Do You Even Science, Frater?

The other day, I went to a Thomistic Society talk about Aquinas’s views on the Problem of Evil and other topics. At one point, the presenter casually mentioned that humans engage in self-destructive behavior, like alcoholism, self-mutilation, drug addiction, etc., while non-human animals don’t.

That made my [citation needed] sense tingle, so I looked around. Among other things, I found Animal models of self-destructive behavior and suicide:

Research on nonhuman primates has demonstrated that self-mutilation is a common reaction to extreme disruptions of parental caretaking in other mammalian species as well. For example, isolated young rhesus monkeys engage in self-biting and head slapping and banging (21). Analgesia is also common in self-destructive animals.

Or this non-scholarly page about the effects of drugs, including addiction, in animals such as horses, goats, and even bees.

So apparently this speaker simply wasn’t aware of self-destructive behavior in non-human animals. I don’t remember what her point was, so it might have been a minor thing, but still, it wasn’t true.

But this brought to mind the previous Thomistic Institute talk I went to: there, the presenter casually mentioned that humans engage in abstract reasoning, while animals don’t.

Again, this didn’t seem quite right. This study from 2007 involved teaching dogs to push a button when shown a set of pictures of dogs, and another button when shown a set of pictures of landscapes.

Interestingly, presentation of pictures providing contradictive information (novel dog pictures mounted on familiar landscape pictures) did not disrupt performance, which suggests that the dogs made use of a category-based response rule with classification being coupled to category-relevant features (of the dog) rather than to item-specific features (of the background).

Or this paper, entitled simply Concept Learning in Animals, whose abstract says:

We suggest that several of the major varieties of conceptual classes claimed to be uniquely human are also exhibited by nonhuman animals. We present evidence for the formation of several sorts of conceptual stimulus classes by nonhuman animals: perceptual classes involving classification according to the shared attributes of objects, associative classes or functional equivalences in which stimuli form a class based on common associations, relational classes, in which the conceptual relationship between or among stimuli defines the class, and relations between relations, in which the conceptual (analogical) relationship is defined by the relation between classes of stimuli. We conclude that not only are nonhuman animals capable of acquiring a wide variety of concepts, but that the underlying processes that determine concept learning are also likely to be quite similar.

No one will deny that humans can perform mental feats that non-human animals can’t, as far as we can tell. Other animals can’t play chess, prove mathematical theorems, or form complex sentences, as far as I know. But at the same time, the issue isn’t a black-and-white “humans can reason abstractly and animals can’t.”

Lastly, I’ve written at length about Thomist Edward Feser, and his ignorance of science from Newton on up.

Individually, each of these mistakes are just that: mistakes. Or ignorance: philosophers can’t be expected to be masters of nuclear physics or animal cognition. Or simplifications that gloss over a complex idea in order to make a broader point.

But collectively, I do see a pattern of Thomists being wrong on matters of science in a thousand small ways. That suggests that either they don’t bother checking whether their beliefs are true, where possible, and correct their errors, or else they have other beliefs that lead them to erroneous conclusions. And either way, if I can’t trust them on the small stuff, why should I believe them on the big stuff?


The Last Superstition: Back to the Cave

Chapter 5: Back to Plato’s cave

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

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

The sexual revolution:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Material Brains, Immaterial Software

Chapter 5: The Mind-Body Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Hedonism Killed Aquinas

Chapter 5: Descent of the Modernists

This chapter deals with modern philosophers, i.e., René Descartes and later. The first part of it is pretty much philosophical inside baseball, of little interest to those who care less about how ideas have been developed than about which conclusions were eventually reached. I’ll only point out one passage that jumped out at me. In criticizing William of Ockham and his idea that given God’s power, we can never prove the causal connection between two events (allegedly; I have to rely on Feser’s portrayal of Ockham’s ideas, and he has amply demonstrated that he’s not above erecting strawmen), Feser writes:

For if things have no shared essences, and God could have made anything follow upon anything else, then we simply cannot know with certainty that causes of type A will always be followed by effects of type B.

But Feser told us in the previous chapter that God can cause miracles, i.e. disruptions or suspensions of the normal order of things. That is, we can never be certain whether the event we observed was part of the normal order, or a miracle. That seems to me indistinguishable from what Feser is accusing Ockham of.

Feser nearly-apologizes for the fact that Aristotelianism involves such complex ideas and fine distinctions, but

This is unfortunate for the student of philosophy, but unavoidable given that the real world just is, Aristotelians would say, as complex as the vocabulary needed to describe it.

