Now all in one file.
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.
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.
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.
And don't post about nearly enough of the things that I find. I follow slacktivist, and enjoy reading his discussion of the Left Behind books, which he's blogging so nobody else ever has to read them (a noble sacrifice on his part). This project has produced a lot of amusing material; here's a little comedy which he was apparently inspired to assemble based on the latest chunk of text:
PASSENGER 2: Say what's that you're reading? Is that the Bible?
PASSENGER 1: What? Oh. Oh, yes. It's the Bible. ... I'm sorry, I've got a lot of reading to finish here and I just wanted to ...
PASSENGER 2: Oh sure, sure. No problem. Sorry.
P2: Sorry, I know you're trying to read, but I couldn't help but notice your lapel pin. That little fish, that's like a Christian thing, right? Like a "born-again" thing?
P1: Yes. The fish is a Christian symbol. Yes. Now, I'm sorry, but do you mind? (gestures back at the book)
P2: Oh right, sure. Sorry.
P2: So how's that work, anyway? Getting "born again"?
P1: Look, really, I don't mean to be rude, but I'd really just like to sit here quietly and read until we get to ...
P2: Hey, that's cool! I didn't notice that before.
P1: Excuse me?
P2: Your T-shirt! It looks just like a Budweiser T-shirt, but I just realized it actually says, "Be Wiser" -- oh, and instead of "King of Beers" it says "King of Kings!" Cool. I guess that means Jesus, right? And that I'd be wiser if I ... Hey, wow! Are those gospel tracts in your bag? Can I have one of those?
P1: Oh for God's sake! Why do I always end up next to you people?
Brian Weatherson proposes a heterodox interpretation of the argument of the first meditation. At least, he thinks it is heterodox, and it sounds heterodox to me, but I can't claim to be familiar with the full range of Descartes scholarship. The interpretation also strikes me as having some merit; it does stand out, as Brian says, that Descartes never really solves the evil genius problem.
I've been teaching Descartes again, which has me pondering my own heterodoxies. Or at least, again, that's what I take them to be. In particular, I've been pondering the question of what this God that Descartes claims to be able to prove the existence of is. Some interpretive problems are solved (and others are generated) if for Descartes God just is the mathematical structure of the world, the union of all the logical and mathematical truths.
Of course, speaking of the union of logical and mathematical truths suggests a composite God, and the possibility of somebody being right about some parts and not about others. But all the parts are necessary, and anyway it's not clear that we should speak of parts in this case; all necessary truths are equivalent, after all, and necessarily so. On some ways of counting and individuating (perhaps the metaphysically appropriate ways), there is only the one necessary truth.
If that's God, then in attributing necessary existence to God Descartes is not saying much more than that the necessary truth is necessary, so it becomes less mysterious why he thinks this is something easily established by logic. Admittedly, there may be a tiny bit more; in talking about "existence," he may be implying a Platonism which would not necessarily be shared by everyone who thinks that there's a necessary truth which is genuinely necessary, but Descartes of course was a Platonist, and made a point of emphasizing that at the start of his 5th meditation proof for the existence of God.
Now, there are those who would deny this necessary truth; Mill, Nietzsche, and Quine would presumably all reject it, and many others would say that misleading things have already been said about necessary truth even in my highly abstract discussion. But while this wouldn't produce smooth sailing for Descartes, it would make his attempt at an ontological argument far less absurd.
The most glaring problem for this interpretation is that even if there is a necessary truth, it hardly seems that this would have the traditional attributes of God. In what sense is necessary truth loving or benevolent? In what sense is necessary truth a cause of the world? What sense does it make to worship or pray to necessary truth? What connection does it have to the Catholic tradition Descartes claimed not to be completely abandoning?
Perhaps most pointedly for Descartes specific project in the meditations, what sense does it make to say that necessary truth is not a deceiver, or if it can't deceive (perhaps because it's true, though it seems truth can mislead, or perhaps because it can't cause anything and so can't cause deception), how does the mere fact that there is necessary truth establish that clear and distinct perceptions must be infallible?
On the present picture, Descartes claim that God is not a deceiver is perhaps on a par with Einstein's claim that God does not play dice; an assertion that the ultimate principles of nature are not utterly cut off from us. This, of course, increases my suspicion that I'm being anachronistic in attributing this to Descartes, though perhaps it is not shocking that two great physicists might end up agreeing on some metaphysical points. But if that is what he means, I'm not sure what reason he can be seen as giving for thinking that it's true.
