Bühler? Bühler?

Psychologist Karl Bühler distinguished three main functions of language, to which his student, the philosopher Karl Popper, added a fourth.  Popper discusses this distinction in several places, most notably in The Self and Its Brain, and at greater length in Knowledge and the Body-Mind Problem: A Defense of Interaction.  I think it is very useful.  (I am no Popperian, but I find that Popper’s work is always interesting.  The Self and Its Brain – a gigantic volume co-written with John Eccles – is unjustly neglected by contemporary philosophers of mind, and a great book to dip into now and again when one is looking for something different from the same old same old.) 

The four functions are as follows:

1. The expressive function, which involves the outward expression of an inner state.  Here language operates in a way comparable to the sound an engine makes when it is revved up, or an animal’s cry when in pain. 

2. The signaling function, which adds to the expressive function the generation of a reaction in others.  Popper compares it to the danger signals an animal might send out in order to alert other animals, and to the way a traffic light signals the possible presence of cars even when there are none about.

3. The descriptive function, which involves the expression of a proposition, something that can be either true or false.  The paradigm here would be the utterance of a declarative sentence, such as “Roses are red,” “Two and two make four,” or “There is a predator in the area.”  Notice that the latter example differs from an animal’s cry of warning in having a conceptual structure.  A bird’s squawk might cause another bird to feel fear and take flight.  What it does not do is convey an abstract concept like eagle, predator, or danger, and thus it does not convey the sort of propositional content that presupposes such concepts. 

4. The argumentative function, which involves the expression of an inference from one or more propositions to another in a manner than can be said to be either valid or invalid, as when we reason from All men are mortal and Socrates is a man to the conclusion that Socrates is mortal.

If you remember our discussion of Fred Dretske some months back, you might note that the first two functions identified by Bühler and Popper correspond roughly to Dretske’s distinction between “natural meaning” and “functional meaning.”  “Natural meaning,” it will be recalled, amounts to nothing more than an effect’s indicating the presence of its cause, as spots on the face indicate the presence of measles.  There is no possibility of misrepresentation here, since an effect will “naturally” mean whatever it is that happens to cause it.  Hence if the spots on someone’s face were caused, not by measles but instead by an allergic reaction of some sort, then that, rather than measles, is what they will “naturally” mean.  Bühler’s and Popper’s “expressive function” seems more or less the same insofar as they appear to think that an effect (the sound of an engine, an animal’s cry of pain, or someone’s angry and spontaneous utterance of the appropriate expletive when stepping in something at the dog park) will “express” whatever inward state it is that happens cause it. 

The possibility of misrepresentation (which was Dretske’s concern) only clearly enters the picture with the “signaling function,” just as it does, on Dretske’s view, with “functional meaning.”  An internal state or utterance might “functionally” mean that such-and-such is present even when it is not present; similarly, it might in Bühler’s and Popper’s sense “signal” the presence of something (predators, cars, or the headache your wife claims she is having) even when that something is not really there.

Dretske is concerned to develop a causal (and thus “naturalistic”) theory of meaning or representation, and Popper allows that a causal theory might be given of the expressive and signaling functions of language.  Hence Popper might have been willing to allow that a theory like Dretske’s is correct as far as it goes.  (Though as I noted in the post on Dretske, there are problems with his account of “functional meaning,” and thus problems with the account he would give of the “signaling function” of language.)

But Popper also holds that there can in principle be no causal account of the descriptive and argumentative functions, and that attempts to develop such an account tend inevitably to collapse the distinctions between the functions of language and reduce the descriptive and argumentative functions to the merely expressive and signaling functions that the naturalist has an easier time dealing with.

The reason Popper takes the descriptive function to be inexplicable in causal terms (and the argumentative function too, insofar as it presupposes the descriptive function) is one I discussed in an earlier post.  A further reason he takes the argumentative function to be inexplicable in such terms is one related to what our friend Victor Reppert and others call the “argument from reason.”  (Here is part of Reppert’s exposition of the argument from The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, and here is William Hasker’s exposition from The Emergent Self.  I have defended the argument from reason in chapter 6 of Philosophy of Mind and at pp. 242-45 of The Last Superstition.)  I discussed the metaphysical picture Popper derives from these considerations in another earlier post.

