Saturday, September 6, 2014

Marmodoro on PSR and PC


Philosopher Anna Marmodoro is an important contributor to the current debate within metaphysics over powers and dispositions, and editor of the recommended The Metaphysics of Powers.  Recently, at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, she reviewed Rafael Hüntelmann and Johannes Hattler’s anthology New Scholasticism Meets Analytic Philosophy, in which my paper “The Scholastic Principle of Causality and the Rationalist Principle of Sufficient Reason” appears.  What follows is a response to her remarks about the paper.

My paper is essentially a set of excerpts from chapter 2 of Scholastic Metaphysics.  The principle of causality (PC), in what I take to be its core formulation, says that a potency can be actualized only by some already actual cause.  (In the paper, and at greater length in the book, I discuss how other formulations follow from this one.)  Marmodoro focuses on a section of the paper in which I discuss how a Scholastic might (as some Neo-Scholastic writers did) argue for PC on the basis of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR).  Marmodoro quotes a passage from the paper where I summarize this sort of argument as follows:

[I]f PC were false — if the actualization of a potency, the existence of a contingent thing, or something’s changing or coming into being could lack a cause — then these phenomena would not be intelligible, would lack a sufficient reason or adequate explanation. Hence if PSR is true, PC must be true.

She then comments:

Let us pause to examine the inference from PSR to PC. Is it a valid one? PSR is about what makes the world intelligible to us. It involves reasons we give in our explanations of how things are, or how they happen. But the PC is about causes, not reasons. The two sets are not co-extensive. What makes a state of affairs intelligible may be other than its causes. To show that it has to be limited to its causes would require further argument. It would be interesting to hear more from Feser about how the Scholastics could respond to this critique.  

Prof. Marmodoro is in no way polemical and her questions are reasonable ones.  However, they also seem to me somewhat odd ones given that, contrary to the impression that she (no doubt inadvertently) conveys, I do address these issues in the paper!  The lines from me that she quoted come at the very beginning of the section on PC and PSR, and they merely introduce the topic.  They are followed by eight pages of discussion, and there is also about a page and a half of additional material, earlier in the paper and before the section she focuses on, where I discuss the differences between PC and PSR.  The lines Prof. Marmodoro quotes from me need to be read in light of all of this material.

One problem with Marmodoro’s remarks is that she seems to be attributing to me things I not only do not say but (as is clear from the larger context) explicitly deny.  She says that “the PC is about causes, not reasons. The two sets are not co-extensive. What makes a state of affairs intelligible may be other than its causes.”  But I and other Scholastic writers would agree with this.  I explicitly distinguish PC and PSR in just the way she does, and I explicitly say in the article that “all causes are reasons in the sense of making the effect intelligible, but not all reasons are causes” (p. 21, emphasis added).  Hence when Prof. Marmodoro goes on to say that “to show that [what makes a state of affairs intelligible] has to be limited to its causes would require further argument,” she is certainly correct, but I never said (and would not say) in the first place that what makes a state of affairs intelligible has to be limited to its causes.  That is simply not what is at issue among Scholastic writers who would derive PC from PSR.

Thus when Marmodoro later cites these closing lines of my paper:

All rational inquiry, and scientific inquiry in particular, presupposes PSR. But PSR entails PC. Therefore PC cannot coherently be denied in the name of science. It must instead be regarded as part of the metaphysical framework within which all scientific results must be interpreted.

and comments that “the validity of the conclusion however depends on the entailment already questioned,” she is mistaken, because in fact I never asserted the entailment she attributes to me, and indeed would deny it.

It seems to me that what has happened here is that Prof. Marmodoro, reading in isolation the lines from my paper she initially quoted, wrongly supposes that when I say that “if the actualization of a potency, the existence of a contingent thing, or something’s changing or coming into being could lack a cause… then these phenomena would not be intelligible,” I must be conflating “being intelligible” with “having a cause” (even though I explicitly reject such a conflation elsewhere in the paper).  But in fact the idea is rather this: A thing could be intelligible in itself rather than by virtue of having a cause -- for example, if it is purely actual rather than a mixture of actuality and potentiality, or if it is necessary rather than contingent.  But a potency that is actualized is not purely actual, a contingent thing is not necessary, etc.  Hence their source of intelligibility cannot come from their own natures but must lie in something outside them.  So in the lines Marmodoro quotes from me, the claim is not that what lacks a cause is not intelligible, but rather that what lacks either a source of intelligibility within itself or a cause is not intelligible.

Another potential problem with Prof. Marmodoro’s discussion is that it might give some readers the impression that I move, hastily and without argument, from considerations about “what makes the world intelligible to us” to a claim about what it is like in itself.  And of course, an objection sometimes made against Leibnizian rationalist applications of PSR is that such a move is fallacious.  PSR’s demand that things be intelligible to us is (so the objection goes) not something we have reason to suppose the world actually can meet.  Even if we couldn’t help but seek for explanations, it wouldn’t follow (the critic says) that they are really there.

