Monday, August 3, 2015

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 2 Greeks Bearing Gifts)

All throughout the preface and the first chapter Feser made numerous extremely bold claims that he promises to back up in the later chapters. By chapter two, entitled Greeks Bearing Gifts, we start seeing some of those justifications come to light. The chapter starts out on a crash course through ancient Greek philosophy leading up to Plato and then Aristotle. I won't summarize Feser's teaching unless I think it is significant for his objective, which is to show that "a certain kind of" religion and god are not only reasonable to believe in, but that it's logically impossible that naturalism is true.

Plato and Aristotle are considered to be two of the greatest philosophers of all time, and I would largely agree. That's not to say that I agree with all of their ideas, especially their metaphysical ones, it's just to recognize the fact that they were both deeply analytic thinkers and widely influential. For example, I regard the Euthyphro Dilemma, from Plato's Euthyphro, as one of the greatest pieces of moral insight. But, I digress. For Feser, he focuses first on Plato's Theory of Forms, which is one of the things I think Plato got wrong.

Take the triangle. Any triangle physically drawn or created will in some way be imperfect, if only by a tiny amount. They will all lack features that perfectly exemplify a triangle - that is, they will have features not part of a triangle's essence or nature. Plato argues from this that the essence or nature of triangularity is not material or known through our senses, and when we exemplify triangles physically they go in and out of existence, but its essence stays the same. The essential features of triangularity are therefore according to Plato, universal, and not particular, immaterial, and not material, and known through the intellect and not through the senses.

Feser is making the case for Platonic realism, and makes arguments against nominalism, and conceptualism. Platonic realism is the view that universals (like triangles, squares, and other geometric patterns) and abstract objects (like numbers) exist independently of minds or physical space and time. Nominalism is the view that these objects do not exist, and conceptualism is the view that these objects exist, but only as concepts in our minds. Feser presents several arguments to try and show that realism is true and that nominalism and conceptualism are false. The reason why he's trying to do so starts becoming clear on page 36 where he writes:

A triangle is a triangle only because it participates in the Form of Trianglarity; a squirrel is a squirrel only because it participates in the Form of Squirrel; and so forth. By the same token, something is going to count as a better triangle the more perfectly it participates in or instantiates triangularity, and a squirrel would be a better squirrel the more perfectly it participates in or instantiates the Form of Squirrel.

This is all leading up to the natural law theory of ethics that many Catholics, like Feser, think forms the basis of our morality. Feser goes on:

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. This entails a standard of goodness, and a perfectly objective one. It is not a matter of opinion whether the carefully drawn triangle is a better than the hastly drawn one, nor a matter of opinion whether the toothpaste eating squirrel is deficient as a squirrel.

There's a real problem with comparing the "essence" of a triangle's perfection, where all the lines are perfectly straight and all angles perfectly match up to 180 degrees, to the "essence" of a squirrel (or that of a human being). 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? Any "genetic defect" that an animal might have could give it an advantage to its environment. That's one of the driving mechanisms for how evolution works after all. And that "defect" might become spread throughout that entire population through natural selection and gene flow. At what point does the mutation become the "Form" or "essence"? Feser doesn't address a single one of these obvious objections. And for humans, how can we even know what the perfect essence of a human is and objectively determine it? I don't think that we can do with humans and animals what we can do with abstract Forms like triangles. Animals are far too complex and irregular than geometric shapes to be considered instantiations of "perfect" Forms and essences.

On top of that, I'm definitely skeptical of the realist view on universals and abstract objects like numbers. I think nominalism makes much better sense, and I'm open to conceptualism, but I'm not necessarily completely committed to them. (Platonic realism is not incompatible with naturalism after all, but it is however, incompatible with physicalism.) I think realism makes some good points, but I don't think universals or numbers exist in any kind of "third realm" that Plato entertained, nor do I think they're instantiated in objects. It's absurd to me to think that there is a Form of an ideal chair out there by which all particular chairs participate in and instantiate. I have trouble even contemplating what it even means to "exist" in such a realm, and I don't think realists like Feser really know either. Where is Feser's consistent definition of what he means by these forms to "exist" and what he means by knowing through the "intellect"? If I can access the physical world through my senses, how is it that humans somehow developed this sixth sense that allows them to intuit things that don't exist physically? Feser says that universals "exist in the extra-mental things themselves (albeit always tied to other features) and that the abstracted universals existing in the intellect derive from our sense experiences of these objectively existing things, rather than being the free creations of the mind." (61) To me this is metaphysical nonsense. I don't think Forms exist at all, and if they did they'd exist at most as concepts in our minds. And being a nominalist, I think numbers are invented to function as relational properties. That is to say, at most, their ontological status is dependent on minds to conceive of them. There are no universals anywhere, whether instantiated in objects or not. In my view, the physical universe is more fundamental, and math, sets, and numbers are created as logical concepts as we try and quantify it.

