This looks entirely ccorrect to me.
I like the fourth point in this post. I have come to regard traditional religion as pretty much like a skeptical scenario. I cannot prove that I am not a BIV. I suppose there is some sequence of experiences that would convince me that I am a BIV, but I find it pretty much impossible to specify them in advance, because the evidence would necessarily involve also convincing me that I'm quite wildly deceived about any number of things. I mean, lots of things could happen; I could be removed from the vat and embodied, have everything about the vat scenario explained by a very plausible scientist, be re-envatted and have a projection of the scientist in vat world show me all the neat features of the vat simulation, etc. But at that point how would I know that wasn't all just more simulation, of a different than vat kind? Maybe an evil demon, or symptoms of insanity, or just a particularly vivid bad dream for that matter? Again, not saying I couldn't be convinced, but it would be extremely difficult, and I couldn't specify in advance what would be sufficient. But I don't think my rejection of BIV scenarios is made irrational by my inability to explain what would lead me to believe them (which is really the flip side of the defining characteristic of skeptical scenarios, the impossibility of providing evidence against them). And I think sophisticated religious scenarios are enough like skeptical scenarios for the same point to apply.
I always cover Apology when I teach introduction to philosophy; I like to cover the classics both because I hope it will be good for the students to expose them to the best of the past philosophers and because with the classics, I can still find new things in them even after having looked at them dozens of times before. One issue which I've been thinking about in Apology particularly is how little Socrates talks about other philosophers. There is the discussion of the sophists in the beginning, and a passing reference to Anaxagoras in the short dialogue with Meletus. I guess I'm not inclined to draw the sophist/philosopher line as sharply as some people, and after all Evenus, one of the sophists mentioned by name, is called a philosopher in Phaedo, and Socrates doesn't quibble with that identification. But at the end of Apology, when Socrates talks about all the fascinating people he'd get a chance to talk to in the afterlife, he mentions only poets and heroes, nobody who is even controversially a philosopher.
I assume this is significant. It's also notable that in discussing what happens when people die, he doesn't mention the possibility of reincarnation, though he certainly knew of the Pythagorean doctrine. I assume the lack of mention of philosophers and the lack of mention of reincarnation are related, no doubt both influenced by who the people listening were. But Socrates was willing to say plenty of things that were strange and offensive to his audience in Apology; why avoid these particular subjects? And is there anything else that Plato wanted us to notice had been left out?
Erik Loomis seems to think so, but I can't really figure out why. He says things are different now, and describes the past thusly: "Earlier technological innovations did throw people out of work but with growing industrial capacity, actual overall job loss tended to be mitigated by other factors. Long-term unemployment resulted more from rapacious capitalists throwing the nation into long-term depressions than technological displacement. " But why think things are different? In light of the past few years of banking crisis news, surely it is more reasonable to conclude that the problem is the same as it has always been, rather than to conclude that Ludd is finally right, when he never was before.
With so much content available from free sources these days, I don't really use textbooks any more, instead providing my students with electronic copies of various readings that I've been able to locate in libraries or on the web. Still, not quite everything I'd want is so easily available. There is no copy of Carnap's "Overcoming Metaphysics through the Logical Analysis of Language" on the web that I've been able to locate, so I wrote my own translation to use when I wished to assign it. The link is here.
In addition to the desire to make a copy available to my students at a reasonable rate, I also wasn't entirely happy with the standard English translation (Arthur Pap's, in Logical Positivism). My biggest disagreement is with the first word of the title (Pap has "Elimination" rather than "Overcoming;" Carnap surely used one of Nietzsche's favorite words on purpose), but there are a few other differences in my version. One that may or may not be significant is that I have made certain to use "sense" or a word containing "sense" every time Carnap uses "Sinn" or a word containing "sinn", and similarly to always use "meaning" for "Bedeutung." Carnap seems to consistently refer to the "Sinn" of sentences and the "Bedeutung" of individual nouns. I'm not quite sure why he does this, but there may be some significance to it, perhaps connected to the Fregean distinction since Carnap was a student of Frege's. Pap often uses "meaning" for "Sinn", though in fairness to Pap Carnap himself would frequently use "meaning" in similar contexts in his later English writings.
Updated; link fixed, and the comments now have a link to a copy of Pap's translation that turns out to be available online after all.
Via Tyler Cowen, apparently Pakistan is normalizing trading relations with India. Countries with common borders tend to trade a lot when they're allowed to do so (it's astonishing how much of U.S. trade is with Canada, compared with the trade with China or Japan or Europe that always gets talked about), and when there's a lot of trade going on, there will be a lot of business interests that won't want a war to disrupt that trade. Anything that reduces the chance of another war between two powers that now both have nuclear weapons is extremely good news indeed!
Finally, the conclusion of the discussion I began so long ago! Feser begins chapter 6 by mocking the Churchlands. It is obvious from recent psychological research that there are mistakes and confusions in people's common understanding of notions like "belief" and "desire." For that matter, this has long been obvious to those who have tried to understand those notions; many philosophers (Spinoza, Hume, and Nietzsche come to mind) anticipated some of the discoveries of the recent psychological research. So the serious question is whether "belief" is more like "phlogiston" or "aether" or more like "heat" or "metal." Thinking we know exactly what it refers to and that something exactly like that exists is absurd. The Churchlands, of course, think belief theory is more like phlogiston theory.
Feser makes heavy weather of how hard it is to state their theory. Since I don't myself reject beliefs, I can of course simply talk about what they believe, but as Feser notes, it seems that they shouldn't. I do actually think it's a problem for them that they speak of these successor concepts without providing them; nobody did, or should have, rejected phlogiston chemistry before the rival oxygen theory was proposed. But equally, nobody should have said phlogiston theory couldn't be replaced, and nobody should say that about folk psychological notions either. Patricia Churchland makes a pretty convincing case for the thesis that folk psychology is deeply defective. That doesn't make it clear how much should be revised and how much replaced, much less exactly what revisions and replacements should be made (Paul seems to make more radical claims about those things than Patricia, and to be less careful about citing evidence), but Feser seems to think everything is fine, and that's just absurd.
Perhaps the Churchlands should be taken as speaking about beliefs and desires analogically when they talk about what people think or want. I complained when Feser said that God is "analogically" a person, because that seems to mean that God is a person when Feser needs God to have human-like features and not when those features seem to be problematic, but obviously the notion that something could be analogically like something else is not inherently defective. I can't see how there would be any fatal confusion were Patricia Churchland to claim to analogically know her own mind better than Feser analogically knows it.
Certainly Feser doesn't provide anything like a decisive argument. He is tacky enough to make jokes about the Churchlands' pillow talk; I will not speculate on what it sounds like when Thomists talk to their lovers in private, but thinking of my own case, I certainly hope that it is not a strike against any philosopher that what they say to their lovers in private seems rather silly.
Feser also makes much of what he takes to be the a priori character of his own theories about mind and intentionality, suggesting that we should take the Churchlands no more seriously than we should take someone who says we should expect a new form of addition to be discovered according to which 2+2=23. As usual, I think the mathematics analogies are misguided on many levels, but even if intentionality were the same kind of a priori matter as addition, what would Aristotle or Aquinas have thought of the claim that there's a number n such that n is greater than 1 and n+n=n? No doubt that whatever any future oddballs who proposed such a thing would be doing would not be arithmetic. And yet I doubt that's Feser's own opinion of Cantor (it would be odd that he expresses such admiration for Frege if he rejects modern mathematical ideas like cardinal numbers).
Of course, most modern materialists are not eliminativists, as Feser grants. Before talking about his specific arguments, I do want to mention one general issue which seems to me to be at work in some of his complaints. It is logically impossible to theorize about everything, because the theorizer is part of everything, and including the theorizer among the objects of the theory generates self-reference paradoxes that should be familiar to anyone who knows anything about modern philosophy from Frege onward. Having a total theory of everything requires being outside of everything; it requires the impossible "view from nowhere" in Nagel's memorable phrase. This fact may generate theological problems (it may make divine omniscience incoherent), but it is no problem for materialism. There is no principled obstacle to generating a complete material theory of anyone except myself, or to them generating a complete material theory of me (it's puzzling that I couldn't use their complete material theory of me as a complete material theory of myself, but a little reflection on the nature of the problem will show that puzzling or not, that's just how it must work). A number of the problems Feser tries to raise for materialism seem to involve this required distinction between the thinker and the object of thought, but as indicated these are not actually problems (just facts), and if they were problems, Feser's view wouldn't solve them; the problem isn't that the thinker must be distinct from any material facts thought about, but that the thinker must be distinct from any facts at all that are thought about. Souls and final causes don't make any difference to that issue.
It seems to me that this is part of the confusion involved when Feser makes heavy weather of the fact that a symbol must be interpreted by a thinker as representing in order to represent. He's right to insist that how I as a thinker manage to do that interpreting itself involves me representing things, and isn't something that I can fully account for in terms outside of my thoughts. But he fails to recognize that the reason is that it's something I can't fully account for at all (and it is something someone else could fully account for materialistically).
Still, Feser is right about another point; teleology is necessary to understanding thought. And he briefly mentions the most popular way to explain teleology materialistically; use evolutionary accounts, as Millikan does in Language, Thought and Other Biological Categories. Feser is not impressed. He cites Fodor as saying we can make a shrewd guess as to the functions of many biological features without knowing their evolutionary history. It is hard to see how anyone could take that seriously as an objection to the theory; it is as if someone objected to the theory that gold is the element with atomic number 79 on the basis that one can make a shrewd guess as to whether some substance is gold without counting the protons in any of the atoms the substance is composed of.
Feser also claims that on Millikan's story the first instance of some trait, or the traits of swampman, will not have functions. For the first instance of a trait, there seems no reason not to say that it has a function based on how selection will operate on it in the future. As for swampman, I think in that case it is less clear that swampman's organs do have functions (does Feser also think swampman has beliefs and desires? If so, I wish he'd indicated that he holds that highly controversial view!) But if we must say they do have functions, that still isn't really a problem. It would hardly constitutes abandonment of Millikan's principles to say the functions are determined by counterfactuals about how selection would operate on the traits of those organs in some suitable range of circumstances.
Still, Feser says the deeper problem is that the teleology in Millikan's theory isn't real teleology. I think the confusion I mentioned above is at work here; part of the reason he's suspicious of it is that it doesn't provide the view from nowhere, but his view doesn't do that either. At least, I can't see anything else that final causes are needed for that Millikan's "Normal functions" can't do perfectly well. And it's clear that Dennett is talking about what Millikan is talking about. The only sense I can make of Feser's complaints against Dennett in this section is that he thinks Dennett needs some "real" teleology which goes beyond that. And the only sense in which that seems remotely true is the sense in which Dennett as thinker must be outside the kinds of things he's thinking about even when he's thinking about thought. But that doesn't mean that some special kind of teleology other than Millikan's must be going on in Dennett; any different senses of teleology wouldn't have anything to do with the real sense in which a thinker must be distinct from the objects of thought.
Feser concludes with a discussion of the "new essentialists" and various advocates of non-Humean understandings of causation and scientific theories generally. He oversimplifies the Humean view, as usual, and I actually think that if it isn't oversimplified the Humean approach is superior to the alternatives, but as he says this "new essentialism" is extremely popular, so he would have a lot of allies if it were as closely allied to his position as he believes. But it isn't, for reasons I've already discussed from various angles. Feser completely blurs the line between the minimal thesis that things have properties which determine their behaviors in some way (a thesis even Humeans accept) and the very substantial thesis that pretty much the essences Aristotle believed in are present in things and produce their behavior in pretty much the way Aristotle described them as doing. It helps him blur this distinction that Aristotle was often extremely vague in his descriptions, but the details of Feser's philosophy depend on his getting very specific about them at times (as I've discussed extensively for the specific case of the form or essence of humanity).
The new essentialists are somewhere between the minimal thesis and the very substantial thesis, but they reject the very substantial thesis for the same reason the Humeans do; it's obviously false. And so perhaps there are powers in the world of the kind Armstrong and Cartwright and others believe in; there's no evidence against that thesis, at least. Or perhaps there are powers of kinds nobody has thought of; certainly there is no evidence conclusively showing there couldn't be unimagined powers. But the potentials Aristotle described? Unless we strip out all the details (in which case Feser can't make his claims about morality, God, etc.), there is plenty of evidence against those.
So, the theory of Forms has been one of the main topics of my discussion, as Aristotle's version of it is central to Feser's account; I have of course consistently criticized Feser's attempts to insist that it is rationally compulsory. Feser knows, of course, that Aristotle's metaphysics have been rejected in the modern era, and in chapter 5 he tries to explain why this is, attempting, naturally, to do so in such a way as to avoid the conclusion that the reasons why it has been rejected are any good.
One of his crucial moves is his attempt to sharply separate Aristotle's scientific theories from his metaphysical theories. Aristotle himself would have recognized no such sharp separation, and Feser's appeals to Aristotle often bleed over into scientific matters (as with his insistence that there are forms corresponding to biological species, which is incompatible with biological facts). But it is true that the new science didn't refute everything in Aristotle. What the new science did incontrovertibly show is that Aristotle must have been in many cases wrong about which forms exist, and what their natures are. The new mathematical physics did not show that the motion of bodies doesn't involve forms at all, but if forms are involved, they aren't the ones Aristotle thought existed. And Darwin didn't show that there are no forms involved in life, but he did show that there are no forms of biological species.
But that result is already enough to have serious consequences. The form of a human being is one of the things that science has discarded, and it is of course central to Feser's project. Furthermore, the mere fact that Aristotle was so badly wrong about the forms casts serious doubt on the idea that the forms are somehow built into us. One of the more puzzling aspects of Plato for a modern reader is that in a number of dialogues he spends a very long time wrestling with the problem of how it's possible for anybody to be wrong about anything. That's actually a serious problem on Plato's theory; if we have access to the forms, and the forms make the world the way they are, why don't they give us infallible knowledge of the world? Aristotle, as usual shallower than Plato, doesn't think through the consequences of his theory far enough to see why this is such a huge problem, and Feser naturally follows Aristotle in sweeping this problem under the rug of "common sense;" contradictions are fine, apparently, as long as common sense endorses both halves of the contradiction.
One natural way to keep forms and avoid the problem is to abandon the dual role of the forms; say they don't both control our thoughts and the world, in different ways, but that they only control the world. If you insist on keeping some kind of forms, but both grant that Aristotle was largely wrong about which forms there are, and also draw the conclusion that knowledge of the forms can't be acquired by pure reason but must depend on scientific inquiry, you're David Armstrong (one of the modern naturalists that Feser says never actually thinks about the really serious issues). I think it's better to dispense with the forms altogether, but Armstrong's view has a huge advantage over Feser's in that it is at least is not contradicted by firmly established scientific knowledge.
