Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The 127th edition of the Skeptics' Circle

One of the nice things about this time of year is that, with my classes ended, I have time for other things. That's why I am finally able to take the time needed to host the 127th Skeptics' Circle. I probably won't have another chance until the 153rd. While I had hoped to have either a best-of-2009 theme or a beginnings-and-endings theme, only one cool cat noticed. Still, I should have been more proactive, so I can only blame myself. At any rate, this is my 100th post (yeah!), and I'm just going with a straight-up listing below the fold.

We'll start with a look at historical electrical quackery at Providentia. For me, it was a reminder that as awful as quackery is today, it seems like it was even worse a hundred years ago.

Next, at Stuff and Nonsense, we get an entry on how repeating a myth, even in the course of debunking it, can backfire, and another on argumentation tactics that do more harm than good. I'm not too sure on Fail #10, some ideas are so ridiculous that only mockery seems to do them justice.

Over at The Uncredible Hallq, we get a criticism of an AP story on how the scientists reacted to unfounded complaints. He blames overly active journalistic balance, my first thought is sensationalism bias.

A Stone-Cold Creationist talk is discussed over at Bay of Fundie. If I were to call him the six million dollar creationist, would that date me too severely?

Apparently, Australian Television actually mixes some skepticism into its news on occasion. Rainbow of Chaos offers a video of a skeptic embarrassing a woomeister.

While the PodBlack Cat goes on a hiatus (with our condolences), she leaves us with a couple of choice offerings: a list of good skeptical books and a a new podcast project called the Token Skeptic.

If you want to know who in Sweden did the most to enlighten and who did the most to confuse, look no further than the official annual announcements from the Swedish Skeptic Society's, reported to us by Aardvarchaeology.

Skepdude celebrates the tendency of skeptics to turn on each other at the slightest hint of irrationality, even the the irrational person is none other than the Great Randi, over on Skepfeeds.

We have a trio from The Skeptical Teacher, which you might call the cool, the snarky, and the fun. Next time I want to put some stickers on a few eggs and then vaporize them from friction, I know who to talk to.

My final blog guest this week, Weird Things, has posted a reality check for Deepak Chopra. No one expects Chopra to cash it, naturally.

In a slight change of pace, one of my favorite posters at the Skeptics' Annotated Bible Discussion Board, Xenolan, posted thoughts on the differences between how skeptics and religious people approach knowledge, and I really wanted to include them.

Finally, because I am much too vain to not include one of my own posts, we have the thirteenth, and probably last, part of my response to The Last Superstition.

I'll be looking for the 128th Skeptics' circle on January 14th at Ionian Enchantment, and hope to see many of you there too.

Read more!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Review of TLS -- Promises kept, promises broken

This is the thirteenth part of my review of Dr. Edward Feser's The Last Superstition, and it will be the last one where I respond to the book directly. You can find parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, and twelve at those links. Having finished looking at the chapters directly, it's time to take stock of the promises made in Chapter 1, which I discussed in part 2 of my review, and see how well they have been kept. Below the fold I go over them one by one, and discuss my impressions after reading the book.

I haven't read or linked to this before, by the way, but the Uncredible Hallq did a review of the The Last Superstition in two parts, the first one on morality, and the second on the metaphysics. As an actual philosophy student, the Uncredible Hallq was able to point out philosophical errors and oversights I had no knowledge of (although that was the point of my response to begin with: is the book convincing on its own terms?).

Secularism is inherently immoral and irrational, only a specific sort of religious view can be moral, rational, and sane. This claim was based on the claims below. Dr. Feser made a decent argument that secularism is inherently amoral, but failed to be convincing that it is immoral or irrational. The specific sort of religious view turned out to have morals that were as arbitrary as any other, and the argumentation used to support it was not any more rational or sane than the arguments it was designed to rebut.

On intellectual grounds, atheism can not be true. All of the offered arguments for the existence of God had very serious flaws, as I detailed in part five.

Secularism can never spring from reason; its true grounding is from a willfulness and desire for it to be true. Dr. Feser proclaimed this many times in his book. He never offered a positive proof for it; this point rests entirely on what Dr. Feser considers to be the undeniability of Aristotle's four causes and the resulting proofs for God's existence. Since causes and proofs themselves were suspect, this point was just an unevidenced claim.

The basic metaphysical assumptions that make atheism possible are mistaken. This rests on the presumed undeniability of formal and final causes. However, Dr. Feser was never quite able to bridge the gap between mere descriptions and properties existing versus actual formal and final causes existing. He did try to cover this over by pretending there was no gap, but the effort was unconvincing.

Secular propaganda is the source of fideism. Dr. Feser's own presentation of history laid fideism at the hands of deeply religious men. If anything, he showed that fideism leads to secularism, not the other way around.

It is as impossible to say nature has no meaning or purpose as it is to square a circle. Again, this relies on his failed attempt to demonstrate the existence of final causes. Also, in Chapter 6 he abandons talk of final causes as purposes, so even he does not believe this can be proven.

Secularism is parasitic on religion for all its important ideas, it is strictly a negation. Dr. Feser only attempted the first claim, from what I can tell, by saying that the Mechanical philosophy adopted a more restricted form of material and efficient causes. I agree with that. The second claim I generally agree with, even though I don't think Dr. Feser's presentation was conclusive. It was at least evidenced.

What is characterized as a war between science and religion is really a war between competing metaphysical systems. This claim is based on the notion that Aristotle’s four causes entail the adoption of a particular moral system. In part eight, I find that claim is unfounded.

The classical metaphysical picture is rationally unavoidable, and thus so is the traditional Western religious view derived from it. As I have noted already, neither clause was proved in this book.

Given atheism and naturalism, there is no persuasive argument that allows you to trust in either reason or morality. By trust in, Dr. Feser refers to being able to reason your way to an objective opinion. I agree with his assessment, but find that Aritotelian/Aquinian philosophical positions offer no better basis; they are equally arbitrary.

The abandonment of Aristotle's metaphysics has led to the abandonment of any rational or moral standards that can be used to justify moral positions, and is responsible for the current civilizational crisis of the West. Since the metaphysics themselves don't lead to moral positions on their own, abandoning them can't lead to different moral moral decisions.

