Saturday, August 13, 2016

Review of Harris on Hume


Just back from a very enjoyable week at the Thomistic seminar in Princeton.  Regular blogging will resume shortly.

In the meantime, my review of Hume: An Intellectual Biography by James A. Harris appears in the Summer 2016  issue of the Claremont Review of Books

30 comments:

Crude said...

At first I thought 'Wait, Harris? This is going to be hilarious.' Alas, wrong Harris.

Sounds like a disappointing book, ah well.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Crude, I take it you mean "Disappointing because I was expecting some comedy from Sam Harris," right? (Since the review isn't negative.)

SK said...

Is there some way to get access to the Thomistic Seminar contents via book, video, audio, or really any medium at all?

Robert Byers said...

Hume was not christian and almost atheist etc. i don't see why such a person had much to add to human intellectual exercise.
Its probably just that in the old days so few people thought and wrote about matters like these that easily some got famous for marginally better ways of writing, wit, but not insight worth remembering.

Crude said...

Ed,

No actually. Your review seemed to stress heavily that what you saw as important influences on Hume's thought (scholastic) were left untouched? I'll reread it, perhaps my other disappointment at not seeing you dismantle Harris anew was clouding my judgment.

Edward Feser said...

Hi again Crude,

Ah, yes, I did in fact say that Harris's failure to say much about the Jesuit contacts, Scholastic background, etc. was a disappointing aspect of his book. So, fair enough.

D Baum said...

I too, was disappointed that it was not Sam Harris on Hume. :D

Edward Feser said...

Hello SK,

No, I'm afraid it's not the sort of thing that lends itself to that, i.e. it does not involve the presentation of papers or the like.

Crude said...

Just to follow up.

Rereading the review, I can see it's overall quite positive. It's just that the criticisms come towards the end, so that sticks in my mind.

Anonymous said...

Crude, it certainly would be hilarious seeing Sam Harris defending Hume. Sam Harris trying to defend any philosophical position is always a great demonstration of sophistry. The guy has no clue, but (sadly) probably knows more than Dawkins, Krauss, or Hitchens about philosophy.

Jeb Lund said...

Harambe is the one true G-d.

Callum said...

Hi Dr Feser, long time reader of the blog and have Aquinas and TLS. I have two questions in the Five Ways, would it derail the combox to ask them here or should i wait for a relevant post?

Αναξίθαλες said...

might as well go ahead, someone'll probably help you out.

Callum said...

Ok. The First Way explains how things change by explaining why things exist. Many atheists argue that the 'ground floor' level of reality are fundamental particles which explain why things exist. They essentially agree with 90% of the First Way but find fundamental particles as the unmoved mover.

Dr. Feser has replied that even fundamental particles need to be actualised as they are composites of matter and form.

However, if someone rejects hylemorphism, even accepting the arguments against materialism but siding towards another form of dualism, would that mean the First Way wouldnt work? Basically, does the First way need the matter/form distinction in order to work? Or is there something within the act/potency distinction alone which answers this objection that fits with dualism as well?

I understand this doesnt make it a weakness as Feser has argued for hylemorphism on independent grounds, im interested to see if the argument is successful under other metaphysic assumtions.

For the record im somewhere between hylemorphic dualism and substance dualism (also undecided on Hasker's dualism).

Elizabeth Gormley said...

@Callum
I think that Atheists who would argue that "the 'ground floor' level of reality are fundamental particles" would be hard pressed to explain how they know that when they can't adequately describe what a fundamental particle is in the first place.

Anonymous said...

@ Callum

The fundamental particles would still be composites of act & potency. They are actual in some respects, but they are potential in other respects, e.g. w.r.t. location or one quark changing into another kind of quark. So they cannot be made sense of qua pure actuality.

Elizabeth Gormley said...

@Anonymous
While, the Standard Model is still the "only game in town", however we do not know what a quark is. No one has ever seen a "quark." We can use mathematical models to predict the energy responses of an experiment and we call that outcome a "quark."
While the Standard Model has many successes in predicting experimental outcomes, last I heard it still could not adequately account for Gravity. And so then how can it describe reality at the most fundamental level?

Elizabeth Gormley said...

@Anonymous
Sorry - that first sentence should read: While the Standard Model is still the "only game in town we do not know what a quark is.

We talk about quarks as if they are real, but are they? Aren't they really a mathematical term in a mathematical model that comes closest to describing the sub-atomic level of nature that we can only observe indirectly?

Callum said...

