The Montréal Review kindly runs a précis of The Last Superstition in their latest edition.  While you’re over there, do browse through TMR’s website -- lots of interesting pieces on philosophy, religion, politics, history, science, literature, you name it.


TLS on radio

I’ll be on the Catholic Answers Live radio show tomorrow at 7 pm ET to discuss The Last Superstition.  (You might be able to find podcasts of earlier radio interviews by following the links you’ll find here, though I believe most of them are no longer available.)

UPDATE: The podcast is now available here.


Palmer on libertarianism

My review of Tom G. Palmer’s recent book Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice appears in the latest issue of Reason Papers, now edited by Carrie-Ann Biondi and Irfan Khawaja.  (For the full contents of the current issue and of archived issues, go here.)


TLS and formal causes

The website Apologetics 315 kindly reviews my book The Last Superstition.  I’ll let you check out the nice things said about the book for yourself and cut to the reviewer’s main criticism:

Feser convincingly shows throughout the book that Final Causation is inevitable.  Even if someone might say they don't believe in it, no one can really escape it.  But once the Final Cause is firmly established, Feser tries to sneak in the Formal Cause as well, by piggybacking on top of it.  This seemed insufficient.  Based on what Richard Dawkins in particular has written, evolution itself undermines the Formal Cause.  He claimes [sic] that there is no static 'Form', because life is constantly and mindlessly changing.  Although Feser tackled the Final Cause aspect of this line of thinking extremely well, this reviewer would have liked to hear more about why Dawkins and others are mistaken about Formal Causality specifically.  Especially since so much rests on it.

A lot could be said about formal causes, and it’s true that I don’t say all of it in TLS.  (Useful recent treatments of the subject include chapter 1 of Eleonore Stump’s Aquinas, David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism, and James Ross’s Thought and World.)  But with all due respect to the reviewer, it is not correct to maintain that what I do say in the book amounts to “sneaking in” formal causes alongside final causes, as if the relationship between them were contingent.  It is not contingent.  For every irreducible level of immanent final causality in the natural order, there is necessarily a corresponding irreducible level of formal causality.  

Recall first that for the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition, the fundamental sort of final causality that exists in nature is the “directedness” of an efficient cause toward the generation of its typical effect or range of effects.  It is similar to what contemporary writers on dispositions and causal powers like C. B. Martin, John Heil, Brian Ellis, Nancy Cartwright, and George Molnar have in mind when they speak, for example, of the way dispositions are “directed toward” or “point to” their characteristic “manifestations,” or the way causal powers are “directed toward” their characteristic effects.  Hence the directedness of brittle objects toward shattering, of soluble objects toward dissolving, of the phosphorus in a match head toward generating flame and heat, are instances of finality as that is understood in the A-T tradition.  The A-T view is that unless we regard such “directedness” or “pointing” as immanent or inherent to the natural phenomena that exhibit such dispositions and causal powers, we have no way of making it intelligible why they have the manifestations and effects that they typically do.  Causes and effects, dispositions and manifestations would become inherently “loose and separate,” so that any effect or none might follow upon any cause.  Such Humean fantasies are for A-T an inevitable result of the abandonment of immanent final causes.

Now with that much the reviewer seems to agree; or at least, he allows that TLS makes a strong case for this position.  But what he apparently does not see is that for a cause A to be inherently directed toward the generation of some effect B is just for A to have what the A-T tradition calls a substantial form -- the immanent principle by virtue of which a natural object carries out its characteristic operations.  To deny that A has such a principle is implicitly to deny that A is inherently “directed” toward any particular operations at all, and thus implicitly to deny immanent final causes.  But the notion of substantial form was the core of the Aristotelian-Scholastic doctrine of formal causality.  Hence final causality and formal causality, as those are understood in the A-T tradition, go hand in hand; to affirm the first is to affirm the second.

Another way to make the point is in terms of the distinction between act and potency (or actuality and potentiality).  A potency or potentiality is always a potency for some actuality; to have a potency is to be directed toward or to point to some outcome.  Hence the notion of potency goes hand in hand with that of final cause.  Now as I note in TLS, a thing has the potencies it has only because of the ways in which it is actual; for instance, a rubber ball has the potential to be melted at such-and-such a temperature only because it is actually composed of rubber rather than granite or steel.   And where the potencies a natural object has are concerned, it will have them by virtue of whatever makes it actually the kind of natural substance that it is.  But that is just to say that it has them because of its substantial form; for the substantial form of a thing just is the inherent principle that makes it actually the kind of natural substance it is, with the operations typical of that kind of substance.  To deny that a thing has such a form is to deny that its basic potencies (and thus its directedness toward what those potencies are potencies for) are inherent to it.  Again, immanent finality -- inherently being “directed toward” or “pointing to” some end -- goes hand in hand with formal causality.

Indeed, act and potency, substantial form, final causality, causal powers, essentialism, and so on -- all of these notions form a tightly integrated network, and an understanding of the precise nature of their interrelationships was something Scholastic writers gradually and carefully refined over the course of centuries.  It is no accident that the moderns more or less rejected this network of ideas as a whole when it rejected Scholasticism, and it is no accident that the revival of interest in dispositions, causal powers, and the like in the work of recent analytic philosophers like Martin, Heil, Ellis, Cartwright, and Molnar has gone hand in hand with a revival of essentialism and the appearance in contemporary metaphysics of something like the act/potency distinction (in the distinction between “categorical” and “dispositional” properties) and something like immanent final causality (in e.g. Molnar’s talk of “physical intentionality” and the common suggestion that powers and dispositions are “directed toward” their effects and manifestations).  The language is often different and the details are not always worked out the way the A-T tradition would work them out, but this recent work nevertheless constitutes a partial revival of the Scholastic metaphysical apparatus.  And that so much of the apparatus has been revived by writers with no Thomistic ax to grind is itself a further indication that bringing formal causality in together with final causes is not a matter of “sneaking” something in.  The connection between the notions is, as I say, necessary, not contingent.

Now, that much shows at most only that if you allow immanent final causes at all, you are to that extent committed also to formal causes.  But someone could admit this and still deny formal causes at the level of biology.  He could say, for example, that there is immanent final causality at the level of fundamental physics -- that basic particles, say, have causal powers and dispositions by virtue of which they are “directed at” or “point to” certain effects and manifestations -- but that there is no such finality at any higher level of physical reality.  And in that case, formal causes need be admitted only at the level of physics: Fermions and bosons, say, would have substantial forms, but trees, squirrels, and human beings would not.

But such a position would be plausible only if there were no causal powers at higher levels of physical reality that are irreducible to those described by physics.  And that is simply not the case; at the very least, such reductionism is highly controversial.  Whether even chemistry is reducible to physics is doubted by most philosophers of chemistryReductionism in biology and psychology are notoriously controversial.  Chemical systems, organic systems, and psychological systems have causal properties that are simply impossible (or, to put the point less controversially, at least extremely difficult) to reduce to the causal properties of their basic physical parts.   And even within the biological realm reductionism is more problematic than is often realized.  For example, the traditional Aristotelian view that there is a difference in kind and not degree between sentient life and vegetative life is routinely dismissed as a historical curiosity.  Yet even many naturalistic philosophers admit that it is at least extremely difficult to explain qualia in terms of insensate matter -- not realizing that they are thereby implicitly acknowledging that the old Aristotelian distinction has a serious metaphysical basis after all.  

