Saturday, March 8, 2014
People have asked me to comment on David Gelernter’s essay on minds and computers in the January issue of Commentary. It’s written with Gelernter’s characteristic brio and clarity, and naturally I agree with the overall thrust of it. But it seems to me that Gelernter does not quite get to the heart of the problem with the computer model of the mind. What he identifies, I would argue, are rather symptoms of the deeper problems. Those deeper problems are three, and longtime readers of this blog will recognize them. The first two have more to do with the computationalist’s notion of matter than with his conception of mind.
Friday, March 7, 2014
Prof. Keith Parsons and I have been having a very cordial and fruitful exchange. He has now posted a response to my most recent post, on the topic of “brute facts” and explanation. You can read his response here, and find links to the other posts in our exchange here. Since by the rules of our exchange Keith has the last word, I’ll let things stand as they are for now and let the reader imagine how I might respond.
Another one of my old sparring partners, Prof. Robert Oerter, raises an interesting objection of his own in the combox of my recent post, on which I will comment. I had argued that if we think of laws of nature as regularities, then no appeal to such laws can explain anything if the most fundamental such laws are regarded as inexplicable “brute facts.” Oerter writes:
Sunday, March 2, 2014
Here I respond to Keith Parsons’ fourth post. Jeff Lowder’s index of existing and forthcoming installments in my exchange with Prof. Parsons can be found here.
Keith, as we near the end of our first exchange, I want to thank you again for taking the time to respond to the questions I raised, and as graciously as you have. You maintain in your most recent post that explanations legitimately can and indeed must ultimately trace to an unexplained “brute fact,” and that philosophers who think otherwise have failed to give a convincing account of what it would be for the deepest level of reality to be self-explanatory and thus other than such a “brute fact.” Unsurprisingly, I disagree on both counts. I would say that appeals to “brute facts” are incoherent, and that the nature of an ultimate self-explanatory principle can be made intelligible by reference to notions that are well understood and independently motivated.
Friday, February 28, 2014
Here I respond to Keith Parsons’ third post. Jeff Lowder’s index of existing and forthcoming installments in my exchange with Prof. Parsons can be found here.
I’d like to respond now, Keith, to your comments about Bertrand Russell’s objection to First Cause arguments. Let me first make some general remarks about the objection and then I’ll get to your comments. Russell wrote, in Why I Am Not a Christian:
If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. (pp. 6-7)
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Here I respond to Keith Parsons’ second post. Jeff Lowder is keeping track of the existing and forthcoming installments in my exchange with Prof. Parsons here.
Keith, thanks for these remarks. The question we are now considering is: Why would the material universe or anything in it (an electron or a quark, say) require a cause to conserve it in existence? Your view is that the supposition that it requires one is “gratuitous.” You write: “Is there anything missing from an electron that would have to be filled in or supplied from outside? There is nothing in our physical theories that indicates such a lack.”
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Prof. Keith Parsons and I will be having an exchange to be moderated by Jeffery Jay Lowder of The Secular Outpost. Prof. Parsons has initiated the exchange with a response to the first of four questions I put to him last week. What follows is a brief reply.
Keith, thank you for your very gracious response. Like Jeff Lowder, you raise the issue of the relative amounts of attention I and other theistic philosophers pay to “New Atheist” writers like Dawkins, Harris, et al. as opposed to the much more serious arguments of atheist philosophers like Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, and many others. Let me begin by reiterating what I said last week in response to Jeff, namely that I have nothing but respect for philosophers like the ones you cite and would never lump them in with Dawkins and Co. And as I showed in my response to Jeff, I have in fact publicly praised many of these writers many times over the years for the intellectual seriousness of their work.
Monday, February 24, 2014
In previous posts I’ve critically examined, from a Scholastic point of view, some of Descartes’ best-known arguments. Specifically, I’ve commented on Descartes’ “clear and distinct perception” argument for dualism, and his “trademark” argument for God’s existence. We’ve seen how these arguments illustrate how Descartes, though the father of modern philosophy, in some respects continues to be influenced by the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition, even as in other respects he abandons it. It’s the novelties, I have suggested, that get him into trouble. This is evidenced once again in what is sometimes called his “preservation” argument for God’s existence.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Keith Parsons’ feelings are, it seems, still hurt over some frank things I said about him a few years ago (here and here). It seems to me that when a guy dismisses as a “fraud” an entire academic field to which many thinkers of universally acknowledged genius have contributed, and maintains that its key arguments do not even rise to the level of a “respectable philosophical position” worthy of “serious academic attention,” then when its defenders hit back, he really ought to have a thicker skin and more of a sense of humor about himself. But that’s just me.
