Friday, November 27, 2009

Anderson’s Pure

Contemporary academic philosophers tend to be dismissive of the idea that philosophy has any intrinsic moral or spiritual significance. To be sure, the left-of-center ones among them (which is most of them) do think that it can be indirectly morally beneficial insofar as it disabuses the young people who study it of (what these philosophers regard as) the moral, political, and religious illusions foisted upon them by their parents and the surrounding culture. But they have little time for the notion of philosophy as a way of life, as something inherently practical as well as intellectual – something which of its very nature tends toward the moral and spiritual betterment of those devoted to it. W. V. Quine once wrote a condescending piece about Mortimer Adler, brushing aside the latter’s complaint that contemporary philosophy has lost contact with the concerns of ordinary people. “The student who majors in philosophy primarily for spiritual comfort is misguided and is probably not a very good student anyway,” Quine assured his readers, “since intellectual curiosity is not what moves him.” You can find the essay in Quine’s anthology Theories and Things. I remember as a young man reading it and chuckling knowingly at Adler’s evident folly.

Well, I was the fool. Here as in so many other ways, the elegant Harvard man Quine was wrong and the pugnacious academic outsider Adler was right. It would take me many years to get to the point where I could even begin to see why.

Of course, when one considers some of the things contemporary philosophy students are taught, one can understand why Quine might seem to have the better of the argument. There are, for instance, the ridiculous caricatures of the classical arguments for religion and for traditional morality, commonly used as fodder for exercises in “thinking critically.” (“Critical thinking” about religion and traditional morality, you see, involves ignoring the actual views of their greatest defenders, briskly refuting a few straw men instead, declaring a once-and-for-all victory against the forces of reaction, and dismissing anyone who objects to this farcical procedure as an ill-informed right-wing religious fanatic with a political agenda.) Then there are the arid technicalities many a philosophy teacher puts in place of these more traditional themes, divorced from any context which might make their significance intelligible. (I know of a prominent academic philosopher who once spent an entire Introduction to Philosophy course introducing his hapless charges to two topics: direct reference theory and Goodman’s grue paradox. That is an extreme case, but it illustrates the mentality.) Add to this the phony “professionalism” that is too often a mask for careerism and lazy conformity to fashionable academic opinion, and the result does indeed seem devoid of moral or spiritual import, or at least of any positive moral and spiritual import.

But things were not always so. From the point of view of the classical philosophical tradition – the tradition represented by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas – the metaphysical preconditions of there being such things as philosophical and scientific inquiry in the first place inexorably lead us, upon rational analysis, to a divine sustaining cause of the world who is necessarily also the source and standard of all value; and they lead us too to the recognition that that within us which grasps these truths – the intellect – is like unto this divine source, and has (as Aristotle put it) the “service and contemplation” of the divine as its highest fulfillment. To be sure, these thinkers differed, often dramatically, over the details. But on this big picture they were agreed. Contra Quine and the majority of contemporary academic philosophers, the ancients and medievals regarded the intellectual and the spiritual, reason and religion, as necessarily fused all the way down.

That the ancients and medievals had it right is something I have done my own small part to try to show in books like The Last Superstition and Aquinas. Other contemporary philosophers have taken on the same task. David Conway’s book The Rediscovery of Wisdom: From Here to Antiquity in Quest of Sophia – which was, incidentally, instrumental in leading Antony Flew away from atheism – is one important example. Now comes another, Mark Anderson’s Pure: Modernity, Philosophy, and the One. It is a small gem of a book – wise and beautifully written, both in substance and in style something like a glimpse into a lost and longed-for world. Here is the book description from the back cover:

Pure: Modernity, Philosophy, and the One is an experimental work of philosophy in which the author aspires to think his way back to a “premodern” worldview derived from the philosophical tradition of Platonism. To this end he attempts to identify and elucidate the fundamental intellectual assumptions of modernity and to subject these assumptions to a critical evaluation from the perspective of Platonic metaphysics. The author addresses a broad range of subjects - from ethics, politics, metaphysics, and science to the philosophies of Plato, Plotinus, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche - without losing sight of the single aim of formulating a premodern perspective in opposition to modernity. The work culminates in a series of essays on the practice of purification, a form of intellectual and spiritual discipline acknowledged by ancient and medieval philosophers alike to be a necessary preliminary to metaphysical insight.

Pure is informed throughout by rigorous scholarship, but it is not an “academic” work. The author avoids the plodding and professorial tone typical of contemporary philosophical research in favor of a meditative and aphoristic style. The book, in short, is learned without being pedantic. Readers interested in the history of philosophy and the intellectual roots of the crisis of modernity will find in Pure substantial matter for reflection.

As this indicates, Anderson’s approach is (unlike my own) Platonic rather than Aristotelian or Thomistic. More precisely, it is Neo-Platonic, though as Anderson emphasizes, the label “Neo-Platonism” is something modern scholars have imposed on Plotinus and Co., not one they applied, or would have applied, to themselves. The great Neo-Platonists regarded their position as Platonic without qualification, as at most an elaboration of themes Plato himself hinted at rather than the invention of anything radically new. I sympathize with this interpretation, and Anderson endorses it unapologetically. It is but one of the many ways in which Pure is refreshingly old-fashioned.

Nor should the differences between the Neo-Platonic and the Aristotelian-Thomistic views of the world be overstated. The extent to which Aristotle himself departed from Plato is a matter of controversy. The Neo-Platonists incorporated aspects of Aristotelianism into their own system. The Augustinian brand of Christian theology Aquinas grafted Aristotelianism onto was already heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism. The central theme of the Summa Theologiae – God as the first cause and last end of creation, He from Whom the world derives and to Whom it seeks to return – echoes Plotinus. And there are various other specific aspects of Aquinas’s thought which have long been understood as evincing a Neo-Platonic influence – such as his use of the language of “participation,” the henological approach to God in the Fourth Way, and the many citations of Pseudo-Dionysius.

More than any other recent defense of classical philosophy, Anderson’s book revives and reasserts the ancients’ emphasis on the moral preconditions of attaining philosophical understanding. This is the “purification” referred to in the back cover description and alluded to in the book’s title – a purification having physical, ethical, intellectual, and spiritual components, all spelled out in Pure with reference to the Platonic tradition. As might be expected from that tradition, the purification in question fundamentally concerns deliverance from our enslavement to things material or bodily. But contrary to the standard caricature, the Platonist does not condemn either the body or the material world in general as such. What is condemned is rather the disorder which makes the body and its appetites the master of the soul, and the material realm rather than the immaterial the primary object of the intellect’s attention. The body has its place – and it should know its place, which is to be in every way subordinate to the soul, permitted to realize its desires only as reason dictates. And the material realm, while worthy of our empirical scientific efforts, points beyond itself to a higher realm, the object of a higher science – metaphysics – and ultimately to a divine Source of all which is no less an object of rational investigation than of spiritual aspiration.

For the typical modern reader, especially the typical contemporary academic philosopher, all of this is bound to raise eyebrows. Some riff on materialism and empiricism – a “naturalistic” approach to metaphysics and epistemology, say, to use the currently fashionable jargon – is de rigueur. But from a classical realist point of view – the basic metaphysical perspective shared in common by Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, whatever their differences – the falsity of materialism and empiricism is obvious. For (a) the reality of universals is unavoidable, (b) universals are necessarily immaterial, and (c) our conceptual grasp of them cannot in principle either be accounted for in terms of sensation alone or reduced to material processes in the brain. (To be sure, for Aristotle and the Scholastics there is nothing in the intellect that did not arise from the senses. But this does not entail the British empiricists’ thesis that concepts just are faint copies of sensations.) Moreover, to adopt some form of classical metaphysics is more or less to commit yourself to some kind of classical theism: a Platonic theory of Forms leads inexorably to something like the Form of the Good or The One; an Aristotelian act/potency distinction leads inexorably to that which is Actus Purus; a Thomistic essence/existence distinction leads inexorably to that which is ipsum esse subsistens.

I have elaborated on all of this in The Last Superstition and Aquinas. What Anderson emphasizes is the moral dimension to this fundamental metaphysical dispute. A culture as deeply informed as ours is by the errors of materialism and empiricism is bound to be a culture obsessed with material gain and prone to sensual overindulgence, and a culture dominated by these vices is bound to be drawn, in its intellectual moments, toward materialism and empiricism. The philosophical and moral errors in question are mutually reinforcing, and their combination is, for Anderson, of the essence of “modernity” – a condition possible at any time, even if it is the dominant spiritual condition of our own times. And from the point of view of classical philosophy, modernity in this sense is (as Anderson paraphrases the Socrates of the Phaedo) “the greatest and most extreme of all evils.” For of its essence it positively drives us away from the Good, in the classical sense – away from the pursuit of it, away from even the possibility of knowledge of it. Modernity is the life of Plato’s cave.

