The Last Superstition: Reasoning With Aquinas

Chapter 3: Aquinas’s logical reasoning

Eventually, Feser settles down to tell us a bit about Aquinas. In particular, his method of reasoning:

What Aquinas is doing can be understood by comparison with the sort of reasoning familiar from geometry and mathematics in general. Take the Pythagorean theorem, for example. Once you understand the axiomatic method, the definition of triangularity, and so forth, and then reason through a particular proof of the theorem, you can see that the theorem must be true, and necessarily so. It is not a “hypothesis” “postulated” to “explain” certain “evidence,” and it is not merely “probable.” [p.81]

Metaphysical arguments of the sort Aquinas is interested in combine elements of both these other forms of reasoning: they take obvious, though empirical, starting points, and try to show that from these starting points, together with certain conceptual premises, certain metaphysical conclusions follow necessarily. [p.83]

In other words, Aquinas is trying to prove God the way you’d prove a mathematical theorem, through logic and reason, and most emphatically not through observation. You could sum this up as “it stands to reason”.

There are a few problems with this approach: while mathematics is undeniably useful, it also describes a lot of things that don’t actually exist. For instance, Wikipedia defines a Hilbert space as a generalization of Euclidean space, one that can have thousands, or even an infinite number of dimensions, instead of our paltry three or four or twenty-some.

More trivially, mathematics tells us that if you put six quadrillion apples into a basket, and add another eight quadrillion apples, you’ll have fourteen quadrillion apples in your basket. This is obviously false because there aren’t that many apples on the planet, and no basket that can hold them all. In this case, the math describes a world with fourteen quadrillion apples, which is not the world we live in.

The point of this isn’t that mathematics is broken, but rather that it’s important to make sure that you’ve picked the sort of mathematics that describes the world you’re living in, and specifically the problem you’re studying. Don’t go beyond its area of applicability: Euclidean geometry might work on the scale of a town, but not that of a continent, where you have to take the earth’s curvature into account, lest you get wrong answers.

Furthermore, the longer a demonstration goes on, the greater the odds that it’ll contain some error in reasoning, perhaps a subtle one. When Andrew Wiles presented his proof of Fermat’s last theorem, several reviewers went over it looking for errors (and found some). That’s why, when you’re drawing conclusions about the real world, it’s important to have a reality check from time to time to make sure you haven’t gone off the rails. But Feser sees no need for this.

In a criticism of “scientism”, Feser says that science makes certain metaphysical assumptions:

Of its very nature, scientific investigation takes for granted such assumptions as that: there is a physical world existing independently of our minds; this world is characterized by various objective patterns and regularities; our senses are at least partially reliable sources of information about this world; there are objective laws of logic and mathematics that apply to the objective world outside our minds; our cognitive powers – of concept-formation, reasoning from premises to a conclusion, and so forth – afford us a grasp of these laws and can reliably take us from evidence derived from the senses to conclusions about the physical world; the language we use can adequately express truths about these laws and about the external world; and so on and on. [p. 84]

Maybe a scientist or philosopher of science will correct me, but this doesn’t seem quite right:

there is a physical world existing independently of our minds
I think this is a working assumption, one that could be proved wrong.

this world is characterized by various objective patterns and regularities
I’d call this a discovery, not an assumption. Things could conceivably have been otherwise; Greg Egan explores this possibility in his novel Schild’s Ladder in which there is a region of space where there don’t seem to be any consistent laws of physics; every experiment gives inconsistent results. My point is that if such a zone existed, we’d know it. So it seems reasonable to assume regularity, at least until there’s reason to think otherwise.

our senses are at least partially reliable sources of information about this world
there are objective laws of logic and mathematics that apply to the objective world outside our minds
our cognitive powers – of concept-formation, reasoning from premises to a conclusion, and so forth – afford us a grasp of these laws and can reliably take us from evidence derived from the senses to conclusions about the physical world
These all seem to be conclusions, or at worst working assumptions.

the language we use can adequately express truths about these laws and about the external world
But natural languages like English and Greek are often not up to the task of describing reality. That’s why the language of science is math, and why Newton and Leibnitz had to invent calculus. And of course every discipline invents its own jargon, to describe the objects and ideas specific to that discipline, as well as mathematical techniques for those areas.