In his existential detective story, Why Does the World Exist?, the American philosopher Jim Holt, explains the nominalist view of mathematics:

All of mathematics can be seen to consist of if-then propositions: if such-and-such structure satisfies certain conditions, then that structure must satisfy certain further conditions. These if-then truths are indeed logically necessary. But they do not entail the existence of any objects, whether abstract or material. The proposition "2 + 2 = 4," for example, tells you that if you had two unicorns and you added two more unicorns, then you would end up with four unicorns. But this if-then proposition is true even in a world that is devoid of unicorns—or, indeed, in a world that contains nothing at all. (181)

The fact that different minds can independently arrive at the concept that 2 + 2 = 4 does not mean that numbers exist "out there" in some "realm," it means that if you have two objects, and add two more objects, you'll have four objects. So logically, 2 + 2 = 4 and it cannot be any other way. For additional arguments against the realist view on numbers and a positive argument for nominalism, see Roberto Unger and Lee Smolin's new book, The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal In Natural Philosophy. In it, Smolin devotes a chapter to arguing that mathematics is indeed a human invention, but a particular kind. It's not an arbitrary invention, but rather one that evokes objective things, analogous (albeit imperfectly) to the way chess has rules that allow anyone to objectively discover which moves are the best for which situations. Math as they see it, works the same way.

When a game like chess is invented a whole bundle of facts become demonstrable, some of which indeed are theorems that become provable through straightforward mathematical reasoning. As we do not believe in timeless Platonic realities, we do not want to say that chess always existed — in our view of the world, chess came into existence at the moment the rules were codified. This means we have to say that all the facts about it became not only demonstrable, but true, at that moment as well … Once evoked , the facts about chess are objective, in that if any one person can demonstrate one, anyone can. And they are independent of time or particular context: they will be the same facts no matter who considers them or when they are considered. 
There is a potential infinity of formal axiomatic systems (FASs). Once one is evoked it can be explored and there are many discoveries to be made about it. But that statement does not imply that it, or all the infinite number of possible formal axiomatic systems, existed before they were evoked. Indeed, it’s hard to think what belief in the prior existence of an FAS would add. Once evoked, an FAS has many properties which can be proved about which there is no choice — that itself is a property that can be established. This implies there are many discoveries to be made about it. In fact, many FASs once evoked imply a countably infinite number of true properties, which can be proved.” (423-425)

In other words, the apparent dichotomy that numbers are either invented (nominalism) or discovered (realism) is a false dichotomy. Smolin outlines four possibilities. There's also no reason why these formal axiomatic systems cannot apply just as easily to geometric Forms as they do to numbers. (For additional information on Smolin's argument, see Massimo Pigliucci's review of it here.)

Feser makes several arguments for Platonic realism, and then seems to abandon them in favor of Aristotle's take on universals, which denies the existence of Forms in a third realm (as I do). This seems confusing why he spends several pages making the case for Platonic realism arguing that universals exist in a "third realm," only to reject them in favor of Aristotelian realism. It makes it pointless for me to address his arguments for Platonic realism, since Feser himself doesn't seem to hold to them. If either nominalism or conceptualism are true and are supported by arguments like Smolin's above, Feser's case for god and the soul apparently falls apart. I could stop right now and declare victory for naturalism, but that would be premature and would spoil the fun to come. Feser never really addresses the problems with universals in chapter two in depth. So we get a one sided argument, very unfitting for a Thomist because Thomas Aquinas was well known for devoting ample time to address opposition to his arguments. Bottom line, Feser has simply not made a convincing case for Aristotelian realism.

Aristotle's Metaphysics

Which brings us to Aristotle. Aristotle accepted Plato's realism but with modifications. He rejected their existence in a third realm and thought they instead exist "in" the things they materially instantiate. Feser makes another huge claim, this time regarding Aristotle (51):

Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the history of Western thought. 

