Archive for the ‘Edward Feser’ Category

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What Is A Soul? Edward Feser

May 2, 2014

quote-a-human-being-is-part-of-the-whole-called-by-us-universe-a-part-limited-in-time-and-space-he-albert-einstein

To be more precise, what is a human soul?  Or to be even more precise, what is a human being?  For that is really the key question; and I sometimes think that the biggest obstacle to understanding what the soul is is the word “soul.”  People too readily read into it various erroneous notions (erroneous from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, anyway) — ghosts, ectoplasm, or Cartesian immaterial substances. 

Even the Aristotelian characterization of the soul as the form of the living body can too easily mislead.  When those unfamiliar with Aristotelian metaphysics hear “form,” they are probably tempted to think in terms of shape or a configuration of parts, which is totally wrong. 

Or perhaps they think of it in Platonic terms, as an abstract universal that the individual human being participates in — also totally wrong.  Or they suspect that since it is the form of the living body it cannot coherently be said to subsist apart from that body — totally wrong again.   So let us, for the moment, put out of our minds all of these ideas and start instead with the question I raised above.  What is a human being?

To ask what a human being is is to ask what the nature of a human being is.  What makes human beings the kinds of things they are?  What makes them distinctive?  What sets them apart from other kinds of thing?  To answer this it is useful to consider those kinds of thing which, on the Aristotelian-Thomistic view, come just below and just above human beings in the hierarchy of reality: non-human animals, and angels.

An animal is something which by its nature not only exercises vegetative powers like taking in nutrients, growing, and reproducing, but is also capable of sensation and imagination, of appetite, and of locomotion or the ability to move itself in response to the promptings of appetite and in pursuit of what it senses or imagines.  Particular kinds of animals will, given their natures, exhibit this repertoire in their own distinctive ways.  For instance, land animals will exercise their locomotive powers by walking, hopping, or slithering, fish by swimming, and (most) birds by flying; and each will do so by means of its own distinctive organs — legs, fins, wings, and so forth.

Now of course, not every single individual animal will perfectly exercise the capacities that are natural to it, or even actually possess the organs that are its natural means of exercising them.  A dog might injure or lose a leg, or even fail to develop legs in the first place because of some prenatal defect. 

But it is still of the nature of such a dog to have legs, and to walk and run with them.  In the extreme case, we can even imagine a dog which (as a result of an accident, say) has lost not only its legs, but its sense organs and higher brain functions, and is kept alive through intravenous feeding — reduced, in effect, to a portion of its vegetative functions. 

All the same, the nature of such a dog, no less than that of a healthy dog, is to have sense organs, legs, and all the rest.  That the dog has been prevented from realizing that nature doesn’t change the nature itself; and should the dog be somehow restored to health and functionality, it is precisely those doglike attributes that it had lost that would be restored to it, rather than some other attributes.

Consider now an angel, which stands on the other side of the metaphysical divide marked by human beings.  An angel is, by nature, a creature of pure intellect, which entails — given that, as Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers argue, intellect is necessarily immaterial — that an angel is essentially immaterial.  (The wings, white robes, and long blonde hair are symbolic — suitable for children’s prayer books but not for metaphysics!) 

Being immaterial, angels cannot be damaged or physically malformed the way an animal can.  (Of course, angels can be morally defective — there are fallen angels, after all — but that is a failure of will, which is an immaterial power that follows upon intellect.)   Indeed, being immaterial, they have no tendency toward corruption at all.  They are of their nature immortal.  

And now we come to human beings.  A human being is by nature a rational animal.  That is to say, a human being is something which by its nature exercises both the animal powers of nutrition, growth, reproduction, sensation, appetite, and locomotion, and the intellectual and volitional powers possessed by angels.  Hence it exercises powers of both a material and an immaterial sort. 

For that reason it is to a large extent capable of damage and malformation, as an animal is; but not completely so.  In particular, a human being can be damaged to such an extent that it completely loses the organs of its animal and vegetative powers, and thus cannot exercise them at all — to such an extent that only its intellectual and volitional powers remain. 

But those intellectual and volitional aspects of human nature, precisely because they are immaterial and thus do not depend on any corruptible material organ, cannot themselves perish, any more than they can in the case of an angel — though they would be impaired given that the human intellect’s normal source of data is the sense organs, which are material, and given that its activity is normally carried out in conjunction with imagination, which is also material.

Now what we’d have in the case of a dog which had lost its legs, its sense organs, and its higher brain functions is the stub of a dog, the bare minimum consistent with the dog’s surviving at all.  The nature of such a poor creature would not have changed, but it would have been reduced to realizing only the smallest fragment of what would naturally flow from that nature.  You might almost say that it had been reduced to little more than the nature itself, with almost nothing in the way of a manifestation of that nature. 

And a human being damaged to such an extent that it could exercise none of its animal capacities and retained only its intellectual and volitional faculties in an impaired state would, you might say, be a stub of a human being, the bare minimum consistent with a human being’s surviving at all — a human being reduced to little more than its nature, with almost nothing in the way of a manifestation of that nature. 

The key difference would be that whereas the severely damaged dog of our example could also go on utterly to perish, this stub of a human being could not.  It is immortal, though the full human being is not, which is why resurrection is necessary.  (To be sure, God could annihilate this “stub,” just as He could annihilate anything; but as with an angel, nothing in the natural order could destroy it, because, being immaterial, it would have no inherent tendency toward corruption.)

Now such a stub of a human being is what a soul is, or a disembodied soul anyway.  This is why Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers often call a disembodied soul an “incomplete substance” — not because they are trying incoherently to fudge the difference between a Cartesian res cogitans and the idea of the soul as a kind of form, but because a disembodied soul relative to a living human being is like a legless, senseless, brain-damaged dog relative to a healthy dog.  The severely damaged dog is in an obvious and natural sense an incomplete substance, and the disembodied soul is an incomplete substance in just that sense — it is an incomplete, damaged human being.  