It’s true that some of these may be basic assumptions, or at least working assumptions. In fact, Feser could just as easily have listed “God is not messing around with my experiment” as a working assumption. But most of them seem at least potentially falsifiable, like in the movie The Matrix, where Neo, the main character, did find out that he was a brain in a vat. I also like this article that uses supernova SN1987A to show that the speed of light was the same 300,000 years ago as it is today, using trigonometry, astronomical observations, and the decay rate of cobalt to cross-check each other.

This cross-checking and verification are things that make science so robust and reliable, and they’re things that I don’t see in Feser’s presentation. And given that he seems to be basing his reasoning on what a medieval monk thought was obvious, I think there’s good reason to be skeptical of his conclusions.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Let’s Meet Aquinas

Chapter 3: Getting Medieval

Having laid the groundwork in Chapter 2, Feser now moves on to the star of the show, Thomas Aquinas. He opens the chapter with a story of Aquinas overlooking a woman’s achievements, and instead interrupting her with a comment about her body:

he once came upon “a holy nun who used to be levitated in ecstasy.” His reaction was to comment on how very large her feet were. “This made her come out of her ecstasy in indignation at his rudeness, whereupon he gently advised her to seek greater humility.” [p. 74]

And one about attacking a woman, when his brothers locked him up in the family castle (bold added):

When the brothers upped the ante by sending a prostitute into his room, he famously chased her away with a flaming brand snatched from the fireplace and then used it to draw a cross on the wall, before which he prayed for, and received, the gift of lifelong chastity. [p. 74]

Section What Aquinas didn’t say

Feser starts out by spending five pages berating Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett. This can be skipped.

I should note that Feser berates both Dawkins and Dennett for either mangling or not devoting much space to the classical — i.e., Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s — proofs for God. But he also keeps telling us what a mistake it was for the world of philosophy to abandon these ideas. In other words, he criticizes Dawkins and Dennett for not paying attention to ideas that are not widely embraced even by philosophers and theologians. If he can’t convince his colleagues to accept Thomism, why should the rest of us spend any time on it?

The other thing I’d like to pause on is this quotation on p.79:

The author of a sympathetic recent study of Dennett’s philosophy acknowledges that the “consensus evaluation” of Dennett’s work among his academic peers is that while it is “undeniably creative and important,” it “lacks philosophical depth and is not systematic.” [Tadeusz Zawidzki, Dennett (Onewold Publications, 2007), p. ix]

This quotation comes from the opening paragraph of the preface:

I came to this project with some standard assumptions about Dennett’s work. I have been reading Dennett since deciding to major in philosophy as an undergraduate, and over the years I had come to accept the consensus evaluation of his work: although undeniably creative and important, it supposedly lacks philosophical depth and is not systematic. Consensus has it that Dennett’s approach is diffuse and piecemeal, involving clever discussions of specific problems at the intersection of philosophy and the sciences of human nature, without the backing of an overarching, philosophical system. Many of Dennett’s admirers, skeptical of the excesses of traditional philosophical systems, see this approach as a virtue (Rorty 1993, pp. 191–192; Ross 2000, pp. 16–23). Indeed, Dennett himself often blithely dismisses the importance of philosophical system-building (Ross 2000, p. 13; Dennett 2000, pp. 356, 359).

Writing this book has significantly changed my view of Dennett’s work. If the reader comes away with anything from the following, I want it to be an appreciation of the fact that Dennett’s work constitutes a deeply coherent philosophical system, founded on a few consistently applied principles.

I’ve underlined the parts that Feser quoted, and added bold emphasis.

Feser is doing the same thing that creationists do when they quote Darwin saying that the evolution of the eye seems absurd: taking part of a rhetorical construct and quoting it out of context to make it sound like a flaw.

Since the rebuttal of Feser’s implication is right there in the second paragraph; since he carefully selected this quotation to be technically true (well, some people say that Dennett’s a hack); and since he deliberately selected his quotations to just remove “supposedly”; it’s clear to me that Feser knew exactly what he was doing: selectively quoting Zawidzki to make him say something he doesn’t agree with. So I’m going to call him dishonest.

Series: The Last Superstition

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

The Last Superstition: Aristotle’s Metaphysics

Chapter 2: Greeks Bearing Gifts, Aristotle’s metaphysics

We now come to Aristotle, and one of Feser’s central points (emphasis in the original):

How significant is Aristotle? Well, I wouldn’t want to exaggerate, so let me put it this way: Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought. [p.51]

At least he doesn’t mess about.

