Friday, February 26, 2010

What’s black and white and misread all over?

Dale Tuggy quotes a famous passage from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola:

To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it, believing that between Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Bride, there is the same Spirit which governs and directs us for the salvation of our souls. Because by the same Spirit and our Lord Who gave the ten Commandments, our holy Mother the Church is directed and governed.

This is a favorite of skeptics looking for a proof text demonstrating the manifest irrationality of the Catholic understanding of the Church’s authority. Dale does not seem to be making quite so strong or aggressive a claim, but he does regard Loyola’s position as “unreasonable” insofar as it amounts (Dale tells us) to the view that “tradition trumps sense perception.”

But that’s simply not what Loyola said. For one thing, he says nothing about “tradition” in the passage quoted. He speaks instead of what the “Hierarchical Church” decides. True, when the Church formally pronounces on some matter in a fashion that requires the assent of the faithful, she always does so in light of tradition. But tradition per se is not what is at issue in this passage. What is at issue is the epistemological status of the Church’s pronouncements themselves. That narrows things considerably, because while the Church does pronounce on many things, and while it is by no means only those pronouncements presented as infallible to which the faithful are expected to assent, the range of actual pronouncements is still narrower than the deliverances of tradition. (For example, there is support for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in tradition, but you will not find a formal pronouncement on the matter until relatively recently, which is why Aquinas was in his time free to disagree with it.)

Secondly, the subject matter of those pronouncements always concerns those areas in which the Church claims special expertise, namely faith (theological doctrine) and morals – namely, matters which are relevant to “the salvation of our souls,” in Loyola’s words. The Church does not claim special expertise or authority in purely secular matters. This is just basic Catholic theology, with which Loyola was of course familiar. The stuff about black being white if the Church decides it is meant as hyperbole – which should be obvious to any charitable reader, and certainly to anyone who knows that the Church has never claimed any special expertise in the physics, physiology, or philosophy of color perception per se.

Thirdly, Dale suggests that what (he claims) Loyola says about sense perception would seem to entail as well that tradition “would also trump a strong intuition of falsehood – as when a set of claims appears self-inconsistent.” That makes it sound as if Loyola’s view, and the Church’s, is that we ought to ignore what we know about logic if it seems to conflict with Church teaching. But as I have emphasized in my recent posts on the Trinity, the Catholic position is that even where theological mysteries are concerned, apparent logical inconsistencies can be and should be exposed as illusory. The Church rejects any attempt to pit revelation against reason, whether motivated by skepticism or by fideism. She teaches that while there are theological truths that cannot be arrived at by unaided reason, these truths nevertheless must not and do not conflict with reason. We must accept both the Church’s teachings on faith and morals and logic, and if there seems to be a conflict the theologian has a duty to show why this appearance is illusory.

Fourthly, the Church’s teaching about the epistemological status of her own pronouncements on matters of faith and morals is itself grounded in reason. She doesn’t say, in circular fashion, “You must accept what the Church teaches vis-à-vis faith and morals. Why? Well, we just told you why – because that is itself something the Church teaches!” The Catholic position rather follows from the Catholic understanding of divine revelation. As I have also emphasized in my recent posts on the Trinity, the Catholic view is that the occurrence of a divine revelation is something that should be and can be confirmed via its association with miracles, where the occurrence of the miracles in question itself can and should be confirmed by rational arguments. Still, if such revelation is to be efficacious, it cannot come to us merely in the form of a set of prophetic oral teachings passed on from generation to generation, or a book, or the declarations of a series of councils (though of course it can and does include these). For by themselves such sources of revelation are inherently subject to alternative interpretations, and being mere words on a page they cannot interpret themselves. In particular, they cannot tell us what they mean when the meaning is not entirely clear, and they cannot tell us how we are to apply them to new and unforeseen circumstances. Hence, if a revelation is to be efficacious, it must be associated with an authoritative interpreter. And since the human lifespan is relatively short, that interpreter cannot be identified with some particular individual human being if the revelation is to be efficacious over a period of centuries. It has to be embodied in an ongoing institution, and ultimately in an executive office whose occupants have supreme authority to have the final say in matters of controversy. Moreover, divine assistance must preserve this authority from error just as it preserved the original revelation from error; for if the authority can err in its interpretation and application of the revelation, the latter will, once again, be of no effect, even if free of error itself. In short, you can’t have an infallible Bible or infallible ecclesiastical councils without an infallible institutional Church and an infallible Pope. Without the latter, the interpretation and application of the former become arbitrary in principle, as every private interpreter becomes an authority unto himself. (I expand on this “arbitrariness” theme in this 2003 piece.)

Obviously this is bound to be controversial, and various details and qualifications would need to be spelled out in a complete treatment of the issue. The point for our purposes here is that the Catholic position is grounded in an argument about how a divine revelation given at some point in history has to be transmitted and applied if it is going to be transmitted and applied effectively. (If you want a more detailed presentation of the argument, see Mark Shea’s book By What Authority? for an excellent recent popular exposition.)

It should be clear, then, that the Church – and Loyola, in summarizing the Church’s view of her own authority – are not saying “tradition trumps sense perception,” nor, contrary to what skeptics suppose, are they advocating a shrill fideism. The claim, stripped of hyperbole, is rather: “Given the Catholic understanding of revelation – an understanding the Church herself insists is and must be in harmony with reason – we are obliged to assent to the Church’s formal pronouncements on matters of faith and morals rather than to any private interpretation that might conflict with those pronouncements.” Whether or not one agrees with this claim, it is hardly the jarring call to irrationalist dogmatism skeptics make it out to be.

Now, Dale might respond: “That’s fair enough as far as it goes. But what happens when we apply Loyola’s principle, as you claim it should be understood, to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in particular? In at least that case, isn’t the result pretty much the view I attributed to Loyola – namely, that we ought to reject what sense perception tells us when it conflicts with tradition, or at least with the formal pronouncements of the Church?”

But that is not the result; or, if the result is that we ought to reject what sense perception tells us, this is so only in a loose, innocuous, and uncontroversial sense. To see how, consider Jim and Bob, who are identical twins with similar personalities. You approach someone you take to be Jim, begin a friendly conversation, and after a few minutes say “Well, I’m late for a meeting. Nice chatting with you, Jim!” He responds: “I’m not Jim, I’m Bob!” If we conclude that your senses deceived you, are we committing ourselves to a shockingly irrationalist skepticism about sense perception? Are we endorsing a bizarre Bob-oriented fideism according to which “Bob’s say-so trumps sense perception”? Obviously not. Indeed, strictly speaking, it wasn’t really your senses that deceived you in the first place. The man you were talking to really does look like Jim; your senses told you as much, and they were right. The trouble is that you drew the wrong conclusion from this fact, because you failed sufficiently to consider that Bob looks and acts the same way.

