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

BillDo Doesn’t Like Blasphemy Day

PZ has already pointed out BillDo’s bit of anticipatory apoplexy over Blasphemy Day.

But I want to draw attention to a specific bit of BillDo’s hypocrisy:

The Center for Inquiry is factually incorrect to say that “Free speech is the foundation on which other liberties rest.” Freedom of conscience is the first liberty, and it is inextricably linked to freedom of religion.

BillDo may have a point, though because of his annoying habit of not providing links, it’s hard to check what CfI actually said. But what are the Catholic church’s thoughts on the matter of freedom of conscience or freedom of thought?

The Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on heresy says:

Freedom of thought extending to the essential beliefs of a Church is in itself a contradiction; for, by accepting membership, the members accept the essential beliefs and renounce their freedom of thought so far as these are concerned.

So if you’re Catholic, you don’t have the freedom to question the Catholic church’s unquestionable dogma.

Okay, that’s not too bad. If you define a member of sect X as someone who believes A, B, and C, but someone doesn’t believe C, then that person doesn’t fit the definition of a member of X. Fair enough.

The entry for blasphemy, however, says:

blasphemy is set down as a word, for ordinarily it is expressed in speech, though it may be committed in thought or in act.

(emphasis added). In other words, there are things that you’re not even allowed to think. That’s the very definition of thoughtcrime.

The entry on sin has a whole entry on “Internal sins”, convering crimethink, starting with “thou shalt not covet”.

Three kinds of internal sin are usually distinguished:

  • delectatio morosa, i.e. the pleasure taken in a sinful thought or imagination even without desiring it;
  • gaudium, i.e. dwelling with complacency on sins already committed; and
  • desiderium, i.e. the desire for what is sinful.

(italics in the original).

In other words, Billy pays lip service to freedom of thought, but pimps for a religion that doesn’t hold it in very high esteem. He adds:

In other words, atheists have the right to mock religion because our Christian Founding Fathers afforded them human rights.

I may have to withdraw my charge of hypocrisy: I thought he was in favor of freedom of thought when it suited him, but I get the distinct impression from this sentence that he thinks the founding fathers made a mistake, granting freedoms to people who think the wrong way.

PS: For the benefit of anyone who, like Billy, thinks that Blasphemy Day unjustly favors Muslims, let me just say that there are no gods, not even Allah, and Muhammad was not a prophet. Buddha would have killed for a cheeseburger. Mary cheated on Joseph, and Christians have believed her spur-of-the-moment bullshit story ever since. Oh, and Chuck Darwin only stopped fucking his horse long enough to steal all of Wallace’s ideas. That should just about cover it.

Freedom of Tackiness

A woman in Colorado says she was
evicted from her apartment for keeping her Easter decorations up too long.

I think I’m leaning toward her side, even though from the brief
description it sounds as though her display was unutterably tacky,
simply because I want to live in the sort of country where people can
show the world just how much taste they lack. And because tacky is
fun, in a tacky sort of way.

But the bit that caught my eye was:

“An Easter decoration is a religious statement and should be protected — even if it is just bunnies,” said her attorney, John Pineau.

Bunnies are a religious display? Who knew?

Freedom Of Religion and Freedom From Religion

This particularly hateful letter,
published in the Kenai, AK Peninsula Clarion (registration required; see also here), promulgates a popular misconception:

The United States is based on having freedom of religion, speech, etc., which means you can believe in God any way you want (Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.), but you must believe.

Let’s consider a scenario: the government in your state allocates X million dollars to buy rosaries to be handed out in public schools, to hire priests to lead the school in reciting “Hail Mary, full of grace” over the PA system each morning, to bus students to mass on Sunday mornings, and so forth.

Most Americans, I suspect, will think, “Wait a sec! How come the school is pushing Catholicism on my kids? That can’t be right!” Then they’ll look up the bit in the first amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion” and see that no indeed, that can’t be right.

So what the first amendment says is that the government can’t push Catholicism on you. You have freedom from Catholicism.

Except that the constitution doesn’t explicitly mention Catholicism. It covers all religions. So the first amendment says that the government can’t push any religion. You have freedom from religion.

Yeah, it really is that simple. Why don’t people get it?

(HT My Confined Space, via Pharyngula.)