Certainly the greatest of the ancient philosophers would find their modern counterparts thoroughly uncongenial – in their dogmatic materialism, their dogmatic egalitarianism, their atheism, their easygoing attitude toward sensual indulgence, their tendency to think of justice primarily in material, economic terms (whether socialist, liberal, or libertarian – these are just different strains of the same virus). As Anderson acidly puts it: “Contemporary philosophers refuse to admit that Plato meant what he wrote, for what he wrote generally amounts to a repudiation of their moral and intellectual lives.”

That is an aphorism, and like all aphorisms it needs to be read with care – something the unsympathetic reader is unlikely to bring to his evaluation of a book like Pure. Secular left-of-center academics are happy to bend over backwards, forwards, and in every other direction to discern some rational insight packed into a throwaway aphorism of a Nietzsche (say) or the half-baked political rants of a Chomsky or Zinn. But they will dismissively nitpick even the most carefully formulated utterances of a conservative or religious writer. One can imagine what they would do with an Anderson line like this: “We must not refute Hume, we must refuse to converse with him – we must forget him.”

But this is another aphorism, and that Anderson does not mean by it to deny that the critic of Hume must provide arguments is clear from the rest of the book. For example, in criticizing the fideism of some Christians, Anderson rejects “groundless belief deriving from authority, hope, or desire” and insists that “we must not simply advocate the groundless substitution of a premodern metaphysical perspective for the assumptions of modernity.” The premodern perspective is something that can and must be argued for.

Regarding Hume, readers of The Last Superstition know that I consider him overrated, a “mere – brilliant – sophist,” as Elizabeth Anscombe famously described him. (I say this as a former atheist, who used to admire Hume greatly.) Hume’s best-known positions typically rest on crude philosophical errors (such as his assimilation of the intellect to the senses). And while (as Anscombe rightly conceded) in the course of developing his sophistries he sometimes raises interesting and important philosophical questions, his stature owes less to this than to his political usefulness – not in the sense of everyday electoral politics or even political philosophy, but in the sense that he has become a symbol of intellectual opposition to the claims of religion, a kind of anti-Aquinas who is thought somehow to have exposed natural theology as vacuous once and for all. It is Hume’s conclusions that his admirers like, and even if his arguments for those conclusions are worthless, continuing the fiction that he was a thinker comparable to Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, and Co. affords those conclusions an unearned respectability they would not otherwise have. (Hume is in this respect like Marx.)

I do not want to put words in Anderson’s mouth, but my sense is that that is what he is getting at in the aphorism in question: We must stop participating in the maintenance of this fiction that Hume was ten feet tall, stop treating him as anything but the easily dispatched sophist that he was, stop buying into the lie that he did any serious damage whatsoever to the arguments of classical metaphysics. In a sane world, Hume would be treated as a curiosity and nothing more – a clever fellow who propagated some interesting errors. In short, he would be treated the same way contemporary secular academic philosophers treat Aquinas.

As the reference to Anderson’s views on Christianity indicates, Pure is not written from a Christian point of view, or at least not an explicitly Christian point of view. Indeed, it seems to me that Anderson’s brief remarks about early Christianity vis-à-vis Platonism overstate the fideism of the former (though he is careful to qualify his remarks as intended to apply to “some” Christian thinkers). But in this too Anderson’s book is refreshingly old-fashioned – reflective of a more sane era in the history of philosophy when the debate was not over whether God exists (every rational person knew that) but rather over how one ought to worship Him. With Pure, Anderson has contributed to the restoration of philosophical sanity.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

McInerny on De Koninck

Pietas and gratitude. On this fine Thanksgiving Day, you could do worse than spend a few moments reading what the esteemed Ralph McInerny recently had to say about his teacher Charles De Koninck, one of the leading lights of Laval Thomism. McInerny has been editing a new edition of De Koninck’s works, the second volume of which has just appeared. You can and should order them here and here.

(Addendum: I notice that for some reason, Amazon’s page on volume 1 of De Koninck’s collected writings contains reviews, not of De Koninck’s book, but of Ralph McInerny’s autobiography. The “Look Inside” feature also gives you a look at McInerny’s book rather than at De Koninck. Bizarre. Anyway, go ahead and order McInerny’s autobiography too, because it is a great read. More information about the De Koninck volumes can be found here and here.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Oderberg contra Strawson on act and potency

Some time back I linked to my Philosopher’s Digest review of Galen Strawson’s Analysis article “The identity of the categorical and the dispositional.” Here is a review of David Oderberg’s article “The non-identity of the categorical and the dispositional,” a reply to Strawson. The distinction Strawson and Oderberg are debating is, essentially, the all-important Aristotelian distinction between act and potency. Strawson rejects the distinction and Oderberg upholds it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Earman and Oderberg on miracles

Bill Vallicella quotes John Earman:

...if a miracle is a violation of a law of nature, then whether or not the violation is due to the intervention of the Deity, a miracle is logically impossible since, whatever else a law of nature is, it is an exceptionless regularity.

Well, maybe, and maybe not. But from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view, a miracle is not to be understood as “a violation of a law of nature” in the first place. That’s just yet one more modern philosophical error alongside all the others. For a useful discussion of how A-T does understand miracles, see pp. 148-9 of David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism, available here through the magic of Google Books. (For the whole book, you’ll need to shell out a mere $31.16 at Amazon, which if you haven’t already you should do at once.) As Oderberg’s discussion implies, Bill is mistaken in attributing the definition in question to Aquinas, whose actual view (I would argue) is that miracles are suspensions of the laws of nature (as Oderberg puts it) rather than violations.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Plato’s affinity argument

In an earlier post I suggested that the arguments of great philosophers of the past need to be understood, not only in the context of their times, but also in light of how later thinkers built on them. For an argument can contain, inchoately, real insights which only later thinkers were able to spell out adequately; and we will miss these insights if, overly fearful of anachronism, we insist pedantically on reading the argument in isolation from this later tradition. What ultimately matters in philosophy is not exactly who said exactly what, exactly when and exactly how. What matters is what is true, and whether an argument is likely to lead us to it. Anachronism, then, while a danger, is a less serious danger than loss of truth. To think otherwise is to abandon philosophy for mere scholarship. (Scholarship has its place, of course. But its place is to serve the ends of philosophy.)

What immediately prompted that post were some reflections on Plato’s Phaedo, on which I had been lecturing at the time. The Phaedo is famously concerned with the immortality of the soul, and Socrates is represented as putting forward four main lines of argument in its defense – or rather, as commentators these days often emphasize, four sub-arguments in the course of what should be understood as a single long, complex argument. Modern readers of the Phaedo often dismiss the arguments as manifestly bad. David Stove, in The Plato Cult, describes them as “so contemptible that, on their own merits, they could hardly ever have imposed upon a child of eight” (pp. 100-1). This sort of judgment is, I think, completely unwarranted. When understood both in the context of Plato’s philosophy as a whole and in light of the ongoing classical tradition of thinking about the soul which Plato inaugurated, his arguments can be seen to be very interesting indeed. That is not to say either that Plato’s arguments are adequate as they stand or that all of them can at the end of the day be defended. It is to say instead that the arguments embody serious considerations in favor of the soul’s immortality, and that at least some of these considerations were developed by later writers into more complete and compelling arguments. Modern readers often fail to see this because – as with their treatment of Aquinas’s Five Ways – they too frequently lack familiarity with the metaphysical presuppositions of the arguments, and read into them modern assumptions which classical writers did not make and often would have rejected.

The four arguments in question are usually labeled the cyclical argument, the recollection argument, the affinity argument, and the final argument. Let us begin by briefly surveying the arguments. It is evident from the dialogue that the cyclical and recollection arguments are intended to work in tandem. Putting aside the details of the examples Socrates uses in stating them (e.g. the long discussion about the Form of Equality) we might summarize the case that these first two arguments are together intended to make as follows:

1. We have knowledge (of Forms and of mathematical truths) that could not have come from sensory experience or in any other way been learned during this life.

