Sunday, November 29, 2015

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 4 Scholastic Aptitude - Part 1: The Soul)

In chapter 4, Feser lays the ground work for the soul, the natural law theory of ethics, and the relationship between faith and reason using the concepts he's laid down in the previous chapters. I've decided to break this review into three parts because the review became so long.

In the beginning of the chapter Feser finds room for two more insults on Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris—Dennett for "sheer speculation" on evolutionary psychological explanations of religion, and Harris for apparently being boring in his book, The End of Faith. Certainly there's a lot of speculation in evolutionary psychology, but the argument for the naturalistic origins of over-active agency detection forming the basis of god belief I think are pretty strong and well supported by evidence. Anyway, onto the soul.

The soul

There are a lot of misconceptions about the Aristotelian conception of the soul. It differs significantly from the Cartesian conception where there is a physical body and a non-physical soul that operates the body like a "ghost in the machine." Although many lay people still hold to this concept of the soul, it has severely fallen out of fashion in the relevant sciences and philosophy, and is considered by most in those fields flat out false.

The Aristotelian-Thomistic (or A-T for short) soul is different. The "form or essence of a living thing is just what Aristotle (and Aquinas) mean by the word 'soul,'" Feser explains. The "soul" is "to refer to the nature of a living thing, whatever that turns out to be," adding, "The soul is just a kind of form." (121) But what if it turns out to be that we're just complex arrangements of matter and energy governed by the fundamental forces described by the laws of physics, with no free will of our own? This is after all what science is showing us more and more everyday. It seems to me that terms like "soul" at best are a metaphor, like when we refer to the "soul" of a city, and at worst an outright metaphysical falsehood.

The soul being form and essence means all things have a "soul" on the A-T view. But there are three kinds of souls that Feser describes (121-122) and this means that for you Christians (spoiler alert!), you sadly won't be seeing your cat or dog in heaven:

Nutritive soul: a form or essence that gives a thing that has it the powers of taking in nutrients, growing, and reproducing itself.
Sensory soul: a form or essence that gives a thing that has it both the powers of a nutritive soul, and also an animal's distinctive powers of being able to sense the world around it (by seeing, hearing, etc.) and to move itself (by walking, flying, etc.).
Rational soul: includes both the powers of the nutritive soul and the sensory souls and also distinctively human powers of intellect and will: that is, the power to grasp abstract objects - namely, the forms or essences of things - and to reason on the basis of them, and freely to choose different possible courses of action on the basis of what the intellect knows.

These conceptions of the soul already don't make sense. For one thing the rational soul has free will. That's logically incompatible with the Aristotelian principle. So right off the bat it's self-refuting. I can't see how Feser doesn't see this. There is no chance for libertarian free will under the Aristotelian principle. Additionally, all the things that give a plant or animal the ability to take in nutrients, grow, reproduce, or move, are described by science materialistically. "Soul" here seems like a misleading redundant term. Also, when did the rational soul begin to exist? Did Homo naledi have it? What about Neanderthals? Or Homo erectus? How does a squirrel's Form change or begin to exist as squirrels were slowly evolving? This is the demarcation problem I wrote about in my review of chapter 2.

Feser goes on to explain rationality:

Rationality - the ability to grasp forms or essences and to reason on the basis of them - has as its natural end or final cause the attainment of truth, of understanding the world around us. And free will has as its natural end or final cause the choice of those actions that best accord with the truth as it is discovered by reason, and in particular in accord with the truth about a human being's own nature or essence. That is, as we shall see, exactly what morality is from the point of view of Aristotle and Aquinas: the habitual choice of actions that further the hierarchically ordered natural ends entailed by human nature....The highest fulfillment of the distinctively human power of intellect, then, is, for Aristotle and Aquinas, to know God. (122)

Not surprisingly, this definition of rationality is way too favorable to Aristotle's views. I reject the idea that rationality is defined as the ability to grasp forms and essences. That may be something rationality allows, but that's not what rationality is centered around. Many theists also say that the purpose of humans is to 'know' god. And yet, it requires so much esoteric metaphysical knowledge that must have been unknown or out of reach to the vast majority of people throughout history to 'know' god this way. For a god who wants to be known, he's sure making it really hard.

