Thursday, January 9, 2020

The rationalist/empiricist false choice


I’ve often argued that contemporary philosophers too often think only within the box of alternative positions inherited from their early modern forebears, neglecting or even being ignorant of the very different ways that pre-modern philosophers would carve up the conceptual territory.  One of the chief ways this is so has to do with the rationalist/empiricist dichotomy, as filtered through Kant.  It has hobbled clear thinking not only about epistemology, but also about metaphysics.

The standard Scholastic position, following Aristotle, was that (a) there is a sharp difference between the intellect on the one hand and the senses and imagination on the other, but that nevertheless (b) nothing gets into the intellect except through the senses.  To have a concept like triangularity is not the same thing as having any sort of mental image (visual, auditory, or whatever), since concepts have a universality that images lack, possess a determinate or unambiguous content that images cannot have, and so forth.  Still, the intellect forms concepts only by abstracting from images, and these have their origin in the senses.

Now, the early modern rationalists and empiricists essentially each embraced half of this position while rejecting the other half.  In particular, the rationalists kept thesis (a) while chucking out thesis (b), and the empiricists kept (b) while throwing out (a).  For the rationalists, concepts are irreducible to mental images and the intellect is therefore distinct from the imagination and senses.  But in that case, they inferred, concepts must be innate rather than grounded in experience.  For the empiricists, by contrast, concepts must all be derived from the senses.  But in that case, they concluded, concepts must not be distinct from the mental images that are faint copies of sensations, and the intellect essentially collapses into the imagination. 

Severing (a) from (b), in these different ways, was the epistemological original sin of the early modern philosophers.  (The metaphysical original sin was the rejection of an Aristotelian philosophy of nature in favor of a mechanical one.  The history of modern philosophy is primarily a history of the working out of the implications of these two anti-Scholastic revolutions.) 

Against the rationalists, the empiricists would fling the charge that it is an illusion to suppose that you can read off conclusions about mind-independent reality from concepts that have no foundation in the senses, and that it is no surprise that the rationalists ended up constructing metaphysical systems that were ever more bizarre and untethered from reality.  Against the empiricists, the rationalists would object that you cannot arrive at truly universal concepts and general propositions from mere images, and that it is no surprise that empiricism led to ever more radical skepticism about the external world, causality, the self, etc., and shrank the realm of the knowable to the immediate contents of consciousness (if that).  Both of these lines of criticism are correct.  The error is in thinking that accepting the criticisms of one of these two views requires adopting the other, as if there were no third position.

Kant might seem to have provided a third position, but it would be closer to the truth to say that he embraced both errors at once.  He essentially agrees with the rationalists that the fundamental categories by which we carve up reality cannot come from experience and must be innate, but also agrees with the empiricists that these categories so understood will never afford knowledge of mind-independent reality.  Hence he concludes that these categories tell us only about how we have to think about mind-independent reality, not how it really is in itself.  It is no surprise that the sequel to Kant was 19th century idealism, which was as metaphysically extravagant as the empiricists would accuse the rationalists of being, and as prone to collapsing all reality into the mental as the rationalists would accuse the empiricists of doing. 

Contemporary philosophy tends to bounce around this rationalist/empiricist/Kantian box rather than try to find a way out of it.  I say only that it tends to do so, because of course there are, as I have also often noted, many neo-Aristotelian developments in contemporary philosophy that amount precisely to efforts to get outside the box.  But the responses to such developments often reflect an inability to see outside it.

Hence, consider the view, common among analytic philosophers, that the only sorts of truths there are are either those of natural science or those of conceptual analysis, so that philosophy must be oriented toward one or the other.  Philosophers who think of their discipline as primarily devoted to conceptual analysis tend to fall either into a kind of rationalism or a kind of Kantianism, with predictable results.  If they claim, as a rationalist would, that what they say about essences, causality, possible worlds, etc. reflects something about objective reality, their critics will say: How can mere conceptual analysis yield such momentous results?  Why should reality conform to our concepts?  If instead they say, a la Kant, that the results of conceptual analysis tell us only how we must think about reality, the critics will say: So what?  Maybe we’re thinking about it the wrong way, and in particular in ways that reflect merely how natural selection or our cultural circumstances shaped our minds, rather than the way things really are.

Those who hold instead that philosophy is an extension of natural science tend to fall into a kind of empiricism, or into a kind of Kantianism proceeding from the empiricist rather than rationalist direction.  Their critics will say: Natural science has to be interpreted in either an instrumentalist or a realist way.  If we read it the first way, then it doesn’t get us knowledge of the objective world, and we’re stuck with a riff on Humeanism.  That’s essentially what logical positivism was, and it and other forms of antirealism are problematic in the usual well-known ways.  If instead we read science in a realist way, then we are taking on board a substantive metaphysics.  But then the history of scientific revolutions and Kuhnian points about the social nature of science raise questions about how objective such a metaphysics can be.  Maybe it gives us knowledge only of how the scientific community conceptualizes reality rather than how it really is – which is essentially a riff on Kantianism.

