Friday, November 4, 2016

Swindal on Neo-Scholastic Essays

In the latest issue of the International Philosophical Quarterly, Prof. James Swindal kindly reviews my book Neo-Scholastic Essays.  From the review:

Feser… is thoroughly steeped both in analytic philosophy and Scholastic thought…

[T]his review touches on only a few aspects of Feser’s extensive achievement and the many arguments he deftly crafts and cogently defends.  He furnishes substantial hope for a further productive, and neither dogmatic nor defensive, dialogue between Thomism and analytic philosophy.  Success in moving this dialogue forward requires scholars, precisely like him, who [have] a deep familiarity with and respect for both traditions.

Prof. Swindal also raises a couple of criticisms, particularly of my essay “Being, the Good, and the Guise of the Good.”  In that essay I note that from the point of view of Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law theory, knowing what is good for us requires taking an objective or “third-person” point of view on ourselves rather than a subjective or “first-person” point of view.  Swindal comments:

It is somewhat surprising… that [Feser] uses first and third, but not a second, person points of view in his metaethical analysis.  The second person point of view is arguably more fully metaphysically adaptable to what is the ontology of genuinely rational and personal relationships: relationships assumed to be the ground and aim of ethical assessment.

and in a pair of footnotes adds:

As developed by speech act theorists, such as B├╝hler, Austin, Searle, and Habermas, a second person paradigm posits what is effectively the ethical realm: the good of intersubjective actions and communication

In Aquinas, moreover, what is effectively one’s unitive love directed to another person, from a second person perspective, also “turns back” towards the first person in a self-relationship of love of self.

Later in the review Swindal connects this “second-person” perspective with personalism.  His criticism, then, seems to be that my position is deficient insofar as it neglects the personalist and “second-person” aspects of the human good.

It seems to me, though, that Swindal’s objection is misdirected because it misses the specific point I was actually addressing in the passage in question.  We need to distinguish the following two questions:

1. Is what is good for us best known by way of the individual subject’s introspective knowledge of the desires he actually happens to have, the structure of practical reason, etc., or rather by way of metaphysical-cum-biological knowledge of what is true of human beings as a species?

2. What precisely is the content of what is good for us, and, specifically, how central are relationships with others constitutive of what is good for us?

The considerations Prof. Swindal raises are, it seems to me, relevant to 2 rather than to 1.  But it is 1 rather than 2 that I was addressing in the passage he is commenting on.

Part of my essay “Being, the Good, and the Guise of the Good” is devoted to responding to David Velleman’s influential objection to the Thomist view that all action aims at the good.  Swindal also takes issue with something I say in this part of the paper.  Velleman argues that what we desire when acting is not the good but the attainable.  One problem with this suggestion, as I point out in the essay, is that being attainable is at most a necessary condition of our desiring something, but not a sufficient condition, since something might be attainable without our desiring it.  (For example, the stick sitting on the lawn outside is attainable – it would be very easy for me to go pick it up – but I have no desire at all to go get it.)  Hence in order to refute the Thomist view, Velleman would have to explain what further condition must be added to attainability in order to make of something an object of desire, where this further condition does not (lest Velleman undermine his own position) either explicitly or implicitly make reference to the good.

Commenting on this point, Swindal says:

[Feser] thus suggests that something about “the good” remains objective beyond attainment and is unable to be captured by it.  But he does not specify what this value beyond attainment is.  In other words, he maintains (a) that there is a gap between attainability and the good and (b) that non-ultimate ends themselves have some kind of status other than the final good and yet are distinct from attainable means.  Neither of these seems fully consistent with Scholastic accounts of the distinction between means and ends wherein subordinate ends are attained only relative to higher achievable ends (though ends attainable not necessarily in this life but in beatitude).  The transcendence of the good is not that it remains beyond attainment, but precisely that it is not notionally but really identical with what is.

I’m not sure that I understand the criticism here, but it seems that Swindal is interpreting me as claiming that the good is beyond attainment.  If so, he is mistaken, because I never said, and would not say, any such thing.  The point I was making in the passage he is responding to had to do with the nature of desire, not the nature of the good.  In particular, what I said is that in order for us to desire X, it is not enough that X be attainable.  There must be some further aspect to X that makes it desirable.  There is nothing in that claim by itself that says anything at all about the good, much less that the good is unattainable.  Furthermore, even if I had been talking about the good, to say “There is more to being good than being attainable” does not entail “The good is unattainable.”

