Monday, November 7, 2011

Thomism C.A.Q.

I now doubt I chose a good book for learning about Thomism. It's not that Edward Feser's book isn't good—it may very well be. Rather, when reading Feser's commentary, I feel like I've imposed upon a heated exchange between a Red Sox fan and a Yankees fan: an argument that's been going on a lot longer than I've been alive and is about something I don't care much about. In this case, the argument is between philosophers and is about things philosophers care about—non-falsifiable claims science expelled as irrelevant a long time ago. But I've imposed upon the exchange between the two fans, and now one of them is telling me I'm mistaken for not caring about the Red Sox and Yankees and I ought to take a side.

Thomists and Catholics, like most people in the world, wish more people listened to them and took them seriously. But to be taken seriously you must first take other viewpoints seriously, if only to understand how to phrase your explanations to people who see things differently. I want a book about Thomism that takes my viewpoint seriously and then explains Thomism's relevance.

The book about Thomism I'd like to read would be written for people who aren't impressed with metaphysical systems just because they possess internal logical consistency—i.e., claims ultimately backed with you can't prove me wrong. The book would start with the assumption that the reader takes a skeptical view towards uses of the word natural and would start with Gödel and Chaitin and logical incompleteness, and go from there to show Thomism still matters even after knowing these things. Does such a book, however unmarketable, exist?

I doubt it, and I won't be the one to write it because I don't understand Thomism. Instead, today I'm posting my ignorance in the form of a CAQ—Craig-Asked Questions—questions I derived from the notes I jotted in the margins besides my main notes from Feser's book. These notes pertain only to the chapter on metaphysics.

Note: Unlike FAQs, CAQs don't have answers, just more befuddlement.

How does one know which potentialities of an object are natural and which are unnatural?

Using Feser's example, rubber balls don't bounce from here to the moon, nor do they move by themselves and follow people menacingly, because they lack the potential to do so—i.e., such potentialities are unnatural. What then is the definition of natural?

Forms are abstractions, but is matter not an abstraction, too? If it's not an abstraction, what then is matter made of?

This reminds me of my philosophical position on atoms: atoms don't actually exist, but they're useful constructs to keep in mind when reading a chemistry textbook. Ditto for circles with respect to math textbooks.

Are substantial and accidental forms relative?

Using Feser's example, painting a ball a different color causes the ball to lose one accidental form (i.e., non-essential form) and take on another accidental form, but the ball's substantial form of being a ball remains. But perhaps instead of saying we started with a ball that happened to be, say, red, we said we started with a red thing that happened to be in the shape of a ball. In such a case, the accidental and substantial forms would be flipped. Is this a valid way to think about the metaphysical truth of the universe? If so, are there limits to how relativistic accidental and substantial forms are? Without limits, there exists an infinite combination of accidental and substantial forms that may be applied to any one thing.

If substantial and accidental forms aren't relative or are limited relativistically, then what criteria ought we use for determining them?

And how do we justify the criteria themselves? And how do we justify the justification of the criteria? And so on.

What are the final causes of stochastic radiation?

Is chance event a valid final cause? If so, how do we know when chance event isn't the final cause of something?

If causes happen simultaneously to their effects then how does motion occur at all?

I suspect I missed something here. According to Feser's example of a brick smashing through a window, the brick pushing into the glass and the glass giving way are simultaneous events—indeed, actually the same event considered under different descriptions. But cause-and-effect are used to explain change, and saying that a cause and its effect are simultaneous implies a sort of Zeno's paradox whereby change cannot occur. What did I miss?

Are final causes and privations relative?

This deserves a story. I once remarked to my former coworker Shafik how it bugged me that electrons in electrical circuits flow from negative to positive, all due to Benjamin Franklin's arbitrary 18th century terminology. Because of Franklin, a positive potential signifies a negative concept: a lack of electrons.

Shafik put me to ease with an idea so simple it frustrates me I didn't think of it myself: Craig, if the terminology bugs you, then think of a positive potential not as a lack of electrons but rather as a positive desire to obtain electrons. Only because of mental feebleness does this cause electrical flow to make more sense to me.1

Shafik's advice follows from a relativism heuristic that aids in understanding a lot of math and science: use whichever terminology makes the most sense of what you see. How does this heuristic apply to final causes and privations? For example, maybe the final cause of an eye is to see and cataracts are the result of a privation that hinders the final cause of sight. But maybe instead the final cause of an eye is the development of cataracts and all our early decades of clear sight are a privation of cataracts? Is any one system of terminology more valid than another? If so, what are the criteria for judging the validity of one final cause theory over another?

Why are final causes not tautologies?

