Saturday, September 10, 2016

Initial Reading and Research on Edward Feser's Aquinas and the history of philosophy

Preface: Warning the following is super long. No really, it's super super long. The following is not for the faint of heart...

Hume's Skepticism

A discussion, part of which is posted on my last blog, about Feser's interpretation of the cosmological argument for God's existence prompted me to pick-up at least his book on Aquinas for a more through discussion of his version of the cosmological argument and its relationship to Aristotle. I decided to start with  Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide, and read further as the situation warrants. In my reading, I ran across some discussion of Hume and allusions to the history of philosophy that I may disagree with. I figured that there is a good chance other folk have raised similar objections to my initial reactions. While researching some dialogue about these positions, I ran across some discussion on Reddit and some blog posts by Feser. I thought I would post some of my thoughts and findings here for future reference and possible discussion.

 I'll first cover some of passages that I disagreed with and give an explanation of my current position on Hume's argument against causality and some other discussion I found online that was helpful or interesting. Then, I'll cover how it would apply to one of  Feser's arguments. Finally, for future reference, I'll leave a link where people discuss the history of philosophy and Feser's claims about it. For those only interested in my opinion, the linked online discussions of history of philosophy lays outlines general concerns I also hold that, if pressed on the subject, would consider pursuing.   

Feser, in his Aquinas book and on his blog, has some discussion of the Hume's skeptical argument against causation and responses to Hume's argument that doesn't strike me as well placed. Feser writes "As has already been noted, for the Aristotelian, efficient causes cannot be understood apart from final causes, and yet modern philosophers (for reasons we will examine presently) tend to deny the very existence of final causes. This seems to be the reason why modern philosophers have, at least since David Hume (1711-1776), tended to think it "conceivable" that any cause might produce any effect or none" (pg. 20). He then goes on to explain that modern philosophers have trouble justifying scientific conclusions.

Hume's arguments are epistemic arguments against more robust metaphysical positions, rather than against the validity of practical judgements based on casual relationships. In the context of the rationalist positions of his contemporaries, I'd argue that Hume was showing that casual relationships do not have a necessary relationship in the same way that mathematical and logical relationships do. Further, at the time, the test for a logical versus empirical claim was whether it was conceivable that some implied claim could not be true. For example, we cannot imagine a set of all even numbers that does not include some subset of even numbers while still being "a set of all even numbers." This would be incoherent. Yet, a window breaking does not imply anything else in the way "a set of all even numbers" does. Thus, we can conceive a window breaking and no other event.  

Hume also makes arguments against inductive claims that are relevant to Feser's metaphysics. Against inductive claims, Hume points out that, in deriving a general claim from observation of particular cases, we can never develop a necessary relationship between the general claim and particular cases. For instance, while we might observe that no mammal lays eggs, it is conceivable that some mammal does lay eggs (see: Platypus). Thus, a general claim, based on induction, cannot be treated like a general claim based on deduction. 

 The arguments Hume lays out have no substantial impact on our practical lives and, on a whole comports with our common experience. Over the course of our lives, we come up with general rules and relationships about the world and how to interact with it based on our experiences. These relationships and rules gain credence due to their reliability and can be subject to change. So, it isn't like the skeptic is committed to believing that the world is nonsensical. Rather, s/he just believes that the way in which our experiences are related could be different than originally thought. 

Here's the discussion of causality and Feser on Reddit I found that I thought was interesting. Reddit: Feser on Hume's causal skepticism. Here are two blogs by Feser on the subject: (1) Hume, science, and religion; (2) Empiricism versus Aristotelianism

Feser, in his description of Aquinas' first way, explains that the argument is not about claiming there is a first event that sets off all further sequences of events (ie, there must be a beginning to time), but rather that the change from potentiality to actuality must have something that facilitates that change. That is, he tries to answer where a new quality of an object must come from. Feser's answer is that objects already have this quality, but it is brought into existence through an actualizing entity. Feser notes that the potential qualities of an object are independent of a particular conception of physics and biology and that this is a metaphysical thesis, not physical.

As a metaphysical quality, the claim is that the concept of an object exists as part of that object. The potentiality of the object exists as part of its, yet unexperienced, conception. For example, a particular instance of wood contains woodness and fireness. It is from the concept of wood contain within that particular piece of wood that fire comes into existence. This is why Feser argues against a nominalism about our concepts. Concepts are part of the world apart from our experiences of particulars and do work in the world. 

Going back to logical vs empirical claims, the reason rationalists appeal to claims like those found in logic is because mathematical claims determine our experiences in a way that we would like general concepts to similarly determine these experiences. So, it follows from the logic of our concepts that objects must function in particular ways. Additionally, judging from Feser's blog and book, we have to be realists about concepts (not just particulars) in order to make sense of how we are able to function in the world.

In order for empirical concepts to function like mathematical concepts, our empirical concepts should not to be subject to change in the way that mathematical concepts are not subject to change. However, as pointed out in both the problem of induction and problem of causality, our empirical concepts do not function like mathematical concepts. So, there is no reason to believe that these concepts function in the same manner as mathematical concepts. Further, our experience of empirical concept development suggests that we don't acquire empirical concepts from a concept "thing" in the world, but generalize about our experiences. Finally, Hume's explanation provides a plausible answer about why it is we come to the wrong conclusions whereas Feser's metaphysics does not.

