Friday, April 11, 2014

What We Owe the New Atheists

Last week I gave a lecture at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA, on the theme “What We Owe the New Atheists.”  You can read the text and/or listen to the audio of the lecture at TAC’s website.  The faculty, students, and guests who attended were a wonderful bunch of folks and I thank them for their very kind hospitality. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Anthony Brueckner (1953 - 2014)

Philosopher Tony Brueckner of UC Santa Barbara died this week.  Tony was a professor of mine when I was in graduate school, and served on my dissertation committee.  I remember him as an excellent teacher, a formidable philosopher, and a nice guy with a droll sense of humor.  I recall a phony pop quiz he handed out in class one day.  The first multiple-choice question read: “What is your name? (A) Bruce, (B) other.”  After a reference he once made to the tune in a comment in the margins of a term paper of mine, I can never listen to Steely Dan’s “The Fez” without thinking of Tony.

Tony was a philosopher’s philosopher, and his work was largely devoted to a rigorous investigation of the philosophical issues surrounding Cartesian skepticism.  No one seriously interested in that topic can avoid grappling with Tony’s work on it, most of which is collected in his book Essays on Skepticism.  Related issues are pursued in Debating Self-Knowledge, co-written with Gary Ebbs.

By all accounts (such as this one) he was a kind man.  R.I.P.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Self control

The relationship between memory and personal identity has long been of interest to philosophers, and it is also a theme explored to good effect in movies and science fiction.  In Memento, Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce) has largely lost his ability to form new memories following an attack in which he was injured and his wife raped and murdered.  He hunts down the attacker by assembling clues which he either writes down or tattoos on his body before he can forget them. 

In Philip K. Dick’s short story “Paycheck” (which is better than the movie adaptation starring Ben Affleck), the protagonist Jennings has agreed to work for two years on a secret project knowing that his memory of it (and of everything else that happened during those years) will be erased when the task is completed.  When he awakens after the memory wipe, he learns that he had, during the course of the two years, voluntarily agreed to forego the large paycheck he had originally contracted for in exchange for an envelope full of seemingly worthless trinkets.  He spends the rest of the story trying to figure out why he would have done so, and it becomes evident before long that it has something to do with the secret project’s having been a device which can see into the future. 

(Readers who haven’t either seen Memento or read Dick’s story or seen the movie version are warned that major spoilers follow.)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Welcome to the machine

Not too long ago I attended a conference on theology and technology sponsored by First Things.  Unsurprisingly, the question arose whether modern technology is on balance a good or bad thing, and the general view seemed to be that it was in itself neutral -- its goodness or badness deriving from the circumstances of its use.  As Fr. Thomas Joseph White pointed out, however, from a Thomist point of view, while circumstances can certainly make the use of technology bad, of itself it is actually good rather than merely neutral.  It is the product of the practical intellect, the exercise of which per se helps perfect us (even if, again, circumstances can make technology, like other products of practical reason, evil). 

Naturally I wholeheartedly agree, being not only a Thomist but a confirmed city dweller and something of a technophile.  Still, it is worthwhile considering whether there is something special about modern circumstances that makes technology morally problematic.  I think there is, though by no means do I think these circumstances suffice to make modern technology on balance a bad thing.  On the contrary, I think on balance it is a very good thing.  But all good things can lead us to hubris if we are not careful, and there is a special way in which we moderns need to be careful.

Friday, March 28, 2014

What’s around the web?

John Searle is interviewed at New Philosopher.  He’s in fine Searle form (and well-armed, as you can see from the photo accompanying the interview):  “It upsets me when I read the nonsense written by my contemporaries, the theory of extended mind makes me want to throw up.”

Jeremy Shearmur is interviewed at 3:AM Magazine about his work on Karl Popper and F. A. Hayek.  Standpoint magazine on Hayek and religion.

A memorial conference for the late E. J. Lowe will be held this July at Durham University. 

Steely Dan is being sued by former member David Palmer.  GQ magazine looks back on Steely Dan’s Aja, and The Quietus celebrates and cerebrates the 40th anniversary of Pretzel Logic.  Donald Fagen’s book Eminent Hipsters is reviewed in City Journal and in the New York Observer.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Dharmakīrti and Maimonides on divine action

Here’s a juxtaposition for you: the Buddhist philosopher Dharmakīrti (c. 600 - 660) and the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138 - 1204).  Both had interesting things to say about divine action, Dharmakīrti from the point of view of a critic of theism and Maimonides from the point of view of a theist committed to “negative theology.” 

Theism of a sort reminiscent of Western philosophical theology has its defenders in the history of Indian philosophy, particularly within the Nyāya-Vaiśeșika tradition.  In particular, one finds in this tradition arguments for the existence of īśvara (the “Lord”) as a single permanent, personal cause of the world of intermittent things.  The debate between these thinkers and their Buddhist critics parallels the dispute between theists and atheists in the West.  (To map the Indian philosophical traditions onto those of ancient Greece, you might compare the Buddhist position to that of Heraclitus, the Advaita Vedanta position of thinkers like Shankara (788 - 820) to that of Parmenides, and Indian theism to Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover.  But the similarities should not be overstated.)

