Reasoning To Belief: Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism — Part II

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part Interlude, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. Part Last.

Act and Potential

TLS is not a complete work of theology or philosophy, nor is it intended to be. The answers to All Questions are not found in its pages. Every distinction with a difference is not parsed, every depth is not plumbed. Feser did not, and did not intend to, build a complete theory of anything; he provided just enough material to show his central argument was true and then signed off.

Nor is this a book of religion. You won’t discover why Catholicism is to be preferred to Methodism. There is no discourse on the valuable insights on the nature of God given to us by Buddhists and Muslims. The festival of Obon never makes an appearance. There isn’t the slightest attempt to proselytize. Thus any rebuttal focusing on some Christian in history who has acted badly, or information on another who has acted saintly, is irrelevant.1 The first person to wield these themes in an effort to dispatch Feser has admitted losing the argument.

The argument is this: that there is no dispute between science and classical metaphysics, that you cannot have science without this philosophy, that it is possible to come to a knowledge of God purely through reason and here are some irrefutable arguments, that the universe is not a giant machine nor are the things in it (including us) small machines, that the charges of “wishful thinking”, “rank ignorance”, “pastafarianism”, “believers are stupid (and I’m smart!)” flung about by New Atheists are not just false, not just the opposite of the truth, but self-rebounding.

And so to work.

Realism is the “view that universals, numbers and/or propositions exist objectively, apart from the human mind and distinct from any material or physical features of the world.” Plato’s Theory of Forms is one such view, though not the only, nor the best. For that we turn to Aristotle—“The Philosopher,” as he was known to the Schoolmen—as so many have in the past, and as an increasing number are today, after a long period of shocking neglect.

On the historical slight ushered in by Bacon and others, Feser says, “Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought” (emphasis original).

Just what have we left behind? Much.

Feser is fond of rubber balls: he is forever bouncing or abusing one. In TLS his ball is blue, in Aquinas he changes it to red. This is useful in itself, because it is obvious that a blue rubber ball is potentially a red one because, of course, a blue one could be painted or dyed red. A blue ball is just as obviously actually blue.

In this simple example are two concepts central to understanding Aristotle’s metaphysics: actuality and potentiality. The actual rubber ball may potentially be a gooey mess, but it is not this potential to be gooey which causes the ball to melt; something external (like heat) to the potential must act on the ball and turn the potential into a new actuality. Act turns potential to actuality.

From these observations is derived Aristotle’s dictum that whatever is moved is moved by another, which in modern phraseology is better put as whatever is changed is changed by another, a slicker way to say that a potential cannot act. A potential has to be a potential for something actual, too; only something actual can be something else potentially. There cannot be a thing which is purely potential and is nothing actually. But there can be things which are actual and which have potentialities. And it even so that there is a thing which is purely actual with no potentiality.

Other examples, more well known: a statue is potentially in a block of marble, but it takes the act of a sculptor to bring it out. A block of wood is potentially a table, but it takes the act of a carpenter to make it so. But I think it wise Feser did not emphasize these old saws because they too quickly bring to mind the idea of a designing intelligence which is rarely needed, especially in the case of rubber balls. Too see this: a blue rubber ball dropped from a soaring aeroplane at 10,000 feet is potentially at 0 feet, but it is not the potentially 0 feet which acts on the ball, it is something external.

What else can the ball potentially be? Well, it can’t be a walrus. For one thing, there isn’t enough mass or energy in a blue rubber ball that can, through the physical means known to us, be changed into a walrus. We can of course imagine the ball morphing into a living, two-ton tusked beat, say via a magical spell, but then we have left reality for the world of fantasy. It is also not that something cannot be added to the ball, like in the case of red paint turning a blue ball red, but that there is no way even adding the right amount of mass or energy the ball can change.

So far there is nothing controversial, very little which could act on your potential belief in God and make it into an actual belief in God. But that’s coming.

Note I am sorry for the brevity of this installment, which probably has more than its usual share of typos. But I am traveling and staying in a motel which has lost its internet connection, and so I’m finishing this post on my portable radiophone. My cell abuts the 24-hour laundry room and so I’m also operating on less sleep.

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part Interlude, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. Part Last.

———————————————————————————-

1Note: all comments about Feser’s tone or about the personalities of the New Atheists will be removed to Part I of this series. A related dodge—which is always obvious—is to say, “Feser’s arguments stink” and then to leave without saying exactly, precisely, logically why. However, you’re welcome to use this ploy if you think that, just this once, it will work. The comment by “Rob” at the top illustrates this technique.

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part Interlude, Part IV, Part V.

61 Comments

  1. “there isn’t the slightest attempt to proselytize.”

    Sorry, but what would be the purpose of a book with “The Last Superstition” in its title if it isn’t to proselytize? To conduct an idle examination of a curiosity? A reaffirmation of the author’s genius in rejecting the superstition — a case of: “believers are stupid (and I’m smart!).”

    “that it is possible to come to a knowledge of God purely through reason”

    And that’s where we differ. Philosophical truths are truths only within the framework of the given philosophy. Their applicability to reality can never be known unless it is possible to test them against reality.

    If they can’t be tested then the best one could do is say the reality of God is possible given the assumptions.

    Most philosophical arguments are only valuable as curiosities. Mathematics is useful when applied to the world through analogy but care must be taken to ensure that the analogy actually holds. Mathematical truths that have little application come under the heading “Things that are nice”.

  2. “Philosophical truths are truths only within the framework of the given philosophy. Their applicability to reality can never be known unless it is possible to test them against reality.”

    This is the problem with Feserian style arguments. He builds an elaborate “metaphysics”, and then proves his god exists using that framework. But the framework is imaginary. In fact, Feser says that no empirical finding could even in principle show that his metaphysical framework is wrong.

    Feser is playing tennis without a net.

