Monday, November 30, 2009

Review of TLS -- God uniquely and uniquely God?

Welcome to the sixth installment of my review of Dr. Edward Feser's The Last Superstition. You can find parts one, two, three, four and five at those links. In Chapter 3 Dr. Feser presents arguments for the existence and nature of God. Having covered existence in part five, I will not turn to some of the arguments offered for the nature of God. For the purposes of this post, I will treat Dr. Feser's arguments for existence as being completely convincing, and see if they really do tell us what he claims concerning the nature of God.

As an aside, given that the Unmoved Mover depends on the impossibility of an infinite essentially ordered causal series, it's rather curious that the Unmoved Mover themself must possess infinite power (otherwise, use of any causal power would diminish the Mover). It seems we can't avoid the infinite, no matter what.

While Aquinas may have written thousands of pages on the arguments about these attributes, Dr. Feser's words are considerably more brief, and I should be able to discuss them below the fold.

Starting with the Unmoved Mover, who has been revealed to be pure act and no potential, Dr. Feser says there can only be one of them. After all, if there was more than one, there would need to be some way of distinguishing them, and any possible distinction, such as one having more power than another, would be a potential for one that was an actuality for the other. It was difficult to take this argument seriously. No where else in his book does Dr. Feser use one being's actuality to assess a potentiality of a different being. My actuality as a human is not affected by the potential of soil to turn into an oak tree in the presence of an acorn. Unmoved Mover A can easily have some feature X that is not a potentiality nor an actuality at all for Unmoved Mover B. Now, you can certainly argue that A can in no way change or affect B, and vice-versa, but this does not make them the same.

Another argument is that the Mover can not be material, because to be material is to have potential to be something else. However, this seems to be a generalization based on the material things that we know. There is no reason to think that the Mover can't be a material thing with no potential to change at all. If you care to go back to Russell's teapot, the teapot is by definition at the center of the universe, and all other things circle it. Nor does it have any potential to become a cereal bowl or a silver spoon, it is fully expressed, unchanging as a teapot.

Finally, as the source of all causes, the Mover must possess all attributes in the highest degree. Of course, these are only the positive attributes like goodness and love, negative attributes like badness and hate are privations, states identified by the absence of a positive feature. I don't find that description metaphysically persuasive. Just sticking with emotions, the enjoyment of seeing another person in pain (schadenfreude) is not in any way the lack of some other attribute. Empathy is an attribute, but you can have neither empathy nor schadenfreude, just indifference, which would seem to be the privation of both. However, I find it unlikely Dr. Feser would claim schadenfreude is a feature of the Mover.

The last feature is that the First Cause, who merges every other essence with its existence, had no other being to merge it's essence and existence together. Thus, the Cause is simple, in that its essence is its existence, and its existence is its essence. This argument makes sense to me, and I have no objection to saying God is simple. What's interesting is that I hear this doctrine of simplicity used as statements why the Teapot, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, and/or the Flying Spaghetti Monster are not comparable to God, because their existence is composite, being both material and essence. However, I can't see that. Just because for everyday, potential-laden, material things we separate essence from the matter does not mean this applies to the Cause. We should not let our analogies limit who the Cause can be.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Review of TLS -- the unmoving First Cause argument

Welcome to the fifth installment of my review of Dr. Edward Feser's The Last Superstition. You can find parts one, two, three, and four at those links. I have reached Chapter 3 in TLS, which starts start discussing some of Dr. Feser's argument for the existence and nature of God, along with a few other things. In this post I'll focus in the existence arguments, of which three are offered, namely that of the Unmoved Mover (better understood, perhaps as the Unchanged Changer), the First Cause, and the Supreme Intelligence.

First, a few brief paragraphs about Dr. Feser's comments on the reliability of these proofs. He sees them as being a mixture of formal and empirical reasoning, because they use premises that are empirical as well as conceptual. and that this make the proofs more certain to be true than either method can produce on its own. Personally, I see the methodology as being purely formal. Taking a few empirical notions as being starting points (Edit: does) does not alter what is basically a formal exercise in TLS. To be sure, there are ways of trying to mix empirical and formal (as well as revelatory) reasoning, much like mixing oil, vinegar, and parsley to make a salad dressing. I just don't see that being done in his arguments.