Friday, March 21, 2014

I was wrong about Keith Parsons

Longtime readers know that Prof. Keith Parsons and I have not always gotten along.  Some years ago he famously expressed the view that the arguments of natural theology are a “fraud” that do not rise to the level of a “respectable philosophical position” worthy of “serious academic attention.”  I hit back pretty hard at the time, and our subsequent remarks about each other over the years have not been kind.  I had come to the conclusion that Prof. Parsons was unwilling to engage seriously with the best arguments of natural theology.  But I am delighted to say that I was wrong.  Prof. Parsons has said that his earlier remarks about the field were “unfortunate” and “intemperate and inappropriate, however qualified.”  He has shown admirable grace and good sportsmanship in his willingness to bury the hatchet despite how heated things had been between us.  And he has most definitely engaged seriously with the arguments of traditional natural theology in our recent exchange.  I take back the unkind remarks I have made about him in the past.  He is a good guy.

Keith is now wrapping up his side in our initial exchange.  If you have not done so already, give it a read.  In the near future we will have an exchange on the subject of atheism and morality.  I look forward to it.  Keith has also expressed to me his admiration for the quality of the comments readers have been making on our exchange.  I agree, and I thank the readers both of my blog and of Keith’s blog over at Secular Outpost.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Stop it, you’re killing me!

In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Ferris Jabr of Scientific American kindly informs us that nothing is really alive, not even Jabr himself or his readers.  Fairly verbose for a dead guy, he develops the theme at length -- not by way of giving an explicit argument for his claim, so much as by putting forward considerations intended to make it appear something other than the killer joke it seems on its face to be.

The routine is familiar, even if Jabr’s thesis is a bit more extreme than that of other biological reductionists.  There’s no generally agreed upon definition of life; there are borderline cases such as viruses; living and non-living things are all made up of the same kinds of particles; so

Thursday, March 13, 2014

L.A. area speaking engagements

On Saturday, March 29, I’ll be the keynote speaker at the Talbot Philosophical Society Spring Conference at Biola University in La Mirada, CA.  The theme of the talk will be “The Scholastic Principle of Causality and the Rationalist Principle of Sufficient Reason.”  Bill Vallicella will be the respondent.  Come out and see the dueling philosophy bloggers.  More information here.

On Friday, April 4, I’ll be speaking at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA.  The theme of the talk will be “What We Owe the New Atheists.”  More information here.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Gelernter on computationalism

People have asked me to comment on David Gelernter’s essay on minds and computers in the January issue of Commentary.  It’s written with Gelernter’s characteristic brio and clarity, and naturally I agree with the overall thrust of it.  But it seems to me that Gelernter does not quite get to the heart of the problem with the computer model of the mind.  What he identifies, I would argue, are rather symptoms of the deeper problems.  Those deeper problems are three, and longtime readers of this blog will recognize them.  The first two have more to do with the computationalist’s notion of matter than with his conception of mind.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Can you explain something by appealing to a “brute fact”?

Prof. Keith Parsons and I have been having a very cordial and fruitful exchange.  He has now posted a response to my most recent post, on the topic of “brute facts” and explanation.  You can read his response here, and find links to the other posts in our exchange here.  Since by the rules of our exchange Keith has the last word, I’ll let things stand as they are for now and let the reader imagine how I might respond.

Another one of my old sparring partners, Prof. Robert Oerter, raises an interesting objection of his own in the combox of my recent post, on which I will comment.  I had argued that if we think of laws of nature as regularities, then no appeal to such laws can explain anything if the most fundamental such laws are regarded as inexplicable “brute facts.”  Oerter writes:

Sunday, March 2, 2014

An exchange with Keith Parsons, Part IV

Here I respond to Keith Parsons’ fourth post.  Jeff Lowder’s index of existing and forthcoming installments in my exchange with Prof. Parsons can be found here.

Keith, as we near the end of our first exchange, I want to thank you again for taking the time to respond to the questions I raised, and as graciously as you have.  You maintain in your most recent post that explanations legitimately can and indeed must ultimately trace to an unexplained “brute fact,” and that philosophers who think otherwise have failed to give a convincing account of what it would be for the deepest level of reality to be self-explanatory and thus other than such a “brute fact.”  Unsurprisingly, I disagree on both counts.  I would say that appeals to “brute facts” are incoherent, and that the nature of an ultimate self-explanatory principle can be made intelligible by reference to notions that are well understood and independently motivated.

Friday, February 28, 2014

An exchange with Keith Parsons, Part III

Here I respond to Keith Parsons’ third post.  Jeff Lowder’s index of existing and forthcoming installments in my exchange with Prof. Parsons can be found here.