Feser's opium example may help illustrate the issue. Feser criticizes the naturalists for inconsistency in claiming both that the explanation of opium in terms of a "dormitive power" is empty, and claiming that it's false. But one of the central problems with scholastic forms is that they are so vague; interpreted one way, claims about scholastic forms are empty, interpreted another way they are false.
The false doctrine is that there is some single thing, a "dormitive power", which is fairly simple and works the same way in all the various things that cause sleep, and which doesn't do anything else and which is very different from the power of anything else to do anything else. The empty doctrine is that there's something about opium that causes sleep. It is true that the full account of the powers of opium can be described with or without forms; it involves the chemical properties of the compounds that make up opium and the chemical properties of animal life, which of course are themselves determined by the physics of the particles that make up those compounds, and one could go along with Armstrong and say that the properties of the physics particles are forms, or one could say that the story about forms isn't really adding anything useful (as I would) and do without it. And the details of this underlying story make the false doctrine false; the properties of opium are very complicated, and there are things very similar to opium at the chemical level in very many ways which don't cause sleep, and things which cause sleep which are in very many ways very different at the chemical level.
Feser claims that these details, which he admits would have to be settled empirically, make no difference to the metpahysics. Unfortunately, Feser's claims about the form of humanity are much more like the false version of the dormitive power story than they are like the empty version. If he were to grant that we could be very wrong about exactly which forms are involved in human life and how they were connected to other forms, and insist only that forms are involved somehow, that would completely undermine his efforts to derive detailed moral conclusions from the form of humanity.
Feser maintains that the idea of secondary qualities requires dualism, but this is only true of one insists for some reason that, for example, a perception of redness must be red. But that is, of course, absurd. I myself lean toward a dispositional theory of secondary qualities; red is a disposition of surfaces to produce sensations of a certain kind. Feser thinks dispositions require final causes; more on that next chapter, but if we're talking about final causes in the bare logical sense I mentioned at the end of chapter 2, it's not so much that dispositions require final causes as that they are final causes, and so final causes can't explain dispositions because if any explanation is needed, final causes need it to the same extent. Of course, Feser's final causes are supposed to be more than bare logical final causes, but while Feser tries to define them as things which explain more, he actually doesn't have any worthwhile account of how they provide this additional explanatory help. Thus, since explanations can't be conjured up out of nothing by definition, his final causes don't actually have any more explanatory power than the bare logical final causes.
Feser also claims that intentionality cannot be accounted for on materialist grounds; he keeps harping on this throughout his book, but in only one place (in the next chapter) does he make any effort to directly address the best materialist story about intentionality (and his effort is disappointing, to put it mildly). I am greatly annoyed by what appear to be Feser's frequent attempt to appeal to authority, and have tried to avoid such nonsense myself, but I feel I must note that many of the "allies" he cites for his anti-materialist cause think the materialists have won on the intentionality issue; David Chalmers, for example, thinks this, and Frank Jackson not only has long granted that materialism can explain intentionality, he has even recently come around to agreeing that qualia aren't an obstacle to materialism either.
Feser's "solutions" to assorted philosophical problems:
Skepticism: Feser says that the rejection of the Aristotelian view produces skepticism, since without Aristotle's claim that the same forms work on our minds and on the world, there's no guarantee that the world will match up to our thoughts at all. But this is of course nonsense. Skepticism became dominant at Plato's academy shortly after Plato's death, and not because they already anticipated Cartesian views. I suspect it was partly because of Alexander the Great and the return of military autocracy as the default government pattern; if you don't claim to know anything, you are never claiming to know the rulers are wrong about anything, so you're slightly safer from hostile rulers. Still, skepticism seemed to be an available option because all it actually requires is admitting that people can be wrong about anything. Once that obvious fact is granted, it is hard to see how you can completely rule out the possibility that we're wrong about everything
And that's why Aristotle's view doesn't actually solve skeptical problems. After all, we do make mistakes, so even an Aristotelian has to have some account of how such errors are possible. And whatever the account is, it will always be possible to raise the skeptical worry that errors like that could be much more common than we think.
Induction: The problem of induction suffers the same fate; Aristotelianism has a solution to the problem of induction if our knowledge of forms is infallible. But if our knowledge of forms were infallible, we couldn't make a lot of mistakes we quite obviously make. So the Aristotelian view doesn't actually solve the problem of induction, and so arguments like Goodman's can be run against the Aristotelian; how do we know we're not making one of our mistakes about essences in thinking that it's green rather than grue which can genuinely be part of the essences of things? Not that I think an Aristotelian should actually be a skeptic, of course, but Aristotelianism alone is not an answer to the problem; the Aristotelian must join the rest of us in seeking other answers.
Personal identity: Derek Parfit and other contemporary philosophers seem to have been rediscovering Buddha's insight that our concept of ourselves is in many respects deeply misleading, indeed incoherent. Parfit also follows Buddha in thinking that good consequences follow from this insight (as they often do from recognizing the truth); the mistaken notion of the self is deeply implicated in destructive forms of selfishness, so recognizing the flawed notion of the self should help free one from those harmful selfish impulses. Feser will of course have none of this; selfishness is central to the conservative mindset, and must be defended at all costs! Now, of course the objectionable moral implications of Feser's view don't constitute evidence that his view is false (it's false because it involves the same impossible theory of souls that I've criticized all through his discussion), but since he's constantly harping on the supposed immoral consequences of modern naturalism, I couldn't resist giving a nod to the morally appealing consequences of the Buddhist view. Incidentally, Feser insists that skepticism about personal identity originates with Descartes; I find it implausible that Descartes' influence was the source of Buddha's views on this matter.
Free will: A free choice cannot be derived from the world as understood by the chooser; when you freely choose to do something, you don't examine your evidence to determine what choice you are going to make, you make the choice. Hence, it must come from outside of that? Perhaps it must come from outside of everything? Feser says not quite; it must come from outside of everything material, but that's fine, because there's the realm of souls and forms and final causes. But that's actually no help at all, at least so long as we understand the realm of souls and forms and final causes (as Feser insists we do); the problem comes from our understanding of the world, not the material nature of the world. Kant recognized this, and so said free choices comes from an unknowable realm; others since have found the idea of an unknowable realm problematic (how do we know it's a realm? It's unknowable!) and so Heidegger and Sartre and others say free choices comes from nothing. Crazy answers, to be sure (though much depends on how you interpret them), but at least they recognize that there's a serious problem here. Compatibilists also take the problem seriously for the most part. Feser does not take the problem seriously; he gives no explanation of what it is about final causes that is supposed to connect them to freedom, probably because to do so he'd have to say a lot of things that are contrary to the common sense he claims to be respecting.
Natural rights: I of course am a consequentialist, and think doing without natural rights is an improvement. But I would have thought this would be the place to discuss Kant. Since Feser instead uses it as an opportunity to heap scorn on Locke, I have little to say about this part of his discussion; since Feser is unfair to nearly all of his opponents, I expect he is unfair to Locke, but I am not sufficiently a Locke scholar to say how.
Morality in general: I haven't done a lot of quoting of Feser, because he usually buries his points in considerable excess verbage (and ad hominem), but I'll quote this one. He complains that Hume does not "really have anything to say to a group of sociopaths - Nazis, communists, jihadists, pro-choice activists, or whomever - who seek to remake society in their image by social or genetic engineering, say. The Platonist, Aristotelian, or Thomist can say that such people are behaving in an inherently irrational and objectively wicked manner, given human nature. All the Humean can say is 'Gee, I hope they don't succeed.'" Leaving aside the somewhat suspect character of his list of sociopaths, does Feser really think it is of such over-riding importance, or indeed any importance at all, what one says to Nazis? Plato was not so foolish (Socrates himself could not move Callicles, or Meno for that matter, and the conversion of Thrasymachus is presented in such a way as to make its sincerity highly dubious, to say the least), and I hope no Platonist would be. I am less expert on the Aristotelians and Thomists, but I had not heard that they believed in magic spells, for surely it would have to involve magic if a Nazi ever changed his behavior in the slightest upon hearing the incantation "you are behaving in an inherently irrational and objectively wicked manner."
Hume was actually a more practical sort; he favored saying whatever would work best, and employing other means, again whatever accomplishes the most for the least cost, when words fail. I never cease to be astonished at how often people try to argue against consequentialism on the basis that endorses policies with bad consequences; if your argument is that consequentialism is committed to a policy which has bad consequences, that is a sure sign that there's something wrong with your argument, not that there's something wrong with consequentialism. If the policy has bad consequences, consequentialism correctly interpreted will always say do something else.
Now, Feser admits that his opponents may have space for a "pretense" of morality, but he thinks that unless they use the magic spells, that can have no impact. Of course, a consequentialist moral theory is hardly a pretense of morality, but perhaps more to the point, Feser's discussion of this issue suggests that he thinks people behaved more morally in the middle ages than they do at present (elsewhere in the chapter he suggests that they were more devoted to wisdom as well!) I usually don't think much of the incredulous stare as an argument, but I'm not sure where to begin with this aspect of Feser's discussion.
Feser is aware that the modern era has produced non-consequentialist ethics as well; Kant's moral theory is perhaps even more influential than any variety of consequentialism. But Feser's discussion of Kant's moral theory would barely get a passing grade if it came from an undergraduate in an introductory ethics class. Kant's central idea is that ethics is supposed to be both inherently universal, and chosen by humans. So what we can choose is constrained only by the requirement that our choices must be consistent with the requirement of universality. This means I cannot make choices that undermine the rights of others to their choices; I must treat all choices as mattering. I don't want to try to give Kant's full story, but since Feser seems to think the modern worldview means you can't criticize anyone (perhaps the reason he doesn't like it; he loves to criticize!), I should probably at least mention that detail in Kant's approach. One way of putting Kant's version is that we must be tolerant of everything except intolerance; we must treat impartially all perspectives which are not themselves partial. If we respect the choices of others who do not themselves respect the choices of others, we are failing to respect the choices of their victims; if we give equal weight to the biased, we are in part sharing their bias. So we can't fully respect the choices of others like that (of wrongdoers). The closest we can come, Kant thinks, is to respect their choice to be biased by applying their standards to them; being biased against them. Hence proportional retribution as the response to wrongdoers.
Feser only discusses the first form of the categorical imperative, and indeed the first form is very hard to sensibly interpret if one ignores the other two forms. But Feser's criticism of Kant goes from being pathetic to high comedy when he complains that there is no way Kant could possibly derive detailed moral rules from "reason alone," using only his principles. I know that Feser is under the delusion that his own Thomistic principles are clearer and less susceptible to conflicting interpretations than Kant's, but it certainly is nothing more than a delusion.
So, chapter 4 of Feser's book gave me flashbacks to Hubert Schwyzer's Kant seminars. I wonder if Feser ever took those when he was at UCSB; if not, it's unfortunate, as they might have helped him. "Knowing is not like eating," as Schwyzer would say as he tried to explain Kant's struggles with the representational aspect of knowing. Knowing something does not involve taking the objects of knowledge into our minds in the way that eating something involves taking the objects of eating into our bodies. Rather, our minds somehow contain representations of the objects (of course, we may know things about our minds, but even in those cases the knowledge is not the same as what is known). The very name "representation" may be tendentious, but I intend for it to be as content-free as possible; whatever it is in the mind that determines which objects are being thought about is the representation of those objects. The Churchlands may think there are still hidden assumptions buried in this, and perhaps they are right, but leave those worries aside for the moment.
Considerable progress has been made on the nature of representation since Kant's time. In particular, Ruth Millikan provides an extremely interesting account of how thoughts can represent the world in her Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories. It would take considerable time to go through all of the details, but it is an evolutionary story. Words and thoughts have functions in roughly the sense that biologists speak of things as having functions; the functions are whatever they do that leads to their being favored by natural selection. Millikan argues that a detailed account of these functions can enable us to pick out the objects of thought (in the case of representational thought), because of the way the functions relate to those objects (again, details are lengthy; I highly recommend her book).
The functional story of how my knowledge of the glass of water on my desk is related to the glass of water involves causal relationships between the glass of water and my thought (the functional/evolutionary story picks out which causal relationships are relevant), so the case of knowledge of abstract objects seems to be more difficult, since it will lack such causal relationships. However, while certainly nobody has filled in all the details, I would say this much; a priori knowledge seems to contain a strong conventional component. David Lewis provides a thorough account of conventions in his book Convention, one which connects very naturally to Millikan's theories about thought (Millikan harshly criticizes Lewis, but only on one issue, and I think she misinterprets his theory as being more different from hers than it is; I discuss this in my dissertation). Millikan also has some things of her own to say about a priori knowledge; again, not all the details are filled in, but it all looks very promising to me.
I mention all of this because Feser's argument requires the assumption that there is one and only one way representation could work, and it is nothing like what I've sketched above. Rather, Feser insists on what is surely one of Plato's biggest mistakes, repeated in Aristotle. A Platonic form serves a dual role; it both makes things in the world the way they are, and makes thoughts the way they are, and so one can represent things in the world as being a certain way because the things in the world are made that way by forms that are also present in our thoughts about the world. And so for Feser knowing is like eating after all, in a sense; the object of knowledge, the form, is actually in the mind.
Now, it is a great mystery how something could play such a dual role, especially on Aristotle's version; how can the same thing make a stone heavy and make my thought a thought about heaviness? A thought being about heaviness seems very different from a thing being heavy. The Aristotelian tradition has no explanation beyond that forms are just like that, and have to be like that to play the role that they do. And what about knowledge of the forms? Does that involve forms of forms, or is it some completely different process than ordinary knowledge and representation? Plato already worried about these issues and many others, and scholars of Plato and Aristotle debate them to this day, but Feser sweeps all these controversies and questions under the rug. Really, even if his story wasn't so problematic, it would still be fatal to his argument that it doesn't seem to be the only explanation possible. It shouldn't be necessary to provide an alternative to his account to note that he hasn't proven his is the only possible account, but conveniently we even do have an alternative; the Millikan/Lewis story I allude to above.
Feser "proves" that the mind must be immaterial because the way that, say, the form of the dog works on material things is by making them dogs. It is the form of the dog, on his account, which makes my thought about a dog be about a dog, and if my mind were a material thing, the way it would act on my mind would be by making my mind (well, my thought) a dog. So my mind must be something else. This is not actually valid even given Feser's other assumptions; there doesn't seem to be any logical reason why forms might not operate differently on different kinds of matter, so even given the implausible assumption that knowing is like eating, that the same form must be present in the mind as in the things, it doesn't follow that the mind must be immaterial in contrast to the material things. Some other difference could explain it. And, of course, a more plausible account of representation would completely undermine this argument.
