Thursday, September 30, 2010

Classical theism

The difference between classical theism on the one hand and various modern and popular conceptions of God on the other has been a central theme of many previous posts – of, for example, several posts dealing with divine simplicity (e.g. here and here) and of my series of posts on the dispute between Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) metaphysics and “Intelligent Design” theory. It will feature in several forthcoming posts as well. So I thought it would be useful to write up a post which spelled out the key points.

As I have indicated in earlier posts, the doctrine of divine simplicity is absolutely central to classical theism. To say that God is simple is to say that He is in no way composed of parts – neither material parts, nor metaphysical parts like form and matter, substance and accidents, or essence and existence. Divine simplicity is affirmed by such Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, and Averroes. It is central to the theology of pagan thinkers like Plotinus. It is the de fide teaching of the Catholic Church, affirmed at the fourth Lateran council and the first Vatican council, and the denial of which amounts to heresy.

The doctrine of divine simplicity has a number of crucial implications, which are, accordingly, also essential to classical theism. It entails that God is immutable or changeless, and therefore that He is impassible – that is, that He cannot be affected by anything in the created order. It entails that he is eternal in the sense of being altogether outside of time and space. It entails that He does not “have” existence, or an essence, or His various attributes but rather is identical to His existence, His nature and His attributes: He is His existence which is His essence which is His power which is His knowledge which is His goodness. (I have discussed some of these points in greater detail in the posts on simplicity linked to above.)

Why is divine simplicity regarded by classical theists as so important? One reason is that in their view, nothing less than what is absolutely simple could possibly be divine, because nothing less than what is absolutely simple could have the metaphysical ultimacy that God is supposed to have. For anything which is in any way composed of parts would be metaphysically less fundamental than those parts themselves, and would depend on some external principle to account for the parts being combined in the way they are. In that case, either the external principle itself (or perhaps some yet further principle) would have to be simple, and thus ultimate, and thus the truly divine reality; or there is no simple or non-composite first principle, and thus no metaphysically ultimate reality, and thus nothing strictly divine. In short, to deny divine simplicity is, for the classical theist, implicitly to deny the existence of God.

Now the classical arguments for God as first cause or first principle of the world (by which I mean those developed within classical philosophy, whether Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, or Thomistic or otherwise Scholastic) are, when properly understood, precisely arguments to the effect that the world of composite things – of compounds of act and potency, form and matter, essence and existence, and so forth – could not possibly exist even in principle were there not something non-composite, something which just is Pure Actuality, Subsistent Being Itself, and absolute Unity. (We saw in an earlier post how this goes in Plotinus. David Braine, in his book The Reality of Time and the Existence of God, rightly emphasizes that it is the theme that underlies Aquinas’s cosmological arguments as well.) This seems to be what leads Brian Davies to suggest, in the third edition of his book An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, that the core of classical theism is the notion of God as cause of the world. But it seems to me that this is not quite right. Anselm is, after all, a classical theist, and he conceives of God (in his best-known argument, anyway) primarily as That Than Which No Greater Can Be Conceived, rather than as cause of the world. So, it seems to me that what is more fundamental to classical theism is the notion of God as that which is absolutely metaphysically ultimate – a notion that encompasses both Anselm’s conception of God and the God-as-cause-of-the-world approach of Aquinas, Maimonides, and all the others, and which accounts for the centrality of divine simplicity to classical theism.

But how exactly does this differ from other conceptions of God? Don’t they also think of God as metaphysically ultimate? No they don’t, at least not in the absolute sense in which classical theism does, which is why I added that qualifier. For example, take Richard Dawkins’ conception of God. Dawkins is an atheist, of course, but he thinks that if God did exist, He would be an extremely complex albeit disembodied designing intelligence, comparable to a human designer but with far greater knowledge and power. Dawkins would no doubt be happy to concede that if this intelligence existed and was the cause of the world, it would be more ultimate than the world. But he also says that if such an intelligence existed we should regard it as just as much in need of explanation as the universe itself. And he is quite right about that, for such a metaphysically complex being would have to be regarded either as the effect of some higher and more simple cause, or as an inexplicable brute fact, in which case chucking out this “designer” and taking the universe itself as the ultimate brute fact could (as Dawkins argues) be regarded as a position more in line with Ockham’s razor. Where Dawkins goes wrong is in thinking that this conception of God has anything to do with the conception that prevailed historically within mainstream theology and philosophy.