But this is another issue I explicitly address in the paper.  I discuss the ways in which the Scholastic understanding and application of PSR differs from the Leibnizian rationalist understanding and application of it.  I note that PSR can be formulated without making reference to “intelligibility,” citing as an example Maritain’s formulation of PSR as the principle that whatever is, has that whereby it is.  I also note that there is, in any event, a conceptual route from claims about “what makes the world intelligible to us” to claims about what it is like in itself provided by the Scholastic principle of the convertibility of the transcendentals.  In particular, being and truth are on this view convertible with one another, insofar as they are the same thing considered from different points of view.  Being is reality as it is in itself, whereas truth is reality as it is considered by the intellect -- that is to say, it is reality qua intelligible.  If the doctrine of the transcendentals is correct, then, every kind of being is in the relevant sense true, in which case every being is intelligible, which is just what PSR says.  By the same token, everything that is intelligible is a kind of being.  Hence there isn’t the gap between reality’s intelligibility to a mind and what reality is like in itself that the critic of rationalist versions of PSR supposes there to be.

Obviously all of that raises various questions, but the point is that Prof. Marmodoro does not actually address the nearly ten pages worth of argument and exposition I put forward just on the topic of the relationship between PSR and PC (let alone the many other pages devoted to other questions about PC).  The one argument she does raise questions about (very politely, it must be acknowledged) is one that I not only did not give, but would reject!

Anyway, interested readers can read the article themselves, or read the longer discussion in chapter 2 of Scholastic Metaphysics from which it was excerpted.  And, again, I also commend to them Prof. Marmodoro’s fine anthology. 

52 comments:

Anonymous said...

What value does her anthology have to offer a person interested in powers that is not already found in your work? What is of interest?

VictorNolan said...

Why would one even need to use PSR to argue for PC?

PC is pretty clear in and of itself.

Timocrates said...

Hello VictorNolan,

I think when you are getting into the rock bottom of reality when you are touching on the very nature of being it happens that while each such principle can of course be questioned they cannot all be without begging the question (they are employed at some point in rational argument or debate even by the sceptic). Hence if someone denies one such principle, another can be given that is accepted (at least implicitly though almost certainly necessarily at some point) that entails the principle (e.g., PC) that is being questioned or denied.

The Principles of Speculative Reason are usually given as:

1. Principle of Identity (PID): Every being/thing is what it is.

2. Non-Contradiction (PNC): A being/thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect.

3. Excluded Middle (PEM): A thing either is or is not, there is no in between.

4. Sufficient Reason (PSR): Whatever is has that whereby it is, which is to say that it has that whereby it can explain itself to the intellect.

5. Finality (PF): Every agent acts for an end.

5. Causality (PC): Every effect has a cause.

See: http://fmmh.ycdsb.ca/teachers/fmmh_mcmanaman/pages/first_principles.html

If you study these carefully you will see that they are all interrelated and follow from each other. Denying any one of them will vitiate if not actually destroy any possibility of our acquiring/gaining or having knowledge because either we ourselves cannot know (are not knowers) or nothing of its nature can even in principle be understood and rendered intelligible. Just about everyone will deny or question or misunderstand some one or other of the principles but rarely will anyone deny all of them (in fact this is virtually impossible without collapsing into pure gibberish). PSR does help to defend the truth and necessity of PC.


At least, that is my best attempt to explain why one would use PSR to defend PC though possibly other principles could also be used; but PSR and PC seem the most closely related to each other.

Timocrates said...

PF has been and certainly is today one of the most difficult principles to understand. I find it helps, however, to employ PNC to show PF’s truth because for most people PNC is the most acceptable principle.
If something is in any way acting (I mean actualizing a potency here) then it is necessarily doing something and not not-something; and if it is engaging in some activity then it cannot be not engaging in activity (first) but also it cannot be doing anything that would make that specific activity impossible or otherwise contradict it. Thus if I am walking I cannot be sitting down or (to put it even more obviously) dead. Thus my acting (walking) is an end even if, of course, I am probably not walking for its own sake but for some other (to get some fresh air, to become healthy/healthier (to use Aristotle’s example)). Of course, this hardly only applies to human beings or rational beings.
I like PF because it helps to remind us that being in English is an “action word”. It helps to shake us from complacency and a statist mentality. Pope Francis not too long ago said something like all things are dynamic becoming and not static entities; and this I think was widely misunderstood especially by some would-be Thomists. In this I suspect he was making a reference to PF; whereas, some seem to understand it as radically sceptical or a denial of real essences. But even being-a-rock is an activity however deceivingly benign it might seem. Now for obviously mutable, contingent and substantially changeable things/beings this is most evident.
Again, if something is being-a-rock (that is to say is a rock), then it is not not-being-a-rock; and if being-a-rock is an activity (which in light of its mutability it certainly at least in a sense is), then whatever is making the rock to be (or remain) a rock is so acting to accomplish just that. Hence we see that even PF seems to follow necessarily from the other principles.
But I fear I may be drifting us too far off topic here  I just hope this helps to explain why one principle is normally offered to defend another; thus even PNC will employ PID if necessary and PID, PNC.

