William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Realism vs. Anti-Realism V: Conclusion—Guest Post by G. Rodrigues

The debate between the three views is ancient, and extremely complicated. It can also seem at first glance to be very dry, esoteric, and irrelevant to practical life. But nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that virtually every major religious, moral, and political controversy of the last decades — of the last several centuries, in fact — in some ways rests on a disagreement, even if implicit and unnoticed, over the “problem of universals” (as it is known). That includes the dispute between the “New Atheists” and their critics, ignorant though the former (though also often the latter) are of the true roots of this dispute. When Richard Weaver famously made the observation that “Ideas Have Consequences”, he was not making the banal point that what we believe affects the way we act; he was referring to the radical social and moral implications that the abandonment of realism and the adoption of nominalism has had within modern Western

— E. Feser, The Last Superstition

The three views Feser refers to in the quote are realism, conceptualism and nominalism. In this last post I will illustrate how the “implicit and unnoticed” disagreement over the problem of universals gets tangled up in a typically modern debate.

But first, it is useful to summarize the long trek that lead us up to where we are, and get a high-level view of the structure of the argument for realism. One way of framing the problem is to ask what does it mean to say that

  1. Fido is green.
  2. Rover is green.
  3. Socrates is green.

Dominican Seal

Fido and Rover are concrete particulars, but we are predicating the same thing—the property green—of them. The realist will say that to understand predication, similarity (both Rover and Fido are green while Socrates is not) and abstract reference (the fact that the property green itself has properties and stands in relations to other properties, etc.) we need an appeal to universals, real, abstract entities that are multiply exemplifiable in the various concrete particulars of our common experience.

Enjoining these phenomena to justify the need to posit universals serves two different functions. First, as a springboard for direct arguments in favor of realism. So I have, from explicit enunciation to only brief adumbration, and spread across all posts, made several arguments for realism: the necessary modal status of logical and mathematical truths, the argument from the objectivity of our concepts, the argument from science, etc. Second, if the anti-realist is to make his case, then at the very least he will have to meet the realist challenge.

As I tried to argue in the third post, all the anti-realist responses suffer from fatal flaws. The flaws were illustrated by the phenomena that I took as basic: predication, unity within plurality and abstract reference. But these difficulties trickle down and will plague anti-realist accounts of the laws of logic, mathematical principles, laws of science, etc. Finally, in the fourth post I responded to some of the objections against realism. This is a cumulative case for realism; whether the reader is convinced or not, at least my hope is that the issues at stake are clearer.

In some of the arguments for realism, we already see the central importance of the debate over universals, one of the oldest, still running debates in the history of philosophy. But what about Feser’s contention about its importance for religious, moral and political questions?

I could, as Feser does, and I will, direct you to Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences. But as a typical illustration, consider the debate about same-sex marriage (SSM for short). How do SSM advocates tend to argue? First note that this is a typically modern debate, with only a few decades long. Since biology, history and anthropology are not on his side, the SSM advocate will tend to emphasize the social, conventional aspects of marriage. By the nature of the case, he must deny the essentialist picture of human nature or that marriage has an objective, essential basis on reality.

If facing a stern Dominican, steeped in the tradition of natural law, when not offering caricature straw man arguments against it, he is forced to reject the essentialist metaphysical picture of human nature on pain of conceding the point to the Dominican. In short, they have to deny that the concept of marriage has any objective basis on reality, and is “just a piece of paper”, a conventional contract between two sovereign wills, and along the way add their own prejudices and insist that marriage, while a convention, can only be between two adult persons and other such ad-hoc strictures.

This prejudice is little more than the Humpty Dumpty position: words mean what we (where “we” is the community of enlightened liberals) say they mean. And what is this but a distant echo of the nominalist position? There are no universals, there are no fixed natures. They are mere “convenient fictions” to borrow an apt expression of a combox poster. And if they are “convenient fictions”, we might as well choose one that accords to our tastes and emotional hang-ups.

I do not intend to argue the merits and demerits of the pro-SSM arguments. Although my position should be clear (they are worthless), that is a discussion for another day. What I am trying to do is point to what the SSM advocate must say to rationally make his case, and what he must say will almost inevitably be anchored in some form of anti-realism, whether he realizes it or not.