Something similar can be said of one’s sense perception of the Eucharist. One might judge that it is bread that one is looking at, touching, tasting, etc., even though it is not bread at all, but the Body of Christ. But to say that one’s senses are deceiving one in this situation is to speak loosely. As in the case of Jim and Bob, strictly speaking your senses are not really deceiving you at all. They told you that the accidents of bread were present, and they really were present. (Aquinas thinks so. Why? Precisely because “it is evident to sense” that they are.) The trouble is that you drew the wrong conclusion from this fact, insofar as you assumed that the presence of the accidents entails that the substance of bread must be present as well. That is to say, you failed to consider that the accidents might still be present even if the substance is not. As in the case of Jim and Bob, what is going on here is not that what sense perception tells you should be “trumped” by something else. It is, in both cases, something far more mundane – the senses are accurate as far as they go, but haven’t given you the whole story, and since you failed to realize this you drew a mistaken conclusion. This happens all the time, and hardly only when non-Catholics come to Mass.

“But I don’t buy the metaphysics and theology underlying the doctrine of transubstantiation!” you exclaim. Fine, but that is irrelevant to the point at issue, which is that there is nothing in the doctrine per se, nor in the Church’s claim about her teaching authority, nor in Loyola’s colorful statement of that claim, that entails some bizarre pitting of tradition against sense perception. If one wants to reject the doctrine, or the Church’s claims about her own authority, shouting “You claim that tradition trumps sense perception!” is not a good reason to do so.

Dale offers a further consideration against the Catholic position, as expressed by Loyola. He says: “Suppose, contrary to fact, that Mother Church had long, strongly asserted that uneaten, consecrated wafers never rot. Then, you’re cleaning up the church, and find a wafer that you remember the priest dropping during Mass some months ago. It is rotten – covered with bread mold. You can feel, smell, and see the rot. Surely, you can (and will) reasonably believe that the wafer is rotten.”

Apparently Dale thinks this hypothetical scenario poses a problem for the Catholic view of the Church’s teaching authority. But it’s hard to see how. Consider another hypothetical scenario: Suppose, contrary to fact, that the Bible had asserted that all Volkswagens are poached eggs. Then, you’re cleaning your Volkswagen one day, and you happen to notice that it is not a poached egg. You can feel, smell, and see that the Volkswagen has no poached egg-like qualities at all, and many qualities that are incompatible with its being a poached egg. Surely you can (and will) reasonably believe that the Volkswagen is not a poached egg.

Now, having formulated this scenario, would you rush to the computer and write up a blog post entitled “Protestantism: The Bible trumps sense perception”? Would you think you’ve discovered a powerful objection to the authority of the Bible? Presumably not; in any event, I doubt Dale would think you had. For the argument seems to be: “We can make up a story where the Bible asserts something at odds with a veridical sense perception. Therefore the Bible is not in fact authoritative.” And this argument is clearly no good. Quite obviously, what matters to assessing the Bible’s authority is what it actually says, not what we can imagine it saying in some weird story we’ve made up. But this argument seems parallel to Dale’s implicit argument against Loyola’s view of the Church’s teaching authority. If the one argument has no force, then, neither does the other.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Nightfly: Vatican approved!

Via Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s blog, I learn that L’Osservatore Romano has published a list of “top 10 albums for a desert island.” I kid you not. Among the Vatican newspaper’s picks are Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (my teenage self would have heartily approved) and Michael Jackson’s Thriller (my teenage and current selves are outraged, though neither will confirm rumors of a soft spot for Off the Wall). More interesting still to learn that among the other choices are “discs from Donald Fagen, Fleetwood Mac and David Crosby.” Donald Fagen! See, I knew there was deep theological meaning to be mined from the Steely Dan oeuvre. Told you so.

Seriously, though, the whole thing is, of course, too preposterous for words. As Fr. Z says, L’Osservatore Romano is “increasingly weird.” To say the least. Here’s one thing it’s not, however (contrary to what many media outlets seem to think): a source of the Holy See’s “official” positions on pop music, Chia pets, or (it seems) much else. Thank goodness.

All the same, congrats to Fagen, and better luck next year Walter! Now let’s enjoy this classic video from The Nightfly.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mackie on ad hoc hypotheses

Bill Vallicella objects to the Scholastic notion of suppositum because he takes it to be entirely ad hoc, “a mere invention pulled out of thin air to render coherent an otherwise incoherent, or not obviously coherent, theological doctrine.” As we have seen, Dale Tuggy objects to the characterization of the Trinity as a “mystery” for similar reasons. In both cases, the underlying assumption is that the introduction of a concept or hypotheses for the specific purpose of answering a certain objection is per se philosophically questionable.

But as logicians know, not every appeal to authority is a fallacious appeal to authority; not every ad hominem criticism is a fallacious ad hominem; not every inference from part to whole involves a fallacy of composition. And by the same token, not every appeal to ad hoc considerations is fallacious or otherwise suspect. When is such an appeal legitimate? In his article “Fallacies” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, J. L. Mackie – no friend of theology – tells us that we must distinguish fallacious ad hoc hypothesis formation from “the respectable procedure of interpreting new observations in light of an established theory,” and that “in the respectable procedure, we are working with a hypothesis that is already well confirmed, [while] it is a fallacy to ‘save’ a hypothesis for which there is no strong independent support.”

As I have said in earlier posts, the Trinitarian theologian does not pull his doctrine out of thin air. The claim is rather that the doctrine of the Trinity follows from divine revelation – that is to say, from infallible testimony – where the fact that such a revelation has occurred is itself something that can be established by solid arguments. If this is correct, then the doctrine is indeed “already well confirmed” and has “strong independent support.” The appeal to notions like suppositum or mystery is therefore not objectionably ad hoc.

Obviously the skeptic is going to deny that the doctrine really is independently well confirmed, but that is a different issue. The point is that the objection to the notions in question on the grounds that they are ad hoc has, by itself, no force.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tuggy contra mysterianism

Dale Tuggy replies to my recent posts (here and here) on “mysterianism” and the doctrine of the Trinity. He suggests that characterizing the Trinity as a “mystery” should at least worry us, for two reasons: (1) It makes it difficult for us to say exactly what it is we are asked to believe when we affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, and (2) Some mysteries are generated by our own theorizing rather than by the phenomenon being theorized about.