This is also a way to understand the sense in which the soul is the substantial form — that is to say, the nature — of a human being.  A nature or substantial form is not a Platonic abstraction.  It exists in a concrete individual thing, as its principle of operation and the source of its properties.  It is there as long as, and only as long as, the individual thing itself is there. 

But when the operations and properties in question are prevented from being manifested, what we are left with in effect is the principle or source without that which flows from it.  Thus to reduce a human being to the bare minimum consistent with its being there at all is to reduce it as far as possible to its nature or substantial form — that is, to its soul alone.

Some might insist that if the intellectual and volitional powers of a human being persist in even an impaired form after the animal powers have been destroyed, this must be because the former inhere in a substance distinct from that in which the latter inhere, as Descartes held.  But this is like saying that since the stub of a dog would continue to exist in the absence of its legs, eyes, ears, etc., it follows that the stub in question (an eyeless, earless, brain-damaged torso) and the legs, eyes, ears, etc. are all distinct substances.  

And they are not; rather, they are all aspects of one substance — the dog itself — and can be made sense of only by reference to that one substance.  Similarly, that the impaired intellectual-cum-volitional stub of a human being would continue to exist in the absence of its animal powers does not entail that the stub in question and the animal powers must be grounded in distinct substances.  They are not; rather, they too are aspects of the one substance — the human being himself — and can be made sense of only by reference to that one substance.  

I noted in a recent post that those beholden to scientism tend to reify abstractions — to abstract the mathematical structure of a concrete physical system and treat it as if it were the entirety of the system, or to abstract the neurobiological processes underlying human action and treat them as if they were the whole source of human action. 

I also noted that while those prone to scientism are notorious for this, Cartesians are guilty of reifying abstractions too.  Specifically, they abstract from the one substance that is a human being its intellectual aspect and its animal aspect and make of them two substances — putting asunder, as it were, what God and nature had joined together.  And when they finally recombine them, what they are left with is nothing human at all, but a bizarre shotgun marriage of angel and animal, or ghost and machine.  But sometimes a man is just a man.

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Edward Feser, David Bentley Hart, and Natural Law — Steven Wedgeworth

April 28, 2013
One can claim that religious faith goes all the way down and claim that basic reason is objective and capable of compelling public persuasion. This is because people do not have to know how or why something is true to still know that it is true. Most self-evident truths operate efficiently apart from self-reflection. The Christian natural philosopher and natural-law thinker is not denying the comprehensive nature of faith, but he is saying that this faith can be rationally demonstrated as a good and necessary thing. Additionally, he claims that basic morality is not only helpful and attractive but inescapable, and it is so on absolutely reasonable grounds.

One can claim that religious faith goes all the way down and claim that basic reason is objective and capable of compelling public persuasion. This is because people do not have to know how or why something is true to still know that it is true. Most self-evident truths operate efficiently apart from self-reflection. The Christian natural philosopher and natural-law thinker is not denying the comprehensive nature of faith, but he is saying that this faith can be rationally demonstrated as a good and necessary thing. Additionally, he claims that basic morality is not only helpful and attractive but inescapable, and it is so on absolutely reasonable grounds.

Yet another point of view I would like to feature here on the Feser/Hart dustup. So much of what the two have written is for master or doctrinal classes in theology and philosophy. Steven Wedgeworth is the editor of The Calvinist International. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. A Presbyterian pastor and classical school teacher, Steven lives in Jackson, MS. He recently weighed in with an opinion that helps us interpret and learn from the exchange.

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Edward Feser administers a much-needed corrective on the subject of natural philosophy and natural law in this response to David Bentley Hart. Before Dr. Feser’s article, the original piece from Dr. Hart was mostly applauded by other noteworthy names like Rod Dreher, Alan Jacobs, and Peter Leithart. We will not reproduce all of Dr. Feser’s argument, but we will highlight a few key points to show how he demonstrates that these critics are actually confused about the basic points of the natural law position. And in their confusion, these critics end up furthering the modernist cause they seek to defeat.

Dr. Feser begins by pointing out the existence of two schools of natural law: the classical (or “old”) natural-law theory and the “new natural-law theory.” These two schools hold some ideas in common, but they disagree on some important fundamentals. Dr. Feser summarizes:

What the two approaches have in common is the view that objectively true moral conclusions can be derived from premises that in no way presuppose any purported divine revelation, any body of scriptural writings, or any particular religious tradition. Rather, they can in principle be known via purely philosophical arguments. Where the two approaches differ is in their view of which philosophical claims, specifically, the natural law theorist must defend in order to develop a system of natural law ethics.

The “old” natural law theorist would hold that a broadly classical, and specifically Aristotelian, metaphysical picture of the world must be part of a complete defense of natural law. The “new” natural law theorist would hold that natural law theory can be developed with a much more modest set of metaphysical claims – about the reality of free will, say, and a certain theory of practical reason – without having to challenge modern post-Humean, post-Kantian philosophy in as radical and wholesale a way as the “old” natural law theorist would.

Both sides agree, however, that some body of metaphysical claims must be a part of a complete natural law theory, and (again) that these claims can be defended without appeal to divine revelation, scripture, etc.

The problem with Dr. Hart’s critique, among other things, is that he conflates the two schools. He seems to affirm the truth of the “old” natural-law theory, but then he uses modernistic assumptions, those held by the “new natural-law theory,” to explain why the old theory, while still true, has no persuasive power. In doing so, however, he must grant that some of the new positions are also true, or at least true enough not to publicly contest, which is all very strange and self-contradictory.