(obligatory xkcd reference here)

Feser explicitly claims the notion of final causes is non-tautological, but he doesn't explain why. To Feser, the two statements:

Opium causes sleep because it causes sleep.
Opium causes sleep because it has the power to cause sleep.
are inequivalent. Why are they inequivalent? From the book:
[The second statement says] that opium has a power to cause sleep; that is to say, it tells us that the fact that sleep tends to follow the taking of opium is not an accidental feature of this or that sample of opium, but belongs to the nature of opium as such.
That leads us back to the question of the relativism of accidental and substantial forms and how we judge one accidental-substantial pair as more valid than another. It seems Thomism hinges on a preformed notion of natural.

What's insufficient about the distinction between context-free and context-specific that makes final causes necessary for understanding the significance of a given causal chain?

Feser gives the example of how bear DNA causes bears to be big and furry but bear DNA doesn't cause bears to be good mascots for football teams. Feser's point is this implies there's a final cause at work with DNA, and the final cause includes size and furriness but not mascot-worthiness.

But bear DNA does cause bears to be good mascots, just not directly. The issue here is the distinction between context-free and context-specific causalities, not end causes. Bear DNA causes bears to be big and furry regardless whether humans exist, but whether bear DNA causes them to be good mascots also depends upon (1) humans existing; (2) humans playing football; and (3) humans choosing mascots that are big, furry animals. Biologists don't study mascot-worthiness genes in DNA because such genes require context that transcends the scope of biology—but the genes exist nevertheless.

What's the final cause of a final cause?

And what's the final cause of a final cause's final cause?, and so on. How do final causes work at all without leading to an infinite regression?—or are we allowing for infinite regressions?

By the way—and this isn't a question—a decrease in entropic order is an increase in information.

From the book:

…would contradict the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that order (and thus information content) tends invariably to decrease, not increase, within a closed system.
Not to pick on Feser here because this is a common misconception: order is a lack of information, and the amount of information in a closed system increases with time as order decreases. As with electrons and the flow of electrical current, many people see this as a backwards way of looking at things. If you're such a person, try thinking of order as a reduction in complexity or a kind of data compression.2 For example, if you sort your books according to the Dewey Decimal System then you need only a simple, concise card catalog to describe where any book is; without sorting your books to some such system, you need more information to describe where any book is.

[1] The backwards terms for electrical charges are useful for pointing out that electrical current is arbitrary. In batteries what flows are protons, not electrons, and the protons do flow from positive to negative.

[2] But don't think of order as lossless data compression if you want to be exact about it because lossless data compression doesn't eliminate information; instead, it squeezed a fixed amount of information into a smaller space.


Anonymous said...

If CMB reads a book in the woods does it make a sound?

Bobby and the Presidents said...

Wait, so Math books don't exist?

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

Anonymous—Yes, but the sound isn't as loud as the sound Craig makes when reading one of Anonymous's comments.

Bobby et al—Hmm… my prose is awkward there. … There, I fixed that. Thanks for calling me out on sloppiness.

21st Century Scholastic said...

Hi Craig.

It looks like neither prof. Feser nor any of his readers noticed this blog post (and he's probably too busy to comment on it anyway). So i'm gonna try answering your questions. I hope you will read this comment and judge if your doubts have been solved.

Let me begin by saying that the dispute between thomism and competing metaphysical systems is much more important than “a heated exchange between a Red Sox fan and a Yankees fan”. Becoming a thomist changes everything, starting from your view of reality itself to your views about God. You'll never see the world as before.

Of course, this leads us to your point about prof. Feser supposedly resting his case for thomism only on internal consistency. Now i believe you're right in asking evidence for Aquinas' system being “true” (and not merely “logically uncontradictory”); if we ever get done in discussing your questions, i'll show you something that – i believe – establishes the truth of thomism beyond reasonable doubt.

Enough, let's start:

Answer to #1. The definition of natural is: x is natural to y if x follows from the essence of y. Nature is the expression of the essence of a thing, so – for example – it is natural for rubber balls to bounce cause their essence is such that they tend to bounce under appropriate circumstances (of course, the full explanation of this fact will involve scientific and chemical mechanisms, etc.). On the other hand, it is unnatural for rubber balls to follow people around menaciously (to use an example from the book) cause they lack the necessary resources (to move willingly they would need sentience, volition and other features they don't have).

Answer to #2. Yes. Matter is an abstraction too. What we see, the things in the world around us, are always composites of form and matter, and never matter alone. Matter by itself (which the thomist calls prime matter, discussed in p. 14) is wholly propertyless, unextended, without mass etc. When conjoined to some form, prime matter becomes proximate matter; of this kind of matter you can say that it is particulate, that it is “composed of” x, and many other things.