Whatever the path that Western civilization follows, and quite apart from all the myriad factors that enter into the SSM debate (political, cultural, social, etc.) that struggle alongside a more philosophical approach, it seems to me that knowing something of the root metaphysical disagreements would have the benefit of clarifying the issues involved. We may not be able to convert each other through rational dialogue as there is more to the pragmatics of belief than just the philosophical dialectic of argument and counter-argument. But as human beings, rational animals as Aristotle put it, rational dialogue can at least clarify the bones of contention. That may not be enough, but is no small thing either; it is one of the things that separates civilized society from barbarity.

Stand Up For Religious Freedom San Francisco

“The crowd was curious but well behaved.”

The strangest thing about yesterday’s Stand Up For Religious Freedom rally in San Francisco were the “undecided” gentlemen who came dressed with brassieres on their heads. This was curious because there was no rain was in the forecast. About these fellows, more in a moment.

Of course you will have already heard of these rallies from the legacy media, because yesterday there were 148 of them in different cities across the nation. So let’s instead examine the folks attended this event in San Francisco, a city famous for its welcoming attitude, where the citizenry is tolerant of everything—except differing opinions.


For example, meet Tony, standing here with a homemade sign. Tony is a successful pharmaceutical rep., always ready to laugh, and who has recently applied to the Redemptorist Fathers, a group which “takes the simple vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience,” and whose only goal is to teach kids and pray for the likes of us. “Us” includes those who have not yet escaped the womb, the deadliest place for children under one.

Father Frank Pavone

Mary Beth Binacci was our hostess and warmed up the crowd by telling us, “Most believe it is a foregone conclusion the Democrats are going to win the election.” Response: loud boos, which ushered on Father Frank Pavone, a well known anti-abortion speaker.

He quoted the chief of the UN Population Fund who said that “religion was the final frontier in the battle to promote reproductive health.” Ah, if only we could eliminate the one last thing which stands in the way of complete “reproductive health,” a code phrase meaning free—perhaps even mandatory for some—abortion on demand. Then life, what’s left of it, would be perfect.

Pavone recommended this video, in which Representative Trey Gowdy asked Health and Human Services (yet another growing branch of our government) Kathleen Sebelius how she came up with the idea to mandate that the Catholic Church must pay for abortions and birth prevention for its employees. “Through conversations,” she said.

That’s the miracle of bureaucracy: two unelected government apparatchiks jawing by the water cooler can move the course of the nation. No wonder so many want to enter government. Pavone recalled that Sebelius gave the Church one year to “adapt” to the new mandate. “You don’t adapt to injustice, you oppose it.”

Freedom from religion crew

Abby Johnson took over from Father Pavone and thanked the crowd for coming, especially since, she said, “There is no fruitier place on earth than San Francisco.” Now this quip set the bra-wearing cross-dressers off, who began to shout, “Bigot!”

A new use for brassieres

I made my way to them and asked the person on the right (pink feathers, wearing something mocking a nun’s habit) why he had come. “To protest against Cordileone,” he said. He meant the newly installed traditionalist Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, who ran afoul of the gay-rights flock by supporting California’s Proposition 8 (which disallowed gay “marriage”). Unfortunately for this small group of protesters, Cordileone, though scheduled, was unable to attend.

This was disappointing, but protesters are made of stern stuff, so they decided to stick it out. And to participate. They sang the National Anthem with everybody else, and even recited the Pledge of Allegiance—except for the line “Under God”, to which the tall purple fellow (none would give me their names) flipped the bird. Or birds, I should say.

I asked the faux nun what in particular made him angry and he said, “I don’t see what’s wrong with abortion. I had a very refreshing abortion this morning. I recommend it for everyone.”

Let them eat cake?

Meanwhile, two guys were walking a poster around and around the grounds. It had a picture of The One in flowers and a dress, with the large word “Cake” crossed out, under which was printed “Change.” I asked one of the standard bearers what it meant and he said, “Barack Obama likes cake but wants change.” So that’s explained.

Don Evans

Dion Evans, CEO of Religazine Media, said regarding abortion, “For those who say, ‘I don’t know if it’s a life yet’, I say, Just leave it alone! Let’s see what it becomes!” Which is the best one-line distillation of natural rights I’ve heard.