Interestingly, if you’re someone working in analytic metaphysics who thinks that we can get a more robust metaphysics than the critics of conceptual analysis suppose, or if you’re someone working in philosophy of science who think that natural science does give us something in the way of old-fashioned metaphysics, there is a good chance that you are a neo-Aristotelian who has made your way out of the box the early moderns put us in.  (I have in mind people like Molnar, Martin, Mumford, et al. in the first case, and Cartwright, Ellis, Bhaskar, et al. in the second.)

Anyway, the conceptual analysis/natural science dichotomy is essentially a riff on the logical positivists’ dichotomy between analytic propositions and empirically verifiable propositions, which was in turn a riff on Hume’s dichotomy between relations of ideas and matters of fact (“Hume’s Fork”).  And it is no more defensible than those ancestors are.  (See pp. 139-51 of Aristotle’s Revenge for detailed discussion.)

Other echoes of the rationalist/empiricist false dichotomy arise in discussions of arguments for God’s existence and for the immateriality of the mind.  For the ancients and medievals, First Cause arguments can get us from premises about the empirical world, by way of strictly demonstrative reasoning, to a conclusion about an absolutely necessary cause outside the world.  I’ve defended such arguments myself.  But if you’re a Humean, no such argument is possible.  If you’re starting from the empirical world, you can only ever get probabilistic conclusions and you can’t conclude to anything that exists of metaphysical necessity.  The most you might be able to construct by way of an empirically-based natural theology is a Paley-style inductive argument that gets you at best to a kind of demiurge rather than to the God of classical theism.  On the other hand, if you are going to provide a strict demonstration of a truly necessary being, then you are going to have to reason a priori.  But that only gives you at most knowledge of the relations between concepts, rather than of objective reality.  This is the inspiration for Kant’s influential view that the cosmological argument ultimately depends on the ontological argument, and therefore fails given that the latter argument does.  Contemporary criticisms of First Cause arguments to the effect that they are dubious scientific hypotheses, or that all necessity is merely the logical necessity that holds of the relation between concepts but tells us nothing about objective reality, reflect this broadly Humean way of carving up the conceptual territory.

Meanwhile, arguments for the immateriality of the mind like Richard Swinburne’s or W. D. Hart’s, which appeal to conceivability or to possible worlds, are essentially rationalist in spirit, and problematic for the reasons that rationalism in general is.  And it seems to be commonly supposed that if an argument for immateriality isn’t of this sort, then the only other thing it could be is a kind of quasi-scientific inductive hypothesis.  But arguments for the immateriality of the intellect of the kind Thomists would give fall into neither of these categories. 

For example, consider the argument for immateriality from the determinate or unambiguous nature of the contents of our thoughts, which I have defended.  This argument does not start with some claim about what is conceivable or about possible worlds, and then try to deduce from that the immaterial essence of the intellect.  That sort of procedure gets things backwards.  We have to know the essence of a thing first, before we can know what is conceivable with respect to it, or what might be true of it in various possible worlds.  But neither is the argument a mere probabilistic hypothesis.  It begins with experience in the sense that it starts with what we know about our own thoughts and their conceptual content just by virtue of having them.  But it proceeds from that starting point to try to give a strict demonstration that thought cannot be material. 

Properly to understand the arguments of Aristotelians, Thomists, Neo-Platonists, and other thinkers in the classical or pre-modern tradition requires being careful not to read them as if they were variations on some broadly rationalist, empiricist, or Kantian theme.  The roots of the arguments historically predate, and are conceptually distinct from, these modern tendencies.

59 comments:

  1. Excellent post here! In your opinion given the dependence of the intellect's concepts on the senses, does a Thomistic/Aristotelian epistemology leave room for a priori knowledge, or does perhaps even putting the question that way commit the same error of trying to conceptualize the landscape in modern categories?

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    1. Hi Matt, yes, it leaves room for a priori knowledge. We can distinguish two questions: First, can concepts arise in the intellect in the absence of sensory experience? Second, once concepts are in the intellect, can the intellect go on to put them together in a way that results in a priori judgments (e.g. 2 + 2 = 4)? You can answer No to the first question while answering Yes to the second.

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    2. @Edward Feser,


      Are you sure A-T doesn't allow concepts to arise in the intellect without sense experience? What about divine or angelic illumination - which enters through the backdoor of the intellect?