While I sympathize with this, I can’t help feeling that Aristotelianism as Feser has presented it has more in common with epicycles or homeopathy than with, say, epidemiology or library science.

Epicycles, you may recall, related to the idea that the sun and planets orbited around the earth, in circles. Except that to explain various wobbles and reversals in planetary motion, astronomers postulated an ever more complex edifice of circles upon circles upon circles. In a sense, the system was as complex as it needed to be, to explain the data. But a shift in perspective allowed astronomers to adopt the heliocentric model, which explained the data with far fewer arbitrary constants.

Homeopathy has an impressively-long list of “remedies” and a long history that practitioners will be happy to tell you about. But it also comes up with some caveats (pulled from some random homeopathy site, under “Difficulties with RCTs [Randomized Control Trials]”):

In homeopathy, treatment is usually tailored to the individual. A homeopathic prescription is based not only on the symptoms of disease in the patient but also on a host of other factors that are particular to that patient, including lifestyle, emotional health, personality, eating habits and medical history. The “efficacy” of an individualised homeopathic intervention is thus a complex blend of the prescribed medicine together with the other facets of the in-depth consultation and integrated health advice provided by the practitioner

While a homeopath might argue that homeopathy is complex because it needs to be, a skeptic might think that it needs to be complex to take credit for every success and provide an excuse for any failure.

And thus, when Feser moves on to the relationship between modern philosophy (which, you may recall, arose around the time of the Renaissance, though I don’t know whether one caused the other or not), he tells us that just because some of Aristotle’s ideas about physics were disproved, doesn’t mean that his metaphysics was wrong.

[I]t is a description of reality that is more general and basic than any scientific theory, resting as it does on facts (about change) that science itself takes for granted. Hence it is valid whatever the empirical scientific facts turn out to be; and (to repeat what was said earlier) while that doesn’t mean that it cannot be subjected to rational evaluation or criticism, such criticism can only come from some alternative metaphysical theory, not from empirical science.

This is no desperate ex post facto attempt to salvage an otherwise indefensible worldview. [p. 172]

If aristotelian metaphysics is true no matter what the empirical facts, doesn’t that make it undisprovable? And even if someone offers a competing metaphysical theory, how can we figure out which one is correct, without empirical facts? In short, where’s the reality check?

Wishing to defend Aristotelians and the Catholic church from charges of closed-mindedness, Feser writes that (emphasis added):

Galileo’s difficulty arose, not because he advocated Copernican views – he had done so for years with the knowledge and approval of the Church, and even the warm encouragement of Pope Urban VIII and several other churchmen – but rather because he rashly insisted on treating them as more than hypothetical, as having been proved when they had not, at the time, been proved at all. [p. 173]

As I recall, Galileo’s “difficulty” involved being put on trial for heresy and threatened with torture. Allow me to suggest that this seems excessive for what amounts to sloppy thinking. (At least he wasn’t set on fire like Giordano Bruno.)

Eventually, Feser tells us why, in his opinion, the world abandoned Aristotelian-Thomistic ideas:

if the general Aristotelian-Thomistic-Scholastic picture of the world is correct, then reason itself tells us that the highest kind of life is one devoted to the contemplation and service of God, that the goal of our lives here and now ought to be to prepare for the next life, and that to the extent God wants us to concern ourselves with earthly affairs, it is largely to build families (preferably with lots of children) and to find our fulfillment in sacrificing our petty desires and selfish interests for the sake of their well being. […] Needless to say, all of this rather takes the fun out of things for people who think a really grand society is one that extends the franchise to anyone with a pulse, celebrates quirky new ideas, makes it easy for you to divorce your wife if you get bored with her, and provides lots of cheap consumer goods. [p. 173]

While during my lifetime divorce has lost most of its stigma, and I’ve met many divorcés, I have never met anyone whose situation could fairly be described as “he divorced his wife because he got bored with her”, nor have I met anyone who would think this a good thing.

As for the rest of it, what’s wrong with extending the right to vote or full citizenship to other people (I assume that’s what Feser means by “the franchise”)? Or quirky new ideas? Or cheap consumer goods? (Yes, I see the problems with producing goods cheaply by paying workers slave wages, but it sounds as though Feser objects to people valuing creature comforts more highly than he does.)

And while we’re at it, why should two people who don’t want to be married to each other have to remain married?

