Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Thomistic Cosmological Argument for God's Existence: An introduction with Criticisms

This blog post is a reply to another blogger, David, in an on-going discussion about the merits of an argument Thomas Aquinas makes for God's existence. The reply is more in-depth than many would expect for a non-professional discussion about one of Aquinas's arguments. This is, in part, because I think our discussion could benefit from more detail on key terms. But, since this discussion concerns Aquinas, a prolific writer in his own right who commented and built on Aristotle, a complex and influential philosopher, a simple definition couldn't adequately cover some relevant complexities. Yet despite the length, I hope the engagement with Aquinas, Aristotle, and Plato brings perspective to a modern discussion about the existence of God.

I'd like to thank all the people who have patiently listened to me talk about Aquinas. Being a sounding board has helped me better understand the material. I value the time everyone has been willing to put aside, even if it is small. A special thank-you to those who read the drafts of this work (yes, there were many drafts). And, most of all, a thank you to David for not being an internet troll, but honestly engaging with some emotionally difficult issues in a mature way. I believe that people grow morally when they cooperatively engage with a community. While we don't have to see eye-to-eye, I appreciate the willingness to work with others on sensitive and difficult issues.

This article comes as a response to a friend's affinity for a particular strain of arguments for God's existence collectively called the Cosmological Argument for God's existence. While I am doubtful that this strain of arguments could make a convincing case for God's existence, in this article, I outline and criticize one family of them I call the Thomistic Cosmological Arguments. These arguments are characterized by their reliance on a metaphysical position about the nature of objects, which its proponents often trace to Thomas Aquinas and some of his arguments for God's existence.

David, through an interpretation of Aquinas's cosmological argument, developed a version of the Thomistic Cosmological argument.i As a response to this approach, I spend some time in this article expanding on the basic metaphysical positions about the nature of objects often adopted in the development of the Thomistic Cosmological argument. These metaphysical positions are expanded upon through an interpretation of Plato and Aristotle's view of the metaphysical nature of objects, through the lens of Aquinas. After outlining a metaphysical problem the ancient philosophers set out to resolve and Aquinas's solution to that problem from his understanding of Plato and Aristotle, I explain his cosmological argument for God's existence with an emphasis on what he refers to as his First Way.

My criticisms of the Thomistic Cosmological argument follows its development. I take issue with the conception of the metaphysical nature of objects, and the exceptions made for an understanding of God. Through an analysis of the argument, I explain why the foundation for the argument is fundamentally flawed.

Setting the stage: Change, and the One and the Many
The question that framed many of the metaphysical discussions for Aquinas and other ancient philosophers was that of being; more specifically, “what is being?” Without some context, the modern reader may need clarification on the question's subject matter. In this section, I provide some context and clarification with a description of the observations and questions that originally motivated the medieval and ancient philosophers. I begin with reflections on change, and a describe the question of the One and Many, then more directly describe the subject matter of being, and finally return to arguments about change. This will provide a framework to understand the metaphysical system developed by Aquinas and others used to answer the question of being.

Many ancient philosophers reflected on change in objects and were puzzled by it. They noticed that some objects can change and still be considered the same object, yet others, if they change, are considered new or different objects. These reflections on change concerned both animate and inanimate objects.ii A pile of sand that is melted into a glass vase, for example,would no longer be considered a pile of stand in virtue of its different shape, texture, hardness, etc. On the other hand, there are many other cases where people continue to refer to an object as the same despite its many changes. The prototypical example would be the change we see in plants and animals. Some living beings lose and gain matter, change shape and color, and can look entirely different over the course of their lifetime. An acorn looks completely different from the fully developed tree it will become, and has far more material than it originally began, but some would still claim that, though the tree looks different from the acorn, it is still the same object.iii That is, while an acorn is not a tree, the two share a continuity such that the tree could be considered the same object as the acorn, but with different properties. Yet, in other cases, if enough qualities change in an object, it would be considered a different object altogether. The difference in our intuitions about how to regard objects that have changed was the subject of discussion for many philosophers. Some like Parmenides, argued that all change is an illusion. Others, like Hericlitus, argued that everything is change. Aristotle holds that some objects change while others do not in a manner roughly inline with our common notions of change in the world.

Similar to the attempt to understand the sameness in objects that change over time, philosophers were also puzzled about the relationships between different objects and notions of sameness between them. The question of the One and Many, for our purposes here, concerns the observation that many objects, though they are different, still fall into a concept such that they are considered the same kind of object. For example, there are a number of different chairs inside my house. Some chairs are almost identical in appearance and construction, while other chairs look fairly different. Yet, despite their differences, they are still all considered to be chairs. The ancients noticed that, while in many respects objects can be different, there is another respect in which they are the same. They wanted understand what about the world or the objects allows for the identification of sameness between objects.