He then goes on to make what sound like a bunch of Right-wing talking points about how this abandonment has lead to everything from the widespread belief of the illusion of free will, moral relativism, scientism, skepticism over authority, abortion, same-sex marriage, and of course, "mass-murder on a scale unparalleled in human history." Of course it did. For Feser, traditional Western religion and morality utterly depend on Aristotelian metaphysics. So, let's dive into Aristotelian metaphysics which lay the foundation for Feser's case for theism.

Actuality and potentiality: Take an object like a blue rubber ball. If we were to paint it red, or draw a map on it or melt it so that it became gooey, these are all potentialities that it has. It cannot become a car, or a human; these are things it does not potentially have. Something external must act on the potential of the ball in order for the potentiality to be actualized. Potential gooeyness cannot actualize itself, because if it could, there'd be no way to tell why it did at any particular time. This forms the basis for many Thomists who argue that god is pure actuality.

So, no potential can actualize itself, and in this sense anything that changes requires something outside it to change it. This is true even of animals, which seem at first glace to change themselves; for what this always amounts to is really just one part of the animal being changed by another part.....Thus we have the classic Aristotelian principle: Whatever is changed is changed by another, or, in its more traditional formulation, Whatever is moved is moved by another. (55)

Feser seems to unwittingly be making the case for determinism. In fact, all the first cause arguments for god, whether they're arguments from cosmology, contingency, or arguments from Aristotelian metaphysics, make the case for determinism once they're taken seriously and applied to humans. And claiming humans are the exception not only is specially pleading, it falsifies the principle. If we "change" when we have a thought or perform an action, then we must be changed by another — according to the Aristotelian principle — meaning, something that is not us. But of course the Aristotelian might say that we have act, in addition to potential, and that our act initiates the course of events when we think or do something. But then whatever is changed is not changed by another, it's changed by us. That's like saying that we can actualize ourselves in a way that is distinct from the potential gooeyness of a rubber ball, or energy state changes of the electron. It also admits that things begin to exist without a cause - a premise most theists reject. And how this gets around the objection Feser himself raises that there'd be no way to tell why it actualized at a particular time is currently beyond me, but maybe some of the Thomists who defend Feser can make a coherent, non-special pleading argument for it. The bottom line is that unless you are prepared to jettison libertarian free will, you cannot hold to these popular first-cause principles.

Form and matter: In addition to act and potency, in the Aristotelian view, ordinary objects are irreducible composites of matter and form. Going back to our example of the blue rubber ball, it's composed of a certain kind of matter — rubber, and a certain form — a round, blue, bouncy object. The matter is not the ball, because rubber could be any shape, such as in an eraser or a rubber band. The form is not the ball either, because you can't bounce blueness, roundness or even bounciness - they are mere abstractions. It's only through form and matter together that we have the ball.

Some Forms are non-essential, and some are essential. The color of a ball is non-essential. The ball could be red or green or white and still be a ball. If the ball is melted to goo however, it is no longer a ball and therefore its roundness is essential. Features that are essential to a thing are its substantial form and are part of its essence. According to Aristotelians, being a rational animal is the substantial form or essence of being human; being black or white isn't, since you can be any race and be rational. But that would mean that someone who is brain damaged and incapable of being rational isn't a human being. That's not a view Feser would want to hold to. Indeed, he argues on page 130 that a brain damaged person would be potentially rational because "the soul - the form, nature, or essence of the living organism - is still there, and rationality is part of this form, nature, or essence." That's like saying that a triangular rock that has one of its angles crumble off is still a potential triangle because its "form, nature, or essence is still there." (I will addresses the plausibility of this when I get to chapter four.) The only way a brain damaged person could potentially be rational is because they have a brain which potentially could be repaired.

There's also a hierarchy. Essential Forms are higher in importance than non-essential Forms. By "irreducible," Feser means that it's only through the ball's matter and form together that this composite can be constituted as a ball. The matter doesn't exist apart from the ball (while it exists) and the form of the ball doesn't exist by itself either. He adds:

Furthermore, while to be a material thing is always to have potentialities of various sorts, for a thing to have potentiality does not necessarily entail its being material object. For there could be an immaterial thing that manifests potentiality insofar as it comes into existence at some point in time (thereby going from potential existence to actual existence). (59)

I can definitely understand how energy can turn into matter (that's part of Einstein's E = mc2), but what immaterial "thing" does Feser have in mind? Why, it's the soul of course! "Aristotle hints that (a part of) the human soul might be an example - and like everything else, such a thing would have a form," Feser writes. "....Such forms would be immaterial particular things, though, not uninstantiated universals." I don't buy Aristotle's argument for the soul, but since Feser makes the case for the soul properly in chapter four I will wait for that time to properly critique it.