[One reason why they don’t see this is that contemporary philosophers universally regard “the qualia problem” as a problem in the philosophy of mind rather than the philosophy of biology, and see it as a question of whether or not qualia, understood as “mental” properties, are “physical.”  From an A-T point of view this is entirely wrongheaded, and unreflectively presupposes a post-Cartesian conception both of mind and of matter.  If you think that the intrinsic nature of matter is more or less exhausted by the mathematical description given by physics and that anything that cannot be assimilated to this description exists only in the mind and is wrongly projected onto material reality in perceptual experience, then “qualia” are inevitably going to seem inherently both “mental” and “non-physical.”  But the Aristotelian regards modern physics’ description of matter as nowhere close to exhaustive, but rather as merely an abstraction of mathematical features from something which in its intrinsic nature is far richer than can be captured by mathematics.  Hence the Aristotelian is happy to regard qualia as material, in his sense of “material”; and where the mind is concerned, the material/immaterial divide has in the Aristotelian view to do not with qualia, nor even with intentionality considered as mere “directedness” -- even simple material causes have that -- but rather with intellectual activity in the strict sense: the grasping of concepts, the formation of judgments, and reasoning from one judgment to another.  See chapter 4 of Aquinas for more on this subject.]

Now, if there is irreducible efficient causality at a certain level of physical reality, there is also at that level (given what was said above) a correspondingly irreducible level of final causality.  For instance, if the capacity of a tree to grow roots is irreducible to efficient-causal activity within the physical microstructure of the tree, or if the capacity of an animal to have sensations is irreducible to efficient-causal activity in its nervous system, then the tree’s “directedness” toward the growing of roots and the animal’s “directedness” toward the having of sensations will constitute levels of finality irreducible to the finality exhibited by the components of the physical microstructure.  But then, given what was said above, there will also be levels of formal causality -- substantial forms -- at any such irreducible level of final causality.

Now, the Apologetics 315 reviewer appears to sympathize with my arguments in TLS to the effect that there is indeed irreducible immanent final causality at multiple levels of the natural world -- not only at the level of basic physics, but also with some higher-level inorganic natural processes, at various biological levels, and at the level of human thought and action.  But in that case he should acknowledge (given what has been said above) that such arguments indicate that there is formal causality at each of those levels as well.  Again, final causality and formal causality go hand in hand.

Nothing Dawkins says shows otherwise, because Dawkins lazily supposes (as, in fairness, so many other people do) that what makes something the kind of thing it is (i.e. its form) has something to do with its origin.  That may be true of artifacts -- a watch is a watch only because of the watchmaker’s intentions, since there is nothing inherent in the object itself that gives it its time-telling function -- but it is not true of natural substances.  If a natural substance has causal powers that are irreducible to those of its parts, then it has a substantial form.  How it came into existence -- special divine creation, natural selection, an infinite series of preceding natural substances -- is irrelevant.  To suppose otherwise is to commit one of many errors that follow upon the collapse of the Aristotelian distinction between natural substances and artifacts.

As to the suggestion that “there is no static 'Form', because life is constantly and mindlessly changing,” this sort of talk, though also very common, is just muddleheaded.  If species A gives rise to species B, that does not entail that the form of an A somehow morphed into the form of a B -- whatever that could mean -- but rather that organisms that had the form of A gave rise to organisms with a different form.  The form itself doesn’t change, any more than erasing a triangle from a blackboard changes the form of triangularity.  What happens in that case is that the matter which had the form of a triangle now has the form of a pile of dust particles -- not that the form of triangularity has itself changed, so that the geometry textbooks would have to be rewritten to make reference to dust particles instead!

So, the reviewer’s criticisms miss the point.  But he is right to say that TLS gives more explicit attention to final causality than to formal causality, at least in the latter part of the book.  The reasons for this are that final causality has been the main object of attack among critics of Aristotelianism and Scholasticism, and that among the various interrelated A-T concepts cited above, final causality is the most crucial.  It is not for nothing that Aquinas calls the final cause “the cause of causes.”  Deny that final causality is immanent to the natural world and the whole A-T edifice (the act/potency distinction, substantial forms, etc.) pretty much collapses.  Grant that final causes are immanent to the natural world, and the whole A-T edifice -- together with its implications for natural theology and natural law -- pretty much follows.  Which is no doubt one reason many people are so loath to grant it.


What part of “nothing” don’t you understand?

While we’re on the subject of bad cosmological speculations:  A reader asked me some time back to comment on this little video from New Scientist, which summarizes some of the claims made in an article from the July 23 issue on the theme “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  The magazine has been sitting on my gargantuan “to read” stack for a few months, and I've finally turned to it for some light reading.  And boy is it ever light.  Could anything possibly be as bad as the cringe-making pseudo-scientific amateur philosophizing on this subject we had reason to examine a few months ago?  Oh yes.  Oh my goodness, yes.

Pop science writers (including scientists when they are writing pop science) are always trying to translate traditional philosophical issues into terms they are familiar with.  At best the result is, usually, to change the subject while pretending not to.  At worst it is sheer nonsense.  And sometimes it is both.  Consider the article, which informs us that:

Entropy measures the number of ways you can rearrange a system’s components without changing its overall appearance… [N]othingness is the highest entropy state around -- you can shuffle it around all you want and it still looks like nothing.  Given this law, it is hard to see how nothing could ever be turned into something, let alone something as big as the universe.

Well, all of that is nothing if not thought-provoking.  What kind of “system” is nothing?  If nothingness is a “state,” what exactly is it that is in that state?  What are the “components” of nothing?  What does “shuffling around” those components involve?  How exactly does all of this differ from not shuffling anything around at all, or there being nothing in a state at all, or there being nothing with any components at all?  What exactly does it mean to turn nothing into something, even something small?  Isn’t the very suggestion pretty mystifying even apart from the law of entropy?  What exactly is it that the law of entropy is governing when there is nothing around for it to govern?  And the most profound question raised by this little passage: Just how much nonsense can you pack into three sentences, anyway?  

Well, not as much as you can pack into an entire article, that’s for sure.  It keeps on a-comin’:

But entropy is only part of the story.  The other consideration is symmetry...  Nothingness is very symmetrical indeed.  “There’s no telling one part from another, so it has total symmetry,” says physicist Frank Wilczek of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  

So, “nothingness” or “nothing” has “parts.”  And how exactly does the claim that nothing has parts differ from the claim that there is nothing with parts?  Surely what the article means to say is not “It is not the case that there is an x such that x has parts,” since that is both false and irrelevant to the subject of the article.  So is it saying instead “There is an x such that x is nothing and x has parts”?  But what the hell does that mean?  How can there exist something that is “nothing”?  Does “being nothing” involve being a kind of eccentric something?  Similar questions could be asked, of course, about what it means for this something that is nothing to be “symmetrical.”  Don’t wait for an answer, though, because it turns out there’s less to all of this “nothing” talk than meets the eye.  Or rather, there’s more:

Wilczek’s own specialty is quantum chromodynamics, the theory that describes how quarks behave deep within atomic nuclei.  It tells us that nothingness is a precarious state of affairs.  “You can form a state that has no quarks and antiquarks in it, and it’s totally unstable,” says Wilczek.  “It spontaneously starts producing quark-antiquark pairs.”  The perfect symmetry of nothingness is broken.

