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.

22 comments:

aintnuthin said...

One Brow said: "So everything is what it is, and only changes when something else influences it."

Kinda makes me think of Newton's law of inertia, for some damn reason.

Just threw that out there...I'm still trying to get a sense of what your post (and Feser's book) is about, here.

aintnuthin said...

One Brow said: "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."

Well, Eric, without takin any sides on this issue right now, I would comment that anyone who wants to convince someone that someone else (Feser) has a position that does not "reflect reality" might come up with better examples than are provided in nuclear physics to represent what "reality" is, eh?

aintnuthin said...

One Brow said: "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 sounds like Platonic realism, as opposed to Aristotle's "moderate realism." If Feser takes that position, then I have no specific grounds on which to question it. But, on general grounds, I was under the impression that Feser, like Acquinas, took an aristotlean view of the existence of "form" (hylemorphism). Does he even discuss the difference, and reject the aristotlean view in favor of the platonic one, from what you can tell, Eric?

aintnuthin said...

Well, Eric, I realize you aint no professional book reviewer or nuthin, but I gotta confess that I'm a little disappointed. I get very little sense of what Feser's ultimate claims are. Likewise, I get little sense of how he tries to justify some of the particular claims you address, or why you find his arguments inadequate. I see that you do reject his claims, but get very little sense of why.

Out of curiousity, what, exactly, is "the last superstition?"

One Brow said...

Well, Eric, without takin any sides on this issue right now, I would comment that anyone who wants to convince someone that someone else (Feser) has a position that does not "reflect reality" might come up with better examples than are provided in nuclear physics to represent what "reality" is, eh?

If I had any macro-level examples, I would use them. I'm not sure I agree with the inference that examples from nuclear physics are inferior in some way. Did you mean to imply that?

By an immaterial form, Dr. Feser does not mean a Platonic ideal. He means something like an angel, a soul, etc., an "thing" that has a form but no matter, at least as matter is usually understood.

As far as Dr. Feser's ultimate claims, I covered those in part 2, recently edited to add one more. This series is as much response as review. I believe the last superstition is that naturalism/materialism can explain reality adequately.

I would love to get a sense of how he justifies the existence of formal and final causes as well, but all that is offered, from what I could tell, is supposed examples of them, and declarations that they are common snese and essential to understanding material and efficient causes.

aintnuthin said...

One Brow said: "I'm not sure I agree with the inference that examples from nuclear physics are inferior in some way. Did you mean to imply that?"

Yeah, I did mean to imply that. Concepts applied in particle physics are fine, depending on the purpose. But I would say that they are clearly inferior for the purpose of giving an illustration of "reality." Our discussion on relativity, etc., should help explain why I see it this way. These "things" are pure "form" in the sense of being abstractions and are the product of deduction rather than empirical observation. Do you recall our discussion about so-called "point particles?"

One Brow said...

There are many hypotheses and concepts in physics that are the results of deduction only or even just speculation and place-keeping, and I agree these should be viewed with a careful eye.

However, results pointing to inherent randomness, like Bell's Theorem, are presented as having experimental justification. So, I don't agree that the claims about them are pure "form", they are at least a mixture.

Thomas said...

Onebrow,

I've been looking forward to this post. A couple points:

Using things like protons to demonstrate that Aristotle's rubric for talking about a thing's causes is hazardous, simply because Aristotle wouldn't view a proton as a "thing". Setting aside for the moment the possibility that protons are very much products of a specialized way of looking at things that may not hold for the ordinary things we experience in everyday life, it's worth consideration that, for Aristotle, there are only three or four sorts of things: plants, animals, humans, and the cosmos as a whole. Everything else is a part of one of these things, and so when Aristotle talks about independent things, he does not really mean everything that we thing of as objects. What can be predicated of wholes cannot necessarily be predicated of parts, because parts, in order to be understood in a metaphysical analysis, cannot be understood without reference to the whole. Wholes have a priority in that we already understand them (though, to be Heideggerian, not always in a reflective way) as prior to the parts. Think of how you use a doorknob without even thinking, simply because it's in the practical context of a room and how human beings move in and out of rooms. Or how, when you walk by someone on the sidewalk, you don't have to add up their properties and then come to the conclusion, but rather simply recognize the "look disclosed in speech" that belongs to a human being.