  3. Actually the metaphysical frame work is initially derived from experience (very basic experience, such as watching ice melt — not that I’d suggest doing that), and through consideration of that experience. Act and Potency are concepts that describe change in the most general sense. Could it be that act and potency do not exist? Well that would be a rather odd claim, since one would be saying that there is no change in the world. But we are compelled to admit that this piece of ice just melted into water and then evaporated.

    Of course the ice melting can be explained scientifically with physics and chemistry, but this doesn’t make act and potency untrue (and while we wouldn’t get a passing grade in middle school science, it’s certainly not irrelevant; nothing true is irrelevant).

    In order say that his metaphysical frame work is imaginary, one must be able to show that, say, act and potency do not point to features of reality. They must say that substances don’t exist with the potential to be changed by other substances.

    Further, the point about empirical studies not being able to overturn the metaphysics: how might the experiment of mixing hydrogen and oxygen shed any light on (or disprove!?) act and potency?

  4. Rob, you say that the framework is imaginary.

    So then change does not occur, on your view? How can you write this comment, then? At one point you had not written it, and now you had. So you potentially wrote a comment, and you actually had.

    Doesn’t seem very imaginary to me at all.

  5. A seemingly fair review of the book:

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Last-Superstition-Refutation-Atheism/product-reviews/1587314517/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_txt?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1

    >>I strongly recommend this book for atheists, agnostics and theists interested in philsophical questions regarding God and worldviews in general. Also, readers interested in a good introduction to Aristtoelian Thomistic philosophy will have in this book a superb exposition of its main ideas.

    You may find yourself changing your thoughts and beliefs after reading it… and, above all, looking from a new philosophical glasses the relevance and brilliance of some of the philosophical ideas of great men like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.
    However, if you’re looking for a philosophical book that specifically, directly and convincingly rebuts and refute all the main SPECIFIC arguments of the New Atheists, this book will probably dissapoint you.<<

  6. Just what have we left behind? Much.

    Or nothing at all. I find all the words wasted in such semantical quibbles to be one of the most uninteresting products of the human species. Sure, we can find useful to separate concepts like “actuality”, “action”, “potential”, and so on. But these are to be recognized as what they are, tools, not some sort of platonic real categories. This might seem like a minor point, but if you watch closely it makes the whole difference. When someone makes the transition from an observation “RED (potential) turns BLUE (actual) due to a painting job (action)” to a philosophy, he must always remember that he is indeed practicing a subtle form of basic empiricism and dividing categories in a way that he will recognize in his empirical experience.

    To then turn these categories into REAL categories, into some kind of META TRUTH, above empirical assessments and so on, and then proclaim things about the universe and beyond is one of the most eggregious errors of the theological thought. Who has ever given these tiny mortals the green flag to turn their pitiful insights into meta truths able to rule over the entire universe? It is, by all standards, annoyingly arrogant.

    But, perhaps more interestingly and importantly, utterly shown to be wrong already. This “Pure Reason” rebels constantly against the logic of the Quantum Mechanics, which laughs at our definitions of “Causality”, “Non Existence” and “Existence”, and so many other highly profiled (by platonists only) armchair handwaving concepts. I mean, just look at that discussion about “Gooeyism” and my Chemistry head just baffles at the kind of medieval reasoning being defended.

    In conclusion, in order for there to be a productive discussion between the writer and me, there would need to be a base consensus over the starting point of the discussion as Socrates was fond of saying. The author, however, seems hell-bent to start from the premise that these Aristotelian ideas are Real and Meta true, above any possible skepticism, and so I decline to even discuss the issue. It’s pointless. Have your own cake and eat it, I’ll have my own dinner as well.

    So far there is nothing controversial

    Really? For Real or just for real? Let me tell you something, if in this “uncontroversial part” I have already observed a problem so gargantuan to render further discussions completely irrelevant, I can’t wait for the controversial bits to fall out of my chair in laughter.

  7. Actually the metaphysical frame work is initially derived from experience (very basic experience, such as watching ice melt — not that I’d suggest doing that)

    OBVIOUSLY, JLC, but you won’t get Feser admitting such obviosity without embarrassment, since his whole argument is that this is all “pure reason”.

    The problem is therefore obvious. If the metaphysics is “derived” (we should say inferred or “invented”) from observations from not-fail-proof mortals, then the whole metaphysics is based on a very fragile foundation indeed. A whole magnificent palace being built over a raft. And that’s why I can’t take it seriously.

  8. Amusing detail:

    First we are told that humans aren’t machines. We are not just matter.
    Then we are told that the ball has the potential to turn blue.
    And then we are told that an atheist has the potential to turn a believer.

    But wait, wasn’t an atheist supposed to not behave like the ball?

    Ooops.

  9. Luis Dias,

    Actually I believe Feser would be quite happy to admit that his metaphysics originates from basic experience, which begins by perception of the real world. Reason divorced from experience is absolutely not what Feser endorses. If you understand moderate realism, you’d see that it’s not simply or fully “armchair speculation”. Feser certainly doesn’t argue for platonic idealism, but for the medium between the extremes. Your objection against treating “act” and “potency” as really existing ideals somewhere in the world is valid. But the correction need not claim they are meaningless concepts that point to nothing in reality.

    This “very fragile foundation” you suggest is exactly what undergirds any scientific theory, and human knowledge of any kind. It would be absurd to claim that because we are fallible, that we have no knowledge whatsoever, which is of course self contradictory.

    I think you will find many, if not all, of your objections addressed in the text. You may not be persuaded but you’ll certainly understand his conclusions better.

  10. “First we are told that humans aren’t machines. We are not just matter.
    Then we are told that the ball has the potential to turn blue.
    And then we are told that an atheist has the potential to turn a believer.

    But wait, wasn’t an atheist supposed to not behave like the ball?”

    ——————-

    Well, for one, you answer your own question: “we are not just matter” (key word being “just”). The claim is we are more than material beings, but that doesn’t mean we are not material at all.

    Secondly, and atheist does not “turn believer” in the same respect a ball can be turned blue, does he? If you’re an atheist you hold a belief that God doesn’t exist; you then invert that belief upon becoming a theist. It seems quite clear that a belief is not the same as the color of a rubber ball.