I don't know if anyone has bothered to read the whole series, but this was really an exercise for me. I was hoping to learn enough to see why many people adopt this philosophical framework and to deflect any claims that, if I only knew what they were saying, I could see how right they were. I think I have accomplished both objectives to some degree. I even find some interesting ideas in the notions of actuality and potential, and of the difference between material and efficient causes, that might enrich some of the ways I think about science. However, overall I found the book to be a failure by the standards it set for itself.

Read more!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Review of TLS -- Do you mind my science?

This is the twelfth part of my review of Dr. Edward Feser's The Last Superstition. You can find parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and eleven at those links. In the final chapter, Dr. Feser attempts to make the case that science is inherently Aristotelian in practice. Along the way he does a little ridiculing of eliminative materialism and two of its principle proponents, the Churchlands, derides the notions of the mind operating as a computer does, and equivocates the notion that there is regularity in the properties of matter as being indicative of final cause. He relies upon excluding a few middles, the literal interpretations of metaphors, and lots of uncompromising, evidence-free rhetoric. In other words, he uses pretty much the same methodology as the rest of his book. Below the fold I'll go over the various sections of this chapter. The next piece in this series will be a comparison of the promises I listed in part 2 to what Dr. Feser actually demonstrated, and unless Dr. Feser decides to contribute a response to this series, it will be the last installment.

The chapter actually starts in a manner I could agree with, by pointing out how nonsensical the Churchlands sound in a conversation where, instead of Pat saying she is in a bad mood, she'll say she has depressed serotonin levels (or something similar). However, I think the reason their conversation, which replaces things like a bad mood with a low serotonin level in normal conversation, is ridiculous for an entirely different reason. He thinks that their attempt is nonsense because the mind is not eliminable; I think it's nonsense because things like human emotions rarely boil down to a single source, and so identifying your good mood to natural opiates, or whatever, says something you can't possibly know is true at the moment. Of course, for Dr. Feser the Churchlands and eliminative materialism (the claim that their is no such thing as a mind) play the same role he claims Paley and the Design Argument play for the New Atheists, something that it's easy to kick around. Then, by claiming that eliminative materialism is the inevitable result of rejecting final causes (using the negative definition of the mind he set forth in Chapter 5 and I discussed in part ten, linked to above), he attempts to equate any notion the mind exists to the full-fledged acceptance of Aristotelian causes. He graciously concedes that for an acorn, having a final cause of an being an oak doesn't mean that the acorn has a function or purpose to be an oak. Here he undercuts his Chapter 3 Supreme Intelligence proof (which I discussed in part 5) that the Supreme Intelligence is directing the acorn to become the oak; giving the acorn a final cause of being an oak is giving it a purpose just by maintaining the final cause. However, to make his case in this chapter, final causes now become mere directions or tendencies for an event to occur, with no need to invoke something directing it. Maybe he thought no one would notice, or maybe he can't tell the difference himself, I really don't know.

The metaphor of the mind as a computer

Dr. Feser discusses four ways that he thinks the metaphor of the mind as a computer fails.

1) The brain can't really be storing symbols of outside events, because symbols require an interpreter. Since prior to modern times no one thought of the brain as storing symbols, it obviously is not storing symbols [no, I'm not making that up, he really says that]. The whole process idea is circular: the mind is made of symbols; the symbols need the mind to interpret them. Nor is this point of view rescued by referring to memes, because it takes a mind to identify what a meme is, so minds must precede memes [yes, he really says that, too].

2) It can't be said that human minds are running algorithms, because algorithms require intent to follow and algorithm. A repetitive or cyclical behavior by itself is not an algorithm. This, we again have a circular process; the mind can't be built on algorithms if the mind is needed to run algorithms.

3) Causal connections between the brain and the outside world become incoherent under this view. Looking at the process of vision, there is no objective reason to give favored status points the causal chain that start with light bouncing off an object and terminate with brain nerves being stimulated. Thus, the items that demarcate events are not truly objective.

4) Computers can't formulate rational arguments; they can only simulate the following of valid logical forms. If you arbitrarily change the meaning of the forms and symbols, the computer will not change how the forms are processed. For example, if you assign A=>B to mean "Grass is green", B=>C to mean "Cleveland has a Hall of Fame", and A=>C to mean "James doesn't eat fish sticks", then since formally ((A=>B) & (B=>C))=>(A=>C), the computer will interpret this sentenced as being valid: "Grass is green and Cleveland has a Hall of Fame, this means James doesn't eat fish sticks". This shows you need to understand the meaning behind the logical symbols and that logical reasoning is not possible without a mind. This is a version of the Argument from Reason.

Together, these arguments show you can't eliminate goals from human actions. This factors into the main reason why you can't explain the mind in mechanistic terms; it was created to hold the unexplainable. So, if you are going to hold to mechanism at all and not eliminate the mind entirely, your only choice is dualism.

My response

The circularity argument in part 1) ignores a more obvious interpretation of a spiral. Even in animals that we presume have no intentionality at all, such as insects, at a very basic level translate exterior information (such as the position or the sun) and process symbols (such as the dance of a bumblebee telling other bees where to find flowers). So we clearly don't need a full-fledged rational mind to process symbols. This allows for the process to happen in a spiral, where storing the symbols leads to a certain level of mind, which interprets more symbols to create a more complex mind, which can interpret still more symbols to create a yet more complex mind, etc. By trying to present the argument as an all-or-nothing, Dr. Feser attempts to hide the in-between stance of an emergent phenomenon.

Argument 2) is just playing a game with definitions. Whether you can call a basic prcedss in the mind does an "algorithm" or not, the behavior is the same.

Argument 3) ignores that sight developed in a feedback loop. The earliest sighted animals did not distinguish points in the causal chain as being favored, however, those that followed later who did distinguish those points were better able to evaluate the environment, and passed that tendency along.

Argument 4) would be much more compelling if it did not take so much effort to teach logical thinking to humans. Humans are also prone to see form over meaning, confuse correlation with causation, etc. So it's not surprising that computers should have the same issues.