2. So it must have been acquired during an existence prior to this one.

3. So our souls must have pre-existed their embodiment in this life.

4. But things arise out of their opposites in a cyclical pattern, such as sleeping from waking and waking from sleeping.

5. So, just as souls pre-exist their embodiment during life, so too must they continue on disembodied after death.

One way this line of reasoning might be challenged is via the suggestion that even if our souls pre-existed this life, perhaps their embodiment has altered them to such an extent that they will not survive our deaths, the “cycle” being thereby broken. Answering such an objection seems to be the point of the affinity argument, the core of which might be summarized as follows:

1. The soul knows the Forms, which are eternal, whereas the senses know material things, which pass away.

2. But each of these faculties is like the thing it knows (e.g. the senses are material, the soul is invisible).

3. Thus it is because the senses are like the things they know that they too pass away.

4. So the soul, since it is like the Forms that it knows, must not pass away.

Following Socrates’ presentation of the affinity argument in the Phaedo, his interlocutors Simmias and Cebes raise some further objections, including Simmias’s famous suggestion that the soul may be a mere harmony or attunement of the body’s components, like the harmony of a lyre. This begins a long discussion which culminates in the final argument, which might be summarized as follows:

1. The soul is the principle by which a thing is alive.

2. So it participates in the Form of Life.

3. But a thing cannot participate in contrary Forms (e.g. fire, which participates in the Form of Hot, cannot participate in the Form of Cold).

4. So the soul cannot participate in the Form of Death.

5. So the soul cannot perish.

Now I have no intention of exploring each of these arguments in any detail. Indeed, the line of reasoning enshrined in the combination of the cyclical and recollection arguments is one which I – as a Thomist who takes the soul to be the form of the body – do not think can succeed at the end of the day. One obvious objection to it is that its first premise is false if (as I would maintain) an Aristotelian analysis of concept formation is correct. Another is that step 2 doesn’t follow from step 1 all by itself: Even if our knowledge of forms and of mathematical truths cannot have come from the senses, it may be that it was stamped into our intellects by God when He created our souls (as per a rationalist theory of innate ideas) or that it results from a kind of divine illumination (as per St. Augustine). And of course, the stuff about things arising out of their opposites needs to be tightened up, to say the least. All the same, I’m sure a serious Platonist could give the argument a run for its money, and it would be a useful philosophical exercise to see how far it could be defended against objections. Much farther than most contemporary readers would suppose, I would bet.

Anyway, it is the second two arguments that I think are the most interesting. In the case of the final argument, this is not because it is sufficient to establish personal immortality. It is not. But what it does do, it seems to me, is foreshadow the Aristotelian-Thomistic insight that while particular composites of matter and form – that is, individual material substances – are generated and pass away, form itself (and thus the soul) is not susceptible of perishing. For a material substance’s perishing just amounts to its matter losing its form, and a form can’t coherently be said to lose its form (because it is a form). But then, since the soul is (on the A-T analysis) just a kind of form, the soul is not susceptible of perishing.

The reason this does not by itself establish personal immortality is that the forms of material things, considered by themselves, are in general mere abstractions. What exist concretely are individual material substances, and thus form and matter together. For this reason, matter too, considered apart from form, is a mere abstraction – speaking concretely, matter always exists with some form or other. And thus, if the soul qua form were imperishable merely in the sense just described, it would be no more imperishable than matter is. As Aquinas says in On the Principles of Nature, “prime matter [i.e. matter without form], and even form, are neither generated nor corrupted… properly speaking, only composites are generated” (2.15). A thing’s matter carries on after its destruction in the sense that the matter simply takes on a new form; its form carries on in the sense that some new substance with the very same form can always come into being. It is only the individual concrete substance that the form and matter together compose which comes into being and passes away. Since it passes away, though, the survival of its form – its soul, in the case of a living thing – merely qua something which another, future substance might take on, does not entail that the substance itself survives in any sense. When a particular rose bush dies, its form carries on in the sense that new rose bushes can always come into being, but that rose bush is gone for good.

For the imperishability of the human soul to ensure personal immortality, then – the survival not merely of the abstract form of man, but of your form or soul specifically – it would have to be what the forms of other material things in general are not: a kind of subsistent form, something whose operations are not, or at least are not entirely, dependent on matter. That is to say, it would have to be something which operates as a kind of immaterial particular thing even when it informs the matter of the body. Only then would its survival count as the survival of the particular human being whose soul it was. Or rather, it would count as the survival of the chief part of that particular human being; for the whole human being to come back into existence, the soul would have to be reunited with the matter that made up its body, which in Aquinas’s view it does at the resurrection. But the survival of the soul as a kind of immaterial particular at least makes this possible in a way it would not be if the human soul were like every other form.

I spell out Aquinas’s position in detail in chapter 4 of Aquinas. The point for now is that the reasons why the soul should be understood as something which operates independently of matter are not to be found in Plato’s final argument. But they are hinted at in Plato’s remaining argument for the soul’s immortality, namely the affinity argument.

As it happens, the affinity argument is the one some commentators seem to regard as the worst of Plato’s arguments for the soul’s immortality. One reason for this is that they often interpret it as an argument from analogy. That is to say, they think Plato is arguing along something like the following lines: If the soul is like the Forms in one respect – namely, being invisible to the senses – then it is probably like them in another respect as well, viz. in being imperishable. The trouble with the argument, then, is obvious: The analogy is simply too weak and undeveloped to support the conclusion.

It is understandable why a modern reader would read the argument this way. Plato does make use of an analogy, after all. And modern readers are used to thinking of metaphysical arguments as quasi-empirical hypotheses a la Paley’s “design argument” for God’s existence. But as every Thomist knows, not every philosophical use of analogy constitutes an “argument from analogy” in the modern sense, and metaphysical arguments (or good metaphysical arguments, anyway) are not quasi-scientific empirical ones. A failure to make these distinctions is what leads so many modern readers to misread Aquinas’s Fifth Way as a precursor of Paley. It is also what leads them to misread Plato as offering a lame argument from analogy for the immortality of the soul.

In fact, as Michael Pakaluk has pointed out, the affinity argument is not an “argument from analogy” at all, but rather “an argument about the nature of things.” Plato is not saying: “The soul is like the Forms in one way, so there is some significant probability that it is like them in this other way too.” Rather, he is saying something like: “The soul of its nature is X. But as we know from the example of the Forms, which are also X, things that are X are imperishable. So the soul is imperishable.”

What is X? As Lloyd Gerson suggests in his book Knowing Persons: A Study of Plato, what Plato seems to be emphasizing here is that the soul, like the Forms, is immaterial (p. 86). What the argument is (arguably) saying, then, is that whereas the senses pass away just as the things they know pass away, because both are material, the soul by contrast must be as imperishable as the things it knows – namely the Forms – because like the Forms, it is immaterial. In other words, it is, on this interpretation, the immaterial nature of the Forms that makes them imperishable, so that something that shares that nature – as (the argument claims) the soul does – must be equally imperishable. Notice, again, that this is not a probabilistic argument from analogy, but, in effect, an attempt at a proof. The argument is not:

1. The Forms are imperishable.

2. The soul is in some other respects analogous to the Forms.

3. So it is probably like them in being imperishable too.

That would indeed be a bad argument. Rather, the argument is (I am suggesting) to be understood along something like the following lines:

1. What is immaterial is imperishable.

2. The Forms are immaterial.

3. So the Forms are imperishable.

4. But since the soul knows the Forms, it must be as immaterial as they are.

5. So the soul must be imperishable.

Say what you will about this argument, it is not an argument from analogy, and it is not probabilistic. (Leave such weak tea arguments to the moderns. The ancient and medieval philosophers preferred the strong drink of metaphysical demonstration.)

OK, but what of the crucial premise 4? If it does not rest on an argument from analogy, what does it rest on? I would suggest that what Plato is gesturing at here is a line of argument that would later be developed more thoroughly and carefully by writers like Aristotle and Aquinas. The basic idea is that the intellect’s grasp of an abstraction like triangularity (for example) would simply not be possible unless it were as immaterial as triangularity itself is. There are three main considerations in favor of this judgment:

A. For a parcel of matter to take on a form is for it to become a thing of the kind the form is a form of; for example, for it to take on the form of triangularity is just for it to become a triangle. Now for the intellect to grasp the nature of a thing is just for it to take on the form of that thing. And in that case, if the intellect were material, it would become a thing of the kind that it grasps; for instance, it would become triangular when it grasps the form of triangularity. But this is obviously absurd. So the intellect is not material.

B. Forms and our thoughts about them are precise, exact, or determinate in a way no material thing can be even in principle; hence a thought cannot possibly be anything material.

C. Forms are universal while material representations are necessarily particular; hence to grasp a form cannot in principle be to have a material representation of any sort.

Obviously these arguments need spelling out, and I have said much more about them in several places. All of them are discussed in The Last Superstition (see especially pp. 123-126) and at greater length in Aquinas (see especially pp. 151-159), and both books set out in detail the metaphysical background apart from which the arguments cannot properly be understood. Arguments of the sort represented by B and C are discussed in more detail in the “Intentionality” chapter of my book Philosophy of Mind. Argument B in particular was the subject of an earlier post, and has in contemporary philosophy been developed most thoroughly by James Ross (see e.g. his article “Immaterial Aspects of Thought”). The point for now is that there is a family resemblance between what Plato was apparently up to in the affinity argument, and later arguments in the broad classical tradition that attempt to show, not by means of probabilistic arguments from analogy, but on the basis of an analysis of the nature of thought itself, that the soul (or its intellectual powers, in any event) cannot even in principle be material.

