Thursday, July 12, 2018

Crane and French on science and Aristotelianism


I called attention recently to the new anthology Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science, edited by William Simpson, Robert Koons, and Nicholas Teh, to which I contributed an essay.  (If the price of the print version puts you off, you might consider the much more affordable electronic version.)  Tim Crane reviews the book in the latest First Things.  As I also noted recently, Steven French has reviewed it at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
 
Crane’s review does not actually say much about the essays in the book, but rather gives an overview of some aspects of the neo-Aristotelian revival that has occurred in contemporary analytic philosophy in recent years.  This is a reasonable approach to take given the audience Crane is addressing – namely, educated general readers rather than professional philosophers.  General readers won’t have the knowledge of contemporary analytic metaphysics that the essays presuppose, and may be surprised to learn that there even is such a thing as a neo-Aristotelian revival within academic philosophy.  Hence it is not a bad idea to focus on bringing them up to speed.

French does discuss the essays in some detail (and of course, his audience does consist of professional philosophers).  He is not sympathetic to the overall project of the volume, but he engages with it seriously and raises some interesting points.  

French’s main reservations have to do with the extent to which Aristotelian metaphysics departs from naturalism, and the Aristotelian notions of potentiality and substantial form are what give him greatest pause.  It seems to me that, at least to some extent, French’s concerns here are question-begging.  For the naturalist, a sound metaphysics is one that is implicit in natural science, with natural science interpreted in a mechanistic way (which, these days, essentially means a way that is non-teleological and that gives ontological priority to the microphysical level).  Philosophical concepts are considered well-articulated and well-motivated when they can be assimilated to this naturalistic framework.

But of course, the Aristotelian rejects this set of assumptions.  For the Aristotelian, the methods to which modern science confines itself give us only what C. B. Martin has called a “partial consideration” of nature, and must be supplemented by, and interpreted within, a metaphysical framework which at least to some extent stands or falls independently of anything the natural sciences have to say.  So, a criticism of Aristotelian metaphysics on the grounds that it does not conform to the strictures of naturalism simply assumes precisely what is at issue between the naturalist and the Aristotelian.

However, it would not be fair to French to attribute all of his reservations to a begging of the question in favor of naturalism.  He also judges that the metaphors or analogies some of the volume’s authors use to elucidate notions like substantial form are insufficiently clear or helpful.  Suppose for the sake of argument that French is right about this.  How significant would that be?

French takes it to be fairly significant, no doubt because he is skeptical about Aristotelian notions like substantial form and is looking for reasons to take them seriously.  He interprets the metaphors and analogies in question as purported reasons of the sort he is looking for and, finding them wanting, concludes that the authors haven’t made their case.

I don’t myself take the (alleged) deficiency of these particular metaphors and analogies to be very significant, though, because I think there are already ample independent philosophical grounds to endorse notions like substantial form – grounds of the sort one can find set out at length in my book on general Aristotelian metaphysics, or Oderberg’s book on the subject, or in some of the essays in anthologies like the Tahko volume, or the Groff and Greco volume, or the Novotny and Novak volume.  

Mind you, I am not blaming French for not engaging here with such books – he’s simply writing a book review, and on another book, after all.  The point is just that if he is looking in the present volume for a general defense of notions like substantial form (and maybe he’s not), I think he is looking in the wrong place.  I don’t see the Simpson, Koons, and Teh volume as primarily concerned with that.  Rather, I take it that its aim is primarily to take general Aristotelian notions that have already been defended at length elsewhere in the neo-Aristotelian literature, and apply them to specific issues that arise in the context of natural science.  That’s a more limited aim, and the book should be judged in light of that aim.

And to some extent that is exactly what French does – as, for example, in his remarks about Alex Pruss’s essay on the “traveling forms” interpretation of quantum mechanics.  It’s a great essay, and anyone interested in the relationship between Aristotelian philosophy of nature and quantum physics should study it.  (They should also study Rob Koons’s excellent recent work on this, including Rob’s essay in the volume under discussion.)  French suggests, however, that working out the “traveling forms” model might entail significant revisions of traditional Aristotelian views about material substance.  (That is also a concern of mine.  But I don’t think Alex is as old-fashioned an Aristotelian as I am, so I don’t think such revisionism would bother him much.)