Getting to the heart of the argument, the "intellect" Feser says "cannot possibly require a material or bodily organ for its operations." The nutritive and sensory souls do rely on physical matter for their functions, but not the rational soul. To argue this, Feser says that when we think of the nature, essence, or form of a thing, it's necessarily the same thing as the nature, essence, or form, and if it weren't the case we wouldn't be thinking about the things, whether they be triangles, dogs, or whatever. What things are is determined by their essence or form, basically. An absurdity, he argues, comes when trying to say the Form becomes physical:

But now suppose that the intellect is a material thing - some part of the brain, or whatever. Then for the form to exist in the intellect is for the form to exist in a certain material thing. But 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; for example, for the form of "dogness" to exist in a certain parcel of the matter is just for that parcel of matter to be a dog. And in that case, if your intellect was just the same thing as some part of your brain, it follows that that part of your brain would become a dog whenever you thought about dogs. "But that's absurd!" you say. Of course it is; that's the point. Assuming the intellect is material leads to such absurdity; hence the intellect is not material. (124)

I can't help but see how Feser's whole argument is absurd. His argument for non-physical causal intellects, just like his argument involving the problem of the acorn's final cause not yet existing, seems to be one more example of GIGOgarbage in, garbage out. As we discover more and more about the "intellect"—a term I don't think Feser directly defines, we've seen that it's always caused by physical matter—the brain. All thoughts, concepts, ideas, fantasies, calculations, are caused by something going on in the brain. Damage the brain and you damage consciousness in exactly the part corresponding to the area of the brain you damaged. It's also not a "fact" that universals or Forms exist; that is an assumed fact by Feser. With each progressive argument Feser builds off from the concepts and principles of the preceding ones, so if the central claims of Feser fail in the previous chapters, the dogness of these arguments here have no leg to stand on.

Regarding neuroscience, Feser says "one thing we know it won't 'discover' is that thought is a material operation of the brain, any more than it will 'discover' that 2 + 2 = 5." (126) But neuroscience has already discovered this, even with abstract thinking. We can predict with current technology with up to an 80 percent accuracy what decisions you're going to make before you're even consciously aware of them. Your thoughts, no matter the content, is the result of things going on in the brain. There is no perfect triangle in your brain as you're thinking of them, even though, interestingly, when we see things like geometric patterns, they are represented topographically in the primary visual cortex. In other words, the shapes we see are physically imprinted on the surface of the brain, almost as if they are superimposed. If Feser's view is to be taken seriously, he needs to rigorously define the 'intellect' and provide neuroscientific data for how it's not caused by the brain, unlike everything else we see. His metaphysical beliefs about how the brain works have empirical consequences and he needs to back them up with empirical evidence because we already have strong evidence to the contrary. For one thing, how are Forms able to somehow have a causal relationship with the atoms in the physical brain via the "intellect," in a way that physics has not already discovered — since that is indeed what his view would entail? I hope you can appreciate from this why many people are deeply skeptical of, and have outright rejected A-T metaphysics as a viable candidate for explaining the world we see. It's simply an antiquated and incorrect way of thinking. But you do have to at least give it credit for seemingly being falsifiable.

