You: OK, Peter, let’s try again. Suppose you’re in the garden and you see two worms crawling around. Then two more worms crawl over. How many worms do you have now?
Thursday, August 21, 2014
Suppose you’re trying to teach basic arithmetic to someone who has gotten it into his head that the whole subject is “unscientific,” on the grounds that it is non-empirical. With apologies to the famous Mr. Parker (pictured at left), let’s call him “Peter.” Peter’s obviously not too bright, but he thinks he is very bright since he has internet access and skims a lot of Wikipedia articles about science. Indeed, he proudly calls himself a “science dork.” Patiently, albeit through gritted teeth, you try to get him to see that two and two really do make four. Imagine it goes like this:
You: OK, Peter, let’s try again. Suppose you’re in the garden and you see two worms crawling around. Then two more worms crawl over. How many worms do you have now?
Peter: “Crawling” means moving around on your hands and knees. Worms don’t have hands and knees, so they don’t “crawl.” They have hair-like projections called setae which make contact with the soil, and their bodies are moved by two sets of muscles, an outer layer called the circular muscles and an inner layer known as the longitudinal muscles. Alternation between these muscles causes a series of expansions and contractions of the worm’s body.
You: That’s all very impressive, but you know what I meant, Peter, and the specific way worms move around is completely irrelevant in any case. The point is that you’d have four worms.
Peter: Science is irrelevant, huh? Well, do you drive a car? Use a cell phone? Go to the doctor? Science made all that possible.
You: Yes, fine, but what does that have to do with the subject at hand? What I mean is that how worms move is irrelevant to how many worms you’d have in the example. You’d have four worms. That’s true whatever science ends up telling us about worms.
Peter: You obviously don’t know anything about science. If you divide a planarian flatworm, it will grow into two new individual flatworms. So, if that’s the kind of worm we’re talking about, then if you have two worms and then add two more, you might end up with five worms, or even more than five. So much for this a priori “arithmetic” stuff.
You: That’s a ridiculous argument! If you’ve got only two worms and add another two worms, that gives you four worms, period. That one of those worms might later go on to be divided in two doesn’t change that!
Peter: Are you denying the empirical evidence about how flatworms divide?
You: Of course not. I’m saying that that empirical evidence simply doesn’t show what you think it does.
Peter: This is well-confirmed science. What motivation could you possibly have for rejecting what we know about the planarian flatworm, apart from a desperate attempt to avoid falsification of your precious “arithmetic”?
You: Peter, I think you might need a hearing aid. I just got done saying that I don’t reject it. I’m saying that it has no bearing one way or the other on this particular question of whether two and two make four. Whether we’re counting planarian flatworms or Planters peanuts is completely irrelevant.
Peter: So arithmetic is unfalsifiable. Unlike scientific claims, for which you can give rational arguments.
You: That’s a false choice. The whole point is that argumentation of the sort that characterizes empirical science is not the only kind of rational argumentation. For example, if I can show by reductio ad absurdum that your denial of some claim of arithmetic is false, then I’ve given a rational justification of that claim.
Peter: No, because you haven’t offered any empirical evidence.
You: You’ve just blatantly begged the question! Whether all rational argumentation involves the mustering of empirical evidence is precisely what’s at issue.
Peter: So you say now. But earlier you gave the worm example as an argument for the claim that two and two make four. You appeal to empirical evidence when it suits you and then retreat into unfalsifiability when that evidence goes against you.
You: You completely misunderstand the nature of arithmetical claims. They’re not empirical claims in the same sense that claims about flatworm physiology are. But that doesn’t mean that they have no relevance to the empirical world. Given that it’s a necessary truth that two and two make four, naturally you are going to find that when you observe two worms crawl up beside two other worms, there will be four worms there. But that’s not “empirical evidence” in the sense that laboratory results are empirical evidence. It’s rather an illustration of something that is going to be the case whatever the specific empirical facts turn out to be.
Peter: See, every time I call attention to the scientific evidence that refutes your silly “arithmetic,” you claim that I “just don’t understand” it. Well, I understand it well enough. It’s all about trying to figure out flatworms and other things science tells us about, but by appealing to intuitions or word games about “necessary truth” or just making stuff up. It’s imaginary science. What we need is real, empirical science, like physics.
You: That makes no sense at all. Physics presupposes arithmetic! How the hell do you think physicists do their calculations?
Peter: Whatever. Because science. Because I @#$%&*! love science.