The questions arising from notions of change and reflections on the One and Many was examined through an analysis of being qua being. Although the question of being qua being is abstract, a basic understanding of being can be built from our practical relationship to objects. To unpack the subject matter of being qua being, I'll start with the familiar. The etymology of the word “being” tracks the ancient subject matter. The word “being” is just a form of the phrase “to be.” The most common use of “to be” is in the form “is,” as in “she is tall,” or “that is a goat.” Thus, to frame the subject matter in practical terms, our attempt to understand what an object is is to develop a conception of an object's being.iv

The subject of being qua being investigates the categories or general concepts themselves and their nature or place in the world. Again, an analysis of the phrase is helpful in understanding the subject matter. Since being has been discussed, the only remaining piece is “qua,” which just means “in terms of.” Thus, if being refers to what something is, then being qua being is a reflection on what it means to be something. To explain, under the subject of being qua being, there are a number of questions about the identification of my chair as a chair: (1) Where does the concept of a chair come from? (2) Is the concept of the chair only in my head, or somewhere else? (3) What is the interaction, if there is one, between the concept of the chair, and the chair itself? Each of these questions, along with others, has a long history of discussion within philosophy, particularly metaphysics and epistemology (theory of knowledge).

Aquinas and others, in their discussion of being qua being, broke the subject into two different, but interrelated, inquiries. They investigated “to be” in terms of our conceptions of objects, also known as their essence, and in terms of their existence itself. The former subject, essence, is typically described as an inquiry into “what something is.” The latter, existence, is described as regarding “that something is.” For Aquinas, as opposed to others, essence and existence are distinct and separate qualities of objects.v This distinction between essence and existence comes into play in the interpretation of Parmenides' argument against the possibility of change, and Aquinas's argument for God's existence.

Expanding on the understanding of being from the perspective of its essence and through an analysis of change, the philosophers ask under what conditions do things remain what they are, and when are they are new or different things. More specifically, two interpretations for the term “change” can be given to reflect these concerns: (1) An object changes if it has different properties, but retains its identity; this I will call the continuation interpretation. (2) Change occurs if there is a different or new thing; this I will call the differentiation

Aquinas, like many other philosophers, developed his conception of being and change through an analysis of non-being. Parmenides, a contemporary of the ancient philosophers, disagreed with Plato and Aristotle about the existence of change, and nature of being. Parmenides thought change didn't exist. Later Arabic philosophers and scholastic philosophers continued to build and comment on the analysis of non-being. Since the metaphysics for the cosmological argument develops out of the continuation interpretation of change, this article will focus on the continuation interpretation. Like different interpretations of change, different conceptions of non-being and/or nothingness open different kinds of metaphysical questions.

The difference in interpretation of nothingness and/or non-being hinges on the role negation plays in the distinction. On one interpretation, within the context of the essence aspect of being, the use of nothing or non-being analyzes different kinds of objects. The terms could be simply the application of “not” to either thing or being. To explain consider the familiar saying “out of nothing; nothing arises.” Here the interpretation could be that the “no” is modifying “thing” so that it is equivalently claiming “out of not-thing, not-thing arises.” While the sentence construction is awkward and not grammatical, the approach at a description may be if not familiar, certainly intelligible. The claim is simply that from like-kind only like-kind can arise. For instance, from this reasoning, only dogs can arise from other dogs; or, using the negative, a non-dog cannot arise from a dog. I will call this the negation as modification interpretation.

Another interpretation of nothing or non-being within the context of essence could explicate the conception of nothing as a special kind of thing. On this understanding, the nothing in question refers to what is left over when all matter is removed from an area; this I call the void. Since all objects are created, at minimum, from a combination of matter, an object cannot arise if there is no matter present. Thus, the saying “out of nothing; nothing arises” asserts that objects cannot be constructed from the void. This I will call the negation as void interpretation.vii
Finally, an interpretation of nothing in the saying “out of nothing; nothing arises” within the context of the existence aspect of being refers to the impossibility of the modification of a non-existent thing. In other words, the saying points out that, if something does not exist, it cannot be said to come into existence, since this would imply that there is already a thing which is modified.

Now that the central terms used in the argument against the possibility of change have been introduced, the argument can be introduced. There are a few different presentations of the argument. For the sake of this article, I'll use David's summary of it:
  1. Change would require being to arise out of non-being or nothingness, but
  2. From non-being, or nothingness, nothing can arise, so that
  3. Change is impossible
There are two interpretations of change, and three interpretations of nothing and/or non-being described for this article. This article will focus on the continuation conception of change and examine the resulting interpretation from the use of a negation as modifier form of nothing, and the existential interpretation of nothing. These two interpretations of the text will provide a venue for an examination of the argument from within the context of the whole/part debate, powers, and causation. Since Aquinas uses his solutions to some problems within these topics as elements in his argument for God's existence, the analysis of these problems will provide a groundwork for Aquinas's argument for God's existence.

