Monday, March 21, 2016

A Reply To Steven Jake On The Last Superstition - Part 4: Aquinas’ First Way

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. This is part 4 on Aquinas’ First Way.

Aquinas’ First Way

SJ starts out saying:

Thus, Feser’s point in highlighting the importance of essentially ordered series is that of instrumentality, and not simultaneity. And therefore The Thinker’s claim that simultaneity is “crucial” for Feser’s argument is false—at least as Feser himself has articulated his position.

I'm willing to concede this, but I don't think it destroys all of my objections this argument.

The Thinker continues his objections by mentioning the philosophy of eternalism, which is supposedly entailed by a block universe.

Supposedly? Eternalism is the block universe. Let's look into SJ's objections of this.

However, these objections do not work. First, an eternal universe does not solve the problem—in fact, Aquinas actually allowed for the possibility of an eternal universe. The Thinker thinks this is a problem because “[i]t’s logically impossible that an eternally existing universe that never came into being couldn’t have existed.” But this is pure question-begging on his part. While an eternally existing universe cannot come into being in any temporal sense, this does not entail that it is therefore necessary. Why not? Well, because duration of existence does not alter the essence or nature of an existent, nor does it alter whether something is a composite of act/potency. That is to say, a thing’s nature does not all of a sudden become necessary simply because of how long it exists, whether it be for a second, or for an eternity. Therefore, if the reason for the universe’s existence is not contained within its nature—which it isn’t—or if the universe is a composite of act and potency—which it is—then the universe is contingent, and thus no matter how long it exists, it remains contingent.

I think Aquinas allowed for a universe with an infinite number of past events—which is different than the block conception of eternalism, which may or may not include an infinite number of past events. So I'm not sure Aquinas considered this. As for the question begging sense that SJ claims, I'm not arguing that our eternal universe is logically necessary and that it must exist a priori, I'm arguing that since it is eternalistic it is therefore impossible for it not to have existed, since something eternal like a block universe cannot not have existed. I'm making an a posteriori argument that because we've discovered the universe is a certain way, it therefore logically negates its non-existence. I'm arguing that this forces us to rethink the whole notion of contingency, existence, and the act/potency notions as they don't apply given the way the universe is. And here SJ applies act/potency to the universe as if he's just made a brilliant point. He hasn't. I'd like to hear him logically explain how god can create an eternal universe or sustain one in existence. The only possibility is to suppose god and the eternal universe coexist together and this opens up lots of conceptual problems I mentioned in the review of chapter 3. For one thing, if our universe isn't necessary, why does god coexist eternally with it and not another universe, or no universe? So merely claiming that it is logically possible for the universe not to exist (which if it is eternal is impossible) does not make the case that god is required for the universe to exist.

Second, even if the block universe did exist and was a valid description of our own universe, this still does not make the universe necessary. For while there would be no change in the universe, the universe in itself would still not contain the reason for its own existence, and therefore it would still be contingent. In fact, The Thinker makes my point for me when he says that we can still imagine (read: conceive) of the block universe not existing. For if we can conceive of the block universe not existing then the explanation for said universe’s existence is not contained within its nature, and thus the universe is not necessary. So, even a denial of change in the universe altogether—which is extremely radical in itself—would still not lead away from the need for a First Cause.

I argue that the block universe is simply incompatible with any logical notions of a creator god, and certainly not creation ex nihilo, which many theists argue is a must for the Abrahamic god. There would have to be aspects of god that were brute facts, and once you allow brute facts, you can skip god altogether and stick with the universe, since after all, the universe's existence is a fact and god's isn't. (And ironically, denying eternalistic interpretations of Special Relativity might actually force you to accept brute facts, according to Yuri Balashov and Michael Jensen.) Here SJ appeals to the principle of sufficient reason, but he doesn't argue for it. He has elsewhere (and so has Feser) but I see no reason to think their arguments stick. SJ mostly reiterates Feser's arguments when he denies the possibility of brute facts. In fact, a lot of his blog is Feser's ideas reiterated. And I can imagine god not existing. In fact it's very easy for me, as all the "logical" arguments that try to show god's necessarily existence are flawed or contain word salads like SJ's favorite "God's essence just is existence." This can be ignored by any thinking person as nonsense. Lastly, the denial of change in the universe is not at all radical once you properly understand eternalism, which is logically entailed from Special Relativity. (Read here and here.)

This is more of the same. First, The Thinker needs to make an actual argument for the reality of brute facts, which he has not done here, and thus he is only begging the question. (I have argued here that brute facts are logically impossible.) Second, the claim that by admitting a vertical cause (meaning non-temporal) of the universe this entails that said universe is thereby necessary is simply ridiculous and confused. There is no principle that if X is the non-temporal cause of Y, then Y is therefore necessary. Perhaps the reason for this non-sequitur is that the block universe “could not have been any other way.” But, again, this does not make the universe necessary, since it remains true, on Thomism, that the essence of the universe is not identical to its existence.

