Friday, January 11, 2019

Materialism subverts itself

A naïve understanding of materialism attributes to it a naïve understanding of matter.  Matter, common sense says, is more or less the way it appears to us in ordinary experience.  It is solid, colored stuff that always tastes, smells, sounds, and feels a certain way.  Materialism, on a naïve understanding, is the view that everything that exists is like that.  Even unobservable particles are assumed to be tiny solid, colored objects that have their own tastes, smells, sounds, and feels to them.  Like little stones or marbles.
Of course, this is all wrong.  The conception of matter that materialists have inherited from Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, Locke, and the other early modern scientists and philosophers abstracts away these features of the commonsense understanding of matter.  Color, odor, sound, taste, smell, heat, and cold as common sense understands them are said not to exist in matter at all, but only in the mind’s representation of matter.  Matter is characterized instead in mathematical terms, in a purely quantitative rather than qualitative way.  For example, for Descartes, matter is essentially what can be captured in the language of analytic geometry.

The modern understanding of matter thus dematerializes it in the sense of stripping away most of the features that common sense takes to be definitive of matter.  Common sense supposes that matter is essentially the kind of thing that we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.  The early modern conception holds that properly to understand matter, in fact you mostly or entirely have to ignore what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.  Matter is not what the senses tell us it is.  Knowing matter’s true nature involves an abstract intellectual exercise rather than straightforward sensory experience.  It is a kind of applied mathematics. 

Looked at in this light, the materialist claim that everything is material is less clear in its import than it might seem at first glance.  For what does “material” mean if we don’t think of matter in naïve commonsense terms?  What does the claim that everything is material entail, exactly, and what does it rule out?

Philosophers and scientists of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century often judged that, given its mathematical bent, the modern conception of matter doesn’t really tell us much about matter at all.  What it gives us is the mathematical structure of matter, but not the nature of the stuff that has that structure.  You see this view, in different forms, in the work of Poincaré, Duhem, Russell, Eddington, and others.  Now, if you read the thesis that everything is material in light of this point, then the thesis turns out to be highly indeterminate.  It is really saying something like everything has such-and-such a mathematical structure.  That is not uninformative, but it is also not nearly as informative as materialism at first seems to be. 

Suppose I said that everything is describable in terms of formal logic.  That is hardly an ontologically significant claim.  Indeed, it rules out nothing at all, since in some sense everything that exists or could exist is describable in terms of formal logic.  To be sure, the claim that everything has such-and-such a mathematical structure is not as ontologically uninformative as that.  For one thing, at least some mathematical properties (such as geometrical properties) are less general than logical ones.  For another thing, even interpreted as the claim that everything has such-and-such a mathematical structure, materialism is committed to the idea that the structure in question is whatever physics tells us it is, which rules out quite a lot.

All the same, there is a lot that it does not rule out.  For example, to say that everything has such-and-such a mathematical structure does not by itself rule out the possibility that everything is also a compound of act and potency, or that qualia are also among the properties that everything has.  In other words, it doesn’t rule out the idea that matter is to be understood along Aristotelian lines, or along panpsychist lines.

The reason it does not rule such claims out is that to say that everything has such-and-such a mathematical structure does not entail that the nature of everything that exists is exhausted by a description of its mathematical structure.  It could turn out that everything that exists has the mathematical structure that physics uncovers, but also has further properties, in addition to that, of which physics tells us nothing.  That is what Russell thought, and it is what contemporary writers influenced by Russell (like David Chalmers and Galen Strawson) have also proposed.  Now, if we allow that qualia can be among the intrinsic features of matter, then, as Chalmers notes, we end up with a position that is either panpsychist or property dualist.  And a position that is compatible with panpsychism and property dualism is not the kind of thing one usually thinks of when one thinks of materialism.  But that is what we get when we read the claim that everything is material in light of the modern conception of matter.

The Russellian view is sometimes called epistemic structural realism.  It holds that the description of the world afforded by mathematical physics is true as far as it goes (hence the view is a kind of realism), but that it is not the whole truth.  Physics can know only the mathematical structure of matter (hence the adjective “epistemic”), but there is more to matter than that.  But one could argue instead that there isn’t more to matter than that.  This is a view sometimes called ontic structural realism.  It holds both that the mathematical description afforded by physics is true (hence it is also a kind of realism), and that it is the whole truth.  Matter is to be identified with its mathematical structure.  There is nothing more to its reality than that (hence the adjective “ontic”). 

Something like this view is defended by philosophers such as James Ladyman and Don Ross in their book Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, and by the physicist Max Tegmark.  I have a lot to say about Ladyman and Ross’s project in the forthcoming Aristotle’s Revenge, all of it critical.  Suffice it for present purposes to note that this sort of view essentially identifies the physical world with a kind of Platonic abstract object.  Ladyman and Ross try to deal with this problem by denying that there is a clear distinction between abstract and concrete.  As I argue in the book, this position is incoherent and the arguments for it are entirely question-begging.  Moreover, even apart from that it doesn’t really solve the problem at all, because (as the Aristotelian would argue) Platonism itself essentially blurs the distinction between the abstract and the concrete.  For a Platonic Form is characterized both as a universal (and hence as abstract) and as a substance (and hence as concrete).  To blur the abstract/concrete distinction is to fall deeper into Platonism, rather than to avoid it.

Ontic structural realism says, in effect, that what exists is a certain Platonic Form, viz. the world considered as a mathematical structure.  So if we read materialism in ontic structural realist terms, then materialism ends up collapsing into a kind of Platonism.  This too is not the sort of thing one usually thinks of when one thinks of materialism.

The way the Neo-Platonist tradition solved this problem of blurring the abstract and the concrete is essentially by conceding to Aristotle the thesis that universals exist only in intellects, and locating the realm of the Forms in an infinite divine intellect.  For Plotinus this intellect is the first emanation from the One, and for Christian Platonists it is God himself.  Now, if you take the world to be a kind of Form or abstract object and add the thesis that such objects exist only in intellects, then you have what amounts to a kind of idealism or even (depending on how the intellect in question is characterized) a kind of pantheism.  Eddington and James Jeans, another twentieth-century physicist, explicitly went in an idealist direction.  Contemporary writers who suggest that the universe might be a kind of computer simulation, and the abstract structure described by physics to be the software underlying the simulation, come pretty close to idealism or pantheism.  The universe qua computer roughly corresponds to the Absolute Spirit of an idealist and pantheist like Hegel, and the computer simulation to the unfolding of this Spirit in history.  Again, not the kind of thing one usually associates with materialism. 

So, if we start with the modern materialist’s conception of matter and start to unpack it, materialism ends up being transformed into one or another of the various views that one would have thought to be at odds with materialism – dualism, panpsychism, Platonism, idealism, or pantheism.

A similarly surprising result follows if we start instead with the materialist’s conception of mind.  The prevailing tendency for decades now among materialists has been to think of the mind in functionalist terms.  That is to say, it is to analyze mental phenomena in terms of what they do rather than in terms of what they are made of.  That idea, in turn, is typically developed in terms of the thesis that the mind is a kind of software that can be run on any number of different kinds of hardware.  On this analysis, mind, like matter, turns out to be a kind of abstract structure.  Like matter, it is essentially dematerialized, in the name of materialism.  And you get other results that sound odd coming from a materialist, such as the idea that a mind might jump from one embodiment to another by way of software being uploaded from its old hardware and downloaded onto new hardware.  (Transmigration of souls, anyone?) 

When you combine the mind-as-software idea with the universe-as-computer idea, you get the result that the individual human mind is like one of many programs running against the background of the same operating system.  This is reminiscent of the relationship between individual souls and the “world soul” in some pantheist and idealist systems.

I would speculate that the reason more materialists don’t see how close these various implications are to views that are usually thought to be the opposite of materialist is that many of them simply don’t know very much about the history of non-materialist philosophy, or the history of philosophy in general.  In particular, they often have an extremely crude conception of the soul (as a piece of ectoplasm, or as a ghost) and an extremely crude conception of God (as a really big piece of ectoplasm or an especially powerful ghost).  Hence their understanding of what Platonic, Aristotelian, Scholastic, idealist, rationalist, etc. philosophers mean when they use terms like “soul” and “God” is laughably off-base, even when they have any knowledge at all of what such thinkers have said.  Ironically, they more or less materialize these immaterial realities, just as they dematerialize matter.

Further reading:

David Foster Wallace on abstraction


  1. This idea of the Universe as a simulation sounds like good old gnosticism to me.

    1. There is nothing new under the Sun.

    2. I fail to see the attractiveness of the the "universe is a simulation" theory. It doesn't solve any need in physics or philosophy, all it does is posit a new layer without that being in any way a solution to anything. In addition, there isn't any actual evidence of it, it's a pure hypothesis that could never be verified. One might as well posit a "Great Green Gobbley" that is the answer to everything.

    3. The transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom is the guy who's most responsible for making the "simulation hypothesis" popular, and he actually has a specific argument for it based on a version of the anthropic principle known as the "self-sampling assumption", which says that there are many situations in which it makes sense to calculate probabilities as if your own life was randomly sampled from some larger set of intelligent beings. I believe the self-sampling assumption grew out of puzzles about how to justify certain intuitions about probabilities in a multiverse, but others have also pointed to thought-experiments that don't require a multiverse, like this one from John Leslie:

      A firm plan was formed to rear humans in two batches: the first batch to be of three humans of one sex, the second of five thousand of the other sex. The plan called for rearing the first batch in one century. Many centuries later, the five thousand humans of the other sex would be reared. Imagine that you learn you’re one of the humans in question. You don’t know which centuries the plan specified, but you are aware of being female. You very reasonably conclude that the large batch was to be female, almost certainly. If adopted by every human in the experiment, the policy of betting that the large batch was of the same sex as oneself would yield only three failures and five thousand successes. ... [Y]ou mustn’t say: ‘My genes are female, so I have to observe myself to be female, no matter whether the female batch was to be small or large. Hence I can have no special reason for believing it was to be large.’

      But as pointed out by Brandon Carter, who coined the term "anthropic principle", if you apply the self-sampling assumption to the history of human civilization, it seems to imply it's very unlikely you were born at a very early point in the sequence of all humans who will ever be born--for example, only a 1% chance you are among the first 1% of all humans ever born. This is known as the "doomsday argument" (Bostrom has an FAQ on the subject) and it seems to put the kibosh on dreams that humanity will expand into the stars and have a very long-lived technological civilization with a much larger population than today. What's more, since the self-sampling assumption emerged from questions about intelligent beings in cosmology, it's typically assumed that one can reason as if one has been sampled from intelligent beings in general, not human beings in particular, and this would seem to imply it's extremely rare for *any* alien technological civilization to expand into the stars in this way, since otherwise the population of intelligent beings throughout the universe (or multiverse) would tend to be dominated by inhabitants of vast interstellar empires and observers finding themselves in a single-planet era would be an extreme minority.

