Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Metaphysics of the Martini

Since it is New Years Eve, it seemed appropriate to reprint this September 2006 post from the late, lamented Right Reason blog. (The original can be found here, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.) Happy New Year! Philosophize responsibly. New posts coming soon.

The philosophy of booze is a greatly underdeveloped subdiscipline within our field. This is surprising given that the greatest philosophers had a notorious fondness for drink, as a Prof. Monty Python has documented in a famous scholarly study of the matter. As for my own efforts, I’m afraid they’ve been stalled by the failure of the Seagram’s corporation to reply to an application for a research grant I put in some months ago. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that Edgar Bronfman is a Democrat who doesn’t want his money going to some right-wing philosopher. And this despite the fact that I made it clear that the grant should be paid in gin rather than cash. How disgusting it is when politics gets in the way of serious academic research.

Now that I’m a blogger, however, this work can finally proceed. The usual obstacles to publishing bold and original ideas (peer review, valid arguments, evidence, grammar and spelling, that sort of thing) don’t apply in cyberspace. And of course, Wikipedia has eliminated the need for time-consuming research trips to the library, bookstore, or even the bookshelves here in my office - though the research relevant to the subject at hand is, in any case, of the sort that comes in liquid form. As a matter fact, I’m doing a little researching (a lot of researching, actually) as I write this.

Now as we all know, a real philosopher has to specialize. Minutiae are where it’s at. The “big” topics that used to occupy the philosophers of old (pre-analytic mediocrities like Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, et al.) - God, the soul, good and evil, and so forth - are, after all, so unserious and unscientific. Far better to devote one’s entire career to studying something really meaty and interesting, like the epistemic closure principle or the possibility of unsensed sense-data. That way one’s work is sure to reach a significant audience, such as the twelve people who eagerly leaf through each new issue of Noûs.

For my part, I’ve decided to specialize in the branch of the philosophy of booze known as “martiniology,” a.k.a. the metaphysics of the martini. I realize, of course, that there is a danger that even this may be too ambitious; indeed, I’ve considered focusing on something more narrow and manageable, such as the famous and notoriously thorny “olive problem” (about which I’ll be saying something below). But I’ve done just so much research on this - and believe you me, I mean good, naturalistic, empirical hands-on research, most of it in the last two or three hours - that I must say I’m feeling pretty confident. So here goes.

As my long-time readers know (both of them, I think), I am a Thomist, indeed an “analytical Thomist.” (What that means is that instead of just giving an argument, like an old-fashioned Thomist would do, I make my arguments extra rigorous by sticking numbers in parentheses in front of all the premises.) The key problem of metaphysics, then, is, for me, to identify the substantial form of a thing, the unchanging essence that makes it the kind of thing it is. And my considered position is that the presence of gin is part of the substantial form of the martini. Among the implications of this is that a so-called “vodka martini” is, James Bond notwithstanding, simply a metaphysical impossibility, like a round square. (Don’t even ask about such ontological monstrosities as the “Chocolatini,” which sounds like something out of one of Meinong’s drunken nightmares.)

Now while as a Thomist I am fully aware that our knowledge of essences must in general be largely empirically based, I believe that it in this case our metaphysical thesis can be laid down a priori, on the basis of a direct intuition of the martinian quiddity. (Though as I have indicated, and as my hepatologist can testify, I have in any event gathered a considerable amount of empirical confirming evidence.) At the very least, this thesis has one undeniable advantage over all others: it saves time that would otherwise have to be devoted to detailed argumentation, precious time better spent doing (ahem) research.

Of course, there are those who hold to a wholly conventionalist theory of the martini. For example, some scholars have held that certain speech-acts, such as a (sincere) utterance of “Shit, we’re out of gin,” can transform a vodka-based concoction into a real martini, at least for the duration of the time it takes one’s wife to rush to and from Vendome’s to fetch a bottle of Tanqueray. I was once briefly sympathetic to this view myself - last Thursday, in fact, when we ran out of gin. But the fallacy was evident to me once the olive had been consumed and Rachel returned from the liquor store. (If you can’t see the fallacy too, that’s your problem, Jack; why don’t you take a frigging logic class before questioning us experts, OK?)

The other main metaphysical component of the martini is vermouth - at least enough that you can taste it, but never so much that the gin doesn’t dominate. Now of course, you wouldn’t know this from the writings of those desiccated Quinean martiniologists, who, following their master’s well-known “taste for desert landscapes,” insist that a true martini is maximally dry, i.e. that almost no vermouth at all should be used. Hence one hears of bizarre practices like swishing around the vermouth in the martini glass and then disposing of it before the gin is poured in, or using an atomizer to ensure that nothing more than a bare mist of vermouth is allowed to dilute the gin. (Oh what decadence, what affectation Quine’s naturalism hath wrought!)

This absurd position can be refuted by a simple reductio-cum-sorites argument. If a mere mist or residue of vermouth makes a martini, then surely a microscopic drop of vermouth does too. And if a mere microscopic drop does - despite its being undetectable to the taste buds - then a glass of cold gin entirely devoid of vermouth does too. But of course, a glass of cold gin qua cold gin just isn’t a martini at all. Hence neither is a glass of cold gin with a mere drop of vermouth in it. Etc. (I leave the details as homework, since I’m busy doing some more research just now.)

Oh, before I forget: it is also part of the essence of the martini that it be cold. And I mean arctic cold, as close to frozen as possible. Use a lot of ice, and chill the glass in the freezer for a good fifteen minutes. And (again, pace James Bond - how’d this guy ever become a spy, anyway?) it should be stirred, not shaken. Unless you’re in a hurry, then shake away, but in a circular motion so as to simulate stirring. Call it “twin earth stirring” if it helps. (It’s sure helping me just now, I can tell you.)

Now (deep breath) the olive problem. Look, it’s almost three AM, which means bedtime is approaching, and there are some classic 80s videos I’ve been meaning to check out on YouTube. Plus, a little more research, to make sure I sleep soundly. So let’s make this quick. You’ve got to have an olive if it’s really gonna be a martini, OK? No onions, and (give me a break) no lemon rinds. This is a grown-up drink, people. Show some class. And at most two olives (though yes, they can be big fat ones). Anything more would be vulgar. [Insert argument here, blah blah blah, whatever.]

Whew, feeling sleepy…

Alright, now let’s consider some possible objections to my account. Many will object that it is boring, conventional, and dogmatic. To that I can only reply: Look, I’m a conservative, a Catholic, and a Thomist; so what the hell did you expect?

But this naturally leads us to the $64 question, viz. whether one’s martini metaphysics is a reliable guide to one’s politics. And the answer, of course, is no. There’s no connection whatsoever. The very idea is preposterous. Why are you asking me this?

“Feser, you disappoint us,” I can hear my critics saying. “Its evident preposterousness has never stopped you from taking a position in the past - why start now?”

OK, then, in the spirit of Popper I’ll make this bold conjecture: someone is a conservative if and only if he agrees with my martini recipe. (And if a liberal agrees with it, that just shows he’s really a conservative. So there. Vote accordingly next time, OK pal?)

Wow, am I beat… exhausted! Can’t think straight. Better call it a night…

Post entry. Logout… in martini veritas…

…colorless… green ideas… sleep furiously…


(Coming next: the metaphysics of Scotch, wherein it is demonstrated inter alia that the fad for single malts is no mere yuppie affectation, but portents nothing less than a revival of Western civilization and the final eschatological victory of all that is good and decent.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Coffey's Ontology

Readers sometimes ask me to recommend a general introduction to Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics. Unfortunately, the best such works are the Neo-Scholastic manuals of the pre-Vatican II period, now long out of print. Some of them, though, like R. P. Phillips' two-volume Modern Thomistic Philosophy or John McCormick's two-volume Scholastic Metaphysics, can be purchased fairly cheaply from online second-hand book dealers. Then there is Google books, through which at least one such work can be readily accessed: Peter Coffey's Ontology, or The Theory of Being: A General Introduction to Metaphysics. Enjoy.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Warby on Philosophy of Mind

Over at the online edition of Australia's Quadrant magazine, Michael Warby kindly reviews my book Philosophy of Mind. As Warby notes, the book is now out in a revised edition. (The first edition has the subtitle "A Short Introduction" and a surrealist cover illustration. The new edition, pictured at left, has a "brain in a vat" cover with the new subtitle "A Beginner's Guide." The only difference in content is the addition of an eight-page Postscript to the new edition.)

You can find a sample chapter here. Like the book in general (which first appeared in 2005), it is perhaps a tad too Cartesian and "representationalist" in spirit. Were I writing it today, I would make it more thoroughly Aristotelian-Thomist. (The philosophy of mind related portions of The Last Superstition reflect my transition toward a more consistent Thomism.) Still, Cartesianism is better than materialism, to say the very least.