Of course, that isn’t Bühler pictured above.  It’s his high school econ teacher Ben Stein, taking attendance in the hit 80s philosophical comedy Karl Bühler’s Day Off. 


The competition

Let’s celebrate this Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas the American way – by spending money!  To that end I thought I might call attention to some recent general works on the Angelic Doctor other than my own: John Peterson, Aquinas: A New Introduction; Fergus Kerr, Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction; Stephen Loughlin, Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Reader’s Guide; and Peter Eardley and Carl Still, Aquinas: A Guide for the Perplexed.  And on the horizon is Brian Davies and Eleonore Stump, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas.  The latter has a price tag worthy of the Dumb Ox, so start hoarding those pennies now.


No laughing matter

My bedtime reading of late has included several biographies of significant comic book artists.  Two of the most interesting have been Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko and Steve Starger and J. David Spurlock’s Wally’s World: The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Wally Wood, the World’s Second Best Comic Book Artist.  Unless you’re a comics fan, you won’t know the names.  But you do know some of the work: Ditko was (among many other things) the co-creator of Spider-Man; Wood was (among many other things) one of the founding contributors to Mad magazine.  From that much you might suppose them to be at least rich if not world-famous, but you’d be wrong.  Ditko, now in his eighties, never attained anything like the material success of Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee.  Wood died in 1981, impoverished and under sordid circumstances. 

Ditko’s later work was, notoriously, dominated by his single-minded devotion to the cause of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy.  And therein lies its philosophical interest – not because of the Randian content , but because Ditko’s obsession with promoting it effectively ruined his career.  Wood’s troubles were also largely self-inflicted, though in a very different way.  The lives of men like Ditko and Wood illustrate the complexities involved in questions about moral responsibility and the problem of evil.

Wallace Wood is best known among comics enthusiasts for the science-fiction work he contributed in the 1950s to E.C. Comics’ “New Trend” line.  Here is Wood’s beautifully executed story “My World” from Weird Science #22 – a classic homage to the genre, which gives a good sense of the style and characteristic themes of his work from the period.  Here is a gallery of some of the more illustrative work he did for science fiction magazines.  Here is one of Wood’s stories for the original comic book version of Mad, and here is a sample of his work for the magazine version.

Wood’s career began a slow decline after his departure from Mad, partly because of his prickly personality and inability to deal with editors – the reason he left Mad in the first place – and partly because his interest in work had to compete with his interests in sex, booze, and guns.  Nothing wrong with those things, of course, unless you abuse them.  And Wood certainly did.  He was married three times, divorced the first two wives and abandoned the third.  By the end of his life he was reduced to drawing pornographic comic books for an obscure publisher.  He drank himself to the point of kidney failure.  And rather than go on dialysis, he shot himself in the head with a .44 magnum.  (I still remember where I was when I heard that Wood was dead – on the floor of a comic book convention in L.A., possibly at the now-demolished Ambassador Hotel.  Yes, I know, too dorky for words – I hadn’t yet acquired the ultra-cool that follows upon being a right-wing Catholic philosophy professor with five children.)

Steve Ditko is, with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, one of the fathers of Marvel Comics’ universe of superheroes.  Here is a famous sequence from Ditko’s Spider-Man period, and here are some representative pages from Dr. Strange, Lee and Ditko’s “Master of the Mystic Arts.”  Here is a fine sample of his more illustrative horror-oriented work for Warren Publishing’s Creepy.  And here are some pages featuring Mr. A, Ditko’s bizarre, speechifying Randian superhero.

It was, in part, Ditko’s fascination with Ayn Rand that led to his departure from Spider-Man just as the series was taking off.  Having been given control over plotting by the overworked Lee, Ditko began to move Spider-Man in a more Randian direction.  Sometimes the result was interesting: In the middle of the 1960s, when the counterculture was otherwise beginning to influence comic books, Spider-Man #38 famously has Peter Parker (Spider-Man’s alter ego) refusing to join in a student protest, in a scene portraying the rebels as more interested in cutting classes than in serious thinking about the issues of the day.  Police were portrayed heroically and criminals as worthy only of contempt and never pity.  But Ditko’s ideological agenda increasingly blinded him to the demands of storytelling.  For instance, after a long build up to the revelation of a major villain’s secret identity, Ditko opted for an anticlimax – insisting that it be someone the readers had never heard of, the better to portray criminals as pathetic nobodies.  The clash between Lee’s dramatic sense and Ditko’s Randian scruples led to continual editorial disagreements.  These, together with business disputes between Ditko and Marvel’s publisher Martin Goodman, led Ditko to leave the company and the characters for which he would forever be best known.