Maybe the unity is supposed to help here, though. If there's only the one necessary truth ultimately, then perhaps the notion is that if we can grasp it at all, and we seem to know a bit of mathematics, that means that the necessary truth is within reach (of course, if it's just one thing, it's puzzling how it seems we can know some necessary truths and not others, but everybody has that problem). Perhaps this is why Descartes makes so much of the fact that he claims to have an idea of God.
Of course, to be thoroughly anachronistic, most people these days think Einstein was wrong about the dice.
I finished the Strauss book I'd been reading. I'm still not sure what his deal is. Perhaps his esoteric doctrine is just too well hidden, but as I understand his esoteric/exoteric distinction, there's supposed to be an obvious exoteric doctrine; I didn't see one of those, either.
It is possible that I have difficulty understanding him because his Judaism was too important to him, and that's just something I don't get. He seems to have been an atheist, but atheists seem to differ depending on their backgrounds. Judaism, and to a slightly lesser extent Catholicism, are just deeper than Protestantism, so atheists from those backgrounds often still show strong connections to the traditions that they were raised in.
One thing I am sure of is that Strauss totally misunderstands Nietzsche on religion, and that's one of the reasons I wonder if this different kinds of atheists issue is at work. Nietzsche was a Protestant atheist (like me). He was interested in Christianity and Judaism since they were vastly important historical phenomena, but their personal significance for him was not actually all that great (he speaks of his atheism as an "instinct"; atheism is not instinctive for anyone who remains strongly connected to any religious tradition). Thus, I think Strauss is totally off-base when he attributes covert religious doctrines to Nietzsche; Nietzsche's philosophers of the future were certainly to do without worship of any gods (though perhaps not without ass festivals).
One of the blogs I read raised the topic of who one's earliest influences in philosophy were. Cohen's answer reminded me that I really didn't get started looking at philosophy until college. My intro to philosophy class looked at Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic, and I thought they were both brilliant. I still think that Hume was largely right, though I now find Ayer's version of positivism little more than a caricature of the real thing.
Hail Sol Invictus! In honor of the holiday, there is a big new carnival of the godless. I particularly like the PZ Myers post, though I am not sure that I consider the combination of methodological naturalism with a more ambitious metaphysical view to be particularly stable. Then again, neither does PZ Myers, I suspect. Certainly he is correct that they are logically compatible, low standard that that is.
In my humanities class today, I talked a bit about Roman architecture. One of the more famous buildings the Romans built is the Pantheon, the temple of all gods. In addition to containing statues of a whole bunch of gods, it apparently traditionally contained an altar dedicated to gods as yet unknown. It occurred to me that this is the result of taking the sort of reasoning involved in Pascal's wager seriously; if we don't know what gods there are, try to make sure none of those we've ever heard of are unhappy with us in case they exist, and to be super safe, try to be nice to gods we've never heard of too. Of course, it's not clear how to make an unknown god happy, which is the place where the whole program falls apart a bit, but it does perhaps make clear how odd it is that Pascal himself and so many of those who cite him think the way to take no chances is to be Catholic. Surely that's taking all sorts of chances; the odds have to be better with the earlier Roman way.
The latest carnival of the godless includes a post I made, and that seems to have gotten some responses. I continue to stand by my original position. In essence, of course, my argument was that evolution has served to undermine natural theology. Now, this might seem to be old news, since natural theology pretty much died out in the academic world in the 19th century, but surely the reasoning of the various creationism and intelligent design advocates is very similar to what natural theologians used to do; the only difference is that the modern descendants of the natural theologians have to work much harder at ignoring evidence in order to hold on to their theories.
It also continues to seem to me that the fact that God is no longer part of a scientific approach to understanding the world has consequences. When the evidence piled up that phlogiston chemistry failed to adequately account for the phenomena it was intended to address, and that alternative approaches worked better, people did not decide that phlogiston must instead have some special place outside science. Instead, of course, they simply concluded phlogiston did not exist. I continue to maintain that this is the appropriate way to treat the God hypothesis.
Of course, there are differences between God and phlogiston. For one thing, nobody ever tried to draw moral consequences from the existence of phlogiston. However, the theory that God is needed as a foundation for ethics is in much worse shape even than natural theology; it was decisively refuted by Plato, more than two millenia before natural theology really began to run into trouble.