Of course, this has nothing to do with your irrealism regarding atoms and mathematical objects. Discussing these cases would derail the discussion, so i move on to the next point.

Answer to #3. You can't “flip” substantial and accidental forms in the way you describe. To understand why you need to know accurately what a substance is. A substance is something which has indipendent existence and doesn't inhere in anything else. Now, while redness needs an object in which to inhere (it doesn't exist “by itself”, like a platonic form – but only as instantiated in particulars), “ballness” can and does continue to exist even when it's painted a different color or changes one of his accidental attributes. Here's why substantial and accidental forms are not relativistic.

Answer to #4. See the answer to #3. To know what is substantial and what is accidental, you need to determine first if the thing you're looking at is a substance, then you need to know the essence of that substance, then you exclude every attribute that doesn't follow from the essence (that which follows from the essence of a thing is a “property”, that which doesn't is a mere accident). For more about substances and related concepts, see David Oderberg's “Real Essentialism”, which i strongly recommend.

21st Century Scholastic said...

Answer to #5. To know the final cause of something, you need to know what effects it tends to produce stably and reliably. So, the final cause of a thing is whatever it tends to do. (See the example of the match, or the one about ice).

Keep in mind that, according to thomism, there are no “chance” events in nature. The reason for this statement is that thing without a mind act according to the laws of nature (whatever they are – descriptions, abstract objects, or the expressions of the natures of things – as a follower of Aquinas would say). Only the actions of rational beings are unpredictable (Ari himself puts this well in the when he affirms in the Physics that, “what is not capable of action cannot do anything by chance”). Of course you will be thinking, “what about quantum mechanics”? Well, the Copenhagen intepretation is not the only game in town. In Quantum Reality, Nick Herbert lists – and discusses - about ten different interpretations of quantum mechanics, many of which are deterministic (remember that thomism is not committed to determinism – only in the case of things “without a mind”. On free will, we're staunch libertarians, though this would need qualification too).

Answer to #6. Not all causes are simultaneous (otherwise, time wouldn't exist). Only causation per se is simultaneous, while causation per accidens is of the “before-after” kind. (The distinction is discussed in pp. 69-73).

Answer to #7. We know that cataracts are privations cause we know the purpose of the eye. The eye enables us to see, therefore his function is to enable human beings to see (note how this is a basic, evident trith, without need of argumentation. We're able to discern the function of things the same way we are able to know that there is an external world, or that change exists; i.e. Through direct, more-or-less immediate observation).

On the same note, cataracts are clearly defective to human beings – they frustrate the purpose of the eye and result from a damage of its form, function always following form – so we can affirm with confidence that they are privations (and not the other way around).

Answer to #8. See the answer to #1. The notion of natural is not preformed, it's a posteriori and based on empirical observation.

Answer to #9. The very fact that mascot-worthiness is “context-dependent”, as you say, is what extablishes the existence of teleology. If humans ceased to exist, bears would cease to be mascots, but they still would be big and furry. So, “causing bears to be big and furry” is the end of DNA – while “causing them to be good mascots” is not.

Answer to #10. A final cause has no final cause cause it's not an agent. The principle of finality (discussed on p. 18) states that “every agent has a final cause”. Since a final cause doesn't act (and it's not a thing either – that is, a substance) it doesn't have a final cause.

Of course, if you need clarifications, or want further discussion, i'm all for it. ;)

Have a nice day.

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

21st Century Scholastic— Thanks for reading my post and responding. Yes, JEC is a small blog with only a handful of readers. In a way this is good because otherwise I mightn't have enough time to respond to all comments, as is my policy. But I would benefit from having a few more readers such as yourself, who take the time to craft a detailed response.

Now let's move on to your specific points.

* * *

#1: So I have it that "natural" hinges on a thing's essence, and a thing's essence "signifies the composite of matter and form" (p 27), and forms are "grounded in the natures" of things (p 15). Where do I get on this merry-go-round ride?

#2: Fair enough, though I have trouble thinking about what it means for something to exist without any properties.

#3 and #4: You lost me here. You say I had a red ball-shaped thing that became a blue ball-shaped thing. I say I had a ball-shaped red thing that became a ball-shaped blue thing. I don't understand how redness, a color, needs an object to inhere to any more than ballness, a shape, needs an object to inhere to. Again, the distinction between substantial and accidental seems arbitrary to me.

#5: You're right that what we currently know about quantum physics doesn't require randomness in the universe. For all we know, there may be no chance events in the universe. Thanks for clarifying the Thomistic position that mindless things are deterministic, though this makes me want a definition of "mind".