Irish Thomist said...

This post is interesting in that I wondered what the interaction between Aristotelian philosophers like Dr Anna Marmodoro and Thomist philosophers like yourself is like. Both schools of thought are closely linked so I imagine that is why she was polite in her challenges/questions in a way others have not been. Although I am curious now as to what other (if any) disputes or agreements you have had with 'Aristotelian' Philosophers?

VictorNolan said...

Thanks for the explanation, Timocrates.

So Feser is saying that all causes are reasons, but not all reasons are causes... And that reasons aren't causes in the sense of Pure Act (God. Since God can't have a cause but does have intelligibility inherent to Him) or for necessary beings.

Doesn't sound like he's really conceding all that much (maybe he doesn't need to), but isn't all he's really saying is that all causes are reasons, but when we are considering God then not all reasons are causes ?

Paul Amrhein said...

Certain conditions are necessary but not sufficient for a given tendency to manifest. Are we left with chance as an explanation? Have we uncovered something deeper about objective probability? This is what excites me about Aristotelian et al, metaphysics- the possibility of grounding things that seem to have been left up in the air.

Scott said...

@VictorNolan:

"[I]sn't all he's really saying…that all causes are reasons, but when we are considering God then not all reasons are causes ?"

Not quite. In this context he's not making any reference to God at all.

As he writes in the OP: "I explicitly say in the article that 'all causes are reasons in the sense of making the effect intelligible, but not all reasons are causes' (p. 21, emphasis added)."

It's true, though, that if the subject at hand were natural theology rather than metaphysics, he would go on to argue that there is a purely actual, necessary being that doesn't require an extrinsic efficient cause, and that this being is the God of classical theism.

VictorNolan said...

Thanks for the reply, Scott.

Aside from God then what could possibly have reasons for 'something's existence', or 'some state of affairs' that wouldn't also be considered causes?

As the article says, reasons make something intelligible but they don't need to be the cause of it.

Aside from God I can't think of anything else that would meet that requirement.
Something contigency and something that is a combination of act and potency seems to require that reasons (that make them intelligible) also function as causes.

Scott said...

@VictorNolan:

"Aside from God I can't think of anything else that would meet that requirement."

Nor can I, but the point is that showing this takes additional steps in an argument that Ed isn't making here.

For example, he says that a purely actual being wouldn't require an external cause. But for all he says about it here, there might or might not be such a being, or there might be many such. The argument that there is one (and only one, and one that deserves to be called God) goes beyond the point Ed is concerned to make here.

VictorNolan said...

Thanks again Scott.
I'm going to have to re-read the article with what you're saying kept in mind.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Feser,

There's an argument for the PSR in your Scholastic Metaphysics which seems problematic. In p. 144, you give the following argument:

(1) If PSR is false, we could have no reason for thinking that our cognitive faculties track truth.
(2) If we could have no such reason, then our grounds for doubting or denying the PSR are undermined.
(3) If such grounds are undermined, then rejection of the PSR is self-undermining.
(4) Therefore, if PSR is false, rejection of the PSR is self-undermining.

Why accept (1)? You write:

"For all we know, what moves or causes us to assent to a claim might have absolutely nothing to do with the deliverances of our cognitive faculties..."

The problem is that this is true even if the PSR is true. That is, if the PSR is true it is still epistemically possible that what moves or causes us to assent to a claim might have nothing to do with the deliverances of our cognitive faculties. So if the PSR is true, our grounds for accepting the PSR are undermined.

Timocrates said...

Hello VictorNolan,

You asked,

"Aside from God then what could possibly have reasons for 'something's existence', or 'some state of affairs' that wouldn't also be considered causes?"

I might offer as one example (though I'd be open to correction here from Dr. Feser or Scott) those kinds of 'causes' that are temporally removed or become separate from their effects. So, for example, my (biological) father is a cause of my existence; but in my 'present state of affairs' he is not a cause but a reason for my being and also, in part, for my being the way I am (from parenting). My father was not only normally necessary for me to come into being (as was my mother) but moreover he helped in what was equally necessary for me (and everyone normally); to wit, raising, feeding, sheltering and educating me that I might be able to survive and function in life and society.