Atheist blogger and Internet Infidels co-founder Jeffery Jay Lowder seems like a reasonable enough fellow. But then, I admit it’s hard not to like a guy who writes:
I’ve just about finished reading Feser’s book, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. I think Feser makes some hard-hitting, probably fatal, objections to the arguments used by the “new atheists.”
Naturally Lowder thinks there are better atheist arguments than those presented by the “New Atheists,” but it’s no small thing for him to have made such an admission -- an admission too few of his fellow atheist bloggers are willing to make, at least in public. So, major points to Lowder for intellectual honesty.
Friday, February 14, 2014
There’s a passage at the beginning of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novel Foundation’s Edge which I’ve always found delightfully preposterous. Referring to Seldon Hall on the planet Terminus, Golan Trevize says:
Is there any structural component visible that is metal? Not one. It wouldn’t do to have any, since in Salvor Hardin’s day there was no native metal to speak of and hardly any imported metal. We even installed old plastic, pink with age, when we built this huge pile, so that visitors from other worlds can stop and say, ‘Galaxy! What lovely old plastic!’
The very notion of “lovely old plastic” seems absurd on its face, and I imagine Asimov wrote the passage with tongue in cheek. Aged wood, stone, or metal structures or furniture can be aesthetically appealing, but aged plastic only ever seems shabby at best and positively ugly at worst. Now, why is that?
Sunday, February 9, 2014
Let us fix our attention out of ourselves as much as possible; let us chase our imagination to the heavens, or to the utmost limits of the universe; we never really advance a step beyond ourselves, nor can conceive any kind of existence, but those perceptions, which have appear'd in that narrow compass. This is the universe of the imagination, nor have we any idea but what is there produc'd.
Come with me and you'll be
In a world of pure imagination
Take a look and you'll see
Into your imagination
In a world of pure imagination
Take a look and you'll see
Into your imagination
Thursday, February 6, 2014
Readers not already familiar with it should be aware of Studia Neoaristotelica: A Journal of Analytical Scholasticism. Recent issues include articles by Nicholas Rescher, Richard Swinburne, Theodore Scaltsas, William Vallicella, James Franklin, Helen Hattab, and other authors known to readers of this blog. Subscription information for individuals and institutions can be found here.
Wednesday, February 5, 2014
The 9th Annual Thomistic Seminar for graduate students in philosophy and related disciplines, sponsored by The Witherspoon Institute, will be held from August 3 - 9, 2014 in Princeton, NJ. The theme is “Aquinas, Christianity, and Metaphysics” and the faculty are John Haldane, Edward Feser, John O’Callaghan, Candace Vogler, and Linda Zagzebski. The application deadline is March 15. More information here.
Monday, February 3, 2014
My new book Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction will be out this May. I’ve expounded and defended various aspects of Scholastic metaphysics at some length in other places -- for example, in chapter 2 of The Last Superstition and chapter 2 of Aquinas -- but the new book pursues the issues at much greater length and in much greater depth. Unlike those other books, it also focuses exclusively on questions of fundamental metaphysics, with little or no reference to questions in natural theology, ethics, philosophy of mind, or the like. Call it Heavy Meta. Even got a theme song.
To whet your appetite, here’s the cover copy and a detailed table of contents:
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
David Bentley Hart’s recent book The Experience of God has been getting some attention. The highly esteemed William Carroll has an article on it over at Public Discourse. As I noted in a recent post, the highly self-esteemed Jerry Coyne has been commenting on Hart’s book too, and in the classic Coyne style: First trash the book, then promise someday actually to read it. But it turns out that was the second post Coyne had written ridiculing Hart’s book; the first is here. So, by my count that’s at least 5100 words so far criticizing a book Coyne admits he has not read. Since it’s Jerry Coyne, you know another shoe is sure to drop. And so it does, three paragraphs into the more recent post:
[I]t’s also fun (and marginally profitable) to read and refute the arguments of theologians, for it’s only there that one can truly see intelligence so blatantly coopted and corrupted to prove what one has decided is true beforehand. [Emphasis added]
Well, no, Jerry, not only there.
