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.


R.C. said...

One Brow,

I've little to say on this post. But I note the following, near the end:

"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)."

That looks like it oversimplifies what Feser is saying to the point of caricature. Feser insists that intellect does depend on the brain for several of its powers (e.g. memory, imagination). So it is hard to imagine how there could be a "discovery" which "indicates the mind does indeed depend on the brain" which would not fit perfectly with the A-T understanding of mind/brain/intellect. But his blog, and apparently also his book Philosophy of Mind (which I haven't yet got) say more about that.

But I think Feser would also say: "To look for a discovery -- for experimental evidence -- about such a topic is a category error. You can't go looking for experimental evidence of the principle that A is A, or of the principle that A can't be both B and Not-B at the same time and at the same way. You just reason about it. The principle that the mind's operations and powers are partly, but not even in principle wholly, dependent on matter, is determined as an unavoidable conclusion from axioms that you can't deny if you want to retain the ability to reason at all. There is not even in principle an experimental result that could show otherwise; so this is entirely in the metaphysical realm and the only way to show it isn't true is to argue the way metaphysicians argue."

One Brow said...

R. C.,

I think the post overall was fairly clear that I understood the Aristotelian notion of the soul encompassed the body, while the person is alive. However, if the mind relies on the body for memory and imagination, than it must needs go without this memory and imagination after death, in Feser's universe.