Anyway, for interested readers, here is the complete table of contents:

Preface and acknowledgments

1. Perception

Dreams, demons, and brains in vats
Indirect realism
Appearance and reality, mind and matter
Further reading

2. Dualism

Minds and brains, apples and oranges
The indivisibility argument
The conceivability argument
The interaction problem
Further reading

3. Materialism

Tables, chairs, rocks, and trees
Reduction and supervenience
Cause and effect
The identity theory
The burden of proof
Further reading

4. Qualia

The inverted spectrum
The “Chinese nation” argument
The zombie argument
The knowledge argument
Property dualism
Further reading

5. Consciousness

Representationalism and Higher-Order Theories
Russellian identity theory and neutral monism
Troubles with Russellianism
A more consistent Russellianism
Consciousness, intentionality, and subjectivity
The binding problem
Further reading

6. Thought

Reasons and causes
The computational/representational theory of thought
The argument from reason
The Chinese Room argument
The mind-dependence of computation
Thought and consciousness
Further reading

7. Intentionality

Naturalistic theories of meaning
1. Conceptual role theories
2. Causal theories
3. Biological theories
4. Instrumentalist theories
Eliminativism again
The indeterminacy of the physical
1. Representations
2. Concepts
3. Formal reasoning
Materialism, meaning, and metaphysics
Further reading

8. Persons

Personal identity
Consequences of mechanism
Thomistic dualism
Philosophy of mind and the rest of philosophy
Further reading

Postscript (2006)


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Some Christmas reading

During the Neo-Scholastic period prior to Vatican II, Fr. Joseph Pohle produced a widely used series of textbooks on theology, which were translated into English and edited by Arthur Preuss. These "Pohle-Preuss" volumes were long out of print, though reprints are now available from various publishers. But via the magic of Google books, I now provide four of them to you free of charge. They make excellent reading for someone interested in a solid overview of basic, traditional Christian theology, informed by sound philosophy and devoid of the woolliness that afflicts even much of what passes for orthodox theological writing these days. Since it is Christmas, you might start with Christology. Then work your way through God: His Knowability, Essence and Attributes, The Divine Trinity, and Eschatology.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Ars Technica reports the following development in neuroscience (Hat tip: The Corner):

The advent of techniques like PET scans and functional MRI has enabled researchers to observe the brain in action with a precision that is unprecedented. One of the interesting aspects of these studies is that we can now actually perform a limited version of what might be called mind reading: identifying what's going on in the brain without having the owner of said brain describe it. In the latest development in the field of neuroimaging, researchers have watched the brain of someone watching an image, and were actually able to perform reasonable reconstructions of the image.

Pretty impressive. But does it amount to a kind of “mindreading,” as the author says? Does it show (what the author does not say, but which many readers will no doubt infer) that the having of a mental image can be identified with a certain kind of brain process? Not so fast. Here is a good example of how empirical discoveries which might seem to provide answers to philosophical questions actually presuppose such answers.

Notice first that no one who used fancy scientific instruments to observe the image on someone’s retina would regard this as an instance of “mindreading,” even though such an observation would under normal circumstances allow the observer to infer what sort of visual experience the subject was having. So why should observing some brain process associated with a certain sort of visual experience count as “mindreading”? The answer, of course, is that researchers assume there to be a connection between mental events and neural events that is more direct and intimate than that which exists between (say) mental events and events occurring within the eye.

Now that assumption may be correct – and I think it is in fact correct – but it is an assumption rather than something observed in the data, and more to the point it is an assumption with philosophical, and not just empirical, content. Recall my earlier post about Karl Popper’s critique of causal theories of the mind: Before we can identify any causal relation between the brain and the external world as having any sort of explanatory force vis-à-vis the mind, we have to be able to identify some particular external event as “the beginning” of the relevant causal chain, and some event within the brain as “the end.” Yet, as Popper argues, there is nothing in the bare empirical facts that can justify such identifications, nothing that determines this particular point as a “beginning” or that particular point as an “end.” (In the case at hand, there is nothing in the bare empirical facts that determines that it is such-and-such brain processes, rather than the image on the retina, or rather than some different event altogether, that counts as the terminus of the relevant causal chain.) Such identifications are interest-relative and thus non-objective – or at any rate they are, I would add, if we assume a “mechanistic” conception of the natural world.

To avoid the conclusion that they are interest-relative and non-objective (and the idealism or anti-realism this would seem to imply), we have to return to the Aristotelian idea that natural objects and processes have essences, that these essences entail inherent powers, and that these powers are defined by ends or goals toward which the objects or processes “point” as a final cause. In the case at hand, we have to assume (among other things) that the perceptual process inherently “points to” and thus of its nature terminates in, not the generation of a retinal image, not some set of neural events further down the line from the ones the researchers cited in the article were focusing on, but rather in those specific neural processes themselves. Here as elsewhere (as I argue at length in The Last Superstition), despite the “mechanistic” conception of nature officially and unreflectively endorsed by most scientists, the actual practice of empirical science, and certainly the intelligibility of its results, presupposes something like Aristotelian essentialism.

Secondly, it is also worth emphasizing that the researchers in question have (quite obviously) not literally been looking at any subject’s mental images or sensations. They have instead merely inferred from certain brain processes that the image must have such-and-such a character. Hence they have not discovered anything that need trouble any Cartesian dualist, since such dualists would (going back to Descartes himself) happily concede, and indeed emphasize, that there are neural processes causally correlated with various mental events, and insist only that the correlation does not and cannot entail that the relevant mental events are either identical with or metaphysically supervenient upon any neural events.

In any event, from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, results of the sort cited in the article are not only no evidence against dualism, but indeed just the sort of thing we should expect. For unlike Cartesians, Aristotelians and Thomists regard sensation and imagination as entirely material processes, not immaterial ones. Hence even an outright identification of (and not just correlation between) the having of a perceptual experience or mental image and a certain neural event would be no evidence at all against the claim that the mind is immaterial. For the defining aspect of the mind is intellect, and intellect is irreducible to sensation, imagination, or indeed any other material process.

The main reason has to do with the differences between the objects of intellect on the one hand, and the objects of sensation and imagination on the other. For one thing, sensations and mental images are always concrete and particular, while the concepts grasped by the intellect are abstract and universal. A given mental image of a man, for example, is always going to have features that apply at most to many men, but never to men universally; it will be of either a fat or a thin man, of a bald man or a man with hair, of a tall man or a short man, etc., and thus be limited in its application in a way that the universal idea of man is not. Secondly, images are always vague and indistinct when their objects are more complex, while the ideas grasped by the intellect are clear and distinct however complex their objects. To take a famous example from Descartes, no mental image you can form of a chiliagon (a thousand-sided polygon) is clearly different from your mental image of a 997-sided figure or a 1001-sided figure, but the concept of a chiliagon grasped by your intellect is clearly different from the concept of a 997-sided figure or a 1001-sided figure. Thirdly, there are things we simply cannot form a mental image of which the intellect can nevertheless grasp the idea of: abstractions like economics, law, or love; temporal relationships; logical relationships like entailment, conjunction, disjunction, and negation; and so on.

Since the objects of the intellect differ in kind from mental images and sensations, it follows that to detect neural patterns of the sort described in the article, whether or not it amounts to “reading” what someone is sensing or imagining, does not and cannot amount to “reading” what is going on in their intellects, and thus does not and cannot amount to reading their thoughts, if we confine “thought” to what the intellect does when it makes judgments and inferences, which involve the grasp of concepts.

Might the detection of some other kind of neural pattern amount to “reading” someone’s thoughts? No, for (among other things) the reasons outlined in my series of posts on short arguments for dualism. In particular (as I argued here), given a mechanistic (i.e. final causality-denying) conception of the material world, any material process must be devoid of intentionality. But thoughts are inherently intentional. Hence nothing detectable in any purely material processes (again, where “material” is understood in mechanistic terms) could possibly reveal the content of any thought.

Now if we reject a mechanistic conception of the material world and acknowledge the existence of final causes, then a kind of intentionality does become detectable within the material world after all. But now another consideration comes into play. For (as I argued here) the specific kind of intentionality involved in conceptual thought still cannot be accounted for in material terms, because material processes are always inherently indeterminate while at least some of our thoughts are not. Conceptual thought, the characteristic activity of the intellect, is (unlike sensation and imagination) thus essentially immaterial. Hence its presence can never even in principle be detected merely by examining someone’s brain.

(As indicated in that earlier post, this is, as James Ross has pointed out, the upshot of arguments like Quine’s famous argument concerning the inscrutability of reference and Kripke’s “quus” argument, though materialist writers like Quine conclude, not that thoughts are therefore immaterial, but rather – and incoherently – that none of our thoughts has any determinate meaning. I say “incoherently” because – again, as Ross points out and as I said in the earlier post – to deny that we have any thoughts with determinate meaning is in effect to deny among other things that we ever reason in accordance with valid forms of inference, which undermines any argument anyone, including Quine himself, has ever given.)