History of Philosophy

Feser also claims that, since around the time of Thomas Aquinas, philosophy has gotten off track with no hope of progress without returning to the "Scholastic" framework. Here is a link to the discussion of this thesis: Edward Feser's History of Philosophy. Since there are particular comments, that were particularly struck home, I've put them below:

Argument/Summary for Feser's position (by /u/dhspence):

I think the relevant point is that with the Scholastics (culminating ultimately with Aquinas) we had an entirely constructive philosophy, an attempt at synthesis of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Christianity, all building off our common sense interpretations of the world. Grant act/potency, existence/essence, form/matter distinctions--very much a common sensical way of looking at the world--and certain conclusions are logically necessitated. Thomists rightly insist that Plato, for instance, got the theory of exemplary causes right, whereas Aristotle neglected this and left God aloof as "self-thinking-thought" who could never deign to meddle in non-divine affairs. You might say everything up to Aquinas built on Greek thought, whereas immediately after Aquinas, "deconstruction" begins. Ockham with his anti-realism and voluntarism certainly sought to preserve the theological doctrines of the Church, but it really ended up heralding the via moderna, which is certainly "deconstructive" in that it virtually pulled the metaphysical foundations right out from under the Scholastics. From then on, there were attempts at positive construction--that's what Descartes tried to do under the influence of the mathematical/rationalist view of nature espoused particularly by Galileo. That was, more or less, the M.O. of the continental rationalists. In Britain, however, there was another story entirely--you get Bacon and Locke and Berkeley and Hobbes and Hume starting with empiricist premises. Whereas the rationalists were enamored with the mathematical/rational nature of the universe (one aspect highlighted by the scientific revolution and Renaissance thought), the empiricists stressed, obviously, empirical study of nature (the other current of thought highlighted by the scientific revolution). So you get two modes of responding to developments wrought by the scientific revolution, but they are "positive" philosophies only in as much as they scrap everything that had gone before and start from scratch. That was Descartes' whole idea. There is a preliminary deconstruction, then, before the project ever begins--nothing that smacks of Aristotelianism can be admitted. Bacon redefined formal causes as "fixed laws" i.e. the laws of nature (not what Aristotle meant by the term), and of final causes he expressly stated, "inquiry into final causes is sterile and, like a virgin consecrated to God, produces nothing." So metaphysics, for Bacon, is all about "formal causes"--laws of nature. Final causes, whatever they are, do not "increase human utility and power," so they are of no use in his "positive" construction of philosophy. First deconstruct by repudiating the old--Aristotle--and then build from scratch. Descartes also spoke of his goal of making mankind the "masters and possessors of nature"--the first step of this was not to develop a quasi-mathematical metaphysic. That was step 2. Step 1 was to make a deliberate break with the past. While only one of the philosophical giants of the time actually understood what the Scholastics had ever said--Leibniz--at the beginning there was a conscious rejection of formal and final causes: we see this begin to fade after Spinoza, after whose time this was all old news and everyone assumed the early moderns got it right. But they clearly didn't, or, so Kant said. Kant was frustrated on the one hand with the lack of certainty, cohesion, and agreement within the rationalist camp--they had not made good on their promises to develop a purely rationalistic metaphysic. On the other, thanks in large part to Hume, Kant thought that thoroughgoing empiricism led to skepticism with regard to induction and science, and since he had such a high regard for the Newtonian science, he thought a synthesis of these two necessary.

And so on. The main point, however, is that "positive" philosophies were indeed attempted after the Scholastics. But it was only after tearing down half of the classical Greek and Scholastic philosophy. There is, then, a clear break, so it is inappropriate to view the history of philosophy as progressing on a single continuum. It was not a constant working and reworking and a natural smooth development and outworking of certain lines of reasoning. The only "smooth" progressions are (1) pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, early medieval (Eriugena), Scholasticism and (2) Scientific Revolution, British Empiricism/Continental Rationalism, Kant, and so on to the present day. But between these two periods there was a clear and deliberate break with the past, such that we can in no way say "it's just another step down the inevitable slide of history that ends in nihilism." Any good Thomist would rather say progression (2) inevitably leads to nihilism, while progression (1) found its zenith in the thought of Aquinas. It is the difference between being able to make sense of the world, and wallowing in skepticism.

Argument against Feser's position (by /u/wokeupabug)
Sure, but I think the relevant point is that with the Scholastics (culminating ultimately with Aquinas) we had an entirely constructive philosophy... whereas immediately after Aquinas, "deconstruction" begins.
 But this isn't an impartial data point to be offered as a premise supporting your account of the history, it's just a reiteration of your account of the history, the very thing that is in question. The philosophers after Aquinas of course don't agree to this division of the history of philosophy into constructive philosophy up to Aquinas and destructive philosophy after him, nor do the historians who would dispute the interpretation of history you offer here. Furthermore, to deny the constructive character of the projects of Renaissance Platonism and German Idealism is just surreal. And it's little better to deny the constructive character of a long list of other philosophical developments after Aquinas; I would argue all the important ones, but certainly the constructive character of their project is rather upfront in cases like Continental Rationalism, 19th Century Positivism, Neokantianism, and Phenomenology--to give those developments that come first to mind here.

The way you'd introduced this notion in the previous comment was to say that "The philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle were the basis for virtually all serious philosophical thought up until the early modern period." But this interpretation does a vast disservice to everything that is novel in Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus; in Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, and Eriugena; in Grosseteste, Albert the Great, Bonaventure, and Roger Bacon; and in Nicholas of Cusa, Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Charles de Bovelles--to list only the greats (though you seem ambivalent about whether the epochal change was in the 13th or instead the 17th century; the way the thesis is given in the present comment, we would have to count Cusanus, Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Bovellus not as epigone of Plato and Aristotle but rather as the first generation of great deconstructors!). On the other side of the equation, it ignores the continued relation pursued to the philosophies of the ancient period throughout the modern period: the Continental Rationalists saw themselves as the loyal heirs of Plato and Augustine, the experimental philosophy in Britain during the early modern period saw itself as the loyal heirs of the Hellenistic Schools, in German Idealism it was again Plato that was seen as the definitive source, and likewise in Neokantianism (e.g., on Natorp's interpretation) and Hermeneutics (e.g., on Gadamer's); phenomenology, first in Brentano and then in Heidegger, understood itself to be following Aristotle.