[This abandonment’s] logical implications can also be seen in today’s headlines: in the abortion industry’s slaughter of millions upon millions of unborn human beings; in the judicial murder of Terri Schiavo (as Nat Hentoff aptly labeled it) and the push for euthanasia generally; in the mostly pointless and certainly point-missing debate between Darwinians and “Intelligent Design” advocates; in the movement for “same-sex marriage” and the sexual revolution generally; and a thousand other things besides. [p.51, same paragraph as previous quotation]

PS, he is not a crackpot.

A central part of Aristotle’s philosophy is “actuality” vs. “potentiality”. In considering the example of a rubber ball that melts and becomes gooey:

Aristotle replies: Even if the gooeyness itself doesn’t yet exist in the ball, the potential for gooeyness does exist in it, and this, together with some external influence that actualizes this potential (e.g. heat), suffices to show how the change can occur. [p.53]

This, by the way, is supposed to put us on the way to understanding that there must be a god.

So basically, a thing’s “actuality” is the way it that thing is, or exists, or is configured, and its “potentialities” are all the ways it could possibly be. If I’m understanding correctly, actuality is the object’s position in phase space, and its potentialities are all the positions reachable from its current position.

Feser reminds us that a potential can’t actualize itself, and this seems trivially true: if you have a blue rubber ball, and it might be painted red, then “being red” isn’t something that can paint a ball. Likewise for all the other potentialities. But he also tells us,

Consider also that if a potential could actualize itself, there would be no way to explain why it does so at one time rather than another. [p. 54]

This seems like a non sequitur. I said above that potential states aren’t the sort of thing that do things, but even if we take the sentence above to mean “If a thing could change on its own, there would be no way …”, I don’t see how the second half necessarily follows.

Superficially, it seems obvious, but if there’s one thing science should have taught us, it’s that “obvious” is not the same as “true”: the sun does not revolve around the earth, objects in motion don’t stop on their own (more on this later), fast-moving objects get shorter, and so on. So I’d like to see a few more intermediary steps between “an object can’t change on its own” and “there can be no explanation for why it changes at time t0 and not t1.

But there’s another problem with the above, beside the non sequitur: let’s say that Feser is right, and there’s some phenomenon for which there’s no explanation beyond “that’s just the way it is”.

So what?

I know that this makes us uncomfortable. I, for one, would find that rather unsettling, because it does seem as though everything has a good explanation. But so what? The universe is not obligated to conform to our desires. And we see all the time that people accept bogus explanations because they’re more satisfying than saying “I don’t know” or “that’s just the way it is”. But this self-deception is exactly the sort of thing we need to guard against if we want to know the truth.

Form and matter

For Aristotle, Feser tells us, an object has two important properties: its matter — the stuff it’s made of — and its form — the way the matter is put together. That is, you can have a bunch of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, etc. atoms (matter), and if you assemble them into the shape of a chair (form), then you’ve got a chair. Seems pretty straightforward.

The four causes

The four causes are Aristotle’s answer to four questions that can be asked of anything: “What is it made of?” (material cause), “What’s its shape or form?” (formal cause), “What caused it?” (efficient cause), and “What’s it for?” (final cause).

The first two seem out of place, since they’re not really causes as that word is currently understood, but maybe there are historical reasons. The third one, efficient cause, is just your garden-variety cause: “Why is the water boiling? Because it’s on a hot stove.” That sort of thing.

But final cause deserves closer scrutiny. For one thing, asking “what is X for?” presupposes that X is for something, and that’s far from obvious. But Feser tells us that final causality can be found everywhere:

I also gave the functions of bodily organs as an example, and it is indeed the most obvious and compelling sort of example to give. But Aristotle takes final causation or goal-directedness to exist throughout inorganic nature as well. The moon is “directed toward” movement around the earth, as a kind of “goal.”

The moon is there so it can orbit the earth. You heard it here first, folks.

To be sure, Feser makes it clear that he doesn’t think the moon is conscious, and doesn’t want or intend to orbit the earth. Rather, the moon is for orbiting in the same way, I guess, that a knife is for slicing. But yes, at the end of the day, Feser tells us, the moon has a purpose: orbiting.

This is one of many “you have got to be kidding me!” moments in this book.

Feser says, here and elsewhere in the book, that everything or nearly everything has a final cause, but he never supports this claim. He says that Aristotle believed that everything has a final cause, but never presents a case for why we should take this as more than opinion.