Kevin A. McGary president of the Frederick Douglas Foundation

Craig DeLuz

Craig DeLuz, President of the Frederick Douglas Foundation, told of us a recent conversations in the barber shop. One gentleman told him, “I’m voting for Obama because he’s down for black people.” To which he responded, “What’s the matter with you? You’re a regular church goer” and Obama was against everything he said he believed. He said he had to “spray some Lysol in your ear and get rid of that stinkin’ thinkin’.”

He told us to “vote for who more closely aligns with your principles.” He also sought to frighten the media and asked everybody to bring their bibles to the voting booth. Can you imagine the stories next morning if people did?

Marie Stoughter

Marie Stoughter, who hosts the African-American Conservatives radio program (what? you haven’t heard of this from the media?), began her speech with a dramatic, “I am not a Democrat.” She let it sink in, and then said, “I am not a Republican. I am a Christian.” She said this election was not about the price of gas but “about the price of my soul. I cannot vote for those who support abortion and the abhorrent practice of partial birth abortion.” Some may recall The One is for partial birth abortion.

Marie Hazel Lewis

Marie Hazel Lewis mounted next, and boy could she pierce the air. What’s left of my hearing, partially destroyed from listening to bad music as a youth, was temporarily paralyzed. Luckily, her meaning was clear. She is a college student and was asked by a professor to answer the question, “What steps would you take to increase condom use by your boyfriend.” She said, “Save it until you get married.”

This was an unacceptable answer, thought perfectly consistent with disease prevention, the subject of the test. The prof. refused to accept this answer and told her she would lose points if she did not try again. She refused on religious grounds.

Another student, Amelia Calderon (not pictured) from Sacramento State, and an indication The One might have lost the coveted youth vote, mocked, “Oh, I’m so great. I’m the first black president. You have to bow down to my wishes.” Miss Calderon reminded us that contraception is not “health” care because contraception is not necessary to insure women’s health. “Can we stop the president from imposing his beliefs on us?” she asked, “Yes we can!” came the answer.

Anne Morse

The photogenic Anne Morse was our last student. I say “photogenic” because we she ran up the stage, cameras appeared from everywhere. What was that scientific study that showed Republican women are better looking? Never mind. Her dad is an atheist, her roommates Muslim and Hindu, and all are against The One and his HHS mandate. “We don’t believe there is a war on women!”

Dr Timothy F. Johnson

Dr Timothy F. Johnson, of the Frederick Douglas Foundation, and ex-G.I., told us he was serious for traditional marriage. “I am not an African-American. I am American. Doesn’t matter what ship you came over on. We’re all here now and we’ve got work to do.” He said “Barack Obama and Joe ‘I don’t have any sense’ Biden have got to leave 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. If you,” meaning folks in the audience, “favor Democrats, you’re conflicted everyday.”

Rochelle Conner

Rochelle Conner, chief of God and Government, said, “The government is in violation of our First Amendment…We are witnessing the criminalization of our faith.” She said, “When the word ‘God’ is banned at veteran’s funerals. When the words ‘traditional marriage’ are declared hate speech… We must vote for those who would protect religious liberty.”

Antoine Lamar Miller

Antoine Lamar Miller is a pastor in Alameda, and awfully good at rousing an audience. He marveled that so many could show up in a city that spends its time banning a chicken restaurant. He reminded us that “30 million black children are killed by abortion.” Racism anyone? He lamented that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, as he called the cross-dressing protesters who had wandered off, should have stuck around so that he could tell them that he “loved them, that God loves them.” He closed with, “What we believe will not be defined by those in the White House.”

Walter Hoy

The last speaker was Walter Hoy. “Mr President, we are praying you have a change of heart with regard to religious freedom. But if not! We are praying you have abandon the HHS mandate. But if not! We will not comply. We will not compromise our faith. We will not!” He asked finally, “We know who to vote for, don’t we?”

The event ended with a sing-along version of God Bless America, after which somebody shouted, “Viva Cristo Rey!” And the crowd answered, “Viva!”