So we’ve got nothingness, except that it isn’t nothingness, because what we’re really talking about is a “state” that is unstable, and this state starts producing quarks and antiquarks.  Indeed:

“According to quantum theory, there is no state of ‘emptiness’,” agrees Frank Close of the University of Oxford… Instead, a vacuum is actually filled with a roiling broth of particles that pop in and out of existence.

Well, a “roiling broth” governed by the laws of quantum theory is not “nothing.”  In which case all the preceding stuff about how “nothingness” has “parts” and can be in “states” and is “symmetrical” wasn’t really ever about “nothingness” in the first place.  And a good thing too, because none of those things could intelligibly be said about “nothingness,” since nothingness is, of course, not a kind of thing at all.  

Nor are the reasons for this as profound as the article insinuates:

[T]here is an even more mind-blowing consequence of the idea that something can come from nothing: perhaps nothingness itself cannot exist.  Here’s why.  Quantum uncertainly allows a trade-off [etc.]

Well, yes, I suppose it is “mind-blowing” that “nothingness cannot exist,” at least if by “mind-blowing” you mean “completely obvious and trivial, and as well-known to 8-year-olds and fishmongers as it is to experts in quantum uncertainty” -- since, of course, “nothingness” just is the non-existence of anything.

But perhaps the article is here just badly expressing another thought, to the effect that it is necessary that something must always have existed, that it could not in principle have been the case that there is or ever was absolutely nothing at all.  And I would say that the article is right about that.  But neither “quantum uncertainty” nor any other theory of physics is or could be the reason, for quantum mechanics and all the other laws of physics presuppose the existence of a concrete physical reality that behaves according to those laws, so that such laws cannot coherently be appealed to as an explanation of that reality.  

So what’s the point of all this ado about nothing?  You know what the point is: To try to show that physics alone can explain the existence of the universe.  Hence the key line of the piece: “Perhaps the big bang was just nothingness doing what comes naturally.”  But read in a straightforward way, this is just nonsense, for reasons of the sort already  given: If this so-called “nothingness” has a “nature” and “does” things, then it isn’t really “nothingness” at all that we’re talking about.  And of course, the article and the physicists it quotes don’t really mean “nothingness” in a straightforward way in the first place.  They mean a “roiling broth” governed by the laws of quantum theory, entropy, etc. and that not only isn’t nothing, but just is part of the universe and therefore just is part of the explanandum and therefore does nothing whatsoever to explain that explanandum.  

You might as well say: “Let me explain how this whole house is held up by nothing.  Consider the floor, which is what I really mean by ‘nothing.’  Now, the rest of the house is held up by the floor.  Thus, I’ve explained how the whole house is held up by nothing!”  Well, no you haven’t.  You’ve “explained” at most how part of the house is held up by another part, but you’ve left unexplained how the floor itself is held up, and thus (since the floor is itself part of the house) you haven’t really explained at all how the house as a whole is held up, either by “nothing” or by anything else.  Furthermore, you’ve made what is really just sheer muddleheadedness sound profound by using “nothing” in an eccentric way.

The “scientific” “explanations” of the origin of the universe from “nothing” one keeps hearing in recent years are really no less stupid than this “explanation” of the house.  They aren’t serious physics, they aren’t serious philosophy, they aren’t serious anything except seriously bad arguments, textbook instances of the fallacy of equivocation.  On the other hand, they do give us an excuse to listen to a Sinatra classic.  Enjoy: 


Broken Law (Updated)

So, a year after promising a reply to my detailed critique of his “evil god challenge,” Stephen Law’s long-awaited response (see the combox remarks he links to) mostly comes to this: You just don’t get it.  Go re-read my paper and this article by Wes Morriston.

“Courtier’s reply,” anyone?

Though he dismisses them as “awful,” Law does not respond in any substantive way to the points I made in my critique.  He does offer a few brief remarks intended to clarify his position, but they serve only to reinforce, rather than answer, my objections.  I’m not going to repeat everything I’ve said before -- if you haven’t already, go read my original post on Law (since which I’ve written a few other relevant posts, which I’ve linked to here).  But you might recall that the problem with Law’s position is as follows.

Law claims that the evidence for the existence of a good God is no better than the evidence for the existence of an evil god, and that any theodicy a theist might put forward as a way of reconciling the fact of evil with the existence of a good God has a parallel in a reverse-theodicy a believer in an evil god could put forward to reconcile the presence of good in the world with the existence of an evil god.  Now, no one actually believes in an evil god.  Therefore, Law concludes, since (he claims) the evidence for a good God is no better than that for an evil God, no one should believe in a good God either.  That’s the “evil god challenge.” 

The trouble is that Law regards this as a challenge to theism generally, and it simply isn’t.  It applies at most only to one, historically idiosyncratic version of theism.  So, suppose you regard the divine attributes as in principle metaphysically separable -- that something that is, for example, omnipotent or omniscient could nevertheless fail to be all-good.  Suppose also that you regard good and evil as on a metaphysical par, neither more fundamental than the other.  And suppose that you consider the grounds for belief in God to consist in an inductive inference to the effect that God is the best explanation of various bits of evidence -- the orderliness of the world, the good we find in it, etc.  Given those specific metaphysical and epistemological assumptions -- the sort that might be made by someone beholden to a “theistic personalist” conception of God and who thinks Paley-style “design arguments” and the like are the best reason to believe in God -- Law’s challenge might be a problem.  (Or maybe not.  But since I have no time either for theistic personalism or for Paley-style “design arguments,” I really couldn’t care less.)

But given different metaphysical and epistemological assumptions, Law’s “evil god challenge” is no challenge at all.  Hence, suppose that, like almost all of the most prominent theologians and philosophers of religion historically (Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, and Aristotelians, Neo-Platonists, and Thomists and other Scholastics generally) you are a classical theist.  You will hold, accordingly, that God is absolutely simple or non-composite, so that all of the divine attributes are one and thus metaphysically inseparable in principle.  You will also regard God, not as one being among others, but as subsistent being itself or pure actuality, beyond any genus.  And you will regard Him, not as one cause among others, but as that from which all finite causes -- which have, ultimately, only instrumental causality -- necessarily derive their causal power.  Suppose that you also hold that good and evil are not on a metaphysical par, but that evil is a privation of good.  And suppose you endorse the doctrine of the transcendentals, according to which being and goodness are convertible, so that whatever is being itself or pure actuality is also goodness itself, necessarily devoid of evil.  It follows from all this that nothing that is omnipotent could possibly be less than perfectly good, and indeed that nothing that is divine could possibly be less than perfectly good.  

Suppose, finally, that you also think there are demonstrative (as opposed to merely inductive or evidential) arguments for the existence of the God of classical theism -- that you endorse an Aristotelian argument from motion to a purely actual Unmoved Mover, say, or Aquinas’s “existence argument” in On Being and Essence for something that is subsistent being itself, or a Neo-Platonic argument for a source of the world that is an absolute unity.  If such arguments work at all, then given the background metaphysics, they prove conclusively (and not merely with some degree of probability) that there is a God who cannot in principle be anything less than perfectly good.

