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.


J said...

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,

This is pretty good. Note Feser's contempt for Hume in regards to causality and induction: Hume's the real foe of the older thomists and catholic dogmatist. They can't stand the idea of ....well, doubt or uncertainty. And they misread Hume on causes.

Let's grant Hume the man was a rather sinister person. Dastardly, and at times probably overweight and dissolute (though the aged Hume did give quite a bit to poorhouses and charities of the time)--he was sort of a Hitchens of his era (if not Dawkins).

Regardless, a reasonable person should address his specific arguments re causes/induction and knowledge via experience, and avoid the insinuations about DH's character. As far as I can tell, Feser (and his cronies) rarely do that.

First, Hume like most empiricists simply does not accept innateness, whether in philosophical or theological terms. That's the real ...bugaboo..for the religious folks, I suspect. And he doesn't, ala Locke, sort of play the religious pragmatist. Knowledge, including that of natural sciences, arrives via the senses, perception, and is not necessary. He did not thereby mean to suggest knowledge is impossible; really it's sort of an analytical point. We have no logical guarantees (ie proof) that what appears regular in nature--- say a chunk of potassium reacting with H20, or gravity itself--will be regular in the future.

Now, Hume was not a complete skeptic and did not really deny Newtonian physics--as many religious people like Feser want to suggest.
It's more akin to a subtle point about necessity, ie the lack of necessity; inductive "truths" are not deductive, ie analytical. Of course gravitational constants hold (and at times, Hume does seems a bit too subjective), at least when we are earthbound, but there's no logically necessary argument that will be the case next year, or 100 centuries from now (or consider...the Sun decaying, entropy, etc).

Hume thus raised a somewhat key point on the provisional nature of science: Einstein did update Newton (and Einstein had read a bit of Hume). That said, all Feser really does is sort of repeat the old chestnuts--there's order, final causes, acorns become oaks (not always--ie a squirrel eats them, they mutate, pesticides, etc), etc., G*d wouldn't deceive us, etc (then, is a black plague, or spanish influenze part of that amazing intrinsic order, as well??). Feser does not really offer a refutation, just a sort of sophisticated grumble--"Hume? Preposterous."

Since Feser reads Hume as an ultimate skeptic (when Hume really just denies necessity to natural "laws" and was sort of an early probability theorist) he's sort of missing the point on causality anyway.

One Brow said...


Thanks for the background information. It's interesting to compare Dr. Feser's portrayals with those of others, even while notiing Dr. Feser's argument fail entirely on their own merit.

J said...

Another thing--regardless of all of Feser's wheezing about metaphysics, Feser's a nazi--of that I'm fairly convinced (note the references on his blog to the vichy-thomist Garrigou-Lagrange, or something like that--blessed the nazis).

As CS Peirce once noted, the scholastic philosophers did not really argue, but sort of adapted their views to the Aristotelian dogma. Feser does the same, mostly. He fits his ideas to the old catholic dogma, merely because he knows the Cat. church remains a conservative force and will best advance his own political goals (ie, he's pitching Machiavelli-- not exactly the messiah).

And I think you are right to call him on the specifically scientific aspects of the theory: Aristotle & Co. may have had a slightly organic views, but really knew nothing about biochemistry, genetics, etc (as I said previously, the Academy was an early medical school, but little advanced beyond......bring in the leeches! or..cauterize er... .and also geo-centric. Archimedes had already provided some arguments for heliocentric views--and even greeks prior to Aristotle had...).

So the final cause, say, of an acorn now can be explained via DNA. It becomes an oak, ceteris paribus, as they say, because it has over hundreds of centuries evolved to do so. And really descent with modications, evident from fossil record does show changes,sometimes great changes. Some final cause when say reptile like creatures sprout feathers, or fish grow legs, etc...........the final causes change (also consider hybrid plants, etc).

Now, actually I will grant some evolutionists make use of normative language---there may be a slight semantic issue. Yet many species do not "progress" or evolve, but go extinct. Some great Divine Intelligence that has allowed His supposedly fixed species to just wither and die (then D.I. assuming He exists for a few nanoseconds, would also seem to really like insects, diseases, predators, etc)

Tom J said...

I'm not sure the critique of Feser's use of Aristotelian forms isn't misdirected. To say that Aristotelian forms "offer no comfort" seems to miss the point that they aren't intended to. It is the modern mechanistic explanations that purport to explain (or give grounding to), not Aristotelian forms. Aristotle's forms are just a common sense empirical observation, it is the moderns that claim to explain. And Feser's point is that they don't.