Like Wood, Ditko would throughout the remainder of his career stubbornly resist editorial interference, or even editorial suggestions.  And as with Wood, this made it impossible for him to stay with any publisher for long or to reap much financial gain from his talents.  But the two were otherwise quite unlike.  Where Wood was given to fleshly excess, Ditko was straight-laced and cerebral to the point of otherworldliness.  Wood’s later comic book pages were populated by beautiful women in ever more thorough states of undress.  Ditko’s became ever more dominated by long-winded Objectivism-spouting ciphers, the artwork increasingly sketchy and the character development nil, lest anything get in the way of The Message.  Since mainstream publishers wouldn’t touch his smutty stuff, much of Wood’s later work was self-published.  Since they couldn’t sell or even give away Ditko’s Randian sermons, he would submit them to fan magazines – which, though crudely printed and having minimal circulation, were edited by comic book readers enough in awe of Ditko not to meddle with the content of his work.  Wood’s career culminated in pieces like Prince Violate (a pornographic take-off of Prince Valiant); Ditko’s, in comic book panels so wordy with Rand-speak that (as in one case) little room was left over to draw much more than the speaker’s eyes.  The later Wood tempts his reader to sin.  The later Ditko bores him to the point where he’s ready to pull out the .44 magnum and “go Wally Wood” on himself. 

It is for all that hard not to feel pity for the two of them.  Their complaints against editors and publishers were sometimes justified.  Others profited from their work, sometimes obscenely – hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Ditko’s original artwork was stolen from Marvel’s offices by staffers, and sold on the collector’s market – while Wood and Ditko themselves at times faced dire financial straits.  Wood’s health problems were many, and not all caused by his drinking.  His relationships were unstable and often strained; his vices brought him, predictably, no contentment.  One cannot imagine him a happy man.  Ditko’s troubles flowed mostly from a refusal to compromise on moral principles he sincerely believed in.  Both men were extremely talented and produced work of real beauty, and it is painful to consider what might have been. 

At the same time, there was in both of them a stubbornness and lack of common sense that made them their own worst enemies.  Their grievances against editors and publishers were sometimes eccentric, petty, or prima donna-ish.  Opportunities repeatedly came their way over the years from forgiving editors and sympathetic colleagues, and would be either squandered or refused.  Oddly for a follower of Ayn Rand, Ditko seems to have had little knowledge of or concern for the realities of the market.  When he would in his later years condescend to do mainstream work so as to earn a living, he would put minimal effort into it, on the grounds that only his Objectivist pieces were worthy of his full attention.  Naturally, this made publishers only more reluctant to hire him.  Despite the thefts mentioned above, he still retained hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of his original art – some of which he would discard, but none of which he would sell, because of his distaste for the collector’s market.  Wood’s descent into pornographic work was not entirely driven by weakness or desperation; according to his first wife (who thought it beneath him), he rather enjoyed doing it.  His suicide seems to have occurred, not in a sudden outburst of despair – though in financial trouble, he had new work lined up, and his illnesses were treatable – but rather as a calculated refusal to live as an invalid.

Where human suffering is concerned, some cases are easy to judge.  If a Hitler or a Stalin was unhappy, well, they asked for it and that’s that.  At the other extreme, the ordeal of a Louis Zamperini calls forth from us spontaneous and undiluted compassion.  Even someone whose troubles were of his own making gets the deep sympathy of any decent person if his mistake involved a momentary lapse of judgment with lifelong consequences.  But what of someone whose woes were grave but remediable, and which he persistently refused to remedy out of a foolish intransigence, whether born of ideology or habituated vice?  Or (perhaps more realistically) what if such pigheadedness was at least a major factor in his suffering, even if not the only one?  Here our feelings are torn.