Dr. Feser explains how Dr. Hart’s practical skepticism is itself incoherent:

[He] supposes that even if our nature directs us to certain ends that constitute the good for us, reason could still intelligibly wonder why it ought to respect those natural ends or the good they define. But this implicitly supposes that reason itself, unlike everything else, somehow lacks a natural end definitive of its proper function, or at least a natural end that we can know through pure philosophical inquiry. And that is precisely what classical natural law theory denies.

In the view of the “old” natural law theorist, when the metaphysics of intellect and volition are properly understood, it turns out that it cannot in principle be rational to will anything other than the good.  The fusion of “facts” and “values” goes all the way down, without a gap into which the Humean might fit the wedge with which he’d like to sever practical reason from any particular end. Hart simply assumes that this is false, or at least unknowable; he doesn’t give any argument to show that it is. And thus he has offered no non-circular criticism of the classical natural law theorist.

Here we see that so many of the new classicists, many of whom write for First Things and Pro Ecclesia, are themselves still thorough-going modernists. Individual reason, even if only for the sake of criticism, is the one thing privileged enough to critique contextualization.

Thus the criticisms of Hume and the alternatives of Kant are mostly accepted. But then, in modernism’s wake, classical philosophy and theology are held up as an aesthetically-attractive anchor to the subjectivist dilemma, but, importantly, one still subjective in nature. In other words, these Christian philosophers choose to hold to classical positions, but they acknowledge that this is a subjective value whose utility is only truly discernible after the fact.

This leads to very pressing problems, namely a basic relativism and its apocalyptic solution which is invariably utopian and violent. Dr. Feser explains how the first dilemma results from an equivocation:

Sloppy popular usage aside, “supernatural” is not a synonym for “metaphysical” – as Hart himself implicitly acknowledges with the phrase “supernatural (or at least metaphysical),” quoted above. What is supernatural is what is beyond the natural order altogether, and thus cannot be known via purely philosophical argument but only via divine revelation. Metaphysics, by contrast, is an enterprise that Platonists, Aristotelians, materialists, idealists, philosophical theists, atheists, and others have for millennia been engaged in without any reference to divine revelation.

The classical natural law theory asserts a specific metaphysical framework, to be sure. And it acknowledges that this is controversial, as Dr. Feser also does. But it does not acknowledge, and has not acknowledged, that the project of metaphysics itself is wholly “supernatural,” dependent on some sort of apocalyptic intervention into the normal order of things.

To do so would make metaphysics dependent upon special revelation, which would make it non-rational and subjective at bottom. Such a position fits perfectly within postmodernism, but it is directly at odds with the earlier tradition. That tradition said that certain metaphysical truths were self-evident and necessary for all other rational discourse. “The contrary” was, to borrow a phrase from other Christian transcendentalists, “impossible.”

Certain truths have to be the case in order for reason to be coherent, and since reason itself is necessary to dispute reason’s coherency, those truths’ existence is itself necessary or self-evident. Thus objective truth is itself self-evident and capable of being appealed to. For Dr. Hart to consign metaphysics to supernatural revelation is to forfeit this claim of objective reality.

Dr. Feser does not miss the fact that this postmodern Christian philosophy is itself a product of secularist advances. He writes, “Notice also the rich irony of a thinker who urges us to trust in divine revelation rather than natural reason, and who appeals to a secularist philosophical argument in order to make his case!”

Instead of defeating secularism, which Dr. Hart has claimed to at least attempt, the result is actually a furtherance of the secularist foundation. The practical result is actually more identity politics with the claim that “Christians” or “religious people” are a class-in-miniature who have something rich to offer the larger market of ideas.

One will see this same phenomenon replicated in Neo-Orthodoxy, Radical Orthodoxy, and certain forms of “worldview” thinking. Instead of argument, we will see appeals to “apocalyptic” transformation through a sort of event-metaphysics.

All of this leaves us with the hopeless contest of competing ultimate worldviews. While it is true that only persuasion will bring a person from one competing position to another, reason has traditionally been the vehicle, or at least one of the primary vehicles, which enables persuasion to be compelling. Apart from it, we are left with fideism or, worse, coercion. Dr. Feser illustrates the futility of the “apocalyptic” methodology:

And then there is the question of why anyone else should accept the revelation – of the missionary activity that, as I’m sure Hart would agree, the Christian is called to. If you are going to teach an Englishman Goethe in the original, you’re going to have to teach him German first. If you’re going to teach him algebra, you’d better make sure he already knows basic arithmetic. And if you’re going to preach the Gospel to him, you’re going to have to convince him first that what you’re saying really did come from God, and isn’t just something the people you got it from made up or hallucinated.

That’s why apologetics – the praeambula fidei, the study of what natural reason can and must know before it can know the truths of faith – precedes dogmatics in the order of knowledge, and always will. The theologian who thinks otherwise is like the Goethe scholar who screams in German at his English-speaking students, telling them what idiots they are – and deriding those who would teach them German as engaged in a “hopeless” task.

All one can say to this is Amen. John Warwick Montgomery made the same point in his essay “Once Upon an A Priori.” Without some inescapably common reason, call it what you will, all we are left with is a shouting match. Or perhaps, as in the current case, what we’ve got is simply marketing.

We will have much more to say about this topic in later essays. For now we will leave our Christian readers with this reassurance. One can claim that religious faith goes all the way down and claim that basic reason is objective and capable of compelling public persuasion. This is because people do not have to know how or why something is true to still know that it is true. Most self-evident truths operate efficiently apart from self-reflection. The Christian natural philosopher and natural-law thinker is not denying the comprehensive nature of faith, but he is saying that this faith can be rationally demonstrated as a good and necessary thing. Additionally, he claims that basic morality is not only helpful and attractive but inescapable, and it is so on absolutely reasonable grounds.

