' is either mistaken, or the 'logical possibility' concern means that all science ultimately comes down to 'nothing but faith' as well.

JesseM said...

@Crude:
We can say it, but demonstrating it is another issue altogether. Any claim about that is going to necessarily involve a variety of assumptions that are required to get the arguments and measurements off the ground to begin with, including assumptions about what is or isn't empirically relevant, even possible - as well as what factors beyond the hope of investigation can or can't be factored in. Again, the 'logically possible' is an extraordinarily low bar to use when discussing this sort of thing.

I think you're misunderstanding my argument, I'm not "setting the bar" at what is logically possible, I'm just using the fact that it's logically possible a given hypothesis is wrong as a starting point, and then saying that once that is agreed one needs some kind of argument for the view that one hypothesis is much more plausible than the logically possible alternative. I didn't say that this argument has to be airtight or to absolutely "demonstrate" that one is correct, I'm just talking about plausibility arguments, and plenty of philosophers have presented those for the basic trustworthiness of empirical evidence. My point is that I don't see how you can use any empirical features of the world to support particular claims about which entities have substantial forms/final causes and which don't, if both your hypothesis and the logically possible alternative make exactly the same predictions about empirical observations, which would have to be the case if we had a reductionist mathematical physics theory and forms/substantial didn't alter these predictions.

If you disagree, can you present some kind of basic sketch of an argument as to why one hypothesis about substantial forms/final causes should be strongly favored over another, even given the premise that a physical theory like the one I describe (which makes no reference to any large-scale forms or final causes) is sufficient for perfectly accurate predictions?

That 'might well be the case' whether or not we have a mathematical theory.

Not if we had the type of mathematical theory I describe, since by assumption it would be completely sufficient for all predictions about quantitively describable behavior (the motion of particles and such over time), without any reference to anything other than fundamental particles/fields and their arrangements. In that case, nothing other than fundamental particles/fields and their arrangements can be "crucial to predicting differences in how they'll behave", at least not if you understand the word "crucial" the same as I do (perhaps "indispensible for making accurate predictions" would be less ambiguous).

JesseM said...

reply to Crude, continued:
@Crude: You're making much of the fact that a 'mathematical theory' may be interpreted in a reductionist way

No, I already told you (in my comment from May 5, 2014 at 6:32 AM) that I was explicitly defining the word "reductionist" in a narrow way that refers only to the ability to make predictions using only knowledge about fundamental particles/fields, not adding any metaphysical interpretations like "the fundamental particles are 'real' in a way that high-level entities like tables and people are not". If we define it in this narrow sense, then there is no matter of "interpretation" about whether a theory is reductionist or not, it's just a matter of checking whether A) the mathematical rules for making predictions refer only to fundamental particles/fields and their arrangements, and B) whether the predictions the theory makes about how their arrangement changes with time is 100% accurate. If you have trouble with setting aside the broader meanings sometimes associated with the word "reductionism", then we could always just coin a new term to refer to this purely predictive reductionism, say "preductionism". Given the assumption that some preductionist theory is sufficient for predicting all empirical behaviors of matter/energy, then do you disagree that nothing beyond the fundamental particles/fields and their arrangement can be indispensible for making accurate empirical predictions about measurable, quantifiable changes such as motions?

One claim at a time.

I wasn't really making a claim, I asked you the question "Are you saying it's part of the very definition of forms and final causes that they are correlated with certain empirical properties and behaviors?" I don't know enough about A-T metaphysics to know whether the very metaphysical definitions of substantial forms and final causes presuppose that they be linked to certain types of empirical behaviors and not others, or if the idea is to infer which empirically-observable things have substantial forms/final causes and which don't.

If the empirical informs the A-T view on what a given formal or final cause was

But what do you mean by "inform"? Do you mean something more like "gives evidence about, even if we only start with metaphysical definitions of substantial forms and final causes but don't presuppose anything about which empirical entities have them?" Or do you mean something more like "influenced Aristotle to come up with the particular metaphysical premises he did"? Or something else? Obviously I don't believe the former would make sense if we had a completely accurate preductionist theory, for reasons I've already explained, and as for the latter, noting that analogies to natural phenomenon influenced Aristotle's metaphysical views isn't really an argument for why others should also adopt these views, unless Aristotle's authority in metaphysics is taken on faith.

Jeremy Taylor said...

No, I already told you (in my comment from May 5, 2014 at 6:32 AM) that I was explicitly defining the word "reductionist" in a narrow way that refers only to the ability to make predictions using only knowledge about fundamental particles/fields, not adding any metaphysical interpretations like "the fundamental particles are 'real' in a way that high-level entities like tables and people are not". If we define it in this narrow sense, then there is no matter of "interpretation" about whether a theory is reductionist or not, it's just a matter of checking whether A) the mathematical rules for making predictions refer only to fundamental particles/fields and their arrangements, and B) whether the predictions the theory makes about how their arrangement changes with time is 100% accurate. If you have trouble with setting aside the broader meanings sometimes associated with the word "reductionism", then we could always just coin a new term to refer to this purely predictive reductionism, say "preductionism". Given the assumption that some preductionist theory is sufficient for predicting all empirical behaviors of matter/energy, then do you disagree that nothing beyond the fundamental particles/fields and their arrangement can be indispensible for making accurate empirical predictions about measurable, quantifiable changes such as motions?

I'm confused about what you are trying to take away from this? You seem to assume that our empirical experience can be reduced to the mathematical models of physics. It is certainly not at all clear that tables or people are reducible to fundamental particles.

Also, surely, A-T has something to say about the nature of causation, mathematics, the substance and nature of elementary particles, and so forth which mean that the models you talk of are not independent of the reach of A-T.

Or, to put it another way, can you state simply what your overall argument is? It is hard to follow at this point, for me at least.

Crude said...

JesseM,

I think you're misunderstanding my argument, I'm not "setting the bar" at what is logically possible, I'm just using the fact that it's logically possible a given hypothesis is wrong as a starting point, and then saying that once that is agreed one needs some kind of argument for the view that one hypothesis is much more plausible than the logically possible alternative.

Except you're also treating the possibility that the assumptions are are (in a logically possible way) wrong as well to brand it all as being based on 'nothing but faith'. But if we're talking about logical possibilities like that, then science is snapped up in the process. Which is actually fine by me, but at that point I just want consistency maintained.

Not if we had the type of mathematical theory I describe, since by assumption it would be completely sufficient for all predictions about quantitively describable behavior (the motion of particles and such over time), without any reference to anything other than fundamental particles/fields and their arrangements.

Well, no. For any given model you come up with, it's possible to create another model that emphasizes different levels of the entire system to form explanations that will cash out to the exact same predictions. Now, it wouldn't be a 'scientific' model, insofar as it'd explicitly come with a metaphysical/philosophical interpretation built right into it essentially. But then again, that wouldn't matter for our purposes.

Given the assumption that some preductionist theory is sufficient for predicting all empirical behaviors of matter/energy, then do you disagree that nothing beyond the fundamental particles/fields and their arrangement can be indispensible for making accurate empirical predictions about measurable, quantifiable changes such as motions?

No, since it wouldn't be indispensable - you could dispense with it with another model, even a predictive model. You'd be talking at a higher 'level', sure, but prediction is prediction.

I wasn't really making a claim, I asked you the question "Are you saying it's part of the very definition of forms and final causes that they are correlated with certain empirical properties and behaviors?"

I'm actually, like I said, the amateur around here. But I do know that A-T takes behaviors and empirical observations and realities into account when ascertaining forms, etc. And intellectually it seems like they could make some basic assumptions about what is or isn't relevant behavior or details when considering those questions.

Obviously I don't believe the former would make sense if we had a completely accurate preductionist theory, for reasons I've already explained

You don't just need a predictive model in hand, you need assumptions and claims about that predictive model that will go beyond the model itself. Having a tremendously accurate predictive model about the motion of a cat that you interpret in a reductionist way doesn't mean that there's nothing more to a cat beyond the reductionist interpretation's description.

Vaal said...

Prof Feser,

Yes, we are talking about two different issues. While you may be concerned with your argument for the Unactualized Actualizer, that doesn't mean it is illegitimate, or even "irrelevant," to notice implications that bubble out of the very nature of your posts. And that these issues aren't also worth pointing out. (E.g. the disabusing others of their erroneous ideas about God, typified in your post, is a specific example for the problem of "religious confusion," in which the problem of religious confusion seems in tension with the proposition that an All Powerful God exists and has the aim of our knowing Him. I've never seen a good answer for this problem from a Christian).

If that isn't an issue you care to talk about, it's your blog, no problem. It was just a brief observation and I don't need to pursue it anyway. But that you consider it irrelevant to the *particular* concern you had in your post, doesn't make it an irrelevant observation to make.

As to your description of "vulgar atheist apologetics" and a "change the subject maneuver" that's an intriguing charge, and one I find often to be on the other shoe in the clash between New Atheists and their theistic critics. The main thrust of New Atheist criticism has to do with the belief in the God of Revelation - the doctrines and revealed propositions about God that actually motivate most religious behaviour, and the epistemological inconsistencies the religious tend to allow in believing their particular revelation. Despite this neon-bright emphasis in their critique, self-professed sophisticated theistic critics and debate opponents continue to play "hide the ball" and "switch the subject" with the articles of their revealed faith, by changing the subject to a stripped down metaphysical God.

David Bentley Hart has been one of those "Great Christian Thinkers" who is often waved in the face of atheists as representative of the sophistication with which we must grapple. I'm reading his book, The Experience Of God, which of course contains the standard pot shots at the New Atheists, purporting that their arguments have been straw men and totally weightless. And yet, to the extent Hart employs this metaphysical God concept to paint New Atheist critiques as weightless, his book is yet one more giant exercise in Missing The Point/Hiding The Ball/Changing The Subject. Like so many "sophisticated critics" of the New Atheists, he strips God of the specifics of dogma and revelation - strips Him of the very propositions that are the centre of the new atheist critique! - and then declares "see, your criticisms miss the target! You really should have been aiming at this amorphous blob instead!" It's ludicrous, like at the end of a dart game drawing a new circle on the wall beside the dart board, claiming it to be the actual target, and declaring the opponent had missed all his shots.

This tactic of Christian opponents was so pervasive that Harris, Dawkins and (especially) Hitchens had to start flagging the issue to the audience from the outset to watch for this. Hitchens would tell the audience not to let his Christian opponent get away with mealy taking of amorphous generalities, grounds of being, without actually admitting succinctly what he actually believed of his own scriptures, or particular church's dogma. It was often like pulling teeth to get his opponents to be lucid on the subject.

Cont'd...

Vaal said...

Prof Feser,

I don't think it's unreasonable to infer from the continued appeal to metaphysics, rather than revelation, that the more sophisticated theists recognize, at least implicitly, how much thinner the ice is they are on in trying to
justify belief in scripture/revelation. When confronting the New Atheist arguments, I get the impression you just don't evince the confidence in God's own special revelation that you do in the deliverances of your own (or Aquinas') reason. Which only underlines the relevance of the New Atheist arguments.

Which is why I opined that your previous post's call to a return to scholastic metaphysics does not seem a promising start, and you need to really address the problem of special revelation. Even starting with A-T metaphysics you STILL have all the issues left due to the problems we all share - issues of variables in terms of assigning causes and explanations, accounting for human error, bias, unreliability, etc. No self-respecting Christian wants to be a scientific ignoramus and reject the potency of science. But I've yet to see any Christian make belief in apostolic claims compatible with also accepting the very real problems that gave rise to the rigorous demands of empirical science in the first place. Slapping labels like "scientism" on New Atheists just doesn't cut it.

You DID in only small portion of your lecture mention that Christian particularism needs to be defended as well, and you alluded to a tightly argued systematic theology that had once been upheld in
the Scholastic tradition, but has fallen by the wayside. In which case, as I'd pointed out, the classical theist hardly has a leg to stand on in criticizing the New Atheists for not countering arguments that are no longer promulgated.

IS there such a tight link between A-T metaphysics and support for the belief in scriptural/apostolic claims? I've seen the occasional blog post of yours make fairly brief assertions in that direction. Have I missed some more extended, cogent argument from A-T to warranted belief in scriptural claims? Sure, could be. But if the your comment section is of any indication, it makes me doubtful. I say this because, having raised this issue in the previous comment section to the Thomists here - Thomists who claim to be familiar with Aquinas, and with your writing - no such cogent case for belief in revelation seemed forthcoming at all. There were all the earmarks of familiar inconsistencies shown by any other Christians on the subject, of the very type New Atheists critique.

This is to again, simply say that charges of "changing the subject" tactics can go both ways. So long as the Christian retreats to metaphysics, away from the light the atheist is shining on their scriptural dogma, he will not be fully tackling the New Atheist argument. Since you inevitably have to move out of the metaphysical to the empirical/a posteriori to justify believe in revelation, you are still going to have to end up meeting the demands for showing empirical consistency.

Not that the New Atheists are sound in every argument to be sure. But in their defence, despite all the rhetoric and metaphysical showmanship of some of their critics, when it comes to the New Atheists on religious dogma and revelation, it's still seems to be a "where's the beef?" situation in terms of actually meeting the substance of their critiques.

And with all that said, I also do sincerely thank you for your blog which is a fine resource for learning and for encountering stimulating arguments!

Vaal

Mr. Green said...

JesseM: To take an example, as I understand Dr. Feser's description of the subject, living organisms are thought to have forms while inanimate objects like rocks and stars and cars do not

Not quite. Some inanimate objects are substances too. A substance is just the basic level, a thing that has an essence, an intrinsic form. You can also apply forms extrinsically (such as taking some rocks and piling them up), but you still have to be applying those external forms to substances — or to things that are themselves made up of substances. There can't be anything made up of non-substances, because there has to be some thing to apply the extrinsic forms to. And then "animate" is just a subclass of possible substances.

My point is that I don't see how you can use any empirical features of the world to support particular claims about which entities have substantial forms/final causes and which don't

Dunno if you saw my response above about solipsism, but it's the same point here: if you think it's reasonable to deny solipsism, then you already know how to support claims that might have "logically possible" alternatives.

If you disagree, can you present some kind of basic sketch of an argument as to why one hypothesis [should be favoured over an alternative which] is sufficient for perfectly accurate predictions?

Here's a really basic sketch: There's more to life than predicting physics. Even physicists have a life outside work, which is why so few of them are solipsists (even if it would hypothetically simplify things a bit).

Jeremy Taylor said...

I don't remember the New Atheists have much original to say on religious revelation and tradition, or indeed much insightful to say of human experience of such things. In fact, their very narrow rationalism and scientism on such issues is distinctly boring.

And let us not forget, even if we cannot be certain of the exclusive truth of a particular revelation or religious tradition, that this does not mean scientistic naturalism is true or even the best alternative. This seems to be the implication you are ultimately making, Vaal, but if so it is a fallacious one.

Finally, you never really answered my question about why we cannot carefully and cautiously combine all sorts of knowledge - common sense and experience, philosophical, scientific, historical, technical, and so on, with varying levels of certainty. Instead, you make vague and somewhat inconsistent claims about the lack of scientific support for the Christian revelation.

Glenn said...

Stephen Hawking:

o What is the relation between Godel’s theorem and whether we can formulate the theory of the universe in terms of a finite number of principles? One connection is obvious. According to the positivist philosophy of science, a physical theory is a mathematical model. So if there are mathematical results that can not be proved, there are physical problems that can not be predicted. --- Godel and the End of the Universe

If the truth of Mr. Hawking’s statement be assumed arguendo, then two things would seem to follow:

a) he who does not subscribe to a positivist philosophy of science likely will not find it difficult to understand that producing a complete theory and knowing whether you have found one are not logically equivalent, and,

b) he who does subscribe to a positivist philosophy of science likely may be baffled, bewildered and perplexed by the (quite reasonable and rational notion) that producing a complete theory and knowing whether you have found one are not logically equivalent.

rank sophist said...

Vaal,

I don't think it's unreasonable to infer from the continued appeal to metaphysics, rather than revelation, that the more sophisticated theists recognize, at least implicitly, how much thinner the ice is they are on in trying to
justify belief in scripture/revelation. When confronting the New Atheist arguments, I get the impression you just don't evince the confidence in God's own special revelation that you do in the deliverances of your own (or Aquinas') reason. Which only underlines the relevance of the New Atheist arguments.


This is laughable. Of course one appeals to shared logical systems when attempting a dialogue with someone outside of Christian tradition. Here's Aquinas on the topic:

"For when anyone in the endeavor to prove the faith brings forward reasons which are not cogent, he falls under the ridicule of the unbelievers: since they suppose that we stand upon such reasons, and that we believe on such grounds.

Therefore, we must not attempt to prove what is of faith, except by authority alone, to those who receive the authority; while as regards others it suffices to prove that what faith teaches is not impossible" (ST I q32 a1).

Belief in special revelation is an assent of the will, on the basis of authority, to something that has not been (and cannot be) demonstrated. That's why it's called faith. We can provide probable arguments that show the articles of faith not to be impossible, but that's it. Arguing from special revelation against someone who does not share that revelation is a waste of time. Hence Aquinas says:

"Against the Jews we are able to argue by means of the Old Testament, while against heretics we are able to argue by means of the New Testament. But the Muslims and the pagans accept neither the one nor the other. We must, therefore, have recourse to the natural reason, to which all men are forced to give their assent" (SCG b1 ch1.3).

The same holds true for arguments with atheists. Bible-thumping fundamentalists who hit unbelievers over the head with scripture are quite simply doing it wrong. If you expect that kind of behavior from learned Christians, prepare to be disappointed.

BenYachov said...

I think Vaal is in "no fair you are not a fundamentalist" mode.

Peace to him.

dover_beach said...

"I don't think it's unreasonable to infer from the continued appeal to metaphysics, rather than revelation, that the more sophisticated theists recognize, at least implicitly, how much thinner the ice is they are on in trying to justify belief in scripture/revelation."

Apart from what RS said, with which I agree, the above simply wants to avoid any discussion of the New Atheist's metaphysics, such as it is, so that it is accepted as 'the given' and used as the criterion by which scriptural/ revelatory claims are to be judged. I can understand, given the experience of NA's and philosophy, why they are chagrined by our peeking behind the curtain.

Vaal said...

rank sophist,

I don't come here expecting fundamentalism, protestantism, literalism, divine personalism, etc. I'd ask you not to jump to conclusions to quickly, please.

"Belief in special revelation is an assent of the will, on the basis of authority, to something that has not been (and cannot be) demonstrated. That's why it's called faith. We can provide probable arguments that show the articles of faith not to be impossible, but that's it. Arguing from special revelation against someone who does not share that revelation is a waste of time."

Right. The religious doctrines, the ones that we have to be concerned about because they are the ones that people actually organize their lives around, are not rationally defensible. And some like the Catholic/Thomistic tradition contain the very pernicious elements of faith in authority that New Atheists have rightly decried. (Yes, I know Aquinas spoke about some dangers to avoid on the way to assenting to scriptural/apostolic authority…but ultimately you are left in just the precarious state you describe above, it seems). Further, this type of "assent of the will" faith disarms you from being able to criticize anyone else making the same hail-Mary epistemological move. "Sorry, but I'm going to burn you as a heretic. Don't bother me about all that evidence stuff as this is an article of faith you simply don't share." The normal demands of reason and evidence need not apply once this type of "faith" card is played. This is a very real problem, and I congratulate you on showing the New Atheist's critique of religious faith such as you described hits the bullseye.

As for the tepid tip to scriptural/apostolic claims of divine intervention being"Not Impossible," that is about the lowest bar you can set for showing a belief is warranted, as there are countless logical "possibilities" that would be absurd to believe. It's not "impossible" Obama is an Alien, or that wacky North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has spies in my neighborhood, stealing spare change from my car when I mistakenly leave the door open at night. I may also believe God is talking to me through my cat at night - certainly not beneath His powers to do so. But I'd be a kook to believe those propositions nonetheless. Especially with extraordinary claims, you move from "kook" toward "rational" by being able to show how your claim is more probable, not merely "possible."

But that said, I think you need to also take this up with your fellow Thomists, several of whom spent quite a bit of time on a previous thread supporting the idea of evidentialist cases for the Resurrection. (E.g. appeals to the reality of Christ's resurrection being the best fit to the "evidence" we have of the Apostle's beliefs, etc…not different at all form what I encounter when talking to Protestant evidentialists about the Resurrection).

Cont'd…

Vaal said...

Cont'd…

rank sophist,

But, even worse, it seems you need to take this up with Prof. Feser. Did you read his "What We Owe The New Atheists" lecture? I've said that the specific claims of revelation are the target of the New Atheists, and that unless you can show good reasons to believe the claims of scripture (e.g. Resurrection etc), then you've left them looking correct in their claims the tenets of your religion are not rationally defensible. You are saying it's trying to argue for rational belief in those doctrines with the unbeliever is a "waste of time."

And yet Prof. Feser specifically called upon Christians to rise to such challenges!
He wrote:

"For even if the secularist were to admit the rational demonstrability of the existence of God and the broad outlines of natural law — that is to say, of those themes which Christian theology shares in common with the greatest pagan thinkers — it is bound to seem to him that a specifically Christian theology nevertheless constitute a historically contingent hodgepodge or jumble of doctrines that have been arbitrarily tacked on to this philosophical edifice. Now the great Scholastic theologians showed that this is by no means the case — that in fact the various elements of Catholic dogmatic and moral theology constitute a tight logical system which can be rigorously articulated and defended. But knowledge of this once standard theology has in recent decades largely disappeared within the Church. This has led not only to a collapse of catechesis, but made Catholic teaching vulnerable to attack from without."