This leaves it open that, at least given certain background assumptions, we might guess with some measure of probability what someone is thinking. Indeed, we can do that already, just by observing a person’s behavior and interpreting it in light of what we know about him in particular, his circumstances, human nature in general, and so forth. And of course, further knowledge of the brain might give us even further, and more refined, resources for making inferences of this sort. But what it cannot do even in principle is fix a single determinate interpretation of those thoughts, or reduce them entirely to neural activity. So, no entirely empirical methods could, even in principle, allow us to “read” someone’s thoughts in anything more than the loose and familiar sense in which we can already do so.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Horwitz on The Cambridge Companion to Hayek

In the latest issue of History of Political Economy, economist Steven Horwitz describes my recent edited volume The Cambridge Companion to Hayek as "a very good collection of original essays... For scholars not especially familiar with Hayek's work who are looking for a one-volume introduction to his thought in all of its wide range, The Cambridge Companion would work very nicely."

From some earlier reviews: "Thoroughly informative and stimulating" (National Review); "Highly recommended" (Journal of Markets and Morality); "The best collection of articles on Hayek assembled to date. All future serious Hayek scholarship will have to incorporate this volume... It is a tour de force" (Liberty).

Order your copy here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Oderberg on hylemorphic dualism

The arguments presented in my recent series of posts on dualism have been more or less ecumenical. That is to say, they have not attempted to defend any particular form of dualism, but merely tried to show that the mind must be immaterial, leaving open the question of how exactly the immaterial mind relates to the material side of human nature.

But as readers of The Last Superstition and Philosophy of Mind know, I do not in fact think that all forms of dualism are equally defensible. The version I would myself defend is neither Cartesian substance dualism, nor property dualism, nor emergent dualism, but rather hylemorphic dualism, so called because it is informed by hylemorphism, the Aristotelian-Thomistic-Scholastic view that material substances are composites of form and matter. (The theory is also sometimes called Thomistic dualism, after Thomas Aquinas, its most significant advocate historically.)

David S. Oderberg (who seems to have invented the label "hylemorphic dualism") is among the view's most skilled contemporary defenders. His 2005 article "Hylemorphic dualism" is must reading for those interested in the subject, and he has recently published another important article entitled "Concepts, dualism, and the human intellect," which is available here. Check it out.

Incidentally, anyone who wants to see what a rigorous and detailed contemporary defense of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics would look like should invest in Oderberg's brilliant recent book Real Essentialism.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

An open letter to Heather MacDonald

Over at Secular Right, Heather MacDonald has added a reply of her own to John Derbyshire’s reply to my previous reply to her. Dizzy yet?

Anyway, here’s a response that I hope will bring this exchange, if not to a close, then at least into greater focus:

Hello again Ms. MacDonald,

If you’ll forgive me for saying so, it seems to me that you keep missing my point. On top of that, you are now trying to change the subject. If you will indulge me for a few minutes – and it seems that a more in-depth reply is, after all, what you are requesting of me – let me try to explain how.

The source of my dispute with you is the criticism that you (like Kathleen Parker and others) have been making of religion – not of this or that kind of religion, and not of this or that individual religious believer, but of religion per se – to the effect that it is irrational, and that this irrationality has something to do with its purported lack of scientific grounding.

I have said several times now that part of the problem with your position is that you assume – falsely, and certainly without any argument whatsoever – that the methods applied by the empirical sciences are the only rational methods of inquiry that there are. Yet you have failed to answer this criticism, or even, as I far as I can tell, to acknowledge it. Worse, you seem completely unaware that the assumption you are making is in fact a highly controversial one, and not just among religiously-minded thinkers. A great many secular thinkers would reject it. I gave the example of mathematics, the rationality of which no one denies, but which very few philosophers, mathematicians, or philosophically-inclined empirical scientists – including atheistic philosophers, mathematicians, and empirical scientists – would take to be an empirical form of inquiry.

Now I have claimed – as a great many other thinkers, both secular and religious, would claim – that philosophy, and in particular the branch of philosophy called metaphysics, is another form of inquiry which is both rational and at least in part non-empirical. It can be thought of as being similar to both empirical science and mathematics in some respects, and different from both in other respects. Like empirical science, metaphysics often begins with things we know via observation. But like mathematics, it arrives at conclusions which, if the reasoning leading to them is correct, are necessary truths rather than contingent ones, truths that could not have been otherwise. That doesn’t mean that the metaphysician is infallible, any more than the mathematician is. It means instead that if he has done his job well, he will (like the mathematician) have discovered truths about the world that are even deeper and more indubitable than the most solid findings of empirical science.

Indeed, many metaphysical issues are concerned precisely with matters that empirical science necessarily takes for granted. To take just one example, empirical science is concerned with investigating the relationships holding between observable phenomena, especially their causal relationships. But what exactly is causation in the first place? Is there more than one kind? Is it a real feature of objective reality, or only a projection of the mind? And what exactly are the things that are supposed to be related causally – objects, events, properties? All of the above? And what exactly is it to be “observable”? How can we be sure that our powers of observation adequately reveal to us the nature of the things we take ourselves to be observing? Note that these are all philosophical or metaphysical questions, not empirical scientific ones. And since they deal with what empirical science takes for granted, they are questions that empirical science cannot answer.

This is one reason why the view that empirical science is the only rational form of inquiry that there is – a view sometimes known as “scientism” – has been thought by many philosophers (and scientists too) to be incoherent and thus necessarily false. Indeed, the claim that empirical science is the only rational form of inquiry there is is itself not an empirical claim at all, but a metaphysical one, and thus it undermines itself.

Now, what does all of this have to do with the rational credentials of religion? Everything. For the traditional arguments for the existence of God – the sort given, for example, by Thomas Aquinas – are not intended to be exercises in empirical hypothesis-formation of the sort common in physics, chemistry, etc. But that does not mean that they are not rational arguments. Rather it means that they are rational arguments of a different sort, a philosophical or metaphysical sort. Indeed, they begin with facts about the empirical world that empirical science takes for granted – such as the fact that the empirical world exists at all, or that it undergoes change, or that it exhibits patterns of cause and effect – and they attempt to demonstrate that the only explanation of these facts that is possible even in principle is the existence of a divine First Cause.

Now, many readers, when they hear this claim, automatically think “Oh, I’ve heard all that before, but everyone knows that those arguments are easily refuted.” But in fact “everyone” knows no such thing. In fact, most people have no idea at all what the arguments as traditionally understood were really saying. What they do know are only the crudest clichés and caricatures of the arguments, as peddled in countless books of pop philosophy, pop atheism, and (yes) pop apologetics.

For example, it is very widely assumed that cosmological arguments of the sort give by Aquinas rest on the assumption that “everything has a cause.” But in fact, none of the major defenders of the cosmological argument – not Aristotle, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Clarke, not any other major thinker – assumes this at all. It is widely assumed that defenders of the cosmological argument are all trying to show that the world had a beginning, and that God must have been the cause of that beginning. In fact (almost) none of them are trying to show this, and most are happy to grant, at least for the sake of argument, that the world has always existed. It is very widely assumed that defenders of the cosmological argument say nothing to show that a first uncaused cause of the world would have to be all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, and in general to have the various attributes definitive of the God of traditional theism. In fact all of them say a great deal to demonstrate this, and many of them devote dozens or even hundreds of pages of rigorous argumentation to show that a First Cause could not possibly fail to be anything less than a single all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, eternal and immaterial being. It is very widely assumed that the arguments are “God of the gaps”-style attempts at empirical theorizing, when, as I have said, they are not that at all. They do not stand or fall with any particular empirical observation, but are rather metaphysical demonstrations seeking to establish the essential preconditions of there being any empirical world to study in the first place. It is widely believed that the claim that the First Cause is itself uncaused is an arbitrary and entirely undefended assumption. In fact this is not “assumed” at all. The argument for a First Cause rests on a sophisticated theory of causation from which it is conclusively demonstrated, and not “assumed,” that no causal series could exist at all even for an instant unless there were an uncaused cause sustaining the world, and every causal series within it, in being at every instant. And so forth.

Hence when I denied that religion was “unscientific,” I did not mean that there were double-blind experiments or the like which could validate claims about magic pills, etc. I meant instead that there are serious rational arguments of a specifically metaphysical nature which show that the existence of God is a necessary condition of the intelligibility of science itself. You might disagree with this claim, but surely you can see that it is a serious claim which has to be met with a serious reply, a reply informed by knowledge of the relevant disciplines: philosophy, especially metaphysics and philosophy of religion; philosophy of science; theology; and, I would add, the history of ideas. It will not do simply to mock a few hapless unsophisticated religious believers, toss in a simplistic version of the atheistic argument from evil, and then pretend that one has more or less demonstrated that religion per se is an irrational enterprise. And as someone who has long admired your work on public policy, I know that you are capable of better than this.