I’d like to respond now, Keith, to your comments about Bertrand Russell’s objection to First Cause arguments.  Let me first make some general remarks about the objection and then I’ll get to your comments.  Russell wrote, in Why I Am Not a Christian:

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.  If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.  (pp. 6-7)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

An exchange with Keith Parsons, Part II

Here I respond to Keith Parsons’ second post.  Jeff Lowder is keeping track of the existing and forthcoming installments in my exchange with Prof. Parsons here.

Keith, thanks for these remarks.  The question we are now considering is: Why would the material universe or anything in it (an electron or a quark, say) require a cause to conserve it in existence?  Your view is that the supposition that it requires one is “gratuitous.”  You write: “Is there anything missing from an electron that would have to be filled in or supplied from outside?  There is nothing in our physical theories that indicates such a lack.”

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

An exchange with Keith Parsons, Part I

Prof. Keith Parsons and I will be having an exchange to be moderated by Jeffery Jay Lowder of The Secular Outpost.  Prof. Parsons has initiated the exchange with a response to the first of four questions I put to him last week.  What follows is a brief reply.

Keith, thank you for your very gracious response.  Like Jeff Lowder, you raise the issue of the relative amounts of attention I and other theistic philosophers pay to “New Atheist” writers like Dawkins, Harris, et al. as opposed to the much more serious arguments of atheist philosophers like Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, and many others.  Let me begin by reiterating what I said last week in response to Jeff, namely that I have nothing but respect for philosophers like the ones you cite and would never lump them in with Dawkins and Co.  And as I showed in my response to Jeff, I have in fact publicly praised many of these writers many times over the years for the intellectual seriousness of their work.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Descartes’ “preservation” argument

In previous posts I’ve critically examined, from a Scholastic point of view, some of Descartes’ best-known arguments.  Specifically, I’ve commented on Descartes’ “clear and distinct perception” argument for dualism, and his “trademark” argument for God’s existence.  We’ve seen how these arguments illustrate how Descartes, though the father of modern philosophy, in some respects continues to be influenced by the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition, even as in other respects he abandons it.  It’s the novelties, I have suggested, that get him into trouble.  This is evidenced once again in what is sometimes called his “preservation” argument for God’s existence.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Four questions for Keith Parsons [UPDATED 2/21]

Keith Parsons’ feelings are, it seems, still hurt over some frank things I said about him a few years ago (here and here).  It seems to me that when a guy dismisses as a “fraud” an entire academic field to which many thinkers of universally acknowledged genius have contributed, and maintains that its key arguments do not even rise to the level of a “respectable philosophical position” worthy of “serious academic attention,” then when its defenders hit back, he really ought to have a thicker skin and more of a sense of humor about himself.  But that’s just me.

Lowder then bombs

Atheist blogger and Internet Infidels co-founder Jeffery Jay Lowder seems like a reasonable enough fellow.  But then, I admit it’s hard not to like a guy who writes:

I’ve just about finished reading Feser’s book, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New AtheismI think Feser makes some hard-hitting, probably fatal, objections to the arguments used by the “new atheists.”

Naturally Lowder thinks there are better atheist arguments than those presented by the “New Atheists,” but it’s no small thing for him to have made such an admission -- an admission too few of his fellow atheist bloggers are willing to make, at least in public.  So, major points to Lowder for intellectual honesty.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The metaphysics and aesthetics of plastic

There’s a passage at the beginning of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novel Foundation’s Edge which I’ve always found delightfully preposterous.  Referring to Seldon Hall on the planet Terminus, Golan Trevize says:

Is there any structural component visible that is metal?  Not one.  It wouldn’t do to have any, since in Salvor Hardin’s day there was no native metal to speak of and hardly any imported metal.  We even installed old plastic, pink with age, when we built this huge pile, so that visitors from other worlds can stop and say, ‘Galaxy!  What lovely old plastic!’

The very notion of “lovely old plastic” seems absurd on its face, and I imagine Asimov wrote the passage with tongue in cheek.  Aged wood, stone, or metal structures or furniture can be aesthetically appealing, but aged plastic only ever seems shabby at best and positively ugly at worst.  Now, why is that?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A world of pure imagination

Let us fix our attention out of ourselves as much as possible; let us chase our imagination to the heavens, or to the utmost limits of the universe; we never really advance a step beyond ourselves, nor can conceive any kind of existence, but those perceptions, which have appear'd in that narrow compass. This is the universe of the imagination, nor have we any idea but what is there produc'd.

David Hume

Come with me and you'll be
In a world of pure imagination
Take a look and you'll see
Into your imagination

Willy Wonka

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Studia Neoaristotelica

Readers not already familiar with it should be aware of Studia Neoaristotelica: A Journal of Analytical Scholasticism.  Recent issues include articles by Nicholas Rescher, Richard Swinburne, Theodore Scaltsas, William Vallicella, James Franklin, Helen Hattab, and other authors known to readers of this blog.  Subscription information for individuals and institutions can be found here.