On Bacon’s advocacy of technology to give humans control of nature:

Usefulness would replace wisdom, and pampering the body in this life would push aside preparing the soul for the next. […] And in the Baconian view, they [Scholastic categories] distract us from the one thing needful. (In other words, if Aristotle is right, then we’ll end up spending more time contemplating first principles and the state of our souls and less time thinking up new gadgets.) [pp. 175–176]

This seems very similar to the argument that “You only reject God because you want to sin!” which is about as convincing as “The only reason you reject the word of Allah is that you love bacon too much!”

Feser goes on in this vein for quite some time, assuring us that Aristotelianism was abandoned not because it doesn’t provide a useful framework for understanding the world, but because the Bad People, the selfish and hedonistic people, don’t want it to be true.

It’s too bad Feser is so opposed to modern conveniences and gadgets: you can buy tin foil hats online, these days, instead of having to make your own.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: The Problem of Evil

Chapter 4: The problem of evil

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

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

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

Getting back to Feser’s train of thought:

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

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

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

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

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

Laws of nature imply miracles

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

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

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

Auschwitz, a moral rounding error

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Software Is Immaterial

Chapter 4: Minds Are Not Material

In order to prove that human souls are immortal, Feser has to prove that there’s some part of a person that survives death, and the destruction of the body. If there’s a part of a human left behind when you remove the matter, that part must presumably be immaterial, and independent of the body (and in particular of the brain). Let’s watch how he does this:

Consider first that when we grasp the nature, essence, or form of a thing, it is necessarily one and the same form, nature, or essence that exists both in the thing and in the intellect. The form of triangularity that exists in our minds when we think about triangles is the same form that exists in actual triangles themselves; the form of “dogness” that exists in our minds when we think about dogs is the same form that exists in actual dogs; and so forth. If this weren’t the case, then we just wouldn’t really be thinking about triangles, dogs, and the like, since to think about these things requires grasping what they are, and what they are is determined by their essence or form. But now suppose that the intellect is a material thing – some part of the brain, or whatever. Then for the form to exist in the intellect is for the form to exist in a certain material thing. But for a form to exist in a material thing is just for that material thing to be the kind of thing the form is a form of; for example, for the form of “dogness” to exist in a certain parcel of matter is just for that parcel of matter to be a dog. And in that case, if your intellect was just the same thing as some part of your brain, it follows that that part of your brain would become a dog whenever you thought about dogs. “But that’s absurd!” you say. Of course it is; that’s the point. Assuming that the intellect is material leads to such absurdity; hence the intellect is not material. [p. 124]

Notice what he’s saying here: to make a triangle, you arrange matter in the shape of a triangle; to make a dog, you arrange atoms in a certain way, in the Form of a dog.

And, he tells us, in order to think about triangles, something in our cognitive process has to become like a triangle; to think about dogs, something has to become dog-like (including being dog-shaped). But since there’s no part of the brain (or, indeed, any other material part of the human body) that becomes triangular when we think of triangles, something else must be responsible for that aspect of cognition; something immaterial.

The most polite thing I can say here is “wow”. Clearly this is someone who doesn’t know the first thing about how software works, on the most basic level. I don’t expect Feser to be a programmer, but surely he realizes that the National Hurricane Center computers that simulate hurricanes don’t actually create rain and wind in the data center. That when you play World of Warcraft, there aren’t actually orcs running around somewhere.

(This reminds me of a post by Gil Dodgen at Uncommon Descent, about how a computer simulation of evolution would have to include random changes to the processor, OS, and so on. (My original response to that post here.))

Even if we granted Feser’s reasoning, above, it would only get him as far as “there’s more than just the brain; understanding the brain doesn’t mean that you understand the mind.” But he goes farther than that, telling us that “there is the fact that even though the intellect itself operates without any bodily organ” (p. 127).

If the soul can, unlike the form of a table, function apart from the matter it informs (as it does in thought), then it can also, and again unlike the form of a table, exist apart from the matter it informs, as a kind of incomplete substance. [p. 127]

Again, wow. This is like saying that since software is not hardware, it can run without any hardware. Or that since music comes down to vibrations, and since CDs don’t vibrate, that CDs aren’t involved in playing music. You wouldn’t expect to see tiny pictures if you look at a DVD through a microscope, or hear dialog if you listen to it closely enough, and yet this is the sort of mindset that Feser seems to be seriously considering, as far as I can tell.