Apart from their misguided tendency to interpret classical metaphysical arguments as quasi-empirical hypotheses, another reason modern interpreters often badly misunderstand the affinity argument may be that, as Gerson notes, they tend to take for granted a post-Cartesian “representationalist” conception of knowledge (Knowing Persons, pp. 81-2). But the classical and medieval approach to knowledge was in general not representationalist. The great pre-modern writers did not regard the mind as a veil of “representations” which needed somehow to be correlated with external objects and events. Rather, for them knowledge involved a kind of union – not a correlation, but an identity of sorts – of the knower and what is known, insofar as when we know, one and the same essence or nature exists simultaneously in the intellect and in the world. (I have discussed this idea at greater length in an earlier post.) Naturally, then, if the object of knowledge is immaterial, that with which it is (in some sense) identical – the state of the knower – was regarded by them as immaterial too.

Here, though, as so often happens when modern readers encounter the arguments of ancient and medieval philosophers, the clearing up of one misunderstanding is likely only to lead to another. “How can the mind possibly be identical with what it knows?” the modern reader is bound to ask incredulously. “What absurdity!” Just as they often assume (with little or no argument, other than an appeal to the authority of Frege) that the concept of existence is entirely captured by the existential quantifier, so too might contemporary readers assume that the concept if identity is entirely captured by the identity relation as it is understood in modern logic. But this would be a mere prejudice. As Gyula Klima has emphasized in a series of important papers, the metaphysical doctrines of pre-modern philosophers typically presuppose semantic and logical doctrines that are very different from, but every bit as sophisticated and defensible as, those taken for granted by most contemporary philosophers. (What I have to say in the earlier post just linked to, and what I have said in recent posts about the Thomistic doctrine of analogy, may provide at least a hint of some of the differences. But this is a gigantic topic of its own.)

In general, while contemporary readers know that the difference between their view of the world and that of the ancient and medieval philosophers is radical, they generally do not know just how radical it is. Indeed, their ignorance of the differences is so great that they typically do not so much as even understand what the ancients and medievals were saying – hence (for example) they regard Aristotle as having put forward a “functionalist” “philosophy of mind,” Plato as having given an “argument from analogy,” and Aquinas as having foreshadowed Paley. In short, the moderns insist on reading the great figures of pre-modern philosophy as if they were all essentially just less well-informed versions of themselves – a double insult.

I suggested in an earlier post that Descartes’ “clear and distinct perception” argument for dualism represents a corrupted version of earlier and better Scholastic arguments. What is true in it isn’t new, and what’s new isn’t true. But if Descartes marks a decline, Plato’s affinity argument marks the beginning of an ascent. It is a mark of our own philosophical impoverishment that we can no longer recognize either the ascent or decline for what they were – much less the power of the Aristotelian-Scholastic arguments to which the ascent led and away from which the decline has taken us.

Of course, you might not agree with me about that. So at least agree with the more measured words of Gerson, with which I’ll conclude: “[The affinity] argument, like the others, is not supposed to stand on its own. And at its core there is an argument which, far from being inconsequential, is the origin of a family of immensely influential arguments for the immateriality of the person. These arguments are refined and elaborated upon by countless later Platonically inspired philosophers. They are still, in my view, worthy of interest.” (Knowing Persons, p. 79)

Monday, November 16, 2009

An ambiguous conservative

It appears The American Conservative is making some of their archived content freely available online. For those who might be interested, here is a review I wrote for them some years back of An Imaginative Whig: Reassessing the Life and Thought of Edmund Burke, edited by Ian Crowe. As the review indicates, Burke’s sometimes ambiguously conservative thought raises questions about precisely what conservatism is and exactly how it relates to tradition – questions that are especially pressing today, when some conservatives are advising their fellows to abandon the cause of upholding certain aspects of traditional morality in the interests of preserving electoral viability. These are questions I have addressed elsewhere – for example, in this post about conservatism and tradition and this article about the metaphysical foundations of conservatism.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Final causality and Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover

In several recent posts I have had reason to refer to a key difference between Aristotle and Aquinas: Aquinas holds that though final causes are immanent to the natural order, their existence nevertheless requires an explanation in terms of God’s directing things towards their natural ends. Aristotle, by contrast, takes the existence of final causes to be a basic feature of reality which requires no divine explanation. To be sure, Aristotle, like Aquinas, is a theist; in particular, like Aquinas he holds that there could be no change or motion at all unless there were a divine Unmoved Mover. But he does not think final causes per se provide a second route to God. There is in Aristotle a precursor to the First Way, but no precursor to the Fifth Way.

None of this is terribly controversial; it is standard stuff in Aristotle scholarship. Still, a couple of folks in the comboxes seem to be puzzled about it, so it might be worthwhile briefly to review Aristotle’s position.

The background to Aristotle’s view as developed in the Physics is a critique of the theories of atomists like Leucippus and Democritus, who favored a materialist explanation of the world which eschews final causes altogether, and the view of Anaxagoras that the order of the world requires an explanation in terms of a divine intelligence. Aristotle’s view is the middle ground position that there is such a thing as goal-directedness in nature, but that it is entirely immanent to the natural order: “That which is by nature and natural is never disordered. For nature is everywhere a cause of order.” (Physics 252a11-12, as translated by Monte Ransome Johnson in his book Aristotle on Teleology) For Aristotle, to be “natural” is ipso facto to be ordered in the sense of having an end toward which one is directed. That which requires an outside source to order or direct it toward an end would, for him, by that very fact not be a natural object at all but an artifact.

Book II of the Physics contains an extended defense of his position, and Aristotle responds to those who claim that goal-directedness or purpose requires conscious deliberation or planning of the sort we rational beings engage in:

It is ridiculous for people to deny that there is purpose if they cannot see the agent of change doing any planning. After all, skill does not make plans. If ship-building were intrinsic to wood, then wood would naturally produce the same results that ship-building does. If skill is purposive, then, so is nature. (Physics 199b26-31, Waterfield translation)

What he is saying here is that the fact that goal-directedness does not require conscious deliberation is evident from the fact that a skilled craftsman can carry out his work without even thinking about it – “on autopilot” as we might put it today, or without first ”making plans,” as Aristotle puts it. If this is possible for someone with such skill, there is in Aristotle’s view no reason not to think it also possible for natural objects. This is the force of the ship-building example: If there were something in the very nature of wood that “directed it” toward the end of becoming a ship, then what in the case of human craftsmanship results from deliberate design – a ship – would in that case result “naturally” instead, i.e. without conscious deliberation at all, as an oak derives from an acorn without the acorn planning this result.

Of course, as it stands this particular argument is open to the objection that even the skilled craftsman must at some point have consciously and deliberately learned his trade, which is not true of natural objects. And Aristotle does indeed have other arguments for the reality of final causes in nature. The point is just that the passage in question illustrates that Aristotle was concerned to deny that purpose or goal-directedness must necessarily be associated with conscious deliberation. And throughout the discussion in Book II of the Physics, Aristotle is keen to emphasize how purposes clearly exist in nature apart from deliberation, as they do in the behavior of spiders, ants, and the like (Physics 199a20-21) and in plants (Physics 199b9).

Now it does not in fact follow from the considerations that Aristotle adduces that a divine ordering intelligence is not necessary in order to explain the existence of final causes. As I noted in an earlier post, between Aristotle’s position and the (William Paley-like) view represented by Anaxagoras, there is a middle position represented by Aquinas’s Fifth Way, according to which purposes are indeed immanent in the way Aristotle says they are (rather than extrinsic a la Paley), but still ultimately need to be explained by reference to God’s ordering of things to their ends. Aristotle was, in Aquinas’s view and mine, just wrong to think otherwise.

There can, in any event, be no doubt that he did think otherwise. As he says in the Eudemian Ethics: “The divine is not an ordering ruler, since he needs nothing, but rather is that for the sake of which wisdom gives orders” (1249b13-15, as translated by Ransome Johnson). And far from having, as ideas in his intellect, the ends towards which the things of the mundane realm are directed by nature – as Aquinas holds that God does – the Unmoved Mover famously has in Aristotle’s view only himself as a proper object of thought (Metaphysics 1074b33-34).

