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.


J said...

(Can any metaphysics be refuted by science? I don't see how.).

Good point re falsificationism. If something can't be disproven, then it's probably dogma--as Gallileo discovered (not to say other heliocentric heretics, like burnt at the stake for upholding Copernicus).

There's another point that Feser sort of overlooks. Aristotle was sort of an early biologist as much as metaphysician (Ari. actually objected to the platonists). He and the "Academy" started taxonomy, at least in the West, in regards to animal/plant species, diseases, etc. The Academy was sort of an early medical and engineering school, of course primitive by our standards (not to say...pagan), but they were doing observations, early experiments (and making mistakes).

I suggest much of that early "essentialism" was the greeks' attempt at biochemistry--if not genetics. They were puzzled at continuity--why are cows nearly always cows, instead of, well, sunflowers, or snakes??/ So, not really knowing much , if anything about genetics, chromosones, carbon-based lifeforms, etc. they posited an Order Keeper. When that order was violated--ie two headed calf!!-- the old pagans would perform rituals, probably slaughter some slaves, etc. Yet, centuries later, modern science does provide explanations of that continuity--perhaps not the ultimate "Why is there anything"-- but the DNA code does suggest something about regularity. Zeus or the Primum mobile is no longer necessary, except as a sort of metaphor.

R.C. said...

One Brow:

What could you possibly mean, saying that "So, to be clear: I agree that the creation of fideism is a great advance in thinking." Fideism isn't thinking.

From what Feser and his compadre Dr. Larry Feingold say, the non-fideistic approach to theology is something like this: "There's some stuff about God we can't know unless He reveals it to us, but there's other stuff, like His existence and his being Pure Act, that we can just learn by thinking straight. Therefore, everyone has an obligation to think as straight as they can: Good philosophizing is a moral imperative. Oh, and you can't be sure of the beyond-human-reason stuff God has revealed UNLESS you first use reason to discern when and where He has spoken, as opposed to some self-appointed prophet merely claiming divine sanction for his own notions. Therefore discerning reasoning about revelation-claims is also a moral imperative."

"Fideism," so far as I can tell, amounts to "Believe what we say is true about God (or whatever) because believing stuff is good for you."

I'm guessing you're stating your support for "fideism" because you're defining it differently: "Faith alone leads to God." But are you quoting Feser, when you use that definition? It doesn't sound like anything a Catholic should believe, or is even allowed to believe. So it's hard for me to imagine it being Feser's own definition, and I don't see it anywhere in his book. (And why would you be so enthusiastic about what looks like a Lutheran statement-of-faith?)

I'm guessing that you're expressing enthusiasm for (that definition of) fideism because you're assuming that it necessarily goes hand-in-hand with a Mechanistic view of the world. But I see no principled reason why a person can't hold the non-fideistic view I've articulated above, together with a mechanistic view of matter.

Why not hope for persons-of-faith to simultaneously hold BOTH the more rational view of matter, AND the more rational view of how one comes to understand God?

One Brow said...

R. C.,

Fideism is a step on the path to realizing that there is no objective reasoning regarding that which can not be verified. I could easily point out 50 distinct theories of existence are that are all internally consistent, but that means little if there is no external verification.

mcc1789 said...

J, I have never heard of anyone burned at the stake for upholding Copernicus. Who were these people?

One Brow said...


This claim is often used to describe the sentence of Bruno.

It is somewhat of a simplification.

mcc1789 said...

I would go further, saying it appears to be flat-out wrong. That wasn't part of the charges. He *was* charged with holding there were many worlds rather than just ours, but that isn't the same thing at all.

One Brow said...

I suppose it matters if your primary aim is defending the RCC, and you really think it is OK to burn someone for heresy, but not for heliocentrism. I don't think you can parse Bruno's beliefs that cleanly, but I also don't think it really matters.

mcc1789 said...

I'm not a Catholic, and this isn't a defense of burning Bruno, just historical accuracy. He did believe in heliocentrism, it's just that wasn't one of the reasons for his sentence.

One Brow said...

Sometimes a reason for having a sentence is not an official charge. I agree that heliocentrism was no a primary reason for Bruno's martyrdom, but it was a contributing factor.

mcc1789 said...

Well if so, I've seen no evidence of that. Heliocentrism was not a heresy.

One Brow said...

In March 1616, the Church's Congregation of the Index issued a decree suspending De revolutionibus until it could be "corrected", on the grounds that the supposedly Pythagorean doctrine that the Earth moves and the Sun does not was "false and altogether opposed to Holy Scripture". The same decree also prohibited any work that defended the mobility of the Earth or the immobility of the Sun, or that attempted to reconcile these assertions with Scripture.[citation needed] On the orders of Pope Paul V, Cardinal Bellarmine gave Galileo prior notice that the decree was about to be issued, and warned him that he could not "hold or defend" the Copernican doctrine. The corrections to De revolutionibus, which omitted or altered nine sentences, were issued four years later, in 1620.

It may not have been an official heresy, but the Church was not completely neutral on the matter, either.

However, I don't see the point in further argumentation on this point. I cede you the final word.

mcc1789 said...

That's true. To be fair, the machinations in Galileo's were pretty complex. Apparently it was not heliocentrism itself which they held heretical, but claiming that scripture should be reinterpreted to reflect this. They objected because it wasn't proven. I agree this is not that different though.