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?