That is not to say that final causality plays no role at all in Aristotle’s account of God’s relationship to the world. For he also famously holds that the way the Unmoved Mover moves the world is as a final cause, as the perfect end toward which things are naturally directed. And as the quotation from the Eudemian Ethics indicates, wisdom itself directs us toward the Unmoved Mover, the “service and contemplation” of whom is in Aristotle’s view the highest end of human existence (Eudemian Ethics 1249b21). But this is perfectly consistent with his view that final causes themselves are just part of the natural order, not put into things by God. “The Unmoved Mover is the final cause of things” does not entail “The Unmoved Mover orders things toward their final causes.” Rather, the fact that all things have the Unmoved Mover as their ultimate end is, for Aristotle, itself just a basic feature of reality – and something the Unmoved Mover himself, as Aristotle conceives of him, is too lofty to give any thought to.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sartre on theism and morality

If God is dead, is everything permitted? Yes and no. There is a connection between the existence of God and the possibility of morality, but it is not as direct as many religious believers – and some atheists – think it is. Take Jean-Paul Sartre, about whom Bill Vallicella has been writing a series of interesting blog posts this week. Sartre was an atheist, and he held, famously, that in a Godless universe there can be no objective standards of moral value. Why did he think this? First of all, because standards of moral value presuppose, Sartre maintained (correctly, in my view), that there is such a thing as human nature. But in a Godless universe there can be no such thing as human nature. Why not? As Bill reconstructs Sartre’s argument:

The argument seems to be:

There is no God
Essences or natures are divine concepts
There is no human nature.

Another argument Sartre may have in mind is this:

Man has a nature only if man is a divine artifact
There is no God and hence no divine artifacts
Man has no nature.

But as Bill goes on to point out, a problem with this argument is that it is not as clear as Sartre thinks it is that there being such a thing as human nature presupposes that essences are divine concepts or that we are divine artifacts. For example, Aristotle held that there is such a thing as human nature, but (despite his belief in an Unmoved Mover of the universe) did not think of us as divine artifacts.

What is going on here, I surmise, is that Sartre has uncritically bought into the modern notion that to attribute purposes to natural objects and processes is ipso facto to commit oneself to a divine designer a la William Paley. And as I have been pointing out in a series of posts on teleology, Paley, and related matters, that is an error, at least from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view. For A-T, the natures and final causes of things are immanent to them. Natural objects are not like machines, the parts of which have no inherent ordering to the end they serve, so that the parts cannot even be made sense of as serving a common end apart from a “designer” who forces them into their machine-like configuration. Rather, that a heart (for example) is “directed toward” or “ordered to” the end of pumping blood is something true of it simply by virtue of its being a heart at all, and would remain true of it whatever its cause or even if (per impossibile) it had no cause. For A-T, the natures of things can be known, at least in principle, entirely apart from questions about their origins, and human nature would still be what it is whether or not we were created by God. Sartre would need an additional argument against views like Aristotle’s, then, before he could make the case that in a Godless universe there could be no such thing as human nature and thus no objective source of value.

Does that mean that there is no connection between theism and morality? By no means. For whatever Aristotle believed, Aquinas and his followers argue (e.g. in Aquinas’s Fifth Way) that the existence of final causes, and thus of things having the natures that natural objects do in fact have, must ultimately be traced to the divine intellect. It’s just that the inference is not as direct as Paley, Sartre, and other moderns think it is. As I have pointed out before (following an observation made by Christopher Martin) modern philosophers tend to think that it is easy to get from the existence of purposes in nature to the conclusion that God exists, but frightfully difficult to show that there really are any purposes in nature. Classical philosophers, by contrast, tend to think that it is obvious that there are purposes in nature, and that where the real philosophical work comes in is in showing that these purposes entail the existence of God. It can be done, but a middle stage is required between the premise “Final causes exist” and the conclusion “God exists.” (For an exposition of how this will go, see the section on the Fifth Way in The Last Superstition, and, especially, the longer exposition in the relevant section of Aquinas.)

So, one way in which morality does depend on the existence of God is that morality presupposes (as Sartre correctly recognizes) the existence of essences and final causes, and these in turn must ultimately be explained in terms of God (but only via arguments that are less obvious and direct than Sartre supposes). That is, it depends on God in the way everything depends on God. Is there any special dependence of morality on God, though – some way that it depends on theism in the way other aspects of the natural world do not? Yes, in two respects: First, for moral imperatives to have the force of law in the strict sense (and not merely as the course of action wisdom recommends if we seek to fulfill our nature) ultimately requires that they be understood as having in some sense been issued by an authoritative lawgiver. Since the existence of God can (according to A-T) be proved by rational arguments, so too (for that very reason) can the existence of such a lawgiver. There is no appeal here to “blind faith,” and to bring God into the picture is perfectly consistent with the imperatives of natural law being natural (as opposed to resting on special divine revelation). Still, there is an irreducible theological component to morality when it is understood in its totality, even if much of it can be known completely apart from God. (See the “Ethics” chapter of Aquinas for the complete story.)

Second, given that the existence of God can in fact be rationally established (as, again, A-T maintains), a complete system of morality is inevitably going to make reference to our distinctively religious obligations. Furthermore, there are requirements of the natural law that would, at least as a matter of psychological fact, be very difficult for us to live up to if we had no hope of a reward in the hereafter for injustices and hardships suffered here and now. Religion thus serves as a practically indispensible aid to morality. (Again, see Aquinas, and the section in TLS on natural law, for more.)

Now if there is a sense in which morality does ultimately rest on the existence of God, does that not entail that my criticism of Sartre is mere quibbling? It does not, for this reason. If the A-T view of morality is correct, then even if morality ultimately depends on God, we could nevertheless discover a great deal about our moral obligations even if we did not know that God exists. Compare: We can discover a great deal about the way the natural world works via empirical scientific research, without making any direct reference to God and His purposes. To know about the periodic table of elements, for example, does not require that we first prove God’s existence, even if God’s existence is the ultimate explanation of the periodic table (because it is the ultimate explanation of everything). Similarly, we can to a large extent understand human nature even if we bracket off the question of God’s existence. And for that reason, we can know a great deal about what fulfills our nature – and thus about the content of our moral obligations – even if we do not think of that nature as given to us by God.

Hence when Sartre finally met his Maker and was asked to account for (say) his notorious sexual immorality, or his support for communism, we can be confident that said Maker would not have been impressed had Sartre replied: “But Lord, I honestly did not know that You existed!” We can imagine God responding: “Even if I were to grant you that dubious proposition, how is it relevant? You didn’t need Me around to tell you that promiscuity and mass murder are evil. Your knowledge of human nature was enough to tell you that.” And were Sartre to reply: “But I honestly didn’t believe in human nature either!” perhaps God might say: “Oh, please. Next you’ll tell Me that you weren’t certain that the empirical world was anything other than a dream!” For it takes an enormous amount of self-deception to get oneself to doubt that there is such a thing as human nature, just as it would take an enormous amount of self-deception to get oneself seriously to believe that one’s entire life is only a dream. In particular, and in both cases, it takes the sort of self-deception only intellectuals are capable of – the sort embodied in bizarre revisionist systems of metaphysics of the kind rife in modern philosophy.

Be all that as it may, the point is that the A-T view of things does not, as the careless reader might have supposed, make things easier for the secularist, morally speaking. On the contrary, it makes things much harder on him. For, contra the implications of a Paley-style view of God’s relationship to the world, ignorance of the Author of nature does not excuse ignorance of the nature of things, and thus it does not excuse ignorance of the demands of the natural law. You can know that things have natures and final causes – and thus you can know what morality requires of you at least in general terms – whether or not you know that there is a God. And that is one reason why it is a more than academic matter to point out where Sartre goes wrong in his claims about the relationship between theism and morality.

Bonus observation: As Bill notes, Sartre took the bizarre view that to believe in an objective source of morality somehow entails looking for an “excuse” to avoid taking “responsibility” for one’s actions. Bill notes some of what is wrong with such a view. But why would Sartre think it at all plausible in the first place? Here, I speculate, we see the malign influence on modern moral theorizing of Kant – in particular, of all the Kantian stuff about heteronomy versus autonomy, and about how our moral dignity requires that we be conceived of as “self-legislators” and “ends in ourselves.” On this view, unless the demands of morality can be interpreted as in some sense self-imposed – as something we bind ourselves to, by virtue of being rational agents – then morality could only be a restriction on our freedom and dignity. In particular, human dignity requires (on this view) that morality not be seen as imposed on us from outside – by nature, say, or God. If you believe such blasphemous liberal modernist tosh, then perhaps Sartre’s characterization of the idea of an objective moral standard as an “excuse” to avoid taking “responsibility” for one’s freedom might seem halfway plausible. If not, then you might consider Sartre’s view as (possibly) yet one more decadent riff on this poisonous Kantian theme.

Here endeth the rant about Kant. But more later.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Martin on sexual virtue

In his book Practical Ethics, Peter Singer assures us that “sex raises no unique moral issues at all. Decisions about sex may involve considerations of honesty, concern for others, prudence, and so on, but there is nothing special about sex in this respect, for the same could be said of decisions about driving a car. (In fact, the moral issues raised by driving a car, both from an environmental and from a safety point of view, are much more serious that those raised by sex.)”