And included a call for : "a return to a general systematic Christian theology of the sort developed within the Scholastic tradition. Only a recovery of the breadth and depth, argumentative rigor and conceptual precision of Scholasticism, can do the job needed."

So which is it, rank sophist? Is meeting atheist skepticism with rational arguments for belief in scriptural miracles a "waste of time" or is it actually necessary, as Prof. Feser seems to be saying?

(And, of course, if you end up going with Prof. Feser on the idea Scholasticism can provide to skeptics rational argument in support of scriptural beliefs, then at some point in producing the argument for belief in The Resurrection you can't say "and at this point, I appeal to a leap of faith." Because then the whole enterprise was pointless from the outset).



Sure, throw those other competing denominations in the huge pile of humanity that just don't seem to properly grok God's nature, revelation, will etc. Such a strange situation. Can you see why looking at all this confusion arouses skepticism toward metaphysical claims that God has knowledge of Him as the final cause of our intellect? It..doesn't…seem…to be working….

Cheers,

Vaal

Vaal said...

(Apologies, it seems a quote was left off my last post, so I repeat it here)

rank sophist wrote: ."Bible-thumping fundamentalists who hit unbelievers over the head with scripture are quite simply doing it wrong."

Sure, throw those other competing denominations in the huge pile of humanity that just don't seem to properly grok God's nature, revelation, will etc. Such a strange situation. Can you see why looking at all this confusion arouses skepticism toward metaphysical claims that God has knowledge of Him as the final cause of our intellect? It..doesn't…seem…to be working….

Cheers,

Vaal

Matt Sheean said...

God could not create an intellect that did not have Him as its final cause.

captainzman said...

I don't remember the New Atheists have much original to say on religious revelation and tradition, or indeed much insightful to say of human experience of such things. In fact, their very narrow rationalism and scientism on such issues is distinctly boring.

No kidding. These are the same people who never met a crackpot anti-religious idea that they didn't like, like Jesus mythicism, swoon theory, or pagan copycat theory. The notion that they know what they are talking about when it comes to Christian revelation is laughable.

BenYachov said...

You know what? I don't have the time for this.

So forget I said anything.

rank sophist said...

Vaal,

The religious doctrines, the ones that we have to be concerned about because they are the ones that people actually organize their lives around, are not rationally defensible. And some like the Catholic/Thomistic tradition contain the very pernicious elements of faith in authority that New Atheists have rightly decried.

This kind of rationalistic absolutism is naïve at best. To the liberal humanist, apparently, "rationally defensible" and "provable beyond any doubt via logic" mean the same thing. Because Christianity fails the second category, it must fail the first.

But a lot of things fail the second category. For example: that George W. Bush was the 43rd president, or that such a man as Charles Darwin ever lived. Evidence suggests that these things are true, but you certainly can't prove them. All of history, in fact, is unprovable. We work with probable arguments and best-guesses, and we trust in the authority of our sources. Your dismissal of Christianity as rationally indefensible, on the grounds that its truth cannot be logically demonstrated, takes with it almost the entirety of human knowledge. Even science is built on authority: no one man can personally replicate every experiment and discovery upon which his current work relies, and so he must believe in the work of others.

Further, this type of "assent of the will" faith disarms you from being able to criticize anyone else making the same hail-Mary epistemological move. "Sorry, but I'm going to burn you as a heretic. Don't bother me about all that evidence stuff as this is an article of faith you simply don't share." The normal demands of reason and evidence need not apply once this type of "faith" card is played.

Evidence and proof are utterly different. Evidence is probable; proof is definite. You seem to conflate the two. There is plenty of evidence to defend the Christian faith in a probable manner.

Also, the burning of heretics has never been an article of faith. It was actually a bit of praxis, built on the theories of thinkers such as Aquinas. The Nicene Creed is a proper example of an article of faith. And, for what it's worth, everyone makes this "hail-Mary epistemological move" in one way or another. Everyone endorses views and world-pictures that reason alone did not provide them, that they believe based on something else--including the Enlightenment thinkers who so excite rationalist types like yourself.

rank sophist said...

As for the tepid tip to scriptural/apostolic claims of divine intervention being"Not Impossible," that is about the lowest bar you can set for showing a belief is warranted

Indeed. That low bar is all that's necessary for Christianity to get its foot in the door. As long as ideas like God becoming man and rising from the dead are not impossible, then they can be proposed for belief. Evidence can be supplied to bolster the case's probability, too. And, in another article of faith, God will eventually provide certitude of the truth of faith.

But that said, I think you need to also take this up with your fellow Thomists, several of whom spent quite a bit of time on a previous thread supporting the idea of evidentialist cases for the Resurrection.

I think that evidence for the Resurrection is strong, and I applaud those who defend it. But, again, that doesn't mean that the Resurrection is provable, any more than it means that the actions of Stalin are provable. One has to accept their truth on the basis of authority.

So which is it, rank sophist? Is meeting atheist skepticism with rational arguments for belief in scriptural miracles a "waste of time" or is it actually necessary, as Prof. Feser seems to be saying?

You've misunderstood me so badly that I'm not sure you'll grasp my explanation. Simply put, Prof. Feser is defending natural theology in that passage, which is the branch of theological speculation that deals mainly in logical proofs. Christianity's special revelation, which cannot be logically proven, exists above the field of natural theology. One could reject that revelation and yet agree broadly with the deductions of natural theology, such as the existence of God and the dictates of natural law. Opinions vary on how far natural theology would stray without the guiding light of special revelation, but it remains possible in theory that all of natural theology's deductions could be believed by an unbeliever.

And, of course, if you end up going with Prof. Feser on the idea Scholasticism can provide to skeptics rational argument in support of scriptural beliefs, then at some point in producing the argument for belief in The Resurrection you can't say "and at this point, I appeal to a leap of faith."

Some things are provable and some are not. I can prove the existence of God, but I can't prove the existence of Jesus. And, once again, the suggestion that it is irrational to believe something without proof undermines the entire secular-rationalist worldview.

Sure, throw those other competing denominations in the huge pile of humanity that just don't seem to properly grok God's nature, revelation, will etc. Such a strange situation.

Fundamentalists aren't wrong about everything. Neither are atheists, Muslims, Hindus or what-have-you. There are degrees of rightness and wrongness in every religion outside of the original church.

BenYachov said...


Wow RS you so DON'T need my help.

Good call.

Anonymous said...

Ross on rational reliance

rank sophist said...

Ben,

Thanks. I generally find atheists tedious, so I stay out of it when you guys throw down with them. Vaal is talking about something at least slightly different from the typical Gnu babble.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Vaal writes,

is meeting atheist skepticism with rational arguments for belief in scriptural miracles a "waste of time" or is it actually necessary, as Prof. Feser seems to be saying?

You still seem to be implying that if Christians cannot prove their exclusivist claims it means scientistic naturalism and so called secular humanism are correct, or at least the best alternative. This is a fallacious inference. I myself do not except the exclusive authority of the Christian religion, yet can accept it integrity as a religious form with real spiritual, imaginal, and doctrinal profundity and depth. To positions like mine your criticisms say very little.

Anyway, the scepticism you mention is, as you have shown previously, simply scientism and positivism. In fact, in his latest work Dr. Feser describes well the problems of your position. As he makes clear, scientism is either patently false or trivial. That is, it either consists of the strong and clearly false claim that natural science is the only proper kind medium of human knowledge, as you claimed until it was shown to you to be both self-defeating and involve absurdities (like requiring scientific testing to be able to claim knowledge of where one's friends live); or it is trivial in expanding the notion of scientific knowledge to the point where strictly scientific methods are just one kind of human knowledge amongst others, which is what you did, although you made vague and unconvincing claims that amounted to suggesting natural science is the archetypical medium of human knowledge and therefore only miracles or paranormal incidents scientifically verified should ever even be considered.

Finally, I don't think your position was very sceptical. Like most professional sceptics you seemed sceptical only of what violated scientistic naturalism. Otherwise, you weren't keen to suspend judgment on paranormal claims if the evidence suggested that as the best course, but were desperate to rule out any space for the miraculous and paranormal.

BenYachov said...

RS

We give props to Vaal because I think he is trying & sincere(not that he is the only Atheist here who is there are others here too peace out).

Cheers.

Edward Feser said...

Hello Vaal,

As it happens, I've got a post on the nature of the apologetic task that should go up within a week or so that deals to some extent with your concerns. For the moment let me just say that I would not agree with your characterization, at least not where Scholastic writers are concerned.

For one thing, when all the purely philosophical groundwork is set out -- and that goes well beyond merely arguing for God's existence (and includes issues that not enough apologists these days get into) -- the "gap" between natural theology and revealed theology is not nearly as great as you suppose. (I will get into this in the forthcoming post.)

For another, when we get to revelation, the claim that a revelation has in fact occurred is something that itself can (and indeed must) be defended via rational arguments that do not presuppose the truth of the revelation. At no point is there a gap in evidence that somehow must be made up by a "will to believe" that for which there are no grounds, by an appeal to the pull of the heartstrings or other such irrationalist hoo-hah.

Most modern debate over these issues, on both sides, has gotten so very far from (what in my view is) a sound approach, that a great deal of "remedial education" in classical metaphysics, classical natural theology, etc. is needed before people can see the arguments for the occurrence of a revelation in the proper light. That's why so much of my writing is, for now, devoted to that preliminary task. (Not that the issue has anything to do with me personally. It's a matter of recovering what Scholastic writers of previous generations knew but which has gone down the memory hole.)

Vaal said...

Prof. Feser,

That sounds like a fascinating upcoming post. And while I have gotten into some long conversations here, I don't mean to become a permanent pest here.
You have a lot to discuss amongst yourselves. When I have read Aquinas I've looked to various different takes on the passage I might be reading from other authors, and that has often enough included going through your relevant posts on a particular subject, which are always well written (whether I end up agreeing or not).

Vaal said...

Ben,

Thank you. I am sincere. Since there's quite a bit of derogatory remarks about atheists (well, especially new atheists) on this blog I may let some cheekiness seep through sometimes in defending "my side" as it were. But it's meant in fun - I certainly think it's fair play for you guys to take pot shots at atheists, as you see a lot of it from atheists themselves. (And btw, I don't really stick to a full party line with other atheist, "new" or otherwise, as I engage in plenty of debate with them as well).

I know what it's like to be on the other side of an issue with many of today's atheists. For instance, when I take the side of compatibilism for free will, I'm often treated like an angel-believing new ager by the strain of atheists taking the incompatibilist stance.

I also find myself sometimes aggravated with some of the depictions of Christianity and Christian arguments by atheists. For instance, when I was recently listening to The Atheist Experience podcast they would sometimes summarize a Christian view or argument and I'd be shouting in my brain "Hold on, that's not quite right…and actually Christians have an answer for this or that
problem…" (whether I agree with it or not).

I learned a long time ago never to take one side's depiction of the other. In other words, I don't fully trust atheists to accurately summarize a Christian argument before arguing against it…and for the same reason I don't go to Christians to learn about atheist arguments. That's why I prefer to engage people themselves in conversation. Everyone has his own take on things.

Over 'n out,

Vaal

Vaal said...

rank sophist,

It seems that Prof. Feser's recent post supported my interpretation of what he was proposing. That you are not restricted to arguing only for Natural Theology, but that it should also be possible to produce good arguments for belief in the specifically Christian propositions e.g. revelation, resurrection, etc.

As for everyone making a "hail-Mary" epistemological leap…not all leaps are of the same character, and not all are rationally defensible. Yes, philosophically speaking, there are assumptions/axioms in any world view or philosophy. But not every assumption is as foundational or necessary as claimed, or reasoned from consistently, etc. That is after all what many philosophical disputes are about, right?
So a "you have faith too" kind of answer is a red herring, since even assumptions/axioms must be justified - e.g. by how consistently one reasons given those axioms.

And when you say: "To the liberal humanist, apparently, "rationally defensible" and "provable beyond any doubt via logic" mean the same thing."

…you have drawn precisely the wrong conclusion - if you had followed the arguments in popular atheism at all, you would know this. A main theme has been to decry Absolute Certainty, dogma, "faith," beliefs held without evidence or in spite of contrary evidence, and instead they promote the attitude of provisionally held beliefs, proportioned to the evidence, always being open to revision. (Especially when reasoning empirically about our experience, be it physics, or what we think might be miracles).

Atheists continually have to confront from theists (even if not you guys here) retorts like "You can't PROVE God doesn't exist" or " you can't PROVE Jesus wasn't raised from the dead, etc" which is why the New Atheists always have to explain such demands based on Absolute Proofs are a red herring: that for a belief to be rational doesn't require absolute certainty. That would throw out virtually all of science (and history, and..well…pretty much all experiential reasoning)! Rather, we ought to require Good Reasons for holding a belief, and "Reason" goes beyond mere deduction, to induction, probabilistic reasoning, consistency and coherence with our other beliefs, etc. Absolute Proof would be wonderful when you can get it, but most of our beliefs can't be proved like that, so we STILL have to have some consistency in our probabilistic reasoning as well.

So you've jumped to an entirely unwarranted conclusion about my conflating proof and evidential reasoning, which is nowhere implied in what I've actually written…and I can't remember the last atheist I talked to who made such a bizarre mistake either.

I'm not asking any Christian to deductively prove without doubt the revealed tenets of his faith. I'm just asking for Good Reasons to think it happened. And since this concerns empirical claims not a priori reasoning, the reasoning should be consistent with the type of demands we would put on extraordinary claims. And it's not like everyday or even strict empirical reasoning rules out the extraordinary or mind-blowing. Extraordinary, wild, new, mind-blowing phenomena or propositions have been given rational support many times (in fact, I'd say that science is an almost never ending cornucopia of such propositions, counter-intuitive explanations that you'd never have guessed had not the hard work wrung out the apparent <--note the provisional --answers).

Vaal.

Vaal said...

Due to the way some folks here keep jumping to conclusions, reading into my position what isn't there at all, I can't help but get the feeling that you are more familiar with how
Atheist critics (including theists here) characterize atheist arguments and positions, vs what the atheists actually believe. I can see some of this even in Prof Feser's characterizations. For instance he claimed New Atheism was based on "Scientism" and proceeded to then describe this purported "scientistic" stance. But I would not agree with his description - his description seemed to conflate ontology/metaphysics with epistemology - or perhaps it was meant to impute such confusion to atheists - in a straw man version of the atheist position on empiricism. And then claimed it was "self refuting" because "scientism is not itself supported by the methods of empirical science."

But that is again to depict the most naive possible straw man. Those of us putting a strong emphasis on empirical reasoning, science being our most rigorous example, don't just rely on some naive, viscously circular reasoning. The strategies of careful empirical inquiry spring from deeper, fundamental epistemological concerns, and is justified as an answer to those fundamental problems, just as a Thomist is going to look at causation and say "Hey, here's some fundamental issue to address, and given this problem, here's the solution…"

Parsimony in our explanations, for instance, isn't a "truth, discovered scientifically." It's an epistemological *strategy* - justified by deeper, underlying philosophical considerations. These are considerations that arise from our noticing the vastness of conceptual space, when we are contemplating our explanations - the space of the "logically possible." And that if we don't come up with some criteria for terminating our explanations at some point, there would be X, Y, Z unbearable epistemological consequences. And below those concerns, we can talk about other assumptions, e.g. of "identity," things having "natures" etc.

It's not all just asserted and adjudicated "scientifically."
If we didn't have underlying justifications for science, we'd have no justification to PREFER any instance of science over some other method of inquiry, for instance over "faith" or even just rolling dice, in the first place.

Now, whether you think that, upon chasing all the philosophy an atheist might posit down the rabbit holes actually ends up
to at a satisfying, cogent conclusion is one thing. But presuming the most naive, self-refuting characterizations of secular philosophy, even of the New Atheists, is no more fair than atheists presuming all Christian thinking is simple-minded.

Cheerio,

Vaal

Jeremy Taylor said...

Vaal,

I discussed these issues with you at length and you most certainly did seem to me to be making stereotypically scientistic or positivist claims.

If you object to this characterisation, then by all means explain your position again in detail.

Would I correct is thinking you are quite young? I agree with Ben about your sincerity but I would give you the advise of listening and learning more than pontificating. I know I have gained a lot from this approach (although I still have a way to go).

rank sophist said...

Vaal,

It seems that Prof. Feser's recent post supported my interpretation of what he was proposing. That you are not restricted to arguing only for Natural Theology, but that it should also be possible to produce good arguments for belief in the specifically Christian propositions e.g. revelation, resurrection, etc.

Prof. Feser would never suggest that the arguments of natural theology and the apologetic defenses made for special revelation are of the same character. To do so would be to reject Aquinas's writing on the subject wholesale. A "good argument" in natural theology is a coherent and sound one, whose conclusion it would be irrational to doubt. A good argument for special revelation is empirical and probable--reasonable, but inconclusive. Generalizing both branches under one blanket term obscures the issue needlessly.

As for everyone making a "hail-Mary" epistemological leap…not all leaps are of the same character, and not all are rationally defensible. Yes, philosophically speaking, there are assumptions/axioms in any world view or philosophy. But not every assumption is as foundational or necessary as claimed, or reasoned from consistently, etc.

My point was that certain beliefs, which can be defended only in a reflexive and probable manner, pre-exist any man's attempt at philosophical reasoning. Historical conditioning is included here, among other things. Hence, Enlightenment-style foundationalism (humanistic "pure reason") is impossible. Human thought is a tangle of presuppositions, probabilities, half-truths and the occasional logical demonstration. In this mess, Christian faith looks no less rational than most beliefs.

So a "you have faith too" kind of answer is a red herring, since even assumptions/axioms must be justified - e.g. by how consistently one reasons given those axioms.

Reflexive justifications like this are simply rationalizations. You're defending what you already believe by trying to demonstrate its coherence. Not that this is a bad business: Aquinas openly admits to using natural theology as a means of rationalizing and extrapolating from revelation. If you want to try rationalizing your own beliefs, be my guest. But don't pretend to take the logical high ground in the process. You're in the same boat as any Christian apologist.

if you had followed the arguments in popular atheism at all, you would know this.

I have read them, and I find them to be highly ironic. The same pop atheists who claim to be empiricists and "skeptics" are the ones with the most thoroughly unexamined presuppositions.

Rather, we ought to require Good Reasons for holding a belief, and "Reason" goes beyond mere deduction, to induction, probabilistic reasoning, consistency and coherence with our other beliefs, etc.

Certainly. But I'm not sure how Christian claims are less viable in this field than any others.

And since this concerns empirical claims not a priori reasoning, the reasoning should be consistent with the type of demands we would put on extraordinary claims.

The term "extraordinary claim" is loaded with those pesky presuppositions I keep talking about. What is considered extraordinary is wholly relative to what is considered ordinary in a particular historical period, given the empirical observations, inherited beliefs and general world-picture of the time. Miracle claims were not extraordinary in the ancient world, for example. They're considered extraordinary in the contemporary West because of the secular world-picture in which we've all found ourselves. You're going to have to do better than that.

The Resurrection was certainly "mind-blowing" in the first century, but it happened in an era that had the imaginative grammar (as David Bentley Hart calls it) to believe it. Even most Christians lack that grammar today.

rank sophist said...

Also,

Parsimony in our explanations, for instance, isn't a "truth, discovered scientifically." It's an epistemological *strategy* - justified by deeper, underlying philosophical considerations. These are considerations that arise from our noticing the vastness of conceptual space, when we are contemplating our explanations - the space of the "logically possible." And that if we don't come up with some criteria for terminating our explanations at some point, there would be X, Y, Z unbearable epistemological consequences.

This is empty handwaving. If you reject secular rationalism, as well as naïve scientism, then you're going to have to do more than gesture vaguely in the direction of "the vastness of conceptual space" and "criteria for terminating our explanations". Get concrete if you want to be taken seriously.

Gyan said...

JesseM,

On Theory of Everything, Father Jaki also made the point the the physicists could never be sure that they knew all the facts.

The universe could generate entirely new facts tomorrow and no TOE could ensure against this possibility. The idea of TOE being a logically necessary theory, the idea that was pursued first by Einstein, is ruled out by Godel's theorem, I believe.

Physical theories are not merely about predictions. Otherwise, why would physicists talk of a certain dissatisfaction with quantum mechanics and why would Dirac talk of beauties of equation.

The physical theory seeks to explain the phenomena. Not merely predict the phenomena.

Greg said...

Vaal,

Due to the way some folks here keep jumping to conclusions, reading into my position what isn't there at all, I can't help but get the feeling that you are more familiar with how Atheist critics (including theists here) characterize atheist arguments and positions, vs what the atheists actually believe. I can see some of this even in Prof Feser's characterizations. For instance he claimed New Atheism was based on "Scientism" and proceeded to then describe this purported "scientistic" stance. But I would not agree with his description - his description seemed to conflate ontology/metaphysics with epistemology - or perhaps it was meant to impute such confusion to atheists - in a straw man version of the atheist position on empiricism. And then claimed it was "self refuting" because "scientism is not itself supported by the methods of empirical science."

First I just want to say that I appreciate your fairness and contributions to the recent discussions, Vaal.

However, this is kind of why I find it odd that you throw your hat in with the New Atheists. Not only would the epistemological argument you are making be very difficult to extract from any of the New Atheist manuals, but several of the New Atheists do make epistemically simplistic, scientistic claims--all of Atkins, Dawkins, Krauss, and Tyson, and others. (Scientism has been embraced by somewhat more sophisticated folks in the academy, as well. Rosenberg, for instance.) I don't think Feser is painting all atheists with the "self-undermining scientism-brush," so to speak--but many of them are subject to it.