Given these very different metaphysical and epistemological assumptions, it is blindingly obvious that Law’s “evil god challenge” is completely irrelevant.  His “evil god hypothesis” doesn’t stalemate the arguments for classical theism, for two reasons.  First, unlike the “good god” of theistic personalism, the God of classical theism isn’t in the same genus as Law’s “evil god.”  The God of classical theism isn’t the same kind of thing as Law’s “evil god” at all.  (Indeed, unlike everything else that exists, the God of classical theism isn’t in a genus or kind in the first place -- that’s part of the whole point of classical theism.)  So there is no parallel between alternative “hypotheses” of the sort Law needs in order to get his “challenge” off the ground.  

Second, the arguments typically employed by classical theists simply cannot be stalemated by “evidential” considerations because they are typically not “evidential” or inductive or probabilistic arguments in the first place.  If an Aristotelian argument from motion, or Aquinas’s “existence argument,” or Neo-Platonic arguments work at all, they get you demonstratively to something that is pure actuality, or subsistent being itself, or an absolute unity; and the other metaphysical theses alluded to get you from there to something that is of necessity perfectly good (indeed, something that is goodness itself).  To suggest that what is purely actual or subsistent being itself might, given the “evidence,” be evil, is simply unintelligible.  To make such a suggestion would merely be to show that the one making it doesn’t understand the metaphysical concepts in question.

Now that does not mean that classical theism and the arguments for it are not subject to criticism.  A critic could try to show that there is something wrong with the doctrine of divine simplicity, or with the doctrine of privation, or with the doctrine of the transcendentals, or that there is some fallacy in one of the attempts to provide a demonstrative argument for the existence of the God of classical theism.  But even if an atheist could make such objections stick, it is those objections that will be doing the work, and not the “evil god challenge.”  The “evil god challenge” drops out as simply irrelevant.  

(Compare: Suppose someone presented a purported proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, to which two critics raised objections.  Critic A says that the purported proof contains a fallacy.  Critic B says that the inductive evidence the attempted proof provides can be stalemated by equally good evidence for a counter-theorem.  Critic A may or may not be correct.   Critic B is, as they say, “not even wrong.”  He is merely embarrassing himself, and even if critic A turns out to be right, critic B will still have been merely embarrassing himself.)

Now it is pretty clear that what Law should say to all this is: “Fine, the ‘evil god challenge’ is not a completely general challenge to theism, but only, specifically, to evidential arguments for theistic personalism.  That’s at least something, even if it is nowhere close to the atheistic knock-out punch I hoped it would be.”  But rather than make use of this dignified exit from the hole he finds himself in, Law has chosen to keep digging.  Still insisting that my criticisms are “awful,” Law makes several attempts to clarify his position.  In particular, he says this:

[CLARIFICATION I:] My point is that even if it could be shown that an evil god is an impossibility (and that does seem to be your strategy, after all), we might still ask, "But supposing it wasn't an impossibility, would an evil god not in any case be pretty conclusively ruled out on empirical grounds - e.g. given the amount of good we observe?" If the answer to that question is "yes", then the challenge remains to explain why a good god is not similarly ruled out.

And he says this:

[CLARIFICATION II:] My argument is that there is, on the face of it, overwhelming empirical evidence AGAINST the good god hypothesis (whether or not this god is thought of as a person, as being morally responsible, etc. personhood is not required).  Most people accept this, unless (i) they're religious, and (ii) it dawns on them what the consequences of this are re their belief in a good god, when many suddenly get radically skeptical!

The challenge is, then to explain, why, if the evil god hypothesis is ruled out pretty conclusively on empirical grounds, the same is not true of the good god hypothesis.

To these combox remarks, I replied with a combox remark of my own, to which Law responded with this and this:

[CLARIFICATION III:] Even if an evil God is a conceptual impossibility, the fact that he can ALSO be ruled out on empirical grounds (which you may dispute of course) raises the question, "well, why isn't a good god similarly ruled out on empirical grounds?" The question remains whether or evil god is ruled out on empirical grounds. Surely this is bloody obvious by now?

PS and of course my argument does not depend on the thought that Christians arrive at their views about god inductively based on observation of the world. As Edwars' [sic] criticism assumes that is my view, it fails. That's it.

Now as far as I can tell, CLARIFICATION I amounts to this: Yes, given all that classical theism stuff, the “evil god challenge” would fail.  But suppose that classical theism is wrong and that evidential arguments for a theistic personalist god are the best we can do.   In that case the “evil god challenge” applies!

This is a little like Critic B of our imagined proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem saying “OK, but suppose the proof in question were an inductive argument.  Then my objection would be a pretty powerful challenge, huh?”  More to the point, Law’s CLARIFICATION I implicitly concedes that my criticism is correct even as Law continues to maintain that it is “awful.”  Law has here made his “evil god challenge” completely trivial: It applies to those versions of theism to which it applies.  True, but hardly interesting.

CLARIFICATION II is simply baffling.  Law tells us that most non-religious people tend to agree with him that there is overwhelming evidence against the existence of a good God, however that God is conceived.  Well, maybe they do (which would not be surprising given that they’re non-religious).  But what’s Law’s point?  Is he saying that since those people don’t buy classical theism (or any other kind of theism), they should take the “evil god challenge” seriously?  Again, that may be true, but so what?  How does that show that the “evil god challenge” applies also to classical theism?  Once again Law reduces his position to a triviality: The “evil god challenge” needs to be taken seriously by anyone who isn’t convinced by those versions of theism to which the “evil god challenge” does not apply!  Again, true, but uninteresting.

CLARIFICATION III is about as good as the following argument from Critic B of our imagined proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem:  Even if Critic A is right that the proof contains a fallacy, my point is that the proof can ALSO be ruled out on empirical grounds (which you may dispute of course).  Surely this is bloody obvious by now?  

Again, Critic B would simply show by such a statement that he doesn’t understand the difference between an attempted mathematical proof and an empirical theory.  And Law’s remarks show that he doesn’t understand the difference between a purported metaphysical demonstration of the impossibility of an evil God (in the classical theist’s sense of “God”) and empirical theorizing about whether there is a “god” in some other sense, a sense that would leave it open whether this “god” is good or evil.

Law’s “PS” to CLARIFICATION III is also baffling.  He now tells that “of course” his argument doesn’t depend on the assumption that Christians arrive at their views about God inductively based on observation of the world.  Well, in that case, he needs to answer the following question: Take a classical theist who is working with the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions described above and who claims to have a demonstrative argument to the effect that there is a God who is pure actuality or subsistent being itself and who therefore (given the background metaphysics) cannot even in principle be anything less than perfectly good.  How exactly does the “evil god challenge” pose a challenge to such a theist?

In answering, Law should remember that it will not do to say: “Well, I don’t think the doctrine of privation, the doctrine or the transcendentals, divine simplicity, etc. are correct and/or that the attempted demonstration in question is sound.”   For in that case, it will be the various specific criticisms of these various metaphysical and epistemological assumptions that will be doing the philosophical work, and not the evil god challenge itself.  He should remember also that it will not do to say: “If we don’t make these various classical theistic background assumptions in metaphysics and epistemology, then the ‘evil god challenge’ applies.”  For that is true but completely trivial.

I think we’re done here.  On the other hand, Law also tells us that a more substantive reply is forthcoming.   I guess I can wait another year.

UPDATE 11/15: For readers who haven’t already noticed, Stephen Law has now replied to this post in two blog posts of his own (here and here) and in a number of combox remarks, both below and in his own comboxes.  In response, I’ve posted a number of comments of my own down below.