To take (2) first, I would reiterate that the seven propositions set out in my first post, which form the core of the doctrine of the Trinity, are implied by the New Testament itself. And what is “mysterious” is how all these propositions can be true. Hence the mystery is in this case generated by the deliverances of revelation, not in our theorizing about what has been revealed. (I realize that skeptics will dismiss the suggestion that the New Testament embodies divine revelation, but Dale would not do so, which is all that matters here.)

What has been revealed, though, is hardly completely opaque, and that brings us to (1). We know that we are supposed to affirm monotheism. We know that we are to affirm the full divinity of each of the Persons. We know that we are also to affirm that the Persons are not identical. That we find it puzzling how these things can all be true itself shows that we have some understanding of them – if we didn’t, we wouldn’t see their conjunction as puzzling – even if it obviously shows also that our understanding is not complete. It is not as if we are being asked to affirm something like the lyrics of “Prisencolinensinainciusol”; the doctrine of the Trinity is not fully intelligible by us, but it is not unintelligible either.

Moreover, the standard analogies Trinitarian theologians make use of (e.g. the intellect, its idea of itself, and the will’s being drawn toward that idea), while imperfect, give us further purchase on the doctrine, especially if read in light of the Scholastic semantic, logical, and metaphysical doctrines in the context of which they were most thoroughly developed (as opposed to the doctrines contemporary analytic philosophers take for granted). This is particularly true of the concept of identity, and thus of the interpretation of “is” where it appears in the seven propositions in question. (We noted in an earlier post how this context is relevant to understanding the Aristotelian-Scholastic claim that the soul “is” the thing it knows.)

To be sure, Dale would probably not be too keen on making much use of the Scholastic philosophical apparatus. He says “I guess I agree that if you load up on medieval speculations about God, the obscurity of Trinity doctrines can seem like no big deal,” and expresses, on biblical grounds, discomfort with the course medieval theology took. I don’t know whether he means to endorse the standard modern caricature of Scholasticism as obscurantist. As readers of The Last Superstition and Aquinas are aware, I would take a very different view. I also don’t know how far he would push a purportedly more “biblical” conception of God away from classical theism and in the direction of the more anthropomorphic approach of “theistic personalism,” but I have said something in earlier posts about the theological dangers of such a move (e.g. here and here).

On a surely not unrelated matter, Dale also seems to me severely to underestimate the extent to which we should expect to find God mysterious. He appears to think that the only sense in which it is clear that God should be mysterious to us is a “trivial” one, insofar as “fully understanding God would require understanding all he knows, which is infinite.” From a Scholastic point of view, and in particular from an Aristotelico-Thomistic (A-T) point of view (which is my point of view), there is a great deal more to it than that. There is, for example, the fact (as we A-T types see things, anyway) that via unaided reason we can know God only as cause of the world, and thus apart from divine revelation are limited in our knowledge of Him to what can be inferred from His being the world’s cause. (This is for Aquinas the reason why the Trinity cannot be known through natural reason.) There is also the fact (again, at least as A-T sees it) that we know the natures of things in the strict sense by defining them in terms of genus and specific difference, whereas in God (given divine simplicity) there is no distinction between genus and difference. Hence, given His nature and the nature of our intellects, we could not even in principle have strict knowledge of His essence. In fact, from a Thomistic point of view only God Himself could ever possibly fully grasp the divine nature. Given these sorts of considerations, what we should expect is precisely that certain aspects of the divine nature will be unknowable to us apart from revelation, and that certain aspects, even once revealed, will remains somewhat opaque to us.

This brings us to Dale’s final worry, which is that appeals to mystery seem an “insincere smokescreen,” mere “dialectical conveniences” or “handy talk to fend off objectors.” I think what has been said already shows that that is not the case. At least given the general metaphysical picture of the world embodied in Scholastic philosophies like A-T, we have entirely independent reason for thinking that the divine nature is inscrutable. (Compare the negative theology of a Jewish Aristotelian like Maimonides, who was hardly motivated by a desire to provide a “smokescreen” behind which to protect Trinitarianism!) And as I pointed out in my recent post on Plotinus and the Trinity, if a rhetorical concern to defend the doctrine against skeptics at all costs were what motivated the Trinitarian theologian, he would have every motive to adopt something like the Neo-Platonic doctrine of the three hypostases as a way to “rationalize” it. And yet Trinitarians have generally resisted doing so.

The reason is precisely because such “rationalizing” moves have seemed to them not to be true to the content of the doctrine, and in particular not to be true to the core Trinitarian propositions alluded to above, as far as we can understand them. This, together with considerations about our natural knowledge of God of the sort just described, has quite reasonably led them to conclude that the doctrine is a “mystery” in the sense I have described in previous posts. One might disagree with this position, but there do not seem to be any grounds for dismissing it as insincere or rhetorically motivated. The comparison of the doctrine of the Trinity to quantum mechanics is a tired one, but still worth reemphasizing in this context: If empirical evidence can justifiably lead us to affirm the truth of a scientific theory that even many physicists claim we can only partially understand, why can’t divine revelation do something similar?

Finally, in the context of this final objection, Dale says: “Let me ask Ed what precisely about the Trinity formulas he finds to be a negative mystery. Take any statement which is regarded as expressing ‘the’ doctrine, such as: ‘God is three persons in one being’ – and say which terms are the ones which we can barely grasp the meaning of. Typically, following Augustine, people will focus on ‘persons’. But then in other contexts, it is pretty clear that they think of each of the Three as a self – something with knowledge and will.”

In response, I would say first of all that we need to be very cautious in applying terms like “self” to God. No doubt people associate all sorts of anthropomorphic imagery with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and of course, the Son in His human nature is indeed a “self” as we are. But applied to the divine nature, all such language must be understood in an analogous sense – as, of course, related terms like “knowledge” and “will” must be. And when it is understood that way, the anthropomorphisms drop away. There is in God something analogous to what knowledge is in us, something analogous to what will is in us, something analogous to what intellect is in us, and so forth. But it is not flatly the same as what knowledge, will, and intellect are in us – for one thing, given divine simplicity, God’s knowledge is His will which is His intellect, and nothing like that is true of us. Obviously that is difficult to grasp; but as I have said and as Dale has acknowledged, when one looks at these things through a Scholastic lens – and indeed, I would say, a classical theistic one more generally – God is already bound to be difficult for us to grasp even apart from the doctrine of the Trinity.

