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

FTC Removes Exception for Homeopathic Drugs

Well, here’s a bit of good news for a change: the Federal Trade Commission has just decided that the same standards apply to homeopathic drugs as to any other medical product. The National Law Review highlights the following passage:

No convincing reasons have been advanced either in the comments or the workshop as to why efficacy and safety claims for OTC homeopathic drugs should not be held to the same truth-in-advertising standards as other products claiming health benefits.

In other words, as I understand it, homeopathic products will be held to the same advertising standards as other medical products; basically, if you claim your product provides a medical benefit, you’re going to have to show some evidence.

As I understand it, way back when, the government carved out a big exemption for homeopathy in federal regulations, because of the influence of a senator(?) who was into homeopathy and managed to convince the government that the homeopathic community would police itself.

Bear in mind, the policy change above comes from the FTC, not the FDA. The FDA held hearings last year and is still debating what to do about regulating homeopathy. But it’s also been a thorn in the FTC’s side, because the exeption made advertising standards inconsistent: if a pharmaceutical company has a drug that helps with hay fever, it can’t put out an ad saying so unless they have evidence — that is, in practice, unless they’ve conducted experiments that show that their drug works the way they say. But if you slapped the word “homeopathic” on the label, all of a sudden, a much more lax set of criteria applied. So this is a step in the right direction.

Now, I don’t expect that this will seriously discourage homeopaths. Rather, I expect they’ll just follow the same path as makers of glucosamine and other dietary supplements: they’ll rewrite the labels to give the impression that it works, without actually coming out and saying so.

To see what I mean, take a look through GNC’s Vitamins & Supplements section. The strongest, most concrete claims, like “Improves joint comfort” all seem to have a footnote saying that the FDA hasn’t actually checked to see if that’s true. Unfootnoted statements say things like “Clinical-strength doses of <whatever>”, which doesn’t tell you whether it works or not.

Or just list various health benefits on their own: “Antioxidants • Heart Health • Prostate Health • Mental Sharpness”. Presumably these are intended in the same way as a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker on the car: a statement that Bernie is good, not that he’s actually inside the car.

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

How Do You Spell “Booze”? C-V-S

(Update: Thanks to alert reader Fez for pointing out that 20% alcohol by volume is 40 proof, not 80. Oops. This somewhat mitigates, but doesn’t invalidate the rest of my points.)

We all know, of course, that the whole point of homeopathic remedies is that there’s no active ingredient in the bottle. So you might think, so who cares if people take this stuff? Either it’s just water and they’re not doing any harm, or else there’s something to this whole homeopathy thing, and they’re maybe doing some good. Except, of course, who knows what else is in the bottle?

Enter Yvette d’Entremont, who goes by SciBabe. I came across this news story of how she found a bottle of homeopathic laxative at a CVS drugstore that contained an obscene amount of alcohol. Go watch that.

I don’t know d’Entremont, so I thought I’d see if I could find this online, and what do you know?

CVS brand homeopathic constipation remedy, with 20% alcohol.

Wow. The ingredient list is right there: 20% ethanol, and water. That’s 8040-proof white lightning right there.

And it turns out that the CVS house brand isn’t the only one that sells hooch in a medicine bottle: Nova has this “throat complex” that lists “20% USP alcohol by volume”.

Oh, and this “Bloating Complex”, whatever that is. And this And this. And this. Basically, just about every bottle of orally-ingestible fluid from Nova that I saw listed in CVS’s web store was one-fifth alcohol.

I also liked Liddell’s claim that their homeopathic pain-killer is “20% Organic Alcohol”. As a Russian, I can’t disagree that a shot of 80- 40-proof will numb what ails you. As for the “organic” part, all alcohols have carbon atoms, and are therefore organic. Even the ones that’ll make you go blind or kill you.

I feel compelled to point out that if you’re under 21 and want to buy booze without getting carded, the stuff above retails for $8-$19 an ounce. By comparison, you can find 80-proof Mr. Boston vodka (Seriously? Someone thought “Mr. Boston” was a good name for vodka?) sells for $7 a bottle, which works out to 27 cents per ounce. Even fancy Stolichnaya works out to 63 cents an ounce.

(Update, from above: 40 proof would be your schnapps and brandies, some rums and tequilas.)

Now, I’m not going to criticize people who make an informed decision to drink themselves into an expensive stupor, if they so choose. But what about feeding it to someone who can’t give informed consent? I’m so glad you asked.