@Elizabeth

Not necessarily with regards to a specific idea of a fundamental particle, but that the fundamental particle, whatever it turns out to be, could be the ground floor reality which actualises everything else (atoms, molecules, nervous systems etc) and so change is explained by the existence of things which are explained by fundamental particles (whatever they turn out to be), of course Dr Feser has replied to such an objection that it couldn't be candidate for the ground level of reality, as it needs to be actualised given a Hylemorphic understanding. Of course this isn't a weakness per se, I'm just trying to figure out if someone who hasn't fully accepted hylemorphism yet can answer the objection with just the idea of act and potency?

Callum said...

@Anonymous

I'm not sure alluding to the potential for fundamental particles to change location does much, after all, at the part of the argument motion is being explained by why things exist. So the Existence of a molecule is actualised by atoms and so forth. It's a causal series essentially ordered explaining by things exist, not move. So molecules depend on atoms, which depend on subatomic particles etc. why can't it be a fundamental particle which actualises the series but doesn't itself depend on something previous for its existence? If someone isn't a hylemorphist, I can't see a reply to that objection. (Of course there are arguments for Hylemorphic understanding of nature, but then it seems the first way depends on a hlyemorphic understanding which was my question)

Vishal Mehra said...

Callum,
The fundamental particles are entities postulated in the context of a physical theory such as Standard Model. So, it is the Standard Model that is fundamental along with the formalism of quantum mechanics. But this formalism does not explain itself. Why is the mass of a quark this much and not that much? Why does the interaction take this form and not any other?

Callum said...

@Vishal
My understanding of physics is admittedly poor especially when quantum mechanics enters the picture. Are you saying that fundamental particles depend their existence on quantum mechanics or the Standard model? Or are you saying that particles have potencies in regards to location etc? Because my reservations are about whether a quark needs it's existence to be actualised, because if it doesn't, why could it not be the terminus in the First Way? Of course, given a hylemorphic understanding it can't be the terminus. My original question was whether the success of the First Way depended on hylemorphism of the form matter distinction as opposed to a basic doctrine of act and potency?

I can't think of why a quark or electron need their existence to be actualised by something else. Given hylemorphism, I think the First Way is unobjectionable and as Aquinas said, the most manifest way. However, I think i doubt it succeeds without the form and matter distinction.

grodrigues said...

@Callum:

"Because my reservations are about whether a quark needs it's existence to be actualised, because if it doesn't, why could it not be the terminus in the First Way? Of course, given a hylemorphic understanding it can't be the terminus. My original question was whether the success of the First Way depended on hylemorphism of the form matter distinction as opposed to a basic doctrine of act and potency?"

Since quarks are subject to corruption and generation, they are composites of essence of existence just like any other material particles. Why you say quarks do not need their existence actualized is anybody's guess. Furthermore, since Scholastic writers tend to view the distinction between form and matter as logically subsequent to that between act and potency your question is a tad bizarre.

Here is Prof. Feser, the two opening paragraphs on the distinction between form and matter of his "Scholastic Metaphysics" (for more get your hands on the book).

"Aristotle’s four causes are the formal cause, the material cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause. Our consideration of the theory of act and potency has led us to the latter two causes. A potency is always a potency for some actuality. It points beyond itself to an end or range of ends. Hence to understand a thing’s potencies is to understand it in terms of final causality. A potency can be actualized only by what is already actual. Hence to understand a thing’s coming into being or changing – that is to say, its becoming actual in various respects – is to understand it in terms of efficient causality. A thing’s final and efficient causes are extrinsic principles of its being, since the ends to which it points and the causes which actualize it are outside of it.

Now the theory of act and potency also leads us naturally to two intrinsic principles of a thing’s being, namely its material and formal causes -- that is to say, its matter and form (hyle and morphe in Greek, hence the term “hylemorphism” or “hylomorphism”). There are two fundamental lines of argument for hylemorphism (Cf. Koren 1962, Chapter 2), though Scholastic writers have also put forward a number of secondary arguments (Cf. the readings collected in Part III of Koren 1965). These two primary arguments may be labeled the argument from change and the argument from limitation, and they are implicit in what was said in chapter 1 in exposition of the general theory of act and potency."

Callum said...

@Grodrigues

Thanks for the reply and i do appreciate the quote from Scholastic metaphysics. Along with Neo scholastic essays, I plan on getting it.

I accept that I may be to quick to try and make clear distinctions between hylemorphism and the basic act/potency distinction, when the former certainly at least seems to follow from the later (bear in mind that I did say that *if* the First Way depended on hylemorphism, it wouldnt necessarily be a weakness).