It also will not do to try now to shift the ground of debate to the question of what sort of attitudes sophisticated believers have or should have toward less sophisticated ones. The claim that people like you and Kathleen Parker have been making is that religious belief per se, and not just the views of this or that religious believer, is irrational. I have been arguing that you have made no serious or well-informed case whatsoever for such a claim. Perhaps because you see that I am right, you now want to change the subject and discuss instead the topic of whether I ought to approve of the magic pill priest. Well, apart from the fact that, other than what you have told us, I have no knowledge whatsoever of this fellow, and no interest in finding out more, I have also already spent a good part of a week – and now all of a Saturday night I could have been spending on the couch with Ben and Jerry and the remote control – to pursuing the debate we started out having. I’ve no time for a second one, thank you very much.

Suffice it to say that if you think a sophisticated believer must either endorse every single oversimplification and/or superstition adhered to by his less sophisticated fellow believers, or attack every single one of them with the sort of outrage and contempt that you do, then you have just committed what logicians call the fallacy of false alternative. Some simplifications are just that – simplifications – and are harmless, or even useful as a way to convey difficult ideas to the less sophisticated. (Scientists do this all the time – think e.g. of the little stick-and-ball model used to convey the idea of a molecule.) Others are oversimplifications or even superstitions, and should be rejected, even harshly in some cases. We have to go case by case. Why you insist on taking extreme cases like Fr. Magic Pill and extrapolating from him to religion as a whole, or even to unsophisticated religion as a whole, I have no idea.

Anyway, perhaps you can see why I have insisted that there is little point in getting into these matters in a blog post – and, given my verbosity here, you no doubt wish at this point that I hadn’t said even this much. But the issues are complex, and the reams and reams of disinformation that a serious defender of religious belief has to overcome are many. It all has to be addressed at length or not at all. That’s why I wrote The Last Superstition.

As a conservative, you are already familiar with this sort of phenomenon. You know all too painfully well that what “most people,” even most educated people, claim to “know” about (say) conservative approaches to poverty, or health care, or free-market economics in general, is a pile of worthless caricatures and clichés. You know how common it is for them to take the worst representatives of conservatism, or even people who are not truly conservative at all but represent only a distortion of conservatism, and present them as if they were paradigmatic of conservatism per se. And you also know how very difficult it is, accordingly, to get through the deeply entrenched prejudices of such people, which keep them even from understanding what a real conservative argument is, much less giving it a fair hearing.

It seems to me that, with respect to religion, you have fallen into the same trap these critics of conservatism have. And like them, it seems to me you are unwilling even to consider the possibility that you might be mistaken. (And please don’t bother trying to fling the same accusation back at me. I once had views very much like your own, having being an atheist, and a “secular conservative,” for many years before rational arguments persuaded me of the truth of theism and related doctrines. I have considered the very best arguments for both sides, and in great detail.)

Like the dogmatic socialist or welfare statist who insists that he needn’t bother reading a Hayek or a Friedman because he “already knows” what they are going to say, “already knows” that their conclusions must be wrong, and “refutes” them without reading them by spouting clichés the hollowness of which these writers would easily expose, if only they were given a fair hearing – like them, you, it seems to me, insist on repeating the same points over and over without realizing that what is in question are precisely the assumptions underlying those points.

If you have no desire to read my own book, fine – I could certainly understand why not, given the testiness of our exchange, on my side as well as yours. But please, please do your homework before making claims of the sort you have been making. And stop pretending that in the dispute between secularists and religious believers, only the former can plausibly claim to have reason and science on their side. It is not true, and it neither rational, nor scientific, nor conservative to pretend that it is true.

Ed Feser

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Rodney King moment

Over at Secular Right, the esteemed John Derbyshire (a.k.a. Bradlaugh) and I continue the exchange sparked by my comments on Heather MacDonald. Starts out nasty on both sides, but soon degenerates into all-around amity and reasonableness. The moderator may soon have to throw in the towel before each of us violently insists on declaring the other one the victor.

Anyway, interested readers can start with Bradlaugh's initial post and then scroll through the comments section...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The burden of bad ideas

So, Heather MacDonald has replied to my reply to her. Take a look and then come back.

Welcome back.

Now, a little thought experiment. Suppose you were a professional physicist. Suppose further that that you came across the writings of someone whose knowledge of quantum mechanics derived entirely from discussions with high school science students. She had picked up from them some of the jargon – “collapse of the wave function,” “Schrödinger’s cat,” “wave-particle duality,” and so forth – but because their explanations were amateurish at best – always oversimplified, usually at least partially mistaken, and sometimes even grotesquely off-base – they failed to convey to her anything close to an accurate picture of the subject. Bizarrely, though, she used the bad information she’d picked up from them as the basis for an attack on the intellectual respectability of quantum mechanics, presenting it as clear evidence of the irrationality of contemporary physicists. “These physics oddballs claim they have a cat in a lab somewhere that is both alive and dead at the same time! And they also believe in little magic particles floating on foamy cosmic waves, or some such thing. Oogedy-boogedy, as my friend Kathleen would say. Maybe we conservatives ought to stay away from them. Maybe start a blog too. ‘Cause otherwise, you know, we might look as foolish and clueless as they do!”

Suppose also that, equally bizarrely, she seemed to be getting some respectful attention for these laughably ill-informed opinions. Annoyed, you pointed out to her that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, that she really ought to read some serious physics books before commenting further, and that in any case she ought to leave the hapless high school students out of it. Irate, she replies that the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that quantum mechanics is really worth taking seriously, and that doing so requires you to give her some “scientific evidence” that what the high school students have to say is true. She also refuses to consider the views of any actual physicists, apparently on the theory that if their complex arguments cannot be summarized for her in the comments box of one of her blog posts, then they must not be very compelling. Then she riffs a little more on some of her pet irrelevancies. “Where, pray tell, is your scientific evidence for this cat who’s alive and dead at the same time, Mr. Physicist? Show it to us, if it’s real! And what about those little ball thingies that float on the waves? Where’s your scientific test for them? Huh? HUH?!” Finally, with a flourish, she compares quantum mechanics to belief in the efficacy of Kinoki Detox Foot Pads. “So there!”

Replace “quantum mechanics” with “religion,” “physics” with “philosophy and theology,” and “high school students” with “unsophisticated religious believers,” and this is, I submit, pretty much where I find myself with respect to MacDonald. Really, what’s the point?

But I guess I’m in a masochistic mood, so let’s waste a few more pixels, shall we?

MacDonald insinuates that in my original short email to Jonah Goldberg which he posted at The Corner, and in my brief reply to her in the comments section of her blog, I was “argu[ing] for the scientific and rational basis of religion,” and she does not find these purported arguments of mine compelling. But of course, it would be idiotic to try to argue for such a gigantic claim in either a short email to a busy NRO writer or in the comments box of some blog, and so I did not try to do so. The only point I was making is that whatever one thinks of religion, MacDonald, Kathleen Parker, et al. reveal by their writings that they are innocent of any knowledge of serious religious thought – and MacDonald keeps piling up the evidence for this claim with every comment she makes in reply to me.

Presumably MacDonald wrote her own book The Burden of Bad Ideas precisely so that she wouldn’t have to repeat herself at length every time some joker demanded of her to prove, on the spot (and indeed even in emails sent to third parties) that her views on public policy are correct. “Jeez, read the book, fella!” I imagine she would say, and rightly so. (And you should read it too, incidentally, because MacDonald, whose work I generally enjoy and profit from, is very good when she’s writing on subjects other than religion.) Similarly, if MacDonald really wants to hear my case for the rational basis of religion, she can find it in The Last Superstition. (Twenty-one shopping days left until Christmas, so pick one up for Kathleen too!)

I will say this much, however. MacDonald seems to think that a rational case for the existence of God must take the form of coming up with a double-blind experiment to test claims about magic pills, or whatever the hell it is she was going on about. But the traditional arguments for God’s existence are not like that. That is to say, they aren’t quasi-scientific or pseudo-scientific explanations of this or that alleged weird phenomenon. They are instead attempts to show that perfectly ordinary phenomena, and in particular the phenomena that empirical science itself must necessarily take for granted, such as (to take just one example) the existence of any causal regularities at all, necessarily presuppose an uncaused first cause. The reasons why this is so are complicated, as are the reasons why the standard “obvious” objections to this claim are no good – that is, again, why they cannot properly be explained except at the sort of length a book provides. The point for now, in any event, is that empirical theorizing is not the only sort of rational inquiry there is. Mathematics is another. And a third is metaphysics, which is the rational investigation of those categories – such as cause, effect, form, matter, substance, attribute, essence, existence, and so forth – which empirical science cannot investigate, precisely because any empirical science must presuppose them. (Even the claim that “empirical science is the only rational form of inquiry” would itself not an empirical claim but a metaphysical one.) And this is the level at which the debate over God’s existence must be conducted – philosophy, not empirical science.

