Saturday, May 30, 2009

Book of the Year

I’ve just learned that The Last Superstition has been named the Book of the Year in Religion by ForeWord Magazine. (I had reported on its nomination back in March.)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Woods on TLS

In the latest issue of Catholic World Report, Thomas Woods kindly reviews The Last Superstition. From the review:

“A crushing reply to the string of recent books by the so-called New Atheists… a stunning work…

The Last Superstition is a persuasive and powerful argument in defense of theism and Aristotelian metaphysics. It is sophisticated enough to convey to professional philosophers the seriousness and rigor of the theistic argument, while still being clear enough for the intelligent layman to understand. Indeed, it gives the layman the indispensible knowledge he needs to defend theism against the smart alecks who try to intimidate him but who themselves, as Feser shows, represent far more bluster than substance.

The presumption these days is to ask, ‘If you’re so smart, why are you religious?’ In light of Edward Feser’s indispensible book, a better question would be, ‘If you’re so smart, why are you still an atheist?’”

By the way, Woods, the author of many fine books and articles on history, politics, economics, and religion, has most recently published the best-selling Meltdown, a must-read presentation of the Austrian School analysis of the current economic crisis.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Francks on Scholasticism

For you Last Superstition readers eager for further exploration of the superficiality of modern thinkers’ criticisms of the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition, here are some words to ponder from Richard Francks’ excellent book Modern Philosophy: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries:

“Nowadays people tend to respond to arguments like [Berkeley’s] by deferring to higher authority. The Primary/Secondary argument is particularly good for this. I can’t imagine what it means to say that an atom has shape and size but no color, or that it has no properties that are expressible in sensory terms. I can’t understand what it means to say that a particle can also be a wave. … Yet we don’t regard these things as nonsense, but as fact – even though they are inconceivable to us. We take it on trust that some people can understand them – just as many people in Berkeley’s day took it on trust that some people had a clear understanding of Substantial Forms, Intelligible Species, and Haecceity. Philosophers like Locke were concerned to liberate us from the intellectual and political powers of such obscurantism. They thought it was psychologically and politically dangerous to give power and authority to people who were unable to make their ideas intelligible to the people who give them that power and authority. Nowadays we seem not to agree.” (p. 213)

“Look at the following three sets of terms and ask yourself which ones you think are mere meaningless verbiage, incapable of being given a clear sense, and which are genuinely meaningful terms. And ask yourself also how you know the difference.

1 Substantial Form, Haecceity, Quiddity (Scholastics, as mocked by [early modern] philosophers)

2 Matter, Cause, and the Self (seventeenth-century science and current common sense, as attacked by Berkeley – in part – and by Hume)

3 Black hole, non-individuality, strangeness (present-day scholasticism, or hard science?)” (p. 184)

Discuss (while I continue to convalesce from my wife’s C-section).

OK, I’d better say at least this much, lest some unsympathetic reader get the wrong idea: The point is neither to denigrate science nor to commend obscurantism. The point is rather to remind those who are quick to swallow the caricatures of Scholasticism peddled by the likes of Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume, et al. that the “reasons” they think they have for doing so could, if they were good ones, be used to justify a similarly glib dismissal of modern science. If we should avoid the latter dismissal – as, of course, we should – so too should we avoid the former.

Monday, May 25, 2009

NCRegister on TLS

The National Catholic Register kindly reviews The Last Superstition in the May 31 – June 6 issue. From the review:

“If you understand Aristotle, and Feser shows you just how commonsensical Aristotle really is, then you will necessarily understand why belief in God, an immortal soul, and natural law morality are all rational. You will also comprehend why atheism, a purely materialistic evolution, and contemporary ethics do not make sense because they are, at root, irrational. Far from being the redoubt of benighted fools, Feser shows that religion and natural morality are demanded by rationality. It is modern atheism that is the last superstition, the final holdout of an irrational illusion clung to by those who will not let their minds lead them to what is right in front of their noses…