Thus my father and mother can be given or reasons for my present 'state of affairs' as (partial) explanations even though they are not active causes for my present being. In that sense, biological facts (like health) are probably going to be given as the causes and reasons for my presently being as well as a host of other things (necessary conditions in the environment - if I were in the Sun or some such other totally inhospitable and destructive environment I would cease to be as I now am).

So again my father and mother are reasons that help to explain my being but are not presently active (let alone necessary) causes of my being as I presently am; and things like biological facts (even down to the atomic level) would be causes in the strict sense of my present being, without which I could and would not be, up to and including most necessarily (for A-T most certainly) God and God's help.

Hope that helps and again I would probably defer to anything Scott or Dr. Feser might say about it!


Peace and blessings,
Timo.

Scott said...

"The problem is that this is true even if the PSR is true."

Not in the relevant sense. If the PSR is true, then there are always some reasons why we believe what we believe, and the only question is whether those reasons justify our beliefs. Sometimes they will, and sometimes they won't.

If the PSR is false, though, then in any particular case of belief, no matter how well-founded we might believe it to be, it still could be the case that we believe as we do for no reason whatsoever. Our belief that our belief is well-founded is just another such belief, and we could thus never be practically certain that any of our beliefs really were well-founded.

If the PSR is true, we don't have that problem. When (for example) I accept the Principle of Non-Contradiction on the apparent ground that I assume it even in the act of denying it, I can be confident that this really is my reason for accepting it and that I'm not doing so for no reason at all.

Scott said...

In other words, without the PSR, we could never, in principle, reasonably believe that we believe anything for the reasons we think we do.

Anonymous said...

Scott - Thank you for the reply :)

"If the PSR is false, though, then in any particular case of belief, no matter how well-founded we might believe it to be, it still could be the case that we believe as we do for no reason whatsoever."

But this is also the case if the PSR is true. If the PSR is true, for all we know, some Cartesian demon makes us believe things for no reason whatsoever. And if the PSR supporter doesn't take these Cartesian scenarios seriously, then why can't the PSR skeptic do the same with regard to the possibility of his having beliefs for no reason?

Jeremy Taylor said...

Anon,

Presumably, because he is making an argument analogous to the Cartesian demon being true and then exempting himself from its consequences.

Besides, maybe I'm wrong, but I think the PSR is at a more fundamental level than the Cartesian demon. If that demon is possible, this doesn't mean there is no reason for our beliefs, just untrustworthy ones.

You could, I think, look at it from another direction and say we do have knowledge, justified beliefs. Then you can conclude this means the PSR must be true. This rules out the sceptical implications you refer to, but in doing so shows argues for the PSR.

It is akin to how C.S Lewis and Victor Reppert argue for the argument from reason. They start with the premise that we do, in fact, have genuine access to rational inference and then point out the consequences of this for naturalistic accounts of reason and mind. They do not take seriously the view we do not have rational inference, but that does not mean they cannot use the conditions necessary to account for rational inference as part of a case against those positions that would seem to undermine these conditions.

Matt Sheean said...

This might not make one more confident in their beliefs, but it occurs to me (for impish reasons) that if there is a Cartesian demon causing me to have false beliefs for no reason then that is the reason why I have false beliefs (whether or not the demon has reasons, it might, a little further down the road be shown that he has no reasons for the reason that he is a demon).

Anonymous said...

Jeremy and Matt - Thank you for the replies!

I may be confused, but I'm distinguishing between causes and reasons here. The Cartesian demon causes my belief, but I have that belief for no reason (justified or not) - i.e. I hold that belief neither via inference from other beliefs, nor as a belief based on some experience (perceptual, memorial, etc.).

I hope this clarifies my point. :)

Jeremy Taylor said...

Well, a cause is a reason (though not all reasons are causes, as Dr. Feser points out), though, of course it is not enough for our a beliefs simply to be caused for them to be rational.

As I said, you could rule out the Cartesian demon and PSR scepticism by starting with the premise we do have knowledge, justified belief.

The point is also, as Scott makes clear, that the PSR sceptic's own argument is undermined by his own position. Yes, it is not sufficient to rule out PSR scepticism, perhaps, to show we have justified beliefs, including of PSR scepticism, but it is necessary. The issue of the demon doesn't seem to have a bearing on this.

Greg said...

@ Anon

I think this is an interesting objection. I will think about it more.

The Cartesian demon causes my belief, but I have that belief for no reason (justified or not) - i.e. I hold that belief neither via inference from other beliefs, nor as a belief based on some experience (perceptual, memorial, etc.).

One qualification to make first is that the Cartesian demon offers misleading experiences. I believe there is a book before me because I see a book before me. Maybe I see the book before me because a demon is presenting to me a perception of a book even though there isn't one. But in that case I do have a reason, and a justified reason, in fact, for my false belief.