Or is Swindal merely saying that, if I hold that there is more to the good than being attainable, I need to specify exactly what this further aspect is?  If so, then there are two problems with this objection.  First, and again, in the passage he is responding to I was not addressing the nature of the good but rather the nature of desire.  Second, and in any case, in the rest of the essay, I do say what the nature of the good consists in -- namely the actualization of the potentialities which a thing must realize in order to flourish as the kind of thing it is.

Finally, a couple of somewhat minor points.  Commenting on my essay “The Road from Atheism,” Swindal writes:

Raised Catholic, Feser tells us that he later rejected his faith on intellectual grounds.  The initial impetus for his doubt came, in large measure, from the problem of evil.  He canvassed Nietzsche, Kaufmann, and the New Atheist literature that refuted arguments for belief in God.  His return to the Catholic faith came not through a fideist route that would abandon the need for a rational account of God altogether, but was rather based on a careful reconsideration of several atheist arguments.

This is odd.  First, contrary to Swindal’s claim that “the initial impetus for his doubt came, in large measure, from the problem of evil,” what I actually said in the essay was:

The argument from evil was never the main rationale for my atheism; indeed, the problem of suffering has only gotten really interesting to me since I returned to the Catholic Church… To be sure, like any other atheist I might have cited the problem of suffering when rattling off the reasons why theism couldn’t be true, but it wasn’t what primarily impressed me philosophically

Second, Swindal gives the impression that the New Atheism played a role in my temporarily leaving the Catholic Church and becoming an atheist.  In fact I became an atheist in the early 1990s and (as I explicitly note in the essay) returned to the Catholic Church in late 2001, years before the rise of the New Atheist movement.

But as I say, those are relatively minor points.  I thank Prof. Swindal for his kind words about the book.


  1. Speaking of your conversion from atheism to theism, are you ever going to write about how you converted to Christianity?

  2. SK,

    Just search 'The Road from Atheism' on this blog...

  3. I must second SK's question. We want to know why you're a Catholic. You've not gone into the details. Why is Catholic dogma the best description of reality? This is the million dollar question.

  4. Your next book cannot come out soon enough!

  5. Off topic but I do hope Prof. Feser is watching the new Westworld series on HBO. Some great philosophical points to consider.

  6. Hi Dr. Feser.

    I know you dont take requests and it's blog to post about what interests you, but i'd be very very intetested in a post on the compatibility between an immutable, unchanging Pure Actuality and miracles. Wouldnt a miracle be Incoherent for a sustainer of the world that doesnt change?

  7. 'Wouldnt a miracle be Incoherent for a sustainer of the world that doesnt change?'

    I'll let the Thomists speak for themselves, but why couldn't the orchestration be done timelessly in the same way as the rest of creation? That is, from God's omniscient/timeless perspective, God knows what will be required to achieve the end of creation (including specific and non-regular, super-natural events).

  8. Anonymous,

    Maybe. Perhaps its more to do with the idea of acting thats getting me. If on a monday Pure Actuality is sustaining the regular order, then on Tuesday He acts to cause a miracle, im not sure how that can be explained as a timeless action, when it happens at a specific time?

  9. Hey Both Anonymous, see how confusing it can be if you both use the name anonymous. It harder to track who is who? All you both of you have to do and click on Name/URL when you choose an identity, and choose a name...any name...whatsoever...except anonymous. Makes life a lot easier.

  10. Anonymous,

    "Wouldnt a miracle be Incoherent for a sustainer of the world that doesnt change?"

    God's being pure immutable timeless actuality is...that's just what it is to be God. If he could change, he would no longer be. And neither would anything else.

    God himself is changeless in so far as is his essence is concerned, yet this is distinct from God acting in the world.

    As somewhat of analogy: the mind just is of the essence such that it is that through which intellectual activity occurs...and this does not change...but it doesn't mean the mind itself cannot think of different things.

    We needn't conflate God's essence with God's actions in this respect.