These sentences are so morally obtuse that only Singer could have written them. That sex does raise unique moral issues of its own is obvious. Sex is the means by which new human beings come into existence – the only means historically, and the usual means for the foreseeable future even if human cloning becomes (God forbid) feasible and widespread. Sex is also fraught with emotions deeply tied to our sense of identity, shame, and self-respect. This is why rape is different from, and worse than, mere battery; why even most sexual libertines would never dream of parading around naked in public; why they also typically regard sexual harassment as a uniquely grave moral wrong; why they are jealous of rivals to the affections of their lovers in a way they are not jealous of business rivals; and so on and so forth. All of this is, I say, obvious. But then, denying the obvious is typically Step 1 in a Peter Singer argument in “ethics.”

Equally obviously, people are bound to disagree over the moral implications of these facts about sex. The point is just that there can be no reasonable doubt that sex does in fact raise unique moral issues of its own, however we end up answering them. (I defend the traditional answers in chapter 4 of The Last Superstition.)

To those with any remaining unreasonable doubts on this matter, I commend Christopher F. J. Martin’s fine article “Are there virtues and vices that belong specifically to the sexual life?”, published several years ago in Acta Philosophica (you’ll have to scroll down to get to it). Like Martin’s writing generally, this article evinces an unusual combination of wisdom, philosophical depth, and humor. Martin is often characterized as an analytical Thomist. I have on several occasions recommended his excellent book Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations. Another book well worth tracking down is his An Introduction to Medieval Philosophy.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Beckwith on Thomism and ID

Over at his Return to Rome blog, my friend and occasional co-blogger Frank Beckwith weighs in on the Thomism vs. Intelligent Design controversy. While you’re there, take a look around the rest of Frank’s blog – lots of interesting stuff, especially for readers interested in Catholic/Protestant issues.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Greek atomists and the god of Paley

In recent posts, I have been defending classical theism and criticizing Paley-style “design arguments” as time wasters at best and theologically dangerous at worst because of their implicit anthropomorphic conception of God. Here’s another way to look at the problem.

As is well known, the ancient Greek atomists were forerunners of modern naturalism. They pioneered the mechanistic approach to the study of nature. They were critical of traditional religion. They denied that there is any Uncaused Cause sustaining the world in being. But they were not atheists as that term is understood today. They generally acknowledged that the gods existed. They just regarded them as one part of the natural order among others. Were they writing today, they might have expressed their position by comparing the gods to extraterrestrials or beings from another dimension.

If you are a Christian, suppose it turned out that there really was such a being as Yahweh, but he was an alien from Alpha Centauri who had decided for a few centuries to have a little fun with the ancient Israelites. In particular, suppose it turned out that something like the events recounted in the Old Testament really did happen, but only as interpreted by Erich von Däniken in Chariots of the Gods. Would you feel vindicated? Would you expect Richard Dawkins to repent and race over to the nearest revival meeting? No, because even Dawkins is not that foolish, and neither are you.

Certainly the atomists would have responded with a gigantic yawn. And rightly so, because if God were really a space alien, then He wouldn’t be God. He certainly wouldn’t be worthy of worship. Scary, maybe. Perhaps for that reason someone you might not want to tick off. But still merely a cosmic despot, or (if we’re lucky) a cosmic kindly old grandfather. It really doesn’t matter for religious purposes, because, again, he would not in that case be any more worthy of worship than Superman.

Thus, if contemporary naturalists were wise, they would stop getting so upset over the arguments of ID theorists, given that those theorists themselves keep insisting, quite rightly, that their arguments don’t (and, I’ve been arguing, can’t) strictly get you anything more grand than E.T. If the ancient atomists could happily accept that, why couldn’t the American Atheists? Perhaps someday they’ll wise up and realize they can. For with respect to the anthropomorphic god of Paley, you might as well say: “There probably is such a god, but stop worrying and enjoy your life anyway.”

You see, there is a reason why Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and all the others among the very greatest thinkers of the Christian tradition insisted on classical theism. There is a reason why it is reflected in the creeds and councils, and why it is the infallible, irreformable doctrine of Holy Mother Church. Nothing less gets you beyond the naturalism of the ancient atomists. Which, if ID theory ever gained wide acceptance, would simply become the naturalism of the modern naturalists. Darwinism will have been defeated, but a redefined naturalism will bop along unscathed. The last laugh will belong to Democritus rather than Dembski. Then many will say bitterly, in the wake of their Pyrrhic victory: “Even the naturalists believe, and tremble not at all.”

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The metaphysics of jazz

It wouldn’t be right to let 2009 pass without a mention of the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’s classic album Kind of Blue. Just beautiful. Give a listen to “Freddie Freeloader,” courtesy of YouTube. And since this is a philosophy blog written by a guy with a taste for the sauce, follow it up with Jon Hendricks’ absolutely delightful vocalese version of the song, from 1990. Like some of Hendricks’ other lyrics (e.g. the ones he wrote for the Manhattan Transfer’s vocalese take on Clifford Brown’s “Sing Joy Spring”) the words to “Freddie” evince a kind of strange Gnostic metaphysics of the soul – worked, in this case, into the story of a legendary bartender. (I kid you not.) Bad theology? Sure. But terrific jazz. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The trouble with William Paley

In The Last Superstition and elsewhere, I have been very critical of both William Paley of “design argument” fame and of contemporary Intelligent Design theory. These criticisms have had nothing whatsoever to do with a desire to conform to Darwinian orthodoxy. They have had to do instead with a rejection of the most basic metaphysical and methodological assumptions underlying by the “design inference” strategy shared by Paley and ID theorists. (I am aware that not all ID theorists are trying to do exactly what Paley was doing. But the differences are irrelevant, because what I object to is what they have in common.)

The problems are twofold. First, both Paleyan “design arguments” and ID theory take for granted an essentially mechanistic conception of the natural world. What this means is that they deny the existence of the sort of immanent teleology or final causality affirmed by the Aristotelian-Thomistic-Scholastic tradition, and instead regard all teleology as imposed, “artificially” as it were, from outside. I devoted a couple of recent posts to explaining in some detail the differences between these approaches to teleology (here and here). And I emphasized that one of the objections the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition has to the mechanistic denial of final causality is that it makes efficient causality unintelligible. Causes and effects become “loose and separate”; any effect or none might in principle follow upon any cause. This not only paves the way for the paradoxes of Hume, but (more to the present point) undermines the possibility of showing how the very fact of causation as such presupposes a sustaining First Uncaused Cause. The metaphysically necessary connection between the world and God is broken; in principle the world could exist and operate just as it does apart from God. The most we can say is that this is so improbable a hypothesis that it can safely be ruled out; for as Paley and Co. assure us, it is far more likely that an extremely powerful and intelligent “designer” put together the “machine” that is the universe.

The second problem is that Paley and Co. conceptualize this designer on the model of human tinkerers, attributing our characteristics (intelligence, power, etc.) to him in a univocal rather than an analogous way (to allude to a crucial Thomistic distinction explained in a previous post). To be sure, “design arguments” also emphasize that the differences between human artifacts and the universe indicate that the designer’s power and intelligence must be far vaster than ours. But we are necessarily left with a designer conceived of in anthropomorphic terms – essentially a human being, or at least a Cartesian immaterial substance, with the limitations abstracted away. The result is the “theistic personalism” (as Brian Davies has labeled it) which has displaced classical theism in the thinking of many contemporary philosophers of religion.

“OK,” you might say, “so the arguments in question do not get us with certainty all the way to the God of classical theism. So they only get us part way, and only with probability. That’s something, isn’t it?”

Well, no, actually it isn’t. Suppose you are a Christian, and suppose I gave you a powerful argument for the existence of Zeus, or of Quetzalcoatl. Would you run out and wave it defiantly in the faces of your New Atheist friends? Presumably not; it would be less a vindication than an embarrassment. To be sure, such an argument wouldn’t necessarily be incompatible with Christianity. You could always interpret Zeus or Quetzalcoatl as merely an unusually impressive created being – a demon, say, or an extraterrestrial. Indeed, that’s how you should interpret them if they are real, because whatever Zeus or Quetzalcoatl would be if they existed, they would not be divine in the classical theistic sense of “divine.” On classical theism, there doesn’t simply happen to be one God, as if only one applicant bothered responding to the "Creator needed; long hours but good benefits" job ad; there couldn’t possibly be more than one God, given what God is. Anything less than Being Itself or Pure Act, anything less than That Than Which No Greater Can Be Conceived, anything less than that which is absolute divine simplicity, absolutely incomparable, would simply not be God. There is no such thing as “almost” being God; it’s all or nothing. But precisely for that reason, while to prove the existence of Zeus or Quetzalcoatl would not be to disprove God’s existence, neither would it advance you one inch to proving it. It would be completely irrelevant.