Using Aristotle, Feser also denies temporal causality in favor of simultaneous causality. He uses an analogy of a brick hitting a window that shatters it as a result and tries to argue that their is no temporal order of events between the brick being thrown, it hitting the glass, and the glass shattering as a result of being hit.

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, Aristotle would say that the brick's pushing into the glass and the glass's giving way are really just the same event, considered under different descriptions. (66)

There is much debate over causality in science and philosophy, but I don't think Feser makes a convincing case against temporal causality here. The brick is clearly thrown before hitting the glass and its impact on the window causes the glass to shatter. For a window, the glass will bend slightly inward from the impact of the brick before shattering under the pressure. The notion of simultaneous causality also opens one to actual infinities. If A can cause B, which can cause C simultaneously, why can't there be an actual infinity of causes? To stop at some arbitrary point is unjustified.

Then Feser writes about different types of effects. There are causes that have features that generate their effects "formally" when the cause has the same features of the effects, and others that are "eminently" when the cause does not have the features that generates the effects.

The Four Causes: And now we get to Aristotle's four causes, which play an integral role in Aquinas' arguments for god. The four kinds of causes are:

  • Material cause: the material stuff that the object is made out of. In the case of the rubber ball, the rubber that is used to make the ball is the material cause.
  • Formal cause: the shape of the material into the form that the object takes. In the case of the rubber ball, the shape of the rubber as a sphere is the formal cause.
*The material and formal causes become the matter and form of an object.
  • Efficient cause: what brings a thing into existence. In the case of the rubber ball, it is the person or machine that arranged the rubber material into the form of a ball. This actualizes the potential of the rubber to be a ball.
  • Final cause: the goal, end or purpose of a thing. In the case of the rubber ball, it's to provide amusement. The final cause is the most controversial of the four causes. It is by applying final causality to nature that theists try to imply the existence of god. This is usually done by some version of the design or teleological arguments.

Modern science has for the most part rejected formal and final causes from its considerations, and in doing so, has left theists like Feser furious that we no longer think that everything that exists or happens has a purpose and we instead acknowledge that some things just happen. How dare we! 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? Final causes open up these sorts of dilemmas to those like Feser who wish to cling to libertarian free will. Feser's way of thinking, based on Aristotelian metaphysics will never again be accepted by science, because it smuggles in metaphysics that has no empirical support, like final causes. (More on that later.)

What about substances? Aristotelian metaphysics claims that things exist for a final cause. But evolution by natural selection strongly challenges this notion. 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. And if everything has a final cause, consider this. The human penis evolved its shape to plunge out other men's semen from the human vagina. (See here for PDF.) This indicates that early humans were not monogamous and this behavior literally shaped our physical evolution. What are we supposed to make of this given Thomistic final causes? Did the creator intend and design us to be non-monogamous so that we'd have this evolved trait? That wouldn't make sense with Feser's extremely conservative views on sex, which we'll get to in the later chapters. None of this makes any sense to me when one assumes final causality.

But Feser reminds us that "there cannot be efficient causes without final ones." (64) He 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. If the goal of this chapter is to establish beyond a doubt that Aristotelian metaphysics is the way the world operates, then I think it's a failure.

Many people misunderstand final causes according to Feser, and he helps educate us on what it truly is. Aristotle meant final causes—or goal directedness—to exist way beyond human artifacts and living things. Everything was suffused with a final cause. For example, the moon is directed towards movement around the earth; fire is directed towards producing heat; water is directed towards evaporation. But — and here's what's important — we shouldn't think the final cause of being "directed towards" a goal as something that is consciously done. The moon isn't consciously trying to move around the earth. The fire isn't consciously trying to produce heat. Feser writes, "there is a kind of goal-directedness that exists even apart from conscious thought processes and intentions." (70) Which means:

The material cause of a thing underlies its potential for change; but potentialities, as we've seen, are always potentialities for, or directed toward, some actuality. Hence final causality underlies all potentiality and thus all materiality....For it is only because a thing has a certain end or final cause that it has the form it has - hence hearts have ventricles, atria, and the like precisely because they have the function of pumping blood. (70)