Overall, I agree that in many ways the metaphor of the mind as a computer does not do it justice. However, it's still a good metaphor for specific purposes, and Dr. Feser's objections to it are ill-founded.

Science and final causes

Dr. Feser discusses three areas of science that show final causes are essential.

A) "Darwinian biologists" use teleological language to describe biological systems, and could not do research without it. Phrases like the "function of the heart" and "in order to signal [there are] predators [near]" need to be explained without teleological language. It's not possible to do this without referring to final causes, and scientists don't even try. This is just as well, because the nonsense that philosophers write about science is only exceeded by the nonsense scientists write about philosophy. Any attempts to explain functions in terms of natural selection fails because it means (1) you can't know the function of an organism without knowing it's evolutionary history, (2) nothing that is unevolved can have a function (so the first kidneys had no function, the organs of Swampman have no functions, etc.), and (3) using natural selection as an explanation removes functionality rather than explaining it. You can't remove teleology from your explanations because the mind doing the explaining is teleological [once more: yes, he really says that]. You can't explain teleology in nature without final causes, you can only eliminate it. Descriptions of DNA as holding information, as a blueprint, etc. are fundamentally teleological and show that some interpreter is required; this leads to the notion of form. Note that Paleyan red herrings like irreducible complexity are not a part of this argument. When Dawkins discusses concepts like the selfish gene he pushes science beyond where it can go. When you remove teleology genes/DNA they are no longer useful as biological explanations.

B) Complex inorganic systems, such as the water cycle and the rock cycle, also show final causes, in that each stage in the cycle has a role to play in leading to the next stage. Efficient causes don't explain this, because each stage also has effects that are not part of the cycle. Nor can you say the cycles are just human constructions, they are objective effects. Thus, they are results of goals within each stage.

C) The basic laws of nature make sense only if you interpret final causes as being within objects. The modern view is that the brick shattering a window is not based on anything inherent to the brick or the window, but that event like a brick being thrown are simply followed by event like a window shattering. Hume's empiricism provided cover for these notions, but it is refuted by noting that mental concepts do exist. Humean notions undermine science by saying there are no necessary causal connections between events and denying the existence of law-like correlations. However, scientific regularities are hard to obscure. In practice, scientists draw conclusions after a few experiments, confirming that they accept law-like correlations. Even the notions of "ideal conditions" and "interference" that are needed for various thought-experiments are not Humean.

In summary, because of these reasons we are witnessing the return of a "physical intentionality" to science. This of course means the restoration of Aristotle has been accomplished in fact, if not name.

My response

I know I am being redundant, but I wanted to emphasize this. Back in chapters 2 and 3, formal and final causes were portrayed as having a shaping effect upon objects, where formal causes shaped what they are and final causes what they could become. However, in this chapter, any sort of regularity in behavior is treated as a final cause. Brittleness leads to a tendency to be shattered because the final cause of brittleness is shattering. Matches strike flames because their final cause is to strike a flame. This is done to emphasize repeatedly: science needs final causes. However, the final causes used in this section do not need the Supreme Intelligence to guide them; they merely need a principle of uniformity: under identical conditions, matter behaves identically. This falls short of the Aristotelian causes as described earlier. Dr. Feser is understandably anxious to exclude this middle view.

It's difficult to imagine any thing said about philosophy that is sillier than the notion there was a first kidney, and on top of that to pile on the notions of it being unevolved and without function. So apparently philosphers can win that contest after all. More generally, the feedback loop on survival creates exactly the teleological impetus that Dr. Feser sees as an emergent phenomenon. Beings that act in ways that favor the survival of their offspring see increased survival in their offspring. The goal of survival emerges naturally from this loop. It does not need to be imposed from the outside.

Complex inorganic systems certainly exhibit regularity. However, I have already pointed out that regularity is not the same as a final cause. This is also true basic natures and properties of objects, and the physical laws these natures and properties have them exhibit.

Read more!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Review of TLS -- Problems, problems, problems

This is the eleventh part of my review of Dr. Edward Feser's The Last Superstition. You can find parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten at those links. After devoting several pages to the mind-body problem, Dr. Feser briefly discusses six additional philosophical problems he lays at the feet of the Mechanical philosophy of the Modernists, saying each time there is no such problem under Aristotelian causes. The first three problems are rational in nature, the next three are emotional appeals based on presumably undesirable consequences. These problems were followed by a general condemnation based upon the arguments presented. Below the fold, I will summarize each of these sections in a paragraph, followed by a paragraph of my own on how well or poorly I thought he made his point.

The problem of skepticism

This goes to the basic understanding of how you can know that the world around you is represented by the interpretation of sensory experiences by your brain. There is a gap between your mind and reality. Because of this, skeptics must accept all truths as being relative, which makes science unable to find objective truths. The existence of formal causes removes this problem, because the soul/mind ensures the accuracy of knowledge and interpretations by merging the form of an object being perceived into it, thus understanding the true nature of the object. The existence of final causes allows us to say that this representation process is oriented to producing an accurate result, so it will.

On this problem, I don't see any resolution coming out of formal and final causes. After all, if the soul/mind is going to merge with a form to gain understanding, you still have the issue of whether the correct form will be chosen. Also, because instantiations of forms always fail to reflect a form perfectly, that means that the soul/mind can never really instantiate the correct form within itself, and thus never know the true nature of an object. The problem of skepticism is unchanged by Aristotelian forms.

The problem of induction

Induction is the presumption that future event will be the same as past events. Dr. Feser offers the example of the color grue. An item is grue if it appears green before some given date (say Jan 1 2010) and blue after that date. How can you tell is some object, say an emerald, is green or grue? By using formal causes, saying it is the form of the emerald to be green, of course. Of course, this follows with a general knock that the Modernists invented problems rather than solving them.

Again, Aristotelian forms offer no comfort here. There is no proof that the form of any given emerald is to be green rather than grue, nor is there any way to prevent a grue emerald from merely being a less good instantiation of the form of an emerald than a green emerald. When it comes to individual items, formal causes do not guarantee inductive behavior.