But it is not only atheists who take such a view. Davies contrasts classical theism with what he calls “theistic personalism” and what the Christian apologist Norman Geisler calls “neo-theism.” The theistic personalist or neo-theist conceives of God essentially as a person comparable to human persons, only without the limitations we have. The idea is to begin with what we know about human beings and then to abstract away first the body, then our temporal limitations, then our epistemological and volitional confinement to knowing about and having control over only a particular point of space and time, then our moral defects, and to keep going until we arrive at the notion of a being who has power, knowledge, and goodness like ours but to an unlimited degree. Theistic personalism or neo-theism also rejects divine simplicity and its implications; indeed, this is the motivation for developing a conception of God by abstracting from our conception of human persons, for the theistic personalist objects to the notion of God as immutable, impassible, and eternal – finding it too cold and otherworldly, and incompatible with a literal reading of various biblical passages – and typically has philosophical objections to the notion of divine simplicity. Davies identifies Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne as theistic personalists. As I have suggested in earlier posts, the conception of God one arrives at via the reasoning of William Paley’s “design argument” or the arguments of “Intelligent Design” theorists is also essentially a theistic personalist conception. “Open theists” and process theologians are further examples of contemporary thinkers who reject classical theism and divine simplicity in favor of a more “personalist” conception of God (though they would, of course, differ from Plantinga, Swinburne, Paley, and ID theory on various other issues).

I have emphasized as well in earlier posts that divine conservation – the doctrine that the world could not exist even for an instant, even in principle, apart from the continuous sustaining action of God – is also central to classical theism. Just as the classical arguments for God as cause of the world are arguments for an absolutely simple first principle, so too are they (for the most part) arguments for God precisely as conserver or sustainer of the world. And just as divine simplicity is no less central to orthodox theology than it is to classical philosophy, so too is divine conservation. (Ludwig Ott’s well-known manual Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma classifies it too as a de fide doctrine of the Catholic Church.) For classical theism, to say that God creates the world is not merely, and indeed not primarily, to say that He got it going at some time in the past. It is more fundamentally to say the He keeps it going now, and at any moment at which it exists at all. As Aquinas says, to say that God makes the world is not like saying that a blacksmith made a horseshoe – where the horseshoe might persist even if the blacksmith died – but rather like saying that a musician makes music, where the music would stop if the musician stopped playing.

When combined with the doctrine of divine simplicity, divine conservation entails a very different conception of God’s relationship to the world than is entailed by theistic personalism. Theistic personalism tends toward a conception of God as an especially penetrating observer of the world, who learns what is happening in it via epistemic powers that are far more advanced than ours. For classical theism, though, since God doesn’t change, neither does he “learn,” not even in an extremely effective way. His knowledge of the world is far more intimate than that. He knows it precisely by knowing Himself as the sustaining cause of the world, in the very act of causing it. He is not like a machinist who is the keenest possible observer of the operations of a machine he has built. He is, again, more like a musician who knows the music he is playing, not by observing it, but precisely in the act of playing it.

The theistic personalist also generally takes God’s miraculous activity to amount to a kind of “intervention” in a natural order that would otherwise operate without him, like that of a machinist who steps in to alter the workings of a machine he had earlier set in motion but which was, before the intervention, carrying on independently of him. For the classical theist, that is simply not the right way to think about miracles, since there is no such thing as the world otherwise carrying on apart from God, given that He is already the sustaining cause of the ordinary course of events itself. If we pursue the musician analogy a bit further, we can say that for the classical theist, the world’s regular operations are like the music a musician plays according to a score he has before his mind, and a miracle is like the musician’s momentary improvisation or departure from that score. It is not an intervention in a course of events that would otherwise have carried on without God, but rather the suspension of the normal ordering of a course of events that would not in any case have carried on without Him.

As Davies has emphasized (at length in his book The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil), theistic personalists and classical theists also differ radically in their understanding of what it means to characterize God as good. For the theistic personalist, since God is a person comparable to us, only without our limitations, His goodness amounts to a kind of superlative moral virtue. Like us, He has moral duties; unlike us, He fulfills them perfectly. But for the classical theist, this is nonsensical. Virtue and duty have to do with habits and actions that allow us to realize the ends set for us by nature and thereby to perfect ourselves. But God, being pure actuality, cannot intelligibly be said to have ends He needs to realize or imperfections He needs to remedy. Accordingly, He cannot intelligibly be said to be “virtuous” or to have “duties” He needs to fulfill.

To say that God is good is for the classical theist to say something very different, and something that it is, frankly, not easy to summarize for readers unfamiliar with certain key metaphysical doctrines characteristic of classical, and especially Scholastic, philosophy, such as the doctrine of the convertibility of the transcendentals, the notion of evil as privation, and the principle of proportionate causality (all of which are explained in my book Aquinas). Briefly, though, according to the first of these doctrines, being is “convertible” with goodness, so that whatever is pure actuality or Being Itself is necessarily also Goodness Itself. Furthermore, evil is a privation rather than a positive reality – the absence of good, as blindness is merely the absence of sight rather than a positive attribute. Whatever is pure actuality, and thus Goodness Itself, therefore cannot intelligibly be said to be evil or deficient in any way. Finally, since according to the principle of proportionate causality, whatever is in an effect must in some way be in its cause (“eminently” if not “formally”), God as the cause of all possible good must have all possible good within Him, eminently if not formally.