When you mention essence and existence, arent you talking about the second way? Though I know Feser has mentioned that the essence/existence distinction can also be applied to the atheist 'fundamental particle' objection, just that you dont need it for the First Way. (Ultimately though, im fairly convinced by the arguments for the act/potency distinction but not really for the essence/existence one).

grodrigues said...

@Callum:

"When you mention essence and existence, arent you talking about the second way? Though I know Feser has mentioned that the essence/existence distinction can also be applied to the atheist 'fundamental particle' objection, just that you dont need it for the First Way."

Not the Second Way but the distinction between essence and existence and the argument for God's existence based on it in the "De Ente et Essentia", but only by way of responding to your "reservations are about whether a quark needs it's existence to be actualised". Quarks are material particles, they have patterns of behavior, they change, etc. so quite obviously and contrary to what you say, they do need their existence to be actualised. For the purposes of the First Way, you could go without it. Although, even if it turned out that I was wrong in this latter point it would not make much difference. The distinction is argued on metaphysical grounds quite independent of the uses it is put to in natural theology, so no harm no foul if it ends up being folded in such an arguments. Charges that the First Way is, or would end up be, "parasitical" on other arguments like the one in the "De Ente et Essentia" I do not find particularly compelling.

Callum said...

@Grodrigues

I think it's obvious that the First Way, mainly, relies on either the form/matter distinction or Essence/Existence distinction to explain why fundamental particles can't be the first mover.

Could you explain why a quark would need its existence actualised because it has patterns of behaviour and changes? Is that appealing to act/potency rather than essence/existence? And, if it is act/potency, are you meaning form/matter in particular? Where patterns of behaviour means essence or form?

grodrigues said...

@Callum:

"I think it's obvious that the First Way, mainly, relies on either the form/matter distinction or Essence/Existence distinction to explain why fundamental particles can't be the first mover."

Since it is the contrary that I find obvious, why don't you tell me what exactly quarks have in special, since you do not say the same of other material bodies, that qualify them as First Movers? I suspect you are laboring on some confusion over the "fundamental" qualifier, but it is best that you clarify what you have in mind.

Callum said...

Ok, first i dont want to get caught up on quarks specifically. Im talking about the most fundamental particle(s). Whether that is the quark or not, whatever it turns out to be. Lets assume for the sake of argument it is the quark.

The first way explains change, ultimately, through the actualisation of existence in a per se causal fashion.

In the case of the hand holding the stick, moving the stone, ultimately the nervous system is actualised by molecules, then by atoms etc. At some point there is a last actualiser which isnt actualised by a previous, more fundamental material reality.

This isnt the unmoved mover, as, by the form/matter and essence/existence doctrines, this first 'material actualiser' itself needs to be actualised.

However, without those two doctrines, a materialist would be happy to accept the argument. Thats why i think the First Way relies on at least one of those doctrines to be successful all the way through

grodrigues said...

@Callum:

"In the case of the hand holding the stick, moving the stone, ultimately the nervous system is actualised by molecules, then by atoms etc. At some point there is a last actualiser which isnt actualised by a previous, more fundamental material reality."

The "more fundamental material reality", whatever it is and assuming for the sake of argument there is such, has no special privileged place as far as the argument goes. It certainly does *not* end the regress, because as I keep repeating, the "more fundamental material reality" will still be a composite of act and potency. And if it is not a composite of act and potency, then it is Pure Act, e.g. God, except you are giving it an equivocal name. The "fundamental" qualifier in this context is just an irrelevant distraction. What makes you think that the regress could end with a "more fundamental material reality"?

Anonymous said...

Dear Callum,

Sorry for this response being so late, but on my understanding of Feser's reconstruction of Aquinas's thought, the First Way along with the Second Way and the so-called existential argument in the De Ente all presuppose the validity of the essence/existence distinction and are not really separate arguments so much as they are the same argument approached from different perspectives. The significance of this doctrine for Thomistic arguments is that, whatever the fundamental constituents of material reality happen to be, they will require a cause that continuously conjoins their essence with an act of existence. So long as one agrees with the Thomist in thinking that all entities will require such a cause on wholly metaphysical grounds save a divine first cause in whom essence and existence are indistinct, then it follows that there must, in fact, be such a divine first cause who is at every moment holding the world in being (as it were). Hence, one does not have to agree with all that is meant by the Thomist doctrine of hylemorphism/hylomorphism for these arguments to work.