We might wish to reject the modern pretensions of a relation of their efforts to the thought of the classical period, if not on the plainly question begging grounds that we maintain the moderns were wrong, then perhaps on the grounds of a disputatiousness among them, and between them and the medieval past, as the sign of philosophical disunity. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander: the broadly painted notion of an ancient-medieval unity occludes but cannot erase the often emphatic disputes among philosophers in this period, and characteristically--in the medieval period--on this question of their relation to the classical sources. Even within high scholasticism we find such disputatiousness: Thomas only speaks for high scholasticism in the 20th-21st century imagination, while at the time his philosophy faced criticism from across the board- most notably, from Latin Averroists for not being a loyal Aristotelian, from the old Augustinians for not being a loyal Christian, and from the Albertists for having misunderstood or distorted the grand synthesis followed by Albert on something like Avicennian lines. And as we broaden our historical scope beyond the limits of high scholasticism, each step reveals all the more disputes: you've mentioned the via moderna in the 14th century, but well beyond late scholasticism, the central themes of Renaissance Platonism and Renaissance Aristotelianism were that the Scholastics had critically misunderstood or distorted the philosophy of the classics, or likewise in Renaissance Humanism that the Scholastics had critically misunderstood or distorted the thought of scripture and the Church Fathers. Going the opposite direction in history, it hardly needs to be noted how emphatic disputes between Neoplatonists and the Christians sometimes were. Likewise, you say that deconstruction begins with Ockham, but Plato prominently criticized Presocratic notions, Aristotle prominently criticized Platonic, the Hellenistic schools prominently criticized both their antecedents and each other, the Neoplatonists prominently criticized Aristotle... Of course, there were constructive relations between them as well, but this is also true of the philosophers you want to call destructive: even Ockham, your first exemplar, understands himself to be deeply Aristotelian (more than, say, Bonaventure did).

If attributing a unity to philosophy prior to the modern period requires us to repress the rich diversity and lively disputatiousness of its thought, and the sincere novelty of many great accomplishments made after Aristotle, this is a notion of unity our history of philosophy should do without. And if the virtues of modern philosophy, or the seriousness with which we take the modern's orientation toward the classic sources, are impugned by the disputatiousness of the moderns, then by the same principle and with as much force we're obliged to impugn the medievals.

  From then on, there were attempts at positive construction--
 If you admit this, I'm not sure what is left of your construction up to Aquinas/deconstruction after Aquinas hermeneutic. Or rather, I take it that you'll try to salvage this hermeneutic in the face of obvious constructive efforts after Aquinas by arguing for the unity of philosophy pre-Aquinas and its disunity post-. But as for this thesis, see the preceding remarks. And the proceeding ones:

From then on, there were attempts at positive construction--that's what Descartes tried to do under the influence of the mathematical/rationalist view of nature espoused particularly by Galileo. That was, more or less, the M.O. of the continental rationalists. In Britain, however, there was another story entirely--you get Bacon and Locke and Berkeley and Hobbes and Hume starting with empiricist premises.
This oft-repeated folk history of philosophy doesn't actually end up doing an adequate job. (It's actually a contrivance of Kant's, and serves a rhetorical purpose in explaining his philosophy as he understands it.) In fact, the major works of British philosophy in the early modern period are not autonomous of the works of Continental philosophy, but rather tend to be developed in explicit response to the latter. Newton is expressly and prominently responding to Descartes, Hume is expressly and prominently responding to Malebranche. Locke is often read as expressly and prominently responding to Descartes, though actually he's probably responding to the Cambridge Platonists--who disappear from the history in this Continental Rationalism vs British Empiricism interpretation, but who represent an important philosophical trend much more like the common view of rationalism than of empiricism, yet they are dominant in 17th century British intellectual culture (all the more evidence of the poverty of this interpretation).

So you get two modes of responding to developments wrought by the scientific revolution, but they are "positive" philosophies only in as much as they scrap everything that had gone before and start from scratch.
They don't: the Continental Rationalists were thoroughly indebted to Augustine, Renaissance Platonism, and Second Scholasticism, the Empiricists to Renaissance Humanism and the revival of the Hellenistic schools. No one these days reads renaissance philosophy (and the way it disappears in the kind of hermeneutic you suggest is partly to blame), so these details don't leak into the folk philosophy of history that represents a kind of received view, but we shouldn't let that be our metric for considered history.

 There is a preliminary deconstruction, then, before the project ever begins...
 Furthermore, insofar as there was a significant break or new beginning with the early modern period--and we should certainly say that there was, while rejecting the larger framework of your historical interpretation--there was likewise a significant break or new beginning with the early medieval period. The point is a banality in the history of other disciplines, but remains an obscurity in the history of philosophy, again, because hardly anyone reads late antique/early medieval philosophy, so its details don't leak down to the received view. But certainly there was a break: Christian ideas about nature having a history, about the individual's life-history being the unit of moral interest, and generally of development as an interpretive framework, represent a decisive break with the ancient view, and in a way that would be determinative of many of the important developments in culture even into the modern period; likewise, Christian ideas about inwardness, freedom, the cultivation of the passions, and universalism were a decisive break which introduced an anthropology unthinkable to the ancients. It's a great shame that these epochal contributions of Christian thought are not better known as such; and it's a great shame supported by one of the peculiar ironies of the sort of interpretation of history you offer here, where what is crucial and distinctive about medieval philosophy gets repressed in the aim of representing it as unitary with ancient philosophy, so that both may be opposed to the modern. The irony is that what thinks of itself as a defense of medieval thought ends up doing a greater harm to it than its enemies could have done.

