The Last Superstition: The Final Insult

Chapter 6: Irreducible teleology, cont.

Having exoriated biologists over the fact that popular science writers use terms like “purpose” and “blueprint”, Feser moves on to nonliving systems, in which he also sees purpose and intentionality. For instance, the water and rock cycles (I’d never heard of a “rock cycle” before, but okay):

The role of condensation in the water cycle, for example, is to bring about precipitation; the role of pressure in the rock cycle is, in conjunction with heat, to contribute to generating magma, and in the absence of heat to contribute to generating sedimentary rock; and so forth. Each stage has the production of some particular outcome or range of outcomes as an “end” or “goal” toward which it points. [p. 258]

Here, Feser implies that the water cycle is supposed to exist, and condensation exists to further that goal. Likewise, of course you have to have pressure, otherwise how can you have magma? It seems as though he is projecting his opinions onto the world so hard that he can’t imagine that maybe water does what water does, and it’s only because the temperature on the surface of this planet oscillates in a certain range that allows water to behave in such an interesting fashion.

Basic laws of nature

Moving on to fundamental science, Feser graces us with a rather interesting idea of how minds work:

Mental images are vague and indistinct when their objects are complex or detailed, but the related concepts or ideas are clear and distinct regardless of their complexity; for example, the concept of a chiliagon, or 1000-sided figure, is clearly different from the concept of a 999-sided figure, even though a mental image of a chiliagon is no different from a mental image of a 999-sided figure. [p. 260]

I’m not quite sure what he’s trying to say, though the best spin I can put on it is that we have trouble imagining complex things clearly. I agree, and this means that we need to be careful when thinking about complex things, because we’re likely to overlook something.

But since Feser brings this up in the context of thinking about abstract things, I have to wonder. When he talks about the possibility of purely material minds, he sounds like someone who thinks that a DVD has to have little pictures on it; that if you put a CD close enough to your ear, you’ll hear the music on it. Maybe I’m wrong; but that’s the impression I get, especially after the bit in Chapter 4 where he seemed to think that thinking about triangles would have to involve part of your brain becoming triangular.

He goes on for a bit against David Hume and complaining about the “anti-Aristotelian ideological program” (p. 261) of modern science. Basically, he tells us, science cannot proceed without Aristotle, but scientists are fiercely opposed to him on ideological grounds. Probably because they just want to sin, or something. In fact,

Despite the undeniable advances in empirical knowledge made during the last 300 plus years, then, the work of the scientists who made those advances simply does not support the philosophical interpretation of those advances put forward by the proponents of the “Mechanical Philosophy” and the contemporary materialists or naturalists who are their intellectual heirs [p. 264]

See, scientists are smart people who have been very successful at figuring out how the universe operates, so successful that we now take things like nuclear weapons and GPS receivers for granted. But they’re not smart enough to figure out the implications of their work.

If you look around the Internet, you can find any number of religious figures or just plain cranks who are convinced that their holy book, prophet, or whoever predicted various facts long before scientists did. They usually do this by taking some vague or poetic passage in scripture, combining it with some scientific discovery, and interpreting the former to describe the latter. For example, this page on Islam and embryology explains that

“The three veils of darkness” [in the Quran] may refer to: (l) the anterior abdominal wall; (2) the uterine wall; and (3) the amniochorionic membrane

And this page explains that “[he that] stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain” in the Bible refers to cosmic expansion.

Likewise, in this chapter, Feser talks about scientists rediscovering the genius of Aristotle. But it’s also painfully obvious that the scientific revolution did not begin in earnest with Aquinas, but rather several centuries later. That, combined with the fact that science has been so wonderfully successful despite the fact that the average scientist probably couldn’t give a summary of Aristotle’s or Aquinas’s ideas strongly suggests that they’re simply irrelevant to science.

It’s the moon, stupid

By this point, Feser thinks that he’s established that the millennia-old ideas of Aristotle, refined by Aquinas’s medieval insights, are correct. He bemoans the fact that they’ve fallen into obscurity:

But if Aristotle has, by virtue of developments in modern philosophy and science, had his revenge on those who sought to overthrow him at the dawn of the modern period, why is this fact not more widely recognized? One reason is the prevailing general ignorance about what the Aristotelian and Scholastic traditions really believed, what the actual intellectual and historical circumstances were that led to their replacement by modern philosophy in its various guises, and what the true relationship is between the latter and modern science. [p. 266]

The blame for the “general ignorance” part seems to land squarely on Feser’s shoulders. It’s up to him and his colleagues to educate the rest of us. But honestly, maybe ignorance is his ally: Feser’s exposition of Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s ideas makes it clear that they’re largely based on ignorance and superstition, and can be safely relegated to History of Ideas class, and ignored in everyday life.

He closes by quoting the proverb, “When the finger points at the moon, the idiot looks at the finger” (p. 267) as an analogy to the way objects “point to” things beyond themselves, but “the secularist” doesn’t realize this. Fittingly, he closes on an insult: “It’s the moon, stupid.” (p. 267)

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Ubiquitous Teleology

Chapter 6: Irreducible teleology

We’re in the home stretch. In this penultimate section, Feser tries to make the case that teleology, or goal-directedness, permeates the world.