  11. 'Maybe. Perhaps its more to do with the idea of acting thats getting me. If on a monday Pure Actuality is sustaining the regular order, then on Tuesday He acts to cause a miracle, im not sure how that can be explained as a timeless action, when it happens at a specific time?'

    My point was that everything (non-regular miracles and the rest) is created simultaneously although, as temporal beings, we experience this (creation) sequentially. God is the sustaining cause of everything 'together'. He doesn't cause A on Monday and B on Tuesday - he causes Monday's A and Tuesday's B together. He is causing this very moment (and all others) not 'now' but from eternity.

  12. Anon 1,

    Yes I know my monday/tuesday example was far too simplistic when taking into account something eternal. I was just trying to get my point across.

    I think I may be coming around to the idea that God must do all actions at once (as he is eternal, he cant do an action at one 'moment' and then an action at another). Could a purely simple and changeless God act more than once in an instant, though? Is it coherent to say that a changeless God sustains motion in the world all at once, though at one point Resurrecting Jesus from the dead, and other catholic miracles for instance? I'll admit i cant put my finger on a clear and explicit problem. Can multiple actions at once be compatible with immutable divine simplicity?

    Thanks for the reply. I'm somehwat confused with your point though. So the mind is the essence of the human, and does not change, but ofcourse the intellect can? So God's essence is changeless but there is something analogous to intellect which allows him to act?

  13. The essence of God is indeed changeless, but the essence of the created universe is to be changeable. To resort to the often-used analogy, Hamlet is alive in Act I and dead at the end of Act V; but that does not mean that Shakespeare changed his mind along the way. He wrote from the outset with that ending in mind.

  14. Hi Feser..

    Philosopher R.N Carmona Has responded to your post on Craig-Carroll debate two parts here..

    I think some of his claims about your metaphysics deserve a response...

    I'll just quote him to give you a better idea of his position

    "In employing causal skepticism, I entertained the possibility that dispositions explain what we otherwise would call cause and effect.27 From this, in my initial response to Edward Feser, I noted that a material condition has to be met given that dispositions are the case.28 This material condition isn’t met by god. In other words, since god is universally considered to be an immaterial being, he hasn’t the dispositionality to interact with and/or within the universe. Also, since my material condition encompasses Hume’s spatio-temporal condition, there’s no way for god to interact within space-time–since he is also considered to be transcendental (i.e. existing outside of space-time)."

  15. @Red

    I skimmed both posts and man they don't really engage with Fesers work tbh like his book on Aquinas and Scholastic Metaphysics are not even touched at all.

  16. @Shehryar

    But they do touch on two of the Aquinas's five ways and Feser's remarks on scientism and laws of nature ..he also discusses Five ways in his new book on counter apologetics..

    anyway ..I think Feser do need to comment on Carroll's book the Big picture .. It is considered the hottest stuff on A-theologian blogosphere .. some even go on to say that it flat out refutes anything Aristotle or Aquinas had to say about God...

    though others are not so sure ...see for example Luke Barnes' review

  17. @Red

    I am sorry, but I must be blunt about this. Carroll is almost 100% ignorant of what Aristotle & Aquinas actually say. The conflation of Aristotelian physics and metaphysics such that he thinks such physics refutes the metaphysics.

    "The Big Picture" is full of basic mistakes, and exemplifies the typical anti-theist attitude: not caring to actually understand the arguments, and reading the arguments (however little they do) with the intention of raising any and every possible objection they can conceive.

    Carroll says "infinite regresses are okay" he likely has no clue of the distinction of essential and accidental causal series.

    When Carroll claims "once we know about the conservation of momentum, that idea loses steam" (p.28). This again shows an ignorance of the very nature of the unmoved mover argument. It doesn't concern whatever physics seeks to explain -- it is a metaphysical argument.

    "The world, according to classical physics, is not teleological".This is nothing more than, as I think Feser would say, a methodological stipulation. Physics does not tell us there is no teleology; physics as a pursuit does not concern such things.

    And so on. I honestly do not know how these people who are ignorant of such matters are enabled to pontificate as they do.

    I recommend Scholastic Metaphysics by Feser

  18. @J

    Hello are these considered good refutations of aquinas or not ?

