The Last Superstition: Hedonism Killed Aquinas

Chapter 5: Descent of the Modernists

This chapter deals with modern philosophers, i.e., René Descartes and later. The first part of it is pretty much philosophical inside baseball, of little interest to those who care less about how ideas have been developed than about which conclusions were eventually reached. I’ll only point out one passage that jumped out at me. In criticizing William of Ockham and his idea that given God’s power, we can never prove the causal connection between two events (allegedly; I have to rely on Feser’s portrayal of Ockham’s ideas, and he has amply demonstrated that he’s not above erecting strawmen), Feser writes:

For if things have no shared essences, and God could have made anything follow upon anything else, then we simply cannot know with certainty that causes of type A will always be followed by effects of type B.

But Feser told us in the previous chapter that God can cause miracles, i.e. disruptions or suspensions of the normal order of things. That is, we can never be certain whether the event we observed was part of the normal order, or a miracle. That seems to me indistinguishable from what Feser is accusing Ockham of.

Feser nearly-apologizes for the fact that Aristotlianism involves such complex ideas and fine distinctions, but

This is unfortunate for the student of philosophy, but unavoidable given that the real world just is, Aristotelians would say, as complex as the vocabulary needed to describe it.

While I sympathize with this, I can’t help feeling that Aristotelianism as Feser has presented it has more in common with epicycles or homeopathy than with, say, epidemiology or library science.

Epicycles, you may recall, related to the idea that the sun and planets orbited around the earth, in circles. Except that to explain various wobbles and reversals in planetary motion, astronomers postulated an ever more complex edifice of circles upon circles upon circles. In a sense, the system was as complex as it needed to be, to explain the data. But a shift in perspective allowed astronomers to adopt the heliocentric model, which explained the data with far fewer arbitrary constants.

Homeopathy has an impressively-long list of “remedies” and a long history that practitioners will be happy to tell you about. But it also comes up with some caveats (pulled from some random homeopathy site, under “Difficulties with RCTs [Randomized Control Trials]”):

In homeopathy, treatment is usually tailored to the individual. A homeopathic prescription is based not only on the symptoms of disease in the patient but also on a host of other factors that are particular to that patient, including lifestyle, emotional health, personality, eating habits and medical history. The “efficacy” of an individualised homeopathic intervention is thus a complex blend of the prescribed medicine together with the other facets of the in-depth consultation and integrated health advice provided by the practitioner

While a homeopath might argue that homeopathy is complex because it needs to be, a skeptic might think that it needs to be complex to take credit for every success and provide an excuse for any failure.

And thus, when Feser moves on to the relationship between modern philosophy (which, you may recall, arose around the time of the Renaissance, though I don’t know whether one caused the other or not), he tells us that just because some of Aristotle’s ideas about physics were disproved, doesn’t mean that his metaphysics was wrong.

[I]t is a description of reality that is more general and basic than any scientific theory, resting as it does on facts (about change) that science itself takes for granted. Hence it is valid whatever the empirical scientific facts turn out to be; and (to repeat what was said earlier) while that doesn’t mean that it cannot be subjected to rational evaluation or criticism, such criticism can only come from some alternative metaphysical theory, not from empirical science.

This is no desperate ex post facto attempt to salvage an otherwise indefensible worldview. [p. 172]

If aristotelian metaphysics is true no matter what the empirical facts, doesn’t that make it undisprovable? And even if someone offers a competing metaphysical theory, how can we figure out which one is correct, without empirical facts? In short, where’s the reality check?

Wishing to defend Aristotelians and the Catholic church from charges of closed-mindedness, Feser writes that (emphasis added):

Galileo’s difficulty arose, not because he advocated Copernican views – he had done so for years with the knowledge and approval of the Church, and even the warm encouragement of Pope Urban VIII and several other churchmen – but rather because he rashly insisted on treating them as more than hypothetical, as having been proved when they had not, at the time, been proved at all. [p. 173]

As I recall, Galileo’s “difficulty” involved being put on trial for heresy and threatened with torture. Allow me to suggest that this seems excessive for what amounts to sloppy thinking. (At least he wasn’t set on fire like Giordano Bruno.)