Commenting on my own essay on Aristotelianism and relativity, French notes that I endorse an epistemic structural realist view of physics, on which there is more to the nature of physical reality than physics can tell us – which opens the door to the Aristotelian metaphysician, who claims to fill in at least some of the gaps left by the physicist.  Not unreasonably, French asks:

[W]hy this kind of metaphysics and not some other?  Or why any such extra metaphysics at all in this particular case, given that various accounts of how the impression of temporal passage can be reconciled with relativity theory are currently 'on the table'?

But, for one thing, I thought I answered that in the essay.  I argue that change, as the Aristotelian understands it, cannot coherently be eliminated from our picture of nature.  At an absolute minimum, it cannot coherently be denied that the scientist himself qua conscious subject undergoes change in the Aristotelian sense.  But such change entails the distinction between actuality and potentiality; and in something embodied (as I take the conscious subject to be) the distinction between actuality and potentiality in turn entails the distinction between substantial form and prime matter.  So, I take the incoherence of denying change to lead, on analysis, to hylemorphism.  By itself that still leaves it open exactly how far the substantial form analysis can be applied within nature – here we have to go case by case – but that it has some application I take to be unavoidable on general metaphysical grounds.

For another thing, once we have real change, we also have (given the Aristotelian conception of time as the measure of change with respect to succession) temporal passage.  And I mean actual temporal passage, not merely what French calls “the impression of temporal passage.”  So, contrary to what French seems to imply, it is not enough for the non-Aristotelian to appeal to some account of how our “impression” that temporal passage is real can be reconciled with relativity.  An adequate metaphysics, and an adequate interpretation of physics, must account for the fact that there really is such a thing as temporal passage.

(Much, much more on all these matters to come in my forthcoming philosophy of nature book Aristotle’s Revenge.  Stay tuned.)

47 comments:

  1. Kiel's RevengeJuly 12, 2018 at 5:37 PM

    Ooooh, Aristotle's Revenge. Nice! Can't wait to see the cover art!

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  2. How is being skeptical of a position, "Begging the question"?

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    1. @Anon Re-read the paragraph. Being skeptical of the Aristotelian position on the grounds that it does not fit in with a naturalistic framework is question-begging (since Aristotelianism rejects a non-teleological, reductionistic/atomistic world-view). Simply being skeptical of Aristotelianism on its own merits would not be question begging.

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  3. Did you just slip the title of your upcoming book? Or was that info previously released? Either way I am pretty excited to get my mits on it!

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    1. Yeah, but you don't know the subtitle yet... ;-)

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    2. Is it "Naturalist Philosophers be a cryin'"?

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  4. Nice Post and cool title for your new book.
    I do hope you engage with French and his fellow OSR-ists work in more detail in the future, as this seems like most plausible rival and alternative view to the A-T one. Although I haven't read his Structure of the world, from what I've see n, he does get into detail about how Aristotelian notion of causal powers and disposition can be "done away with" in science , there is a video on youtube on that too.

    And on your article in the book, I think your point is correct that physics have little say on correct theory of time if we have good philosophical arguments. And I think you do engage and refute the "just an illusion" response to your argument that change can't be denied but what about the response that we don't experience change in the first place? I've seen that response by several philosophers, don't know what to make of it.

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    1. All this stuff is in the book. It's a long, thorough book.

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    2. Does that mean it's going to be sinfully expensive?

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    3. No, it won't be especially expensive.

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  5. I like "Aristotle's Revenge" already :)

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  6. Supernatural means "not possible according to the laws of nature." Ultra high-definition photographs have lighting that cannot be produced naturally and therefore are literally supernatural.

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    1. Whoever sets the terms wins the debate. Did anybody define supernatural, and check for counterexamples to that definition? No? Then are the naturalists saying anything meaningful to begin with?

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  7. Hello Dr. Feser,

    How do we know that matter itself is contingent? How do we know matter itself, not just arrangements of matter, have the potential for non-existence? And even if they did, how do we know this potential has to be actualized (not only in the past, but also right now)? We only ever observe the arrangement of matter having a sufficient reason for its existence, such as a cause. But we never see this in the case of the existence of matter itself. Take, for example, a penny. When a penny begins to exist, it is merely a re-formulation of pre-existing matter. We never see such a thing in the case of matter itself. So, how do we know matter, or physical substance, is contingent? I hope you get the chance to read this! Thanks!