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    3. That's supernatural. I think Ed is talking here about natural causes

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    4. The Aristotelian-Thomistic adage that "Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses" can be found in St. Thomas Aquinas's De veritate, q. 2 a. 3 arg. 19. However, it cannot be strictly true on a Scholastic reading, as the intellectual concept of "substance" is not the name of a sensation. Someone might reply that the active intellect "strips away" the accidental forms to reveal the substance lying beneath, but this suggestion rests upon a misleading spatial metaphor. Substance does not "underlie" accidents; if it did, it would not truly be different in kind from them. Rather, the concept of substance is required to render accidents intelligible, in the first place. For instance, the concept of an action (e.g. reflecting light) presupposes that of an agent (e.g. the object doing so). So where does the latter concept come from? In the end, I think, we have to say that it comes from ourselves: we are conscious of ourselves doing various things as rational agents, and we impute a kind of fixed, determinate agency to natural objects (quasi-personifying them, as it were) in order to render their regular patterns of behavior intelligible to us. So it seems to me that the concept of "substance" comes not from the senses, but from our own intellect. Nevertheless, it is a necessary postulate: science would collapse without it. My two cents.

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    5. @Vincent: Well right, but then you just have to keep in mind the principle that "whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver," and is so received because of the nature of the receiver. So if you say that the conceptual mode of reception really comes from ourselves, okay; but then why not say that the sensory mode does too? And remember, it's not a one-step trip from sense-act bearing on accidents to act of intellect bearing of a substance.

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  2. Prof Feser,

    What's your take on the two-aspect interpretations of Kant that are fairly prominent now, associated with e.g. Henry Allison? My understanding is that view doesn't commit us to the strange thesis that appearances are merely mental representations with no necessary match to mind-independent reality (i.e. where space, time, etc. only 'exist' in the mind in some sense), but are rather more like 'objects capable of appearing to us', in virtue of their satisfying certain a priori epistemic conditions, such as being in space, time, and so forth.

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    1. Hi John, I incline to agree with the objection that that interpretation leaves Kant with a fatal ambiguity. If we say that there is just one thing there considered under two aspects, phenomenal and noumenal, then we have to ask: If space, time, causality, etc. are merely phenomenal, then why isn't the thing in itself merely phenomenal, with the noumenon dropping away as an empty notion? Or if it is not merely phenomenal, why regard space, time, causality, etc. as merely phenomenal? In other words, we end up with either an essentially phenomenalist and anti-relist view, or an essentially full-blown realist view. And if we avoid these outcomes by drawing a sharper distinction between the phenomenon and noumenon, then we end up back in the representationalist interpretation that we were trying to find an alternative to.

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  4. How would you deal with the *substantive* Kantian(ish) claim that reality really might be unknowably different from what we can tell? For example, you (Ed) often argue about causation being fundamental, and how we have to presuppose it to speak at all. How would you respond to somebody who said, "Well, yes, causation is fundamental to how we think about the world; but we have no way of knowing whether it's really 'out there.' There might be some richer concept that our limited minds can't even conceive of." And then go on to reject your various conclusions (such as the existence of God). What is the Thomist rejoinder to such positions? (Of course they might undermine the knowability of anything at all; but I suppose our interlocutor would have to suppose that unknowable reality had whatever unknowable features would lead to our knowledge working out OK.)

    Thanks for any thoughts!

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    1. An argument against the ontological reality of causation to some degree is an argument against the intellect itself. Composition and decomposition are impossible without faculties that depend on causality. And surely the Cartesian premise of "cogito ergo sum" along with observation of our own intellect is enough to get us to the point that these two principles of the intellect (composition and decomposition) need causation to work properly. For example, parts are fundamentally causal they rely on the material cause. Or take the efficient cause, it is fundamentally mereological in being billiard ball like and disolving everything into its parts that "effect" one another. These two examples should show that causes and mereology, even the intellectual process of such, are fundamentally linked including in the way we want them to be for the argument.

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    2. Responding to:"Well, yes, causation is fundamental to how we think about the world; but we have no way of knowing whether it's really 'out there.'

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    3. Dear Bill,

      Thank you! Yes, that's true. But could a Kantian skeptic argue that causation is merely guaranteed to work in our realm of reality, but is not ultimately fundamental?

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  5. How you can have Neoplatonic proof of God but with b-theory or eternalist view of time , thank you Professor

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    1. I don't think the Neoplatonic proof is incompatible with B-theory or eternalism. The proof is based on the principle that whatever is composite must have a cause that unifies it. This causal explanation need not be temporal in nature. The broader point of the proof is that whatever is composite is dependent upon an external cause or unifying factor.

      The same goes for the other cosmological arguments Feser defends. The rationalist proof obviously does not require any particular theory of time, and is itself defended by many B theorists. The point is simply that whatever is contingent (could fail to exist, does not have to be) must have an explanation for why it exists rather than not, in some external cause. Eternalism doesn't change anything about that.

