Wednesday, February 24, 2016

In defense of Thomism: A reply to The Thinker (Part I)

Over at Atheism and the City, blogger “The Thinker” has, over the past few months, been reviewing, chapter by chapter (see here), Philosopher Edward Feser’s TheLast Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. Feser’s book is a defense of the Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysic, which, as Feser argues, necessarily entails the existence of the God of classical theism, thereby refuting naturalism and atheism. Obviously as a Thomist myself  it should come as no surprise to the readers of this blog (all two of them) that I am sympathetic to Feser’s view and his book—in fact it was his book Aquinas that first convinced me of Thomism—and therefore I felt the need to reply to The Thinker’s review of said book.

Before I begin, though, let me articulate that I am glad that an atheist, and naturalist, finally took the time to read through Feser’s book—which can be philosophically heavy at times—and respond. Not that The Thinker is the first atheist to read Feser’s book and respond, but most atheists are content with reading the “types” of arguments in Feser’s book through straw-men and caricatures erected by the likes of the new atheists, deluding themselves into believing that they’ve understood and refuted said arguments. Contrary to the likes of these, The Thinker tackles Feser’s book head-on and should be commended for that.

In any event, I will not be taking the review chapter by chapter as The Thinker does. Rather, I will be tackling it subject by subject, highlighting what I believe to be the most crucial aspects of the book, and evading the peripheral issues. Also, as can be gleamed from the title, my review is split up into two parts—the Part II dealing with the remaining chapters that The Thinker has, hitherto, not finished reviewing. In any case, although the aim of this post is to critique and answer The Thinker’s various objections to Feser’s book, I have also used this post as cumulative defense of Thomism as such. 

Let me also warn the reader that this is an extremely long post, and I promise that I tried not to belabor it. It was simply the case that The Thinker posted many reviews which were very lengthy themselves, and many of his points require a careful and rigorous navigation to be able to adequately refute. I hope you’re up for the journey.


Form and Essence

In Thomism the (substantial) form or essence of a substance is the intrinsic principle whereby a thing is what it is. To put it another way, when we ask “what is X?” regarding a specific substance, we’re asking for its essence. That is to say, we’re asking what is it about X that renders it X and not Y.
In his review The Thinker misunderstands this and claims that a thing’s form is, “the shape of the material stuff that the object is made out of.” This is simply incorrect. While the shape of a substance might be part of a thing’s form, it is not solely the determining factor of said form. In any event, this was brought to The Thinker’s attention, and instead of admitting a mistake on his part and altering his review, he just asked how, then, form should be defined—though he should be commended for attempting to gain clarity on his misunderstanding. Now, while this might seem a peripheral issue, it demonstrates that The Thinker doesn’t adequately understand the view he’s arguing against.
Now, in an ontology predicated on form of essence it is argued that substances that are not identical can still have the same essence. For example, I have four dogs, and though they each have an individual act of existence, they each share the same essence, namely, that of dogness. However, The Thinker has a problem with this reasoning:

What is a squirrel’s perfect essence? Does it depend on the species? Or geographic region? Does the North American tree squirrel have a different “Form,” then say, the flying squirrels of Asia? And does a squirrel’s perfect essence evolve as squirrels were evolving and changing or does it suddenly come to be in one squirrel generation? […] Animals are far too complex and irregular than geometric shapes to be considered instantiations of “perfect” Forms and essences.

The Thinker’s first problem here is, again, one of poor comprehension. Feser nowhere claims that essences are perfect; that is, he never claims that, for instance, there is some “perfect” form of a squirrel or a dog. The Thinker simply concocted this straw-man out of thin air. So these questions that he raises in order to poke holes in Feser’s thesis are non-issues. On the contrary, what Thomists do claim is that a substance can measure up to or instantiate its essence in a perfect or imperfect way. To quote Feser:

Hence, a squirrel who likes to scamper up trees and gather nuts for the winter (or whatever) is going to be a more perfect approximation of the squirrel essence than one which, through habituation or genetic defect prefers to eat toothpaste spread on Ritz crackers and to lay out ‘spread eagle’ on the freeway.