Obviously this raises all sorts of questions. For example: “Does this entail that God must be green, or smelly, or short, since greenness, smelliness, and shortness are to be found in the world He causes?!“ The answer is No, it doesn’t entail that, but as I have said, there is no brief way to spell out the metaphysical background necessary to answering such objections here, and I have in any event done so at length in Aquinas, to which the interested reader is referred. The point for now is just to indicate how different the classical theist’s conception of divine goodness is from that of the theistic personalist – and, for that matter, from the conception taken for granted by atheists who suggest that the existence of evil shows that God, if He exists, must in some way be morally deficient. While God is not a Platonic Form, for the classical theist, to suggest that God is in some way morally deficient nevertheless makes about as much sense as suggesting that Plato’s Form of the Good might be morally deficient. The suggestion is unintelligible both because characterizing the God of classical theism as either virtuous or vicious is unintelligible, and because characterizing Him as deficient in any way is unintelligible. An atheist could intelligibly deny that such a God exists at all (just as he could intelligibly deny the existence of Platonic Forms), but to suggest that the God of classical theism might be morally deficient merely shows that such an atheist does not understand the view he is criticizing (just as an opponent of Platonism who suggested that the Form of the Good might be unloving or vicious would only show thereby that he doesn’t understand what sort of thing a Form is supposed to be).

Now, for the Thomist, a proper understanding of these various aspects of classical theism requires a recognition that when we predicate goodness, knowledge, power, or what have you of God, we are using language in a way that is analogous to the use we make of it when applied to the created order. It cannot be emphasized too strongly, though, that this has nothing to do with “arguing from analogy” after the fashion of Paley’s design argument; indeed, it is diametrically opposed to Paley’s procedure. It has to do instead with Aquinas’s famous “doctrine of analogy,” which distinguishes three uses of language: Words can be used univocally, in exactly the same sense, as when we say that Fido’s bark is loud and that Rover’s bark is loud. They can be used equivocally, or in completely unrelated senses, as when we say that Fido’s bark is loud and that the tree’s bark is rough. Or they can be used analogously, as when we say that a certain meal was good, that a certain book is good, and that a certain man is good. “Good” is not being used in exactly the same sense in each case, but neither are the senses unrelated, as they are in the equivocal use of “bark.” Rather, there is in the goodness of a meal something analogous to the goodness of a book, and analogous to the goodness of a man, even if it is not exactly the same sort of thing that constitutes the goodness in each case.

For the Thomist, this is the key to understanding how it can be the case that God’s goodness is His power, which is His knowledge, which is His essence, which is His existence. Such a claim would be nonsensical if the terms in question were being used univocally, in exactly the same sense in which we use them when we attribute goodness, power, knowledge, etc. to ourselves (and as they are used in Paleyan “arguments from analogy”). But neither are the senses utterly equivocal. Rather, what we mean is that there is in God something analogous to what we call goodness in us, something analogous to what we call knowledge in us, and so forth; and in God, it is one and the same thing that is analogous to what are in us distinct attributes. From a Thomistic point of view, it is precisely because theistic personalists apply language to God and creatures univocally that they are led to deny divine simplicity and in general to arrive at an objectionably anthropomorphic conception of God. (It is only fair to note, however, that followers of Duns Scotus, who are classical theists, reject the claim that terms are applied to God and to creatures in analogous rather than univocal senses. For Thomists, the Scotist move away from analogy set the stage for the moderns’ move away from classical theism, but Scotists would deny this. But this is a large debate which cannot be settled here.)

In summary, then, classical theism is committed to a conception of God as that which is absolutely metaphysically ultimate – that is to say, as that which is ultimate in principle and not merely in fact – where this is taken to entail divine simplicity and thus divine immutability, impassibility, and eternity; to a doctrine of divine conservation on which the world is radically dependent on God for its existence at every instant; and (in the case of Thomists, anyway) to the doctrine that the terms we apply both to God and to the created order are to be understood in analogous rather than univocal senses. Its commitment to divine simplicity and to the implications of divine simplicity sets classical theism at odds with theistic personalism, “open theism,” deism, process theology, and other more anthropomorphic conceptions of God. Such rival views also sometimes reject the doctrine of divine conservation, though not in every case; and they also reject the doctrine of analogy, though some classical theists do so as well.

