Monday, December 29, 2014

Causality, pantheism, and deism

Agere sequitur esse (“action follows being” or “activity follows existence”) is a basic principle of Scholastic metaphysics.  The idea is that the way a thing acts or behaves reflects what it is.  But suppose that a thing doesn’t truly act or behave at all.  Would it not follow, given the principle in question, that it does not truly exist?  That would be too quick.  After all, a thing might be capable of acting even if it is not in fact doing so.  (For example, you are capable of leaving this page and reading some other website instead, even if you do not in fact do so.)  That would seem enough to ensure existence.  A thing could hardly be said to have a capacity if it didn’t exist.  But suppose something lacks even the capacity for acting or behaving.  Would it not follow in that case that it does not truly exist?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Martin and Murray on essence and existence

The real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence is a key Thomistic metaphysical thesis, which I defend at length in Scholastic Metaphysics, at pp. 241-56.  The thesis is crucial to Aquinas’s argument for God’s existence in De Ente et Essentia, which is the subject of an eagerly awaited forthcoming book by Gaven Kerr.  (HT: Irish Thomist)  One well-known argument for the distinction is that you can know thing’s essence without knowing whether or not it exists, in which case its existence must be distinct from its essence.  (Again, see Scholastic Metaphysics for defense of this argument.)  In his essay “How to Win Essence Back from Essentialists,” David Oderberg suggests that the argument can be run in the other direction as well: “[I]t is possible to know that a thing exists without knowing what kind of thing it is. (Such is our normal way of acquiring knowledge of the world.)” (p. 39)

Which brings to mind this old Saturday Night Live skit with Steve Martin and Bill Murray:

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmastime reading for shut-ins

At Public Discourse, William Carroll gives us the scoop on Thomas Aquinas in China.

At Anamnesis, Joshua Hochschild asks: What’s Wrong with Ockham?

Philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger and physicist Lee Smolin have just published The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy.  In an interview, Smolin addresses the question: Who will rescue time from the physicists?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Knowing an ape from Adam

On questions about biological evolution, both the Magisterium of the Catholic Church and Thomist philosophers and theologians have tended carefully to steer a middle course.  On the one hand, they have allowed that a fairly wide range of biological phenomena may in principle be susceptible of evolutionary explanation, consistent with Catholic doctrine and Thomistic metaphysics.  On the other hand, they have also insisted, on philosophical and theological grounds, that not every biological phenomenon can be given an evolutionary explanation, and they refuse to issue a “blank check” to a purely naturalistic construal of evolution.  Evolutionary explanations are invariably a mixture of empirical and philosophical considerations.  Properly to be understood, the empirical considerations have to be situated within a sound metaphysics and philosophy of nature.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Causality and radioactive decay

At the Catholic blog Vox Nova, mathematics professor David Cruz-Uribe writes:

I… am currently working through the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas as part of his proofs of the existence of God… [S]ome possibly naive counter-examples from quantum mechanics come to mind.  For instance, discussing the principle that nothing can change without being affected externally, I immediately thought of the spontaneous decay of atoms and even of particles (e.g., so-called proton decay).

This might be a very naive question: my knowledge of quantum mechanics is rusty and probably out of date, and I know much, much less about scholastic metaphysics.  So can any of our readers point me to some useful references on this specific topic? 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Working the net

The Daily Beast nominates Aristotle for a posthumous Nobel prize.  (Even Aristotle’s mistakes are interesting: Next time you see a European bison, you might not want to stand behind it.  Just in case.)

Physicist George Ellis, interviewed at Scientific American, criticizes Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and scientism in general.  Some choice quotes: “[M]athematical equations only represent part of reality, and should not be confused with reality,” and “Physicists should pay attention to Aristotle’s four forms of causation.”

Richard Bastien kindly reviews my book Scholastic Metaphysics in Convivium Magazine.  From the review: “Feser’s refutation [of scientism]… alone makes the purchase of the book well worthwhile.”