    4. (continued)

      So basically, Bostrom pointed out there is a loophole to this argument--from a transhumanist point of view it's possible that these vast interstellar civilizations would tend to be dominated by A.I.s that would seek to convert as much available matter into computational machines as possible, and with this vast amount of computing power they might devote some sizeable proportion of it to simulations of their past (or possible variants of their past, say to better understand statistical 'laws' of social development by having a large sampling of histories where chance events happened differently). If that were the case, a sizeable proportion of intelligent beings in these civilizations might exist within these "ancestor simulations", and such beings would be misinformed about their own position within the sequence of all intelligent beings ever 'born' in their civilization. Looking at history you might think you were only the 100 billionth person to ever live, when actually you might be living in a simulated history that was just the latest in a long sequence that had been performed, so you might really be the 100 quintillionth humanlike intelligence to ever be "born". And if that's the case you would get incorrect conclusions about the probable lifespan of a typical race of intelligent beings if you based the doomsday argument on your apparent birth order.

    5. I was always curious what a Thomistic or catholic response to Bostrom might be. This particular argument always causes anxiety for me similar to Andrew's anxiety just because of its propensity to throw all reality into doubt. A modern version of Descartes argument one might say - and rather disconcerting. I would think one Thomstic/Aristotelian response may be along the lines that all simulated matter cannot bear the same "properties"? as the actual hylemorphic matter it is simulating. As in the Aristotelian view all matter is a unity of form and prime matter. There's something of an argument there I think, but I have a hard time articulating it or understanding it. Any additional thoughts about the whole thing?

    6. I prefer Dialectical Materialism which views this world in flux and the uses the term "Process" instead of "thing" since the word "thing" or "stuff" implies compartmentalised reality, isolated event, and static nature of the subject. Using the term "process" lets us perceive reality in its totality. Example, the shirt we wear is a process, it was a seed, then a piece of cotton, then piece of clothe and it transformed into a shirt and it will be littered tomorrow. It is a "process" and all these transformations either quantitative ones or qualitative ones come to being with different "internal relations", for example with "relation" of the worker the cotton was transformed into the piece of clothe. So there are processes and relations not "things". Replacing this simple word makes one perceive the reality in a dynamically new way. :)

      Prof. Mushahid Syed

  2. The panpsychist approach is better because then the totality of reality can be seen to be a universal mind (God).

    1. Well at least with panpsychist you get to keep qualia. I really do not see how you can be a merelogical nihilist without being a panpsychist. Many materialists are merelogical nihilists which is just baffling.

    2. 'I really do not see how you can be a merelogical nihilist without being a panpsychist.'

      Could you elaborate further? I'd like to see your argument for it.

    3. Well you have to either deny the qualia of consciousness altogether (which is tantamount to denying human consciousness) or you must affirm that the indivisible base particles (atoms in the atomist philosophy) possess qualia of themselves. This would imply that all atoms are at least minimally conscious.

      You could claim that only interactions between these particles generate consciousness, but that would seem to subvert the whole philosophy as it would be introducing new substances or it would revert back to panpsychism (although you could at least concede that not all particles are “conscious” at all times).

      The only other option is to say that qualia “emerges” from systems of particles, but if the particles themselves do not have a potential to generate these qualia of themselves, then you would seem to violate the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Even then, you would be admitting the existence of something other than particles (the unexplained qualia).

      I believe the hylemorphic dualist position is actually the best for the materialist in one way because you can concede many things (consciousness, qualia, etc.) without recourse to the immaterial. The only problem is that hylemorphic dualism tends to lead to Theism.

  3. I feel like modern eliminative materialism is doubly contradictory. First you observe a bunch of qualia. Then you abstract common features of those qualia and determine a mathematical relationship between said qualia.

    Now since you have this mathematical relationship, you can drop the qualia and claim they do not exist (God only knows why). Now you can assign these mathematical relationships with a name: matter.

    Now since all that exists is matter (or mathematical relationships), then your mind is clearly nothing by a collection of these relationships. A collection of matter, that is. But matter cannot do anything like abstraction, so abstraction must really be more mathematical relationships (matter).

    So at the end of the day, the materialist uses qualia and abstraction to get to materialism and then turns around and claims that qualia and abstraction do not exist.

    At least that is the feeling you get from what materialists try to say.

  4. Ed, I think that your point about physics in Scholastic Metaphysics---to actually emulate some of your own points there about other arguments--- is even stronger than you made it out to be. Maybe Revenge will inject some nitro into the high-octane. But then that will put you into a higher class of "elimination".

    Why are materialists abstracting in the first place? And what the hell are they abstracting from---and to?

    What prompted that imaginary abstractive rabbit-friend out of the supposedly materialist hat?

    The incisive point about scientism is relevant here as well: the illustrations about self-limitation can't be countered by saying that they are arbitrarily self-limited, since that's precisely the whole damn point about scientism itself.

    So it just occurred to me that your point against scientism' counter to your illustrations as arbitrarily narrowed---in addition to merely assuming what is in question---imply an even stronger rebuttal in that scientism is thereby unintendedly self-indicting since it argues against those illustrations as if your own argument against its monopolistic pretensions is in fact successful.

    But let's be nice. Maybe the influence-immune reduction-transcending supervisors of reductive analysis have simply been too busy lately fending off---or worrying about---sexual harassment lawsuits and criminal indictments to bother with such silly superfluities.

    And maybe this partially explains all the bullshit "framing", "permitting", and "allowing" rhetoric coming out of academic "philosophy" these days.

    Crumble pie.

  5. So in other words...

    "If a man wants to philosophize , he must philosophize.
    If a man doesn't want to philosophize, he still must philosophize.
    Either way, am man must philosophize"

  6. One of my friends in college is a materialist who believes in the "mathematical universe hypothesis," which claims that the universe is a mathematical structure. He uses this alongside his Platonist approach to philosophy to argue for necessitarianism; the universe is metaphysically necessary to him, because mathematics itself is also metaphysically necessary. He argues that, even if nothing exists, mathematics and logic still must exist and be correct- they cannot NOT exist. He goes further by stating that we can fulfill the PSR without God, and since we have a prima facie means to reject God via the problem of evil, we can do so.

    I don't think materialism or determinism are coherent, since I believe they leave us in a state of complete skepticism about the nature of truth and are therefore easily rejected, but I do wonder; under a dualistic/hylomorphic Thomism, what is the nature of logic and mathematics? My intuitive thought is that these would both actually derive from God's perfect intellect, and thus would be necessary only as results of that. However, I'm not sure whether or not this can fit into divine simplicity. What do you all think?

    Maybe this would be more fitting for the next open forum, but I'm impatient.

    1. Did he mention anything about theory choice?

      Maybe ask him if that gets a pass. Some unargued background universals seem to get the nice end of glib-and-breezy exceptionalism.

    2. Why can he assume that we're in the mathematical structure that continues being nice and well-behaved tomorrow? What if we're in the other mathematical structure where tomorrow the sun doesn't rise? There are (in some sense) far more of the latter. As Peter Woit has pointed out, people who talk about the universe being a mathematical structure (including Max Tegmark) tend not to demonstrate that much actual appreciation for or interest in mathematics.

      Here is a post where Ed talked about mathematics in Thomism:

    3. @machinephilosophy, @SMack

      I talked to him today, and he refined his philosophy a bit more. I'll try to summarize:

      Mathematical objects are the sole substance of the universe, and they exist necessarily and self-explanatory. Mathematical objects have always existed, since there has never been a time at which nothing existed (since before the universe's beginning 14 billion years ago, there was no time at all).

      His defense of the necessity of mathematics was that, no matter what, 1+1 = 2; hence, mathematical objects are self-existent and necessary.

      He also states that mathematics is the foundation of physics and the laws of nature, which are thus also necessary. In his view, everything in the universe is metaphysically necessary (necessitarianism), and God is not necessary to describe the universe at all. He calls his view mathematical monism.

      When I told him that this was all logically coherent, but that didn't mean it was true, he responded as follows:

      "Of all logically consistent ideas, the most probable ones are those that have the highest prior probablility of being necessary substances in the first place (math).

      So that's why I think math is a good candidate for the substance of the world, since it's the only thing I'm confident is necessary

      And the substance must be necessary

      By necessary I mean logically necessary here."

      He did not mention theory choice, which makes me think it is irrelevant to his philosophy. Further, he stated to me that he did not get his idea from Tegmark, and had heard he was a crank.

      Simply put, I have no idea how to challenge this idea! There is little to no information about it online, either, though my friend has talked about his views with multiple philosophy undergraduate and graduate students, all of whom found it at least reasonable.

      I could truly use some help unpacking this! Ideally, Dr. Feser could share his thoughts on this as well, but he's certainly busy.

    4. His defense of the necessity of mathematics was that, no matter what, 1+1 = 2; hence, mathematical objects are self-existent and necessary.

      Assuming this is an accurate representation of what he said, that above argument is a non-sequitur. The necessity of the relations between numbers (e.g. 1+1=2) absolutely does not prove there are mathematical objects, necessary or otherwise. If you get these mathematical objects, then these relations necessarily follow, but that doesn't get him where he wants to go. The most charitable reconstruction I can give to his argument is:
      1. Necessarily, 1+1=2.
      2. If (1), then there exist necessary mathematical objects.
      3. Therefore, there exist necessary mathematical objects.

      How in the world would he go about defending the second premise there?

    5. He says that the universe is *a mathematical structure,* right? It's not "all of mathematics," whatever that is, but "a mathematical structure." My point is: how does he know which it is?

      Let's consider a very simple example. Suppose we're talking about functions on the real line. We have a given function, f(x); moreover, we know that f(x) = sin(x) for all x less than or equal to 0. How should we expect f(x) to behave for positive x?

      Given no other information, and no priors other than that f(x) is a function (a type of mathematical structure), the answer would have to be: very badly. "Almost all" the functions that equal sin(x) for negative x fail to be continuous at even one point for x >= 0.