I can understand Aristotle and Aquinas making these sorts of mistakes: they lived at a time when people didn’t really distinguish between a book, and the words in the book. So it’s natural that, in groping around for these concepts, that they would make some mistakes. But Feser doesn’t have this excuse. Not only do we distinguish between book-as-words and book-as-object, we can put a price tag on this difference: as I speak, the hardback edition of The Last Superstition sells for $18.85 at Amazon, while the Kindle ebook costs $7.36 less.

There’s a bit in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where two philosophers object to the use of a computer to figure out the Great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. One of them says, “I mean what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?” I feel we’re at that point with the “whatever it is that is the thing but isn’t matter”: Plato called it Form, Aristotle and Aquinas called it essence. We call it data, information, software, and we use it every day.

We understand software. Feser has no excuse for promulgating the sort of primitive thinking above.

Helpfully, Feser tells us why he doesn’t notice when his train of thought jumps the rails and plows across a field before getting stuck in a ditch:

Here, as elsewhere, the arguments we are considering are attempts at what I have been calling metaphysical demonstration, not probabilistic empirical theorizing. In each case, the premises are obviously true, the conclusion follows necessarily, and thus the conclusion is obviously true as well. That, at any rate, is what the arguments claim. If you’re going to refute them, then you need to show either that the premises are false or that the conclusion doesn’t really follow. […] The “findings of neuroscience” couldn’t refute these arguments any more than they could refute “2 + 2 = 4.” [pp. 125–126]

That is, Feser is so convinced that his premises are true, and that his reasoning is correct, that he doesn’t even bother with reality checks, though he does bring up science when it suits him:

When does the rational soul’s presence in the body begin? At conception. For a soul is just the form – the essence, nature, structure, organizational pattern – of a living thing, an organism. And the human organism, as we know from modern biology, begins at conception. [p. 128]

Not that he bothers citing any biologist to confirm this statement. Maybe this is one of those “obviously true” premises that he doesn’t feel the need to defend.

Far from any of this being undermined by modern science, it is confirmed by it. For the nature and structure of DNA is exactly the sort of thing we should expect to exist given an Aristotelian metaphysical conception of the world, and not at all what we would expect if materialism were true.

Oh, really? Then I’d love to see the book where Aquinas predicts the existence of a double-helix with “backbones” made of coal and phosphorus, scooping those atheist materialists, Francis Crick and James Watson, by centuries. Unless, of course, he’s just doing the same thing that every other apologist does: wait until scientists do the hard work of discovering something, then say, “Pfft! My god could’ve done that. In fact, he did, if you squint at this scripture just right.”

Naah, it’s definitely medieval prescience.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Animal Souls

Chapter 4: Scholastic Aptitude

Having introduced his main themes in chapters 1-3, Feser now elaborates upon them, starting with

The Soul

a soul is just the form or essence of a living thing. [p. 121]

And the form or essence, you’ll recall, is the whatever-it-is that makes a thing the sort of thing that it is. For triangles, the essence is triangularity (i.e., being a three-sided polygon).

One might think, then, that the soul of a human would be whatever it means to be human. Humanity or humanness, that is. But from context, that doesn’t seem right: humanness is something shared by all people, while the soul has traditionally been an individual thing. That is, while Martha Washington and Nelson Mandela have the same essence of humanness, they have distinct souls.

He goes on to classify souls into a hierarchy: at the bottom are “nutritive souls”, which plants have, and allow them to take in nutrients and reproduce. Above that is the “sensory soul”, which does everything a nutritive soul does, plus sense the world around, and move. Nonhuman animals have sensory souls. And finally, there are “rational souls” — human souls — which have everything that sensory souls have, plus the capacity for abstract thought.

Clearly, this classification is based far more in medieval preconceptions than in modern biology. For one thing, the venus flytrap seems to have a sensory soul, since it clearly senses its environment. For another, there’s no mention of bacteria, which can fit in either category as well. (I’ll grant that, almost certainly, only animals can fit into the “rational” category.)

But the distinction between nutritive and sensory souls isn’t nearly as important as that between sensory and rational souls, since the point is to discuss the mind, and certain things that follow from that, like morality. And here is where Feser really ought to have done himself a favor and looked into current research on animal intelligence.

A quick Google search turned up this Scientific American article about, well, abstract reasoning in animals. I wasn’t surprised that apes exhibit abstract reasoning (the experiment was, roughly, to see whether orangutans and a gorilla could answer the question, “Here’s a picture; here’s another picture; is it the same kind of animal as the first picture?”), but I was surprised that dogs can exhibit abstract reasoning as well, being able to distinguish dogs from non-dogs by sight. Crows can this as well, distinguishing “this is a set of similar things” from “this is a set of dissimilar things”.