So, to reiterate, Feser is not claiming that there are perfect forms or essences. Rather, he’s claiming that a substance can be a good approximation of this essence or a bad approximation.
That being said, we can still address The Thinker’s questions here while bypassing his misunderstanding. His objections seem to be asking a question of demarcation—that is, he’s asking where the line is drawn that differentiates the essence of animal or substance A from animal or substance B. The answer is actually quite simple, animal A’s essence is different from animal B’s essence when that which makes A in fact A is different from that which makes B in fact B. The obvious follow up question is how one can actually determine when what makes A itself is different from what makes B itself. This is a great question, but by asking this question we have crossed the line into epistemology, and have left the domain of ontology, wherein essence was originally being addressed. Thus, the person who promulgates this question as an attack on Thomism has made a category error.
Another consideration of this point is that it is probably true that we might have difficulty differentiating the essence of a tree squirrel from the essence of flying squirrel—if there even is a difference in essence here. But this difficulty only highlights a problem in our epistemology of identifying what a thing’s essence actually is. It does not actually call into question that there are essences at all. The point being that The Thinker’s objections here do not actually call the ontology of form or essence into question. Rather, they only call into question our ability to recognize differences in the forms of two closely related substances. Yet, this is not something that Feser, or the Thomist, would necessarily disagree with.
Thus, we see that the A-T ontology of essences and forms remains unscathed by The Thinker’s objections. Let us now move on to the foundation of Aristotle’s ontology: act and potency.
Act and Potency
The distinction between actuality (the way a thing actually is) and potentiality (the way a thing potentially could be) is foundational to an Aristotelian metaphysic. The Aristotelian-Thomist argues that without this crucial distinction change of any kind would not be metaphysically possible. It needs to be noted presently that The Thinker doesn’t actually argue against this crucial act/potency distinction. Rather, he argues against the apparent consequences of admitting the reality of the act/potency distinction (i.e. determinism), but he never argues against them per se.
In fact, The Thinker leaves much untouched in the Aristotelian philosophy of nature that Feser promulgates. He doesn’t argue against formal, material, or efficient causes. And, as I just said, he doesn’t argue against the act/potency distinction. In reality, the main piece of Aristotelian ontology that The Thinker does argue against is that of final causality. This is important because an Aristotelian philosophy of nature is the foundation that Feser’s arguments rest on, and yet The Thinker fails to really argue against much of this philosophy—again with the exception of final causality—and this renders The Thinker’s case severely weakened.
In any event, let us now turn to the issue that The Thinker does spend a fair amount of time addressing, namely that of final causality.

Final causality
Final causality is arguably the dominant concept in Feser’s book. A majority of arguments and theses hang on the efficacy and reality of these causes, and thus they are a crucial part of understanding Feser’s position. Now, the final cause of a substance, as Aristotle articulates it, is the end or goal that it will reliably generate. For example, an acorn will reliably generate an oak tree, given certain favorable conditions. It will not generate a bicycle or a rock. Thus, the oak is the final cause of the acorn—note that a substance can have multiple final causes. Now, The Thinker does (attempt to) deal with final causality in-depth, although unfortunately he misses the mark far more than he hits it. Let’s start with his first criticisms:

Suppose I get into a car accident. What's its final cause? We could say that the rain on the road and perhaps my mistake were the material and efficient causes that made my car skid off the road, but how can anyone discern a final cause from this? It's easy to find a final cause when speaking of man-made objects like rubber balls, but it's sheer speculation to say that things like a car accident happen for a purpose. It's our tendency to think that everything happens for a reason that we attribute final causes to things (without even knowing their technical terminology in the Aristotelian sense). And this opens up other problems as well. If there is a final cause to my car accident that I'm not aware of, in the sense that nature has conspired against me for some purpose, how can I be said to be responsible in any way, if I am merely an actor in nature's drama?

The Thinker has already, again, demonstrated that he doesn’t adequately comprehend the material he’s reviewing. Final causality, as Aristotle articulated it, is not predicated of events. That is, he didn’t say that events in life, like car accidents, have an end-goal, or purpose, in mind. Rather, Aristotle’s ontology of final causes was meant to apply to substances. So The Thinker’s comprehension here is simply confused, and since his argument is predicated on such confusion, it can likewise be dismissed. (What makes this even worse for The Thinker is that this objection was brought to his attention months before he even began his reviews, and yet he still decided to promulgate this faulty argument based on his inadequate comprehension.)
Moreover, when this inadequate understanding was brought to The Thinker’s attention, yet again, in the comments section of his Chapter 2 post, he did not admit fault nor did he subsequently adjust his review so as to not argue against a caricature of Feser’s position. Rather, he simply stated that he had also addressed final causality of substances. But The Thinker seems oblivious to the fact that when you straw-man an individual’s position, this fallacy is not swept under the rug simply because you didn’t straw-man it in another instance.
In any case, it gets worse for The Thinker, because he commits the same fallacy again in his review:

There is no end goal in evolution. The process is haphazard, whereby successful mutations result in traits that aid an organism in its environment, and lots more mutations don't, which causes immense suffering and death. In the 3.8 billion year history of life on earth, there were for example, at least 5 mass extinctions where up to 95% of the life on earth went extinct, and over 99 percent of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. This doesn't seem very teleological to me, and is exactly what we'd expect a purposeless process to look like.

Again we see here that The Thinker is applying final causality to a process such as evolution, when we’ve seen that it is meant to apply to substances. (While there are some Thomists who have disputed whether some processes or events might be said to exhibit final causality, this is not a part of what Feser is defending in TLS.) And what’s amusing about this is that this is the section where The Thinker claims to finally be faithfully applying final causality to substances and addressing Feser’s ontology, yet he simply reverts back to processes and thus fails to engage the material honestly. So, we can simply disregard The Thinker’s tangent here, since it, once again, caricatures Feser’s position and commits the straw-man fallacy.
Nevertheless, The Thinker continues his confused tangent on final causes:

 [Feser] puts such confidence in Aristotle's metaphysics and assures us over and over again that they cannot be refuted, but we fail to see Feser taking on any strong arguments against them. We're simply just assured that those criticisms don't work. […] Where’s the killer argument that’s suppose [sic] to prove final causes exist? I don’t see one.