In six exciting chapters, Feser demonstrates how and why Aristotelianism became the cornerstone of Occidental thought and why so many contemporary builders reject it. Far from fighting a rearguard action against the onslaught of modern barbarism, Feser argues that the best defense is a solid offense…

Though the book is academic, it is something for people of goodwill who want to understand why our culture is in the sorry shape it's in — and how to fix it…

Do you have a child or grandchild bound for college? Buy him this book and immunize him against the errors now hawked as ‘philosophy.’ More than anything else, Feser deserves praise for showing, in a comprehensible way, that philosophy makes sense and remains terribly relevant to how to live well in the world today.”

Still a semi-zombie after childbirth. (And you should see my wife!) Non-self-promoting posts to return shortly.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Happy Birthday

My wife gave birth last night to John Henry Feser (our fifth child). So, posting will be light for a little while. Cigars all around, fellas...

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Oderberg’s Real Essentialism

David Oderberg announces that his recent book Real Essentialism will be available later this year in paperback. This will be welcome news to those who have been eager to read this excellent work but have been put off by the steep price of the hardback.

The publisher’s description:

Real Essentialism presents a comprehensive defence of neo-Aristotelian essentialism. Do objects have essences? Must they be the kinds of things they are in spite of the changes they undergo? Can we know what things are really like - can we define and classify reality? Many if not most philosophers doubt this, influenced by centuries of empiricism, and by the anti-essentialism of Wittgenstein, Quine, Popper, and other thinkers. Real Essentialism reinvigorates the tradition of realist, essentialist metaphysics, defending the reality and knowability of essence, the possibility of objective, immutable definition, and its relevance to contemporary scientific and metaphysical issues such as whether essence transcends physics and chemistry, the essence of life, the nature of biological species, and the nature of the person.”

From the reviews:

“Presents vigorous and wide-ranging arguments in defense of an Aristotelian metaphysical scheme… This book puts forward many unfashionable views. But it argues for them with vigor and erudition.” Analysis

“Oderberg… exemplifies the unfortunately rare combination in analytical philosophy of rigorous and historically informed argumentation… This book places hylomorphism squarely on the table for discussion.” Review of Metaphysics

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Davidson’s anomalous monism

Donald Davidson’s article “Mental Events” is widely considered a classic of twentieth-century philosophy of mind, and for good reason. It contains as clever an argument for materialism as anyone has ever given. And in the course of giving it, Davidson presents, albeit in a notoriously sketchy form, a profound and important argument against the possibility of a type-type mind-brain identity theory. To use such an argument as a key component in a case for materialism – now that’s the sort of ballsiness we pay philosophers the big money for!

Like all of Davidson’s work, the article has many nuances and cannot fully be understood apart from the context of his body of writings as a whole, which more or less consisted of a great many other articles (the most important of which have now been collected in The Essential Davidson). But the basic structure of the argument is fairly simple. It goes like this:

1. At least some mental events interact causally with physical events.

2. Events related by cause and effect fall under strict laws connecting events of the kinds to which the cause and effect belong.

3. There are no strict laws on the basis of which we can predict and explain mental phenomena.

4. If some mental event M causes a physical event P, there must be some description under which M and P are related by a strict law [From 2]

5. This law can only be a physical law, not one expressed in terms of mental concepts [From 3]

6. But if M falls under a physical law, then it has a physical description.

7. And if it has such a description, then it is a physical event.

8. So (at least some) mental events are physical events.

This summary is a bit loose, but let’s suppose that it can be tightened up so as to yield a valid argument. Should we accept the premises? Certainly they seem reasonable enough, at least given the assumptions operative in most contemporary philosophy of mind. There is no glaring falsehood here; the argument is a serious one, worthy of our consideration. So what happens when we probe more deeply?