So, if God is not a scientific hypothesis, and not an ethical hypothesis, what remaining standing is there for God theory? Well, as I alluded to in my previous post, people often try to invent a new realm for it, and say that there are matters of faith which are just special. One of my problems with this is that it is normally used as a fallback tactic; people who really think God explains something about the universe, or has something to do with morality, will nonetheless often retreat to the faith line when they run out of arguments. But that it is used in this sleazy way does not automatically entail that there's nothing to this faith line.
Thus, it is time to finally get to our main topic for today. One of the most eloquent critics of faith was William Kingdon Clifford, whose work The Ethics of Belief famously argued that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." Very often, beliefs which are not based upon evidence are dangerous, and if a particular case seems harmless, the status of your evidence of harmlessness surely is itself in need of questioning. Clifford has much that is of interest in his essay, and I highly recommend that anyone who hasn't read it should do so (and anyone who's read only the first part should read the other two; it seems to turn up in anthologies cut down to only the first part in many cases).
Now, there may be problems for Clifford's formulation. What counts as sufficiency in evidence? I do not know how seriously to take that question, as, first, Clifford does give us some help on that topic if we bother to read his full essay, and second, it seems we do make judgments about the sufficiency of evidence all the time, so it must be possible to do so. However, Clifford would likely be far less famous than he is had his essay not generated an incredibly influential reply, The Will to Believe, by William James. James obviously has some sympathy with Clifford's highly scientific worldview, but he thinks there is still room to carve out a little place for faith.
One of the virtues of also reading James on this topic is that the great psychologist and pragmatist is considerably more insightful than most on the topic of belief. It may seem to be a problem for Clifford's thesis that, contrary to what Descartes might have thought, many of our beliefs do not appear to be chosen. I cannot choose to believe that 2+2=5; I cannot choose to believe that there is no monitor in front of me as I'm typing. These beliefs seem to be forced upon me, and while an enterprising skeptic can lead me to be puzzled as to why I'm so confident in them, it is beyond the power of skeptical arguments to make me really doubt such things.
However, while many beliefs are, in this way, forced upon us, James noted that this is not true for all of our beliefs. There is some sense in which some actions can count as voluntary; sometimes people choose to do things. Whether libertarian theories of freedom are true or not (I, of course, think not), there is some kind of phenomenon of choice. It also seems clear that some cases of belief fall into the realm of choice. We can deliberately seek out confirming evidence, avoid possible sources of doubt, be selective in our company so that our beliefs are reinforced, and so forth. The exact psychology is unimportant; it is clear that such things can often produce genuine belief in the long run.
This leads to what I consider to be a very elegant interpretation of Clifford's thesis, one which perhaps avoids the problems of detail of his original thesis. As interpreted by James, the Clifford thesis amounts to saying that we should never choose what to believe. Whenever it ends up being up to us to decide what to believe, we shouldn't do it. Only beliefs forced upon us by the evidence are to be tolerated.
Again, James had an ambivalent attitude toward this thesis, in either its original form or his reformulation. He thought it quite useful in some circumstances, but he thought that religious faith was a special case; that it was all right to make decisions about what religion to follow.
I cannot see any reason for making such an exception for religion. Indeed, given all of the harm that has been done over the centuries in the name of religion, I would have to come down strongly on the side of Mill, who suggested in the second chapter of On Liberty that history should have taught us religious claims need more scrutiny than most others. His examples were the execution of Socrates by an Athenian court confident they were doing the will of the gods, the execution of Jesus with the complicity of factors no doubt equally confident they knew what the divine wanted of them, and finally the persecution of Christians by Marcus Aurelius, again based on confidently held religious beliefs. One could quibble with Mill's cases, but of course it is not difficult to extend the list; I for one will go out on a limb and say that people who think God wants them to fly airliners into office buildings could really stand to have their beliefs come under more, rather than less, examination.
There are also far less extreme cases. It seems to me that theism of the currently prevalent varieties has got to have a distorting effect on moral thinking. The dominant varieties of theism all maintain that there is an omnipotent, all good being. The ways in which such a being could reduce suffering in the world are virtually limitless, and so anyone who would maintain that there's an all-powerful, all-good being must insist that all that suffering is necessary for some reason. I cannot see how making excuses for such large scale evil could fail, in most people, to trickle down to making excuses for smaller scale evil, and so give people less inclination to fight evil in cases where they clearly should be doing so.
Thus, I cannot agree with James that religious faith is a harmless affectation. Indeed, I can find no particular cause to dissent from Clifford's position at all. Faith is, quite simply, immoral.