The interpretation of paradox using the negation as modifier conception of nothing and non-being will be called the Essentialist Argument against Change. The argument, on this interpretation, holds that, in order for change to arise, a property of an object must be able to change and yet that object retains its identity. If this is so, a property not currently associated with the object must become associated with that object. And, moving to the second line of the argument, a new combination of properties associated with an object does not make that object. Yet, by definition, change is exactly the act of making non-object properties, an object's property. Thus, change is impossible.

In more practical terms, the Essentialist interpretation asserts that an object with some set of properties cannot lose or gain a property without creating a new object. For example, imagine that the chair I'm sitting in is described with a complete list of its properties – its shape, weight, location, etc. Here one might say that, the chair is the complete list of its properties. However, according to this conception, if I move my chair to a different location, there would be a chair with a different property, and so a different collected list of properties. If my chair was that previous complete list of properties, then, with a different list of properties, it is now a different chair. Yet, for the chair to change, it would need to have a different property, like a different location, and retain its identity. If that particular chair simply is the complete list of its properties, then, by definition, change is impossible.

Under the existential interpretation of the paradox, the argument's first premise asserts that change requires that something change from a state of non-existence to existence. However, returning to the existential interpretation of non-being, in order for a thing to change from a state of non-existence to existence, there would have to be a thing which is changing existence. But, if there is a thing that is changing existence, the thing must already exist, or else what would be changing? The description of non-existence presumes that there is no thing to change. Thus, if change is the alternation of an object from non-existence to existence, change is impossible.

Aquinas and Aristotle rejected the conclusions of these paradoxes that change is impossible. They held that some changes in the properties of objects, like a chair changing positions, does not create a new object. Further, they held that new objects come into and leave existence. For them and others, the rejection of these principles defies commonsense, and possibly even coherence. Yet, in order to reject the conclusion, one must re-examine the premises. Through this examination, they come to some conclusions about the nature of objects and their existence.

Resolving Paradox: Essence, existence, and their manifestations
This section will examine the response to the Paradox of Change explaining the concepts employed to account for a conception of change. I begin with the distinction between matter and form in objects, and explain how it is used to respond to the essentialist interpretation of the Paradox of Change. After explaining some nuances to the essentialist interpretation and its response, I explain actuality and potentiality in terms of its response to the existential interpretation of the Paradox of change, with a brief explanation of its connection to a contemporary debate about object's powers. Finally, I explain how the different concepts introduced in this section interrelate to each other. This provides the framework in which to understand the cosmological argument for God's existence.

Aquinas conceives of objects as being composed of two aspects, matter and form. Matter is that material which one would compose an object. Form is that aspect of an object which makes it more than a simply its composition of matter. That is, form is the organizing principle or aspect that makes matter possess properties that it would not possess by itself. A bronze statue, for example, has bronze as its matter, and gains its shape through its form. The form of a statue organizes that bronze such that the bronze has a shape, and is not just a lump of bronze. All worldly objects have a combination of matter and form from which they are composed.

The Paradox of Change, under the essentialist interpretation, is resolved through the relationship between matter and form. Under this response, our conception of an object refers to its form. As such, provided the form of an object does not change, an object will persist despite its changes. Likewise, if an object no longer retains its organizing principles or aspect, the object no longer persists. Under this conception of an object, since changing the position of the chair in my house does not change its organizing principle or aspect, the change of position does not destroy the chair. However, if the chair was taken apart, although all the matter may still exist, since it no longer retains its organizing principle or aspect, the chair no longer persists.

While the matter and form distinction may provide a satisfactory response to some cases of change in objects, Aquinas identified some kinds of change that should be further distinguished. Namely, he noticed that there are some properties to an object that, if they are lost, would not cause the object to be destroyed, while other changes would. The changes in an object that would not cause the object to cease existence are called accidental change. The changes in an object that would cause an object to cease existence are called substantial change. For example, an animal that loses the ability to walk would not be considered to cease existence, even though that animal has lost an ability. However, if some animal dies, that animal no longer exists. To Aquinas, since being alive is a necessary condition for an animal's existence, being alive is a product of its substantial form, whereas the ability to walk is not essential to its existence, and so is part of an accidental form.

In response to the existential interpretation of the Paradox of Change, Aquinas argues for a hierarchical conception of an object's existence. Rather than objects either having existence or not, objects have some properties which exist, or are actual, and others that exist potentially. That is, an object can possess a property, but, even though that property is not actual, that does not imply that the property does not exist. For example, a piece of wood has the ability to burn, but just because it is not currently burning does not mean that it cannot burn. The property of burning exists potentially within the object. An object undergoes change when a potential property becomes actualized. All worldly objects have actual and potential aspects to the object.