Feser's discussion of mathematical abstractions is if anything even worse, perhaps because he makes the common mistake of identifying the thoughts with the objects of thought in mathematical cases. But even in mathematical cases they are not the same things, and so the triviality that mathematical objects are universal and determinate while nothing material is either universal or determinate is simply irrelevant to whether thoughts of mathematical objects are material; thoughts are not universal either, and even if I didn't already think they were material, I wouldn't have suspected them of being determinate. Fortunately, for thoughts to be about objects it is not required for the thoughts and objects to be identical. This is true even for Feser, of course; the same form must be involved in the thought and the object, but that falls far short of saying that the thought must be the object (the thought of a dog is not a dog, as Feser himself insists). Presumably this is obscured for Feser because he thinks the object of thought is the form in mathematical cases, but that is another unargued assumption, and in any event that would not entail that the thought itself is the form in mathematical cases, as would be needed for his argument to be valid.
Souls and forms:
In other words, Feser's supposed "rational proof" that souls must be a certain kind of thing is anything but. There are further problems with his idea that the soul is the form of a human being. Really, there are endless mysteries and confusions here. The soul is both a special kind of thing which the forms act on to produce knowledge, and it is itself one of the forms; how does it play both of those functions? Feser thought he needed radical metaphysics to explain the dual role of forms in affecting thought and affecting the world, but the dual role of the form of a human being passes without comment. But, more importantly for Feser's subsequent discussion, post-Darwin, biological species are known to be poor candidates for forms.
A Darwinian species is a population united primarily by a certain history; it has related capacities for inter-breeding and similarities in appearance and features, but the history of how selection favored the ancestors of the current members of the population is the decisive element. There is thus no such thing as a "perfect" or "ideal" member of a species, no exact template that members of the species are supposed to match. We may speak of a member of the species as being defective if it lacks one of the traits that selection favored in its ancestors, but this is a somewhat loose way of speaking. A deviation from what is most common among members of the species may be a disadvantage in some sense, or it may be an advantage of some kind (if it's a survival/reproduction advantage, selection will make it more common over time, of course), or it may be of no significance at all; species always display many kinds of variation. This variation makes it impossible to even construct a bare logical form for a species; there may not be any traits which are universal among members of the species while absent from all non-members of the species (unless you include the having of a certain history among those traits, which would produce a very different kind of form than Feser intends).
Feser argues that human life begins at conception because that is when someone acquires the form of humanity (and so the soul). Now, species-membership does plausibly begin with conception, but being a member of a Darwinian species is not like having a soul (as Feser himself would admit). But one does not aquire the form of humanity at conception because there is no such form; "human" is a biological species, and biological species don't work like that. And since the soul is not the form of humanity, it remains an open question when (or perhaps whether, depending on one's theory of souls) it is acquired. So Feser's metaphysical anti-abortion argument fails.
Feser's natural law morality generally relies on their being a form of humanity, so that deviations from the form can be classified as defects, and as immoral if they are under conscious control. Absent such forms, one must have some other standard for identifying moral deficiencies. However, in practice natural law morality tends to (somewhat ironically) identify traits as defects on grounds rather similar to those which lead something to be identified as an evolutionary disadvantage. Notably both natural law theories and evolution see reproduction as central human purposes.
And so Feser classifies homosexual sex as unnatural because of the reproductive function of sex, and so immoral because people can consciously choose whether to engage in it or not. However, one difference between at least most evolutionary biologists and most natural law moralists is that evolutionary biologists recognize that it can be difficult to identify all of the functions and purposes involved in the traits and behaviors of a living thing, while natural law moralists seem to think identifying functions is easy (Feser thinks our bones are somehow involved in our mysterious ability to identify such fuctions).
Another difference is that even a consciously chosen evolutionary disadvantage does not seem to automatically be immoral (nor is an evolutionary advantage always moral), but whether homosexual activity is even an evolutionary disadvantage is unclear. In general, humans have far more sex than they need to for the purposes of reproduction (most mammals have mating seasons to reduce the amount of effort and energy expended on sex). It seems likely that this additional sex serves some purpose or purposes (or there would have been heavy selection pressure against it; the pressures that produce the mating seasons of other mammals), and mostly the evolutionary biologists seem to consider it an unsolved problem what those purposes might be (though they have plenty of guesses).
The natural law moralists also seem to feel the need for such theories, and try to provide them (as I said, they are eerily and ironically similar to the evolutionary theorists in this area); generally the story involves producing bonding in married couples, which are important for raising offspring. Now, this is hardly an absurd theory, but in the context of evolution it would be laughable to pretend that one could rationally prove it was the only possible story. And if that isn't the whole story of the excess human sex (and, in fact, this story doesn't seem to work very well as an evolutionary account; our current evidence doesn't seem to suggest that the family structure implicit here was present in our distant ancestors, so it couldn't have been selected for), the other purposes of sex may include purposes for homosexual sex.
The natural law moralist could claim that this is an area where there theories are different from the evolutionary theories, but in fact they don't seem to have any more evidence for their claims about the purposes of sex than the kind of thing an evolutionary story could give (well, except for evidence gleaned by consulting the bones), so it is unclear how they rule out the possibility of such alternative purposes. Feser mocks Andrew Sullivan for suggesting that the purposes of sex might be more complex than Feser supposes (Feser likes to mock a lot), but he doesn't actually provide any evidence that Sullivan is wrong.
Still, one of my biggest problems with natural law morality is just that its stories sound so much like evolutionary stories, and evolutionary stories don't sound to me like stories of morality. So many horrible things are adaptive in the evolutionary sense. Evolution produced the black death! Admittedly, when something they intuitively judge as bad ("in their bones") seems to serve natural purposes, Feser and his ilk are not likely to call it good; they instead invent convoluted and implausible stories about how it doesn't really serve natural purposes after all. Better to recognize that morality is about purposes humans choose, not purposes given to us by nature; Kant was right to advocate an ethics of autonomy, however inconsistently he may have done so in practice and however many details he might have gotten wrong.
Evil and Miracles:
I mentioned in my discussion of chapter 3 that Feser treats God's attributes as "analogical" when he's in trouble, but most of the time ignores that part of his story. His section on "Faith, reason, and evil" contains particularly egregious examples. The miracles of Jesus are to be considered credible because of the proofs that there's a God who could produce miracles like that. Sorry, Feser, we don't know that about the "analogical" God; miracles seem possible when you're thinking of God as being a person with human-like purposes that could be served by such interventions. As Hume argued, if we think of God as the source of the laws of nature, then God's purposes seem to be clearly given by those, so we should expect God to never produce anything but consequences of those laws of nature.
Similarly, when he discusses the problem of evil, the evil in the world seems unnecessary in the way a parent's punishment can seem like an unnecessary bad thing to a child. Sorry, "analogical" God isn't much like a parent. Really, the problem of evil seems less serious for "analogical" God, but only because we have no way to know what to expect from such a God (and so for the same reason "analogical" God seems a poor basis for any religion, and certainly no help in shoring up Feser's shaky moral conclusions). But here the shuffling back and forth is especially rapid. God might have good reasons for evil which are very much like the good reasons a person might have for causing or enduring some unpleasantness, totally ignoring that for a person causing or tolerating something bad often seems like the best choice precisely because our options are limited, because we're not omnipotent. But Feser hasn't forgotten God's omnipotence; it gives God endless capacity to bring unlimited good out of any evil. And yet Feser's imagination suddenly stops again before the obvious next step, or perhaps God's omnipotence disappears and we're back to non-analogical human-like powerful God, as Feser doesn't even consider that God's omnipotence should surely extend to the capacity to bring all the same good out of no evil. Feser's discussion of the problem of evil is an embarrassment to anybody who has ever seriously examined the issue (from either side).
I've ignored most of his tedious ad hominem attacks in chapter 4, but the chapter is, of course, full of them, like the rest of the book. As usual, I wish he had spent less time on those, and more time trying to fill in a few of the gaps in his arguments.
I started working on an examination of Feser's book, and dropped the ball after chapter 2. I've been feeling guilty about that, so I'm now getting back to the project.
Chapter 3 opens very strangely, with a story about St. Thomas Aquinas putting an uppity nun in her place. I suppose it shouldn't surprise me; of course one of Feser's goals is to support the patriarchal order. After effusive praise of Aquinas, which left a bad taste in my mouth given the way it started, Feser spends several pages talking about how pathetically the New Atheists have misinterpreted Aquinas.
It takes him an astonishingly long time to get from ranting about how horrible the misinterpretations are to actually mentioning what he thinks they get wrong. Eventually, he points out that Aquinas intended to give a priori arguments (for the existence of God and various other things), and that many of the criticisms given by the New Atheists seemed to be treating them as empirical. Naturally, he ignores the (extremely likely) possibility that the New Atheists in question, mostly good followers of Hume, think no argument for the existence of anything can be a priori, and so are attempting to be as charitable as possible by interpreting Aquinas in a way that isn't automatically doomed. But if they have ignored the a priori features of the argument, I will not.
Still, before actually explaining how he thinks the arguments work, Feser digresses to spend some time describing his view of God. He says that he follows Aquinas in believing that the properties we attribute to God should be understood "analogically." To take one of the big examples, God is not literally a person "in the sense of being one individual thing among others who reasons, chooses, has moral obligations, etc." But God is somehow close enough to being a person for that to be the best way to describe Him. This notion of "analogical" properties seems to have the potential for endless abuse, and that potentiality, at least, is actualized in Feser; he freely uses the "analogical" nature of the properties to deflect problems, while dropping it when he wants to make specific claims derived from the alleged properties of God. The primary use of "analogical" properties in chapter 3 is to deal with one of the questions everybody has when reaching the end of one of Aquinas' "five ways" of proving the existence of God; even if the proof shows that something exists, why think that's God? The "analogical" properties enable Feser to be sufficiently vague about the properties of God to make drawing that connection much easier.
So, Feser's arguments for God:
1 (attributed to St. Augustine). There must be forms, and in some cases they can't exist solely in material things, nor could they exist solely in human minds. But Plato's proposal that they exist in a separate realm also doesn't work. So they must exist in an eternal and infinite mind. Given that God has only an "analogical" mind, I'm not sure that this is actually different from Plato's proposal. It's not surprising that someone with a neo-Platonist background would have proposed this. This argument also obviously depends on the success of the arguments against nominalism and conceptualism. Some of those were discussed in the previous chapter (and as I indicated in my examination of that chapter, I was not impressed), while some are discussed later in the book and will be examined as they come up.
2. (attributed to Aquinas). The unmoved mover, or perhaps better the unchanged changer. Feser says that Aquinas would grant that an infinite sequence of causes is possible if the causes are what he calls "accidentally ordered." According to Feser, Aquinas is instead arguing from the impossibility of an infinite "essentially ordered" series. In an essentially ordered series, each member depends on a previous member for its continued existence. This requires that each member of the series be simultaneous. I'm not sure that making it simultaneous makes the infinite series any more impossible, but perhaps more importantly it is far from clear to me that there's any reason to suppose there are such things. His examples of essential ordering involve chains of causes that extend through space, so if they truly are simultaneous, they would appear to violate relativity.
He could answer that relativity is only a scientific theory, and he's doing metaphysics, and he does after all largely dismiss evolution, but I doubt he would want to dismiss relativity as cavalierly. I think it's more likely that he'd say the examples are only for sake of illustration; the real simultaneous causes are also all in the same places, and so no violation of relativity. But if so, he needs to work a lot harder to prove that there are such simultaneous causes; he can't just say it's obvious. And if I'm wrong and he would instead prefer to reject relativity, then I can only say I find that line unpromising.
In the discussion of this argument, Feser also begins to address the traditional question of why we should think the unmoved mover is anything like the traditional conception of God. It has to be the special kind of thing which wouldn't require further explanation. And it seems that for Feser, and plausibly for Aquinas, the explanations which stop such regresses, which require no further explanation, are logical/metaphysical ones. So, in essence, this depends on something like the conception of God mentioned in the previous argument; God imposes the logical/metaphysical order. Perhaps God is the logical/metaphysical order? Probably not; Feser isn't that much of a neo-Platonist. But the unmoved mover has to be the mind (well, the "analogical" mind) that contains the forms, the one we encountered in the previous argument. So if that's God (big if!), the unmoved mover argument does get us to God.
In any event, Feser roundly mocks his New Atheist opponents for being so thick as to think God could require some further explanation. I've already mentioned what I think is really going on; to reiterate; I suspect that none of them think logic can move anything (for the very good reason that it can't), so they try to interpret Aquinas as proposing a prime mover that would actually be capable of moving things. But the sorts of things which actually can move other things do invite further regress. Feser seems to argue that his foes are morons because they reject arguments as obviously flawed when they would work fine if further metaphysical principles, which also seem obviously flawed to them, were accepted. I admit that this doesn't look as foolish to me as it does to Feser.
3. (Also Aquinas). The first cause. Feser again condemns his opponents for failing to see that the argument is that ordinary things must be caused, while God is a special kind of thing. And, again, it all comes down to the idea that ultimate explanation must trace back to logic/metaphysics. It is part of God's essence to exist, while the existence of other things does not come from their essence, but must be explained by their being caused by further things. Again, I'm sure his New Atheist opponents think it makes sense to ask what caused God because they reject Feser's theories about essences; if there are such things as essences at all, they are not the sort of things that could cause something to exist. Since they assume pure logic can't account for God's existence, the New Atheists think some other explanation is needed, and point out that it's no easier to find a non-logical explanation of God's existence than an explanation for the universe existing without God. And they are, of course, right. Further, given what murky and mysterious things essences are, the New Atheists wonder how it is supposed to be so obvious that if there are any such things, there couldn't be some which aren't god-like but which suffice to explain the universe. Again, as with the previous argument, Feser will say that since what's needed is a logical/metaphysical explanation, this requires the forms in the supreme mind (analogical mind, remember!)
For what it's worth, according to the modal theories of David Lewis, the universe necessarily exists. So that theory gives us the kind of logical/metaphysical explanation of everything Feser wants, without God. I'm sure Feser rejects the Lewis metaphysics, but I have to say that I find them more plausible than Feser's.