Another relevant distinction might be between internalist and externalist accounts of knowledge. Feser's comments are about the deliverances of our cognitive faculties, while you have inferred that he is talking about reasons for belief. This is a narrowing of the field of justification. An externalist account of knowledge (which a Thomist would favor) would allow that there may be knowledge without interior certainty. So there can be knowledge-yielding external circumstances even though the same internal state may obtain in some demon scenario, which is not knowledge-yielding. On the other hand, if PSR is false, then there is no reason for believing that even in favorable circumstances, my cognitive faculties are reliable.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy and Greg -

Oh, I think I know what's bothering me here. I guess I just don't see how Feser goes from

"If the PSR is false, then, for all we know, what moves or causes us to assent to a claim might have absolutely nothing to do with the deliverances of our cognitive faculties"

to

"Our beliefs are undermined."

How does the latter follow from the former? To deny the PSR isn't to say everything lacks a reason or cause, so even if the PSR is false, it is still possible for our beliefs to be rational. And this is precisely what the PSR denier can say - even if not everything has a reason or cause, I see no reason to think my beliefs have no reasons or causes.

What do you guys think?

Anonymous said...

Jeremy and Greg -

Oh, I think I know what's bothering me here. I guess I just don't see how Feser goes from

"If the PSR is false, then, for all we know, what moves or causes us to assent to a claim might have absolutely nothing to do with the deliverances of our cognitive faculties"

to

"Our beliefs are undermined."

How does the latter follow from the former? To deny the PSR isn't to say everything lacks a reason or cause, so even if the PSR is false, it is still possible for our beliefs to be rational. And this is precisely what the PSR denier can say - even if not everything has a reason or cause, I see no reason to think my beliefs have no reasons or causes.

What do you guys think?

Jeremy Taylor said...

Isn't the point that just allowing the possibility there is no cause or reason for our beliefs is enough? Because we can then never know if a particular belief is not justified.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy -

I'm afraid that's not obvious to me :S

Why should the mere epistemic possibility ("for all we know" in Feser's words) that something's awry with our epistemic situation give us reason to doubt our beliefs?

After all, the mere epistemic possibility that we are being deceived by a Cartesian demon doesn't give us reason to doubt our beliefs. Just because, for all we know, we are brains in vats, it doesn't seem to follow that our beliefs about the external world are undermined.

Irish Thomist said...

@Anon
What do you guys think?

I think there would be;
1) No connection between 'reason' and any belief.
2) No justification for a belief (it can't be explained why A justifies B rather than Z. We don't even have an A anyway so how would 'reason' happen at all?
3) No evidence or reason to believe any given thing to be true.

@All

What do you think of p.143 where Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange is being quoted and Feser here sheds doubt on his argument 'connecting' (my word - not how Feser worded it) PNC and PSR. Was the point overstated slightly insofar as it is a weak line rather than a flawed line of argumentation? I tend to think that maybe to deny one may result in denying the other - i.e. that some good argument could be made to convey why there is a problem.

Georgy Mancz said...

@Anon

The natural response, I think, to the postulation of a deus deceptor is to inquire why ("what is the reason")one is to believe in the "deus deceptor".
For the proponent of this postulation (and the denier of PSR) needs to differentiate, and for that one needs a criterion, and there is none.

What does "not everything" mean? Why some connection between reason and belief here, and the total lack of entailment there?..

Denying PSR is different in scale.

Greg said...

@ Anon

How does the latter follow from the former? To deny the PSR isn't to say everything lacks a reason or cause, so even if the PSR is false, it is still possible for our beliefs to be rational. And this is precisely what the PSR denier can say - even if not everything has a reason or cause, I see no reason to think my beliefs have no reasons or causes.

What do you guys think?


Well, I see a difficulty in denying PSR but allowing that there are some explanations. If things don't need explanations, why do some things have explanations, and what basis do I have for believing so? (What makes particular classes of events susceptible to or exempt from explanation?) Surely it couldn't be that a particular classes of events must remain explicable in order that my theory remain consistent.

That is a separate line of argument, though, so I would prefer that Feser's argument that rejecting PSR is undermining not rely on it.

I'm in agreement with you that a defective cognitive state might arise by an evil demon giving us faulty perceptions, or by faulty perceptions that just arise uncaused and without explanation. I think the salient difference would have to lie in the problems that remain for the PSR denier even if we are in normal cognitive circumstances. (Though perhaps someone would like to defend the stronger point?)

I agree with Georgy Mancz that denying the PSR is different in scale. For instance, if there is an evil demon (or one is hallucinating, or whatever) then the defects in our belief formation are in principle explicable. If PSR is false, then faulty beliefs (because uncaused and unrelated to truth) remain inexplicable. We just have them.

Greg said...

Another sort of general problem with denying PSR is that it allows for global overdetermination if I want to allow any legitimate explanations. Even if p explains q, it will always be epistemically possible that q is brute. So q is overdetermined; it has a sufficient cause, that actually obtains, when it doesn't need one and could have occurred without it. I can provide no principled reason why any phenomenon needs an explanation.