    Thirdly, act and potency describe change in the physical world. It’s not at all clear that a belief is a group of neurons, “brain states” or what have you.

    Fourthly, isn’t it true that the ball has the potential to be turned blue?!

  11. Luis
    Sure, we can find useful to separate concepts like “actuality”, “action”, “potential”, and so on.

    YOS
    Physics sure finds it useful; cf. potential energy vs. kinetic energy. The word translated as “motion” in classical metaphysics was in Greek, κινεσις. And modern physics speaks of minimizing potential functions, not just gravitational potentials, but others as well. Take away potency and act and you take away the basis of natural science.

    Luis
    Who has ever given these tiny mortals the green flag to turn their pitiful insights into meta truths able to rule over the entire universe?

    YOS
    Ah, the mysterian mystification of “some things we were not meant to know.”

    Luis
    This “Pure Reason” rebels constantly against the logic of the Quantum Mechanics, which laughs at our definitions of “Causality”,

    YOS
    Or not. For a physicist’s pov, try http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/02/faith-and-quantum-theory-17
    We are bemused by the idea that a set of mathematical equations can laugh. (And by the confusion exhibited between “cause” and “determined.”)

    Luis
    there would need to be a base consensus over the starting point of the discussion as Socrates was fond of saying. The author, however, seems hell-bent to start from the premise that these Aristotelian ideas are Real and Meta true,

    YOS
    The starting point was “There is change in the world.” Are you a closet Parmenidean, partisan of Zeno?

    The contention is that universals, numbers, propositions and the like are real. That is, in addition to Fido, Spot, and Rover there really is something we call “dog.” That in addition to γ, III, Ù¢, two, dva, et al., there really is something to which we apply these signs. That the proposition “Снег белый” exists independently of the sentences which instantiate it.

    The alternatives are to fall into the Scylla of nominalism or the Charbydis of conceptualism. And both of those suffer from incoherence.

  12. Martin, thanks for that link.

    My point is not that you must dump causality because QM, but rather that QM clearly puts a dent to common sense “obvious truths” like, say, causality. Of course that Feser can always say that QM is “caused itself” by another thing, and so on and so on, with a train of thought not stopping until he finds his god. But what is important here is that this is more an insight to the kind of “train of thought” of Feser to whatever “really exists” out there.

    I also find it illuminating that to this question, Feser answers back with a really Strong version of Relativism. What if, he asks, you’d just been awarded with the news that Newton figured out the solar system and he discovered that planets revolve around the sun seemingly “without a cause”? Would you conclude (wrongly) that there are uncaused events? The analogy is weak, for there is order in the solar system orbits, while there is none in the quantum arbitrariness (and that’s the whole point!), but let’s take it for the sake of argument. How will you then be able to say anything absolutely regarding the universe, if you know that you don’t know? How can he conclude that the world is causal, if he admitted that we cannot know this from empirical-based thought? It’s an inconsistency he cannot resolve, without of course abandoning his absolutism. Which he won’t for obvious reasons.

  13. This “very fragile foundation” you suggest is exactly what undergirds any scientific theory, and human knowledge of any kind. It would be absurd to claim that because we are fallible, that we have no knowledge whatsoever, which is of course self contradictory.

    No absolute knowledge, JTC. Watch the subtlety here, because the devil is in the details. Science has no problems with relativism. Its entire building is built with inferences, inductions and error-prone observations, with some minor (but heralded all over the world) examples of “deductions”. It’s a building that builds itself, with all the problems involved (such as the possible and probable corruption of itself, which becomes clear again and again), and not an absolute building that just *assumes* its foundations are legitimate and immortal.

    While I find his assertions over the gooyeismity of the ball amusing, I don’t really see how these kinds of naive empirical categorizations of ideas are able to work out the problem of the existence of something that is (alledgedly) innefable, infinite, out of this space and time, and so on. The gap between these tools and the problem are so gargantuan that the very proposal of the exercise is no more than an instantiation of a really bad joke.

  14. Luis,

    “QM clearly puts a dent to common sense “obvious truths” like, say, causality.”

    But that’s precisely what he claims it DOESN’T do. Because, as both he and Oerter agree, QM is only describing behavior, not explaining it. And if, as again Oerter agrees, it is just in the nature of quantum particles to decay (or whatever), then that is just what final causality is. Which is another argument for the existence of God.

    Reading TLS will make all this clear to you, and reading Aquinas and Feser’s blog will help even more. It might even help you see, as it has for me, how someone could take the theistic worldview to be a slamdunk case. I don’t know about that, but at the very least I would agree that this is very “muscular” and “manly.” It isn’t so easily dismissed. Especially if you thought of your dismissal very quickly.

  15. JTC, the point is that what makes a human being different is exactly what will make him believe in god. Or are you saying that an atheist will mindlessly change his mind just like a ball will change its color due to the actions of the manipulator?

    So is mr Briggs just saying he is going to brainwash the readers of this blog? I better watch out.

  16. But that’s precisely what he claims it DOESN’T do. Because, as both he and Oerter agree, QM is only describing behavior, not explaining it.

    Inventing a difference where there is none. This is the analogous of the usual excuses for the religious, who will explain the big “Why” while the scientists stick with the “How”. But this is, to my understanding, merely the excuse of a philosophy which has nothing to provide but empty platonic words to the world at large as if their words had any effect on it.

    When the philosopher asks “Why is this?” The scientist will answer, “well, look if you apply this equation, this is what happens, this is the correlation”, the philosopher replies “I don’t care about how, tell me about the why”, and because the scientist never replies back, the philosopher comes out of the discussion thinking that the scientist doesn’t know therefore philosophers should answer it with their perfect reason.