From what I saw, the homeopathic remedies aimed at toddlers and babies (yes, there is such a thing, because people suck) don’t seem to contain alcohol, and some of them prominently advertise this right on the label. So that’s ok— wait, what’s this?

Why, it appears to be a homeopathic substance aimed at animals (see “people suck”, above). Like the others, it’s 20% alcohol, or 80 40 proof. Should we give this to the nice German shepherd pictured on the label? My money’s on “not the smartest idea in the world”, but that’s just me.

And finally, there’s this abomination, also from HomeoPet, also 80 40 proof, except apparently you’re supposed to put it on your pet’s nose. Your furry friend whose sense of smell is a kajllion times more acute than yours. Yeah, if you think that’s a good idea, maybe you should stick your face in a bowl of chopped onions for half an hour.

FDA Homeopathy Circus, Day 2

Yesterday was day two of homeopathy hearings at the FDA. There were some audio and connectivity problems, and again, I was distracted, but I tried to pay some attention.

One or two presenters tried to explain why you can’t perform randomized double-blind clinical trials to demonstrate the efficacy of homeopathic remedies. Apparently it boils down to “homeopathy doesn’t work that way”, though I didn’t catch the specifics. Apparently you can’t test homeopathic remedies on animals because, um… I’m not sure. Also, a homeopath will prescribe a whole array of remedies, tailored to the needs of the individual patient; just like what oncologists do, and somehow that gets in the way of studying homeopathy, but not cancer. And homeopathy often involves evaluating subjective self-reported symptoms, so you can’t study homeopathy clinically, even though doctors study self-reported subjective symptoms like pain all the time. So the upshot of this line of argument was that homeopaths should be exempt from the rules that say you have to demonstrate that your medical treatment actually works.

In fact, one presenter, if I heard him correctly, went so far as to claim that all the other homeopaths have it wrong. This guy had a slide saying that when you dilute a substance, the “Initial substance transits to a new physical condition”. I’ll just leave that authentic frontier gibberish there for you to marvel at.

Another line of argumentation, advanced by several presenters, particularly those on the business end of things, was that homeopathy is big business and growing, and therefore it should not be regulated. I think one person at least tried to make that into a coherent argument by claiming that regulating homeopathy would throttle innovation. You know, kind of like how you never hear from Novartis, Pfizer, or Merck these days because they’ve closed up shop.

Throughout the day, there was a steady drumbeat of “homeopathic remedies are safe”, although usually with an caveat: “properly-prepared homeopathic remedies are safe”. Properly-prepared homoepathic remedies are just distilled water, which I agree is safe. But homeopathy is currently unregulated, or nearly so, and thus no one is checking to make sure there’s nothing bad in your expensive distilled water.

In fact, as we heard in the previous day’s testimony, a lot of times manufacturers will combine things, e.g., take a regular zinc supplement and sprinkle homepathic water on it, and sell it as a hybrid or stick a “homeopathic” sticker on the box. People who have heard that homeopathy, whether it works or not, is at least safe, can and do take more than the recommended dose, and ingest unhealthy amounts of zinc. That by itself should be an argument for regulation and proper labeling.

But perhaps the most depressing aspect of the hearings were the practicing doctors testifying in favor of homeopathy, using the same arguments as everyone else: “I’ve seen it work. And it’s popular. Plus, it’s safe”. These are smart, well-educated people, who every day prescribe medications that have gone through rigorous controls to eliminate things like personal bias and proof by anecdote, committing those very errors.

At any rate, the current phase of the circus is over. With any luck, the FDA will start cracking down on this woo. I’d call it snake oil, but statistically speaking, there’s probably not a single molecule of the original oil left.

FDA Homeopathy Circus, Day 1

Today and tomorrow, the FDA is holding hearings to see about updating its regulations for homeopathy. Or, as NPR puts it, FDA Ponders Putting Homeopathy To A Tougher Test. Here, “a tougher test” means applying the same rules to homeopathy as to every other proposed medical treatment: see whether it works.

So to that end, they’re holding two days of hearings. I was able to stream part of the proceedings, and even hear some of it (though I was busy, and thus missed a lot).

If you want to follow along tomorrow, it’ll be at https://collaboration.fda.gov/hprapril2015.