Again, though, read the book, which establishes all this at length and in detail.

That MacDonald is no philosophy whiz is in any case painfully evident from her attempted disproof of God’s existence on the basis of evil. I positively defy her to name anyone – it need not be a philosopher, just anyone at all – who has said anything to the effect that “their death [i.e. that of the miners in her example] shows God’s love for humanity, that he cares for every one of us.” True, lots of people say (quite correctly) that such tragic events are consistent with God’s love for us. But who ever made the much stronger claim that they are nothing less than “proof” of that love? No one, as far as I can tell. And yet this silly straw man attribution is essential to MacDonald’s hapless attempt at reductio ad absurdum.

Yet again, read the book, which contains a thorough debunking of the problem of evil.

Anyway, MacDonald need not count her ill-advised foray into philosophy and theology a total loss. Look at it this way: Should she ever be moved to revise The Burden of Bad Ideas she’s now got material for a new chapter, viz. an autobiographical one.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Secular conservatism

Today Jonah Goldberg took Kathleen Parker and others to task here for some of the silly and ill-informed things they have been saying in defense of “secular conservatism.” Goldberg then posted some remarks of mine on this debate here, and a none-too-amused Heather MacDonald replied to me in turn here. Scroll through the comments on MacDonald’s post for my reply to her reply.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Neo-Scholastic revival?

Neo-Scholasticism was a movement within philosophy and theology which sought to revive, develop, and defend Scholastic thought in general and Thomism in particular as an alternative to the various schools of modern thought. It flourished from the years just prior to Pope Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris to the close of Vatican II in 1965. As those temporal markers indicate, it was mostly a Catholic movement, but there were several prominent non-Catholic thinkers who sympathized with the Aristotelian themes emphasized by most Neo-Scholastics. Mortimer Adler, John Wild, and Henry Veatch would be three examples. (Adler did finally convert to Catholicism not long before his death.)

A great many silly things have been said about this tradition by its critics. For example, within Roman Catholic circles, Neo-Scholasticism is often disparaged as “manualist,” because of the way in which Neo-Scholastic thought was often transmitted through manuals or textbooks of philosophy, theology, and ethics, usually for use in seminary education. Yet why such “manualism” is objectionable is a question to which no one has ever given a satisfying answer. We are told, for instance, that the teaching of the manuals was too “constricting” and pre-packaged, that the systematic and rigorous character of Scholastic thought stifles “creativity.” But of course, you could say the same thing about textbooks of physics or chemistry, and no one would suggest that this shows that what is taught in such textbooks is wrong. Physics and chemistry are what they are, and if that makes it more difficult for would-be physicists or chemists to show their “creativity,” that’s just tough luck for them. Similarly, if the teaching of the Neo-Scholastic manuals is correct, then complaining that it cramps one’s style is simply juvenile and frivolous, and certainly beside the point.

To be sure, one might object that that teaching is not correct. But it is amazing how infrequently this charge is actually made. People do object, of course, to this or that specific doctrine, especially in moral theology, but by and large the critics do not allege that the central philosophical and theological claims of Neo-Scholasticism are false, much less bother to put forward arguments against them. Instead they say that the manualist tradition is “outdated” or “doesn’t speak to the concerns of modern man.” Given that no attempt is made to refute that tradition, such claims thus turn out to entail little more than that Neo-Scholasticism isn’t fashionable. Again, one wants to ask: So what?

One might object that the comparison to physics and chemistry is inapt, since philosophical and theological inquiry don’t give us anything close to the kind of settled results that those sciences do. But this would simply be to beg the question against the Neo-Scholastics, who took the view that the “classical realist” tradition of thought extending from Plato and Aristotle through Augustine to Aquinas and the other great Scholastics represents, in part, a body of known truths, whose precise significance and implications may be open to reasonable debate, but whose essential correctness is not (certainly not from a Catholic point of view). Hence, from the Neo-Scholastic perspective, philosophy and theology are capable of yielding settled results, at least concerning the “big picture” – realism about universals, rejection of any mechanistic conception of nature, affirmation that the existence of God can be demonstrated, defense of the distinction between sensation and intellect, and so forth – even if they also leave much room for debate. (And anyone who thinks the Neo-Scholastics just repeated each other without engaging in serious controversy – another standard charge – has obviously not bothered to read them.)

Thankfully, there have been signs recently of a renewed appreciation for the Neo-Scholastic tradition. Among theologians, R. R. Reno, writing in First Things, has noted how the successors of the Neo-Scholastics have failed to put anything in the place of the systematic body of thought represented by the manuals, leaving a gigantic gap in ordinary theological education. The new emphasis on novelty and “creativity” effectively destroyed any sense of a common theological tradition and replaced it with a bewildering variety of unsystematic and idiosyncratic theologies as numerous as the theologians themselves. The upshot has been a catastrophic failure of catechesis within the Catholic Church in the last four decades. As Reno notes, this is a failure not only of blatantly heterodox writers like Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx, but also of those partisans of the nouvelle theologie who saw themselves as loyal to the Church’s magisterium, such as Balthasar and de Lubac. Reno recommends a new look at the great Neo-Scholastics, hinting that their critics would have been better advised to build on what they accomplished, even if modifying it somewhat in the process, rather than throwing it aside altogether.

Others have begun to take that second look. The greatest of the 20th century Neo-Scholastics – some of us dinosaurs would say the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century, period – was Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (pictured in the photo above), whose work went into near-oblivion in the post-Vatican II period. Recently, however, two sympathetic book-length studies of his thought have appeared. The first is Richard Peddicord’s The Sacred Monster of Thomism: An Introduction to the Life and Legacy of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., which was published in 2005. (The title is taken from an epithet once directed at Garrigou-Lagrange by one of his detractors.) And this year Aidan Nichols has published Reason with Piety: Garrigou-Lagrange in the Service of Catholic Thought, originally presented as a series of lectures at Oxford. (Incidentally, if you are interested in exploring Garrigou-Lagrange’s own work, you cannot do better than to begin with his Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, and continue with his great two-volume work God: His Existence and His Nature, both of which have recently been reprinted. See here, here, and here.)

Among moral theologians of the manualist era, John C. Ford stands out as particularly significant. Among his other accomplishments, he was instrumental in persuading Pope Paul VI that the Church’s traditional teaching against contraception could not be changed. (Ford’s book Contemporary Moral Theology, Volume 2: Marriage Questions, co-authored with Gerald Kelly, is the best book in English on sexual morality that I know of.) Though he has, like Garrigou-Lagrange, been neglected in the post-Vatican II period, he too has been made the subject of a recent book-length study, John Cuthbert Ford, SJ: Moral Theologian at the End of the Manualist Era, by Eric Marcelo O. Genilo. (Genilo is not entirely sympathetic to Ford’s traditional approach to moral theology, but tries to be fair-minded.)

Within philosophy, Ralph McInerny has for decades been carrying the Thomistic banner passed on by the Neo-Scholastics, and like them he interprets Aquinas in light of the Dominican tradition of commentary represented by Cajetan. His recent book Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers is a defense of that tradition against critics of Neo-Scholasticism like de Lubac and Gilson, who sought to disassociate Aquinas from the commentators and from Aristotelianism more generally. (See here for a review of McInerny’s book, from the same issue of First Things in which Reno’s article appeared.)

Some philosophers often identified as “analytical Thomists” have also shown an interest in the Neo-Scholastic tradition. John Haldane recently edited Modern Writings on Thomism, a series of volumes reprinting several important Neo-Scholastic philosophy manuals of the pre-Vatican period. David Oderberg’s work also evinces sympathy with Neo-Scholasticism. His brilliant recent book Real Essentialism is must reading for anyone interested in a rigorous and detailed contemporary defense of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics. And of course, other analytic philosophers with an interest in medieval philosophy have sought to show how the ideas of the medieval Scholastics, when properly understood, are as powerful and challenging today as they were in their own time. Gyula Klima’s work has been exemplary in this regard.

None of this quite adds up to a “Neo-Scholastic revival,” but it does provide evidence that such a revival is not out of the question. It is in any event sorely needed (or so I would argue) if the rational foundations of morality and religious belief are once again to be widely understood – indeed, if the rational foundations of anything are to be understood. For modern philosophy is an incoherent mess, and its false assumptions make problematic, not only natural theology and ethics, but empirical science and any other form of rational inquiry as well. The Last Superstition is devoted in part to making the case for this claim – and to doing my own small part to further the revival of the great Scholastic tradition.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Some brief arguments for dualism, Part V

The next argument in our series is inspired by Karl Popper, and in particular by some ideas he first presented in his short article “Language and the Body-Mind Problem” (available in his collection Conjectures and Refutations) and repeated in The Self and Its Brain. As Popper originally formulated it, its immediate aim was to demonstrate the impossibility of a causal theory of linguistic meaning, but it is evident from some remarks he once made about F. A. Hayek’s book The Sensory Order that he also regarded it as a refutation of any causal theory of the mind. (See my essay “Hayek the Cognitive Scientist and Philosopher of Mind” in The Cambridge Companion to Hayek.) Hilary Putnam would later present a similar line of argument in his book Renewing Philosophy, though he does not seem to be aware of Popper’s version.