Once again these criticisms only demonstrate that The Thinker hasn’t read the book he’s reviewing closely enough. First, Feser does deal with arguments against final causality. On page 180 Feser deals with the criticism that final causality is circular, tautological and meaningless. Second, Feser does provide a “killer” argument in favor of final causality in light of the fact that efficient causality—and also causal regularity—necessitates and is a sufficient condition for final causality. That is to say, Feser makes the argument that if causal regularity exists in nature, of which it surely does, then final causes cannot be avoided. So The Thinker, to put it bluntly, simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Unfortunately The Thinker’s not finished attempting to lay the smackdown on final causality. He has more sophisticated objections up his sleeve:

Saying that the moon revolving around the earth was its purpose  or was what it was for  is to simply just take the effect of a natural event and label that as its "goal." It's typical ass-backwards type thinking. You can do that with anything that happens: I farted as a result of eating Mexican food. Well then, that was the goal of the Mexican food! See how that works? 

Wow. This is again a straw-man of Feser’s position—and a bad one at that—because The Thinker cannot seem to comprehend that final causality is not predicated of events. This is now the third time The Thinker has done this so far—again, what makes this even worse is that The Thinker was warned about this mischaracterization of the Aristotelian position before he even began writing his review!
Sadly, The Thinker actually continues along the same vein trying to debunk final causality predicating his objections on more and more events and processes—e.g., mutation, events involving people and biological life, the universe moving toward a state etc. At this point I’m finished highlighting each and every straw-man that he commits over and over. There’s no need to beat a dead horse.
In any event, at some point The Thinker finally tries to level an objection at final causality that doesn’t fall victim to fallacy or straw-man:

All one has to acknowledge is certain processes tend to lead to certain outcomes such that saying "A reliably brings about B" is perfectly compatible with unguided, dysteleological laws of physics. In this sense, "final causes" are perfectly compatible with naturalism. The world actually makes more sense this way. What Feser is doing is typical religious teleological thinking by taking the effect or result from some series of events or physical processes, and then asserting that the result is what those events or processes were for, as opposed to them just happening without any goal or ultimate purpose. 

Note that this objection is still technically not accurately representing Feser’s position—The Thinker is still talking of ‘processes” and “purpose” here when, again ad nauseum, these have absolutely nothing to do with final causality. However, there seems to be some nugget of an argument here that can be teased out and addressed.
First, The Thinker’s mention of “dysteleological laws” here is confused.  Feser would actually agree that the laws of nature and physics are non-teleological, and he never claimed otherwise. What Feser has claimed is that the substances that the laws refer to do exhibit teleology. So the talk is not about whether or not the laws of physics are teleological, of course they’re not; laws are mere descriptions. The talk is about whether substances are teleological, and so far The Thinker has not addressed this question at all. So, The Thinker’s misnomer of “dysteleological laws” doesn’t even make sense, and even if it did make sense, it is completely peripheral to Feser’s arguments.
Second, The Thinker is correct that final causality qua causality is not directly incompatible with naturalism. One could be a naturalist and affirm the existence of final causes, though they would run into a great difficulty explaining why things have final causes in the first place—we’ll see why this is the case when we survey Aquinas’ Fifth Way below. But observe that this is still not an argument against final causes.
In this section on final causality we’ve seen that, quite honestly, The Thinker simply has little to no idea what he’s talking about. Every, yes every, objection he attempted to launch against Feser’s defense of final causality caricatured and straw-manned his position. And seeing as how final causality is probably the dominant concept in Feser’s book, you would think that any review attempting to adequately deal with the theses in said book would be able to at least accurately articulate this crucial concept. Unfortunately, this is not the case for The Thinker, and one wonders why we should subsequently survey any of his remaining arguments when he’s already demonstrated that his comprehension of the Aristotelian position is so poor. In any event, we will trudge on.

The existence of God
The analogy of being and conceptions of God
Thomists claim that because God must be metaphysically simple—that is, he is not composed of parts either physically or metaphysically—then the characteristics that we attribute to Him must, in God, be identical. However, since these characteristics are not identical to us, then when we attribute them to God we must be attributing them analogously. Note that we can’t just say that they don’t apply to God at all, even analogously, since these characteristics are entailed and necessitated by logical deduction—so the Thomist would claim. Now, here’s what The Thinker has to say about this doctrine of analogy:

If the concepts we apply to god, like being personal and having emotions, don't even make sense in an analogous way in terms of how god really is, then the Thomistic concept of god is too vague and mysterious to be taken seriously. […] The Thomist god is full of mystery, and the analogies give us little to no clue as to what god really is.

This is an extremely confused statement by The Thinker. First of all, the doctrine of analogy is precisely predicated on the fact that we don’t know “how [G]od really is.” So of course we wouldn’t expect an analogy of God to also be a univocal attribute of God, and thus we wouldn’t expect it to tell us how God really is—that’s the point of an analogy! So The Thinker here is expecting something from an analogy that he shouldn’t be expecting in the first place, and is committing a category mistake in the process.
Second, an analogous attribution itself necessitates a vague (though not necessarily so mysterious) application—again, that’s what an analogy is. But this should not at all present any problem for the conception of God, unless one simply states that analogies are invalid forms of attribution, which would be an extreme and, I maintain, an indefensible position to espouse. So The Thinker simply doesn’t have a leg to stand on here. His objection is only efficacious if we assume that predicating something by analogy is wrong-headed, and he has demonstrated that this is the case.
The Thinker subsequently attempts to demonstrate the incoherency of the concept of God by bringing up attributes like timelessness, personality, reason, will and obligation, and wonders how these concepts can be predicated of God in a consistent and coherent fashion. But again, the problem, with the supposed lack of coherency of the amalgamation of these concepts, only arises if we try to predicate these concepts literally or univocally to God. But since this is not what the Thomist does, then The Thinker’s objections hold no weight. That is, his objections are predicated on a position that Feser does not hold to, and thus The Thinker is once again caricaturing Feser’s position.
The Thinker continues:

And lastly, sustaining the universe “at every moment” sounds a lot like occasionalism, which says that all events are taken to be caused directly by god.