      The Aristotelian proof, however, might be more affected, since it is based on change, and change for the B theory is a succession of states. But I believe it can still be adapted to eternalism, since (like contingent events) a succession of states requires an explanation, so we're still back at a first cause.

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    2. @Atno -
      Thanks for your answer. So you would contend that this argument holds even if someone denies that actuality and potentiality are real, and that hierarchical causation isn’t real? The reason I ask this is because Feser uses hierarchical causation to make the proof in his book.

      How do composite things require any explanation of a first member if everything just “always existed”? Why does any combination require a fundamental first member if there is a block universe and everything is static, and there’s no change? everything always just existed whether as parts or wholes and it just is irrelevant, since it’s always “been around.”




      @David, his books are for anyone who adheres a monotheistic religion. Five Proofs is great for Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

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    3. "Why does any combination require a fundamental first member if there is a block universe and everything is static, AND THERE`S NO CHANGE?"

      I´d say that this is not a defensible position and I don´t understand why some find it so threatening. The idea that nothing changes and every instance of a change is an illusion is preposterous and should be regarded similarily to eliminative materialism. Going so far as to even deny that our experience undergoes change is pure lunacy.
      To answer the other part of your comment, even on eternalism it would apply, since the idea here is that the simple is more fundamental than the composed. So for example an eternal human would still be dependend, as he is composed of essence and existence; he couldn´t be without God. God however whose essence and existence are identical is prior to that. Another way to understand it is, that the eternal human is still dependend upon the matter making his body up, whether they are doing so necessarily or not. He is still dependend on them.

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    4. @Tse-Tsang

      Because, as Feser often emphasizes, hierarchical series of causes are better understood as an ontological relation, not a temporal one. The important thing isn't that things "here and now" are being actualized, but that any composite/actualized potential/non-purely existent cause will at best be an instrumental cause. It will have its causal power only in a derivative fashion. So we need more than just instrumental causes, we'll eventually need to reach a First Cause, First in an ontological sense.

      Eternalism and B theory do not entail that actuality and potentiality are not real. They'd just have to be adapted to tenseless language. Change doesn't have to be understood as illusory under B theory, but merely as a succession of states.

      In any case, we don't even need hierarchical series of causes, to be honest. We can just use PSR or a principle of causality and apply it to the totality of dependent beings (contingent, composite, changing, pick your favorite category of dependency) and, obviously, the explanation for the existence of a totality of dependent things must lie beyond it, so we get to a Necessary Being pretty easily. We don't even need to assume a totality is an aggregate, we can just use plural logic and apply causal principles to the plurality of all dependent beings.

      We can also question the possibility of an infinite series of causes or causal events. Alex Pruss has made a very good case for (at least) Causal Finitism. An infinite series of causes would lead to way too many problems: Grim Reaper scenarios, Thompson's lamp, infinite lotteries, etc. Positing a First Cause really is a lot more plausible than an infinite series of causes, when you consider what the second involves.

      Finally, all we need is the possibility of a First Cause. If it's even possible that there is a finite series of causes, we'll get the possibility of a necessary first cause, and that entails a necessary being actually exists. So we can move on to stage 2 of cosmological arguments.

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    5. It's pretty simple, actually. I personally find the Neo-Platonic proof to be more effective than the Aristotellian for this exact reason. While I do believe that the Aristotellian proof is salvageable under eternalism or b-theory, the Neo-Platonic is more effective.

      In fact, most atheists (at least the armchair ones on the internet that I talk to) tend to accept the first premise of this argument, but then obviously go on to deny that "the One" is the Abrahamic God. It's just such a self-explanatory argument (the first premise that is).

      You're not thinking of anything in time whatsoever. There is no essence or existence to debate, or any necessary beings.

      It's as simple as how Plotinus posited it - things that exist are built up of, or composed of parts, and parts are not a whole. You can't explain the existence of parts using the whole, because the parts explain the whole, and to do is a circular explanation. If you trace the regress of the existence of parts (not in time), the only way to explain why there exists a series of parts combining into wholes is for there to be something that terminates the series of which it is itself not a part of anything, and it just is, and from which all these "parts" "emanate" from. If you do not trace it that way, all you will ever be able to posit in existence is a bunch of composite parts. This is purely ontological - it has nothing to do whatsoever with time. I think this issue arises because Feser uses the "here and now" language very often due to his assuming of presentism/a-theory. Plus, many people are so stuck on the Kalam and other similar arguments that try to trace things to a "beginning" temporally that they assume you can just have infinite parts, which you can, temporally... but those parts must have something from which they derive their "partness."

      I'm no philosopher but I hope I was able to at least explain that in layman's terms. I used to be a bit confused by this one as well.

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    6. but if something existed forever and the parts making it up existed forever, then this is moot...