More recently, an experiment seems to have shown that apes have theory of mind. That is, gorillas and other apes can figure out what another individual believes, even when that belief is false.

Feser will, I am sure, reply that this isn’t the sort of high-level abstract reasoning that defines a rational soul, and put forth further criteria, but that’s exactly my point: the line between humans and other species isn’t nearly as wide as it might appear; certainly not as wide as Aristotle and Aquinas probably thought. And, of course, our ancestors evolved from clearly-non-rational animals to clearly-rational humans.

Do gorillas or orangutans have rational souls, if at least some of them can, at least on occasion, reason abstractly? It certainly seems to be one of their potentialities, as I understand Feser’s use of the term elsewhere.

More about rationality (emphasis and comments added):

Rationality – the ability to grasp forms or essences and to reason on the basis of them – has as its natural end or final cause the attainment of truth, of understanding the world around us. [Says who? I would have said this is the natural end of curiosity, not of rationality. — arensb] And free will has as its natural end or final cause the choice of those actions that best accord with the truth as it is discovered by reason, and in particular in accord with the truth about a human being’s own nature or essence. [What does this even mean? — arensb] That is, as we shall see, exactly what morality is from the point of view of Aristotle and Aquinas: the habitual choice of actions that further the hierarchically ordered natural ends entailed by human nature. [Who decides which ends are natural? — arensb] But the intellect’s capacity to know the truth is more fully realized the deeper one’s understanding of the nature of the world and the causes underlying it. And the deepest truth about the world, as we have seen, is that it is caused and sustained in being by God. The highest fulfillment of the distinctively human power of intellect, then, is, for Aristotle and Aquinas, to know God. And since the will’s natural end or purpose is to choose in accordance with the furtherance of those ends entailed by human nature, the highest fulfillment of free choice is to live in a way that facilitates the knowing of God. [p. 122]

The description of free will, here, is not one that I’ve ever seen. The core of free will, as I’ve usually heard it, is the ability to make decisions without external influence; what Feser is describing sounds more like “figuring out what’s true, the better to attain a desired goal”. The two concepts are related, but different.

The definition of morality also looks weird. Feser seems to be saying that morality involves learning to live in accordance with human nature. But as I think any parent will tell you, children need to be taught not to steal, or hit their siblings and playmates. And thus, contra Feser, morality seems to be about learning to overcome the less-desirable aspects of human nature, that we might live together with minimal friction.

I pointed out earlier some of what I saw as quite shoddy reasoning on Feser’s part, and why I didn’t find his arguments for God convincing. And given that, as he tells us, Aristotelianism/Thomism has been abandoned by modern scholar, neither do a lot of other people. And thus at a minimum, Feser ought to use his rationality to come up with a better way of getting at the truth, either a better argument for God or an admission that the ones he’s using aren’t all that good.

All in all, though, this paragraph exhibits, in spades, the sort of thinking that gives theology a bad name: redefining common terms in unfamiliar ways, and making questionable-at-best leaps of logic from one clause to the next, to arrive at one’s desired conclusion.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: The First Cause

Chapter 3: The First Cause

If you thought Feser’s “Unmoved mover” argument was just mental masturbation, the sort of sophistry that gives philosophy a bad reputation and evokes the image of a tweed-wearing ivory tower professor using five-dollar words to ask meaningless questions, then you can skip his First Cause section, because it’s more of the same.

He begins by asking,

In order for the universe to undergo change, it obviously must exist. In particular, it must persist in existence from moment to moment. So why does it do so? [p. 109]

In the previous section, we saw that Aquinas assumed, as so many did, that objects in motion stop of their own accord, and need something to keep them going; and that Newton showed that that’s not a general rule, it’s just the way things usually play out on Earth.

Feser’s question here seems to stem from the same source: that there has to be some sustaining force for the universe to not collapse on itself and disappear in an instant. It seems that “things are the way they were a moment ago” isn’t the sort of thing that needs an explanation. If the universe did disappear, that would be a big change, something that required an explanation.

But Feser prefers to go on for a few pages about essences and “creating cause[s]”. I’ll spare you. The main question is, if B caused A, and C caused B, what happens as you go up the chain of causes?

No, the only thing that could possibly stop the regress and explain the entire series would be a being who is, unlike the things that make up the universe, not a compound of essence and existence. That is to say, it would have to be a being whose essence just is existence; or, more precisely, a being to whom the essence/existence distinction doesn’t apply at all, who is pure existence, pure being, full stop: not a being, strictly speaking, but Being Itself. [p. 108]

I’m not sure why the above is a better ultimate explanation than “it’s just that way” (I mean better in the sense of helping us understand the world around us, not in the sense of being emotionally satisfying.)