 There is, then, a clear break, so it is inappropriate to view the history of philosophy as progressing on a single continuum.
There is a break between the early modern and the medieval view, but there is also a break between the ancient and the medieval view; for that matter, there is also a break between the early modern and the later modern view. What there isn't is a progression up to Aquinas and then a regression down from him; or at least, this isn't clear from any impartial facts of the matter you've suggested here.

 Any good Thomist would rather say progression (2) inevitably leads to nihilism, while progression (1) found its zenith in the thought of Aquinas. It is the difference between being able to make sense of the world, and wallowing in skepticism.
I know you mean that the good Thomist would say this (actually, it seems to me that this criterion would make some of the important Thomists of the 20th century not good Thomists, and that the interpretation you give here is associated particularly with a High Anglican theology, the specifics of which have tended to be opposed by Thomists; but for sake of discussion let's agree to call the sort of view you've described here as the view a good Thomist would have), but the question was what reason the good reader has to believe it.

I mean, I kept expecting you to be defending this thesis throughout your comment, so I was reading what you had written as if it were meant as such a defense. But all you seem to have argued for is a split between an ancient-medieval tradition of philosophy and a modern tradition. Except that you exaggerate the unity of the ancient-medieval tradition (both with respect to not seeing any break between the ancient and medieval period, and with respect to the degree of unity you see within each), exaggerate the unity of the modern tradition (at least with respect to not seeing the break after early modernity), exaggerate the disunity between the early modern and medieval periods (which certainly involves a break, but nothing so absolute as you've depicted it), and kind of lose renaissance philosophy in the ambivalence produced by wanting to make Aquinas your apex and the early moderns the great folly (when there are four hundred years between them)... this is a fine enough thesis. But it doesn't seem to get us anywhere near to the thesis that any modern philosophy leads inevitably to nihilism and skepticism, whereas ancient-medieval philosophy leads inevitably to Aquinas, whose philosophy is what is needed to make sense of the world--and surely that's the thesis at the core of the contention here.

I take it that the sort of reasoning you would offer in support of this thesis about the relative virtues of the ancient-medieval versus modern traditions is indicated by what you said in the previous comment, where you wrote:

The early modern philosophers, most notably Francis Bacon and Descartes, repudiated formal and final causes thinking them unnecessary to scientific advancement and man's control of nature. Essentially all of modern philosophy, then, is the logical outworking of this fundamental rejection: if we say that natures/essences are not a real feature of reality, then, as Hume saw, all sorts of "perennial" problems in philosophy arise (note that these were never problems for anyone pre-17th century). The mind-body problem thus arises, the problem of skepticism, the problem of induction, problem of objectively morality, problem of intentionality--all of these are symptomatic of modern thought and would never have been seen as even remotely problematic given the realist metaphysical picture espoused by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and virtually everyone else (save the sophists and atomists and their followers).

I don't want to sound unduly dismissive, but I honestly don't know how to interpret this claim which makes it both sensible and not egregiously mistaken: these problems are prominent in ancient philosophy, and indeed famously so.

Aristotle spends the whole first book of De Anima surveying the history of the mind-body problem, and his own response to it takes up the first half of the second book. This problem is also one of the central themes of Plato's Phaedo, which likewise discusses some of its history. And skepticism--there's famously two entire schools of skepticism predominate in the Hellenistic period; Aristotle confronts skepticism in multiple prominent places--e.g. his response to the skeptic on the law of noncontradiction in the Metaphysics; skepticism is raised as a problem in Plato's dialogues both structurally through the frequent use of an aporetic method and directly through the dialogical presentation of skeptical views--e.g. in the Theaetetus which not only gives skeptical rejoinders to multiple theories of knowledge, but ends in an aporia about the possibility of satisfactorily solving this problem. Augustine writes a whole book against the skeptics, the Neoplatonic tradition concludes in Damascius' engagement with skepticism... Or the problem of objective morality: a central preoccupation of the Presocratics, in the form of the nomos v phusis debate; a central preoccupation of Plato's, again presented both structurally in the themes and method of the dialogues, and directly- perhaps most famously in Euthyphro and Republic...

I just don't know how to make sense of the thesis that the ancients didn't think there were any meaningful problems about the mind-body relationship, skepticism, or objective morality. My only guess would be that you mean that these aren't problematic not in the sense that no such problems were recognized as significant, but in the sense that the ancients thought, and reasonably enough, that they had good solutions to them. NB: this is, in significant cases, obviously not true (e.g. the skeptics, of course). But in any case, this is another goose and gander situation: if we don't think of Aristotle as troubled by the mind-body problem because he thinks he has a solution to it, we can no more think Descartes, Hume, or Kant troubled by it--under pains of stark inconsistency.

Note also that Descartes doesn't repudiate formal and final causation, but only their supposed role in the methodology of natural science. He takes it that final causality is the subject matter of theology and ethics (we might say psychology). And he famously argues for an essence of mind and an essence of matter--it's just that this matter of essences is approached as part of the metaphysical foundation of natural science, rather than as part of the ongoing work of natural science. Even Hume--although this embroils us in some extended interpretive disputes--seems not to repudiates the reality of essences, but only to question how we could come to know them.