The problem of personal identity

Under Aristotelian forms, a person is a rational soul, that is, a being with a rational form. We see the person because the soul is the form of the body. However, with Descartes’' dualism, we never see the person; we can only see how the person behaves. Locke describes a person as a continuous stream of consciousness, still as a mind without regard to the body. Dr. Feser discusses several scenarios which I can only guess are traditional takes on a mechanical interpretation of the mind. If your mind is scanned and duplicated into a second body, is that you? If it is scanned into two different bodies, are they both you? If one of those bodies kills the other, is that murder, suicide, or neither? What if half your brain is transplanted? Is the original body you? If that body dies, does the donor body become you? Without formal and final causes there is no unifying principle, therefore there is no real person that is a combination of both body and soul.

I don't know how to answer these questions. However, Dr. Feser does not bother to give the Aristotelian version of these answers either. I can guess that the answer would be with a new body you have a new person, so that if your mind is downloaded into two separate bodies, those are two separate people. That would be my answer, and it seems like an answer even a Mechanist would use. After all, once they are in different bodies, they will begin having different experiences, and no longer be a single stream of consciousness. So, while here formal and final causes do answer the problem, the same answer is available to Mechanists as well.

The problem of free will

If there are no formal and final causes to create free will, from where can it come? Materialism offers no scope for free will. Compatibilism says we are free to act upon our desires, but under materialism our desires are not free.

First, I wanted to note Dr. Feser slides back to the stronger versions of formal and final causes in this argument, so that they are not merely properties and regularities, but actual controlling mechanisms outside the realm of the material. Anyhow, if there is free will, fine; if there is only the illusion of free will, fine. Since free will can not be metaphysically or physically demonstrated, and Dr. Feser does not even pretend to try, this boils down to an emotional appeal. We like to think of ourselves as being free, so we'd better choose Aristotelian forms to justify that choice. It's not a rational position.

The problem of natural rights

Natural rights come from the existence of the common form and purpose of humans, which entails obligations on people to respect the rights of other people to fulfill that form and purpose. If there are no formal or final causes, there is no true shared human nature.

As we saw in part eight, merely postulating the existence of formal and final causes does not produce a single moral system, you have to actually determine what these causes are. Different people will choose the sets of formal and final causes that best support the morality to which they are naturally inclined. This means that even if natural rights were to exist, we can't use either formal or final causes to definitively say what they are. We get all the disadvantages of relativism, plus the additional baggage of each saying their argument is right according to the dictates of nature. I don't see the improvement. Again, this is an emotional argument, not a rational one.

The problem of morality

Without formal and final causes to determine what is good or bad, there is no objective morality. There is no objective basis to condemn the Nazis.

This is another emotional argument, again falling prey to the fickle nature of formal/final causes. Condemning the Nazis on that basis requires that you postulate every human has the same formal and final cause. If the Nazis choose to say the Jews, homosexuals, or Jehovah's Witnesses have different formal or final causes than Aryans, how do you rebut them?

General condemnation of the Mechanical philosophy

Abandoning Aristotle led to horrors like Nazism, Marxism, crass consumerism, and pop psychology (yes, Dr. Feser lumps them together). They led to the "great disruption" in morals. Abortion and gay marriage are assaults on the family. Sodomy cries out to heaven for vengeance because it flows from unnatural (in the Aristotelian sense) desires. There can be no common ground between believers and secularists on what is real or right, the secularists are too far gone. In fact, they are so far gone that the average person should feel free to ignore what secular philosophers say, they completely lack common sense.

This is only more emotional appeal, with no rationality behind it and little truth. The only difference between the slaughter under Nazism/Marxism and the genocides that occurred long before Scotus and Ockham was the scale and efficiency. The belief in formal and final causes did not prevent genocidal intentions; the lack of technology merely impeded their scope. The wealthy have always been prone to consumerism and fads. The condemnations of abortion, gay marriage, and sodomy are based upon arbitrary determinations of final causes. Secular and religions leaders continue to find common ground, despite Dr. Feser's proclamations, in the pursuit of knowledge, caring for the less fortunate, and in many other ways. Finally, I agree the average person should continue to look at arguments or ignore them as the average person pleases. After all, all they will do is confirm their preconceptions, whatever they may have been, for the most part.

Read more!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review of TLS -- Minding your body

This is the tenth part of my review of Dr. Edward Feser's The Last Superstition. You can find parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine at those links. The next couple of posts will cover the remainder of chapter 5, which is devoted to several now-traditional philosophical problems. Dr. Feser attributes the existence of these problems to the subscription to the Mechanical philosophy, and claims they do not exist for Aristotelians. By far the longest of these discussions is on the mind-body problem.

Before digging into the details below the fold, I want to comment on a couple of overall themes that start to emerge in the rest of the book here. The first is Dr. Feser's repeated claims that these problems do not surface for Aristotelians. These claims are offered without evidence and do not bear close scrutiny. The second is on the increasing role of eliminative materialism as a foe. In many ways, eliminative materialism plays the role for Dr. Feser that he claims Paley plays for the New Atheists, something to knock around and ridicule, while claiming it is the true version of materialism. I’m not surprised to see a partisan use a tactic he complains about other partisans using, of course.

This section begins with some information on Descartes, who was well-respected for both his natural and mathematical abilities. Dr. Feser seems to think that Descartes is best remembered for his philosophical contribution, although as a mathematician, I would disagree. Every student who progresses to Algebra in high school learns about Cartesian coordinates, certainly many more than will wind up reading Descartes philosophical works. Not that this is necessarily a good thing.

Dr. Feser's position

Key to the understanding of mind-body dualism is notion of an object, for example an apple, having primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities would be those that are objectively measurable, secondary qualities would be our subjective experiences, and might vary from observer to observer. For example, any two people could weigh the apple and get the same weight, but one person might see a red apple and another, color-blind person might see a gray apple. Or, given a bucket of water, two people would measure it to the same temperature, but the same person might experience the water as being warm if they had just had their hand in an ice bucket or cool if they just had their hand in hot dishwater. Weight and temperature are the primary, mechanistic qualities while color and warmth are the secondary, common-sense properties. The part of the person that observes and records these secondary properties is the mind. That we have a mind that controls the body is mind-body dualism.