It's also noteworthy that your argument is that regardless of the metaphysical conclusions, there are epistemic issues with believing in miracles. Many of the New Atheists are more concerned with trying to prevent metaphysics from getting off of the ground, and they often do so by appealing to scientism.

dguller said...

Rank:

Is there any reliable criteria by which one can determine, even in a probabilistic fashion, what revelation is more likely to be true than the others? I agree with you that the purported truths of revelation can certainly be shown to be possible using natural reason, but how does one go from possible to probable, and without using the revelation itself as a basis of support, which would be circular reasoning? There must be some rational criteria independent of revelation that is available to assess the alleged revelation for authenticity, and the question is what this criteria is.

JesseM said...

@Crude:
Except you're also treating the possibility that the assumptions are are (in a logically possible way) wrong as well to brand it all as being based on 'nothing but faith'.

No, I'm really not. The statement of mine you quoted before typing the response above pretty clearly explains why your interpretation is wrong:

"I'm just using the fact that it's logically possible a given hypothesis is wrong as a starting point, and then saying that once that is agreed one needs some kind of argument for the view that one hypothesis is much more plausible than the logically possible alternative."

If you have a reasoned argument for favoring one logical possibility over another, then great! That's not just "faith" in Aristotle and Aquinas' pronouncements, in that case. So what is the argument? If you think there is one, can you give at least a basic sketch?

Maybe it will help if I put the argument in terms of the following basic epistemic principles:

A. If you have a given hypothesis that you believe is true, but you acknowledge that there is a logically possible world where it's false, then in order to justify your belief you need to provide reasons why the possible world where it's true is more likely or plausible than the one where it's false.

B. If you have some fact X that would equally true/likely/plausible* in both types of possible worlds, then X cannot be used as evidence for or against your hypothesis.

*To elaborate a little on "true/likely/plausible", I would say that if there are many possible worlds where your hypothesis is true and many where it's false, and you have some way of talking about the relative probability of different possible worlds, then if X is much more likely in a randomly-chosen possible world where your hypothesis is true than in one where it's false, in that case you can use X to support your hypothesis (and if X is equally likely regardless of whether the hypothesis is true of false, then observing X should not change your subjective likelihood that the hypothesis is true or false--both of these can be derived from Bayesian inference in statistics, for example). And even in a philosophical context where you can't really assign numerical "probabilities" to different philosophical conjectures, using X as evidence might even be legitimate if you could argue that the combination of X and your hypothesis is more 'philosophically plausible' somehow then X and the opposing hypothesis, making some appeal to some foundational principles of judging philosophical ideas like 'internal coherence' or 'the rationality of the cosmos', but still some sort of argument would need to be provided about why one of the logically possible worlds seems more 'coherent' or 'rational' than the other--I think philosophers have made that sort of case for believing that other people aren't philosophical zombies lacking subjective consciousness, even if it's logically possible they are, for example (I prefer to avoid even the possibility of zombies by postulating an idealist metaphysics in which 'to exist' is 'to be experienced', and the 'objective', mathematical side of reality is explained as the perception of an all-encompassing Absolute Experience, or God). Similarly with Mr. Green's example of solipsism. In addition, some theists who believe in a God whose creations are a matter of free will (as opposed to a Spinoza-style God who does not have a choice about what to bring into reality) might also make arguments about which logically possible universe would be more in God's character to make real, but this would likewise require an argument of some kind.

JesseM said...

Reply to Crude, part 2:

Do you disagree with the two general principles A and B above? If not, then my argument boils down to considering any given "hypothesis" an A-T advocate might support about which objects have substantial forms and final causes (and what those final causes are), without even getting into the question of whether the basic metaphysical framework of substantial forms and final causes is right or not. My "logically possible worlds" are worlds where the measurable arrangements of all the particles, fields and any other fundamental entities of physics is exactly the same, and changes in the same way over time, and these changing arrangements are perfectly predicted by predictively reductionist (or "preductionist" if you prefer, to avoid any non-predictive associations you might have with the word "reductionist") mathematical theory of the type physicists hope to find. As a consequence, any possible empirical observation that might be made in either world by beings like ourselves would be identical, so any empirical observation would qualify as a "fact X that would be true in both possible worlds", and thus can't be used to favor one hypothesis about substantial forms and final causes over another, at least not without some argument along the lines of the kinds I mentioned in the asterisked paragraph. And a philosophical argument, of the type I mentioned in that paragraph, might make a case that certain combinations of empirical observations and metaphysical truths about forms/final causes are more "metaphysical coherent" in some way so that those empirical observations can be used as evidence, but that strategy would only be reasonable after one has made an actual argument for one combination being more metaphysically coherent than another, so one would still not be relying *only* on empirical evidence.

But if we're talking about logical possibilities like that, then science is snapped up in the process.

But as I already said, the key is to provide reasons to justify a belief that one logically possible world is more likely or plausible then another, my whole argument is that I don't see what the reasons could be in the case of particular hypotheses about substantial forms and final causes, if empirical observations have to be excluded by the argument above. Either you think there are non-empirical reasons (in which case I would ask you to outline them), or maybe you'll say there's something wrong with the argument above even given the assumption of a perfectly predictive physical theory (in which case I would ask you to pinpoint what you think is the flaw).

Well, no. For any given model you come up with, it's possible to create another model that emphasizes different levels of the entire system to form explanations that will cash out to the exact same predictions.

For one thing, I don't think that's true--if you are talking about "predictions" about every measurable detail of every fundamental particle making up a system, then a higher-level theory can't replicate these "exact same predictions". And in the case of chaotic systems there shouldn't be any approximate high-level theory that can accurately predict high-level behavior, because chaotic systems exhibit "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" (or the butterfly effect), which says that if you have even the slightest detail of the smallest part of a system measured wrongly when it comes to the system's initial conditions, then your predictions based on those initial conditions will diverge significantly from the system's actual behavior in a characteristic amount of time (the Lyapunov time).

JesseM said...

reply to Crude, part 3:

But even if your statement about an alternative way of generating precisely correct predictions was true, I don't see how it would alter my basic argument. The argument doesn't depend on the idea that the fundamental physical theory is the only way to make accurate predictions, just that such a theory exists and is perfectly accurate in its predictions (even if this can only be verified by God or some other superintelligent being outside the universe, because no being inside the universe can store the complete data on all the fundamental particles and such in order to make calculations based on this data). That's all that's needed to say that you can have two possible universes with exactly the same initial arrangement of fundamental particles, and that all empirical properties of their subsequent history will be identical, but where the details of substantial forms/final causes are different. In that case my epistemic principle B above implies that it doesn't make sense to use any empirical observations as reasons for believing one of these possible universes is more likely than the other, at least not unless you can provide some non-empirical reasons for thinking these empirical observations are more "likely" or "philosophically plausible" in the possible world where your particular hypothesis is true than the one where it isn't.

No, since it wouldn't be indispensable - you could dispense with it with another model, even a predictive model.

See the previous paragraph, I didn't suggest that the "preductionist" theory needs to be indispensable, and the argument seems to work exactly the same even if it isn't.

I'm actually, like I said, the amateur around here. But I do know that A-T takes behaviors and empirical observations and realities into account when ascertaining forms, etc.

Sure, but A-T was devised long before anyone had the notion that reductionist physical theories expressed in mathematical language could be all that's needed for perfect predictions about all empirical behaviors of material entities (including people's bodies). My whole argument is that this would present a new sort of problem for A-T claims that needs to be addressed by anyone who thinks that no new scientific discoveries could present any problem for the A-T system. So again the question is whether you disagree with the basic epistemic principles I suggested, or whether you don't dispute them but think there are reasons for thinking one idea about the relation between metaphysical truths and empirical truths is more "philosophically coherent" than the other, or something along those lines (along the lines of arguments that it's more coherent to postulate that when other people show external behavior that's analogous to my own, that is accompanied by subjective states that are similar to my own, and less coherent to postulate that they are "zombies" with no subjective qualia).

Matt Sheean said...

".. That all empirical properties... will be identical, but where the details of substantial forms/final causes are different."

If the details of the forms/final causes are different in one universe from the other, that's just the same as saying there are different things in one universe than the other. It's not as if in one universe elephant-wise particle arrangements could really be caused by the form of a rocking chair.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you're saying, though?

rank sophist said...

dguller,

20th century Thomists liked to think that there were strong rational grounds by which revelation's truth could be judged. I'm a bit skeptical of their claim, though.

I think that, to a certain extent, revelation with a historical character can be supported in a probable manner with historical scholarship and the historical-critical method. Hence one can attack or defend the idea that Jesus or Muhammed actually lived, and one can supply reasons in defense of the Resurrection. But Christianity, before the 20th century, was not particularly interested in the business of supporting its revelations via "objective" analysis. It presented unbelievers with personal witness and with a path to follow, so that they could discover Christianity's truth for themselves. As a result, even when we agree that revelation can be supported with probable arguments, the lion's share of the proof comes through experience. Honestly, anyone who believes in the truth of Christianity based on human reasons alone, and does not rely at all on their experiences of lived Christianity, is not much of a Christian. There is always a bit of a leap where faith is concerned, because it cannot be proven conclusively.

Now, you could say that every religion makes a similar claim. "Join and you'll understand!" and so forth. And that's true. You can discriminate among them somewhat with historical scholarship (weeding out absurd cults like Scientology and Mormonism in the process), and you can argue against the logical coherence of certain beliefs in other religions (perhaps refuting post-Ghazali occasionalism or a few varieties of pantheism), but the bulk of the "proof" is experiential. Above all else, Christianity relies on two things to make its case against other religious traditions: the quality of its witness and the power of its mythology. The truth and beauty of these two things has drawn people to the religion from day one.

Anonymous said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but regardless of how accurate a model is in terms of predicting outcomes, it doesn't change the fact that the model was abstracted away from something concrete?

Anonymous said...

Basically, this:

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/08/concretizing-abstract.html

Vaal said...

Jeremy,

Since you asked: I am 50 and have had a strong interest in science, religion and philosophy for 30 years. I think because of the way philosophical issues and religious issues tend to intersect, I've always had a fascination with religion, and have engaged religious people (usually Christians of many different denominations) in discussion and debate for around 20 years now. So I've been at it long before this New Atheism stuff began.

If you claim I fit your stereotypes concerning "scientism" and "positivism" and that those positions are "self-refuting," then you take on the burden of actually showing what I've argued is inconsistent or self-refuting. Labels aren't arguments.

I did not see you identify any such self-refutation or inconsistency in the reasoning I gave on the other thread.

If you could do so, provide an example of this inconsistency or self-refutation in any part of what I argued, then that could be interesting. But it did seem played out in the other thread.

Also, if I make a claim - e.g. that The Resurrection is an empirical claim, and it ought to hold up to the demands we would make for other extraordinary empirical claims - I feel I take on the burden of arguing for it. I did this, in much detail before. But if you dismiss this as "pontificating," I guess I don't have anything of interest to offer you.

I suppose, if you won't accept my explanations for empirical principles, and for why certain types of claims ("extraordinary") demand more rigorous evidence, I could ask you about your explanations.

Assume you have a neighbour, Ted, who you know owns and drives a car.

Take two different claims.

1. Ted: I drove my car to work today.

This is a claim that we all know would not in of itself raise our
skepticism. Lacking other reasons to be skeptical, we are normally fine with accepting these "everyday experience" claims on face value.

2. Ted: I drove my car at faster than the speed of light to work today.

This is a claim we all know would raise our skepticism.

Are we RIGHT to be more skeptical of the second claim? Is it reasonable to demand more reasons and evidence than just Ted's
say-so in the second case?

If not, why not?

If so, why? What is YOUR explanation for how we ought to treat those two claims?

Now what if Ted repeated claim #2, but added "it was a miracle, divine intervention!"

Should that suddenly lower our skepticism of the claim for driving faster than light? If it would change the level of scrutiny we ought to apply to the claim, tell me how.

Your answers, as you should know, would have implications for other extraordinary claims, miraculous or otherwise.

(But then, I think we've actually gone through this, so now I'm thinking again at this point do either of us really want to bother?)

Cheers,

Vaal

Vaal said...

rank sophist,

"Prof. Feser would never suggest that the arguments of natural theology and the apologetic defenses made for special revelation are of the same character. ……(snip) Generalizing both branches under one blanket term obscures the issue needlessly."

See, this is what I keep talking about.

Perhaps you did not see my participation in that New Atheist thread, which is certainly fare enough. But nothing I've said at any time conflates the two types of arguments.
I spent post after post on the previous thread keeping just that distinction - that the general-principle, metaphysical character of Thomist Natural Theology are going to be different from the empirical arguments one would have to make for the *specific* miracle claims made in revelation. And that is why I am skeptical Natural Theology can be of much support for revelation.

However, although they are two different types of arguments, it is often claimed that they CAN be used to strengthen one another, to build a case for a specifically Christian theology, where some of what one learns about God through Natural Theology helps point toward, support for, and "raises the probabilities" of something like Christ and the Resurrection happening. As well as scriptural claims about God re-enforcing what one learns via Natural Theology. Even lil' old me knows that Prof Fesser has written just that in previous blog posts over the years, and re-iterated it again recently. (and it's a very common refrain in other branches of Christian apologetics).

And when you said it was laughable for me to ask for an argument for the claims of special revelation, I pointed out some Thomists here already attempted such arguments, and that Prof. Feser also had already called for such arguments. And he repeated that again here, in no uncertain terms.

Sometimes I feel like I'm listening more closely to what Prof. Feser is writing than some of the regulars ;-)

"The term "extraordinary claim" is loaded with those pesky presuppositions I keep talking about."

Which is exactly why I outlined what I mean by such terms. I spent a lot of pixels doing just that in the previous thread, and have repeated it again in this thread.

Again: by an "extraordinary claim" I mean a claim that concerns a phenomenon outside our normal, everyday empirical experience, and usually one that would challenge our current scientific understanding of how things seem to work.

A car driving faster than light, or a claim someone truly resurrected from the dead (after complete cessation of metabolic and electrical activity), would certainly fit the description of "not being part of our everyday empirical experience," right?

As for the common experiences of people at other times, since we were not there, they can only be to us "purported experiences." Hence we are left asking if WE ought to believe claims made by people in the past. Wee are left to evaluating such claims from our current experiential perspective, and understanding of probabilities and what is plausible. That's why, for instance, we don't think the sun is, or once was, a fiery chariot being drawn across the sky…just because we
read such past descriptions of the sun. (We think that if people in the past actually believed the sun was a fiery chariot, they had a misunderstanding of the nature of the sun), and we don't simply accept every of the countless magical claims we read of in the past.

Cheers,

Vaal

Vaal said...

Greg,

I certainly agree with some of what you wrote about New Atheists.
I'm just too tired (it's late) to write anything more.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Vaal,

I critiqued your arguments previously, and I did think they were stereotypically scientistic and positivistic. I did not just use the labels without making proper critiques. You did make arguments but they were incomplete and, I thought, unconvincing, and you ignored a lot of my points. I mentioned, briefly, above what I recall were important aspects of your claims in this regard.

But I have no wish to trawl through the previous thread and reconstruct our discussion, so let's focus on the current one.

I would say claim two is a more extraordinary claim and requires more evidence, whether or not it was claimed as supernatural. I would say that we would have to investigate the specific evidence in context and make use of what C.S Lewis calls fitness (or the historian's intuition of way the evidence fits together in specific cases). That would allow us to come to some conclusion about the likelihood of the claim's truth or even to decide we should suspend judgment, and it will help us see what we should take away from a claim.

We went through these sorts of examples ad nauseum previously. One could come up with unlikely naturalistic situations and I'd make the same case. I cannot see how one can use them, in a non-question begging way to differentiate naturalistic and non-naturalistic claims.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Of course, I know what your immediate answers will be. You will talk about our everyday experience being naturalistic, so allegedly we know naturalistic entities exist but not supernatural one, and you then claim this means any far-fetched naturalistic explanation must be preferable. You will also talk about the dangers to natural science of allowing space for non-naturalistic explanations.

We discussed this stuff previously and I personally didn't think such answers were very convincing, and in many ways they just seemed to beg the question.

Greg said...

Vaal,

A car driving faster than light, or a claim someone truly resurrected from the dead (after complete cessation of metabolic and electrical activity), would certainly fit the description of "not being part of our everyday empirical experience," right?

There is a big disanalogy here. There is a sense in which the resurrection claim can be "forced" on observers, ie. if they see a person beaten, impaled, crucified, dead, and buried before seeing him later in complete health and life.

In the faster-than-light case, you would have to, perhaps, see someone poking around his house in the morning. You drive into work (taking an hour) and find that the person in question is deeply immersed in his work and everyone there testify that he had been around for an hour, that they had spoken to him then, etc.

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rank sophist said...

Vaal,

I spent post after post on the previous thread keeping just that distinction - that the general-principle, metaphysical character of Thomist Natural Theology are going to be different from the empirical arguments one would have to make for the *specific* miracle claims made in revelation. And that is why I am skeptical Natural Theology can be of much support for revelation.

I don't understand how that follows. Revelation is much more than just miracle claims: it is the entire body of scripture, from its claims about God, to its moral prescriptions, to its general understanding of the world. Natural theology is used to support many of these beliefs. For example: that God exists and that he is perfect and simple, or that adultery is wrong. Arguments for specific miracle claims are very rare by comparison.

Even lil' old me knows that Prof Fesser has written just that in previous blog posts over the years, and re-iterated it again recently.

I've made the same arguments myself. Not sure why you'd think that I disagree with them.

And when you said it was laughable for me to ask for an argument for the claims of special revelation, I pointed out some Thomists here already attempted such arguments

What I said was laughable was this claim: "I get the impression you just don't evince the confidence in God's own special revelation that you do in the deliverances of your own (or Aquinas') reason."

And it's laughable because of how obvious it is that you've missed the point. Revelation is the ultimate axiom of Christianity. It stands above even the first principles of metaphysics. As a result, revelation is fundamentally less useful for dialogue with outsiders than is metaphysics. Whereas the first principles of metaphysics are shared by all, the first principles of Christianity are believed only by some. Here's Aquinas on the subject again:

rank sophist said...

"It is to be borne in mind, in regard to the philosophical sciences, that the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them, but leave this to a higher science; whereas the highest of them, viz. metaphysics, can dispute with one who denies its principles, if only the opponent will make some concession; but if he concede nothing, it can have no dispute with him, though it can answer his objections. Hence Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections — if he has any — against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered."

Hence the alleged lack of confidence in revelation is absurd. If you expect this blog's regulars to argue revelation with an unbeliever, as they might with one another, then you will be disappointed. Instead, they'll use logical demonstrations and probable (persuasive) arguments to defend themselves. These include deductive arguments for the existence and attributes of God as well as weaker, empirical arguments for the believability of certain historical events. Aquinas himself used both types.

Again: by an "extraordinary claim" I mean a claim that concerns a phenomenon outside our normal, everyday empirical experience, and usually one that would challenge our current scientific understanding of how things seem to work.

"Normal, everyday empirical experience" is another historically and culturally relative phrase. The everyday empirical experience (I'll call it EEE, for short) of the modern Westerner is totally different from the EEE of a 1st century Jew or Roman. In fact, the modern Western EEE is completely different from the EEE of someone in Iran or Israel, or from someone in Egypt or Nigeria, or from someone in Mongolia or Russia. Their EEE is colored by events that the average Westerner has never encountered; and each has a different "background mythology" that influences their EEE. No one has EEE in a void, free from cultural indoctrination, historical place and so forth. Here, we expect to see cars on the street, planes in the air and a distinct lack of what we call "supernatural" interruptions. We have a working secular order in a demystified world. The same cannot be said of many other cultures, whose peoples expect miracles and suchlike. The supernatural does not violate their EEE.

Which doesn't even address the problem of prevailing scientific consensus. Consider the theistic Ptolemaic cosmology or the belief in spontaneous generation. Consider the belief in immaterial souls by nearly all ancient scientists. You casually presuppose far too much.

Hence we are left asking if WE ought to believe claims made by people in the past. Wee are left to evaluating such claims from our current experiential perspective, and understanding of probabilities and what is plausible.

No, we are not left with this. To suggest otherwise is to ignore over 100 years of historical-critical scholarship in continental philosophy. What we must do is subject our own perspective to criticism, while doing our best to understand the experiences of people in other periods.

Anonymous said...

I realize I'm under an anonymous moniker, but this is ccmnxc. Anyways, thanks for the response, and apologies for my belated reply.

First, I don't think that metaphysical laws could be analogous to physical laws in the required sense for the objection. Physical laws essentially describe regularities (at least in the impoverished Humean sense) or are at least the observed dispositions of things to act in determinate ways, while metaphysical laws (ie. that things are composed of act and potency) are claims that there are corresponding ontological principles. It isn't merely a regularity that things are composed of act and potency; it is a precondition of the reality of change.

The act/potency distinction is really fundamental, and many of the other "metaphysical laws" follow from that. The reason a per se series requires a first mover is rooted in what actuality and potentiality are. Final causes are rooted in substances' potencies to be other than they are and their consequent directedness toward some ends rather than others.

Well, at least this simplifies things, since, if what you say is true, most if not all my examples really fall upon the act/potency distinction. However, I'm still not sure how we can account for act/potency as a metaphysical principle corresponding to an ontological reality. It seems to have simply moved it back to the question of, why does this ontological reality work in such as way so as to make the act/potency description applicable to it?
But perhaps I misunderstood what you said.