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

21st Century Scholastic, cont.—

#6: Take the example from the book of the leaf moved by the stone moved by the staff moved by the hand (p 70-71). This is proposed to be a casual series per se, but according to relativity, nothing travels faster than the speed of light, so that leaf isn't moving simultaneously with the hand—at least, not that first quantum of movement. Indeed, according to relativity there's no such thing as objective simultaneity anywhere in the universe. Maybe all causal series are accidental?

#7: Eyes also let us get melanoma cancer of the eye, but I wouldn't say the purpose of the eye is to get melanoma cancer. Why? For me, the answer is statistical. Most people don't get melanoma cancer of the eye. And of those that do get it, most spend most of their lives not suffering from cancer of the eye. Eye cancer is rare, if not rare enough.

On the other hand, most people have eyes that allow them to see. Of that majority, most spend most of their lives being able to see, with only a few losing sight before death. So eyesight is common.

One might suggest another purpose of the eye is to be beautiful to help attract and keep a mate. But having beautiful eyes to help attract and keep a mate occurs for a smaller portion of one's life than having sight, so beauty is a less common function of the eye than sight.

Anyway, it's from this that I may say, "The purpose of the eye is to see." But that's a statistical simplification, no different than I when I say that the purpose of such-and-such first baseman is to hit for power, based on his stats from previous years, and that's why such-and-such team acquired him in a trade. But maybe this year the first baseman will have a bad year at the plate but make a unlikely but game-winning defensive play in the 9th inning of the 7th game of the World Series. So much for my ascribed purpose. Statistical accounts are inexact. And like with the distinction between substantive and accidental in questions #3 and #4, the distinction between a final cause and a privation seems arbitrary to me.

#8: Now final causes are drawn into the circular set of definitions from question #1.

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

21st Century Scholastic, cont.—

#9: Suppose you have a recipe for making an ordinary cake without icing. Suppose you use that recipe to make a cake, but when it's complete you add icing and stick some candles on top. Now you have a birthday cake. Did the cake recipe cause the birthday cake?

I see three plausible answers to this question. The first is "yes, the recipe caused the birthday cake." The idea here is that the recipe was a necessary (though insufficient) cause for the birthday cake.

Another answer is "no, but the recipe caused the cake as it existed before it became a birthday cake." The idea here is that the change from being a non-birthday cake to being a birthday cake had nothing to do with the recipe, so the recipe shouldn't be considered a cause of the birthday cake, specifically.

The third answer is a flat "no." The idea here is that because the recipe was insufficient (though necessary) for the creation of the birthday cake, the recipe was a mere "factor" or "enabler," not a cause. There were many other factors, too, like having flour and sugar, having an oven, knowing how to use an oven, having the free time to make a birthday cake, having the volition to make a birthday cake, having it be someone's birthday to have a reason to make a birthday cake, etc. Maybe one or many of those other factors is a cause. Maybe none.

All three interpretations seem valid to me, and personally I would use whichever interpretation is most useful given the context. If it were me who made the cake and someone asked me, "Craig, why did you make that cake?" then I would answer, "Because it was Timmy's birthday." Note that this is interpretation #3 and excludes the recipe from being a cause. But if someone asked me, "How did you make this cake?" I would say, "I followed the Betty Crocker recipe," which implies interpretation #1.

Map the cake-recipe analogy to the bear-DNA example: recipe is to DNA, ordinary cake is to bigness and furriness, birthday cake is to mascot-worthiness, and baker, kitchen, and ingredients are to cellular automata sans DNA. I see three analogous interpretations for the bear DNA: first, that bear DNA causes mascot-worthiness; second, that bear DNA causes only bigness and furriness but not mascot-worthiness; and third, that bear DNA causes none of the above.

All three analogous interpretations are valid, which is to say I disagree when someone says interpretation #1 is too inclusive. If that same person advocates interpretation #2 then they're allowing for some insufficiency, to allow DNA to cause bigness and furriness, but they're not allowing for enough insufficiency to cause mascot-worthiness. How much insufficiency is allowed? All three attributes require a lot of machinery outside of the DNA itself. Mascot-worthiness requires more outside machinery—i.e., football teams—just as a birthday cake requires more "outside machinery" than a regular cake. So?

Here we're headed to a conundrum I described more generally in another blog post. You may want to take a look at that, especially pattern #2.

#10: Fair enough.

* * *

Once again, thanks for responding. Please do so again.

21st Century Scholastic said...
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21st Century Scholastic said...
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21st Century Scholastic said...

You're to be commended for trying to understand thomistic metaphysics to know whether it's true. Once the concept start to sink in, and you start applying them to reality, they're not as obscure as they seem at first glance.

P.S. The link did not appear in the above post, here it is.