4. (Also Aquinas). The argument from design. I reconstruct Feser's version in this way: there must be non-Humean laws of nature to explain the regularities we observe, and the only way there could be such laws of nature is if there were a divine mind legislating them (again, we go back to the first argument, the idea that the forms, this time those which give things their causal properties, must be in at least an "analogical" mind). Of course I reject the need for non-Humean laws of nature, and I remain unconvinced that Feser would really have found God even if I had to grant this infinite and eternal "analogical" mind. But here I think Feser is especially unfair to his New Atheist opponents. As usual, he mocks them for asking for an explanation for God, but here I think it is unusually clear that they are being quite reasonable given their assumptions, and Feser needs a lot more argument and less mockery to displace those assumptions.
Feser explicitly draws an analogy between the way human intentions can lay out plans for something that hasn't actually happened and how God's mind is supposed to plan out the universe. Now, we actually know quite a bit about human minds, and the way human minds produce design and order is itself a process that involves the operation of the laws of nature. In asking for an account of God, the New Atheists are asking for something that can be found for the examples of minds we're familiar with. Now, it's true that Feser's God is supposed to be the source of the laws of nature, existing outside them, but there is a serious cost to trying to deflect the New Atheist demands by appealing to that. Feser says that it's obvious that minds are the sort of things that can impose order because we know of minds that do that, but the minds we know of that do that are the law of nature obeying minds. It is not particularly clear what it means for something to be a mind that does not obey the laws of nature; certainly we've never encountered such a thing. And if the laws of nature are a kind of order which could, of course, not themselves be produced by laws of nature, to conclude that they must be produced by a mind, when in every other respect the explanation of their existence must be totally different from any of our normal explanations (since our normal explanations always use the laws of nature, and so couldn't explain them), is an incredibly huge jump. Sure, it's only an "analogical" mind, but again Feser only seems to bring up the "analogical" feature when he has trouble. If he were really serious about it (like Hume's character Philo in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion), it would be harder to find fault with his position, but of course his view would also have few, if any, consequences.
Ultimately, Feser is correct that the arguments for the existence of God he gives depend heavily on his Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics, and fail horribly without those background assumptions. Conversely, if the Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysical principles are granted, the arguments have considerable force, though I'm still inclined to doubt that what they establish is a particularly Christian God. However, Feser's metaphysics are widely rejected, for an assortment of reasons, some of them quite good. Some of them have been discussed already, and more will be if I get to the remaining chapters. I also don't think there's any excuse for the way Feser treats opponents who clearly think his metaphysical theories are false as if they were simply ignoring the obvious. I am most familiar with Dennett, and Feser's criticisms of Dennett on this score are quite egregious, insofar as Dennett's work contains extensive development of theories of mind incompatible with the Thomistic account. Dennett doesn't think Feser's story of forms in the supreme mind makes sense because he thinks he has overwhelming reason to believe minds don't work the way Feser's theory requires them to. Dennett could be wildly wrong about minds (he isn't, but that point is debatable), but given Dennett's theory of mind, it is as reasonable for him to dismiss the Thomistic arguments as it is for Feser, with his radically different theory of mind, to embrace them.
I remembered this, but I also tracked down the citation. The index of On the Plurality of Worlds is as wonderfully clear and informative as the rest of it, telling me that "nothing, possibility of" is discussed on pages 73-4, where, as I remembered, Lewis indicates that it is not possible for there to be nothing. He also denies that this is an explanation of why there is something, and I agree with him about that, but his standards of explanation would also rule out most of Feser's explanations. Lewis also notes that David Armstrong's very different modal theory has the same consequence. I believe Carnap's may as well, though I can't seem to find my copy of Meaning and Necessity, and I doubt the index of that would be as helpful anyway.
For some reason I've been doing a bit of tilting at windmills, posting comments to a couple of discussions of biblical history here. Really, it is hard to know where to begin with people who have such strange standards of evidence. In the present instance, of course, there is also their apparent blindness to how non-standard their treatment of ancient source material is, and to how differently they treat pro-Christian vs. other sources.
Of course, there may be an element of deceit, or at least indifference to truth; I admit I find it very hard to resist such suspicion in the case of Lydia McGrew. But there are less extreme and more respectable biblical scholars who nonetheless share unusual standards of evidence. Thus, I think it's worthwhile to ask why such unusual standards of evidence are inappropriate.
Obviously, the argument cannot be any appeal to authority, and in the present context any very direct appeal to the success of more orthodox historical standards is likely to be little more than that, as our main measure of success in investigating history is producing results acceptable to orthodox historians. Nor is it the case that the advantages of one kind of approach to evidence over another are obvious in this area. There is certainly no canonical list of acceptable evidence and appropriate evidence weights to consult to decide such issues; indeed, discovering new kinds of evidence and new ways of looking at things is one of the most important engines of intellectual progress.
I think the analogy of science is instructive. Kuhn is especially famous for having noted the evolving nature of standards and evidence in science; a Kuhnian paradigm is so-called because it centrally involves paradigm cases of observation and measurement, paradigms of evidence gathering and evaluation. If Kuhn were right in the extreme claims he sometimes made that choice of paradigms was subjective, irrational, and independent of evidence, then it would be hard to criticize the biblical historians for adopting the approaches they do. But Kuhn was not right about that. Though the standards for evaluating paradigms are different from the standards of evidence evaluation internal to paradigms, they are not automatically irrational.
One of the most important such standards is fit with other successful theories. It is for this reason that I am an advocate of reductionism and unity of science ideals generally; reductionism is a quest to find the logical relations between theories, so that inconsistencies can be exposed, since inconsistencies show, as always, that there are problems somewhere.
This is a basic problem for the paradigm employed by those like McGrew; one of the more easily described features of the paradigm is that reports of miracles in ancient sources are regarded as comparable to other kinds of reports in ancient sources. A paradigm which treats those different kinds of reports as equivalent does not fit with our scientific theories (a point made by Hume, of course). Thus, the standard paradigms employed by mainstream ancient historians, paradigms which give no weight to the possibility that miraculous reports are accurate (and for that matter lower than usual credence to the possibility that they are distortions of actual events and higher than usual credence to the possibility that what they report has no similarity to anything that actually happened) are better than the paradigm employed by McGrew.
I am not entirely certain what her view of these matters is. Sometimes she writes as if she thinks it's an unreasonable bias to expect historical claims to be scientifically plausible. It is hard to know how to respond to that. Oddly, she and her allies do sometimes write as if theological soundness is relevant to evaluating historical claims; this seems to be a recognition that fit with external theories is important, though of course theological paradigms do not fit well with successful scientific theories either (nor do they show any of the other usual marks of successful paradigms). But sometimes she writes as if she thinks she's just using obvious standards, or as if she's using the same standards as ancient historians use generally. If that is truly what she believes, it is again not easy to know how to respond to such an extraordinary view.
This article interacted with a few other thoughts to inspire me to post something. I found it interesting that it was put in terms of women over-citing, rather than in terms of men, especially senior people in their field, under-citing, because I think the latter way of describing things would be more accurate. Our modern citation practices are a huge aid in locating errors. Ancient history is a hobby of mine, and of course one of the biggest problems in knowing what's going on in pre-modern events is that prior to the modern period (really, prior to Gibbon), the practice was to virtually never mention one's sources. Thus, while many ancient sources no doubt describe what they thought happened (not that there weren't deliberate frauds, but they were surely in the minority), it's rarely possible to distinguish what they might have seen themselves, what they were told by multiple, reliable sources, what they were told by few, unreliable sources, and what they constructed using plausible guesswork based on clues surrounding the event. And even the sources who are most reliable themselves were not necessarily equally reliable in deciding who else to trust, and of course their biases could influence their guesswork. Thus, nearly all ancient sources need to be treated with considerable skepticism. Fortunately, modern historical practices track this; modern historians use mountains of citations, so it's easier to tell how strong the evidence for a particular claim is. Further, if some new evidence, perhaps a new archaeological find, definitively shows that some ancient account or other was more or less reliable than previously believed, it's relatively easy to figure out when modern historians were relying on that account.
It's still important in modern times and in other fields, though. To take an example from philosophy that I'm very familiar with, Nietzsche's citation practices were horrible. Fortunately, since he is a modern figure, we know much more about him and about the sources that were available to him than was the case with the ancients, and so it's possible to use that to better assess some of his claims, but that really isn't an ideal substitute. Consider his use of etymology and claims about language generally. Nietzsche was a brilliant classical philologist. His claims about Greek and Latin seem to be nearly always true; even when he disagreed with his contemporaries, or expressed an opinion on a matter where there was no established view, more recent work more often than not has come around to something close to what Nietzsche thought. But he talks about languages other than Greek and Latin, and his claims about other languages are much less reliable. It seems clear that he got them from his various colleagues, philologists working on other languages, and they were generally not as brilliant as he was, and anyway he may have misremembered ideas which he might well have just gotten in conversation. But it's a problem that you need to know so much about Nietzsche to know how to evaluate his claims about languages; you shouldn't have to know the biography of every author you read. And knowing that Nietzsche is unreliable concerning languages other than Greek and Latin still doesn't help you evaluate individual claims he makes about, say, sanskrit, or the "Ural-Altaic" languages. Had he mentioned what his sources were on such claims, it would be easier to evaluate their accuracy (and, indeed, had he gone back to consult the sources himself again, he might have discovered some errors where he just misremembered things, or noticed that his source wasn't very confident about one of the claims he wanted to cite).
There are many other cases where Nietzsche's lack of careful citation makes his work more confusing and difficult to interpret than it needs to be; he mentions Paul Ree explicitly once in a while, but someone who doesn't know Nietzsche's biography well is unlikely to realize how frequently Nietzsche's references to English psychologists or English philosophers are filtered through Ree, who was a huge Anglophile and a close friend and major influence of Nietzsche's. When Nietzsche attributes something to English philosophers that doesn't seem to fit any of the famous ones, it's usually something Ree believed (and perhaps interepreted some of his English sources as supporting). Similarly, it is normal to dismiss Nietzsche's comments about women (and they are eminently dismissable, for the most part), but anyone speculating about why he says what he does about women, and how it relates to the rest of his philosophy, should probably be aware of Lou Salome's theories on the subject of women. Salome influenced Nietzsche's views on the subject of women not merely by being a woman he knew well (as most scholars are aware), but also by being a theorist on the subject he considered insightful (a fact fewer seem to have recognized, no doubt partly because so few read Salome these days).
 One of the mistakes Nietzsche copied from his philologist friends; in Nietzsche's time, scholars thought what they called the "Ural-Altaic" languages constituted a fairly closely related family. Modern linguists do not generally think the Uralic languages are closely related to most of the Altaic languages, and there is apparently some skepticism about how closely the Altaic languages are related to one another.
Perhaps I'm missing something, but what is remotely surprising about finding cultural differences in the brain? If two people think differently, that means their brains work differently, for whatever reason (perhaps because of education, or other experiences, or physical trauma, or disease, or genetics, or drugs, or nutrition; we know lots of things that affect brains). Examining their brains in enough detail will presumably be able to reveal this difference. Why isn't this result incredibly obvious and commonplace?
In a fit of procrastination, I read this paper, and found myself entirely unconvinced, for reasons (oddly enough) related to my increasing sympathy for some elements of the Kantian view of ethics. Enoch's central argument is that disagreements in mere preferences should be handled impartially, but there are moral disputes that should not be handled impartially, so moral disputes can't be disagreements in mere preferences. I can see a major wrinkle he doesn't appear to consider, though. It makes little sense to deal impartially with others who are unwilling to cooperate; everybody needs to be impartial, or it doesn't work. But the very example Enoch gives where someone is morally required to stand their ground and not be impartial is one involving the status of women; presumably he's imagining that an enlightened individual is confronting one who thinks women should be regarded as inferior, and saying (rightly) that the enlightened individual should stand their ground, but obviously the unenlightened individual is precisely guilty of not being impartial. So there is a reason for the enlightened individual not to regard the matter impartially (he can't; trying to treat the other's view as having the same weight as his own involves giving weight to the other's partiality, and so if he tries to be impartial he'll automatically fail), and it doesn't require regarding the disagreement as more than one of mere preferences. I do not think that this is merely an accidental feature of the example Enoch chooses, either, though I'd have to do more procrastinating than I really should to go into that in detail.
Slacktivist has an interesting and from the comment thread controversial analogy. Somebody in the comment thread mentioned that one problem with Le Guin's story is that she never explains why the child's suffering is necessary. I'm not sure that's true, but when I use this story in my ethics class (as part of the discussion of utilitarianism) I pair it with part of Huxley's Brave New World. The savage insists that suffering and evil must be part of the world if there is to be nobility and greatness (students also often say this when discussion of God and the problem of evil comes up). If there is anything to this, then surely that's the reason the child must suffer; without the child, Omelas would have no suffering or evil, and would perhaps become like Mustafa Mond's world.
To speculate further, perhaps the reason Omelas is such a paradise is that people are much better at ignoring widespread suffering and evil than at ignoring it in individual cases, so the fact that in Omelas it is only this one child who suffers such an unfair fate increases the impact of the example on the people of the city, so that they are inspired to greatness far beyond that which the people of our world are capable of.
In chapter 2, Feser discusses Plato and Aristotle. One feature of his discussion is that he accepts a fairly standard view on which Plato is the crazy metaphysician, and Aristotle takes the good parts of Plato's metaphysics and grounds them with a healthy mix of common sense. As I understand it, this is roughly Aristotle's interpretation, and I think it has misleading aspects, but it's at least partly true. It's also why I like Plato better than Aristotle, which is of course the reverse of Feser's judgment. The problem with tempering your philosophy with common sense is that it's actually pretty common for common sense to be wrong, and if you make a mistake as a result of faulty common sense, people may fail to notice the mistake for centuries, or even millenia. On the other hand, if you make a mistake in your wild metaphysical flights of fancy, people are sure to call you on it, as they apparently did with Plato; he wrestles with very serious objections to his various theories in the course of the dialogues.
But that's all very general; on to specifics. First, on the progression leading up to Plato, it is perhaps not surprising that Feser bashes the sophists as early examples of liberalism. Their presentation in Plato's writings is actually much more nuanced than this, and it is not clear that Socrates is well described as "vigorously opposing the sophists" (Aristophanes didn't think so, and Aristophanes was a fairly perceptive guy). Gorgias comes off pretty badly in the dialogue named for him, but most of the other sophists who actually appear in the dialogues are much more complicated characters.