I understand why Feser’s position might “sound” like occasionalism to The Thinker, but it’s not. By claiming that the universe is at every moment sustained by God only means that God is the ultimate cause, not that God is the immediate cause of everything that exists. This doesn’t mean that when one billiard ball seemingly knocks into another billiard ball that God moved the first and, instead of the first subsequently moving the second, God moved the second. Rather, it means that any causal series will ultimately terminate in God as the first cause.
In any event, for occasionalists like Malebranche, there was no such thing as causation in itself, since everything was really just the result of God as an immediate tinkerer. For the occasionalist, God directly causes the first billiard ball’s velocity and subsequently directly causes the second billiard ball to accelerate when the two balls make contact, instead of the first billiard ball really causing the motion of the second. Feser does not adhere to this position. He regards substances in the universe as genuine causes who derive their own causal power from the first cause, namely, God. So, The Thinker is simply mistaken here in his attempt to attribute occasionalism to Feser.
The Thinker continues his comments on our conceptualization of God:
When questioned, the Thomist will say that our finite minds can't fully grasp the true wonder of god. This response makes me respect the ignostics who hold that there are no coherent concepts of god to even believe in, and the Thomist concept of god adds further mystery to the already incoherent concepts of god. I see no reason to take the ontology of such a god seriously, especially given the lackluster evidence for god.
The problem here is that The Thinker has not actually demonstrated any incoherency in the conception of God in the first place—since his attempted objections ignored the doctrine of analogy. And unless, and until, he does so his objections in this vain will continue to be vacuous and question-begging.

Aquinas’ First Way
In Feser’s book he surveys Thomas Aquinas’ First Way (of proving God’s existence). This proof begins by noting that evident to our senses is change, and by “change” Aquinas simply means the actualization of a potential. It is then argued that any actualizer X of Y’s current existence must also be existent.  But we now need a concurrent actualizer of X, and so on and so forth. However, argues Aquinas, and subsequently Feser, this chain of actualizers (what Feser calls an essentially ordered series) cannot go on to infinity. Why not? Because each member in this causal series has no actual power to continue in existence on its own, but concurrently derives said power from each preceding member. But the source of existence and actualization must be located at some point in this series. Indeed, it must be located in the first member, who cannot be a composite of actuality and potentiality, but must be pure actuality. And this first member is what Aquinas calls God. (Note that this is an extremely summarized version of the argument.) Let’s see what The Thinker had to say about this argument:

Feser reiterates the idea that essentially ordered causes are all simultaneous, which I’ve argued is not the case. […]This all sets the stage for the argument itself, but without having established the real ontology of simultaneous causes, which is crucial for making the actual argument, I don't think Feser can establish it on good footing. He simply hasn't given us a true example of simultaneous causes. 

The Thinker is confused about the priority of an essentially ordered series. While The Thinker is correct that Feser does mention, in Aquinas’ example of the hand that moves the stick which moves the stone, that the causes are simultaneous with their effects, this is not the crucial aspect of the argument. Here it is, from Feser himself:

For nothing in Aquinas’s argument rides on the question of whether the motion of a stick and that of the stone it is pushing are strictly simultaneous, any more than it rides on a hand’s really being a “first” or non-instrumental cause in the relevant sense (which it obviously is not since the hand itself is moved by the arm).  The example is intended merely as an illustration to jog the reader’s understanding of abstract concepts like instrumental causality and conserving causality.

It is worth emphasizing that it is precisely this instrumental nature of second causes, the dependence of whatever causal power they have on the causal activity of the first cause, that is the key to the notion of a causal series per se.  That the members of such a series exist simultaneously, and that the series does not regress to infinity, are of secondary importance.