Reading Rosenberg, Part III

Continuing our look at Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, we come to Rosenberg’s treatment of the question “Where did the big bang come from?”  As serious students of the cosmological argument for the existence of God are aware, most of its defenders historically (including key figures like Aristotle, Aquinas, and Leibniz) are not arguing for a temporal first cause of the world.  Their claim is not that God must have caused the world to begin (though some of them believe that He did, for independent reasons) but rather that He must continually be sustaining the world in existence, and would have to be doing so even if the universe had no beginning.  But there is a version of the cosmological argument that does argue for a temporal first cause of the world, namely the kalām cosmological argument.  Rosenberg does not explicitly address any specific version of either argument, but he is, in effect, trying to rebut them both.

To the kalām cosmological argument, Rosenberg has a ready implicit response: 

The best current theory suggests that our universe is just one universe in a “multiverse” -- a vast number of universes, each bubbling up randomly out of the foam on the surface of the multiverse, like so many bubbles in the bathwater, each one the result of some totally random event. (p. 36)

If the multiverse hypothesis is correct, then, while our universe began at the big bang, its cause was entirely physical insofar as it arose from the larger multiverse.  Moreover, if the multiverse as a whole did not have a beginning, it would not require a temporal cause.  Thus is the kalām argument blocked -- again, if the multiverse theory is correct. 

But why suppose it is correct?  You might think, with William Lane Craig, that “there’s no evidence that such a world ensemble exists.  Nobody knows if there even are other parallel universes at all.”  Indeed, you might agree with Craig that even if there is such a multiverse, it wouldn’t really undermine the kalām argument anyway, since (for reasons he summarizes in the clip linked to) “the past of the multiverse must also be finite” and thus in need of a temporal cause.

Yet Rosenberg claims that: 

One remarkable thing about this best current cosmological theory is the degree to which physicists have been able to subject it to many empirical tests, including tests of its claims about things that happened even before the big bang, let alone before the formation of Earth, our sun, or even our galaxy, the Milky Way.  One of the most striking was the successful prediction of where to look for radiation from stars that went supernova and exploded as far back as 10 billion years ago.  These tests came out so favorably to the big-bang theory that physicists decided to risk several billion euros on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), outside Geneva, to test the big-bang theory directly by creating the very conditions that occurred just after the big bang.  (pp. 36-7)

Did you hear that?  The multiverse theory has been subjected to “many empirical tests,” and apparently has passed them all!  That will be news to many, since the common rap against the multiverse theory is precisely that it is untestable.  Except that when you read the passage more carefully, what Rosenberg really seems to be saying is that it is the big bang theory, specifically, that has been subjected to many empirical tests; at least, the only example he gives of an empirical test is a test of the big bang theory specifically.  And that would certainly be the most Rosenberg could plausibly say.  There have been journalistic claims to the effect that the multiverse theory has finally found some empirical support, but others have called bullshit on such reports.  In any event, it would be absurd to pretend that it has been “subjected to many empirical tests,” much less passed any.

The unwary reader would certainly get the opposite impression, though.  Perhaps Rosenberg thinks that since the multiverse theory incorporates the big bang theory, confirmation of the latter counts as confirmation of the former.  This is a little like saying that since Deepak Chopra’s theory of “quantum healing” incorporates quantum mechanics, confirmation of quantum mechanics counts as confirmation of Chopra’s theory.  Maybe Rosenberg’s got material here for a sequel.  (Craig, by the way, has addressed the CERN business here.)

I doubt Rosenberg is being willfully dishonest here; I suspect wishful thinking or maybe just bad writing.  In any case, let the multiverse theory be as well-confirmed as any of its proponents could wish, it still wouldn’t undermine non- kalām cosmological arguments in the least.  An Aristotle or Aquinas would simply shrug and point out that what matters is what accounts for the fact that the multiverse keeps going at all, whether or not it has always existed. 

Now Rosenberg is aware of this.  He acknowledges that “wishful thinkers” (apparently it takes one to know one) might ask: 

“If our universe is just one of many in a multiverse, where did the multiverse come from?  And where did the multiverse’s cause come from, and where did its cause come from?”  And so on, ad infinitum.  Once they have convinced themselves and others that this series of questions has no stopping point in physics, they play what they imagine is a trump card, a question whose only answer they think has to be the God hypothesis.  (p. 37)

But Rosenberg’s got a better answer grounded in scientism, right?  Not exactly.  Or at least, out of one side of his mouth he insists that there is in fact “no reason, no reason at all” why the multiverse exists (p. 38) and that natural selection has merely made it “psychologically natural [for us to] refus[e] to take ‘No reason’ for an answer” (p. 39).  That makes it sound like we are supposed to regard the existence of the multiverse as a brute fact, without any explanation.   

Now as I have argued in earlier posts (here and here), the “brute fact” move as a defense of atheism is seriously problematic; it makes scientific explanation unintelligible and, indeed, makes naturalism tantamount to an appeal to magic.  Rosenberg accuses his critics of “mystery-mongering,” but it is precisely those who claim that there is “no reason at all” why the universe exists who are promoting mysteries, and it is precisely those who say that there is and must be an explanation who are dispelling them.

But then, out of the other side of his mouth even Rosenberg himself speaks as if there is an explanation of sorts after all, albeit one that he mixes together with another generous dollop of mystery-mongering: 

A hundred years ago, it became clear that most events at the level of the subatomic are random, uncaused, indeterministic quantum events -- merely matters of probability… Since the big bang is just such a quantum event, it, too, is a wholly indeterministic one.  It is an event that just springs up out of the multiverse’s foam of universes without any cause at all.  Why is there a universe at all?  No reason at all.  Why is there a multiverse in which universes pop into existence for no reason at all?  No reason at all!  It’s just another quantum event.  (pp. 38-39)

This isn’t a complete muddle, but it is close.  Rosenberg evidently thinks that when traditional metaphysicians and philosophers of religion insist that there must be some reason why events happen as they do, what they mean is that there must be some deterministic efficient cause; and since quantum physics tells us that there are events without causes of this sort, Rosenberg concludes that there is “no reason at all” why they happen.  But of course, that is not what traditional metaphysicians and philosophers of religion mean.  Aristotelians, for example, rather famously hold that the identification of an efficient cause is only one of four basic kinds of explanation, and many philosophers (including non-Aristotelians) would deny that even efficient causes are necessarily deterministic, but hold that they nevertheless remain true causes and truly explanatory. 

Rosenberg implicitly acknowledges the latter point when he appeals to quantum mechanics in his account of the origin of the universe.  For all his “no reason at all” sensationalism, he isn’t really saying that the universe has no explanation; he is saying that quantum theory provides an explanation, just not one in terms of deterministic efficient causes.  (Rosenberg’s “No reason at all!  It’s just another quantum event” is a rather comically inept pair of sentences, since to say that “It’s a quantum event” just is to give a reason in the relevant sense.)  As we have seen before, it is simply incompetent to appeal to the laws of physics (whether those of quantum mechanics or of any other part of physics) as if they somehow cast doubt on the traditional metaphysician’s insistence that what happens in the world requires a cause, since the laws of physics (including quantum physics) themselves are included among the possible causes of things, in the relevant sense of “cause.”