Since classical theism has, as I have noted, been the mainstream understanding of the divine nature through most of the history both of philosophical theology and of the main monotheistic religions, it follows that serious critics of theism ought to devote the bulk of their attention to understanding and rebutting the arguments of classical theists. That means that they ought to be focusing their attention on the arguments of classical writers like Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, and Scotus, to name just some of them – and I don’t mean the out-of-context two-page snippets one finds in Introduction to Philosophy textbooks (nor quick summaries in blog posts like the one you’re reading now), but substantial chunks of their work, as well as the exegetical works of serious contemporary scholars who have written on these thinkers of the past. It means that they ought to familiarize themselves with the work of contemporary philosophers of religion who are working within the classical theist framework – writers like Barry Miller, David Braine, John Haldane, Brian Davies, David Conway, William Vallicella, David Oderberg, Christopher Martin, James Ross, and other writers in the Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, and Thomistic and other Scholastic traditions. (If they want to read my stuff too, I won’t complain.)

And yet very few contemporary atheists show much familiarity with this tradition. Indeed, few even seem to be aware that there is a difference between classical theism and the theistic personalism that underlies so much contemporary writing in theology and philosophy of religion. For example, the atheist philosopher Keith Parsons, who recently made a big show of his abandoning philosophy of religion as no longer worthy of his attention, devoted his main book on the subject (God and the Burden of Proof) to rebutting the arguments of just two theists – Plantinga and Swinburne, who are theistic personalists rather than classical theists, and thus simply unrepresentative of the mainstream tradition in Christian thought and philosophy of religion. (In saying so, I do not mean to show any disrespect to Plantinga and Swinburne. You don’t need me to tell you that they are very important philosophers indeed. They just aren’t classical theists.)

In general, though at least some contemporary atheist philosophers may be said to have a solid enough grasp of the arguments of writers like Plantinga and Swinburne, their grasp of the mainstream classical theistic tradition tends to be at best only slightly better than that of vulgar pop atheist writers like Richard Dawkins (who, as I demonstrate both in Aquinas and, more polemically, in The Last Superstition, hasn’t the faintest clue about what writers like Aquinas really said). And if one hasn’t grappled seriously with the arguments of the great classical theists, then one simply cannot claim to have dealt a serious blow to theism as such. Not even close.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tahko on Aristotelian metaphysics

Over at his blog, Tuomas Tahko has posted a draft of his paper “In Defense of Aristotelian Metaphysics,” from the forthcoming anthology on Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics he is editing for Cambridge University Press. Go check it out. You can read more about the volume here.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Philosophers’ kids say the darndest things

As is his wont, my eight-year-old son had been reading one of his science books in bed last night, and in particular reading about temperatures at the earth’s center. Telling me about it this morning – as, still bleary-eyed, I made my coffee – sparked in him the following chain of thought: If the earth has a center, then that center has to have a center, and that center has to have a center as well, and so on to infinity. But then, he reasoned, the earth would have to be infinitely big, and this would be absurd.

My son is very bright and I am used to hearing such thoughts from him, but I was nevertheless mildly startled that he had, however inchoately, more or less stumbled upon the second horn of the dilemma posed by Zeno’s paradox of parts, which (at least on one reading) goes like this: If the world consists of a plurality of things, then the parts that make it up either have no size or they do have size. If they have no size, then nothing has size, since adding together parts with no size can never result in a whole with any size. But if the parts do have size, then they can be divided into parts of smaller size, and those parts into yet smaller parts, and so on to infinity. And in that case the number of parts is infinite. But a thing with an infinite number of parts would be of infinite size. So, if there is a plurality of things in the world, then things either have no size or they have infinite size; and either suggestion is absurd. So the world does not consist of a plurality of things.

This was a teaching moment, so I used it to launch into an impromptu mini-lecture on Zeno’s paradoxes and Aristotle’s response in terms of the distinction between actual and potential infinities. My son loved it. (He also liked that, while moving my coffee cup back and forth through the air to illustrate motion, I managed to spill coffee all over my shirt and pants.)

But now I’m worried. Learning about Zeno and the other Pre-Socratics is what turned me on to philosophy. So, I may have just set my son on the path to becoming a philosopher. Does that count as child abuse?

(Bonus link: Here is a comical comic book treatment of Zeno’s paradoxes. Unfortunately, I can’t show it to my son, for reasons that will be obvious if you read it!)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Art and meta-art

Audrey: What Jane Austen novels have you read?

Tom: None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism.

Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan

One more music-related post and I’ll give it a rest for a while. I have unfavorably compared Ornette Coleman to Thelonious Monk. Monk’s music has real beauty, I have claimed, while Coleman’s does not, despite the fact that both are to some extent discordant. The reason for this, I proposed, was that artistic beauty involves (among other things) a balance of plenitude and economy or order, and that while Coleman’s music scores high on the plenitude scale, it scores too low on the economy scale. (I gave this and this as examples of Coleman’s music, and you can find plenty more on YouTube if you are so inclined.)

Still, there is order in Coleman’s music, albeit at a very abstract level; and there are people who enjoy it. So what accounts for this enjoyment? And is it evidence that my analysis is wrong? In response, let me expand upon some remarks I made in the combox discussion of my post on Richard Weaver’s critique of jazz.

