Friday, August 31, 2012

Animals are conscious! In other news, sky is blue, water wet

A reader calls my attention to a Discovery News story which breathlessly declares: 

A prominent group of scientists signs a document stating that animals are just as “conscious and aware” as humans are.  This is a big deal.

Actually, it is not a big deal, nor in any way news, and the really interesting thing about this story is how completely uninteresting it is.  Animals are conscious?  Anyone who has ever owned a pet, or been to the zoo, or indeed just knows what an animal is, knows that.  

OK, almost anyone.  Descartes notoriously denied it, for reasons tied to his brand of dualism.  And perhaps that is one reason someone might think animal consciousness remarkable.  It might be supposed that if you regard the human mind as something immaterial, you have to regard animals as devoid of consciousness, so that evidence of animal consciousness is evidence against the immateriality of the mind and thus a “big deal.”  This is not what the article says, mind you, but it is one way to make sense of why it presents the evidence of animal consciousness as if it were noteworthy.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Think, McFly, think!

As Aristotelians and Thomists use the term, intellect is that faculty by which we grasp abstract concepts (like the concepts man and mortal), put them together into judgments (like the judgment that all men are mortal), and reason logically from one judgment to another (as when we reason from all men are mortal and Socrates is a man to the conclusion that Socrates is mortal).  It is to be distinguished from imagination, the faculty by which we form mental images (such as a visual mental image of what your mother looks like, an auditory mental image of what your favorite song sounds like, a gustatory mental image of what pizza tastes like, and so forth); and from sensation, the faculty by which we perceive the goings on in the external material world and the internal world of the body (such as a visual experience of the computer in front of you, the auditory experience of the cars passing by on the street outside your window, the awareness you have of the position of your legs, etc.).

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The metaphysics of bionic implants

Take a look at the classic title sequence of The Six Million Dollar Man.  Oscar Goldman (the bionic man’s superior in the Office of Scientific Intelligence) says the following in the famous voiceover:

Gentlemen, we can rebuild him.  We have the technology.  We have the capability to make the world's first bionic man.  Steve Austin will be that man.  Better than he was before.  Better, stronger, faster.

Now that raises an interesting philosophical question.  Aquinas holds that:

[T]here exists in everything the natural desire of preserving its own nature; which would not be preserved were it to be changed into another nature.  Consequently, no creature of a lower order can ever covet the grade of a higher nature; just as an ass does not desire to be a horse: for were it to be so upraised, it would cease to be itself. (Summa Theologiae I.63.3)

Now, Steve Austin loses an arm, an eye, and his legs.  They are replaced with artificial parts which allow him to surpass his previous levels of strength, speed, and visual distance perception.  Still, they are artificial.  His normal human organs are not restored; instead, he becomes a cyborg.   We might even suppose that he likes being one -- certainly to every teenage boy, and to some of us middle-aged types, the idea sure seems pretty cool.  So, is the bionic man a counterexample to Aquinas’s claim?  For isn’t a cyborg -- being “stronger, faster” than an ordinary human being -- also “better” than an ordinary human being?  And doesn’t the fact that someone might plausibly desire to be a cyborg show that a thing could desire to be another kind of thing?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Rediscovering Human Beings

My article “Rediscovering Human Beings” will appear in two parts over at The BioLogos Forum.  Today you can read Part I.  Part II will be posted tomorrow.  

UPDATE: Part II has now been posted.

Philosophy on radio (UPDATED)

I’ll be appearing once again on Catholic Answers Live this coming Monday, August 20th, at 4:00 pm (Pacific time).  Links to some previous radio interviews can be found here.

UPDATE: The podcast of the show is now available here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The road from libertarianism

I have pretty much always been conservative.  For about a decade -- from the early 90s to the early 00s -- I was also a libertarian.  That is to say, I was a “fusionist”: someone who combines a conservative moral and social philosophy with a libertarian political philosophy.  Occasionally I am asked how I came to abandon libertarianism.  Having said something recently about how I came to reject atheism, I might as well say something about the other transition.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Disching it out

One of the hazards of hagiography is that it virtually begs for debunking.  Pile the honors on too thick and too uncritically, and eventually someone’s going to come along and try to blast them off.  (That’s why the word “hagiography” is seldom used these days except ironically.  Good hagiography shouldn’t be too hagiographical.)  

Consider the praise heaped upon Ray Bradbury after his recent death -- I provided a little of it myself -- or indeed, that heaped upon him during his life.  Was there anyone who didn’t like Bradbury’s work?  Turns out there was, as I find on dipping into the late Thomas M. Disch’s essay collection On SF.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Briggs on TLS and tone

Statistician William M. Briggs is beginning a series of posts on my book The Last Superstition.  In the first installment he considers the polemical tone of the book and tells his readers to get any remarks on that subject out of their systems now so that he can move on to more substantive matters in future posts.  Briggs writes:

Feser gives us a manly Christianity, in muscular language.  His words oft have the tone of a teacher who is exasperated by students who have, yet again, not done their homework.  The exasperation is justifiable…

Feser… does not suffer (arrogant) fools well—or at all.  This perplexes some readers who undoubtedly expect theists to be soft-spoken, meek, and humble to the point of willing to concede miles to gain an inch.  Feser is more of a theological Patton: he is advancing, always advancing, and is not interested in holding on to anything except the enemy’s territory.  This stance has startled some reviewers.  Typical is [one reviewer] who ignores the meat of the book and whines about “ad hominems.”

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Concretizing the abstract

Eric Voegelin famously (if obscurely) characterized utopian political projects as attempts to “immanentize the eschaton.”   A related error -- and one that underlies not only political utopianism but scientism and its offspring -- might be called the tendency to “concretize the abstract.”  Treating abstractions as if they were concrete realities is something Alfred North Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World, labeled the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness,” and what has also been called the “Reification Fallacy.”  It has been an occupational hazard of philosophy and science since the time of the Pre-Socratics.  The Aristotelian strain in Western thought formed a counterpoint to this “concretizing” tendency within the context of ancient philosophy, and also more or less inoculated Scholasticism against the tendency.  But it came roaring back with a vengeance with Galileo, Descartes, and their modern successors, and has dominated Western thought ever since.  Wittgenstein tried to put an end to it, but failed; for bad metaphysics can effectively be counteracted only by good metaphysics, not by no metaphysics.  And Aristotelianism is par excellence a metaphysics which keeps abstractions in their place.