Since secondary properties are not objective in nature, they can't be reduced to material things, so they can not be present just in the brain/nerves. The mind gets defined as the part that is not measurable or objective, so it can't be reduced to material operations. Capabilities like intentionality (the ability to think about things) show that the reduction of the mind to the material is a "conceptual impossibility". This is because such capabilities show a sense of final causality, but the brain itself can have none, under the Mechanical philosophy.

Meanwhile, those who subscribe to mechanism find themselves without a coherent conception of matter. Secularism has no positive content to offer, it is purely a rejection of religion. Mechanism offers nothing but the denial of formal and final causes. Since the mind requires formal and final causes to exist, materialism's attempts to explain the mind are really attempts to eliminate it. This makes eliminative materialism (the position that there is no mind) the only "honest" form of materialism.

Thus, if you adopt a mechanical conception of the world, as Descartes did, the mind becomes a separate entity removed from the brain, present in a separable soul, sometimes derisively referred to as the ghost in the machine. This soul would nonetheless have to generate mechanical effects, and take information from mechanical sources, thus violating the conservation of energy. Dr. Feser disapproves of the notion of the soul violating the laws of physics. However, since under the Aristotelian view, the soul is the form of the body, all of these issues are removed. The soul is no longer separate from the body.

My response

Firstly, I disagree with this definition of the mind. It is an entirely negative definition, defining the mind by what it is not. You might refer to this as a mind-of-the-gaps. This allows Dr. Feser to rig the game; any phenomenon that does get explained objectively is no longer a part of the mind. We now have physical explanations for both color-blindness and why the perception of warmth depends upon prior experiences. If we had a consistent, unchanging definition of the mind that included things like color-blindness and warmth, we could say we have explained a small part of the mind by explaining why these things happen. With Dr. Feser's mind-of-the-gaps, the domain of the mind shrinks instead. This is what allows him to say eliminative materialism is the only honest version: his mind-of-the-gaps would indeed be eliminated if we could explain all human thoughts in material terms. That doesn't mean that what we normally consider the mind would be eliminated, though.

I find it believable that we have no coherent conception of matter, that it is treated like a brute fact. You have to have a few starting points, and 'matter exists, and behaves in the following ways' seems as good as any of them to me. I also agree that atheism/secularism, per se, has nothing to offer past a rejection of religion. Pretty much the only thing atheists have in common is no religion. It's almost like not having a religion is the definition of atheism, or something.

Finally, while I agree that Descartes dualism violates the conservation of energy, I don't find that a particularly important point and certainly not one Dr. Feser should be pointing a finger at. First, laws of physics are only true until they are not. If the law is violated, you make an exception or re-write the law, which is how science works. Second, Dr. Feser's First Cause is an immaterial being that imports energy into the cosmos every single second in order to sustain formal and final causes. His position regarding the conservation of energy is worse than Descartes, if anything. Further, the Aristotelian position concerning the effect of the mind on the body requires that the immaterial form (the mind) merge with the immaterial universal (of a triangle. for example) to create physical effects (a teacher drawing a triangle). Thus, Dr. Feser's mind-body interactions offer exactly the same ghost-in-the-machine and non-conservation-of-energy problems as Descartes conception. His position offers no improvement on this at all.

Unfortunately, we will be seeing more of Dr. Feser's playing fast-and-loose with definitions, his claims to offer improvements where there are none, his attempts to force diverse theoretical concepts into a single point of view, and his equivocations in the rest of the series. That seems to be all the book has left to offer.

Read more!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Review of TLS -- Descent of the Aristotelian

This is the ninth part of my review of Dr. Edward Feser's The Last Superstition. You can find parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven , and eight at those links. I'm discussing chapter 5, which is titled Descent of the Modernists and is the longest and philosophically densest part of the book, over the next three parts.

Dr. Feser talks about the history of the modern rejection of Aristotle's formal and final causes, and describes what he sees as reasons for judging it to be inferior. From here on out the book's positions and claims get more incoherent and self-contradictory, from what I can tell. Below the fold, I'll start his notion of who started us down the path away from Aristotle, and why his claims don't match even his own presentation of the history.

Dr. Feser starts by discussing religious men like Scotus and William of Ockham, who rejected the schools of thought of Aquinas, et. al., because they made God too predictable or rational to humans, while Scotus and Ockham thought that the likes of God was so far above us that we could not reliably interpret this world to understand God's character. In Scotus and Ockham we see the beginnings of both fideism (faith alone leads to God) and Mechanism (the material universe is just a bunch of billiard balls knocking against each other, while God is an outside spectator instead of the First Cause). Ockham in particular is identified as a conceptualist. Dr. Feser takes the time to remark that he wonders if other skeptics think as highly of the creation of fideism as Christopher Hitchens does (at least, according to Dr. Feser). So, to be clear: I agree that the creation of fideism is a great advance in thinking, especially compared to the muddle-headed proofs Dr. Feser has presented in previous chapters and I have responded to in previous parts.

Dr. Feser next claims that the very process of doing science requires the acceptance of final causes, otherwise causes and effects become "loose and separate", and a match is a likely to produce a baby bunny as to strike a fire. This theme is the focus of Chapter 6, so I'll respond in more detail there. Here, I'll just note the equivocation; the final causes he says are needed for science are much weaker ontological propositions than the ones he put forth in his defense of God/the soul/natural law.

In addition to Scotus and Ockham, Dr. Feser identifies Henry VIII, Luther, and Calvin as people who were subverting Aristotelian forms before any of the moderns. In so doing, he undermines one of the central ideas of his book: secular thinkers reject Aristotelian forms entirely for religious reasons. There were clearly many people who rejected Aristotelian forms that were religious. I don't know the litany of reasons provided for the rejection of Aristotelian forms, but I do know Dr. Feser's own historical synopsis doesn't match his claim and I know he has no trouble with equivocations, so I have no confidence he is telling me the whole story or anything close to it. His position comes across as arbitrary, not rational or thought out. Meanwhile, he takes the time to snicker at how modern secular thinkers don't fuss over logic like Aristotelians do. You can't make this stuff up.