Moreover, the laws of physics (including, again, the laws of quantum mechanics) cannot in any case be the ultimate explanation of anything.  “Laws,” after all, are mere abstractions; indeed, the Aristotelian argues, talk of “laws” is really just shorthand for a description of the way concrete objects and systems will tend to behave given their natures.  (As I have noted many times, you hardly have to be a Thomist or to have any theological ax to grind to take such a view.  Cf. the work of Brian Ellis, Nancy Cartwright, and other “new essentialist” philosophers of science and metaphysicians.)  But this means that the operation of the laws of physics presupposes, and thus does not explain, the existence of the concrete physical objects and systems that behave in accordance with the laws.  In particular, “Quantum mechanics says such-and-such” cannot be an adequate explanation of the existence of the universe, of the multiverse, or of anything else, precisely because the operation of the laws of quantum mechanics is (qua description of the behavior of a concrete physical system) part of the explanandum.   And “No reason at all!” is, needless to say, even less explanatory.

Now you might still try to argue, contrary to classical theism, that the ultimate explanation of why the world exists at all lies in something other than what is pure actuality (as opposed to a compound of act and potency), something other than what is subsistent being itself (as opposed to a compound of essence and existence), something other than what is absolutely necessary (as opposed to being either contingent or only derivatively necessary).  Good luck with that.  But Rosenberg has said absolutely nothing to make this plausible.  He certainly has said absolutely nothing to show either that the multiverse theory is an adequate explanation or that there is no explanation.   

Some bonus fallacies: As I have noted, Rosenberg claims that the reason we refuse to regard “No reason at all” as a serious answer to the question of why the universe exists is that we have been hardwired by evolution to find such answers unsatisfying.  He is appealing here to a view he develops later in the book to the effect that natural selection has molded us in such a way that we always try to understand the world in terms of stories or narratives.  Hence (so the argument seems to go) we want some account of the world in terms of a “beginning” of some sort.  But Rosenberg’s eliminative materialism entails that narratives and stories, even naturalistic or atheistic narratives and stories, are all false.  Only formulas, systems of equations, etc. really give us the truth.

Now it is not in fact clear why this is supposed to render the request for an explanation of the universe somehow illegitimate.  After all, Rosenberg thinks requests for explanations in other domains are legitimate; indeed, his case for scientism rests in part on the claim that science has provided powerful explanations of various natural phenomena.  Now if the purportedly delusory tendency to try to understand things in terms of stories and narratives does not make the request for an explanation of (say) the existence of this or that species or this or that chemical reaction suspect, how does it make the request for an explanation of the existence of the universe suspect?  We are not told.  (Rosenberg’s objection to narratives as such is no answer, even if it were defensible.  Remember, an explanation of why the universe exists at all need not appeal to a beginning, nor indeed to any story or narrative at all.  Certainly a Thomistic explanation of the world in terms of purely actual cause which creates by conjoining an essence with an act of existence, or a Neo-Platonic explanation in terms of emanation from the One, are not narrative explanations, since the “causes” in these cases are timeless or eternal in the strict sense.)

There is another problem.  Part of the point of Rosenberg’s brief treatment of cosmological questions is evidently to answer a potential objection to his scientism.  He wants to rebut the charge that scientism leaves something unexplained that should be explained.  But insofar as (at least out of one side of his mouth) he dismisses the request for an explanation as resting on a delusion, his answer presupposes his scientism, for his eliminative materialism (and its dismissal of stories and narratives as such) rests on his scientism.   

We seem to have a circularity, then, reminiscent of the sort we might get from a Freudian or a Marxist.  You dismiss the very idea of the Oedipal Complex as ludicrous?  Well, that’s just what someone with an Oedipal Complex would do!  You don’t agree with Marxian critiques of free market economics as an ideological smokescreen for capitalist ruling interests?  Of course you don’t, you’re in thrall to the ideology!  You think scientism fails to provide an adequate explanation of the world?  That’s just what we should expect you to think if scientism is true!  If Rosenberg can be rescued from the charge of begging the question, it is only because, as with his remarks about the multiverse hypothesis, the sloppiness of his exposition can make an argument of his something of a moving target.

All this in what amounts to a digression.  And the main lines of argument in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality are no better.  Rosenberg’s book is the gift that keeps giving, as we’ll see in future posts.

Reading Rosenberg, Part II

We saw in part I of this series that Alex Rosenberg’s new book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality is less about atheism than it is about scientism, the view that science alone gives us knowledge of reality.  This is so in two respects.  First, Rosenberg’s atheism is just one implication among others of his scientism, and the aim of the book is to spell out what else follows from scientism, rather than to say much in defense of atheism.  Second, that it follows from his scientism is thus the only argument Rosenberg really gives for atheism.  Thus, most of what he has to say ultimately rests on his scientism.  If he has no good arguments for scientism, then he has no good arguments either for atheism or for most of the other, more bizarre, conclusions he defends in the book.

So, does Rosenberg have any good arguments for scientism?  He does not.  In fact, he has only one argument for it, and it is quite awful.
What is scientism?

Before we look at the argument, let’s consider how Rosenberg characterizes scientism:

“Scientism”… is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when “complete,” what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today. (pp. 6-7)

As I’ve noted elsewhere (e.g. here, here, and here), the trouble with the claim that science is the only reliable source of knowledge is that it is either self-defeating or trivial -- self-defeating if we narrowly construe what counts as “science” (since scientism is itself a metaphysical and epistemological theory and not a view that physics, chemistry, or any other particular science has established) and trivial if we construe “science” broadly (since in that case philosophy, and in particular metaphysics and epistemology, count as “sciences” no less than physics, chemistry, and the like do).  Rosenberg certainly avoids the second horn of this dilemma.  For his construal of what counts as “science” is very narrow indeed:

If we’re going to be scientistic, then we have to attain our view of reality from what physics tells us about it.  Actually, we’ll have to do more than that: we’ll have to embrace physics as the whole truth about reality. (p. 20)

To be sure, he does not deny that chemistry, biology, and neuroscience also give us knowledge.  But that is only because he thinks they are reducible to physics: “The physical facts fix all the facts.  [This] means that the physical facts constitute or determine or bring about all the rest of the facts.” (p. 26)

Now some naturalists will demur at this point, preferring a “non-reductive physicalism,” or “emergentism,” or some other such doctrine to Rosenberg’s radical reductionism.  As a number of chemists and philosophers of chemistry have argued in recent years, it is at the very least debatable whether even chemistry is really reducible to physics.  (For a useful overview of the literature, see chapter 5 of J. van Brakel’s book Philosophy of Chemistry.  Also useful is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the philosophy of chemistry.)  Reductionism in biology is even more obviously open to challenge.  And of course, whether consciousness and human thought and action can be accounted for in physicalist terms is notoriously controversial even among naturalists themselves -- Fodor, McGinn, Searle, Nagel, Levine, Strawson, and Chalmers are just some of the prominent naturalistic philosophers of mind who have been critical of existing attempts by their fellow naturalists to explain the mind in purely materialistic terms.

Now I sympathize with such arguments, but I don’t think they establish an alternative form of naturalism.  For what they show, I would argue, is that higher-level features of material reality are no less real than the lower-level features, that the lower-level features are not somehow ontologically privileged.  And in that way they show (even if only inchoately, and even if their proponents often do not realize it) that something like an Aristotelian, holistic conception of material substances is correct after all.  Talk of “emergence,” “non-reductive physicalism,” and the like fudges this, because it insinuates that the lower-level features described by physics are still somehow more fundamental than the higher-level ones, even though the higher-level ones are acknowledged to be irreducible.  The latter, it is implied, somehow have to “emerge” from the former.  Such views are bound to sound obscurantist precisely because they amount to an unstable halfway position between reductionistic naturalism of the Rosenberg variety and traditional Aristotelian anti-reductionism.

