Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Was Aquinas a materialist?

Denys Turner’s recent book Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait is beautifully written and consistently thought-provoking.  It is also a little mischievous, in a good-natured way.  A main theme of the book is what Turner characterizes as Aquinas’s “materialism.”  Turner is aware that Aquinas was not a materialist in the modern sense.  And as I have emphasized many times (such as at the beginning of the chapter on Aquinas’s philosophical psychology in Aquinas), you cannot understand Aquinas’s position unless you understand how badly suited the standard jargon in contemporary philosophy of mind is to describe that position.  Turner’s reference to Aquinas’s “materialism” is intended to emphasize the respects in which Aquinas’s position is deeply at odds with what many think of as essential to a “dualist” conception of human nature.  And he is right to emphasize that.  All the same, as I have argued before, if we are going to use modern terminology to characterize Aquinas’s view -- and in particular, if we want to make it clear where Aquinas stood on the issue that contemporary dualists and materialists themselves think is most crucially at stake in the debate between dualism and materialism -- then “dualist” is a more apt label than “materialist.”

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Web of intrigue

Analytical Thomist John Haldane has been appointed to the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Distinguished Chair in Philosophy at Baylor University.

At The Times Literary Supplement, Galen Strawson argues that it is matter, not consciousness, that is truly mysterious.

At Aeon magazine, philosopher Quassim Cassam investigates the intellectual character of those drawn toward conspiracy theories.

At Public Discourse, William Carroll defends the reality of the soul against Julien Mussolino, author of The Soul Fallacy.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Pigliucci on metaphysics

At Scientia Salon, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci admits to “always having had a troubled relationship with metaphysics.”  He summarizes the reasons that have, over the course of his career, made it difficult for him to take the subject seriously.  Surprisingly -- given that Pigliucci is, his eschewal of metaphysics notwithstanding, a professional philosopher -- none of these reasons is any good.  Or rather, this is not surprising at all, since there simply are no good reasons for dismissing metaphysics -- and could not be, given that all purported reasons for doing so themselves invariably embody unexamined metaphysical assumptions.  Thus, as Gilson famously observed, does metaphysics always bury its undertakers.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Reasons of the Hart

A couple of years ago, theologian David Bentley Hart generated a bit of controversy with some remarks about natural law theory in an article in First Things.  I and some other natural law theorists responded, Hart responded to our responses, others rallied to his defense, the natural law theorists issued rejoinders, and before you knew it the Internet -- or, to be a little more precise, this blog -- was awash in lame puns and bad Photoshop.  (My own contributions to the fun can be found here, here, here, and here.)  In the March 2015 issue of First Things, Hart revisits that debate, or rather uses it as an occasion to make some general remarks about the relationship between faith and reason.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Anscombe Society event

On April 11, I’ll be giving the Princeton Anscombe Society 10th Anniversary Lecture, on the subject “Natural Law and the Foundations of Sexual Ethics.”  Prof. Robert George will be the moderator.  Details here.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Capital punishment should not end (UPDATED)

Four prominent Catholic publications from across the theological spectrum -- America magazine, the National Catholic Register, the National Catholic Reporter and Our Sunday Visitor -- this week issued a joint statement declaring that “capital punishment must end.”  One might suppose from the statement that all faithful Catholics agree.  But that is not the case.  As then-Cardinal Ratzinger famously affirmed in 2004, a Catholic may be “at odds with the Holy Father” on the subject of capital punishment and “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty.”  Catholic theologian Steven A. Long has issued a vigorous response to the joint statement at the blog Thomistica.net.  (See also Steve’s recent response to an essay by “new natural law” theorist and capital punishment opponent Christopher Tollefsen on whether God ever intends a human being’s death.) 

Apart from registering my own profound disagreement with the joint statement, I will for the moment refrain from commenting on the issue, because I will before long be commenting on it at length.  My friend Joseph Bessette is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.  Joe and I have for some time been working together on a book on Catholicism and capital punishment, and we will complete it soon.  It will be, to our knowledge, the most detailed and systematic philosophical, theological, and social scientific defense of capital punishment yet written from a Catholic perspective, and it will provide a thorough critique of the standard Catholic arguments against capital punishment.