The Peter principle
Now, replace Peter’s references to “arithmetic” with “metaphysics” and you get the sort of New Atheist type who occasionally shows up in the comboxes here triumphantly to “refute” the argument from motion (say) with something cribbed from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Physics. And like Peter, these critics are, despite their supreme self-confidence, in fact utterly clueless about the nature of the ideas they are attacking.
Like arithmetic, the key metaphysical ideas that underlie Aristotelian-Thomistic arguments for God’s existence -- the theory of act and potency, the principle of causality, the principle of finality, and so forth -- certainly have implications for what we observe in the empirical world, but, equally certainly, they are not going to be falsified by anything we observe in the empirical world. And like arithmetic, this in no way makes them any less rationally defensible than the claims of empirical science are. On the contrary, and once again like arithmetic, they are presupposed by any possible empirical science.
That by no means entails that empirical science is irrelevant to metaphysics and philosophy of nature. But how it is relevant must be properly understood. How we apply general metaphysical principles to various specific empirical phenomena is something to which a knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. is absolutely essential. The metaphysical facts about the essence of water specifically, or the nature of local motion specifically, or bacterial physiology specifically are not going to be determined from the armchair. But the most general metaphysical principles themselves are not matters for empirical science to settle, precisely because they concern what must be true if there is to be any empirical world, and thus any empirical science, in the first place.
Hence, consider hylemorphism. Should we think of water as a compound of substantial form and prime matter? Or should we think of it as an aggregate of substances, and thus as having a merely accidental form that configures secondary matter? The empirical facts about water are highly relevant to this sort of question. However, whether the distinctions between substantial and accidental form and prime versus secondary matter have application at all in the empirical world is not something that can possibly be settled by empirical science. In short, whether hylemorphism as a general framework is correct is a question for metaphysics and philosophy of nature, not for empirical science; but how the hylemorphic analysis gets applied to specific cases is very definitely a question for empirical science.
Or consider the principle of finality. Should we think of sublunar bodies as naturally “directed toward” movement toward the center of the earth, specifically, as Aristotle thought? Or, following Newton, should we say that there is no difference between the movements toward which sublunar and superlunar bodies are naturally “directed,” and nothing special about movement toward the center the earth specifically? The empirical facts as uncovered by physics and astronomy are highly relevant to this sort of question. However, whether there is any immanent finality or “directedness” at all in nature is not something that can possibly be settled by physical science. In short, whether the principle of finality is correct is a question for metaphysics and philosophy of nature, not for empirical science; but how that principle gets applied to specific cases is very definitely a question for empirical science.
Or consider the principle of causality, according to which any potential that is actualized is actualized by something already actual. Should we think of the local motion of a projectile as violent, or as natural insofar as it is inertial? Should we think of inertial motion as a real change, the actualization of a potential? Or should we think of it as a “state”? How we characterize the cause of such local motions will be deeply influenced by how we answer questions like these (which I’ve discussed in detail here and elsewhere), and thus by physics. But whether there is some sort of cause is not something that can possibly be settled by physics. In short, whether the principle of causality is true is a question for metaphysics and philosophy of nature, not for empirical science; but how that principle gets applied to specific cases is very definitely a question for empirical science.
Why the theory of act and potency, the principle of causality, the principle of finality, hylemorphism, essentialism, etc. must be presupposed by any possible physical science, is something I have addressed many times, and at greatest length and in greatest depth in Scholastic Metaphysics. The point to emphasize for present purposes is that the arguments for God’s existence one finds in classical (Neoplatonic/Aristotelian/Scholastic) philosophy, such as Aquinas’s Five Ways, rest on general metaphysical principles like these, and not on any specific claims in physics, biology, etc. Hence when examples of natural phenomena are used in expositions of the arguments -- such as the example of a hand using a stick to move a stone, often used in expositions of the First Way -- one completely misunderstands the nature of the arguments if one raises quibbles from physics about the details of the examples, because nothing essential to the arguments rides on those details. The examples are meant merely as illustrations of deeper metaphysical principles that necessarily hold whatever the empirical details turn out to be.
For example, years ago I had an atheist reader who was obsessed with the idea that there is a slight time lag between the motion of the stick that moves the stone, and the motion of the stone itself, as if this had devastating implications for Aquinas’ First Way. This is like Peter’s supposition that the biology of planarian flatworms is relevant to evaluating whether two and two make four. It completely misses the point, completely misunderstands the nature of the issues at hand. Yet no matter how many times you explain this to certain New Atheist types, they just keep repeating the same tired, irrelevant physics trivia, like a moth that keeps banging into the window thinking it’s going to get through it next time.