As Roger Scruton has emphasized in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, aesthetic modernism was driven in large part by a desire to avoid kitsch, the banality and sentimentality that so often attends the mass-produced culture of modern, secularized consumerist society. Accordingly, Scruton tells us, “the first effect of modernism was to make high-culture difficult: to surround beauty with a wall of erudition” (p. 85). Old forms came to be seen as exhausted, no longer capable of expressing genuine feeling; new forms had to be created (so the argument went) so that truly high art could once again be possible, forms the very understanding of which required such intellectual effort that none but the serious aesthete could appreciate them. Hence the modernist poetry of Eliot, the atonal music of Schoenberg, and the trend toward abstraction in painting.

The consequences of this were many, and (to say the least) mixed; consult Scruton for a useful analysis. The particular consequence that concerns us here, though, is that the nature of art became itself a subject of art in a way it had not been before. Modernist works were as much statements about what art is and what it could be as they were statements about their purported subject matter – religion, everyday experience, and other traditional themes – and as experimentation with new forms progressed, the former theme started to crowd out the latter ones. The manic self-referentiality of post-modernism was the inevitable sequel. Art was transformed thereby into meta-art – it became, in effect, philosophy of art expressed in colors and sounds rather than academic prose.

Now there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with a writer, painter, or musician making literature, painting or music themselves subjects of artistic exploration. But a novel about the novelist’s life or even a song about the making of song is a very different sort of thing from Art about Music or Fiction or Painting, all considered as abstractions. The more such reflection on art qua art takes center stage, the more difficult it is for this sort of thing to avoid falling into self-parody, cliché, and indeed the very banality that modernism was supposed to enable us to avoid – what in a choice phrase Scruton has called the “preemptive kitsch” of post-modernism. We can allow that a Duchamp (for instance) may have had something of interest to say. But it need be said only once, and its interest is in any event less aesthetic than theoretical, a “lecture” to be thought through rather than a thing of beauty to be savored and continually re-experienced. And even then the lecture seems interesting primarily as a reductio ad absurdum of the premises that led to it.

This, it seems to me, is why the music of Coleman – an application to jazz of the self-conscious, experimentalist spirit of modernism – fails aesthetically even if some might find it interesting and even enjoyable. The interest and enjoyment could only ever be bloodlessly intellectual, a kind of philosophical pleasure which is taken in the act of meditating along with Coleman and his sidemen on the theme of what jazz is or could be, rather than in the music per se. There is something faintly absurd, indeed perverse, in the making of such navel-gazing the theme of art. It is like watching Julie and Julia instead of having dinner, or spending one’s wedding night reading aloud passages from Love and Responsibility – all well and good in another context, but not quite what is called for under the circumstances.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Order early and often

Aquinas is finally back in stock at, and The Last Superstition will be out in paperback next month. Just in time for early Christmas shopping!

Monday, September 13, 2010


Suppose Fred glances out the window and says: “The ground’s wet outside. It must have rained.” He’s given an argument. What should we think of it? We could say:

Oh dear, what a mediocrity poor Fred is. He is evidently arguing as follows: If it rains, the ground gets wet; the ground is wet; therefore it has rained. If he’d ever taken a logic class he’d know that he’s just committed the fallacy of affirming the consequent!

Yes, we could say that, but (to paraphrase Haldeman paraphrasing Nixon) it would be wrong. It is simply unreasonable and, indeed, unjust to accuse Fred of committing so blatant a fallacy when an alternative construal of his argument is easily available. For while Fred could have been reasoning deductively and committing the fallacy in question, it is more likely that he was reasoning inductively, along something like the following lines:

When the ground is wet outside, rain is the usual reason, though occasionally there are other reasons, such as flooding. The ground is wet outside right now and there is no reason to think these other causes are operative, and good reason to think they are not. So it is very likely that it has rained.

Obviously this is a perfectly respectable piece of probabilistic reasoning, and what logicians call the “principle of charity” requires that we assume that Fred had something like this in mind rather than the fallacious alternative interpretation, unless we have strong evidence to the contrary. If we fail to do so, we are guilty of the sort of illogicality of which we would accuse Fred.

Apropos of many commentators’ tendency glibly to accuse Aquinas of committing various blatant fallacies in the course of presenting his famous Five Ways, Christopher Martin once wrote:

As [Peter] Geach points out, if we wish to show that an argument is invalid, it is not sufficient to show that it can be represented as instantiating an invalid form. It might instantiate an invalid form and at the same time instantiate a valid form: and for an argument to be valid it is sufficient that it should instantiate a valid form. The potentially vast numbers of invalid forms which it may instantiate are completely irrelevant. As Geach goes on to point out: we can represent any valid argument as instantiating at least one invalid form. For there is nothing to stop us linking the premisses of any argument together with "ands" or other connectives, and representing the long sentence thus formed by the letter "p". Representing the conclusion of the argument by "q", we are thus able to represent any argument as a whole as instantiating the form "p, therefore q", which is about as invalid an argument form as one could wish to avoid, or to detect in the work of one’s rivals. (Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations, pp. 161-2)

“Detecting” fallacies in the work of one’s rivals in this way is depressingly common, even among – indeed, perhaps especially among – people who have made a formal study of the logical fallacies. To be sure, on coming across a humdrum argument like Fred’s, those who have made such a study are unlikely to interpret it uncharitably. But where an argument is aimed at defending some proposition of a philosophical, theological, moral, or political nature with which they disagree, some are all too prone to put the worst possible spin on it.