On to Plato. Most of what Feser has to say about Plato is fairly orthodox, which is not to say I agree with all of it, but most of my suspicions don't seem very relevant. Feser classifies Plato as a mathematical Platonist, which is reasonable enough though probably shouldn't just be taken as given. But Feser gives an odd argument for mathematical Platonism, saying, for example, that "it is not up to us to decide that the angles of a triangle should add up to 38 degrees instead of 180." I assume that he has heard of non-Euclidean geometries, so I am curious as to exactly what he means when he says this is not up to us. Why isn't it up to us whether we adopt a Euclidean geometry or a hyperbolic geometry? What forces one choice rather than another? Or does Feser have some view on the relationship between the two which explains this?
Einstein thought that we should make a distinction between "pure" geometry and "applied" geometry. Pure geometry is an entirely abstract science in which both Euclidian and hyperbolic geometries, as well as of course elliptic geometries, are in their own ways true as all they say is that certain conclusions follow from given axioms and in each case those conclusions do follow from the particular given axioms, but none of them tell us anything about how the world actually is. Applied geometry, on the other hand, describes the shape of space, but is for that reason dependent on empirical results (and Einstein of course argued that an elliptic geometry best modelled the shape of space). But Feser wishes throughout to argue that claims about the world can be established by purely rational means, so the sort of distinction Einstein draws here (and which is accepted by many others, including myself) would seem to undermine Feser's attempt to use mathematics as an example of the legitimacy of using purely rational means to discover facts about the world.
It seems to me that one of the major reasons for the decline of rationalism, not mentioned by Feser, is that in the early modern period it became quite apparent that traditional logic was entirely inadequate, and that traditional mathematics also had unacceptable limits; Leibniz and Newton introduced calculus, and of course mathematical innovation continued and provided many valuable tools to the advancing sciences. However, the new mathematics was also a theoretical mess, now known to have contained not a few outright contradictions which the mathematicians were simply fortunate in not accidentally drawing consequences from. The criticisms of calculus by people like Berkeley were far from completely unwarranted, even if the needs of science meant they were largely ignored.
The situation was largely cleaned up in the 19th century, of course, with the work of a wide variety of mathematicians and an especially large contribution by Frege. Still, the cleanup was not complete, and some of the remaining puzzles (like the Euclidean vs. Non-Euclidean geometry issue already mentioned, plus in the early 20th century Russell's paradox, Gödel's theorem, and questions surrounding controversial mathematical principles like the axiom of choice), meant that confidence in mathematics as a source of eternal truth has not returned; to many of us, mathematics just seems more like something we make than a matter of eternal truths we discover. Carnap's "in logic there are no morals!" seems the principle best suited to the variety and flexibility of modern logic and mathematics.
Of course, Plato does not only discusses mathematical forms. At least he appears to discuss non-mathematical forms; there are at least two important caveats. First, Plato expresses doubt on occasion as to whether some of his example forms are genuine forms, and indeed some of his forms seem to be intended as jokes rather than serious examples (e.g. the form of the bed in Republic). Second, Plato may have believed that even forms which appeared not to be were ultimately mathematical, in line with the Pythagorean influences on his thought. Still, setting aside those caveats, there is certainly discussion of apparently non-mathematical forms. Plato has the form of the Good, and while I don't recall him ever using Feser's example of the form of the squirrel, he does seem to have thought there were forms for biological species. This is one of the points on which the ancients and Feser seem to be most clearly wrong; evolutionary biology has given us a very good understanding of biological species, and it is in conflict with this account based on forms, but more on that later since Feser does address evolution directly in later chapters.
It is not clear how much damage it does to Plato's system to eliminate the form of the squirrel. He may still be able to maintain the form of the Good, and insist that morality is based on reason, by taking something like the Kantian view of ethics (though I expect there are details on which Plato would not have agreed with Kant). How viable that is remains a hotly contested question; I reject Kantian ethics myself, but I think Korsgaard et. al. deserve considerably more respect than Feser gives them when he directly mentions Kantian ethics later in the book.
When he turns to Aristotle, Feser presents some quick arguments that forms are necessary. He gives the example of mathematical forms, which he thinks are necessary for us to make sense of mathematics. Maybe, or maybe not, but he continues to fail to note how problematic it is to equate mathematics with his own idiosyncratic examples of rationally acquired knowledge. For example, some of the things which Feser says can be established by conclusive rational argument are quite obviously contingent. Whether something is contingent or not is itself a necessary truth (at least in S5; perhaps Feser is employing some other view of modality, but that would raise other problems of its own). So it's necessary that those claims can't be established by conclusive rational arguments, since no contingent claim can be established by conclusive rational arguments.
Now, of course, it could be that the obvious contingency of the claims Feser thinks can be rationally proven is on a par with the obvious truth of Frege's Basic Law V. But this applies equally to Feser's principles; if there's any way to settle who has the right of the matter here, Feser never supplies it, as he doesn't even consider this problem.
Feser defends a realism about categories against nominalism and conceptualism by claiming that our practicies implicitly assume realism, and that nominalism and conceptualism couldn't do the job. He waves his hand at the (entirely adequate) reply available to modern nominalists and conceptualists, namely an evolutionary story of concepts (Millikan has done especially impressive work in this area). His criticism is that we need concepts to engage in evolutionary explanation in the first place, and that on this story the concepts we get from evolution have no "objective validity." Unfortunately, this is only true if "objective validity" is defined in such a way that nothing has it. The evolutionary story provides a perfectly adequate account of the origin of concepts, including providing us with reasonable justification for relying on the concepts produced by that process.
Though Feser isn't willing to give enough credit to the evolutionary story for him to consider this question, it occurs that somebody could ask about pre-Darwin nominalists and conceptualists. They didn't have any adequate account of the formation of concepts, and yet they rejected realism anyway. One might argue that this shows that they must have rejected realism for reasons involving the kind of biases Feser constantly attributes to his opponents, and so that this at least provides support for his position by showing how strong the biases are. However, I would draw a different lesson. Realism doesn't actually explain concepts; it just says comforting and familiar-sounding things about them until we stop worrying and think everything is all right with concepts. The early nominalists and conceptualists decided that no explanation at all was better than the comforting pseudo-explanation offered by realism (in the tradition of Socrates' view that wisdom is knowing when you don't know something), and so they rejected realism even before there were rival explanations. This did in fact turn out to be beneficial, in just the way Socrates says awareness of one's own ignorance is beneficial, as it spurred efforts to find genuinely good accounts of concepts, which we now have. It seems to me that the early modern rejection of final causes also fits the same pattern as the nominalist/conceptualist rejection of realism; the early moderns rejected final causes as unhelpful despite lacking any replacements, and science proceeded in new directions, producing vastly more adequate explanations of the world as a result of rejecting unhelpful pseudo-explanations. Again, things have now reached the point where the old pseudo-explanations aren't even superficially appealing in comparison to the genuine explanations modern science can provide.
Feser's criticism of Kant appears to be that while Kant avoids the relativism Feser sees in the nominalists and conceptualists, the deeper problem, the one already mentioned, remains. I'm not sure what his basis is for attributing relativism to the nominalists and conceptualists (I suppose that as usual much depends on what is meant by the very slippery term "relativism"), but of course I've pointed out that the deeper problem isn't one, so Kant seems to be off the hook.
There's some interesting projection when Feser says liberals like Plato because they like his idea of philosopher-kings. I've never thought Plato was very serious about that; after all, he made the rather impressively unpolitical Socrates the great hero of his dialogues. I also find it somewhat odd that a person with a Ph.D. is so knee-jerk skeptical of intellectual elites, while being equally knee-jerk submissive to political and economic elites, but of course Feser is a standard conservative in that respect. Further, accoring to Feser, the rejection of Aristotle is responsible for Star Wars Episode I (well, probably. Feser blames everything else he doesn't like about the world on it. Of course, perhaps I shouldn't assume that Feser didn't like "The Phantom Menace;" he doesn't show that much evidence of good taste elsewhere in the book).
In any event, the idea of potentiality is obviously very important to Feser, so we should be careful with it. Potentiality could be defined purely logically in terms of the actual future of things like the actual thing in question, or the range of futures of things identical to the thing in question in specified respects. So defined, it would be unproblematic. I would not quibble with someone wishing to introduce such a concept. "In logic there are no morals!" But Feser means more, and the question is whether his arguments establish that there is an interesting or even meaningful concept stronger than these bare logical potentialities which can do the work he requires.
The first feature that Aristotelian potentiality has is that it must be activated by something outside of the actual thing with the potentiality. Feser says that absent this, it would be inexplicable why a potentiality would be actualized at one time rather than another, and so suggests that he thinks even bare logical potentiality would have to have this feature, but if that's what he thinks, he's obviously wrong. It is not apparent why there would need to be an explanation, and considerably less apparent why the explanation would need to be something external to the actual thing. Maybe some things just have it in their nature to actualize some potentiality that they have randomly, or some specific amount of time after they come into existence. Or maybe something is going on that we haven't thought of. Feser's usual pattern is to jump to a plausible-sounding but uninformative explanation to escape the horror of not being able to explain something, but there are lots of things that we don't know how to explain. Another thing I like about Plato is that he seems to have realized this.
The second feature that Aristotelian potentiality apparently has that bare logical potentiality lacks is that it is, we are told, possible for something to be merely actual, with no potentiality at all. At least, logical potentiality rules that out for anything except perhaps the final stage of something which exists at the end of time. But there's something which is not the final stage of something which exists at the end of time which Feser says has no potentiality, namely God.
The other features of potentiality that Feser comments on are that potentiality depends somehow on a thing's nature and that one can make distinctions between different kinds of potentiality; both of those appear to be true of bare logical potentiality.
Feser's discussion of form and matter leaves a number of issues unclear. In particular, can one say anything true and informative about Aristotelian matter at all? It seems that all of what one would ordinarly consider to be the properties of things are, on the Aristotelian picture, aspects of the form of the thing. It is thus quite misleading when Feser attributes to the materialist the view that anything, such as his example rubber ball, is "just a piece of matter." No materialist thinks it's just a piece of something like prime matter; that wouldn't make any sense. And, whatever Feser may want his readers to think, materialists generally avoid saying things that are that obviously nonsense.
Feser jokes about getting a martini before writing about Aristotle's four causes. I kind of wish he was drunk while writing this section, and really the whole book; it wouldn't really be an excuse, but it would at least make the sloppiness somewhat more explicable. In any event, his arguments do seem to become more sketchy and gappy whenever his writing gets more cutesy. And, yes, his writing is fairly cutesy in most of the book. The obvious inference is sound.
He continues to fail to clarify puzzling aspects of the matter/form distinction (perhaps because it's so obvious and common sense it doesn't occur to him to wonder if it remains coherent under closer examination)? He identifies the rubber as the material cause of the rubber ball. But surely it is some kind of form that makes something rubber. And in fact it seems to be forms all the way down to the most basic substances that make up reality. So what makes the cause "material?" What does it have to do with matter? And, at the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, if the forms are doing all the work, how can Feser even tell when matter is present and when it isn't (as he claims to be able to do with allegedly immaterial souls)? Also, Feser will eventually explain that the material cause determines a thing's potentiality. But surely what a thing is potentially depends on what it is actually like, and so depends on the properties (aspects of the form) of the thing. I don't understand what role matter plays in this.
The formal cause is what a thing is like, and the efficient cause is whatever actualized its potentiality. If potentiality is understood in the bare logical sense mentioned earlier, this would seem to make the efficient causes of Aristotle very similar to the view of later philosophers on all causes.
The final cause is the goal, end, or purpose of a thing. Aristotle attributes final causes to inanimate things, making it less than clear how appropriate this "purpose" talk is. In any event, it is obvious that one could construct a bare logical version of final causes along the lines of the bare logical versions of potentiality, and indeed the two would be closely related. Again, the question is whether anything stronger than the bare logical version is coherent, and whether there is any reason to postulate or invoke it.
Feser casually dismisses Hume's discussion of causation, which has been tremendously influential for very good reasons. Just because we encrust correlations with reassuring names doesn't mean that we understand them any better, and in fact once we remove the encrusting Aristotelian nonsense, what remains may look strange, but functions just as well or better. Certainly Feser's rejection of Humean causation on the basis that efficient causation is at work when an event is identical with itself strikes me as bizarre.
Feser says "an attentive reader may have noticed that Aristotle's account seems to entail a series of simultaneous causes and effects, and might also wonder where such a series terminates and how it can be explained." Actually, I noticed instead that it's not obvious how to put simultaneous events into a series; if it really is simultaneous, it is not clear why it needs to terminate, so that worry didn't occur to me.
Feser also asserts an Aristotelian principle that whatever is in the effect must in some sense be contained in the cause as well. It can't be said that he argues for it, though "in some sense" is so incredibly vague that it's also not clear what counter-examples there would be, or what the principle even means. Certainly there's nothing about his rather narrow examples to suggest how this would generalize to all causation ever.
He says that naturalists reject this principle, and I suppose I reject some forms of it (Feser would have to say what he means by it before I could decide if I reject his version). According to Feser, it is "sometimes suggested" that evolution contradicts this principle. I have no idea who would suggest that; Feser's note on this sentence does not concern where this suggestion comes from. I certainly don't see why evolution would be more in conflict with the principle than anything else in science; if the principle is stated in an unacceptable form, it probably contradicts evolution (and lots of other facts), and otherwise not.
There are a number of points Feser indicates he will explain in more detail later. It's rather distressing how infrequently his later discussion is actually any more detailed or helpful, but more on that in future installments.
It is not until page 6 that Feser so much as waves his hand in the direction of an argument, when he recounts what he claims was his own voyage of philosophical discovery. He cites Frege as motivating his Platonism. This naturally makes me wonder what Feser thinks about Russell's Paradox, and more importantly of course Gödel's theorem. But he never talks about such subjects, nor does he talk about subjects like the axiom of choice or Euclidean vs. Non-Euclidean geometries. It makes it hard for me to take seriously his analogy between mathematical and philosophical knowledge when he seems to have such a poorly developed theory of mathematical knowledge.
He also mentions that Russell influenced him by showing how little we can know of the intrinsic nature of the material world. Of course, I think Russell was right about this, and in fact that he didn't go far enough. Feser draws a contrary conclusion, perhaps on the basis that knowledge of intrinsic matters is the only real knowledge or that all knowledge must trace back to knowledge of intrinsic matters. But he doesn't prove or argue for either of these claims, at least not here. They have been much discussed in contemporary philosophy, so this represents another area where he is wrong to say that his really important issues have been ignored by the modern naturalists.
He also describes Richard Swinburne as someone who employs "the most rigorous of modern philosophical methods to the defense of religious belief." I am skeptical of this as a description of Plantinga (who also gets this praise), but applied to Swinburne, this can only be considered laughable.