Davidson calls step 1 the Principle of Causal Interaction, and it is the least controversial premise of the argument. There have, of course, been philosophers who have denied it, but most, whether their position is materialist or dualist, would not. And they are right not to do so – at least given a certain construal of “interaction.” Let’s concede this one for now and come back to it later.

Step 3 is Davidson’s famous Principle of the Anomalism of the Mental, and constitutes the argument’s most original contribution to the philosophy of mind. It is this principle that shows, in Davidson’s view, that no type-type identity theory is possible, because such a theory requires that we can at least in principle correlate mental event types and brain event types in a law-like way. As I have said, though, his argument for the principle is notoriously sketchy. How exactly is it supposed to go?

The answer, which requires adverting to broader themes in Davidson’s philosophy of mind and language, goes something like this: Consider a “radical interpretation” scenario like Quine’s famous “gavagai” example. You’re an anthropologist attempting to translate the language of a heretofore unknown tribe. The speakers tend to utter “gavagai” in the presence of rabbits. As Quine argues, it may turn out that, depending on what metaphysical assumptions you attribute to the speakers of this language, “gavagai” could be translated as “rabbit,” or “temporal stage of a rabbit,” or “undetached rabbit part”; and three complete manuals of translation might be prepared, each of which reflects one of these possible translations and adjusts the translations of other native utterances accordingly. Now, leave aside the various ontological and semantic theses Quine illustrated with this example (indeterminacy of translation, inscrutability of reference, etc.). What Davidson is interested in is the way in which we cannot even begin to make sense of the linguistic utterances of an alien speaker of this sort without attributing to him a vast network of beliefs, desires, intentions, and other mental states. We will conclude that he means “Lo, a rabbit!” only if we assume that he conceptualizes his experiences in terms of substances (say) rather than temporal stages. Furthermore, we will conclude that that’s what he means only if we assume too that he really believes that a rabbit is present and that he intends to express that belief via this particular utterance. We will make these further assumptions, in turn, only if we also assume that his mental states are at least for the most part rational and coherent, so that he would not (for example) infer from the fact that he is seeing a rabbit that a rabbit must not be present. Even that is not the end of the story, though. For further evidence – other things the speaker says in other contexts – may lead us to revise these various judgments, so that we revise also our understanding of what he meant when he said “gavagai.” And there may be several equally plausible interpretations, each associated with its own alternative attribution of beliefs, intentions, and the like.

Now while the example is an extreme one, Davidson’s view is that something like this set of circumstances confronts us, albeit to a much less radical extent, even in ordinary linguistic contexts. Our interpretation of anyone’s linguistic behavior always involves the attribution to him of one of several possible sets of beliefs, desires, intentions, and the like, and is always revisable in light of further evidence. But by the same token – and this is the key point – our attribution of mental states to him is also always subject to the same interpretive problems. Just as we might alter our judgments about what he means in light of our assumptions about what is going on in his mind, so too might we alter our judgments about what is going on in his mind in light of our assumptions about the meaning of his linguistic and other behavior. Mind, language, and behavior are so inextricably linked that none can be understood apart from the others, and our making sense of the whole in any particular case requires attributing to a subject at least minimal adherence to standards of rationality and coherence. Otherwise we simply could not meaningfully regard what is going on with him as language and thought at all.

Now in Davidson’s view, there is as he puts it “no echo” in physical science of any of this. In understanding a physical system qua physical, we do not and need not attribute to it beliefs, desires, or any other sort of intentionality, and we do not expect it to abide by norms of rationality. Such systems are governed instead (at least on the modern “mechanistic” conception of the natural world) by patterns of brute, purposeless efficient causation. This should already make us suspicious of the very idea of a one-to-one match-up between mental state types and physical state types. The notion seems to rest on a category mistake, a failure to understand that the network of rationally-cum-semantically interrelated mental states is no more susceptible of a smooth correlation with a particular network of causally interrelated physical states than the content of a book can be smoothly correlated with a certain kind of physical format (a modern printed book, say, as opposed to a scroll, wax tablet, or electronic book). As Wilfrid Sellars might put it, the “space of reasons” and the “space of causes” are simply incommensurable.