A little side note on Galileo's troubles with the church authorities: it was really his fault. After all, he had the audacity to proclaim heliocentricity as proven before it really had been; there were even errors in his calculations. Sure, some of the churchmen over-reacted a little, but Galileo should have been much more modest. This analysis by Dr. Feser does not inspire confidence in me regard the morality of Aristotelians or their ability to govern wisely, to say the least.

There is also some dialogue on how modern science has not refuted Aristotelian forms. Metaphysical notions like actuality and potentiality are still valid in science today. Aristotle’s physics have been refuted, but not his metaphysics (Can any metaphysics be refuted by science? I don't see how.). Meanwhile, the modern understanding of science offers no reason to prefer Mechanism over Aristotelian forms because (1) the use of Aristotelian forms is not aimed at the technical mastery which is the goal of the Mechanistic view, (2) just because the Mechanistic view has worked to achieve technical mastery doesn’t mean there is nothing more, (3) the Scholastics (that is, the believers in Aristotelian forms as interpreted by Aquinas) were starting to do these same things anyhow, and (4) modern science is completely compatible with Aristotelian forms. Frankly, reasons 1-3 read like sour grapes to me. I have no reason to doubt that they are true, but they seem like more like schoolyard complaints that reasoned positions. Reason 4 is also correct, from what I can tell, but doesn't seem very meaningful. We've already had one example in this series (in part 8) where two different, plausible determinations of the final cause of reproduction lead to two different conclusions about the legitimacy of homosexual marriage. If final causes are so arbitrarily chosen and lead to such conflicting results, I don't foresee much benefit to using them in science.

Read more!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The 126th edition of the Skeptics' Circle

Weird things has put up the 126th edition of the Skeptics' Circle. Plenty to see, plenty to read.

The 127th Skeptics' Circle will feature beginnings and endings. It will be the beginning of my hosting of the circle, the end of 2009, the beginning of 2010, and the end of my review series of The Last Superstition. In addition to the usual posts, feel free to submit examples of your most memorable posts from 2009 and any beginnings or ending you want to include. My email is one_brow(at)
Read more!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pornagraphy correlations

Focus on the Family has released a new pornography "study", which I first saw mentioned in the Illinois Family Institute site. The document is really more a summary than a study, it involves a lot of claims and references to other documents, but incorporates no new research. It seems to me this is a massive conflation of correlation with causation, and in fact generally seems to have them reversed. The claimed results are below the fold. I replaced the bullets with numbers; the rest is quoted from the document directly.

1. Married men who are involved in pornography feel less satisfied with their conjugal relations and less emotionally attached to their wives. Wives notice and are upset by the difference.
2. Pornography use is a pathway to infidelity and divorce, and is frequently a major factor in these family disasters.
3. Among couples affected by one spouse’s addiction, two-thirds experience a loss of interest in sexual intercourse.
4. Both spouses perceive pornography viewing as tantamount to infidelity.
5. Pornography viewing leads to a loss of interest in good family relations.
6. Pornography is addictive, and neuroscientists are beginning to map the biological substrate of this addiction.
7. Users tend to become desensitized to the type of pornorgraphy they use, become bored with it, and then seek more perverse forms of pornography.
8. Men who view pornography regularly have a higher tolerance for abnormal sexuality, including rape, sexual aggression, and sexual promiscuity.
9. Prolonged consumption of pornography by men produces stronger notions of women as commodities or as “sex objects.”
10. Pornography engenders greater sexual permissiveness, which in turn leads to a greater risk of out-of-wedlock births and STDs. These, in turn, lead to still more weaknesses and debilities.
11. Child-sex offenders are more likely to view pornography regularly or to be involved in its distribution.
12. Many adolescents who view pornography initially feel shame, diminished self-confidence, and sexual uncertainty, but these feelings quickly shift to unadulterated enjoyment with regular viewing.
13. The presence of sexually oriented businesses significantly harms the surrounding community, leading to increases in crime and decreases in property values.
14. The main defenses against pornography are close family life, a good marriage and good relations between parents and children, coupled with deliberate parental monitoring of Internet use. Traditionally, government has kept a tight lid on sexual traffic and businesses, but in matters of pornography that has waned almost completely, except where child pornography is concerned. Given the massive, deleterious individual, marital, family, and social effects of pornography, it is time for citizens, communities, and government to reconsider their laissez-faire approach.

Now, this observation is strictly anecdotal, but I'm guessing it has wide application: almost no heterosexual man would rather have his hand around his genital when he can have the genitals of an enthusiastic female around his genital. While that may seem like a surprising thing to the Focus on the Family, I am going to look at all these correlations under that particular interpretation. For the sake of this post, I will grant that the correlations involve really exist.

1. I would expect that a man who doesn't have a wife enthusiastically having sex with him will turn to pornography. If the wife is really that interested in her husband's sexual attention, she generally knows how to get it.
2. Men who don't get enough sex, or don't get enough satisfying sex, are much more likely to want divorces than those who are. Pornography does not fill in the gap satisfactorily for many men.
3. A wife losing interest in sex is a common reason to use pornography to release these desires.
4. Perhaps in some households, watching pornography is viewed this way. Many of the marriage traditions center around being your spouse being your property, at least sexually, and pornography would diminish that. On the other hand, if the spouse being "cheated" upon would act more aggressively to properly maintain their property, the need for such cheating would diminish.
5. Pornography acts as a substitute when good family relations are not available.
6. Sex itself is even more addictive, and pornography becomes a poor fix for sex.
7. This is true in the marital bedroom as well. The best solution is for the spouses to bet more creative with each other in the bedroom.
8. I would expect that men who have a higher tolerance for abnormal sexuality, including rape, sexual aggression, and sexual promiscuity, would avail themselves of such inclinations in pornography, and on a personal note I find it highly preferable, as opposed to such men trying to satisfy inclinations for rape and aggression with women.
9. Men who think of women as sex objects are certainly more likely to find an outlet for these feelings in actresses with whom they have no personal connection at all.
10. Sexual permissiveness would of course include a more permissive attitude to pornography.
11. I would much rather there were no pedophiles, but since they exist, I would also much rather they use pictures of children than actual children. No doubt the pedophiles who agree are active in making these picture available to themselves and others.
12. Adolescents are often sexually capable but without willing partners, so naturally they turn to pornography.
13. Sexually oriented businesses have trouble finding permits and room to operate in communities that see themselves as maintaining a respectable image, so they are forced to locate themselves in communities that are depressed, desperate, and otherwise more prone to the ills of society.
14. People who have good relationships and good marriages, which typically will mean spouses go out of their way to please each other, don't need pornography as much.