With regard to formulae like “three Persons in one substance,” then, I am inclined to say that all the terms are difficult, precisely because they too are being used analogically and in a way that must conform to the doctrine of divine simplicity. The “three” is particularly tricky in light of the latter; but the point is that it is a mistake to think that we should expect to be able to isolate one or two key expressions as the problematic ones, while the others are all clear as day. (All the same, it is a bit tendentious for Dale to insinuate that the mysterian claim is that we can “barely grasp” the meaning of the terms in question. Again, we’re not dealing here with nonsense syllables spoken by someone with a mouthful of food, where one or two sounds can just be made out as pieces of English – or Greek, or Latin – vocabulary. “We cannot fully comprehend X” does not entail “We can barely comprehend X.”)

To be sure, we can at least get to divine attributes like knowledge, will, and the like through natural reason. But our grasp of them is bound to be incomplete even once we’ve arrived at them. The difference from distinctively Trinitarian language about God is (as Aquinas says) that the Trinitarian language, unlike the other language, does not follow from our reasoning to God as cause of the world. And, again, the Trinitarian language is particularly difficult to grasp given divine simplicity (where divine simplicity does follow from our knowledge of God as cause of the world). But we are not in a situation where the language used to describe divine attributes like knowledge, will, etc. is completely transparent and only the Trinitarian language is difficult.

Here as elsewhere in our discussion – as, indeed, elsewhere in much contemporary debate between theologians generally, and between many theists and their atheistic opponents – I suspect we see reflected the gulf between the conceptions of God enshrined in classical theism and what Brian Davies has called “theistic personalism” (also known as “neo-theism”), where the latter embodies a more anthropomorphic conception of God, and for that reason a less mysterious one – though also, for that reason, a less truly divine one. Or so we A-T types would argue. But that is a gigantic topic all its own.

Anyway, I thank Dale for an interesting and useful exchange. I must correct a false impression he may have left, though: Contrary to what his chosen illustration implies, that is not the car I drove him around in back in grad school!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dawkins on omnipotence and omniscience

A reader asks for my response to this passage from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion:

Incidentally, it has not escaped the notice of logicians that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually incompatible. If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can’t change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent. (pp. 77-78)

We have here a standard New Atheist rhetorical trick: Take a simplistic objection to theism that has been raised and answered many times and present it to the unwary non-expert reader as if it were a devastating refutation that no one has ever been able to rebut.

As to the substance: Note first that for almost all theists, “omnipotence” does not entail the power to bring into being a self-contradictory state of affairs (e.g. creating a round square or a stone that is too heavy for an omnipotent being to lift). The reason is that there is no such power; the very notion of such a power is incoherent, precisely because the notion of a self-contradictory state of affairs is incoherent. God’s power would be limited only if there was some power He lacked. Since there is no such thing as a power to make contradictions true, His inability to do so is no limitation on His power. (And if an atheist insists that an omnipotent being would have to have such a power, that only hurts his own case. For that enables the theist to say, in response to any possible objection that the atheist could ever raise: “Since God can make contradictions true, He can make it true that He exists even though your argument shows He doesn’t!”)

Now, suppose A and B are logically coherent but mutually incompatible states of affairs. God, being omnipotent, can bring about either one. Suppose that in fact He wills to bring about A rather than B. Being omniscient, He knows that A rather than B is what He wills to bring about. Where is the conflict with omnipotence? Does His knowing that A is what He wills entail that He could not have willed B instead? No, He could have willed it; He just hasn’t. Does the conflict lie instead in the fact that He can’t will A and B together? No, because A and B are logically incompatible, and (as we have seen) omnipotence does not entail the power to generate contradictory states of affairs.

It seems that what Dawkins has in mind is a situation where God decides to do A at one point in time and actually carries out His decision at some later point in time. Since at the time of His decision He infallibly knows what He will do later on (given that He is omnipotent) it is not open to Him to “change His mind” and do something different at that later time, and thus (Dawkins concludes) He is not omnipotent.

There are two problems with this, though. First, even if this were the right way to think about divine action, Dawkins’ conclusion wouldn’t follow. For what he is saying is that God cannot bring about the following situation:

S: An omniscient being infallibly knows that He will bring about A in the future and yet does not bring A about.

And from the fact that God cannot bring about S, Dawkins infers that He is not omnipotent. But the reason God cannot bring about S is that S is self-contradictory, and omnipotence does not entail the power to bring about self-contradictory states of affairs. (Again, if Dawkins wants to dig in his heels and insist that omnipotence must entail such a power, that will only hurt his case. For the theist can then say “Sure God can bring S about, since, being omnipotent, He can even make contradictions true!”)

As it happens, though, this is not the right way to think about divine action. From the point of view of classical theism, anyway, God is immutable and eternal. He doesn’t “change His mind” because He doesn’t change at all. Nor is there any temporal gap between His willing and His acting. Rather, God is altogether outside time. We make decisions and then carry them out moments, hours, days, or years later. God isn’t like that. When He wills that A happen at such-and-such a point in time, we might have to wait for A to happen, since we are within the temporal order; but God doesn’t, because He isn’t. For Him, the whole created order – including every event at every point in time – follows from His one creative act.

This is extremely well-known to people who actually know something about the history of philosophical theology. Naturally, then, Dawkins and his ilk are unaware of it. Their conception of God is breathtakingly crude; they think of Him on the model of Ralph Richardson in Time Bandits, or perhaps (for you 1980s comic book fans) the Beyonder from Secret Wars. What is the point of arguing with such ignoramuses? There would be little point at all, except that the ignoramuses are breeding even more ignoramuses. As Dawkins’ example shows, being the reverse of omniscient seems entirely compatible with preternatural power – such as the power to make willful ignorance and bigotry seem like dispassionate, learned rationality.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Speaking from ignorance

This would explain why many philosophers who do not specialize in philosophy of religion manifestly don’t know what they’re talking about when they open up their mouths on the subject (as we have seen here, here, and here). If you “don’t take the subject seriously” enough to study it, then naturally all you are going to “know” about it are the simple-minded clichés you and your secularist colleagues smugly bounce around your echo chamber. HT: Prosblogion.

Trinity and mystery, Part II

Much of the recent blogospheric discussion of the Trinity noted in my previous post concerns the sense in which the doctrine of the Trinity is a “mystery.” I’ve already said something about that issue, but it seems worthwhile saying a bit more about what exactly “mystery” means in Catholic theology, specifically, and the way in which Catholic theology regards “mysterianism” as central to a proper understanding of the Trinity. This is important not only because I and many of my readers look at this issue from a Catholic point of view, but also because even non-Catholic philosophers and theologians inquiring into the doctrine will no doubt find it of interest to know how their own positions might square or fail to square with the Catholic position.