Second, Dr. Feser does sneak in a fourth attempt at proof prior to the listed three. The claim is basically that since universals exist, they have some sort of reality even when there is no matter to take their form and no mind to appreciate their essence, but they are not real in the Platonic sense. So there must be a mind that instantiates them even when there is no mind instantiating them. He does not even present this as a reducito ad absurdum argument, just as ~A => A.

Finally, I think I have come to understand some of the motives behind the constant stream of invective being launched at Dawkins, Hume, and various others. Dr. Feser's stated goal may be to convince atheists of some of these claims, but the more likely result of these continual insults is to get people who like what Dennett, et. al., have to say so upset that they don't read the logic itself objectively or clearly, and so miss the important points that are understated and focus on the repeated, emphasized, not-exactly-correct shortcuts (there's also a little playing to the crowd in that, too, since the best market for his books is almost certainly not atheists). Then, when the upset reader treats those shortcuts as the real argument, they can be dismissed as missing the point of the argument. I have seen one example of this directly, and I'll expand on it in the discussion of the Unmoved Mover below the fold.

The argument for the Unmoved Mover is based upon several ideas: change is movement from a potential state to an actual state, no object can activate it's own potential, and every activation has an immediate efficient cause. He takes the time to distinguish between accidentally ordered causes and essentially ordered causes. One example he gives equates to saying that one cause of your father having you is your grandfather having your father. Even your grandfather died when your father was young, that did not prevent your father from having you. This is an accidentlly ordered causal series, in that the separation of time means that the earlier cause doesn't need to be present to have the causal chain continue, that the causal chain is transmitted independently of the continued existence of your grandfather. Another example would be that you don't have be smoking while you actually develop lung cancer in order to have the smoking be a cause of the cancer. This is contrasted with an essentially ordered causal series, which is basically that the cause's presence is required while the potential is activated. The offered example is that of a hand shaping a clay pot. Whatever the past reasons that motivate the potter, without the hand directly present, the clay is not shaped. The clay does not continue shaping itself when the hand is withdrawn, all the change is completely dependent on the hand.

Taking a break from the argument to comment on style, Dr. Feser presents this dependence-oriented description of an essentially ordered causal series precisely once. He then says the actions appear to simultaneous in the essential series due to the dependence. In fact, over the next 5 pages, he uses various derivatives of simultaneous 9 times, twice in italics, to describe essentially ordered causes. Naturally, when the occasional reader sees this repetition, they take away the notion that simultaneity is essential to the argument, and see that fact that elements of an essentially ordered series are not truly simultaneous as a disproof of the line of reasoning. This allows Dr. Feser to dismiss the reader based on a lack of understanding, and I have seen him do this in the comments on his blog. Of course, I don't really know if this is a deliberate deception on Dr. Feser's part, if he is too incompetent as a writer to understand the effects of repetition, or if he just let some other hack write or edit his book that way (no doubt other possible explanations exist). I can only comment on the effect, not being able to fathom the purpose (or final cause, if you like).

Going back to the argument, Dr. Feser presents that these essentially ordered series of causes have terminating points, so they have starting points as well. Further, since each event in the series does not have the potential to activate itself, it cannot be considered the initiating force of the series, but only a participant therein. He likens the series to a train have a caboose and several railroad cars: at some point, there must be an engine that sets the essentially ordered series in motion. Since nothing activates its own potential, this origin does not change, it only activates changes. This origin is God, continuously activating all the events in the world, such as a rock rolling down a hill, a spider spinning a web, one man feeding the hungry, and another (or the same) man molesting a child.

Dr. Feser recommends that the best way to show his arguments are invalid is to demonstrate errors in the reasoning and the starting premises, so naturally I will take him up on this offer and select both a premise and a bit of reasoning. From the starting premises I will pick one that stands out (besides the notion no act can be its own cause which I discussed in an earlier post): in the material world, essentially ordered series do not terminate. His example is that of a hand pushing a stick, which stick pushes a rock, and he treats the rock as the final object in the sequence. However, the rock pushes the ground and the air, each of which engage in their own set of reactions with other air and ground molecules, in a never-ending series. So, while the ideas that a last member implies a first member is also highly debatable, this debate is not relevant because there is no last member. From his reasoning, let's choose the notion that each member of the series is a passive link to the next. In fact, the ability of one event to activate the potential in the next event is a motive force. In the train analogy, it's much more like each railroad car has an oxygen tank inn the front, a hydrogen tank in the rear, and in between each car is a little motor that burns the fuels to power the following car. The engine is not only quite possibly infinitely far away, it is not needed at all.