You also explain the thesis this way (Quote):
The problem is, Feser contends, modern philosophy and its metaphysical assumptions, especially its anti-realism, ends ultimately in irrationality and absurdity. There can no longer be any objective ground of morality (read MacIntyre's After Virtue for a full treatment of this), and, given materialism, reason itself is undermined--he comes to this conclusion by arguing that eliminative materialism is the only real materialist option, and eliminativism is, ultimately, self-defeating.
 But most philosophers even today, let alone throughout the modern period, maintain that there is an objective morality, and some of the most influential defenses of this idea are formulated by moderns. And even if eliminativism were the only coherent materialism (of course, most materialists would contest this premise), modern philosophy has also not characteristically been materialist--so this would be no reason to indict all of modern philosophy with the failures of eliminativism.
You even note this further down, recognizing alternatives to materialism as prominent options in modernity, but you seem not to realize that this critically undermines your argument that the modern must be an eliminativist to be consistent. Though, you wrongly identify substance dualism as the only alternative to materialism, when a property dualism might be a coherent alternative to materialism, while a variety of neutral monisms, idealisms, and skeptical positions are certainly alternatives.
Another oddity: your argument here seems to treats "anti-realism" as interchangeable with "materialism", but it's more natural to see them as mutually exclusive than as interchangeable.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Aquinas' Cosmological Argument: A Response to a Defender


This blog is a response to two blog posts made by an acquaintance recently. His first post is Change Happens. Does that mean God Exists? and second, How is that God? Objections and Responses to the Argument from Change. This was originally written as a Facebook comment that, after it was written and published, seemed to warrant moving the discussion to a longer format writing platform. I've tried to modify some of the writing to fit the format, but my use of "you" will remain. I haven't yet decided if in the future I should refer directly to the blogger, or respond from the third person.

Due to the breadth of the subject material covered in the blogs, I picked out a few quotes that stood out, and commented on them. Also, I've struggled with the formatting due to my copy and paste from Facebook. 

First Blog  


Change is something existing potentiality becoming an actuality. Only what is already actual can cause something to go from potentiality to actuality.

If we end up agreeing that there would have to originally be an entity that caused everything to go from potentiality to actuality, it doesn't mean that the uncaused cause created all potentiality. The argument hinges on the relationship between things transitioning between states, but doesn't comment on potentiality itself. Since the goal of the argument is typically to show that an entity that not just caused the events to begin but caused everything to exist, the argument would fall short.

I would guess the response to this criticism would have to posit qualities of potentialities that are beyond our experience. Since we simply have experience of things changing from potentiality to actuality, much of the proposed qualities of potential entities would be unfounded speculation.

Whatever is changeable is changed in the act of changing another


By this premise, in order to change something, one must change himself. This means the unchanged changer is either (A) an exception to the rule, whatever is changed must be changed by another, or (B) both the changer and not the changer at the same time.

If we are going to say a contradiction exists, or an exception to a rule exists, why this exception and not another? Or, why not admit to the many other contradictions we could imagine as solutions? We could assume that there is an entity that has both potentiality and actuality which caused everything. It would be an exception to the rule, but so is the proposed solution.

At the very least, it is nothing material, nothing with dimension or extension, nothing with quantity or measure. It is nothing inert, but it is active – since it changes all things changeable. It could be nothing temporal, because it is utterly unchanging. There can be only one such being, even in principle, since as Parmenides showed us, being is only differentiated by potency. So pure being, or pure act, would be utterly one and undifferentiated.

(1) You say that the proposed entity has no quantity or measure, but then go on to talk about it as a thing separate from other things. If something has no quantity, it cannot be referred to as a thing, since that implies it could have a quantity of one.

The reference to an undifferentiated one could refer to everything in existence. This would possibly be compatible with Parmenides view of the world, but probably not the view of God Aquinas is trying to show. The view that God is a part of everything, in the sense described here, would be a kind of Pantheism.

(2) On a different note, to describe something as unchanging is to refer to its state from one moment to the next. That is, we say, for some length of time, the thing didn't change. If the entity exists outside of time, we cannot ascribe the attribute of unchanging to it since that description assumes it existing in time.

Second Blog

Intelligent changers, with respect to intelligence, are never the instruments of changers that are non-intelligent. But the reverse is often true. In other words, the creation of information always requires a mind, and a student is always taught by a teacher. To add or create information, requires a mind. A person can program a computer, or teach another person to do so, and the computer can copy and process information, but a computer will never generate new information, nor use a human mind as an instrument to do so. But all changers, even intelligent ones, are instruments of the first Unchanging Changer. Therefore, the Unchanging Changer must also be intelligent.

(1) The claim that only intelligent beings create information seems to be untrue. Machine learning programs come up with strategies for solving problems and beating each other and human opponents without humans explicitly programming a solution into them. These methods are inspired off how the brain functions. So, an "unintelligent" thing does create new information. Also, the information in DNA is changed through random mutation. This is another unintelligent process that creates new information.

(2) The argument would benefit from some clarity about what an intelligent changer entails. Sometimes it seems like you are referring to agent causation, but then start discussing minds and possibly the hard problem of consciousness.

There are a few different ways I can guess at what's trying to be argued. Some discussion about how intelligence is related to the argument would clarify things.

The above said, if I were to guess, the argument is drawing on the experience we have of turning potentialities to an actuality. It proposes that we are the only types of things that cause the change from potentiality to actuality without a sufficient previous causes. So, based on this experience, the original cause would be a being that is like us.

If it is agent origination that satisfies the requirement for universal origination, there is nothing about knowledge or overarching abilities that would also be required in satisfying this requirement. For example, I can cause an explosion without necessarily understanding why a thing explodes. And, I can cause an explosion without intending to do so. Further, the fact that I caused an explosion doesn't mean I can do a miriade of other things other people can do - like play an instrument. Thus, the fact that a being caused everthing to exist doesn't mean it is particularly intelligent or can do even things that we can.