Top 10 Essential (Philosophical) Conservative Book List

Today, a classic column. Original appearance 5 June 2011.

A list of (non-fiction) books concerning knowledge, and the limits of certainty, about man’s relations to other men. The Federalist Papers by Publius, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, and The Road to Serfdom by Hayek, and others similar, which are all required reading, are not included here because their contexts are more directly political or economical.

The works below all share a common epistemology, which will be immediately obvious from the quotes I selected. From them you may deduce what to be a conservative means: one who holds certain truths to be self-evident and who is cautious in his predictions.

These books are the most fundamental, the books I should have been greatly sorry never to have read.

  • Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke. “As the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle.”

  • Ideas Have Consequences, Richard M. Weaver. “Every group regarding itself as emancipated is convinced that its predecessors were fearful of reality. It looks upon euphemisms and all the veils of decency with which things were previously draped as obstructions which it, with superior wisdom and praiseworthy courage, will not strip away. Imagination and indirection it identifies with obscurantism; the mediate is an enemy to freedom.”

  • The Conservative Mind (pdf), Russell Kirk. In which he quotes, inter alia, John Adams: “But to teach that all men are born with equal powers and faculties, to equal influence in society, to equal property and advantages through life, is a gross fraud, as glaring an imposition on the credulity of the people, as was ever practiced by monks, Druids, by Brahmins, by priests of the immortal Lama, or by the self-styled philosophers of the French Revolution. For honor’s sake, Mr. Taylor, for truth and virtue’s sake, let American philosophers and politicians despise it.”

  • Liberty Equality Fraternity, James Fitzjames Stephen. “Men are so closely connected together that it is quite impossible to say how far the influence of acts apparently of the most personal character may extend…[W]e can assign no limits at all to the importance to each other of men’s acts and thoughts. Still less can we assign limits to that indefinable influence which they exercise over each other by their very existence, by the very fact of their presence, by the spirit which shines through their looks and gestures, to say nothing of their words and thoughts.”

  • Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville. “When the members of an aristocratic community adopt a new opinion or conceive a new sentiment, they give it a station, as it were, beside themselves, upon the lofty platform where they stand; and opinions or sentiments so conspicuous to the eyes of the multitude are easily introduced into the minds or hearts of all around. In democratic countries the governing power alone is naturally in a condition to act in this manner, but it is easy to see that its action is always inadequate, and often dangerous. A government can no more be competent to keep alive and to renew the circulation of opinions and feelings among a great people than to manage all the speculations of productive industry. No sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere and to enter upon this new track than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny; for a government can only dictate strict rules, the opinions which it favors are rigidly enforced, and it is never easy to discriminate between its advice and its commands. Worse still will be the case if the government really believes itself interested in preventing all circulation of ideas; it will then stand motionless and oppressed by the heaviness of voluntary torpor. Governments, therefore, should not be the only active powers; associations ought, in democratic nations, to stand in lieu of those powerful private individuals whom the equality of conditions has swept away.”

  • Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton. “The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

  • The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith. “The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”

  • The Idea of a University Cardinal Newman. “This process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study or science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object, and for its own highest culture, if called Liberal Education; and though there is no one in whom it is carried as far as is conceivable, or whose intellect would be a pattern of what intellects should be made, yet there is scarcely any one but may gain an idea of what real training is, and at least look towards it, and make its true scope and result, not something else, his standard of excellence.

  • On Enlightenment, David Stove. “A primitive society is being devastated by a disease, so you bring modern medicine to bear, and wipe out the disease, only to find that by doing so you have brought on a population explosion…You guarantee a minimum wage, and find that you have extinguished, not only specific industries, but industry itself as a personal trait… This is the oldest and best argument for conservatism: the argument from the fact that our actions almost always have unforeseen and unwelcome consequences. It is an argument from so great and so mournful a fund of experience, that nothing can rationally outweigh it. Yet somehow, at any rate in societies like ours, this argument never is given its due weight. When what is called a ‘reform’ proves to be, yet again, a cure worse than the disease, the assumption is always that what is needed is still more, and still more drastic, ‘reform.'”

  • Bible, God et alia. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Since this list has been compiled early on a Sunday morning, I might have forgotten entries, or included works better left off (perhaps de Tocqueville?). Thus, the “initial” consideration above.