Of course, often these “science dorks” don’t in fact really know all that much science. They are not, after all, really interested in science per se, but rather in what they falsely perceive to be a useful cudgel with which to beat philosophy and theology. But even when they do know some science, they don’t understand it as well as they think they do, because they don’t understand the nature of an empirical scientific claim, as opposed to a metaphysical or philosophical claim. Just as someone who not only listens to a lot of music but also knows some music theory is going to understand music better than the person who merely listens to a lot of it, so too the person who knows both philosophy and science is going to understand science better than the person who knows only science.
Vince Torley, the Science Guy
Anyway, it turns out that you needn’t be a New Atheist, or indeed even an atheist at all, to deploy the inept “Peter”-style objection. You might have another motivation -- say, if you’re an “Intelligent Design” publicist who is really, really steamed at some longtime Thomist critic of ID, and keen to “throw the kitchen sink” at him in the hope that something finally sticks. Case in point: our old pal Vincent Torley, whose characteristic “ready, fire, aim” style of argument we saw on display in a recent exchange over matters related to ID. In a follow-up post, Torley devotes what amounts to 15 single-spaced pages to what he evidently thinks is a massive take-down of the version of the Aristotelian argument from motion (the first of Aquinas’s Five Ways) that I presented in a talk which can be found at Vimeo. (Longtime readers will note that verbose as 15 single-spaced pages sounds for a blog post, it’s actually relatively short for the notoriously logorrheic Mr. Torley.)
Now, what does that argument have to do with ID or the other issues discussed in our recent exchange? Well, nothing, of course. But his motivation for attacking it is clear enough from some of the remarks Torley makes in the post, especially when read in light of some historical context. A quick search at Uncommon Descent (an ID site to which Torley regularly contributes, and where this new post appears) reveals that over the last four years or so, Torley has written at least fifteen (!) Torley-length posts criticizing various things I’ve said, usually about ID but sometimes about other, unrelated matters. (And no, that’s not counting the occasional positive post he’s written about me, nor is it counting critical posts written about me by other UD contributors. Nor is it counting the many lengthy comments critical of me that Torley has posted over the years in various comboxes, both here at my blog and elsewhere.) An uncharitable reader might conclude that Torley has some kind of bee in his bonnet. A charitable reader might conclude pretty much the same thing.
Now, how Torley wants to spend his time is his business, and I’m flattered by the attention. The trouble is that he always seems to think he has scored some devastating point, and gets annoyed when I don’t acknowledge or respond to it. In fact, as my longtime readers know from experience, Torley regularly just gets things wrong -- and, again, at unbelievable, mind-numbing length. (You’ll recall that the last blog post of his to which I replied alone came to 42 single-spaced pages.) There is only so much of one’s life that one can devote to reading and responding to tedious misrepresentations set out in prolix and ephemeral blog posts. As I don’t need to tell most readers, I’ve got an extremely hectic writing and teaching schedule, not to mention a wife, six children, and other family members who have a claim on my time. For some bizarre reason there is a steady stream of people who seem to think this means that I simply must have the time to respond to whatever treatise they’ve written up over the weekend, when common sense should have made it clear that this is precisely the reverse of the truth. In Torley’s case, while I did reply to some of his early responses to my criticisms of ID, in recent years I simply haven’t had the time, nor -- as his remarks have become ever more frequent, long-winded, occasionally shrill, and manifestly designed to try to get attention -- the patience either.
This evidently irks him, which brings us back to his recent remarks about my defense of a First Way-style argument. Four years ago Torley expressed the view that “Professor Feser[‘s]… ability to articulate and defend Aquinas’ Five Ways to a 21st century audience is matchless.” Three years ago he advised an atheist blogger: “I would also urge you to read Professor Edward Feser’s book, Aquinas. It’s about the best defense of Aristotelian Thomism that you are ever likely to read, it’s less than 200 pages long, and its arguments merit very serious consideration. You would be ill-advised to dismiss it out of hand.” Fast forward to the present and Torley’s attitude is mysteriously different. Now he assures us, in this latest post, that “the holes in Feser’s logic are so wide that anyone could drive a truck through them” and that the argument “contains so many obvious logical errors that I could not in all good conscience recommend showing it to atheists” (!)
Now, Torley is well aware that the argument I presented in the video is merely a popularized version -- presented before an audience of non-philosophers, and where I had a time limit -- of the same argument I defended in my book on Aquinas. And yet though four years ago he said that my “ability to articulate and defend” that argument is “matchless,” today he says that the “holes” in the argument are “so wide that anyone could drive a truck through them”! Three years ago he told an atheist that what I said in that book (including, surely, what I said about the First Way) is “about the best defense of Aristotelian Thomism that you are ever likely to read” and that atheists “would be ill-advised to dismiss it out of hand”; today he says he “could not in all good conscience recommend showing [Feser’s argument] to atheists”!