Eventually, Feser tells us why, in his opinion, the world abandoned Aristotelian-Thomistic ideas:

if the general Aristotelian-Thomistic-Scholastic picture of the world is correct, then reason itself tells us that the highest kind of life is one devoted to the contemplation and service of God, that the goal of our lives here and now ought to be to prepare for the next life, and that to the extent God wants us to concern ourselves with earthly affairs, it is largely to build families (preferably with lots of children) and to find our fulfillment in sacrificing our petty desires and selfish interests for the sake of their well being. […] Needless to say, all of this rather takes the fun out of things for people who think a really grand society is one that extends the franchise to anyone with a pulse, celebrates quirky new ideas, makes it easy for you to divorce your wife if you get bored with her, and provides lots of cheap consumer goods. [p. 173]

While during my lifetime divorce has lost most of its stigma, and I’ve met many divorcés, I have never met anyone whose situation could fairly be described as “he divorced his wife because he got bored with her”, nor have I met anyone who would think this a good thing.

As for the rest of it, what’s wrong with extending the right to vote or full citizenship to other people (I assume that’s what Feser means by “the franchise”)? Or quirky new ideas? Or cheap consumer goods? (Yes, I see the problems with producing goods cheaply by paying workers slave wages, but it sounds as though Feser objects to people valuing creature comforts more highly than he does.)

And while we’re at it, why should two people who don’t want to be married to each other have to remain married?

On Bacon’s advocacy of technology to give humans control of nature:

Usefulness would replace wisdom, and pampering the body in this life would push aside preparing the soul for the next. […] And in the Baconian view, they [Scholastic categories] distract us from the one thing needful. (In other words, if Aristotle is right, then we’ll end up spending more time contemplating first principles and the state of our souls and less time thinking up new gadgets.) [pp. 175–176]

This seems very similar to the argument that “You only reject God because you want to sin!” which is about as convincing as “The only reason you reject the word of Allah is that you love bacon too much!”

Feser goes on in this vein for quite some time, assuring us that Aristotelianism was abandoned not because it doesn’t provide a useful framework for understanding the world, but because the Bad People, the selfish and hedonistic people, don’t want it to be true.

It’s too bad Feser is so opposed to modern conveniences and gadgets: you can buy tin foil hats online, these days, instead of having to make your own.

Series: The Last Superstition

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4 Responses to The Last Superstition: Hedonism Killed Aquinas

  1. Steve Watson says:

    That is, we can never be certain whether the event we observed was part of the normal order, or a miracle. That seems to me indistinguishable from what Feser is accusing Ockham of.

    Malebranche (late 1600s) took this to its logical conclusion: God recreates the whole universe at every instant of time (known as Occasionalism). Usually he does so in accord with determinate laws, thus everything looks like it’s unfolding in an orderly manner. but every so often he does something different and we get what looks to us like a miracle. As part of the argument for his position, he criticizes the idea that finite substances and essences are causal as “pagan”, and assigns too much creative power to the physical world rather than to God. Take that, Mr. Feser, you crypto-pagan.

    Seems to me it’s a bit difficult to argue that Malebranche’s position is motivated by a desire to indulge one’s sensual appetites. (I mean, he was a priest, not that that’s a guarantee of anything, but still).

    (Don’t mind me — I’ve got a test mostly on Malebranche and Spinoza on Tuesday, so the material is sort of overflowing out my ears at the moment).

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    • arensb says:

      Somewhere, Feser brings up the term “grue”, which means green before some arbitrary date (say, Jan. 1, 2017), and then switches to mean blue after that. The idea, AIUI, is that before that date, you can’t tell whether an object is grue or simply green. Or, more generally, that we can define rules with discontinuities (not unlike the way that we define absolute value of x as “x if x is positive, or -x if x is negative.”)
      More generally, as I think I noted elsewhere, this means that when you have what looks like a miracle, like the parting of the Red Sea, you can say that the law of gravity is discontinuous: most of the time it says that water falls toward the center of the earth, but sometimes it’ll pull away and make a passage through a sea. And this allows someone like Feser to say that God is constant, and enforces the same law throughout all space and time; it’s just that the discontinuities are part of the law.
      Like grue, it’s impossible to tell whether the laws we think the universe obeys will change tomorrow. On this, I think Malebranche and Feser agree.
      But this all illustrates that there’s potentially a big difference between “what are the rules by which the Universe runs” and “will tomorrow be like yesterday?”

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  2. Steve Watson says:

    Further ramblings: It is highly doubtful that Aristotelianism could have provided the conceptual underpinning for a truly systematic modern science. Fine, so we wouldn’t have some fun toys, and maybe we don’t need them nearly as much as we think we do. But we also wouldn’t have modern medicine and public health, or modern agriculture. Feser wants to return us not just to 13th century thinking, but to the joys of bubonic plague, cholera, high maternal mortality, and poor nutrition. But hey, being healthy and well fed are probably just more distractions from contemplating first principles and the state of one’s soul…..

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