Monday, October 22, 2012

Nagel and his critics, Part I


Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos, which I reviewed favorably for First Things, has gotten some less favorable responses as well.  (See Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg’s review in The Nation, Elliott Sober’s piece in Boston Review, and a blog post by Alva NoĆ«.)  The criticism is unsurprising given the unconventional position staked out in the book, but the critics have tried to answer Nagel’s arguments and their remarks are themselves worthy of a response.  

I’ll examine these criticisms in some further posts in this series, but in this first installment I want briefly to state some criticisms of my own.  For while I think Mind and Cosmos is certainly philosophically important and interesting, it has some shortcomings, even if they are perhaps relatively minor given the book’s limited aims.

First, the book’s subtitle is somewhat misleading.  From a description like Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, you’d expect an attempt at a systematic demolition of the view in question.   But that is not really what the book offers.  Nagel actually puts forward only sketches of various arguments against the materialist and neo-Darwinian form of naturalism he opposes.  The bulk of his short book is devoted instead to the positive task of developing an alternative form of naturalism, and a tentative and inchoate one at that.  

I hasten to add that it would be a grave mistake to suppose that sketchy arguments are all Nagel has to offer against the “materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature.”  On the contrary, from his justly celebrated 1974 article “What is it like to be a bat?” to his book The Last Word and in other works, Nagel has put forward penetrating criticisms of prevailing naturalist dogmas.  He has also written favorably of criticisms developed at length by other writers (such as John Searle).  Mind and Cosmos is essentially the work of a philosopher who has already either developed himself or discovered in other writers decisive grounds for rejecting the prevailing form of naturalism and is eager finally to move beyond this negative task and to begin the search for an alternative.  Nagel’s critics should keep this in mind and not pretend that to answer him it will suffice to respond merely to the brief summaries of anti-materialist arguments he provides in this newest book.

Still, Nagel perhaps has unwittingly given ammunition to those among his critics who are likely to be less than charitable or fair-minded.  It would have been advisable to emphasize that the anti-materialist arguments he puts forward in Mind and Cosmos are just summaries of points developed more fully elsewhere.

A second problem with the book is that Nagel’s comments about the theism he rejects are essentially directed not at theism per se, but at what is really only a currently prominent but historically parochial version of theism.  As my longtime readers no doubt already suspect, what I am referring to is the essentially anthropomorphic “theistic personalist” conception of God associated with writers like Plantinga, Swinburne, and Hartshorne and which is at least implicit in writers like William Paley and contemporary “Intelligent Design” theorists -- and which differs radically from the classical theism of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, et al., which has its philosophical roots in the Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic traditions.  

To be sure, though he is an an atheist, Nagel is polite to his theistic rivals.  But he seems acquainted only with the work of ID writers and of Plantinga (whose book Where the Conflict Really Lies he recently reviewed).  Nagel also seems to think that the immanent teleology he is willing tentatively to consider is a rival to a theistic account of the world, when in fact it was an integral part of the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas and other Aristotelian-Scholastic theists.  (I have, of course, said a lot in defense of classical theism and against theistic personalism, and much of it can be found here.  I have also criticized ID at length and discussed the difference between immanent and extrinsic teleology and related matters in another series of posts.  My own review of Plantinga’s most recent book is forthcoming.)  

A third weakness of Mind and Cosmos is that Nagel does not seem aware that his essentially neo-Aristotelian position, though certainly a minority view in contemporary philosophy, is not nearly as eccentric or novel as many readers might suppose.  Nagel cites John Hawthorne and Daniel Nolan’s important recent article “What Would Teleological Causation Be?” but there are many other “mainstream” contemporary academic philosophers he could have cited in defense of a neo-Aristotelian revival.  There are, for example, “new essentialist” philosophers of science like Brian Ellis and Nancy Cartwright; “dispositional essentialist” metaphysicians like C. B. Martin, John Heil, Stephen Mumford, and George Molnar; more broadly neo-Aristotelian metaphysicians like Kit Fine and E. J. Lowe; neo-Aristotelian ethicists like Philippa Foot and Michael Thompson; and “analytical Thomist” metaphysicians like David Oderberg, Gyula Klima, and John Haldane.  Tuomas Tahko’s recent anthology Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics and John Greco and Ruth Groff’s forthcoming anthology Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism provide evidence that these diverse strands of neo-Aristotelian thinking might yet become a self-conscious philosophical movement.  And it is one to which Nagel might consider looking for reinforcements.

But as I say, these points may not be relevant to the main aim of Nagel’s book.  And as I will argue, some of the objections of Nagel’s less friendly critics are not as powerful as they suppose.  We’ll get to that.  In the meantime, head on over to Maverick Philosopher, where our friend Bill Vallicella is writing up his own series of posts on Nagel’s book.

63 comments:

Untenured said...

I have not read Noe's post, but both of the other hostile reviews display a common tendancy with naturalists. First, they point out the successes of the natural sciences, where the criteria of success are wholly pragmatic and utilitarian. Then, they tell us that because the sciences are pragmatically successful, we must defer to them for our metaphysics.

So they justify scientism by appeal to purely practical considerations, while demanding that we derive our theorical conception of the world from science on those grounds alone.