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Nature Loves to Hide — David Bentley Hart

April 25, 2013
It does not then represent some grave failure of natural reason that philosophy cannot achieve definitive moral demonstrations, or that true knowledge of the good is impossible without calling upon other modes of knowledge: the (ubiquitous) supernatural illumination of a conscience -- a heart -- upon which the law is written, Platonic anamnesis (of the eternal forms or of what your mother taught you), cultural traditions with all their gracious moments of religious awakening (Jewish, pagan, Christian, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, and so on), prayer, inspiration, the cultivation of personal holiness, love of the arts, and so on. Ultimately the world is a cruel and relentless place and we are not of it because we can interpret its moral fundamentals through the full range of our human capacities and senses, physical and spiritual.

It does not then represent some grave failure of natural reason that philosophy cannot achieve definitive moral demonstrations, or that true knowledge of the good is impossible without calling upon other modes of knowledge: the (ubiquitous) supernatural illumination of a conscience — a heart — upon which the law is written, Platonic anamnesis (of the eternal forms or of what your mother taught you), cultural traditions with all their gracious moments of religious awakening (Jewish, pagan, Christian, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, and so on), prayer, inspiration, the cultivation of personal holiness, love of the arts, and so on. Ultimately the world is a cruel and relentless place and we are not of it because we can interpret its moral fundamentals through the full range of our human capacities and senses, physical and spiritual.

I think Feser and Hart rather talked past each other, but the event of my two favorites being in some kind of disagreement with each other really became a learning experience for me. Feser is much more capable of defending and presenting purely philosophical arguments whereas Hart tends to fade into reveries that emphasize the being of the world: “To encounter the world is to encounter its being, which is gratuitously imparted to it from beyond the sphere of natural causes, known within the medium of an intentional consciousness, irreducible to immanent processes, that grasps finite reality only by being oriented toward a horizon of transcendental ends (or, better, “divine names”).” is a sentence Feser would never produce. I don’t think you need to choose sides here but can feel an allegiance to both the Christian natural philosopher (Hart) and a kind of natural-law thinker (Feser) Both advocate a  comprehensive nature of faith, and believe their faith can be rationally demonstrated as a good and necessary thing. Morality is inescapable, and it is so on absolutely reasonable grounds.

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Two issues back, I spoke ill of a modern form of natural law theory that unsuccessfully attempts to translate an ancient tradition of moral reasoning into the incompatible language of secular reason. Because of an obscurity I allowed to slip into the fourth paragraph, several readers imagined that I was speaking in propria persona [from Latin "for one's self," acting on one's own behalf, generally used to identify a person who is acting as his/her own attorney in a lawsuit.] from that point on, rather than on behalf of a disenchanted modern rambling among the weed-thronged ruins; and some were dismayed.

Edward Feser, for instance, issued a robust if confused denunciation, accusing me of numerous logical errors I did not commit and of being a Humean modernizer who doubts reason’s natural orientation toward the good. I suppose I should savor that as a refreshing change from the invective I usually attract; but, honestly, what most interested me about Feser’s argument were its fallacies, chief among them a notably simplistic understanding of such words as “revelation” and “supernatural.”

There is an old argument here, admittedly. Somewhere behind Feser’s argument slouches the specter of what is often called “two-tier Thomism”: a philosophical sect notable in part for the particularly impermeable partitions it erects between nature and grace, or nature and supernature, or natural reason and revelation, or philosophy and theology (and so on). To its adherents, it is the solution to the contradictions of modernity. To those of a more “integralist” bent (like me), it is a neo-scholastic deformation of Christian metaphysics that, far from offering an alternative to secular reason, is one of its chief theological accomplices. It also produces an approach to moral philosophy that must ultimately fail.

Before completing that thought, however, it might help to rehearse just a few of the conceptual obstacles our age erects in the path of natural law theory. So:

First. Finality’s fortuity. Most traditional accounts of natural law require a picture of nature as governed by final causality: For every substance, there are logically prior ends — proximate, remote, or transcendent — that guide its existence and unite it to the greater totality of a single cosmic, physical, moral, social continuum embraced within the providential finality of the divine. They assume, then, that from the “is” of a thing legitimate conclusions regarding its “ought” can be discerned, because nature herself — through her evident forms — instructs us in the elements of moral fulfillment.

In our age, however, final causality is a concept confined within an ever more beleaguered and porous intellectual redoubt. One can easily enough demonstrate the reality of finality within nature, but modern scientific culture refuses to view it as in any sense a cause rather than the accidental consequence of an immanent material process.

Within any organic system, for instance, ontogeny is fruitfully determined by strict formal constraints, but these are seen as the results of an incalculably vast series of fortuitous mutations and attritions, and therefore only the residue of an entirely stochastic phylogeny. Hence nature’s finality indicates no morally consequential ends (much less the supereminent finality of the Love that moves the stars), but is rather merely the emergent result of intrinsically meaningless brute events.

Second. Dame Nature, serial murderess. Even if final causality in nature is demonstrable, does it yield moral knowledge if there is no clear moral analogy between natural ends and the proper objects of human motive? After all, our modern narrative of nature is of an order shaped by immense ages of monstrous violence: mass extinctions, the cruel profligacy of an algorithmic logic that squanders ten thousand lives to fashion a single durable type, an evolutionary process that advances not despite, but because of, disease, warfare, predation, famine, and so on.

And the majestic order thus forged? One of elemental caprice, natural calamity, the mercilessness of chance — injustice thrives, disaster befalls the innocent, and children suffer. Why, our deracinated modern might ask, should we believe that nature’s organizing finality, given the kinds of efficient causes it prompts into action, has moral implications that command imitation, obedience, or (most unlikely of all) love?