Further trouble ensues because it is impossible to assign a probability to a brute event, though sometimes we would like different hypotheses about events to compete. So the hypothesis that p causes q competes with the non-probabilistic hypothesis that q is brute, and it is impossible to decide which is legitimate.

Brandon said...

Just because, for all we know, we are brains in vats, it doesn't seem to follow that our beliefs about the external world are undermined.

But while this is technically true, it seems to be only because you are switching modalities midstream. If, for all we know, we are brains in vats, it does follow that, for all we know, our beliefs about the external world are unsupported. And, indeed, this is the problem almost everyone takes BIV scenarios to raise.

It isn't clear what you are taking the PSR denier to be arguing. Is it that, in any given case, we cannot know beforehand whether there is a reason or cause for it? Or is it that we can know this beforehand for some domains (like beliefs) and not others? And if the latter, what, at this high level of generality, is supposed to make such a substantive difference between beliefs and other things, and how does one identify this difference in a way that does not itself assume the general applicability of PSR? One of the issues with the latter is that if the denial is supposed to be based on either evidence or analysis, both of these kinds of inference seem to be structured by taking PSR to be true beforehand; so if it's a matter of inference we seem to need a kind of atypical inference that is neither evidential nor analytic. On the other hand, if it's not based on inference, it isn't clear how we get the 'for all we know' modality, which seems to require a prior ability to make some kind of inference from what we know. So what's the actual claim being made?

Scott said...

There's a huge difference in principle between the possibility that my beliefs might have been formed in the wrong way and/or for the wrong reasons, on the one hand, and the possibility that they might have been formed for no reason at all, on the other. In the former case I can reasonably count on all the usual things (sensory perception, memory, introspection, reasoning, and so forth) to help me find out how I arrived at any particular belief, and I can conclude in some instances that I have every reason to belief that my belief was formed in the right way. In the latter I can't ever conclude that, because I can't ever rule out the possibility that even my beliefs in the trustworthiness of my memory and senses, etc., were formed for no reason at all. My epistemic justifications never "bottom out" anywhere.

"I'm distinguishing between causes and reasons here. The Cartesian demon causes my belief, but I have that belief for no reason (justified or not)[.]"

That's fine in some contexts. However, for the purposes of the PSR, the demon's activity (at least partly) explains how you came to hold your beliefs and is therefore (at least part of) the reason for them. (To put it another way, there is a reason why you hold your beliefs, even if you don't personally have such a reason.)

"To deny the PSR isn't to say everything lacks a reason or cause, so even if the PSR is false, it is still possible for our beliefs to be rational."

But it's also possible for them not to be. If it's possible in principle for some things to exist or occur without sufficient reason/explanation, then in principle we can never know what the exceptions might be; as far as we can see, it could always be the case that our cognitive faculties do what they do for no reason at all.

I think what you're supposing here is roughly that even without the PSR, we might still adopt a principle along the lines of Well, maybe there are some things that lack reasons or causes, but our beliefs aren't among them. But the question is: if we deny that the PSR holds universally, then how could we ever justifiably adopt such a principle?

Alan said...

Is it not such that if PSR is false, the universe itself is irrational? Absent PSR I don’t think we could have ‘laws of nature’ but rather an arbitrary sequence of miracles. We might as well toss virgins into volcanoes as study science.

Scott said...

@Alan:

"Is it not such that if PSR is false, the universe itself is irrational?"

Well, what Anon is basically proposing (as I understand him/her—henceforth he, him, etc.) is that this needn't be the case; it might be that the PSR might fail to hold on a limited domain without thereby threatening the rationality of our beliefs, and therefore that there are regions of reality that are intelligible "all the way down" even if not all such regions are. So no, on his proposal it wouldn't (or needn't) be the case that the universe is unintelligible/irrational, full stop.

To my mind, at any rate, the key question in reply to his proposal is how we confine the unintelligibility to a domain that doesn't include the causal bases of our beliefs. I don't think it can be done.

Alan said...

@ Scott et al. I suppose, stepping away from philosophy, we can (as we actually do) use heuristic science to measure consistency in nature and thereby estimate its compliance to laws as we formulate them. So while today we cannot tell if any particular discrepancy is an error in our model or incoherence in nature, we can, over time, narrow our uncertainty. Put another way, the best we can do is to keep doing what we are doing.

Tony said...

Isn't this an example of a reason that doesn't constitute a cause: a reductio argument.

In the reductio, you end up with a solid REASON to affirm a truth, but you may still not have the CAUSE of the truth being true. The cause is often something more difficult to see, e.g. it is sometimes more difficult to identify the essence of a thing sufficiently to know exactly why the truth is true.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for all your replies, a lot to think about :) Perhaps this is the best way of putting the problem I have in mind:

Either the epistemic possibility that what causes us to assent to a claim has nothing to with the deliverances of our cognitive faculties entails that our beliefs are undermined, or not.

