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: Conclusion

So now that we’ve come to the end of the book, what have we learned? There are two comments that stick in my mind. One is by Steve Watson:

I think Aristotle systematized a lot of what we now call folk physics and folk biology, which was a good enough way to start, back then

While neither Steve nor I offer any data to support this, I think it’s a pretty good explanation: a lot of what Aristotle thought, or at least what Feser reports as Aristotle’s belief, reads like someone trying to systematize what he saw around him — what would later become physics — but handicapped by not having observational tools like microscopes, or even mental tools like the scientific method.
The other comment is at Chris Hallquist’s blog, by reader Patrick:

[Feser] interacts with people in two ways. 1) Patiently explaining what Augustinian metaphysics is, in the apparently belief that if he just explains in sufficient detail, people will have an “Aha!” moment and come around. 2) Railing at them in rage because, in spite of all his explanations, they refuse to admit that Augustinian metaphysics are self evidently true. Obviously, since Augustinian metaphysics are self evidently true per hypothesis, the only explanation for someone’s refusal to admit that they’re true is either astounding stupidity and ignorance, or else a willful and culpable refusal to publicly admit what they know to be true.

This comes through well in The Last Superstition. For all his explanations of Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas, he fails to answer a lot of elementary questions, like how we can find out which Forms an object instantiates. This makes sense if he thinks what he’s explaining is obvious, and can’t see it from an outsider’s perspective.
As for his attitude toward people who don’t agree with him, well, I’ve mentioned Feser’s tone a few times. Suffice it to say that I agree with Patrick.

But beyond the book itself, what else can we learn?
I was originally surprised at the number of positive reviews the book got on Amazon, given the number of elementary fallacies Feser commits. But in retrospect, it makes sense: like all successful apologists, Feser is good at reassuring people who already hold religious beliefs that it’s okay to hold those beliefs. This is partly due to what Steve Watson pointed out above: that Aristotle tried to formalize folk science. That is, Feser is able not only to present a framework of ideas rather than a grab-bag of intuitions, he can also recruit one of the biggest names in philosophy to lend weight to his argument.

Finally, I think this book is useful for its insight into someone else’s mind. In particular, it seems to me that Platonic Forms (and Aristotle’s essences) are a type of essentialism. There are (at least) two ways of looking at the world: one is that things are whatever they are, and it’s up to us to draw boundaries; some things are worth calling “triangle”, and some aren’t. A triangle drawn with straightedge and pencil may not be perfect, but it can still be called a triangle; but at some point, a chalk doodle is so different from a perfect triangle that it no longer deserves the name. A person who hasn’t eaten meat for a day probably shouldn’t be called a vegetarian, but someone who hasn’t eaten meat for ten years probably should. That is, sometimes there are clear ways to define the categories that interest us, while at other times we need to draw arbitrary lines. But ultimately, it’s up to us.

The other view is that the categories are already there, and have been since the beginning of time. We merely need to figure out which category an item belongs in. In my experience, a lot of creationists think this way: they can’t grasp the idea of new species appearing, because to them, if the descendants of a fish are so different as to not be worth calling fish anymore, then they must be in one of the other categories: dogs, or birds, or dinosaurs, or something.

Likewise, as Feser argues, if you see a three-week-old fetus and a thirty-year-old woman as having the same human essence, as their single most important characteristic, then it’s easy to see abortion as murder.

So while I don’t think the book adds to my understanding of either science or philosophy, it is useful in understanding how a lot of people on the right think.

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: 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: Let’s Meet Aquinas

Chapter 3: Getting Medieval

Having laid the groundwork in Chapter 2, Feser now moves on to the star of the show, Thomas Aquinas. He opens the chapter with a story of Aquinas overlooking a woman’s achievements, and instead interrupting her with a comment about her body:

he once came upon “a holy nun who used to be levitated in ecstasy.” His reaction was to comment on how very large her feet were. “This made her come out of her ecstasy in indignation at his rudeness, whereupon he gently advised her to seek greater humility.” [p. 74]

And one about attacking a woman, when his brothers locked him up in the family castle (bold added):

When the brothers upped the ante by sending a prostitute into his room, he famously chased her away with a flaming brand snatched from the fireplace and then used it to draw a cross on the wall, before which he prayed for, and received, the gift of lifelong chastity. [p. 74]

Section What Aquinas didn’t say

Feser starts out by spending five pages berating Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett. This can be skipped.

I should note that Feser berates both Dawkins and Dennett for either mangling or not devoting much space to the classical — i.e., Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s — proofs for God. But he also keeps telling us what a mistake it was for the world of philosophy to abandon these ideas. In other words, he criticizes Dawkins and Dennett for not paying attention to ideas that are not widely embraced even by philosophers and theologians. If he can’t convince his colleagues to accept Thomism, why should the rest of us spend any time on it?

The other thing I’d like to pause on is this quotation on p.79:

The author of a sympathetic recent study of Dennett’s philosophy acknowledges that the “consensus evaluation” of Dennett’s work among his academic peers is that while it is “undeniably creative and important,” it “lacks philosophical depth and is not systematic.” [Tadeusz Zawidzki, Dennett (Onewold Publications, 2007), p. ix]

This quotation comes from the opening paragraph of the preface:

I came to this project with some standard assumptions about Dennett’s work. I have been reading Dennett since deciding to major in philosophy as an undergraduate, and over the years I had come to accept the consensus evaluation of his work: although undeniably creative and important, it supposedly lacks philosophical depth and is not systematic. Consensus has it that Dennett’s approach is diffuse and piecemeal, involving clever discussions of specific problems at the intersection of philosophy and the sciences of human nature, without the backing of an overarching, philosophical system. Many of Dennett’s admirers, skeptical of the excesses of traditional philosophical systems, see this approach as a virtue (Rorty 1993, pp. 191–192; Ross 2000, pp. 16–23). Indeed, Dennett himself often blithely dismisses the importance of philosophical system-building (Ross 2000, p. 13; Dennett 2000, pp. 356, 359).

Writing this book has significantly changed my view of Dennett’s work. If the reader comes away with anything from the following, I want it to be an appreciation of the fact that Dennett’s work constitutes a deeply coherent philosophical system, founded on a few consistently applied principles.

I’ve underlined the parts that Feser quoted, and added bold emphasis.

Feser is doing the same thing that creationists do when they quote Darwin saying that the evolution of the eye seems absurd: taking part of a rhetorical construct and quoting it out of context to make it sound like a flaw.

Since the rebuttal of Feser’s implication is right there in the second paragraph; since he carefully selected this quotation to be technically true (well, some people say that Dennett’s a hack); and since he deliberately selected his quotations to just remove “supposedly”; it’s clear to me that Feser knew exactly what he was doing: selectively quoting Zawidzki to make him say something he doesn’t agree with. So I’m going to call him dishonest.

Series: The Last Superstition