But first, it might be good to review what homeopathy is. homeopathy.com explains:

Homeopathy’s basic premise is called the “principle of similars,” and it refers to recurrent observation and experience that a medicinal substance will elicit a healing response for the specific syndrome of symptoms (or suffering) that it has been proven to cause when given in overdose to a healthy person.

[…]

Most homeopathic medicines are made by diluting a medicinal substance in a double-distilled water. It should be noted that physicists who study the properties of water commonly acknowledge that water has many mysterious and amazing properties. […]

Each substance is diluted, most commonly, 1 part of the original medicinal agent to 9 or 99 parts double-distilled water. The mixture is then vigorously stirred or shaken. The solution is then diluted again 1:9 or 1:99 and vigorously shaken. This process of consecutive diluting and shaking or stirring is repeated 3, 6, 12, 30, 200, 1,000, or even 1,000,000 times. Simply “diluting” the medicines without vigorously shaking them doesn’t activate the medicinal effects.

In other words, you find a substance that produces a given symptom in healthy people; you dilute that substance in water until there’s none of it left, and you give your bottle of water to a person who suffers from symptoms like what you found earlier.

Or, as Mitchell and Webb described it, “trace solution of deadly nightshade or a statistically negligible quantity of arsenic”:


So the question before the FDA is to determine whether homeopathic substances, which are touted as remedies for everything from gout to nonspecific unease, should be subject to the same regulations as, say, Tamiflu or Ibuprofen or Viagra. The sorts of regulations where if you say that your product is good against X, the FDA comes along and says, “proof or STFU”.

Apparently Michael de Dora of the Center for Inquiry testified early on, but I missed it. His testimony can be summed up as “Science has known for a long time that homeopathy doesn’t work. The US government knows this. Hell, the FDA has said as much. This year. Let’s not support pseudoscientific quackery.”

The first speaker I caught was giving an overview of studies on homeopathy. At first, he couldn’t do better than saying that there are studies that show that it works, and others that don’t. But he was able to drag in other factors, like the file drawer effect (that negative results tend not to get published) and the Hawthorne effect (people who know they’re being watched behave differently) to cloud the issue enough to be able to say that the science isn’t settled. Sadly, he was one of the most reasonable speakers of the day.

Several ideas came up in different people’s testimony before lunch:

  • That homeopathy has organizations of practicing professionals, therefore it works.
  • That homeopathy has a standard reference book, therefore it works.
  • That there’s quality control (i.e., people check that your bottle of 99.99999% water really does contain 99.99999% water), therefore it works.
  • That members of the general public don’t really know a lot about homeopathy (this might become significant, later).
  • That I just know that it works, therefore it works. (Who needs double-blind clinical trials when you have feelz?)
  • That homeopathy is popular, therefore it works.

One speaker made the argument that France has an excellent public health-care system, and that homeopathy is popular in France (therefore, presumably, homeopathy works). He also mentioned, or implied, that it had been approved by Swiss healthcare regulatory bodies. During the Q&A period, he was asked how French and Swiss researchers had evaluated the effectiveness of homeopathy, and in response he went off on a tirade against US regulators. I believe that’s called evading the question.

During the afernoon session, several more ideas came up several times:

  • Homeopathy works in conjunction with other treatment (I had a headache, so I took an aspirin and a homeopathic remedy; my headache went away; therefore, homeopathy works).
  • Homeopathy is popular, therefore there’s no need for stricter regulation. (I wonder if that argument also applies to heroin.)
  • Homeopathy is big business, therefore there’s no need for stricter regulation.
  • Homeopathic remedies are already marked “homeopathic”. What more do you people need? Informed customers (which morning testimony said many people aren’t) can make an informed choice.

One shining light was Luana Colloca of the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She actually cited studies and showed empirical results, and even graphs with error bars, mirabile dictu! She gave an overview of the power of the placebo effect, though I’m not sure what her point was. Was it that hey, placebos lessen people’s pain, therefore let’s let people have their sugar pills?

But beyond that, the theme seemed to be that things are fine the way they are; informed consumers can caveat emptor their way through drug store aisles. And besides, it’s popular, and big business. So why should Big Alt-Med be regulated the same way as Big Pharma? Unfair!

What I found notably missing from the proceedings, and which I would gladly have welcomed, was anything along the lines of “Yes, homeopathy is effective against X, Y, and Z. And we have the double-blind, statistically-significant clinical trials to prove it.” I suppose that was too much to expect. Ah, well. I still has feelz. And a tall drink.