Second, I don't think there is really a threat of circularity anyway, at least in terms of something like the Fifth Way. If there were metaphysical laws analogous to physical laws, then they would stand in need of explanation just as much as the physical laws which (it could be argued) are the basis for the Fifth Way. Such an argument would not presuppose God but would claim that God is needed ultimately to explain "metaphysical laws" just as much as physical laws.
It seems you're point about the Fifth Way is true enough, but what about the First Way, for example? It presupposes certain metaphysical laws as opposed to using God to explain them. Now, one could argue that only God can explanatorily account for act/potency, and that might be a good enough argument in itself, but it seems that First Way would then be discarded.

Anonymous said...

Dang it. Sorry about the italicized and non-italicized text bleeding together.

Greg said...

ccmnxc

However, I'm still not sure how we can account for act/potency as a metaphysical principle corresponding to an ontological reality. It seems to have simply moved it back to the question of, why does this ontological reality work in such as way so as to make the act/potency description applicable to it?

One begins from the datum that change occurs. The question that the act/potency distinction attempts to answer is how things should change if change is not to be a coming into being out of nothing. So the act/potency distinction by construction applies to the reality in question.

Why are there things that are composed of act and potency? Why do those things change? Those are the questions which prompt the Second and First Ways. But the answers to those are going to be particulars (ie. the answer to the first question is not "there is a metaphysical law that things are composed of act and potency" but has to do with what is actualizing the existence of a particular contingent being).

Vaal said...

Greg,

For the point I'm making, there is no disanalogy, because I'm talking about the differences in the type of evidence we would demand for a CLAIM.

We don't have the experience you are suggesting of Jesus resurrecting that would "force it upon us" - no more than we would have the experience of the car driving faster than light. In both cases, what we have are the CLAIMS they happened, not the experience.

That is why I talked in terms of claims: some claims we can accept uncritically on face value (for reasons stated) and others require much more than accepting a claim on face value (e.g. a car moving faster than light, someone rising from the dead).

Cheers,

Greg said...

Vaal,

Understood that you are talking about claims. But I don't think that works either. I think I would be more inclined to take seriously the version of the story I gave than a single person's claim that he drove at the speed of light.

The attitudes of the people in the story and the historical corroboration of people's having those attitudes is far from irrelevant. But in your analogy I have to take a single person's say-so as seriously as the actions of the early church. The fact that they are both claims does not set them on equal epistemic footing.

Vaal said...

Jeremy Taylor,

"I cannot see how one can use them, in a non-question begging way to differentiate naturalistic and non-naturalistic claims."

Then this implies you don't yet grasp why science has been so successful in producing reliable knowledge about reality.

I had started with epistemological first principles to why certain strategies are preferable, and then showed with examples how these are applied consistently along a pragmatic continuum. There was nothing question-begging in there at all. And you would (and would have to) apply these principles consistently as well.

Say Ted flipped a coin and it landed heads, then declared it a miracle.
Clearly you shouldn't simply accept this, so how would you argue to Ted why he has failed to establish a miracle?

Obviously you are going to appeal to the fact we have plenty of empirical experience of coins flipping heads "naturally," and Ted hasn't given any reason to rule out that it simply happened naturally.

What do you do if Ted accuses you of simply begging the question, by saying "well, you've just assumed natural explanations for other coin flips! Maybe every 4th flip or whatever is a special intervention buy God! You can't just rule that out, except by begging the question!" How will you respond, except to start appealing to empirical principles such as "parsimony" in explanations? We explain phenomena in terms of the nature of the things in question, and don't add additional entities unless necessary in our explanation. Why? Because otherwise our explanations could go on forever, unterminated, and that is impractical. For another, if we did so easily and often accept supernatural intervention it would undermine our getting "knowledge" of the world, because we'd never know if what we are inferring is the true nature of the thing being studied, or an exception to it's nature (e.g. every 4th time you put water below freezing, without God's having intervened it's nature might have made it do something other than "freeze solid."). There are just all sorts of untenable epistemological consequences that can be explained for what Ted is asking us to accept. It's because you can point to these untenable consequences that the principles of parsimony, and higher demands for accepting supernatural explanations, are justified, and are not simply "question-begging."
And it's why your claims I'm question-begging aren't getting any traction.

If there are naturalistic cases of people being
misdiagnosed as "dead" and rising later on - and there are - these amount to possible naturalistic explanations for how Jesus could have appeared to have been "dead" and then "risen from the dead" to his followers. On exactly the same logic you should bring to "Ted's" divine coin flipping claims, you have to be able to show how you rule out the naturalistic explanations first for how a belief Jesus rose from the dead could have occurred, and raise the supernatural probabilities above the naturalistic, in a consistent, empirical/epistemological way.

Therefore, the shoe is on the other foot and you can't just dismiss these
explanations without question-begging.

Vaal said...

Jeremy,

This claim of yours of "question-begging" is another reason I brought in examples like Sathya Sai Baba's miracles. Because "eyewitnesses" attribute a prodigious number of Christ-like miracles to him as well. If you accept Sathya Sai Baba as a true miracle worker, you are in a world of hurt since one can find enough information on him to indicate such claims are very dubious to say the least (e.g. watching him fake "miracles" caught on video).

Which would leave you having to explain why we shouldn't accept the miracle claims of Sathya Sai Baba followers. As I said, if you actually attempted this, I will be able to show how Sai Baba followers will immediately be able to accuse you, using your logic, of "begging the question" against Sai Baba miracles.

Either you'd be stuck either having to accept Sai Baba as divine or wielding supernatural powers, OR you'd have to accept that, yeah, the principles for rejecting Sai Baba miracle claims are not question-begging but necessary, and are the same ones I'm using to reject the conclusion of Christian miracles.

Now, as I ALSO pointed out a number of times, none of that entails ruling miracles out a priori. It only means that we have to apply a CONSISTENT empirical scrutiny to claims. It's quite conceivable we could believe a resurrection occurred, if for instance Jesus would appear today, we watch him do miracles on command, and if he dies, we study his body to ensure he is truly dead, and then watch him rise to life. That would be on the road to the type of evidence we should require for such events. We have painstakingly forged a reliable scientific understanding of the world by, in part, understanding the liabilities of relying on ancient testimonies, and such "evidence" for claims.

One reason why lots of Christians start reflexively thinking this demands too much, is because they are already conditioned to have accepted their revelation as evidence in the first place. "The Jesus story IS the way God revealed Himself, so it' GOT to be good enough to warrant belief somehow, and demands for more than this is hubris. God isn't a being who can be 'tested' in such ways!"

Vaal

Vaal said...

rank sophist,

Yes I know that special revelation/scripture includes much more than The Resurrection (and that's even more of a problem). But certainly the Christ claims are central to "Christianity" and so must be defended.
As to many other parts of the Bible being defended as being in mutual support of natural theology, you won't be surprised that I tell you I don't believe that to be the case, and yes I have seen how Thomists have tried to appeal to such arguments before.


"What I said was laughable was this claim: "I get the impression you just don't evince the confidence in God's own special revelation that you do in the deliverances of your own (or Aquinas') reason."

Ah, I see. Sorry, I didn't find that clear from the way you had written that post. Though I don't think this really changes anything: see below.

"And it's laughable because of how obvious it is that you've missed the point. Revelation is the ultimate axiom of Christianity."

Really? You actually think I could have missed that the Bible, the Christ story/apostolic claims etc are central to….CHRISTianity? And that Christians tend to take their faith as an axiom? I'm trying to grasp how you think I could possibly have thought otherwise. It's one of the problems that atheists decry!

"As a result, revelation is fundamentally less useful for dialogue with outsiders than is metaphysics."

Are you actually arguing that, if someone does not share an axiom of yours (or "first principle") then this entails you can't produce adequate argument to justify your axiom to that other person? That seems to be exactly what you are arguing here.

But surely you know much of philosophy is concerned with doing exactly that - justifying one's axioms! What was, for instance, Decartes doing with all those arguments in his Discourse on the Method? He's providing the arguments justifying his axiom "cogito ergo sum."

In one important sense axioms are not "proved" because axioms are the assumptions from which you prove other things. But in another important way, axiomatic claims can be - must be - justified. They are justified in roughly two ways: 1. by a sort of forensic inquiry into our thinking, to show that we DO and MUST hold certain axioms necessarily. And 2. axioms are justified by what follows from holding those axioms. In each case, you must show you are reasoning consistently from your axiom. This entails that your Christian axiom must be held consistently with your other axioms, which will include those axioms that we will share. Therefore, it is simply wrong, some weird myth, to think there are some sort of "private/personal" vs "general" axioms in terms of the burden of justification. Any outsider can investigate whether you are reasoning consistently about any of your axioms.

So it's just as valid for me to ask for you to produce a sound justification for the axioms of your faith, as it is to ask for the arguments for natural theology, or you to ask for justifications for any axioms I might hold. The outsider can examine whether you are reasoning consistently from such axioms. (And if you'd say Aquinas disagrees: then Aquinas would be bogus on this issue as well).

It's clear Prof. Feser recognizes these issues. Whereas you seem to portray revelation as axiomatic and presupposed, and hence a poor subject to try to argue to people not sharing that presupposition, Prof Feser says:

….when we get to revelation, the claim that a revelation has in fact occurred is something that itself can (and indeed must) be defended via rational arguments that do not presuppose the truth of the revelation.

I think you have to also hash this out with Prof. Feser as well.

ccmnxc said...

Greg, okay, I think I've got my head wrapped around it.

Let's see if I can get a ballpark. As far as the First Way is concerned, Act/Potency is simply a way of describing change. It is not a "law" so much as a description. The description is of change, and to account for change, we must ground it in God, which is what the First Way does.

Would you agree with this?

Vaal said...

Rank Sophist,

But, even more confusing is this:

"Instead, they'll use logical demonstrations and probable (persuasive) arguments to defend themselves. These include deductive arguments for the existence and attributes of God as well as weaker, empirical arguments for the believability of certain historical events."

Well..then that's what I'm asking for! Empirical arguments for the claims of revelation! Here you say Thomists can produce such arguments. Why then all this appeal to Aquinas and the purported "problem" of trying to justify the axioms of faith to one who does not share those axioms? Either you've got compelling arguments for the axioms of revelation or you don't.
If you've got empirical arguments to give, all that was a red herring; to the extent you can't justify your Christian axioms to another rational person, they
would fail philosophical principles of being justified in the first place (reason is universal in that way). To the extent your empirical arguments end up being "weak" and can not fully justify belief in propositions like the Resurrection, then you can't justify that either.

So, where's the beef? :-)

As to your reply to my use of the "analogy to present experience/knowledge of the world" principle, of course people from different times had different belief milieus! That issue is already presupposed in the rational for the principle in the first place! This is a common heuristic for dealing with that issue. The issue we face, whatever others believe, is why WE ought to believe something.

What rational do you propose instead to decide whether WE ought to believe the claims of others, be they contemporary or historical? How do we decide between the claims our neighbor drove his car to work, vs accepting the claim he drove it beyond light speed to another galaxy?

Similarly, what principle do you propose to apply to deciding which beliefs people of the past held are the ones we ought to hold as well, vs reject? What, for instance, is your principle for deciding on whether to believe any of the countless ancient people's beliefs about, say, the moon. At certain times in history was the moon actually the creator Goddess "Hina," as the Polynesians believed? Or did it travel the sky hunting and eating humans, as
some Aztecs and Maori believed? Was the moon a Chieftain and his Wife, as some Native Americans believed? The home of dead souls, as some Hindus have believed?

Once you've gone on the "empirical experience seemed different at different times" trip, how exactly do you get back to the ground, with principles by which we justify OUR beliefs, and select which to reject of beliefs held at other times…if NOT a principle like the one I'm suggesting (and which historians and scientists…and most rational people…actually already employ in most cases!)

Vaal

Vaal said...

Greg,

I believe you are raising differences that don't matter to the point I'm making.

The point is what kind of claims we can accept easily and less critically - typical experience claims - vs those which take on a much greater burden of argument/evidence - "extraordinary claims."

If 12 people said they saw Joe get drunk at a party, we can accept that claim
without undue skepticism.

If 12 people said they saw Joe die and resurrect, then that clearly jumps into the "extraordinary claim" category, where we have to look much more closely at the claim.

It's the same for whatever apostles you want to name. If they claimed the saw
someone get drunk, we wouldn't have to be especially sceptical of such a claim.
But if they claim a Resurrection…that's into extraordinary claim territory.

It's the same logic as the car analogy.

Whether you think that, when we DO get rigorous in investigating the claims of the early church those claims are more sound than one for a car driving faster than light…that's moving on to the next phase of the problem. I'm talking about the first phase, which is recognizing the heavier burden for extraordinary claims to begin with.

Vaal

Jeremy Taylor said...

Vaal,

Well, this is just what we discussed at length previously.

First things first, I think you need a stronger argument about our everyday experience. What makes you think it is naturalistic per se? And what, more importantly, is your actual argument we should take from the alleged naturalistic nature of everyday experience that all unknown entities should be treated as naturalistic and that we should prefer unlikely unnaturalistic explanations, even if very different from out past experiences. I just don't see a proper argument for this claim from you.

In your comments on Ted you repeat the strange idea that allowing paranormal explanations as real possibilities means always or generally having to accept them. Of course, a paranormal explanation is unlikely. But there can be just as unlikely naturalistic claims. What differentiates these? This is where you seem to be begging the question.

I would suggest that in investigating claims of the paranormal we make use of the critical and detailed methods and insights of the historian or detective. That is, instead of vague examples, one would assess the specific evidence in depth and in context and fit it all together using the historian's intuitive idea of the fitness (to use Lewis's term). Then one might come to some sort of conclusion about what most likely happened, or even suspend one's judgment. I see no reason why this approach should lead us to always prefer naturalistic explanations.

I would also suggest this approach is more open-minded, critical, and even sceptical than your one of desperately searching for any non-naturalistic answer and more likely to lead to the truth. And isn't the truth the end of science, not naturalistic explanations? And I see no reason why this approach would change how we scientifically understand entities and relations - the paranormal and the miraculous are rare and abnormal by definition. In fact you seem to be implying (as you previously claimed openly) that allowing paranormal explanations would stop science coming to learn about the event in question. But this seems flawed on two accounts. One, that my approach does not rule out naturalistic explanations or their being explored, and, two, you really seem to be begging the question by implying that the true naturalistic explanation will be obscured by the approach I'm referring to.

Your responses to the Orwell example were not encouraging when it comes to the superior truth value of your approach over mine. Your desperation for a naturalistic explanation caused you to ignore the specific evidence and context. So, you made out the ghost was like something we see for less than a second out of the corner of the eye when turning our head or through glass. But if you read Orwell's description of events properly you would have seen not only that there was no glass, but he clearly saw the figure for several seconds, so it can hardly be the sort of blur you tried to explain it as (he wouldn't have had to explain it away as a hallucination if that is all it was, of course!).

I don't really see what your point is with the Sai Baba example. Some paranormal events are faked. What of it?

rank sophist said...

Vaal,

Are you actually arguing that, if someone does not share an axiom of yours (or "first principle") then this entails you can't produce adequate argument to justify your axiom to that other person? That seems to be exactly what you are arguing here.

You are correct. It is impossible to justify an axiom--or to argue its truth against someone who shares none of its conclusions. However, you can defend it against objections by showing its internal coherence, and by showing the incoherence of alternatives.

He's providing the arguments justifying his axiom "cogito ergo sum."

That isn't what he's doing, because that would be impossible. He's offering dialectical arguments in an attempt to show that his axiom is more coherent than others. He certainly isn't justifying it.

1. by a sort of forensic inquiry into our thinking, to show that we DO and MUST hold certain axioms necessarily.

For certain kinds of axioms, yes. Not for others.

In each case, you must show you are reasoning consistently from your axiom. This entails that your Christian axiom must be held consistently with your other axioms, which will include those axioms that we will share.

Except that Christian thinkers have always claimed that non-Christian thinkers easily fall into error, even in those elements of thought which we share, because they lack the clarity provided by revelation. Aquinas makes this argument in multiple places, including ST I q1 and SCG b1 ch4. So, really, what we "share" is always already on Christianity's terms. Any claim contrary to Christian revelation is false ahead of time (as Aquinas said in the quote from my previous post), even if it's held by all non-Christians. You just don't realize its falsity yet.

I think you have to also hash this out with Prof. Feser as well.

He used the word "defended". He did not use the word "justified". Thus, he is in broad agreement with Aquinas, who states that the Christian faith can be defended from attacks.

There is, however, an important difference between Prof. Feser's beliefs and mine. Prof. Feser strongly supports the Neo-Scholastics--a group that I believe to have been corrupted by Enlightenment rationalism. Neo-Scholastics tend(ed) to emphasize the rational arguments for revelation, almost to a Pelagian degree, in my view. There is a line between rationalizing revelation (i.e. defending it by spelling out its coherence) and trying to justify it (i.e. trying to provide a logical argument that compels consent). Certain writers cross the line, in my opinion, but we'll both see what Prof. Feser has to say in his next post.

rank sophist said...

Why then all this appeal to Aquinas and the purported "problem" of trying to justify the axioms of faith to one who does not share those axioms? Either you've got compelling arguments for the axioms of revelation or you don't.

Empirical arguments are probable by nature. They prove nothing. Instead, they suggest likely theories in a way that can be persuasive.

Also, if you didn't know, "probable argument" is a technical term in Thomism. It signifies an argument that has persuasive power but that remains inconclusive. Such arguments are considered to be quite weak by Aquinas.

To the extent your empirical arguments end up being "weak" and can not fully justify belief in propositions like the Resurrection, then you can't justify that either.

Probable arguments can't justify anything. They're basically rhetorical. Attempts to justify or invalidate the Resurrection will always fall short as a result.

What rational do you propose instead to decide whether WE ought to believe the claims of others, be they contemporary or historical? How do we decide between the claims our neighbor drove his car to work, vs accepting the claim he drove it beyond light speed to another galaxy?

Certainly not pure reason. There is no ultimate rationale on which we base our belief in others: it is a given in human life. As Aquinas says:

"If one were willing to believe only those things which one knows with certitude, one could not live in this world. How could one live unless one believed others? How could one know that this man is one’s own father? Therefore, it is necessary that one believe others in matters which one cannot know perfectly for oneself" (On the Apostles' Creed prologue).

Augustine makes a similar existential argument:

"I considered the innumerable things I believed which I had not seen, events which occurred when I was not present, such as many incidents in the history of the nations, many facts concerning places and cities which I had never seen, many things accepted on the word of friends, many from physicians, many from other people. Unless we believed what we were told, we would do nothing at all in this life. Finally, I realized how unmoveably sure I was about the identity of my parents from whom I came, which I could not know unless I believed what I had heard" (Confessions VI. v (7)).

This is, more or less, an appeal to coherentism over against foundationalism. There is no firm foundation on which our trust in others rests, but, once we take that initial step, we can match one claim against another to see if it stacks up. Similarly, studies of history presuppose that some sources will be trustworthy. There is no foundation for this belief other than existential necessity. After the first step into the abyss is taken, though, sources can be compared and contrasted for coherence.

rank sophist said...

What, for instance, is your principle for deciding on whether to believe any of the countless ancient people's beliefs about, say, the moon.

An appeal to a more coherent explanation, given logical demonstrations, probable arguments and testimony we now possess. If your list of superstitions was supposed to trigger an intellectual gag reflex on my part, I should tell you that I am not particularly attached to the current scientific consensus--and that I don't believe Westerners to have surpassed ancient peoples simply because they believe the moon to be a dead rock.

Once you've gone on the "empirical experience seemed different at different times" trip, how exactly do you get back to the ground, with principles by which we justify OUR beliefs, and select which to reject of beliefs held at other times…if NOT a principle like the one I'm suggesting (and which historians and scientists…and most rational people…actually already employ in most cases!)

Again, it's a mess of factors blended into something like coherence. This doesn't provide the rock-solid basis for belief that post-Enlightenment rationalists desire; but, then, Christianity never really catered to post-Enlightenment rationalists in the first place.

George LeSauvage said...

@Vaal:

I think the problem is that, to one who accepts classical theology (Thomist or otherwise), the degree of improbability for miracles is simply lower than it is for someone who adheres to a naturalistic view. Not that they regard them as everyday things, but that - assuming they are coherent with their theological position, not all *THAT* unlikely. This is a basic area of disagreement.

George LeSauvage said...

@rank:

This puzzles me:

"You are correct. It is impossible to justify an axiom--or to argue its truth against someone who shares none of its conclusions. However, you can defend it against objections by showing its internal coherence, and by showing the incoherence of alternatives."

Isn't the act, of showing that the alternatives to a given axiom are incoherent, precisely what it means to justify that axiom?

George LeSauvage said...

@rank:

I have one problem with what you say. Perhaps it is merely a rhetorical matter. But you have repeatedly said things like "Empirical arguments are probable by nature. They prove nothing. Instead, they suggest likely theories in a way that can be persuasive."

Now, this is true in philosophy, at least ideally. (It is always true in math.)

But what qualifies as proof varies with the subject matter. It is a bit much to claim that no historical study, or no lawyer in court, has ever proved anything. It is very hard to see how one might really doubt whether Napoleon existed (or, for that matter, that Ed Feser is the author of TLS - my evidence for each is of about the same order.)

This used to be termed the difference between "moral certainty" and "metaphysical certainty".

rank sophist said...

George,

Isn't the act, of showing that the alternatives to a given axiom are incoherent, precisely what it means to justify that axiom?

