The Last Superstition: A Grab-Bag of Objections

Chapter 5: Universal acid

Here Feser continues his earlier theme, listing more alleged problems caused by modernism. This is a grab-bag of philosophical problems, and while a lot of them are interesting in and of themselves, for the most part they have little or nothing to do with atheism — New or otherwise — and seem to be included here primarily so that Feser throw up his hands, declare these problems insoluble, and run back to aristotelianism. So I’ll be skipping a lot.

The problem of skepticism

In Aristotelianism, when the mind thinks about a thing, that thing’s essence exists in the mind. That is, when you think about a triangle, there’s triangularity in your mind. But if there’s no such matching of like to like (the universal triangularity impressing triangularity on your mind), how, Feser would like to know, can there be knowledge? Without universals, presumably there can be only representations.

I’m not sure I see a problem. This seems to be like asking how NOAA’s National Hurricane Center’s computer models can “be about” hurricanes without wind and rain in the data center.

Personal identity

In Feser’s view, a human being is a composite of soul and body, and a blastocyst is as much of a human being as Desmond Tutu or Terry Schiavo. But if we don’t start with these premises, then we have to figure out what constitutes a person. For instance, does the Star Trek transporter kill a person each time? (That is, it destroys one body and creates an identical one some distance away.) Various non-aristotelian approaches create paradoxes, or gray areas, or conclusions that Feser doesn’t like (e.g., that our lives have as much value as we give them), so they must be wrong.

Free will

In aristotelianism, there’s a significant difference between considered, voluntary action and involuntary action; between, say, proposing to your girlfriend after thinking about it for a year, and a hiccup (bold face added):

The formal and final causes of the action – that which gives intelligible structure to the movements – is just the soul considered as a kind of form, and in particular the activities of thinking and willing that are distinctive of the soul’s intellective and volitional powers. The action is free precisely because it has this as its form, rather than having the form, say, of an involuntary muscular spasm. [p. 208]

whereas under materialism,

human behavior differs in degree but not in kind from the behavior of billiard balls and soap suds. [p. 209]

This seems to be a case of mistaking the simplicity of the model for its purpose. That is, a person might say that the mind is ultimately deterministic, and bring up a model of a deterministic system that’s simple enough to be easily understood (billiard balls) by way of illustration. The other person thinks, “minds aren’t simple like billiard balls! This model must be wrong.”

But beyond this, I don’t see that aristotelianism really solves anything: Feser’s summary, above, seems to say that an action (like the decision to marry) is free if it has the Form of a free action. That sounds, well, arbitrary. How can we find out which actions have the Form of free actions? That is, how do we define “free action”? I’m sure there’s an interesting discussion to be had, but it’ll have to do with where to draw the boundary between “free” and “not free”, and I don’t see how casting this in terms of Forms or essences helps.

Natural rights

In Feser’s model, humans are rational animals by virtue of having human DNA, and we’ve all been given the same purposes: to know God, to reproduce, and so on. Thus, we have a right not to have those purposes interfered with.

But if you don’t start with Feser’s model, morality becomes messy and complicated. Not only that, but people come to different conclusions about what is and isn’t moral than they did in centuries past (Feser doesn’t say which, but I’m guessing he means gay rights). So he will have none of it.

Morality in general

This section boils down to, “How can we figure out what’s right and what’s wrong without being able to check our answers in the back of the book?” He throws in the usual conservative arguments about how if morality isn’t objective, then everything is just a matter of personal preference and whim:

Nor does [Hume] really have anything to say to a group of sociopaths – Nazis, communists, jihadists, pro-choice activists, or whomever – who seek to remake society in their image, by social or genetic engineering, say. [p. 213]

I like to point out that while the statement “life is better than death” is subjective — and you can find people who would disagree with it — the statement “the vast majority of people would rather live than die” is objective. And if we’re trying to come up with a set of rules that allow us to get along as best we can, then “don’t kill people” is a good one, since it’ll line up with their desires 99.999+% of the time, and they in turn won’t try to kill you back, which almost certainly lines up with your own desires.

Yes, a lot of the details, and even many of the broad strokes, are messy and uncertain. But I think we can all see a difference between, say, life under the British Parliament and life under the Taliban.