Saturday, January 25, 2014
Strange Notions is a website devoted to discussion between Catholics and atheists and operated by Brandon Vogt. It’s a worthwhile enterprise. When he was getting the website started, Brandon kindly invited me to contribute to it, and also asked if he could reprint old posts from my blog. I told him I had no time to contribute new articles but that it was fine with me if he wanted to reprint older pieces as long as they were not edited without my permission. I have not kept a close eye on the site, but it seems that quite a few old blog posts of mine have been reprinted. I hope some of Brandon’s readers find them useful, but I have to say that a glance at the site’s comboxes makes me wonder whether allowing such reprints was after all a good idea. Certainly it has a downside.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
People have asked me to comment on the recent spat between Jerry Coyne and Ross Douthat. As longtime readers of this blog know from bitter experience, there’s little point in engaging with Coyne on matters of philosophy and theology. He is neither remotely well-informed, nor fair-minded, nor able to make basic distinctions or otherwise to reason with precision. Nor, when such foibles are pointed out to him, does he show much interest in improving. (Though on at least one occasion he did promise to try actually to learn something about a subject concerning which he had been bloviating. But we’re still waiting for that well-informed epic takedown of Aquinas we thought we were going to get from him more than two years ago.)
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
The Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA will be hosting a colloquium on the theme “What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? Dialogue between Philosophy and Theology in the 21st Century,” on July 16 - 20, 2014. The plenary session presenters are Michael Dodds, OP, Edward Feser, Alfred Freddoso, John O’Callaghan, Michał Paluch, OP, John Searle, Robert Sokolowski, and Linda Zagzebski. More information here.
Friday, January 17, 2014
The following is a guest post by David S. Oderberg on the life, work, and legacy of the late E. Jonathan Lowe (pictured at left), who died on January 5.
E.J. Lowe (1950-2014)
My first intellectual encounter with Jonathan Lowe was around 1990 or 1991, while in the thick of my doctoral thesis. I was trying to defend a position in metaphysics that went against the majority view at the time, though a minority of significant philosophers agreed with it. The problem was one of finding some decent arguments in support of the minority view: merely citing a well-known adherent would not be enough.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
Existence does not exist.
Both Rand’s statement and Cajetan’s sound very odd at first blush. What does it mean to say that existence exists? Isn’t that like saying that stoneness is a stone or humanness is a human being, neither of which is true? On the other hand, what does it mean to say that existence does not exist? Isn’t that like saying that there is nothing that exists, which is also manifestly false? Yet how could both of these statements be false?
Thursday, January 9, 2014
Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY will be hosting the Fourth Annual Philosophy Workshop on the theme “Aquinas on God” from June 5-8, 2014. The speakers will be James Brent, OP, William E. Carroll, Michael Dodds, OP, Edward Feser, Alfred Freddoso, Reinhard Huetter, Candace Vogler, and Thomas Joseph White, OP. More information here and here.
Tuesday, January 7, 2014
Philosopher E. J. Lowe has died. A neo-Aristotelian of sorts, he was one of the most important metaphysicians in contemporary philosophy, and by all accounts a kind and decent man. He left many important works, not only in metaphysics but in the philosophy of mind and on the philosophy of John Locke. Some remarks from Tuomas Tahko here. RIP.
Sunday, January 5, 2014
Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia has recently been reissued with a new Foreword by Thomas Nagel. You can read the Foreword via Google books. In it Nagel describes the situation in moral and political philosophy in analytic philosophy circles in the late 1960s. A group of thinkers that included Nozick, Nagel, and other notables such as John Rawls and Judith Jarvis Thomson, who participated in a discussion group called the Society for Ethical and Legal Philosophy (SELF), reacted against certain then common tendencies. First, as Nagel writes, they rejected the logical positivists’ “general skepticism about value judgments, interpreted as essentially subjective expressions of feeling.” Second, they rejected utilitarianism in favor of “principles that limit the means that may be used to promote even the best ends.”