It depends on the sense of the word "justify" you're using, here. If you mean it as a systematic and certain demonstration of the rightness of a belief, then no axiom can be justified. This is because no axiom can actually be demonstrated: its alternatives can only be shown to be less correct, or less coherent. But it remains possible to reject even the law of non-contradiction. Aristotle considered this possibility:

"There are some who, as we said, both themselves assert that it is possible for the same thing to be and not to be, and say that people can judge this to be the case. [...] But we have now posited that it is impossible for anything at the same time to be and not to be, and by this means have shown that this is the most indisputable of all principles. Some indeed demand that even this shall be demonstrated, but this they do through want of education, for not to know of what things one should demand demonstration, and of what one should not, argues want of education. For it is impossible that there should be demonstration of absolutely everything (there would be an infinite regress, so that there would still be no demonstration); but if there are things of which one should not demand demonstration, these persons could not say what principle they maintain to be more self-evident than the present one.

We can, however, demonstrate negatively even that this view is impossible, if our opponent will only say something; and if he says nothing, it is absurd to seek to give an account of our views to one who cannot give an account of anything, in so far as he cannot do so. For such a man, as such, is from the start no better than a vegetable" (from book 4 of the Metaphysics).

If the opponent commits to silence and sub-rationality, he remains outside of the law of non-contradiction. Like with belief in others, metaphysics begins with an existential need. So, no axiom can be justified in the strong sense--which is the sense I've been using throughout this debate.

In a weaker sense, though, an axiom can be "justified" by an appeal to internal coherence--and to the lack of coherence of alternatives. This is not a proper demonstration, but what Aristotle calls a "negative demonstration".

But what qualifies as proof varies with the subject matter. It is a bit much to claim that no historical study, or no lawyer in court, has ever proved anything. It is very hard to see how one might really doubt whether Napoleon existed (or, for that matter, that Ed Feser is the author of TLS - my evidence for each is of about the same order.)

A proof is a logical demonstration built from the first principles of a given science. This is its technical meaning. I think we can both agree that historical studies and the arguments of lawyers are not logical demonstrations. In fact, the lawyer was traditionally viewed as a rhetorician, and rhetoric is the business of probable arguments. None of the stuff you mentioned can be demonstrated in the technical sense. Evidence and reasons can be piled up, but you're never going to get more than a probable argument.

Greg said...

ccmnxc

Let's see if I can get a ballpark. As far as the First Way is concerned, Act/Potency is simply a way of describing change. It is not a "law" so much as a description. The description is of change, and to account for change, we must ground it in God, which is what the First Way does.

Would you agree with this?


Yes, although I would call act/potency a real distinction, rather than a description, to be clear that in invoking act and potency to resolve the problem of chang, we are committed to their ontological correlates. (A "description" need not necessarily involve a real distinction.)

Vaal said...

Jeremy Taylor,

I have a hard time figuring out what to do with your responses, because
I give very specific arguments that pose specific epistemological questions, and I don't see that you answer these questions.

First, (and this is repetition from the other thread) my use of the term "Naturalistic" is essentially the same label most people, Christians included, tend to use as short hand for the "laws of nature" or "how things work when God isn't specially intervening to alter the normal course of things." Of course I know that Thomism posits God as being the cause of everything anyway and in that sense everything has a supernatural cause. But you also have to end up with some form of differentiation, like the above, don't you? Otherwise there would be nothing "miraculous" and compelling about someone rising from the dead, or other such miracles. If you do not accept "Natural" in the way it is being used, be my guest to supply some other term or idea that allows us to delineate between "miracle/supernatural" interventions and the normal course of events.

My attempt to give very specific examples - e.g. the coin flipping - are to uncover the principles we either share in rejecting a supernatural explanation, or identify where we disagree. I gave MY explanation for why I, along with most people, would not think a coin flipping heads was a "miracle" in terms of God intervening specially to change the behavior of the coin from what it would have done as an expression of its regular "nature." What exactly is yours?

Again: If I flipped a coin, it landed heads, and I declared it a miracle, would you think it reasonable to believe it a miracle? (Accept that there are no other "mysterious" details associated with this event, just a regular everyday flip of a coin that you could do yourself right now).

If you REJECT the idea that you should think of it as miraculous, please tell me the reason why you needn't believe it was a miracle…and in what way you distinguish this from "normal" coin flips that are not miracles.

As to the Sai Baba stuff, realize that there are just an enormous number of miracles attributed to him, many of which appeal to multiple, contemporaneous eyewitness accounts. It's not as simple as a mere dismissal "some paranormal events are faked." To dismiss Sai Baba miracles you will have to pull from all the different ways people can be fooled, deluded, biased, stretch truth, engage in cognitive dissonance reduction, group think…it will span the whole range of confounding variables that make so many supernatural claims (and even normal empirical claims) dubious. They will all therefore come into play as problems you'd have to surmount to assent to belief in Christ's miracles, without special pleading.

Cont'd...

Vaal said...

The thing is, once you go through all the problems that arise for vetting Sai Baba claims, deciding when to accept or reject those claims, you find the justifications for science! Science simply distills our most serious attempt to account for all these problems in our explanations. And you also arrive at some generalized criteria. -You don't for instance have to come up with an explanation for every anecdote that exists - that would be epistemologically impractical. Instead, like any form of induction, you generalize about the nature of anecdotes - they tend to be unreliable in of themselves *especially* in those areas that would push us toward new knowledge of reality. This doesn't only apply to the supernatural; it's a consistent application of the SAME strictures applied to scientists themselves. Those types of anecdotes are "not good enough" for scientists either. It's a crucible of skepticism, and as any scientist knows, most of their hypotheses do not survive the crucible. A scientist feels lucky if one or two of his hypotheses ever survive the crucible of scientific scrutiny.
So it's not like just supernatural claims are being unfairly asked to pass such skeptical bars.

So look to your Orwell example. He saw a figure for several seconds that he could not explain. And this is proffered to count as evidence for our survival of death, somehow.

Just imagine a scientist offering that type of anecdote as evidence. "I could swear I saw for a few seconds the bacteria in my test tube violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics!"

You understand how laughably inadequate that type of "evidence" would be for the scientific community to accept the claim, or start changing it's views of physics or biology, right? And it's not "because scientists are being close minded." It's because they know, from hard won experience, how utterly unreliable that level of "evidence" is, even for run of the mill tests of drugs, let alone for boundary-pushing claims.

So when it comes to your reply about employing the techniques of the historian and the detective, that just gets us right back to what I've been arguing: even THOSE methods ought to be consonant with the skeptical demands we've learned to employ in scientific understanding of reality.

Insofar as a claim is hidden far enough in the past that you can not acquire the type of empirical scrutiny you'd apply to current phenomena, and insofar as human testimony and anecdote plays a substantial part, you just can't get a level of confidence that would overrule or expand our current understanding of how the world works - that is accept an "extraordinary claim" such as someone rising from the dead. That would be to appeal to a weaker level of criteria to overturn what you know by a stronger criteria. Like using someone's anecdote that they saw something break the laws of Thermodynamics, to believe those Laws were transcended against all the more rigorous type of empiricism that established those laws in the first place. This is why detective work, and historical work, are constrained by current experience - what we know, and know under our most careful methods, of how the world seems to work. You can't establish the soundness of extraordinary claims "historically" because they typically can't meet the level of scrutiny we would apply to any such claims TODAY.

I can justify these principles on pragmatic/epistemological grounds, and apply them consistently across every day, to scientific, to supernatural claims. Unless you start answering the specific questions I've been asking, to the specific examples (e.g. non-miracle/miracle coin flips), we won't know if you are able to do the same.

Cheers,

Vaal

Jeremy Taylor said...

Vaal,

Personally, I find your answers quite incomplete and often evasive.

So, your definition of naturalism is just what usually occurs. Okay, but that would be the basis to rule out non-naturalistic explanations, or indeed any to differentiate any unlikely explanations from any others as naturalistic or non-naturalistic.

Your example of the coin is hardly what I'd call specific, being very generic and made up. But I would, as I have said, not accept that, in general, claims of the paranormal were involved in the outcome of the tossed coins. This is because, of course, it is more generally correct that the paranormal is not involved in events you describe and you are describing what occurs normally (your example being made up). No one who believes in miracles or the paranormal suggests they are not rare or there are not laws of nature (well, Dr. Feser argues well such a phrase is problematic unless interpreted in a Scholastic way, connected to the nature and potentialities of things, but we'll leave that aside) What of it? You seem to think you have a point here, but I certainly cannot see it, as I have noted.

As for Sai Baba, "people can be fooled, deluded, biased, stretch truth, engage in cognitive dissonance reduction, group think" when it comes to the naturalistic as well. I see no attempt to properly differentiate these in your comments about him, which makes your argument look like question begging.


So look to your Orwell example. He saw a figure for several seconds that he could not explain. And this is proffered to count as evidence for our survival of death, somehow.

Just imagine a scientist offering that type of anecdote as evidence. "I could swear I saw for a few seconds the bacteria in my test tube violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics!"


Your whole argument suffers from two major fallacies you repeat several times. One is question begging, as you often make illicit distinctions between the natural and the supernatural you don't support properly. But the other fallacy you make consistently is black and white thinking.

In this instance you need to show why we should accept only those claims with the higher likelihood that comes from the methods of natural science. You did not do this properly previously, nor deal with the absurdities which would seem to arise from such a claim, like not being able to say we know where our friend's house was.

The methods of natural science are only one kind of knowledge, with a specific field of inquiry - that which can be quantifiably tested and measured. There are other fields of study with other methods of study, like history or common sense or philosophy, and these fields of study carry with them different levels of certainty. But that does not mean they are not forms of study and knowledge.

So, with the Orwell example, my main point was one should suspend judgment - that if we look at the events and evidence specifically, it is hard to simply dismiss it, even if we cannot be sure what really happened. For some reason, for a sceptic, you really don't like suspending judgment.

As far as using it as evidence for the paranormal goes. I think it is evidence, it is just very equivocal and limited evidence. You could only make it part of a worthwhile case if you used it alongside many other examples. But the paranormal is not an area easily subjected to scientific testing, and you have utterly failed to give a non-question begging reason why we cannot investigate it using other methods and use these to argue for it, even if with less certainty than is usual for natural science.

The historian and detective make use of different forms of evidence to the scientist and have different methods of study, with different levels of certainty. Yes, they cannot contradict the scientist in his own domain, but I fail to see why they should be bound by his methods completely - that would presumably mean all they could know would be what could be scientifically tested, radically reducing their fields to the point of near extinction.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Indeed, Vaal, at the moment, what you are really saying is you personally will not accept evidence that does not have the certainty of natural science. Well, if you can somehow remove the absurdities mentioned from such a position then that is fine. But I don't see why the rest of us need to follow you in this regard.

Vaal said...

rank sophist,

That isn't what he's doing, because that would be impossible. He's offering dialectical arguments in an attempt to show that his axiom is more coherent than others. He certainly isn't justifying it.

Yes, that's what I mean by "justifying" his axiom - offering arguments and reasons in support of the axiom.

I'm having problems with your response because there seems to be almost a language barrier to the way you and I are using the term "justify." Your use strikes me as rather idiosyncratic. For instance this:

"Probable arguments can't justify anything."

But…that's a contradiction in terms. The very nature of an argument IS the attempt to provide justification. In the words of the Oxford Dictionary, and "argument" means: "A reason or set of reasons given in support of an idea, action or theory."

So arguments are what one uses during justification, where you lay out the reasons in support of the idea. And "reason" is more wide-ranging, comprising deductive "proofs," or inductive/probabalistic reasoning, empirical, metaphysical reasoning…they are all approaches to justifying whatever you believe or wish to propose anyone else believe.

In both philosophical and everyday discourse, probability/inductive feature prominently in how we justify beliefs and actions. If probable arguments couldn't "justify anything" virtually nothing we do would be justified.
People don't think we are "without justification" in taking the subway to work, on the conclusion that we are most likely to get to work, vs suffer some terrible
mishap on the way. People don't think a guilty verdict for a rapist is "not justified" simply because the DNA match of his sperm on the woman is a probabilistic match. Most of our reasoning is probabilistic in this way.

Now, if it turned out that Thomism adopts some internal rational of justification that it is not by nature persuasive to other rational actors…you've got some major problems there. It amounts to "special pleading" and once you allow that, all bets are off in terms of communication, solving issues with other non-Christians, and frankly, it starts to dissolve reason itself, as reason is supposed to be universalizable.

But...I'm still not clear on your position.

Vaal

Vaal said...

rank sophist,

"Except that Christian thinkers have always claimed that non-Christian thinkers easily fall into error, even in those elements of thought which we share, because they lack the clarity provided by revelation. Aquinas makes this argument in multiple places

Which is fine by me if the Christian wants to make such an argument. But it's either a defensible claim or it isn't, and it will be evaluated like any other argument, on it's validity, soundness, coherence, consistency, etc. I don't think such arguments hold up on those grounds.

"There is a line between rationalizing revelation (i.e. defending it by spelling out its coherence) and trying to justify it (i.e. trying to provide a logical argument that compels consent)."

Again, I'm not sure but you seem to be associating "justification" only with deductive-type reasoning and "proofs." If that is the case, as I said above, that would be an idiosyncratic use of the term since justification typically allows for a much wider range of reasoning.

And, either way, I think the type of distinction you are trying to keep for belief in revelation - one that sort of tries to lower the burden on defending such beliefs to others - just won't hold up.

First, in investigating the coherence of your reasoning from your Christian axioms, this will inevitably branch out into axioms we share, including axioms concerning reason, consistency, etc. And I submit it will be shown you won't be reasoning from those axioms consistently.

But put another way: It is an intelligible question to ask: "OUGHT you hold that as an axiom?" In which case, one must defend the axiom.

Unless you admit to utter arbitrariness in holding the axiom (and in that case you will disarm yourself from any critique of someone else's thinking), you will be left with two general defenses for an axiom: 1. Arguing why you can not do otherwise than assume the axiom - that your axiom is somehow unavoidable or necessary (e.g. Thomists will make such claims for their metaphysical axioms).

But there are other types of axioms - ones that are not "necessary" in that way but could be called "contingent" - that is we have a choice whether to adopt the axiom or not. Then one can still raise the "why ought one adopt the axiom?" question.

Logicians/mathematicians/philosophers/physicists etc. play with new axioms to see what results from different starting points. When we ask the logician/mathematician "why ought we adopt the axiom in question" it's possible to be given such reasons. For instance, the case for adopting certain non-Euclidean axiomatic systems of geometry, can be made on the grounds of their usefulness in understanding physics, cosmology, spherical geometry, etc. Such justification will appeal to more fundamental axioms that impel us toward desiring to know truths about the world, etc.

So, the point is, axioms are justifiable by their interconnection with our other axioms. I do not think the distinction you *seem* to be making - that there are axioms/beliefs that are rational for you to hold but your reasons for holding them need not be persuasive to others - will hold up under scrutiny. Again: Reason itself is by nature appeal to the universalizable (that's why the fallacy of "special pleading" exists - it arises if your argument suggests you are creating a principle only for yourself, not for other rational actors), and will not allow such easy balkanization of beliefs and axioms.

Or, at least, that's what the beer on my desk is telling me :-)

Cheers,

Vaal

Jeremy Taylor said...

If probable arguments couldn't "justify anything" virtually nothing we do would be justified.

The irony is strong in this one.....

rank sophist said...

Vaal,

Yes, that's what I mean by "justifying" his axiom - offering arguments and reasons in support of the axiom.

Merriam-Webster offers this definition: "to provide or be a good reason for (something) : to prove or show (something) to be just, right, or reasonable".

As I said to George, there are two ways to take this word. The first is as a definitive proof--and Thomism denies that this kind of justification applies to any reasoning but logical demonstrations. The second option is a weaker appeal to "evidence" that "supports" a conclusion, which is a probable argument that falls well short of certitude. If you want to extend the definition of justification to encompass all beliefs that have been supported in any way, then we'll go from there.

Most of our reasoning is probabilistic in this way.

Indeed. And it is woefully inconclusive as a result. Most of our actions are directed by nothing more than trust and guesswork. Even scientific induction like the DNA scan you mentioned can never be proven accurate. Life, as a result, is a mess of persuasions that come from all sides. To pretend that one can sift through this confusion by purely rational means is absurd.

But it's either a defensible claim or it isn't, and it will be evaluated like any other argument, on it's validity, soundness, coherence, consistency, etc.

It isn't a metaphysical argument: it's a faith-based claim. The doctrine of original sin proves by itself that unaided human reason will always be clouded.

Of course, if you want a probable argument to support the claim that humans often fall into error, then just take a look at all of history.

First, in investigating the coherence of your reasoning from your Christian axioms, this will inevitably branch out into axioms we share, including axioms concerning reason, consistency, etc. And I submit it will be shown you won't be reasoning from those axioms consistently.

It will branch out into those axioms. But this is only relevant insofar as it concerns proofs--and we've been discussing probable arguments for special revelation. Christians hold that special revelation stands above the first principles of metaphysics on the totem pole of human thought. Because the principles of one science (in the technical, scholastic sense) can only be demonstrated by the deductions of a higher science, this means that the truth of special revelation cannot be demonstrated. Not that certain deductions possible for natural reason (such as those related to the existence and attributes of God) can't anticipate certain revealed truths.

The issue of shared axioms has no bearing on the case for special revelation, which can only be argued in a probable (rhetorical, evidential, empirical, etc.) way. Even if you were to knock down every probable argument for special revelation, your own arguments would remain only probable.

rank sophist said...

utter arbitrariness in holding the axiom (and in that case you will disarm yourself from any critique of someone else's thinking)

The axiom of Christian faith is supported by three main reasons. The first is an appeal to the self-evidence of human reason's weakness, and a related appeal to the existential necessity of belief in others. In other words, it is a case against those who suggest that wisdom and happiness may be found by man's application of his own reason. The second is an appeal to miracles, which may be supported by probable arguments. The third is an appeal to personal experience, based on an intuitive recognition of truth and beauty within Christianity, and on the peace and certitude achieved by those who properly follow it.

I do not think the distinction you *seem* to be making - that there are axioms/beliefs that are rational for you to hold but your reasons for holding them need not be persuasive to others - will hold up under scrutiny.

This is because you are not dealing with the Christian belief that revelation stands above the highest axioms of reason. It isn't subject to judgment by lower principles. Revelation is billed as an insight into the incomprehensible mind of God: it naturally stands above any principles of merely human thought. You could call this special pleading, but, then, you would be begging the question. If revelation is God's word, then it is self-evidently above natural reason; and so the special pleading claim relies on an implicit assumption that revelation is not God's word.

dguller said...

Rank:

Sorry for the lateness of my reply.

It seems that your claim is that justifying one’s faith in a particular revelation is based upon probabilistic arguments that are ultimately derived from one’s personal experience of the transformative impact of that particular revelation in one’s life. And of course, you are correct that such justifications are incredibly weak, because numerous incompatible revelations can make exactly the same claim, meaning that this methodology can result in inconsistent results, which is the antithesis of a reliable methodology.

You further argue that Christianity, in particular, justifies its revelation on the basis of (1) the quality of its witness, and (2) the power of its mythology.

With regards to (1), I think that you are referring to the early Christian embrace of martyrdom as the ultimate testimony of their faith in their revelation. However, other religions, such as Islam, have also idealized their martyrs, especially in the early periods. Furthermore, just because someone is willing to die for their beliefs does not provide warrant that their beliefs are true, but only that they happen to believe them intensely. Individuals with anorexia nervosa, for example, will starve themselves to death, because they firmly believe that they are overweight, and yet it is an objective fact that they are not overweight. Therefore, the intensity of one’s beliefs has little bearing upon whether one’s beliefs are true.

With regards to (2), you would have to be more specific, but I think you are referring to the transformative impact of the Christian story upon the lives of individuals and society. Now, that may say something important about human psychology, but it does not necessarily correspond to the truth of the Christian story. Germany was utterly transformed by the Nazi mythology, and yet neither of us would take that as a sign that Nazi mythology was true. Again, some stories appeal to us on the basis of our psychological makeup, but it does not follow that those stories are true. But perhaps you are referring to something else by “power”?

But ultimately, I think that the problem with your position is that it reduces to relativism and fideism, whether you intend for it to do so or not. Say that you have an axiom of your belief system A, and A is derived from a revelation R. Obviously, you would require independent reasons to believe that R is true before you can believe that A is true, because A is true only relative to R. Simply saying that A must be true, because if you accept A as true, then your life will be fundamentally transformed in a radical fashion, even unto the point of being willing to sacrifice it, is woefully insufficient, for the reasons that I’ve discussed above. Furthermore, that transformation only happens after one has accepted A as true, and the issue is upon what basis one should accept A as true before one has actually accepted it.

If the only reason to accept A is the “weak” probabilistic arguments that support R, then you are essentially reorganizing the entirety of your life on the basis of a weak evidentiary standpoint. In other words, the degree of commitment to R is woefully inadequate to the justification for R. It would be like a trial in which John is accused of murder. The evidence is weak and circumstantial, mainly due to certain people firmly believing in John’s guilt, and some inconclusive physical evidence. Your position seems to be that it would be alright to convict John of murder under those circumstances, which I would contend is absurd. Given the gravity of the consequences of his conviction, the evidence should be of higher quality, and analogously, given the gravity of the consequences of accepting the truth of a particular revelation, the quality of the evidence for that revelation should be quite high. It should not be the “weakest” of evidence, but rather the strongest.

dguller said...

Rank:

The axiom of Christian faith is supported by three main reasons. The first is an appeal to the self-evidence of human reason's weakness, and a related appeal to the existential necessity of belief in others. In other words, it is a case against those who suggest that wisdom and happiness may be found by man's application of his own reason.

First, it does not follow from “human reason’s weakness” that Christianity is true. Christianity certainly has an explanation for why human reason is so weak, i.e. on account of the Fall, but it does not follow that if E is an explanation for X, then E is true. After all, there are a number of explanations that turn out to be false, even though they seem to explain X. So, you would be arguing in a circular fashion here if you claim that E is true, because E is an explanation of X, and E would not be an explanation of X unless E was true. You are equivocating between an apparent explanation and a genuine explanation.