I find this maneuver infuriating; they want play pragmatist on defense and then they want to turn around and play realist on offense. But nowhere do they ever try to seriously defend the inference from "science is really pragmatically successful" to "science tells what the world is really like." All we ever get are vague declarations about "successful research programs" and our "best theory of the world." (As if there was such a thing)

Anonymous said...

Untenured,

You hit the nail on the head. It seems that this gimmick is all that naturalists have left.

DNW said...

It would have been simpler and more straightforward if the critics in the Nation had reduced their review to the following points:


"Nagel’s is the latest in what has become a small cottage industry involving a handful of prominent senior philosophers..."

Nagel opposes two main components of the “materialist” view inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The first is what we will call theoretical reductionism ...


We simply do not see any serious attempts to reduce all the “higher” sciences to the laws of physics.

Yet Nagel argues in his book as if this kind of reductive materialism really were driving the scientific community ...


The second component of the thesis Nagel opposes is what we will call naturalism, the view that features of our world including “consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value”—can ultimately be accounted for in terms of the natural processes described by the various sciences (whether or not they are ever “reduced” to physics ...

" , yet in a striking admission early on, Nagel reveals that his book 'is just the opinion of a layman who reads widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the nonspecialist.' "

Nagel, by his own admission, relies only on popular science writing and brings to bear idiosyncratic and often outdated views about a whole host of issues, from the objectivity of moral truth to the nature of explanation. No one could possibly think he has shown that a massively successful scientific research program like the one inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “is almost certainly false.” The subtitle seems intended to market the book to evolution deniers, intelligent-design acolytes, religious fanatics and others who are not really interested in the substantive scientific and philosophical issues.

Its only effect will be to make the book an instrument of mischief."


In other words, this book is an instrument of mischief because it is written from the perspective of a widely read layman who is in part addressing what has become the popularized and politicized interpretations of a scientific naturalism which we encounter everyday.

But since scientists on the public payroll, whatever they may say on talk shows about the need for the public reording our existences according to these principles, don't really act on the premise of the absolute epistemological and metaphysical validity of these radical theses which form the grist of their socially-prescriptive mills, when in the lab.

Nagel should therefore, keep his yap shut.

He's just going to stir up the Bible clinging riff raff, get Romney elected, and ultimately open the way to our funding being cut.

Untenured said...

Okay, I have now read Noe's review and I think that it is just as feeble and unconvincing as the other two, although it is a bit more self-aware. And I say this as someone who actually likes Noe's work in the philosophy of mind and think that it is a nice corrective to post-Cartesian representationalism. His problem is that he just doesn't understand how radical and ultimately implausible his Dennettian background assumptions are.

Big picture: What we are hearing here are the voices of a flabby and complacent establishment that is not used to be being seriously challenged at the level of fundamental principles. These musings are the fruits of a profession that has been dominated, for the last 35 years, by "rock-star" specialists who have never been forced to think things through back to their fundamentals; and who have gotten away with towing the party line unchallenged.

Noe gets the historical narrative dead wrong. The crucial break doesn't come from Kant. It comes from Bacon and then Galileo who re-oriented philosophy around a set of "let's predict and control the course of nature" projects and away from the prior "let us make the world fully intelligible to reason" projects.

Nagel is challenging materialism on the grounds that it makes nature unintelligible. Rosenberg agrees, ironically. Noe, like Sober and Leiter and Weisberg, just doesn't get it. He really thinks that science is going to fix it all someday because he is, without even recognizing it, "all in" on the "predict and control" project.

He simply does not know what he is up against, plain and simple.

And, thus, he simply assumes that pragmatic success is sufficient for

Untenured said...

Oops! My last incomplete sentence should have been deleted. Moderator take not.

Anonymous said...

Nagel is on the same faculty as Kit Fine. I was also recently speaking with an undergrad in philosophy at NYU, where he seems to be learning that modern philosophy is slowly rediscovering Aritsotle. So it's a little weird that Nagel be oblivious to some of that as you portray at the end of the review.

Thursday said...

The term Neo-Darwinian needs clarification.

If it means the eliminative materialist or just plain materialist philosophy of people like Dan Dennett, who purport to base their philosophy on the insights of evolutionary psychology, then Nagel would appear to be correct that such "Neo-Darwinian" views of reality are false.

But if by Neo-Darwinian views we mean actual evolutionary psychology, then it is hard to see exactly what relevance Nagel's philosophical points have to their truth or falsity. By all appearances, not much.

Thursday said...

Leiter and Weisberg seem to think that with time we will be able to explain such things as qualia using scientific methods, but it is difficult to see how that could be done even in principle. That is the weakest part of their review.

Anonymous said...

Evolutionary psychology doesn't illuminate philosophy of mind not one iota. That is of course a different issue altogether from the criticism laid at evo psych itself. The criticism being that it's a pseudoscience as Chomsky so eloquently explained it. Just-so stories make great gateways to academic funding it seems. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I wonder, if Nagel could converse with Feser, would he pull an Antony Flew?

Anonymous said...

What?! Contemporary philosophy is slowly rediscovering Aristotle? All I have to say to that is this: it's about time!

As for the reports about this occurring in the philosophy department of NYU...well, this couldn't happen to a more deserving place.*

* please note the sarcasm

Christian said...