The argument as I will state it is somewhat different from anything either Popper or Putnam has said, though it is in the same spirit. Before stating the argument, it is worthwhile recalling the “mechanistic” conception of the natural world which, as I have emphasized in earlier posts in this series, implicitly or explicitly informs materialism. On this conception, the world is devoid of what Aristotelians call formal and final causes: there are in nature no substantial forms or inherent powers of the sort affirmed by the medieval Scholastics, and there is no meaning, purpose, or goal-directedness either. The physical world is instead composed entirely of inherently purposeless elements (atoms, corpuscles, quarks, or whatever) governed by inherently meaningless patterns of cause and effect. All the complex phenomena of our experience, from grapes to galaxy clusters, from mudslides to minds, must somehow be explicable in terms of these elements and the causal regularities they exhibit.

But in fact there can be no such explanation of the mind, not even in principle. In particular, there can be no such explanation of intentionality, the mind’s capacity to represent the world beyond itself – as it does, say, when your thought that the cat is on the mat represents the cat’s being on the mat.

The reason is this. As already indicated, any materialistic explanation of intentionality is bound to be a causal explanation. That is to say, it is going to be an attempt to show that the intentionality of a mental state somehow derives from its causal relations. The causal relations in question might be internal to the brain (as they are according to “internalist” theories of meaning); they might extend beyond the brain to objects and events in a person’s environment (as they do according to “externalist” theories); they may even extend backwards in time millions of years to the environment in which our ancestors evolved (as they do according to “biosemantic” theories). An adequate description of the relevant causal relations may require any number of technical qualifications (such as an appeal to Fodor’s notion of “asymmetric dependence”). In every case, though, a materialist is bound to appeal to some pattern of causal relations or other as the key to explaining intentionality. He’s got nothing else to appeal to, after all; the basic elements out of which everything in the physical world is made are by his own admission devoid of any meaning (“intentionality simply doesn’t go that deep,” as Fodor insists in Psychosemantics) and anything other than these elements exists only insofar as causal interactions between the elements generates it.

Now, specifying the relevant causal relation entails specifying a relevant beginning point to the series and a relevant end point. We have to identify some physical phenomenon as that which does the representing, and some other physical phenomenon as that which is represented; or in other words, we have to pick out one thing as the thought, and another thing as that which is thought about. To take a simple example, if we imagine that a certain brain process is associated with the thought that the cat is on the mat because it is caused in such-and-such a way by the presence of cats on mats, then we will have to take the cat’s presence on the mat as the beginning of the relevant causal chain (call it A) and the occurrence of the brain process in question (call it B) as the end. (Of course, specifying exactly what the “such-and-such a way” involves can get pretty complicated, as anyone familiar with the contemporary literature knows, but the complications are irrelevant for our purposes here.)

But what objective reason is there to identify A and B as “the beginning” and “the end” of a causal sequence? Consider what happens in a situation like the one in question. Someone flips on a light switch, which causes electrical current to flow through the wires in the wall up to a ceiling lamp. Light from the lamp travels to a cat sitting on a mat below, is reflected off of the cat, and travels to the retinas of a nearby observer. This in turn causes signals to be sent up the optic nerves to the brain, which results in the firing of a certain cluster of neurons, which in turn results in the firing of another cluster, which in turn results in the firing of yet another cluster, and so on and so forth. All this neural activity ultimately results in a behavioral response, such as walking over to the refrigerator to get the milk bottle out so as to give the cat a snack. And this is followed, say, by an accidental dropping of the milk bottle, which results in broken glass, a cut to the ankle, a yelp of pain, and the kicking of the cat.

Now, again, what is it about this complex chain of events that justifies picking out A and B specifically and labeling them “the beginning” and “the end” respectively? Why is it the cat’s presence on the mat that counts as “the beginning” – rather than, say, the flipping of the light switch, or the flow of the current to the ceiling lamp, or the arrival of such-and-such a photon at exactly the midpoint between the surface of the cat and the observer’s left retina? Why is it brain process B exactly that counts as “the end” of the causal chain – rather than, say, the brain process immediately before B or immediately after B, or the walk over to the refrigerator, or the motion of such-and-such a shard of glass from the broken milk bottle as it skips across the floor? Of course, we have an interest in picking out and identifying cats and not in picking out and identifying individual photons, and an interest in brain processes and their associated mental states that we don’t have in shards of glass. But that is a fact about us, not a fact about the physical world itself. Objectively, as far as the physical world itself is concerned, there is just the ongoing and incredibly complex sequence of causes and effects, which extends indefinitely forward and backward in time well beyond the events we have described. Objectively, that is to say, there is no such thing as “the beginning” or “the end,” and nothing inherently significant about any one event as compared to another.

Popper’s point, and Putnam’s, is that what count as the “beginning” and “end” points of such a causal sequence, and thus what counts as “the causal sequence” itself considered in isolation from the rest of the overall causal situation, are interest relative. These particular aspects of the overall causal situation have no special significance apart from a mind which interprets them as having it. But in that case they cannot coherently be appealed to in order to explain the mind. It is no good saying that the representational character of our mental states derives from their causal relations when the causal relations themselves cannot be specified except in terms of how they are represented by certain mental states. A vicious circularity afflicts any such “theory” of intentionality.

Now it is important to emphasize that the point is not that causation per se is interest relative or mind-dependent; the argument is not an exercise in idealism or anti-realism. The overall complex ongoing sequence of causes and effects is entirely mind-independent. The claim, again, is just that something’s counting as a “beginning” or “end” point within the series is interest-relative and mind-dependent. Still, even this much might seem to be too close to idealism or anti-realism for comfort. It might seem to make causal explanations somehow subjective and arbitrary. (Indeed, Putnam attributes something like this sort of objection to Noam Chomsky.) But to fear that the Popper/Putnam argument we’ve been considering might entail that causal explanations are somehow subjective or arbitrary doesn’t show that the argument is wrong.

Is there any way to reconcile the argument with the objectivity and non-arbitrariness of causal explanations? Absolutely. The way to do it is to show that certain physical phenomena really can objectively count as the beginning or end points of a causal sequence after all – that they can indeed be picked out in a way that is not mind-dependent or interest-relative. But how can that be done? By showing that natural objects and processes are by their natures inherently directed towards the generation of certain other natural objects and processes as an “end” or “goal.” That is to say, by showing that natural objects and processes have what Aristotelians call substantial forms and final causes. In short, the way to explain how causal explanations can be objective and non-arbitrary as opposed to subjective and interest-relative is to acknowledge that the mechanistic conception of the world is mistaken, and that the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception that it replaced is correct after all.

So, the Popper/Putnam argument shows that the mechanistic conception of nature to which materialists are explicitly or implicitly committed entails that there can be no materialistic explanation of the mind. (As we have seen in earlier posts in this series, other arguments tend to show the same thing.) And the only way to sidestep the argument is to abandon the mechanistic conception of nature, which entails rejecting materialism anyway. Either way, materialism is refuted.

What positive view results? That depends. If one holds on to the mechanistic conception of nature, the result would seem to be some broadly Cartesian form of dualism – either substance dualism or property dualism. (Popper himself opted for the former. Putnam does not consider what consequences his view might have for the dualism/materialism debate.) If instead on opts to return to an Aristotelian conception of nature – the right choice, in my view – then one is on the path toward hylemorphic or Thomistic dualism. (I examine these options in my book Philosophy of Mind and defend the latter at length in The Last Superstition.)

Hence, one way or the other dualism is vindicated. And as with the arguments presented in earlier posts in this series, it will not to do object to this one that it somehow “violates Ockham’s razor,” that materialism is the “simpler explanation,” and so forth. Such objections can only have force against attempts to present dualism as a “probable” “hypothesis” “postulated” as the “best explanation” of the “data.” That is not the sort of argument I have given. As I have already said, the argument just presented is an attempt to show that materialism fails in principle; it purports to be a metaphysical demonstration of the falsity of materialism, not a piece of quasi-empirical theorizing. If it fails (and obviously I don’t think it does), it does not fail for the sorts of reasons empirical hypotheses do.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Gordon on TLS

The esteemed David Gordon, editor of the always-worth-reading Mises Review, reviews The Last Superstition in the latest issue of Conservative Battleline. (See here.)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Goldstein's book

Reader Warren Donley writes in to say of The Last Superstition:

I don't know if you are a fan of Orwell's "1984", but if you are, I hope you will take it the right way (i.e. as a compliment) when I say that in my opinion you have written the equivalent of "Goldstein's book" - a book which diagnoses, explains, and exposes the Big Lie (or, more charitably, the Big Error) that underlies and has given rise to the world in which we find ourselves. Your book summed up and elucidated many issues that I have been chewing over myself for years, but which I was unable to articulate due to my lack of a formal education in philosophy, and for that I am grateful to you...