He talks a lot about the opinions of “modern philosophers, scientists, and intellectuals in general [p. 71]” on final causes, but his case has several problems: he never quotes his opponents directly, doesn’t cite them, and doesn’t even tell us who these people are.

And when he does present their case, he has them saying that there are no final causes, e.g:

And this is precisely why causation has become such a problem for modern thinkers. Famously, they deny that there really are any final causes at all, appearances notwithstanding. [p.64]

Of course, the converse of “everything has a final cause” isn’t “nothing has a final cause”. It’s “it’s not true that everything has a final cause.” Either Feser’s interlocutors fail basic logic, or else he’s setting up straw men.

Feser does give us specific examples of the sorts of final causes he’s talking about: that the point of the moon is to orbit the earth, or that “an oak tree is the final cause of an acorn” [p.115], so I’m willing to accept that some things have final causes. But that doesn’t imply that everything has a final cause, or that the interesting things (human life, the universe, etc.) have final causes, or that those causes are interesting.

Let’s say it turns out that the purpose or final cause of the universe is to expand. Well, fine. It can do that on its own. The rest of us can ignore that and get on with our own final purposes.

Formal and eminent causation

One last thing before moving on:

whatever is in the effect must in some sense be contained in the cause as well. The basic idea is that a cause cannot give to its effect what it does not have to give [p. 67]

This seems like a very odd thing to say, or at least an odd way of saying it. Yes, a hot fire makes a room hot, a cold ice cube makes a drink cold, a red paint brush makes a canvas red, and so on. But of course, there are other ways of causing something:

Or, to take another example, the cause of a fire might itself be on fire, as when a torch is used to start a brushfire, or it may instead have the power to produce fire, as a cigarette lighter has even when it is not being used. The traditional way of making this distinction is to say that a cause has the feature that it generates in the effect “formally” in the first sort of case (e.g. when both the cause and the effect are red or on fire) and “eminently” in the second sort of case (e.g. when the cause is not itself red or on fire but has an inherent power to produce redness or fire). If a cause didn’t contain all the features of its effect either formally or eminently, there would be no way to account for how the effect came about in just the way it did. Again, a cause cannot give to its effect what it does not have to give. [p. 68]

Which is to say that a cause can produce an effect either by transferring an attribute from itself to something else, or by some other means. It seems odd, even reminiscent of phlogiston to put it the way Feser does: the cigarette lighter doesn’t have heat inside it the way an orange contains juice. Feser has a reason for putting it this way, but since he’s laying groundwork for his main argument, it’ll have to wait.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Toothpaste and Universal Concepts

Chapter 2: Greeks Bearing Gifts, continued.

Continuing his discussion of Platonic Forms, Feser introduces this example (bold added):

[A] squirrel who likes to scamper up trees and gather nuts for the winter (or whatever) is going to be a more perfect approximation of the squirrel essence than one which, through habituation or genetic defect, prefers to eat toothpaste spread on Ritz crackers and to lay out “spread eagled” on the freeway. This entails a standard of goodness, and a perfectly objective one. It is not a matter of opinion whether the carefully drawn triangle is a better triangle than the hastily drawn one, nor a matter of opinion whether the toothpaste-eating squirrel is deficient as a squirrel. [p. 36]

But later in the paragraph, he tells us:

If a squirrel could be conditioned to want to eat nothing but toothpaste, it wouldn’t follow that this is good for him. Nor, if there were a genetic factor behind this odd preference, would it follow that it is normal for him, any more than a genetic factor behind blindness or clubfeet shows that being blind or having a clubfoot is normal even for those people who are tragically afflicted with these ailments.

Notice the equivocation: in the first part, Feser uses “good” in the sense of “conforming to the definition or specification”. In this sense, it’s true that we can define “squirrel” as a rodent that eats nuts, and thus an animal that eats toothpaste does not hew closely to the spec, and is objectively an imperfect squirrel.

But in the second quotation, Feser uses “good” in the sense of “healthy” or “beneficial”, and it’s far less clear that he’s right. After all, organisms evolve to find new food sources all the time. See Richard Lenski’s bacteria which evolved to digest citrate. Or the Ideonella sakaiensis bacteria that gained the ability to eat plastic. Did the populations instantiate a series of related but different Forms as they evolved?