Hence, when I taught critical thinking one election year, a number of my students expressed delight at how useful they found our look at the fallacies, as they had started seeing them committed frequently in political speeches. You can be sure that they were “seeing” them only in the speeches of candidates with whom they disagreed. And that’s the way the game is played: If your candidate utters a simplistic slogan, he’s committing the fallacy of appeal to emotion, or red herring, or false alternative; if my guy does it, well, haven’t you ever heard of the principle of charity? In fact, genuinely fallacious arguments are probably far less frequently given by politicians, either of the right or of the left, than is commonly thought. It does happen, of course, but in most cases what we really have are just arguments that are highly simplified so as to make them comprehensible to a mass audience in an age of sound bites, and which could be spelled out more fully and rigorously if need be (and indeed usually are spelled out by the economists, political scientists, and think-tank intellectuals from whom politicians and their advisers borrow their ideas).

To take just one example, arguments against “same-sex marriage” are often accused of committing the “slippery slope fallacy”—the fallacy of insisting that X will inevitably lead to Y, when in fact no necessary link between X and Y has been established. The conservative position is treated as if it were saying something like this:

If we allow people of the same sex to marry, then it will only be a few years before polygamy and incest are allowed, and after that the sky’s the limit – “marriages” between people and animals, living people and corpses, and who knows what else!

Such an argument is then dismissed as paranoid and unfounded, since obviously a person who favors “same-sex marriage” might happen to oppose these other things. But in fact, that is not the conservative argument at all. Opponents of “same-sex marriage,” or at least the more sophisticated opponents, are not giving a slippery slope argument, but rather a reductio ad absurdum argument. They are saying something like this:

Defenders of “same-sex marriage” claim that what really matters in a marriage is just that the partners are lovingly committed to one another. They also claim that marriage is conventional and not grounded in the natural order of things, so that it is up to us to decide what marriage is about in light of changing standards. But given the first premise, there is no way they can consistently rule out the legitimacy of polygamous marriages or incestuous marriages; and given their second premise, there is also no way they can insist in principle on their “loving commitment” criterion for marriage in a way that would rule out “marriages” between people and animals, living people and corpses, or indeed anything whatsoever that someone might want to call “marriage.” For someone could always argue that even the “loving commitment” criterion is as arbitrary and open to challenge as the heterosexual criterion is. Yet defenders of “same-sex marriage” also claim that they are opposed to these other purported forms of “marriage.” Therefore, their position is incoherent.

Defenders of “same-sex marriage” might try to respond to this sort of argument in various ways, but they cannot reasonably accuse it of being blatantly fallacious, since reductio ad absurdum is, of course, a perfectly respectable form of argument. (Of course, a conservative who puts forward this argument might also claim that “same-sex marriage” will in practice lead to these other purported forms of “marriage” as well. But even in that case he would not be committing a slippery slope fallacy, for the reductio argument gives a reason for thinking that “same-sex marriage” will tend to lead to the other things.)

Professional philosophers are by no means immune to this tendency to give the arguments of their opponents the worst possible reading. As I have often complained, certain atheist philosophers ritualistically present the cosmological argument for the existence of God as if it went like this: Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause, namely God. After raising the obvious objections (“If everything has a cause, then what caused God?” etc.), they then treat even the most sophisticated defenses of the cosmological argument as if they were desperate attempts to patch up this transparently feeble line of reasoning. But as I noted in several earlier posts (here, here, and here), none of the major philosophers who have defended the cosmological argument – not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Thomas Aquinas, not John Duns Scotus, not G.W. Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne, and not anyone else as far as I know – ever put forward this silly argument. It is the philosophical equivalent of an urban legend – an argument that “everyone knows” has been defended for centuries, which in fact has never been defended. And yet such ludicrous caricatures are frequently put forward as “evidence” of how lame the traditional arguments for God’s existence are, and used as an excuse for not bothering even to read work done in the philosophy of religion. (“If the main arguments are that bad, what’s the point?”)