Second, one does not have to appeal to an event in human history that led to the deterioration of one of our faculties at all, especially if one believes that such defects and imperfections were built into our faculties from the start. For example, one can appeal to the corruption of the immaterial intellect by its association and attachment to a material body. Furthermore, there are other myths involving a Fall that are non-Christian, such as those in Platonism. So, not only is there no compelling need for a Fall at all, but there are non-Christian Fall narratives that are available.

Third, the truth of the Fall depends upon the truth of the Bible itself. You would have to first show that the Bible is a reliable and truthful document, and only then could it be used as the basis for any explanations. However, since the Bible is an ancient text whose records occur millennia after the events in question, it simply cannot be held to be a reliable text regarding ancient history, unless corroborated by compelling and independent evidence.

Fourth, you assume that wisdom and happiness are ends that must be achievable, which can either occur by man’s own efforts, or with the help of some outside agency. However, what if those ends aren’t achievable, certainly not in their perfect forms? What if they are regulative ideals, as Kant would put it? In that case, there would be no reason to postulate the need for salvation, Christian or non-Christian, at all.

The second is an appeal to miracles, which may be supported by probable arguments.

First, there are alleged miracles in support of every religious text. In order to distinguish between the different miracles of the different religions, one would require some independent standard by which to differentiate the valid miracles from the invalid miracles. Does such a standard exist that does not involve special pleading?

Second, the more distant in the past an alleged miracle has occurred, the more skeptical we should be of its veracity. After all, there are too many possible deviations, all consistent with well-known human cognitive biases and distortions, that may have occurred from the originating event and our possession of a text that describes that event. Certainly, with the key miracle of Christianity, i.e. the Resurrection, all we possess are written texts that were recorded decades after the event in question. And since in order to establish the truth of a miracle, one requires strong evidence that rules out natural explanations, the fact that such evidence is unavailable in this case, because we are left with texts based upon hearsay and speculation, means that we cannot determine whether the Resurrection occurred.

dguller said...

The third is an appeal to personal experience, based on an intuitive recognition of truth and beauty within Christianity, and on the peace and certitude achieved by those who properly follow it.

These experiences occur in a multitude of mutually inconsistent religious traditions, and thus cannot be deemed a reliable guide to the truth of those religious traditions.

This is because you are not dealing with the Christian belief that revelation stands above the highest axioms of reason. It isn't subject to judgment by lower principles. Revelation is billed as an insight into the incomprehensible mind of God: it naturally stands above any principles of merely human thought.

But, again, that assumes that the revelation in question is “an insight into the incomprehensible mind of God”. You would have to show first that the revelation is the Word of God, and that would require independent and reliable criteria to make that determination. For example, you would have to show that R is a revelation of God iff R is A, B and C, and specify what A, B and C are, and how you know that A, B and C are reliable indicators of the truth of a revelation. Furthermore, you would have to derive A, B and C from sources other than R, because otherwise you are engaging in circular reasoning.

You could call this special pleading, but, then, you would be begging the question. If revelation is God's word, then it is self-evidently above natural reason; and so the special pleading claim relies on an implicit assumption that revelation is not God's word.

No, it wouldn’t. The empirical data is that there are a number of religions that claim to derive their authority of a religious text that is the Word of God. They agree upon a number of claims, but they also disagree upon a number of claims. If you want to say that only those claims upon which they agree should be taken as religious truth, then that would exclude the particular truths of Christianity that distinguish it from the others, and thus you must also claim that some of their inconsistent claims must be true. But then you must have some way to distinguish the true claims from the false claims, and that way cannot be based upon your particular religious text, because that would be begging the question and special pleading. So, although you are absolutely correct to say that if R is God’s word, then R stands above human reason, but the onus still falls upon you to demonstrate the truth of the antecedent condition, i.e. R is God’s word, and that must be done on the basis of factors independent of R itself. What would those factors be, and how did you determine that they are reliable indicators of the truth of revelation?

rank sophist said...

dguller,

Sorry for the lateness of my reply.

No problem. I wasn't sure if I should expect a reply at all, given your new kid.

It seems that your claim is that justifying one’s faith in a particular revelation is based upon probabilistic arguments that are ultimately derived from one’s personal experience of the transformative impact of that particular revelation in one’s life.

This is one element of it.

With regards to (1), I think that you are referring to the early Christian embrace of martyrdom as the ultimate testimony of their faith in their revelation.

Witness concerns martyrdom, certainly. But I was mainly thinking of the saints, whose lives serve as an inspiration and example for unbelievers. The idea is that following Christianity produces results, and that anyone who understands the importance of eudaimonia can see it achieved by Christian saints.

With regards to (2), you would have to be more specific, but I think you are referring to the transformative impact of the Christian story upon the lives of individuals and society. Now, that may say something important about human psychology, but it does not necessarily correspond to the truth of the Christian story.

This is largely what I'm talking about. But your Nazi comparison is not apt. Christianity's claims bridge the unbreakable divide between man and God believed in by pagans and even by ancient Jews, and (via original sin) they make human history coherent without excusing it as necessary. They redeem matter and the body in a way that pagans never dreamed. They equalize men and women unlike any other religious or philosophical system before or since. This is what I mean by "power". You could not make the same claims about Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Neo-Platonism or what have you.

Say that you have an axiom of your belief system A, and A is derived from a revelation R.

The problem is that revelation and the axioms of our belief system are one and the same. There is no separation between "A" and "R", here.

you are essentially reorganizing the entirety of your life on the basis of a weak evidentiary standpoint.

You have to understand that weakness in light of the weakness of most of our reasons for doing things. Honestly, Christianity has much more support than the majority of what we believe. Many people reorganize the entirety of their lives based on much less--such as an intuitive hunch. And, sometimes, even that hunch pays off.

Given the gravity of the consequences of his conviction, the evidence should be of higher quality, and analogously, given the gravity of the consequences of accepting the truth of a particular revelation, the quality of the evidence for that revelation should be quite high. It should not be the “weakest” of evidence, but rather the strongest.

The comparison is fallacious. In deciding someone's execution, we are determining whether or not someone's life should end. In deciding whether to be Christians, we are searching for answers. One is final; one is not.

rank sophist said...

First, it does not follow from “human reason’s weakness” that Christianity is true.

I never claimed that it did. It serves to put Christian claims on the table as an option, and to attack arguments for pure reason--nothing more.

Furthermore, there are other myths involving a Fall that are non-Christian, such as those in Platonism. So, not only is there no compelling need for a Fall at all, but there are non-Christian Fall narratives that are available.

Not that this is relevant to the discussion, but Platonism's fall of the pre-existing soul into the corrupted material world is totally different from Christianity's combination of "it was very good" (Gen. 1:31) and "by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin" (Rom. 5:12). One concerns an ontologically corrupted and irredeemable world; the other concerns an ontologically good world corrupted temporarily by historical events.

You would have to first show that the Bible is a reliable and truthful document, and only then could it be used as the basis for any explanations.

The Bible's truth can't be shown. It's axiomatic. You could offer probable arguments for some of it--but that's about it.

However, what if those ends aren’t achievable, certainly not in their perfect forms? What if they are regulative ideals, as Kant would put it? In that case, there would be no reason to postulate the need for salvation, Christian or non-Christian, at all.

If they aren't achievable, then human life is absurd, as the existentialists understood that concept. Humans would be inherently broken in a way that violates Aristotle's claim in Politics that "nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain". As a result, reason would go out the window, and we'd be left in a waking nightmare. No thanks.

First, there are alleged miracles in support of every religious text.

That's actually quite wrong. Islam is based on no miracle claims, as you should know. Visions and miracles are very different. The majority of Hindu and Buddhist sects do not appeal to miracles in support of their positions, to my knowledge. Traditional Asian religions such as Shinto and Taoism don't argue from miracles. Greek and Roman gods were believed on the basis of natural phenomena; not miracles. Not even Mormonism and Scientology are based on miracles.

the more distant in the past an alleged miracle has occurred, the more skeptical we should be of its veracity. After all, there are too many possible deviations, all consistent with well-known human cognitive biases and distortions, that may have occurred from the originating event and our possession of a text that describes that event.

To be consistent, you would have to apply this principle to all knowledge of the distant past. There is nothing special about miracle claims that makes them more susceptible to "cognitive biases and distortions" than other memories. In fact, the shocking nature of a miracle would burn itself into one's mind much more definitely than the typical memory.

we are left with texts based upon hearsay and speculation

Which, of course, is to presuppose that no book of the New Testament was written or informed by an eye witness.

These experiences occur in a multitude of mutually inconsistent religious traditions, and thus cannot be deemed a reliable guide to the truth of those religious traditions.

Do they? This isn't an anthropological study; it's thoroughly subjective. If you haven't experienced it personally, then you have no clue what you're talking about.

rank sophist said...

You would have to show first that the revelation is the Word of God, and that would require independent and reliable criteria to make that determination.

There is no way to determine it in the strong sense. We can make guesses. These guesses are supported, again, by what I mentioned earlier: witness, mythological power, transformative personal experience, miracle claims and the weakness of reason. All largely rhetorical, of course; but far from invalid.

They agree upon a number of claims, but they also disagree upon a number of claims. If you want to say that only those claims upon which they agree should be taken as religious truth, then that would exclude the particular truths of Christianity that distinguish it from the others, and thus you must also claim that some of their inconsistent claims must be true.

This is a non sequitur. If religions X and Y disagree, then it follows from the LNC and the law of the excluded middle that at least one of them must be mistaken on some count. This entails the further possibility that one of them may be right. If one of them is right, then it isn't special pleading for them to claim principles above reason.

By dismissing Christianity's claims as special pleading simply because they may be right or wrong, you beg the question by presupposing that Christianity's claims are wrong. The same principle applies when discussing any tradition. Metanarrative claims--which is what traditions are built on--are mutually exclusive: they necessarily disagree with each other on the shape and character of the world. Some or all of them must be wrong, and some may be right; but not even pure reason can neutrally adjudicate their disputes, because pure reason is itself built on a metanarrative. There is no neutral ground from which you can call Christianity's claim special pleading without simultaneously begging the question and engaging in special pleading yourself.

Now, Christianity can support its claim in a rhetorical manner (i.e. with probable arguments), and so can other traditions. It is up to the individual (who never begins from a neutral ground) to decide which tradition is worth endorsing. Claims of special pleading must be left at the door.

dguller said...

Rank:

But I was mainly thinking of the saints, whose lives serve as an inspiration and example for unbelievers. The idea is that following Christianity produces results, and that anyone who understands the importance of eudaimonia can see it achieved by Christian saints.

But the same can be said about Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on. They all have “wise men” who have attained a high degree of spiritual eudaimonia. So, that isn’t really a viable distinguishing factor.

Christianity's claims bridge the unbreakable divide between man and God believed in by pagans and even by ancient Jews, and (via original sin) they make human history coherent without excusing it as necessary. They redeem matter and the body in a way that pagans never dreamed. They equalize men and women unlike any other religious or philosophical system before or since. This is what I mean by "power".

First, I disagree that Christianity successfully bridges the divide between man and God. There is still the infinite distance between man and God, which is never fully bridged. Man can be brought closer to God by God’s movement towards man via the life and death of Christ, but the gap remains.

Second, you seem to correlate power (in your sense) with truth. And yet it is necessarily the case that truth is uplifting, equalizing, or redeeming. Often times, truth is discouraging, depressing and harsh. In other words, just because a narrative is powerful in your sense does not justify its truth, unless you have independent reasons to believe that all true narratives are necessarily powerful. After all, it is uplifting to believe that one’s murdered child is actually still alive, but sadly, it isn’t true.

The problem is that revelation and the axioms of our belief system are one and the same. There is no separation between "A" and "R", here.

Perhaps I was unclear. I meant that there must be a separation between the messenger (i.e. R) and the message (i.e. A). The messenger is the delivery vehicle of the message content, and one must have previous trust in the veracity and authority of the messenger to accurately communicate the message in question. In this case, the scriptures would be the messenger, and the message is the belief content within the scriptures. One must have independent reasons to trust the scriptures before one can trust their content as true, much as one must have independent reasons to trust a messenger as an authorized representative before trusting the message that he delivers.

You have to understand that weakness in light of the weakness of most of our reasons for doing things. Honestly, Christianity has much more support than the majority of what we believe. Many people reorganize the entirety of their lives based on much less--such as an intuitive hunch. And, sometimes, even that hunch pays off.

If someone makes a radical reorganization of their lives on the basis of an “intuitive hunch”, then they are fools, even if the consequences turn out to their benefit. And I don’t think it does your cause much good to associate itself with individuals who use poor evidentiary standards, but rather you should associate with those who follow the best evidentiary standards. Otherwise, it would be like arguing that one should not vaccinate one’s children, because of the association between the timing of vaccines and the onset of autism symptoms, rather than listen to the medical and scientific professionals and their wealth of evidence to the contrary. The bottom line is that one should follow the best evidentiary practices available, and not the worst.

dguller said...

The comparison is fallacious. In deciding someone's execution, we are determining whether or not someone's life should end. In deciding whether to be Christians, we are searching for answers. One is final; one is not.

It is final in the sense that you only have one life to live, and once it is over, then there are no repeats (as far as we know).

Platonism's fall of the pre-existing soul into the corrupted material world is totally different from Christianity's combination of "it was very good" (Gen. 1:31) and "by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin" (Rom. 5:12). One concerns an ontologically corrupted and irredeemable world; the other concerns an ontologically good world corrupted temporarily by historical events.

And yet despite those differences, both can account for the fallibility of human reasoning, which was my only point.

The Bible's truth can't be shown. It's axiomatic. You could offer probable arguments for some of it--but that's about it.

If you cannot show that the Bible is a reliable repository of divine truth, then why would anyone choose to follow it? Remember that the fundamental issue is that there are truths above human reason, and how one comes to know those truths. There are multiple claims about supra-rational truths in different religious and spiritual traditions, and thus there must be some reliable way to differentiate between them. If there is no such way, then which supra-rational truths one believes to be true are completely unmoored from any evidentiary basis, and you are left with fideism.

And note that the evidence in question does not have to be deductive. Certainly, it can be probabilistic in nature, and thus include some margin of error. But again, you would have to possess a mostly reliable methodology that usually works sufficiently well to arrive at truths. Specifically, you would require such a methodology that often distinguishes between true revelation and false revelation, and I contend that this methodology would have to be distinct and independent of the revelations themselves in order to avoid circular reasoning. Otherwise, you would basically just be saying, “Assume that my religion is true, then it follows that my religious texts are true.” Why even make that assumption unless you have independent reasons to do so? If you do have such reasons, then what are they?

If they aren't achievable, then human life is absurd, as the existentialists understood that concept. Humans would be inherently broken in a way that violates Aristotle's claim in Politics that "nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain". As a result, reason would go out the window, and we'd be left in a waking nightmare. No thanks.

Not at all, because life is not an all-or-nothing affair. The absence of absolute goodness in our lives does not imply the absence of relative goodness. Just because we can never draw perfect triangles in spatiotemporal reality does not mean that it is absurd to use triangles. Sometimes an imperfect triangle is good enough for our purposes.

Islam is based on no miracle claims, as you should know.

Although Islam says that the Prophet Muhammad’s primary miracle was the Qur’an, there is a large literature of other miracles attributed to him. For example, he is said to have split the moon, multiplying food and water, calling for rain, a talking wolf, the crying of a date palm, and the Night Journey.

dguller said...

To be consistent, you would have to apply this principle to all knowledge of the distant past.

Agreed. I actually believe that the further back in time we go, the less reliable and accurate our information becomes.

There is nothing special about miracle claims that makes them more susceptible to "cognitive biases and distortions" than other memories.

In general, I would agree with you here, except that if a person has gone to great lengths to advertise and propagate a miracle such that its falsity would result in a significant cost to themselves, then that person will have a strong motivation to subconsciously be vulnerable to cognitive biases and distortions to minimize the cognitive dissonance associated with the falsity of the miracle. And that would apply to anyone in such a context.

In fact, the shocking nature of a miracle would burn itself into one's mind much more definitely than the typical memory.

And yet some studies have shown this to be false, especially regarding so-called flashbulb memories. One remarkable study was performed on Emory undergraduates on the day after the Challenger explosion. They were asked a number of questions regarding the details of their feelings and activities on the day of the Challenger disaster. They were then re-asked the very same questions 2.5 years later, and their reports were compared. What the authors of the study found was that 25% of the subjects had significant differences between their original and subsequent answers, 50% had minor changes, and about 10% had full accuracy. But the more remarkable part of the study was that when confronted with their original answers, most continued to persist in believing in their current memories of how they felt after the Challenger explosion, and disbelieving their actual written records from the day after.

Which, of course, is to presuppose that no book of the New Testament was written or informed by an eye witness.

It is not a presupposition per se, but rather a possibility that needs to be ruled out. The best way to rule it out is with written records of the eye witnesses themselves as soon as possible after the event, a comparison between them for variation and consistency, and a comparison between those earlier records and later ones, also for variation and consistency. That is what would be necessary to confirm the truth of the miracle that they claimed to have experienced. The problem is that we do not have such a record. All we have are written texts that were (a) recorded decades after the event in question, and (b) lacking any reliable chain of transmission between the event in question and the recording of the event. Those two factors make it virtually impossible to know what actually happened prior to the written texts themselves. Maybe there was an actual resurrection, which was observed by the disciples, and who communicated their experience to others, who meticulously communicated their testimony, through an unbroken and reliable chain of transmission to the written recording of the event. Or maybe something else happened. The point is that there are a number of possible antecedent historical events that are consistent with (a) and (b), and there is no way to distinguish between them at all. And at the very least, we should remain agnostic about what happened.

dguller said...

Do they? This isn't an anthropological study; it's thoroughly subjective. If you haven't experienced it personally, then you have no clue what you're talking about.

And the problem is that response is open to the proponent of any other religion that has had a transformative religious experience, and you would not accept their claim as justifying their religion, which means that they should not accept yours, as well. If religious truth is relative to subjective experience, then relativism is inevitable.

There is no way to determine it in the strong sense. We can make guesses. These guesses are supported, again, by what I mentioned earlier: witness, mythological power, transformative personal experience, miracle claims and the weakness of reason. All largely rhetorical, of course; but far from invalid.

But again, you are settling for the lowest common denominator with respect to evidence. It is like a clinical researcher relying upon anecdotal data while ignoring all the ways in which such data is flawed and unreliable. And even worse, the researcher acts as if this state of affairs is perfectly fine by saying, “Sure, my anecdotal data is not as good as a clinical trial, but hey, it’s not nothing!”.

Or, it is like a prosecutor trying to convince a jury that a defendant is guilty, and only has hearsay and inconclusive physical evidence, and acting as if that should be enough to convince the jury. Imagine if the prosecutor said, “I know that my evidence is pretty weak by strong evidential standards, but that doesn’t mean that it is no evidence at all, and even bad evidence is better than no evidence, and that should be good enough to convict!”

The point is that if the evidence is simply insufficient to warrant the claim in question, then we should be honest about it, and be open to the possibility that we just do not know what happened. There is no need to use one’s will to force consent in such a situation, or to pretend that really, really wanting the claim to be true, despite the evidence, is a sufficient reason for the claim to actually be true.

This entails the further possibility that one of them may be right. If one of them is right, then it isn't special pleading for them to claim principles above reason.

It is special pleading when they claim to have discovered truths above reason without being able to justify them other than by unreliable and weak evidence. If unreliable and weak evidence is permissible to one religion, then it should be open to all religions, and then there will be no way to differentiate them at all.

rank sophist said...

dguller,

They all have “wise men” who have attained a high degree of spiritual eudaimonia. So, that isn’t really a viable distinguishing factor.

You seem to have assumed without argument that the Christian saints and the wise men of other religions are on the same level. I'd like to see you back that up.

Often times, truth is discouraging, depressing and harsh.

Actually, that's not technically the case. Truth-as-such is convertible with nobility and beauty, and so it cannot be "discouraging, depressing and harsh". Truth that is negative is a contradiction in terms. Sin and such are said to be true only insofar as we create beings of reason related to them. That is, they become true in a derivative sense, such that the proposition "I am considering an instance of sin" is true but the sin itself is not. Aquinas considers this topic at length in DV q1, using the example of fornication. Hence truth can't be said to fail to be uplifting or ennobling when understood properly, as an instance of being.

Obviously, lies and delusions complicate this issue. How does one differentiate between the really true and noble and the apparently true and noble? One has real power and it frees the one who apprehends it; the other provides the illusion of these things. Matthew 7:18 suggests that we look to the effects to discern the difference. A lie or delusion will produce different effects than the truth. This is largely in line with what one would expect an Aristotelian to say.

The bottom line is that one should follow the best evidentiary practices available, and not the worst.

Christianity is not defended by the worst probable arguments. In fact, its defense is sturdier than that of a lot of natural science, such as the vaccination business you brought up. The full effects of vaccination (and of any medical treatment) on the body are a mystery. Even top scientists are merely guessing, often with the aid of probability-based studies whose results are never clear. I'll take witness, coherence and power over that any day.

It is final in the sense that you only have one life to live, and once it is over, then there are no repeats (as far as we know).

Then your argument is trivially true: "We have X amount of time, so we'd better spend it on things that matter." This logic can be applied to anything by anyone--even by Christians to atheism. It tells us nothing in particular about your argument against Christianity, and it certainly doesn't support your earlier comparison of execution and belief.

