Thursday, May 26, 2016

Self-defeating claims and the tu quoque fallacy

Some philosophical claims are, or at least seem to be, self-defeating.  For example, an eliminative materialist who asserts that there is no such thing as meaning or semantic content is implying thereby that his own assertion has no meaning or semantic content.  But an utterance can be true (or false) only if it has meaning or semantic content.  Hence the eliminative materialist’s assertion entails that it is itself not true.  (I’ve addressed this problem, and various futile attempts to get around it, many times.)  Cognitive relativism is also difficult to formulate in a way that isn’t self-defeating.  I argue in Scholastic Metaphysics that scientism, and Hume’s Fork, and attempts to deny the existence of change or to deny the principle of sufficient reason, are also all self-defeating.  This style of criticism of a position is sometimes called a retorsion argument.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Putnam and analytical Thomism, Part II

In a previous post I examined the late Hilary Putnam’s engagement with the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition on a topic in the philosophy of mind.  Let’s now look at what Putnam had to say about Aristotelian-Thomistic ideas in natural theology.  In his 1997 paper “Thoughts Addressed to an Analytical Thomist” (which appeared in an issue of The Monist devoted to the topic of analytical Thomism), Putnam tells us that while he is not an analytical Thomist, as “a practicing Jew” he could perhaps be an “analytic Maimonidean.”  The remark is meant half in jest, but that there is some truth in it is evident from what Putnam says about the topics of proofs of God’s existence, divine simplicity, and theological language.

Putnam is not unsympathetic to some of the traditional arguments for God’s existence, such as those defended by Aquinas and Maimonides. He rejects the assumptions, common among contemporary secular academic philosophers, that such arguments are uniformly invalid, question-begging, or otherwise fallacious, and that it is absurd even to try to prove God’s existence.  He notes the double standard such philosophers often bring to bear on this subject:

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Putnam and analytical Thomism, Part I

Hilary Putnam, who died a couple of months ago, had some interest in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, even if in part it was a critical interest.  One area where this interest manifested itself is the philosophy of mind; another is the philosophy of religion.  I’ll address the former in this post and the latter in a later post.  Let’s consider in particular an exchange between Putnam and the analytical Thomist philosopher John Haldane in the volume Hilary Putnam: Pragmatism and Realism, edited by James Conant and Urszula Zeglen.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Aristotle, Searle, and computation in Nova et Vetera (UPDATED)

My article “From Aristotle to John Searle and Back Again: Formal Causes, Teleology, and Computation in Nature” appears in the Spring 2016 issue (Vol. 14, No. 2) of Nova et Vetera.  There is also a response to the article by Fr. Simon Gaine.  These papers were presented at the symposium on the theme What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? that was held at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley in July of 2014, and the issue contains all the other plenary session presentations (by Fr. Michael Dodds, Alfred Freddoso, John O’Callaghan, Fr. Michał Paluch, John Searle, Fr. Robert Sokolowski, and Linda Zagzebski), along with the responses to those presentations.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Friday, May 6, 2016

Islamophilia and falsification

Not too long ago I discussed the relationship between liberalism and Islam.  More recently I discussed the logic of falsification.  Let’s now combine the themes.  Former federal terrorism prosecutor Andrew McCarthy recently wrote:

Last year, Americans were horrified by the beheadings of three Western journalists by ISIS. American and European politicians could not get to microphones fast enough to insist that these decapitations had nothing to do with Islam.  Yet within the same time frame, the government of Saudi Arabia beheaded eight people for various violations of sharia -- the law that governs Saudi Arabia.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Apologia interview

I am interviewed at some length in the Spring 2016 issue of The Dartmouth Apologia on the subjects of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, classical theism, and related matters.  You can read the interview and the rest of the issue here.  And while you’re at it, check out the Apologia’s main website, where you’ll find past interviews and other features from the magazine.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Spiering on Neo-Scholastic Essays

In the March 2016 issue of The Review of Metaphysics, philosopher Jamie Spiering reviews my book Neo-Scholastic Essays.  From the review:

Feser has found that Aristotelian-Thomistic teaching is a strong, coherent system that can provide clarity and answers in vexing contemporary debates… Feser writes admirably, with a clear, direct style that is polemical but not uncharitable or contentious… These would make excellent texts to offer to students... The clarity may also be appreciated by professional readers as a refreshing change from the sometimes fusty level of detail in recent work on natural theology -- instead, Feser allows us to refocus on perennial issues…

Feser has a gift for seeing the heart of a problem, as well as a gift for clear expression and high-quality, fair polemic -- these factors, together, offer the best reasons to read anything written by him, and this work is no exception.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Craig on divine simplicity and theistic personalism

A number of readers have called my attention to a recent podcast during which William Lane Craig is asked for his opinion about theistic personalism, the doctrine of divine simplicity, and what writers like David Bentley Hart and me have said about these topics.  (You can find the podcast at Craig’s website, and also at YouTube.)  What follows are some comments on the podcast.  Let me preface these remarks by saying that I hate to disagree with Craig, for whom I have the greatest respect.  It should also be kept in mind, in fairness to Craig, that his remarks were made in an informal conversational context, and thus cannot reasonably be expected to have the precision that a more formal, written treatment would exhibit.

