The Last Superstition: Aristotelianism Recap

Chapter 2: Aristotelianism recap

As you may have noticed by how long that last post was, I can’t seem to go more than a few pages without stumbling on something illogical, or nonsensical, or just plain wrong. It’s not because I’m trying to be picky or combative; it’s just that I keep trying to apply the ideas Feser presents to real life, and failing.

I asked earlier which Forms an iPhone 7 instantiates. One could also ask how to determine what a thing’s final cause is. Feser never tells us. At times, he talks about such things being obvious (e.g., that various organs have obvious purposes (p.70); but then, what is the purpose of the human appendix, or of male nipples?), but this doesn’t help with non-obvious cases.

So aristotelianism sounds appealing on the surface, but turns out not to be a useful way of thinking about reality.

Now, I’m sure someone can tell me why I’m wrong about every example I bring up, but in this respect, aristotelianism is no different from homeopathy or astrology: practitioners of those disciplines are quick to dismiss any objection or anomalous result by saying that you forgot to take into account Saturn’s rotation, or the precise minute of your birth, or suggest a better substance to use from the catalog, or whatever. After a while, it becomes apparent that the discipline has a large grab-bag of excuses for every occasion.

One problem with final causes specifically is that they seem to be a way to impose teleology on the universe. It’s very tempting to look at the world and say that hearts are for pumping blood, or that the sun is for light and warmth. It’s obvious. But, to quote Granny Weatherwax in Wyrd Sisters, “I’ll grant you it’s obvious. Trouble is, just because things are obvious doesn’t mean they’re true.”

Creationists, in my experience, are prone to this sort of teleological thinking. It takes effort to show them that it’s far better to ask “what can this organ do?” rather than “what is this organ for?” For instance, a butterfly’s wing helps it fly. It is supremely good at this task. But it also serves to advertise its colors to potential mates. In the case of monarch butterflies, the wings also advertise to predators that “this butterfly tastes awful.”

This will become significant later on. For now, suffice it to say that Feser seems to take it for granted that everything or nearly everything — at least, everything important under discussion — has a final cause, that is, that it’s for something, or that it’s oriented toward some goal or purpose.

Series: The Last Superstition

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