Feser claims that to the naturalists, natural selection is a "pseudo-deity." I suppose it has features in common with how Feser takes God to be, in that it is knowable a priori. Once you understand natural selection, it is quite obvious that it must happen in any situation where there is a mix of some stability over time and some more or less random change. Of course, that natural selection is responsible for specific phenomena, e.g. the diversity of life, requires empirical evidence in each case (evidence which is readily available in the case of many biological phenomena). However, Feser's claim that natural selection could not in any "true or interesting sense" manifest design is unargued. I suppose it depends rather heavily on what one considers interesting.
The remainder of the first chapter continues to provide no arguments, except a sort of inductive argument based on cases for Feser's theory of what motivates secularists. Not all (only most) of his theories about this are wrong, though it goes without saying that they are all absurdly charicatured. The naturalistic world view rejects ultimate authority. That's what it is to be a naturalist. Some, perhaps most, naturalists inconsistently treat naturalism itself as an ultimate authority, because people have trouble with the idea that there really is none. They deserve to be called superstitious, though the fact that naturalism is so purely negative, consisting of little more than the rejection of all ultimate authorities, makes taking it as an ultimate authority a less bad error than most other cases of belief in ultimate authority.
However, contra Feser, there are good reasons to reject ultimate authority. The concept is incoherent. This is admitted by some of its defenders (e.g. Kierkegaard, or Heidegger), who insist that we must believe in it despite its incoherence; this is the reason that "faith" has become the popular line among defenders of ultimate authority. Feser, of course, has no patience with this line, and indeed doesn't even bother to mention why he thinks so many on his side seem to welcome putting things in terms of faith. It might be an enlightening topic for him to investigate.
Feser is obviously right to note that most atheist philosophers do not confront the issue of the existence of his God directly, instead engaging in various smaller detail projects in pursuit of naturalism. But this is because the absurdity of his God as an ultimate authority is widely recognized, while forms of ultimate authority in narrow areas are less obviously unacceptable and so more controversial. This is one of the areas where I agree with Feser; I think the reasons for rejecting his God are closely related to reasons for rejecting non-Humean causation, various forms of anti-reductionism, Armstrong-style universals, perfectly natural properties, and many other still popular philosophical speculations. Still, the connection is not so strong that anyone who rejects God is obviously rationally required to reject all these more moderate views. Feser naturally wishes to run the inference in the opposite direction, and argue that anyone committed to any of the more moderate views, and most naturalistic philosophers are committed to some of them, are committed to his God; the inference is also not immediate in that direction, as I mentioned in my review of his book on Amazon.
Feser ends his first chapter by asking atheists like myself to consider the possibility that we might be wrong. I do frequently consider the possibility that I am wrong to reject the God of Plato, Spinoza, and Einstein. Though that has little to do with Feser's God, I'm afraid it's the best I can do.
I've finally obtained a copy of Ed Feser's The Last Superstition, his long-winded defense of superstition and bigotry. I had really hoped it wouldn't be quite this horrible. In particular, I hoped to get some insight into how Feser sees Thomism as relevant to modern science and thought. However, he has so little helpful to say on the subject I almost wonder if he's ever thought about it, and while he does have a lot to say about the naturalistic or scientific worldview, he makes it very clear that he doesn't understand it.
I still have some plans to post more detailed criticisms of such arguments as he does provide, but I will start by giving a brief description of the big picture which is very different from Feser's. It seems to be one with which he is in fact entirely unfamiliar in any form, as he does not bother to mention this account or anything like it, much less explain why he doesn't see things in this way.
The extraordinary success of science in the modern era is largely a result of the widespread recognition, to varying degrees and to be sure usually not consciously, of the fact that unsatisfying explanations are usually better than satisfying ones. They have two primary advantages. First, satisfying explanations tend to be accepted even if they are useless, or outright misleading and harmful. Unsatisfying explanations, on the other hand, are never taken seriously unless they are demonstrably useful. Second, unsatisfying explanations stimulate the further search for knowledge, as due to their unsatisfying nature they leave us always feeling that there is more work to be done.*
Feser argues against the scientific worldview that it is unsatisfying, and defends satisfying explanation. He seems to find Thomistic explanations especially satisfying; of course an additional disadvantage of satisfying explanation is that different people are satisfied by quite different explanations, and there is no apparent way to judge who's right. Feser is mistaken in thinking that the unsatisfying features of the scientific worldview can be separated from its success, as well as in thinking that the scientific worldview has any need of satisfying explanations. Of course he uses other terminology; he generally uses "incoherent" to mean "unsatisfying" and "rational" to mean "satisfying," but this attempt at persuasive definition is consistently unpersuasive.
* It is this second feature of the scientific enthusiasm for unsatisfying explanations that leads Heidegger to identify the scientific worldview with the eternal striving of the Nietzschean will to power. Like Feser, Heidegger was a critic of the scientific worldview and a right wing nut, but unlike Feser, Heidegger seems to have understood what the debate was actually about.
The interesting results are mentioned here. I found myself wondering what would happen if you told the people what the brain scans predicted they would do. If you asked them again what they thought they would do after they were told what the brain scan said, would their own predictions become more or less accurate? Would they still be less accurate than the brain scan? Would telling them what the brain scan predicted make the brain scan less accurate? I know I'd try to use a brain scanner like this to see if it predicted my doing anything I wanted to avoid doing, so I could try to find some better way of getting myself to not do it, but I have no idea whether I'd be successful at that. Clearly an area where lots of additional research is needed!
There have been some discussions, starting here and continuing here, about the relationship between certain epistemological worries for modal realism and some other worries for consequentialism. I find the discussion of modal realism puzzling. I certainly don't want to saddle Lewis with outright pragmatism and verificationism, but he did have a certain sympathy with both of those views, and as a result I'm not sure the kind of case that's described makes sense on the Lewis view. Certainly his argument for modal realism is that it's a very useful theory. Lewis doesn't consider any kind of evidence for or against modal realism except evidence of this kind, and it is hard to see how there could be any other evidence for or against it (for the usual causal reasons). It's not clear that it even makes sense to speak of the oracle as knowing there are no other concrete worlds if it isn't based on something like this; the oracle cannot, of course, have causal contact with the other worlds or anything of that sort. Perhaps the oracle doesn't know anything, but only says things that are true. But how do we know what the oracle's statements mean? How do we know the oracle is talking about modal reality? Again, for Lewis, the only evidence concerning modal reality outside the actual world is usefulness; we could understand the oracle as speaking of modal reality if the oracle could be interpreted as talking about useful theories of modality, but we can't, for example, understand the oracle as speaking about modal reality because of any causal contact between the oracle and any modal reality (again, that's metaphysically impossible for Lewis, so we can't even give that power to hypothetical oracles in thought experiments).
Perhaps it would be more useful to put the point by analogy. What should anyone's reaction be if the oracle tells us there are no sets, or that there are some sets, but not others (perhaps there are all other kinds of sets, but no sets contain donkeys as elements, by analogy with Richard's case). How would that affect our beliefs about sets? Would the latter even make sense?
Of course, one obvious response is to reject the analogy on the basis that sets are abstract and the Lewis worlds are supposed to be concrete, but another part of the Lewis argument for modal realism is that the concrete/abstract distinction is too messy to do any serious philosophical work, so anybody who took this line in response to Lewis would need to answer those arguments and provide a convincing account of this concrete/abstract division and why it matters to comparing sets to the Lewis worlds.
There's been a survey of views among philosophers, and apparently there was widespread participation; it produced some interesting results concerning the distribution of views among philosophers. As a Carnapian, I was particularly interested to notice that 2/3 of philosophers believe in the analytic/synthetic distinction; apparently people are no longer as impressed with Quine's argument as they once were (assuming they ever were as impressed as is usually reported; there's no survey from a few decades ago to compare).Of perhaps more general interest, there has been some discussion of the fact that while around 3/4 of philosophers generally are atheists, the numbers are reversed for philosophers of religion. Trent Dougherty suggests that we should take this as evidence in favor of theism, that the experts lean toward that view. I'm not so sure. It's the only area I can find where there's such a sharp difference between the specialists and other philosophers. Given that the other philosophers are certainly not completely uninformed (it's hard to be completely uninformed on this topic, and certainly anybody who does history of philosophy can't avoid lots of contact with philosophy of religion), it seems unlikely to me that such a big difference could be based solely on the experts having better evidence; their evidence surely isn't that much better. So I tend to think that there's some other explanation for this pattern, though I don't have a firm opinion as to which of the possible explanations apply.
In addition to proposing that theism among philosophers of religion may be based on good evidence, Trent proposes a more sociological explanation for widespread naturalism. While there certainly are fashions in philosophy, I actually think philosophers have been more inclined to naturalism than the general public for as long as there has been philosophy. And I would have thought that the reason that the trend has over the course of the modern era become stronger and more entrenched is surely because of the success of science in progressively explaining more and more of the world.
"His disciple cried impetuously 'but I believe in your cause and consider it so strong that I shall say everything, everything that I still have in my mind against it.'" The Gay Science 106
According to Heidegger, the scientific worldview represents the will to will, the will to power (so he says in the postscript to "What is Metaphysics?"). Of course, I think he's right, apart from not viewing this as a criticism of science. I also think, though I know it's controversial, that Nietzsche must have seen things that way. He's such a passionate seeker of truth, so committed to the cause of knowledge and science, that I can't see how he could possibly be interpreted as really rejecting all that. Rather, it seems clear that his criticisms of science and the pursuit of truth, frequent and harsh though they are, show something else. He thinks the project is just too important to be done wrong, so every tiny misstep must be ruthlessly exposed and obliterated. And really, criticism is essential to science.
Of course, it wouldn't do to take Nietzsche as an advocate of every cause he criticizes; I think it's easy to do so in the case of science and the pursuit of truth because he also so frequently praises those endeavors, and perhaps more to the point is constantly engaged in the quest for truth. But I wouldn't try to reinterpret his harsh criticism of Christianity as involving secret advocacy, for example, since he hardly ever has a kind word for Christianity and at no point seems to be trying to be a good Christian. On the surface, his attitude toward democracy seems to be closer to his attitude toward Christianity than it is to his attitude toward science. But is it really? He himself seems to see democracy and science as deeply intertwined, and after all he proudly proclaims himself a free spirit and a good European, aligning himself with people whose politics are pretty much exclusively liberal. And criticism is essential to democracy as well (and not to Christianity).
Thoughts inspired by teaching the first part of the Genealogy of Morals yesterday. Nietzsche says that all "higher natures" are a battleground between the master morality and the slave morality; surely he thought his own was a higher nature, but if there was any part of himself that was an advocate of slave morality, I find it much easier to believe that he felt a part of himself believing in democracy than that he had a Christian part.
I ran into my favorite former student today, and the meeting reminded me of a topic I've been thinking about for some time. I have posted numerous pro-Carnap views on this blog, but while one might thus have correctly guessed that I take Carnap's side against Heidegger, I don't think I've explained satisfactorily where I think Heidegger is wrong. Indeed, as with most philosophers, I've come to respect Heidegger more as I've studied this issue; I am increasingly of the opinion that Heidegger really did understand Carnap's position fairly well, and that he understood the problems with his own position (though obviously he didn't consider those problems fatal, and that's where we disagree).
The basic disagreement between Carnap and Heidegger is that Carnap rejects all authority, and Heidegger considers the rejection of all authority to amount to the unacceptable rejection of all value. It certainly is the rejection of objective value as that is usually understood; an objective value would be something that would have authority over us. So Heidegger is allied with many other defenders of objective value.
Still, Heidegger correctly recognizes that he has opposition; the scientific world-view excludes all authority. Science merely discusses "the truth about what-is," it doesn't make decisions for us. In a puzzling but revealing clause, Heidegger says that the scientific method of objectivising what-is "provides itself with the possibility of future advance;" it is in this sense that Heidegger sees the scientific world-view as manifesting the will to will, the will to power (quotes from the postscript to "What is Metaphysics?")
Science "provides itself with the possibility of future advance" because it treats everything as questionable. This is unacceptable to Heidegger; a value which could be questioned, which could be rejected, is no real value at all. If there isn't some authority, something beyond the questions and theories of the scientific, then life is meaningless. And because of Heidegger's belief in the authority of authority, he thinks he has a powerful criticism of science; in denying that there is any such thing as authority, science is admitting that science itself has no authority (a point he probably got from Nietzsche, though Nietzsche of course didn't draw the conclusions from this that Heidegger did). If science has no authority, then how can it tell us not to look for authority elsewhere?
Still, the whole idea of Heideggerian authority is a puzzling one, and Heidegger's method illustrates well why. After all, he investigates and theorizes and raises questions about metaphysics, about his authenticity and about nothing. How can it make sense to raise questions about what can't be questioned? How can he theorize about what is beyond our capacity to theorize, what he himself describes as beyond logic? Heidegger himself says that it's very hard and one is constantly in danger of slipping into nonsense; Carnap's view, that in fact it's impossible and Heidegger is not merely in danger of slipping into nonsense but spends most of his time there, is only a slight step beyond what Heidegger himself confesses.
For my part, I think that whatever we can think about, we can think about. Whatever we can talk about, we can talk about. Whatever we can question, we can question. Note that this is very different from saying that what we can think about now is all we can ever think about. People are forever finding new things to think about, to talk about, to question; science "provides itself with the possibility of future advance," as Heidegger says, or "overcomes itself" as Nietzsche might say, but no worthwhile scientist says otherwise. There are certainly those who misinterpret science as giving final answers and try to use it as an authority, but even Heidegger recognizes that those people don't understand science; Heidegger shows by the nature of his criticism of science that he recognizes what the scientific world-view really involves. But there is only one final answer, and if Nietzsche was right that most philosophers have really been seeking that final answer (death, of course), I also think he was right that it's time to give up on this immature desire for final answers.
Still, people find the absence of authority very hard to cope with, or even to make sense of. Positivists like Carnap are often interpreted as having made sense data and/or logic into authorities, and then condemned because by their own principles they shouldn't have such authorities. The criticism is right that they shouldn't, but I think wrong that they did. Observation is important to the positivists because if a claim is based on observation, people can look for themselves; they don't need to rely on authority. But looking isn't another kind of authority; it makes perfect sense to question what we see, and we do so on many occasions. Observation is the start of questioning, not the end. As for logic, they of course struggled with how to understand that, but the mature Carnap, with his principle of tolerance, was obviously not treating that as beyond question either. "In logic there are no morals!"