For similar reasons, rubber balls don't really have formal or final causes, although they imitate them. Aristotle does not consider things produced by art or craftsmanship to have any real causes, only imitations of causes that human beings force upon them unnaturally from without. And Aristotle does not mean that form is equivalent with shape, though they have something to do with each other. A dog may be shaped more like a rodent than another dog, nevertheless their form is the same.

The four causes belong properly only to "independent things"; that is, to beings that actively maintain themselves in their being. It's the difference between a bed and a tree: insofar as the bed has something like form, the form is forced on the material, but doesn't really "pull" the material into itself--that's why beds fall into disrepair. A tree, on the other hand, causes its material to strive towards its form in such a way that it manifests being a tree from an inward disposition, rather than one forced on it from without (this is why ID theory is unacceptable to Aristotelians).

Good post, I'll probably have more comments later.

UnBeguiled said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
UnBeguiled said...

(Original comment edited in order to strictly comply with commenting rules.)

Pointing out physical facts that contradict his arguments pose no problem for Dr Feser. To quote him:

"Whatever the details of the physics, chemistry, or physiology turn out to be, they are all going to involve the reduction of potency to act in essentially ordered causal series, because any material world at all is going to involve that."

"Any material world" would be compatible with his metaphysical theory. But if your theory can explain everything, then it explains nothing. And so with Dr. Feser's metaphysics.

Thomas said...

All that says is that potency and act can be argued for a priori. You seem to think that would rule out a posteriori arguments.

UnBeguiled said...

Hi Thomas,

I understand that distinction, but Dr. Feser explicitly states on page 83 that his arguments begin with empirical observations.

One Brow wrote:

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.

But suppose Dr. Feser tries to make an a priori argument that all change requires an outside influence, yet we have overwhelming empirical evidence that that is just false. What then? Would it be legitimate for Dr. Feser then to say "but we know a priori that all change requires an outside influence, so in those cases where it appears otherwise there must be some invisible undetectable outside influence"?

It seems to me that opens the door for any claim whatsoever. It is quite easy to immunize any claim such that it is unfalsifiable.

Thomas said...

It's worth remembering that scientific empiricism is a species of a wider sort of empiricism that has certain inherent limitations and structural features. It delimits in advance the sort of thing that shows up as well as the way in which things show up. I'm not sure if that's what Feser's getting at, but I would certainly agree that, in general, the nature of scientific inquiry qualifies in advance any answers that might show up, and could not possibly overthrow the concepts of act and potency. However, this does not mean that empiricism more widely would be unable to overthrow the distinction, or that more abstract arguments might call it into question.

Really, though, anytime change occurs, act and potency must be posited. Change is just, by definition, movement from what might be to what is.

One Brow said...

Unbeguiled,

If your deleted comment was concerning Dr. Feser, I would say as a published author he is a public figure. However, if you refrain from pointless insults of your own accord, I would be appreciative.

One Brow said...

Thomas,

Thank you for you comments so far. From what I read in the material you sent me concerning Aristotle, I have no doubt your assessments are correct on Aritotles usagte and views. However, my primary task in these articles is to deal with the works of Dr. Feser. Correctly or incorrectly, when he discusses hylomorhism, the example is the rubber ball, which is why I discuss it. Correctly or incorrectly, when he discusses form, the only parts he brings out are properties (shape, color, etc.) and what it might be used for. Correctly or incorrectly, he asserts teh four causes can be applied to every element within the natural world, as opposed to merely some subset thereof.

I tend to agree there is some descriptive merit to the notion of form for living things (the cosmos, not so much), although I see it as more of a mental shortcut than something which has an effect. It is true, after a fashion, that living things tend to grow in a certain way and that this way is a guiding principle in the development of the organism.