To start with, he tells us that human minds deal with final causes all the time: we conceive plans and execute them, and we build things for specific purposes. So yes, final causes in this sense do exist. But Feser has something much more extensive in mind; not just the existence of final causes, but their ubiquity.

Biological phenomena

[Biologists] speak, for example, of the function of the heart, of what kidneys are for, of how gazelles jump up and down in order to signal predators, and in general of the purpose, goal, or end of such-and-such an organ or piece of behavior. […] Darwin himself once said that it is “difficult for any one who tries to make out the use of a structure to avoid the word purpose.” [pp. 248–249]

Yes, the appearance of design in biology is compelling, so much so that Richard Dawkins wrote in The Blind Watchmaker that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose”. But of course that was Darwin’s great insight, that while we normally think of minds selecting one option or another, with living things, nature itself can, without thought, “choose” which beings reproduce and which ones don’t. That “natural selection” is not an oxymoron.

And yes, it’s difficult to look at nature without seeing design. It’s also difficult to look at clouds without seeing the shapes of people and animals.

Feser gives us a capsule version of evolution:

To say that the kidneys existing in such-and-such an organism have the “function” of purifying its blood amounts to something like this: Those ancestors of this organism who first developed kidneys (as a result of a random genetic mutation) tended to survive in greater numbers than those without kidneys, because their blood got purified; and this caused the gene for kidneys to get passed on to the organism in question and others like it. [p. 250]

But:

One rather absurd implication of this theory is that you can’t really know what the function of an organ is until you know something about its evolutionary history. [p. 251]

Well, no. We can talk of the function of an organ without knowing anything about its evolutionary history, by seeing what the organ does, and what it seems to be good at. For instance, before we start investigating how it is that such-and-such lizard came to be so good at digesting mulberries, it’s important to make sure that it is good at digesting mulberries. Fortunately, we can test this without knowing anything about its evolutionary history.

This is perhaps more obvious in genetics, where we can ask what a gene does, rather than what an organ does. To find out, geneticists typically try to knock the gene out, that is, to raise a generation of fruit flies or mice or zebrafish or what have you that don’t have the gene in question, then see what goes wrong. For instance, when the eyeless gene in fruit flies is damaged or missing, the resulting flies develop without eyes (hence the name).

It gets more complicated than this, of course. Scientists can try to activate the gene in different parts of the body or at different times, and see what happens. Or they can compare different alleles of the gene, or artificially-mutated versions, to see what happens (perhaps it doesn’t control eyes specifically, but all round body parts? Or perhaps it directs each segment to become whatever it’s “supposed” to become?), but this sort of experimentation and observation allow scientists to figure out what a gene (or an organ) does.

Now, this is a bit different from asking what a gene or organ is for. The latter phrasing implies that the gene or organ only does one thing, or has one primary function, and perhaps one or two secondary ones. And while this works in a lot of cases, there are a lot of cases where it doesn’t. For instance, I think it works to say that “the heart is for pumping blood”, because that’s something it does; it also does a good job of pumping blood; it’s the only organ I have to pump my blood, so I rely on my heart to do this; and I can’t do anything else with it. (One might, however, look at it from the point of view of a man-eating tiger, who doesn’t care what I plan to do with my heart. From its point of view, the purpose of my heart is to provide it with nourishment, same as my liver and lungs.)

But what about a bird’s wing? Is it for flight? (Not in ostriches, it isn’t.) Or perhaps it’s for displaying colorful plumage, the better to attract a mate. Or is it for protecting its eggs? Birds do all of these things with wings. And so, I suggest that it’s better to ask “what can you do with it?” rather than “what is it for?” (Besides, think how boring movies like Cast Away or The Martian would be if their protagonists only used things for their intended purpose.)

Now, it may be that when Feser says that a thing is “directed toward” something, he means much the same thing as I do when I ask what that thing is good for. If so, then I think the difference is that I try to allow for the possibility of a thing having multiple uses, while Feser prefers that things have one and only one use. For instance, we saw that he considers sex to have one main purpose — reproduction — and every other use (fun, bonding) is secondary to that.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Great Gobs of Uncertainty

Chapter 6: The lump under the rug

In this section, Feser argues that the existence of the mind is incompatible with materialism. Not only that, but materialist explanations of mind often refer, if only implicitly or subconsciously, to aristotelian concepts.

But first, he has to dispel a misconception:

to say that something has a final cause or is directed toward a certain end or goal is not necessarily to say that it consciously seeks to realize that goal. […] Thus it is no good to object that mountains or asteroids seem to serve no natural function or purpose, because Aristotelians do not claim that every object in the natural world necessarily serves some function. [pp. 237–238]

As I understand it, this is like saying that a pair of glasses is for improving sight, but of course the glasses themselves can’t possibly be conscious of this.

This is indeed an important point to keep in mind, and it’s a pity that the next sentence is

What they do claim is that everything in the world that serves as an efficient cause also exhibits final causality insofar as it is “directed toward” the production of some determinate range of effects.