Dr. Feser,

As you and many A-T Philosophers say (which I agree with)formal causation is an important part of making sense of the material world that the moderns threw out, and having a formal cause also entails having a final cause. What I have been struggling on for a while is, what exactly is the definition of formal causation? How does form, get into contact with and inform matter? How does form get to exist in a material thing? Insights from you and other readers would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Sean Robsville said...

Regarding the philosophy of the mind, non-physical phenomena, if they exist, most probably by their very nature are beyond the capabilities of science to explain, describe and predict.

Those who reject naturalism need to consider the full implications of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. For example, even the application of the basic concepts of cause and effect (IF... THEN...) to non-physical phenomena becomes problematic.

Atheist said...

Untenured posted: But no where do they ever seriously try to defend the inference from "science is really pragmatically successful" to "science tells us what the world is really like".

Really? You've never heard of Putnam's 'no miracle' argument? Bad theist, bad theist! Personally, I think the effectiveness of atomic bombs wouldn't make much sense if atoms didn't exist. And I'm sure effectiveness of lasers makes more sense on the hypothesis that electrons are real than on the hypothesis that they don't exist.

Untenured said...

@Atheist:

I've heard the argument, Richard Boyd runs it as well. I find it wholly unconvincing. Compare: A medieval military commander could use the same argument. "If impetus does not exist, then how the heck can we effectively launch stones at castle walls?" It would be a miracle!

You can get pragmatic successes with false theories; we're done it for 2500 years and we are doing it right now given that either Quantum Mechanics or Relativity will almost certainly have to be revised in order to be rendered harmonious.

tazmic said...

> How does form get to exist in a material thing?

It might help to ask 'How does form interact with material to make a thing?'

(Form doesn't help us understand 'the material world', it helps us understand the world, which also includes material causation.)

But perhaps you highlight an important issue. Something that does seem somewhat left in the air within TLS, is the notion of immateriality.

It's all very well arguing the inconsistency of a materialist account of mind. This might encourage one to reject that explanatory model. But there are a number a ways of doing that. Claiming the mind is therefore immaterial either leaves you with the materialist conception of matter plus other immaterial stuff going on, leading to Cartesian difficulties and perhaps the opening question above, or, in rejecting the notion that reality-stuff is the matter of the materialists, leaves the concept of materiality itself undefined, and therefore the statement that mind is immaterial unclear, redundant, or at most only a paradigmatic negative.

But I'm new to this, and I tend to think of material causes as being reducible to formal causes... and formal causes being emergent from essences or, in some sense, from necessity. (However, it's still not clear to me how to classify a strange attractor.)

tazmic said...

More to the point, if the A-T claim is that reality-stuff isn't just matter, then neither is the stuff in your brain. Which means that the stuff in your brain could completely explain your rationality as its nature is not limited to the behaviour of matter alone. Has an argument been given that rationality requires more than what is in your brain, or just more than what people have thought was in their brain?

Anonymous said...

Sean,

Cause and effect with non-physical entities is not problematic at all. Naturalism is what renders cause and effect utterly incomprehensible.

tazmic said...

And also... What if qualia where found to be related to difference? Take warmth for example. And Descartes infamous experiment (plunging his hands into bowls of water at different temperatures, and swapping) showing 'how we can be fooled by the senses'. Of course, his experiment demonstrated that his senses were working just fine and the only thing he was fooled by was his mistaken belief that his senses registered temperature rather than difference, or change, in energy. (This might also relate to those pictures of colour contrasts meant to show that, for example, redness can't exist 'in the world' as it doesn't appear as the same red when surrounded by yellow, even though it has the same colour pigment. Maybe.)

But this 'sense as difference' gives a picture of the sensory realm as being experienced differences in the world that can't properly be said to exist outside of interaction (be that the interaction implicit in experience, or of measurement, or of simple physical encounter making differences apparent and even causal).

If the experience of warmth arises from a detection of energy flow within the interaction of hand and water, as Descartes experiment actually suggests, then whilst the debate over experience giving accurate access to the world of things as they are (or in this case, the differences therein), versus giving just a representation, doesn't really change, it would make the question over qualia existing just in the world on their own, a bit of a non starter.

TheOFloinn said...

How does form get to exist in a material thing?

It would not be a "thing" if it had not form. Every thing is some thing. That is, it is some form of matter. And a thing is what it is in virtue of its form. How does a sphere get to exist in a basketball? Simple: a basketball is a sphere and it is rubber. It does not even exist as a basketball unless it is spherical.
+ + +
the stuff in your brain could completely explain your rationality

And the ivory in a billiard ball could completely explain the game of pool.

Anonymous said...

tazmic said … it would make the question over qualia existing just in the world on their own, a bit of a non starter.

You mean if qualia = X = Y-Z where Y and Z are objects in the world, then our experience of qualia being the difference is something that is not an external object, right? That makes some sense, but even if qualia were absolute, it seems to me they still have to be something in the mind rather than external. Qualia are too relative to the surrounding conditions, to our disposition at any moment, and so on, to be simply an aspect of the object by itself. Plus if qualia were only material, then computers would have them too, not just people or animals. I can see qualia being something like forms in the intellect, which works with the brain/body and doesn't work without it, but they have to be something that goes beyond matter.

Anonymous said...