(3) The claim "Intelligent changers, with respect to intelligence, are never the instruments of changers that are non-intelligent" on the face of it seems untrue. Under the influence of drugs or other psychological events, people's actions can be directed by non-intelligent causes. For example, someone that had a tramatic experience with a spider could react to seeing spiders without reflection. There are many experiments that show people can be influenced, or even caused to act, by non-intelligent causes.

I also do see how this strong claim fits into the argument. You can have agent origination and have people be the instruments of changers that are non-intelligent. It seems like you are trying to anticipate free will skepticism, but this seems like an untenable position.

The Kant Objection:
Kant argues that our understanding of the world is based on our constitution (spacial-temporal beings) and our experiences. So, we cannot describe things in terms that are independent of these concepts. For example, when we describe something as existing the concept of existance presupposes a spacial-temporal framework. To illustrate, if someone said John exists, but said that he exists at no time or place. We would wonder in what sense it means for him to exist. In fact, when we say that God exist outside time and place people typically think of God as existing in all of time and space - not outside it.

Kant's metaphysical and epistemic position comes out of an objection to an empiricism and rationalism that, particularly radical empiricism, is not really held today. His comments on metaphysics and epistemology has inspired many thinkers such that it is dubious that to agree with some of Kant's objections means that one must then accept all his positions. In fact, there are many different ways people have of conceiving Kant's larger system. For example, Dan Robinson, a professor at Oxford, argues that Thomas Reid and Immanual Kant have very similar positions on the world. Yet, many supporters of cosmological arguments seem to adopt Reid's metaphysics and epistemology.

There's more to be said about the history of metaphysics and epistemology, and Kant's view on them than I've said here, but whole books written just on pieces of Kant's work. I would strongly recommend, if you want to talk about him, reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) article on the The Critique of Pure Reason (CPR). The article provides a good overview of some thought on CPR. I think an overview would show that even arguing for "Kant's epistemology" could entail arguing for some pretty different systems.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Some Reflections on Ethical Reasoning

Note: The below entry is not the writing I have been slowly pecking away at for the last 6 months. Rather, they are some thoughts that have occurred to me in the process of writing along with a few other miscellaneous topics.

To begin, a bit of genealogy on the development of my current intellectual adventure: as many of my projects, the response comes from a question posed to a friend about whether ethics, or morality (I don’t remember which), is relative or objective. My two knee-jerk reactions to the question are that, first, this is not the proper dichotomy: they are not mutually exclusive in the way the question implies; the contrast usually presented as either objective/subjective, or absolute/relative. (I later found that this confusion is not uncommon, even among professional philosophers. I believe the confusion stems from the conjunction of some first and second order ethical positions.) Second, while I have a proclivity toward ethics as objective (though not real), the overall line of discussion is not productive in working out ethical dilemmas, or resolving the meta-analysis of positions.

I would like to be able to argue that, like many classifications of people’s positions, the labels absolutism, relativism, objectivism, and subjectivism are not helpful in determining what position one may have on a particular ethical topic. For example, if someone self-identifies as a moral relativist, some may conclude that the person believes abortion is permissible. However, the person may believe that the moral and legal realms are distinct and hold that, while nothing can be meaningfully said about its morality, it should be illegal. Or, it could be that it could not be true that abortion is wrong, due to beliefs about ethical propositions and truth, but hold that abortion is, nevertheless, morally impermissible. For those familiar with the diversity of philosophical positions, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, or even be controversial.

My writing project tries to articulate the range of beliefs one may have while maintaining one of these labels. In familiarizing myself with the field, my reading has included Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy by Bernard Williams and Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong by J. L. Mackie. While reading and writing on the subject, I’ve realized that the more commonly debated topic is not what positions people hold, but which can be consistently be held, or even which are correct. Understandably, this is the more interesting and substantive claim. As a result, I’ve wanted to engage the subject matter at this level, though I have not.

In thinking about the change in topic, I realized that the problem with the writing project as a survey of possible ethical positions takes no regard for the rational plausibility of a belief set. The resulting argument from the initial line of reasoning is the more trivial position that it is possible for any person can have any set of beliefs. This is an obvious fact about consciousness. However, this is less than the more substantive position demonstrated in the above example. Thus, to reframe my point, borrowing from Mackie’s terminology, some particular first order ethical position does not entail some subset of second order ethical positions, or vise-versa.[1] Further, the terms themselves are not particularly enlightening to one’s position within their respective conceptual territories. In other words, my position may be more similar an argument Williamson recently made in his recent NY: Times’ article “What is Naturalism.” I also recently ran across the book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis by Richard J. Bernstein which seems to touch on the subject I’ve been ruminating on. If this is the direction I’m headed, maybe I should just start reading Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Rorty) and engage in that debate. After all, I’ve been meaning to read Rorty’s book for sometime.

The line of research may be too much of a diversion from my other interests. David Gauthier’s book Morals by Agreement turned me on to the notion that our moral concerns are an expression of problems with economic externalities and/or the prisoner’s dilemma. Along these lines (I think), Amartya Sen has done some work with the failure of markets to meet the needs of people (Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation). Both Sen and Martha Nussbaum are working on a conception of capacities in terms of positive freedoms that relates back to the previous work in poverty and famines, though Nussbaum has a different perspective/focus than Sen. Following this line of thought, many of our more pragmatic ethical problems can be productively addressed through other work in externalities (see Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Ostrom, and Social Choice and Individual Values, Arrow). Economists, along with others, work in rationality with regards to the prisoner’s dilemma could help produce systems that motivate people to be more moral. That is, by working on how to reduce free riders, we can further refine our welfare system so that less take advantage of it.