Your list?

University’s Non-Discrimination Clause

I’ve been looking at university positions and typical is this fine print from the University of San Francisco (which used to be Catholic):

The University of San Francisco is an equal opportunity institution of higher education. The University does not discriminate in employment, educational services and academic programs on the basis of an individual’s race, color, religion, religious creed, ancestry, national origin, age (except minors), sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, medical condition (cancer-related and genetic-related) and disability, and the other bases prohibited by law. The University reasonably accommodates qualified individuals with disabilities under the law.

The more particular these disclaimers—or rather proclamations—are, the more they invite scrutiny and legalistic nitpicking. They don’t discriminate in “employment, educational services and academic programs”? So they do discriminate on promotions and funding? That kind of thing.

USF is anxious to tell us that they won’t discriminate on sex, race, or color, a common phrase, usually placed directly under the one which announces “Women and minorities are encouraged to apply.” In logic, this is what is known as a paradox. Two contradictory phrases, both earnestly believed, neither of which can be politically abandoned.

What’s the difference between “religion” and “religious creed”? What if the applicant is anxious to restore, and actually participates in Aztec rituals? Or what if an employee wears a visible crucifix? (Incidentally, USF is of course well within their rights to discriminate based on religion.)

The legalese even affects the writers of these things. Used to be the going term was non-discrimination against age, but likely due to an interaction with some sea lawyer they felt compelled to add parenthetically “except minors.” See what I mean about nitpicking?

The progressive, or academic, phrase “gender identity” is there, as is “sexual orientation.” But these are both code phrases which do not carry their plain English meanings, nor can they. An applicant who expresses an “orientation” towards infants or dead goats would likely be discriminated against.

“But everybody knows what ‘sexual orientation’ means!” Saying that admits the argument that the phrase does not mean what it says and that institutions do in fact discriminate on “orientation.” As, it should go without saying, but which it unfortunately cannot, they should.

Disability shows up, as it always does, as if there is a wide-spread movement against the wheelchair bound. Now, to be dis-abled is to lack an ability. Ability is a facility to accomplish a certain act, such as teaching or performing research. So what about an applicant who has had a lobotomy or has been found to pledge to NPR? Would the university discriminate against them?

This is the first time I’ve ever seen “medical condition (cancer-related and genetic-related)”. Nice to know that suffering cancer or the genetic-related Down’s symdrome won’t bar you from employment. But what if you had the flu, or even AIDS? Oh, boy. Whoever wrote this ad goofed: look to the expansion of the list of allowed ailments in the future.

And the trend is in the direction of lengthier “diversity pleas.” Give us five, ten years and there won’t be space left for traditional job qualifications. But they won’t be needed then, either.

Realism vs. Anti-Realism IV: (some) Objections to realism—Guest Post by G. Rodrigues

Dr Johnson refutes naturalism thusly

Johnson did not answer …; but talking for victory and determined to be master of the field, he had recourse to the device which Goldsmith imputed to him in the witty words of one of Cibber’s comedies. “There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.”

— J. Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson

Dr. Johnson had an unwieldy frame, a face scarred by scrofula, the laughter of a hippopotamus, always left home with a solid stick to defend himself from hoodlums and always argued for victory. After having shot blanks[1], the anti-realist with something like Johnson’s tenacity will go after the realist with the butt end of his pistol. Even if he concedes that realism about universals is very hard to evade as I tried to argue in the previous post, maybe he can find an objection powerful enough to force the realist into a stalemate.

In this fourth installment, I will consider some of the objections put forward against realism. The first two are somewhat technical; they are here because they illustrate the ways in which anti-realists find universals abhorrent, and also to pave the track to the last three, which form the spiritual core of the post.

A. Identity conditions

Some philosophers (Quine in particular, pressed this objection) argue that compared to classes, the identity conditions for universals are obscure. The identity conditions for classes are clear: two classes are identical iff they have exactly the same members. But no such condition exists for universals, and if there are no identity conditions for the posited entities, then how can there be such entities in the first place? This argument can be interpreted in two ways, an ontological and an epistemological one.