21st Century Scholastic said...

Sorry for the late response. I've been without internet connession due to bad weather.

Re the definition of nature: every material substance is a composite of essence and existence. The essence of a material substance is always composed of matter and form. Only in this sense are forms "grounded in the nature of things", in that they are a part of them; no circularity at all.

Re the substantial and the accidental: by "ballness" i do not mean "sphericity", but "being the kind of thing that is used to play many different sports, etc". Sphericity is not sufficient for making sth a "ball"; if i gave Manchester United this thing, or a snowball, i doubt they would thank me (or use it for playing soccer, for that matter). So,does sphericity inhere in a ball just as redness does? To know this, we would have to know the real definition of a ball, i.e. its essence. I think sphericity is part of the essence of a ball, but it's not sufficient to make something a ball.

What complicates everything is that prof. Feser chose a bad example (as he himself admits): given that a ball is an artifact, its essence is wholly dependent on human conventions. So, for example - while composition is important, in the case of artifacts it's not always essential - in their case, sometimes, forms follows function (if you turn a trash can upside down, you have something that can be used as a chair - even if a trash can is not a chair). So, if we focused on a natural object instead of an artifact (like the red ball), the substance/accident distinction would become clearer.

Re the theory of relativity: i don't know the scientific details well enough to make a judgment, but i know some philosophers (W.L. Craig among them) have challenged the idea that relativity precludes simultaneity. Moreover, i'm suspicious of sensationalistic claims (whatever their provenience), and i don't think that a single observation is able to overturn a well-established theory, but if the recent reports are accurate, it is possible to travel faster than the speed of light.

Re eyes and their function: knowing that the function of the eye is to see is not a matter of statistic. Even if the majority of human beings were affected with eye cancer and unable to see, we would still conclude that the function of the eye is to enable us to see (i should say the main function, because - as you note - the eye has many different functions, as everything else in the universe). The reason is that every part of a substance is oriented to the good of the substance as a whole (that's why living beings are called organisms; their parts work together in such a way as to guarantee our well-being).

Now, melanoma cancer is at least as damaging to human beings as cataract is (!), and results from cellular malfunctioning (the purpose of melanocytes is to contribute to the good of the eye, just as the purpose of the eye is to contribute to the well-being of the human body as a whole). It's this observation that leads us to think - correctly - that the purpose of the eye is other than producing cancers!

Finally, re bear DNA and birthday cakes: here again what complicates the issue is the choosing of a bad example - a cake is an artifact. If a world plague killed all humans, both "normal" cakes and birthday cakes would cease to exist, and what would be left on your kitchen table would be just an extremely complex arrangement of saccharides and other chemical compunds. In the case of bears, the quality of "being a good mascot" (which is just as artifactual as "being arranged in such a way so as to form a cake") disappears toghether with humanity, but "furriness" does not.

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

21st Century Scholastic

Our dialog is losing focus. Some of our examples are bad, and we've got a lot of separate points going on—as follows from my post's unorganized questions. Rather than continue on as is, I'm going to consolidate the points and talk about the central problem they allude to.

That central problem is: I don't see what Thomistic metaphysics is ultimately grounded on. Let's call a system "valid" if it's logically consistent. Also, let's call a system "true" if it's valid and allows for no competing system that's valid. According to these terms, I see Thomism as valid but not true. You see it as true. Therefore, our disagreement is not whether Thomism can validly explain things but instead whether Thomism is the only possible valid explanation. Many of the questions I raised in my post deal with this objection: that Thomism fails to bootstrap itself to render all other systems invalid.

For instance, I object by saying final causes are arbitrary. Take our ongoing example of the eye. Why not say the eye's final cause is to grow a cataract? The difference between a final cause and a privation, I said, is statistical. You replied it's not statistical. Instead, the eye's final cause must entail sight because sight contributes to the well being of the organism. Cataracts detract from that well being. But your reply begs my next objection, which is that "well being" is statistical—at best. Many blind people do OK. Furthermore, restoring sight to an adult who's been blind for most or all of their life is a risky endeavor. Oliver Sacks documented such a case in his book, Anthropologist on Mars, when he describes a middle-aged man who regained his sight, only to discover that sight made his life worse. Eventually the main suffered severe health failure after doing a lot of compensatory overeating. Sure, it's a rare case—all the more reason to say final causes are statistical.

I'm going to end my comment with that one example and drop the other points for the time being. The other points are details in addition to the point I made above. In short: I fail to see why all other possible ways of looking at the universe are invalid. Let's focus on final causes for now and on the example of the eye—or any other examples you wish to use—before moving back to the other points. Please explain to me, without merely pushing my objection of arbitrariness onto other terms, why non-teleological ways of looking at the universe are invalid.