Or at least mine are.  There is a reason we are cautioned against judging others.  Not because we cannot know whether their actions are objectively good or evil, wise or foolish – we can often know that quite easily.  Rather, because in many cases we cannot know with confidence their subjective culpability for those actions – the part that stress, weakness of will, confusion, or honest error played in their decisions.  Fortunately, we don’t have to make a final judgment about such things.  Someone else has that job.


Against “neurobabble”

Every written token of the English word “soup” is made up of marks which look at least vaguely like “s,” “o,” “u,” and “p.”  Of course, it doesn’t follow that the word “soup” is identical to any collection of such marks, or that its properties supervene on the material properties of such marks, or that it can be explained entirely in terms of the material properties of such marks.  Everyone who considers the matter knows this.

To borrow an example from psychologist Jerome Kagan, “as a viewer slowly approaches Claude Monet's painting of the Seine at dawn there comes a moment when the scene dissolves into tiny patches of color.”  But it doesn’t follow that its status and qualities as a painting reduce to, supervene upon, or can be explained entirely in terms of the material properties of the color patches.  Everyone who considers the matter knows this too.

Somehow, though, when neuroscientists discover some neural correlate of this or that mental event or process, a certain kind of materialist concludes that the mind’s identity with, or supervenience upon, or reducibility to, or complete explanation in terms of neural processes is all but a done deal, and that the reservations of non-materialists are just so much intellectually dishonest bad faith.  In a recent online op-ed piece for The New York Times, and in an apt phrase, philosopher of mind Tyler Burge criticizes this tendency as “neurobabble,” which produces only “the illusion of understanding.”  For it is as fallacious as any parallel argument about words or paintings would be.

Now one source of neurobabble is the standard but false materialist assumption that the only dualistic alternatives to a “naturalistic” account of the mind are either Cartesian substance dualism or property dualism, with their attendant interaction problem.  To be sure, and as I have noted many times, materialists often deeply misunderstand even these forms of dualism (or at least Cartesian dualism) and direct their objections at crude straw men.  [For some examples, see this post on Daniel Stoljar, and my four-part series of posts on Paul Churchland, here, here, here, and here.  For discussion of the shallowness of materialist arguments in general, see this post on Frank Jackson and this post on (the non-shallow) Noam Chomsky.]

Still, from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view, even Cartesian dualism is a modernist error, the “evil twin” of materialism.  It exaggerates the divide between mind and matter, even as materialism exaggerates their affinity.  (For A-T, many modern positions are “evil twins” in this sense – rationalism and empiricism, libertarianism and socialism, Kantian deontology and utilitarianism, and so on – each removing a genuine insight from the classical metaphysical framework in which it makes sense and then twisting it into a grotesque caricature of itself by ignoring the opposite, balancing insight.  I’ve been meaning to write up a post on that theme, but it is addressed at least indirectly in The Last Superstition.)

The A-T approach is what David Oderberg has called “hylemorphic dualism.”   Unlike Cartesian dualism, which regards a human being as a composite of two substances, res cogitans and res extensa, hylemorphic dualism regards a human being as a single substance.  But unlike materialism, which tends to regard material substances as reducible to their component parts and which is wedded to a mechanistic conception of matter that denies the reality of formal and final causes, hylemorphic dualism is non-reductionist, and regards human beings, like all material substances, as composites of form and matter.  (The view is non-reductionist despite regarding material substances as composed of form and matter, because it does not reduce them to form and matter.  A tree, for example, is a composite of a certain kind of form and matter, but the form and matter themselves cannot be made sense of apart from the tree of which they form metaphysical parts.  The analysis is holistic.) 

“Soul” on this view is just a technical term for the form of the living body.  And the view is dualist, not because it affirms the existence of the soul (plants and non-human animals have forms, and thus “souls,” but are purely material) but rather because it takes human beings to have certain special capacities that do not involve a material organ – namely, their intellectual capacities.  There is no “interaction problem” for hylemorphic dualism, though, because the soul is not (as it is for Descartes) a distinct substance which needs somehow to get into contact with a material substance via efficient causation; it is rather only a part of a complete substance – the formal cause of the substance, of which the matter composing the body is the material cause.  The relationship between soul and body is therefore not like that of two billiard balls, one of them ghostly, which have to find a way somehow to knock into one another.  It is more like the relationship between the shape of a triangle drawn on paper and the ink which has taken on the shape – two aspects of one thing, rather than two things.  Or it is like the relationship between the meaning of a word and the letters that make up the word, or the relationship between the pictorial content of a painting and the splotches of color that make up the painting.  (Probably most of my readers will be familiar with these ideas, but for those who are not, I have spelled them out in more detail in many other places, most fully in chapter 4 of Aquinas.)