Thus, Feser’s point in highlighting the importance of essentially ordered series is that of instrumentality, and not simultaneity. And therefore The Thinker’s claim that simultaneity is “crucial” for Feser’s argument is false—at least as Feser himself has articulated his position.
The Thinker continues his objections by mentioning the philosophy of eternalism, which is supposedly entailed by a block universe. The supposed problem that the block universe creates is that the universe can now be eternal, with each “moment” of time in said universe to be equally real. Thus, the universe is eternal, which means it requires no cause, and since each moment is as existent as the next, there is no motion and change, and therefore no need for a chain of causality that leads to a first member.
However, these objections do not work. First, an eternal universe does not solve the problem—in fact, Aquinas actually allowed for the possibility of an eternal universe. The Thinker thinks this is a problem because “[i]t’s logically impossible that an eternally existing universe that never came into being couldn’t have existed.” But this is pure question-begging on his part. While an eternally existing universe cannot come into being in any temporal sense, this does not entail that it is therefore necessary. Why not? Well, because duration of existence does not alter the essence or nature of an existent, nor does it alter whether something is a composite of act/potency. That is to say, a thing’s nature does not all of a sudden become necessary simply because of how long it exists, whether it be for a second, or for an eternity. Therefore, if the reason for the universe’s existence is not contained within its nature—which it isn’t—or if the universe is a composite of act and potency—which it is—then the universe is contingent, and thus no matter how long it exists, it remains contingent.
Second, even if the block universe did exist and was a valid description of our own universe, this still does not make the universe necessary. For while there would be no change in the universe, the universe in itself would still not contain the reason for its own existence, and therefore it would still be contingent. In fact, The Thinker makes my point for me when he says that we can still imagine (read: conceive) of the block universe not existing. For if we can conceive of the block universe not existing then the explanation for said universe’s existence is not contained within its nature, and thus the universe is not necessary. So, even a denial of change in the universe altogether—which is extremely radical in itself—would still not lead away from the need for a First Cause.
The Thinker continues:

A static, eternal universe is, in some sense, the ultimate brute fact. And if you try to appeal to some sort of top-down, timeless "vertical cause" (whatever the hell that means) you make the universe as necessary because it could not have been any other way.

This is more of the same. First, The Thinker needs to make an actual argument for the reality of brute facts, which he has not done here, and thus he is only begging the question. (I have argued here that brute facts are logically impossible.) Second, the claim that by admitting a vertical cause (meaning non-temporal) of the universe this entails that said universe is thereby necessary is simply ridiculous and confused. There is no principle that if X is the non-temporal cause of Y, then Y is therefore necessary. Perhaps the reason for this non-sequitur is that the block universe “could not have been any other way.” But, again, this does not make the universe necessary, since it remains true, on Thomism, that the essence of the universe is not identical to its existence.
The Thinker continues with his next objection:

Second, Feser is trying to apply act and potency references on what happens in the universe, to the universe, making what many atheists argue is the fallacy of composition. We know that within the universe, things have to act on other things to make them change into their potentials (that's why there cannot be free will), but outside of time and space, such notions make no sense.

There exist a couple of problems here. First, I haven’t read Feser’s book in a while, but I don’t believe he actually applies the act/potency distinction to the universe itself. His (Aquinas’) argument only plays off of the reality of an essentially ordered series of causes. Therefore, I believe that The Thinker has straw-manned Feser once again. But, just to be certain of this, here it is from Feser himself: the argument [Aquinas’ First Way] does not rest on any premise about the universe as a whole.
Second, even if Feser did apply the act/potency distinction to the universe, it hasn’t actually been demonstrated that this commits the fallacy of composition. For keep in mind that not every inference from a part to a whole commits said fallacy. For example, if every fiber in a rug is wool, then it does logically follow that the rug as a whole is wool. The point is that if Feser simply reasoned from parts of the universe to the universe, this does not automatically commit him to the fallacy of composition, rather, it needs to actually be demonstrated that the fallacy was committed, and this The Thinker does not accomplish (see below).
Third, The Thinker’s last point, about potentials being actualized only making sense temporally, necessarily assumes an ontology of temporal causation. However, he has not demonstrated that causality entails temporality, and I have argued that it doesn’t.
The Thinker constructs his next objection which is a vestige of his previous argument:

Third, a timeless, unchangeable being of pure act and no potential "whatsoever" cannot become a physical being (as the Christian god does) or a creator. Going from a potential creator to an actual creator actualizes a potential; it requires change.

Again, The Thinker is assuming an ontology of temporal causality which needs to be demonstrated, and has not. There are many sorts of causal ontologies that are not temporal: simultaneous causation, bottom-up causation, and top-down causation. So The Thinker’s objection here is simply false, and even if it wasn’t necessarily false, he hasn’t done the metaphysical legwork to even attempt to prove it true. He has merely asserted his position.
The Thinker’s next objection ensues—I will quote him at length:

Forth [sic], the whole concept of something non-physical interacting with and having causal impact on the physical is marred with conceptual and evidential difficulties. Take for example the problems with dualistic interactionism, a theory of the mind popular with many theists which says that the mind is non-physical has the potential to interact with and cause the physical body to do things. How can something with no size, shape, location, mass, motion or solidarity act on bodies, or to put it in the current context, act on anything physical, but especially without violating the conservation of energy and quantum field theory? To quote from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy using the popular analogy of the freight train used by Feser, ‘To suppose that non-physical minds can move bodies is like supposing that imaginary locomotives can pull real boxcars.’