I don't have to prove brute facts are true, I just have to show they're logically possible in that they entail no logical contradiction. Given how long my reviews already were I had no space for going into detail about them, but I've written about them elsewhere. (See here and here and here.) SJ has argued that brute facts are logically impossible "since explanatory chains are instrumental, in that the lower members derive their intelligibility from higher members." But this is nonsense. Explanations can exist independent of one another at different levels. You don't need to understand a shred of quantum mechanics to intelligibly understand sociology or economics, for example. To claim that what SJ is saying is true would imply that we're unable to intelligibly understand anything about our world until we had a full understanding of all areas of science and philosophy—which clearly we don't have—so his claim is obviously false. It's just something SJ probably read from Feser that he seems to have uncritically adopted. And earlier SJ seemed to take the view that we can never know god's true nature, perhaps even in principle. If this is so, then you could say that's an epistemic brute fact. If fact X has no explanation, and fact Y has an explanation, but it's in principle unknowable, then fact Y might as well be a brute fact from the point of view of intelligibility. This is further reason to reject SJ's claim that brute facts are impossible, and it doesn't even consider how things like the Münchhausen trilemma challenges this.

Secondly, the existence of an eternal universe with its non-temporal "vertical cause" necessarily entails because if A necessarily entails B and A is necessarily true, then B is necessarily true. B cannot not exist. The point here is that both A and B coexist eternally, almost like two conjoined twins. When you have one you must have the other. Given eternalism, there is no scenario where god exists and no universe exists or a different universe exists. So SJ utterly fails to grasp the problem he's in. 

First, I haven’t read Feser’s book in a while, but I don’t believe he actually applies the act/potency distinction to the universe itself. His (Aquinas’) argument only plays off of the reality of an essentially ordered series of causes. Therefore, I believe that The Thinker has straw-manned Feser once again. But, just to be certain of this, here it is from Feser himself: the argument [Aquinas’ First Way] does not rest on any premise about the universe as a whole.

Of course Feser applies act and potency to the universe! That's his whole point of argument for why the universe needs god. He even mentions the fallacy of composition in his book and claims that we can ignore it because we see that everything in the universe has a cause—which is the whole point of the fallacy. In my review I even mentioned where Feser mentions the fallacy with regard to applying act/potency to the universe on p. 107. So it is totally false that I'm straw-maning Feser here. Regarding the essentially ordered causal series, there is no reason to think that the universe is one or part of one. And I have no idea where that quote of Feser comes from. SJ doesn't cite a page or link anything. It's irrelevant to the discussion.

Second, even if Feser did apply the act/potency distinction to the universe, it hasn’t actually been demonstrated that this commits the fallacy of composition. For keep in mind that not every inference from a part to a whole commits said fallacy. For example, if every fiber in a rug is wool, then it does logically follow that the rug as a whole is wool. The point is that if Feser simply reasoned from parts of the universe to the universe, this does not automatically commit him to the fallacy of composition, rather, it needs to actually be demonstrated that the fallacy was committed, and this The Thinker does not accomplish (see below).

I fully acknowledged in my review that not every instance of comparing parts to wholes commits the fallacy of composition, but claiming that since things in the universe have causes, and that therefore the universe itself must have an outside cause does. I did demonstrate this by going over the problems with applying causality to the universe bereft of space and time, especially given eternalism. The burden of proof is on the person claiming it does logically entail. Feser tried to do that; that's what the whole act/potency distinction attempts to do. But absent space and time, causality, especially when it's claimed to be done by a "mind" or "agent" is totally illogical, and again SJ has nothing to appeal to here except god's mysterious nature—the one size fits all excuse. And I've already went over the problems with top down causality.

Third, The Thinker’s last point, about potentials being actualized only making sense temporally, necessarily assumes an ontology of temporal causation. However, he has not demonstrated that causality entails temporality, and I have argued that it doesn’t.

Here, SJ must be alluding to "top down" causality. I already wrote how this makes the universe necessary and SJ did not refute that. His logic is flawed on his response. To claim that causality doesn't require temporality means that a cause and an effect must coexist tenselessly and thus eternally. I granted that for the sake of argument and mentioned that this requires that the effect must exist, since in order for it not to exist the cause would have to exist, but not the effect, which would be impossible if they coexist eternally. And the question then would become: why does god coexist with our universe rather than no universe or some other universe? The theist here has only two choices. They can come up with a logically necessary reason for why god must eternally coexist with our universe rather than no universe or some other universe, or they can appeal to a brute fact. I think the former is impossible, and so that leaves only the latter. I see no way out of this that avoids arbitrariness. But knowing the kind of thinking SJ employs he'd probably appeal to his one size fits all excuse and fallaciously assert this is a non-issue.

Again, The Thinker is assuming an ontology of temporal causality which needs to be demonstrated, and has not. There are many sorts of causal ontologies that are not temporal: simultaneous causation, bottom-up causation, and top-down causation. So The Thinker’s objection here is simply false, and even if it wasn’t necessarily false, he hasn’t done the metaphysical legwork to even attempt to prove it true. He has merely asserted his position.