William Wallace, OP (1918-2015)

Fr. William A. Wallace has died.  Wallace was a major figure in Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy of nature and philosophy of science, and the author of many important books and academic articles.  Still in print are his books The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis (a review of which can be found here), and The Elements of Philosophy: A Compendium for Philosophers and Theologians.  Among his many other works are his two-volume historical study Causality and Scientific Explanation, the classic paper “Newtonian Antinomies Against the Prima Via” which appeared in The Thomist in 1956 (and is, unfortunately, difficult to get hold of if you don’t have access to a good academic library), and a collection of some of his essays titled From a Realist Point of View.  An interview with Wallace can be found here, and curriculum vitae hereHere is the text of a series of lectures by Wallace on philosophy of nature, and here is a YouTube lecture.  Some of Wallace’s articles are among those linked to here.  RIP.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Nyāya arguments for a First Cause

As I noted in an earlier post, arguments for a divine First Cause can be found in Indian philosophy, particularly within the Nyāya-Vaiśeșika tradition.  They are defended by such thinkers as Jayanta Bhatta (9th century A.D.), Udayana (11th century A.D.), Gangesa (13th century A.D.), and Annambhatta (17th century A.D.).  Translations of the key original texts and some of the most important studies in English are not easy to find, but useful discussions are readily available in books like Kisor Kumar Chakrabarti’s Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyāya Dualist Tradition, Ben-Ami Scharfstein, A Comparative History of World Philosophy, and Parimal G. Patil’s Against a Hindu God: Buddhist Philosophy of Religion in India.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Descartes’ “indivisibility” argument

In the sixth of his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes writes:

[T]here is a vast difference between mind and body, in respect that body, from its nature, is always divisible, and that mind is entirely indivisible.  For in truth, when I consider the mind, that is, when I consider myself in so far only as I am a thinking thing, I can distinguish in myself no parts, but I very clearly discern that I am somewhat absolutely one and entire; and although the whole mind seems to be united to the whole body, yet, when a foot, an arm, or any other part is cut off, I am conscious that nothing has been taken from my mind; nor can the faculties of willing, perceiving, conceiving, etc., properly be called its parts, for it is the same mind that is exercised [all entire] in willing, in perceiving, and in conceiving, etc.  But quite the opposite holds in corporeal or extended things; for I cannot imagine any one of them [how small soever it may be], which I cannot easily sunder in thought, and which, therefore, I do not know to be divisible.  This would be sufficient to teach me that the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body, if I had not already been apprised of it on other grounds.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Braving the web

The 10th Annual Thomistic Seminar for graduate students in philosophy and related disciplines, sponsored by The Witherspoon Institute, will be held from August 2 - 8, 2015 in Princeton, NJ.  The theme is “Aquinas and Contemporary Ethics,” and faculty include John Haldane, Sarah Broadie, and Candace Vogler.  Applications are due March 16.  More details here.

Does academic freedom still exist at Marquette University?  The case of political science professor John McAdams, as reported by The Atlantic, Crisis magazine, and Slate

The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus is the subject of a new biography by Randy Boyagoda.  Review at National Review, and podcast of an interview with Boyagoda at Ricochet.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Augustine and Heraclitus on the present moment

On the subject of time and our awareness of it, Augustine says the following in The Confessions:

But how does this future, which does not yet exist, diminish or become consumed?  Or how does the past, which now has no being, grow, unless there are three processes in the mind which in this is the active agent?  For the mind expects and attends and remembers, so that what it expects passes through what has its attention to what it remembers…

Suppose I am about to recite a psalm which I know.  Before I begin, my expectation is directed towards the whole.  But when I have begun, the verses from it which I take into the past become the object of my memory.  The life of this act of mine is stretched two ways, into my memory because of the words I have already said and into my expectation because of those which I am about to say.  But my attention is on what is present: by that the future is transferred to become the past. (Confessions 11.28.37-38, Chadwick translation; an older translation is available online here)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Accept no imitations

Given that he’s just become a movie star, Alan Turing’s classic paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” seems an apt topic for a blog post.  It is in this paper that Turing sets out his famous “Imitation Game,” which has since come to be known as the Turing Test.  The basic idea is as follows: Suppose a human interrogator converses via a keyboard and monitor with two participants, one a human being and one a machine, each of whom is in a different room.  The interrogator’s job is to figure out which is which.  Could the machine be programmed in such a way that the interrogator could not determine from the conversation which is the human being and which the machine?  Turing proposed this as a useful stand-in for the question “Can machines think?”  And in his view, a “Yes” answer to the former question is as good as a “Yes” answer to the latter.