  19. @Red

    1. Atheist’s Objection: So, what changed in god to cause him to make that initial change–the creation of the universe?

    Theist Reply: The unmoved mover argument directly leads to the conclusion that there exists a being unchanging pure actuality etc - thus the above question essentially ignores the entire argument to offer this erroneous objection.

    2. Atheist’s Objection: In order for a being to be unmoved and unchanged, it would have to be impersonal.

    Theist Reply: Notice how the author merely asserts this, without any justification. There is nothing to say here as the opponent has given us nothing.

    3. Atheist’s Objection: Furthermore, the Argument from Change and the Argument from Motion can’t overturn what’s true about the universe: changes and motion can and do happen independently of god, assuming he exists.

    Theist Reply: This is again an assertion without justification. All the same, the argument – (properly understood!) – tells as that that which undergoes change (a reduction of potency to act) is done so by that which is already actual – and if that too is actualized, it too needs a mover etc.; and in such a series subsequent movers move only inasmuch there is a first – precisely because the constituents of the series gain their power to actualize in a derivative way.

    4. Atheist’s Objection: How is his creation of the universe and his involvement in the universe reconciled with the fact that he is unmoved?

    Theist Reply: Here the atheist is doing some conflating. God is deduced to be unchanging in so far as what God is…but that doesn’t mean he has no power to change other things. He is unchanged - if he changed he would no longer be and so too all else will go.

    5. atheist objection “what moved the unmoved mover?”

    Theist Reply This very question PROVES the atheist here has failed to read the argument and failed to understand it. The argument DIRECTLY LEADS US to the conclusion that there exists an unchanging, eternal, incorporeal being that is pure actuality etc. It is no good to insist on asking these loaded questions.

    atheist Objection: The argument makes a halfway decent case for the logical necessity of something as a possible first mover, but fails to demonstrate the existence of a god as an actual first mover.
    To accept a god as a first mover, You have to ask how it’s possible for a god to both be a mover yet be un-moved, or exist yet be un-caused. Any answer to those questions will consist of either special pleading, circular arguments, non-sequiturs, or glib non-answers.

    Theist’s Reply Yuck. Yuck! Are you bloody serious!? The being the argument arrives us to IS what we refer to, and what has been referred to, as God! It simply will not do to ask “why is it God?”. Unmoved mover and “God” are synonymous. This is the God of classical theism. Is this atheist serious?
    The only special pleading going on here is that the atheist is refusing to admit their objections are erroneous…pleading that we accept them as valid despite their patent invalidity.

    7. atheist Objection: if this mover is truly unmoved, what compelled him to create the universe in the first place? Is it that supernatural neurons fired in his supernatural brain?

    Ah. Right. It wasn’t long before some vacuous atheist rhetoric crept in. Another intellectually dishonest one I think.

    Such atheists claim to be "critical thinkers" yet fail to even properly read the literature of the position they claim to refute...

    For the love of all that is good, please read Ed's book "Aquinas", and perhaps Brian Davies' commentary on the summa contra gentiles.

  20. @Red

    I apologize (to you and all readers and our host) if I have come off as rude or obnoxious. Sometimes objections that are raised are so bad it beyond words.

  21. @ Jason

    First of all thanks for your response...the problem is the a-theologian would now accuse you of shifting the semantic goalpost and changing the meaning of word God..they would say that this is not really God. who would worship this kind of God? ..I think that they conceive of natural theology as a futile exercise in defining God into existence with wordplay. see for example this gem

    The same kind of reasoning is used to dispel pantheistic/panentheistic notions of God ..or to undermine works of theologians like David Bentley Hart and Karen Armstrong..Paul Tillich comes to mind too ..

    anyway my thoughts are that theism is now only limited to folks who willingly want to believe in some kind of God ..the apologetics seem unsuccessful .people like Feser or Hart can only do some damage control. because a naturalist would be unmoved no matter what a theist has to say.

  22. @Red

    'they would say that this is not really God. who would worship this kind of God? ..I think that they conceive of natural theology as a futile exercise in defining God into existence with wordplay.'
    Interesting but this is not argument - it seems purely rhetorical.