The development of the actual and potential distinction allows for a response to the existential interpretation of the Paradox of Change which itself is a threat to the possibility of some change, even if the distinction between substantial and accidental forms are granted. Aquinas argues that some change does not undermine the existence of an object even if that change is considered to be part of the objects substantial form. For instance, if an object is considered to be wood, for the sake of argument, we might supposed that it must have the ability to burn. Yet, the fact that, at some moment, the wood is not expressing the ability to burn does not mean it cannot burn. The substantial and accidental forms alone cannot account for this kind of substantial change. Aquinas holds that there are actual and potential properties within the substantial form which would account for substantial change.

In addition to providing a response to the existential interpretation of the Paradox of Change, the actual and potential distinction coupled with the matter and form distinction provides an explanation for powers in objects. Powers are those properties an object possesses that may or may not be realized through the life of that object. A bomb, for example, has the ability or power to explode. Using Aquinas' terminology, we would say that an exploding bomb exists potentially within the form of the object.

The concepts of actuality, potentiality, matter, and form are all interrelated in the conception of an object. In the scholastic jargon, we would say that it is through an object's substantial form that the properties of an object are actualized in matter. Further, matter cannot exist without substantial form to actualize it. The concept of matter without form is called Prime Matter, and said only to exist as a potentiality. To help visualize the relationship between the various concepts, consider the following metaphor: imagine a stain glass window with light shining through the window and causing an image on a wall. The image on the wall would be the object we experience in the world. The glass would be the form of the object, and the light would be existence itself that actualizes the form of the object. The part of the glass that does not have light shining through it would be the property of an object that would be said to exist potentially.

To recap, following the reasoning of Aristotle and Aquinas, if one believes that object's change and thus reject Parmenides argument against change, it follows that objects must have forms (accidental and substantial), and that there are different ways in which properties of an object can exist (potentiality or actuality). It is through our knowledge of the essential and existential qualities of an object that Aquinas builds an argument for God's existence. 

Metaphysical Arguments for God's existence
This section will cover some variations on the metaphysical argument for God's existence with an emphasis on the cosmological argument, and Aquinas's First Way. I will start with some reflections on the metaphysical stance on objects connected to Aquinas's view of the world. Then provide a presentation of his argument for God's existence from the First Way, and a reflection on his general existential argument. Finally, I'll provide a general structure to the various versions of the metaphysical argument for God's existence.

A crucial notion to understanding the approach of the cosmological argument is that God is considered the foundation of existence itself. Returning to the stain glass window metaphor, if image on the wall is the object we experience in the world, God is the source of light that allows for the image to be cast. He actualizes an object's potentiality latent within that object's form. This manifests, through matter, the object that we experience in the world. Aquinas, in reasoning about the source of light, argues that the stain glass window could not be its own source of light. The source of light must come from something entirely different from the objects themselves. Thus, Aquinas argues that, through our understanding of the world, we can come to know that God exists.

Within the context of change and the conceptual framework used to understand it, in the cosmological argument, Aquinas argues that, based on our understanding of change, there must be an unchanged changer (unmoved mover). Change as a potentiality becoming an actuality for an object implies that there must be another which initiates this change. Since objects cannot be the source of their own change and there cannot be an infinite regress, there must be a source for change.

David summarizes the argument as follows:
  1. Change occurs.
  2. Whatever changes is changed by another.
    1. Change is something existing potentiality becoming an actuality. Only what is already actual can cause something to go from potentiality to actuality.
    2. A thing cannot be in both actuality and potentiality, at the same time and in the same way.
  3. Whatever is changeable is changed in the act of changing another.
    1. Now if this changer is itself changing in order to cause this change, it too must be changed by another (2), and so on.
  4. This series of changers cannot regress infinitely,
    1. because each changing changer derives its power to change the next, from the previous changer in the series.
    2. Therefore, all such changers are only instrumental changers. Just as boxcars are instrumental in pulling other boxcars, with no locomotive, no boxcar would be pulled.
  5. Therefore, this series of changers must regress to an unchanging changer.
    1. By (3), this unchanging changer, or unmoved mover, must be unchangeable; pure actuality with no potentiality in its being.
Drawing on the clarification of terms in the preceding sections, the argument states that substantial change, as the persistence of an object despite changes in its essential properties, occurs. In order for substantial change to occur, potential properties in the substantial form of the object must be actualized. Objects cannot be their own source of change. Each object that causes change must itself have a source of change. This chain of changer and changed cannot go on infinitely. Thus, there must be some entity that changes but is unchanged.