If so, then our beliefs are undermined even if the PSR is true - even if the PSR is true, that epistemic possibility still exists.

If not, then Feser's argument doesn't establish its intended conclusion.

Hope that's clearer!

Irish Thomist said...

@Anon

The problem is Scholastics (at least Thomists anyway) just do not begin with epistemology but rather metaphysics. Since if there is not that which is, there is not possible that which is to be known.

Might help to look into transcendentals to understand some problems with dividing being and truth.

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=transcendentals

Anonymous said...

Hi Irish, how does placing metaphysics first undermine the dilemma I posed for Feser's argument? It's not so clear to me, I'm afraid.

Bob said...

The problem is Scholastics (at least Thomists anyway) just do not begin with epistemology but rather metaphysics. Since if there is not that which is, there is not possible that which is to be known.

I have to say that this is a big stumbling block for me. Talk of "mind-independent reality" seems like an oxymoron, since it isn't possible to know something "outside" the mind (or rather, that it is outside the mind), without a mind. Common sense tells us that there is a world out there, but how can we say that being is prior to knowing?. And if causes are simultaneous with their effects (and not simply "constant conjunctions" in temporal sequence, a la Hume) how is it possible to know(!) which causes which?

Irish Thomist said...

@Bob

I made my statement in the sense in which we must establish 'being'. This doesn't exclude but works in union with concepts of 'knowing'. Otherwise we end up in the nonsense of much of modern philosophy. Feser's book on the philosophy of mind gets into some of these topics more indepth.

George Mancz said...

@Anon

I think the force that your dilemma prima facie might have is due to equivocation concealed under the vague notion of "epistemic possibility", as there simply is no real epistemology without PSR, as in this case there simply are no reasons as reasons/no way to tell if reasons are reasons.
I think the Irish Thomist is right: you seem to be keeping PSR in order to allow for epistemology and sacking it when it comes to ontology.

Affirming PSR allows for us being deceived in a particular case (the deus deceptor case you've cited), but reasons are still reasons, as Scott noted, whereas there's no "perhaps this is a reason" after denying PSR, for it's impossible to differentiate, as, I think, Brandon noted, you'd end up appealing to reasons.

Brandon said...

Anonymous,

I'm not sure I fully understand your dilemma, which seems less clear than your original statement. But you haven't established that the 'epistemic possibility' exists; Ed's 'for all we know', which is the one you originally said you were using, was only in the assume-PSR-is-not-true branch, since the point was that any principled response would require PSR, but now you're trying to use it as if it were a general thing. So either your first branch is off(because you're either putting the modality in the wrong place or equivocating) or your second (because you're shifting away from Ed's actual conclusion).

Scott said...

"Either the epistemic possibility that what causes us to assent to a claim has nothing to with the deliverances of our cognitive faculties entails that our beliefs are undermined, or not."

But you haven't given any other cases in which what causes us to assent to a claim has nothing to do with the deliverances of our cognitive faculties.

In the Cartesian-demon scenario and the brain-in-a-vat scenario, we do give our assent based on the deliverances of our cognitive faculties; it's just that in these cases, unbeknownst to us, we ought not to trust the deliverances of our faculties because our faculties are being made to operate under unusual conditions (though, significantly, still causally). And in principle, we could find that out, even if the precise conditions of the scenario preclude us from doing so in fact.

And if you tighten up either scenario so that, in it, what causes us to assent to a claim does have nothing to do with the deliverances of our cognitive faculties, then you'll just be talking again about a (the) case in which the PSR fails to hold. (It's just that we'd know why it didn't hold—an interesting position to be in, but never mind that.) Or so it seems to me.

So I don't see the dilemma. As far as I can tell, you haven't adduced any genuinely distinct case in which our belief in the general causal efficacy of our cognitive faculties is undermined even if the PSR is true.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the replies, especially Scott - your reply was very helpful. I'm now starting to see that, if the PSR is true, it isn't clear that there is the epistemic possibility that what causes our belief has nothing to do with the deliverances of our cognitive faculties.

But it still isn't clear to me how Feser gets from that epistemic possibility to the claim that our beliefs are undermined. Can someone explain this to me? :)

Scott said...

"[I]t still isn't clear to me how Feser gets from that epistemic possibility to the claim that our beliefs are undermined."

In the ordinary case of belief, we believe something for reasons. I believe there's an apple in my hand because I see certain shapes and colors, feel certain temperatures and pressures, and so forth. I believe that the squares of the legs of a Euclidean triangle add up to the square of the hypotenuse because I've successfully followed a proof to that effect. I believe the Principle of Non-Contradiction because I understand that even in attempting to deny it, I have to assume it.