I find this maneuver infuriating; they want play pragmatist on defense and then they want to turn around and play realist on offense. But nowhere do they ever try to seriously defend the inference from "science is really pragmatically successful" to "science tells what the world is really like."

I don't think science cares about your metaphysics. If you want to imagine that it is angels pushing subatomic particles around rather than impersonal forces, go right ahead. As long as the results obey the regularities discovered by physics, science doesn't have too much to say about what the actual nature of nature is.

What we are hearing here are the voices of a flabby and complacent establishment that is not used to be being seriously challenged at the level of fundamental principles. These musings are the fruits of a profession that has been dominated, for the last 35 years, by "rock-star" specialists who have never been forced to think things through back to their fundamentals; and who have gotten away with towing the party line unchallenged.

35 years? Did something special happen in 1977 that I missed?

Anyway, science will continue to go on its merry way regardless of what Nagel or any other philosopher has to say about the nature of reality. Philosophy has approximately zero impact on the practice of science, which, as you noted, is pragmatic. "Flabby and complacent" is not very accurate, with its implication that there should be a more vigorous science that would do better philosophy. Science is beyond complacent about these issues; it simply doesn't give a fart (and don't confuse pop books by scientists with actual science).

Christian said...

Thanks TheOFloinn, I guess I was just making the mistake of thinking of form and matter as complete substances in their own right. Just so I am clear, we know that a basketball is a sphere because we can distinguish what its substantial features are by a process of abstraction, right? Spheres and other forms have no existence accept in something that is actual, like a basketball or a rubber ball, correct?

Thanks, again for your help.

Anonymous said...

"Material science doesn't care about metaphysics" is a loaded statement. It does, in fact, care if the universe is intelligible and whether our experience of being happens in reality, since if neither were true it wouldn't work.

If you mean that metaphysics is not consciously referenced during the act of measuring and averaging (the science you refer to), well then sure. But as soon as you undertake logic or even mathematics you're in the land of metaphysics whether you consciously intend it or not.

rank sophist said...

"Material science doesn't care about metaphysics" is a loaded statement.

Actually, I'd say that it's just a load.

Anonymous said...

It does, in fact, care if the universe is intelligible and whether our experience of being happens in reality, since if neither were true it wouldn't work.

Science takes that as a given, since if it were not the case, indeed, science would not work (at least the first part about intelligibility, science is perfectly possible in a fictional universe).

But as soon as you undertake logic or even mathematics you're in the land of metaphysics whether you consciously intend it or not.

Try telling that to a mathematician if you want to get laughed at. Nobody has been able to agree on the metaphysical nature of mathematical objects; and just as in science, this has about zero effect on the actual practice of mathematics.

Eduardo said...

Sure but nobody here cares necessarily with a group's opinion.

But wanna discuss the matter or as I like to put it, they wanna discuss the nature of doing science, of mind, or other stuff. If the argument doesnu't convince people to change their minds... Hey at least we tried.

Looks like all you have is arguments of popularity anon... Hey if all you care is what a particular group think, hey whatever, but that is no good argument.

Cale B.T. said...

Hi all. Here's a link that I thought readers of this blog might enjoy:

http://www.bu.edu/childcognition/publications/2012_KelemenRottmanSeston.pdf

"Professional Physical Scientists Display Tenacious Teleological
Tendencies: Purpose-Based Reasoning as a Cognitive Default"

Anonymous said...

Cale, thank you, that was indeed very interesting.

Not sure that it proves anything one way or the other about naturalism or teleology as philosophy though. What it says, roughly, is that there is an innate propensity to think teleologically; that scientists are trained to not think this way (professionally), but still revert to it for everyday reasoning.

I find the conclusion entirely unsurprising. That there are innate biases towards teleological thinking is long known and has been advocated as a reason to explain away religion (see Pascal Boyer's book, cited in the paper). So work like this is essentially genuine but weak evidence against teleological realism.

Eduardo said...

I think Cale's point was.... Sort of... Scientists tend to think teleologically, so in a sense, in order to understand their experiments they tend to use teleology.

Is it not Cale?

reighley said...

@Atheist,

"And I'm sure effectiveness of lasers makes more sense on the hypothesis that electrons are real than on the hypothesis that they don't exist."

Your use of lasers as an example was a very strange choice. If anything the phenomenon should make you wonder if in fact there is not something more interesting going on inside the atom.

I am rather curious : why do you believe in electrons exactly?

Don't you prefer that view to one in which there is an all pervasive electron field which is occasionally disturbed, causing the phenomenon we call "electron"?

Why do you use the term "exist" for electrons? Why not "happen". Do all electrons exist or just some of them?

Why did you make electrons plural? Are you able to tell electrons apart somehow? Are you under the impression that a single electron cannot be in two places at once, or cannot travel backwards in time? Why isn't there just one electron?

Why did you give certain things the name "electron" and distinguish those things from other things? Is a positron an electron (perhaps traveling backwards in time)? Is a muon an electron (perhaps pregnant)? You have to admit that these are very electron like!

I have to wonder if you are very interested in electrons at all, taking them for granted as you are.

Eduardo said...

Somehow I feel like Reighley is one of those, particle physics geek ahahahhahaha. Sounds sort of like my professors that work on the accelerator.

Cale B.T. said...