Let’s begin with some definitions of “mystery” taken from reference works in traditional Catholic theology. From the entry for “mystery” in Pietro Parente, Antonio Piolanti, and Salvatore Garofalo, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology:

In the past century, the Church magisterium has fixed definitively the meaning of the term (Gregory XVI, Pius IX, Leo XIII). The Vatican Council (sess. 3, c. 4, DB, 1795 ff.) gives the definition: “The divine mysteries of their very nature so transcend the created intellect that, even when revealed and believed, they still remain veiled and obscure during this mortal life.”

In the strict sense, therefore, a mystery is a truth, whose existence can be known by human reason only by way of revelation, while its essence cannot be properly and fully understood, even after revelation. Thus, e.g., the mystery of the Holy Trinity… Human reason cannot demonstrate a mystery taken in the strict sense, but can illustrate it and defend it from objections.

And here’s a definition from Bernard Wuellner, Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy:

mystery, n. 1. a hidden truth 2. something of which the fact is known, but the reason of the fact or its harmony with other facts and truths is not understood.

strict mystery, a truth so far exceeding the capacities of human reason that its full meaning cannot be comprehended by us nor a natural proof of its truth be discovered even after God has revealed that truth to men.

If you look at Dale Tuggy’s article “Trinity” from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, you’ll see that he there distinguishes between “negative mysterianism” and “positive mysterianism.” The definitions just cited seem to fall into the “negative mysterian” category, and in the post of his I linked to previously, Dale himself rightly characterized my own view as a kind of negative mysterianism. (I do think Dale’s characterization of negative mysterianism needs some qualification, though. For example, he says that the view is that the Trinity “is not understandable because it is too poor in intelligible content.” But strictly speaking, what the negative mysterian holds is that the doctrine has content that is perfectly intelligible in itself – a sufficiently powerful intellect could fully grasp it – but that we cannot fully grasp it given the limitations on our intellects. No doubt Dale realizes this, but it is an important point to emphasize so as to avoid attributing to the negative mysterian the dubious view that there could be such a thing as a truth that was unintelligible in itself, whatever that could mean.)

As I’ve indicated before, Catholic theology regards “mysterianism” as an essential part of orthodox thinking about the Trinity, not some optional approach a Catholic theologian may or may not take as he sees fit. Aquinas holds that “trying to prove the Trinity by reason would injure the faith” (Summa Theologiae I.32.1, McDermott translation). And the Church herself has more or less said the same thing.

There are in Catholic theology several grades of theological certainty and several corresponding degrees of censure of theological error, which you’ll find described in old manuals like Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. The highest degree of certainty attaches to propositions which have been directly divinely revealed, and to those which have been infallibly proclaimed by the Church. These are de fide, absolutely essential to the Catholic Faith; to deny them is to be guilty of heresy in the strict sense. Next come propositions which are “proximate to Faith,” sententia fidei proxima, i.e. propositions which are generally regarded as having the status of divine revelation but which have not been formally proclaimed as such by the Church. To deny them is to be “proximate to heresy” – slightly short of heresy proper but something no orthodox theologian would let himself get anywhere close to doing. Then there are propositions considered “theologically certain” – those which also have not been formally proclaimed by the Church, but which have such a tight logical connection with revealed truths that they cannot be doubted. Denials of such propositions might be classified as “suspect of heresy” or at least “erroneous,” and again, an orthodox theologian will steer clear of such denials. Next come “common teachings” or propositions that are generally accepted by orthodox theologians even though differing opinions about them are in principle legitimate; probable opinions; well-founded opinions; pious opinions (i.e. those that are at least consonant with the Church’s general way of thinking); and tolerated opinions.

Now, the doctrine of the Trinity itself is de fide; to deny it is strictly heretical. Many specific claims about the relations between the Persons are also de fide; others are considered at least theologically certain. (See pp. 50-75 of Ott for a useful summary.) That God’s nature is not fully comprehensible by us is also de fide. (Ott, p. 20) Moreover, the first Vatican Council declared: “If anyone shall have said that no true mysteries properly so-called are contained in divine revelation, but that all the dogmas of faith can be understood and proved from natural principles, through reason properly cultivated: let him be anathema” (Denzinger, Sources of Catholic Dogma n. 1816) and that “reason… is never capable of perceiving those mysteries in the way it does the truths which constitute its own proper object. For, divine mysteries by their nature exceed the created intellect so much that, even when handed down by revelation and accepted by faith, they nevertheless remain covered by the veil of faith itself, and wrapped in a certain mist, as it were,” at least in this life (n. 1796). But the Trinity has always been considered the chief of the mysteries of the Faith. Hence that the Trinity is a mystery, something knowable only through divine revelation, is considered in Catholic theology a proposition that is “proximate to Faith,” and its denial “proximate to heresy.” (Cf. Ott, p. 74) At the same time, Vatican I also teaches that “although faith is above reason, nevertheless, between faith and reason no true dissension can ever exist, since the same God, who reveals mysteries and infuses faith, has bestowed on the human soul the light of reason; moreover, God cannot deny Himself, nor ever contradict truth with truth. But, a vain appearance of such a contradiction arises chiefly from this, that either the dogmas of faith have not been understood and interpreted according to the mind of the Church, or deceitful opinions are considered as the determinations of reason.” (Denzinger n. 1797) If a formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity appears contradictory, then, it cannot be regarded as a genuine expression of the Church’s teaching on the matter.

So, “mysterianism” concerning the Trinity – and, it would seem, “negative mysterianism” specifically – is taken to have a very high degree of certainty in Catholic theology. It is just short of de fide, and denying it is “proximate to heresy.” Thus, it is non-negotiable.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Trinity and mystery

As I have noted in earlier posts (here and here), when Trinitarian theologians refer to the doctrine of the Trinity as a “mystery,” they do not mean that it is self-contradictory or unintelligible. Nor do they mean that there are no rational grounds for believing it. What they mean is that while it is perfectly consistent and intelligible in itself, our minds are too limited fully to comprehend it. And while, for that reason, the doctrine cannot be arrived at “from scratch” by purely philosophical arguments, we can be rationally justified in believing it on the basis of testimony, viz. the testimony of Jesus Christ, whose reliability is demonstrated by His resurrection, and where His resurrection is (so traditional theology claims) something that can be known to have occurred through purely rational arguments. (See the first post linked to above for a little more detail on how this line of reasoning goes.) Furthermore, while human reason cannot fully grasp the Trinity even after it has been revealed, it can show that no attempts to prove the doctrine self-contradictory are successful, and it can also attain an imperfect understanding of the doctrine via analogies (such as Aquinas’s exposition of the doctrine in terms of a comparison to the intellect, the intellect’s idea of itself, and the will’s being drawn to this idea).