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    7. "but if something existed forever and the parts making it up existed forever, then this is moot..." yes, if you think the principle of explanation (in this case, that composites need external unifying causes) is limited to time. But this is problematic. If a thing that has existed for a finite time needs a cause in order to exist, it would still need a cause if it had happened to have existed for an infinite amount of time instead. The amount of time a thing has existed for seems completely irrelevant to whether or not it needs a cause; a past-finite history just underwrites the contingency/dependency of the object. There are different arguments for why we shouldn't limit causal principles to temporal beginnings.

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    8. By the way: under B theory, a limitation of the causal principle to "beginnings" is even more absurd, since under B theory things don't really "begin". A cat "beginning to exist" at t0 just is a cat existing at t0, in the same way it exists at t1. If the cat has existed for infinitely many moments before t0, that wouldn't involve any ontological difference, so a limitation of the causal principle in this case would be even more bizarre.

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    9. i guess I’m just not getting it? this seems like another tired old first cause argument. how is it that if ”parts” existed forever they need any cause whatsoever?

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    10. Of course it is a first cause argument.

      Forget the talk of "parts". This refers to the Neoplatonic argument specifically, but that might be a bit too complex for you at the moment, since you're having trouble seeing how the argument isn't affected by eternality.

      Think of contingency instead, since this one is the simplest category to discuss independently of different theories of time.
      Something is contingent if it could have failed to be; if, even though it exists, it doesn't/didn't have to exist, and it could have failed to be actual. Even if a thing has always existed, from eternity past, if it is a contingent thing then it could have failed to exist - it could have never existed in the first place, or it could have failed to exist at any moment in which it exists.

      Because a contingent thing doesn't have to exist, there must be a cause/explanation for its existence, even if it has always existed. Because, after all, it could have never existed in the first place, so why does it exist? Even worse, why has it always existed, instead of nothing at all?
      If there was, for example, a cheeseburger that had always existed from eternity, still we would wonder why it has always existed, instead of nothing, or instead of some other object. It didn't have to exist, so it still needs a cause for its existence.

      The need for a cause or explanation doesn't magically go away just because something has existed for an infinite amount of time. We can (and should) still wonder why an eternal object exists, why it has always existed in the first place instead of nothing. So the arguments are not affected by eternality.

      However, perhaps someone will ignore this and bizarrely insist that only "beginnings" need causes. There are more arguments against limiting the causal principle to beginnings; in particular, if someone is appealing to the B Theory of time, the limitation would make even less sense since there would be no real beginnings in B theory. If contingent things need causes in their first moment of time, they'd also need them for any other moment (since there is no difference in b theory), so the limitation makes even less sense under B theory.

      Now you can replace contingency with "being composite" for the neoplatonic proof.

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    11. It’s not that the One is a divine combiner of parts and that the One is the person who first plugged parts together to make a composite. If you think of a paella that’s existed forever it has parts to it still even if it’s infinite...

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  6. Eh, I don't agree with the criticism of rationalist arguments. One area in philosophy that has seen a lot of real progress is epistemology. The development of ideas such as Moorean common sense, Moorean shifts, Properly Basic Beliefs, and (more recently) Phenomenal Conservatism really advanced our understanding of human knowledge and justification for beliefs. What we learned, in fact, is that we can be way more lenient than many people thought before. This, combined with the development of non-monotonic logic, has really changed things (and for the better, that is).

    Conceivability can also be a good guide for possibility, provided we do not think it strictly entails possibility (instead of merely providing defeasible evidence for it). If anything because it invites us to reflect on the nature of things in many different situations, applying and sharpening our knowledge and reflection of natures through hypothetical scenarios. Aristotelians should be able to agree with that.

    I think the claim that "the use of possible worlds gets things backwards" misses the mark. Most philosophers talk about possible worlds because it is an extremely useful way of thinking about modal issues. They do not really believe possible worlds really exist or ground the alethic modality of things; they just recognize it as a fruitful and useful way of discussing metaphysics with modal logic.

    The empiricism of Hume and his followers was, and is, extremely stupid. Logical positivism was supremely stupid.

    But rationalism wasn't bad at all. Combine it with respect for defeasible reasoning, and with a self-evident principle such as phenomenal conservatism, and you get something really nice.

    By the way: about Paley's argument. It is of course very easy to combine it with classical cosmological arguments. But recently there have been new developments on how to unify different arguments from natural theology, even with abductive reasoning. I forgot the author's name, but google "from the fine-tuning argument to God" for an example.