      This is just a trivial example. But here's my point. Say the universe "is a mathematical structure." Well, we only know about a small bit of it -- the past, or that part of the past that we've observed. But we assume / believe / know (depending on your metaphysics) that the universe is regular, has laws etc., right? Your friend's belief would completely undermine that, however. Of all of the mathematical structures that appear like ours does up till now, ALMOST ALL of them start behaving wildly badly within the next second. So this view blows up induction / regularity of nature in the most radical possible way. Your friend, in other words, acts like he has knowledge that he couldn't have if his metaphysics were true (i.e., the regularity of nature).

      The stuff where he says "Of all logically consistent ideas, the most probable ones are those that have the highest prior probablility of being necessary substances in the first place (math)" is also BS. Says who?

    6. @ccmnxc:

      I think he would defend premise 2 by saying that, if premise 1 is correct, then we know that there must be mathematical truths that are correct within the world itself, outside of our mind. Thus, mathematical objects exist.


      He would say that the universe is made solely of mathematical objects; the structure of the universe is mathematical.

      "The stuff where he says "Of all logically consistent ideas, the most probable ones are those that have the highest prior probablility of being necessary substances in the first place (math)" is also BS. Says who?"

      Okay yeah, I can kind of see this point. If someone can show that God is metaphysically necessary, then that would probably out-do this mathematical universe hypothesis.

    7. Yeah, to build off SMack's last point on this:

      "Of all logically consistent ideas, the most probable ones are those that have the highest prior probablility of being necessary substances in the first place (math)

      This is, to put it bluntly, a train wreck.

      First of all, as it is formulated it's not even entirely intelligible (or if it is, it is incredibly abstruse and needlessly unclear).
      Let's break it down: The domain of discourse he sets here is "logically consistent ideas."
      Now, supposedly the most probable of said ideas must have the highest prior probability of being necessary substances.

      Um, what? What would be the means for determining the prior probability that math (or some set of mathematical statements) is a necessary substance - whatever the heck that means? I mean, why are we even talking probability when we are speaking about supposedly necessary and (given his example) demonstrable truths? In fact, every truth about the world is demonstrable mathematically on this view, so speaking of probability here is
      completely pointless. And since we can never, by induction, prove a mathematical statement, talk of evidence as related to probability is also pointless. The universe he is proposing to set up here would make his use of probability (and thus his argument) a non-starter.

      Second, he is collapsing the the whole of the probability question into the prior. He's literally saying "Whatever is most probable is that which has the highest prior for X." So apparently the prior is all that matters, which is ridiculous. Now, he might say that what is prima facie most probable will have the highest prior, but this is bordering on tautology, since the prior just describes the probability of something "on it's face" before further evidence or argumentation is taken into account.

      Third, why, to be most probable, must these logically consistent ideas be necessary substances rather than necessary truths? This relates to my above post, I think, but take the Pythagorean Theorem for example. What is the probability of its being true (note, not of its being a necessary substance, but of its simply being true)? 1. That's it. The probability of its truth is one because it is:
      1. True, and
      2. Necessarily true.
      Yet, this claim is not that it is a necessary substance, and so we must accept the absurd conclusion that since the class of logically consistent ideas that have the highest probability of being necessary substances is the most probable, then the class of merely logically necessary statements (such as the Pythagorean Theorem, among many, many others) is less than 1. Or, conversely, that the class of statements with the highest prior of being necessary substances has a probability of >1. Neither position is tenable.

      Now, he can drop all the talk of these mathematical ideas being substances to avoid this, but that would pretty well dismantle his mathematical monism as it is presented.

      Of course, I assume you are faithfully representing his position here, but honestly, the difficulty in a refutation lies less in its subtlety and more in the fact that there are so many serious errors it is hard to evaluate at all.

    8. GermyClean,

      I think he would defend premise 2 by saying that, if premise 1 is correct, then we know that there must be mathematical truths that are correct within the world itself, outside of our mind. Thus, mathematical objects exist.

      This still doesn't follow. There are necessary mathematical truths, yes, and I have no qualms with this. In fact, this is just another, more general way of stating premise 1. Instead of 1+1=2, premise 1 can simply be "There are necessarily true mathematical statements." I assume you can see, then, why the response that there are mathematical truths in the world itself, outside our mind, adds nothing to what premise 1 already states. If they are necessarily true, then, a fortiori they are true in the external world, independent of our minds.

      Now, there is an ambiguity here that might be the source of the issues we're discussing. When I say that these mathematical truths are true in the world itself, outside of any mind, I am not affirming that these truths exist in some substantial way and do not depend on a mind for their existence. Rather, to say they are true outside of a mind is to say that regardless of whether or not there were any mind, the truth of the relation expressed in the mathematical statement is going to be true. This is crucial to understand: The truth is not dependent upon our minds, however, for the math the truths are described in to exist in anything approaching a substantial way, more argumentation is needed than merely pointing out that the statements are necessarily true.
      To put it in modal terms, a statement that is necessarily true de dicto is not going to be necessary de re. Which is to say, the content of a statement being necessarily true will not make the statement qua statement a necessary being. This would be an error in modal logic and would be an invalid inference. And I think this modal error lies at the heart of your friend's position as it has been presented here.

    9. ccmxc's points are excellent and well said.

      To my less important one:

      "He would say that the universe is made solely of mathematical objects; the structure of the universe is mathematical."

      I understand that. My point is that I think he's failing to appreciate just how many different possible mathematical universes there are. There are a LOT of mathematical structures, and most of them are not nice at all. Even most of the ones that seem nice up to a point turn out not to be nice at all after that point. People think that they can say "mathematical structure," and that means something beautiful and lovely; but not so. A lot of very ugly sets qualify as mathematical structures. You have to put in the nice properties by hand, and he's basically robbed himself of any way to do so consistently.

    10. Arguments like these fail to distinguish between necessary truth and necessary existence. "1+1=2" is necessarily true. An intellect can't conceive or comprehend "1+1" equalling anything else. The necessity of its truth is due to the essence or nature of "1" and "+", but the existence of these abstract objects is due to the comprehending intellect.

    11. I think these are good points you all are making, but they've also made me realize even more that I'm really not a good philosopher at all!

      I've tried my best to represent my friend's perspective, which I had trouble objecting to on my own, and I would absolutely have trouble responding to all of your responses to it as well!

      I've sent your comments to my friend, and recommended that he come here as well if he wants to discuss his ideas further with you all. He might, or he might not.

    12. Update: My friend got back in contact with me, and said that he actually found your points valid (to quote him directly, he said that he "got torn apart").

      I think that your points, particularly ccmxc's, are pretty conclusive, but my friend is going to pass on your responses to a more educated mathematical monist he knows, in the hope that they will respond. I don't know if this means he will come to the blog himself, or if I'll have to send his responses to you all, but I'd hope it to be the former.

      Hopefully, you can all work to unpack his responses as well as you did my friend's. Thanks a lot!

    13. For what it's worth, props to your friend here for the humility; many would rather fight to the bitter, pointless end over such things, so his graciousness is appreciated.

      It should be noted, however, that basically nothing I said can be construed as a general critique of mathematical monism. I don't know enough about the position and its defenders to mount such an argument. It was very specific points and subarguments I was responding to above, so the mathematical monist your friend is talking to might not have much to say on account of my particular criticisms not being applicable. Any general account of mathematical monism is going to have to develop at least two points:
      1. That there are mathematical statements, truths, or whatever, that exist in a robust way, and
      2. These things account for and explain the universe either directly or by way of giving rise to the phenomena we experience.

      I'm guessing there are several ways adherents to such a position would go about defending these, so it's likely far more could be said by another mathematical monist on the issue.

      As it stands, mathematical monism sounds like it bares a family resemblance to ontic structural realism, so if you want a critique that may be more academic and thoroughgoing, I'd encourage you to get Ed's book on the philosophy of nature when it becomes available.

    14. @ccmnxc,

      My friend has written back once again, saying that the mathematical monist he got into contact with was busy. So, at least for now, this conversation is at rest. Also, I very much plan on getting Aristotle's Revenge!

  7. The reason for the above gap in the text is that I used angle brackets, instead of what should have shown up there:

    (Russellian crickets)

  8. "On this analysis, mind, like matter, turns out to be a kind of abstract structure. Like matter, it is essentially dematerialized, in the name of materialism. And you get other results that sound odd coming from a materialist, such as the idea that a mind might jump from one embodiment to another by way of software being uploaded from its old hardware and downloaded onto new hardware."

    These thoughts that you mention here seem like they are referencing Transhumanism. I would really like to hear your thoughts on Transhumanism, because I haven't heard many Christian philosophers deal with this.

    1. Transhumanism should get it's own thread.

      Quote"Transhumanism is about how technology will eventually help us overcome the problems that have, up until now, been endemic to human nature. Cyberpunk is about how technology won't."end

  9. Honest materialism is anti-science. For if we use our minds when computing scientific equations, or when we abstract from a certain geometrical figure, then these things are nonsense, since the mind is immaterial. Explaining the mind "materialistically" a la Dennet won't work either.

  10. Isn't it remarkable that a fully committed embrace of materialism almost immediately leads us to deny our daily experience of what we call the material world?

  11. I guess my great insight there is just what Prof. Feser already wrote:

    "So, if we start with the modern materialist’s conception of matter and start to unpack it, materialism ends up being transformed into one or another of the various views that one would have thought to be at odds with materialism – dualism, panpsychism, Platonism, idealism, or pantheism."

    I could have just written: I agree with this.

  12. Hi folks,

    Firstly, my apologies for taking up your time, I understand you all have far more important things to be doing. I will attempt to be quick.

    I'm a Catholic who is on the edge of losing faith. I've spent the last week without much sleep, sweating, and obsessed with some particulars in Neuroscience. Every five minutes I find myself googling names like Anil Seth, Katl Friston, Thomas Metzinger and Carl Hohwy. I even find myself stalking their Twitter accounts to see what the latest stab in my heart will be, reading abstracts from papers that I'm not qualified to understand.
    I keep reading that I am an illusion, that free will does not exist, that all of human experience is explained by The Free Energy Principal/Predictive Coding/Predictive Processing/Active Inference/Baysiean Brain models etc.
    I suffer from severe anxiety, and I can't find anything to relate the above to a Christian view. I feel myself slipping into Nihilism. In a week my life has become meaningless. Metzinger recently quoted a Dec 18 paper by Friston et al claiming to show that the "self" is not real in the brain.
    I can't find any answers, or any hope to cling to. My Conciousness is a joke and that my life is just reducing uncertainty via prediction/free energy reduction.

    Please, if you have a moment, can you give me any guidance? Materialism is destroying me right now. I can't sleep. I can't tell if I love my girlfriend and want to propose, or if it's just an illusion. Everything is black.
    Any help or guidance would be appreciated.