You might wonder why, if the cause of the universe is, ultimately, existence, why we need a separate word, especially one with as much baggage as the word “God”. In the next paragraph, he tells us: the first cause is the prime mover, and “Hence, equally obviously, the First Cause is God. [p. 108]”

The Supreme Intelligence

True to form, Feser starts and ends this section with several pages of complaining about New Atheists and others. When he finally gets around to making his argument, he starts by raising the question of why the universe exhibits any regularities:

But there is no way to make sense of these regularities apart from the notion of final causation, of things being directed toward an end or goal. For it is not just the case that a struck match regularly generates fire, heat, and the like; it regularly generates fire and heat specifically, rather than ice, or the smell of lilacs, or the sound of a trumpet. It is not just the case that the moon regularly orbits the earth in a regular pattern; it orbits the earth specifically, rather than quickly swinging out to Mars and back now and again, or stopping dead for five minutes here and there, or dipping down toward the earth occasionally and then quickly popping back up. [p. 114]

This seems equivalent to asking, “why is it, in the general case, that things left to their own devices act in certain ways but not others?”

He continues:

And so on for all the innumerable regularities that fill the universe at any moment. In each case, the causes don’t simply happen to result in certain effects, but are evidently and inherently directed toward certain specific effects as toward a “goal.” [p. 115]

Note the teleology — or, if you will, the question-begging: things behave in a certain way, so that must be their end-aim, purpose, or “goal”. But you can’t have a purpose without someone deciding what the purpose is:

Yet it is impossible for anything to be directed toward an end unless that end exists in an intellect which directs the thing in question toward it. [p. 115]

I believe this is known as painting a target around the arrow: the moon orbits the earth, therefore its purpose is to orbit the earth. But since you can’t have a purpose without a mind, someone must have set it up that way.

Could such a Supreme Intelligence possibly be anything less than God? It could not. For whatever ultimately orders things to their ends must also be the ultimate cause of those things [p. 117]

By this logic, the architect who decided to assemble bricks into a house — that the house is the end goal and purpose of the bricks — is also the person who baked the bricks. It seems apparent that Feser is not interested in following evidence and logic wherever they lead, but rather in finding paths to his favorite conclusion. That is, apologetics.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: The Unmoved Mover

Chapter 3: The Existence of God: The Unmoved Mover

First of all, “movement” in this context really means change of any kind, not necessarily motion through space. Yes, I know this is annoying and confusing.

Feser introduces two kinds of causes: accidentally ordered and essentially ordered. (Here, “accidentally” doesn’t mean “by misfortune”, and “essentially” doesn’t mean “more or less”; they’re terms of art.) A father causes a son, but if the father dies, the son can keep going; so the father and son are “accidentally ordered”. But if your hand pushes a stick that in turn pushes a stone along the ground, the stone will stop moving when the stick stops pushing on it, and the stick will stop moving when the hand stops pushing it; so the hand, stick, and stone are “essentially ordered”. You can have an arbitrarily deep essentially ordered stack of things that depend on each other, each one depending on the previous item on the list:

These sorts of series paradigmatically trace, not backwards in time, but rather “downward” in the present moment, since they are series in which each member depends simultaneously on other members which simultaneously depend in turn on yet others, on so on. In this sort of series, the later members have no independent causal power of their own, being mere instruments of a first member. Hence if there were no first member, such a series would not exist at all. [p. 93]

The emphasis on “simultaneously” is Feser’s, and at first I thought he was using the word in some technical sense that doesn’t mean “in the same instant of time”, rather the same way that “accidentally” doesn’t mean “by accident”, above. But no, apparently he does[1], and that’s a problem.

Aquinas and his predecessors couldn’t have known this, of course, but nothing is instantaneous. The stick in the example acts more like a very fast spring: when the hand pushes on it, it compresses the top end of the stick a little bit; this causes a wave to travel very quickly down the length of the stick and push on the rock, so really the rock starts moving a tiny fraction of a second after the hand starts pushing on it (and likewise when the hand stops pushing).

And even if Feser didn’t know this, surely he has a driver’s license, which means he must have taken a test that required him to know about braking distance, which is a problem because it takes time for a nerve impulse to travel down from the brain to the driver’s hands and feet. So the rock will stop moving a larger fraction of a second after the person holding the stick decides to stop pushing.