21st Century Scholastic said...

[I usually don't take that long to answer a post. This time i've been sick for some days, far from home - i'll try to make my answer worth the wait. ;)]

I agree; let's focus on the eye example.

The thomist, basing his reasoning on the structure and functioning of an eye, affirms that his main function is to see (or, more precisely - since the eye is only a "part of a substance" and not a substance - to enable the human being to see).
Now, you say, "many blind people do OK". This is true, but blind people are able to survive only cause they live in a highly controlled environment, with people who assist them (or other helps such as guide dogs) and all the benefits of modernity. How well would they live in a "survival of the fittest" situation (for example, imagined a poor blind man dropped in the wild and hunted by lions. How well would he do in such a situation?). Moreover, it's clear that it would be better for blind men to see than not to see. Even if they "do OK", many of them desire to (re-?)gain eyesight - you will find many in churches, hoping to regain their sight at the great resurrection (not to mention - of course - hospitals and other medical structures, to get a laser surgery!).
It's this kind of observation that supports the assertion that being able to see is a perfection and not a privation as a cataract is (the fact is even clearer in the case of other organs - would you seriously argue that the purpose of the heart is not to pump blood but to allow humans to experience strokes?).

It's good to be skeptical of a claim before accepting it (even for the christian religion - after all, the apostle Paul recommends testing everything and holding on to what withstands criticism), but i think doubting that the purpose of the eye is to see is not the right way to question thomism.

At this point i want to ask you a question (in response to your "is thomism the only possible explanation?"). How do you explain one of the most basic features of the world - change? (as in, "what is it?" and, "how does it occur?")

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

21st Century Scholastic

If that's as far as your argument about the eye goes, then let's agree to disagree about final causes. You give good arguments for why it's convenient and useful to say "the eye's purpose is to see," and I agree it makes a lot of sense in casual conversation to say just that; nevertheless the evidence you give is statistical. Even when hunted by lions, a blind man isn't 100% certain to fare worse than a man who has sight. If the hunting occurs during a moonless, starless night, then a blind man may have better odds than a man who has sight.

Furthermore, I wonder if your "survival of the fittest" scenario is misguided from the start. What if the smallest unit of survival for homo sapiens is not the individual but instead the tribe or community? In such a case, the "highly controlled environment" that allows blind people to do OK is not some fluke set of circumstances; it's the normal state of affairs. Blind people have been around, contributing, for at least a couple thousand years going back to the poet Homer. Probably they've been contributers for as long as humans have been settled and have had food surpluses. Sight may have been a necessary function for humans 100,000 years ago, back when we roamed the African savannah as cat food, but nowadays an individual human's ability to evade lions is as important as an individual bat's ability to see well in broad daylight—something the bat's ancestors needed to do but the bat doesn't.

As for other bodily organs, such as the heart, the same pattern of argument goes. Keep in mind that when I reject the objectivity of the statement, "The purpose of the heart is to pump blood," I'm not simultaneously arguing that the purpose of the heart is some other final cause, such as allowing for strokes. I mention those other, absurd final causes merely to illustrate my point: specific claims about purpose are arbitrary, ultimately based on statistical inference about the present and future.

* * *

As for change: I can't explain it in fundamental terms because I don't understand time in fundamental terms. Will you press me for an empirical explanation, then? I'm unsure I'm able to be rigorous enough—I'm not a physicist.

Does not having the right answer make me unqualified for recognizing wrong answers? I think not.

21st Century Scholastic said...

Of course not.

As for time, i don't think it's necessary to understand what time is in order to understand change (especially if one thinks, as i do, that time is nothing more than the measure of change, and that if no change occurred, time would not exist at all).

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

21st Century Scholastic— Judging by the brevity of your last comment, it sounds like you've given up on me. Too bad. I was looking forward to your example of the thing that "establishes the truth of Thomism beyond reasonable doubt."

21st Century Scholastic said...

The reason for the brevity is not that i've "given up", it's simply that there was little to respond to in your last post. You said you still don't have a preferred (general) explanation for change; but, these days, among physicalist philosophers it is popular to explain change as a mere rearrangement of fundamental particles.

Many thomists think that the main reason for accepting hylemorphism (the distinction between matter and form, from which the whole of A-T philosophy follows) is precisely that change cannot be explained as a rearrangement of matter - because matter is fundamentally indeterminate. By this we mean that matter lacks intrinsic properties, so it needs some principle to give it actuality.

This is the basic structure of the argument. I'm ready to dive into the details, but i first want to know your impressions.