I didn't have the time or space to fully demonstrate all of my points but I did write plenty about why non-temporal causation is problematic and SJ has not refuted them and in fact, barely addressed them. Let's say Jesus and Yahweh coexist eternally, a view some Christians hold. Yahweh still has to impregnate Mary at a certain moment, and Mary still had to give birth to Jesus in his physical, temporal, earthly form, and that means Yahweh must undergo temporal ontological change—since Jesus and Yahweh are one, and Yahweh had the potential to do this all along. So no, SJ has not at all addressed this objection. He's kidding himself. Even if simultaneous causation were a real thing that doesn't absolve SJ from this problem. When it comes to the problem of the non-physical interacting with the physical that I brought up, SJ writes:

This is actually a decent objection, and one that I don’t believe has been addressed enough. First, let me say that simply because we might have “difficulty” understanding how the non-physical can interact with the physical, this alone is not a knock-down argument against such an interaction. That is, there is no inherent contradiction when speaking of something non-physical somehow being causally related to something physical. So even if we heed The Thinker’s point here it doesn’t give anything like a substantive argument against Feser’s thesis, especially since Feser’s argument is deductive, and therefore if the premises are valid then the conclusion follows necessarily. Thus, if Feser’s argument is valid, then his conclusion is not called into question simply because we have trouble thinking about a specific interaction. (Just like a mathematical proof which demonstrates that the sum of natural numbers converges to a finite number cannot be invalidated simply because we have difficulty understanding how this is possible—and there is such a proof.)

This doesn't get SJ off the hook. It interestingly refutes his objective to brute facts since he claimed that explanations are instrumental and the higher ones derive their intelligibility from the lower ones—but he doesn't have an explanation of this lower level. Right now it just is according to SJ. Secondly, it's not that we just don't know how the non-physical interacts with the physical. We already know all the forces acting on the atoms in you and me and there is nothing non-physical involved like a soul or a formal cause. There are the forces described in Standard Model and gravity, and that's it. And this explains everything in our everyday world. There simply is no need for positing the non-physical. It not only doesn't help our understanding of the everyday world, it violates the fundamental laws of physics. So this is not a mere problem of our ignorance, this is a problem whereby science has already progressed to the point where it can rule out certain kinds of claims with virtual certainty. And Feser's arguments aren't valid. He never makes a formal argument with premises leading to a conclusion in his book (at least not in chapters 2 & 3). So the theist is in a much tougher position here than SJ leads on.

Second, such a difficulty really only arises if one assumes a deterministic ontology of causation, like that of one billiard ball knocking into another. For this ontology does not exhaust the metaphysics of causation. There are (as I argued above) many different types of causation: simultaneous causation, bottom-up causation, top-down causation, formal causation, material causation etc. Now in many of these types of causation there is no physical interaction between the cause and effect. Therefore it seems that physical interaction is not a necessary condition for causation in the first place, and thus The Thinker’s objection here loses any force it may have had. (We see again how important an ontology of causation is, and The Thinker’s failure to be rigorous and exhaustive in this sense has led to a lot of his objections missing their target completely.)

This is yet another failure to grasp the difficulties SJ's views are in. First, it is not demonstrated that there are all these types of causalities. It is asserted. Some of these kinds of causalities are mere conceptions. A formal cause is not at all needed to explain anything real. Top-down causality is controversial at best. Any non-physical cause would violate our fundamental understanding of physics, and is not needed to account for anything in our everyday experiences. Second, we're talking about the kind of causation that interacts with the physical level, like bodies, planets, and other matter. Nowhere is it demonstrated that these non-physical causes exist and effect these things. All SJ did to avoid the problem of explaining how non-physical substances cause physical substances is literally just assert it, and then claim that therefore my objection loses any force. And again, all the causes of everything in our everyday lives are already accounted for, and absolutely none are non-physical. So SJ is just utterly off the mark here. It's hard for me to take his views on this subject serious.

What we’ve seen here from The Thinker in his challenges to Aquinas’ First Way is more of the same. The Thinker at times misconstrues Feser’s actual arguments and erects straw-men, begs the question in a myriad of ways, and fails to put forward a competing metaphysic that would be necessary to dethrone Feser’s arguments. His objections, then, do not seem efficacious.

My intent with my reviews was not to offer a competing metaphysic but merely to refute Feser's, which I think I did. I wasn't making the positive case for naturalism. If SJ thinks I had to do that he's misguided. That being said I did at times offer some naturalistic alternatives. So to sum this section up, sure my review could have been better. It would have been great to have someone like SJ to "peer review" my review before I had published it. I admit that I did sometimes misconstrue Feser's views. I think it's next to impossible not to given the subject matter and the length of my reviews. But I don't think SJ has shown anything fatal to my objections and kept Feser's arguments intact. Not at all. He misconstrues my objections perhaps as bad as he thinks I did to Feser.

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