    Didn’t they even ask themselves if the “Why” question is not a wrong question per se at all? Look, you answer that the “nature” of the particles “cause” its own actions. Can’t you recognize the tautology of what you are saying? You are basically saying that whenever we can’t reason why things happen, it must be that things happen because things happen. Is this thought so extraordinary that we must grant it the power to reason things out of this universe?

    I don’t think so.

  17. The starting point was “There is change in the world.” Are you a closet Parmenidean, partisan of Zeno?
    The contention is that universals, numbers, propositions and the like are real. That is, in addition to Fido, Spot, and Rover there really is something we call “dog.” That in addition to γ, III, ٢, two, dva, et al., there really is something to which we apply these signs. That the proposition “Снег белый” exists independently of the sentences which instantiate it.
    The alternatives are to fall into the Scylla of nominalism or the Charbydis of conceptualism. And both of those suffer from incoherence.

    Nice reply, but utterly sidestepping my comments so why should I bother.

  18. Feser brilliantly summarizes why I am terribly disgusted with any Metaphysics:

    [Physics] does not tell us what fills out that structure, does not tell us the intrinsic nature of the material world. But that is what metaphysics, and in particular the philosophy of nature, are concerned with.

    The “intrinsic”. The “thing in itself”. Puh lease. Lets end this malaise of thinking. Even Kant already knew better, and he’s dead for more than 200 years now.

  19. “the point is that what makes a human being different is exactly what will make him believe in god. Or are you saying that an atheist will mindlessly change his mind just like a ball will change its color due to the actions of the manipulator?

    So is mr Briggs just saying he is going to brainwash the readers of this blog? I better watch out.”

    —————–

    Hmm, I was sure I said that the atheist will NOT change his mind in the same respect a ball’s color might be changed. Ah, the joys of combox conversations…

  20. Hi Briggs!

    If, as you say, “it is possible to come to a knowledge of God purely through reason”, then there must be something false about making the following assumption:

    The sole test of knowledge is experiment.

    However, IMHO, I can successfully defend that there in nothing inherently inconsistent with the above assumption.

    This is not a trivial issue since the above assumption is a critical one for defining the scope of the scientific method. The scientific method fundamentally uses reasoning (all theory must be logically consistent for example) but experiment is no second class citizen to reason. Quite the opposite.

  21. Sorry JTC, but this was just a minor amusing little ommission in Brigg’s exposition, nothing serious ;).

  22. Luis, Sure, we can find useful to separate concepts like “actuality”, “action”, “potential”, and so on. But these are to be recognized as what they are, tools, not some sort of platonic real categories.

    YOS.
    Of course they are tools, like the scientific method is a tool, only on a prior level. They are the answers to questions we have forgotten were ever asked. (i.e., the paradoxes of Parmenides.) But they are not Platonic ideals. This is all Aristotelian; and so of course it is based in empirical experience.

    Luis, there is order in the solar system orbits, while there is none in the quantum arbitrariness

    Actually, the equations of quantum mechanics works out quite precisely and predictably. It is hardly arbitrary. (Well, whether you prefer Copenhagen to Many-Worlds or to Cramer’s Transactional Theory may be arbitrary — these are three of several quantum theories that equally well explain the quantum mechanics. Heck, there’s even a Thomistic quantum theory, because after all, when a theory delivers paradoxes it is usually a sign that it is supported by a bad metaphysics. http://www.amazon.com/Quantum-Enigma-Finding-Hidden-Key/dp/089385042X

    The inability to make crucial distinctions is disturbing, as it leads to lumpish thinking. In particular, an explanation is not the same thing as a description. Newton knew this and said so in a forthright and manly way. He could tell us how “gravity” behaves, but not what it is. Consider:
    Adam: Why do you keep your hammer in the freezer?
    Betsy: We have always kept our hammer in the freezer!

    Has Adam’s question been answered? Betsy has given a descriptive answer. Or do you consider it one of those Questions That Must Not Be Asked. It may satisfy the mind of a technician to have a set of descriptive rules and if you follow them you get a desired result; but it ought not satisfy the mind of a scientist. Especially if you think, like al-Ghazali, that all you get in the end is a “correlation.” Occasionalism killed natural science in the House of Submission; but maybe you think it won’t strangle it here.

    In fact, as Poincare showed, Newtonian mechanics is unstable and solar system predictions based on it will fail if either:
    a) the forecast is too far in the future; or
    b) demanded to too fine a precision.
    The math is sometimes (misleadingly) called “chaos theory.” See Eklund’s Mathematics of the Unexpected.
    + + +

    Anyhow, take it slow and easy.
    1. Is there change in the world?
    2. If so, how does something that is not-X become X, if there is no potential and kinetic energy?

    After that you will be ready for matter and form.

  23. Luis,

    “Inventing a difference where there is none. This is the analogous of the usual excuses for the religious”

    And here we go. The inevitable attacks on “religious” people.

    There is a HUGE difference, and even Oerter agrees! Both the Copernican and Ptolemy models describe the behavior of the planets without referencing a cause. It wasn’t until later, when we discovered how gravity operates, that we could then speak of a cause. Similarly, QM DESCRIBES behavior, but does not reference a cause. This is why there are a dozen different interpretations of QM and what it all means. QM itself has nothing to say about it.

    All of this is of course explained very clearly in Feser’s articles, but whenever I try to make people read them, they get angry and refuse to do so, and bring up all kinds of objections that are already answered in the very blog posts I linked!!!

    This is very bizarre behavior.

  24. The “intrinsic”. The “thing in itself”. Puh lease. Lets end this malaise of thinking. Even Kant already knew better, and he’s dead for more than 200 years now.

    Luis – proving that, once again, ultimately everyone ends up at faith.

    (not that I won’t admit there aren’t rubbish philosophers – there are – but rejecting an entire field just because of them is like rejecting all of evolution because of the piltdown man – it is not a sign of a serious thinker)

  25. George,

    “The sole test of knowledge is experiment.”

    Nothing inconsistent? How about that the statement refutes itself! What test could you possibly do to know that “the sole test of knowledge is experiment”?