Yes, but pretty much everything is the efficient (or proximate) cause of something. The mountains and asteroids that Feser just mentioned are the efficient cause of certain photons being reflected from the sun into my eye. Their gravity also attracts me, though only in hard-to-measure ways. A mountain can affect the weather and climate around it, and depending on its orbit, the asteroid might be on its way to kill all life on Earth. Does this “production of some determinate range of effects” automatically mean that they have final causes? Are these final causes related to what they do as efficient causes? That is, if a star looks beautiful in a telescope, does that mean that it’s for looking beautiful? Or, to come back to an earlier example, would an aristotelian say that the moon orbits, therefore it’s for orbiting?

If so, then this reflects a childish understanding of the world, one where bees are there to pollinate plants, rain is there to water them, and antelopes are there to feed lions. If not, and if a thing’s final cause can be very different from its efficient cause (e.g., the moon orbits the Earth, and reflects light, but maybe its final cause is something else, like eclipses), then why bring it up?

The Mind as Software

Next, Feser considers the currently-fashionable metaphor of seeing the brain as a computer that processes symbols. Since I criticized him earlier for not understanding software, or even of considering “Form” as a type of software, I was interested to see what he had to say.

First of all, nothing counts as a “symbol” apart from some mind or group of minds which interprets and uses it as a symbol. […] By themselves they cannot fail to be nothing more than meaningless neural firing patterns (or whatever) until some mind interprets them as symbols standing for such-and-such objects or events. But obviously, until very recently it never so much as occurred to anyone to interpret brain events as symbols, even though (of course) we have been able to think for as long as human beings have existed. [p. 239]

Here, Feser confuses the map with the territory: we can explain the brain at a high level by comparing it to a computer processing symbols. But symbols are only symbols if they’re interpreted as such by a mind. So neural firing patterns aren’t true according-to-Hoyle symbols, therefore checkmate, atheists!

This is like saying that the circadian rhythm is not a clock, because clocks have hands and gears.

Likewise, a little later, he writes:

No physical system can possibly count as running an “algorithm” or “program” apart from some user who assigns a certain meaning to the inputs, outputs, and other states of the system. [p. 240]

Again, Feser is paying too much attention to the niceties and details at the expense of the gist.

Imagine a hypothetical anthill. In the morning, the ants head out from the anthill, roughly at random, dropping pheromones on the ground as they do so. If one of the ants stumbles upon a piece of food, it picks it up and follows its trail back to the anthill. If its left antenna senses pheromone but the right one doesn’t, it turns a bit to the left; if its right antenna senses pheromone but its left one doesn’t, it turns a bit to the right. If both sense pheromone, it continues in a straight line. If we trace the biochemical pathways involved, we might find that the pheromone binds to a receptor protein that then changes shape and affects the strength with which legs on one or the other side of the body push against the ground, which makes the ant turn left or right.

We can imagine similar mechanisms by which other ants, sensing that one trail smells twice as strongly of pheromone (because the first ant traversed it twice) and will prefer to follow that trail rather than wander at random.

These ants, of course, have no real brain to speak of. There’s no question of an ant being able to understand what a symbol is, let alone interpret it, let alone consciously follow an algorithm. All of the above is just fancy chemistry. And so Feser would, no doubt, say that the first ant is not following a “retrace my tracks” algorithm. Nor are the other ants following an algorithm to look for food where some food has already been discovered. Whatever it is that these ants are doing, it’s not an algorithm, because no one is assigning meaning to any part of the system.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the ants are finding food and bringing it back to the anthill. In which case, who cares if it’s a proper algorithm, or just something that looks like one to us humans?

Only what can be at least in principle conscious of following such rules can be said literally to follow an algorithm; everything else can behave only as if it were following one. [p. 241]

Feser then imagines a person who assigns arbitrary meanings to the buttons and display on a calculator (I like to think of a calculator whose buttons have been scrambled, or are labeled in an alien alphabet):

For example, if we took “2” to mean the number three, “+” to mean minus, and “4” to mean twenty-three, we would still get “4” on the screen after punching in “2,” “+,” “2,” and “=,” even though what the symbols “2 + 2 = 4” now mean is that three minus three equals twenty-three. [p. 242]

And likewise, if the pattern of pixels “All men are mortal” were interpreted to mean that it is raining in Cleveland, that would lead to absurd results.

What Feser ignores is that no one would use that calculator, because it doesn’t work. Or, at least, anyone who put three apples in a basket, then ate three of them, and expected to be able to sell 23 apples at market would soon realize that Mother Nature doesn’t care for sophistry.

If we had a calculators where the keycaps had all been switched around, or were labeled in alienese, we could eventually work out which button did what, by using the fact that any number divided by itself is 1, that any number multiplied by zero is zero, and so on. The specific symbols used for these operations, the numerical base the calculator uses, and other details don’t matter so long as the calculator can be used to do arithmetic, any more than a car’s speed changes depending on whether you refer to it in miles per hour, kilometers per hour, knots, or furlongs per fortnight.