Monday, December 30, 2013
Sphex is a genus of wasp which Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Dennett, and other writers on cognitive science and philosophy of mind have sometimes made use of to illustrate a point about what constitutes genuine intelligence. The standard story has it that the female Sphex wasp will paralyze a cricket, take it to her burrow, go in to check that all is well and then come back out to drag the cricket in. So far that might sound pretty intelligent. However, if an experimenter moves the cricket a few inches while the wasp is inside, then when she emerges she will move the cricket back into place in front of the burrow and go in to check again rather than just take the cricket in directly. And she will (again, so the standard story goes) repeat this ritual over and over if the experimenter keeps moving the cricket.
Thursday, December 26, 2013
I thank Dale Tuggy for his two-part reply to my most recent remarks about his criticisms of classical theism, and I thank him also for his gracious remarks about my work. In Part 1 of his reply Dale tries to make a biblical case against classical theism, and in Part 2 he criticizes the core classical theist doctrine of divine simplicity. Let’s consider each in turn. Here are what I take to be the key remarks in Part 1 (though do read the whole thing in case I’ve left out something essential). Dale writes:
As best I can tell, most Christians … think, and have always thought of God as a great self…
For them, God is a “He.” They think God loves and hates, does things, hears them, speaks, knows things, and can be anthropomorphically depicted, whether in art, or in Old Testament theophanies. And a good number think that the one God just is Jesus himself – and Jesus is literally a self, and so can’t be Being Itself.
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Commonweal reports that Peter Geach -- philosopher, one of the fathers of “analytical Thomism,” husband of Elizabeth Anscombe (with whom he is pictured in a famous photo by Steve Pyke), and Catholic father of seven -- has died. A list of some of Geach’s publications can be found at Wikipedia. I had reason to examine some of Geach’s ideas in a recent post. RIP.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
A “zombie,” in the philosophical sense of the term, is a creature physically and behaviorally identical to a human being but devoid of any sort of mental life. That’s somewhat imprecise, in part because the notion of a zombie could also cover creatures physically and behaviorally identical to some non-human type of animal but devoid of whatever mental properties that non-human animal has. But we’ll mostly stick to human beings for purposes of this post. Another way in which the characterization given is imprecise is that there are several aspects of the mind philosophers have traditionally regarded as especially problematic. Jerry Fodor identifies three: consciousness, intentionality, and rationality. And the distinction between them entails a distinction between different types of zombie.
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
At First Things, philosopher Patrick Toner takes issue with a recent biography of painter Norman Rockwell.
David Oderberg’s article “The Morality of Reputation and the Judgment of Others” appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics. (Don’t miss the accompanying podcast.)
Friday, December 13, 2013
Dale Tuggy has replied to my remarks about his criticism of the classical theist position that God is not merely “a being” alongside other beings but rather Being Itself. Dale had alleged that “this is not a Christian view of God” and even amounts to “a kind of atheism.” In response I pointed out that in fact this conception of God is, historically, the majority position among theistic philosophers in general and Christian philosophers in particular. Dale replies:
Three comments. First, some of [Feser’s] examples are ambiguous cases. Perfect Being theology goes back to Plato, and some, while repeating Platonic standards about God being “beyond being” and so on, seem to think of God as a great self. No surprise there, of course, in the case of Bible readers. What’s interesting is how they held – or thought they held – these beliefs consistently together. Second, who cares who’s in the majority? Truth, I’m sure he’ll agree, is what matters. Third, it is telling that Feser starts with Plato and ends with Scotus and “a gazillion” Scholastics. Conspicuous by their absence are most of the Greats from early modern philosophy. Convenient, because most of them hold, with Descartes, that our concept of God is the “…idea of a Being who is omniscient, omnipotent and absolutely perfect… which is absolutely necessary and eternal.” (Principles of Philosophy 14)
Monday, December 9, 2013
Back today from an excellent conference on the theme “New Scholastic Meets Analytic Philosophy” hosted by the Lindenthal Institut, with cooperation from the publisher Editiones Scholasticae, in Cologne, Germany. (Since the best return flight option required staying an extra day, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Cologne Cathedral and the tombs of Albertus Magnus and Duns Scotus.) An impressive group of students from KU Leuven attended the conference. David Oderberg and I are pictured with them above.