One problem with many claims made for materialist reductionism, then, is that they rest on a conception of part-to-whole relations in material substances that is (on the A-T view) false across the board, not merely where the mind-brain relationship is concerned.  It is false to say that a tree is “nothing but” a collection of roots, trunk, leaves, sap, etc., even though a tree does of course have such parts.  It is false to say that a triangle is “nothing but” the ink particles that make up its lines, that a word is “nothing but” the material marks that comprise its tokens, or that a painting is “nothing but” the color patches that the painter has put on canvas, even though these objects also have the parts in question.  And it is false to say that the mind is “nothing but” a collection of neural processes, even though neural processes do indeed underlie all of our mental activities.  (You don’t have to be an A-T theorist to see this, by the way.  See M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience for a thorough critique of the conceptually sloppy and fallacious thinking that permeates much philosophical and “scientific” discussion about the brain.)

Now, since A-T is committed to a kind of dualism, albeit of the hylemorphic variety – and since, in particular, it holds that intellectual operations have no bodily organ – it might sound surprising that I should say that “neural processes do indeed underlie all of our mental activities.”  But that is indeed exactly what the hylemorphic dualist claims.  The reason is this.  Keep in mind first of all that A-T regards sensation and imagination – those “mental” phenomena we have in common with lower animals, and which are characterized by what contemporary philosophers call “qualia” – as corporeal or bodily in nature, and in that sense entirely material.  To be sure, A-T has a different conception of matter than materialists do.  For example, A-T does not hold that the only properties of matter are those described by the modern physicist.  But the relevant point for present purposes is that A-T does not regard sensation and imagination per se as involving any sort of immaterial organs or properties, anything that survives the death of the body, or anything that distinguishes us from the brutes.

What does distinguish us from the brutes and entails immateriality is our grasp of concepts or universal ideas.  One reason conceptual thought cannot be material is that concepts and the thoughts that feature them are abstract and universal, while material objects and processes are inherently concrete and particular; another is that concepts and the thoughts that feature them are (at least sometimes) exact, determinate, and unambiguous while material objects and processes are inherently inexact, indeterminate, and ambiguous when they are associated with conceptual content at all.   There are other reasons too.  (These are issues I have addressed many times.  For a more detailed treatment, see chapters 6 and 7 of Philosophy of Mind and, again, chapter 4 of Aquinas.  Some relevant blog posts of mine can be found here and here.  And see also James Ross’s article “Immaterial Aspects of Thought” and David Oderberg’s article “Concepts, Dualism, and the Human Intellect.”)

All the same, given that the soul of which intellect is one of the powers is of its nature oriented to the body, of which it is the form, the human intellect – unlike the intellects of angels, which are akin to Cartesian immaterial substances – requires bodily activity as a necessary condition of its ordinary operation, even if it is not a sufficient condition.  For one thing, it requires that there be sense organs to generate the sensations from which “phantasms” or mental images can be derived, from which in turn the intellect can abstract concepts.   But it also (and more to the present point) requires that there be organs capable of generating phantasms or images even after sensation has ceased; that is to say, it requires the neurological processes underlying imagination.  For even though our concept of a triangle (for example) is not and cannot be identified with any image of a triangle – such an image will always have features that the concept lacks, will strictly apply only to some triangles while the concept applies to all, might be vague in certain respects, and so forth – we are nevertheless incapable of entertaining the concept of a triangle without at the same time forming an image of some sort (a mental picture of a triangle, or of the look or sound of the word “triangle,” or whatever).  