  26. Ye Olde Statistician said: “It may satisfy the mind of a technician to have a set of descriptive rules and if you follow them you get a desired result; but it ought not satisfy the mind of a scientist.”

    What hubris. I am not sure I could understand why God made various aspects of reality the way He did Can my dog understand why I stop at an ATM machine? Maybe my other dog told him!? No. And isn’t the reasoning gap between me and my dog pretty small compared to the gap between me and God?

  27. My take on all this is quite simple, I just find what Prof Briggs’ is saying unsatisfying. I read statements of great confidence and simply wonder how can this be known to be true, to apply to the universe (but not to God beyond it … what suddenly stops the potential/actual contradiction applying to the God filled space beyond? … How does God break out of the self-referential spiral?).

    Briggs admits his philosophy doesn’t apologise for any particular deity – but then what is a deity – what characteristics does it have apart from being a causeless cause?

    Is it true that a potential cannot act? Can these slippery words be categorically applied to every circumstance in the universe (but not to God for some reason) and shown to be true? Prof Briggs can assume it, of course, and with that assumption claim to have created an irrefutable argument (though whether the argument is really irrefutable and captures every essence of the assumptions it contains who really knows? I’m afraid I suspect hubris and pride) but far far more relevant is how do we know that these assumptions are valid?

    “They are” is a very unsatisfying re-joiner.

    So, I have great unease – the semantics are complex, and based on human view points, categories and assumptions – to go from the idea of actuality and potency to a metaphysical uncaused cause is quite a leap. One I am unsure of – I do not know how wide the chasm is, nor it depths. Prof Briggs has his confidence, I am happy with my doubt.

    Prof Briggs can say I am wrong – but how does he really know?

  28. ChinaHand: science is full of metaphysics. A great deal of theoretical physics is pure metaphysics. Big bang theory? Quantum uncertainty? We admit to a Force without demanding an explanation of what that force is.

  29. The argument is this: …that it is possible to come to a knowledge of God purely through reason and here are some irrefutable arguments,….

    This is the most interesting argument. Please do explain how Feser comes to this conclusion in his book. Ideally, it would have the following ingredients: universally accepted axioms, statements, and premises. Of course, logical connections between those ingredients and the above conclusion.

  30. Will, certainly science contains lots of metaphysics and assumptions and who knows maybe one day aerodynamics will not keep planes flying or electrons will no longer power the Internet or maybe some of the assumed physical constants will change – and if so scientists will look at their results, scratch their heads and try to work out how to explain the results. All the assumptions scientists make may be wrong. I totally agree Newton had no explanation as to why gravity seemed to conform to an inverse square law, but what science has been able to do is reduce down the uncertainty of their predictions and show how reality within a certain precision conforms to their assumptions. When it doesn’t that is the meat for science to chew on. Newton was wrong, Einstein was wrong, Peter Higgs is wrong – their ideas will be improved and finessed, and who knows what will be discovered in the future, but the results their models produce are useful and have enabled us to improve our understanding. That is as much “truth” as I need from science.

    Briggs – is this Prof Briggs? If so I thought you’d have known that my inability to demonstrate something has nothing to do with your proof of its opposite. You are the person claiming to have proved something to be true about our world. The onus is on you to justify that. I believe you are saying the only causeless cause/potent actuality is a God. I don’t see how you are sure. How is God both potency and actuality? If that is what you are saying? Or must I just assume it to understand your proof?

    A small red ball could become a walrus if you gave it enough energy in a very controlled environment, but what that has got to do with anything is beyond me – care to explain how this is relevent to defining what a God is. Serious question why not two of them – is the simultaneous production of two Gods definitely excluded from your proof?

    I’m afraid I am a bit lost by your claims! But please to continue – it is interesting trying to understand what you think.

  31. Chinahand: what suddenly stops the potential/actual contradiction applying to the God filled space beyond? … How does God break out of the self-referential spiral?).

    Dr. Briggs has only reached #2. Be patient. If you don’t accept the patently obvious empirical world, lotsa luck on getting any further.

    Potential/actual is not a contradiction, so your misunderstanding begins at the get-go. That which is potential, insofar as it is potential, is not (yet) actual. If something is actually blue, it is not potentially blue. If it is only potentially blue, it is not yet actually blue. How can this be controversial? Provide counterexamples.

    What “God-filled space” has been posited? How is it “beyond”? In what way has a “spiral” been proposed? Don’t worry about Post #13 yet, stick with what had been said so far.

    Chinahand: Briggs admits his philosophy doesn’t apologise for any particular deity – but then what is a deity – what characteristics does it have apart from being a causeless cause?

    Dr. Briggs has only reached #2. Be patient. If you don’t accept the patently obvious empirical world, lotsa luck on getting any further.

    Chinahand: Is it true that a potential cannot act? Can these slippery words be categorically applied to every circumstance in the universe (but not to God for some reason) and shown to be true?

    Potency cannot act because if potency could act it would be actual. Duh? In the same way an unmarried bachelor cannot be married anywhere in the universe, not without tampering with the terms and their common use. It would be nice if you could provide an actual example of potency acting.

    Do not let the vision of a deity at the far end of a train of reasoning frighten you from rational thought about utterly ordinary things. You can always jump ship when matters get dicey.

    Chinahand: …but not to God for some reason…

    You are assuming the conclusion here. That is circular reasoning. You have to follow the proof, step by step. Otherwise you are like the person reading Euclid’s postulates who complains that he cannot see from the definition of a line the congruence of similar triangles. Or perhaps like the person who complains while someone fills the gas tank that the car has not yet reached its destination.

  32. ChinaHand: you admitted to difficulty in going from the metaphysical to the “actual”‘ but then are quite comfortable in accepting it when that metaphysical fits in to your world view of “I trust the electron”. You accept gravity as a force despite having no idea what it is. I do too. Funny that!

    Accepting the metaphysical is not an argument for god or against science– it’s a simple fact of life. My point is that you cannot simply wag the finger at theists because of their acceptance of a metaphysical explanation– we all accept metaphysical explanations. It’s part of the human condition.