    'people like Feser or Hart can only do some damage control'

    You make this sound like a small niche of thinkers but this kind of enterprise (successful or not) has been going on for a while and includes thinkers such as Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz, Kant to more contemporary thinkers such as Swinburne, M. Adams, R. Adams, Plantinga etc. It is unwise to generalise like this and it would be better to treat each fairly on a case by case basis. If you do not have the time or inclination (which is fair enough), perhaps you should back off the sweeping claims and be content with a claim such as 'I have been unpersuaded by any attempt I have encountered so far and for that reason, given my limited experience, think apologetics/arguments for theism are unlikely to succeed.' What do you think?

    'because a naturalist would be unmoved no matter what a theist has to say.'
    Well that's a pretty disappointing fact (if it is one - which I doubt if they have any intellectual integrity). Of course there are some open-minded people on all sides of a debate, and surely the psychological card (it's just a matter of 'will') can be played against the naturalist (especially one that 'would be unmoved no matter what atheist has to say').

  23. Sorry about the typo. Text enclosed in brackets should read: '(especially one that 'would be unmoved no matter what a theist has to say').

  24. @ Anonymous

    I am terribly sorry if I sound like i am trying to sweep away all arguments for theism as unpersuasive/superfluous .. I am not an atheist myself .

    I am just expressing concern about the impression that one get when reading refutations of theistic arguments from atheistic blogosphere ..and what it entails for image of theism.

    I am sorry if any writings in my comments make it sound dismissive ..

  25. Red,

    Im just bemused by this accusation of wordplay. Aquinas' Five Ways are based on serious philosophical positions such as the reality of chamge (and only accounting for this through the Act/Potency distinction). That the universe is fundamentally comprised of substances rather than events, that these substances have powers and are just as fundamental at higher levels than lower ones (hylemorphism). That these substances exhibit dispositions or finality that are neccessary to a metaphysics of causation. Absolutely none of these are mere word games. They are fundamental issues within metaphysics and philosophy of nature. Neither do the arguments define God into existence, but rather follow where this metaphysics leads.

    I heartily recommend The Last Superstition and then Scholastic Metaphysics. I was already a Christian thanks to contemporary apologetics. One book in particular, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, was a primary reason for this. Then i came across Feser, which was so weird and different. Months of reading his blog, i have three of his books now and am on the edge of jumping headfirst into a persuaded Thomist. Read his books, and most of the questions you've brought up would already be answered.

    Oh, by the way everone, i was anonymous who is questioning the compatibility of an immutable Pure Act and miracles.

  26. My apologies if I misunderstood you.

  27. @ Callum

    Yes, You are quite right in pointing out the legitimacy and ingenuity of these metaphysical underpinning ..on independent grounds away from there use in theistic arguments. But what you'l get while mentioning thomism is that ..ohh what good is that outmoded thinking?, all it does is try to establish existence of God.who cares if material,formal,final causes even exists,modern science is makes no use of such notions, teleology is eliminated from biology,

    you can't even allude to how these concepts try to answer the question why anything at all exists ? ..thats is not supposed to be a genuine question because scientists says so..


    No problem. combox discussions can create such misunderstandings .

    1. Assertions need to be backed up. Outmoded how? Should they have been rejected in the first place? What about the essentially Aristotelian metaphysics that has seen a resurgence in modern, secular metaphysics?

      But ultimately, if it's outmoded they should have little trouble refuting them :)

      Of course they should care if the four causes exists, they underpin some of the best arguments for the existence of God.

      Why is teleology eliminated from biology? Immanent teleology of Aristotle? Support that assertion and deal with the positive arguments for Immanent teleology.

      Science doesnt deal with why anything exists precisely because it isnt a scientific question, but why think only scientific questions are genuine questions? Scientism is self defeating.

      Have you actually read any of Ed Feser's books?

      Just because people 'can always say' generally means they arent substantial problems.

  28. Callum.

    Yes quite right, everyone needs to shoulder their burden of proof..but these kinds of refutations do have a certain physiological effect .that works well for counter apologetics .
    for example would you have taken blackwell companion to natural theology seriously if you were already convinced by almost all patheos atheist blogs that Craig is a horrible person who tries to justify biblical violence (that actually are the words of one of those blogers ,the one who once engaged with feser too) .

    ohh and apart from this..if you havent already .then check this out ..
    Philosopher Stephen Mumford,who feser also often mentions in his posts comments on Sean Carolls post regarding the youtube videos based on his new book discussing unreality of Causes and effect .too bad they cant debate on twitter like would have been great..