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    1. Innovation the science of what succeeds and what doesn't is not a good guide to ontology. Rationalism whatever it may get right, gets this wrong, that when taken as an ontological thesis, it delivers non-commonsensical theses about the mental. Aristotelian philosophy at least gets to the root of what really exists substances, while Rationalism is floating in the clouds of instrumentalism, a necessary task. Nevertheless instrumentalism even if it be wholly mental is never a good guide to substance. As substance proceeds epistemologically from what is most obvious to us by nature to what is most obvious in and of itself (from the Physics)

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    2. Sorry about the grammar mistakes. I typed it up quickly and should have used a separate window, where I could have seen the whole thing at once.

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  7. To be clearer about whar I said about Paley-style teleological arguments: they can in fact help lead someone to theism instead of "just a demiurge".

    First, both Classical Theism and demiurgism fit well with the conclusion that an Intelligence is behind the order of the universe. Both views fit very well with that. Atheism doesn't. These teleological arguments therefore do raise the probability of Classical Theism (along with demiurgism, one might say), and if someone finds demiurgism less likely than CT, the argument will be leading them to CT rather than demiurgism.

    Secondly, someone can always argue that CT is a better explanation than demiurgism. This is because - as Swinburne very cleverly shows - theism is much more simple than demiurgism. A demiurge is less than perfect; he is limited in power, being, goodness, intelligence, etc. Classical Theism by contrast is much simpler and is therefore favored in inductive and abductive arguments.

    Thirdly, these teleological arguments can be combined with other arguments that end up entailing Classical Theism over demiurgism. Traditional cosmological arguments would be the obvious example, but not the only one. Someone could (for example) accept an argument for the Resurrection of Jesus such that, if Jesus was raised and Christianity is true, then Classical Theism is true and demiurgism is false. The teleological argument, insofar as it establishes the existence of an Intelligent Designer (whether from Classical Theism or from demiurgism), refutes naturalism and atheism, and significantly increases the Prior Probability of the Resurrection. So, coupled with the Resurrection, it ultimately contributes to a case that entails Classical Theism over Demiurgism. And this is just an example.

    I get it that Feser is simply calling attention to how the traditional metaphysical arguments more directly support CT over demiurgism, which is fair, but some people might be incorrectly led to believe that teleological arguments do not support theism over demiurgism.

    While we're at it: the fine tuning argument is in fact very strong.

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    1. Swinburnes God is a brute fact that doesn´t know future contingencies. How is he anything more than a demiurge?
      Furthermore Paleyian-style arguments are incompatible with an aristotelian picture of nature, since those arguments assume that natural objects don´t have inherent teleology. This is also something Swinburne, who accepts the mechanistic picture, made quite clear in his dialogue with Pruss, where he emphazised that teleology makes no sense to him when it is not directly derived from a mind. I would summarize it this way: If you have a Paleyian argument, you can´t have the fifth way, if you accept the fifth way, the paleyian argument is useless.
      Fine-tuning arguments don´t carry that much metaphysical baggage with them and hence I wouldn´t put them in the same category.

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    2. 1- I was not defending "Swinburne's God", but merely pointing out that there are reasons to favor God over a demiurge in inductive and abductive arguments. In this case, Swinburne's argument is on point;

      2- I don't myself accept Paley's argument from living organisms (though I do accept the Fine-tuning argument and Swinburne's argument from laws), but the charge that "at best they can lead us to a demiurge" or something like that is still false, as I demonstrated. Whether one prefers immanent teleology (I do), rejects Paley's argument on other grounds or whatever, that doesn't change the fact that the demiurge charge is unfair;

      3- And it's important to point this out, since I've seen this criticism being extended to other inductive teleological arguments, such as fine-tuning and Swinburne's laws argument.

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    3. @Atno:

      "but the charge that "at best they can lead us to a demiurge" or something like that is still false, as I demonstrated."

      You have demonstrated no such thing, since your defense has been consistently to say that then when can avail ourselves of cosmological arguments (or other type of arguments) to rule out a demiurge option. But of course, this is just an admission that fine-tuning and similar style teleological arguments can at only get us to a demiurge, at which point it is perfectly reasonable to ask if cosmological style arguments end up doing all the work, why bother?

      I have to say though, that I do not find arguments like the fine-tuning completely useless. I just do not think that they can do what you claim they can.

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    4. @grodrigues

      1- Inductive teleological arguments raise the probability of theism. One could also argue they raise the probability of demiurgism, but then if one finds demiurgism improbable for other reasons, the end result will be that inductive teleological arguments can rationally lead people into theism. And they don't even have to be combined with cosmological arguments. Someone could, for instance, use just a teleological argument + a Resurrection argument and get to classical theism. But even if we are combining them with cosmological arguments, the cosmo. arg. doesn't end up doing all the work. Far from it. Teleological arguments (like the fine-tuning) are a great and powerful way to establish Stage 2 of cosmological arguments (showing the first cause is God, is intelligent, personal, etc).