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    1. Important question, What do you think matter is

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    2. Anon, I am sure you will do better by reading Prof. Feser's book, when it comes out, but to tide you over until it's available: first, you have to separate out the difference between accidents OF a substance, and the substance itself. The shapes of a lump of copper, whether as a ring, as a long wire, or as a penny, are accidents OF a substance, and the substantial reality persists through the changes to the shape. It remains a lump of copper throughout all of those changes in shape. It's "copper-ness" doesn't change. That is to say, there is an underlying reality of a substantial nature that allows it to remain one and the same individual entity, whether it is extruded into a wire, or stamped into a coin. The what that persists is a given, real, individual THING that has the same nature before and after the change in shape. Thus the change is to an accidental aspect of it, i.e. to an aspect that is layered on top of its being and nature. It's shape is not its very nature.

      But there are also changes in substantial reality itself. When a wolf eats a rabbit, the rabbit as an entity ceases to exist at all, and the wolf grows larger but remains the same individual entity it had been before it ate the rabbit. But what was rabbit ceases to be rabbit at all, and becomes wolf. This means that while there is indeed a some what that persists through the change, it is not a what which persists in either the same underlying nature, nor a what that persists in the same individual entity or being: what the Aristotelian means by "matter", as the underlying stuff that persists through such substantial changes, is a mode of "being" that is not properly speaking "A being", but only "what CAN BE being" when it has a substantial form giving it some specific nature. When you consider what must be true of such matter, i.e. such "stuff" as is only potential-to-be-the-substrate-of-a-thing and not, of itsef, actually a thing, you see that it is incoherent to speak of it as necessary rather than contingent. For it is "being" only in the imperfect and partial sense of "being" that refers to potential-to-be, and it is precisely in virtue of, or by reason, of a superior mode of actuality that a thing is necessary rather than contingent.

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    3. If matter can be submited to "arrangements", then it has potency, and so it's contingent, by definition. Otherway, "matter itself" (in other words: matter considered apart from their actual 'arrangements' or 'substancial form') -- in aristotelian jargon called 'prime matter' -- cannot actually exist appart from an association (contingent itself) with a substancial form, since the power to serve as stuff to other things, taken by itself, express a pure potency, that cannot exist without some actual power (given by the refered association with a form).
      What's necessary cannot 'change' (or 'vary'), in any aspect.

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    4. Dr. Feser goes over this in depth in “Aquinas” when discussing Aquinas’ Third Way. You may find it helpful.

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  8. Does not Pruss hold to a B-theoretical or at least non-Presentist account of time which takes its direction (the so called 'arrow of time') as parasitic on the direction of causation? Recall him talking about that on his blog a few years ago.

    This of course doesn't mean we should take up said view but that there's such divergence of opinions even among Aristotelians should give comfort to those who worry that position will saddle them with a priori commitments re interpretations of General Relativity.

    And of course congrats on the philosophy of nature book ;)

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    1. Yes, he is a b-theorist.

      https://philpapers.org//profile/27127/myview.html

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  9. Dr. Feser, I hope that in the forthcoming Aristotle's Revege you'll cover one of the thing that quizzled me, a naive platonic who look forward to be also AT, about act and potency in the change of concrete material substances, namely the ontological status of the potency. As a potency isn't in act yet but it cannot be not existent in the concrete material substance. So this "to be or not to be" I still can't digest it yet :)

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  10. Dr. Feser covers a lot of this in his essay "Existential Inertia and the Five Ways"—it's in Neo-Scholastic Essays if you want to check it out. In summary, matter itself is entirely potential except when united with a form. In the same way it doesn't make sense to consider a hunk of Play-Doh except in some sort of shape, matter cannot exist separate from form—even if we can form a picture of amorphous blobs and "title" it "matter without form," what we're really envisioning is matter united with that specific form of the amorphous blob. Matter without form is thoroughly potential (and thus in no way actual, and thus nonexistent), and matter united to forms is contingent for the reasons you mentioned above.

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  11. If Aristotle's Revenge is your philosophy of nature book . . . Let's just say I've been looking forward to this for two years, when I bought your scholastic metaphysics and you hinted at it.

    How's that book on the soul coming, Prof. ?

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  12. Finally a book on the philosophy of nature from Feser. He has only touched on it in his other work--I'm excited to see what a book length treatment of it will turn out to be. Hopefully it will be geared towards a more philosophically-
    nuanced audience. While I appreciated Five Proofs, at times I felt like I was going over the basics. This is understandable, however,given the fact that that book was intended for a more general audience.