This is actually a decent objection, and one that I don’t believe has been addressed enough. First, let me say that simply because we might have “difficulty” understanding how the non-physical can interact with the physical, this alone is not a knock-down argument against such an interaction. That is, there is no inherent contradiction when speaking of something non-physical somehow being causally related to something physical. So even if we heed The Thinker’s point here it doesn’t give anything like a substantive argument against Feser’s thesis, especially since Feser’s argument is deductive, and therefore if the premises are valid then the conclusion follows necessarily. Thus, if Feser’s argument is valid, then his conclusion is not called into question simply because we have trouble thinking about a specific interaction. (Just like a mathematical proof which demonstrates that the sum of natural numbers converges to a finite number cannot be invalidated simply because we have difficulty understanding how this is possible—and there is such a proof.)
Second, such a difficulty really only arises if one assumes a deterministic ontology of causation, like that of one billiard ball knocking into another. For this ontology does not exhaust the metaphysics of causation. There are (as I argued above) many different types of causation: simultaneous causation, bottom-up causation, top-down causation, formal causation, material causation etc. Now in many of these types of causation there is no physical interaction between the cause and effect. Therefore it seems that physical interaction is not a necessary condition for causation in the first place, and thus The Thinker’s objection here loses any force it may have had. (We see again how important an ontology of causation is, and The Thinker’s failure to be rigorous and exhaustive in this sense has led to a lot of his objections missing their target completely.)
What we’ve seen here from The Thinker in his challenges to Aquinas’ First Way is more of the same. The Thinker at times misconstrues Feser’s actual arguments and erects straw-men, begs the question in a myriad of ways, and fails to put forward a competing metaphysic that would be necessary to dethrone Feser’s arguments. His objections, then, do not seem efficacious.
The Thinker subsequently tackles Aquinas’ Second Way to prove God’s existence. However, since many of the objections he espouses against this argument are very similar, and can be answered in the same way, to Aquinas’ First Way, I will skip it for the sake of (attempted) brevity.

Aquinas Fifth Way
Aquinas’ Fifth Way of proving God’s existence is based on the reality of final causes. Remember from above that a final cause of a substance is the end or goal that it is has a tendency to generate. Now, a cause cannot actually be causally efficacious unless it actually exists, and here we run into a problem. For how, then, can a final cause actually be a cause if it doesn’t actually exist yet? For example, an acorn has an oak as (one of) its final causes. But the oak doesn’t yet exist, only the acorn. So how can the oak actually be a genuine cause if it doesn’t exist? Well we actually do have examples where a final cause doesn’t exist in a substance, but exists in an intellect. An example that Feser gives is that of a builder. See, before a builder builds a house, the form of the house is contained in his intellect. So here the final cause does exist as a form in the intellect of a builder.
But, what about final causes that are not similar to artifacts like buildings, like the oak we mentioned earlier? Well there are only a few possibilities: (1) it might exist in the natural object itself; (2) it exists in a human intellect; (3) it exists in an intellect outside the natural world altogether; (4) or final causes don’t exist at all. We have already explained why (1) doesn’t work—the form of the oak doesn’t already exist in the acorn. We know that (4) cannot be true since causal regularity necessitates final causality (see above). (2) cannot be true since we are not the ones that make acorns turn into oaks. Therefore, (4) is our only option, and thus we are led to an intellect which exists outside of the natural order.
Now the Fifth Way obviously rests completely on the efficacy of final causality, and we already saw above that The Thinker was completely confused when it came to the nature of said causality and consistently committed straw-men. So we should already expect that his objections will follow suit. And, unfortunately, he doesn’t disappoint:

So here Aristotle's notion of final causes plays a significant role in establishing the case for the Fifth Way. But as I've argued in my review of the last chapter, Feser has not plausibly established teleological final causes to exist. He simply takes the latter effects of a series of natural events and determines that to be the final cause. There's no rigorous proof that the earlier events were "directed" towards their effects in the same sense we think of a rubber ball being made for the purposes of being a child's toy. Things in nature just happen, and whatever their effects, are their effects.

We saw above that this is blatantly false. Feser does not simply arbitrarily label the effect of an event (final causality is not presented as applying to events!) the final cause. This is again a straw-man of the Aristotelian position. Feser states that the final cause of a substance is the end or goal that it has an inherent tendency to generate—and this is completely different than what The Thinker has fallaciously attributed to him.
Moreover, The Thinker claims that final causality is superfluous, for effects can simply be with no rhyme or reason. But this only begs the question against Feser, for he argues that final causality is a necessary condition for efficient causality and therefore is also a necessary condition for causal regularity. Thus, in order for The Thinker’s point to be efficacious, he needs to demonstrate exactly how causal regularity can even be possible sans final causes. But this is the very thing he cannot do since his claim is that he has no such explanation, and needs not an explanation! Therefore The Thinker’s position undermines itself. And consider all this on top of the fact that even if The Thinker’s position were correct, he hasn’t even argued for it! He simply baldly asserts that effects can just be, no substantiation given.
The Thinker continues:

Additionally, from the Aristotelian perspective, how could we even distinguish a series of events having a final cause versus a series of events that didn't? How is the notion of final causes even falsifiable when a variation of final causes is compatible with dysteleological naturalism [?]

(I’m getting tired of acknowledging this, as I’m sure you are of reading it, but note again that The Thinker is applying final causality to events, which is a straw-man.) Now, here The Thinker seems to ask a decent question (minus the straw-man) regarding how we could even distinguish substances which have final causes from substances that do not—I use the word “seems” here because Feser actually does answer this question, had The Thinker bothered to read a little more closely. If a substance did not have a final cause then no effect would obtain any more than another, and if this happened then there would be no causal regularity—since causal regularity necessitates that effects regularly and reliably obtain. Therefore if causal regularity exists, then final causes exist, and if final causes did not exist, then causal regularity would not exist. That is how we distinguish between final causes obtaining and not obtaining—and it also demonstrates how final causality is, in principle, falsifiable.
The Thinker then promulgates his next objection:

The regularity Feser thinks implies the existence of god is better explained by the laws of physics. It is the unbreakable laws of physics which determine the moon's revolution around the sun (as well as the planet that struck earth over 4 billion years ago that resulted in our moon being formed).

