Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Reply To Steven Jake On The Last Superstition - Part 1: Form and Essence, Act and Potency

Steven Jake over on the Christian Agnostic blog wrote a review of my review of Feser's book The Last Superstition. So let me now review his review of my review.

Let me first say that in his review he claims over and over I don't understand Thomistic metaphysics. Let's say this is true and I reject god because of it and I turn out to be wrong. What's god going to say to me when I die? "Well, you didn't get Thomistic metaphysics right. It logically proved my existence. So I'm sorry, but I have to send you to hell now." Is that not absurd? Why should "knowing" god depend so much on complex esoteric metaphysics? God exists and created the world for the purpose of us knowing him, according to almost every theist. Feser even claims this on p. 122 in his book. And yet, god's sure made that very difficult for us. Even if we reject the sadistic notion of hell altogether—as many theists do nowadays, how could it be any less absurd? Given that the Abrahamic god has desires—he wants us to live a certain way—surely us knowing that he exists and knowing how he wants us to live would help that, you'd think. But no. God instead prefers to act like a teenage girl who runs away from her crush instead of getting to know him. The god of Abrahamic monotheism makes no sense given this.

Now off to the review of the review. SJ breaks his review up into sections, not chapters, so I will follow his format.


Form and Essence

SJ starts out saying:

[F]orm or essence of a substance is the intrinsic principle whereby a thing is what it is. To put it another way, when we ask “what is X?” regarding a specific substance, we’re asking for its essence. That is to say, we’re asking what is it about X that renders it X and not Y.

Saying a thing is what it is says nothing particularly special. It's basically the law of identity. A is = to A. B is = to B. And substance wise, every thing is made of fermions and bosons. There has never been anything else demonstrated to be made of anything else. What different things are are just different combinations of atoms. And no, I'm not begging the question when saying this. The burden of proof is on the person who claims that some thing "exists" that isn't ultimately fermions or bosons, or emerged from it, in the sense of weak emergence. When I think of the essence of something, I'm thinking of essential properties: properties a thing has that it cannot not have. Fire for example has the property of being hot. Fire cannot be cold. So being hot is an essential property of fire. Being yellow isn't. Fire can be yellow, orange, red, and even green and blue. But this is a completely secular and materialistic concept; no Thomism required. When it comes to the form of a thing, Thomists have a lot of trouble defining this, as they do with essence. If there is a "Form of Triangle" that individual triangles participate in and can be measured against, then the form of triangle is the shape of triangularity. SJ doesn't offer the definition of form in this section, but merely states that mine is wrong. That's a bit shady. And Feser himself does not define and explain form and formal causes all that strongly in his book and has even noted so on his blog. This is because I think forms and formal causes are probably the hardest concepts for Thomists to define and a big reason why I think this is is because the concepts don't really map onto anything in reality; they're made up.

In any event, this was brought to The Thinker’s attention, and instead of admitting a mistake on his part and altering his review, he just asked how, then, form should be defined—though he should be commended for attempting to gain clarity on his misunderstanding. Now, while this might seem a peripheral issue, it demonstrates that The Thinker doesn’t adequately understand the view he’s arguing against.

I don't admit mistake until I'm shown to be wrong, and without a better definition of "form" I'm not going to just instantly side with someone claiming I'm wrong. When I ask the definition of form and formal cause to Thomists, I often get vague answers. So SJ, what's the comprehensive definition of form and formal cause? SJ also seems to me to be implying that I don't understand A-T metaphysics, and if I did, and were honest, I'd see how all of Feser's argument's make sense and their conclusions are irrefutable. I don't buy that at all. I think I get the jist of A-T metaphysics even if I don't understand it perfectly, and I can easily see its flaws. For one thing, Feser's use of it is self-refuting for requiring libertarian free will while simultaneously denying it through its ontology. When I bring this to the attention of SJ he claims ignorance on whether Thomism requires libertarian free will. I think that's a cop out. And as far as altering my review, I'm open to that, but I'd generally want to write a new updated version.

Now, in an ontology predicated on form of essence it is argued that substances that are not identical can still have the same essence. For example, I have four dogs, and though they each have an individual act of existence, they each share the same essence, namely, that of dogness

I don't deny that essential properties can be shared. Many things are essentially hot. Dogness, however, is just a description of a particular kind of species and/or a particular kind of traits. Thomists will think dogness is a thing with ontological status; I don't. What's dogness and where exactly does it end and begin? This is not a mere problem of epistemology, it is a matter of ontology. If it were the case that dogness weren't a thing, but just a description of a particular kind of species and/or a particular kind of traits, then we'd expect demarcation problems. So SJ then moves onto attack my criticism of Feser's claim for form and essence where I show his blunders.