Dr. Feser decreases the number of word he devotes to each of the causes as he progresses, and I shall do likewise. The First Cause argument is based on the notion that forms are real, and they include the essence, a definitive form, of things. Since the forms can exist without being instantiated in any particular material object, merely having an essence does not guarantee existence, such as the essence of unicorns exists, but this does not mean unicorns exist. Since they are initially separate, something must combine an essence to an existence, and this is the cause of that object. Since this combination of existence and essence must be performed for every object in the universe, it must be performed for the universe as a whole.

There is brief break in the argument, where Dr. Feser discusses the fallacy of composition. One example of this fallacy: I can step over each cinder block from a group of 20, so if you stack all 20 vertically, I can step over the whole stack, as well. Dr. Feser says that since the fallacy of composition is sometimes true (the individual cinder blocks are gray, so the stack will be gray), he can use it here to say if every object in the universe has a cause (an event that joined essence to existence), so does the universe as a whole. No, I'm not kidding, he really claims that since a fallacy sometimes works, he can use it in this argument. He offers no other justification for applying it.

Anyway, these joining of existence to essences wind up being the essentially ordered causal series, and in a similar argument against infinity, the series must have a first element, the being whose essence includes existence without a cause, that set every existence in motion directly or indirectly, a First Cause, aka God. Further, since God initiates all these objects, he is constantly maintaining them. This is offered with no justification at all, he just slides from creating to maintaining as if they are the same thing.

This is basically the Unmoved Mover argument, expect the supposed terminus is the change of beginning an existence, as opposed to a different type of change. It offers no corrections or improvements to the defects of the previous argument. It is not any more rational as a position, and actually less so, since it depends on the fallacy of composition, where as the Unmoved Mover did not.

Finally, we get to the argument from the Supreme Intelligence. Since final causes are presumed to exist, the future oak exists as the eventual form of the acorn. Since the oak itself doesn't exist yet, its form must be in the thought of some intelligence that allows the form to direct the acorn in becoming an oak. This Supreme Intelligence Is ... (wait for it) ... God! Yes, the suspense was killing me, too.

This argument certainly clarifies why Dr. Feser likes formal causes so much, even though it makes no sense to claim that the form of the oak is not already in the acorn, within the DNA that will direct its development. Not too mention, in examples like this, how come we never hear the form of the oak is in the soil, or the rainwater? Certainly the oak is much more soil and rainwater than it is the original acorn. Maybe that's too complicated for our discussion, though. Needless to say, as I have outlined above, I found the argument for God as outlined in TLS to be completely lacking in accurate empirical starting points and also to have a couple of steps of poor reasoning. I was not convinced, at all. Despite that, for the purpose of part 6, I'm going to grant Dr. Feser has proven his case for existence, and then respond to the attributes he attributes to God based on these arguments.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

The 124th Skeptics' Circle

There is a huge collection of links at Beyond the Short Coat for the 124th edition of the Skeptics' Circle. I might get to them all this weekend, but you can bet Jay Leno's "reading" by Sylvia Browne will be near the top of the list!
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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Review of TLS -- Just cause or just 'cause?

Welcome to the fourth installment of my review of Dr. Edward Feser's The Last Superstition. You can find parts one, two, and three at those links. I have finished the book and some background reading, so hopefully from this the pace of these responses will accelerate.

First, I want to thank Thomas, author and blogger at Tearing Down the Mask of Maya, who very kindly presented some supplemental reading material on the topic of today's post, the metaphysics of Aristotle. Without his contributions this response to Dr. Feser would have been devoid of much of the level of understanding it possesses, even poorer than its likely impoverished condition. Also, I want to thank aintnuthin, who challenges me to keep my head level and whose thoughts in the discussions of this book occasioned some valuable realizations. The discussion of Dr. Feser's material is below the fold.