If you really want to study the effects of pornography, you need to find a population that does not partake of it to compare to. That's not an easy task. Until then, any results show be taken with a hefty dose of salt.

Read more!

The first job

I haven't written about Son#1 in a while. His ultimate career ambition is still to be a band teacher, but for now, he has his first job, working or a local TJ Maxx. There were days I never thought this would happen. Details are below the fold.

Last year, his class all went to the store as a part of a program, learning to work in a structured fashion. Son#1 did so well that they decided to hire him, and he is currently working 4-8 hours a week after school, officially as a trainee. I showed up early to pick him up one day, and watched him work for a while. He has taken his normal attributes of being highly focused on order and proper places, not being social, and determination that things must be in a specific order and turned them into positives. Putting a shirt back on the rack, or folding it, is done just right, and they get placed exactly how the store wants them to look, at least as far as I can tell. He doesn't get distracted by conversations with coworkers.

I don't know if he can ever be a teacher. My hope was that he might be a studio musician of some sort, but he doesn't seem to like music that well, at least he never practices at home. Oned thing I'm not worried about anymore is whether he will be able tomake a living. The job he has right noe isn't all that different from the Jack-in-tghe-Box job I had at 17.

Read more!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Review of TLS -- Natural law enforces natural prejudices

This is the eighth part of my review of Dr. Edward Feser's The Last Superstition. You can find parts one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven at those links. I am again going without my notes, so I wanted to make to write this while the material was still fresh in my mind.

The remainder of chapter 4 is devoted to a discussion of sexual morality as understood through the lens of natural law, and a brief section on the argument from evil, a position that claims God can not be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent because evil exists. Below the fold I will discuss both of those topics in this post, where I find myself, ala Bret Maverick, agreeing with Dr. Feser in an unusual way.

In Dr. Feser's philosophy the soul is the form of a human. Because this statement implies an acceptance of all four Aristotelian causes, including final causes, moral choices become choosing to accept and follow the final causes of actions, even if we have a natural inclination to go against these final causes. That is, to be good means to exhibit form that allows the final cause to be more closely fulfilled, so that a triangle on a chalkboard drawn with straight lines is a better triangle than one drawn with curved lines. Following that, to be moral is to choose to do what is good, for example, choosing to draw a straighter triangle becomes a moral good (Dr. Feser does not use this example in this way). When applied to sexual activity, the final cause of sex is put forth as reproduction, because it is obvious to Dr. Feser that this is the case. This means that every act of sex that ends with depositing semen inside the proper orifice is the proper way to have sex, and all other ways are less proper, less good, and less moral. Further, the needs of raising children mean that there needs to be a stable relationship between the mating couple so that the man will stay around to care for the children. This is the essentials of the natural law argument against homosexual activity and homosexual marriage; it does not engender actions that would further the final cause of sex.

Along the way he discusses various riffs on this idea and various objections to it. For example, the inability to complete the act of reproduction (due to infertility for one reason or another) does not change the final cause of sex, and so does not change what good sex will result in (the proper depositing of semen). Another one is that other features of sex, like the pleasurable sensations, are not equal in status, but subservient to this primary cause (we enjoy sex so we will have more of it, and thus make more babies). Finally, the notion that any organs involved have multiple, disparate functions does not change the final cause when involved in one function in particular.

I happen to agree that, if one can determine a final cause for sex (a proposition of which I am dubious, but I will grant it for the sake of the argument), then one can make the sorts of determinations Dr. Feser makes. However, making such a determination by fiat seems counter to the spirit of using nature to determine causes. Instead, let's look at nature to see what the real final cause of sex is. If we go back two or three billion years in our history, we see our ancestors as single-celled living things, not yet rational souls. They are having sex (at any rate, exchanging bodily fluids), but not for reproduction, which is a different process. Instead, we see processes like bacterial conjugation and syzygy being used to strengthen other members of our community and our species, preserving a healthy species, and binding the community together. Reproduction becomes attached to sex later on.

So, since these causes exist in a hierarchy, the top of the hierarchy is not reproduction, it is the preservation of a healthy species and the binding of a community. Obviously reproduction is one of the ways sex can accomplished this, as a healthy community needs a steady supply of new members, but any activity that serves to bind a community together and strengthen it also serves the final cause of sex equally well. In particular, monogamous homosexual partners strengthen a community by adopting children that might otherwise be uncared for. Those who have no children will leave their mark in the community by using other, more self-sacrificing means, often by using excess resources in civic activities for the community as a whole. Clearly, a commitment to natural law entails the acceptance of homosexual marriages as valuable to the community, and thus as a moral good.

I again challenge Dr. Feser to really stand by his principles and start promoting the moral goodness of homosexual marriages. However, I don't expect this to happen, because I don't believe Dr. Feser chooses his moral beliefs to follow the teachings of natural law. Rather, I suspect that he chooses the principles of natural law to reinforce his personal prejudices, and I would be surprised if he did anything other than reject my reasoning outright, claiming that I don't understand his argument or have misidentified the true final cause of sex. He will make these claims, but all they can ever come down to is personal preference. This is the real difficulty of saying formal and final causes exist; there is no way to say what they are. Different observers will see the same object or activity and use their own prejudices to put a formal and final cause on that activity, resulting in different formal and final causes being assigned to it. This make the morality that comes from natural law just as arbitrary as morality that comes from fiat by God or from a local culture, but the arbitrariness is given cover by natural law reasoning. Peel back the cover, and you still have basic human prejudices and arbitrariness underneath. I don't find natural law convincing or rational, and the veneer of rationality does not change this.

With regard to the argument from evil, Dr. Feser's rebuttal is quite simple: the argument from evil depends on the presumption that God can't turn an awful act in this world into an even greater blessing in the next. Aside from the consequence that this means you are doing people a favor when you do evil to them, since God will make that into an even greater good, this objection satisfies me on a rational level. The argument from evil is an emotional argument, not a rational one, and it doesn't carry much rational weight.