In summary, then, orthodox Trinitarian theology claims:

A. The doctrine of the Trinity is coherent and intelligible in itself.

B. The human mind is nevertheless too limited adequately to comprehend it.

C. The doctrine could, accordingly, never have been arrived at via purely philosophical arguments.

D. We can nevertheless be rationally justified in affirming it on the basis of testimony.

E. We can show that no attempt to prove the doctrine self-contradictory succeeds.

F. We can arrive at a limited understanding of the doctrine via various analogies.

As I have also noted previously, the conception of the Trinity as a “mystery” finds a parallel in the view of some contemporary philosophers of mind (e.g. Colin McGinn) that while an adequate naturalistic explanation of consciousness exists, our minds are too limited to understand it. This view even goes by the name “mysterianism,” and it is motivated not only by a desire to sidestep the various philosophical objections to materialism, but also by the idea that natural selection is unlikely to have shaped our minds in a way that would allow us to discover everything there is to know about the world. It is far more likely, mysterians contend, that the contingent forces of evolution so molded our cognitive faculties that they are useful only for understanding a fairly narrow range of truths, and that there are barriers beyond which they cannot push. This is certainly a very reasonable view to take if there are good reasons to think naturalism is true in the first place. (There aren’t, but let that pass for the moment.)

For a very useful overview of traditional Scholastic thinking on this subject, see Joseph Pohle and Arthur Preuss, The Divine Trinity: A Dogmatic Treatise, an old theological manual that can be acquired from various reprint publishing houses (e.g. here’s one version) and is also available via Google books. Chapter IV, section 1 provides an account of the sense in which the doctrine is a mystery (and, so we Catholics maintain, must be held to be a mystery, on pain of heterodoxy). When that claim is properly understood, it is, I maintain, perfectly clear that the skeptic has no grounds for dismissing the doctrine of the Trinity simply because it is held to be a mystery. He might want to reject it on other grounds, but there is no basis for holding that affirming a “mystery” (again, in the specific sense in question) is per se contrary to reason.

In recent weeks there has been a fair bit of discussion of the Trinity in the blogosphere – specifically, at Bill Vallicella’s blog, at The Smithy, and (naturally enough) at Dale Tuggy’s Trinities blog. In a post from yesterday, Dale objects to my claim (in the first of the two earlier posts linked to above) that the doctrine of the Trinity is implied by the New Testament. Just to clarify, contrary to what Dale supposes, I did not claim that the “creedal formulas” were logically implied by the New Testament. What I was claiming is that the following statements, which form the core of the doctrine, are implied by it:

1. The Father is God.

2. The Son is God.

3. The Holy Spirit is God.

4. The Father is not the Son.

5. The Father is not the Holy Spirit.

6. The Son is not the Holy Spirit.

7. There is exactly one God.

That is different from claiming that formulas like “three Persons in one substance” are implied by the New Testament. To be sure, I’m not saying they aren’t implied by it; one could argue that they are implied indirectly, insofar as (1) – (7) are implied by the New Testament, and the creedal formulas are in turn implied by (1) – (7). But that wasn’t my point in the post in question, and the point I was making stands whether or not one wants to accept that further claim. As long as (1) – (7) alone are implied by the New Testament, that suffices to show that the doctrine of the Trinity (at least in a rudimentary form) is implied by the New Testament, or so I would claim.

(I like the illustration Dale uses, BTW. [Slightly to alter Codgitator’s combox paraphrase of Andrew Meyer: “Don’t Feser me, bro!”] Dale and I were at Claremont Graduate School together, and have, I suppose, been arguing about the Trinity on and off for over 15 years. The funny thing is, when we started arguing I was still an atheist and attacked the doctrine – two of my earliest published articles were critical of Trinitarianism – while Dale defended it. Now I’m a reactionary Catholic who insists on upholding every jot and tittle of the creeds, while Dale has in recent years taken a more flexible approach. Funny old world.)

Meanwhile, Bill Vallicella today suggests that the Trinitarian shoots himself in the foot by adopting a “mysterian” line, precisely because he thereby legitimizes the naturalist – whose views are inconsistent with Trinitarianism since they are incompatible with theism – in taking the same approach toward the defense of his own position.

In response, I want to take issue first with Bill’s characterization of the appeal to “mystery.” He says: “The (positive) mysterian maintains that there are true propositions which appear (and presumably must appear given our 'present' cognitive make-up) contradictory.” But that is not what Trinitarian theologians mean when they affirm that the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery. Since (as I noted above) they affirm that it can be shown that no attempt to prove the doctrine self-contradictory succeeds (again, see Pohle and Preuss), they do not hold and cannot hold that the doctrine when rightly understood “appears contradictory,” much less that it must appear contradictory. They maintain instead that we cannot fully comprehend it; and that is a very different claim.

Think of it this way: The Trinitarian theologian maintains that the Trinitarian propositions (1) – (7) listed above are perfectly consistent when rightly understood, so that if any reading of them seems self-contradictory, then that reading is mistaken, and does not accurately convey what the doctrine says. Hence if the doctrine “appears contradictory” to you, you have by that very fact misunderstood it and are not really entertaining it at all. At the same time, if you give these propositions an alternate reading on which their consistency is entirely transparent, you have no doubt fallen into some heresy or other. So, the right thing to say would seem to be this: “Mysterianism” with respect to the Trinity entails, not that (1) – (7) appear or must appear contradictory, but rather that their meaning is not entirely apparent in the first place. The Trinitarian does not say: “I clearly see what the propositions are saying, and they seem contradictory” but rather “I do not see any contradiction between them, but then I do not see clearly what they are saying in the first place.” (There is nothing inherently objectionable in affirming a proposition or set of propositions that one does not fully understand. Even many people – and surely most philosophers – who have enough of a grasp of relativity theory or quantum mechanics to be able to say that their acceptance of these theories is not based entirely on the authority of physicists would have to admit that their comprehension of them is nevertheless very sketchy at best.)

