Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Scientific jargon does not support the Fifth Way

Dr. Feser regularly complains that modern's critics of various aspects of design claims and ontological proofs don't really understand the deepness of the arguments of Aquinas-Thomists, and instead are responding to less-rounded arguments made by later philosophers. While I find it curious that his position indicates philosophers seem to have regressed when so many other disciplines have progressed, I feel that the least I can do is repond to Dr. Feser at the level of the arguments he is making. So I'm responding to a post he made on the comments of Jim Manzi regarding the Coyne review or Wright's book and Wright's response. First of all, as a part of my regular theme that we all misread based on our preconceptions, let me say Coyne's review is quite funny in light of Wright’s responses, which boil down to 'I agree with Coyne's point, my book made the same point Coyne is making, and I am not sure why Coyne thinks otherwise'. It's a little embarrassing for Coyne.

Manzi, while claiming to defend Wright, actually addresses a part of Coyne's review that does not even directly refer to Wright's book, but is some stage-setting by Coyne. So, the title to the article is rather incorrect, as Manzi does nothing to defend Wright at all. However, Manzi does defend his own ideas about the comparison of genetic algorithms on computers to the way genes behave, trying to set abiogenesis aside as a philosophical study (without referring to it by name), the importation of a goals into evolution, and the non-physical randomness of mutations. I might decide one day to fisk that article directly, but not today. Below the fold I will excerpt some of Dr. Feser's response to the article, and intersperse some of my own thoughts.

I argued in The Last Superstition that whatever one thinks of Darwinism, its truth or falsity is (contrary to what New Atheists like Richard Dawkins suppose) irrelevant to the cogency of the Thomistic proofs of God’s existence, including Aquinas’s Fifth Way (which Dawkins incompetently assimilates to Paley’s Design argument).

I actually agree with Dr. Feser here, for a given definition of "Darwinism" at any rate. To the degree that we are relying on the science, we have no method of elimination all sorts of exterior teleology and causality. If Dr. Feser is referring to ideas that go beyond the science, then we get into metaphysical assumption whose basis in reality can never be firmly demonstrated.

Indeed, if Darwinism has any relevance to the latter argument at all, it is in fact by slightly reinforcing rather than undermining it. The reason is that Darwinism, like any scientific theory, posits various causal mechanisms, all causal mechanisms presuppose (for reasons set out in TLS) final causality, and thus (since the take-off point of the Fifth Way is the existence of final causality) Darwinism, qua scientific theory, only lends further support to the Fifth Way.

This is a fine example of 'heads I win, tails you lose' argumentation. Any failures by science to explain something, such as the emergence of consciousness in the brain, is of course evidence that there is something non-physical at work. On the other hand, finding the causes and explanation things can only serve to strengthen the 'Fifth Way' argument of Aquinas for the existence of God. Dr. Feser relies on the work in his book (The Last Superstition, he abbreviates it TLS) regularly rather than outline its arguments, and I have not read it so far. However, I don't find the notion that there is some supernatural "final causality" to be any more likely a proposition than a natural final causality.

I also argued in TLS that the application by biologists, physicists, and other scientists of concepts like “algorithm,” “information,” “software,” “program,” etc. to the natural world evinces a tacit recognition of the reality of teleology or final causation. The reason (set out, again, in detail in TLS) is that the sort of directedness-towards-an-end that these concepts entail just is the core of the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of final causality.

I'm not sure whether Dr. Feser understands this or not, but terms like algorithm and information means very different things when applied to biological objects or other non-human-created systems than to computer programs. Algorithms are merely cycles enacted and altered by external stimuli and ended, if at all, by other stimuli (possibly external or internal), while information represents how easily a string can be compressed by interpretations functions that are not aimed specifically at that string. Neither concept has any recognition of teleology or lack thereof, they are statements of content, not purpose.

Again, Aristotle and his followers do not argue for a temporal beginning of the universe (even though some of them do happen to believe, on independent grounds, that it had such a beginning). Nor do they think that an infinite regress is a “problem.” For by “infinite regress,” one either means an infinite regress of accidentally ordered causes extending backward in time – in which case such a regress is perfectly possible (and, indeed, actual, in Aristotle’s own view) – or one means an infinite regress of essentially ordered causes of the sort that trace ultimately to simultaneously operating instrumental causes here and now – in which case such a regress is, not merely “problematic” or mysterious (as if such a regress could exist in some as-yet unknown fashion), but flatly impossible in principle. (Again, all of this is explained at length in TLS.)

I do distrust the notion of being "flatly impossible in principle" for many reasons, not the least of which comes from my mathematical training. I find that the Axiom of Choice, or more precise the equivalent statement that the cross-products of non-empty sets is not empty, to be intuitively obvious, to the point that I find it ridiculous to claim that can be an empty cross-product of non-empty sets. The "flatly impossible in principle"Banach-Tarski paradox is a result does not change my mind, since I am forced to choose between to different flatly impossible notions, one of which must be true. I'm Dr. Feser feels he has a good argument for the impossibility of an infinite string of ontological causality, but my recent encounters with philosophers trying to use infinity in a mathematical way leaves me skeptical to the general abilities of philosophers who don't have an extensive mathematical background.