Third. Elective priorities. Assume, however, that we can establish the existence of a moral imperative implicit in the orderliness of the world, as perceived by a rational will that, for itself, must seek the good: Does that assure that we can prove what hierarchy of values follows from this, or how we should calculate the relative preponderance of diverse moral ends? Yes, we may all agree that murder is worse than rudeness; but beyond the most rudimentary level of ethical deliberation, pure logic proves insufficient as a guide to which ends truly command our primary obedience, and our arguments become ever more dependent upon prior evaluations and preferences that, as far as philosophy can discern, are culturally or psychologically contingent. Consistent natural law cases can be made for or against slavery, for example, or for or against capital punishment, depending on which values one has privileged at a level too elementary for philosophy to adjudicate. At some crucial point, natural law argument, pressed to disclose its principles, dissolves into sheer assertion.

Fourth. Theory’s limits. The most gallantly errant of Feser’s assertions is that, because reason necessarily seeks the good, there exists no gap into which any “Humean” separation of facts from values can insinuate itself. But obviously the gap lies in the dynamic interval between (in Maximus the Confessor’s terms) the “natural” and “gnomic” wills: between, that is, the innate yearning for the good that is the primal impulse of all rational life and the particular acts of judgment and choice by which finite individuals live.

The venerable principle that the natural will is a pure ecstasy toward the good means that, at the level of our gnomic deliberations, whatever we will we inevitably desire as the good (for us); it does not mean that philosophical theory can by itself prove which facts imply which values, or that the good must naturally be understood as an incumbent “ought” rather than a compelling “I want.”

Feser asserts that “purely philosophical arguments” can establish “objectively true moral conclusions.” And yet, curiously enough, they never, ever have. That is a bedtime story told to conjure away the night’s goblins, like the Leibnizian fable of the best possible world or the philosophe’s fairy tale about the plain dictates of reason.

The question relentlessly left open in all of this is what “reason” really is. It is perfectly possible to believe that the whole natural dynamism of our reason and will is toward the good, and even to desire a true moral cultural renewal, and yet still to deny that natural law theory provides a sufficiently rich or logically coherent model of how the intellect can know moral truths. There is nothing scandalous in this unless one creates a false dilemma by imagining a real division between the discrete realms of supernatural and natural knowledge.

Feser thinks of revelation as an extrinsic datum consisting in texts and dogmas, and of the supernatural as merely outside of nature, and believes there really is such a thing as purely natural reason. From that perspective, one cannot deny philosophy’s power to demonstrate objective moral truth without denying reason’s intrinsic capacity for the good. Like a Kantian (the two-tier Thomist’s alter ego), one must believe that philosophical theory’s limits are also reason’s.

These divisions are illusory. What we call “nature” is merely one mode of the disclosure of the “supernatural,” and natural reason merely one mode of revelation, and philosophy merely one (feeble) mode of reason’s ascent into the light of God. Nowhere, not even in the sciences, does there exist a “purely natural” realm of knowledge.

To encounter the world is to encounter its being, which is gratuitously imparted to it from beyond the sphere of natural causes, known within the medium of an intentional consciousness, irreducible to immanent processes, that grasps finite reality only by being oriented toward a horizon of transcendental ends (or, better, “divine names”). There is a seamless continuity between the sight of a rose and the mystic’s vision of God; the latter is in fact implicit in the former, and saturates it, and but for this supernatural surfeit nothing natural could come into thought.

It does not then represent some grave failure of natural reason that philosophy cannot achieve definitive moral demonstrations, or that true knowledge of the good is impossible without calling upon other modes of knowledge: the (ubiquitous) supernatural illumination of a conscience — a heart — upon which the law is written, Platonic anamnesis (of the eternal forms or of what your mother taught you), cultural traditions with all their gracious moments of religious awakening (Jewish, pagan, Christian, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, and so on), prayer, inspiration, the cultivation of personal holiness, love of the arts, and so on.

There is no single master discourse here, for the good can be known only in being seen, before and beyond all words. Certain fundamental moral truths, for instance, may necessarily remain unintelligible to someone incapable of appreciating Bach’s fifth Unaccompanied Cello Suite. For some it may seem an outrageous notion that, rather than a collection of purportedly incontrovertible proofs, the correct rhetoric of moral truth consists in a richer but more unmasterable appeal to the full range of human capacities and senses, physical and spiritual. I, however, see it as rather glorious: a confirmation that our whole being, in all its dimensions, is a single gracious vocation out of nonexistence to the station of created gods.

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A Christian Hart, a Humean Head — Edward Feser

April 24, 2013
David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism.

David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism.

Edward Feser, the author of  The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism and Aquinas, tells us the background to the Natural Law questions raised by David Bentley Hart: classic vs. new natural law theory and how they differ in approach. According to Feser, Hart appears to have confused the two and appealed to a theological position as untenable as the position he is criticizing.

The argument reminds me of a recent dustup between Bill O’Reilly and other conservatives over the former’s criticism of “bible thumpers” in the gay marriage debate. While O’Reilly was sympathetic to the biblical arguments against gay marriage, his advice was that they would not convince the public at large.

Hart is sympathetic to natural law theorists but feels that the harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate, are not as precisely discernible as natural law thinkers imagine. Needless to say, bible thumpers and natural law theorists take high umbrage at such cavalier dismissal of their claims.

Feser explains what is really going on in the background.

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In a piece in the March issue of FIRST THINGS, David Bentley Hart suggests that the arguments of natural law theorists are bound to be ineffectual in the public square. The reason is that such arguments mistakenly presuppose that there is sufficient conceptual common ground between natural law theorists and their opponents for fruitful moral debate to be possible.

In particular, they presuppose that “the moral meaning of nature should be perfectly evident to any properly reasoning mind, regardless of religious belief or cultural formation.” In fact, Hart claims, there is no such common ground, insofar as “our concept of nature, in any age, is entirely dependent upon supernatural (or at least metaphysical) convictions.”