(On a cruder level, it was extremely rewarding to see Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins get bitch-slapped like that....)

Thanks again for revealing the "secret".

Thank you, Warren. As I note in the preface to the book, one of the things that led me to write it was the superficiality (as I see it) of most of the existing responses to the New Atheism, and indeed to "secular progressivism" in general. The falsehoods and unexamined assumptions that underlie these noxious movements go far, far deeper than most people imagine, including most religious believers and conservatives.

Fight Big Brother and discover the "secret" for yourself by picking up a copy of The Last Superstition. Or two. Or three. Or more... Christmas is coming, after all!

(It's been a busy week. Regular posts will resume shortly.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Blog comments policy

Interested readers should take note that comments are now completely open. You no longer need a Blogger account to comment on any post on this blog. "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." So fire away. (But do keep in mind that I have my finger on the "delete" button at all times. To paraphrase Woody Guthrie, "this machine kills anonymous trolls.")

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Why allow abortion but not “same-sex marriage”?

In an election otherwise disastrous for conservatism, “same-sex marriage” was banned in three more states, including even fruits-and-nuts California. And yet pro-life measures failed across the country. What gives? Why are so many people who will not scruple the butchering of unborn children (including even their own unborn children) nevertheless unwilling to make a sacrament of sodomy?

At least three possible motives suggest themselves. I put them forward only as speculations.

1. Though every murder is a more grave offense against the natural law than is sodomy, sodomy is arguably more obviously contrary to the natural law than the specific kind of murder that occurs in most abortions. Hence, while centuries of bad moral theory and decades of marinating in a cultural cesspool have largely deadened most people’s intuitive sense that killing children in the womb is wicked, it has not quite entirely eliminated the intuitive sense that sodomy is contrary to nature, or at least that it would be indecent and impious to give to it the label “marriage.” Perhaps it is easier to deceive oneself into thinking that an embryo is “just a ball of cells” rather than a human being, or even that murdering a Down syndrome baby is an “act of mercy,” than it is to deceive oneself into believing that sodomy is an act of marital union, or indeed anything other than at least faintly indecent – titillating to some people, to be sure, but hardly the stuff of romance or tender wedding night fantasies.

In this connection, it is perhaps worth remembering that Aristotle, and even Plato, both condemned homosexual acts as contrary to nature, though they did not condemn infanticide when done for eugenic reasons. (One suspects they would have regarded abortion or infanticide for the purposes of securing “cost-free” sexual indulgence with nothing but contempt.) This would seem to provide at least some support for the thesis in question: Even in the context of ancient Greek aristocracy, thinkers like Plato and Aristotle could see that sodomy was contrary to nature, though they could not see that infanticide for any reason is too. Similarly, even in decadent 21st century America, people who would not even require a teenager to notify her parents before aborting her child are capable of perceiving that “same-sex marriage” is a contradiction in terms.

(BTW, hostile readers ignorant of what classical natural law theory actually says are asked to spare me stupid remarks along the lines of “Isn’t wearing glasses ‘unnatural’ too?” “How come sterile people can marry?” “If it’s ‘natural,’ shouldn’t everybody already agree about it?” etc. etc. I’m not going to get into a long exchange over sexual morality and natural law here, sorry. I’ve written on this topic at length elsewhere, most recently in chapter 4 of The Last Superstition.)

2. An otherwise healthy procedural conservatism is at play, but partly at the expense of substantive conservatism. By “procedural conservatism” I mean the generally salutary pragmatic principle of avoiding the upsetting of existing apple-carts. By “substantive conservatism” I mean the moral principle of ensuring that the apple-carts are really carrying apples, as it were, while the orange-carts are carrying the oranges and the refuse is in the trash cans where it belongs. Every conservative knows that justice should not always be done “though the heavens fall”; some evils ought to be tolerated, at least under certain circumstances, lest greater evils be brought about by the effort to extirpate the minor ones. But it is possible to make an idol of this pragmatic conservatism, and the procedural tail must never be allowed to wag the substantive dog. There are lines that must never be crossed under any circumstances, and existing apple-carts that must be upset so that the refuse they are carrying may be cleaned out and the apples restored. As I have argued elsewhere, the conservative who forgets this soon loses his moorings and becomes little more than the opposite bookend to the proverbial “liberal in a hurry,” namely a “slow-motion liberal” who is willing to accept virtually any social change, however intrinsically evil, so long as there is a consensus behind it and it is implemented gradually.

Procedural conservatism might be trumping substantive conservatism in the minds of at least some of those who have voted against the recent pro-life measures but also against “same-sex marriage.” Such people might realize that abortion is evil, or at least be willing to concede that it is seriously morally questionable in at least some cases. Yet because it has become so embedded in modern American life, they are wary of interfering with it. “Same-sex marriage,” by contrast, is still a novelty, and those who are pushing it are obnoxious and their methods lawless. Hence the misguided procedural conservatism that tolerates a very grave evil like abortion is still willing to resist the relatively milder evil of “same-sex marriage,” in both cases in the name of keeping the apple-cart stable.

3. Some heterosexuals who have at least a grudging respect for traditional sexual morality are more keen to see it respected by others than to practice it themselves. (Think e.g. of the secularized Beltway conservative think-tank or journalist type who heartily endorses pragmatic Burkean arguments for the social utility of stigmas against fornication and the like, but who nevertheless lives with his girlfriend.) Hence, while it costs such people little or nothing personally to vote against “same-sex marriage,” limitations on abortion might put a crimp on their own lifestyle should their less-than-conservative personal sexual behavior “punish them with a baby.”

Again, these are just speculations. And no doubt there are other factors too.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Antichrist Superstar

Here is a piece from Fr. George Rutler in today's National Review Online.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Dewey defeats Truman?

Can John McCain pull victory from the jaws of defeat one last time? John Podhoretz thinks he can, and Roger Kimball, Bob Krumm, and Vox Day think he will. Perhaps what they have to say will help some readers to sleep more soundly tonight.

I, for one, pray they are right. Barack Obama is an evil man who will do great damage to our country if elected. There are many reasons to think so. By far the most significant (as I have noted previously) is his unspeakably wicked record and positions vis-a-vis abortion, cloning, euthanasia, and related matters. Others include: the active support he will give the cause of "same-sex marriage" (he claims to oppose it, but that he is lying is evident from, among other things, his support of the California Supreme Court decision imposing it, his opposition to Proposition 8, and his call for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act); his effective abandonment of the Iraqi people to the tender mercies of the jihadists; the incalculable harm this will do to American prestige abroad (not among the decadent European elites, to be sure, but among our enemies, whose perception of us is far more important); his imbecilic economic policies, which will worsen the current economic crisis and lead the United States further in the direction of a sclerotic social democracy; the threat to free speech posed by the Democrats' proposed revival of the "fairness doctrine" (which he claims to oppose, but if you believe he will fight Pelosi and Reid on this you are living in a Douglas Kmiec-style fantasy land); the repulsive Maoist cult of personality that has grown up around him; and so on and on.

If you find it difficult tomorrow to vote for McCain, just think of it instead as voting against Obama. It will be easy.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Almost as stupid as “same-sex marriage”

A Japanese man is petitioning his government to allow marriage between human beings and… wait for it… cartoon characters. Moreover, he has so far convinced more than 1000 others to sign his petition. This is, apparently, not a joke. The man in question, who is thoroughly immersed in Japan’s thriving comic book subculture, explains that he feels more comfortable with “two-dimensional” people than with the “three-dimensional” kind.

This makes a twisted kind of sense when you consider the pathetic state of arrested adolescence in which so many contemporary men live their lives – obsessed well into their thirties and forties with the minutiae of fictional “universes” (as chronicled in comic books, movie franchises, role-playing games, and the like), often still living with their parents, deriving their sense of how men relate to women from pornography and sitcoms, etc. The women a fellow like this meets in fiction can come to seem infinitely more desirable than the real thing, which can hardly live up to the fantasized ideal – if only because no self-respecting real-life woman would give such a loser the time of day.

So, perhaps “inter-dimensional marriage” will soon overtake “same-sex marriage” as the burning “civil rights” issue of our time. After all, we don’t want to “discriminate” against those with a “two-dimensional orientation.” No doubt there’s a “loser gene” just waiting to be discovered, confirmation of which will prove that some people are just “born that way.” And we mustn’t in any event be “cartoonophobic.” It’s up to us to “define” what marriage is anyway, no? (Or at least, if you’re a modern “conservative,” it’s up to “the people,” though not the courts.) Inter-dimensional marriage opponents will surely come to seem to future generations like George Wallace – standing in the doorway of the local comic book store, keeping people from marrying the two-dimensional “person of their choice.”