    Thank you,

    - Andrew

    1. Thank you for posting, Andrew. First, I want you to know that I am praying for you, and second, that I have been in almost precisely the situation you are currently in -- down to the lack of sleep, the poring over academic papers in a field other than my own instead of working, the seeming quick falling apart of my whole world and worldview. I don't know if that knowledge will help, but anyway it might be encouraging to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. And yes, I'm still a believer (a Protestant, though), and no, I didn't run away from all my questions (although there are a couple where I had to learn to deal with saying "I'm not sure" for awhile).

      Now, a couple of questions for you.

      (1) How much of this blog and/or Feser's books have you read?

      (2) Can you choose one or two *specific* ideas and/or papers that is bothering you the most? I recognize that that you're practically drowning right now in a sea of such things. But at least if you're like me, I also recognize that it's almost hopeless to attack all the fronts at once, and you may not even be able to quantify which thing bothers you the most (like a ship with a hundred holes). So please think it over and come up with one or two arguments and/or academic papers that is really giving you the fits. You can think about this a bit and answer question 1 first.

      It's going to be important to calm down a little and try to decouple your emotions a bit. That's really hard, because your whole world is tied into this. Also, if you're like me, you probably are finding that the old standbys -- CS Lewis et al. -- aren't helping, because you're worried that you're only liking them because they say what you like. It's true that there's a risk of motivated thinking, but there's also a risk of over-correction. (Maybe you don't suffer from this problem, though.)

      CS Lewis has an essay -- I'll try to find it -- where he argues that one should not give up faith immediately just because some apparently new information has come to light. Rather, assume that you were right before, and try to calmly assess this with expert help (good for you for coming here!). Can you do that? The intellect just does not work well in panic mode. Give yourself permission to pray and enjoy God and creation and your girlfriend's company for an evening or two and don't let yourself view it as running away from the issue. It's *necessary* if you're to analyze this rationally.

      (Re: enjoying the company. That might be hard. At my height, I was pretty convinced that all the people I was interacting with were meaningless computers. Persevere.)

      I'll be honest -- I couldn't at first. I kept it all to myself for too long until it had developed into full-blown OCD/anxiety disorder, and I couldn't function. I couldn't work, couldn't sleep, could barely even make myself eat for reading papers and pacing and thinking. A good Christian counselor and medication helped settle things down enough for me to be able to function and be rational again, and confront the questions in a more reasonable way. Hopefully you're not there yet! Anyway, please respond. I'll interact with you, and there are people here smarter than I am who I'm sure will too. Prayers brother.

    2. (Incidentally, I'm a mathematician -- not a neuroscientist -- but I have a vague familiarity with at least the names you refer to, and I'm happy to pull up an article or two and give it a whirl if you think it will help.)

    3. The Bible makes it very clear. "Faith comes by hearing the WORD". I recommend reading the Gospel of John three times as a salve against doubt and unbelief.

    4. Andrew,

      I used to be a materialist. But found that it makes no sense.

      "A small error in the beginning leads to a big one in the end" - Aquinas

      Materialists make a small error in the beginning by forgetting that we, the observer, are part of the world. Or, they branch us off to the side and then get so caught up in the rest, that by the time they realize observers need to be accounted for, they can't do it and decide there are no observers, even themselves. However, if you are not really observing anything, then there is no basis to develop and express a materialist philosophy because there is no one doing the developing or expressing.

      Also, consciousness cannot be an illusion, as Bill Vallicella explains here:

    5. Andrew,

      Thank you for your comment. My prayers are with you. If you feel like you are unqualified to make an assessment on a paper, then take Pascal’s Wager and keep your faith for now. SMack gave good advice. The point of Pascal’s Wager is to keep us from acting frivolously on account of our doubts. Even if, for the sake of argument, you were thoroughly convinced that materialism was true, you will not gain happiness by throwing away your faith. And on the chance that materialism is incorrect, you are putting yourself at a grave risk by jumping to conclusions. Meanwhile, believing in a false Christianity will have very few (if any) negative consequences if it turns out to be false.

      Fortunately, materialism is one of the most bankrupt and untenable philosophies ever construed. There is a reason it has been a minority view (by a large margin) for the entire history of the human race. This is not because the fast majority of humans are stupid or delusional. There are plenty of Catholic neuroscientists and philosophers of mind (Dr. Feser and Dr. Michael Augros being such philosophers) who have destroyed materialist theses.

      I recommend you watch this talk by Dr. Feser for a brief outline of the holes in the materialist philosophy.

      After that, I highly recommend that you read Dr. Michael Augros’ book, “The Immortal In You”. This is a great exposition of the Thomistic view of the immateriality of the soul as well as hylemorphic dualism.

      As SMack said, I would be happy to answer any specific objections you have. God bless you!

  13. Andrew,

    I have been in your same situation. I know how hard it can be. When I had my difficulties, I couldn't sleep, I didn't want to eat, and I had extreme separation anxiety with family members.

    This blog helped A LOT. Reach out to this community with your questions. There are some smart people here. If one is bugging you in particular, e-mail Dr. Feser directly. I know he is busy, but what could it hurt?

    Finally, I am no neuroscientist, but have you read Mele's book on free will? Have you looked into Gary Habermas's writings on Near Death Experiences? They might be good places to start helping you. I wish I could do more for you, but I hope and pray this crisis ends for you soon and that your faith remains intact.

  14. @SMack,

    Thank you for the reply! I'll have to go into more depth at some point tomorrow, its 3am here (Ireland) and I fear this is going to be badly formatted on my phone. To answer (1) right now, I've read this blog lightly for a number of years, and I read Aquinas a few years ago, on loan from a friend. I'm a civil servant in the Irish police and a middling guitarist, so much of what is said in Science and Philosophy goes over my head. I made this account solely to comment on this post, and what materialism did to me in a week, but it ended up being less a comment, and more a cry for help, and thus I feel I've sullied a normally intellectual comment section with this. Thank you for the prayers, and the suggestions. I'll hopefully be able to provide some details on (2) later on, and if nothing else, I hope this serves to demonstrate to yourself, other commenters and possibly Ed himself, what raw, out and out materialism does to one outside the comfy confines of the ivory tower. Think of me as a case study of the average person confronting this for the first time.
    Again, thank you brother, I'll reply again when I've slept.

    1. @Andrew,

      Thank you for the reply. I hope you're succeeding at catching some ZZZs. Your job must be particularly stressful without (and with the general grey gloom of materialism to boot).

      Like Michael Rathbone, I have found Ed's writing (much of it on this blog) exceptionally helpful. I wonder if we might suggest some old posts for you to read that might be a useful starting point of things to think about?

      One very important thing to keep in mind in all this is that you can't refute an argument with a paper in a fancy journal. The theistic position is supported by powerful arguments, and while it can seem overwhelming when you see all these famous scientists and philosophers with fancy jobs at famous universities saying otherwise, if their picture of reality doesn't hold up to examination, well then it doesn't.

      I took a look at the Friston article you mentioned. (I think -- the one I found was from December 17, not December 18). As luck would have it, it's largely based around ideas from my own area of mathematics (geometry), specifically projective geometry, so I was able to get a decent sense for what they were saying, even though (a) I'm not a neuroscientist and (b) it's atrociously badly written. (A prime example of how we academics never say anything simply if we can say it with fifteen fancy words.) I think it has one interesting idea and a lot of hype and blether, and the interesting idea doesn't even come anywhere close to saying that the self is a product of computation in the brain (a fact that they admit if you read it carefully, though they do try to imply otherwise). We can discuss the paper in more detail if you want. I am very confident that it does not say what Prof. Metzinger would like to believe it does. Let me know if you want to talk about it more, but possibly other things would be more pressing. I'll let you decide. Do read John!

    2. If I may, as a starting point, I found the following series of 10 posts very helpful. It may seem a strange one, because it's a series of reviews of a book that paints the bleakness of materialism (/scientism) particularly acutely. But Ed turns that to a masterful evaluation of the intellectual content of the world view. We must, after all, consider it if we are to refute it, and he does a very fine job. I hope you'll find these posts helpful as a sampler. (Ed's got tons of stuff on these issues, obviously.)

    3. Andrew,

      I made some recommendations as well. Please see my comment above on your first comment.

      Oh and if you’re Irish, sláinte!

  15. At the other gentlemen who replied, thank you so much. Given the time, I'll need to respond and thank you properly, individually after I've stolen some sleep.

  16. Andrew,
    The problem with Catholic and European Protestantism is that it has an incomplete anthropology of man, i.e. it only considers that man is a combination of body and soul. A careful reading of Genesis 1 reveals that man is a combination of body, soul, and spirit. This is very important. The Bible makes clear that the soul is a product of the interaction between body and spirit. Consequently, the mind is both material and immaterial.

    Catholic philosophy is fundamentally bankrupt because it has an incorrect understanding of the nature of man, the nature of God, and the nature of the world around us.

    God understood that we could not understand the world properly by merely trusting our senses. Our senses frequently deceive us.

    Therefore true knowledge begins with a fear of God, not philosophy, and that revealed truth is greater and deeper than experiential truth.

  17. "A careful reading of Genesis 1 reveals that man is a combination of body, soul, and spirit. This is very important. The Bible makes clear that the soul is a product of the interaction between body and spirit. Consequently, the mind is both material and immaterial."

    Do you have particular verses of Genesis 1 in mind?

    1. I should have said Genesis 2:7. Sorry for not being more clear. Also:

  18. Gents, please refrain from engaging with Gerald. If you look at Ed's Christmas Every Day post, you will see him flooding the combox with impertinent comments that will, if history is any indicator, take us on a very long and pointless tangent away from both Ed's post and Andrew's question. The dude has an axe to grind; let him grind it by himself.

    1. >The dude has an axe to grind; let him grind it by himself.

      Hear! Hear!

  19. Hello all,

    I am curious on your thoughts about "simulation skepticism." I believe Ed Feser mentioned it in his post. A few philosophers, such as Nick Bostrom, have put forward the argument that if most future people having experiences like ours live in simulations, then we are most likely simulations ourselves. Although Bostrom uses simulated people, the argument can be modified for "brain-in-vat" like situations.

    If there is some nontrivial possibility these scenarios actually happen, then there is some nontrivial probability we live in a simulation.


  20. (Part 1)Folks, now that I've slept and had some time to think about things: Thank you for the words of advice and support.