Eduardo, I didn't really have any specific conclusion in mind when I posted that link :)

tazmic said...

@TheOFloinn

>if the A-T claim is that reality-stuff isn't just matter, then neither is the stuff in your brain. Which means that the stuff in your brain could completely explain your rationality as its nature is not limited [being a dynamic instantiation of the four causes] to the behaviour of matter alone .

And the ivory in a billiard ball could completely explain the game of pool.


Way to miss the point in the fewest words.

Anonymous said...

Way to miss the point in the fewest words.

Hey, it's a self-referential statement!

Anonymous said...

"Nobody has been able to agree on the metaphysical nature of mathematical objects"

Are you arguing that mathematical objects are physical objects? No? Are they some form of energy? So if they're not matter, energy or chance, then they are.....?

monk68 said...

"I don't think science cares about your metaphysics. If you want to imagine that it is angels pushing subatomic particles around rather than impersonal forces".

Last time I checked, the picture/paradigm of "subatomic particles being pushed around by impersonal forces" is precisely a metaphysical claim (about the “nature of nature”), not a scientific claim.

If one is professionally involved in any of the modern sciences, one is unavoidably working under the influence of *some* metaphysical picture of nature (giant sandbox of randomly shifting subatomic particles or whatever). Moreover, that picture will no doubt have some bearing on how one approaches his subject matter - even as a scientist.

And (as happens frequently) it will most definitely have a bearing on one's comments and influence upon the public when stepping outside of one's area of specialization to begin waxing philosophical about the universe or consciousness or whatever; trading upon one's expertise in one specialized area as some kind of warrant for being taken seriously by the public on the level of metaphysics or philosophy.

The Aristotelian challenge to the reductionist picture of subatomic particles being "pushed" around by "impersonal forces", is not just an argument about "pushing" or causation, or even in the first place about *what* happens to be doing the pushing (“impersonal forces”, or angels or God, etc). The challenge is more fundamental. Regardless of what does the pushing, "reality as subatomic particles"-type reductionism gives absolutely no account of the utterly empirical fact that the great mass of subatomic particles throughout the universe (and especially throughout the organic universe) are found everywhere to come together, hold together, fall apart and then reconstitute in relatively stable configurations and patterns (and that along a relatively stable scale of ascending/descending complexity). These patterns in turn give rise to new properties which no one can locate in the raw subatomic particle "stuff" - taken separately - that is said to fundamentally constitute these patterns.

Before ever reaching a discussion about ultimate cause, Aristotelians are in fact arguing that the current picture of nature embraced by many/most in the scientific community fails to see or at least acknowledge what is actually there to see – again, before we even begin discussing how it got there or why it persists.

Modern science as science needs a richer picture of nature than it is currently working with both functionally and because of the influence of the current scientific picture of nature (yes, metaphysical picture) upon the public at large.

Anonymous said...

@anon (the one parading science around)

Science has been influenced greatly by philosophy of science, from Popper to Lakatos to Kuhn to Feyeranend. "science" is a term that has little substance other than a collection of practices often with incomemensurable relations. Further, science's dependence on philosophy is only denied by fools. So apart from the fact that it's pragmatic not much else can be said making it a limited form of inquiry into the control of nature by Mankind. Why that is the case, which is the important question is something that philosophy alone can illuminate.

Also science neither gives nor doesn't give a fart because it's simply incapable of doing either. Stop committing the anthropomorphic fallacy plz.

Anonymous said...

Someone tell that anon that the vast majority of mathematicians are Platonists in regards to mathematics. Since he wants to play the populist type arguments.

Chris said...

To any charitable Thomist,

I was just over at a blog where the First Way is nicely laid out for the lay person. Some atheists arrived there with their claws out, attacking in particular the meaning of change. Perhaps someone might take a look at the exchange. I'm not sure if the objections hold water.

Rocketphilosophyblogspot

"The Argument from Change in Plain English" posted on Oct 15th.

Thanx!!

Sean Robsville said...

Taking a reductionist approach to the metaphysical status of mathematics:

- The structures and operations of mathematics are reducible to the structures and operations of the mind.

- The structures and operations of the mind are reducible to the structures and operations of the brain.

- The structures and operations of the brain are reducible to the structures and operations of biological macromolecules.

- The structures and operations of biological macromolecules are reducible to the structures and operations of organic chemicals.

- The structures and operations of organic chemicals are reducible to the structures and operations of atoms.

- The structures and operations of atoms are reducible to the structures and operations of mathematics.

- The structures and operations of mathematics are reducible to the structures and operations of the mind...

rank sophist said...

I was just over at a blog where the First Way is nicely laid out for the lay person. Some atheists arrived there with their claws out, attacking in particular the meaning of change. Perhaps someone might take a look at the exchange. I'm not sure if the objections hold water.

I'll bite.

Hugo's objections attack a strawman of the first way. Here's his verison:

Premise 1) Some things are in state X
Premise 2) All things that are in state X are being Xed by something that is not in state X
Premise 3) The chain of things in state X cannot be infinitely long


He finds obvious problems with this. For example:

The problem is that the argument claims that 'some' things are in state X and other are not, but without ever explaining exactly what it means to be in state X. It is an analogy that refers to nothing specific.

Considering that the crappiness of the argument is his fault, it's understandable.