Same thing with the arguments of Paley and Co. You do not get from them – not one inch, not one degree of probability – to the God of classical theism, of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, of the Creeds and councils of the Church, the “I am who am” of Exodus. What you get instead is something like the Ralph Richardson Supreme Being character from Time Bandits. Really really powerful? – no doubt about it. Super smart too – wouldn’t want to play Trivial Pursuit against him! A snappy dresser. But not God. Because a god apart from whom the world might in theory exist anyway – as a mechanical conception of nature entails – is not, cannot be, the God of classical theism. Nor can a god who is powerful and intelligent in just the way we are, only more so.

Or as the analytical Thomist philosopher Christopher F. J. Martin amusingly puts it in his very fine book Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations:

The Being whose existence is revealed to us by the argument from design is not God but the Great Architect of the Deists and Freemasons, an impostor disguised as God, a stern, kindly, and immensely clever old English gentleman, equipped with apron, trowel, square and compasses. Blake has a famous picture of this figure to be seen on the walls of a thousand student bedrooms during the nineteen-seventies: the strong wind which is apparently blowing in the picture has blown away the apron, trowel and set-square but left him his beard and compasses. Ironies of history have meant that this picture of Blake’s is often taken to be a picture of God the Creator, while in fact Blake drew it as a picture of Urizen, a being who shares some of the attributes of the Great Architect and some of those of Satan.

The Great Architect is not God because he is just someone like us but a lot older, cleverer and more skilful. He decides what he wants to do and therefore sets about doing the things he needs to do to achieve it. God is not like that. As Hobbes memorably said, "God hath no ends": there is nothing that God is up to, nothing he needs to get done, nothing he needs to do to get things done. In no less lapidary Latin, Aquinas said "Vult ergo Deus hoc esse propter hoc; sed non propter hoc vult hoc". In definitely unlapidary English we could say: The set-up, A-for-the-sake-of-B is something that God wants; but it is not that God wants B and for that reason wants A. We know that the set-up A-for-the-sake-of-B is something that God wants, because it is something that exists, and everything that exists, exists because of God’s will. But it is simply profane to think that you can infer from that the unfathomable secrets of the inside of God’s mind and will. Acorns for the sake of oak trees, to repeat an example of Geach’s, are definitely something that God wants, since that is the way things are. But it is not that God has any special desire for oak trees (as the Great Architect might), and for that reason finds himself obliged to fiddle about with acorns. If God wants oak-trees, he can have them, zap! You want oak trees, you got ’em. "Let there be oak trees", by inference, is one of the things said on the third day of creation, and oak trees are made. There is no suggestion that acorns have to come first: indeed, the suggestion is quite the other way around. To "which came first, the acorn or the oak?" it looks as if the answer is quite definitely "the oak". In any case, what’s so special about oak trees that God should have to fiddle around with acorns to make them? God is mysterious: the whole objection to the great architect is that we know him all too well, since he is one of us. Whatever God is, God is not one of us: a sobering thought for those who use "one of us" as their highest term of approbation.

The argument from design fails, then, because [as Martin argues earlier in the book] it is an argument from ignorance, because it confuses the final and efficient modes of explanation, and because even if it succeeded it would not prove the existence of God but of some Masonic impostor. But like other bad arguments, its defeat and death has left it to wander the world like a ghost, oppressing the spirits of those who are looking for other and better arguments. (pp. 181-2)

Needless to say, to worship Urizen or Ralph Richardson is not to worship God. But then, to devote enormous amounts of energy to defending arguments which could only ever get you to Urizen or Ralph Richardson would seem an odd enterprise for those whose interest is in promoting the worship of God. This is part of the problem with Paley-style “design arguments” and ID theory, at least insofar as the latter is thought to give support to theism. Even if they are successful – and my own view is that they are at least better than Martin gives them credit for – they distract attention from arguments which really do establish the existence of God. Worse, they lead people to a false conception of God – God as an anthropomorphic tinkerer, God as a cosmic Boy Scout or Santa Claus, a god-of-the-gaps, a scientific posit on all fours with quarks and selective pressures.

“But ID arguments raise serious questions about Darwinism!” Maybe so, and that is not unimportant. But my interest here is in the question of what sorts of arguments establish the existence of the God of classical theism. And to challenge Darwinism, even to refute Darwinism, would not be to establish classical theism. Indeed, it would not even be to refute naturalism. For, the pretenses of its less astute advocates notwithstanding, naturalism is a metaphysical theory, not an empirical one; and it is always possible for a naturalist to throw up his hands at Darwinism’s failure to explain this or that, and insist on general metaphysical grounds that there must nevertheless be some other naturalistic explanation or other out there, even if we have not or cannot discover it. That is in effect the approach taken by wiser naturalists – not Darwinian religious fanatics like Dawkins, Dennett, and Co., but more sober and serious theorists like David Stove, Jerry Fodor, Thomas Nagel, and Noam Chomsky, none of whom thinks Darwinism has come anywhere close to a complete naturalistic explanation of biological phenomena.

That is not to say that I think naturalistic metaphysics is believable even for a moment. It isn’t. But the point is that the dispute concerns basic metaphysics, not empirical science. Where the dispute over theism, specifically, is concerned, it is a waste of time to try to beat the naturalists at their own game, viz. empirical theorizing on the basis of a mechanistic conception of nature. That sort of thing will only ever get you at best to very remote, unusual, even extremely unexpected and impressive – but still perfectly natural – phenomena. It will not get you in the slightest toward God, because God is not one natural object among others, not even the most powerful and intelligent natural object, not even an immaterial natural object. (From a Scholastic point of view, “natural” does not entail “material” – angels and demons are immaterial, but still part of the natural, created order. Nor does the entailment seem to hold even from a naturalistic point of view, given e.g. that Quine is perfectly happy to countenance abstract objects if they are necessary to make sense of empirical science.)

The trouble with Paley-style arguments, then, is not that they are bad science – they may or may not be, depending on which ones we are talking about – but that they are bad theology. If you assume otherwise, then perhaps – as J. B. Phillips put it in a different context – your god is too small.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

William Lane Craig on divine simplicity

The doctrine of divine simplicity holds that God is in no way composed of parts. Not only is God incorporeal and immaterial, and thus not composed of form and matter, He is also not composed of essence and existence. Rather, His essence is His existence. There is also no distinction within God between any of the divine attributes: God’s eternity is His power, which is His goodness, which is His intellect, which is His will, and so on. Indeed, God Himself just is His power, His goodness, etc., just as He just is His existence, and just is His essence. Talking or conceiving of God, God’s essence, God’s existence, God’s power, God’s goodness, and so forth are really all just different ways of talking or conceiving of one and the very same thing. Though we distinguish between them in thought, there is no distinction at all between them in reality.

This doctrine is absolutely central to the classical theistic tradition, and has been defended by thinkers as diverse as St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, and Averroes, to name just a few. It is affirmed in such councils of the Roman Catholic Church as the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and Vatican I (1869-70) – which means that it is de fide, an absolutely binding, infallible, irreformable teaching of the Church, denial of which amounts to heresy. Divine simplicity is generally understood to follow from the Aristotelian-Thomistic doctrine of God as pure actuality. For something composed of parts presupposes the combination of those parts and thus a reduction of potentiality to actuality; and a purely actual being has no potentiality to actualize.

Nevertheless, contemporary philosophers and theologians are often critical of the doctrine of divine simplicity, and a reader has asked me to comment on this critique of the doctrine by William Lane Craig. (Craig is a Protestant, and thus is not troubled by the centrality divine simplicity has in Catholic doctrine.)

Before commenting, let me say that I have the greatest respect and admiration for Craig, who is, needless to say, one of the great Christian apologists of the age, a brilliant philosopher, and a fine scholar. His work on the history of the cosmological argument played a role in my own conversion, since it helped lead me to see how very badly most critics of the argument misunderstand it. (Craig and I have met only once, over a decade ago when he was visiting the UC Santa Barbara campus and kindly presented a guest lecture on the kalam cosmological argument to the Introduction to Philosophy class I was then teaching. I was still an atheist in those days, though the intellectual barriers to theism were just starting to crumble thanks in no small part to him.)

In the short piece linked to above, Craig offers three criticisms of the doctrine of divine simplicity. First, in response to the notion that the divine attributes are not distinct from one another, Craig says:

Existence is part of God's nature. But existence is not the same property as, say, omnipotence, for plenty of things have existence but not omnipotence. It remains very obscure, therefore, how God's nature or essence can be simple and all His properties identical.