It also appears that Feser's view on consciousness and the will follow a certain chronological order of events:

When the intellect determines that a certain course of action is the best one to take and the will follows it, the body proceeds to move in a way that constitutes the action. The operation of the intellect and will constitute in this case is the formal-cum-final cause of the action, of which the firing of the neurons, flexing of the muscles, etc. are the material cause. (127)

So the order of events under Feser's metaphysic seems to be: intellect → will → brain/neurons → muscles. This chronology is testable, and, as you have it, it turns out to be false. All the good neuroscience that tests whether the will or the brain decides first, shows that the brain is what decides first. The brain decides, then we become consciously aware of it, and then we act. Sometimes we act before we are consciously aware of it, or without ever being consciously aware of it, but it's still caused by the brain. There is no good evidence that the "will" comes before or causes the neuronal firings that stimulate the muscles to take a course of action. Such a view would effectively violate the conservation of energy as well as the Standard Model of physics and quantum field theory. It would basically violate all of our fundamental understanding of the universe — and this is supposedly happening in your brain every second you're thinking. Feser's view on how the will works is empirically false. It requires that our brains violate the fundamental laws of physics every second. This is, again, what happens when you let your metaphysics not be driven by science. And since the rest of Feser's view on the will is derived from this falsified pretense, what hope does he have in establishing the truth of his other claims? I suppose the A-T metaphysician can play word games with the definitions of the 'intellect' and 'will' to try and make it compatible with the neuroscience, or make it sufficiently vague enough to avoid any conflict, but that would only further drive my point—that all this stuff is too ambiguous and incoherent to be taken seriously.

Being a "traditional Catholic" Feser is fiercely pro-life. He tries to derive an argument against abortion from the existence of the soul as the "form - the essence, nature, structure, organizational pattern - of a living thing, an organism. And the human organism, as we now know from modern biology, begins at conception." (128) I, being a "traditional liberal" (well, not really) am fiercely pro-choice. I recognize that a human begins roughly at conception, although this is debatable. Fetuses are human or made of human material, with human DNA. But, they aren't independent human beings. They are physically dependent on their host in order to survive and cannot naturally survive on their own in the first trimesters of gestation and usually all of the second trimester too. During this state they are also non-conscious. They aren't merely unconscious, like when we're asleep, they lack the ability to even be conscious. Therefore, in my view, so long as a fetus is physically dependent on a host it's not an independent human being and is part of the mother's body, and the mother has the moral right to abort it if she wishes. (That fetuses aren't sentient and cannot suffer is a big factor why I think abortion is moral. If it was discovered that fetuses were just as sentient as young children in their early stages of development, I'd absolutely reconsider the morality of abortion).

All this talk about souls is just misleading, antiquated nonsense. There is no soul. There is no non-physical aspect of the body or of the human species that has any causal effect on the body, or that out lives it, and the "essence, nature, structure, organizational pattern - of a living thing" is entirely due to dysteleological physical explanations. This is especially true when you consider how utterly false Feser's views are above on the "intellect."

Now onto another false claim:

DNA is exactly the sort of thing we should expect to exist given an Aristotelian metaphysical concept of the world, and not at all what we would expect if materialism were true. The reason is that the notions of DNA, of the gene, and so forth are utterly suffused with goal-directedness and potentiality. It is no accident that terms like "encoding," "information," "instructions," "blueprint," and the like are often used to describe the workings of DNA, for there is no other way to coherently and informatively to describe those workings; and yet the notion of being encoded, or being information, or being a set of instructions, or being a blueprint all involve directedness of something toward an end beyond itself, and this final causality. (129)

Lots of things to say. First, the analogous terms like encoding, information, instructions, blueprint, are just that — analogies. We use computer terminology to describe DNA because today computer references are the one thing we're all familiar with since computers pretty much rule all of our lives. But DNA isn't actually a computer code. Codes are symbols that stand in place of other symbols, often called the primary symbols. The terms guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine—which are the names we give to the four nucleobases that make up the DNA molecule are just primary symbols we use to call or represent parts of the physical structure of DNA. Out of convenience, we're just stuck with calling it code or instructions or a blueprint. And information is a tricky term to define. All physical matter in science can be information. Furthermore, if materialism were true, we'd expect our structure or behavior to be dependent on something physical, either in DNA, or something in our brain. We wouldn't necessarily expect that on the A-T conception of the world. We also know that our DNA contains signatures of our evolutionary past such that we know we're the products of billions of years of natural selection and genetic mutation. That's certainly what we'd expect under materialism and not theism. Also, although we aren't sure how DNA formed, we do know how at least some of RNA formed, and RNA is considered by many the precursor of DNA. And lo and behold, it's a natural process! The bases come together naturally given the conditions found on the early earth. There's no directedness or goal. The entire process, just like in the rest of physics, is completely dysteleological. Feser's not a creationist, but here he seems to be giving into the creationist's agenda.