One of the interesting aspects of both TLS and the supplemental material is that abandon the traditional translations of act and potency, Dr. Feser preferring actuality and potential. The basic idea is that every object has both the ability to be what it currently is, and also contains (in a sense) what it might become under given conditions. A glass vase contains the potential to be melted and cast as a figurine, or to be shattered. One of the primary principles is that no potential activates on its own, there is always some outside agency. So everything is what it is, and only changes when something else influences it. Dr. Feser describes this distinction as the first step on the way to seeing there is a God. But even here, at the first step, we find it is not descriptive of how some of the world works. Protons don't decay from any outside influence that can be determined, nor do atomic nuclei. Bell's theorem has actually shown there must be random quantum effects, in that the existence deterministic effects lead to predictions that are countered by experimentation. So at the very beginning of the discussion, Aristotle's metaphysics is, at least, not universal in scope. If you are going to convince an atheist that their position is insane, wicked, and counter to reality, you really should start with a position that reflects reality.

Another point Dr. Feser makes, with no particular argument to justify it at this time, is that you can have actuality without a potential for change, but you can't have a potential to change without having something there. I'm not sure that is true, depending on what "something" is.

Next the discussion turns to form and matter. The illustration used is that of a rubber ball. Rubber would be the matter; the spherical shape would be the form. Just as it's not a rubber ball if it is made from some other matter, it's not a rubber ball when the form is not spherical. Here Dr. Feser again makes a claim, sans justification, that all matter must have a form but that form can exist without matter (an immaterial form).

This is then followed by a discussion of the four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. The material and formal causes are the matter and form of the object, portrayed as directing influences on the object. So, it's not just that the ball is made of rubber; the rubber in the ball provides it with certain potentials. It's not just that the ball is spherical, the shape of the ball guides what the ball's actuality is. The efficient cause is an account of the material aspects of the creation of the ball, and the final cause is the reason the ball was constructed. These four causes are declared to be completely general, applicable to everything in the natural world.

According to Dr. Feser, formal and final causes have been banished from modern thinking. Oddly, he never addresses the concept of the properties or capabilities of an object in this discussion. It certainly seems to me that formal causes have been displaced by properties, that being spherical is true of some pieces of rubber and not others, and that being a sphere doesn't seem to impose any actuality on the ball. He uses the heart as an example of a final cause (it is there to pump blood), but that's just as well accounted for by saying the heart is capable of pumping blood and the rest of the body has come to rely on this capability. There is no need to treat the capability as an independently shaping event. One might almost suspect Dr. Feser of deliberately distorting the picture on this, but you would need to believe he has the potential to engage in that sort of deliberate deception. Still, the importance of having a final cause is of paramount importance to his future conclusions.

I was completely unconvinced by the attempt to elevate properties and capabilities of objects into formal and final causes for the objects. I suppose it is rational to assert them in the sense you can't disprove they exist; in the same sense you can assert rationally there are invisible pink unicorns. However, much like the invisible pink unicorns, formal and final causes will prove impossible to observe objectively, and be the products of declarations, assertions, and faith, not of reason.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

The 123rd Skeptics' Circle

Colin channels Galileo in the 123rd edition of the Skeptics' Circle at Blue Genes, with a list of links that is simply huge. Highly recommended.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Review of TLS -- realism, really?

This is the third in what looks to be a decently long series of posts looking at the argument Dr. Edward Feser presents in the The Last Superstition. You can find parts one and two at those links.

As was noted in part two, Dr. Feser claims to prove quite a few things in his first chapter, and he begins chapter two with a brief history of Greek philosophy from Thales of Miletus, with stops to mention Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, the Sophists, and Socrates, before delving somewhat more deeply into Plato. I certainly don't know enough of historical Greek philosophy to comment on the accuracy or inaccuracy of his summations, nor is that my purpose in this series. As a reminder, my purpose is to comment on what I find convincing in Dr. Feser's book, what I find unconvincing, and whether he has lived up to any or all of his claims by the end of it, either to the extent of convincing me that he is correct, or his fallback position of convincing me his position is rational. To that end, his historical accuracy is barely a footnote. The first step on that path will be below the fold.

After a discussion of Plato, the first bit of meat for my meal appears: a discussion of realism, nominalism, and conceptualism. As Dr. Feser himself acknowledges, the position of realism is indeed central to his arguments later in the book:
Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that virtually every major religious, moral, and political controversy of the last several decades -- of the last several centuries, in fact -- in some way rests on a disagreement, even if implicit or unnoticed, over the "problem of the universals" (as it is known).
, with realism being the position that these universals, numbers, and propositions are real in one fashion or another. He notes there are many flavors of realism.