If there is no such way, then which supra-rational truths one believes to be true are completely unmoored from any evidentiary basis, and you are left with fideism.

You seem to think that, because there is no method for distinguishing between these claims that fits the rationalist agenda, there is no method for distinguishing between them at all. This is clearly a non sequitur. Discovering the truth or falsehood of supra-rational beliefs is a difficult and merely probable exercise, but methods--again: witness, coherence, mythological power, miracle claims and so on--exist. Even if you reject all religious claims as insufficiently substantiated, you will supplant them with a secular metanarrative that faces the same problems as the systems you attack.

rank sophist said...

The absence of absolute goodness in our lives does not imply the absence of relative goodness.

It implies that the quest for perfection is in vain, and that wisdom--no matter how long we seek it--will never be found. Settling for "relative goodness" sounds like something that Nietzsche's last men would do. It's absurd, plain and simple.

there is a large literature of other miracles attributed to him

The question is whether these are used to support the faith, or if they are merely part of its mythology.

I actually believe that the further back in time we go, the less reliable and accurate our information becomes.

Which therefore precludes the vast majority of the historian's work. If you're going to be a historical skeptic, I can't stop you; but I'll expect you to stick to it in this discussion.

But the more remarkable part of the study was that when confronted with their original answers, most continued to persist in believing in their current memories of how they felt after the Challenger explosion, and disbelieving their actual written records from the day after.

This is interesting. However, even if we allow that the methods of the study were sound (a huge assumption in today's academic world), the example still fails to be analogous to miracle claims. The explosion of the Challenger and the event of a miracle are self-evidently different in kind, given that one stems from the natural order and the other from supernature.

That is what would be necessary to confirm the truth of the miracle that they claimed to have experienced.

Even that would not confirm its truth. It would simply be more evidence of their story's consistency. The committed skeptic would not be phased.

Those two factors make it virtually impossible to know what actually happened prior to the written texts themselves.

What you've left out is the firmness of the Disciples' belief in what they'd seen. If I remember correctly, all but one was martyred for preaching Jesus's Resurrection, and their followers faced similar persecution. Why would a lie be endorsed so firmly? Surely a charlatan would have given up his lie sooner than he would die for it.

Not to mention that the methods of scholarship you're using here, once again, would invalidate all ancient histories. You could not claim to know anything about the true political climate of ancient Rome, or the actual philosophies or religious practices of the ancient Greeks. All of our information about them was filtered through the hands of countless scribes, and much of it was claimed in the first place to have been written well after the events in question, by parties interested in furthering one cause or another. That's just scratching the surface of the implications of your position.

rank sophist said...

And the problem is that response is open to the proponent of any other religion that has had a transformative religious experience, and you would not accept their claim as justifying their religion, which means that they should not accept yours, as well.

The question is whether the particular kind of transformative experience offered by Christianity is available in another religion. Given the unforced conversions of so many to Christianity throughout the ages, the answer might appear to be in the negative. The only other religion whose growth and current size compare to those of Christianity is Islam, which, for many centuries, was expanded via military conquest.

Or, it is like a prosecutor trying to convince a jury that a defendant is guilty, and only has hearsay and inconclusive physical evidence, and acting as if that should be enough to convince the jury.

Hearsay and inconclusive physical evidence are all that any lawyer has ever presented to any jury. The lawyer's business is rhetorical persuasion.

And rhetorical persuasion, again, is what most reasoning boils down to. You can cite examples of great evidence until you turn blue, but the fact remains that all of it is open to doubt--most of it reasonable. Great evidence is great because it has been narrated in a coherent and persuasive fashion. That applies to natural science no less than it does to law, history, religion and the everyday beliefs that allow us to exist in the world. It's all probable, and most of it enjoys no particular advantage in terms of believability.

It is special pleading when they claim to have discovered truths above reason without being able to justify them other than by unreliable and weak evidence.

Which you say from the vantage of your own supra-rational metanarrative, which states that reason in itself can judge the rightness or wrongness of religious beliefs. You're begging the question.

George LeSauvage said...

rank,

When you say "Hearsay and inconclusive physical evidence are all that any lawyer has ever presented to any jury. The lawyer's business is rhetorical persuasion", that is simply false. Hearsay is when A tells what B said and the like; not direct witnesses' testimony.

In general, you are failing to make a distinction, with history and law, which you make elsewhere. Certainly, all testimony/documentary or physical evidence can be questioned. No one doubts that. But the historian and lawyer can argue, that given the evidence, certain conclusions are ruled out. If I have 3 others who will testify that I was playing bridge with them, in Richmond, from 6 to 12, then I cannot have shot someone in Washington. That is conclusive proof. (Well, given some assumptions that I cannot be in 2 places at once, or teleport myself during a bathroom break, etc.)

These are related to proof exactly as scripture is to Christianity.

Another point I have to make is that your account sounds a bit Protestant, in the emphasis on scripture alone. Both Catholic and Orthodox take scripture as part of, and only reliably interpreted within, Church Tradition. The conclusions of the Counsels was made in terms like "This is the Faith which was handed down by the Apostles", "It seemed to the Holy Ghost and to us", or "Peter has spoken through Leo."

Scott said...

@rank sophist:

George LeSauvage has beaten me to this point, but this is just mistaken:

"Hearsay and inconclusive physical evidence are all that any lawyer has ever presented to any jury."

You've omitted eyewitness testimony right along with expert witnesses—and, for that matter, conclusive physical evidence.

George LeSauvage said...

dguller,

"Third, the truth of the Fall depends upon the truth of the Bible itself. You would have to first show that the Bible is a reliable and truthful document, and only then could it be used as the basis for any explanations. However, since the Bible is an ancient text whose records occur millennia after the events in question, it simply cannot be held to be a reliable text regarding ancient history, unless corroborated by compelling and independent evidence."

This is a bit unclear. It is entirely possible to accept the Bible as being true in some sense, without necessarily being wholly literal about the doings of Adam & Eve & the serpent. Of course, some sense of reliability is required.

"All we have are written texts that were (a) recorded decades after the event in question, and (b) lacking any reliable chain of transmission between the event in question and the recording of the event. Those two factors make it virtually impossible to know what actually happened prior to the written texts themselves. Maybe there was an actual resurrection, which was observed by the disciples, and who communicated their experience to others, who meticulously communicated their testimony, through an unbroken and reliable chain of transmission to the written recording of the event. Or maybe something else happened. The point is that there are a number of possible antecedent historical events that are consistent with (a) and (b), and there is no way to distinguish between them at all. And at the very least, we should remain agnostic about what happened."

You seem to be setting a standard which no historian would accept. The NT, as we have it, is far better founded, by this standard, than the campaigns and battles of Alexander or Caesar. (Well, we do have archaeological evidence about the siege of Tyre.) Are we to treat the battle of Arbela with such disregard? The conquest of Gaul?

rank sophist said...

George,

Hearsay is when A tells what B said and the like; not direct witnesses' testimony.

I slipped into informal language for a moment, unintentionally. I'd forgotten the legal distinction between hearsay and eyewitness testimony. Apologies.

If I have 3 others who will testify that I was playing bridge with them, in Richmond, from 6 to 12, then I cannot have shot someone in Washington. That is conclusive proof.

Except that there's no way to prove that they aren't lying. You can say that it's an unreasonable doubt given the circumstances; but you certainly haven't proven your case.

Another point I have to make is that your account sounds a bit Protestant, in the emphasis on scripture alone. Both Catholic and Orthodox take scripture as part of, and only reliably interpreted within, Church Tradition. The conclusions of the Counsels was made in terms like "This is the Faith which was handed down by the Apostles", "It seemed to the Holy Ghost and to us", or "Peter has spoken through Leo."

If I came across like this, it was an accident. I've argued with dguller before about the primacy of the holy tradition over the scriptures, given that the tradition gave rise to the scriptures. He's aware of my historicist position on the importance of traditions in general--and, indeed, I've made references in that direction during this very argument. My beliefs on the matter are similar to those of Alasdair MacIntyre. That should be enough to clear up the Protestant confusion.

Scott,

You've omitted eyewitness testimony right along with expert witnesses—and, for that matter, conclusive physical evidence.

Evidence is inconclusive by default. That's what it means to be evidence rather than proof. There are different degrees of inconclusiveness, certainly, but nothing beyond that. As for the hearsay comment, as I said to George, that was sloppy usage on my part. My point was that no testimony can be conclusive, even if it may be convincing. And the testimony of eyewitnesses and experts will of course be more convincing than typical hearsay.

Vaal said...

I don't have time to get to everyone else today (hopefully back tomorrow).

Jeremy

Well, this is just going in circles again.

Remember, in the case of the claim of a coin-flipping miracle, I asked you specifically: "please tell me the reason why you needn't believe it was a miracle…and in what way you distinguish this from "normal" coin flips that are not miracles."

Can you answer that, please? It's central to the debate, to get at whether either of us are actually question-begging.

Replying that you don't think the "paranormal" is involved in coin flipping is too vague and just avoids answer the question. WHY DON'T YOU attribute supernatural intervention/agency to coin flipping? What is the basis you've used to infer "normal" coin flipping is "not supernatural intervention" vs when something IS supernatural intervention? How do you do this without, on your own logic, "question-begging? What would YOU mean by "natural" vs "supernatural?" or, as I said, supply your own words and explain the distinctions you want to make.

Your post was just riddled with replies that just ignored my answers. For instance this:

"You did not do this properly previously, nor deal with the absurdities which would seem to arise from such a claim, like not being able to say we know where our friend's house was."

Yet I have continually explained to you: Epistemology is driven by pragmatic concerns, and we don't demand all the rigours of science in everything we do because it's impractical. We practice a scale of "looser to more rigorous empiricism" where phenomena that is a general, uncontroversial feature of our experience, like driving to work or going to a friend's house, are ideas we can accept more readily. But the more sure we want to be about something, the more we want to push the boundaries of our knowledge, or the more a proposition challenges our understanding of "plausible/normal" experience, the more care we bring to bare in investigating it. This pragmatic empirical scale may slide from the amount of effort we'd put into finding the source of a leak in the house, to buying a car, up to the amount of sceptical control an rigour for medical research and, on to finding whether Higgs boson exists or not…or for that matter, whether people can tell the future or rise from the dead.

This is the heuristic I keep explaining we all use for why extraordinary claims require stronger lines of evidence, and why we do not require this of "ordinary" claims for which we already have plenty of experience and evidence for their plausibility.

Vaal said...

Jeremy,

And then there is this:

"As for Sai Baba, "people can be fooled, deluded, biased, stretch truth, engage in cognitive dissonance reduction, group think" when it comes to the naturalistic as well. I see no attempt to properly differentiate these in your comments about him, which makes your argument look like question begging."

I can't believe that comment comes in reply to a post where I addressed EXACTLY that charge!
Did you not read this part?:

ME: "This doesn't only apply to the supernatural; it's a consistent application of the SAME strictures applied to scientists themselves. Those types of anecdotes are "not good enough" for scientists either. It's a crucible of skepticism, and as any scientist knows, most of their hypotheses do not survive the crucible. A scientist feels lucky if one or two of his hypotheses ever survive the crucible of scientific scrutiny.
So it's not like just supernatural claims are being unfairly asked to pass such skeptical bars."


Jeremy, why do you think double blind tests are so often employed in science? It's a recognition of the inherent bias of both the person being tested AND the experimenter. Why are hypotheses tested under strict controls? Why is repeatability of results demanded, performed by others who may be interested in proving you wrong? Why do most regular "natural" scientific hypotheses get rejected? Because the rigor I'm talking about applying to miracle claims is the rigor ALREADY BEING APPLIED TO NATURAL CLAIMS! It's a consistent application of empirical reasoning, so all these "question-begging" charges of yours are just non-sequiturs.

If YOU wish to suggest we ought to drop the empirical bar lower when investigating extraordinary claims of the supernatural vs what we demand in other areas of science, then YOU have to explain how you do that without special pleading or question-begging. And when and why you would switch to "it was supernatural." (I already gave examples of what type of evidence I'd accept for miracles).

The problem is, for you to even begin such an answer you'll actually have to be addressing exactly the issues I have been raising - understanding and acknowledging why we use certain empirical principles - what epistemological issues they are there to address in the first place. If you could start putting these problems together into some coherent method, I'd be all ears, but it's been like pulling teeth.

Anyway, I'm not expecting this to go anywhere so that's that I think.

Vaal

Jeremy Taylor said...

Vaal,

Your post was just riddled with replies that just ignored my answers

This is because you often don't answer properly; you just say the same things in slightly different ways.

Anyway, I'm really not sure what point you think you are making on the coin flipping. Do you really think that if I admit there are secondary, corporeal causes that operate regularly without paranormal intervention, this means much for you argument? Of course, I admit that. I would have thought it was obvious.


Yet I have continually explained to you: Epistemology is driven by pragmatic concerns, and we don't demand all the rigours of science in everything we do because it's impractical. We practice a scale of "looser to more rigorous empiricism" where phenomena that is a general, uncontroversial feature of our experience, like driving to work or going to a friend's house, are ideas we can accept more readily. But the more sure we want to be about something, the more we want to push the boundaries of our knowledge, or the more a proposition challenges our understanding of "plausible/normal" experience, the more care we bring to bare in investigating it. This pragmatic empirical scale may slide from the amount of effort we'd put into finding the source of a leak in the house, to buying a car, up to the amount of sceptical control an rigour for medical research and, on to finding whether Higgs boson exists or not…or for that matter, whether people can tell the future or rise from the dead.

This is vague and unclear. What do you mean by empiricism here? What is the relationship of scientific knowledge to empiricism as a whole? What is the definition and the field of inquiry of scientific knowledge? Where do philosophical, historical, common sense, and other kinds of knowledge fit in?



Jeremy Taylor said...

Jeremy, why do you think double blind tests are so often employed in science? It's a recognition of the inherent bias of both the person being tested AND the experimenter. Why are hypotheses tested under strict controls? Why is repeatability of results demanded, performed by others who may be interested in proving you wrong? Why do most regular "natural" scientific hypotheses get rejected? Because the rigor I'm talking about applying to miracle claims is the rigor ALREADY BEING APPLIED TO NATURAL CLAIMS! It's a consistent application of empirical reasoning, so all these "question-begging" charges of yours are just non-sequiturs.

So, are you arguing that scientific knowledge is the only form of knowledge? This would seem to rule out historical knowledge or common sense knowledge? You give vague allusions above, talking about pragmatic scales, or whatever, but I do not see a proper argument can make your scientism consistent with these other kinds of knowledge (and therefore not absurd).


If YOU wish to suggest we ought to drop the empirical bar lower when investigating extraordinary claims of the supernatural vs what we demand in other areas of science, then YOU have to explain how you do that without special pleading or question-begging. And when and why you would switch to "it was supernatural.

Firstly, this assumes that the paranormal falls under the field of scientific inquiry. I dispute this. Natural science deals with the quantifiably measurable and testable. The paranormal does not readily fit into this field of inquiry. Secondly, it is one thing to say that the paranormal cannot be proven to the certainty of many entities and theories in natural science but it is quite another to say this means we can say nothing about it. You have said next to nothing about different kinds of knowledge, with their different methods and levels of probability. That the paranormal cannot be proven with the level of probability often sought after in natural science may be true, but I do not see any argument from you about why this should mean we rule it out in investigations of any such claims.

As I said, you seem to love these black and white dilemma: an event or claim must be investigated to the full rigours of natural science or it can be excluded from our knowledge entirely. But this is fallacious thinking, a false dichotomy, which blatantly ignores different kinds of knowledge and fields of inquiry, with different levels of probability.

George LeSauvage said...

@rank:

You're missing my point. Of course the evidence itself can be questioned, and in itself can be only morally certain. But the arguments made are really of the form of "If you accept the evidence, it follows that these explanations, given by (the prosecution, Marxist or Whig historians, etc.) are untenable. And certain others are established*. That is, given the evidence -- if you believe it -- then the conclusion follows. This seems quite closely parallel to the arguments you acknowledged concerning scripture. The reliability of our texts, for instance, can be questioned, as dguller does. But if they are accepted, and believed to be revealed truth, then scripture can the basis from which you argue.

Jeremy Taylor said...

an event or claim must be investigated to the full rigours of natural science

I don't think I used the correct term here (investigated). I didn't mean to suggest paranormal claims shouldn't be rigorously investigated, simply that they don't have to be, and rarely can be, subjected to the full methods of natural science.

rank sophist said...

George,

I see what you're saying now. If we take the evidence as the first proposition of a syllogism, thereby presupposing its truth, then certain conclusions necessarily follow. This would be a way of giving the evidence demonstrative rather than probable power. I'm not sure what I think--I'd have to read more about the nature of rhetoric, and what exactly separates a demonstration from a probable argument. This is a new subject for me. Good thought, though.

dguller said...

Rank:

You seem to have assumed without argument that the Christian saints and the wise men of other religions are on the same level. I'd like to see you back that up.

Before I chase this rabbit down the hole, perhaps you could specify what precise characteristics of Christian saints you find exclusively in them?

Hence truth can't be said to fail to be uplifting or ennobling when understood properly, as an instance of being.

I agree that being is coextensive with truth and goodness, and thus anything that exists at all is necessarily true and good to some extent. However, there are degrees of goodness, and thus there are degrees of truth, which means that some truths have more goodness than other truths. I would also argue that if truth T1 is coextensive with degree of goodness G1 and truth T2 is coextensive with degree of goodness G2, and G1 >> G2, then T2 is more discouraging and depressing than T1. For example, the truth that my child was raped and murdered has less goodness than the truth that my child was not raped and murdered. In that sense, the former truth is discouraging and depressing, even though strictly speaking both truths are good to some extent due to their reality.

Christianity is not defended by the worst probable arguments. In fact, its defense is sturdier than that of a lot of natural science, such as the vaccination business you brought up. The full effects of vaccination (and of any medical treatment) on the body are a mystery. Even top scientists are merely guessing, often with the aid of probability-based studies whose results are never clear. I'll take witness, coherence and power over that any day.

First, you still haven’t explained to me how you know that witness, coherence and power are reliable indicators of the authenticity of a revelation. Each religious tradition has witnesses to its claims, and thus witness cannot be differentiating factor. Each religious tradition is coherent within its assumptions, and thus coherence cannot be a differentiating factor. And if power is largely the transformative impact of a set of ideas upon human beings to mold them in a particular direction, then I don’t see how it is a reliable indicator of truth. I can certainly see how it is extremely useful to better understand human psychology and what transforms our beliefs and behavior, but unless you have non-question begging way to know that the particular direction in question is reliably correlated to the truth, then you are just begging the question here.

Second, I fail to see how you can justify the claim that the efficacy and safety of vaccines is less well established than the claim that a man died and rose from the dead 2,000 years ago. The former claim is supported the empirical study of hundreds of thousands of people over the past several decades. The latter claim is supported by a written text dated decades after the event in question that was not even written by an eyewitness at all. In fact, we do not even know the chain of transmission between the authors of the texts and the witnesses of the event.

Then your argument is trivially true: "We have X amount of time, so we'd better spend it on things that matter." This logic can be applied to anything by anyone

True, but it also implies the seriousness of the task at hand. If you have a limited amount of time to accomplish something fundamentally important, then you would be foolish to rely upon weak and unreliable means to achieve that goal.

dguller said...

Discovering the truth or falsehood of supra-rational beliefs is a difficult and merely probable exercise, but methods--again: witness, coherence, mythological power, miracle claims and so on--exist.

The question is not whether methods exist, because they do, but rather whether the methods that are used are reliable indicators of the truth. If there are elements of the methods that are unreliable indicators of the truth, then the methods themselves will be compromised, unless there is some way to control for the unreliable factors. You have yet to demonstrate in any way that the methods you endorse are reliable indicators of religious truth. I mean, did you conduct an experiment where you used your methods, as well as method A, method B, and method C, and you found that your methods led to religious truth more often than A, B or C?

Even if you reject all religious claims as insufficiently substantiated, you will supplant them with a secular metanarrative that faces the same problems as the systems you attack.

The difference is that my “secular metanarrative”, to use your terminology, is agnostic about matters that it has unreliable information about. I am actually perfectly happy to say that we do not know whether Jesus rose from the dead, but I would say that someone who firmly believes that he rose from the dead on the basis of the evidence at hand is wrong to do so. And thus, my metanarrative does not have the same problems as yours, because you are making a truth claim that lacks a reliable methodology to determine the truth, and utilizes information that is simply insufficient to demonstrate the truth of your claim at all. Better to be agnostic about it.

It implies that the quest for perfection is in vain, and that wisdom--no matter how long we seek it--will never be found. Settling for "relative goodness" sounds like something that Nietzsche's last men would do. It's absurd, plain and simple.

It is not in vain, even if the end is unattainable. The journey towards that end is itself beneficial and enhances the goodness and well-being of the individual on the journey.

The question is whether these are used to support the faith, or if they are merely part of its mythology.

I suspect there are differing opinions on this matter.

Which therefore precludes the vast majority of the historian's work. If you're going to be a historical skeptic, I can't stop you; but I'll expect you to stick to it in this discussion.

Sure thing.

This is interesting. However, even if we allow that the methods of the study were sound (a huge assumption in today's academic world), the example still fails to be analogous to miracle claims. The explosion of the Challenger and the event of a miracle are self-evidently different in kind, given that one stems from the natural order and the other from supernature.

But the underlying principle is the same. You claimed that some events are so momentous and emotionally salient that they couldn’t possibly lead to memory distortion, and I provided scientific evidence that this claim is false. The main point is that even if the disciples did witness a miracle, it does not follow that their memories of the event remained constant throughout their lives, which means taht their later testimony was not necessarily the same as their earlier memories of the event.

dguller said...