There’s a big problem with this objection. First, the laws of physics don’t determine anything, and certainly don’t determine the behavior of any substance in the natural world. The Thinker simply has his philosophy backwards. It is the behavior of substances that determines the laws of physics, and not the other way around, as The Thinker argues. The laws of physics merely describe the way that matter already tends to behave, and a mere description of X cannot itself determine the behavior of X, especially since a description is not anything concrete or actual that can determine anything. So The Thinker just doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and certainly has his philosophy of science all mixed up.
But, The Thinker’s not finished, for he has another (poor) objection:

This is, I think, what happens when you pile garbage on top of garbage. You start from false premises, such as teleological final causes existing, and then from there you find a problem and try to resolve it by imagining an intelligence guiding it all, which as I've argued above is ludicrous. But Feser says it's "conceptually impossible that there could be genuine final causation without a sustaining intellect." (116) Well, the whole point, Mr. Feser, is that there are no genuine final causes in nature in the Aristotelian sense. There are simply things that happen by way of the laws of physics that we pattern seeking primates interpret as final causes because we're prone to look for intentionality and see purpose when there isn't any due to our evolutionary past. There is no knock down argument that Feser gives against the possibility of there not being dysteleological final causes or a sustaining intellect. He just asserts that without god the universe would just fly apart as soon as god ceased to exist.

Wow, this is complete and total irony. The Thinker is accusing Feser’s arguments of being the result of garbage piled upon more garbage when it in fact it is this turn of phrase that so eloquently describes The Thinker’s own position, as well as his review. He hasn’t understood the basic metaphysics underlying Feser’s arguments and thus The Thinker’s arguments, which are predicated on this poor comprehension, are simply laughable because they’re not wrong, they’re not even wrong. The Thinker’s not even having the same discussion with Feser, because the former simply does not understand the foundation of the discussion itself. So, garbage piled on top of garbage? Yes, this sounds about right.
Second, recall that The Thinker has given absolutely no substance to the claim that there are no final causes in nature. Has he asserted this? Yes. But has he given any substantive argument for this assertion that doesn’t beg the question or erect a straw-man? No, he hasn’t. This claim, then, can simply be dismissed.
Third, The Thinker claims that there are no final causes, only “things that happen by way of the laws of physics.” We saw above that this is false. Things don’t happen by the laws of physics, the laws of physics “happen” because of the behavior of things. Laws of nature presuppose a nature that behaves, and thus The Thinker again has his philosophy backwards. Moreover, if these “things that happen” happen with regularity and reliability, as they surely do, then this means that effects reliably obtain. Now if effects reliably obtain, then substances have a tendency to generate those effects, and this means that these substances have an inherent disposition towards those effects. And this, ladies and gentlemen, means that substances have final causes. The Thinker can try all he wants to deny them, but his arguments are vacuous, and only lead back to the very thing he is trying to deny.
Fourth, we have seen that Feser does in fact give a knock down argument in favor of final causality. That argument being that since final causality is a necessary condition for causal regularity, then in order for the latter to be efficacious, the former must be as well. (I sincerely apologize for sounding like a broken record on the topic of final causality. Unfortunately, this is what happens when a person does not adequately comprehend a certain concept, and subsequently tries to level arguments against their own constructed straw-man.)
This wraps up The Thinker’s attempted arguments against Aquinas’ Fifth Way. The attentive reader may have noticed something quite peculiar, namely that The Thinker didn’t even touch (let alone refute) Aquinas’ argument that final causality necessitates an intellect that exists outside the natural world. That is, The Thinker didn’t argue against the Fifth Way at all! Rather, The Thinker simply launched more (and really the same) objections against the notion of final causality, leaving the argument itself unscathed. Now obviously since the Fifth Way rests on the efficacy of final causality, it is not illogical or unreasonable to argue against said causality. However, The Thinker had already devoted a section in his review to final causality and could have left his criticisms of final causality in that section alone. The fact that he needed to promulgate these objections again without actually dealing with the meat of the argument demonstrates that The Thinker doesn’t actually have any substantive arguments against Aquinas’ Fifth Way. And, again, the arguments that he did launch, against final causality, were wrought with the exact same fallacies as his section on the same topic. The Thinker has an extremely poor understanding regarding what Feser actually expounds about final causality, and this leads to innumerable straw-men that get erected, as well as question-begging here and there. And where The Thinker seemingly gives a coherent objection, we instead find that this objection has already been answered in the text by Feser himself.
What makes this even more amusing, especially given The Thinker’s protruding arrogance throughout this review, are the questions he asks at the end of this section of his review: “But can refuting Feser really be this easy? Am I totally missing something here?” I’ll leave you, the reader, to answer The Thinker’s questions for yourself.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Atheists and the cosmological argument

Arguments for God’s existence have been around at least since the time of the Pre-Socratics, and these arguments have taken many different forms. However, the argument that is usually seen as prima facie most compelling—even if one is not persuaded by it—is that of the Cosmological Argument (CA). Although this argument has taken many different forms, the thrust of the argument basically rests on the premise that the natural world participates, in some form or another, in a chain of contingency, and that this chain must admit of a first member that is not itself contingent (i.e., the First Cause, Unmoved Mover, Necessary Being etc.).