P.S. On final causes, i agree it's better to move on. The source of our disagreement seems to lie in our different outlooks on reality; you treat the search for the final cause of a thing as a quasi-scientific process, but according to the thomistic worldview the intellect discovers the function of a thing by apprehending its form - which is, basically, an empirical process, but once you grasp the structure of the thing you know its final cause, and there's no more room for doubts, statistic or otherwise. So we have to discuss forms anyway - and let's hope we don't get into an impasse again.

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

21st Century Scholastic

I agree with your postscript, and I'm relieved you understand the root cause of our disagreement regarding final causes. In short: we're starting with different assumptions. Recognizing this conflict may save us time in talking about form-matter dualism because we're going to run into the same impasse there, too. Here's why:

Given the facts I know, both physicalism and hylomorphism are valid explanations of the universe. I see nothing contradictory or pointless about postulating matter to have inherent properties, just as I see nothing contradictory or pointless about postulating it to lack inherent properties and to instead require an additional, complimentary concept—a form—to allow for the existence of properties. The language of modern science—physicalism—postulates things the first way, and so we have people such as particle physicists, who hunt for fundamental particles and work to quantify those particles' properties. But presumably previous generations of scientists could've phrased their findings in the language of dualism, and today we could have "form physicists" who hunt for "fundamental forms" and work to quantity those forms' properties. Whatever.

That said, I'm missing a lot of facts about the raw nature of the universe. So are you. So is everyone. For example, we don't know for sure whether the universe makes fundamental sense—and by this I mean whether the universe is reducible to any complete and consistence model that's less complex than the universe itself. Yes, the universe appears to make sense. And we reason about it making sense. And we even know that it makes sense to assume the universe makes sense, for the reason that no scientist or philosopher will collect on a bet against it making sense. But these reasons don't mean that the universe actually does make sense.

Another problem is that even if the universe makes sense, we don't know what facts we're missing, if any, that would invalidate our current models. This is true for both physicalism and hylomorphism. With regard to physicalism, a new observation tomorrow may invalidate physics textbooks today. With regard to hylomorphism, a new observation tomorrow may render the mind's "grasp" of a form wrong—no matter obvious that form may seem today.

The possibility of both cases—that (1) the universe may not make sense and (2) the universe may be hiding facts from us—causes me to conclude that both physicalism and hylomorphism are statistical. They're potentially fallible models based on what we've observed so far, which may not be all there is.

21st Century Scholastic said...

Reading your post, two words immediately came to my mind: unwarranted skepticism. Yes, i agree that there's much we don't know and that everyone could be "missing a lot of facts about the raw nature of the universe"; that's why provisional belief exists. Let's believe what the evidence currently suggests: if we're wrong, time will tell - if we're right, we've been right all along and everyone lives happily ever after, etc. We even have people claiming that knowledge of essence is defeasible (e.g. Tuomas Tahko, who's done a lot of great work in this area; see his articles at, and his remarks in this post:

That said, i think we have sufficient reasons for holding that no intrinsic properties of matter will ever be found. It's not about "postulating"; if we observe matter to have fundamental constituents whose characteristics do not change over time, you have determinate matter. But, so far, every discovered reality has been changing - or, at least, changeable. (Even quarks, the supposed "elementary" particles, appear in different kinds and are able to change into one another.)

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

21st Century Scholastic

So we are in agreement that hylomorphism is provisional. Frankly, your previous comments led me to believe you thought otherwise. But now that we both acknowledge that what we know is based on likelihoods and not absolutes, we're dealing with open questions, not closed ones—validity, not truth. We can judge hylomorphism and its rival claims based on how well they fit the facts.

So far you've made a few claims regarding physicalism and hylomorphism:

(A1) You've claimed matter doesn't have intrinsic properties.

(A2) You've predicted humans won't discover any intrinsic properties in matter.

(A3) And you've implied that humans not finding intrinsic properties in matter validates hylomorphism and its claim that intrinsic properties reside not in matter but instead in forms.

My own positions are: I think A1 is a coin toss, A2 is probably right, and A3 is wrong. I'll skip A1 and A2 because I've nothing to add to them but speculation, and instead I'll focus us on A3.

I think A3 is wrong because there are two plausible scenarios in which physicalism and hylomorphism are both limited:

(B1) Physicalism is correct in principle, but humans will fail to acquire enough evidence to figure out the universe's intrinsics. This could be the case if, say, quarks are divisible but humans never discover their divisibility.

(B2) Physicalism is wrong in principle, and so is hylomorphism. This would be the case if the universe fundamentally doesn't make sense, in the way I mentioned in my previous comment.

In both cases, humans not discovering any intrinsic properties in matter doesn't lead to hylomorphism being right.

21st Century Scholastic said...