As Jaegwon Kim suggests in his introductory text Philosophy of Mind, Davidson might accordingly be understood as arguing that if there were a law-like correlation between mental events and physical events, this would entail that what is happening in a person’s mind could be determined in a way we already know on independent grounds to be in principle impossible. In particular, it would follow that we could at least in theory “read off” a person’s thoughts directly from an inspection of his brain, without making any reference to the various alternative ways those thoughts might cohere with other thoughts or with his linguistic and other behavior. Since this is (given what was said above) something we cannot in principle do, it follows that there is no such law-like correlation between the mental and the physical. All of this suggests the following argument in defense of Davidson’s step 3:

A. The meaningful attribution of mental states to someone is governed by norms of rationality which find “no echo” in physics.

B. But if there were strict laws connecting mental events with brain events, then the attribution of mental states could proceed without reference to such norms.

C. So there are no such laws.

(None of this is inconsistent with the fact that we can often draw reliable inferences about what someone is thinking from his speech and behavior, and even from what is going on in his brain. The claim is rather that it is impossible even in principle to have a complete and, more to the point, entirely determinate understanding of his thoughts based only on knowledge of his behavior and physiology. I have addressed this issue previously here.)

All of this seems to me to be essentially correct, and it is not a small point either. (As readers of Davidson know, he bases a number of interesting philosophical theses on his analysis of the interrelationship between mind and language, including a penetrating critique of conceptual relativism.) The “anomalous” half of anomalous monism is thus well-established. What about the “monism” half? Is the mental identical with the physical, despite there being no law-like correlation between them?

My answer, which will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog, is No, it is not. And the reason Davidson’s argument fails to show otherwise is that his conception of causation is (in my estimation) radically deficient. As I have argued elsewhere (e.g. here), the correct way to understand mental-physical “interaction” is on the model of what Aristotelians call formal causation rather than efficient causation. And one reason for thinking so is that conceiving of it on the model of efficient causation makes it hard – for materialists no less than for dualists – to avoid epiphenomenalism (as I noted here). To return, as promised, to Davison’s premise 1, then: If it is interpreted to mean (as Davidson himself did not mean it) that the mental and physical “interact” as formal and material cause, respectively, then this premise is certainly true (though in that case it cannot then be appealed to in an argument for materialism, since the Aristotelian conception of causation is incompatible with materialism). If instead it means (as Davidson intended) that they “interact” in the order of efficient causes, then though such a premise might be appealed to in support of materialism, it is false.

For the same reason, step 2 – what Davidson calls the Principle of the Nomological Character of Causality – is also in my view false. For it reflects a mechanistic view of nature, on which the material world is utterly devoid of any inherent goal-directedness or final causality and is governed instead entirely by (a stripped down version of) efficient causality. And as I have argued elsewhere (and at greatest length in The Last Superstition) this conception of nature is ultimately incoherent. By the same token, step 7 is false as well from an Aristotelian point of view. The fact that an object or event can be described in the quantitative terms typical of modern physical theory simply does not entail that such a description exhausts what is true of it. Rather, such a description is necessarily selective, abstracting away those features of the world which are irrelevant to the narrow purposes of predicting and controlling natural phenomena, but which must nevertheless be incorporated into any complete, metaphysical account of its nature.

It is only fair to note, however, that the premises in question are ones a Cartesian dualist must have a harder time dismissing, given that the Cartesian, like the materialist, is committed to a mechanistic and exclusively quantitative conception of the material world. It is no surprise, then, that Davidson should think the anomalism of the mental cold comfort to the dualist. Even here, though, the Davidsonian cannot be too smug, given that Davidson’s position only underlines the threat that epiphenomenalism poses to materialism as much as to Cartesian forms of dualism.