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  13. I know it's Richard Carrier, but I'd like to see the reaction to this article..

    https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/14282

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    1. I love his arguments... they are based on God doing this or doing that because it is convenient for Carrier that a Necessary Being operate this or that way XD.

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    2. I have never been fond of the "qualia" argument in favor of a non-material soul, so his arguments leave me cold. Feser's arguments based on the aboutness of propositions and arguments are much more robust: there can never be a sufficient basis for claiming this material entity (or process) is about that material entity (or process), in a way that justifies the conclusions of an argument being true because of the premises. But, of course, the science by which Carrier finds his conclusions for mind being brain processes consists in just that - conclusions based on premises, or (on his own basis) these material processes merely following preceding those processes.

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    3. The interesting thing is that in his book Sense and Goodness Without God Carrier calls himself a hylomorphist. The 'mind is the form of the body', etc. I guess he has the modern functionalist reading of Aristotle in mind when he says this.

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  14. Dr. Feser, could you please write a response to the article which challenges the PSR called "The Paradox of Sufficient Reason", linked blow:

    https://www.academia.edu/18591080/The_Paradox_of_Sufficient_Reason

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    1. It doesn't seem to be that much of a problem.

      Bur maybe Grodrigues may have a say on that, since he is Mr Logic. (his math knowledge is scary XD)

      But it seems that are extra considerations in G that solve the paradox.

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    2. Damn, let me tell you what I thought.

      1- You have the Conjoint of all Contingent truths, and there must be an explanation for that Conjoint. Good

      2- If you have all the contingent truths Conjoint C, the explanation of the whole of realiy will be contingent? Maybe yes maybe no.

      4- But if you yes, this ultimate truth is contingent you fall in the paradox.

      5- But if the Explanation is God, just like Leibniz has argued for, Then you have a necessary explanation for C, the big G (Most Fitting XD)

      6- SO really, all rationalists should be Theists! There is nothing wrong with PSR.

      -------------------------------------

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    3. I've liked that paper since it first came out a couple of years ago, and having read it again more recently, still like it; it's excellent, and should be more widely known. But it is a mischaracterization to say that it challenges the PSR; it (correctly) notes that one can have reason to doubt a key idea in a common objection to PSR (namely, the idea that you can have a conjunction of all contingent truths), and then explores what rejecting that idea might mean on various other assumptions.

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  15. From the OP: "It seems to me that, at least to some extent, French’s concerns here are question-begging. For the naturalist, a sound metaphysics is one that is implicit in natural science, with natural science interpreted in a mechanistic way (which, these days, essentially means a way that is non-teleological and that gives ontological priority to the microphysical level). Philosophical concepts are considered well-articulated and well-motivated when they can be assimilated to this naturalistic framework.

    But of course, the Aristotelian rejects this set of assumptions. For the Aristotelian, the methods to which modern science confines itself give us only what C. B. Martin has called a “partial consideration” of nature, and must be supplemented by, and interpreted within, a metaphysical framework which at least to some extent stands or falls independently of anything the natural sciences have to say. So, a criticism of Aristotelian metaphysics on the grounds that it does not conform to the strictures of naturalism simply assumes precisely what is at issue between the naturalist and the Aristotelian."

    If the A-T proponent criticizes naturalistic metaphysics on the grounds that it does not conform to the strictures of A-T metaphysics, how is he not assuming precisely that which is at issue between himself and the naturalist? And since the A-T metaphysical framework at least to some extent stands or falls independently of anything the natural sciences have to say, how are the naturalist and the A-T metaphysician going to establish a common store of first principles from which one can establish that the other's metaphysical system is false?

    I need to be convinced that the A-T metaphysician does not beg the question when he attacks the naturalist, and that the naturalist does beg the question when he attacks the A-T chap. It does not sound as though Prof. Feser's criticism of French is limited to French; he seems to be saying that all naturalists beg the question when they criticise A-T, while A-T guys do not beg the question in their turn.

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    1. Putting in a simple way.

      You have no idea what Begging the Question is.

      Begging the question is to Assume which you want to proof.

      You have 2 possibilities, but you implicitly assume one of them in the hopes of refuting the other, Which is the case here.

      Seriously what is up with you people and not being able to read XD.

      "I need to be convinced..." 9_9'

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    2. I was expecting, not an answer to what I wrote, but some form of derision. And so it is. Seriously, what is up with you people and not being able to read.