Second, in response to the claim that God’s nature is not distinct from His existence, Craig says:

In a sense, God has no essence on this view, rather He just is the pure act of being unconstrained by any essence. He is, as Thomas says, the pure act of being subsisting. The problem is, this doctrine is just unintelligible.

Third, Craig says that the doctrine of divine simplicity entails that “God has no properties distinct from His nature,” and objects that:

[This claim] runs into the severe problem that God does seem to have accidental properties in addition to His essential ones. For example, in the actual world, He knows, loves, and wills certain things which He would not know, will, or love had He decided to create a different universe or no universe at all. On the doctrine of divine simplicity God is absolutely similar in all possible worlds; but then it becomes inexplicable why those worlds vary if in every one God knows, loves, and wills the same things.

Let me take the first two objections first, and begin by making two observations. First, note that both objections more or less amount to little more than the assertion that we can’t make sense of the doctrine of divine simplicity – that it is “very obscure” or “unintelligible.” Little or no actual argument is given for this claim, at least not in Craig’s brief piece. (The bit about how existence and omnipotence are different seems, without additional argumentation, merely to beg the question.) But the fact that a great many major philosophers and theologians have regarded divine simplicity as intelligible should at least give us pause; surely we need more than the mere assertion of unintelligibility, or an expression of one’s personal difficulty in making sense of the doctrine, if we are to be justified in rejecting it.

A second, and by no means unrelated preliminary point is that Craig makes no reference here to the famous Thomistic doctrine of analogy, which from a Thomistic point of view is crucial to properly understanding divine simplicity. To illustrate the idea of analogy, consider the word “see.” When I say that I see a tree outside my window and that I see the details of an insect’s eye through a microscope, I am using “see” in a univocal way, in the same sense in both cases. When I say that Rome is the Holy See, I am now using “see” in an equivocal way, that is, in an entirely different and unrelated sense. But when I say that I can see the truth of the Pythagorean Theorem, I am now using the term in neither a univocal nor an equivocal sense, but rather in an analogical way. That is to say, what one does when he “sees” the truth of the theorem is not the same as what he does when he sees a tree, but it is not completely different either. There is an analogy between the sort of thing we do with our eyes and the sort of thing we do with our intellects that makes it appropriate to describe both as kinds of “seeing.”

Now the Thomistic doctrine of analogy tells us that when we correctly predicate some attribute of God, we are using the relevant terms, not in a univocal way, but in an analogous way. That is to say, when we say for example that God has power, we don’t mean that He has power in exactly the sense we do, though we also don’t mean that His power is completely unlike what we call power in us. Rather, when we call God powerful we are saying that there is in God something analogous to power in us. Or take a more clearly metaphysically loaded term like “being,” as used in a sentence like “God has being.” Accidents and substances can both be said to have being, but accidents lack the independent existence that substances have; material things and angels can both be said to have being, but material things are composites of matter and form while angels are forms without matter; created things and God both have being, but in created things essence and existence are distinct and in God they are not; and so forth. The being of an accident is analogous to that of a substance, that of a material thing is analogous to that of an angel, and that of a created thing is analogous to that of God; that is to say, it is neither completely identical nor absolutely incomparable.

When we bring the concept of analogy to bear on the doctrine of divine simplicity, we can see what is wrong with Craig’s bare assertion that the doctrine is unintelligible. For this assertion has whatever plausibility it has, I would suggest, only if we think of God as having an essence, as existing, and as having power, knowledge, etc. in the same or univocal sense in which we and other creatures have these things. For what we call power in us is clearly different from what we call knowledge in us; our essences are different from our “acts of existing” (to use the Thomistic jargon); and so forth. So to say that knowledge (in that sense) is identical to power (in that sense), etc. does seem unintelligible. But that is simply the wrong way to understand the doctrine of divine simplicity. Properly understood, the doctrine does not say that power, knowledge, goodness, essence, existence, etc., as they exist in us, are identical. Rather, it says that there is in God something that is analogous to power, something analogous to knowledge, something analogous to goodness, etc., and that these “somethings” all turn out to be one and the same thing. “Power,” “knowledge,” “goodness,” etc. are merely different, analogously used descriptions we use in order to refer to what is in God one and the same reality, just as (to borrow Frege’s famous example) the expressions “the morning star” and “the evening star” differ in sense while referring to one and the same thing (the planet Venus).

Precisely because God is simple, though, there is in Aquinas’s view a sense in which we cannot strictly know His essence. For we know things in the strict sense by being able to define them in terms of genus and specific difference, and since God is absolutely simple, there is in Him no distinction between genus and difference, and thus no way to define Him (again, in this technical sense of “define”). God is not merely a unique member of some general class of things; the fact that there is one God is not some metaphysical accident, but an absolute metaphysical and conceptual necessity. But precisely for that reason, precisely because He is so radically unlike anything in the created order, we simply cannot expect to comprehend Him with anything close to the sort of clarity with which we can understand the denizens of that order.

Now this is the God to which the arguments of classical natural theology – by which I mean arguments falling into the broad metaphysical tradition inclusive of Platonism, Aristotelianism, Augustinianism and Thomism – inevitably lead. For such arguments all tend to the conclusion that the ultimate explanation of the world can only possibly lie in what is pure actuality, or being itself, or the One, or that in which essence and existence are identical; and all such concepts entail the doctrine of divine simplicity. What all this leaves us with vis-à-vis Craig’s first two criticisms is this: The arguments of natural theology entail the doctrine of divine simplicity; and thus, since (many of us would claim) we can know that those arguments are sound, we can know also that the doctrine of divine simplicity is true. Furthermore, the doctrine of analogy undermines any prima facie case for claiming that the doctrine of divine simplicity is unintelligible; and any residual sense of mystery is adequately accounted for by the fact that, given His nature, God is not the sort of thing we should expect to understand with the sort of clarity with which we understand the natural order.

What, then, of Craig’s third criticism, to the effect that the doctrine of divine simplicity entails that God has no accidental properties but only essential ones, which (Craig says) conflicts with the evident fact that God could have created a different universe and thus known, loved, and willed different things than in fact He has?

Here, building on a distinction famously made by Peter Geach, we need to differentiate between real properties and mere “Cambridge properties.” For example, for Socrates to grow hair is a real change in him, the acquisition by him of a real property. But for Socrates to become shorter than Plato, not because Socrates’ height has changed but only because Plato has grown taller, is not a real change in Socrates but what Geach called a mere “Cambridge change,” and therefore involves the acquisition of a mere “Cambridge property.” The doctrine of divine simplicity does not entail that God has no accidental properties of any sort; He can have accidental Cambridge properties.

Now it was Aquinas’s position that “since therefore God is outside the whole order of creation, and all creatures are ordered to Him, and not conversely, it is manifest that creatures are really related to God Himself; whereas in God there is no real relation to creatures, but a relation only in idea, inasmuch as creatures are referred to Him” (ST I.13.7). As Barry Miller points out in his book A Most Unlikely God, this amounts to the claim that while the relation of creatures to God is a real one, the relation of God to creatures is a mere Cambridge one, so that (for example) God’s creating the universe is one of His merely Cambridge properties.

How can this be so? As Brian Davies points out in his chapter on divine simplicity in An Introduction to Philosophy of Religion (3rd edition), what is essential to acting is the bringing about of an effect in another thing, not undergoing change oneself as one does so. What is essential to teaching, for example, is that one cause someone else to learn, and not that one lecture, write books, or the like. Of course, in created things, bringing about an effect is typically associated with undergoing change oneself (e.g. for us to cause another to learn typically requires lecturing, writing, or the like as a means). But that is accidental to agency per se, something true of us only because of our status as finite, created things. We should not expect the same thing to be true of a purely actual uncaused cause of the world. Hence there is no reason to suppose that God’s creation of the world entails a change in God Himself.

Nor does anything about God’s other relations to the world entail that they involve anything other than Cambridge properties. For example, as Davies points out, God’s love for the world is not like our love, which typically springs from some need. God, as purely actual, needs nothing; it is not that He has some lack which He seeks to remedy by creating us or getting us to love Him, which would entail a non-Cambridge change in Him. Rather, God loves us in the sense of willing what is good for us, which He does changelessly. Similarly, God’s knowledge of things is not a matter of coming to know them. Rather, He knows all things by virtue of knowing Himself as timelessly creating them.

Obviously, much more could be said. But this much suffices to show that here, as in so many other contexts, seemingly damaging objections to traditional theological doctrines lose much or all of their force when the doctrines are understood in light of the classical metaphysical picture within which they were originally formulated. (For those who are interested, the writings by Miller and Davies cited above are good places to look for more detailed treatments of the topic of divine simplicity. I also say a little more more about it in Aquinas, and Eleonore Stump has a very useful chapter on the subject in her book Aquinas.)