In any event, the fact remains that Davidson’s position, like all forms of materialism, ultimately derives whatever strength it has from the false supposition that, realistically, “there is no alternative” to materialism (or physicalism, or naturalism) if one rejects modern forms of dualism – a supposition that rests on a studied ignorance among contemporary philosophers of the true nature of the conceptual revolution by which the moderns displaced Aristotelianism (for an account of which see TLS).

Strawson on the categorical and the dispositional

Philosopher’s Digest is a new online review, offering brief summaries of current journal articles in philosophy with the aim of allowing philosophers more easily to keep abreast of the literature. I am a contributor. Here is my review of Galen Strawson’s recent Analysis article “The identity of the categorical and the dispositional.” (The title refers to a metaphysical distinction related to the act/potency distinction discussed in a recent post.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Stove Award competition heats up!

How do we know that Francis Beckwith is not an Intelligent Design theorist? Well, first of all, because he has publicly said that he isn’t. Second, because some ID defenders themselves have (with evident frustration with him) publicly said that he isn’t. And third, because the metaphysical position he is committed to – Thomism – is incompatible with standard ID methodology, or at the very least is hard to square with it. (My own readers know that I have been pretty hard on ID, both in The Last Superstition – which Frank kindly endorsed – and in the long and bloody combox exchange some of us at WWWtW had on this subject some months back. Fr. Edward Oakes pitted Thomism against ID in a well-known exchange in First Things some years ago. Beckwith cited Prof. Michael Tkacz’s Thomistic critique of ID here. Etc.)

But ID critic Prof. Barbara Forrest will hear nothing of it. Beckwith is an “ID supporter,” she assures us, his protestations notwithstanding. In support of this claim, she marshals copious evidence of what everyone already knows, and what Beckwith has never denied: that he thinks the usual constitutional arguments against teaching ID in public schools are no good. I see a Stove Award in Prof. Forrest’s future; at the very least, this very fine specimen of the non sequitur should put her in the running. Presumably Prof. Forrest takes the view that her fellow philosophers should be able to teach arguments for (say) dualism, idealism, theism, and natural law theory in public universities. Does this show that she is a “supporter” of these views? Of course not; certainly her work gives evidence of precisely the opposite of sympathy for these views. So how does Beckwith’s defense of the teaching of ID show that he “supports” ID? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t.

Why, then, does Forrest pretend otherwise? Well, the non sequitur is not the only weapon in her arsenal of fallacies. She is also an absolute master of guilt by association, and precisely because she deploys it so clumsily. Her unwary reader thinks: “Huh? But that argument sucks! Well, she can’t mean that, then. To be sure, I don’t know what the hell she does mean, but by golly the good people at Americans United for Separation of Church and State would never associate themselves with someone who’d resort to such crudities. So…” And before you know it the reader, or at least the reader who already agrees with Forrest anyway, is convinced that the argument must be good, because the only alternative is that it is so unspeakably awful that it should never have appeared in print or even pixel.

And here’s the thing. Forrest really, really wants to be able to call Beckwith a “Creationist.” That’s the scare word of choice among the anti-“Texas Taliban” brigade. You let that sucker fly, and you’ve won the debate, or shut it down, anyway. At the very least, you’ll get plaudits from Leiter Reports, and goodness gracious sakes alive there’s nothing better in the world than that! So: “Creationist” he must be labeled. Since your gang has already succeeded in assimilating “ID theorist” to “Creationist,” at least among people deficient either in actual knowledge of ID theory or in intellectual honesty, you can pull it off as long as you can peg Beckwith as an ID theorist. Trouble is, he isn’t one. What to do? Easy: Non sequitur comes to the rescue of guilt by association. Beckwith defends the right to teach ID theory, “therefore” he is an ID theorist, “therefore” he is a Creationist. The weasel expression “ID supporter” helps this fallacious Double Shot go down easier.