But Manzi’s remarks can be interpreted in another, more Aristotelian way. He might mean that even if the universe had no beginning in time, the basic laws that govern it, and the fact of their continual operation at any given moment, would still require an explanation. Talk of “laws of nature” is more a modern than an Aristotelian way of speaking, but the basic point remains that there is nothing inherent in material reality that can account for the “actualizing” of its “potential” for existing and operating in just the way it does at any particular instant. Unless we trace it down to that which is “pure actuality,” an Unmoved Mover or Uncaused Cause sustaining it in being and operation here and now and at any moment we are even considering the question, we would have no way in principle to account for why the universe exists at all and operates in precisely the way it does. The “problem of infinite regress” on this interpretation is not a matter of accepting a mystery which might have a solution – just one we do not and perhaps cannot discover – but rather the fatal (to naturalism) problem that without acknowledging that the regress of essentially ordered causes operating here and now terminates in an Unmoved Mover, the material world becomes unintelligible even in principle. (You know the drill: See TLS for the details.)

Having read up just a little on what Dr. Feser means by action and potentiality, this strikes me as being pure doggerel. The questions of why the universe exists and operates the way it does do not ever need to end, and they certainly do not end simply because we have an Unmoved Mover or Uncaused Cause. I don't know, nor pretend to know, that such a Mover/Cause does or does not exist, but I do know that, even if we arrive at such an august figure, they are not immune to the further questions of why the Mover/Cause does this, why they feel that, etc., and that the inevitable terminus of this chain is 'We just don't know'. This makes the end of the chain no different from the end of the chain of questions to the naturalist, except the naturalist stops the chain earlier in the process.

Manzi is clearer on the issue of final causality. Coyne seems to think that to attribute purposiveness to evolution entails seeing the human species, specifically, as having somehow been the end result toward which natural selection was working; and he trots out the usual ad hominem response to critics of Darwinism to the effect that they just can’t handle evolution’s humbling implications, blah blah blah.

This actually reverses motivation and effect from Coyne's point, which is not that attributing purpose to evolution allows the elevation of humans, but that the refusal to accept a non-elevation of humans results in the attributing of purpose to evolution. A => B is quite different from ~B => A.

And if this “algorithm” talk is taken seriously, then (to put things more strongly than Manzi does) it necessarily entails, given the nature of algorithms, that there is an end-state towards which the processes in question point – not, to be sure, the generation of some particular species (human or otherwise) at some temporal culmination point, but rather the (in principle non-stop) generation of species after species meeting certain abstract criteria of fitness.

Again, we have a reversal of cause and effect. It is not the algorithm that acts upon species causing new species to arise, it is the arising of new species in regular ways that is described in terms that look like algorithms to us.

Hence one either has to agree with the judgment of thinkers like John Searle that talk of “information,” “algorithms,” etc. is at best a misleading set of metaphors and at worst a complete muddle; or, if one thinks such talk is indispensible (and there is good reason to think it is) one must acknowledge that something like the Aristotelian conception of nature is correct after all.

I'm not sure if that is a necessary choice, but I do happen to be on, or at least closer to, the former side. We use terms like "information" and "algorithm" in a jargonistic sense to describe non-human-created systems, and this jargon has its beginning in metaphor. However, the terms have been fairly precisely defined in the given context, so I think it is going too far to say they are merely metaphorical now.

And, of course, I have noted the many neo-Aristotelian themes to be found in the work of many contemporary philosophers and scientists – including many who have no theological ax to grind – both in TLS and in earlier posts like this one and this one.

Another good case of a person seeing what they are pre-disposed to see.


J said...
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J said...

The proper approach lies somewhere between Coyne and Feser, I think. The dogmatic creationists--including neo-scholastics like Feser--certainly offend me. Some rabid atheists, however, especially those with university educations, error in caricaturing all religious thinking as right-wing or reactionary, primitive, etc. I don't think that's always the case. There are right-wing atheists; yet there are progressives who may attend church. Simple belief, even in say the Design Argument, does not really constitute an intellectual crime. Only when the faith becomes a type of zealotry or hysteria is it a problem (so I'm not sure I agree with the Dawkinistas who say faith does more harm than good...).

Non-faith, or naive atheism could be a danger too--my own experience has led me to discover that many so-called atheists and skeptics, even the hard-minded scientific sort, replace their sunday school with something weirder--the occult, or eastern mysticism, etc. Not always, but that does happen. You would be astounded at the number of the little goth freaks now crawling around in El Lay.

Christianity, however irrational it may appear to academics, provides some people with comfort of a sort. When Marx called religion the opium of the masses, he did not necessarily mean that was the most horrible thing in the world; he meant that the world was so horrible for some unfortunate souls that their only relief was through religion. So call that the Argument via Consolation or something...

One Brow said...

I'm an atheist and skeptic, and I'm fairly sure I have not adopted anything mystical like the occult or the woo of Bill Maher. However, I agree that the Coynes and Myers often go too far. I have no objection to anyone holding any sort of religious beleif, as long as they don't expect me to share it.

UnBeguiled said...