Feser also applies his reasoning to Dawkins’s theory of memes:

If the competition between memes for survival is what, unbeknown to us, “really” determines all our thoughts, then we can have no confidence whatsoever that anything we believe, or any argument we ever give in defense of some claim we believe, is true or rationally compelling. For if the meme theory is correct, then our beliefs seem true to us, and our favored arguments seem correct, simply because they were the ones that happened for whatever reason to prevail in the struggle for “memetic” survival, not because they reflect objective reality. [p. 245]

This is reminiscent of Alvin Plantinga’s idea that since natural selection selected our senses for survival rather than for accuracy, then they can’t be trusted. That is, if I see a river in front of me, it’s merely because perceiving the current situation (whatever it might be) as a river helped my ancestors survive, and not necessarily because the current situation includes a river. Feser’s argument is similar, but applied to thoughts instead of senses.

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/hou0lU8WMgo?rel=0

This argument is technically correct, but less interesting than one might think: for one thing, we don’t need to speculate about whether our senses or thought processes are fallible: we know that they are. Every optical illusion tricks us into seeing things that aren’t there, and the psychological literature amply catalogs the ways in which our thoughts fail us (for instance, humans are notoriously bad at estimating probabilities). And for another, the best way to respond correctly to objects in the environment is, to a first approximation, to perceive them accurately.

If I may reuse my earlier illustration, imagine a person who thinks that the word “chair” refers to a yellow tropical fruit, the one that you and I call “banana”, and vice-versa. How long would it take this person to realize that they have a problem? If I invited them into my office and said, “take a chair”, they might look around for a bowl of fruit, but after two or three such instances, they’d probably realize that “chair” doesn’t mean what they think it does. On the other hand, it took me years before I realized that “gregarious” means “friendly” rather than “talkative”.

A clever writer can probably devise a dialog where “chair” can mean either “chair” or “banana”, but it would be difficult to do so, and would probably sound stilted. By comparison, it would be much easier to write a piece that makes sense whether you think that “gregarious” means “friendly” or “talkative”. And likewise, we can imagine an animal whose senses are mis-wired in such a way that it perceives a dangerous predator as a river, and has muscles and nerves mis-wired such that when it thinks it’s walking toward the river, it’s actually running away from the predator. But this is a contrived example, and unlikely in the extreme to be useful in the long run. A far more effective strategy (and one far more likely to evolve) is having some simple rules give the right answer 80% or 90% of the time. That is, to perceive the world accurately enough to survive in most plausible situations.

Feser and Plantinga are committing what’s been called the “any uncertainty implies great gobs of uncertainty” fallacy.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: A Slippery Slope to Sounding Weird

Chapter 6: How to lose your mind

Feser opens the last chapter of his Refutation of the New Atheism by quoting a New Yorker article in which neurologist Patricia Churchland describes her mood to her husband and colleague Paul in neurochemical terms:

Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting. “She said ‘Paul, don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren’t for my endogenous opiates I’d have driven the car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I’ll be down in a minute.’” [The New Yorker, quoted on p. 229 of Feser]

If you’re wondering who Patricia and Paul Churchland are, you’re not alone. I didn’t know, either. Nor is it obvious what they have to do with New Atheism. The God Delusion doesn’t cite them. Neither do The End of Faith, god is not Great, or even Breaking the Spell, which you’d think might mention prominent neurologists.

From the Wikipedia article on Paul Churchland, I gather that they believe that a lot of our feelings are illusions, and that the way that we talk about them will change as we gain new insights into how the mind works. This strikes me as a fairly radical but defensible position. But yes, some of their ideas sound pretty wild, as does the passage Feser quoted above.

After lambasting the Churchlands for a bit, Feser tells us why he brought them up:

eliminative materialism is simply the last stop on the train leading away from Aristotelian final causes, the inevitable consequence of following out consistently a mechanistic-cum-materialistic picture of the world. [p. 231]

Basically, he’s making a slippery slope argument: abandon Aristotle, and pretty soon, you’ll sound weird when you talk about feelings!

There’s a common argument made against atheists that goes something like, “If there’s no God, then life has no purpose, and all there is to do is to while away the hours in empty hedonistic pursuits while waiting for the inevitable embrace of death. Camus had the good sense to realize this; you should be more like him.” My usual response is, “please, Mr. Concern Troll, stop telling me how I’m supposed to feel. I can figure it out on my own”, and I feel the same thing applies here.

As much as Feser tries to portray the Churchlands’ ideas as normal and mainstream, or at least the logical end-result of rejecting aristotelianism, he doesn’t actually quote anyone who agrees with them. So either his premise is incorrect, which is unpossible, or else perhaps he thinks that we all know so many Churchlandites that to mention them would be redundant. Yeah, that must be it.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Back to the Cave

Chapter 5: Back to Plato’s cave

This last section of Chapter 5 is basically a long jeremiad against everything and everyone Feser doesn’t like, with paranoid rants about the motivations of those who prefer post-Thomistic philosophies:

More precisely, their desire to re-orient human life toward this world and reduce the influence of religion led the early modern thinkers to abandon traditional philosophical categories and to redefine scientific method so that reason could no longer provide religion with the support it had always been understood to give it, at least not in any robust way. [p. 221]

The sexual revolution:

Traditionally, sodomy has been classified together with murder, oppression of the poor, and defrauding a laborer of his wages as one of the four sins that “cry out to heaven for vengeance.” [p. 223]

I can’t help wondering why sodomy — an ill-defined category that traditionally includes at a minimum anal sex, but also often includes oral sex — “cr[ies] out to heaven for vengeance”. Who, exactly, is being wronged? Who needs to be avenged? (Obviously I’m not talking about anal rape, where the operative word is “rape”.)