Keep it up, Prof. Forrest, and that Stove Award is yours!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Act and potency

James Chastek of Just Thomism suggests: “A thomist could probably teach the whole history of modern thought as an overlooking of the distinction between potency and act.”

Well said. Readers of this blog and of The Last Superstition have known me to identify the abandonment of final causes as the original sin of modern philosophy. But one might just as well bang on the act and potency drum, as the Neo-Scholastics did, and as I do myself in much of TLS. For the notions are deeply interrelated: A potency or potential is a potency for some act or actuality, toward which it points as an end; and to have an end is to be in potency towards it. It is not for nothing that the very first of the famous Twenty Four Thomistic Theses is: “Potency and Act divide being in such a way that whatever is, is either pure act, or of necessity it is composed of potency and act as primary and intrinsic principles.”

Now, one does find echoes of the Aristotelian-Scholastic doctrine of act and potency in some of the early moderns. That God is Pure Actuality is a thesis taken for granted in Descartes’ Third Meditation. Leibniz, for my money the greatest of the moderns, makes a valiant attempt to salvage for them the Aristotelian final cause/efficient cause and act/potency distinctions. But it couldn’t last, and with the rise of empiricism these fragments of ancient wisdom (like pretty much all wisdom, when one becomes an empiricist) get sucked down the memory hole almost irretrievably.

So what? Well, for starters, you can’t understand Aquinas’s First Way, the argument for an Unmoved Mover – which he judged to be the most evident of the arguments for God’s existence (rightly, I increasingly think) – unless you understand the act/potency distinction. More importantly, you can’t understand why the argument works, and is ultimately immune not only to the standard caricatures but even to more serious and worthy objections, unless you understand the act/potency distinction. (I defend the argument in TLS, and in much greater depth and without all those nasty polemics, in the forthcoming Aquinas.)

Nor can you understand how contemporary (e.g. Kripke-Putnam) essentialism differs from real essentialism (i.e. the Aristotelian kind) unless you understand the act/potency distinction. For example, when it occurs to you that Terri Schiavo could not exercise the power of reason given the brain damage she had suffered, you might start to wonder whether rationality is part of the essence of human beings after all. For here is a human being who (so it is claimed) lacks reason; therefore (the modern “essentialist” might conclude) reason must not be essential to being human. But when you keep in mind the distinction between act and potency – in particular, when you recall the distinctions between first and second actuality and first and second potentiality explained on your favorite page of TLS – you see that this simply does not follow at all.

I quote myself (somebody has to do it):

‘A thing’s various actualities and potentialities exist in a layered fashion and constitute a hierarchy, as I will now demonstrate with a paragraph full of somewhat dry technical distinctions. (Bear with me.) Since you are a human being, you are a rational animal; because you are a rational animal, you have the power or faculty of speech; and because you have this power, you sometimes exercise it and speak. Your actually having the power of speech flows from your actually being a rational animal; it is a “secondary actuality” relative to your being a rational animal, which is a “primary actuality.” And your actually exercising that power on some occasion is in turn a “secondary actuality” relative to your having the power – which, at least relative to the actual exercise of it, is “primary.” (Note that you have the power even when you don’t exercise it, e.g. when you are sleeping or competing in a breath-holding contest.) There are similar distinctions to be drawn with respect to potentiality. Suppose you don’t speak German. You nevertheless have the potential to speak it, in the sense that you might learn it. Call this a “first potentiality” for speaking German. Now, even once you do learn it, you won’t of course be speaking it all the time, even though you could speak it at any particular moment if you wanted to. You thus now have the potential to speak German in another sense. Call this a “second potentiality” for speaking German. Now acquiring this second sort of potentiality for speaking German – the ability to speak it at will – is also, of course, a kind of actuality, insofar as you now actually have the ability to speak it. So a second potentiality is also a kind of primary actuality; and when you really do go ahead and speak German, exercising your new ability, the act of speaking counts as a secondary actuality relative to this primary actuality. I could make further distinctions – and I know you want me to – but that’s enough to make the point.’ (The Last Superstition, p. 56)

Now you know why I included the polemics. Had to find some way to keep the reader awake. (In case you recently ordered the book from Amazon and are now in a state of panic, wondering whether you can still cancel, I suppose should add that I have chosen to quote the single dullest passage in the entire near-300 page opus. The theory is that the still undecided buyer will think “Hmm, well, I guess the rest could only be better!”)