The former does not pose a special problem as the realist can always use a variation of Leibniz’s law of the indiscernibility of identicals now applied to universals. If the latter, then the objection seems to be a variation of methodism applied to the identity conditions of universals, that one must know how one knows before one can know, and if one cannot answer the skeptical question of how one knows, then the skeptic becomes the master of the field.

A first possible response is to deny the need for specifying identity conditions for universals. One reason for doing this is that providing non-circular and informative identity conditions for material objects is equally fraught with problems. For example, certain facts of quantum mechanics make the identity conditions for elementary particles highly problematic. Presumably, this does not bother anyone so why should we be bothered by the absence of explicit identity conditions for universals? Following this, we could adopt some form of epistemological particularism, which seems unavoidable anyway on pain of infinite regress. To see how it can be done, consult J. P. Moreland, Universals, chapter 5, pg. 118 ff.

B. Vicious regresses

Some vicious regress arguments have been aimed at realism. The Third Man argument is a particularly notorious one directed against the Platonist version of realism. Since I favor the Aristotelian-Thomist stripe, I will not bother with it and instead focus my attention on an argument devised by F. H. Bradley. It goes like this. The core of the realist doctrine is the instantiation relation, call it R, between concrete particulars, say x, y, etc. and universals X, Y, etc. Now Bradley says the following: for the relation x R X to obtain, and given the realist ontological commitments, then both x and X must enter into a relation with R and so on ad infinitum, and the realist has a vicious regress in his hands.

But the realist can respond that just as one does not need superglue to connect two objects to normal glue in order to tie them together with normal glue, relations do not need to enter in relations with their relata for they to relate those relata to each other. In the same way, the fact that x instantiates X does not need putative higher-order relations R’, R” such that x R’ R and X R” R’ if R is to relate x and X. As a primitive metaphysical fact, the instantiation relation, or nexus or tie if we want to avoid any confusion, connects particulars and universals and does not need any mediators for the relation to obtain.

The two previous objections are admittedly of a technical kind. The next three on the other hand are probably what hover on most anti-realist minds. They usually come tied together by some prior metaphysical commitment, for example, to naturalism. This is spelled out in the fifth and last objection. To be fair though, the problem, from a Thomist point of view, lies in assumptions going back to Descartes and co., naturalism just being the logical outcome of rejecting the Thomist essentialist picture. It is not, as many ignoramuses think, that the Thomist will want to hold on to his metaphysics with its “ghostly” entities as the last bulwark against the onslaught of materialist science that explains, and explains away, everything as congeries of particles in motion. For the Thomist, the modern metaphysical conception of matter is just as wrongheaded, if not more, as the conceptions of the soul or the mind. And just in case it is not clear, let me repeat that the bone of contention is metaphysical, not scientific.

The concept of Ockham’s razor is yet another universal

C. Ockham’s razor

One common complaint is that the realists’ ontology is bloated, dragging in together with the common objects of our experience an extravagant abundance of abstract objects like universals, relations, properties, etc. The anti-realist might even say that universals, for example, are invoked to explain features of language, and that a wielding of Ockham’s razor should instead cut them off. But what are we to make of this suggestion? Given the arguments to the effect that an appeal to universals is necessary to not only explain linguistic features such as predication and abstract reference but that it is also the ground for a robust correspondence theory of the truth, Ockham’s razor only applies if the anti-realist can offer a better and simpler account of such phenomena. However one judges realism, it is clear that such an account has not emerged so the argument has little force.

D. The epistemological objection

A fourth objection is the so-called epistemological challenge. If universals are abstract objects as the traditional realist contends, then they do not exist in space-time[2]. If they do not exist in space-time then they are causally inert. And if they are causally inert how can we ever perceive them and come to know them? In the philosophy of mathematics, the epistemological challenge was launched in the influential article of P. Benacerraf, “Mathematical Truth”. If you are like me and favor an Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics, reading the article followed by a reading of modern responses to it such as B. Hale and C. Wright’s “Benacerraf’s Dilemma Revisited”[3], for all the undeniable virtues of these articles, it makes for something of an infuriating exercise, for you will note just how much they are suffused with metaphysical assumptions that a Thomist will outright reject.