Well, maybe not all of us:

This attitude [acceptance of the “social contract” — arensb] has largely prevailed, though by no means completely, which is why modern Western civilization is only largely a stinking cesspool, and not yet entirely one. Give the Humeans and contractarians time though. [p. 215]

Thank you for that ray of sunshine.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Reasoning With Aquinas

Chapter 3: Aquinas’s logical reasoning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Aristotelianism Recap

Chapter 2: Aristotelianism recap

As you may have noticed by how long that last post was, I can’t seem to go more than a few pages without stumbling on something illogical, or nonsensical, or just plain wrong. It’s not because I’m trying to be picky or combative; it’s just that I keep trying to apply the ideas Feser presents to real life, and failing.

I asked earlier which Forms an iPhone 7 instantiates. One could also ask how to determine what a thing’s final cause is. Feser never tells us. At times, he talks about such things being obvious (e.g., that various organs have obvious purposes (p.70); but then, what is the purpose of the human appendix, or of male nipples?), but this doesn’t help with non-obvious cases.

So aristotelianism sounds appealing on the surface, but turns out not to be a useful way of thinking about reality.

Now, I’m sure someone can tell me why I’m wrong about every example I bring up, but in this respect, aristotelianism is no different from homeopathy or astrology: practitioners of those disciplines are quick to dismiss any objection or anomalous result by saying that you forgot to take into account Saturn’s rotation, or the precise minute of your birth, or suggest a better substance to use from the catalog, or whatever. After a while, it becomes apparent that the discipline has a large grab-bag of excuses for every occasion.

One problem with final causes specifically is that they seem to be a way to impose teleology on the universe. It’s very tempting to look at the world and say that hearts are for pumping blood, or that the sun is for light and warmth. It’s obvious. But, to quote Granny Weatherwax in Wyrd Sisters, “I’ll grant you it’s obvious. Trouble is, just because things are obvious doesn’t mean they’re true.”

Creationists, in my experience, are prone to this sort of teleological thinking. It takes effort to show them that it’s far better to ask “what can this organ do?” rather than “what is this organ for?” For instance, a butterfly’s wing helps it fly. It is supremely good at this task. But it also serves to advertise its colors to potential mates. In the case of monarch butterflies, the wings also advertise to predators that “this butterfly tastes awful.”

This will become significant later on. For now, suffice it to say that Feser seems to take it for granted that everything or nearly everything — at least, everything important under discussion — has a final cause, that is, that it’s for something, or that it’s oriented toward some goal or purpose.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Aristotle’s Metaphysics

Chapter 2: Greeks Bearing Gifts, Aristotle’s metaphysics

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

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

At least he doesn’t mess about.

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

PS, he is not a crackpot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what?

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

Form and matter

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

The four causes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Formal and eminent causation

One last thing before moving on:

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

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

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

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

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Toothpaste and Universal Concepts

Chapter 2: Greeks Bearing Gifts, continued.

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

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

But later in the paragraph, he tells us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, Feser assumes his conclusion and ignores complicating factors:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Plato’s Forms

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

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

Plato’s Theory of Forms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Skip Ahead

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feser’s tone

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Preface

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

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

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

Preface and Acknowledgments

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

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

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

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

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

(Bold emphasis added; italics in the original).

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

Series: The Last Superstition

An Ultimate Cause

I’ve run into the cosmological argument several times lately, probably due to the people I’ve been engaging with on Twitter. Roughly speaking, it goes something like this:

  1. Pretty much everything we see around us was caused by something else.
  2. If you follow the causal chain backward, you’ll eventually wind up with something that doesn’t itself have a cause.
  3. Let’s call this “God”.

This is nice and all, but one problem I have with this argument is that it tells us nothing about “God” aside from not having a cause. So I thought I’d come up with some. This isn’t formal; hell, it doesn’t even rise to the level of “hypothesis”.

The universe we live in is subject to various laws, like gravity, the Pauli exclusion principle (that certain types of particles can’t be in the same place at the same time), and so on.

If you look at it mathematically, the universe is a gigantic automaton, where the current state of the universe follows, by certain rules, from the previous state of the universe. Even if the rules aren’t deterministic (e.g., there’s a certain probability that a virtual particle pair will appear out of nowhere at a given time), that means there are multiple possible futures. In any case, our universe is but a minuscule twig on an inconceivably-vast tree of imaginable universes: ones where gravity is slightly stronger or weaker; ones with two dimensions of space and two of time; ones that recollapsed twelve seconds after their Big Bang, and so on.