Friday, February 6, 2015

What’s the deal with sex? Part II

In a previous post I identified three aspects of sex which manifestly give it a special moral significance: It is the means by which new human beings are made; it is the means by which we are physiologically and psychologically completed qua men and women; and it is that area of human life in which the animal side of our nature most relentlessly fights against the rational side of our nature.  When natural law theorists and moral theologians talk about the procreative and unitive functions of sex, what they have in mind are the first two of these aspects.  The basic idea of traditional natural law theory where sex is concerned is that since the good for us is determined by the natural ends of our faculties, it cannot be good for us to use our sexual faculties in a way that positively frustrates its procreative and unitive ends.  The third morally significant aspect of sex, which is that the unique intensity of sexual pleasure can lead us to act irrationally, is perhaps less often discussed these days.  So let’s talk about that.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What’s the deal with sex? Part I

In the second edition of his book Practical Ethics, Peter Singer writes:

[T]he first thing to say about ethics is that it is not a set of prohibitions particularly concerned with sex.  Even in the era of AIDS, sex raises no unique moral issues at all.  Decisions about sex may involve considerations of honesty, concern for others, prudence, and so on, but there is nothing special about sex in this respect, for the same could be said of decisions about driving a car. (p. 2, emphasis added)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Links of interest

Has mathematics misled modern science?  Bryan Appleyard, channeling physicist Lee Smolin and philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger, makes the case.

But maybe mathematical elegance should trump empirical evidence?  Some physicists seem to think so.  In Nature, physicists George Ellis and Joe Silk will have none of it.  Further commentary, and a roundup of other responses, from physicist Peter Woit

At the OUP Blog, John Searle on the intentionality of perceptual experience.  At the same blog: Federica Russo and Phyllis Illari on causation in science and Tad Schmaltz on causation in Aristotle and Hume.

Philosopher John Lamont on Thomism, “manualism,” and the nouvelle théologie, at Rorate Caeli

Monday, January 19, 2015

Schall on Scholastic Metaphysics

At Crisis magazine, Fr. James V. Schall very kindly reviews my book Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction.  From the review:

Feser has done his homework. He is quite familiar with modern analytic philosophy along with other modern systems.  He came to Aristotle and Aquinas, whom he knows well, from his realization of problems in the modern systems.  Likewise, Feser is acquainted more than most with the various texts that were once profitably used in Catholic university and seminary philosophy departments but later abandoned during the last half century.  Feser recognizes that these writers, who were perhaps not perfect, were often very good thinkers in their own right as well as familiar with the intellectual tradition of the West…

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Feynman’s painter and eliminative materialism

In case you haven’t been following it, my recent critique of novelist Scott Bakker’s Scientia Salon essay on eliminative materialism has generated quite a lot of discussion, including a series of vigorous and good-natured responses from Bakker himself both in my combox and at his own blog.  Despite the points made in my previous post, Bakker still maintains -- utterly implausibly, in my view -- that the incoherence objection begs the question against the eliminativist.  To see the problem with this response, consider a further analogy.

Friday, January 16, 2015

2015 Aquinas Workshop

Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY will be hosting the Fifth Annual Philosophy Workshop on the theme “Aquinas and the Philosophy of Nature” from June 4-7.  The speakers will be William Carroll, Fr. James Brent, Alfred Freddoso, Michael Gorman, Jennifer Frey, Edward Feser, Candace Vogler, John O’Callaghan, and Fr. Michael Dodds.  More information here

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Post-intentional depression

A reader asks me to comment on novelist Scott Bakker’s recent Scientia Salon article “Back to Square One: toward a post-intentional future.”  “Intentional” is a reference to intentionality, the philosopher’s technical term for the meaningfulness or “aboutness” of our thoughts -- the way they are “directed toward,” “point to,” or are about something.  A “post-intentional” future is one in which we’ve given up trying to explain intentionality in scientific terms and instead abandon it altogether in favor of radically re-describing human nature exclusively in terms drawn from neuroscience, physics, chemistry, and the like.  In short, it is a future in which we embrace the eliminative materialist position associated with philosophers like Alex Rosenberg and Paul and Patricia Churchland.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Best of 2014