The first way must always be understood in terms of act and potency, which in turn must be understood in terms of the paradox offered by Parmenides. Hugo does not see this and so strawmans the argument. Here's a more proper formulation:

1. Some things change from being potential to being actual.
2. Nothing potential can actualize itself.
3. The chain of actualities cannot be infinitely long.
4. Therefore, there is a first actuality without any potentiality.

When "actuality" and "potentiality" are properly defined, and understood in their historical context, Hugo's objection vanishes. He says further:

The point is that we cannot prove that the chain is infinitely long, so we are not justified in believing that it is; but we also cannot prove that it is not infinitely long, so we are not justified to believe that either.

This begs the question regarding epistemology and ontology. Why is this the reason that we cannot infer from cause to effect? He never tells us. Also, under Aquinas's ontological and epistemological structure, if there was no first actuality, then nothing else could possibly be actual; and so nothing would change, which is absurd.

For the sake of discussion, even if we are to grant that there must be a 'non-X' at the source of all 'X', then we get to know absolutely nothing about this 'non-X'. The only thing we can say is that it is not in state 'X'.

This fails to understand the entire argument. The point is not that "change" or "motion" is some state on its own, but that it just is the reduction of potency to act. Every change in fact breaks down into these two separate elements, which is how the argument gets its power.

The argument tries to trick the reader into accepting a premise that seems true, because 'change' has a common meaning in our everyday life, only to change the meaning of the words used in order to come up with a conclusion that does not follow from the premises.

Here, he again misunderstands what "change" really means. If he can come up with an alternative to act and potency that also escapes Parmenides' paradox, then he can make this argument. But there is no such alternative.

Anonymous said...

Rank,

Allow me to play the devil's advocate. Why is it that there can be no infinite chain?

rank sophist said...

Allow me to play the devil's advocate. Why is it that there can be no infinite chain?

I've just been reading Prof. Feser's Aquinas, so the answer is fresh in my mind. The reason that there cannot be an infinite chain is fairly simple. There are two kinds of causal chains: accidentally ordered and essentially ordered. Accidentally ordered is something like a man building a house. The effect can exist after the cause is done working. Essentially ordered is like the chain involved in displaying this message: the monitor takes its power from the tower, which takes its power from the wall, which takes its power from the wiring in my house, and so on. This process is simultaneous, and the loss of an earlier link in the chain (say, downed power lines) results in the impossibility of the later ones, given the principle of causality.

Now, an essentially ordered series cannot be infinitely long. If it was, then it would be impossible to explain the later effects. If the power lines were not outside, then the power in my monitor could not be explained. Hence, if there was no first actuality, then no change at all could be explained. Whereas accidentally ordered series are self-contained in their explanations (this caused that, and that's the end of it), essentially ordered chains always defer to some further cause; and so to say that the chain is infinitely long is to state either A) that nothing changes at all or B) that the principle of causality is wrong. Neither of these is defensible--not even Hume pulled it off, as Prof. Feser explains in his book.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Rank,

At this point the atheist might choose to claim that the world is accidentally ordered. How does one respond to that? Is there a way to demonstrate that the world is in fact essentially ordered?

PatrickH said...

It's also important to really hammer home that Aquinas thinks that saying "what is changing can change itself" lands one in an outright contradiction. Aquinas makes it clear in the First Way why he thinks that claiming that "what is changing can change itself" entails "something can both be and not be in the same respect at the same time" (last part very important!).

If something is changing, it is in potency to that toward which it is changing, to that which the something is NOT yet. So insofar as it is in potency it is NOT yet a certain way. But to make or effect a change, something must be in act at the time and in the manner or respect in which it is functioning as an AGENT of that change ("agent" being derived from the same latin as "action", "actual" and "act").

So to Aquinas, something is changing insofar as it is NOT in a certain respect at a given time, but something can be effecting that change at that time only insofar as it IS at precisely the same time (but not in the same respect as that which is changing). Aquinas says something can be a changer and the changed in the same respect only at different times and (explicitly) in the First Way, can only be the changer and the changed at the same time in different respects.

So if what is changing is making itself change, it must be both changer and changed, and therefore both BE and NOT BE in the same respect at the same time, and that's impossible. That's the contradiction.

Hugo does not seem to get that at all. But Aquinas gives his reasoning right there in the First Way. He spends the first two thirds laying out why he thinks the above. He's not shy about it at all.

rank sophist said...

At this point the atheist might choose to claim that the world is accidentally ordered. How does one respond to that? Is there a way to demonstrate that the world is in fact essentially ordered?

If all things were accidentally ordered, then it would follow that all effects could continue on independently of their causes. But this is manifestly false. To use an example from Prof. Feser's Aquinas:

"In the case of the broken window, the key point in the causal series would be something like the pushing of the brick into the glass and the glass's giving way. These events are simultaneous; indeed, the brick's pushing into the glass and the glass's giving way are really just the same event considered under different descriptions. Or [...] we might think of a potter making a pot, where the potter's positioning his hand in just such-and-such a way and the pot taking on such-and-such shape are simultaneous, and, again, the same event described in two different ways."