Go ahead and throw in a multiverse, if you like. Or multiple multiverses with their own possible laws. You can put that inside a meta-multiverse as well, and a meta-meta-multiverse, and so on. It doesn’t matter. It’s all just math. As long as everything is internally consistent, it’s all good.

If you had the hardware (and, of course, we don’t), it would be possible to simulate all this. Not that it matters, because our physical universe is as real to us as a simulated world would be to its inhabitants. Really, what matters is the mathematical relationships between each successive state of the universe.

But of course mathematical relationships don’t depend on hardware, or physical reality: when we say that 1+1=2, we’re saying that if we had an apple and added another apple, then we’d have two apples. It’s true whether the apples actually exist or not.

In other words (and yes, I realize I’m driving headlong into stoner rambling territory), what if we’re all inside a simulation that’s running on nothing? We perceive the universe because it is internally-consistent. Or to put it another way, the universe (or universes) is as real as addition.

So let’s say that some brilliant mathematician figures out that “nothing exists” (in the sense of “why is there something instead of nothing”) is mathematically-incoherent, that it only seems to make sense in English because we don’t see the full ramifications of that statement? That, in other words, something exists because it can’t be otherwise? And from that, all the universes follow.

This theorem, that “there has to be something because it can’t be otherwise” would then, as far as I can tell, fulfill all the necessary requirements of an ultimate cause, a prime mover, and whatever your favorite cosmological argument requires. It’s the first cause, it exists outside of space and time, and so on.

But notice what it isn’t: it’s not a mind. It’s not alive. It doesn’t give a damn about whether you and the rest of humanity live or die; it doesn’t even have the cognitive apparatus to know this. It doesn’t communicate with humans, doesnt’ tell them where to stick their genitalia. It doesn’t respond to prayer. And it certainly won’t send you to hell if you’re not nice enough to it.

It is, in short, something completely different from what most people have in mind when they use the word “God”. And I’ve never seen a sophisticated theologian describe what they mean by “God” in any way similar to the above, so consider this my modest contribution to theology.

So now, if you use an ultimate-cause argument, I’m going to ask whether my theorem-as-first-cause fits the bill; and if so, why I should believe in a Galilean carpenter instead.

It’s Too Soon to Ask for Evidence, and What Is Evidence, Anyway?

Let’s take a peek over at Eve Keneinan’s post Keeping Track, which recounts a Twitter discussion between her, @MrOzAtheist, and Mark Houlsby, about Houlsby’s assertion that

There is no evidence for God. Therefore God does not exist.

Here’s a representative excerpt from Keneinan’s recap/rebuttal:

But evidence is an epistemological concept, pertaining to knowledge, to how we know that something exists or not, and what its properties are. Existence on the other hand is a metaphysical or ontological concept.

And another:

His claim that MH1: There is no evidence for God is already defeated by AMH1: It is possible there is evidence of God that has not yet be discovered.  I of course hold there is evidence for God, and plenty of it, [and so on, and so on]

And this (emphasis added):

I and others have attempted to refute this argument by arguing “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” We proffered plausible counterexamples: such things as protons (at one time), intelligent life in the Andromeda galaxy, and black holes (at one time). We argued that it is overwhelmingly likely that there are things for which we do not yet have evidence.

Go read, or at least skim, the whole thing if you’re curious.

In my experience, this sort of argument isn’t at all unusual for the more intellectual, ivory-tower sort of apologist. But here’s the thing: Keneinan says that “at one time” there wasn’t evidence for black holes. That “at one time” was on the order of a century: it was 101 years ago that Karl Schwarzschild discovered the radius around a collapsed star that bears his name.

A hundred years ago, we couldn’t sequence DNA because we didn’t know its shape and didn’t understand its role in reproduction. Hell, we hadn’t even isolated insulin yet.

Keneinan uses the word “galaxy” in the full knowledge that everyone knows what that is, and why it’s difficult to find life there. But a hundred years ago, we didn’t know that those fuzzy blobs in telescopes were in fact other cosmic islands of stars like our Milky Way. We didn’t know about the expanding universe or the Big Bang.

Meanwhile, we’ve had Islam for 1400 years, Christianity for 2000, Judaism for over 3000, and they’re still stuck on “well, you can’t disprove God” and “what constitutes evidence, anyway?”

You’d think that if there were any solid evidence for God, it would’ve shown up by now.