A useful analogy would be Frege’s conception of the relationship between propositions and sentences.  A proposition cannot be identified with a sentence; for instance, the proposition that snow is white cannot be identified with the English sentence “Snow is white,” because someone who spoke German rather than English could express the very same proposition by using the sentence “Schnee ist weiss.”  But neither can it be identified with any other sentence or collection of sentences, since the proposition that snow is white was true before any language came into existence, and would remain true even if every language went out of existence.  In short, propositions are not linguistic entities.  All the same, they cannot be grasped by us except by means of linguistic entities.  The proposition that snow is white is not identical with “Snow is white” or “Schnee ist weiss,” but you cannot entertain it without entertaining either one of those sentences, or a sentence of some other language.  As Frege put it in his classic paper “The Thought”: “The thought, in itself immaterial, clothes itself in the material garment of a sentence and thereby becomes comprehensible to us.”  (Frege is using “thought” here to refer to a proposition, i.e. to the content of a “thought” in the mentalistic sense of the term.)

Now unlike Frege, Aristotle and Aquinas are not Platonic realists.  But they are moderate realists, and they would affirm something like Frege’s basic point.  Not only the propositions we grasp in having thoughts, but the thoughts themselves, are immaterial and distinct from any visual or auditory images we might form of particular sentences.  But we nevertheless find it impossible to entertain a proposition, and thus to have a thought, without also forming either images of sentences or some other imagery.  And in the view of Aristotle and Aquinas, all imagery is, as I have said, bodily and thus material.  As Aquinas concludes in Book I, chapter 2 of his Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, “since one cannot have imagery without a material organ, it seems clear that there can be no intellectual operation without the cooperation of matter” (as translated by Robert Brennan at p. 192 of his Thomistic Psychology).

Hence the A-T theorist affirms that there will always be some material correlate to normal human intellectual activity – not as a reluctant concession forced on the theory by the successes of modern neuroscience, but, on the contrary, precisely as a prediction of the A-T position as it has been understood from the beginning.  Were Aristotle and Aquinas to be made familiar with the sorts of neuroscientific discoveries frantically trumpeted by materialists as if they should be an embarrassment to the dualist, they would respond, with a shrug: “Of course.  Told you so.”

What A-T denies, again, is that the neurological level of description, however necessary, can ever suffice to account for intellectual activity.  There will always in principle be some slack between the neuroscientific facts and the facts about the content of our thoughts – something even materialists like W. V. Quine and Donald Davidson have affirmed on philosophical grounds, and psychologists like Kagan have affirmed on empirical grounds.  For A-T, the main reason, as I have said, has to do with the contrast between the determinate and universal character of conceptual thought and the particular and indeterminate nature of material processes – see Ross’s article, linked to above, for an especially powerful presentation of this point.

This, incidentally, is why the A-T theorist is untroubled by the neuroscientific evidence for the possibility in principle of “mindreading,” which sometimes gets attention in the popular press.  Invariably, we are told that at least certain kinds of mental states can be “read off” the neurological evidence with a degree of accuracy that is both surprisingly high and yet considerably less than absolute.  For A-T, this is exactly what we should expect.  If a “phantasm” or image is material, so that we can in principle determine neurologically that you are entertaining such-and-such phantasms, then the circumstances under which you are doing so might make it likely that you are also entertaining thoughts of the sort typically associated with such phantasms.  But likelihood is the most we can ever attain given the slack between phantasms or imagery on the one hand, and conceptual content on the other – especially when the conceptual content abstracts considerably from anything we can imagine, as it does when we are thinking about matters far removed from what we can directly experience.

The fact is that Aristotelian-Thomistic hylemorphic dualism is the theory most clearly consistent with all of the philosophical and neuroscientific evidence.  Cartesian dualism is not refuted by such evidence, but it has to resort to arguably ad hoc measures in order to avoid certain difficulties (the interaction problem, the fact that we are sometimes completely unconscious, and so forth).  And there is absolutely nothing in the neuroscientific evidence to support reductive versions of materialism over against either property dualism or A-T.  In arguments for preferring materialistic reductionism to these dualist alternatives, all the work is being done by metaphysical and methodological assumptions rather than by empirical evidence – by bogus appeals to Ockham’s razor, say, or to the illusion that “everything else has been explained in materialist terms.”  (I say that the appeal to Ockham’s razor is in this context bogus, because the main arguments for dualism are not probabilistic “explanatory hypotheses” to which considerations of parsimony are relevant; they are, instead, attempts at strict metaphysical demonstration.  See the posts on Churchland linked to above for more on this issue.  And I say that the claim that “everything else has been explained in materialist terms” is an illusion for reasons set out here, here, and in the posts on Jackson and Chomsky linked to above.) 