>>>I think A3 is wrong because there are two plausible scenarios in which physicalism and hylomorphism are both limited:

(B1) Physicalism is correct in principle, but humans will fail to acquire enough evidence to figure out the universe's intrinsics. This could be the case if, say, quarks are divisible but humans never discover their divisibility.

Why should this be relevant, when we have good deductive arguments for the changeability of matter?* Even if we should never succeed in splitting quarks (for example, we don't develop sufficiently powerful instruments) we can be sure that every eventual particle found inside them will be changeable, vindicating hylemorphism.

>>>(B2) Physicalism is wrong in principle, and so is hylomorphism. This would be the case if the universe fundamentally doesn't make sense, in the way I mentioned in my previous comment. which you say, "Yes, the universe appears to make sense. And we reason about it making sense. And we even know that it makes sense to assume the universe makes sense, for the reason that no scientist or philosopher will collect on a bet against it making sense. But these reasons don't mean that the universe actually does make sense." In other words, "it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, but it could be an alligator in disguise".

To me, it seems like the evidence is not on your side, and you're relying on speculations and possibilities to keep the opposing worldview "away". Please reconsider the situation.

*For example, 1)matter is extended; 2) whatever is extented can be divided; 3) whatever can be divided can be destroyed (for destruction is nothing but the separation of parts); 4) destruction is a kind of change; 5) so, whatever is material is also changeable.

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

To me, it seems like the evidence is not on your side, and you're relying on speculations and possibilities to keep the opposing worldview "away". Please reconsider the situation.

It's common enough on the Internet so as to be a meme that criticism is mistaken for a counterclaim:

Person A defends X; Person B criticizes Person A's defense of X; Person A then presumes Person B is defending not X.

To be clear about it: you're Person A, I'm Person B, and X is the truth (and not merely the validity) of hylomorphism. And I'm not defending Not X.

I sympathize with you that's it's hard to be Person A. While I've got the easy job, you're the one being grilled, at risk for being wrong and not having any target to hit back. Defense is hard. That's the price of making claims.

(If you want to switch roles and play Person B, I invite you to read and respond to any of my other blog posts where, rather than posting questions and criticisms, I instead make claims.)

If in this dialog I were defending physicalism or, more generally, not X, then I would be doing such a bad job of it that you'd be justified for going ad hominem and claiming that I'm doing whatever it takes to keep away an opposing world view. But I'm not defending physicalism—I'm not defending not X. Rather, my one goal in continuing to engage with you in this dialog is to criticize your method. It's the same method Feser used in his book, and it entails offloading the tenuity of an explanation onto "first principles." Some people call this "begging the question."

You came onto this blog hot, saying you had something that demonstrates the "truth" of Thomism beyond "reasonable doubt." All we had to do to get to that truth was square up a few pesky questions I had about Thomistic metaphysics. So we began our back-and-forth, and you satisfactorily answered some of those questions and, as yet, unsatisfactorily answered others. The questions that remain allude to my criticisms that: [C1] any application of Thomistic metaphysics is arbitrary—i.e., unfalsifiable—and: [C2] TM metaphysics is only one of many possible valid models for explaining reality. You've made it clear you think TM is neither arbitrary nor sharing with the truth. Ignoring C1 for now, your job then is to present a case where all reasonable persons must agree with you—else you haven't dispelled C2. So far you've failed to do that, but there's plenty of room for further argument, so keep trying.

However, you've got to first get me to agree with you on your axioms. For example, if you're trying to convince me that matter has no fundamental state, then starting with the assumption "matter is extended" won't do. Of course if I believed in matter's (infinite) extensibility I would agree with you that it has no fundamental state—but that's exactly what we disagree about, its extensibility. Again, it doesn't further your claims to offload their tenuity to your axioms; that only makes me reject your axioms in addition to your conclusions.

Instead, you must present me axioms that I or no other person can reasonably doubt. We must agree on those assumptions. Then we can take those assumptions to wherever in the set of valid conclusions you'd like to go. Presumably that means validating hylomorphism and everything else in Thomistic metaphysics. Until then, we're just two guys quibbling on the Internet.

21st Century Scholastic said...

I've been unable to comment in the previous days due to problems with my browser. (Some people would maliciously attribute the problems to my faithfulness to IE. As you can see, religion is not the only area where i am conservative. :D)

A fair summing up of our debate, i think. But you misunderstood one of my points: by saying that "matter is extended" i only mean that matter occupies space. And i'm pretty confident this IS an axiom that "you or no other person could reasonably doubt".

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

21st Century Scholastic— Yes, you're right. I ought to have said my problem is with your #2 assertion, that whatever is extended can be divided.