Read more!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Review of TLS -- A soulful discussion

This is the seventh part of my review of Dr. Edward Feser's The Last Superstition. You can find parts one, two, three, four, five, and six at those links. I believe this will mark the half-way point in this series, as we have three more chapters to go. At the rate of one or two posts per chapter, plus one to compare the promises listed in chapter one and how well they were fulfilled by the end of the book, possibly with a final post of corrections/comments/explanations by Dr. Feser, should he choose to make one, this is looking to be a 12-14 part series in total. In chapter 4, we start moving on from his claims concerning God to his claims concerning people, our nature, and morality. In this post I'll be looking at the notion of the soul, in the next at sexuality and at the argument from evil.

To be frank, I have misplaced my notes on Chapter 4, and at this point I am disinclined to recreate them from scratch. So, more those than previous installments, the next two will be relying on my memory of the arguments presented and my thoughts concerning them. However, of all the chapters this seems to be the one directly involved with our daily decisions as a society, and one of the least technical chapters in the book, so I have a reasonable degree of confidence that my below-the-fold summary of Dr. Feser's positions and the reasoning methods used are accurate.

In this chapter we get the first solid confirmation that a formal cause is more than a description to Dr. Feser: he describes the soul of a person as being the form of that person. Unlike the later conceptions of a soul, as some separate thing than controls a body, the body is a part of the souls. Indeed, plants and animals, having forms, therefore have souls. Plants have nutritive souls and animals have sensory souls, which are nutritive souls with additional capabilities in their form. Humans have an even better type of soul, a rational soul that has all the properties of a sensory soul (including therefore all the ones of a nutritive soul) and also the ability to evaluate abstract things, form patterns, etc.

So far, this actually reminds me of Jehovah's Witness dogma. For JWs, people have bodies and minds, but they are souls, as are any animals. Where they differ is that, while JWs do not believe consciousness persists after death, for Dr. Feser the ability of the rational soul understand the nature of objects without physically merging with their forms means that the soul itself must have an extra-physical existence. For example, you can't understand the essence of a dog without invoking the form of dog-hood in some fashion. Since the brain does not assume the physical form of a dog, this merging has to take place in some non-material fashion, and this means that a rational soul has access to the immaterial in ways that a sensory soul does not. Thus, even though the soul as a whole can not be separated from the body, when the body dies some part of rational aspect of the soul can continue to exist. Naturally, if it exists after the body it must come from somewhere outside the body, and this place is from God, who joins the form (soul) of a person to the body at conception. Further, since the zygote already has a rational form, they are entitled to all the protections to be afforded any other rational soul. Thus, Dr. Feser claims the only rational position is pro-life. Further, the development from zygote through embryo and fetus to baby should not be compared to the type of change where a rubber ball is melted in a pan (this is a change of form), but rather to a ball which expresses its potential by rolling downhill.

Another aspect mentioned is that any claim natural law can be used to support slavery, with the possible exception of debt and crime, is a slander, according to Dr. Feser. In no way can it be interpreted as saying one person can be forced into the servitude of another when no crime or obligation has been undertaken by the one who would be enslaved. If Dr. Feser really believes this, then it should be obvious that he also supports a pro-abortion position, as long as zygote-embryo-fetus is not killed during the extraction, but allowed to live out its own life as best it can. So, I call upon Dr. Feser to live up to his own words and support the right of any woman to end any pregnancy in a delivery at any time in the pregnancy, even if the pregnancy is less than one month along. After that, the embryo or fetus can continue to develop by rolling down its metaphorical hill without forcing the woman to act in its service. Mind you, I don't believe Dr. Feser will actually support this sort of right-to-immediate-birth position, because I don't think he is looking to be consistent with his premises. Rather, he has chosen his premises to support his prejudices, and disguised under something he claims is natural law. I'll talk more about this in the next part.

However, this post would not be complete without mentioning Dr. Feser also uses this reasoning to oppose positions like euthanasia, and in the process he takes the traditional swipe at Michael Schiavo. However, Dr. Feser does not mention opposing the right of an individual to refuse medical care, even nutrition, or opposing the right to create living wills on this issue. Since the determination of the judges in the Schiavo case was that Terri Schiavo would not have wanted to continue indefinitely in her state (at least from what I recall), they were basically enforcing a verbally communicated living will. I find myself in the position of wondering whether Dr. Feser was 1) ignorant of this detail, 2) neglectful in mentioning his opposition to living wills with end-of-life directives, 3) just playing to his target audience, or 4) some combination of these things possibly with other reasons mixed in. At any rate, there is no good argument presented against the results of the Schiavo case, just condemnation.

I'm not sure how to judge how convincingly this section of the book was argued, because I agreed with many of the ideas, or at least had a disposition to agree with them, in many ways. Since I didn't see any reason to accept a formal cause as something that was stronger than a description, to use those forms to create a rational soul, part of which survives death, did not persuade me. At the least, it seems that Dr. Feser has not followed through on his claims that his positions by rational means and through reasoning. His natural law position does not, at least as presented, support his condemnation of abortion nor of Michael Schiavo. So, to the extent that he claimed his book would show an atheist he takes his positions for rational reasons, he has not lived up to his claims.

Edited to add:
When discussing the process of thinking about forms, and saying this process means instantiating that form in an immaterial way, Dr. Feser uses this concept as proof that the mind can never be found to be material or even to depend solely on the material. This would mean that any discovery which indicates the mind does indeed depend on the brain must be wrong (unless one of his fundamental assumptions is wrong). I mention this as an example of one possible motivation for the dropping of formal/final causes to begin with: once you start saying certain results of an experiment must be wrong and can not possibly be valid, you are drawing a line in sand that science is not supposed to cross over. Maybe there will never be a material explanation for something like the ability to understand what a triangle is, or maybe in 100 years we will have created artificial life that exhibits this behavior. To rule it out a priori is stultifying and limiting, for no good purpose.

Read more!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The 125th Skeptics' Circle

You can no find the 125th Skeptics' Circle at Effort Sisyphus, with two ways to experience the journey. Is your pill red or blue?
Read more!