I think that your comment on actuality (act) and potential (potency) always being present for any change is correct, pretty much by definition. However, my specific contention was with Dr. Feser's claim that the potential can only become actual due to outside influences, as opposed to realizing itself spontaneoulsy. I do not agree this is the case, and the empirical evidence does not bear this out.

Thomas said...

Onebrow,

True, and I'm certainly not criticizing your presentation of Feser; I'm just trying to provide an Aristotelian perspective. I've only briefly skimmed through Feser's book, and my first impression was that it probably wouldn't be very convincing to non-Aristotelians, and that it appeared to have what I regard as questionable representations of Aristotle in some respects. It's not fair for me to assert either point though, since I haven't actually done Feser the courtesy of reading his book (as you are laudably doing); people whose opinion I much respect think its great, so my impressions don't mean anything.

While I'm not saying you've read Feser incorrectly, I suppose I am saying that Aristotle's philosophy is quite defensible. I don't intent to contradict you, since, after all, you're not reviewing Aristotle's works. Nevertheless, insofar as the truth of Aristotle's work is at issue here, though somewhat indirectly, I'd like to at least defend that.

A couple quick points: comparing final causes to pink invisible unicorns is inaccurate whether or not Feser accurately presents Aristotle. Invisible pink unicorns are impossible because being invisible and being pink are a contradiction in terms; it's like talking about a married bachelor. Even if you used Russel's floating teacup, the comparison has its problems; namely, that whether or not forms "exist", they certainly don't exist in the same way a teacup does. Perhaps the sort of existence a form has is impossible, or perhaps forms simply don't exist in any way, but no one is saying that a form exists in the same way as a material object exists.

I think that point is important, because for Aristotle, everything doesn't exist in the same way; there must be different ways of existing for anything to exist at all. If someone were to say that God exists and can be found objectively in the same way as a human being exists, or as a teacup or a rock, Aristotle would say that that person's understanding existence is flawed. And he's not making a special objection for God; products of craftsmanship exists differently from a tree, friendship has a different kind of existence than does a mathematical theorum, and so on.

aintnuthin said...

Thomas said: "Perhaps the sort of existence a form has is impossible, or perhaps forms simply don't exist in any way, but no one is saying that a form exists in the same way as a material object exists...products of craftsmanship exists differently from a tree, friendship has a different kind of existence than does a mathematical theorum, and so on."

So, then, existence aint exclusively material, and the word "exist" does not uniequivocally mean exactly the same thang in each and every context, you're sayin? Boy, this is gittin more confusin all the time, eh?

One Brow said...

Thomas,

Sorry for the delay in response, adn thanks for returning to comment. I have no objection to discussing Aristotle's actual views in the comments, to a moderate degree, and I think seeing how the Scholastics and the neo-Scholastics have deviated from Aristotle is a subject worth talking about.

Since I love to quibble: invisible and pink might seem to be contradictory, but if you view invisible as a description of simply not being able to see, and pink as a property, there is no contradiction. For example, a unicorn who reflects pink light and surrounds herself with a Star-Trek-style cloaking device would be invisible and pink. Now, transparent and pink would be contradictory.

Also, I really have no problem saying that forms exist, it the interpretation of forms as being causes that I question. Now, with the retriction to living things, and the understanding that Aristotle is talking about the efforts living things make to reach and maintain a certain form, I can see that why that would be considered a cause (although even then I think any causal effect is one of feedback, not direct).

Thomas said...

I love to quibble as well. I would think "pink" refers not to an ability to see pink per se, but to what one would see were one looking at the pink thing. So if the eye never evolved and we got around by sonar, things would still be pink regardless of our ability to see it.