In a sense, the viability of the work in externalities with regard to resolving moral problems relates to my conclusions about the discussions surrounding moral relativity, and more generally metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy. That is, I take a pragmatic approach to resolving ethical dilemmas in part due to the inability for some lines of discussion to produce substantive conclusions. The skeptical stance toward the relationship between an ontology for, or from, ethics is, in part, the subject matter of my current writing project.


[1] Here’s Mackie’s description of first and second order positions: “..first order moral views, positive or negative: the person who adopts either of them is taking a certain practical, normative, stand. By contrast, what I am discussing is a second order view, a view about the status of moral values and the nature of moral valuing, about where and how they fit into the world” (16, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong).

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Abortion: Does the Soul matter?

A popular pro-life position is that people obtain their moral standing at conception or very shortly after. However, the reason they have moral standing at conception, and not some later date, can vary. This post will focus on those arguments that maintain that the soul entering the body at conception is the relevant quality for moral standing. More particularly, it is this fact that makes abortion immoral. In addressing this position, I will explain some conceptual hurdles that the advocates must address and why I find arguing for moral obligations via the soul unproductive.

A simple version of the soul argument against abortion can be made in four steps: 1) killing an innocent person is murder; 2) all things with souls are persons; 3) fetuses have souls; 4) thus, killing a fetus is murder. The driving intuition here is that what makes people different from other animals, and responsible for our actions, is our soul. Many believe that our identity resides in our soul and we retain our identity throughout our lives which extends back to the moment we are conceived. Now, for the sake of brevity, I have assumed that people have souls, and explain why I nevertheless find this popular pro-life position unconvincing.

Although my soul is the substance that contains my identity, how people enter the world is still not resolved. Our souls could be created (or enter) after our bodies develop beyond a particular point. Just as a human soul would not enter an insect and become a person (at least by many Christian theologies), the soul may wait to enter the body until it has been properly formed. This line of reasoning tracks the intuition that I am different from my body. Certainly I existed before my body and will exist long after it has rotted away. In short, before the soul enters the body, the primary moral concern should not be to have a child as soon as possible, but the life that the child will enter into.

For those that believe I am me only in the unity of the body and soul, the questions concerning the development of the body, and its relationship to identity still stand. If we must have a body to be a person, the type of body would still be at issue. For example, without the ability to think, it seems implausible to refer to the unthinking thing as a person. Further, would this unthinking being be accurately called me? I don't think so. And, I believe that our other moral intuitions about our relationship between those things with souls, and those without, agree with this assessment.

The underlying problem with the pro-life position from the belief in a soul is that, while it is a unique feature of human beings, there doesn't seem to be a reason to treat this property of persons differently than other qualities that make us stand out. In particular, it would seem that, while having a soul could be morally relevant in a moral consideration, the existence of the soul does not have the effect that the pro-life advocate desires. Consider, for example, how we ought to treat animals. Although we may disagree about whether killing animals is wrong, far more agree that the mistreatment of animals (abuse and negligence) is wrong. And, it would be wrong even if we were to conclude that animals have no souls. I might not believe that dogs have an after life, but this doesn't mean I can take my frustration at work out on my dog. Thus, possessing a soul is not a necessary condition for moral consideration.

The soul is not a sufficient condition for the kind of moral consideration needed for the pro-life position. That is, just because something has a soul does not mean that the destruction of that thing is on par with murder. For instance, if we believed that a house had a soul, the destruction of that house, while possibly not good, would not be equivalent to killing a person. Our intuitions about the destruction of a house versus killing a person is different because the physical properties of the house and a person are very different. It is these properties that make the difference in our moral determination. Similarly, the treatment of an unformed body with a soul is different than the treatment of a fully formed body with a soul. Hence, the fact that something has a soul is not sufficient to determine whether the destruction of that thing is murder.

Keep the love,

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Abortion: The death of the potential person

The last 6 months or so I have been researching the morality of abortion. My interest in the subject was peaked from some thinking I had done on the moral status of future persons, and animal rights; reasoning about the former seemed to have potential as the basis of an argument for the immorality of abortion. The latter touches on some moral intuitions I have about the rights of animals, and arguments against a social contract theory of morality. Additionally, apart from the appeal on an abstract level, the fact that one's position on abortion has an impact on the world that is not true of other philosophical arguments. So far, my research in the field hasn't proven to be productive in the manner that I expected. I thought there would more reasoning about the relationship between different qualities and how, or why, those qualities include/exclude things from moral consideration. What I have read so far, though admittedly small, has concentrated on our intuitions about either the right to life, or what kind of obligations are entailed by the right to life.

There are two lines of reasoning for the anti-abortion position that I am most familiar: the moral standing of life before conception, and the moral standing of life after conception. The argument I hear most frequently usually falls into the latter category, and those of the former are usually considered as a reductio ad absurdum. Now, there is good reason for looking at moral standing before conception argument as absurd. For my approach to the subject, I'll just make the strongest argument from the preconception position, then move to why it cannot ultimately support the anti-abortion position.

The preconceptionist (for lack of a better term) argues that people are destined to be born before the act of conception. If one prevents conception from taking place, that person is killing that child. Or, one might argue that we have an obligation to future generations to not intentionally harm them. If we prevent some people from being born, we have done those people the greatest harm. For example, if someone had the cure to cancer, and that person intentionally withheld the cure, he would be partially responsible for the pain inflicted on the people who would eventually develop cancer (at least those that he would have helped had he acted). Thus, those who prevent a person from being born harm the unborn through their actions (or lack thereof).