It could be that the reason Feser doesn’t discuss these issues is that he’s rushing to get to his real topic, Aquinas. But I think, rather, that he thinks that there are only so many Forms, and that they’re predetermined by nature rather than defined by humans.

The squirrel example, which only works if you ignore complicating factors (like, in this case, evolution), is followed by several others with similar problems:

when Socrates and George Bush think that snow is white, they are thinking exactly the same thing [p.41]

On the face of it, this seems reasonable, but since Feser emphasizes “exactly”, it might behoove him to support his assertion, or at the very least to cite the relevant literature. This does seem to be the sort of thing that can be investigated scientifically.

The same goes for one of Feser’s responses to an argument against realism (the idea that certain propositions and “universals” exist outside of the mind):

[T]he term “red” is itself a universal. You utter the word “red,” I utter the word “red,” Socrates utters the word “red,” and they are all obviously particular utterances of the same one word, which exists over and above our various utterances of it. […]

To evade this result, the nominalist might say that when you, me, and Socrates each say “red,” we are not in fact uttering the same word at all, but only words that resemble each other. This would, of course, be just plain stupid on its face, and pathetically desperate. [p.45]

Again, the question of whether different English speakers mean the same thing by “red” can be tested empirically: show people color swatches and ask whether they’re red. It seems likely, in fact, that this experiment has already been done. But Feser cites no literature, and even dismisses the argument as practically unworthy of consideration.

Again, Feser assumes his conclusion and ignores complicating factors:

When you and I entertain any concept – the concept of a dog, say, or of redness, or of conceptualism itself for that matter – we are each entertaining one and the same concept; it is not that you are entertaining your private concept of red and I am entertaining mine, with nothing in common between them. [p.46]

Suppose that, as conceptualism implies, universals and propositions were not objective, but existed only in our minds. Then it would be impossible for us ever to communicate. For whenever you said something – “Snow is white,” say – then the concepts and propositions that you expressed would be things that existed only in your own mind, and would thus be inaccessible to anybody else. Your idea of “snow” would be entirely different from my idea of “snow,” and since your idea is the only one you’d have any access to, and my idea is the only one I’d have access to, we would never mean the same thing whenever we talked about snow, or about anything else for that matter. [p.46]

In these last two examples, Feser seems to be thinking in black-and-white terms: if your and my idea of “red” aren’t exactly the same, then they must be completely different. But in fact, different people’s concepts may be mostly-identical,and this undermines his last point, above.

Suppose that, for whatever reason, I was taught that the word “chair” refers to the yellow fruit you refer to as “banana”. How long would this go unnoticed? The first time I came to your office and you told me to “pull up a chair and sit down”, I’d wonder why you were inviting me to sit on a fruit.

On the other hand, it took me years to find out that “gregarious” meant “social” rather than “talkative”, simply because that word comes up so rarely in conversation, and because both meanings often apply to the same person.

Or perhaps you and I mostly agree on what “fair trial” means, our only point of disagreement being some subtle procedural point such as whether the spouse of the accused could be forced to testify against the defendant, or whether that would make the trial unfair. We could have a dozen discussions on legal matters before discovering that “fair trial” doesn’t mean exactly the same thing to you and me.

I realize that these are just pedagogical examples, but the fact that it’s so easy to find flaws with them doesn’t inspire confidence.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Plato’s Forms

Chapter 2: Greeks Bearing Gifts is a recap of the history of Greek philosophy that led to Thomas Aquinas, which he’ll talk about in chapter 3. This is, in my opinion, the best chapter in the book.

I’ll skip over the first section, From Thales to Socrates because although it’s interesting, from a historical perspective, to see where certain ideas came from, most of Feser’s arguments are based on something like Plato’s Forms, so let’s skip ahead to that.

Plato’s Theory of Forms

If you draw a bunch of triangles, you’ll notice that none of them are perfect: one of the sides might be crooked (in fact, all of them are crooked, if you look at them through a microscope), or the corners might not quite meet up, and in any case, the sides have non-zero width. All of them are more or less good approximations to the abstract notion of a triangle. On top of which, we can think about triangles, and draw conclusions about them, that might not be true of any specific triangle that we can draw. So there are real-world triangles, and there’s the abstract notion of a triangle.