In any event, Bill’s objection seems to be that since the appeal to “mystery” could be used in defense of incompatible positions – naturalism and Trinitarian theism – there is something fishy about it. Now, I’m not entirely clear about what the problem is. Modus ponens can also be used in defending incompatible positions. Does that mean there is something fishy about modus ponens? Obviously not. But maybe what Bill has in mind is the idea that the appeal to mystery would leave naturalism and Trinitarian theism at a kind of argumentative stalemate: Anything the naturalist could say against the Trinitarian theist could be rebutted with an appeal to theological mystery, and anything the Trinitarian theist could say against the naturalist could be rebutted with a mysterian appeal to the cognitive limitations imposed by natural selection. Even if this were true, though, it is hard to see how this by itself shows that either the Trinitarian’s appeal to mystery or the naturalist’s appeal to it is false, unjustified, or in any other way rationally objectionable – as opposed to just leaving us in a very unsatisfying epistemic situation.

In any case, I don’t think it is true. In particular, I don’t think there is any parity between the Trinitarian and naturalist appeals to mystery in the first place. I think that we can show that whatever one ultimately wants to say about it, the naturalist’s appeal to mystery is at least prima facie far less plausible than the Trinitarian’s appeal to mystery.

Consider first that, at least on the conception of God enshrined in classical theism (especially, I would say, as interpreted within Thomism) it is quite obviously far more plausible to suppose that God should be incomprehensible to us than that the relationship between matter and consciousness should be. If God exists, then He is Pure Actuality, ipsum esse subsistens or Subsistent Being Itself, absolutely simple, and thus beyond the classifications by means of which we understand the things we can understand. He is not one object among others within the world but that which sustains all objects in being, from outside any possible world. What we say of Him is true not univocally but analogically. Etc. Neither matter nor consciousness is anything remotely like this. Instead, they are both conceptually and epistemically far closer than God is to the things we suppose we can understand. Hence there is prima facie a much stronger case for supposing that God’s nature should be incomprehensible to us than there is for saying that the relationship between matter and consciousness should be. God is precisely the sort of thing we should expect to be unable fully to understand, while matter and consciousness are not (even if it turns out that we cannot fully understand them either).

Consider further that there is nothing in the Trinitarian’s appeal to mystery that tends to undermine the power of reason itself, while there is such a tendency in the naturalist appeal to mystery. For as we have noted, the latter sort of appeal typically rests on the idea that the contingent circumstances of human evolution are bound to have made our cognitive faculties suited only to uncover certain truths and not others. But why assume it suited them to uncover any sort of truth at all? As the “argument from reason” defended by Victor Reppert, William Hasker, Alvin Plantinga, and others suggests, there are strong grounds for thinking that regarding our cognitive faculties as the products of purely natural processes like evolution undermines their reliability. For natural selection favors fitness, and there is no guarantee that this correlates with truth. Obviously, naturalists might try to reply to the argument from reason in various ways. The point is that the specific grounds a naturalist might appeal to in order to provide independent motivation for his appeal to mystery – independent, that is, of a desire to sidestep arguments against naturalism – at least threaten to undermine reason in general. The Trinitarian says: It is primarily God’s nature that puts limits on reason’s power to comprehend the Trinity. The naturalistic mysterian says: It is primarily the way in which our minds came about that puts limits on reason’s power to comprehend consciousness in materialistic terms. The latter claim is prima facie far more likely to undermine reason as such than the former is.

Then there are the grounds we have for rejecting any materialist account of the mind, grounds which are simply not at all plausibly rebutted by an appeal to mystery. While there are many reasons for denying that the mind can be explained in materialist terms, the main reason from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view has to do with the nature of the intellect’s activity in grasping the forms or essences of things. In particular, forms and our thoughts about them are precise, exact, or determinate in a way no material thing can be even in principle; and 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.

I have discussed this line of argument in earlier posts – here and here, for example – and in print in several places. Interested readers are referred to The Last Superstition, pp. 123-126; Aquinas, pp. 151-159; and the chapter on Intentionality in Philosophy of Mind. (They ought also to read James Ross’s article “Immaterial Aspects of Thought.”) The point to note for now is that it is hard to see how an appeal to mystery, specifically, could plausibly enable the naturalist to avoid the force of such arguments. To say:

Maybe consciousness really is physical and we just can’t understand, given our cognitive limitations, how something can be both conscious and physical at once.

is one thing. There is no explicit self-contradiction or absurdity in that claim. (I think there is an implicit one, but leave that aside.) But to say either:

Maybe determinate phenomena are really indeterminate and we just can’t understand, given our cognitive limitations, how something can be both determinate and indeterminate in the same respect at the same time.


Maybe universals are particular and we just can’t understand, given our cognitive limitations, how something can be both universal and particular.

is just to spout nonsense, for both of these statements are self-contradictory. And it will hardly do to appeal to a self-contradiction as a way of deflecting the claim that one’s position is incoherent.

Last but by no means least, the reason the Trinitarian has for affirming his doctrine is, of course, an appeal to divine authority. And if the doctrine really is divinely revealed, then (since God is infallible) it must be true. By contrast, the naturalist has by his own admission only his own extremely limited powers of observation, theorizing, etc. to justify his naturalism. Surely an appeal to Infallible divine revelation plus mystery is more plausible than an appeal to Limited human powers of observation, theorizing, etc. plus mystery. Obviously, the skeptic will deny that Trinitarianism really has been divinely revealed, but that is beside the point. The point is rather that the best-case scenario for the Trinitarian – the revelation really did occur – gives him about as good a reason as one could possibly want (infallible testimony) for believing that his position is correct, whereas even the best-case scenario for the naturalist – his faculties of observation, theorizing, etc. are functioning normally, he is reasonably well-informed, and so forth – still leaves him very far short of having an infallible source of information to appeal to. The overall Trinitarian position thus makes an appeal to mystery more credible than the overall naturalist position does, even if the latter appeal has some credibility.

So, again, the two views are not on a par. However prima facie plausible a naturalist appeal to mystery might be, in the nature of the case it cannot be as plausible as the Trinitarian’s appeal to mystery. Hence Bill is mistaken in thinking (if this really is what he thinks) that their respective appeals to mystery put the naturalist and the Trinitarian at an epistemic stalemate. (Of course, by itself that does not show that of the two views, Trinitarianism is the correct one – that is a different question.)

UPDATE 2/13: I've posted a follow-up here.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Scholasticism as Modern Philosophy

Scholasticism ended with Descartes and Co. and was only revived, briefly, with Pope Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris. Right? Wrong. Here is a useful reminder of the historical facts, from Ite ad Thomam.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Spaemann on teleology

One of the main themes of The Last Superstition is the delusional character of the moderns’ project of banishing teleology or final causality from our conception of the natural world. As I argue in the book, not only have there never been any good arguments in favor of this project, there are powerful arguments against it, and I try to show how developments in contemporary philosophy and science only reinforce the judgment that irreducible teleology exists in nature from top to bottom.