The word “traditionally” is an appeal to antiquity, the idea that an idea is good because it it old. In 1860 in the US, one could have defended slavery on the grounds that it has always been practiced.

Feser ends the chapter with an appeal to common sense (boldface added):

When we get clear on the general metaphysical structure of reality – the distinction between actuality and potentiality, form and matter, final causality, and so forth (all of which are mere articulations or refinements of common sense, and thus on all fours with the ordinary man’s belief in what his senses tell him) – we see that the existence of God, the immateriality and immortality of the soul, and the natural law conception of morality all follow. [p. 228]

Again, if there’s one thing we should have learned from the past few centuries of scientific endavor, it’s that what common sense and our senses tell us is often wrong: the earth orbits the sun. The tiny speck Betelgeuse is many times larger than our entire world; over 90% of all the matter in the universe is invisible and barely deigns to interact with us; heavy objects do not fall faster than light ones; objects in motion don’t just stop on their own; light beams sometimes behave like waves, and sometimes like ball bearings; two events aren’t simultaneous or non-simultaneous in an absolute sense.

If your metaphysics contradict physics, rather than explaining it, I’m pretty sure you’ve got a problem.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: A Grab-Bag of Objections

Chapter 5: Universal acid

Here Feser continues his earlier theme, listing more alleged problems caused by modernism. This is a grab-bag of philosophical problems, and while a lot of them are interesting in and of themselves, for the most part they have little or nothing to do with atheism — New or otherwise — and seem to be included here primarily so that Feser throw up his hands, declare these problems insoluble, and run back to aristotelianism. So I’ll be skipping a lot.

The problem of skepticism

In Aristotelianism, when the mind thinks about a thing, that thing’s essence exists in the mind. That is, when you think about a triangle, there’s triangularity in your mind. But if there’s no such matching of like to like (the universal triangularity impressing triangularity on your mind), how, Feser would like to know, can there be knowledge? Without universals, presumably there can be only representations.

I’m not sure I see a problem. This seems to be like asking how NOAA’s National Hurricane Center’s computer models can “be about” hurricanes without wind and rain in the data center.

Personal identity

In Feser’s view, a human being is a composite of soul and body, and a blastocyst is as much of a human being as Desmond Tutu or Terry Schiavo. But if we don’t start with these premises, then we have to figure out what constitutes a person. For instance, does the Star Trek transporter kill a person each time? (That is, it destroys one body and creates an identical one some distance away.) Various non-aristotelian approaches create paradoxes, or gray areas, or conclusions that Feser doesn’t like (e.g., that our lives have as much value as we give them), so they must be wrong.

Free will

In aristotelianism, there’s a significant difference between considered, voluntary action and involuntary action; between, say, proposing to your girlfriend after thinking about it for a year, and a hiccup (bold face added):

The formal and final causes of the action – that which gives intelligible structure to the movements – is just the soul considered as a kind of form, and in particular the activities of thinking and willing that are distinctive of the soul’s intellective and volitional powers. The action is free precisely because it has this as its form, rather than having the form, say, of an involuntary muscular spasm. [p. 208]

whereas under materialism,

human behavior differs in degree but not in kind from the behavior of billiard balls and soap suds. [p. 209]

This seems to be a case of mistaking the simplicity of the model for its purpose. That is, a person might say that the mind is ultimately deterministic, and bring up a model of a deterministic system that’s simple enough to be easily understood (billiard balls) by way of illustration. The other person thinks, “minds aren’t simple like billiard balls! This model must be wrong.”

But beyond this, I don’t see that aristotelianism really solves anything: Feser’s summary, above, seems to say that an action (like the decision to marry) is free if it has the Form of a free action. That sounds, well, arbitrary. How can we find out which actions have the Form of free actions? That is, how do we define “free action”? I’m sure there’s an interesting discussion to be had, but it’ll have to do with where to draw the boundary between “free” and “not free”, and I don’t see how casting this in terms of Forms or essences helps.

Natural rights

In Feser’s model, humans are rational animals by virtue of having human DNA, and we’ve all been given the same purposes: to know God, to reproduce, and so on. Thus, we have a right not to have those purposes interfered with.

But if you don’t start with Feser’s model, morality becomes messy and complicated. Not only that, but people come to different conclusions about what is and isn’t moral than they did in centuries past (Feser doesn’t say which, but I’m guessing he means gay rights). So he will have none of it.

Morality in general

This section boils down to, “How can we figure out what’s right and what’s wrong without being able to check our answers in the back of the book?” He throws in the usual conservative arguments about how if morality isn’t objective, then everything is just a matter of personal preference and whim:

Nor does [Hume] 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. [p. 213]

I like to point out that while the statement “life is better than death” is subjective — and you can find people who would disagree with it — the statement “the vast majority of people would rather live than die” is objective. And if we’re trying to come up with a set of rules that allow us to get along as best we can, then “don’t kill people” is a good one, since it’ll line up with their desires 99.999+% of the time, and they in turn won’t try to kill you back, which almost certainly lines up with your own desires.