What do people mean when they say that abstract objects are causally inert? Usually, it is meant in the sense that abstract objects have no efficient causal powers, but efficient causality is just one of the four modes of causality, and its modern usage is a narrow construal of the classical one at that. But why assume that to know the abstract universals greenness or triangularity, there must be a physical chain of efficient causation involved?

For Aquinas, when we sense-perceive that Fido is green, followed by the intellectual act of abstracting the universal greenness[4], the same universal that exists in re in Fido comes to exist post rem in the intellect, in a different mode of being. For Aquinas, an intellect just is the kind of thing that can grasp or get a hold of universals without instantiating them, that is, that can grasp greenness without itself becoming green[5]. This is not only what guarantees the objectivity of knowledge but its truth, the correspondence between the universals abstracted by the mind in act and the universal as instantiated in the concrete particular.

But even leaving Aquinas’ epistemological account aside, it is simply not clear why abstract objects cannot be the objects of thought. For we can think about non-existent objects, such as unicorns, a thing which even the anti-realist must concede. The anti-realist may retort that such fictional objects like unicorns, if they existed would be material objects and thus capable of being perceived and it is precisely because we do not perceive them that we have grounds to say that they do not exist. But this is muddleheaded; for given that abstract objects do not exist in space-time, our failure to perceive them tells us nothing whatsoever. Moreover, given that we can think about them, even pose the question of whether they do exist or not as extra-mental entities, it seems it is at least metaphysically possible that they do exist[6]. And given that we can reason about them, as we surely can, it seems at least possible that we can reason to their existence, which is precisely what the realist will contend he
has done.

E. The naturalist objection

An elaboration of objections C and D is the naturalist charge and contain the metaphysical commitment underlying not only most of the objections but the very rejection of realism. Naturalism is notoriously hard to define; here I will take it to be the view that the spatio-temporal physical universe of entities studied by science, especially the hard empirical sciences, is all there is. Everything that exists is located in space-time and is part of the efficient causal system known as the universe. If naturalism is true, then it is clear that the traditional realist account must be false.

But what arguments are there for naturalism? As far as I can glean from what the Prophets of the Sect affirm, it all boils down to two arguments: first, non-naturalists have no evidence for the existence of non-physical entities and second, the inductive successes of the modern empirical sciences give strong evidence that concrete particulars are the only thing that exist.

Starting with the former, the claim is patently false. This series of posts is evidence for the existence of one type of non-physical entities, universals. And this is just one, rather paltry example. But even if we granted the truth of the claim (which to repeat myself, I do not, not even for a second), the only thing you could squeeze from it is that all the purported arguments for the existence of non-physical entities fail. This does not by itself give warrant to believe in the claim P = “non-physical entities do not exist”. For if it did, it would mean that you would be warranted in believing in P without the least shred of evidence in favor of it which is absurd. So by itself, it is useless.

And we come to the second argument. This argument only has force if we judge the modern, hard empirical sciences to either exhaust the field of knowledge, in the sense that everything can be ultimately reduced to scientific explanations, or that the empirical sciences are the ultimate epistemic arbiter of warranted knowledge. The first is patently false; mathematics cannot be reduced to the empirical sciences. It is false, if the arguments in this series are correct. There are other arguments that purport to show this, but here, the only thing I need to notice is that this is nothing more than a promissory note, something like “We have not pegged it yet, but just you wait”, so the appropriate response is to call on the bluff.

Axioms? Doesn’t that mean…?

The second take is either circular or self-refuting. To put it in a different way: what is the object of proper study of the hard empirical sciences? Material bodies in motion or change. Is it a great wonder that the hard empirical sciences have not found anything besides their object of proper study? This is like a man trying to convince us that there are no stars by saying to look through the microscope and point out that there are none to be found upon looking. This is one of the reasons why many science-fetishists when pressed against the wall to justify their metaphysical foundations, will retreat more often than not to a bizarre concoction of relativism and pragmatism, which itself is ultimately circular or self-refuting. The ultimate irony being that this stance is what most undermines the science to which they pay lip service.