Anyway: The point of all this is that it is too simple to ask whether (say) “rationality” or “language” or “actual episodes of thought” are essential to being a person, or a human being, or whatever, full stop. We need to consider that these various characteristics are related in a layered fashion, and can exist either “in act” (or actually) or “in potency” (or potentially), where the potentials in question are grounded in the actualities.

To apply all this to the case at hand: Terri Schiavo, like every human being, is a rational animal as a primary actuality. And this remains true if she is impeded, by the damage to her brain, from exercising the various capacities that normally follow upon rational animality as secondary actualities. Put another way, in being a human being at all she has a first potentiality for speech, episodes of thought, and the like. When her brain is in good working order she also has a second potentiality for these capacities. But when it is damaged, though she loses this second potentiality, the first potentiality remains. That is precisely why, had regenerative treatments had been available, the second potentiality would have returned. What made her different from a “vegetable” or a mere animal is that these things never even have or could have rational animality as a primary actuality, and never even have or could have the capacity for speech, episodes of thought, etc. as a first potentiality. All told, Terri is neither a potential rational animal, nor a former rational animal, but an actual rational animal who has been frustrated in realizing her potentials. Vegetables and animals, by contrast, are never rational animals at all. They don’t “fail” to realize the potential for speech, episodes of thought, etc., because unlike even a brain damaged human being, they never have those potentials in the first place.

The relevance to abortion should be obvious. A fetus too isn’t a potentially rational animal or a potential person. A fetus is an actual rational animal and thus an actual person who hasn’t yet realized all his potentials. Etc.

Here is another reason, then, why the act/potency distinction is so important: without it we can be led into moral error as serious as the murder of innocent persons, as in abortion and infanticide.

And that’s just for starters. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, a cloud of philosophical error, indeed the entire Hurricane Katrina of error that is modern philosophy, is condensed in this one basic mistake of overlooking the act/potency distinction. The history of modern thought – indeed of modern civilization – is a history of the gradual “actualization” of all the unhappy potentialities that lie coiled in this primal error.

(For those readers interested in a refresher on act and potency, you can’t beat this chapter from Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought.)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Eric Mack on John Locke

Libertarian philosopher Eric Mack is for my money one of the most interesting rights theorists writing today. To anyone who has read my own writings on private property (this, for example), his influence on me will be evident (though I have sometimes developed Mack’s views in directions of which he would not approve!) Though I am no longer a libertarian myself, I always learn something from reading his work. This month Continuum is releasing Mack’s book John Locke, part of a new series of volumes on Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers. It looks to be very interesting indeed (as does the series as a whole).

While you’re waiting for it, you can tide yourself over by reading this other guy’s book on Locke – a book which is very critical of Locke, while Mack’s promises to be more positive. Lockean vs. ex-Lockean – let the battle begin!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

“It’s just so obvious!”: The case of torture

Over at What’s Wrong with the World, my esteemed co-blogger Zippy Catholic and others have been debating the morality of waterboarding, Catholic teaching vis-à-vis torture, and related matters. Here is my contribution to the discussion.

Friday, May 1, 2009

TLS on radio

Here you can find an archive of my interview Thursday night on The Jim Bohannon Show regarding The Last Superstition. It begins roughly one-third into the broadcast. We had a vigorous exchange, though I think we ended up talking past each other to some extent. And then there was the caller who wanted to turn the discussion into a debate about the Rapture, with Jim to all appearances happy to oblige. I thought it best at that point to sit back for a while and let them go at it.