Before we get into Dr. Feser's nine justifications for this position, I wanted to note what these things are. Universals are adjectives being treated as nouns. His three examples: triangularity, humanness, and redness. Mind you, he never pulls out the word 'adjective' and carefully avoids using the adjectival forms of triangular, human, or red. Nevertheless, he is saying that the common features of the descriptions of various objects are themselves real. By numbers, he means the ordinary sorts of numbers on a real line, making quite a bit of the fact that 2 + 2 = 4 is a necessary truth (even though this is not always true, for example, 2 liters + 2 liters will often be less than 4 liters). Propositions refer to the meaning behind sentences that make a claim about the world. For example, he says that "John is a bachelor" and "John is an unmarried man" are the same proposition.

His first justification applies primarily to universals, and is the notion of "one over many". That is, you can describe many different objects with the same adjective, and that the description could apply to something even when it doesn't actually apply to anything, and even when no mind is thinking about it, therefore it is real. So, even though unicorns and griffons are not real, the concept of being a unicorn or being a griffon is a real concept. Oddly, he does not use fictional examples like unicorns and griffons to illustrate this point. No doubt this is an oversight.

The second and third justifications apply to mathematical objects like circles, numbers, etc. (they are divided into two for some reason). Again, Dr. Feser relies on the notion that these statements are always true, as opposed to models that true given the right circumstances. I am firmly opposed to the notion that mathematical truths are real, because I understand there are too many situations where they are not true.

The fourth is an argument from the nature of propositions, and is basically the idea that a true proposition will often be true even when there is no one around to state it, and that it has no material component. He makes an excellent argument for these propositions being true. However, he makes no argument for them being real.

The last of the arguments directly supporting realism, as opposed to attacking the alternatives, is the argument from science, which amounts to saying that science uses universals and mathematics, and both are real based on arguments 1-3, so anyone who accepts the results of science accepts 1-3. I found this argument did not add any force to his position, as it rests entirely on arguments 1-3.

The remaining four justifications discussed are arguments against the plausibility of nominalism and conceptualism. Nominalism is presented as basically denying the reality of universals (and presumably numbers and propositions, although this is not specifically discussed). Instead, we apply the same descriptions to items because they resemble each other in some fashion, but that resemblance is not some instantiation of a universal. Conceptualism is presented as saying that any existence to universals occurs only in the mind, not in the exterior reality. While acknowledging there are many varieties of nominalism and conceptualism, Dr. Feser prefers to focus on the most extreme variations for his criticisms.

The first of the two arguments directed against nominalism specifically is the vicious regress problem. When the nominalist speaks of resemblances, is the property of resembling something itself a universal? If not, and we identify them all as resemblances because they are similar to us in some ways, is that similarity a universal? Personally, I don't see where there is a good answer to those questions either way. I can certainly understand why someone would reject nominalism on this basis.

The other argument against nominalism, which is also the second argument presented against conceptualism, is that words themselves must be universals. Otherwise, every time we used a word, it might mean something different, and communication would not be possible. Of course, this objection works only if this situation is different with realism, and it seems to me that realism suffers this same communication defect, in a different fashion. Because there are so many universals, we can never be sure which universal the other person is invoking. After all, in addition to redness, there are universals for scarlet, rose, burgundy, crimson, etc., and all of these are particular types of redness. There is nothing in realism that prevents Person A from invoking the universal of red that is close to rose, while person B hears the universal of red that is close to crimson. I recall reading there have been studies that the white universal of people is the USA is more bluish that the white of the South Americans (which looks pinkish to USAers). This theme of an overwhelming number of universals, and the arbitrariness that people use to select from among them, will appear again in future parts of this review.

Finally, the first argument against conceptualism is the objectivity of concepts and knowledge. Dr. Feser claims that when we entertain concepts of the same thing, such as a dog, the concepts are the same inside our brain, that when we think about the Pythagorean Theorem, we are discussing the same proposition. Similarly to what I wrote above, I do not agree. We often are thinking about difference concepts when we think about dogs (since we have two beagles, my dog concept is very beagleish) and while I don't know how beagleish his dog concept is, it's fairly clear our concepts of the Pythagorean Theorem are different.

Coming to my purpose for this review: Dr. Feser presented no evidence that realism is a better position than conceptualism from what I can see, while his argument against nominalism was stronger. So, I would say he failed in the part of the task where he wanted to convince me he was right. However, I can certainly see why people might reasonably hold to realism, so he was successful in his fall-back option of convincing me that his position is rational.

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