It is incoherent to suggest that the effects in these cases could continue independently of their causes. Further, as Prof. Feser states, causal links are not temporally but metaphysically ordered. Temporal events presuppose metaphysical events. So it does no good to say, as one opponent I debated in the past said, that there is a "split-second delay" in which a monitor, say, keeps getting power after the powerlines are downed. This does not show that the chain was really accidental all along, because the point here is logical and metaphysical, not an a posteriori consideration of temporality.

Tony said...

Anonymous: Are you arguing that mathematical objects are physical objects? No? Are they some form of energy? So if they're not matter, energy or chance, then they are.....?

Philosopher David Stove, 3 of his 40 "different ways in which thought can go irretrievably wrong":

15 Three is a real object all right: you are not thinking of nothing when you think of three.

16 Three is a real material object.

17 Three is a real spiritual object.


Anonymous: Philosophy has approximately zero impact on the practice of science, which, as you noted, is pragmatic.

That's really funny, since 4 of the most influential men who were responsible for starting modern SCIENCE and MATH were men who had very strong views of, and published works that took very strong views of, philosophy. Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Newton. Add in Einstein, who had such views but was perhaps somewhat more reserved in expressing them. These men didn't think that philosophy had zero impact on their own thinking.

To think that "success in predicting" or "pragmatic results" matters is philosophical thought, not a scientific one.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again Rank for clearing it up.

Chris said...

RS and Patrick H,

Thanks for pointing out the issues in Hugo's objections.

Adam said...

Dr. Feser,
Greatly appreciate the blog.
I have perused it quite a bit today, mainly to gain as good of a grasp on A-T metaphysics as I could, particularly as they pertain to the philosophy of the mind (not to say I've tried to do it all in one day :) Just done a whole lot of it today) However, I have been unsuccessful in finding a response to one question in particular:
How do you define the intellect as immaterial, and thereby, subsistent after death?
I realize this somewhat defers to the basis dualist/monist point of debate - That is, the question of" how do you defend that there is more to the intellect than the physical brain?" I realize that, and I am relatively familiar with the arguments from both sides. I am no expert by any means, but I would at least say I have a comfortable knowledge of the topic. Anyway, I am mainly asking you, or someone on here familiar with A-T thought, because it does seem a crucial point so far as Christian theology is concerned.
I suppose what I mean comes from two angles
1 - Though this is very much the BASIC point of difference for atheists and theists, and therefore may be 'old hat,' I am simply curious as to whether or not there is a place where you deal with this question directly. After reading the 'immateriality of the intellect' so many times, I was hoping to find a post or further explanation for that particular point. I say that because, though I am not a monist, I am still inclined to believe one could argue that the brain generates the intellect, or that the intellect cannot function without the brain. Again, I am not saying I am ignorant to the points of difference on either side. I suppose I would simply say that, for the sake of argument, let's say I grant the plausibility of monism. Or more specifically, what if I grant the real possibility of A.I. being developed some day? Could not such a being represent what we call the intellect although they are not human? And again, I am not even convinced that would/could happen. What I'm concerned with is even HYPOTHETICALLY, if it could, what sort of philosophical implications would that have? Or maybe more importantly, what sort of implications would that have for Christian theology? Which leads to my second query
2 - I saw a few comments asking about the problems, from a Christian theologian's perspective, that could arise were something other than a human (animal, robot, what have you)to develop what appears to be an intellect. I know that when faced with this there seem to be two options
1 - Deny that such occurrences are possible
2 - Accept that they are possible, and by extension, that souls that seem equivalent to humans can be had by those who are not humans.
I am sorry if that summation sounds crass. I am not persuaded by those ideas. But I am saying that I at least feel compelled to grant them at least hypothetically. And that it seems, when granted, restraining the soul to the intellect produces layers of potential problems. But, ultimately, that is why I am asking. As of now I only have ambiguous hunches for which I'm more than willing to find some clarity.

Anonymous said...

Hey guys. Long time admirer, first time commenter, coming from a non-theistic but also non-naturalistic perspective.

I'm a bit baffled by some of the odd claims being made. Considering that Gould and Eldredge cited Feyerabend and Kuhn in their first punctuated equilibrium paper, how does it make sense to say scientists don't care about philosophy? In fact, one could pull up dozens of examples of how philosophical arguments have shaped research programs. Look at Dreyfus's influence on the turn toward connectionism in AI. Sometimes research programs go awry, and careful conceptual analysis can often right that. Science is pragmatic (thank goodness!) but metaphysical assumptions do affect how it works.

Besides, we need to insulate the world from some of the bad metaphysics produced by pop scientists. :P

Other bizarre claims: People claiming that such objects as wavefunctions and forces have concrete reality and causal powers because of their mathematical nature, and then denying that mathematical objects have concrete reality. I don't really care about the latter, but the former, besides contradicting the latter, is also a prime example of Whitehead's fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

Eduardo said...

Adam, Dr Feser has spoken of that before, I am certain that the search bar could come in handy.

Without saying.... The thomist geeks around here.

reighley said...

Anonymous,

"I don't really care about the latter, but the former, besides contradicting the latter, is also a prime example of Whitehead's fallacy of misplaced concreteness."

I'm not sure that the concreteness of a "force" is misplaced at all. Actually hard for me to imagine something that could be more concrete than forces.

"wave function" has a pretty good claim on reality too. You must forgive the misleading terminology, as the hapless creatures would seem to be neither waves exactly or functions exactly, but things they very well might be.