Most people like to think of themselves as flexible and willing to change their minds in response to new evidence. However, we of course notice that others are very stubborn, and there's some psychological literature suggesting that people in general don't change their minds as much as they'd like to claim to. On the other hand, there are interesting studies in the other direction, suggesting that people mis-remember their past views as being more similar to their present views than they really are, so that surveys on whether people changed their minds will get misleading results if they rely on comparing remembered views to current views. So perhaps people are right to think that they change their minds, despite the fact that tricks of their memories leave them without much evidence to back it up.
Anyway, since I tend to have a hard time thinking of examples of changing my mind on demand, I thought I'd write about a significant change in order to increase the chances that I'll continue to remember it when I need an example. I was originally in favor of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. I expected we'd make a mess of it, especially with Bush directing things, but the Taliban were so awful that I thought the mess we'd make would still be a considerable improvement.
I now think we should probably withdraw from Afghanistan. I do still have some tendency to think that there could be better ways of doing things which would make our intervention helpful, but I can't see any politically realistic path from our current policies to anything which would be significantly more productive. In particular, I think we'd probably have to give up the goal of suppressing opium cultivation in Afghanistan, and I don't see any chance of that. I was aware of this issue in the past, but I apparently underestimated other issues and the results of the various problems interacting; I did not imagine that an Afghanistan with a large U.S. military presence would ever end up with the Taliban again controlling most of the country. Further, the Karzai government is not nearly as much better than the Taliban as I would have hoped; it appears to be quite horribly corrupt, which isn't really a surprise, but it even has some pretty horribly retrogressive policies on women (the big issue where I thought the Taliban were bad enough to make their removal a goal which overrides almost everything else).
Socrates is generally presented in Plato's dialogues as being better at some skills than self-styled experts. He is presented as being superior at rhetoric, for example, and at debate for the sake of debate. There is also indication that these are pseudo-skills, not involving genuine knowledge of anything. Thus, I take it that the implication is that one who knows that he has no knowledge has exactly the right kind of knowledge for these pseudo-skills, and that's why Socrates is even better at these skills than people like Gorgias and Lysias who think it's possible to have real knowledge of such things (and that they themselves possess such knowledge). Perhaps the knowledge of etymology Socrates rather oddly displays in Cratylus is an example of the same phenomenon, if we interpret that dialogue as ultimately favoring the conventionalist view of names (as I have some tendency to think, though I admit I haven't thought about that dialogue a tremendous amount).
I can only think of one case of a dialogue where characters are presented as being completely uncontroversially masters of a completely uncontroversial skill, and where their possession of this skill gets any particular emphasis. The case is Theatetus, where both Theatetus and Theodorus are presented as having great knowledge of mathematics. Theatetus is, of course, even credited with a considerable mathematical discovery when we're first introduced to him. There is no effort to suggest that Socrates could match, much less exceed, the mathematical skill or knowledge of Theatetus or Theodorus; Socrates is shown as having some understanding of mathematics in Meno, but nowhere, in Theatetus, Meno, or anywhere else, is he presented as being on the level of Theatetus, making original mathematical discoveries. This seems to fit well with the previous point; when a skill is real, when it involves real knowledge, long study and effort are required. You can't fake real skills just by knowing your limitations.
So far, I think I haven't said anything particularly uncontroversial. However, there are more interesting cases. It seems to me that Socrates is consistently shown as being more skilled at interpreting poetry (that is, religious tradition) than anyone he talks to. I do think that this fits the pattern of skills like rhetoric; that although he's usually somewhat cautious how he states it, Plato does advocate a fairly thorough skepticism about religious tradition. Of course, in the Laws Plato advocates harsh punishment for atheists, which is a problem for my thesis here. Apart from my usual dodge of saying I think he was getting senile when he wrote that, I would point out that given his explanation of why atheists are bad, it is not unreasonable to interpret him as defining atheism as the rejection of the existence of forms (and indeed of any kind of truth), rather than as involving doubt concerning traditional gods.
Philosophy is another vexed case, especially given the difficulty in separating it from sophistry. I admit to having a tendency to think that for Plato sophistry is for the most part incompetent philosophy, and not some entirely separate thing, despite what's said in Sophist. I particularly recall hearing M. M. McCabe explain fairly convincingly that Euthydemus and Dionysodorus were metaphysical theorists, who produced bad arguments because their metaphysical theories were bad, not because they weren't trying to produce good arguments. If she's right, if that's true of even those two, then I think nearly anyone Plato presents as a self-styled philosopher, sophist, or teacher of virtue is probably to some extent a philosopher. There may be hope even for Gorgias.
So, how does the philosophical skill of Socrates rank? And what does that tell us? I'm unsure of the first, and even more so of the second. But let's look at examples. He certainly is vastly superior in this respect to the brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus. He also appears to be the superior of Thrasymachus, though Thrasymachus certainly shows signs of being able to do philosophy (even if he doesn't seem to emphasize the value of doing so); the idea of distinguishing between strict and loose senses of skill or expertise comes entirely from Thrasymachus, without even the tiniest bit of help from Socrates, and he explains the distinction very clearly, though Socrates ends up being able to make more effective use of the distinction once it is in play. Clitophon also seems to suggest that we are supposed to think of Thrasymachus as some kind of philosopher, though I would not go so far as some of the Straussians who think Thrasymachus in Republic is closer to the views of Plato than Socrates is.
Protagoras also makes some quite impressive arguments in the dialogue named for him, though overall he has trouble keeping up with Socrates. Still, I have to say that my impression is that Protagoras looks worse when you evaluate him on the quality of his rhetoric than when you evaluate him on the quality of his arguments, which if I'm right would have quite interesting implications. Socrates' summary of their argument at the end puts them even, though of course his sincerity in comments like that is especially suspect.
Simmias and Cebes concede defeat in the end, but they both present quite interesting arguments. One also can't help but wonder whether they might be pulling their punches; how hard would a sympathetic person really try when arguing that there may be no afterlife to someone who is about to die? So, again, hard to compare, but at least I think Socrates is not presented as the overwhelmingly superior philosopher.
Finally, old Parmenides is able to completely crush young Socrates. Perhaps this is not a fair fight; perhaps the message is that long practice is extremely important in this area. But surely Socrates outright losing has some great significance. I'm just not sure what the significance is. Maybe we are supposed to take the message of Clitophon seriously, maybe Plato really did think Socrates fell short in not trying harder to develop some positive theory? Not completely crazy, especially as Plato seems to have done more in that direction than Socrates did. Or maybe there's some other significance I'm not getting.
Anyway, I really should stop this practice of not posting for a month and then feeling I have to write a book to try to make up for my slacking.
Evolutionary theory makes it impossible for biological species to be natural kinds (or at the very least, if naturalness comes in degrees, they're very marginal natural kinds). Biological species were, for Aristotle, a central example of forms. Even if there is a good way to make sense of forms of some kind, evolutionary theory again, for the same reasons, makes it clear that there can't be forms corresponding to biological species.
This seems to have profound consequences for many of the hopes of rationalism; many earlier attempts to provide rationalist accounts of human nature seem to have been heavily dependent on there being a form of humanity (and even self-proclaimed critics of rationalism like Kant often make claims which seem to require something very much like such a form). This is especially clear in the case of ethics. On the Aristotelian, form-centered view of human nature, variations in humanity are deviations from the basic form. This made it at least conceivable that undesirable features of humanity could be explained away as merely deviations (if in some cases depressingly frequent ones), leaving open the possibility that the form could serve a normative purpose, that one could derive what humans ought to do from the form of humanity.
Undercutting this is a major change. On the other hand, Newtonian physics already seems to carve up the world along lines very different from those suggested by Aristotle's forms, and as a result skepticism about viewing any aspect of the world in terms of forms was already well established long before Darwin. Certainly there were many critics of Aristotelian natural-law morality before Darwin, including, for example, the whole empiricist tradition, which also rejected forms in general.
So, how much difference did the additional reasons Darwin provided for being skeptical of biological forms make? And, conversely, did the rejection of forms in the British Empiricist tradition help in any way in making something like an evolutionary theory seem conceivable to Darwin and his contemporaries?
 While evolutionary theory does provide some ability to distinguish the normal from the abnormal (as discussed by Millikan), the lines are much murkier, and not revealed by reason, and prospects for plausibly lining up the evolutionarily normal with the morally good are far worse.
One of the reasons I like to cover the philosophical classics when I teach is that they're usually classics for a reason; even after dozens of readings, I often come to new insights about them. One point that has recently been nagging at me is the presentation of Euthyphro in the dialogue named for him. Most readers and interpreters seem to take a fairly dim view of him (as I've also tended to do in the past). However, it has to be admitted that he's committed to the attractive idea that justice should be impartial, and he's willing to stand up for what he believes is right against public opinion.
Furthermore, and this is the point I hadn't really noticed before, he shows what really has to be considered a fairly impressive level of open-mindedness and commitment to the pursuit of truth. It's made clear at the beginning of the dialogue that he knows who Socrates is, and that he apparently has a high opinion of Socrates. Knowing who Socrates is, Euthyphro shows no reluctance to engage in a discussion with him. Further, after he's run into considerable difficulties (and after Socrates has said some at least borderline blasphemous things), Socrates offers him a chance to back out of the discussion (at 9e), but Euthyphro does not hesitate to insist that the investigation should continue. It is only after another long stretch where no progress is made (with Socrates being, as usual, fairly rude, and throwing in a few more borderline blasphemies), that Euthyphro gives up on the discussion and falls back on conventional answers to Socrates' question (at 14b).
Now, perhaps the conventional answer at the end deserves the abuse that Socrates gives it, but it's not only a bad answer, it also seems quite unworthy of Euthyphro, given what we'd seen of him prior to this point (at the outset he was far more concerned with what was right than with popular, conventional notions). So what's going on here? Has talking with Socrates made Euthyphro worse than he started? What was Plato's intention in presenting the story this way?
The abstract of this paper about a certain rare condition claims to present evidence "this condition, long thought to be entirely psychological in origin, actually has a neurological basis." I suspect that the authors would claim not to take dualism at all seriously, and yet only a dualist should think that it is even possible for a condition to be entirely psychological in a way which contrasts with it being neurological. Any materialist should think that all entirely psychological conditions are also neurological.
There's a discussion here of a study into gender differences in the use of tentative communication styles, employment of various forms of hedging and disclaimers. The stereotype is that women are more prone to this sort of thing, but the study apparently found the situation to be more complex than that. I think I've noticed a tendency for women philosophers to write more tentatively than men, though of course I've noticed exceptions (nothing tentative about Susan Haack's writing, for instance, while on the other hand this very sentence by a male philosopher is rather tentative). But, of course, one tends to pay more attention to confirming data for theories one had in advance. For all I know an objective study of academic writing in philosophy would reveal that it fits the pattern described in the Palomares study, of equal tentativeness when the subject isn't inherently gendered. I hope somebody eventually does such a study.
I've always been a little puzzled by transsexuals. I think of myself as male because of the obvious physical evidence; I don't have any internal feeling that it's somehow "right" for me to be male (or wrong, for that matter). It's not that I'm indifferent; I'm actually quite comfortable with a lot of aspects of being male, and happy playing a lot of male roles, and if it were easy to choose one's gender I would certainly not choose to change (though if it were very easy to switch back and forth I'm sure I'd try out being female for a short time). I can easily imagine someone having other preferences than mine, though, and wanting to be female. But transsexuals almost never describe things in terms of wanting to be the other gender, they claim to somehow know that they really are the other gender (interesting critical discussion here). Of course, this could be strategic (people are generally hostile to the idea of others doing non-conforming things involving sex and gender simply because they want to; think of how the anti-gay crowd pushes the line that homosexuality is a "choice," as if that would somehow make it wrong), but the impression that I get from what transsexuals say or write is that that wouldn't be the whole story.
There are surely a lot of things going on here. For one, being a cisgendered male is a position of some degree of privilege, and so the invisibility of privilege is operative; in many cases being a member of a privileged group is usually not conceived of as a special part of one's nature, but rather just as being normal and something one doesn't think about. I believe women are more likely than men to view sex as an essential property (in the philosophical sense), probably for this reason. I'm generally skeptical of essences on philosophical grounds, so to the extent that this is what's at work, I suppose I tend to think that this is one more tiny example of the numerous ways in which the privileged are advantaged; they are less tempted by faulty metaphysical views about themselves.
On the other hand, there's a reason so many philosophers for the past few centuries have set themselves the task of tearing down Cartesian dualism; it's incredibly seductive. Maybe despite my materialism, my tendency to view my sex as non-essential owes more than I would like to admit to some lingering tendency to think of my mind as the "real me", and my body, where my sex resides, as just something that happens to be attached to my mind.
So, which is it? Am I still a closet Cartesian, as Rorty thought all of us analytic philosophers still were, or am I just a good anti-essentialist? I'm really not sure.
A much discussed subject in the philosophy of science. I am curious as to whether medical researchers have a special meaning for it which is quite different from those employed in everyday life or philosophy, as otherwise this headline is highly misleading. The article mentions (several paragraphs in) that the correlation between IQ and mortality rates may be the result of a common cause of both low IQ and high mortality, and cites the original study as saying this theory has "much to recommend" it (and given my knowledge of the other correlations so far discovered between SES, various health factors, and IQ, it seems obvious that the authors of the study are right to take that possibility very seriously). But if that's the case, then it would have to be in some very special sense of "explain" that low IQ "explains" high mortality.
But this is the first link I encountered which prominently mentioned that Neda Soltani, recently murdered in Iran, was a philosophy student. I suppose it's shallow that this makes me so much more interested in the story, just as perhaps I tend to go for the Khmer Rouge as my favorite example of 20th century monstrosity because of their "kill anyone with glasses" policy. Anyway, here's hoping the situation improves in Iran, and that we don't get too many more stories like this.
Whenever it's relevant (when feminism comes up, or materialism) I talk to my students about the studies of sex differences in the brain. The press always reports any difference discovered by researchers as proof of innate differences in cognition. Of course, the biggest problem with that interpretation is that environmental factors affect the brain, so finding something in the brain is not useful for determining where it came from, but I also mention the small sample sizes the studies usually have (a couple of dozen participants at most).
A friend is getting his Ph.D. in neuroscience (incidentally, according to him MRI studies, which are the kind that usually get such press, are all crap) decided to practice his thesis defense presentation on his friends before doing the real thing, so I heard about his research. It had nothing to do with sex differences (it was about some details of how motor control works in the brain), but I learned something about sample sizes. I was somewhat shocked to discover that it involved two experiments with a grand total of three monkeys (two per experiment; one monkey was involved in both). I guess these were hideously expensive cyber-monkeys (they had electronic implants to measure brain activity very precisely during the experiments), so it wasn't practical to use more, but it seems like one could get very deceptive results this way if one were unlucky and got even one atypical monkey.