Maybe the naturalist will retort that I am mischaracterizing the argument. What he is saying is that if such non-physical entities existed, then we should expect to see physical effects of their existence. Facepalm. No, we do not expect to see such a thing, because the traditional realist will concede that abstract objects are causally inert, causality understood in the sense of efficient causality operative in the empirical sciences. So what is the naturalist asking? Maybe the naturalist intends the request only against God and such “personal”, “supernatural” entities. The argument is still worthless, but as far this post is concerned, discussion is over.

Oh what the heck, I still want to know what is this particular brand of science-beholden naturalist asking? Let us plumb these depths of irrationality. A personal intervention from God in his life? That is putting the evidential bar a little too high, methinks. I would advise such a person to read the epistle of James 1:5-8. And even if he did witness a miracle what is to stop him from saying that aliens with ultra-advanced technology are just goofing around and thus give a completely naturalist explanation?

Maybe the naturalist is asking for something more modest, a state of affairs that is not explainable by natural science. But what would this be other than a gap argument? Gap arguments are fallacious. There are now three options. One, the naturalist is asking for a gap argument not knowing that it is fallacious, in which case he is clueless. Two, he does know it, in which case it is a mere rhetorical ploy and he is intellectually dishonest. The third and last option is that he knows that gap arguments are fallacious, but given his (self-refuting) epistemic strictures he then must say that there can be no evidence for God. This I presume, is what in some quarters passes for being open-minded and committed to evidence and reason…

Since naturalists tend to be science-fetishists, here is a final argument in favor of realism. Consider any given scientific law, say Newton’s law of gravitation, and for the sake of simplicity assume it obtains exactly in our universe. If the anti-realist is right and only concrete particulars exist then this law is a law about pairs of concrete particulars, concrete material bodies with specific mass and at a specific distance from each other. But if the law is merely a law about concrete particulars it could be a mere “cosmic accident” and there would be no reason why it applies to any future contingent, existent pair of concrete particulars.

In other words, it fails to account for the truth of the corresponding counterfactual conditionals. But what becomes of the predictive power of science if it cannot account for counterfactual conditionals? Vanished, poof, gone with the pigs[7]. To avoid this and other difficulties, we must accept that a law is a relationship between universals and that it applies to all concrete particulars instantiating the relevant universals. For example, in case of Newton’s law the universals involved are mass, force and distance. And insofar as the aim of science is to uncover objective, mind-independent truths, the subjects of those truths, universals, must be objective and mind-independent. Thus, it seems acceptance of science commits us to the existence of universals[8].

As the saying goes, one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens. Realism is true so naturalism is false. Good riddance.



[1] There is an obvious joke lurking here. But serious, sober philosophical discourse is above such petty vulgarities. (He He He He He).

[2] Sometimes one hears that abstracts objects exist outside of space-time, but this is confused and confusing as “outside” implies a spacial relationship which contradicts the fact that abstracts do not exist in space-time.

[3] Benacerraf’s article appeared in Journal of Philosophy, 70 (1972) 661-680 and is reprinted in Philosophy of Mathematics: Selected Readings, ed. by P. Benacerraf, H. Putnam. The article of B. Hale and C. Wright can be found here.

[4] I am glossing over many details, such as the difference between sense and perception, the role of phantasms, etc. The crucial point is that Aquinas is adamant on a distinction in kind between the animal powers of sensation and perception, memory and imagination on the one hand and the intellectual activity proper on the other, to which the powers of abstraction, concept formation and the various modes of reasoning belong. This distinction, lost to many modern philosophers, is at the heart of many (misguided) objections against realism.

[5] Aquinas’ epistemology follows his metaphysics, as one should expect in a realist. A good starting point to know more about it is S. MacDonald, “Theory of Knowledge” in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, ed. by N. Kretzmann and E. Stump.

[6] A modal argument for the necessary existence of abstract objects, numbers more precisely, parallel to Plantinga’s modal ontological argument can be found in S5, God and Numbers by Chad McIntosh. One obvious difference between the two arguments is that the crucial premise in the case of numbers is much harder to dispose of, and is in fact practically all but granted by many (most?) philosophers.

[7] And thus, by shedding a sound, realist metaphysics and philosophy of nature, another typical modern “problem” is born, the problem of induction.

[8] For an elaboration of the argument from science in favor of realism, see D. M Armstrong, What is a law of nature?

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