  33. Of course they are tools, like the scientific method is a tool, only on a prior level. They are the answers to questions we have forgotten were ever asked. (i.e., the paradoxes of Parmenides.) But they are not Platonic ideals. This is all Aristotelian; and so of course it is based in empirical experience.

    If this is so, YOS, then you should refrain from Feser’s assertion that his metaphysics are beyond empirical questioning, since they are ultimately based upon empirical ideas (and thus not perfect, and thus open to question).

    I don’t mind your assertions, YOS, that’s the way I see things, but to be clear, that’s not the way Feser is presenting them or at least, there’s an inconsistency there.

    Actually, the equations of quantum mechanics works out quite precisely and predictably. It is hardly arbitrary. (Well, whether you prefer Copenhagen to Many-Worlds or to Cramer’s Transactional Theory may be arbitrary — these are three of several quantum theories that equally well explain the quantum mechanics.

    All those “theories” are actually not scientific, for they do not predict anything empirical against their “competition”. By arbitrariness I was referring to the specific arbitrariness inside QM. I am obviously not suggesting the whole of QM is arbitrary! This SHOULD have been obvious.

    The inability to make crucial distinctions is disturbing, as it leads to lumpish thinking. In particular, an explanation is not the same thing as a description.

    It may well be disturbing, the problem being not that the distinction is clear, but that there is no need for the conceptual existence of the two, unless there is a moral question being made.

    To use your example: “Why do you keep the hammer?” “Because I want to use it”, for example, may well be merely end up being just descriptive.

    Give me one answer (not moral) that is not descriptive!

    About Poincaré and the instability of the solar system, believe me I am extremely well educated on that matter.

  34. Martin,

    And here we go. The inevitable attacks on “religious” people.

    No offense meant.

    This is why there are a dozen different interpretations of QM and what it all means. QM itself has nothing to say about it.

    And by all means, we all know that all those different “interpretations” of QM are just fictionary tales we like to tell ourselves to make some sense of the data, i.e., compress the ideas of the theory in our minds so we can quickly recall them and understand its mathematical nuances. Such stories have no bearing at all on “reality”.

    All of this is of course explained very clearly in Feser’s articles, but whenever I try to make people read them, they get angry and refuse to do so, and bring up all kinds of objections that are already answered in the very blog posts I linked!!!

    Actually the problem of having metaphysics based upon a very crude form of empiricism and then proclaim that empirical questions are not able to poke problems into metaphysics is an issue that has been pointed out repeatedly in the comments of the posts you linked, with no satisfactory answer at all.

    This is very bizarre behavior.

    Stop talking to your belly button on how strange other people are and actually talk to them. Perhaps you’ll find their behaviors a lot less bizarre.

  35. Entertaining post as always, Briggs. But there’s so much ignorance is being passed around in this combox. Luis is particularly guilty in this regard–of course, he also believes that universal relativism isn’t logically self-refuting. Thinking has become so muddy these days.

    To Luis: Feser’s arguments are based on first principles. You have your three laws–identity, excluded middle and non-contradiction–and you build from there. His metaphysics are not based on “a very crude form of empiricism”. Instead, they use the knowledge provided by experience and first principles to build a very complex system. Suffice it to say that you have provided no cogent objections in this combox.

  36. Give me one answer (not moral) that is not descriptive!

    “Why do you keep the hammer?”
    “Because I want to use it.”

    The answer here has to do with final causes, in this case, with purposes. But while purpose may inform the hammer, it is not a description of how the manner acts.

    Natural science can tell us that sodium combined with chlorine will form ordinary salt. It can describe the molecular structure, the neutralization process, how the salt reacts with other chemicals, etc. But it will not (as your own example illustrates) tell us the “why” of the salt.

  37. I think I’ll give this one more go.

    Will, yes I accept meta-level assumptions, but not as proofs of reality, but as working assumptions. This is a common quandry Prof Brigg raises. We assume A,B,C what are the consequences of this and hence the probability of seeing X,Y,Z occurring with results in a range X1-X2, Y1-Y2, Z1-Z2.

    For me that is science – you make assumptions, you build your model, you get predictions from your model and you then go out and look at reality to see how it confirms to the predictions.

    The model doesn’t “prove” anything about reality – reality can always show that the model is wrong, and you can never prove that your model will always be right – its just a working assumption until the interesting results come along and one set of the theorists get to smirk at another set!

    My understanding is that currently we are debating cause and effect – Ye Olde Statistician thanks for your comments on my post – I found it helpful. I think you have helped me understand the point about actual and potential. However I am still unsure whether every cause has a prior cause (I realize I am jumping the gun and await with interest Prof Brigg’s restatement of Feser’s “proof” that God is the causeless cause).

    We are large macroscopic objects that move at non-relativistic speeds and so our assumptions about time and causality are poor. Delayed choice quantum eraser experiments (and Wheeler’s extension of these to billion year time frames) show our understanding of causality is very limited. Events billions of years AFTER an event has happened seem able to effect the results this event will produce. Einstein’s spooky action at a distance also has equally spooky effects on temporal causality.

    I am unsatisfied by an argument which begins – assume every change is changed by another.

    I suspect it is a weak link – just as the assumption no parallel lines meet was a weak link which had to be broken to understand curved space time etc.

    Now I’ll accept it at the moment as a working assumption and see how Prof Briggs extends the conversation, but even so, this tells us NOTHING about reality. It quite definitely doesn’t show “that it is possible to come to a knowledge of God purely through reason.” Why – because we don’t know if these assumptions hold in reality.

    So two problems – one is the train of logic valid, and two are the assumptions required for this train of logic applicable to reality.

    Is every change changed by another – even when time doesn’t exist in side an event horizon? – even when the distinction between time and space disappears in the extremes of the Big Bang? – even during the quantum weirdness of delayed choice and quantum erasers.