Yes, a lot of the details, and even many of the broad strokes, are messy and uncertain. But I think we can all see a difference between, say, life under the British Parliament and life under the Taliban.

Well, maybe not all of us:

This attitude [acceptance of the “social contract” — arensb] has largely prevailed, though by no means completely, which is why modern Western civilization is only largely a stinking cesspool, and not yet entirely one. Give the Humeans and contractarians time though. [p. 215]

Thank you for that ray of sunshine.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Material Brains, Immaterial Software

Chapter 5: The Mind-Body Problem

After spending several pages, as is his wont, trashing Locke, Descartes, and other people he doesn’t agree with, Feser tells us why materialist explanations of the mind are doomed: the human mind is all about final causes: we plan, we imagine, we make mental images and so on. All of these involve “directedness toward” some object or aim, or intentionality. In other words, the mind is obvious proof that final causes exist.

And it should be obvious that it is simply a conceptual impossibility that it should ever be explained in terms of or reduced to anything material […]: material systems, the latter tell us, are utterly devoid of final causality; but the mind is the clearest paradigm of final causality; hence the mind cannot possibly be any kind of material system, including the brain. [p. 194]

There’s that word “obvious” again. Feser really ought to stop using it, since it causes so much trouble. Here, he’s committing the fallacy of composition. In fact, what Feser is saying is listed as an example of the fallacy at logicallyfallacious.com:

Your brain is made of molecules. Molecules do not have consciousness. Therefore, your brain cannot be the source of consciousness.

By coincidence, I recently saw Daniel Dennett present his talk, Consciousness: Whose User Illusion is it? in which he used examples that apply here as well: you can pick up a camcorder at Best Buy, record a video, and burn it to a DVD, but there are no pictures on the DVD. You can look through a microscope, but you won’t see tiny pictures on the disk. You can listen as closely as you like without hearing people talking. The pictures and sounds are not there. And yet the DVD does quite well at recording pictures, sounds, and video for later playback.

So do camcorders have an immaterial component? What about my car radio, which, since it can tune in on a radio signal, has some infinitesimal amount of intentionality; does it have an infinitesimal immaterial mind?

This sort of thing is why I can’t take Feser seriously. It’s one thing to proceed logically from premises that I don’t accept, or to value different things differently and come to opposite conclusions. But Feser commits a lot of elementary logical fallacies (or at least allows them to end up in print), and so he comes across as either a sloppy thinker or a dishonest one; either he can’t see the fallacies that lead to his desired conclusion, or he’s trying to fool people into thinking that his (and, their, presumably) conclusions follow logically from uncontroversial premises.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: The Essence of Opium

Chapter 5: Feser v. Molière

In Molière’s play “Le Malade imaginaire” (The Imaginary Invalid or The Hypochondriac), there’s a scene between an oh-so-pretentious doctor and an equally pretentious medical student. The doctor asks the student, in dog Latin why it is that opium causes sleep. The student replies that opium has “virtus dormitiva” (Latin for “sleeping power”) which has the power to cause sleep. In other words, it causes sleep because it causes sleep. But if you say it in Latin, it sounds like an explanation.

Feser explains why this is an unfair characterization of Scholastic thought:

whatever the specific empirical details about opium turn out to be, the fundamental metaphysical reality is that these details are just the mechanism by which opium manifests the inherent powers it has qua opium, […] The empirical chemical facts as now known are nothing other than a specification of the material cause underlying the formal and final causes that define the essence of opium. [p. 181]

In other words, opium causes sleep because it has such-and-such chemical characteristics, and these characteristics in turn are just the implementation of opium’s power to cause sleep, a power that is part of opium’s essence. That’s part of what makes it opium; opium without somniferious powers wouldn’t be opium.

According to Wikipedia, opium is latex derived from opium poppies. One of its most important components is morphine, originally named after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, for its sleep-inducing properties. As far as I know, it works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain and triggering a cascade of biochemical reactions in the body, one effect of which is sleep.

The important part here seems to be that it binds to specific receptors in the brain. That is, some part of the morphine molecule has the correct shape to align itself with its matching molecules in the brain. Even if this explanation isn’t quite right, I hope it’s close enough for jazz.

So let’s imagine that we’ve managed to extract the morphine from a bottle of opium, and we’ve put some into a brownie or other foodstuff, so that if someone eats the laced brownie, they’ll fall asleep.

I think Feser would say that the bottle contains corrupted or denatured opium: it still has “sleep-inducing” as part of its essence, but due to tampering by humans, this feature can no longer be expressed (in the same way that a brain-damaged person retains the essence of a rational animal). The morphine is really just the implementation of opium’s sleep-causing essential property, and we’ve broken this implementation.

And on the other hand, we have a corrupted brownie, or at least an altered one: even if there’s nothing in the brownie essence about causing or preventing sleep, we now have a brownie that does cause sleep. The sleep-neutral essence remains the same, but the implementation does cause sleep.

So by moving a chemical, morphine, from A to B, we’ve “moved” the sleep-causing property from A to B, regardless of what their respective essences are. So “essence” doesn’t seem to be a useful concept, here. If we want to know whether some entity X will cause sleep (and that’s an important of the essence of opium, remember), we’re better off asking whether X contains morphine than whether X has a sleep-causing essence.