It is the “top” level, though – that is to say, the level of human thought and action – that has always posed the most obvious barrier to a thoroughgoing teleological eliminativism. Consider this passage from Robert Spaemann’s recent essay “The Unrelinquishability of Teleology” (in Ana Marta González, ed., Contemporary Perspectives on Natural Law):

De-teleologization is inconclusive because it is itself a human endeavor and therefore it is oriented towards aims. If the intentionality of human action is a victim of anti-teleological reductionism, then any theory, including the reductionist theory, will fall, as a systematic misinterpretation of itself. Nietzsche was conscious of this consequence. He considered that the end of the idea of truth had arrived, and an era of new myths had begun.

If we consider that authentic teleology, in the sense of Konrad Lorenz’s concept of fulguration, is not a fundamental category, but an emerging property, non reducible to its conditions of origin, then we must ask ourselves when this property appears for the first time. Normally, the answer is that it appeared with conscious human action. But this is misleading. Conscious action only takes place as a secondary appropriation or rejection of tendencies that have, first, a character of instinctive impulse. We are not stones that will and act; we are living beings that will and act. The decision to eat or fast is simply the conscious appropriation or rejection of that which is forewarned in hunger, and also somehow in the way of ‘tending-towards’. And wherever we go to aid non-human life, it behaves in a similar way. One can only aid a being that directs itself towards something, but is too weak to reach it. There is only teleology in human action because and insofar as there is a direction in natural tendency. (pp. 292-93)

The first paragraph summarizes the point well. Human action is inherently teleological – and this includes the mental activity of trying to come up with a way to banish teleological notions from our conception of human action. Hence the very attempt completely to banish teleology is self-undermining. Some philosophers have, of course, tried to show that human action need not be understood in teleological terms, but these attempts face insuperable difficulties, as Scott Sehon and G. F. Schueler have argued in two important recent books.

But even if such an attempt could succeed, we would still be left with human thought and the intentionality or “directedness” of the mind beyond itself that is its hallmark. Since to deny that there is any irreducible teleology in nature just is to deny that there is any inherent “directedness” beyond themselves in material objects and processes, a consistently anti-teleological position will necessarily be an eliminative materialist one, denying the existence of the mind itself. As we have recently seen, naturalists like Alex Rosenberg realize this. What they don’t realize, or don’t want to realize, is that their position is utterly incoherent (and that studiously avoiding words like “belief” changes this not one whit, as we saw here and here). As Spaemann puts it, such theories “systematically misinterpret themselves”; in this case, they present themselves as “scientific,” as “rational,” as best “supported” by the “evidence,” etc. – even though these very concepts too must be abandoned if we deny intentionality. Indeed (as Spaemann also notes, following Nietzsche) truth itself must be abandoned, and we are left with “new myths” – for instance, myths about “successor concepts” that will replace “truth,” “meaning,” “mind,” etc. in some glorious neuroscientific future that the eliminativist himself does not claim to be able to describe. This is even less plausible than Marxist tosh about how new communist man will “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner” – and even more intellectually and morally corrupting.

Spaemann’s second paragraph is particularly interesting, though. Here he makes the important point that it will not do for the anti-teleologist even to concede that “directedness” exists at the level of human thought, while denying that it exists elsewhere. For at least where conscious choices are concerned, they are typically made against the background of pre-existing tendencies – that is to say, pre-existing instances of “directedness” – that are not chosen, and which we either consent to or resist only after they come into being. For example, I am aware of a desire for food that arises from a source outside of my control before I choose whether or not to act to get food or instead act to suppress the desire. The “directedness” of the desire exists before the “directedness” of the act I choose, and the former directedness also exists elsewhere in the animal kingdom even if the latter does not.

As Spaemann goes on to note, however, human beings and even the biological realm in general are by no means the only loci of irreducible natural teleology, since (as I also discuss at length both in TLS and in Aquinas, and have touched on in earlier posts) “the connection of causa finalis and causa efficiens is unrelinquishable. The concept of cause, in general, falls together with the concept of finality.” (p. 293) In other words, wherever A is the efficient cause of some effect or range of effects B, that can only be because generating B is the final cause of A. Otherwise there is no reason why A should generate B specifically rather than C, D, or no effect at all, and efficient causation becomes unintelligible – as indeed it did in modern philosophy, as the puzzles raised by David Hume make evident. (Again, see the works cited above for the full story.)

Spaemann notes as well that the concept of a persisting subject goes too once we abandon teleology, citing in illustration the bizarreries of Derek Parfit’s work on personal identity (and once again echoing themes from TLS). So too, Spaemann argues, does the concept of motion. No surprise at all to those who know their Aristotle, and in particular the theory of act and potency – closely allied to the notion of final cause, and still a live issue today, even if not always under that label. There is no end to the madness that follows from denying the existence of ends in nature.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Leiter side of OCD

A philosopher writes:

I hate calling attention to this creepazoid, but Leiter is at it again, and is attempting once again to smear W4. [“W4” being What’s Wrong with the World, the group blog to which I’m a contributor – EF]
I think it might be fun if you all decided to simply respond in kind. That is, ask your Atheist friends some questions and see whether Leiter's views fall within the "mainstream" of atheist philosophers. Maybe some questions like the following:

1) Did you think the collapse of the Soviet Union was unfortunate, politically and morally speaking?

2) Do you think that there is a noteworthy moral difference between heteronormative sexual morality and believing that homosexuals should be executed?

3) Do you believe there is a noteworthy moral difference between the Taliban and people who think it should be legal to voluntarily pray in public schools?

4) Do you think it is morally appropriate for a notable professional philosopher to personally attack graduate students and untenured faculty in a highly public and visible forum?

5) Do you think it is misogyny to acknowledge genetic differences between men and women?

6) Do you think it would have been a gross exaggeration to say that George W. Bush is a theocrat and/or a fascist who was planning to "imminently" reinstate the draft or "imminently" bomb Iran?

7) Do you think it would be a gross exaggeration to compare Bill O'Reilly with Joseph Goebbels?

8) Did the clips of Jeremiah Wright's sermons make you more favorably disposed towards Obama?

etc. etc. etc.

Good questions, though we loyal Leiter Reports readers already know the answers. But here’s another one for Big Bri himself: If W4 is so “marginal,” how come you simply can’t shut up about it?
Sounds like a nasty case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The key thing is not to give in to the urges, though if history is any guide we’ll see another lapse within a day or two, followed by occasional spasms over the next few weeks and months. But don’t get discouraged, Brian. You can beat this thing. We’re all pulling for you!