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Progressive dematerialization

In the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition, it is the intellect, rather than sentience, that marks the divide between the corporeal and the incorporeal.  Hence A-T arguments against materialist theories of the mind tend to focus on conceptual thought rather than qualia (i.e. the subjective or “first-person” features of a conscious experience, such as the way red looks or the way pain feels) as that aspect of the mind which cannot in principle be reduced to brain activity or the like.  Yet Thomistic writers also often speak even of perceptual experience (and not just of abstract thought) as involving an immaterial element.  And they need not deny that qualia-oriented arguments like the “zombie argument,” Frank Jackson’s “knowledge argument,” Thomas Nagel’s “bat argument,” etc. draw blood against materialism.  So what exactly is going on here?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Interview with the metaphysician

Recently I was interviewed by two different websites about Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction.  Both interviews have now been posted.  The first interview is at, where the interviewer was Joe Trabbic.  The second interview is at Strange Notions, where the interviewer was Brandon Vogt.  The websites’ respective audiences are very different, as were the questions, so there isn’t any significant overlap between the two interviews.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Augustine on the immateriality of the mind

In Book 10, Chapter 10 of On the Trinity, St. Augustine argues for the immateriality of the mind.  You can find an older translation of the work online, but I’ll quote the passages I want to discuss from the McKenna translation as edited by Gareth Matthews.  Here they are:

[E]very mind knows and is certain concerning itself.  For men have doubted whether the power to live, to remember, to understand, to will, to think, to know, and to judge is due to air, to fire, or to the brain, or to the blood, or to atoms… or whether the combining or the orderly arrangement of the flesh is capable of producing these effects; one has tried to maintain this opinion, another that opinion.

On the other hand who would doubt that he lives, remembers, understands, wills, thinks, knows, and judges?  For even if he doubts, he lives; if he doubts, he remembers why he doubts; if he doubts, he understands that he doubts; if he doubts, he wishes to be certain; if he doubts, he thinks; if he doubts, he knows that he does not know; if he doubts, he judges that he ought not to consent rashly.  Whoever then doubts about anything else ought never to doubt about all of these; for if they were not, he would be unable to doubt about anything at all

Saturday, November 15, 2014

DSPT symposium papers online (Updated)

Last week’s symposium at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley was on Fr. Anselm Ramelow’s anthology God, Reason and Reality.  Some of the papers from the symposium are now available online.  In my paper, “Remarks on God, Reason and Reality,” I comment on two essays in the anthology: Fr. Ramelow’s essay on God and miracles, and Fr. Michael Dodds’ essay on God and the nature of life.  Fr. Ramelow’s symposium paper is “Three Tensions Concerning Miracles: A Response to Edward Feser.”

UPDATE 11/16: Fr. Dodds' paper "The God of Life: Response to Edward Feser" has now been posted at the DSPT website.  Also, a YouTube video of all the talks and of the Q & A that followed has been posted.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

DSPT interviews (Updated)

Back from another very pleasant and profitable visit to the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley.  Many thanks to my hosts and to everyone who attended the symposium.  The DSPT has just posted video interviews of some of the participants in the July conference on philosophy and theology.  John Searle, Linda Zagzebski, John O’Callaghan, and I are the interviewees.  You can find them here at YouTube.

Update 11/14: The DSPT will be adding new video clips weekly to its YouTube playlist.  This week an interview with Fred Freddoso has been added.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Walking the web

Bishop Athanasius Schneider is interviewed about the recent Synod on the Family.  On the now notorious interim report: “This document will remain for the future generations and for the historians a black mark which has stained the honour of the Apostolic See.” (HT: Rorate Caeli and Fr. Z

Meanwhile, as Rusty Reno and Rod Dreher report, other Catholics evidently prefer the Zeitgeist to the Heilige Geist.

Scientia Salon on everything you know about Aristotle that isn’t so.  Choice line: “While [Bertrand] Russell castigates Aristotle for not counting his wives’ teeth, it does not appear to have occurred to Russell to verify his own statement by going to the bookshelf and reading what Aristotle actually wrote.”

At The New Republic, John Gray on the closed mind of Richard Dawkins.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Voluntarism and PSR

Aquinas holds that “will follows upon intellect” (Summa Theologiae I.19.1).  He means in part that anything with an intellect has a will as well, but also that intellect is metaphysically prior to will.  Will is the power to be drawn toward what the intellect apprehends to be good, or away from what it apprehends to be bad.  Intellect is “in the driver’s seat,” then.  This is a view known as intellectualism, and it is to be contrasted with voluntarism, which makes will prior to intellect, and is associated with Scotus and Ockham.  To oversimplify, you might say that for the intellectualist, we are essentially intellects which have wills, whereas the voluntarist tendency is to regard us as essentially wills which have intellects.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Nudge nudge, wink wink