Throughout the ages, the CA has been promulgated by individuals like Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Avicenna, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Leibniz, Clarke, Pruss, Craig etc., and while all of these arguments differ in a myriad of ways, they are all very similar in that they attempt to deduce a First Cause which is responsible for causing (and upholding) the existence of the natural world. Unfortunately, atheists today do not spend much time differentiating and comprehending the subtleties and nuances of the different cosmological arguments. Rather, a lot of them tend to believe that philosophers and skeptics like David Hume, Bertrand Russell, and J. L. Mackie have refuted these arguments and put them to bed long ago. The atheists subsequently claim that it’s only the desperate theists grasping at straws, trying to justify their delusional faith, who put forward these antiquated and failed arguments for God’s existence.

But is this really the case, though? Have atheists past and present laid rest to the very argument innumerable theists have promulgated time and time again throughout the ages? Have they simply been beating a dead horse, the carcass of which theists try to continually resurrect? I do not believe so, and I don’t say this because I happen to personally find the CA to be persuasive. Instead, I assert that atheists have actually demonstrated their track record for adequately comprehending the arguments is extremely poor. Why do I claim this? Well because the objection against the CA most promulgated by famous atheists over the years is the old adage which states that “If everything needs a cause, then what caused God?” (The point of this article is not to answer this confused objection, which I have done here.) However—and this is important here—no theist who has promulgated the CA, or at least none listed above, has ever used the premise “everything has a cause.” And yet this is literally the most common objection famous atheists have paraded out as the be-all end-all of the CA discussion.

In case you don’t believe me, or think I exaggerate presently, here is a survey of a multitude of well-known atheists (old and new) parroting this very (false) premise:
[The CA] goes. ‘Everything that exists has a cause. Therefore, the entirety of physical existence itself had to have had a cause. Therefore, God exists.’ (Greta Christina)
[T]he postulate of a designer or creator only raises the unanswerable question of who designed the designer or created the creator. (Christopher Hitchens)
The Cosmological Argument[…]in its simplest form states that since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause—namely, God[.] (Daniel Dennett)
If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. (Bertrand Russell)
Every existing thing has a cause, and every cause must be caused by a prior cause, which in turn must be caused by a still prior cause, and so on[.] (George Smith)
The argument runs more or less like this: everything that exists has a cause; space and time exist; space and time must, therefore, have been caused […] If God created the universe, what created God? (Sam Harris)
Whatever exists must have a cause or reason of its existence[.] (David Hume)
The point, again, is that no version of the CA is predicated on the premise that “everything has a cause.” Therefore, the very question “if everything has a cause, then what caused God?” is itself a caricature and straw-man of the theistic position.

What’s even more telling about the above quotes is that when discussing the CA in published literature—as a majority of these individuals did—these atheists did not actually quote a single theist who had actually defended said argument—and this is one reason why the straw-men abound. You would think that when attacking position X, it would help to actually quote those who have articulated X to their own satisfaction. And yet this is act of charitability with regards to sophisticated dialogue is rarely done by the atheist interlocutors. This, to me, is indicative of the fact that atheists probably have not actually read much of the literature of the opposition, which stems from, again, assuming that the preceding atheists have already done all the metaphysical legwork required in refuting these arguments—e.g., “Hume has already refuted argument X, so why should I bother reading up on it?” Moreover—for those that actually own the books of Russell, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, and Hume quoted from above—you’ll notice that many of these atheists only devote less than a page—some of them a measly paragraph—to an attempted refutation of the CA. That is, the argument many theists have devoted literally thousands of pages to has been dismissed within literally a few dozen words. Is this really intellectual sophistication on the part of the atheist movement?

Please note that I don’t claim all atheists have mischaracterized the CA, or failed to quote their theistic counterpart, or devoted only a few paragraphs to attacking their interlocutors. Rather, my charges here are only indicative of the intellectual laziness that has plagued many, and some of the most famous, atheists. And this is important to highlight because it is these very atheists that have blazed the trails that have led to the New Atheist movement. These are the same individuals that are publishing best-selling books on the very topic of anti-theism, or have done so in the past, and are highly regarded in the present atheist community—for reasons I don’t understand. Yet, when it comes to actually engaging probably the most well-known argument promulgated for theism, these very atheists have no idea what the hell they’re talking about, and yet sit there and adamantly and arrogantly label themselves the “freethinkers”—completely oblivious to their ignorance.

I think it’s best to sum up my point in the eloquent words of W. Norris Clarke:

[W]e are here in the presence of a philosophical tradition that is truly in a self-repetitive rut, a tradition that has long since ceased to look outside of itself to check with reality and see whether the adversary it so triumphantly and effortlessly demolishes really exists at all[… ][I]t would seem to be high time that those who still follow this particular tradition of antitheistic argument should have the grace and humility to acknowledge that their argument is dead, and let us get on with more substantive problems with regard to philosophical argument for and against the existence of God.