Of course, property dualists, like A-T theorists, perceive that the mental and neurological levels of description are much closer than Cartesian dualists suppose; while non-reductive materialists like Davidson at least perceive that they are not as close as reductive materialists suppose.  But each of these views still suffers from analogues of the problems facing the more extreme versions of dualism and materialism.  For example, they both face the problem of epiphenomenalism, which follows upon their common “mechanistic” insistence that all causation be understood on the model of efficient causation.  Hylemorphic dualism is the true mean between the extremes, a view that has the advantages of the others without their difficulties.

So why are its virtues not more widely recognized?  The usual reasons:  There is, first of all, the average contemporary academic philosopher’s unfamiliarity with what the ancients and medievals really thought.  Second, there is the dogmatic, ideological status that the early moderns’ “mechanistic” revolution – their denial of Aristotelian formal and final causes – has taken on in modern intellectual life, bolstered by the wholly unmerited prestige that revolution has inherited from the successes of empirical science.  (See The Last Superstition for the details.)  And third, there is the equally dogmatic, equally ideological naturalism that sustains itself on the backs of the first two factors.  As Burge has written in another context:

The flood of projects over the last two decades that attempt to fit mental causation or mental ontology into a ‘naturalistic picture of the world’ strike me as having more in common with political or religious ideology than with a philosophy that maintains perspective on the difference between what is known and what is speculated.  Materialism is not established, or even clearly supported, by science.  (“Mind-Body Causation and Explanatory Practice,” in John Heil and Alfred Mele, eds., Mental Causation, at p. 117)


The brutal facts about Keith Parsons

At The Secular Outpost, Keith Parsons comments on all the commentary about him.  (HT: Bill Vallicella)  If you check out his combox, you’ll see that he there accuses me of “Parsons-bashing.”  I think a fair-minded reader of my recent post about him would agree that I wasn’t really criticizing him so much as those who’ve made a big deal out of his “calling it quits” on philosophy of religion.  All the same, I did have a few good-natured yucks at his expense, so I don’t blame him for being a little sore at me.

I do blame him, though, for providing further evidence that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, as he does in another one of his comments.  So, this time let’s really do a little Parsons-bashing, shall we? 

The offending comment occurs in a response to reader Dianelos Georgoudis.  Parsons says, as if it were something we could all agree on:

Both theists and atheists begin with an uncaused brute fact.

And the problem is that that is precisely not what theists do, at least not if we are talking about theists like Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, and all the other great representatives of classical theism.  Aristotle’s Pure Act is not a brute fact.  Plotinus’ One is not a brute fact.  Anselm’s That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Conceived is not a brute fact.  Aquinas’s Subsistent Being Itself is not a brute fact.  And so forth.  In each case we have arguments to the effect that the material universe in principle must have had a cause and that the divine cause arrived at not only happens not to have a cause (as a “brute fact” would) but rather in principle could not have had or needed a cause and in principle could not have not existed.  And the reasons, of course, have to do with the metaphysics of potency and act, the difference between composite substances and that which is metaphysically absolutely simple, the real distinction between essence and existence in anything contingent, and other aspects of classical metaphysics in the Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, and Scholastic traditions. 

At this point, I imagine Parsons might, like so many other atheists under the delusion that they’ve mastered the arguments of the other side, indignantly demand an explanation of all this obscure “act and potency” and “essence versus existence” stuff that he’s never heard of, and of how it is supposed to show what the thinkers in question say it shows.   (Or at least he might if he wasn’t retired and all.  Sorry if I’m keeping you off the links, Keith!)  If so, my response would be: If you really need someone to explain all that to you, then with all due respect, it’s a good thing you have given up philosophy of religion, because you are simply not competent to speak on the subject. 