How, exactly, does “essence” help us figure out how the world works? How do we determine something’s essence?

What makes a human being a rational animal, on the Aristotelian view, is not that he or she actually does or can exercise rationality at some point or other, but rather that an inherent potential for the exercise of rationality is actually in every human organism in a sense in which it is not in a turnip, or a dog, or a skin cell. […] And yet an immature or damaged human being is still a human being, which entails that it has the form of a human being and thus the potentials inherent in that form, whether or not they are ever actualized. [p. 182]

I think we can all agree that the term “human being” covers a wide variety of entities, including men, women, infants, centenarians, and much variation besides. And we can also, I think, agree that a bundle of HeLa cells is not a human being, even though each such cell has human DNA, and traces its ancestry back to one specific person who was unquestionably human. That is, some distinctions matter, and others don’t: there are many differences between Anne Frank and Nelson Mandela, but they’re small enough that both of them count as full-fledged human beings. The differences between Henrietta Lacks and a HeLa cell, on the other hand, seem big enough that it seems worth having different terms for the two. Or, as Feser would probably say, Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells have different essences. The multi- vs. unicellularity, the presence or absence of individual organs, seem to make this a good joint at which to carve nature, to use Plato’s phrase.

Feser seems to think that nature is all joints; that everything falls into one category or another, and that these categories are natural and objective. That’s why he’s adamant that a newly-fertilized egg is as much of a human being as a thirty-year-old woman. He doesn’t seem to accept that we humans ultimately decide where we want to draw boundaries between categories, or even whether we want to draw boundaries at all. But if natural, objective boundaries were there, presumably there wouldn’t have been any argument over whether Pluto is a planet. Instead, astronomers agreed on the physical characteristics of Pluto and the other planets — their mass, size, position, velocity, sphericity, chemical composition (approximate), and so forth — and disagreed over which criteria ought to be used to classify something as a planet.

So yes, there are joints at which to carve nature, but they often depend on what we’re trying to do: if you were a pet store clerk and had a blind kitten – an entity that’s just like an ordinary kitten, aside from being blind – this one difference seems small enough that you could still find someone to adopt it. But if you had an entity that’s just like an ordinary parrot, aside from being dead, that one difference seems much more of a deal-breaker.

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/4vuW6tQ0218?rel=0

Series: The Last Superstition

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 Aristotelianism 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

The Last Superstition: The Problem of Evil

Chapter 4: The problem of evil

This section deals with the problem of evil, a problem so big that, just as chemistry is divided into carbon (organic chemistry) and everything else, so I’m told theology is divided into the problem of evil (theodicy) and everything else. But first, Feser has to digress to lay some ground work and show the role of faith in all this.

He starts by observing that all or most monotheistic religions claim that divine revelation has occurred, and that there is evidence for this; and that mainstream Christians in particular claim that Jesus Christ existed, was resurrected, and that this a supportable historical fact. But then he turns around and says that, unless one accepts his other claims, such as that God exists and sustains the world from moment to moment, the existence of immortal souls, and so on, “the historical evidence for Christ’s resurrection might seem inconclusive at best, since any miracle will obviously seem less likely a priori if you don’t already know that there is a God who might produce one. [p. 155]” This seems a lot like saying that, unless you already believe in body thetans, you’re unlikely to accept claims about Xenu. Or, less charitably, “seeing is believing: if I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t have seen it.”

Feser declines to actually provide any evidence for Jesus’ resurrection (p. 156), but merely tells us that it’s out there somewhere. Normally, I’d grant this, since this isn’t a history book, but I do need to pause and wonder whether the evidence is really as compelling as he seems to think. Jews and Muslims, in particular, are not merely monotheists, but members of the same Abrahamic tradition as Feser. And they have no shortage of smart, educated religious scholars. They already believe in and worship the same God that Feser does, and agree (so I’m led to believe) in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Where they differ is on the question of whether Jesus was divine and perhaps whether he was resurrected. So if there were compelling evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, I would expect there to be few or no informed, intelligent religious scholars who didn’t wind up as Christians. But there are plenty. And secondly, I would expect to see the remaining Jewish or Muslim theologians to begin a lot of arguments with “Yes, Jesus was resurrected, but that doesn’t make Christianity right because …” But I don’t remember ever having seen an argument like that. As far as I can tell, Muslims consider Jesus’ resurrection to be as mythical as Muhammad’s ascension to Heaven. (I could be wrong, though; maybe they believe that Allah deigned to resurrect the prophet Jesus, because he liked him or something.)

Getting back to Feser’s train of thought:

Suppose you know through purely rational arguments that there is a God, that He raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and therefore that Christ really is divine, as He claimed to be, so that anything He taught must be true; in other words, suppose that the general strategy just sketched can be successfully fleshed out. Then it follows that if you are rational you will believe anything Christ taught; indeed, if you are rational you will believe it even if it is something that you could not possibly have come to know in any other way, and even if it is something highly counterintuitive and difficult to understand. For reason will have told you that Christ is infallible, and therefore cannot be wrong in anything He teaches. In short, reason tells you to have faith in what Christ teaches, because He is divine. [p. 156]

Note that, like so many apologists, Feser is trying to minimize the size of the requisite leap of faith. The core of faith is belief without evidence, or in the face of contrary evidence. But of course, if you define faith that way, it’s clearly not a reliable method for arriving at truth: people can and do believe all sorts of things without evidence, even outlandish things that aren’t true. And when believers say that atheists also have faith, it’s never meant as “we’re using the same tool; let’s find out why it gave us such different results”, but as “you don’t have a good reason to believe the things you believe either!”