      Some atheists are willing to grant there is a purely actual, necessary first cause of the universe, but they don't accept the (more metaphysically heavy and controversial) arguments for establishing that pure act must be intelligent as well, etc. Teleological arguments can be very helpful at this point. Many thomists combine the cosmological argument with the fine-tuning one (for instance, Alex Pruss, Robert Koons, etc).

      2- and you have ignored my other points. Apart from the combination with different arguments, there are reasons to favor classical theism over demiurgism. Classical theism is a better explanation; or, if we put it in inductive terms, the prior probability of classical theism is higher than that of demiurgism. People like Swinburne (but many other authors, as well) continuously stress this fact. A theistic God is much simpler - he has no limits, he can be described in very simple terms (perfect, or omniproperties) -, he has more explanatory power, etc. A demiurge is intrinsically limited, more truncated, has more free parameters, and so on. It is perfectly possible to argue for classical theism over demiurgism through a purely inductive or abductive case with teleological arguments.

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  8. Would you recommend your books to someone who isn't Catholic/Christian? I'm Jewish and just looking for some good books about the existence of G-d besides Rambam/Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed. Thanks.

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    1. I would say yes. Although I haven't yet read Five Proofs I do not think it makes any attempt to prove anything specific to Christianity except the foundation of theism.

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    2. Oh ok I'll check out it then thanks.

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    3. I'm Muslim and I have enjoyed all Feser's books immensely.

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    4. By the way, David, if you are looking for some really satisfying proofs of God, I recommend "Five Proofs for the existence of God". But if you are having debates with materialists, I suggest you get Philosophy of Mind because the mind is much easier to talk to atheists about than God. Everyone is directly aware of their own mind (though some people seem inexplicably willing to deny it).

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    5. OK I just purchased Five Proofs on Amazon.com. Just wondering though, would I be missing something by going to that book without reading "The Last Superstition" first?

      Also, are you guys aware of people writing critiques of his books?
      I found some here:
      https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/68348/are-there-any-scholarly-critiques-of-edward-fesers-work
      https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/13752
      https://gunlord500.wordpress.com/2016/06/14/a-little-late-but-not-too-late-my-book-review-of-edward-fesers-the-last-superstition/#comments

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    6. @David Y

      You don't need to read The Last Superstition to understand Five Proofs. Five Proofs is an independent book. Although TLS is itself a very good book on its own, and you could give it a shot.

      Some other popular books on God's existence I would recommend would be:

      "How reason can lead to God" by Joshua Rasmussen, and
      "Who designed the designer?" by Michael Augros.

      About the critiques: Richard Carrier's work is garbage. In any case, Five Proofs is bound to receive critiques, as is any other work in philosophy. Most critiques I've found online were pretty weak, though. Just read the book yourself, reflect on its contents, then you can see for yourself whether any critiques have merit or not. Then if you have any questions you can show up here and there'll probably be people willing to answer whatever objections.

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    7. @Atno
      Those two books you recommended, are they directed towards Christians or is it a general audience? I'm not really looking to read any books directed at Christians as I just do not agree with any of the Christian (and Islamic) theology.

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    8. @Atno

      Although the authors are Christians (like Feser), the books are not about specific Christian doctrines and claims. They're just philosophical defenses of the existence of God; the same basic monotheistic belief that is shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims. So no, they're not just directed at Christians. I think you'll enjoy them, and they make a nice addition to Feser's "Five Proofs" and "The Last Superstition".

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    9. ok i'll look into it thanks

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  9. The happening of Truth is not through the mind or the "intellect" - it is at the heart. Truth is not a proposition argued over against other propositions. Truth is self-evident, because the heart wordlessly authenticates it in the moment of reception.

    Truth is an embrace, just as love is. You do not get argued into love. It is self-evidently right.

    One responds to truth as one does to love, simply through recognizing it. It is not about argument, not about the domain of mind with its never ending supply of opposites.

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  10. In reported NDE (near death experiences), people seem to be able to hear and see things even though they were existing outside their physical bodies (ie not depending on their physical eyes and ears). Would those cognitive abilities be natural or supernatural?

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    1. This comment was intended to appear after David T who commented that angelic illuminations are supernatural. Somehow my comment appeared here instead.

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    2. I think the distinction is unhelpful and should be dropped. If substance dualism is true and souls leave the body after death, I don´t understand why that sould be regarded as supernatural, excpet if we have established prior that we only accept something as natural if it is material.

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    3. I think he is just using the distinction in a common way, to differentiate between physical functions and non-physical ones.

      @Johannes

      Even if conscious acts such as seeing, hearing, etc. were normally physical or dependent on the physical, perhaps God could still give qualia to a soul. So maybe that's what goes on in those NDEs; God is miraculously providing sight, hearing, etc. to a soul, bypassing the normal need for bodily functions.