The argument must specify substantial as opposed to accidental change to differentiate itself from those cosmological arguments which argue for a beginning to time, due to the impossibility of an infinite regress, rather than a metaphysical ground. Aquinas held that a beginning to time could not be argued on a metaphysical basis.viii An accidentally ordered series, like time, is like the grandmother who begets the mother who begets the daughter. While one precedes the other, one's existence is independent of another. That is, if the grandmother dies, the mother doesn't necessarily also cease to exist. The substantially order series is like the table that holds up the cup. Without the table, the cup would fall. The difference between these series is that, in the accidental set, the parts can exist independently of each other whereas, in the substantial set, the parts cannot exist without each other.

In addition to reasoning that the objects we experience cannot be the ultimate source of their own existence, Aquinas argues that our knowledge of existence in objects is indicative of a source of existence. Brian Davies, respected Aquinas scholar, explains with a passage in Summa Theologiae:
Whenever different things share something in common, there must be some cause of this sharing; precisely as different, they themselves do not account for it. Thus it is that whenever some one element is found in different things, these receive it from one cause, just as different hot bodies get their heat from one fire. Existence, however, is shared by all things, however much they differ. There must therefore be a single source of existence from which whatever exists in any manner whatsoever, whether invisible and spiritual or visible and material, obtains existence [my emphasis] (pg 31).
Similar to the conclusion that, from different instances of objects of the same type, there must be a singled shared type, like our experiences of chairs there must be a chairness. The different shared instances of existence are evidence of a single source of existence.

The hierarchy to existence within the Aquinas's cosmological argument is also empirically verified through our interactions with other objects in the world. Though not in formally part of the cosmological argument, this belief about the relationship between plants, animals, and human beings undoubtedly would have provided support for this position. For Aquinas, plants are above minerals in that they are able to keep their form while changing their matter. Animals are above plants in their ability for self locomotion. And, humans are above animals in that they have control over their forms. Since objects are actualized through their forms and the greatest being is one who is Pure Actualization, the hierarchy of actual and potential found in the natural world, and even beyond it, provides support for the cosmological argument.

Finally, all the dots can be connected together for Aquinas's argument. An object derives its reality as a combination of its essence and existence. The change we see in the world is an expression of the relationship between these two. If we believe that objects change over time, we must believe that they retain their form and the expression of their form changes. This is to say that an object's property exists potentially and becomes actual. There must be a source of this existence. The source of existence is God.

The doctrine's challenges: an outline of some criticisms

The Thomistic approach to the cosmological argument relies on many interrelated metaphysical positions that do not seem to individually be a productive approach to their respective problems, and whose conclusion, that God's essence is existence itself, seems flawed. The conception of form needed for the argument could not be a solution to the paradox of change assumes the very problematic entities that it tries to save. The notion of existence necessary for the argument is that of a property the very quality it needs to avoid to be a solution.

Criticisms of the Forms

The criticisms of the forms presented puts to task our conception of the form, and what or who has a form. This section presents questions the nature of the form with the Third Man Argument. If correct, form cannot be a solution to the Paradox of Change. Next, the meaningfulness of the form distinction is put to question with the Sorites Paradox. Without a meaningful distinction, the forms cannot resolve the Paradox of Change.

The Paradox of Change, and the question of the One and Many centers around the relationship between particulars and the general, and how qualities about the two conflict. The Paradox of Change questions the relationship between an object as a whole and its part either as parts related to each other at a particular instant, or how they related to each other at different instants in time. Similarly, in the One and Many, different aspects of objects (predicates) have a “sameness” relationship. In the matter and form relationship, it is the substantial form that gives matter its meaning or essence. In Plato's theory of the forms, the participation in the Form gives an object its meaning or essence. Yet, if it is the substantial form or Form that provides meaning or essence to its parts or objects, then where does a Substantial form or form get its meaning or essence? The very same reasoning that gives rise to the postulation for the substantial form for ordinary objects can be applied to the substantial form itself.

Traditionally introduced as an argument against Plato's theory of the forms, the Third Man Argument (TMA) questions the use of the form to provide an essence to objects while positing the form itself without providing an explanation for its essence. The TMA claims that, according to Plato's theory, a man has an essence (being a man), that is inherited via its participation in the form man-ness. However, the form man-ness would itself have to be a man. Since the form is itself a man, there must be a third form man-ness-ness that covers both the original man and its original form man-ness. The third form would also itself need a form. Thus, there is an infinite regress of forms.ix

The strength of the TMA comes from the critical stance towards the relationship between objects and their essences. For Plato, Aristotle, and others, entities (parts or objects' predicates) obtain their relationships to each other vis-a-vie their essences. Yet, on a similar basis, one can question the grounds that establish the relationship between essences and their object. The solution used to resolve the relationship between objects and their parts cannot be used on itself without begging the question or causing an infinite regress. As a result, a foundational source for essences can never be established.x

Aquinas's substantial forms as the entity that instantiates the relationship between an object and its parts must answer why the substantial form and its object does not require its own substantial form. A proponent of the theory may hold that the substantial form as grounded in the object avoids criticisms that would be made of Plato's theory of the forms. As an entity that unifies parts into a whole, a natural conclusion would be to conceive the substantial form as a part of the object. However, as a part, the substantial form would itself need a form to unify the substantial form with its parts.