There are three principle objections to this line of reasoning. First, it is possible that the use of contraceptives, or an abortion, is predestined. Thus, choosing to not have a child, does not prevent someone from being born since the choice would be part of the overall plan. Further, if one can defy destiny by not having a child, it would be reasonable to infer that one could defy destiny by having a child. If acting against God's will is one's principle concern, both would be equally immoral. Some might object that God's will is always that, if a child can be born, he or she should be conceived. This objection will be dealt with in the third point.

Second, while it may be possible to harm one through inaction, a harm to someone that does not exist is incoherent. For example, it would be wrong to claim that someone who does not exist has cancer, and even more confused to further claim that, by not curing cancer, one has harmed the potential person. The immoral quality of associated with a harm occurs with the advent of that harm. Further, there is an assumption that the “harm” of not existing is worse than other possible harms. Many people could be born into situations such that it would be better had they not been born. For example, supposed a couple is trying to decide whether to have children. They come to learn that, if they have a child, there is 100% certainty that the child will be born with a severe genetic disorder. Not only would we say that the couple should not have the child, it would be wrong for them to have the child with that knowledge.

Third, a conclusion that abstaining from sex is equivalent to murder seems prima facie wrong. Most would say that a couple who decides to wait to have a child until they can afford it is doing the right thing. Additionally, if preventing potential people from being born is murder, then having a child would be also be murder. When a couple decides to have a child this means that they have decided not to have other children that they could have had at another time. Thus, the action would both be an act of murder and not at the same time. Such a conclusion does not answer whether one should have a child, or not, since every answer would be a wrong one.

These are the reasons why I decided that, if abortion is wrong, it isn't because we are doing a harm to potential persons. Next I'll explain the “at conception” arguments that have the most appeal and why I don't find them persuasive.

Keep the love,


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Not Quite Factual: Political Rhetoric and Core Beliefs

The major news of the past week or so has been about the now infamous statement “[his claim about Plan Parenthood] was not intended to be a factual statement” by senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) in response to his claim that over 90% of the work done at Plan Parenthood are abortions. The major news outlets are responding that his response is indicative of the disproportionate attention that political commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and pundits like them have received. They feel that these programs, and implicitly Fox News, have been sowing misinformation and political discord which has been negatively affecting the political process.

The two claims that have got my attention are that a) our political environment has become more partisan than it was in the past, and b) the production of misinformation is the source of this partisanship. Arguments about these claims have been circulating for some time. To my knowledge, claim (a) has not been disputed by either side. Rather, both sides claim that the other is responsible for elevating the intensity of the rhetoric and presenting false information.

The vitriol in politics, to my knowledge, is not new. When it comes to disagreements about a topic that many consider central to their system of belief the rhetoric around the debate can get quite ugly. The recent slump in the economy and various attempts to fix the problem have brought some people's opinions about the fiscal policies of the government to the forefront of the national debate. Money, even in less financially difficult times, is a subject that can break up friendships and marriages. It wouldn't be surprising that the intensity of the debate centers around the particular subject material, not the misinformation and spin produced by the political commentators. In short, there isn't a necessary relationship between the pundits and rogue news programs, and the dialogue between disagreeing parties.

These claims are such that it should be possible to empirically test them. Since there are different countries with relatively similar cultures, but with different news distributors, we could examine the dialogue in other countries and see whether the tone is different. While a different culture might be able to account for some variation between debate within the States and elsewhere, a similarity between these cultures would be indicative of problems with news production. We could also see what the effect of false information has been on a debate. By judging the polarizing effect of information and particular topic within a debate, we should be able to determine if the false information and rhetoric of pundits has a significant affect to a discussions tone.

Since I don't have the resources to do this research, a more conceptual approach to the problem will have to do for the time being. If people form their opinions and act on information received from a reliable source, arguments that use false information to support an argument for the hostile nature of the opposing side would create a more forceful opposition. After all, rallying people against the particular issue is what the argument is intended to do. Why continue to make the arguments if they don't persuade or motivate?

Some believe that people only reaffirm their beliefs, and turn a blind eye toward facts that might challenge the way they believe. As a result, all people do is motivate their base, but not change their frame of mind. While I agree that this does happen, I also believe that more people are open to changing what they believe than many might suspect. Not only do I consistently read about people who have changed what they believe in the face of new facts or good arguments, but I too have changed my mind a few times on important issues. Changing a firmly held belief is not a quick process, but it does happen.

Keep thinking,


Friday, April 1, 2011

The Digital Market Place: Finding Work in a the Global Information Market

The Internet, in the relatively short amount of time that it has been around, has drastically changed the way people do business. Yet, we still haven't fully seen how it will effect the economy in the long term. I think that the future will favor the self-employed, or entrepreneurs. Early on we saw with Napster, and other file sharing programs, that the Internet has allowed for the reduction or elimination of information middle men. In print media, we have seen changes in news agencies, from the outright elimination of some news organizations to a shift to digital distribution for others, and even some self publishing of full books by others. In radio, we see competition with the easy availability of music through portable media players, Internet radio stations like Pandora eliminate the need for a DJ, and podcasting removes the need for the radio company. Finally, television companies, in addition to wrestling with piracy, must learn to accommodate the instant access of Netflix and Hulu.

This change in the accessibility of information provides an interesting dynamic for people entering into the market place. On the upside, self-employment through the production of some digital medium is cheaper than it ever has been, which means an increased competition among producers, and lower average revenues for one's efforts. The saturation of the market with blogs, for example, makes possible ad revenues in that market relatively small, even though there is a potentially large consumer base. In the end, while it is possible for people to make a living with a blog, podcasts, and/or internet videos, for most, these media will simply supplement one's income.

Best of Luck,