    @SMack, Again, thank you for engaging with me. To be honest, I'm not overly sure where to begin, peehaps writing it down will help. My faith has been Shakey over the years, a fact I put down to buying the God Delusion at 17 during my edgy, rebellious teenage phase.
    I'm 30 now, and while I have matured in most ways, the Spectre of anxiety and obessesion still haunts me.
    I suppose to answer (2), I'd have to throw some ideas in front of you, and then drill down.
    Rubber hand illusions, knowing that tissue and chemicals are the basis of my reality and feelings in the physical world, knowing now that my senses do not give me an objective, empirical picture of the world, but an easily decieved one. A brains best guess. A Bayesian/predictive account, I think. Karl Friston/Anil Seth/Hohwy/Andy Clark/Tononi et Al. being the "rockstar" neuro-folks. Reading blogs like Conciousness Entities and the brains blog. Watching Seth's (extremely popular) Ted talk and viewing his blog. A hundred holes indeed.
    The self, or Conciousness (definitions seem vague) being a construction of the brains parts working in tandem, presenting an illusion. This seems backed up by psychedelics producing "selfless" states by disrupting brain cohesiveness. The idea of the brain being nothing than a "prediction error minimisation machine" (Hohwy, Seth, Clark Friston etc.)
    Even, apparently, at from my reading, that the predictive coding/processing/Baysiean/Active Inference is now the dominant and accepted paradigm, and even Fristons "Free Energy Principle" being seen as a GUT/TOE of the brain, and organic life in general, from single cells to civilisations. I wouldn't know where to begin. Oakley and Halligans recent pronouncement that all actions and thought are entirely unconscious. I'm writing this now, but the words are just coming to me. Am I just letting unconscious processes guide my hands, and then having my Conciousness falsely claim ownership of my action afterwords?
    Am I simply reducing my free energy/reducing uncertainty etc?
    I wish I point to a paper or two, but I'd be plowing through dozens.
    Then again, am I entirely wrong? Can I be an entirely physically embodied being, with a mind dependant of a brain and feelings/selfhood constructed entirely there, according to all of these principles, and yet still remain a person, and have my faith? A cut still hurts, even if it is my brain reacting to nerve cells and making me take action to stop blood loss. "I" operate at the level of personhood, and I could dive down into the individual neuronal/chemical level and see why the cut hurts, why I feel love, why I feel anxiety, why I tap my feet to the blues. But I don't operate at those levels. Maybe this insane level of complexity and mechanistic function actually speaks to a God who set in flow a Universe of such complexity, from quantum foam, big bang, to evolution, art, dance, science and philosophy, everything. Maybe the mechanistic account is right, but I can still live as a person, and have my faith.
    I hope readers of this can see past my limited ability to explain, I understand this is going to read as a jumbled mess.
    Maybe Philosophy is just word games, as some would say. I hope not. The sheer amount of writing on Ed's blog and in his books would speak against that.
    Rather than a pity party, maybe readers can view this as the thinking and anxiety of a layman's dealing with these accounts, Neuro-Existentialism from an intellectual peasants view. The Ivory Tower seen from the mud shack.

    1. (Part 2)
      What I've written might be a physical, Bayes induced, predictive account of my various brain systems trying to reduce uncertainty and free energy, or it might speak to something deeper. I hope so.
      If I could stop reading these Twitter's/blogs/papers for a few minutes and learn to view them in the right way, it would help. Surely as a follower of Christ, I should be able to fearlessly engage with the world.
      I'll set time aside to read those posts you recommended SMack, and the others thoughts and suggestions too. Maybe I can contribute to the discussion, rather than beg for help. Again, thank you. I need to learn more.

    2. Andrew,
      How exactly can an illusory judgment determine itself to be meaningully illusory? If judgment is simply a production and result of a biochemical process inside our brains, then
      1. How could we possibly know that without that judgment just being an illusion too? and
      2. By what standard is something (like drug induced states) deemed 'illusory?' Actually, if we can deem anything illusory and also conclude all things are illusory then one ought to conclude there is in fact nothing illusory at all: that all judgments and impressions are equally real and valid. Of course, this means the mind/judgment = biochemical procees in the brain crowd cannot argue against those who contradict them.
      I understand your anxiety but I beg you to be calm. The Moderns are quite illogical because few of them have formal training in logic or rhetoric, making them nearer to Sophists than classical Philosophers and rather spreading confusion than true knowledge or understanding.

    3. Andrew, you might find some of my blog posts of interest.

  21. Andrew, like the guys before me, I can assure you of the following that I went through the exact same thing - stress to the point of panic, lack of confidence in my own thoughts, obsessively poring over essays and papers on neuroscience, modern theology, quantum science (didn't help at all). I was living a successful life, but I also lived through the darkest period of my life. It was crippling, but the one choice I made was not to give up. I continued to pray. I continued to live as I would if I firmly believed. I even (having made sure with my spiritual director that I'm not in a state of mortal sin) continued to go to Communion, which I deeply, deeply wanted to revere and believe is true. I think that, by the grace of God, all this let me eventually get out of this.

    Don't misunderstand me. I didn't get out of this by the feelings wearing out, or by me succumbing to wishful thinking. When you're concerned with what is true, it's not possible to choose to ignore your doubts, especially when they're that significant. You want the Truth and nothing less, and wishful thinking only averts you away from "good news".

    But not giving up is worth it. At my darkest hour, through some unexpected books, events and people, God saved me both spiritually and intellectually, making me understand that He is so much more than what I ever thought Him to be. In the end, it's Him who will bring you joy, not an iron clad argument.

    That being said - the case for Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, is unbelievably strong. Don't fall into the mistake of thinking that you've already read/heard all there is to this topic - a while ago you were sure of the same thing, comfortable in your faith. Just like that changed, there's no reason to be certain that your current state is final.

    Secondly, I know that arguments from neurobiology or materialism seem very convincing. However, they are far less air-tight than you'd think, especially once you revise your understanding (or maybe conception) of the soul, being, God etc. a very important book for me was Dr Feser's "The Last Superstition", as it helped me see that scientism and materialism is, in essence, much more based on blind faith and assumptions than you'd expect. In terms of morality, I recommend CS Lewis's Mere Christianity, gives a down-to-earth but simple discussion of morality. Try to read up on more Christ-oriented subjects, such as the case for the resurrection - Peter Kreeft's short discussion of this might surprise you with the amount of good reasons to believe in the Resurrection, as will an overview of the early church history ( and have good resources). Finally, spiritually, so that you don't feel alone, note that St There's of Lisieux, one of the most important saints, was a cloistered nun with no direct contact with atheists... And yet she herself experienced doubt so strong she could not believe in heaven at times. And yet she persisted, and the difficulties only strenghtened her sanctity. You might also like Jennifer Fullwiler's conversion story - I can't link it from my phone, but you should be able to easily find it on

    There is much, much more I could recommend, but I can't do all of that here. All I can do is pray for you and encourage you. I've been there. It was damn heart wrenching at times. But in the end, I now see that it was the biggest blessing of my life, as it was the only way I could truly mature in my faith and experience God as He wants to be experienced - as pure Love and the only Goal for us to yearn for.

    Pax! Stay strong! If you have any questions, feel free to ask :)

  22. (1/2)

    Hi Andrew.

    I don't have much to add in terms of encouragement, but if I can, I'd like to at least address some intellectual concerns. It won't be thorough-going, but it might provide some reference points:

    1. To get down to brass tacks, if the self or our consciousness is an illusion, then we've already found ourselves in incoherence. Do rocks have illusions? No. How about trees? Not so far as we can tell. What suffers from illusions? Conscious things! To explain away consciousness in terms of an illusion is to presuppose what is being explained away. Thus, consciousness cannot be illusory.

    2. With respect to free-will, one argument (among several) that I like to employ surrounds the use of language. Language, both in terms of the sounds as well as symbols associated with it has no intrinsic or natural meaning. It is a meaning by convention. What is it about "t" that makes us use it as the 20th letter in the English-language alphabet? It is not something about "t" itself. Rather, we choose to ascribe such meaning to it. It is a matter of the will what certain symbols mean and whether we will follow the local convention around those symbols and their associated sounds. Yet, if there is no free will, we do not freely choose the meaning of our words, which in turn means we have no grounds for thinking that we are actually communicating using the same linguistic apparatus. Given that, any papers you read, results the scientists rely upon, or whatever, is undermined since we share no common language of discourse. Unless we want to say that the uncaring, unknowing laws of physics and neurology compel us to use symbols and sounds in the same way, which is, well it's magic, basically.

    3. To go the full eliminativist route that the scientists you cite are going would likely undermine any scientific progress, including their own. If we have illusory people, with no consciousness or will of their own, who are really just mean machines, there is no reason we should trust our scientific reasoning processes and empirical observations at all. Yet these scientists obviously do in order to reach their conclusions, and so they avail themselves to things which their own theory rules out, resulting in a performative self-contradiction.

    1. @ccmnx Great pointers!

      In regards to point 2., a short booklet by Alfred R. Mele, "Free" (available on Amazon, Kindle) does a good job of, if not "proving" free will, then at least showing that none of the frequently cited studies come anywhere close of disproving it. Worth checking out!

  23. (2/2)

    There is more that could be said, but that is enough for now. Still, I understand that even if you accept these arguments, it still doesn't actually explain how or why these writers you cite are wrong, which may result in a sort of intellectual stalemate for you. How should you proceed? Well, first of all, the issues I outlined above are more fundamental and decisive than their papers. Tons and tons of scientific papers are wrong, but if you have no self, consciousness, or free-will, and process used to achieve these "scientific" results will be undermined, which is a much more far-reaching and foundational issue. Further, given the stalemate, it is most sensible to opt for what would require the least amount of revisions to your worldview; the more change you make, the more likely you are to be wrong, simply on account of the fact that for every right answer, there are going to be innumerable wrong ones you could pick from.
    With this, when the panic strikes and it seems difficult, you can at least look at your doubts and conclude to yourself that they are due to your being pushed around by emotions on the issue rather than rationality. While this may not alleviate your suffering, it does give you the possibility of an "out," where there is rational and happy theism and non-eliminativism outside the storm you are in. This knowledge plus a good dose of fortitude can keep the flame of hope alive and leave you able to fight another day.

    All that being said, here are potentially a couple more resources you could tap into (though I really do encourage you to read the Rosenburg roundup that was linked to above first, especially part VIII and the pieces on eliminativism lower down in the post):

    - Dr. Michael Augros' book the Immortal in You - deals with questions of the soul and refutation of scientism in relation to it. It is fairly accessible as far as philosophy goes:

    - Thomistic Institute lectures, particularly by Dr. James Madden (Neuroscience and the Soul) and Daniel De Haan (The Soul After Neuroscience) - both are under the Faith and Science heading:

    Keep strong!