      Though it is possible that consciousness is indeed immaterial. Aristotelians tend to take consciousness to be material (they just inflate the notion of matter to include qualitative forms and such), but I have serious doubts about that myself, as the power to subjectively experience qualitative forms still seems additional to physical functions.

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    4. That's a very interesting question. I would say parsimony should make us lean towards abilities being natural. But the question is whether, from an A-T perspective, they must be supernatural.

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  11. Thank you for this post. I've been interested in Thomist philosophy of knowledge the past few months and reading various books and essays. Is this a topic you have plans to write further on in depth?

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  12. Through all the books of Prof Feser's that I have read so far (Philosophy of Mind, The Last Superstition and 5 proofs) I haven't yet gotten a good understanding of what the objections to Kant are. I don't find it hard at all to believe that my human spirit is limited as to the ways in which I can grasp reality. I find it exceedingly difficult, for example, to think atemporally. It seems like my mind, at least insofar as it is actualized in my noggin, conceptualizes everything in terms of those Kantian categories (quality, quantity, modality, relation). I don't find it hard to imagine that I may see the elephant from the front, sides, back and bottom but not from the top. Why is it necessary to assume that we humans are fully capable of grasping the reality of existence rather than accept the possibility that our entire framework of reality may be inherently limited by the faculties inculcated to us by God?

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    1. Hark,

      it´s always worthwile to read what Vallicella has to say. Perhaps you find there what you are looking for:
      https://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/kant/

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    2. It's not necessary to make that assumption (which seems to imply human omniscience, which is silly) and that's not the problem with Kant. The problem with Kant is the inconsistency of his own system.

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  13. TheLonelyProfessorJanuary 10, 2020 at 6:09 PM

    The standard Scholastic position, following Aristotle, was that (a) there is a sharp difference between the intellect on the one hand and the senses and imagination on the other, but that nevertheless (b) nothing gets into the intellect except through the senses.

    And is it possible there are any problems with the standard Scholastic position, which the empiricists and rationalists were attempting (albeit unsuccessfully) to solve?

    A form must, in some way, already be present in the intellect for it to be able to abstract (in the true sense) from sensory data, as opposed to it merely acting as a classifier. Otherwise, when classifications are identical with forms or not is purely accidental. Similarly with basic things like law of identity or non-contradiction. These must exist in the intellect a priori or else all bets are off.

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    1. The Thomist position on concepts, insofar as I understand it in my studies, is that the intellect is a blank slate. It starts with sensible objects acting on a person, the person's "inner senses" taking this data an presenting a phantasm ("image") of the external object under the "conditions of matter" (that is, the image isn't actually made of material, but it's presented as having size, color, texture, etc...). A human through the "active intellect" has the power to abstract what is universal of the object apart from the conditions of matter (to understand, say, triangularity apart from particular size, color, material),and that this abstraction is what actualizes the potency of the impressed intellect. [Based on what it is called, I take it that we could think of an "impression" being made, which could be right, could be in error, is modified by more encounters, but this metaphor I have not taken from any reading I've done). The impressed intellect isn't the end, though, as that's a bit of a reservoir of available knowledge which can then become the term of the expressed intellect, which would be the concept, the subject of thought.

      I am sure I haven't done this justice, I am finishing up a book called The Concept in Thomism by Peifer which I may need to reread, but a Thomist definitely does not hold that we have these concepts a priori. (I don't know about the "Transcendental Thomists," but for the most part, we don't.)

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    2. I need to correct/add to my previous post, as I wrote that the concept in the expressed intellect is the subject of thought. I believe it would be more accurate to say that the concept is that by which we know the external object (assuming we're speaking of what we know by sense and not just in reflection), the external object being the object of thought.

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  14. Thomas Reid thinks that (b) was rightfully attacked by Berkeley. But he has some other way of answering Berkeley.

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  15. Berkeley seems like a counterexample, he admits 'general notions' which are supposed to be entirely unlike ideas, but are abstract in some sense, while at the same time being a thoroughgoing empiricist. It seems like he partially bridges the divide you describe.

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  16. The aristotelian epistemology answer the preocupations of the rationalists really well, a shame that they rejected it.

    But how do some concepts like infinity appears to us to Aristotle? We don't perceive anything infinite(i mean, except maybe for some mystics), since nothing material is infinite, so this can't come from some form in material objects. Also can't come from material things indirectly(like, say, our knowledge of God) by the way of thinking in limits and of something that has no limits since, as Descartes argues, the concept of finite presuposes the concept of infinity.

    Yet, we clearly know what infinity is, so we have the concept.But if we don't perceive infinity in what comes from the senses, where did it come from?

    There are probably some other problematic concepts that others may mention, but this seems to me a dificulty in thesis (b).

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