Likewise, dogs are all different from each other, but they all have something in common, namely that they’re dogs. But it would be tautological to say, “all dogs are dogs”. What is it, exactly, that all dogs have in common? For Plato, it’s their Form (which I will try to remember to capitalize, since it’s a term of art). Feser tells us:

What is a “Form”? It is, in the first place, an essence of the sort Socrates was so eager to discover. To know the essence of justice, for example – to know, that is to say, what the nature of justice is, what defines it and distinguishes it from everything that isn’t justice – would for Plato just be to know the Form of Justice. [p. 32]

In other words, a Form seems to be a definition, or specification. (Also, the terms “Form”, “nature”, and “essence” seem to be more or less interchangeable, here.)

that when we grasp the essence or nature of being a triangle, what we grasp is not something material or physical, and not something we grasp or could grasp through the senses. This is even more evident when we consider that individual perceivable, material triangles come into existence and go out of existence and change in other ways as well, but the essence of triangularity stays the same. […]

That does not mean, however, that in knowing the essence of triangularity we know something that is purely mental, a subjective “idea.”7 Nor is this essence a mere cultural artifact or convention of language. For what we know about triangles are objective facts, things we have discovered rather than invented. It is not up to us to decide that the angles of a triangle should add up to 38 degrees instead of 180, or that the Pythagorean theorem should be true of circles rather than right triangles. [pp. 33–34]

Yes, the astute reader will have noticed that triangles’ angles don’t always add up to 180 degrees, so in a way, it is up to us to decide whether we’re talking about euclidean or non-euclidean geometry.

But let’s leave that aside, and note that what Plato seems to be doing here is groping for the concept of information, or software. It might be hard to remember, but for most of human existence, this was a fairly difficult concept. You didn’t have a book or a letter as a separate entity from the paper it was written on. You could sing someone else’s song, and you could copy someone’s words or ideas in your own book, but for the most part, there was no need to distinguish between information and the medium it was recorded in. So Plato et al. get props for thinking about this.

Unfortunately, Feser doesn’t answer, or even discuss, some of what I think are rather basic questions about Forms: how many Forms are there? Is this a constant number, or perhaps can we create Forms as needed? Which Forms apply to a given object? And how do we know?

Feser tells us, above, that a crudely-drawn triangle, drawn in chalk on a sidewalk, is just a poor instance of the ideal “triangle” Form. But presumably it’s a decent instance of the “sidewalk art” Form, and a very good instance of the “wobbly triangle drawn in chalk where the corners don’t meet” Form.

What about an iPhone 7? Does it instantiate the “rectangle” Form? The “telephone” form (which in turn is an instance of the “electronic device” Form)? If you use it to tell time, does it instantiate the “clock” form? If you use it to hold down loose papers at a café, does it instantiate the “paperweight” form?

If, as I suspect, Plato assigned Forms to salient entities in his environment, I see no reason why we couldn’t define our own Forms based on what we find interesting or important at any given moment.

Later, we’ll talk about the toothpaste-eating squirrel.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Skip Ahead

Chapter 1

This chapter can safely be skipped. It’s equal parts complaining about The New Atheists and insulting them, making big claims, and giving Aristotle and Aquinas loving tongue-baths. He yearns for the good old days when people kept their atheism to themselves.

In this introductory chapter, Feser makes a number of big promises for what’s to come. That God exists, and that he can demonstrate this. That only under classical philosophy do reason and morality even make sense.

Perhaps the most striking thing is that, although the book is ostensibly addressed at the claims of New Atheism, and that the book is even subtitled “A Refutation of the New Atheism”, Feser is remarkably reluctant to address New Atheists’ claims, instead preferring to steer the conversation toward his favorite subjects, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas.

It’s not that that’s not a worthy topic of discussion. It’s just that Plato’s forms didn’t bring down the World Trade Center. It wasn’t Alvin Plantinga who accused Hillary Clinton of being in league with Lucifer from the podium of the 2016 Republican Convention. The average member of Joel Osteen’s congregation is as ignorant of Sophisticated Theology as the atheists he criticizes; perhaps more so.

(Update: some time after I wrote this, the pope wrote the following:

So from where I’m standing, Sophisticated Theology often looks fairly similar to the “unsophisticated” beliefs of ordinary theists.)