      "Assume which you want to proof..."

      You are not even writing standard English.

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    3. >You are not even writing standard English.

      Are you bro?


      Feser did say "Mind you, I am not blaming French for not engaging here with such books – he’s simply writing a book review, and on another book, after all. The point is just that if he is looking in the present volume for a general defense of notions like substantial form (and maybe he’s not), I think he is looking in the wrong place."

      That seems to be his point and it is unremarkable nor is it answering question begging with question begging IMHO.

      Cheers.

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    4. I think you need to read the post again ,Ed didn't say French was completely beg the question and he did to some extent answer your point about first principles.

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    5. I'm not really sure what your issue is. I don't think the A-T metaphysician is criticizing naturalism simply on the grounds that it violates A-T metaphysics. After all, Aristotelians actually give arguments (that they think are sound) why A-T is the right framework. Whether you think the arguments work or not is a different question.

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    6. And also ficino, some of your concerns require some detailed look at OSR which will require addressing it at some length but in the end I think one can go past mere accusation of question begging on both sides, We can ask questions like , is it really coherent to deny objects ? we can examine different arguments given for it like Under-determination by physics etc..

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  16. I've reread French's review and Ed's OP. I was aware that Ed said that French was only "at least to some extent begging the question," since I quoted those and other words.

    French is not "begging" his reader to grant him the premise that A-T metaphysics is false and then drawing the conclusion that A-T metaphysics is false. He's clearly committed to a naturalistic framework, as Ed notes. French is merely declining to jettison his framework and to see reason to sign on to A-T. To be skeptical that P is true does not amount to deducing P's falsity from a (begged) premise that P is false. I get the impression French actually thinks that A-T metaphysics relies too much on poorly defined concepts (e.g. his comments that some locutions amount to metaphor) to provide scientists much of a bonus over the starting points that they're using already. If someone replies, "Well, they are already using A-T starting points without realizing it," I'm not sure I know enough science to see where to go from there.

    On another board I was discussing with a theist the question, on what basis can we evaluate a metaphysical system? What in principle would be defeaters, other than violation of the basic laws of thought. We both agreed that a metaphysical system's tenets could be falsified by observations (e.g. if you say that everything is really one thing and I smack you upside the head...) But we didn't manage to unpack things further than that.

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    1. The charge of begging the question is only to the extent that in review it is assumed A-T is problematic particularly because its not naturalistic enough(which is a requirement A-T rejects).

      Of course Ed is aware that French has written on this topic elsewhere too.

      being skeptical of P because of T which P-ist would reject does amount to deducing falsity from begged premise.

      As for how discussion can "move forward" from this Ed does elude to this in the post and I also explain, it can be done.

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    2. French is not "begging" his reader to grant him the premise that A-T metaphysics is false and then drawing the conclusion that A-T metaphysics is false.

      This is a bizarre response; begging the question doesn't require begging the interlocutor to do anything -- 'begging' is just a very literal translation of 'petitio', which meant (among other things) making an assumption. What you immediately go on to describe is French's assumptions, so he is making some. So the only question is whether any of these assumptions are, are part of, or overlap the point under dispute. But Ed goes on immediately to say why he thinks some of them do, and none of them have to do with being skeptical but with what he takes French's assumptions about well-motivated metaphysics to be.

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    3. @Brandon: you are wrong. Read Aristotle. We use the word "beg" when we say someone "begs the question" because it was Aristotle who clarified that this move in an argument is an instance of αἰτεῖσθαι. The person who begs the question demands/begs for himself, or takes, λαμβάνειν, the initial premise from the interlocutor. It is up to the interlocutor to spot this move and refuse to grant the "begged" premise, the αἴτημα.

      Try simply asking or supplying something rather than leading off in your first sentence with slurs like "bizarre response." The arrogance of you guys is a bore - not the fun kind of arrogance like Milo's.

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  17. Ed,

    I’m late to the party, as always. I just started reading some of your literature (I’m an exJW and currently in the agnostic camp); TLS. You sir, are a certified badass. I’m really enjoying the material so far and the argument seems pretty darn bullet proof.

    As a JW, we were taught such a negative view of Catholicism, that I honestly had no idea there were even Catholic thinkers of your caliber. Again, like I said; im always late to the party.

    Take care Ed and thanks for your published offerings.

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