In this way, the study of logic becomes precisely the opposite of what it is supposed to be – a rhetorical gimmick, a cudgel with which to beat opponents and advance agendas rather than an aid to the disinterested pursuit of truth. In the name of attacking sophistry and fallacy, a higher-order sophistry – a “meta-sophistry,” if you will – is perpetrated.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Pop culture and the lure of Platonism

Come on now, be honest! Which one of you wouldn't rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatius, or Orpheus... people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!

Mozart (Tom Hulce) in Amadeus

I can remember spending many happy times observing the arrivals and departures of college boys with monocles, walking sticks, capes. They always livened up receptions and dinners, to say nothing of seminars and street demonstrations… I cannot actually report having spotted a young squire wearing a powdered wig, but doubtless there will come a day.

R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. on the early days of the conservative movement, in The Conservative Crack-Up

The Catholic Church is like a thick steak, a glass of red wine, and a good cigar.

G. K. Chesterton

Several readers of my recent post on Thelonious Monk, both here and at What’s Wrong with the World, expressed a dislike of jazz, a couple of them on conservative philosophical grounds. One of them cited Richard Weaver’s critique of jazz in Ideas Have Consequences, a classic of modern conservatism.

It’s no secret that I sympathize with the main theme of Weaver’s book, viz. that the nominalism of William of Ockham set the stage for the characteristic philosophical, moral, theological, and political errors of modernity. (This is also a major theme of The Last Superstition.) But, needless to say, I differ with Weaver at least in part on the matter of modern popular culture, and the issue is by no means as trivial as it might seem. Weaver and I agree that it was a catastrophe to abandon realism about universals, to deny that things – including, most importantly, human beings – have essences which define an objective standard of goodness for them. But realism comes in different forms, and the different forms have different moral, theological, cultural, and political implications.

For the Platonic realist, the essences of things are transcendent, existing in a “third realm” beyond both the material world and any mind. For the Aristotelian realist, essences are immanent, existing as constituents of the things themselves. For instance, the Form of Tree, for Plato, exists utterly apart from any particular tree, while for Aristotle a tree’s form (no caps needed, thank you very much) is a metaphysical component of the tree itself, not something external to it. Where they agree is in holding that the form or essence of the tree is something objective and repeatable, that this tree, that tree, and the other tree share the same nature, and that that nature determines what is good for trees as a matter of objective fact – such as that a tree that sinks its roots deep into the soil so as to give it stability and take in nutrients is to that extent a good tree, and that a tree which due to genetic defect or injury is unable to sink its roots very deep is to that extent bad and defective qua tree.

The differences between Platonism and Aristotelianism make a very real difference, though. Given the transcendence of the realm of the Forms, the Platonist is bound to regard the material world not only as second-rate but even as positively contemptible, and the body and its passions as a prison from which the soul needs to escape if it is to attain true wisdom and happiness. There is no such implication in Aristotelian realism. On the contrary, the Aristotelian regards the material world as good, and man as an essentially embodied being for whom the goods of the body, while less noble than those of the intellect, are nevertheless real goods worthy of pursuit in moderation.

I would not want to say that Weaver is a Platonist without qualification, but there is certainly more than a whiff of Platonism in his critique of jazz and of the popular culture of which it is a part. He tells us that jazz is a mark of modern civilization’s “barbarism,” “disintegration,” and “primitivism.” Why? His reasons seem to boil down to four: First, jazz evinces “a rage to divest itself of anything that suggests structure or confinement” and an eschewal of “form or ritual”; second, its celebration of the soloist’s virtuosity is a mark of “egotism” or “individualization”; third, its appeal lies in “titillation” and its themes are often “sexual or farcical,” appealing to the “lower” rather than “higher centers,” so that it fails to raise us to “our metaphysical dream”; fourth, it is “the music of equality.” Obviously, what he says about jazz applies also to other elements of modern pop culture.

Let’s consider Weaver’s concerns in order. First, it is, of course, by now a commonplace that to accuse jazz of formlessness or lack of structure is the height of superficiality. From swing to bop to modal jazz to fusion to acid jazz, it does not take much listening to discern the order underlying even the freest improvisation. Even free jazz has structure, though as I indicated in my previous post, it is so abstract that it can (in my view, anyway) only ever be of purely intellectual rather than aesthetic interest. It is hard not to see in Weaver’s criticism the Platonist’s impatience with the messiness and complexity of the real world, a desire for all form or order to be simple and evident enough to be accessible from the armchair. As the Aristotelian realizes, however (and has constantly to remind his critics, many of whom seem to think that all essentialists are armchair essentialists), to know the essences of things we actually have to get our hands dirty and investigate them empirically, in all their rich detail. If the structure of jazz is complex and unobvious, it is in that respect only mimicking the world of our experience.

Second, if like the Neo-Platonists one regards our very individuality as a kind of fallenness, remediable only by the dissolving of all duality in mystical union with The One, then I suppose the jazz fan’s admiration for virtuoso musicianship might seem to evince a morally objectionable “egotism.” But if, as the Aristotelian holds, our bodies are essential to us, then so too is the individuality that follows upon embodiment; and in that case, admiration of individual skill or achievement is not in any obvious way per se morally problematic.