Even that would not confirm its truth. It would simply be more evidence of their story's consistency. The committed skeptic would not be phased.

I never said it would. I only said that it was necessary. You are correct that it isn’t sufficient. However, the fact that a necessary component of the case for the miracle’s veracity is not present, we don’t need to go any further.

What you've left out is the firmness of the Disciples' belief in what they'd seen.

Conviction is a sign that they believed in the truth of the resurrection, but that is not a reliable indicator that the resurrection is, in fact, true. I can provide numerous examples of people with firm beliefs that are utterly false.

If I remember correctly, all but one was martyred for preaching Jesus's Resurrection, and their followers faced similar persecution. Why would a lie be endorsed so firmly? Surely a charlatan would have given up his lie sooner than he would die for it.

I don’t think they were charlatans. They were not intentionally committing a fraud. I think that a number of well-known subconscious psychological phenomena occurred to them that resulted in their devoted belief and self-sacrifice.

I think that they were devastated by the death of their messiah, and some of them likely experienced bereavement hallucinations of Jesus, which were the source of the resurrection stories. After discussing and communicating their experiences with one another, an overall narrative was subconsciously agreed upon, major differences were forgotten, and source amnesia resulted in their belief that they themselves had experienced a risen Jesus. And given the fact that belief in a risen Jesus was a brilliant solution to the intense cognitive dissonance they experienced at his death, they believed it in fervently, to the point of martyrdom.

Of course, this is only a hypothesis, but it nicely fits the facts of the case, and does not require a supernatural intervention. However, that does not rule out the possibility of a supernatural intervention. It just means that (a) there is an alternative natural account of what happened, and (b) there is insufficient evidence to know whether the natural or supernatural accounts are true. I typically tend to default to the natural explanation as more likely, because it is rooted in phenomena that we have a better understanding of than miracles.

You could not claim to know anything about the true political climate of ancient Rome, or the actual philosophies or religious practices of the ancient Greeks. All of our information about them was filtered through the hands of countless scribes, and much of it was claimed in the first place to have been written well after the events in question, by parties interested in furthering one cause or another. That's just scratching the surface of the implications of your position.

I understand the implications of my position. I actually don’t know what actual historians would say, but I know that history is already understood to be far less rigorous that natural science, and that is based upon the inferior reliability of the historical evidence. So, saying that historical conclusions are far less reliable and are more speculative than some contemporary scientific conclusions is not so far fetched.

dguller said...

The question is whether the particular kind of transformative experience offered by Christianity is available in another religion. Given the unforced conversions of so many to Christianity throughout the ages, the answer might appear to be in the negative. The only other religion whose growth and current size compare to those of Christianity is Islam, which, for many centuries, was expanded via military conquest.

And yet, at least with Islam, the Prophet Muhammad had numerous followers in the decades of his prophethood, even prior to the military conquests that occurred after his death. And remember that his first taste of political power occurred following the Hijra in Medina, which occurred after 12 years of preaching while persecuted in Mecca.

Which you say from the vantage of your own supra-rational metanarrative, which states that reason in itself can judge the rightness or wrongness of religious beliefs. You're begging the question.

First, you do not disagree that there are reasons for religious beliefs. You also do not disagree that the reasons that are cited in support of religious beliefs are inherently unreliable, which is why they are weaker than demonstrative proof, i.e. they have a higher possibility of error built right into them that puts them on a lower evidentiary level than logical proofs, for example.

Second, my position is quite simple. The degree of conviction one has in a proposition should be proportionate to the degree of justification for that proposition. If a proposition is justified by unreliable evidence, i.e. evidence that has not been shown to be usually correct in indicating the truth of a proposition, then that proposition should not be firmly believed in.

Now, sometimes one must act on the basis of unreliable information, and in that case, one must make due with the best of the unreliable information, while fully acknowledging the deficient state one is in with respect to the evidence at hand. It is not a praiseworthy scenario to be in. For example, sometimes I have to treat patients with medications that lack controlled trials, and thus have to rely upon anecdotal data. However, I do not act like I am doing anything praiseworthy in this situation. It is a necessity born of a tragic circumstance.

The problem that I have with religious faith is that the evidence for its particular claims, i.e. excluding the conclusions of natural theology, is weak, because it depends upon evidence that is unreliable. Firmness of belief is neither necessary nor sufficient for truth. Eyewitness testimony is necessary, but not sufficient, for truth. Coherence is necessary, but not sufficient, for truth. And power is neither necessary nor sufficient for truth. Ultimately, having an explanation that is coherent and transformative that is supported by eyewitness, or hearsay, testimony is just inadequate, especially in support of miracles, which should be held to a higher standard of evidence, because of the radical consequences of their truth. For example, if someone claimed to have an experiment that violated the laws of thermodynamics, then that experiment would be held to a higher degree of scrutiny than an experiment that confirmed the laws of thermodynamics.

Third, if you want to say that reason cannot judge the claims of religion, then what exactly can judge them without begging the question? You cannot say that a religious text is the basis for judgment, because you need a reason to trust the religious text.

dguller said...

Jeremy:

Natural science deals with the quantifiably measurable and testable. The paranormal does not readily fit into this field of inquiry. Secondly, it is one thing to say that the paranormal cannot be proven to the certainty of many entities and theories in natural science but it is quite another to say this means we can say nothing about it. You have said next to nothing about different kinds of knowledge, with their different methods and levels of probability. That the paranormal cannot be proven with the level of probability often sought after in natural science may be true, but I do not see any argument from you about why this should mean we rule it out in investigations of any such claims.

How do you investigate the paranormal without using scientific methods?

Jeremy Taylor said...

The historical methods, witness reports, and the like. We might make use of scientific analysis, but the lion's share of the approach would be that of the historian or detective.

dguller said...

Jeremy:

The historical methods, witness reports, and the like. We might make use of scientific analysis, but the lion's share of the approach would be that of the historian or detective.

This is all too vague and general, but ultimately it seems to come down to (1) what people claim to have observed, and (2) physical evidence in support of (1).

I can certainly see how (1) might support a supernatural claim, because people claim to observe paranormal and supernatural events quite often. And if a large enough number of people observe the same paranormal and supernatural event, and communicated their observations to others in an independent, and yet reasonably consistent fashion, then that would add credence to their claim’s validity. However, if there were large inconsistencies in their stories, or if they were found to have discussed the matter and thus contaminated their testimony, or if there was additional evidence of a conspiracy between them for secondary gain, then their testimony would be insufficient.

I can also see how (2) might support a supernatural claim, because if you have a physical piece of evidence that cannot be accounted for on the basis of current scientific theories, then that might corroborate a supernatural event. After all, a supernatural event is an event that cannot be accounted for solely on the basis of natural laws, and thus requires a supernatural intervention to make it possible at all. Hence, one would expect to find physical evidence that is consistent with the laws of nature in a supernatural event. For example, if someone claims to have a perpetual motion machine, and one examines the machine itself, and cannot detect, even with the most sensitive equipment, any loss of energy over an extended period of time, and the equipment itself is well-calibrated, and ideally independently examined by multiple teams, then that would be good evidence that something was occurring that violated the laws of nature, especially the laws of thermodynamics.

But I think that the challenge here is not only that such precision has never been demonstrated in any supernatural or paranormal claim, as far as I know, but that even if such a scenario occurred, then one is faced with a few possible inferences:

(A) A miracle has occurred, and a supernatural agent has intervened to make it happen
(B) A natural event has occurred, but it is one that is unaccountable by current scientific theory

And (B) can be further divided into:

(B1) A future scientific theory will account for it
(B2) A future scientific theory cannot account for it

So, the real question in that scenario is whether to prefer (A) or (B), and furthermore how to distinguish between (A) and (B2), in particular. And if neither (A) nor (B) – or (B1) or (B2) – are possible, then perhaps the best position to take is:

(C) It is not possible to determine whether (a) a natural event based on unknown natural laws has occurred, or (b) a supernatural event has occurred.

Any thoughts?

Matt Sheean said...

"Eyewitness testimony is necessary, but not sufficient, for truth"

Surely you mean:

Eyewitness testimony is sufficient to establish the truth of an event, but not necessary...

or do you mean:

For something to be true, necessarily it must be eyewitnessable

"For example, if someone claimed to have an experiment that violated the laws of thermodynamics, then that experiment would be held to a higher degree of scrutiny than an experiment that confirmed the laws of thermodynamics."

Why? Of course we are less credulous about things that we expect to not be true. That's a trivial bit of general human psychology. Supposin' you told a young earther that you had an experiment that conclusively proved the earth was older the 6,000 years (there are plenty of those throughout the sciences that really exist!). They'd be pretty obnoxiously incredulous, I'd wager. Why, though, ought we be skeptical of things that we expect to be false? Inevitably an account will have to be given of why, in the first place, we should have expected it to be false.

rank sophist said...

dguller,

Before I chase this rabbit down the hole, perhaps you could specify what precise characteristics of Christian saints you find exclusively in them?

In terms of self-denial, martyrdom and care for others, I would suggest that no other tradition's wise men rival those of Christianity. Not to mention that Christianity, unlike any similar tradition, has been producing wise women of the same caliber from the start.

In that sense, the former truth is discouraging and depressing, even though strictly speaking both truths are good to some extent due to their reality.

Again, the former has no ontological truth. As a privation, it has no being, and so cannot be true. It is only when we create beings of reason related to the event that it becomes "true", and even then, in a merely derivative way. Which is, again, to say that the proposition "I am thinking about this or that instance sin" is true, but that the proposition "this or that sin is true" remains false. It's a complicated business, but I don't think it ultimately ends in favor of your position.

Also, every truth, as a transcendental, is a pure and unquantifiable truth that reflects God. It doesn't make sense to talk of some truths being less good than others.

Each religious tradition has witnesses to its claims, and thus witness cannot be differentiating factor.

Witness has a very specific meaning in Christianity, which I assumed you knew. A witness is someone who embodies the Christian life--its virtues, duties and pieties--so that young Christians and unbelievers may indirectly encounter Jesus. Since Jesus himself, Christianity has been about leading by example, and the Apostles and their successors have presented witness by imitating Jesus's life. Witness has provided most of Christianity's converts throughout history.

Each religious tradition is coherent within its assumptions, and thus coherence cannot be a differentiating factor.

Or are they? I certainly wouldn't make that claim, particularly when it comes to the fusion of faith and reason.

Second, I fail to see how you can justify the claim that the efficacy and safety of vaccines is less well established than the claim that a man died and rose from the dead 2,000 years ago.

The efficacy and safety of vaccines is based on a few decades of (necessarily inconclusive) studies, which could be overturned tomorrow. Christian tradition is based on miracle claims that the best historical-critical methods support, the most powerful mythology of any religion and two-thousand years of witness. I'll take that, thanks.

If you have a limited amount of time to accomplish something fundamentally important, then you would be foolish to rely upon weak and unreliable means to achieve that goal.

And the methodology of religious agnosticism is no stronger (it's weaker, in fact) than that of religious belief. Religious agnosticism is based on the assertion that, if religious claims X and Y are false, then religious agnosticism is true. Unfortunately, there is no neutral "default" in this situation, and so religious agnosticism is actually another persuasion. Therefore, you're begging the question by presupposing your belief system without argument. Wasting time, indeed.

rank sophist said...

I mean, did you conduct an experiment where you used your methods, as well as method A, method B, and method C, and you found that your methods led to religious truth more often than A, B or C?

Experiments are not particularly reliable indicators of truth. They're vague and often subject to Goodman-esque confirmation bias, as proven by their checkered history. However, if you can supply a workable system for verifying the truth of Christianity's methods, then perhaps we can get somewhere. I personally don't think that there's any way to do it from a foundationalist standpoint like yours.

The difference is that my “secular metanarrative”, to use your terminology, is agnostic about matters that it has unreliable information about.

Agnosticism is not neutral. There is no such thing as neutrality. The suspension of judgment is no more neutral than the making of a truth claim.

The journey towards that end is itself beneficial and enhances the goodness and well-being of the individual on the journey.

That's New Age hogwash. Journeys are certainly beneficial, but a journey without a desination is simply aimless wandering. If there is no actual goal for you to achieve, then you aren't even on a journey.

You claimed that some events are so momentous and emotionally salient that they couldn’t possibly lead to memory distortion, and I provided scientific evidence that this claim is false.

I claimed that miracles have a different impact on one's memory than other events. You have attempted to change the subject.

However, the fact that a necessary component of the case for the miracle’s veracity is not present, we don’t need to go any further.

Who says it's necessary? You? Are you the arbiter of what makes a historical document worthy of belief now? Don't be ridiculous.

Conviction is a sign that they believed in the truth of the resurrection, but that is not a reliable indicator that the resurrection is, in fact, true.

Then you're committing yourself to the ludicrous mass hallucination hypothesis, or one of its equally straw-grasping brothers.

After discussing and communicating their experiences with one another, an overall narrative was subconsciously agreed upon, major differences were forgotten, and source amnesia resulted in their belief that they themselves had experienced a risen Jesus. And given the fact that belief in a risen Jesus was a brilliant solution to the intense cognitive dissonance they experienced at his death, they believed it in fervently, to the point of martyrdom.

As I suspected. Unfortunately, this is a hodgepodge of early 20th century psychoanalysis. Real people have never behaved in this way.

And yet, at least with Islam, the Prophet Muhammad had numerous followers in the decades of his prophethood, even prior to the military conquests that occurred after his death.

Many religious figures have gathered large followings in their lifetimes. Look at Sun Myung Moon or Joseph Smith. My point was related to the size and expansion rate of Christianity, which Islam only managed to rival via military conquest.

If a proposition is justified by unreliable evidence, i.e. evidence that has not been shown to be usually correct in indicating the truth of a proposition, then that proposition should not be firmly believed in.

Then it's a good thing that Christianity's evidence is fairly reliable. It's not demonstrative, certainly, but neither is modern science.

rank sophist said...

Now, sometimes one must act on the basis of unreliable information, and in that case, one must make due with the best of the unreliable information

Which applies to the vast majority is situations in human life. This is Augustine's skeptical defense of Christianity.

Third, if you want to say that reason cannot judge the claims of religion, then what exactly can judge them without begging the question?

Reason can support or attack the claims of religion. It can't prove or refute them via demonstration. That's all I was saying.

Jeremy Taylor said...

dguller,

Your query was one sentence. I didn't know you were looking for anything more. I think my reply actually was the correct depth and length in the circumstances.

Anyway, my thoughts are that we'd investigate specific claims in detail. We'd look at all the evidence, evaluate the trustworthiness of the witnesses, and so forth. We'd then come to some kind of conclusion about the phenomena in question. It would likely be only a probable conclusion and likely be quite provisional. We might even suspend judgment.

A scientific theory accounting for a paranormal event only seems to make sense in some, a minority, of examples. For many examples, it isn't some new scientific theory which will shed a lot of light on the event. It is simply a question of whether there is likely to be naturalistic explanation, and we can already judge which these are likely to be.

Take the Orwell example I used in the last thread. George Orwell claimed to have seen a ghost in the churchyard of Walberswick in Suffolk in 1931. He was intrigued by the encounter and wrote to a friend about it, even drawing a map. But he concluded, being a staunch materialist, that it must have been a hallucination.

http://georgeorwellnovels.com/letters/letter-to-dennis-collings-16-august-1931/

Above is W’wick church as well as I can remember it. At about 5.20 pm on 27.7.31 I was sitting at the spot marked*, looking out in the direction of the dotted arrow. I happened to glance over my shoulder, & saw a figure pass along the line of the other arrow, disappearing behind the masonry & presumably emerging into the churchyard. I wasn’t looking directly at it & so couldn’t make out more than that it was a man’s figure, small & stooping, & dressed in lightish brown; I should have said a workman. I had the impression that it glanced towards me in passing, but I made out nothing of the features. At the moment of its passing I thought nothing, but a few seconds later it struck me that the figure had made no noise, & I followed it out into the churchyard. There was no one in the churchyard, & no one within possible distance along the road—this was about 20 seconds after I had seen it; & in any case there were only 2 people in the road, & neither at all resembled the figure. I looked into the church. The only people there were the vicar, dressed in black, & a workman who, as far as I remember, had been sawing the whole time. In any case he was too tall for the figure. The figure had therefore vanished. Presumably an hallucination.

In the link is the full letter and the drawing Orwell made. When we assess the evidence we have, on the one hand, someone who seems sane and reasonably reliable and, also, a materialist. He saw something indirectly he says, but still long enough for it not to be a momentary blur whilst turning the head (as Vaal suggested) and in detail enough to see what sort of man the alleged ghost was. On the other hand, Orwell did have a paradoxical interest in the paranormal and he was in a reputedly haunted churchyard (although it was broad daylight). I would come to the conclusion, based on the specific evidence, that we should suspend judgment. We certainly cannot dismiss this incident and say there must have been a naturalistic explanation. I would even lean very slightly to saying it seems like a genuine paranormal encounter, simply because that is what, in my opinion, the evidence best fits. As I said before, as C.S Lewis pointed out and as every historian knows, fitness - or our intuitive grasp of how the evidence is best proportioned and put together - is central to investigations of historical events and the paranormal.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Continued...

I'm not sure how talk of scientific theories would have much of a role. We know already what alternative naturalistic explanations would be - hallucinations, optical allusions, Orwell is lying, and the like - and we can get a reasonable picture of how likely they are. That is not to say that for some phenomena a scientific theory might account for them, but not those like this example.

I'll try and find some other good examples, including some that might fit the new scientific theory category, if I have time. I do have a number of books on this topic. I heartily recommend those of Charles Fort and John Michell, and, to a lesser extent, Colin Wilson and Patrick Harpur.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Dguller,

I couldn't resist quoting this example of a possible paranormal occurance from Charles Fort's Lo!, in his unique style. It is interesting because it seems to be comport more closely with an event which might have a new scientific theory as its explanation. Make of it what you will:

http://www.resologist.net/lo101.htm

Upon May 28th, 1881, near the city of Worcester, England, a fishmonger, with a procession of carts, loaded with several kinds of crabs and periwinkles, and with a dozen energetic assistants, appeared at a time when nobody on a busy road was looking. The fishmonger and his assistants grabbed sacks of periwinkles, and ran in a frenzy, slinging the things into fields on both sides of the road. They raced to gardens, and some assistants, standing on the shoulders of other assistants, had sacks lifted to them, and dumped sacks over the high walls. Meanwhile other assistants, in a dozen carts, were furiously shovelling out periwinkles, about a mile along the road. Also, meanwhile, several boys were busily mixing in crabs. They were not advertising anything. Above all there was secrecy. The cost must have been hundreds of dollars. They appeared without having been seen on the way, and they melted away equally mysteriously. There were houses all around, but nobody saw them.

Would I be so kind as to tell what, in the name of some slight approximation to sanity, I mean by telling such a story?

But it is not my story. The details are mine, but I have put them in, strictly in accordance with the circumstances. There was, upon May 28th, 1881, an occurrence near Worcester, and the conventional explanation was that a fishmonger did it. Inasmuch as he did it unobserved, if he did it, and inasmuch as he did it with tons upon acres, if he did it, he did it as I have described, if he did it.


Jeremy Taylor said...

Continued...

In Land and Water, June 4, 1881, a correspondent writes that, in a violent thunderstorm, near Worcester, tons of periwinkles had come down from the sky, covering fields and a road, for about a mile.(13) In the issue of June 11th, the Editor of Land and Water writes that specimens had been sent to him.(14) He notes the mysteri- [21/22] ous circumstance, or the indication of a selection of living things, that appears in virtually all the accounts. He comments upon an enormous fall of sea creatures, unaccompanied by sand, pebbles, other shells, and sea weed.

In the Worcester Daily Times, May 30, it is said that, upon the 28th, news had reached Worcester of a wonderful fall from the sky, of periwinkles on Cromer Gardens Road, and spread far around in fields and gardens.(15) Mostly, people of Worcester were incredulous, but some had gone to the place. Those who had faith returned with periwinkles.

Two correspondents then wrote that they had seen the periwinkles upon the road before the storm, where probably a fishmonger had got rid of them.(16) So the occurrence conventionalised, and out of these surmises arose the story of the fishmonger, though it has never been told before, as I have told it.

Mr. J. Lloyd Bozward, a writer whose notes on meteorological subjects are familiar to readers of scientific periodicals of this time, was investigating, and his findings were published in the Worcester Evening Post, June 9th.(17) As to the story of the fishmonger, note his statement that the value of periwinkles was 16 shillings a bushel. He says that a wide area on both sides of the road was strewn with periwinkles, hermit crabs, and small crabs of an unascertained species. Worcester is about 30 miles from the mouth of the River Severn, or say about 50 miles from the sea.(18) Probably no fishmonger in the world ever had, at one time, so many periwinkles, but as to anybody having got rid of a stock, because of a glutted market, for instance, Mr. Bozward says: "Neither upon Saturday, the 28th, nor Friday, the 27th, was there such a thing procurable in Worcester as a live periwinkle." Gardens as well as fields were strewn. There were high walls around these [22/23] gardens. Mr. Bozward tells of about 10 sacks of periwinkles, of a value of about 20, in the markets of Worcester, that, to his knowledge, had been picked up. Crowds had filled pots and pans and bags and trunks before he got to the place. "In Mr. Maund's garden, two sacks were filled with them." It is his conclusion that the things fell from the sky during the thunderstorm. So his is the whirlwind-explanation.

dguller said...

Rank & Jeremy:

Sorry for the lateness of my reply. Things are busy right now. I hope to have my responses to your comments by next week, but we'll see.

Take care.