Harris opens The End of Faith with an Islamic suicide bombing. Page 1 of The God Delusion mentions 9/11, 7/7, the Crusades, persecution of Jews, the “troubles” of Northern Ireland, and more. Hitchens’s god is not Great opens (again, page 1) with a schoolteacher who thought, for religious reasons, that green plants were made for human eyes rather than the other way around. Dennett poses the question of whether behaviors like fasting for Ramadan are a good thing, all things considered. Atheism, new or old, has never been a purely academic affair, but rather rooted in the real world.

But Feser never deals with this. Tellingly, even in the section “The New Atheism”, he neither defines the term “New Atheism”, nor quotes any New Atheists.

More importantly, he fails to recognize that people – theists – do make the stupid claims he criticizes the New Atheists for focusing on. If the hoi polloi are still making stupid arguments seven centuries after Aquinas, then the fault for this failure of education can scarcely be laid at the feet of a movement that only began in earnest in 2001. (In fairness, he does address this in his talk, What We Owe the New Atheists, but it would have been nice if he’d included his response to New Atheist claims in his A Refutation of the New Atheism.)

Feser’s tone

To say that Feser’s tone is polemical would be an understatement:

a man who is irreligious, and especially a man who is positively hostile to religion, is (again, all things being equal) for that very reason and to that extent a bad man, and an irrational man. [p.14]


speaking with secularists themselves (there are no greater vulgarians) [p.14]

Those two come from the same paragraph, by the way.

Not to put too fine a point on it, they [secular readers] ought – literally – to get down on their knees and worship the God who mercifully sustains them in being at every instant, even as they foolishly scoff at Him. This is not only an act of faith, rightly understood; it is the highest manifestation and fulfillment, in this life anyway, of human reason itself. [p.26]

I’ve picked a few examples from Chapter 1, but this sort of thing permeates the book. I wanted to get this out of the way now in hopes of not dwelling too much on it later. But don’t take my word for it. See this friendly review, one that Feser has linked to, for examples.

He justifies his tone by claiming that it’ll improve the appeal of his book, and saying that the New Atheists did it first (p.25):

As the reader has no doubt already figured out, this book will also be as polemical as it is philosophical, though hardly more so than the books written by the “New Atheists” to whom I am responding. I believe this tone is appropriate, indeed necessary, for the New Atheism derives whatever influence it has far more from its rhetorical force and “sex appeal” (as I have called it) than from its very thin intellectual content. It is essential, then, not only that its intellectual pretensions are exposed but that its rhetoric is met with equal and opposite force.

Unfortunately, as I’ve said earlier, Feser rarely quotes the people he claims to be responding to, so it’s hard to tell what the New Atheists have written that’s so incendiary. I suspect that it’s things like what Chris Hallquist has called Dawkins’s Big Bad Quote about the God of the Old Testament, but since Feser doesn’t say, I can’t know for sure.

This constant vituperation undermines Feser’s overall goal: for one thing, it makes it easy to write him off as an angry crank. But more importantly, it hurts his ability to use the Courtier’s Reply: discussions with people who appeal to Sophisticated Theology often go like this:

Theist:<Argument A> therefore God exists.
Atheist: That argument is flawed, because of <X, Y, and Z>
Theist: You’re attacking a caricature. I gave you a quick summary of <argument A>, but in order to understand the full context, you really need to read books <B, C, D, …>

In this case, however, Feser wasn’t constrained by the limitations of some social media site. He decided that he could make his case in 300 pages, and still have plenty of space left over for insults. So if his summary of his, or Plato’s, or Aquinas’s arguments is too short, then the fault is his.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Preface

I don’t remember where or how I ran across Edward Feser, a philosopher at Pasadena City College, but at some point I was told that he was a Serious Theologian, one of those people whose arguments atheists allegedly ignore. So I got his book The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism at the library and read it.

I didn’t really think it would have any compelling arguments for God: if there were any, they’d have made the news by now. But I was hoping for something I could wrestle with, something that would make me think “Hm, this doesn’t seem quite right, but I can’t put my finger on any mistakes.” Unfortunately — spoiler alert! — it wasn’t that good. In fact, the question that came to mind most often was “Are you fucking kidding me?”

There’s so much bad in here, I thought I’d start a series of posts.

Preface and Acknowledgments

Feser begins his “Refutation of the New Atheism” by complaining about the 2008 California Supreme Court decision that gay people (or “homosexuals” as Feser insists on calling them) have as much of a “basic civil right” to marriage as straight people.