    I do not know! And hence I can only provisionally agree with this assumption.

    I’ll now await and see how the logic of this assumption is built into an argument for God and how valid I feel it is.

    It’ll be interesting! Thanks Prof Briggs for the efforts!

  38. “We can of course imagine the ball morphing into a living, two-ton tusked beat, say via a magical spell, but then we have left reality for the world of fantasy.”

    What about dust being turned into a dude or a rib into a woman? Does that cont as fantasy?

  39. The circularity of the belief in a God is clear. The argument is that a potential has to have a driver to be real. However, if God is that driver, it is a potential that has to have a driver, ie, God has to have a God, and so on. An infinite series of Gods of Gods becomes necessary with that logic. Another way of looking at this is that God had to come from somewhere, and who created it? If an assumption is made that God is the end of the line, then the same argument can be made that the universe is the end of the line, and needs no God.

  40. rank sophist,

    Entertaining post as always, Briggs. But there’s so much ignorance is being passed around in this combox. Luis is particularly guilty in this regard–of course, he also believes that universal relativism isn’t logically self-refuting. Thinking has become so muddy these days.

    Care to produce a quote where I state that “universal relativism” isn’t logically self-refuting? Perhaps you should go back to my guest post in this very same blog where I refute this claim. And yet, you accuse me of being ignorant. At least irony isn’t out of fashion just yet.

    To Luis: Feser’s arguments are based on first principles. You have your three laws–identity, excluded middle and non-contradiction–and you build from there. His metaphysics are not based on “a very crude form of empiricism”. Instead, they use the knowledge provided by experience and first principles to build a very complex system.

    Try to be consistent. When I stated that his philosophy is supported by “crude empiricism” I mean precisely that he bases his philosophy in his “three laws” which are inferred from a very “fundamental” (or crude) empirical insight. If these “fundamental laws” are indeed inferred from our experience, then they are subject and prone to empirical skepticism and doubt. In particular, how the hell does Feser knows his “empirical insights” that inform his laws are universal? Does he confuses his 30cm diameter brain to be the mind of God? He just assumes them to be so. Why would I have any respect for such philosophical clumsiness?

    The fact that you still do not understand this precise criticism and yet accuse me of multiple intellectual failures is telling.

  41. YOS,

    The answer here has to do with final causes, in this case, with purposes. But while purpose may inform the hammer, it is not a description of how the manner acts.

    Therefore you realize that asking a “Why” question to the physicist (“Why did the particles behave like this”) is a loaded question. Basically you assume intent in a phenomena, and then chastise the scientist’s limitations for not being able to dig them out.

    In other words, you are attempting to prove that only religion can answer a question that you assumed was even meaningful in the first place. Like one of the first commenters said in this chat, “playing tennis without the net”. As of me, I never even regard the “why” of the salt existing as having any meaning (apart from its “how”, which is usually how the word “why” is used).

  42. To me when people start babbling about “uncaused causes” it just reminds me of the analogous discussions one might have if whether Batman wins against Superman or not, which will invariably dwell on the specifics of the characteristics of these heroes, and the inevitable comparison of angels on top of pins between the two.

    It just sounds like a cheat. A philosopher comes and says:

    “By the Gods, every Action has a Cause!”

    Then he proclaims,

    “By the Goddess, every Cause was once an Action!”

    “By the Gods, if this is so, then either the Universe is eternal, or there was a point where the first comment is Untrue!”

    “But, by the Goddess, both the first comment is Absolutely True (Because my amazing philosophy is absolutely true) and the Universe isn’t Eternal (Again, because my philosophy is the Truth and it abhors infinites), therefore I have a Problem!”

    “So, by the Power of the Gods and the Goddesses, I hereby Proclaim the Existence of another thing to which I have no empirical equivalent (but nevertheless true, because my philosophy is … well, mine!) but is necessary for it not to crumble (and if my philosophy is True it cannot crumble!), which is the Uncaused Cause! Yes, my dearful friends you can now clap at my amazing intelligence and imagination for I have solved the ultimate questions of the Universe, Life and Everything!”

  43. Martin,

    Of course, the arguments in question explain exactly why there cannot be such an infinite series. See my blog for an example: http://rocketphilosophy.blogspot.com/2011/07/aquinas-first-way.html

    I enjoyed the post and you did a good job explaining yourself. The difference between Parmenides and Aristotle’s philosophy is very telling, but that does not make Aristotle’s “True”. And you never get to demonstrate why an “essentially ordered series” cannot be infinite, why our universe is such a series (and if it is, why are we not merely wheels in a vast machine), and why the concept of “Pure actuality” isn’t mere playword. It does seem to be like a crackpot category (or just a really old one, like saying that there are 4 elements on the universe and so on).

  44. what.

    See: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/03/1174 just for an intro. Suffice to say, your dismissal of philosophy and inability to correct your ignorance is rather like the small town preachers who dismiss evolution without the slightest understanding of biology. Or the schoolboy who dismisses calculus before he has even mastered addition. You end up proving nothing but your own willful ignorance.

  45. btw Nate, that article is painful in any intellectual parsing of it. There are objections to the objections against stem cell research, and they are moral and philosophical, informed by science, not “scientific” per se. The whole article is a hit job against a strawman, dividing philosophy and science as if both have a different historical genesis (hint: they haven’t). Its exposé of the alledged “incompatibility” between philosophy and science because Dawkins et al do not accept the ludicrous “Uncaused Cause” is hilarious and ridiculous for too many reasons (even granting the other criticisms, it does not compute that one should acccept prima facie the “Uncaused Cause” entity if one is to be called a “philosopher”, what a crackpottery assessment!).

    Theology is not equal to Philosophy and it is utterly (IMO) irrelevant as a field. Just because I dismiss theology (or metaphysics!) as being “insignificant” at all (if it has any significance, it is merely an anthropological one) is not evidence that I dismiss Philosophy.

    Quite the contrary, I do think philosophy is indeed extremely important.

