Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Reluctant Atheist meets The Fly

I am a reluctant atheist. Every time I read about some new proof of the existence of God/gods, I get a little bit of hope that I will be able to return to belief. So, when I reviewed Dr. Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition (you can read the series by clicking on the label link in the labels list), it was with the hope that there was some substance behind the show, that the tone of contempt shown toward atheists had a basis in real proof. Instead, a careful examination made it clear to me why Aristotlean-Thomasian metaphysics (abbreviated A-T hereafter) had been abandoned, or at least (since I don’t know the actual history of the field) why it will never again dominate metaphysical thinking. Below the fold, I use Dr. Feser’s speculations concerning the metaphysical implications of the movie The Fly to show where I think A-T is giving a poor description, and where Dr. Feser himself doesn’t seem to be using A-T very well. I will assume my readers have read Dr. Feser’s post first.

I will start out agreeing with Dr. Feser’s caveats that with very few actual facts to work with, all of this is speculation. However, I believe that Dr. Feser and I agree on all of the relevant facts, so that should not be an issue.

When addressing the question of whether BrundleFly is human, I think there is another categorization that could have been used to separate distinct concepts and clear up aspects of this classification: person. If we slightly change the traditional A-T definition to "a person is a rational animal", and perhaps "a human is a member of homo sapiens sapiens", with the acknowledge that in A-T, every human has the form that is a person, and therefore is a person, that will clear up much of the confusion. BrundleFly is certainly a person, as Dr. Feser’s descriptions the reasoning behind BrundleFly’s actions makes clear. However, BrundleFly is not a human. He has no evolutionary history when he steps out of the teleportation chamber, he is a type of Swampman or at the very least a hybrid. You are a member of a species based on your line of descent. I could be mistaken, but I believe Dr. Feser would not say that a mule is a horse.

Both of Dr. Feser’s arguments that try to support saying 'BrundleFly is human' actually go against the grain of A-T philosophy. While Dr. Feser assert the retention of reason as a means of asserting humanity, you first have to ask: does BrundleFly still have the form of a human? If you persist in saying that, for living thing, the form is what the living thing attempts to reach, then BrundleFly’s transformation does not deform him, it brings him closer to his true form. The second argument, that "human" should cover any sort of rational animal, serves merely to conflate different concepts. What makes Dr. Feser’s insistence even more self-contradictory is that, for him, there is a regularly occurring event where two living things with distinct DNA strands merge, which event Dr. Feser insists without equivocation produces a new living thing with a new form, different from either of the prior living things.

As for his discussion of what might have happened if BrundleFly has successfully merged with Veronica and her unborn child, the notion that two independent souls might survive in BrundleFly makes for some interesting interpretations for real-world human chimeras and monozygotic twins. Do chimeras really posses two souls, according to Dr. Feser? Do identical twins share a single soul between them? Those are the natural implications of his thoughts.

The reason Dr. Feser and I can start from the same facts, and come to completely opposite conclusions about Brundlefly within A-T, is that the A-T uses the non-factual determination of form to reach its conclusions. While I made what I felt was a reasonable argument that Brundlefly’s form was not human, that does not constitute proof, and in fact form cannot be proved. It can’t be measured, verified objectively, or pulled out by a process. The determination of a form is basically arbitrary, the most people can achieve is to agree to the same arbitrary designations to achieve consistency. That’s why A-T will never supplant the metaphysics of science today. It brings subjectivism to what is intended to be an objective process.


Anonymous said...

Hi One Brow-

I just finished responding to your post in the LDS/Prop 8 thread. I noticed the blog link in your sig, clicked it, and lo and behold, the first post I see is on Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics. Not only that, but you call yourself a "reluctant atheist."

I am even more sure now that you might really benefit from reading Hartshorne's "Divine Relativity." Firstly, it's based on the system of metaphysics developed by Alfred North Whitehead in "Process and Reality," which fundamentally rejects the Aristotelian-Thomistic (or the "substance-predicate") metaphysical system. I would recommend reading Whitehead as well (he was one of Hartshorne's teachers), except that he's almost impossible to understand... I was lucky enough to start my M.A. work at University of Chicago with a professor who really knew Whitehead well. And Whitehead's process metaphysics makes worlds more sense than Aristotle's.

But more than that, I was a reluctant atheist/agnostic for a long time. I've always found myself drawn to the "big questions" that religion tries to answer, but unable to believe any of the religious answers given for those questions. I came to accept that I would probably never find a theistic system that actually made sense. But Hartshorne... well... it would be wrong to say that I'm a bleeding-heart religious zealot now. Far from it... I suppose deep down, I'm still mostly agnostic. But I read Hartshorne and see a God that I can actually begin to believe in, one not bogged down by all the absurd baggage that major religions have attached to the concept. It's convincing enough for me, and intriguing enough, that I'm shooting for a career in academia in this very area. I'm not the least bit interested in being a priest or preacher... but theology has always interested me as an academic and philosophical endeavor.

So, as one highly rationalistic former-atheist to another, I highly recommend picking up Hartshorne and just see what you think. The Divine Relativity can be had used from Amazon for about ten bucks. It might be too much to expect that it will do for you what it did for me, but I do think you'll get *something* out of it. It is not an easy read (although it is short - 150 pages), so I don't recommend it to everyone, but your intelligence is so obvious that I'm sure you'll have no trouble with it.



One Brow said...


Thanks for responding. I found a copy of an introductory book by Cobb and Griffin in the school library, but it seems to be intended for believers. I'll look around for "Divine Relativity".

J said...

Interesting points, OB, though I think we should keep in mind that Feser's reading of "A-T" metaphysics is inherently conservative if not reactionary (not to say long-winded and redundant). I'm of the opinion Aristotle's thinking itself falls closer to naturalism than to the "immaterialism" that Feser insists on (which was more characteristic of the platonic tradition, for better or worse...). At some point in one of Aristotle's quaint epistles he--or someone of the Ari. school-- claimed..the soul dies with the body, more or less--

Moreover, while some agnostics and atheists might agree with religious people that human thinking and rationality are in a sense anomalous (Im not sure all Churchland sorts), that in itself does not suffice as proof of a soul (or...God)--as you are most likely aware of. Really much metaphysical chitchat doesn't get more sophisticated than that, or "cogito ergo sum".

In regard to The Fly, I would say...wait and see. I suspect hybrids or chimeras--even human and other mammals-- will appear at some point, however terrifying. So if a human-goat hybrid grows up, learns his 3 Rs (reading, 'riting, and Riemann sums) who's to say he's not...rational, even if he's got hooves instead of nikes...

One Brow said...


I would not be surpised if Aritotle thought the soul died with the body, but Feser is much more into Aquinas than Aristotle directly.

I don't think you have to be a Churchland to say human thought is non-anomaous. I guess it depends on whether you consider order/pattern to be a physical property or not. Human thoughts can easily just be the expression of a very highly ordered structure.

I agree on the BrundleFly.