I would say, then, that one has either to go the whole hog for Rosenberg-style reductionism or chuck out the whole naturalistic framework altogether (along with “emergence” and other such half-measures) and return to a full-blown Aristotelian metaphysics of material substances.  To that extent I think Rosenberg is right to hold that if someone is committed to scientism, then he should hold that “the physical facts fix all the facts.”  (Obviously some will dispute this conditional, but since it constitutes a point of agreement between Rosenberg and me, I won’t pursue it further here.)

If Rosenberg avoids the one horn of the dilemma, though, he thrusts himself headlong onto the other.  For how exactly has scientism been established by physics, chemistry, biology, or even neuroscience (if we allow for the sake of argument that neuroscience is reducible to physics)?  Does scientism make predictions that have been rigorously confirmed?  Is there something like a Michelson-Morley experiment that scientism makes sense of in a way no rival theory does?  To ask such questions is to answer them.  The fact is that neuroscience hasn’t come close even to discovering exactly what it is that goes on in the brain when scientists form hypotheses, construct theories, make predictive inferences, develop experimental tests, write up their results, submit them for peer review, etc.  That is to say, neuroscience hasn’t even explained the practice of science itself in purely neuroscientific categories, much less shown that no other practices can yield genuine knowledge.  Scientism remains what it has always been -- a purely metaphysical speculation and not an empirical theory at all, much less a confirmed empirical theory.

No doubt we will be treated at this point to some hand-waving to the effect that even if neuroscience has not “yet” fully explained scientific practice, neither has it turned up any evidence that there are sources of knowledge other than science.  But whether neuroscience is the only genuine source of knowledge about how we come to have knowledge is itself part of what is at issue in the dispute between scientism and its critics.  Hence, to argue “We have no neuroscientific evidence that there is any genuine source of knowledge other than science, therefore there are no grounds at all for believing that there are any such alternative sources” would simply be to beg the question.

Rosenberg’s Gem

All of this might seem moot if Rosenberg had a really powerful argument in favor of scientism.  But he does not.  David Stove once gave the ironic label “the Gem” to a Berkeleyan argument for idealism he regarded as especially bad.  Rosenberg’s argument for scientism gives Berkeley a run for his money, for it is a real Gem.  He states it several times in the book:

The technological success of physics is by itself enough to convince anyone with anxiety about scientism that if physics isn’t “finished,” it certainly has the broad outlines of reality well understood. (p. 23)

And it’s not just the correctness of the predictions and the reliability of technology that requires us to place our confidence in physics’ description of reality.  Because physics’ predictions are so accurate, the methods that produced the description must be equally reliable.  Otherwise, our technological powers would be a miracle.  We have the best of reasons to believe that the methods of physics -- combining controlled experiment and careful observation with mainly mathematical requirements on the shape theories can take -- are the right ones for acquiring all knowledge.  Carving out some area of “inquiry” or “belief” as exempt from exploration by the methods of physics is special pleading or self-deception.  (p. 24)

The phenomenal accuracy of its prediction, the unimaginable power of its technological application, and the breathtaking extent and detail of its explanations are powerful reasons to believe that physics is the whole truth about reality. (p. 25)

Rosenberg’s argument, then, is essentially this:

1. The predictive power and technological applications of physics are unparalleled by those of any other purported source of knowledge.

2. Therefore what physics reveals to us is all that is real.

How bad is this argument?  About as bad as this one:

1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has.

2. Therefore what metal detectors reveal to us (coins and other metallic objects) is all that is real.

Metal detectors are keyed to those aspects of the natural world susceptible of detection via electromagnetic means (or whatever).  But however well they perform this task -- indeed, even if they succeeded on every single occasion they were deployed -- it simply wouldn’t follow for a moment that there are no aspects of the natural world other than the ones they are sensitive to.  Similarly, what physics does -- and there is no doubt that it does it brilliantly -- is to capture those aspects of the natural world susceptible of the mathematical modeling that makes precise prediction and technological application possible.  But here too, it simply doesn’t follow for a moment that there are no other aspects of the natural world. 

Those who reject Rosenberg’s scientism, then, are not guilty of “special pleading or self-deception,” Rosenberg’s condescending bluster notwithstanding.  Rather, they are (unlike Rosenberg) simply capable of recognizing a brazen non sequitur when they see it.  Unfortunately, condescending bluster is all Rosenberg ever offers in addition to his favorite non sequitur.  Here’s some more of it:

“Scientism” is the pejorative label given to our positive view by those who really want to have their theistic cake and dine at the table of science’s bounties, too.  Opponents of scientism would never charge their cardiologists or auto mechanics or software engineers with “scientism” when their health, travel plans, or Web surfing are in danger.  But just try subjecting their nonscientific mores and norms, their music or metaphysics, their literary theories or politics to scientific scrutiny.  The immediate response of outraged humane letters is “scientism.” (p. 6)

According to Rosenberg, then, unless you agree that science is the only genuine source of knowledge, you cannot consistently believe that it gives us any genuine knowledge.  This is about as plausible as saying that unless you think metal detectors alone can detect physical objects, then you cannot consistently believe that they detect any physical objects at all.  Perhaps someone who thinks that metal detectors give us exhaustive knowledge of the world could write up a Metallicist’s Guide to Reality and “argue” as follows:

“Metallicism” is the pejorative label given to our positive view by those who really want to have their stone, water, wood, and plastic cakes and dine at the table of metallic bounties, too.  Opponents of metallicism would never charge their metal detector-owning friends with “metallicism” when they need help finding lost car keys or loose change in the sofa.  But just try subjecting their nonmetallic mores and norms, their music or metaphysics, their literary theories or politics to metallurgical scrutiny.  The immediate response of outraged humane letters is “metallicism.”

Of course, “metallicism” is preposterous.  But so is Rosenberg’s scientism.

Those beholden to scientism are bound to protest that the analogy is no good, on the grounds that metal detectors detect only part of reality while physics detects the whole of it.  But such a reply would simply beg the question once again, for whether physics really does describe the whole of reality is precisely what is at issue.

I am being hard on Rosenberg, and he deserves it for putting forward such transparently bad arguments, and with such arrogance.  But it is only fair to note that he is hardly alone in the delusion that his Gem is some kind of knockdown argument for scientism.  One hears this stupid non sequitur over and over and over again when arguing with New Atheist types.  It is implicit every time some Internet Infidel asks triumphantly: “Where are the predictive successes and technological applications of philosophy or theology?”  This is about as impressive as our fictional “metallicist” smugly demanding: “Where are the metal-detecting successes of gardening, cooking, and painting?” -- and then high-fiving his fellow metallicists when we are unable to offer any examples, thinking that he has established that plants, food, works of art, and indeed anything non-metallic are all non-existent.  For why on earth should we believe that only methods capable of detecting metals give us genuine access to reality?  And why on earth should we believe that if something is real, then it must be susceptible of the mathematically precise prediction and technological application characteristic of physics?  I submit that there is no answer to this question that doesn’t beg the question.