The argument that objects possess matter and form leans on the preservation of ordinary objects. Some, in contrast to Aristotle, argue that atoms are the only things that exist, and, as such, ordinary objects – like tables and chairs – do not exist. Others argue that only the world as a whole exists, and everything is simply a part within the greater whole. For modern Thomists, retaining the substantial forms of ordinary objects remains an crucial part in arguing for moral relationships between objects.

The Sorites Paradox is a significant challenge to the differentiation of ordinary objects.xi This objection brings to question the methodology used to differentiate objects and their substantial forms. Consider, for example, why we cannot fit a full professional football (not soccer) team into a Honda Fit. Here are two ways a Thomist could reply:
  1. The substantial form of the Honda Fit and the substantial form of the football team, as a collective, each provide properties to their respective matter such that the football team cannot fit in the Honda.
  2. The Honda Fit has its own substantial form, and each person in the football team has his own substantial form. The individual properties of each football player and the Honda Fit is such that the football players cannot fit in the Honda.
These examples associate the essences of the individuals with a way in which the objects involved would be referred to. Namely, we can refer to a football team as a collective, or to the individual players of the team each with their own properties.

In a fashion similar to the Third Man Argument, responses to this paradox undermines its own case for the forms, and more importantly how it will be used in later arguments. A natural response could be that each football player has an accidental form from which those players relational properties derive. The collective property is a product of their respective accidental forms. However, if this is possible, all objects can be broken into only accidental forms as simply relational parts and properties resulting from these relations. Yet, accidental forms are said to not exist independently, and if all things are simply their parts and relationships, no case could be made for an inherent purpose existing within the collective. On the other hand, if the football team as a collective must have their own substantial form in order to retain their collective property, then what about the other properties resulting from other collectives? For instance, if all the football team cannot fit in the car, then all the football team plus one more person also cannot fit in the car. A variety of other relationships can be developed each also with their own respective properties. Each property cannot be appeal to the accidental properties without falling into the original fork.

If the forms are not a viable conception of the composition of objects, the cosmological argument cannot get off the ground. The argument about the Paradox of Change assumes that there must be some entity to which people refer. If an explanation can be provided without an entity assumed, there is no Paradox to Change and thus God as a solution to it. Further, not just any conception of the forms will do. A conception of the forms that does not provide an account of purpose or meaning results in a God that both does not instill meaning or purpose in the world, but whose perfection is no longer worthy of worship or deference.

Existence Criticism
The influential philosopher Immanuel Kant famously wrote in response to another argument for God's existence (the ontological argument) that existence is not a real property. This remark succinctly captures the central idea behind the objections I find compelling. Unpacking this quote, there are two aspects to this claim that motivate the cosmological argument: (1) Existence is a property; (2) It is a particular kind of property. For the former, many criticize that, if existence was a property, there would have to be entities without existence. For the latter, I challenge the conception of existence as similar to light.

Aquinas, in this response to the Paradox of Change, acknowledges the motivating criticism behind the conception of existence as a property. The existential interpretation of the Paradox of Change finds the idea that a modification can be made to a non-existent object would be impossible. His proposal is that there are potential properties which subsist on actual objects. But, this simply proposes an entity that exists, but whose existence is derived in another manner. That is, Aquinas would claim that a property exists potentially, but this is still claiming that it exists. On the other hand, he could claim that there are potential properties, but that they don't exist. However, if the properties don't exist, the claim that an object has those properties wouldn't be meaningful.

The reconciliation of the tension that a modification can be made to a non-existent entity is that existence, like other properties, comes in degrees. Just as there are different intensities to light, there are different intensities to existence itself. Using this conception of existence but with actuality as a greater degree of existence, and potentiality as inferior or lesser, prime matter as pure potentiality exists as the weakest kind of existence, and other creatures with their relationship to their form and actuality having greater degrees of existence. God whose essence is existence, and as such is Pure Actuality. This relationship is further seen through his conception of the relationship between minerals, plants, animals, humans, angels, and God.

Existence as a property, aside from the issue with modifying nonexistent objects, relies on a phenomenon that was previously explained in terms of existence itself. Namely, an object has a property with respect to its existence. In particular, an actualized property would be a property that has existence. However, if existence is a property, then the property of existence would have to exist. And, similar to the Third Man Argument, the existence for the property of existence would also have to exist. This could be said of all instances of existence. Thus, there would be an infinite regress of existence. More importantly, the solution to the metaphysical problem uses the very phenomenon under question as a solution. This is not a tenable approach to solving the problem.