"heads I win, tails you lose"

Feser is adept at this rhetorical ploy. When I posted about a grievous error in his book, he responded that even if he got the facts wrong in his argument, the argument would still work.

He retreats into his "metaphysical demonstration", which seems to mean an argument which in principle cannot be wrong.

One Brow said...


I read a great deal of that exchange, and I think there was some truth that you were missing the point of Dr. Feser's argument.

I agree metaphysical demonstrations are difficult to show wrong by resorting to physics. However, they often succumb to metaphysical ctitiques.

J said...

Steven Hawking I am not, but I do think Feser, following Aquinas (and Aristotle) generally relies on the older, mechanical physics. The Big bang is obviously a monumental problem, one theologians are not generally capable of addressing (holy creation of matter, batman). Even Kant more or less said don't worry your pretty head about it (for one, infinite series are not contradictions).

The First Cause arguments are generally along the lines of what we might call the Great Pool Table Breaker analogy, really (or marble shooter, etc). Say you walk into a pool hall, and see balls rolling on a table, and a great break--pools going into pockets, etc. But you see no one with a cue, no one at the table. You would probably assume a person, a great shot, just broke the table. That may be plausible. But you really don't know that. Some kids may have just tossed balls on the table, or a robotic device deposited them from the ceiling, etc. That may seem far-fetched, but any inference about causes that you do not perceive are merely analogical; and the problems are greatly compounded given millions of centuries.

One Brow said...


I agree with you and UnBeguiled that the physics is old and the argument is ill-founded, but Dr. Feser's argument is not of the type of a pool-table behavior you describe. Rather, as a poor summation, his argument seems to be that, for any cause to have an effect, that effect must first exist, and it can only exist in the mind of some God. Which physics he is using is not really relevant to that argument.

J said...

Actually, Aquinas put forth five arguments (though Aristotle had sort of initiated them), and the first three are definitely related to the billiard-ball causation I allude to (motion, cause, contingency, etc). There are minute differences, and the usual scholasticism (act, potency, etc) , but they are analogical, not necessary (the clerics tried to give a necessary, deductive argument with the Ontological chestnut).

Kant did not accept the arguments for G*d, though he did grant the Design argument had a certain force. The point on infinity vs finitude was from IK's First Antinomy.

J said...

Another trick of Feser consists in a subtle Ad Auctoritas (maybe not that subtle). He routinely insists all those wicked empiricists and experimentalists, starting with Hobbes, etc overlooked Aristotle's causes, and were therefore not looking at the whole picture, or something. That is not entirely accurate.

The move towards experimentalism and observation demanded a break with Aristotle's four causes: Feser thinks that was a great loss, when in fact many important discoveries (like Galilleo, and Newton) followed from that break with Aristotle.

Furthermore, it was a break with dogma--instead of assuming Aristotle's causes held a priori, the empiricists decided to sort of "look and see", and found out that knowledge grew out of observation itself, without the Final Cause, or mysterious "substance" (which Paddy Feser still upholds) and metaphysics. That wasn't entirely new--Bill of Ockham had suggested as much.

The Aquinas chestnuts may be interesting (actually a bit spooky), but it's not accurate to say thinkers and scientists just ignored them. Even in King James' time, the catholics held to Aristotle and ptolemy, and considered Copernicus and Kepler heretical, and had no problem burning copernicans at the stake (like Bruno). Galilleo and Hobbes reacted to that dogmatism. Descartes did as well, but he was still friendly to the Church (or perhaps obedient).

One Brow said...


Thank you for the additional background and perspective. I'm thinking and learning quite a bit these last few days.

J said...

De nada.

Note that Doc Feser now just deletes any commenter who dare to criticize Aquinas.

Those consumers who just discovered Feser's odd neo-scholasticism might peruse some of his older conservative schtick on Right Reason. He sounded like an Ayn Rand sort of quack-libertarian for years (Miss Rand also fond of a right-wing reading of the holy Stagirite), and then must have had some sort of conversion, and decided the xtian Right needed some back up from the Domincan Bros version of catholicism--sort of a few steps to the right of Pat Buchanan.

Feser's reading of Aquinas is itself questionable. I don't have time to go through the sludge of the Summa (rather supernatural sludge as well, which Feser downplays), but even the Angelic Doctor had a certain tolerant side (as did St Augie, sort of St Tom's papa)--Aquinas opposed the divine right of Kings for one, and allowed for overthrowing tyranny. He alludes to Averroes as the Commentator, and Aristotle as The Philosopher.

Feser sees Aquinas through his machiavellian lenses--it's not so much a matter of truth, but of ideology; catholic orthodoxy will still work for Feser's brand of conservatism. Note also Feser's allusions on his blog to Garrigou-Lagrange, a french cleric (and neo-Thomist) who blessed Petain and the vichy, and was pals with some of the german bishops who approved of the nazis. That's Feserism: Garrigou-Feiser

J said...

'Scuzi for rants. I'm not obsessed over Feser, or his Aquinas revival. Obviously he's an intelligent person, but he's a scheming, deceitful, extremely conservative person. And the aged Thomistic weltanschauung does not hold together, whether in terms of science, logic, or political model.