And so it is necessary to pare “faith” down to something more reasonable, something closer to “trust”, or extrapolation from known facts. Ideally, the apologist wants to be able to say, “I’ve seen the sun rise thousands of times, and so I have faith that it will rise tomorrow.”

Here, Feser does the same thing, saying that if you already accept that Jesus existed and was resurrected, and if you accept that everything he said is true, then the further step to the conclusion that he is divine is not a giant leap of faith, but a mere baby step of faith.

Unfortunately, those are some very big ifs. I’ve asked believers in one religion what would convince them that some other religion is correct (e.g., asking a Christian to consider what it would take to convince them that Hinduism is correct). Some say that nothing could convince them. Others, more open-minded, say that it would take an awful lot of evidence. And whatever the case for Jesus’ resurrection might be, it’s not (so far) good enough to convince the two-thirds of humanity who aren’t Christian. Feser himself never tires of reminding us that the Aristotelianism he favors is a minority position even within Christianity, meaning that his arguments aren’t even good enough to convince a majority of Christian theologians. Of course, the mere fact that an opinion is in the minority doesn’t make it untrue. But if the Thomists haven’t made a convincing case in 700 years, I think the smart money is on them being wrong.

Laws of nature imply miracles

Given that God exists and that He sustains the world and the causal laws governing it in being at every moment, we know that there is a power capable of producing a miracle, that is, a suspension of those causal laws.

This doesn’t seem to follow: even if we grant the premise, that God exists and causes the laws of nature to work, that doesn’t mean that it can stop them from working.

In fact, Feser defined God as unchanging, earlier. A miracle, here, would seem to involve God ceasing to sustain a law (e.g., to allow the Red Sea to part), i.e., a change; and then allowing normal operations to resume, another change. Of course, it’s possible that what we think are the laws of nature are only approximations: that the true, unchanging law of gravity is “g = Gm1m2/r2, except as needed to allow Israelites to escape pursuing Egyptian forces”, and that God sustains this law at all times and places. Imagine, too, that all the other supposed laws of nature have similar exceptions: to allow Jesus to walk on water, for pictures of saints to cure diseases, and so forth. This would be a science-stopper: if every supposed rule might have such arbitrary exceptions, a failed experiment would be indistinguishable from a miracle (“and lo, the Lord did multiply the glucose and fructose, and it sufficed to nourish an entire Petri dish full of E. coli”).

Auschwitz, a moral rounding error

Eventually, Feser gets around to explaining how a triple-omni god can allow evil: the evil is more than made up for with the resulting good. Just as forcing a child to practice violin when he or she wants to play outside is more than made up when they become a violin virtuoso, so the evils we suffer in this life are made up with, well, with something else:

Of course, I am not claiming that the relatively minor suffering in question is comparable to the death of a child, or bone cancer, or Auschwitz. But then, neither could the relatively minor joy of being a great violinist compare to the beatific vision. Indeed, even the greatest horror we can imagine in this life pales in insignificance before the beatific vision. […] For the only way the atheist can make it plausible to say that nothing could outweigh Auschwitz, etc., is if he supposes that there is no God and thus no beatific vision.

I had to look up “beatific vision”, because Feser has only mentioned it once so far, and even that only in passing. But apparently it means “meeting God and knowing him directly”. And from context, I gather that this is supposed to be so good that it makes up for Auschwitz and every other evil. I hope you’ll forgive me if I find this idea implausible. I could even be talked into believing that it smacks of rationalization.

In addition, one well-known solution to the problem of evil is to weaken one of the omnis: if God is very good but not infinitely good, or knowledgeable but doesn’t know absolutely everything, or powerful but not all-powerful, the problem solves itself. And Feser dips into that bag as well:

Hence reason tells us that there is a God who created us for a destiny beyond this life and who is fully capable of guaranteeing that the good we attain in the next life outweighs the evil we suffer in this one to such an extent that the latter, however awful from our present point of view, will come to seem “not worth comparing” to the former, and indeed if anything will even be seen to have been worth having gone through from the point of view of eternity. [p. 163]

In other word, God doesn’t try to eliminate evil entirely; just bring it down to a negligible level. Feser’s God is good, but not all-good. So not-all-good that the Holocaust, the horrors of Auschwitz, the application of industrial methods to the slaughter of human beings, the cruelty that allowed the Nazis to force Jews to dig their own graves, and a thousand other indignities, cruelties, and terrors, that Feser’s god couldn’t be bothered to lift a divine finger to prevent it. If Feser can reduce the epitome of inhumanity to a mere moral rounding error, something too trivial for God to bother with, just to score a philosophical point, then he has solved the problem of evil by defining evil out of existence. And in the process, has shown again what despicable things people say when they’re trying to defend their religion.

Series: The Last Superstition