As always, earlier generations of skeptics were wiser than the intellectually backward Dawkins generation.  For instance, Bertrand Russell was well aware that, far from giving us an exhaustive picture of reality, physics in fact gives us is very nearly the opposite, and is unintelligible unless there is more to reality than what it reveals to us:

It is not always realised how exceedingly abstract is the information that theoretical physics has to give.  It lays down certain fundamental equations which enable it to deal with the logical structure of events, while leaving it completely unknown what is the intrinsic character of the events that have the structure.  We only know the intrinsic character of events when they happen to us.  Nothing whatever in theoretical physics enables us to say anything about the intrinsic character of events elsewhere.  They may be just like the events that happen to us, or they may be totally different in strictly unimaginable ways.  All that physics gives us is certain equations giving abstract properties of their changes.  But as to what it is that changes, and what it changes from and to—as to this, physics is silent. (My Philosophical Development, p. 13)

Moreover, physics’ tremendous success at prediction and technological application is precisely the result of its deliberate neglect of any aspect of reality that does not fit its mathematically-oriented methods.  Early modern thinkers like Bacon and Descartes sought to reorient science in a practical, this-worldly, technological direction.  Mathematics facilitated this; aspects of the world that couldn’t be mathematically modeled were a distraction.  Hence they were relegated to the status of mere “secondary qualities,” or treated as features that are the proper study of metaphysics rather than physics.  That was less a metaphysical discovery, though, than a methodological stipulation.  If you set out to study only those aspects of reality that might be rigorously predictable and controllable, then you are bound to find that those are the only ones you discover.  But it is preposterous to pretend that you have thereby shown that there are no other aspects of reality, just as it would be preposterous for the “metallicist” to pretend that his exclusive focus on those objects that might be detected electromagnetically shows that there are no non-metals.  (See The Last Superstition for more detailed discussion of this theme.)

What Rosenberg and others beholden to scientism have done, then, is simply to confuse method with metaphysics (an occupational hazard of post-Galilean science and post-Cartesian philosophy, as E. A. Burtt warned in his classic book The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science).  The fallacious blurring of epistemology and metaphysics is, of course, also a feature of many idealist arguments, which is why Stove thought they merited our scorn.  All the more appropriately, then, might we label Rosenberg’s argument a “Gem.”

Scientism versus teleology

Among the features of the world physics deliberately ignores for its purposes are those that involve final causality.  As Rosenberg writes:

Ever since physics hit its stride with Newton, it has excluded purposes, goals, ends, or designs in nature.  It firmly bans all explanations that are teleological(p. 40)

As the words “exclusion” and “ban” indicate, though, this is, yet again, merely a methodological stipulation.  By itself it tells us nothing at all about whether teleology is real.  Again, if the designer of a metal detector says “For purposes of metal detection, let’s ignore every feature of the objects we’re after except their electromagnetic properties,” then he is naturally going to pay no attention to whether this or that object is a coin, or a key, or a thumbtack, or even whether it is made of iron as opposed to nickel.  But it obviously does not follow that the only real properties of the objects the metal detector finds are their electromagnetic properties, and that we should be eliminativists about coins, keys, thumbtacks, iron, and nickel.  Similarly, since teleological features cannot be modeled mathematically, the early moderns – thinkers who, following Bacon and Descartes, wanted to turn science in a practical, this-worldly direction and thus toward a focus on prediction and control – decided to ignore them.  But (as it cannot be repeated too frequently) it simply doesn’t follow that such features do not exist.

Rosenberg no doubt thinks an appeal to Ockham’s razor justifies such an inference.  He writes: 

Since Newton 350 years ago, [physics] has always succeeded in providing a nonteleological theory to deal with each of the new explanatory and experimental challenges it has faced.  That track record is tremendously strong evidence for concluding that its still-unsolved problems will submit to nonteleological theories. (p. 40)

The implication is that since physics hasn’t ever needed to postulate final causes, we can infer with confidence that it will not need to do so in the future; and if it does not need to do so, the principle of parsimony should lead us to conclude that final causes don’t exist.  

But there are several problems with such an argument.  For one thing, Rosenberg’s main reason for denying the existence of teleology, plans, purposes, designs, intentionality, and the like at the biological level and even at the level of the human mind, is that physics has ruled teleology and cognate notions out of science altogether.  But in that case an appeal to Ockham’s razor of the sort just considered would lead Rosenberg into a “No True Scotsman” fallacy.  He will be saying, in effect: Physics can explain everything that exists without appealing to teleology.  So, by Ockham’s razor, teleology must not be a real feature of the world.  Of course, biological functions, human thought and action, and the like cannot be understood except in teleological terms.  But that just shows that they must not really exist, because teleology doesn’t exist, because physics can explain everything that exists without it!

Another problem is that something like teleology is necessary to explain the facts that physics describes, at least if we regard any of them as embodying genuine causal relations.  That is, in any event, the view of a number of contemporary philosophers of science and metaphysicians – George Molnar, C. B. Martin, John Heil, and other “new essentialist” writers – who have no theological ax to grind, but who regard dispositions as “directed at” their manifestations and thus as exhibiting what Molnar calls a kind of “physical intentionality.”  This is (as historian of philosophy Walter Ott has noted) essentially a return to an Aristotelian-Scholastic understanding of final causality as a precondition of the intelligibility of efficient causality.  Unless we suppose that an efficient cause A inherently “points” beyond itself to its typical effect (or range of effects) B as toward an end or goal, we have no way of making sense of why it is that A reliably does in fact generate B rather than C, D, or no effect at all.

Rosenberg doesn’t see the possibility of such a view because he has only the crudest conception of teleology -- he evidently thinks that a teleological explanation is one that simply postulates that “God designed it that way.”  No one familiar with the Aristotelian and Scholastic traditions would make such a mistake, though someone who supposes that teleology and natural theology stand or fall with Paley-style “design arguments” is likely to.  (As I have noted before, Rosenberg’s knowledge of natural theology seems to derive mostly from whatever was in the anthology his undergrad PHIL 101 teacher was using.)  

Rosenberg also supposes that the second law of thermodynamics is incompatible with the existence of teleology.  For “the second law tells us that the universe is headed to complete disorder” (in particular, heat death) and “no purpose or goal can be secured permanently under such circumstances” (p. 41).  But the existence of teleology doesn’t require that an end or goal be realized permanently.  And insofar as the second law of thermodynamics describes causal regularities -- and in particular a tendency toward disorder -- it would itself be an instance of teleology, not a counterexample to it.

(The subject of teleology is one I have devoted much attention to elsewhere , e.g. in chapter 6 of The Last Superstition, chapter 2 of Aquinas, and in a great many blog posts on the dispute between Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy and “Intelligent Design” theory.  I won’t repeat myself here -- interested readers are directed to these sources.)

So, Rosenberg has no good arguments for scientism, and thus no good arguments either for atheism or for the other, more bizarre conclusions he derives from scientism.  As we will see in the remaining posts in this series, some of those conclusions are in any event incoherent, and thus constitute a reductio ad absurdum of the premises that lead to them.  

Before turning to these conclusions, though, it will be worthwhile examining Rosenberg’s brief attempt to counter kalam-style arguments for God as the cause of the Big Bang, with some alternative cosmological speculations of his own.  We’ll do so in the next post in this series.

[Addendum: A reader calls attention to this critique of Rosenberg by Timothy Williamson, which dovetails with some of the points made above.  A key line: “Those most confident of being undogmatic and possessing the scientific spirit may thereby become all the less able to detect dogmatism and failures of the scientific spirit in themselves.”]
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