Suppose you go out on a blind date and a friend asks you how it went.  You pause and then answer flatly, with a slight smirk: “Well, I liked the restaurant.”  There is nothing in the literal meaning of the sentence you’ve uttered, considered all by itself, that states or implies anything negative about the person you went out with, or indeed anything at all about the person.  Still, given the context, you’ve said something insulting.  You’ve “sent the message” that you liked the restaurant but not the person.  Or suppose you show someone a painting and when asked what he thinks, he responds: “I like the frame.”  The sentence by itself doesn’t imply that the painting is bad, but the overall speech act certainly conveys that message all the same.  Each of these is an example of what H. P. Grice famously called an implicature, and they illustrate how what a speaker says in a communicative act ought not to be confused with what his words mean.  Obviously there is a relationship between the two, but they are not always identical.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Could a theist deny PSR?

We’ve been talking about the principle of sufficient reason (PSR).  It plays a key role in some arguments for the existence of God, which naturally gives the atheist a motivation to deny it.  But there are also theists who deny it.  Is this a coherent position?  I’m not asking whether a theist could coherently reject some versions of PSR.  Of course a theist could do so.  I reject some versions of PSR.  But could a theist reject all versions?  Could a theist reject PSR as such?   Suppose that any version of PSR worthy of the name must entail that there are no “brute facts” -- no facts that are in principle unintelligible, no facts for which there is not even in principle an explanation.  (The “in principle” here is important -- that there might be facts that our minds happen to be too limited to grasp is not in question.)  Could a theist coherently deny that?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Della Rocca on PSR

The principle of sufficient reason (PSR), in a typical Neo-Scholastic formulation, states that “there is a sufficient reason or adequate necessary objective explanation for the being of whatever is and for all attributes of any being” (Bernard Wuellner, Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy, p. 15).  I discuss and defend PSR at some length in Scholastic Metaphysics (see especially pp. 107-8 and 137-46).  Prof. Michael Della Rocca defends the principle in his excellent article “PSR,” which appeared in Philosopher’s Imprint in 2010 but which (I’m embarrassed to say) I only came across the other day.

Among the arguments for PSR I put forward in Scholastic Metaphysics are a retorsion argument to the effect that if PSR were false, we could have no reason to trust the deliverances of our cognitive faculties, including any grounds we might have for doubting or denying PSR; and an argument to the effect that a critic of PSR cannot coherently accept even the scientific explanations he does accept, unless he acknowledges that there are no brute facts and thus that PSR is true.  Della Rocca’s argument bears a family resemblance to this second line of argument.

Friday, October 3, 2014


While we’re on the subject of Steve Martin, consider the following passage from his memoir Born Standing Up.  Martin recounts the insight that played a key role in his novel approach to doing stand-up comedy:

In a college psychology class, I had read a treatise on comedy explaining that a laugh was formed when the storyteller created tension, then, with the punch line, released it... With conventional joke telling, there's a moment when the comedian delivers the punch line, and the audience knows it's the punch line, and their response ranges from polite to uproarious.  What bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgment that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song...

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Thomas Aquinas, Henry Adams, Steve Martin

In his conceptual travelogue Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres -- first distributed privately in 1904, then published in 1913 -- historian Henry Adams devoted a chapter to Thomas Aquinas.  There are oversimplifications and mistakes in it of the sort one would expect from a non-philosopher interested in putting together a compelling narrative, but some interesting things too.  Adams rightly emphasizes how deep and consequential is the difference between Aquinas’s view that knowledge of God starts with sensory experience of the natural order, and the tendency of mystics and Cartesians to look instead within the human mind itself to begin the ascent to God.  And he rightly notes how important, and also contrary to other prominent theological tendencies, is Aquinas’s affirmation of the material world.  (This is a major theme in Denys Turner’s recent book on Aquinas, about which I’ve been meaning to blog.)  On the other hand, what Adams says about Aquinas and secondary causality is not only wrong but bizarre.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

DSPT Symposium

God, Reason and Reality is a new anthology edited by Anselm Ramelow.  In addition to Fr. Ramelow, the contributors include Robert Sokolowski, Robert Spaemann, Thomas Joseph White, Lawrence Dewan, Stamatios Gerogiorgakis, John F. X. Knasas, Paul Thom, Michael Dodds, William Wainwright, and Linda Zagzebski.  The table of contents and other information about the book can be found here.

The Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA will be hosting a symposium on the book on November 8, 2014.  The presenters will be Fr. Ramelow, Fr. Dodds, and me.  Further information can be found here.