  24. Hi folks,
    I'd like to address all of you with this as I'm currently busy and short on time, I will try to address you guys in a more suitable fashion when I have time, but thank you.
    Thank you all for the outpouring of time and resources, the reassurance and the prayer.

    1. Certainly no rush on your part! Don't let us overwhelm you. Also, I feel that there were points you made that I didn't address in my very long post below, but it was getting embarrassing in length. If you want me to keep going, I can. :-P

  25. (Part 1/2)
    As I expected, others more competent than I have come and give very good thoughts and advice. I just want to share a few more thoughts.

    1) I think it's very, very helpful to understand just what the Thomist view of the mind/soul is. One place I've read recently that does this really well is the first half of Ed's paper on Ross's argument, here:

    In particular, it's surprising just how much the traditional Christian view *does* have going on in the brain. Or at least, surprising at first. But it kind of makes sense on some level. I mean, *obviously* the brain does do a lot of work for our minds, right? It does integrate our senses, control our bodies, etc., etc. So basically, I think there's a lot of comfort to be got by learning more about hylemorphic dualism, which tends to ease *some* of the tensions between modern science and dualism compared to the now more common Cartesian dualism.

    I think "The Last Superstition" would also be a great book for you to read.

    2) Most of the neuroscience literature you're talking about is a mixture of two things: interesting, if still very speculative theories about how the brain does the things it does; and wildly bad philosophy with totally unjustified conclusions and extensions from part (1). (Scientists these days are *notoriously* bad about this.)

  26. (Part 2/3... oops)
    Let's take the paper you mentioned by Friston et al. Actually, first a word about Friston. As you said, he's all the rage right now. You might think that means you have to believe everything he says. Actually, though, quite the contrary. String theory was all the rage in high energy physics for thirty years, and it's finally in the process of largely collapsing into a heap of rubble because there's no actual support for it. Science, like anything else, is subject very much to trends. Some of those end up lasting and turning into scientific knowledge. A very great many of them don't.

    (An instructive example here is behaviorist psychology. In the 1940s and 1950s, this had such a lock on psychology that it was almost unthinkable to challenge it, and it was very depersonalizing and anti-Christian, just like what you're reading. That had to be a challenge for lots of people. How could they have known that it would totally collapse and go the way of the Dodo bird thanks to Chomsky and a few others pointing out that the emperor had no clothes?) Already I have seen some people (atheistic materialistic psychiatrists with interest in neuroscience) questioning whether Friston is actually saying anything coherent. He well may be, but you can't assume so because he's trendy.

    Anyway, back to the paper: I think it has an interesting idea. Basically the idea is this. It points out that a lot of our consciousness takes place in a private 3D visual world, but that it has some interesting features: a distinguished point of view, lines that converge at infinity, etc. They conclude from this that the geometry of the imagined space is not Euclidean but projective (another kind of geometry that has those features).

    That's all very interesting. And maybe the brain does generate the "space" we consciously inhabit using some kind of projective geometry model. (Read Feser's paper on Ross, above, and notice that would not be in tension *at all* with Thomism.)

  27. (Part 3/3)
    Where Friston goes crazy, though, is then in saying that this geometry/point of view IS consciousness. That, of course, makes no sense, as ccmnxc has pointed out. (Funny enough, it might make more sense on a scholastic view of matter.) Friston et al. observe that neurophenomenology (the framework they're working in) "is compatible, strictly speaking, with dualisms, panpsychisms, non-reductive physicalisms, and even with idealisms."

    But they then go on to argue for the materialist/computationalist view of mind, not based on strong scientific arguments, or actually ANY scientific arguments, but based on very bad philosophical arguments. You will see this pattern everywhere in neuroscience (and physics, and....)

    Similarly with free energy and predictive coding. It may well be that the brain processes data about the world using these mechanisms, and that that explains such things as various optical illusions (the full moon size, the rubber hand illusion, etc.) Those illusions, after all, are real, and they must happen somehow. Maybe they happen like this.

    So what? The brain had to work somehow. If that's how it works -- cool! But the fact that our senses do not infallibly capture the world (and it IS a fact, whatever the reason) does not mean that they don't capture it at all, or that it/we don't exist, or that we can't use reason to know it. (After all, we KNOW about the rubber hand illusion.)

    Here is perhaps the most important point that ccmnxc made: reason, logic, and empirical knowledge are the only way we can study all these things in the first place. The materialist worldview that is scaring you destroys all three completely. Come to understand that, and you'll see that it is a rational impossibility that materialism is true, no matter how many badly-philosophized neuroscience papers are written, or what we learn about the brain.

    If Dawkins's book set you down this path, I'd absolutely urge "The Last Superstition." It was, I think, by far the best and most substantive response to the new atheists.

    Also, as others have said, the Bible and prayer and the Sacrament and time with God's people.

    Sorry for my logorrhea. Blessings.

  28. Hi Andrew,

    Something I have found really helpful to deal with all these claims made by neuroscientists is the work of Peter Hacker. He is a Wittgenstein expert and a furious critic of neuroscientists and neurophilosophers. He has produced, along with an Australian neuroscientist, probably the best critique of neurobubble I have seen: Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience ( The book is a bit heavy and goes very deep to the details. So probably that is not what you need right now. But here is a link to an interview of Peter Hacker in which he dismantles some popular ideas in these fields (
    The only problem is that Hacker is not a religious person so he doesn't believe in the soul. But that should not be relevant to you here since the point is to see how bad the arguments of neuroscientists are (nevertheless, there seems to be some Aristotelian influence in his work --see Human Nature. The Categorical Framework-- so that makes him be close to the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition of professor Feser).
    However, if you are concerned about the topic of the soul and neuroscience, I recommend you to research professor Richard Swinburne. He is a very famous Christian thinker who has worked in the last years on these topics. I leave you a short clip of him:

    Hope these things contribute to make you feel better. Just tell you that what is happening to you is totally normal given the intellectual climate we have today. It is completely shameful that some think they have the right to make these kind of claims. It seems to me that that shows a complete lack of consideration about the effect that they can have in the general public. However, once you understand them, I think there is in fact nothing to be worried about.

    Take care and let me know if you need anything else.

  29. What does it mean for materialism to be "true", "physical", or "material"?

    If you want to "see" transcendence/immateriality in the structure and operation of your own conceptualizing, folks, it's hard to beat the dictionary.

  30. @Andrew:

    I do not have much to add to what others have said, especially because, although I am a relatively recent convert to Catholicism, I have never experienced a break down of the faith of the type you seem to be having. But like SMack, my background is in Mathematics, and I can tell you positively when scientists (especially physicists) go out of their, often very narrow, field of expertise, most of the times they talk pure unmitigated crap, pristine Frankfurtean bull****.

    There are many examples, but I will leave you with this anecdote. In a public forum dedicated to answering research mathematical questions, a prolific mathematician complained in the comments (cannot remember exactly what triggered the complaint) that the idea of God was (paraphrasing from memory) completely non-sensical because there is no way to verify it via our senses, experiments, etc. I responded that if his argument was right then he had just disproved Platonism, so he probably should go tell the Good News to the sizable Platonist portion of the mathematical community. You know what his response was? (once again, paraphrasing from memory) He could not even begin to imagine how one could be a mathematician and *not* be a Platonist. I never answered back (the site is not for such polemics anyway). I mean, what would be the point?

  31. Again, all I can do is say my thanks to everyone. The charity of time and concern shown has been amazing, and moving.
    I have much to learn, and much to pray on (and many books to buy!)

    I don't know where to begin with righting myself, but I have some paths opened up to me. I hope I have at least provided some food for thought, and maybe one person's suggestions might have given someone else who commented something read/view and enjoy.
    @SMack - Thank you. My fear over predictive coding/free energy (and a bunch of similar things) has abated somewhat. In my panicked state I never stopped to consider that as you said, well, the brain has to work somehow.
    Filip, ccmnxc, grodrigues, Michael, Timocrates, Timmy, the anonymous poster, and anyone else who replied and took time, I am in your debt.
    If Incould figure out a way to stop obsessively check Twitter's, blogs like concious entities and philosophy of brains, and googling these people, I'd be set. Smartphones are a curse sometimes.

    1. Andrew,

      I am confident that I can speak for everyone here when I say we are happy to help. I couldn't help notice though that in your initial post and in the last paragraph you said you have been and/or continue to check certain blogs that are destructive to your faith.

      Now I speak for myself here, but echo Dr. William Lane Craig in his advice in that you should stop checking these sites. Sure, if some prominent psychologist or neuroscientist makes a claim of one sort it needs to be answered, but why do you have to do it? Let somebody else, who can handle it and who is more knowledgeable answer them.

      I am sure you want to consider yourself open-minded and willing to follow the evidence where it leads, but is that more important than being able to live your life peacefully? Is it more important than being able to fully love your family? No. I don't go to every skeptical website looking to find every atheist argument and then finding knock-down arguments to each and every one of them? No. I have a life and doing philosophy and/or apologetics is not my job. You don't have to be one either? Who is going to judge you for turning off your phone/computer and living your life? I doubt anybody whose opinion you care about.

      Besides, when it comes to neuroscientific claims such as that consciousness is an illusion or free will doesn't exist, I put a high burden of proof on such claims and I think you should too. Do you constantly wonder whether the external world wasn't created 5 minutes ago with the appearance of age? Do you think that every time you interact with a loved one they haven't been replaced by a carbon copy? Probably not right? Well, the claims about consciousness being an illusion or free will not existing, while not as unlikely as the examples above, are still ones where the "other side" has a very large burden of proof and as you can see from the posts above, there is a lot to be said in answer to them.

      To finish, you are in my prayers, as is every apologist and Christian Philosopher (Dr. Feser included). I hope we are able to help you find some measure of peace as you continue your journey.

    2. Andrew, my prayers are with you. Two years ago I did exodus90. It's 90 days of asceticism coupled with prayer and fraternity. I cannot relate with your particular crisis of faith, but I was corrupt in so many ways in my life. Part of the asceticism is no screen time, instead I'm reading Feser, Catholic radio, Imitation of Christ, and finishing projects around my house etc. I found out I was basically daily feeding myself a line of BS; I was a moral relativist, and broken... falling short of what He had planned for me. I was filling my life with the excesses of the physical world: porn, alcohol, sin. Yet I went to church and prayed.