What has changed in the intervening years? Well, for one thing, while I am still critical of ID, I no longer bother replying to most of what Torley writes. Hence his complaint in this latest post that “Feser has yet to respond to my critique of his revamped version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way.” Evidently Torley thinks some score-settling is in order. He writes:
[I]f the argument [presented in the Vimeo talk] fails, Feser, who has ridiculed Intelligent Design proponents for years for making use of probabilistic arguments, will have to publicly eat his words… (emphasis in the original)
To be sure, Torley adds the following:
Let me state up-front that I am not claiming in this post that Aquinas’ cosmological argument is invalid; on the contrary, I consider it to be a deeply insightful argument, and I would warmly recommend Professor R. C. Koons’ paper, A New Look at the Cosmological Argument… I note, by the way, that Professor Koons is a Thomist who defends the legitimacy of Intelligent Design arguments. (emphasis in the original)
So, it isn’t the argument itself that is bad, but just my presentation of it -- even though Torley himself has praised my earlier presentations of it! Apparently, the key to giving a good First Way-style argument is this: If in your other work you “defend the legitimacy of Intelligent Design arguments,” then your take on Aquinas is to be “warmly recommended.” But if you have “ridiculed Intelligent Design proponents for years,” then even if your take on Aquinas is otherwise “matchless,” you must be made to “publicly eat your words.” It seems that for Torley, what matters at the end of the day when evaluating the work of a fellow theist is whether he is on board with ID. ID über alles. (And Torley has the nerve to accuse me of a “My way or the highway” attitude!)
Certainly it is hard otherwise to explain Torley’s shameless flouting of the principle of charity. Torley surely knows that the presentation of the argument to which he is responding is a popular version, presented before a lay audience, where I had an hour-long time limit. He knows that given those constraints I could not possibly have given a thorough presentation of the argument or answered every possible objection. He knows that I have presented the argument in a more academic style in various places, such as in Aquinas and in my ACPQ article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways.” He knows that I have answered various objections to my version of the argument both in those writings and in a great many blog posts. Yet his method is essentially to ignore all that and focus just on what I say in the video itself.
And sure enough, in good “science dork” fashion, Torley complains that the examples I use in the talk “are marred by faulty science.” Hence, in response to my remark that a desk which holds up a cup is able to do so only because it is in turn being held up by the earth, Torley, like a central casting New Atheist combox troll, starts to channel Bill Nye the Science Guy:
How does the desk hold the coffee cup up? From a physicist’s point of view, it would be better to ask: why doesn’t the cup fall through the desk? In a nutshell, there’s a force, related to a system’s effort to get rid of potential energy, that pushes the atoms in the cup and the atoms in the desk away from each other, once they get very close together. The Earth has nothing to do with the desk’s power to act in this way…
In any case, the desk doesn’t keep the coffee cup “up,” so much as away: the atoms comprising the wood of which the desk is made keep the atoms in the cup from getting too close…
Well, after reading what I said above, you know what is wrong with this. And Torley should know it too, because he is a regular reader of this blog and I’ve made the same point many times (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here). The point, again, is that the scientific details of the specific examples used to illustrate the metaphysical principles underlying Thomistic arguments for God’s existence are completely irrelevant. In the case at hand, the example of the cup being held up by the desk which is in turn being held up by the earth was intended merely to introduce, for a lay audience, the technical notion of an essentially ordered series of actualizers of potentiality. Once that notion is understood, the specific example used to illustrate it drops out as inessential. The notion has application whatever the specific physical details turn out to be. When a physicist illustrates a point by asking us to imagine what we would experience if we fell into a black hole or rode on a beam of light, no one thinks it clever to respond that photons are too small to sit on or that we would be ripped apart by gravity before we made it into the black hole. Torley’s tiresomely pedantic and point-missing objection is no better.
Anyway, that’s what Torley says in the first section of his 15 single-spaced page opus. Torley writes:
For the record, I will not be retracting anything I say in this post. Professor Feser may try to accuse me of misrepresenting his argument, but readers can view the video for themselves and see that I have set it out with painstaking clarity.
…as if stubbornly refusing to listen to a potential criticism somehow inoculates him in advance against it!
Well, don’t worry Vince, I won’t be accusing you of misrepresenting me in whatever it is you have to say in the remainder of this latest post of yours. I haven’t bothered to read it.