The supposition that existence is hierarchical, or similar to light, is not a position that can be given evidence in its support. Even if its accepted that objects are a composition of form and matter, existence as separate could be assumed to function analogously to any other phenomenon in the world. As an independent aspect of objects, existence theories could be given many different mutually inconsistent behaviors or properties. For example, our existence could be like floating a boat on water. Our matter and form are like the boat, and God is like the water. However, unlike the God that is like the sun, its only through the existence of the boat that floating can be achieved. One could assign greater amounts of existence to different objects consistent with the analogy.

The cosmological argument utilizes the concepts of actual and potential, by some, without explaining and supporting these concepts. One possible exposition of these concepts as reflections on the nature of existence seems problematic. Supposing existence as a property seems self-defeating, and further description of that property seems unsupportable.

God Whose Essence Is Existence
A common contention with the cosmological argument is that, even if many of its assumptions are granted, the entity that follows does not bear enough attributes to be called God. The central criticism here is that, even if the cosmological argument establishes that there is a foundational entity grounding existence, the necessary attributes of this entity does not contain those attributes associated with God. The entity would not need to have consciousness, be a free agent, powerful, knowledgeable, or good. The cosmological argument from within a more robust metaphysical system could argue for these attributes. In this section, I'll explain why the attributes don't follow from the argument, and why in the past the attributes of God may have been more closely associated with the essence of existence.

The criticism of the inference from the essence of existence to God is that, in short, if other forms do not have the attributes associated with God, the form of existence as a kind of form, also would not necessarily have these attributes. Another argument would need to be provided that links the form of existence to the various divine attributes. For example, the forms of other entities, though unchanging despite alternations in their matter, still are not conscious. The substantial and accidental forms of my chair is only said to be unchanging despite my chair's changing properties, not that the form chair-ness has awareness. Further, even if the chair-ness forms produce the chair properties, the powers of the form is restricted to its type. A chair does not also give the floor its powers for instance. The forms, as a solution to the problem of change, can only be said to be unchanging entities.

In addition to restrictions to the form of existence, as a form, the separation of essence and existence in objects restricts the entailment from the form of existence. Objects, as realized through the combinations of essence and existence, contain their properties within their forms which are realized through their participation in existence. Since essence is separate from existence, the form of existence does not itself have the properties found in an object's essence. Thus, at best, the form of existence only realizes a property through other object's forms, not in itself. To explain, there is a difference between superman's ability to fly, and mine. Superman has the ability to fly inherent to his constitution, whereas, if I want to fly, I have to use an airplane. As such, although we can both fly, there is an inherent difference in our powers. An object that instrumentally realizes some state of affairs through another does not have an inherent power. God, as an entity that realizes states of affairs through others, does not necessarily have powers associated with states of affairs.

Powers obtained through instrumental relationships impacts epistemic entailment, and may limit an agent's control over the power. Objects' independence from God in their essence, while retaining a dependence through existence, would also mean that God need not understand the essence of an object to enact its existence. The instrumental relationship between an object's essence and God could mirror the instrumental relationship between human beings and the objects they interact with. Returning to my ability to fly, my possession of the ability to fly does not also entail an understanding of the principles of flight. Similarly, God, if he does realize objects through their essence, doesn't mean that he controls the relationship between objects, nor must he understand the way in which their essence is realized. Thus, God, as Pure Actuality or the essence of existence, need not be able to control events nor understand the forms with which he interacts.

The divine attributes typically associated with God (knowledge, power, goodness) are derived more readily from a metaphysical system that argues for a Platonic metaphysics, more specifically Neoplatonic, than an Aristotelian. Yet, a more robust concept of universals carries with it a heavy price, a more complex metaphysical system to defend. Plotinus, a founder of Neoplatonism, for example, held that God is a unity or the One. God, in his system, contains both the Good and the Intellect, encompasses all forms. The forms are distinguished from within the unity through the thought of God. The Good was to act in accordance with one's form. Thus, God, as the ontological ground of Being, would also have complete understanding of all forms and embody the Good.xii However, the Platonic metaphysics must contend with a host of classic metaphysical challenges some of which have been introduced in this article.

The cosmological argument must argue for a God recognizable to the theist. Most commonly a being that is all powerful, all knowing, and perfectly good.xiii I've argued here that God as metaphysical foundation does not necessarily entail self-awareness. Additionally, God's separation from the objects in the world weakens the ability to argue for a being with the divine attributes. The cosmological argument, as presented here, even if the requisite ontology of objects is adopted, cannot successfully argue for a being that would have the divine attributes. Thus, it fails to argue for God's existence.

