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

Dead Pope Prankster

Part 1

Achievement unlocked: Attain sainthood
There’s a story being repeated uncritically all over the Net, about a woman who had a brain aneurysm, but didn’t die of it because a dead pope magically healed her.

Oh, and this allows the dead pope to level up. From HuffPo:

Mora, her doctors and the Catholic Church say her aneurysm disappeared that day in a miracle that cleared the way for the late pope to be declared a saint on April 27 in a ceremony at the Vatican where Mora will be a guest of honor.

Now, one might reasonably ask, how do we know that this was really magic? Floribeth Mora presents this compelling line of evidence:

Acknowledging that many people would be highly sceptical of her recovery, and of the whole concept of miracles, she said that “people can think what they want – what I know is that I’m healthy.”

“There are always people who don’t believe me, who say I’m crazy, but what counts for me today is that this ‘crazy woman’ is cured.”

So we know that she was cured because she said so. With evidence like that, who needs to see X-rays or MRIs or lab results? Besides The Telegraph writes:

Even her neurosurgeon seems to be convinced. “If I cannot explain it from a medical standpoint, something non-medical happened,” said Alejandro Vargas Roman. “I can believe it was a miracle.”

But here’s what Reuters wrote last year, when the Catholic Church approved Mora’s cure as the second in the two-miracle-minimum needed for John Paul II’s promotion:

The neurosurgeon who admitted and diagnosed Mora, however, denies he gave her a month to live. Alejandro Vargas says he forecast only a 2 percent chance Mora could bleed into her brain again within a year of her diagnosis, possibly killing her.

“She was sent home with medication that would reduce her blood pressure and was advised to improve her diet so as not to raise her cholesterol levels and thus decrease the chance of her having a second bleeding episode. She was sedated because the headaches were too sharp,” he told Reuters. “We didn’t send her home to be sedated and wait until she died in her sleep.”

That’s all well and good—how many people can you name who survived a disease with a 2% mortality rate?—but how do we know that Dead Pope was involved? Religion News Service:

She claimed her prayers were answered when John Paul II appeared to her in a vision on the day he was beatified — the first step on the road to sainthood — after he was credited with his first miracle.

“When I woke up in the morning, I looked at the magazine cover which showed Pope Wojtyla with his arms outstretched.

“I felt a deep sense of healing. I heard his voice say to me, ‘Get up and don’t be afraid,’” she said, recalling one of John Paul’s signature lines.

I don’t know what else you doubting Thomases want. If you can’t trust someone who’s just been stressed out by a hospital stay, is on new meds, and has a thing in her brain, whom can you trust? There’s no way she could possibly be mistaken!

But she was cured, right? And both Mora and her doctor said that they don’t know how she was healed, so therefore they know how she was healed (it was Dead Pope Magic) (Dead Pope Magic is the name of my next webcomic). That’s just logic.

Okay, so she was dying (but not really dying) of an aneurysm, and now it’s gone. And she can’t think of a better explanation than the one that she really really likes (Dead Pope magiced her back to health), so obviously that explanation must be the correct one. And she won’t provide any solid evidence because, well, doubters gonna doubt.

I’m sold!

Part 2

But apparently there’s some kind of Law of Conservation of Pope Magic, because on the same day that the Catholic church was celebrating Dead Pope John Paul II healing that one woman… Well, I’ll let Italian news agency ANSA tell it:

(ANSA) – Brescia, April 24 – A young man in northern Italy was crushed to death Thursday by a falling crucifix that was built to honor pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Brescia. The 21-year-old’s death comes just three days before John Paul will be canonized in Rome.

Does this count as JP2’s third miracle?