My skepticism of overly confident neuroscience claims has been further increased.
Hubert Schwyzer, who taught me a great deal about Kant, also occasionally talked about his days as a graduate student at Berkeley in the 60s. Among his other stories, he reported that a great change in fashion happened at that time. When he started, all the professors wore ties. By about halfway through his time there, he said you could tell a professor's political views by whether he wore a tie or not. By the time he left Berkeley, no professors were wearing ties.
Schwyzer is, sadly, no longer with us, and the story he told was of a time before I was born. I am thus rather mystified by this piece. Admittedly, it's about jeans rather than ties, but it's still the same fashion war that his side lost almost half a century ago. Isn't it time to concede defeat?
(I should perhaps add that I have no objection to people dressing up. I just object to it being mandatory, as well as its use to reinforce gender roles, which seems to be something Will considers a feature rather than a bug).
Leiter's been running a poll, and Brian Weatherson has some commentary. He voted for Lewis, and I voted for Carnap, but his post is about why Russell has been doing so well. I'm actually a little surprised that Lewis is doing so well, though I think he's a perfectly defensible choice.
It seems that part of the reason Weatherson is surprised at Russell's showing is that the project of Principia Mathematica ended in failure. I find that very difficult to evaluate. It made contributions to the state of modern logic, and I guess I tend to think that modern logic is a truly enormous philosophical achievement. However, it's difficult to know how to assign credit for it. It's amazing how much was already set out by Frege; most of what comes afterward could be seen as just clarifying and patching a few mistakes. But clarifying and patching mistakes is perhaps not trivial in this area. How much did Principia move beyond Frege? It did, I suppose, have some mistakes of its own. I'm not sure exactly how to evaluate it, but I am skeptical that the failure of its official stated project is a particularly important criterion.
I suppose there are similar issues with Carnap. I rank him highly both because of his contributions to the unfolding story of modern logic, and because I think his philosophical attitude toward logic was entirely correct. But how much did he really add, as opposed to clarifying? And how much did he clarify, if, as I tend to think, so many of his contemporaries and near successors misunderstood him?
Maybe that's an argument for Weatherson's choice. There is no question that Lewis clarified many things. But I guess I still think the same is true of Carnap, and of Russell, and that perhaps it is only less obvious for them because what they worked on was so unclear before they got to it that even quite substantial progress still left plenty of murk.
Jaegwon Kim once told me that he thought secondary qualities were intrinsic if anything is. Since that time, he seems to have shifted from being a reluctant defender of reductionist functionalism to a reluctant adherent of something like Chalmers' view (a relatively small shift, since in each case the reluctance consisted of his strong pull toward the other of the two options). As I've alluded to in the past here, and here, I think the view that qualia are intrinsic is important to the debate about qualia.
I shall approach this topic from a distance; at the most abstract level of fundamental metaphysics, it seems to me that staying away from intrinsicness has produced some spectacular results. Buddhism teaches that there is no self with any intrinsic nature; the self is just a placeholder in a network of relations. To put it somewhat tendentiously (as the Buddhists themselves sometimes did), the self is an illusion. This view did not, of course, maintain that the self was an illusion in the midst of a world of non-illusionary things; the world experienced by the self is also an illusion on this view. There's just a network of relations, with things being only placeholders for positions in the network.
I suspect that this is why it was Indian mathematicians who invented the concept of zero; to the ancient European mathematicians, numbers were things, and so an absence couldn't be a number. This is also why the Pythagoreans got so stressed out by irrational numbers; they could make sense of a ratio between countable collections of things, but how could something that wasn't either a count of things or even a ratio between such counts exist? To the Indians, on the other hand, numbers as placeholders in a network of relations no doubt seemed natural (since they were used to thinking in that way anyway), and it's obvious that idenfying the zero spot in the network of relations is useful. This view of mathematics as being about such relations is of course orthodoxy in modern times, and has been very good for mathematics.
I think it's not just good for mathematics. Intrinsic properties just cause trouble; structures and relations are where all of the answers are to be found. I think we shouldn't believe in intrinsic properties anywhere. This is somewhat of a paradoxical position, admittedly, and of course there are some, such as Rae Langton, and if her plausible account is right, Kant, who think that while we can't know anything intrinsic, there must nonetheless be intrinsic properties. I find such views even more puzzling than a complete rejection of intrinsic properties; we can know there are these specific things we can't know about? But Kant scholars have been debating that sort of thing endlessly since his own time. I shall leave it aside for now, as the topic I'm most interested in involves qualia, and qualia are not supposed to be uknowable. So take just the place where extremists like myself agree with Langton and Kant and other moderates; we can't know anything intrinsic.
This is enormously relevant to the issue of qualia. Phenomenal character appears to be an intrinsic property of experiences. This, it seems to me, is the main intuitive obstacle to a functionalist account of phenomenal qualities: functional properties are quite obviously non-intrinsic. But if the intrinsic can't be known, then apparent intrinsicality is always an illusion. And if such appearances are always misleading, then they're misleading in this case, so the intuitive obstacle can be swiftly dismissed.
This also strikes me as being the real heart of a lot of the arguments surrounding anti-materialist theories of qualia. Lewis, for example, in "What Experience Teaches," goes through a very lengthy discussion of what knowledge of phenomenal qualities can't be like. It seems to me that a good short summary of the argument is that if phenomenal qualities are to serve the role they are supposed to serve in Jackson's knowledge argument, they must be intrinsic, but looking at all of the things we know about our experience, it turns out that we can't find any role for anything intrinsic; looking for knowledge always turns up extrinsic things.
To take another example, it seems to me that Chalmers' zombie argument works by asking us to separate out the intrinsic properties of experience, and imagine that they're absent in the zombie world. Obviously, if experience has no intrinsic properties, this procedure is impossible; either all worlds are zombie worlds, or (more reasonably) there's some account of phenomenal experience in terms of relational properties, and any world with the right relational properties has phenomal experiences.
Given the continuing poor state of philosophy when it comes to feminist issues, it seems necessary to watch out for this sort of thing. I just picked up The Cambridge Companion to Carnap, and happened to glance through the bibliography. There turned out to be a surprising gap. By most accounts, Susan Haack's 1977 paper on Kantian elements in Carnap's Aufbau was one of the more important early studies contributing to the current Carnap revival, and the current Carnap revival is the topic of the book. But Haack is absent from the lengthy bibliography. It may be an innocent accident, it may mean nothing, but with philosophy's depressing history of ignoring the contributions of women, one can't help but worry when it seems like there might be yet another instance of the problem. Haack is even around, and I thought pretty well respected; usually the historical pattern has been that women in philosophy have sometimes been able to get recognition among their contemporaries but have almost always been been ignored by later generations.
One way of characterizing the difference between traditional empiricism and traditional rationalism is that traditional rationalists have been dazzled by the impressive certainty of our a priori knowledge. Logic and mathematics are so remarkable that many rationalists have literally accorded them the status of magic, attributing them to some mystical contact with the divine. It is likely not a mere rhetorical device when Parmenides presents his logical arguments as having been given to him by a goddess. Plato accords his forms a kind of divine status, and says we know them from previous exposure to them when our souls were in a higher realm of existence; Descartes says what may amount to the same thing, that mathematical knowledge and a few other items were implanted in our souls by God.
Those in the rationalist tradition have also almost always classified ethics as a priori. Of course, lots of specific reasons for that could be given, but there are also very general motivations from the rationalist tradition which push that way. First, of course, rationalists have generally been imperialists when it comes to the application of reason; since a priori knowledge is the really good knowledge, the rationalists have sought to reduce everything, or at least as much as possible, to the a priori, to have the best possible knowledge of everything. Further, ethics specifically is about what's valuable, important, and good, and when it comes to knowledge the a priori is, according to the rationalist, the most valuable, important, and good, so while this does not itself amount to a rational argument, there seems to be some affinity between ethics and the a priori. This further connection is no doubt enhanced by the tradition of connecting moral good to the divine; since the rationalists also connected the a priori to the divine, this would further encourage bundling the two together.
Of course, the mainstream of the empiricist tradition has long maintained that the reason logic and mathematics have their apparent infallibility is that they are not actually giving us information about the world; since they don't tell us how things stand with the world, the world cannot refute them. But the empiricists insist that real truth is about the world, so these a priori matters the rationalists regard with such enthusiasm are at best some kind of honorary truth. A priori claims embody useful tools, ways of thinking about the world, but don't report facts. The rationalist project of relying only on the a priori is, from the empiricist perspective, a project of ignoring the real world, of casting aside the only truth worth looking for.
Empiricists have thus traditionally sought to reduce the scope of the a priori, rejecting for example the a priori approaches to science championed by some of the rationalists. It is perhaps for this reason that some empiricists have tried to argue against a priori ethics as well, saying that we need to be more naturalistic in our approach to ethical matters.
However, there seems to be another possible reaction, which I'm surprised hasn't been more common. Many empiricists have also been meta-ethical subjectivists (Hume being probably the most famous example). Such empiricists should find it quite congenial to categorize ethical claims as honorary truths, useful tools which don't reports facts about the world. So why is it so rare for empiricists to treat ethics as a priori, just like logic and mathematics? A good reason does not occur to me. I can think of some bad reasons; perhaps even empiricists are partly under the spell of the apparent certainty of logic and mathematics. Thus, perhaps they ignore the historical controversies in logic and mathematics, and think that the controversies in ethics show that ethics must be something entirely different from our stable logic and mathematics.
Actually, on one interpretation Kant might be an example of the sort of philosophy I think should be more common. Of course, Kant claims to chart a third way, neither empiricist nor rationalist, but it has been very common to be skeptical of this. Many interpreters take him to have simply been either a sneaky rationalist or, less commonly, a sneaky empiricist. If he was a sneaky empiricist, he was an empiricist of the rare kind I've been puzzling about. I wonder if the fact that people generally don't connect a priori ethics to empiricism has contributed to the empiricist interpretation of Kant being the less common reading.
So, a large majority of my ethics students at Rhode Island College said they thought there was nothing wrong with prostitution if it's voluntary. Admittedly, I elicited this result in a potentially suspect way; when nobody said anything about why prostitution would be different from any other job, I told them to raise their hands if they thought it wasn't different, saying I'd call on someone who didn't have their hand raised. It is thus possible that some falsified their responses to avoid being called on (though I'd have thought some might also have lied to avoid admitting to endorsing prostitution).
I went to a friend's dissertation defense today. Jerry Steinhofer, the friend in question, seeks to account for the value of knowledge by proposing that the distinctive feature of knowledge is that it involves true belief which is deserved, and this fitness between the true belief being deserved and its being possessed is what distinguishes knowledge. This enables him to employ analogies with other forms of desert in filling in his details. There has, of course, recently been a great deal of interest in general in the analogies between epistemology and ethics, particularly with the popularity these days of virtue theories in both areas.
While listening to the defense, I thought about this analogy. Suppose one wished to construct a consequentialist epistemology, with true belief playing the role of pleasure in utilitarian ethical theories. Utilitarians do have things to say about desert, especially if they're rule utilitarians, so it's possible that such a theory could endorse Steinhofer's suggestion that desert is the criterion of knowledge. However, there doesn't seem to be an obvious candidate for an analog in ethics to the role that knowledge plays in epistemology. Various possibilities suggest themselves: 1) the absence of such an analog suggests a defect in the utilitarian picture of ethics, 2) knowledge is given too much special attention in epistemology, 3) there is some difference between ethics and epistemology which explains the lack of an ethics analog to knowledge, or 4) I'm not looking hard enough and there is some analog after all.
Plenty of philosophers would enthusiastically take option 1, and option 2 has had some advocates, but I want to look at 3. In the case of utilitarian ethics, it seems that there can be cases where someone deserves something bad (cases where punishment is appropriate). In such cases, if the person gets what they deserve, the fitting between what they deserve and what they get is still good, but what they get itself is bad. On the other hand, it seems that nobody ever deserves to have a false belief, or at least if they do it seems that the kind of desert involved can't be epistemic. In epistemology, it seems you can only deserve true belief or not deserve it, there's no further negative state of deserving something actively bad.
Thus, in epistemology, if someone gets what they deserve, that's always an unmixed good, while in ethics, if someone gets what they deserve, that can involve a component of badness, if what they deserve is something bad. This may explain why epistemology has a highly positive evaluative term for people getting what they deserve (knowledge), while there is no such highly positive evaluative term in ethics. Perhaps on this account the closest ethical analog to knowledge would be justice, an altogether more problematic notion.
I've decided to give this google docs thing a try, and so I put up one of my current works in progress, related to what I was posting about a few weeks ago. It can be found here, for anyone interested in reading a somewhat lengthier version of the argument I mentioned in this recent post.
Instead of getting much further work done on that paper, I've been reading other things. I re-read Carnap's The Logical Structure of the World, as well as his Meaning and Necessity, and also read van Fraassen's Laws and Symmetry. There seems to be a common viewpoint held by Carnap and van Fraassen, and also related to the views of Langton I mentioned earlier. All concerned seem to hold that if you know the structure of a situation, the various relationships between the parts involved, you know quite a lot. Further, they all maintain that it's fortunate that structure tells you so much, because it tells you everything you're ever going to get; there's nothing else that can be known.
This is, I think, actually relevant to the philosophy of mind topics I've been thinking about. Functionalist accounts are, of course, all about structure and relationships, and the argument that a functionalist cannot account for the phenomenal often seems to be based on a view of phenomenal properties on which they just aren't structural/relational. I also glanced at Chalmers recently, and was thus once again struck at how implausible his argument seemed to me. The claims he presents as obviously true which strike me as obviously false often involve the word "property;" I'm almost certain he doesn't use the word the way I do (as surely he'd recognize the obvious falsity of his claims if he did). I'm less sure what he does mean, but it seems likely that he intends the kind of metaphysical meaning Carnap and the rest say is incoherent. As usual, I'm with Carnap.
Most people don't know about the lab work we have to do in our profession. Fortunately, I've never been zapped by a malfunctioning enknowledgetron; sadly, despite what you read in the comics, in real life such a thing is usually lethal and never grants super-powers.
So Scribefire seems to be misbehaving; perhaps some incompatibility with Firefox 3 or something. As a result, this initially appeared as a blank post. Still, it was a short one; easy to reconstruct. I just linked to this post from cocktail party physics, and noted that reading things like that tended to make me think I'd learned a little bit more about what it is like to be a bat. Which, of course, also leads me to be ever more skeptical of those arguments that I can't know anything about that.