Or consider a mountain stream that’s fed by a glacier, which in turn is built up by regular snowfall. If the weather patterns change and snow stops falling, the glacier will melt and the stream will stop flowing… eventually. A century might elapse between the cause stopping, and the effect stopping.

So simultaneity doesn’t work, here (and I’m not even bringing up relativity and the fact that two observers might not agree on whether two events are simultaneous). But perhaps it’s possible to salvage this idea: the big distinction seems to be between effects that get kickstarted by their cause, and ones that are sustained by their cause. So let’s go with that. More on this in a bit.

Another problem with the stick example is that the stone doesn’t stop simply because the hand stops pushing it: as Newton explained, four hundred years after Aquinas, a body in motion continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an outside force. The outside force, in this case, being friction with he ground. It must be remembered that Newton’s first law was quite counterintuitive and revolutionary for its time, so we can forgive Aquinas for not counting the earth as an important actor in this example, but Feser ought to know better.

At any rate, we were talking about essentially-ordered series, where each element is sustained by the previous one.

How far can it go? Not that far, actually; certainly not to infinity. [p. 95]

Okay, why not? Feser doesn’t say. He uses the example of an infinitely-long train, where car 1 pulls the caboose, car 2 pulls car 1, car 3 pulls car 2, and so on, but there’s no engine at the head of the train.

Well, yes. Infinities are counterintuitive (see this short video about the Hilbert Hotel, which has an infinite number of rooms). And the idea of an inifinitely-long causal chain is unsettling (at least, I find it unsettling), but I see no reason a priori why there can’t be an infinitely-long causal chain.

Worse yet, since time does weird things at huge relativistic scales, and at tiny quantum scales, I can’t rule out the possibility of a closed loop of causes, where A causes B and B causes A.

But okay, maybe there’s something I’m overlooking. Where’s Feser going with this?

Now, a first mover in such a series must be itself unmoved or unchanging; for if it was moving or changing – that is, going from potential to actual – then there would have to be something outside it actualizing its potential, in which case it wouldn’t be the first mover. […] The series can only stop, that is to say, with a being that is pure actuality (or “Pure Act,” to use the Scholastic phrase), with no admixture of potentiality whatsoever. And having no potentiality to realize or actualize, such a being could not possibly move or change. [pp. 95–96]

[…] Aquinas goes on to say: “. . . and this we call God.” [p. 96]

So that was a long and bumpy road to say that “God” is the first cause.

For some reason, Feser never explores any cause-effect relationship other than chains. We saw above that the rock stopped moving for two reasons: the earth and gravity exerted friction, and the hand and stick were no longer applying sufficient force to overcome this friction. So an effect can have multiple causes, and those causes can in turn have multiple causes, and it’s not always as simple as A causes B causes C. Perhaps there are gazillions of uncaused causes all around us.

And now we see why Feser insisted that essentially-ordered causes and effects be simultaneous: he wants there to be a god now. Just having sustaining causes, as with the glacier and stream, would imply that it’s possible that God started and sustained the universe (like the snow on the glacier), but then disappeared, and the universe will eventually notice and stop running, but hasn’t done so just yet.

Of course, all this makes the unmoved mover sound rather abstract, more like an abstract principle than the sort of anthropomorphic deity who cures cancer when prayed to.

“Well, uh, OK, then,” you might be thinking; “but what does that have to do with God as the average person understands Him?” A lot, actually. For once we have this much in hand, we can go on to deduce all sorts of things about what a being of Pure Actuality would have to be like, and it turns out that such a being would have to be like the God of traditional Western religious belief.

How? Because Courtier’s Reply is how. Aquinas and other theologians have written thousands of pages on the subject — thousands! — therefore it must be so.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair:

Now recall the Aristotelian principle that a cause cannot give what it does not have, so that the cause of a feature must have that feature either “formally” or “eminently”; that is, if it does not have the feature itself (as a cigarette lighter, which causes fire, is not itself on fire), it must have a feature that is higher up in the hierarchy of attributes (as the cigarette lighter has the power to generate fire). But the Unmoved Mover, as the source of all change, is the source of things coming to have the attributes they have. Hence He has these attributes eminently if not formally. That includes every power, so that He is all-powerful. It also includes the intellect and will that human beings possess (features far up in the hierarchy of attributes of created things, as we will see in the next chapter), so that He must be said to have intellect and will, and thus personality, in an analogical sense. Indeed, he must have them in the highest degree, lacking any of the limitations that go along with being a material creature or otherwise having potentiality. Hence He not only has knowledge, but knowledge without limit, being all-knowing. [p. 98]

“And that, my liege, is how we know the Earth to be banana-shaped.”