He calls gay marriage a “near total collapse of traditional morality”, “a metaphysical absurdity and a moral abomination” (p. ix). Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that this collapse wasn’t quite as dire as predicted: California still hasn’t fallen into the sea, and as a DC area resident, I can attest that it is even possible to walk down Constitution Avenue without seeing the heads of conservatives impaled on pikes. So, bullet dodged.

Secularism, he tells us, is “a clear and present danger to the stability of any society, and to the eternal destiny of any soul, that falls under its malign influence” (p. x). I’m not sure whether he means secularism or atheism, because he tends to use the terms “atheist”, “secularist”, and “liberal” mostly interchangeably.

Feser pines for the good old days, when liberals were more conservative, atheists were in the closet, and gay people didn’t go around demanding rights all over the place.

If you are someone who agrees that these developments constitute a kind of madness, and want to understand how we have reached such a low point in the history of our civilization, you will want to read this book. If you are someone who does not regard them as madness, you need to read it – to see (if I may say so) the error of your ways, or, if that is not likely, then at least to understand the point of view of those who disagree with you. [pp. ix–x]

(Bold emphasis added; italics in the original).

So that’s that, then: I need to read this.

Series: The Last Superstition

Does Symmetry Exist?

Well, duh, yes.

But is symmetry a thing? Well, no. Again, duh.

The reason I bother to bring this up in the first place is that I’ve stumbled on the festering swamp of pretentiousness that is Edward Feser’s blag

One thing that annoys me is the way he constantly reifies ideas, and acts as though that Means Something.

Take a look for instance at this bit (he begins by summarizing a physicist’s post about philosophy):

Arguments for God as cause of the universe rest on the assumption that something can’t come from nothing.  But given the laws of physics, it turns out that something can come from nothing. 

Here was my reaction:

Is this guy serious?  The laws of physics aren’t “nothing.”  Ergo, this isn’t even a prima facie counterexample to the principle that ex nihilo, nihil fit.  That’s just blindingly obvious.  Is this guy serious? 

In other words, what Feser is saying is that a law of physics is something. Is this true?

So let me back up a bit and look at symmetry (for simplicity, I’ll just consider mirror symmetry). Some objects, like cue balls and 2×2 Lego bricks, look the same in a mirror as they do by themselves (plus or minus however much we care about; if we care about the specific positions of atoms, a cue ball isn’t symmetrical; if we don’t care about the number indicating the point value, an “M” tile from a Scrabble set is symmetrical).

This fact can be expressed in multiple ways. In English, it feels natural to say that an object has symmetry. In another language, such as French, one might say “this object is symmetrical”. In yet another language, the most natural way to express this (or indeed the only way) might be to say “this object mirrors-without-changing” or “this object endures mirrorily”.

Whether the idea is expressed using a noun, an adjective, a verb phrase, an adverb, or even as a mathematical equation, it doesn’t change what the object is. People from any country can look at at the object and agree whether it has this particular property.

So what is “symmetry”, then? Presumably it’s some data structure in the mind of an English speaker that gets excited when she thinks of an object that looks like its mirror image. An artifact of the way that person processes information about the world, that happens to be implemented as a noun.

But just because there’s a noun for something, that doesn’t mean that that something actually exists out there in the world.

And a law of physics isn’t a thing. It’s a statement about how things behave. In fact, it can be expressed as an if-then statement: “if certain things existed and certain conditions held, then such-and-such would happen”. For example, the statement “if my refrigerator had a mass of 100 solar masses, it would collapse into a black hole” is true even though my fridge doesn’t mass anywhere near that much, due to the way that implication statements work. So a statement like “all masses attract through gravity” can be expressed as “if there were any masses, they would attract” and would thus be true even if there weren’t any masses in the universe.

But in the end, a law is a statement about how things behave; it isn’t a thing itself. And when people talk about the universe starting from nothing, they’re generally wondering how all this stuff came to be here in the first place.

Now, it’s certainly fair to ask why stuff in the universe behaves the way it does, and whether the laws of physics could have been different, whether there are other worlds where they are different, and so on. But when Feser says “The laws of physics aren’t `nothing'”, he’s projecting the way his mind works onto the universe and trying to make that someone else’s problem. It’s as if he had asked the name of the man in the moon, or asked why two holes don’t repel each other, since they have negative mass.

This strikes me as sloppy thinking (and related to the use-mention error). And I see it all too often when I read Sophisticated Theologians™. Which is one reason why I have as little respect for that occupation as I do.