At Catholic World Report, a panel of contributors lists the best books they read in 2014Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction was named by three of them: Mark Brumley, President and CEO of Ignatius Press; Christopher Morrissey, Professor of Philosophy at Redeemer Pacific College (who reviewed the book in CWR not too long ago); and Fr. James V. Schall, SJ, Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University.  Very kind!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Postscript on plastic

What better way is there to start off the new year than with another blog post about plastic?  You’ll recall that in a post from last year, I raised the question of why old plastic -- unlike old wood, glass, or metal -- seems invariably ugly.  I argued that none of the seemingly obvious answers holds up upon closer inspection.  In particular, I argued that the “artificiality” of plastic is not the reason, both because there are lots of old artificial things we don’t find ugly and because there is a sense in which plastic is not artificial.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Causality, pantheism, and deism

Agere sequitur esse (“action follows being” or “activity follows existence”) is a basic principle of Scholastic metaphysics.  The idea is that the way a thing acts or behaves reflects what it is.  But suppose that a thing doesn’t truly act or behave at all.  Would it not follow, given the principle in question, that it does not truly exist?  That would be too quick.  After all, a thing might be capable of acting even if it is not in fact doing so.  (For example, you are capable of leaving this page and reading some other website instead, even if you do not in fact do so.)  That would seem enough to ensure existence.  A thing could hardly be said to have a capacity if it didn’t exist.  But suppose something lacks even the capacity for acting or behaving.  Would it not follow in that case that it does not truly exist?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Martin and Murray on essence and existence

The real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence is a key Thomistic metaphysical thesis, which I defend at length in Scholastic Metaphysics, at pp. 241-56.  The thesis is crucial to Aquinas’s argument for God’s existence in De Ente et Essentia, which is the subject of an eagerly awaited forthcoming book by Gaven Kerr.  (HT: Irish Thomist)  One well-known argument for the distinction is that you can know thing’s essence without knowing whether or not it exists, in which case its existence must be distinct from its essence.  (Again, see Scholastic Metaphysics for defense of this argument.)  In his essay “How to Win Essence Back from Essentialists,” David Oderberg suggests that the argument can be run in the other direction as well: “[I]t is possible to know that a thing exists without knowing what kind of thing it is. (Such is our normal way of acquiring knowledge of the world.)” (p. 39)

Which brings to mind this old Saturday Night Live skit with Steve Martin and Bill Murray:

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmastime reading for shut-ins

At Public Discourse, William Carroll gives us the scoop on Thomas Aquinas in China.

At Anamnesis, Joshua Hochschild asks: What’s Wrong with Ockham?

Philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger and physicist Lee Smolin have just published The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy.  In an interview, Smolin addresses the question: Who will rescue time from the physicists?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Knowing an ape from Adam

On questions about biological evolution, both the Magisterium of the Catholic Church and Thomist philosophers and theologians have tended carefully to steer a middle course.  On the one hand, they have allowed that a fairly wide range of biological phenomena may in principle be susceptible of evolutionary explanation, consistent with Catholic doctrine and Thomistic metaphysics.  On the other hand, they have also insisted, on philosophical and theological grounds, that not every biological phenomenon can be given an evolutionary explanation, and they refuse to issue a “blank check” to a purely naturalistic construal of evolution.  Evolutionary explanations are invariably a mixture of empirical and philosophical considerations.  Properly to be understood, the empirical considerations have to be situated within a sound metaphysics and philosophy of nature.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Causality and radioactive decay

At the Catholic blog Vox Nova, mathematics professor David Cruz-Uribe writes:

I… am currently working through the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas as part of his proofs of the existence of God… [S]ome possibly naive counter-examples from quantum mechanics come to mind.  For instance, discussing the principle that nothing can change without being affected externally, I immediately thought of the spontaneous decay of atoms and even of particles (e.g., so-called proton decay).

This might be a very naive question: my knowledge of quantum mechanics is rusty and probably out of date, and I know much, much less about scholastic metaphysics.  So can any of our readers point me to some useful references on this specific topic?