The Thomistic Cosmological Argument for God's existence fails to make a case for God's existence due to internal problems with his conception of forms, analogizing existence with essence, and not sufficiently compensating for the impact rejecting Platonism would have on the argument. The criticism of the forms simply applies a classical criticism against Platonism to a Platonized Aristotelian metaphysics. The criticism of Aquinas's metaphysics of existence points out that the virtue of existence is its difference from essence. Analogizing existence to essence takes on the criticisms made of the forms, and raises questions regarding how existence is supposed to be different from essence. Finally, an argument for God built on the Platonic metaphysics that also accepts the criticism of the Platonism that is supposed to support it must account for the change in metaphysical grounds. Thus, the Thomistic Cosmological Argument for God's existence fails.

i The interpretation of Aquinas and his arguments for God's existence tries to lean heavily on Edward Feser's interpretation. David, in his blog posts about the cosmological argument, cites and has many similar arguments to Edward Feser. He has also confirmed that Edward Feser's positions are similar to his own, with some reservations. Since I knew that my objections the cosmological argument he presented would fall outside David's resources to adequately respond, I've tried to use Feser's positions and arguments as a measure of David's. However, Feser's details on Aquinas are often sparse, and organization could use some improvement. Thus, I've also drawn on other Aquinas scholars. This includes Brian Davies, Eleonore Stump, John Wippel, and Frederick Copleston.
ii I've taken the matter and form distinction to apply to all worldly objects. Others, possibly Eleonore Stump and certainly Jeffery Bower, seem to distinguish between “stuff” and “things.” Bower's use of these terms follows Ned Markosian's distinction between stuff and things. My account of matter and form is more similar to Wippel's account, which I find has more in common with Avicenna's metaphysics (see McGinnis, Jon. Avicenna. 2010.)

iii The acorn/tree analogy is used here for a few reasons: (1) Aquinas and other scholastic philosophers started from an analysis of living things, and a differentiation between the living and non-living (2) The metaphysics laid out here is often used to support continuity of identity for people. The acorn/tree analogy is explicitly used in medical ethics discussions. (3) Later discussions that build off the problem of change focus on mereology, identity, and powers.

Modern philosophers (Descartes, Locke, Hume, etc) analyzed philosophical problems in terms of experiences, rather than the composition of parts. Feser criticizes this approach to solving philosophical problems. In keeping with his and David's formulation of the cosmological argument, I've tried to formulate the argument by keeping to the acorn/tree analogy. 

iv I'm implicitly assuming here that the entity that allows for different objects to be the same category similarly allows an object with different properties over time to be the same object. This is, in part, because I've interpreted Aristotle's distinction between matter and form, as a revision of Plato's conception of the forms. Rather than positing disembodied forms like Plato, Aristotle posits that the forms of objects exist in those objects. Aquinas's Substantial Forms seems to come from this type of interpretation. This position should allow for the rejection of Platonic universals, or Ultra-realism as Feser describes it, while still adopting a kind of realism.
v Some sympathetic to Aquinas's metaphysics don't hold that the distinction between essence and existence is real. See Brower, Jeffery 2014, Aquinas's Ontology of the Material World: Change, Hylomorphism, & Material Objects. FN 39, pg 17. For the sake of this discussion, I'm assuming that the interpretation of essence and existence as real is correct.
vi Brian Davies attributes a similar distinction between creation and preservation to Aquinas. The Thought of Thomas Aquinas. (1993) pg. 34.
vii Aquinas held that absolute non-being, what I've described here as void, could not exist. Wippel, John. The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas: From Finite Being to Uncreated Being. (2000) pg 72.
viii Wippel and Davies both mention that some interpret Aquinas's First Way as regarding physical motion rather than metaphysical change. I've adopted the metaphysical interpretation since it is that interpretation adopted by David, Feser, and many other contemporary Thomistic advocates.
ix Vlastos, Gregory, “The Third Man Argument in the Parmenides.” The Philosophical Review 63, no. 3 (1954).
x This is my brief version of the Third Man Argument (TMA). I've tried to formulate it to draw closer parallels with Russell's Set Paradox. I also think there is a strong relationship between the TMA and the Liar Paradox. There isn't enough space here to draw out how these arguments are inter-related. Feser argues that his understanding of the forms is not subject to the TMA because forms exist within their particulars. However, he does not explain how this resolves the TMA.
xi The Sorities paradox is usually explained as individual parts – like individual grains of wheat – not having a property that exists within the whole – like a heap of wheat. The football team and car relationship is drawing to emphasis this aspect of the paradox.
xii This understanding of Plotinus comes from: Gerson, Lloyd. “Plotinus.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2012. <Accessed 17 Dec 2017>
xiii Conceptions of God can vary widely, and the cosmological argument is not the exclusive domain of Catholicism.

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.