For Hart, it is only when we look at nature from a very specific religious and cultural perspective that we will see it the way natural law theorists need us to see it in order for their arguments to be compelling. And since such a perspective on nature “must be received as an apocalyptic interruption of our ordinary explanations,” as a deliverance of special divine revelation rather than secular reason, it is inevitably one that not all parties to public debate are going to share.

Now I have nothing but respect for Prof. Hart and his work. But this latest article is not his finest hour. Not to put too fine a point on it, by my count he commits no fewer than five logical fallacies: equivocationstraw manbegging the question,non sequitur, and special pleading.

He equivocates insofar as he fails to distinguish two very different theories that go under the “natural law” label. He also uses terms like “supernatural” and “metaphysical” as if they were interchangeable, or at least as if the differences between them were irrelevant to his argument.

These ambiguities are essential to his case. When they are resolved, it becomes clear that with respect to both versions of natural law theory, Hart is attacking straw men and simply begging the question against them. It also becomes evident that his conclusion — that it is “hopeless” to bring forth natural law arguments in the public square — doesn’t follow from his premises, and that even if it did, if he were consistent he would have to apply it to his own position no less than to natural law theory.

Let’s consider these problems with Hart’s argument in order. Who, specifically, are the “natural law theorists” that he is criticizing? He assures us that “names are not important.” In fact names are crucial, because it is only by running together the two main contemporary approaches to natural law that Hart can seem to have struck a blow against either.

So let’s name names. What we might call the classical (or “old”) natural law theory is the sort grounded in a specifically Aristotelian metaphysics of formal and final causes — that is to say, in the idea that things have immanent natures or substantial forms and that in virtue of those natures they are inherently directed toward certain natural ends, the realization of which constitutes the good for them. Accordingly, this approach firmly rejects the so-called “fact/value dichotomy” associated with modern philosophers like Hume.[Professor David Oderberg will walk you through this debate that is found at the root of empiricist philosophy.]

Classical natural law theory’s most prominent historical defender is Aquinas, and it was standard in Neo-Scholastic manuals of ethics and moral theology in the pre-Vatican II period. In more recent decades it has been defended by writers like Ralph McInerny, Henry Veatch, Russell Hittinger, David Oderberg, and Anthony Lisska. (In the interests of full disclosure — of which, regrettably, self-promotion is a foreseen but unintended byproduct, justifiable under the principle of double effect — I suppose I should mention that I have also defended classical natural law theory in several places, such as my book Aquinas.)

What has come to be called the “new natural law theory” eschews any specifically Aristotelian metaphysical foundation, and in particular any appeal to formal and final causes and thus any appeal to human nature (at least as “old natural law” theorists would understand it). It is a very recent development — going back only to the 1960s, when it was invented by Germain Grisez — and its aim is to reconstruct natural law in terms that could be accepted by someone who affirms the Humean fact/value dichotomy.

In addition to Grisez, new natural law theory is associated with writers like John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, William May, Robert P. George, and Christopher Tollefsen. (Once again in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that like other classical natural law theorists, I have been very critical of the so-called “new natural lawyers.” But it is also only fair to point out that Hart’s argument has no more force against the “new” natural law theory than it does against the “old” or classical version.)

What the two approaches have in common is the view that objectively true moral conclusions can be derived from premises that in no way presuppose any purported divine revelation, any body of scriptural writings, or any particular religious tradition. Rather, they can in principle be known via purely philosophical arguments.

Where the two approaches differ is in their view of which philosophical claims, specifically, the natural law theorist must defend in order to develop a system of natural law ethics. The “old” natural law theorist would hold that a broadly classical, and specifically Aristotelian, metaphysical picture of the world must be part of a complete defense of natural law. The “new” natural law theorist would hold that natural law theory can be developed with a much more modest set of metaphysical claims — about the reality of free will, say, and a certain theory of practical reason — without having to challenge modern post-Humean, post-Kantian philosophy in as radical and wholesale a way as the “old” natural law theorist would.

Both sides agree, however, that some body of metaphysical claims must be a part of a complete natural law theory, and (again) that these claims can be defended without appeal to divine revelation, Scripture, etc.

Now Hart characterizes natural law theory in general as committed to the reality of final causes, indicates that he affirms their reality himself, but then (bizarrely) appeals to Hume’s fact/value dichotomy as if it were obviously consistent with affirming final causes, uses it as a basis for criticizing natural law theorists for supposing conceptual common ground with their opponents, and concludes that it is only by reference to controversial “supernatural (or at least metaphysical) convictions” that natural law theory could be defended. This is a tangle of confusions.

For one thing, if there were a version of natural law theory that both appealed to final causes in nature and at the same time could allow for Hume’s fact/value dichotomy, then Hart’s argument might at least get off the ground. But there is no such version of natural law theory, and it seems that Hart is conflating the “new” and the “old” versions, thereby directing his attack at a phantom position that no one actually holds. The “new natural lawyers” agree with Hume and Hart that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” but precisely for that reason do not ground their position in a metaphysics of final causes. The “old” or classical natural law theory, meanwhile, certainly does affirm final causes, but precisely for that reason rejects Hume’s fact/value dichotomy, and in pressing it against them Hart simply begs the question.

It seems Hart thinks otherwise because he supposes that even if our nature directs us to certain ends that constitute the good for us, reason could still intelligibly wonder why it ought to respect those natural ends or the good they define. But this implicitly supposes that reason itself, unlike everything else, somehow lacks a natural end definitive of its proper function, or at least a natural end that we can know through pure philosophical inquiry. And that is precisely what classical natural law theory denies.

