Thursday, December 12, 2019
Word to the Wise
Eric Wise takes to Facebook to express shock that an author would be annoyed with a book reviewer who doesn’t have anything to say about the actual contents of the book under review. He also manages to pack an amazing amount of further obfuscatory nonsense into a small space.
Wise defends his criticism of my arguing for broadly Aristotelian views rather than grappling with Aristotle’s own texts by noting that the title of my book is, after all, Aristotle’s Revenge. Shouldn’t I have called it something else if it wasn’t going to be offering detailed exegesis of De Partibus Animalium? This is like criticizing Tolstoy’s title War and Peace on the grounds that it is really just about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia rather than war in general, or objecting to Nietzsche’s title The Antichrist on the grounds that it isn’t really about eschatology or apocalyptic literature. (I thought Straussians were not supposed to be literal-minded.)
Wise says he wishes I were more “honest” and “upfront” about my favoring a Scholastic reading of Aristotle. I guess titling one of my books Scholastic Metaphysics and another one Neo-Scholastic Essays was too subtle.
As I said in my original reply, my book concerns topics in philosophy of nature and philosophy of science such as embodied cognition, epistemic structural realism, causal powers and laws of nature, the A- and B-theories of time, presentism, reductionism in chemistry and biology, essentialism, and much else along these lines. Wise’s latest remarks offer us no explanation of why he ignored all of this – that is to say, of why he ignored the actual contents of the book.
However, he does once again repeat his preposterous and out-of-left-field insinuation that my positions on such issues rest on specifically Christian theological premises. And he takes a second stab at cobbling together some justification for it. Ready for it? Here it is: the justification is that my “bibliography… includes a massive edifice of theistic sources.”
There are two problems with this. First, Wise’s assertion here is patently ridiculous, as anyone who has a copy of the book (which, conveniently for Wise, is unlikely to include many of his readers) can easily verify. Though I do quote some writers who happen to be theists (such as Aquinas and other Thomists) most of the writers I engage with are mainstream contemporary academic analytic philosophers working in philosophy of science and metaphysics, whose work has nothing to do with theology (and who in many cases are even hostile to that subject).
Second, even when I do cite Aquinas or some other Thomist writer, I am not citing some theological claim they make, much less some claim about Christianity, but rather something they have to say about science or philosophy. These writers happen to be Christian, but none of the arguments they give that I endorse in my book depends on agreeing with them about that. (Suppose a feminist said that, since most of the writers I cite also happen to be men, it follows that my book can only be convincing to other men. I imagine Wise would agree that this would be a very moronic inference. But his inference is no better.)
Wise also claims to find evidence for Christian theological premises insofar as “agency in all motion, angels as a concept of incorporeal beings, and miracles in evolution are... theistic concepts.” But there are several problems with this.
First, “miracles in evolution” is Wise’s phrase, not mine. What I actually do in the book is discuss a variety of possible ways evolution might be interpreted in terms of an Aristotelian philosophy of nature, and I explicitly note how an atheist might develop such an interpretation, even if such an interpretation is not one I would endorse. (Thomas Nagel would be one well-known thinker who flirts with such a view, which further gives the lie to Wise’s absurd claim that only someone committed to Christian revelation could take seriously the sorts of arguments discussed in my book. What I say about evolution no more depends on Christian theology than what I say about embodied cognition, structural realism, presentism, causal powers, etc. does.)
Second, the point I was making in the book vis-à-vis angelic intellects in no way requires the reader to believe that there are such intellects. Rather, I was making a point about what sort of thing we would be left with if we consistently stripped away all the aspects of our perceptual and conceptual grasp of the world that reflect a distinctively human point of view (so as to underline the difficulties in attempts to strip all that away). Wise might as well say that the famous “Maxwell’s demon” thought experiment shows that modern physics is committed to the reality of the spirit realm.
(“But Feser, you’re a Catholic who actually does believe there are angelic intellects!” Well, yes I am. So what? Again, that is completely irrelevant to the specific points I was making in the book, which don’t rest on any such belief. This is basic logic, which Wise apparently never studied between his readings and re-readings of Natural Right and History.)
Third, while I would certainly hold that making sense of “agency” in the sense of efficient causal power ultimately requires affirming a divine uncaused cause, the reality of such a cause is not presupposed in talk of agency as such. It requires argumentation to get to the existence of a divine cause. It is not something that follows analytically or by definition from the notion of causal agency itself. (That is how there can be neo-Aristotelian writers in contemporary analytic metaphysics who believe in real causal power in nature while having no truck with theism.) Hence one can discuss efficient causality without getting into the question of whether there is a divine uncaused cause, just as one can discuss chess, or bourbon, or Steely Dan, without getting into the question of whether there is a divine uncaused cause.
Can it get any worse? Dear reader, you know it can. Wise reaches a climax of sorts with this gem of a paragraph:
Feser’s category of “philosophy of nature”… was new to me. And I don’t think I am Miranda of The Tempest here, because Feser takes pains to define philosophy of nature himself. It is his category.
End quote. So, Wise, the guy who decided he was qualified to review a book about the philosophy of nature, thinks that “philosophy of nature” is something I came up with.
Well, here’s a word to Mr. Wise. It would seem that you are, in fact, Miranda of The Tempest.
But don’t worry, you can get up to speed. There’s this new thing called Google.