There's actually a wider problem with the common pink unicorn/spaghetti monster reductio ad absurdem arguments (generally, I'm not responding to any argument you actually made). Even if it were possible to be pink and invisible (or whatever absurd attributes the pseudo-deity has), they're still composite kinds of existence. Christian theology (as well as the Greek theology of the philosophers from which it borrowed much of its vocabulary) holds God to have a different sort of existence from finite (composite) things altogether: whereas a natural thing has both potency and actuality, simple existence has no potency whatsoever, and is pure act. Many philosophers have questioned the possibility of such an existence, but it should be clear that a pink invisible unicorn would not have simple existence even if it were to exist.

I think that getting at the difference between simple and compound existence is crucial to any discussion about the existence of God, because we have to be clear to some degree on what it would mean for God to exist (it's obviously something very different from what it means for a teapot to exist). In fact, I think that has to be the initial question: before one proclaims God to exist or not to exist, one must say what that means.

If the "neo-atheists" just mean that God doesn't exist the way a tree or a rabbit, or even the cosmos exists, count me in. In fact, for Christian theology, to affirm such a claim is idolatry in the strict, technical sense.

Now some will argue that simple existence doesn't really mean anything, and that's a discussion that's well worth having. I think that's a discussion that must happen before any strong claim of atheism is made.

I think that's why Aristotle is so useful. In a way, his discussion of causes and forms (and all the other things he brings up along the way) are means of illustrating what the difference is between composite and simple existence. It's easy to get caught up on the forms (they are quite interesting in their own right, and useful for other things), but it's important to keep the basic "problematic" in mind.

In your last comment, I had a little of trouble understanding the first sentence, but what followed was important, I think. If you don't mind clarifying a bit for my edification, it looked significant to the discussion.

And let me know if you want me to send any more Aristotle stuff your way. I've got an introduction by the same writer (Sachs) to the metaphysics, which you might find interesting. However, if you're busy with your book review itself, it's quite understandable (I don't want to make the job more laborious if it doesn't need to be).

One Brow said...

Thomas,

I meant to say exactly what you did about being pink, sorry if that was unclear.

I agree that, when dealing with the Aristoltean/Scholastic concept of God, arguments about the FSM and IPU are not serious rejoinders. However, the context in which you typically see the FSM and the IPU is normally not a serious philosophical discussion, either. Russell's teapot may be an exception, as it seems to appear in such discussions.

I'd really enjoy reading that introduction to metaphysics after this reveiw project is finished. I take the train every day, so reading material comes in handy.

The comment you want clarified: was it how teh Scholastics seem to have deviated from Aristotle, or how I thought that for living things, form was appropriate from the perspective of a feedback mechanism?

Thomas said...

Onebrow,

The latter (concerning form).

As to the original post. Feser may not argue that forms exist without matter, but it follows pretty easily. Think of how even if there were no even things, nothing would be changed about evenness. Or another illustration: if there were only two even things, if one of them were made shorter or longer, nothing would have happened to evenness (it would still mean the same thing to be even). Or again, if I sully a white dish, making it black, I may have destroyed the whiteness of the dish, but I have done nothing to whiteness itself (what it means to be white). The immateriality of forms holds for all of the Platonic forms, in that they are not dependent on particular things.

One Brow said...

"Now, with the retriction to living things, and the understanding that Aristotle is talking about the efforts living things make to reach and maintain a certain form, I can see that why that would be considered a cause (although even then I think any causal effect is one of feedback, not direct)."

I supoose you could say it is causal only by process of elimination. Living things that reach particular forms have better capabilities in a given environment, and so reproduce more successfully. As long as this environment is stable, the living things whose offspring are more reliably able to reach that certain form, or a reasonable approximaiton thereof, will be more successful. Thus, since the correct form has the capability of maximal reproductive success, it creates a feedback loop to those beings that can replicate it.

As far as evenness, or whiteness, I don't disagree with your comments. What I don't understand is how these descriptions rise to the level of being a cause. maybe I'm just missing something, maybe the wording is getting in the way. Woudl you say there is a difference between a formal cause and a classification, say, of a bird? What would that difference be?