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

Feser does indeed claim that there is a perfect form of triangularity and uses that as a basis for an objective standard by which we can compare particular triangles, and this is supposed to be the same line of comparison by which we can objectively compare particular squirrels—by comparing them to a perfect form and essence of a squirrel. And ironically, SJ's last sentence that I bolded says exactly that! How could a substance measure up to its essence in a "perfect way or imperfect way" if a perfect essence doesn't exist? SJ fails to see the problem here:

So, to reiterate, Feser is not claiming that there are perfect forms or essences. Rather, he’s claiming that a substance can be a good approximation of this essence or a bad approximation.

Moving on, I'm not completely misunderstanding Feser here, and even if I were, my questions show one of the central flaws in his thinking. I am raising the problem of demarcation given how we know today that squirrels, along with every other animal, evolved according to a slow gradual process, which was unknown when Aristotle was alive. On the demarcation problem SJ answers:

The answer is actually quite simple, animal A’s essence is different from animal B’s essence when that which makes A in fact A is different from that which makes B in fact B. The obvious follow up question is how one can actually determine when what makes A itself is different from what makes B itself. This is a great question, but by asking this question we have crossed the line into epistemology, and have left the domain of ontology, wherein essence was originally being addressed. Thus, the person who promulgates this question as an attack on Thomism has made a category error.

But this answers nothing and doesn't address the heart of the problem I exposed. That problem is, if a particular squirrel can be "objectively" compared to a "form of squirrel" such that one with a mutation can be determined better or worse as a result, then given how a mutation can aide a particular squirrel in its environment (which is always changing), the squirrel with the fortunate mutation will have a different essence and be better than the other squirrels in terms of suitability, and eventually successive mutations can gradually change it to another species altogether. How then is the "form of squirrel" even a meaningful concept, especially as one to "objectively" compare individuals to? This is not a mere problem of epistemology, this is a problem with the Thomistic ontology, since forms have ontological status. Animal species blend into one another at times as nature doesn't always provide us with clear lines of demarcation. Any labeling of one "form" versus the other is at least sometimes going to have to be arbitrary, or so particular that it will only apply to individuals. This makes the whole concept of forms and essences ultimately false. Also, the question of perfect forms matters. What is the perfect form of any animal, including humans? If there are no perfect forms or essences, then aren't there only particulars? And if there are only particulars, Feser's analogy using the "form of triangle" to objectively compare particulars to makes no sense when moved to squirrels or any other living thing. So SJ has not at all refuted me. This is not even necessarily the only objection I can make to this concept.

Another consideration of this point is that it is probably true that we might have difficulty differentiating the essence of a tree squirrel from the essence of flying squirrel—if there even is a difference in essence here. But this difficulty only highlights a problem in our epistemology of identifying what a thing’s essence actually is. It does not actually call into question that there are essences at all. The point being that The Thinker’s objections here do not actually call the ontology of form or essence into question. Rather, they only call into question our ability to recognize differences in the forms of two closely related substances. Yet, this is not something that Feser, or the Thomist, would necessarily disagree with.

It does far more than merely call into question epistemology. And remember, the main thing Feser said the "rational soul" was even for was to grasp the forms or essences of things! So basically the very purpose of the rational soul is to do the very thing that SJ now claims we're epistemically incapable of completing. The demarcation problems expose the problem of the Thomistic versions of the concepts. Sometimes epistemological problems expose ontological problems. It makes no sense to give ontological status to forms or essences in the A-T metaphysical way. The materialistic conceptions of forms and essences are immune to this problem as they reject any of the realist notions that the Thomistic view requires. 

Thus, we see that the A-T ontology of essences and forms remains unscathed by The Thinker’s objections. Let us now move on to the foundation of Aristotle’s ontology: act and potency.

Nope. This is just plainly wrong. Feser has not at all shown form and essence to exist. They're both concepts developed before we knew of things like evolution, and when biological taxonomy wasn't even developed. It was made under the assumption that there ultimately are nice clear demarcation lines between things. This is clearly not the case. If I describe something as short, it doesn't mean shortness is a thing that exists. It just means I can arbitrarily describing something as short, in a relative comparison to another thing. Any attempt to ontologically outline shortness, dogness, and many other so called essences or forms like it, will run you into sorites paradox.

Act and Potency

On act and potency SJ writes:

It needs to be noted presently that The Thinker doesn’t actually argue against this crucial act/potency distinction. Rather, he argues against the apparent consequences of admitting the reality of the act/potency distinction (i.e. determinism), but he never argues against them per se.

When it comes to act and potency distinctions, in that section of my review I primarily mentioned determinism as a logical entailment of Thomistic act and potency, which is true. I saved my refutation for how claiming the universe must be acted upon by something outside it mostly for my review of chapter 3 (we'll get to that later). Mentioning determinism is important because Feser makes the claim for free will several times throughout his book while oblivious to the fact that his own metaphysics negates such a possibility. Thus his whole worldview is self-refuting. Act/potency notions eliminate libertarian free will as a possibility for the Thomist and he must then make his case for how his theological and moral views can make logical sense given this. It is much harder to explain evil, or to argue that god is infinitely good and just, while your hands are tied behind your back due being forced to negate free will.

Link to my review of chapter 2 and chapter 3.

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