      In the end of this how did I find truth? Well the truth was in the pudding. I fell so deeply in love with my wife, deeper than I thought possible. I fell in love again with my faith. I couldn't escape the truth of what She teaches and the wisdom She holds for my life. I faithfully submitted to Her in a way I never knew possible. I went to confession for the first time in 21 years. I cry at Eucharist. My family and friends were astounded. My children crave time with me all of sudden.

      I say this to you because if you think you're hard on yourself, it may be for good reason. Metal is tempered in fire, as is your faith. When you see the strength of what a quenching fire can do you will never doubt again. You yield a sword capable of things you didn't think possible, but you have to die to rise.

    3. I echo what Michael says. I even think that eventually you can return to those sites. First you should attain some emotional equilibrium and study up on these issues. Don't expose yourself to that stuff when you're not equipped.

      I had precisely the same issue. I kept going to one site in particular where the writer, for whatever reason, resonated with me. His arguments weren't even good, and I even just skimmed them. There mere existence filled me with dread and doubt, even certainty that I was wrong. It was pure psychological nonsense.

      I finally deleted that site from my history so that to return, I had to start all over again. If I went back, I would again delete it. It's a small thing, but it helps you remember that you're taking a break from it. I recommend this.

  32. Professor Feser, I wish I were in Oxford to be able attend your talk tonight. Here's to hoping they record it and share it on the Thomistic Institute's website!

  33. Hey Andrew

    I completely disagree with people like Craig. I would recommend you read Atheism: The Case Against God by George Smith, and especially Kai Nielsen's Ethics Without God, several times aloud. Compared to theistic philosophy and Christian apologetics, that will bring about 10 times the intellectual ascendancy at 10 times the speed, and at some point you'll think "Wow this is the best they have?" and then the doubt party is over.

    Then go to work on Ed's Scholastic Metaphysics, Neo-Scholastic Metaphysics along with all his other books and essays.

    Hard to overemphasize the Proverbs of Solomon and the Psalms as well. There are no other documents in the world that have both the sheer number and the dept of insight contained in those two sections of the Bible, even for non-believers.

    I keep reading that I am an illusion, that free will does not exist, that all of human experience is explained by The Free Energy Principal/Predictive Coding/Predictive Processing/Active Inference/Baysiean Brain models etc.

    One problem here is that when someone states that all is illusion, the illusion itself gets treated as if it is real, yet the illusion mongers give that a pass.

    Ditto for theory choice, supervisory standards for adjudicating whether or not materialism/determinism etc. are "true" etc.

    There's a reason why self-reference, background criteria, and the supervisory nature of theory choice analysis issues are almost universally avoided. The non-theists are running a huge 3-century-old scam, and all their unargued BS universal claims are merely a means of deflecting attention away from the fact that they're never going to talk about their own most basic assumptions.

    A couple of magic questions to always keep in mind are:

    What about that statement itself? and

    How does that universal claim impact its own truth?

    Here's Ed doing his General Patton thing using much the same refutational algorithm:

    "If we have no reason to believe that what we regard as necessary truths of logic and mathematics actually reflect mind-independent reality, then we have no reason to regard any of our philosophical or scientific arguments as formally valid, and thus no reason to regard them as giving us true conclusions. But that includes the arguments of those who cast doubt on necessity on philosophical or scientific grounds."

    --Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics, pages 218-219
    And there's an in-text parenthetical note, which Ed put at the end of that last sentence, to compare chapter 4 of Thomas Nagel's 1997 book, The Last Word. Well, you know me: I looked that up and Nagel's book is totally mind-blowing as well.

    All the best,

    1. I think that reading Smith et al. is very good advice in general, but based on my own experience, I'd hesitate to do so in the middle of an anxiety-attack ridden valley of doubt. At least in my case, my rational faculties were so overwhelmed that even the weakest imaginable arguments for atheism were giving me trouble. I was able to go back much better equipped once I had gotten to stable ground.

    2. Just keep in mind that the standards of analysis are always already God-level, so the atheists are necessarily theistic about reason itself.

      Yet they never talk about this. There's never any detailed specification on reason itself or the fact that any defense of it is a fallacy according to itself: using reason (as premise) to defend reason (the conclusion).

      That's not a problem for woke theists, but it is for almost all atheists out there, who are strangely weak (as are objectivists for that matter) in defending reason beyond pedestrian pragmatism (which fails vis-a-vis postmodern critiques). This has always been a problem for atheists as it was for me all the way back to the 70s as an objectivist, then a (Flewian) Stratonician atheist until 2006 when I read Catholic prodigy Joseph Boyle's dissertation and (preeminent atheist) Kai Nielsen's Ethics Without God.

      I forgot to also recommend Flew's There Is A God book. Tremendous insight into the entire history of atheism from Bertrand Russell until now. Catholic apologist Roy Varghese's Appendix is mesmerizing. Keep in mind everything not talked about in the atheists' trashing of Flew after his change of view, when reading that book.

      Keep in mind also Francis Bacon's admonition about "a little" philosophy causing atheism whereas depth in philosophy brings one to theism. It's the same today.

  34. Additional thoughts about doubt:

    There definitely needs to be an inventory of doubts and their rationales. This would help many people, not just the doubters themselves.

    For that matter, there should be the same thing collected for atheists. Many report worrying that God exists, with quite a few admitting that this occurs on a daily basis.

    No one on either side of the debate should live like this.

    A grand inventory of doubts and arguments for them would greatly contribute to a new mutual understanding, as well as better psychological health for all concerned.

    1. One of the books that a pastor recommended when I was going through my experiences with this was "A Secular Age" by Charles Taylor. One of the major themes of that book was precisely this "cross-pressure" that people on both sides in our age feel to convert to the other side.

      It was an interesting recommendation, and I appreciated it; it basically didn't address the substance of my doubts at all, but it helped me situate and understand them and how they flow from and relate to our culture and time. In that sense it made them less of a bugaboo.

      I think this is along lines similar to what you suggest.

  35. Hi again folks,

    Been a strange couple of days, thank you for everything. At one point earlier I had another bout of panic, and almost emailed Anil Seth (One of the neuroscientists who gave me this freak out in the first place)
    Then I figured I wouldn't have the capacity to understand anything he would have said, being so far from my field in the first place. I see the most henious crap humanity can do on a daily basis in my job, I don't need more energy devoted to fear, anxiety and doubt.
    I've rediscovered the help of prayer, I often find myself saying the Our Father at points, almost in a mantra like fashion. My father may have Cancer now, waiting 3 weeks on results. I'm not sure how I could have handled it if I didn't get help from you guys. Diving into materialist nihilism during such a phase would have been insurmountable. I've thought of some things I would like to put into words and get feedback on, but now is not the time.
    I hope to see you guys in a future comment section, and thank you again, and my thanks to Professor Feser for giving me much to read and ponder.

    1. With all due respect to them, most neuroscientists today, like most scientists, are philosophically illiterate, and you shouldn't take anything they say at face value when they wonder into philosophical territory, like personhood and free will. Certainly, we need to pay attention to science, but it can't replace philosophy, and it needs to be philosophically intetpreted to draw philosophical conclusions from it.

      Dr. Feser has written blog posta in issuez like Libby's experiments and what they mean free will, or don't, for free will. Bennett and Hacker's The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience is a good read.

    2. I'm so sorry to hear about your father -- I'll add that to my prayers. But I'm glad to hear that you've been returning to prayer. One beautiful one I was reminded of by my counselor, from your country (and my father's) is St. Patrick's Breastplate.

      Do keep us posted.

    3. Andrew,

      I’m a bit late in responding to your comments, but I’ve been reading them for several days now. Forgive me for the delay.

      I was once in that frantic state in which you find yourself. Neuroscience, cosmology, quantum physics, materialism, historicity of the New Testament, the apparent meaninglessness of life—coupled with the death of my best friend (and in no small part inspired by it), I was pushed to the brink of mental insanity at best, and suicide at worst. It was largely through the work of Professor Feser that I was able to find stability again and slowly piece things back together. Your whole story strikes me as déjà vu. If you ever need someone to talk to, someone who’s “been there” so to speak, feel free to send me an email.

      Take care of yourself.


  36. “In other words, it doesn’t rule out the idea that matter is to be understood along Aristotelian lines...”

    Ed, just reading your Scholastic Metaphysics, and I have a question related to this. I presume that you mean “material substance” when you write “matter” here. Consequently, your reference to Aristotle on matter would likewise mean Aristotle on material substances. This is just to clarify the ground for my question, which relates to prime matter. As I grasp it, prime matter is real, but not actual, prior to the creation of a substance by the unity of prime matter and substantial form. So if it doesn’t exist, then it has no qualities, except that it is pure potentia. To my mind that makes it something like a rule governing the coming to be of material substances. That is, a pure abstraction. A real abstraction, but nevertheless only an abstraction. Somewhat like “tree” as opposed to “that tree”. Given this, our conception of matter, properly titled, is highly “non-material” too, to say the least.

    Now, given this, it seems to me that thinking about prime matter ought to be done with the difference between it and what we usually call “matter” firmly in view. For example, at conception, all animals take “matter” in some sense, from their parent(s). But however we call that, it is not prime matter, obviously.

    Am I right in my understanding, as far as you can tell from my halting explanation?

    John Lane.

  37. Hey John

    Thank you for your very good question about matter.

    I think matter as we ordinarily think of it, including scientifically, is secondary matter, not prime matter. And the fascinating thing about this subject is that it goes to questions about the 1st Law of Thermodynamics. Heavily involved in this issue is going to be my claim that a revolution in science is being forged at the contemporary frontiers of Thomistic metaphysics. But for now, I'll just leave that where it is and try to give some guidance about your question based on a redacted excerpt from Ed's book, Scholastic Metaphysics.

    The challenge to the 1st Law of Thermodynamics is in the notion of actual versus potential with regard to any being per se. To make a long story short, this means that the the being of matter is only contingent. Only God cannot be created or destroyed, precisely because only God is pure actuality.

    So matter as we commonsensically think of it, is merely prime matter that has received a substantial form. And that is secondary matter.

    I'm still a bit hazy on all this myself, but I'm certain that all this ties many things together, including the exasperation of modern science with both the notion of matter and the nature of consciousness, along with the compound failures of materialism, atomism, anti-realism, and scientism at the most basic level of theorizing, especially the very notion of abstraction itself.

    Be sure to read pages 160 and following of Ed's Scholastic Metaphysics and also Norris's Quantum Theory and the Flight from Realism.