Third, though I would deny that the pleasures of jazz lack any intellectual component, it cannot be denied that much of its appeal is bodily and sensual. But this too is per se objectionable only if one regards the body and the senses themselves as per se objectionable. For Plato, “each pleasure and pain is a sort of nail which nails and rivets the soul to the body” (as the Phaedo famously puts it) which is deeply problematic if the aim is to free the soul from the body. But such harrowing metaphors at least require serious qualification if we are essentially embodied, as the Aristotelian says we are.

That the “nailing” metaphor might have some application even on an Aristotelian view is of course due to the fact that since intellect and will are the highest parts of our nature, the goods of the intellect and will are the highest goods we can attain, and we can lose sight of them if we are too focused on the goods of the body and the senses. But as I have said, the latter are still genuine goods; and since the intellectual and moral endowments of human beings are not equal, these lesser goods are bound to have greater significance in the life of the average man than they are in the lives of philosophers and saints.

Now a Platonist, aware of how few men are capable even in principle of living up to the severity of his otherworldly moral vision, might well object to the “sense of equality” Weaver perceives in jazz; that the appeal of such music is broad might seem to make it ipso facto corrupt. But the Aristotelian, while certainly an elitist of sorts, need not object to the idea of lower but still genuinely beautiful forms of art and music, any more than he objects to the idea that the goods of the body and the senses are, though lower goods, still genuine goods. Just as a mixed regime with monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements is for the Aristotelian preferable to the utopianism of Plato’s Republic, so too is a kind of mixed aesthetic polity bound to be the natural condition of human cultures.

Though anyone with conservative instincts is bound to recoil at the excesses of modern popular culture, then, it is possible to overreact. At the very least, it is arguable that a conservative could take a more nuanced and charitable approach to modern popular culture than Weaver does. And I would argue that such an approach is actually more conservative than Weaver’s is, because it is more realistic, more sensitive to the complexity and variety of the actual human world. As I have acknowledged before, Platonism is a noble doctrine and it can be a useful corrective to the shallow materialism and hedonism that dominate modern life. But it is also prone to unconservative excesses of its own – to utopianism and puritanism, and to either fanaticism or quietism as their sequel. It stands in need of correction itself.

Within Christianity, the Augustinian tradition partially accomplished this to the extent that it sought to reconcile Platonism with the earthiness of the Old Testament. But the Platonic-Augustinian tradition itself required correction, and this was accomplished only with the revival of Aristotelianism and the fusion, within Thomism, of the best of both worlds. In its cultural and moral implications no less than in its philosophical and theological achievements, the Aristotelico-Thomistic tradition synthesizes what is good in earlier systems and purges what is bad, and has also the resources to incorporate the best of the new.

There can in any event be no question that the mainstream Christian tradition acknowledges that the pleasures of the body and the senses have their place. For that tradition, asceticism is a nobler form of life not because the pleasures of food, drink, sex and the like are bad, but precisely because they are good. The ascetic sacrifices what is natural and good for the sake of a higher, supernatural good; and for the vast majority of human beings, even approximating such an ideal is possible only through grace, not via our natural moral capacities, precisely because it is what is naturally good for us that is being forsaken.

In light of all this, there is no reason to condemn some form of popular culture merely because it deals with this-worldly themes rather than raising us to “our metaphysical dream,” as Weaver puts it. This is not to deny for a moment that much of contemporary popular culture really is evil and corrupting. Nor is it to deny that even the best in popular culture is inferior to high culture, and that it ought never to intrude into sacred contexts. (As a lover of the Tridentine form of the Roman rite, I am stridently opposed to the use of jazz, rock, or folk music in the Mass. If I were somehow elected pope, this would be my first official act.) Nor is it to deny that even the best in popular culture can, like all the good things of this world, become a snare if we allow them to distract us from the higher and nobler things. Conservatives can definitely take too optimistic a view of pop culture – I think Brian Anderson does so in South Park Conservatives, to take one prominent example. But they can take too pessimistic a view as well, and see only bad where there is in fact much good. Weaver does so, as does Roger Scruton in some of his moods, though he seems to have mellowed a bit. (I say this as someone who admires Anderson, Weaver, and Scruton.)

As I have argued before, while conservatism should not be populist, neither should it be snobbish. The conservative or Christian who insists on Weaver’s Platonic hard line cannot fail to come across like one of the oddballs in Tyrrell’s anecdote quoted above, or the bores targeted by Mozart in the line from Amadeus – eccentric, cranky, nostalgic, uptight, unappealing, inhumane, ineffective, and irrelevant. More to the point, he is just wrong, refusing as he does to see man as he truly is, as nature made him, as God made him.