But I don't see a comprehensive case from him arguing such. He simply just derives this from his metaphysics because Aristotle included a final cause. Where's the killer argument that's suppose to prove final causes exist? I don't see one. 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? And the heart is a bad example to try and show final causes exist. Hearts, like all organs of organisms, evolved through the unguided process of evolution. Mutations occurred that were beneficial to the organism, like light sensitive cells that evolved into eyes. If beneficial mutations that have aided an organism were directed toward the "goal" of aiding the organism either see, pump blood, swim, or crawl, then what about the countless other harmful mutations that lead to disadvantage, suffering, and death? The fact that with evolution we see trial and error, where some changes simply out of luck become advantageous for an organism, strikes me as something not very goal orientated. It seems to me lots of changes are happening without any final goal in mind, and therefore I think this Aristotelian idea of final causes is just a sophisticated philosophical way of describing our tendency to assume agency, intentionality, and purpose in the world. I see no reason to assume that natural events have final causes or that Aristotle's metaphysics capture reality.

But Feser continues:

Indeed, nothing makes sense - not the world as a whole, not morality of human action in general, not the thoughts you're thinking or the words you're using, not anything at all - without final causes. They are certainly utterly central to, and ineliminable from, our conception of ourselves as rational and freely choosing agents, whose thoughts and actions are always directed towards an end beyond themselves.
      Yet modern philosophers, scientists, and intellectuals in general claim not to believe in final causality. I say "claim" because, like all normal human beings, they actually appeal to final causes all the time in their everyday personal lives, and even to a great extent in their professional lives. (70-71)

When we talk about events involving people and biological life, yes, there are final causes. I'm writing this review because I have a goal of learning more about Aristotelian metaphysics and I want to hear and critique the best arguments for god. Organs have a function in that they perform some necessary task for an organism, but they are the result of unguided evolutionary processes. To say that organs have a function, or that the universe is inevitably moving towards a particular state is not to concede that final causes exist. All one has to acknowledge is that 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. The reason why science rejects final causes, in the words of Sean Carroll, is because "These days we know better." Carroll goes on:**

The early glimmerings of the notion of conservation of momentum supported the idea that things just kept happening, rather than being directed toward a cause, and this view seemed to find its ultimate embodiment in the clockwork universe of Newtonian mechanics. (In technical terms, time evolution is described by differential equations fixed by initial data, not by future goals.) Darwin showed how the splendid variety of biological life could arise without being in any sense goal-directed or guided — although this obviously remains a bone of contention among religious people, even respectable philosophers. But the dominant paradigm among scientists and philosophers is dysteleological physicalism.

Feser calls this "bullshit" and a "sheer stipulation" but doesn't refute the alleged stipulation. He says rejecting final causes has created a number of philosophical problems, but doesn't mention them or refute them, nor does he cite any. In short, Feser does not address the most powerful arguments against his metaphysics. Maybe this chapter is to focus on making a positive case and not to refute any counter arguments, but his readers are getting a very one sided view of this philosophy as a result. I'm not at all convinced after reading chapter two that Aristotelian metaphysics governs the world. Even understanding it better, it seems that Feser is thinking with a teleological mentality that is endemic to religion, and that itself is a product of our evolutionary tendency to see purpose and intention in everything. But this chapter just lays the groundwork for Feser's metaphysics, and I think it fails. I have not laid out all possible criticisms of Aristotelian metaphysics in part because of space and because I'm saving some of them for the upcoming chapters where we'll see his arguments for god, the soul, and morality.

*All emphases in original quotes

← Chapter 1                                                                                                                         Chapter 3 →

Edit: A theist who agrees with Feser took the time to critique my review and I responded to him. In my response I clarify many parts of my original critique that perhaps I should have worded better and I address many of his misunderstandings of my review. For further elaboration on my review, see A Reply To Steven Jake On The Last Superstition.
**Edit: Causality is a complex subject and I certainly do not cover the topic with justice here. Some would argue that merely quoting Sean Carroll isn't enough. Carroll's view is taken from a 4-dimensionalist or eternalist view on time, where Aristotelian causality is impossible. For further justification on the subject, read these posts for more detail: Causality Doesn't Exist — In The Way We Typically Think It Does: A Further Explanation; Does Special Relativity Entail Eternalism? Part 3 - The Logical Argument

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