Adam said...

Eduardo,
I would have thought so, and I certainly found some cursory references, but I struggled finding anything directly answering that question.
But yeah, generally, it was one of those things I'm thinking would have been answered at some point, and I just couldn't find it.

Eduardo said...

Well... Where is a thomist when you need one huh XD.

U_U, you guys could show up like ... Today!

grodrigues said...

@Anonymous:

"Allow me to play the devil's advocate. Why is it that there can be no infinite chain?"

A slightly different way to formulate what rank sophist said: if per se ordered infinite chains existed you whould have what amounted to a vicious explanatory regress in your hands.

For in such series, not only every link is instrumental, that is, you cannot omit it without interrupting the series, but the *explanation* for the causal operations of link n is explained link by n + 1. So, identifying numbers with the links in the chain, if we ask why did 0 happened (or exerted its causal power), the answer is because of 1. Why did 1 happened? Because of 2. And etc. and etc. We end up never explaining anything at all but just keep defering the explanation backwards and backwards.

Yet another way to see the problem in such series is to invoke Kalam style type of arguments on the impossibility of traversing the infinite, suitably reformulated in terms of ontological priority instead ot temporal priority. But in end, it will not be much different that then previous considerations.

monk68 said...

Anonymous 10:19PM 10-24,

Agree with all you say. I hope none of the Aristotelian-Thomists here have been asserting that science qua science is unaffected by the metaphysical picture it is working with (implicitly or explicitly), or that mathematical concepts have real being (as opposed to mental being dependednt on the existence of a real intellect).

-Pax

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that the concreteness of a "force" is misplaced at all. "Actually hard for me to imagine something that could be more concrete than forces.

"wave function" has a pretty good claim on reality too. You must forgive the misleading terminology, as the hapless creatures would seem to be neither waves exactly or functions exactly, but things they very well might be."

A few comments: First of all, we posit the existence of a wave-function because things appear to behave as if there were a wave-function. Nobody has ever observed a wavefunction, so to speak. My question is, what obligation do we have to treat the theoretical objects of science as if they actually exist? Given the contingency of science as a whole and scientific theories, and given the recurring problem of underdetermination, I would argue that it's best to act as if these are just useful constructs.

An alternate method of argument is that, if you're arguing against those who believe in the kind of epistemological radicalism that those like the Churchlands subscribe to, you could point out we have no reason to believe that any of the objects we believe in right now will survive the march of scientific progress. Even electrons have been reduced.

Anonymous said...

@reighley

"hard for me to imagine something that could be more concrete than forces."

I love the use of the word 'hard' there.

grodrigues said...

@Anonymous:

"A few comments: First of all, we posit the existence of a wave-function because things appear to behave as if there were a wave-function. Nobody has ever observed a wavefunction, so to speak. My question is, what obligation do we have to treat the theoretical objects of science as if they actually exist?"

Your question is a very good one.

For the case of the wave function (something of an historical misnomer), If we take the Copenhagen interpretation seriously (cough cough), then the wave function is *not* observable and is indeed just a theoretical construct. Other interpretations will treat it differently.

Jon Hizmi said...

@ Adam

I am a philosophical nOOb but I believe Feser answers your question re: the immateriality of the intellect on pg. 153 ff in Aquinas.

Here is the argument:

1. "When the intellect grasps the form of a thing, it is necessarily one and the same form that exists in both the thing itself and in the intellect." So when you think about "Cats" "the form of "catness" that exists in our intellects when we think about cats is one and the same form that exists in actual cats. If this weren't true, we wouldn't be thinking about cats at all.

2. Suppose the intellect is a material thing. Then, when you think about "Cats" the form of "catness" would exist in a material thing (your intellect). But as Feser puts it "for a form to exist in a material thing is just for that material thing to be the kind of thing the form is a form of." (yes, I find this sentence to be very confusing too). In other words "for the form of 'catness' to exist in a certain parcel of matter is just for that parcel of matter to be a cat."

3. Step 2 leads to an absurdity, since if the intellect were really a material thing, then it follows that your brain would literally become a cat when you grasp the form of "catness."

It took me a couple of reads for that argument to click, but it makes sense to me now, so long as one takes hylemorphism for granted.

Feser also makes a second argument for the immateriality of the intellect in the next few pages.

reighley said...

@Anonymous (10-25 8:52pm)
"First of all, we posit the existence of a wave-function because things appear to behave as if there were a wave-function."

If I wanted to hit my head against the brick wall of phenomenology, I could express doubts as to the existence of the moon, because I had never actually seen it (only the light bouncing off of it). By using a phrase like "things appear ...", you are giving a special place to light (as well you should).

Yet light is a collection of massless bosons, and your experience with it is broad enough that you have first person experience of its unusual properties. This object, this wave function, actually struck you directly in the eye and you have seen it! It's even more real than the moon.

Now of course, if what you mean by "wave function" is just the abstract mathematical construction then your point is legitimate. Must we really go down that path? When I say "wave functions are real things" I am not wearing my Platonism. I am simply stating that the Greek letter Psi in the Schrodinger equation refers to something in the real world. Whether the equation is a true statement or not, the thing which the equation is !about! is POKING YOU IN THE EYE RIGHT NOW!