Having said that…

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review of Hart

My review of David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God appears in Pro Ecclesia, Vol. XXV, No. 1 (the Winter 2016 issue).  (Yes, the book has been out for a while, but the review was written almost a year ago.  The review doesn’t seem to be online at the moment, unfortunately.)

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Lofter is the best medicine

New Atheist pamphleteer John Loftus is like a train wreck orchestrated by Zeno of Elea: As Loftus rams headlong into the devastating objections of his critics, the chassis, wheels, gears, and passenger body parts that are the contents of his mind proceed through ever more thorough stages of pulverization.  And yet somehow, the grisly disaster just never stops.  Loftus continues on at full speed, tiny bits of metal and flesh reduced to even smaller bits, and those to yet smaller ones, ad infinitum.  You feel you ought to turn away in horror, but nevertheless find yourself settling back, metaphysically transfixed and reaching for the Jiffy Pop.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The smell of the sheep (Updated)

Being insulted by the pop atheist writer John Loftus is, to borrow Denis Healey’s famous line, like being savaged by a dead sheep.  It is hard to imagine that a human being could be more devoid of argumentative or polemical skill.  Commenting on my recent First Things exchange with atheist philosopher Keith Parsons, Loftus expresses bafflement at Parsons’ preference for the Old Atheism over the New Atheism.  Unable to see any good reason for it, Loftus slyly concludes: “Keith Parsons is just old.  That explains why he favors the Old Atheism.”  He also suggests that Parsons simply likes the attention Christians give him.

Well, as longtime readers of this blog will recall from his sometimes bizarre combox antics, Loftus certainly knows well the reek of attention-seeking desperation.  Sadly, being John Loftus, he tends to misidentify its source.

Friday, April 1, 2016

A note on falsification

Antony Flew’s famous 1950 article “Theology and Falsification” posed what came to be known as the “falsificationist challenge” to theology.  A claim is falsifiable when it is empirically testable -- that is to say, when it makes predictions about what will be observed under such-and-such circumstances such that, if the predictions don’t pan out, the claim is thereby shown to be false.  The idea that a genuinely scientific claim must be falsifiable had already been given currency by Karl Popper.  Flew’s aim was to apply it to a critique of such theological claims as the thesis that God loves us.  No matter what sorts of evil and suffering occur in the world, the theologian does not give up the claim that God loves us.  But then, what, in that case, does the claim actually amount to?  And why should we accept the claim?  Flew’s challenge was to get the theologian to specify exactly what would have to happen in order for the theologian to give up the claim that God loves us, or the claim that God exists.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

So, what are you doing after your funeral?

There is, among contemporary Thomists, a controversy over the metaphysical status of human beings after death.  Both sides agree that the human soul is the substantial form of the living human body, both sides agree that the human soul subsists after death, and both sides agree that the body is restored to the soul at the resurrection.  But what happens to the human being himself between death and resurrection?  Does a human being in some way continue to exist after death?  Or does he cease to exist until the resurrection?  Which answer do the premises that both sides agreed on support?  And which answer did Aquinas himself support?

Friday, March 18, 2016

Brentano on the mental

What distinguishes the mental from the non-mental?  Franz Brentano (1838-1917), in Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, famously takes intentionality to be the key.  He developed this answer by way of criticism of (what he took to be) the traditional Cartesian criterion.  Descartes held that the essence of matter lies in extension and spatial location.  Whatever lacks these geometrical features is therefore non-material.  Accordingly, it must fall into the second class of substances recognized by Descartes, namely mental substance.  As Brentano reads the Cartesian tradition, then, it holds that the essence of the mental is to be unextended and non-spatial.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Oderberg on final causes

Speaking of teleology: David Oderberg’s article “Finality Revived: Powers and Intentionality” has just appeared in Synthese.  It seems at the moment to be available for free viewing online, so take a look.  Readers interested in final causality and its relationship to the current debate in analytic metaphysics about the purported “physical intentionality” of causal powers will definitely find it of interest.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Parsons on Coyne

Readers of my recent First Things review of Jerry Coyne’s Faith versus Fact might find of interest atheist philosopher Keith Parsons’ comments on the review in the Letters pages of the latest issue of First Things.  My reply to Keith can also be found there.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Conjuring teleology

At The Philosophers’ Magazine online, Massimo Pigliucci discusses teleology and teleonomy.  His position has the virtues of being simple and clear.  Unfortunately, it also has the vices of being simplistic and wrong.  His remarks can be summarized fairly briefly.  Explaining what is wrong with them takes a little more doing.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Putting nature on the rack

What was it that distinguished the modern scientific method inaugurated by Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Co. from the science of the medievals?  One common answer is that the moderns required empirical evidence, whereas the medievals contented themselves with appeals to the authority of Aristotle.  The famous story about Galileo’s Scholastic critics’ refusing to look through his telescope is supposed to illustrate this difference in attitudes.