What a remarkable reversal! At the beginning of the paragraph, Feser tells us that a lighter can cause fire despite not being itself on fire; at the end, he says that God caused intelligence, and therefore must be intelligent. Presumably the explanation is that God’s intelligence is eminent, i.e. God is intelligent in the same way that a car’s cigarette lighter is on fire, which is to say, it isn’t. We now see why Feser defined causation the way he did, using language that suggested that things have attributes inside them that they can release onto other things: he’s defined God to be an abstract principle, something perhaps akin to the Tao, but he also wants this god to have intelligence, benevolence, and so on. He squares this particular circle by playing word games, saying that a cause contains the effect “eminently”, where “eminently” means “doesn’t contain”.

Does this mean that the Unmoved Mover has what we would regard as negative or defective features too – blindness, disease, heroin addiction, etc., “eminently” if not “formally”? Not at all. For every such feature is what the Scholastics called a “privation,” the absence of a positive feature rather than a positive feature in its own right. [p. 99]

I suppose it follows that God does not lack a yeast infection, because that would be a privation. I guess it’s possible that “positive feature” here means “feature that someone wants; an asset”, but that would be begging the question. (Also, I thought addiction was basically poorly-tuned brain chemistry. How does it qualify as a “privation”?)

And while I’m sure the thousands of pages have an answer, it seems to me that the unmoved mover defined above isn’t the Christian God: Feser is quite insistent that the unmoved mover has no potentialities, i.e., it’s static; there’s nothing it can become that it isn’t already; no attribute it might gain that it doesn’t already have.

But Jesus’ life and resurrection is an important part of Christianity, or at least of Feser’s flavor of Christianity, Catholicism. According to the story, Jesus lived and was divine, and then died, at least his human body did. So God wasn’t incarnated, and then was incarnated, and then wasn’t. So incarnation must have been one of Yahweh’s original potentialities, which means that he can’t be the unmoved mover described above.

So maybe Muslims are right after all: Allah has no son.

[1] In a post on the subject, he had to reach into the depths of science fiction to come up with a non-simultaneous example.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Who Is This God Person, Anyway?

Chapter 3: The Existence of God

So when people say “God”, what sort of entity are they talking about?

Many secularists seem hell-bent (if you’ll pardon the expression) on pretending that religious people in general believe in a God so anthropomorphic that only a child or the most ignorant peasant could take the question of His existence seriously even for a moment. I know I’ve heard the stupid “Easter Bunny” comparison often enough to make me want to scream [p.87]

I’m afraid Feser needs to come down from the ivory tower more often. He’s making the argument that Daniel Fincke satirized at Camels With Hammers. If no (or only an insignificant minority of) religious people in general think that God is, basically, an old man who watches everyone, then who keeps buying Chick tracts and leaving them in public places? Who keeps handing me flyers with titles like “Heaven is real and hell is real”?

Feser prefers sneering over hard data, but there is data out there. This Gallup poll from June 2016, for example, tells us that 72% of Americans believe in angels, 71% in heaven, 64% in hell, and 615 in the devil. The Pew research Center’s 2015 Religious Landscape Survey also tells us that 31% of American adults think scripture is the word of God and should be taken literally. Gallup also tells us that around 40% of Americans think that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so”.

As I write this, Mother Teresa of Kolkata was canonized less than a week ago, something that required her to perform two miracles. In this case, two people were allegedly healed of their diseases (at least one while receiving medical care) and the Catholic church’s ruling that these are miracles means that yes, God somehow arranged for the natural course of nature to be suspended so that these people could be healed.

In fairness to Feser, though, I must point out that I wasn’t able to find any surveys on whether or not God has a beard.

But the point is that a lot of people do believe in God as a being who, if not man-shaped, certainly does many things that humans do, like watch over the ones he loves and intervene on their behalf. Feser can dismiss people who believe this as ignorant peasants if he likes, but he can’t claim that they’re an insignificant minority. And if this many people believe in “so anthropomorphic” a God, then Feser’s side has a lot of work to do, educating the people in the pews. And in the meantime, if he wants to say that there’s no man in the sky who’ll help you find a parking space if you pray to him, well, welcome to this side of the debate.

(Credit for the title goes to Douglas Adams.)

Series: The Last Superstition