Of course, I’m not trying to insinuate that “same-sex marriage” is as stupid as this – because in fact, it’s far more stupid. Consider: Who’s the bigger fool, the man who thinks two imaginary apples added to two real ones make four real apples, or the man who thinks two real apples and two further real ones make five apples? I’d say the latter – the former may be delusional, but at least he can add. Similarly, someone who wants to marry Lois Lane at least wants to do something that is logically possible – for Lois Lane might have existed, even though in fact she does not. But someone who wants to “marry” someone of the same sex wants to do something that is logically impossible, just as making two and two five is logically impossible.

Modern people, even many self-described conservatives, fail to see this, because they are often tacitly committed to a kind of nominalism or conceptualism on which words can ever only express what we decide they ought to as a matter of convention. All definitions become “nominal definitions” rather than “real definitions.” Of course, such people never follow out the implications of this nominalism thoroughly or consistently – or at least they haven’t yet – because the implications would be too preposterous, indeed grotesque. But occasionally they follow them out just a little bit further than previous generations have… with the result that, say, “same-sex marriage” suddenly comes to seems sane and even inevitable, rather than a Jonathan Swift-style joke. If “marrying” cartoon characters, or dogs, or a can of motor oil still seems beyond the pale, wait ten years. (This isn’t a slippery slope argument, by the way. The point isn’t that “same-sex marriage” will lead to absurd results; the point is that it is itself absurd.)

When the correct – (classical) realist and (Aristotelian) essentialist – understanding of language and reality is followed out consistently, one comes to see that marriage is necessarily heterosexual (and, yes, that it can exist only between two real people). If you’re interested in the reasons why, read The Last Superstition, especially chapters 2 and 4. Until then, leave Lois Lane alone. She is, apparently, already taken, and I for one wouldn’t want Superman ticked off at me. (Sure, he’s not real, but apparently that doesn’t matter.)

Oh, and if you’re a Californian, vote “Yes” on Proposition 8 this Tuesday.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Some brief arguments for dualism, Part IV

The arguments for dualism considered so far in this series (see here, here, and here) have been more or less “modern” rather than “classical.” They focus on those aspects of the mind most familiar to contemporary philosophers, namely intentionality (the meaningfulness or directedness beyond themselves of thoughts and the like) and qualia (those aspects of a conscious experience which are directly knowable only via introspection, and thus only by the one undergoing the experience). And they contend that, given the mechanistic conception of matter taken for granted by modern philosophers (dualists and materialists alike), these features of the mind are necessarily immaterial.

Classical arguments for the immateriality of the mind, by which I mean the sort common within Western philosophy prior to Descartes and defended by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, are very different. You won’t find the latter thinkers going on about either qualia or intentionality, because the very notions of qualia and intentionality, as usually understood, are artifacts of the modern mechanistic re-conception of the material world. “Qualia” are what you get when you deny that matter can have anything like the sensible qualities it seems to have in ordinary experience. “Intentionality” is what you get when you insist that the material world is devoid of anything like final causality, when you go on accordingly to relocate all meaning and purpose within the mind, and when you also go on in turn to characterize mental states as internal “representations” of an external reality. I have said a little bit about all of this in earlier posts, and it is a theme I explore in great detail in The Last Superstition.

For Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and other ancients and medievals, the main reason why the mind has to be immaterial concerns its affinity to its primary objects of knowledge, namely universals, which are themselves immaterial. When properly fleshed out and understood, this sort of argument is in my view decisive. Yet it has received very little attention from contemporary philosophers, partly, I think, because of their general ignorance of what the ancients and medievals thought, and partly because the logic of the mechanistic revolution inaugurated by Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, et al. has pushed them into so cramped and narrow a conceptual space that they can hardly even conceive any alternative to it. The result is that when they do address the arguments of the ancients and medievals (concerning this subject or any other), they almost always distort them in the most grotesque fashion, anachronistically reading into them assumptions that make sense only if one takes for granted conceptions of matter, mind, causation, etc. that the older thinkers in question would have regarded as deeply mistaken and muddleheaded. (Thus is Aristotle made out to be a “functionalist” vis-à-vis the mind, Aquinas’s Fifth Way is read as if it were an anticipation of Paley’s feeble “design argument,” etc.)

In The Last Superstition, I explain at length why some form of realism about universals is rationally unavoidable. (Whether it is the Platonic form of realism, the Aristotelian one, or the Scholastic one that we should endorse is a separate matter irrelevant to present purposes.) I am not going to attempt to summarize that case here, but the examples to follow should suffice to give a sense of how an argument from the reality of universals to the immateriality of the mind might proceed. Readers wanting a fuller treatment should consult TLS.

Consider that when you think about triangularity, as you might when proving a geometrical theorem, it is necessarily perfect triangularity that you are contemplating, not some mere approximation of it. Triangularity as your intellect grasps it is entirely determinate or exact; for example, what you grasp is the notion of a closed plane figure with three perfectly straight sides, rather than that of something which may or may not have straight sides or which may or may not be closed. Of course, your mental image of a triangle might not be exact, but rather indeterminate and fuzzy. But to grasp something with the intellect is not the same as to form a mental image of it. For any mental image of a triangle is necessarily going to be of an isosceles triangle specifically, or of a scalene one, or an equilateral one; but the concept of triangularity that your intellect grasps applies to all triangles alike. Any mental image of a triangle is going to have certain features, such as a particular color, that are no part of the concept of triangularity in general. A mental image is something private and subjective, while the concept of triangularity is objective and grasped by many minds at once. And so forth. In general, to grasp a concept is simply not the same thing as having a mental image. (Again, see TLS for more details.)

Now the thought you are having about triangularity when you grasp it must be as determinate or exact as triangularity itself, otherwise it just wouldn’t be a thought about triangularity in the first place, but only a thought about some approximation of triangularity. Yet material things are never determinate or exact in this way. Any material triangle, for example, is always only ever an approximation of perfect triangularity (since it is bound to have sides that are less than perfectly straight, etc., even if this is undetectable to the naked eye). And in general, material symbols and representations are inherently always to some extent vague, ambiguous, or otherwise inexact, susceptible of various alternative interpretations. It follows, then, that any thought you might have about triangularity is not something material; in particular, it is not some process occurring in the brain. And what goes for triangularity goes for any thought that involves the grasp of a universal, since universals in general (or at least very many of them, in case someone should wish to dispute this) are determinate and exact in a way material objects and processes cannot be.

As James F. Ross has argued, some of the best-known arguments of twentieth-century analytic philosophy reinforce this judgment. For instance, Quine’s arguments for the indeterminacy of translation and Kripke’s argument regarding “quaddition” show that there is in principle nothing in the facts about human behavior or physiology, or in any other physicalistically “respectable” set of facts, that can determine (say) whether by “gavagai” I mean “rabbit” or “undetached rabbit part,” or whether I am doing addition rather than “quaddition.” Indeed, these arguments show that this same indeterminacy afflicts everything I say or do. Yet it is simply false that everything I say or do is indeterminate in this way. For example, should I deploy modus ponens in defending a Quine- or Kripke-style argument, what I will be deploying is indeed modus ponens and not some mere approximation of modus ponens; certainly it had better be modus ponens and not some mere approximation, otherwise my arguments would all be invalid. Nor will it do to suggest that maybe all my arguments really are invalid, for even to deny that I ever really use modus ponens but only ever approximate it requires that I first grasp determinately what modus ponens is before judging that I never really engage in it. Similarly, if someone wanted to deny that we ever really grasp perfect triangularity, he would first have to grasp it himself before going on to judge (obviously falsely, in that case) that it is something we never grasp.

So, there is no coherent sense to be made of the suggestion that all of our thoughts are indeterminate. But if at least some of them are determinate, and no physical process or set of physical facts is ever determinate, it follows that at least some of our thoughts are not physical. (Ross’s argument, by the way, is elegantly developed in his article “Immaterial Aspects of Thought,” which appeared in the Journal of Philosophy in 1992. A later version of this article is available at his website, in the form of a chapter of his book manuscript Hidden Necessities.)

That is one way an argument from realism about universals to the immateriality of the mind can be developed. There are other ways too, which I will summarize in future posts.

Whatever one thinks of arguments like this, it is important to understand that (like the other arguments I’ve presented in this series) they are not the sort that might be undermined by the findings of neuroscience, or any other empirical science for that matter. They are not “soul of the gaps” arguments which purport to give a quasi-scientific explanation of some psychological phenomenon that we simply haven’t got enough empirical data to explain in a materialistic way. Rather, they purport to show that it is in principle impossible, conceptually impossible, for the intellect to be accounted for in a materialistic way. If such arguments work at all, they establish conclusively that the intellect could no more be identified with processes in the brain than two and two could make five. If they are mistaken, they would be mistaken in the way one might make a mistake in attempting to carry out a geometrical proof, and not by virtue of having failed to take account of this or that finding of brain research.