In the view of the “old” natural law theorist, when the metaphysics of intellect and volition are properly understood, it turns out that it cannot in principle be rational to will anything other than the good. The fusion of “facts” and “values” goes all the way down, without a gap into which the Humean might fit the wedge with which he’d like to sever practical reason from any particular end. Hart simply assumes that this is false, or at least unknowable; he doesn’t give any argument to show that it is. And thus he has offered no non-circular criticism of the classical natural law theorist.

Of course such a non-Humean view of practical reason is controversial — though I defend it in Aquinas, and other classical natural law theorists have defended it as well — but the fact that it is controversial is completely irrelevant to the dispute between Hart and natural law theory. For no natural law theorist denies that some controversial metaphysical conclusions have to be defended in order to defend natural law theory. That is true of any moral theory, including secular theories, and including whatever approach it is that Hart favors. Certainly it is true of the Humean thesis about “facts” and “values,” which is just one controversial metaphysical claim among others. Having to appeal to controversial metaphysical assumptions is in no way whatsoever a special problem for natural law theorists.

It also has nothing whatsoever to do with claims about the supernatural order. Sloppy popular usage aside, “supernatural” is not a synonym for “metaphysical” — as Hart himself implicitly acknowledges with the phrase “supernatural (or at least metaphysical),” quoted above. What is supernatural is what is beyond the natural order altogether, and thus cannot be known via purely philosophical argument but only via divine revelation. Metaphysics, by contrast, is an enterprise that Platonists, Aristotelians, materialists, idealists, philosophical theists, atheists, and others have for millennia been engaged in without any reference to divine revelation. So for Hart to insinuate that its dependence on metaphysical premises entails that natural law rests on divine revelation, “supernatural” foundations, or “an apocalyptic interruption of our ordinary explanations” is simply a non sequitur.

On the other hand, if all Hart means to assert is that natural law theorists suppose that the metaphysical commitments crucial to their position are uncontroversial, then he is attacking a straw man. No natural law theorist claims any such thing. What they claim is merely that, however controversial, their position can be defended via purely philosophical arguments and without resort to divine revelation. And if its being controversial makes it “hopeless” as a contribution to the public square, then every controversial position is hopeless.

Including Hart’s. Which brings us to special pleading. For what exactly is Hart’s alternative approach to moral debate in the public square, and how is it supposed to be any better? Is a theological position like his — with its appeal to the supernatural, to “apocalyptic interruptions,” and the like — less controversial than natural law theory? Is it more likely to win the day in the public square? To ask these question is to answer them.

Nor could Hart plausibly retreat into a quietist position that refuses to engage with those who do not already share his fundamental commitments. For one thing, there is nothing quiet about his book Atheist Delusions, which was presumably intended as a contribution to the public debate over the New Atheism, not as a mere sermon to the circle of his fellow believers. That presupposes enough conceptual common ground with those who disagree with him for them to understand his position, controversial though it is, and in principle come to be swayed by his arguments. If Hart can do this, why can’t natural law theorists?

Here we see one of several ways in which Hart’s position is ultimately incoherent. Insofar as he applies his criticisms consistently he will find that they undermine his own view no less than the natural law theorist’s.

Suppose Hume’s stricture against deriving an “ought” from an “is” really were well-founded. It would follow that the purely theological ethics to which Hart seems committed, no less than natural law theory, cannot get off the ground. For statements about what has been divinely revealed, or what God has commanded, would be mere statements of “fact” (as Hume understands facts), statements about what “is” the case. And how (given Hume’s account of practical reason) does that tell us anything about “value,” about what we “ought” to do?

The most we can have are the merely hypothetical imperatives Hart rightly (if inconsistently) derides as insufficient for morality. If we happen to care about what God has said, then we’ll do such-and-such. But that tells us nothing about why we ought to care. Hart, like so many other Christian philosophers and theologians eager to accommodate themselves to Hume and other moderns, fails to see that he has drunk not a tonic that will restore youthfulness to the Faith, but a poison that will kill the modernizer no less than the traditionalist.

Notice also the rich irony of a thinker who urges us to trust in divine revelation rather than natural reason, and who appeals to a secularist philosophical argument in order to make his case. Here Hart recapitulates a muddle that one finds again and again in those who would absorb nature into grace, or otherwise do dirt on mere natural theology and natural law in favor of revelation alone. They inevitably appeal to premises that cannot be found in revelation itself, because there is no way in principle to avoid doing so.

For what is it in the first place for something to be revealed? How can we know it really has been? Why accept this purported revelation rather than that one? If the answers are supposed to be found in some purported revelation itself, how do we know that that was really revealed, or that its meta-level answers are better than those of some other purported revelation? And why wouldn’t such a patently circular procedure — appealing to a purported revelation in order to defend it — justify any point of view? It is only from a point of view outside the revelation — the point of view of our rational nature, which grace can only build on and never replace — that these questions can possibly be answered.

And then there is the question of why anyone else should accept the revelation — the missionary activity that, as I’m sure Hart would agree, the Christian is called to. If you are going to teach an Englishman Goethe in the original, you’re going to have to teach him German first. If you’re going to teach him algebra, you’d better make sure he already knows basic arithmetic. And if you’re going to preach the gospel to him, you’re going to have to convince him first that what you’re saying really did come from God, and isn’t just something the people you got it from made up or hallucinated.

That’s why apologetics — the praeambula fidei, the study of what natural reason can and must know before it can know the truths of faith — precedes dogmatics in the order of knowledge, and always will. The theologian who thinks otherwise is like the Goethe scholar who screams in German at his English-speaking students, telling them what idiots they are — and deriding those who would teach them German as engaged in a “hopeless” task.