But of course Feser goes on as if his arguments from before have stuck. "Given the facts about the soul's 'entrance' into the body," he writes, "there should be no mystery about when it 'leaves.'" (130) Um no Mr. Feser, you have established no "facts" about the soul. Your view on the will is empirically false, and you need that to make your case. He mentions the Terri Schiavo case, the comatose Florida woman whose husband wanted her feeding tube removed, and whose family didn't that became a national political issue in 2004-2005. These are the kinds of red hot moral issues that get traditional Catholics like Feser's blood boiling. Since Shiavo was alive, he argues, she had a rational soul, even though in her vegetative state she could not exercise it. And abortion, Feser says, is murder at any moment past conception, regardless if the pregnancy was due to rape or incest. (130) I simply disagree, along with the vast majority of Americans. I do however sympathize with the general concern for human life. I think we absolutely must nourish a culture that respects human life—but I don't think abortion or right-to-die legislation degrades a society's value of human life. There is no correlation between a country's laws on abortion and its quality of life or treatment of citizens. In fact, many countries that have legal abortion on request are the most economically advanced and have some of the lowest rates of violence. Many of the countries that make it illegal, or legal with restrictions are the most economically disadvantaged and have some of the highest violent crime rates. Abortion, along with contraception, it has been argued, helps raise the standards of a society because it allows women to control their reproduction and not be slaves to it, which in turn lowers the rate of abortion. But Feser and Co. will have none of this. To them, A-T metaphysics must always supersede everything, even if it hurts society.

Regarding evolution and the soul, Feser entertains the idea that evolution could explain "how living things got to such a level of complexity that it was possible for an animal to exist which was capable of having a rational soul," but warned us that "a complete explanation of it in evolutionary terms is in principle impossible." (131) This has been a big source of debate for me. We humans slowly evolved over millions of years, like all life forms. When we acquired a "rational soul" seems unanswerable. Was there a single human who got a rational soul whose parents didn't have it? Was he or she able to talk or think in a way their parents weren't? Was this person as rational in capability as the average modern person is today, and were their parent's behavior like homo erectus or some other transitional hominid? It would seem to have to be the case. Imagine if your parents both had no rational capability and you were the only "rational" person in your family or group. This is incredible and implausible. If natural selection could get us homo sapiens to the point where we acquired "such a level of complexity that it was possible for an animal to exist which was capable of having a rational soul," then why do we need god or the soul as an explanatory force for that matter? It would seem that Feser is already conceding that evolution by itself is capable of bringing us to the level of complexity to be rational animals. If Feser falls back on his earlier claim that Forms are not in the brain because the "intellect" causes the "will" to cause the brain to fire neurons that make us take a course of action, that is just empirically false. So his argument here for the soul has no rational or evidential grounding. They are the conclusions from false starting points using false metaphysics. And if you start with something that's a little false, you risk ending up with a conclusion that's really false.

The bottom line is that Feser has not made a convincing case for the existence of the soul that any rational person educated in the relevant science and philosophy should accept. Not even close. His worldview is self refuting for requiring and denying libertarian free will, but Feser and his fanboys go on as if they've got good arguments and reasons to be a believing theist. I don't see that at all. We certainly don't understand everything there is to consciousness but we don't need to in order to be able to refute the A-T conception of the soul and its claims.

-All quotes from Feser emphasis his.

← Chapter 3
                                  Chapter 4 Part 2→

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.

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