    For now, here's a redacted and rephrased excerpt from what Ed said on page 171:

    What loses or takes on a form when a change occurs is matter. So corresponding to the distinctions between substantial and incidental form and substantial and incidental change is a distinction between two kinds of matter: prime matter and secondary matter. Secondary matter is matter having some substantial form. It's matter that is already water, or stone, or a liana vine, or a dog, or a human being. Its status as a substance is already determined, and what it awaits, is the receiving of various incidental forms. Secondary matter is therefore the subject of incidental change. Prime matter is matter lacking any substantial form, and any incidental form assumes substantial form. It's matter that is not yet any specific thing. It's indeterminate, the pure potential for form. It's the subject of substantial change.

    But keep in mind that substance itself is not necessarily always material. Ed merely alludes to this, as he does about at least a handful of other possible arguments outside the scope of the book.

    I strongly suspect that people like Ed, Oderberg, and others are headed toward some kind of meta-scientific singularity about all this, which will resolve a lot of issues, and far more than just the nature of matter. It has to do with the most basic assumptions behind the curtains of modern science, scientism, materialism, and even anti-realism.

    But the key to how all this is going to play out is in one of Ed's recurring points writ large---very large: what's going on philosophically right now in mainstream science, academia, and the general culture is the exact reverse of what one would expect if all the anti-theistic positions paraded before the public really were triumphant.

    The new Thomism is still in the middle of those practice starts that most of the audience doesn't understand when watching drag-racing competitions. But it makes all the difference in the world.

    1. @machinephilosophy,

      1) I think the First Law of Thermodynamics is meant to say that matter in and of itself, without interference from outside, can neither be created nor destroyed.

      It merely describes the reality that we see matter and energy as only undergoing change from certain forms and towards other forms of being, not disappearing wholesale. Otherwise matter and energy ceasing to exist and randomly popping into existence would be a natural phenomenon - but we don't observe that.

      But there are a few examples in physics where it seems energy disappears wholesale and isn't conserved. Dissipative forces in general relativity are such an example, and such forces were raised before without much problem.

      I think the bigger issue would be how Thomism would explain the actual existence of natural dissipative forces where energy, momentum etc. seems to cease existing.

      It looks like the idea of a certain type of matter whose formal causality enables it to cease existing is metaphysically problematic, so the only explanation would be that God Himself decided to annihilate matter.

      Or that there is no explanation at all and the annihilation is a brute fact. Or some other metaphysics is correct where the ceasing to exist of a certain thing is actually possible without bringing God into the equation - but that would most likely end up being a non-theistic metaphysics that doesn't require God's conserving action to keep things in being.

      2) Would this distinction between prime matter and secondary matter, as well as the Thomistic revolution in how we view science, also have a bearing on quantum phenomenon such as when an electron or atom is actually occupying two places in space at the same time?

      In fact, physicists insist that matter at the stage of electrons and protons is actually in a state of flux and can occupy infinitely many points in space at once.

      This is relevant because Thomism would deny that a material thing can of itself occupy two places at once, only doing so with the help of immaterial realities like God assisting it.

      I guess this and all of the other weird phenomenon in QP can be explained differently with the right metaphysics though.

  38. Hi Spencer,
    Thank you. I wouldn't know where to begin. You can reach me at andehlynch (@) if you had anything you think might help, I think Ive quite overtaken the comment section.

  39. ...and at everyone else I've speaken too, I'd also like to extend the invitation to email me. I still have some things to work through, and I could surely use the help.
    God bless,


  40. This all makes me really excited about the Forthcoming book.
    I find Ontic Structrural realism really weird and counter-intuitive but there is just too much written on it and it seems to be getting real popular among philosophers of science.

    I found this article really helpful for the understanding.

    1. A good article, but like the questions about what counts as observable, it still doesn't even mention the problems of 1) what is assumed about general criteria of analysis, and 2) how one can quantify via abstraction and then use that to make pronouncements about what has not been quantified.

      I'm starting to believe what Miles Mathis says about the politicization of theory in the boys club of institutions.

      Moreover, most contemporary theorizing in academic philosophy can be auto-generated precisely by means of this kind of avoidance of issues about the fundamental assumptions of inquiry.

  41. Thanks very much, MP. My feeling is that our difficulty in grasping these things clearly relates to a fundamental tension between remaining abstract when abstracting, and remaining real, in firm contact with the corrective of the concrete. Plato and the nominalists tended not to remain firmly grounded, and modern pseudo philosophy tends wildly to concretise abstractions. In this light the sheer glorious sanity of Aristotle and St Thomas really shines.

    On science, if you haven’t seen this bloke, have a read of this, it’s stunning:

    There are more interesting articles here:


    1. I realise that’s possibly a bit generic, so to clarify... (he writes hopefully!)

      Abstracting, starting with act and potentia, and following the usual course, one sees the necessity of prime matter. It’s completely clear. Then, touching the concrete again, thinking about specific powers, passive or active, such as the power of generation in living things, secondary matter seems to be exactly where the principles of limitation and active potency reside, and it also provides an apparently adequate “substrate” for change. It’s clear that this won’t do for all potentiality, for the reasons Ed gives in his book, but the question arises, how is prime matter also responsible for the same potentialities?

      Now that I write this I feel like I should apologise for thinking aloud here.

    2. only not thinking aloud here would be a problem. lol

      Always feel free to say what's on your mind. Ed's one of the most liberal bloggers on the internet when it comes to letting all hell break loose. And I've been one of his most vocal critics with regard to various issues. As a result, and with rare exceptions, this is the only blog I comment at. In fact, for me, over the years it's become the only philosophy blog worth commenting at.

      I think potentiality per se is a necessary assumption of modal thinking, made up of the four concepts of actual, possible, necessary, and contingent.

      I'm not sure what you mean by prime matter being responsible for potentialities, "the same" presumably referring to the powers of finite substances, both active and passive.

      I'll just take this as an opportunity to say where I'd like to see clarifications of Thomism generally:

      1) Natural teleology, that is, final or as I term it, purposive causality. My suspicion is that the solution to fully justifying this is going to be self-referential, what is already assumed in analyzing contingent objects in motion or in process of change (which I realize may itself be redundant).

      2) The infinite series problem vis-a-vis/versus naturalistic infinity theory.

      3) An inferential flowchart of both Thomist metaphysics and epistemology.

      4) A comprehensive development of the eternal truths / convertibles / transcendentals.

      5) Explain-it-like-I'm-5 refutations of both scientism and anti-realism, with special attention to why science has to abstract if what is abstracted is already the only thing there is.

      5) Espanded development of how exactly, as in Ed's illustrations of water and infinite points on a line, there can be virtual existence of objects versus actual existence. Virtual existence of a point, virtual existence of hydrogen and oxygen in water versus their actual existence by themselves. The latter is a fascinating point in Scholastic Metaphysics highlighting the question of what is the essence of both if they lose, for example, combustibility due to the bonding to make water.

      There's one more that is more fundamental to the God debate, and it relates to the convertible transcendentals and Augustine's eternal truths, but I'll save that for a future post that it's relevant to. For a hint look at Ed's treatment of being and truth in the book and elsewhere on this blog, to what I'm getting at. More to come.

  42. Thought I would share this video:

    1. I'm a bit late to this, but I'd thought I should give a heads up to the fact that a couple of Thomists have stepped in to reply to the objections presented, just in case you're still looking for answers. It's really nothing to worry about.

  43. Also: a commenter by the name of "Jacob" has some rather lengthy objections in the comment section both by way of the history of philosophy and natural theology. Thoughts?

    1. That Jacob individual is a well-known troll who for some reason appears to have an axe to grind against Dr Feser. He has posted on this blog in the past and you'll find him writing never-ending walls of text in several Youtube videos related to Dr Feser. One thing to note, though, is how once Thomists start to appear and denounce his sophistry he'll just delete his comments.

      I know he might look intimidating to newcomers to the study of classical theism but, in reality, his apparent eloquency and extensive knowledge of modern philosophy end up proving themselves to be vacuous. Namely, he'll simply beg the question against the Thomist (something which can go unnoticed by beginners) and patently show he's completely unaware of several characteristic Thomistic definitions, principles, ideas, and distinctions. "Uh hmmm, yeah, so philosopher X uses word Y to refer to concept Z instead, therefore Feser's conclusion is wrong" sums up the gist of his arguments about right.

      Plus, he's a marxist and a scientific anti-realist. His own philosophical stances are absurd in themselves. The former is a Hegelian corruption of Hegelianism and the latter is the main reason why scientists laugh at armchair philosophers and one of the main ones why so many of them pride themselves in being modern-day philistines who think philosophy is useless crankery. He's a nominalist crackpot.

  44. It’s been some time I stopped reading Feser’s blog because I felt sorry seeing a good brain being hijacked by an idea which produces bad fruit. But, lo and behold, I came visiting again and this one is a good piece.

    Indeed God is truth, so any field of knowledge will turn one’s mind towards God. Including physics, for the more one understands physics (that is the mathematical order present in physical phenomena) the more one’s mind is moved beyond primitive metaphysics. Actually I find that physics pushes one to embrace subjective idealism. And subjective idealism is the natural metaphysics of theism. The only reason I take it that theistic philosophers have not yet embraced subjective idealism is their preoccupation with the materialism in scripture, while – against the Fathers – they hold that scripture is some kind of direct message from God, indeed “the Word of God”. LOL. How can one be a Christian and forget that Christ is the Word of God I cannot fathom. Anyway, since all knowledge is about truth and God is truth, one can’t be a very insightful philosopher without being a theist.

    But God is also beauty, and that’s a huge blessing for all things beautiful directly reveal God to us. Thus God is more visible than any other thing. For a blind person cannot see things and a deaf one cannot hear them but one can’t be a person without being aware of beauty and thus of God.

    Finally and the greatest of all, God is love. For when one loves one not only experience God but partakes in God. Love is where God and creatures touch each other. It’s not coincidence that Christ, the embodiment and teacher of love, is our savior and the only way to God. By loving the way Christ loves one is not obeying Christ, one becomes Him.

  45. Dr. William Lane Craig debated Prof. Alex Rosenberg in a Youtube video. So after someone brought up Prof. Rosenberg's eliminative materialism, an audience member asked Dr. Rosenberg something like this. If there's no such thing as meaning, why should we believe anything you tell us here or in your book, "The Atheist's Guide to Reality?" So the professor replied with something like, "Language is how we send information from brain to brain.' But if I understand what I heard, the idea that there's information presupposes that there's meaning.

    Someone here said, "All things are illusory." That sentence is ambiguous. Was our friend talking about a collection or each member of one. If he meant that each member of the collection and that the belief about all things is a member of the collection, that belief is illusory, too. Is there a contradiction there, something?