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Natural Science vs The Philosophy Of Nature – Edward Feser

October 16, 2012

Two Adirondack chairs sit vacant on a dock along the misty shore of the Androscoggin River in Turner, Maine. Alright, it has nothing to do with hylomorphism, the philososophy of nature or the natural sciences but I have identified a good place to go and think about them. Bring a friend, there are two chairs.

This was a response that Ed Feser had on his website and highlighted a difference that many atheists tend to blow by in their assumptions of how the world works. Let me reblog it here:

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A-T (Aristotelian/Thomist) philosophers usually distinguish between natural science on the one hand and the philosophy of nature on the other. Philosophy of nature is essentially concerned with general metaphysical questions about how it is possible for there to be an empirical world of the sort we experience in the first place. Its results are held to be necessary rather than contingent. Natural science is concerned instead with the details of how the actual world happens to work. It’s results are contingent, at least in one sense. (I’ll explain that qualification in a moment.)

So, for example, the Aristotelian theory of act and potency is a paradigm example of philosophy of nature. Its aim is to explain what makes it possible for there to be a world of changing things at all, contra the claims of philosophers like Parmenides and Zeno. Whatever substances happen to exist in the empirical world — that is to say, whatever the scientific facts turn out to be — they will all be composites of act and potency. That is a presupposition of there being any empirical world for scientists to study in the first place. So, it is not the sort of thing that could meaningfully be refuted by empirical science; it is subject only to philosophical analysis and criticism.

The periodic table of elements, by contrast, is a finding of natural science, and tells us how the actual world happens to be. But it could have been different; the elements could have been other than the ones we find are correctly described by the table. So we need to rely on careful empirical investigation to confirm it, unlike the theory of act and potency, which is so general that it would apply to any empirical evidence in the first place, whatever it turns out to be.

(The promised digression: To be sure, there is a sense in which A-T regards the laws of nature as necessary. But what that means is that “laws of nature” are taken by A-T to be shorthand for the ways things will tend to act given their essences, and this is not a contingent affair. Given that there is in fact such a thing as helium, there is no way even in principle for helium to have properties other than the ones it does have. Still, the world could have been such that no helium existed in the first place. End of digression.)

So, philosophy of nature is more fundamental than natural science and its business is to investigate the necessary presuppositions of natural science. Thus, questions in philosophy of nature and questions in natural science have to be kept carefully distinguished.

Now, the question of whether there are formal and final causes is not a question of empirical science, but rather a question of philosophy of nature. In fact, A-T holds that the form/matter composition of material objects is just an application of the general theory of act and potency to the analysis of concrete empirical substances. The empirical world has to be made up of hylemorphic (matter/form) compounds, on this view, at least at some level of description.

Natural science can certainly help us to determine what the formal causes of specific things are and which entities turn out to be true substances with true formal causes (e.g. a stone) and which merely accidental arrangements without true formal causes (e.g. a pile of stones, say, or an artifact). But whether there are any form/matter composites at all and thus whether there are any formal causes at all is not a question for natural science, but rather for philosophy of nature.

The dispute between A-T and a “mechanical” conception of the world, then, is at bottom a dispute in philosophy of nature rather than natural science. Hence, for example, atomism (a precursor to mechanism that Aristotle himself responded to) wants to deny that the ordinary objects of our experience are true substances, and thus to deny that they have formal causes. The atomist wants to say in effect that they are more like piles of stones than like stones — mere collections not united by any principle like substantial forms.

The A-T theorist will reply that even if this were correct, the atomist (or any mechanist of another stripe, for that matter) is going to have to arrive at something with a form/matter composition at the bottom level of material reality (the atoms, or whatever). Whatever the details turn out to be, hylemorphism [hylemorphism or hylomorphism (Greek ὑλο- hylo-, "wood, matter" + -morphism < Greek μορφή, morphē, "form") is a philosophical theory developed by Aristotle, which conceives substance as a compound of matter and form.] of some sort or other must be true, and this is something we know from philosophy of nature rather than natural science.

The only remaining question is whether we find true Aristotelian substances, true form/matter composites, at higher levels than the bottom level. But once we’ve admitted formal cause of some sort, the whole motivation of the mechanist view — to get rid of such causes entirely — goes out the window, and thus the pressure to get rid of formal causes wherever one can elsewhere in nature is removed.

So, to return finally to your question: When you ask whether there are examples of formal causes being useful, I would answer as follows. First, if by that you mean to imply that the question of whether any formal causes at all exist is a question of natural science, then that is a category mistake, because it is in fact a question in the philosophy of nature. And it is at that level that the A-T/mechanist dispute has to be resolved. Naturally, I would say that the A-T view is the correct one.

If on the other hand what you mean to ask is about whether formal cause — the reality of which at some level is taken for granted for philosophy of nature reasons — can be fruitfully applied in any more specific concrete cases in the natural sciences, then I would say “Yes, everywhere in the natural sciences, and there are lots of examples.” But arguing about that is probably pointless unless the more general philosophy of nature questions are settled first.

For example, in philosophy of chemistry, one finds writers like Scerri, Hendry, and van Brakel arguing against reductionism, and claiming that the chemical level of description cannot be either defined in terms of the physical level, or eliminated in favor of the physical level. For example, the periodic table cannot in the view of some of these writers be derived from quantum mechanics.

The A-T philosopher will say “Look, here we can see that formal causes exist even at the level of chemistry. That’s what the chemical level of description gives us, in effect — substances that cannot be reduced to their microlevel parts.” The mechanist will reply “No, no, we can give some sort of reductionist, or eliminativist, or supervenience-oriented account if only we work at it hard enough.”

Who is right? I would say the A-T philosopher is, but the debate clearly reflects certain background philosophical assumptions, and therefore it has to be settled at the philosophical level rather than the empirical one, even if empirical considerations play a role. And that is true of every example that could be offered — in physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, wherever.

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