Neo-Platonist, Aristotelian, and Thomistic and other Scholastic writers are hardly marginal theists, after all.  They are the paradigmatic theists.  They invented (what is these days called) the philosophy of religion and the core arguments in the field.  They represent a 2300 year old tradition of philosophical theism, and their thought has historically determined the intellectual articulation of revelation-oriented religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  In the case of Christianity – certainly of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy – you simply cannot understand the key theological ideas without an understanding of the Platonic and/or Aristotelian concepts in terms of which their orthodox formulations were hammered out.  And none of these thinkers would regard God as a “brute fact.”  Nor is this some incidental feature of their position; it is the very heart of it.  The whole point of theism, for these classical writers, is that the explanatory buck must stop with something that is in itself intelligible through and through – precisely because, unlike the mixtures of act and potency which make up the world of our experience, it is purely actual; or because, unlike the composite things of our experience, it is absolutely simple; or because, unlike compounds of essence and existence, its essence is existence; and so forth.  For an Aristotle, Plotinus, or Aquinas, to show that there is no such thing as Pure Act, the One, or Subsistent Being Itself would not be to show that God is after all just a “brute fact” among others; it would rather be to show that there is no God.

Would Parsons really need an explanation of all this?  The fact that he thinks that theism regards God as a “brute fact” is strong evidence that he would, because no one acquainted with the arguments of classical theists like the ones mentioned would say such a thing.  Nor am I unfairly pouncing on him for an offhand remark in a combox.  In a paper on the cosmological argument written in response to Roy Abraham Varghese, Parsons develops the “brute fact” theme at length, and expresses bafflement why anyone would think (a) that the universe is in principle in need of an explanation outside itself, and (b) that the cause of the universe would not in principle need one.  Again, no one familiar with the Aristotelian theory of act and potency, the Neo-Platonic distinction between composition and simplicity, the Thomistic distinction between essence and existence, etc. and the roles such concepts play in classical natural theology would be the least bit puzzled why classical theists affirm both (a) and (b).  Such a person could reasonably say “I understand why (a) and (b) follow from such metaphysical principles.  But here’s why I don’t accept those principles…”  What a reasonable person cannot do is (I) claim to know enough about “the case for theism” to be able to judge it a “fraud,” while at the same time (II) failing to evince the slightest knowledge of, much less bothering to answer, the core arguments of the classical theistic tradition.

It is pretty obvious that what Parsons has actually read in the philosophy of religion are, for the most part, contemporary authors like Plantinga, Swinburne, and Mackie, together with some anthologized snippets of older writers – where the older writers are taken to be significant only insofar as they anticipated the arguments of the more recent ones, and where research in the field is guided by the methodological principle that if some thinker, idea, or argument hasn’t been prominently discussed in the academic journals and books published in recent years, it must not be worth knowing about.  In other words, he is much like my younger atheist self – back in the days when I thought books like Parsons’ God and the Burden of Proof were hot stuff, before I actually started to read the older writers in depth and on their own terms, and found that contemporary writers rarely understand them correctly.  (Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism, for example – while otherwise an important book and one which had a great influence on me when I was younger – is hopeless on Aquinas, as I later came to discover and as I show in Aquinas.)

Parsons is not likely ever to find this out himself, however, for the same two reasons Dawkins, Harris, and other New Atheist types aren’t (reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere).   First, Parsons has by virtue of “calling it quits” on philosophy of religion now chained himself to the same question-begging merry-go-round occupied by Dawkins and Co.  It looks something like this:

I know that theism is too intellectually flimsy to be worth taking seriously, because the arguments for it that I’m familiar with are so bad.  And I know that I must be understanding those arguments correctly and that there are no better ones worth investigating, because theism is too intellectually flimsy to be worth taking seriously.  So nyah nyah!

Second, and again like the New Atheists, Parsons has now shot his mouth off so often and so loudly about how transparently “fraudulent” the “case for theism” is that the humiliation that would follow upon admitting that he was wrong might be too great to bear.  Certainly it is less attractive than the 15 minutes of fame he is now getting in the echo chambers and amen corners of the secularist blogosphere. 

So, I suspect we will not see Parsons again.  But of course, we will see his like again, dime-a-dozen as they are.  Hence, for any junior atheist apologist out there dreaming of that big day when you too can make your Grand Exit from the field – no doubt this will become a ritual with the Prometheus Books crowd – here’s some advice.  Before dismissing as “fraudulent” a tradition represented by the likes of Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, et al., try to learn something about it.  And if you refuse to do so, at least have the good taste not to whine that people are “bashing” you when they expose your breathtaking arrogance and ignorance for what they are.
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