Now, if the PSR holds, I may be mistaken in any or all of those cases about the reasons why I believe those things, but I can't be mistaken about the fact that there are reasons why I believe them. I may think I understood the proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, for example, but maybe I'm wrong: I didn't really understand it and I'm actually believing its conclusion on the basis of my geometry teacher's authority.

Nevertheless I can, with a high degree of confidence, find out whether this is the case by the usual methods of investigating such things. I'm able, say, to reproduce the proof of the Pythagorean Theorem "under my own steam" and explain it to the satisfaction of a(nother) geometry teacher; I may also be able to rule out that I accept the Theorem based on one teacher's authority by noting that I've seriously questioned that same teacher's authority on other relevant issues.

But if the PSR doesn't hold, then I might not believe those things for any "reasons" at all. In that case I'm in a far worse position: no matter how much I investigate my reasons for believing this or that, I can never confidently rule out that there just isn't any such reason. Maybe my accepting the Pythagorean Theorem is just a brute fact. If so, I could never learn this, even in principle.

Bob said...

@ irish thomist

I made my statement in the sense in which we must establish 'being'. This doesn't exclude but works in union with concepts of 'knowing'. Otherwise we end up in the nonsense of much of modern philosophy.

Thanks. Since this is probably off-topic, do you know if Dr. Feser has written about this (priority of metaphysics over epistemology) in any previous blog posts?

It seems to me that there can be no firm dividing line between the two subjects, and to the extent that each presupposes the other there can be no priority. I'm happy to be proved wrong though. ;-)

Irish Thomist said...

@Bob

I will be honest in that I am making a little bit of an educated guess. Metaphysics is prior at least in 'importance' in so far as any view of thought or knowledge et al entails there a being something at all to experience it. Somewhat like Descartes "I think, thus I am". Although maybe not in the exact context he meant it.

Help From The Smithy

Anonymous said...

Scott -

"if the PSR doesn't hold...I can never confidently rule out that there just isn't any such reason."

I agree, though I don't see how the PSR skeptic would be troubled by this. He can say we rarely have anything close to perfect certainty with our beliefs, so our being unable to rule out brute beliefs isn't bothering. The question is where the evidence points, and to the PSR skeptic's mind, much of his evidence points to him not having brute believings.

So the PSR skeptic can grant what you say. It still doesn't give him a reason to think his beliefs are undermined. Or so it seems to my mind. Maybe I'm missing something though.

Scott said...

"I agree, though I don't see how the PSR skeptic would be troubled by this. He can say we rarely have anything close to perfect certainty with our beliefs, so our being unable to rule out brute beliefs isn't bothering. The question is where the evidence points, and to the PSR skeptic's mind, much of his evidence points to him not having brute believings."

Fair enough, but I still think this leaves the PSR skeptic in a much weaker epistemic position than the PSR believer. However much the evidence may seem to direct him to believe that he doesn't have brute believings, his PSR-skepticism will have to applied to that belief as well, and…well, you see where I'm going.

I'd say that "give[s] him a reason to think his beliefs are undermined"&mdsah;though perhaps not positively falsified, which would be a good deal stronger.

Scott said...

(Er, pretend that "&mdsah;" is a dash, please.)

Brandon said...

The question is where the evidence points, and to the PSR skeptic's mind, much of his evidence points to him not having brute believings.

If the conclusion is based on evidence, what evidential inference would he be using that wouldn't presuppose some form of PSR?

Timocrates said...

If you deny PSR – the principle that everything has a sufficient reason for its being, either in itself on in some other – then some things would admit of no explanation at all or, even worse, would admit of an irrational explanation (oxymoronic as that is). It would lead to admitting the possibility of denying the principle of non-contradiction at least in some cases, which is impossible.

To put it in other words, some beings would simply be irrational. Now magic is sometimes cited as an instance of what happens when you allow nature or the world to actually be at any time, place or instance irrational; however, as someone has once noted, even magic isn’t totally irrational. Magic is more of a parody of the way nature actually is (say the right words/ do the right thing using/with the right stuff and you get some result that would otherwise be totally unrelated or even impossible). But even that belief (i.e. in magic) is not totally irrational (it satisfies and assumes formal, material, efficient and final causes after all). But actually admitting an irrational explanation for (a) being would destroy all science as actually rational explanations or even the pursuit of them would not be justified as we’d have no reason to actually expect there to be necessarily be one. This would destroy scientific confidence and, of course, lead to a radical scepticism.

Again, the problem with denying PSR is that you admit the ultimately psychotic belief that being can even in principle sometimes actually be irrational in account or explanation, which of course leads to the possibility of admitting the absurd, thus even opening the door to violating or denying PNC. Denying PSR is saying possibly some thing or being can exist exactly because it does not exist, for example.