The problem with this answer, of course, is that it is false.  For one thing, the telescope story is (like so many other things everyone “knows” about the Scholastics and about the Galileo affair) a legend.  For another, part of the reason Galileo’s position was resisted was precisely because there were a number of respects in which it appeared to conflict with the empirical evidence.  (For example, the Copernican theory predicted that Venus should sometimes appear six times larger than it does at other times, but at first the empirical evidence seemed not to confirm this, until telescopes were developed which could detect the difference; the predicted stellar parallax did not receive empirical confirmation for a long time; and so forth.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Scott Ryan RIP

Longtime readers who frequent the comboxes of this blog will be familiar with Scott Ryan, who for many years was a regular commenter here.  He was also a moderator and regular commenter at the Classical Theism, Philosophy, and Religion Forum.  I was very sorry to learn that Scott died last week, apparently of a burst stomach ulcer.  I did not know Scott personally, but I always greatly valued his contributions to combox discussions, which consistently manifested Scott’s high intelligence, breadth of knowledge, sense of humor, clarity of expression, and charity toward others.  The exchanges on this blog have been of a consistently high quality in large part because of Scott’s presence.  (My recent book Neo-Scholastic Essays was dedicated to my readers.  Scott had become such a presence in the comboxes that when I wrote that dedication, and when I have thought about it in the months since, Scott’s would be the first name and face that would come to my mind.)

Recently Scott began the process of converting to Catholicism.  While reading through some of his recent posts at the Forum the other day, I came across this exchange.  It is especially poignant in light of Scott’s death, and that, together with the beauty, simplicity, and tranquility of the sentiments Scott expressed, brought tears to my eyes.

Many readers have been making their feelings about Scott known in the combox of an earlier post.  It is clear that they will miss him as much as I will.  Our prayers are with you Scott, and with your family.  RIP. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Around the web

Busy, busy couple of weeks.  So, I’ll let others do the writing.  Here’s a large load of links:

David Oderberg on the current state of bioethics: Interview at BioEdge (reprinted at MercatorNet).

Neo-Aristotelian meta-metaphysician Tuomas Tahko is interviewed at 3:AM Magazine.   He also has recently published An Introduction to Metametaphysics

Michael Novak revisits the topic of Catholicism and social justice in a new book co-written with Paul Adams.  Interview at National Review Online, commentary at First Things, the Law and Liberty blog, and The Catholic Thing.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Review of Alexander

My review of David Alexander’s Goodness, God, and Evil appears in the March 2016 issue of Ratio.  It looks like the review is currently available for free online, so take a look (click on the “Get PDF” link).

Friday, February 12, 2016

Aquinas, Vanilla Sky, and Nozick’s experience machine

I’ve been meaning for about fifteen years now to write up something on the movie Vanilla Sky (a remake of Open Your Eyes).  It’s a better movie than it seems -- which is fitting, since the flick is all about the unseen reality lurking beneath the sea of superficiality (moral and metaphysical) that is the life of the Tom Cruise character.  Alas, this isn’t quite the article I’ve been meaning to write, since it’s not primarily about the movie, though I’ll have reason to say something about it.  Rather, it’s about a famous philosophical thought experiment that might as well have inspired the movie even if (as far as I know) it didn’t -- Robert Nozick’s “experience machine” (from Anarchy, State, and Utopia).

Friday, February 5, 2016

Parfit on brute facts

Derek Parfit’s article “The Puzzle of Reality: Why Does the Universe Exist?” has been reprinted several times since it first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 1992, and for good reason.  It’s an admirably clear and comprehensive survey of the various answers that have been given to that question, and of the problems facing some of them.  (Unsurprisingly, I think Parfit’s treatment of theism, though not unfair, is nevertheless superficial.  But to be fair to Parfit, the article is only meant to be a survey.)

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Debased Coynage

I had a lot to say about Jerry Coyne’s Faith versus Fact in my First Things review of the book, but much more could be said.  The reason is not that there is so much of interest in Coyne’s book, but rather because there is so little.  I was not being rhetorical when I said in my review that it might be the worst book yet published in the New Atheist genre.  It really is that awful, and goes wrong so thoroughly and so frequently that it would take a much longer review than I had space for fully to catalog its foibles.  An especially egregious example is Coyne’s treatment of Alvin Plantinga’s “evolutionary argument against naturalism” (or EAAN).

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Upcoming Thomistic workshops

Today is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, and thus a good time to draw attention to several forthcoming Aquinas-related summer workshops.

Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY will be hosting the Sixth Annual Philosophy Workshop on June 2-5, 2016, on the theme Aquinas on Politics. The presenters will be James Brent, OP, Michael Gorman, Steven Long, Dominic Legge, OP, Angela Knobel, Edward Feser, Thomas Joseph White, OP, and Michael Sherwin, OP.

The Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies will be holding its 2016 Summer Program in Norcia, Italy from July 10-24.  The focus of the program will be St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews and St. Thomas’s commentary on it.

The Witherspoon Institute will be hosting the 11th annual Thomistic Seminar in Princeton, NJ, on August 7-13, 2016, on the theme Aquinas and the Philosophy of Nature.  The faculty will be John Haldane, Sarah Broadie, Edward Feser, Robert Koons, and Candace Vogler.