  29. What do you mean physiological effects?

    Concerning the comments on Craig, id hope i could identity fallacies. He could be a right ba*****! What im interested in, is his argument.

    Thanks for the link Red, Mumford interacts well! Interesting that Carroll wouldn't reply, eh? ;)

    1. Oops .sorry wanted to say pscycological effect..

  30. @Red

    Oh brother!

    There's just no pleasing some people.

    They ask for evidence of God, we provide direct metaphysical demonstrations.

    They view the evidence, and offer any objection, no matter how invalid it is.

    Their objections are refuted, and suddenly the theist is moving the goal-post...just because the theist's arguments for classical theism don't fit into the atheist's petulant pre-conceived idea of what God is supposed to be.

    You say:...the problem is the a-theologian would now accuse you of shifting the semantic goalpost and changing the meaning of word God..they would say that this is not really God. who would worship this kind of God? ..I think that they conceive of natural theology as a futile exercise in defining God into existence with wordplay. see for example this gem

    I mean, what does the atheist want? The atheist here is trying to define God OUT of existence. "Oh no...this isn't what I think God is supposed to be! This isn't a sky-daddy...the theist is defining God into existence.".

    These arguments for classical theism take basic facts of reality which only the dishonest, disingenuous person would deny, and take them to their necessary, logical conclusion - these existence of an eternal, incorporeal, pure actuality, the fulfillment of being, that from which things are imparted their being and so forth.

    And this has been the definition of God long before these atheists came around.

    In other words, in response to that horrendous patheos article, I ask the author: Have you even read past the 5 ways? Have you need actually read the literature which shows the being of the 5 ways, when expounded FURTHER, past the SUMMARIES, is God!

    Now obviously philosophical arguments aren't going to directly tell you "hey, this is the God of Christianity" (so far as I know). The atheist here is literally taking umbrage with what a tradition spanning millennia (natural theology) defines God as.

  31. Philosopher R.N Carmona Has responded to your post on Craig-Carroll debate two parts here..

    Well, he may have some decent arguments somewhere. But he made a pretty big whopping goof-up here:

    I’ve argued that both arguments are self-contradictory and fail due to question begging. For instance, to arrive at a First Mover that was put in motion by no other violates the stipulations of P4, P5, and P6–namely that nothing can be in actuality and potentiality in the same respect; that nothing can move itself; and that everything that’s in motion is put in motion by something else. If P4-6 are sound, then a First Mover is ruled out. So either P4-6 are sound–thus ruling out the conclusion of the argument or P4-6 are unsound–thus making the argument invalid.

    The classical theist quite explicitly does not argue or allow that the First Mover "was put in motion." To even say such a thing proves that he seriously misunderstood the argument.

    anyway ..I think Feser do need to comment on Carroll's book the Big picture .. It is considered the hottest stuff on A-theologian blogosphere .. some even go on to say that it flat out refutes anything Aristotle or Aquinas had to say about God...! Not again! Please, we'll do anything (well, almost). Please don't torture us with ANOTHER atheist physicist pretending to do basic natural theology without even investigating what he is disputing. Feser and the commenters here have ALREADY pointed out about 250 of the most glaring errors of this genre. Repeatedly. With patience. With wit, and charm, and examples. Beyond the endurance of mere mortals.

    If by "hottest" you mean the approximate average temperature of intergalactic space, well, sure.

    Correction: "I reject Christianity because I have closely examined its claims under the lens of my prior assumptions, and I have found them to be difficult to understand in that context and gave up trying to. Before that, I had already rejected Christianity because I found living with its moral demands difficult and troublesome and gave up trying. I have chosen to reject the notion that my later rejection of Christianity might be psychologically influenced by my earlier rejection."

  32. A change of tone re the boundless and centerless Divine Fullness, which is also our real or true condition

    The Bright itself, glorious beyond conception, full, without the slightest threat, more than wonderful, all delight, heart-feeling without limit, the unspeakable embodiment of joy

  33. Some of the problem lies in the language. A "first mover" or "unmoved mover" moves others by its existence, it does not itself move, change or do anything except exist.