  46. PS: Btw, my criticisms stop when he starts professorializing about Hayek’s criticisms against Objectivism. I couldn’t agree more with him on that point (which has a sort of an historical irony, given the common ideological roots of Ayn Rand and Hayek).

    I also agree that objectifying the human mind should not be a tool used by fools (which invariably is). Its self-references cause paradoxical problems perhaps too confusing for the human mind. However, unlike Hayek, I do not confuse the assessment of these gargantuan problems as fatal or “proofs” of the project’s undoing and failure. Time and time again, the project of science has managed to conquer things our ancestors thought impossible as well. So in that regard, I’m cautiously optimistic.

    Furthermore, Feser ultimately states that if you are too extreme in an “eliminative materialism”, you end up stating sentences that will lack any meaning since the very words you use will have shifted their own meaning (to something meaningless). It is a possible problem, but having experienced so many fearmongerers and luddites, I’d bet against him pretty hard.

    One last thing. What Feser is complaining about in that last part is something akin to the Semantical Apocalypse. There’s a lot of things written in that respect, that are far more interesting than just handwaving them away as being “dangerous” and so on.

  47. A very interesting post and comments. But, IMHO, making the assumption that whatever-is-moved-is-moved-by-another arbitrarily ignores the limits that can plausibly be placed on causality. That is, there is no compelling justification why anyone else must also make that assumption.

    1. Science assumes consistency, not causality. Sure, causality is a very common feature of most scientific theories, with the notable exception of quantum mechanics. But causality is not a required feature of scientific theories, much less a meta-assumption of the scientific method itself. For example, the scientific method can still function in a reality where a certain type of ball under certain circumstances can change from blue to red for no reason at all. The practicality of the scientific method may suffer in such a pathological universe, but that would just be how reality was. Are you saying science has an a priori limitation on the types of universes it can be used for?

    2. The assumption also seems to make free-will impossible. How can I exercise my potential for free-will if my will can never be purely my own potential? If something else must bring it to actuality? Why assume God cannot create a universe with free-will as an integral part of reality? Are you saying God has an a priori limitation on the types of universes He can create?

  48. It is possible to turn a blok of marble into a statue made of marble because we have seen that happening, and some people are even capable of actually doing it. But is it possible to turn a bunch of certain atoms delved from our planet into a fully functioning starship capable of carrying upto one billion people in twenty years of trave time to the core of our own galaxy?

    Clearly, the potentiality idea ony works for things that already exist. Only then you know that it is possible. Beore that, you only have an idea, and sometimes something that might work. Or might not.

  49. And it seems that Luis has now demonstrated the madness Feser warned about.

    Nate, to further the point, why won’t you stop beating your wife?

    Probably some day after I get married. When it comes to assuming the question, it helps to at least be vaguely write on the facts.

    btw Nate, that article is painful in any intellectual parsing of it. There are objections to the objections against stem cell research, and they are moral and philosophical, informed by science, not “scientific” per se.

    Probably, too bad that’s not what Feser was saying:
    There is at least a whiff of scientism in the thinking of those who dismiss ethical objections to cloning or embryonic stem cell research as inherently “anti-science.”
    Obviously, moral and philosophical objections against anti-ESC would not be included in the subset of objections Feser described above.

    The whole article is a hit job against a strawman, dividing philosophy and science as if both have a different historical genesis (hint: they haven’t).

    Considering your previous reading mistake, it doesn’t look like the article is the one fighting strawmen… (hint: first remove the timber from thine own eyes)

    Its exposé of the alledged “incompatibility” between philosophy and science because Dawkins et al do not accept the ludicrous “Uncaused Cause” is hilarious and ridiculous for too many reasons (even granting the other criticisms, it does not compute that one should acccept prima facie the “Uncaused Cause” entity if one is to be called a “philosopher”, what a crackpottery assessment!).

    Yes, that is a crakpot assessment of the article as Feser says nothing of the kind. He merely points out:
    Worse, it makes scientism consistent with views that are supposed to be incompatible with it.
    Also, there is no mention that one must accept the “original cause” to be a philosopher. Actually, Feser states the exact opposite:
    Obviously the Uncaused Cause argument for God’s existence is controversial, but it has had, and continues to have, prominent defenders to the present day.
    (since you seem to have problems with reading comprehension, I’ll point out that to acknowledge it is “controversial” is to allow for legitimate critics – which would include philosophers unaccepting of the entity)

    Theology is not equal to Philosophy and it is utterly (IMO) irrelevant as a field. Just because I dismiss theology (or metaphysics!) as being “insignificant” at all (if it has any significance, it is merely an anthropological one) is not evidence that I dismiss Philosophy.

    And yet here you are, dismissing an article focused entirely on philosophy with barely a mention of theology in it.

    Quite the contrary, I do think philosophy is indeed extremely important.

    We’ll see once you demonstrate it.

  50. Luis,

    The argument never concludes that “the universe” is an essentially ordered series. It just says that in any essentially ordered series, only one member is the driving force. If member A isn’t it, and member B isn’t it, then member C must be it.

    And since “whatever is changing is being changed by something else”, then member A isn’t it.

    There is nothing incoherent about Pure Actuality, unless you provide an argument showing otherwise.

  51. Martin,
    I just wish to comment on your statement: “There is nothing incoherent about Pure Actuality, unless you provide an argument showing otherwise”. This is a typical non-scientific type claim. You are saying “I am right unless you prove me wrong”. In fact, your statement on “pure Actuality” is a hypothesis. You need to have some falsifiable claims that support the hypothesis, and if any one can be falsified you lose. You don’t seem to have any falsifiable claims, so you have just an unsupported opinion, and no one needs to prove anything.

  52. Leonard,

    Yes, it’s non-scientific in that it is philosophy, not science. And the argument I linked to above (which Luis is referencing) does in fact argue that there is such a thing. The ball is then in your court to either A) show that the argument is logically invalid and it’s conclusion does not follow, or B) show that one of the premises is false.

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