The Incompetent Hack

You might recognize the name of atheist blogger Chris Hallquist, who styles himself “The Uncredible Hallq,” from an earlier post.  I there characterized him as “unliterate”on the grounds that while he is capable of reading, he does not bother to do so.  (Hallquist had egregiously misrepresented something I had written in an earlier post, and made some silly and false remarks about what was and was not covered in my book Aquinaswhile admitting that he hadn’t read more than 15 pages of it.)  But it seems that was not quite right.  It may be that, like Otto in the movie A Fish Called Wanda (to borrow an example I used in The Last Superstition), Hallquist doesread; he just doesn’t understand.
A case in point is provided by a recent post by Hallquist about my defense of Aquinas’s First Way (one of a series of rants about yours truly, as it happens).  Hallquist quotes some material from pp. 70-72 of the Aquinas book concerning the nature of essentially ordered or hierarchical causal series, the paradigm illustration of which is a stone which is being moved by a stick which is being moved by a hand.  He then suggests that physics shows that the motion of the stone is not really simultaneous with or dependent upon that of the hand.

The problem with this sort of objection is well-known to my longtime readers, since I have already addressed it here on the blog several times.  As I wrote in a recent post on the relationship between modern physics and arguments like Aquinas’s:

[W]hen a physicist illustrates a point he is making by asking us to imagine what we might experience if we fell into a black hole or rode on a beam of light, no one thinks it a clever response to point out that photons are too small to sit on or that we would have been ripped apart by gravity long before we made it into the black hole.  Such “objections” would completely miss the point.  But it would similarly miss the point to insist that Aquinas is refuted by the fact that there is a very slight time lag between the motion of a stick and that of a stone it is pushing (as one hostile reader of this blog used to point out obsessively a few years back, as if it were a fatal objection).  For nothing in Aquinas’s argument rides on the question of whether the motion of a stick and that of the stone it is pushing are strictly simultaneous, any more than it rides on a hand’s really being a “first” or non-instrumental cause in the relevant sense (which it obviously is not since the hand itself is moved by the arm).  The example is intended merely as an illustration to jog the reader’s understanding of abstract concepts like instrumental causality and conserving causality.  And as I have argued in several places, once the homely examples in question give us a grasp of these concepts, as well as of concepts like that of the actualization of a potency, we are on the way to seeing that even the sheer existence of a thing from moment to moment (never mind its local motion) requires a sustaining cause. (For more on how properly to understand the causal claims made in arguments like the First Way, see this post, this post, and my [American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly] article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways”…)

But Hallquist needn’t have read these posts or the article to see the problem with his objection.  He only needed to pay attention to the context of the passages from Aquinas that he quotes.  For just prior to those passages, I had written:

As Rudi te Velde has suggested, some critics place too much significance on the physical details of the examples Aquinas gives in the course of the proof, failing to see that their point is merely to illustrate certain basic metaphysical principles rather than to support broad empirical or quasi-scientific generalizations.  (p. 68, emphasis added)

And immediately after the passages he quotes I wrote:

Given their essentially instrumental character, all causes in such a series other than the first cause are referred to by Aquinas as “second causes” (“second,” not in the sense of coming after the first but before the third member of the series, but rather in the sense having their causal power only in a secondary or derivative way).  It is worth emphasizing that it is precisely this instrumental nature of second causes, the dependence of whatever causal power they have on the causal activity of the first cause, that is the key to the notion of a causal series per se.  That the members of such a series exist simultaneously, and that the series does not regress to infinity, are of secondary importance.  As Patterson Brown and John Wippel point out, even if a series of causes ordered per se could somehow be said to regress to infinity, it would remain the case, given that they are merely instrumental causes, that there must then be something outside the entire infinite series that imparts to them their causal power.

Whether or not the series of causes per accidens regresses infinitely into the past, then – and again, while Aquinas believed that it did not, he didn’t think this could be proven through philosophical arguments – a causal series per se existing here and now, and at any moment we are considering the matter, must necessarily trace back to a first member.  But strictly speaking, even the hand in Aquinas’s example doesn’t count as a first mover – the example is intended merely as a first approximation to the notion of a first mover – because it is itself being moved insofar as its activity depends on the motion of the arm, the flexing of certain muscles, and so forth.  To understand the way in which such a series regresses and how it does and must terminate, it is crucial to remember that for Aquinas, motion or change is just the reduction of potency to act.  So when we talk about one thing being moved by another, which is moved by another, etc., in a causal series ordered per se, this is shorthand for saying that a certain potency is reduced to act by something whose potency is itself reduced to act by something whose potency is itself reduced to act by… and so forth.  (pp. 72-73, emphasis added)

The actual situation, then, is this.  Examples like the hand pushing the stone etc. have (like the physicist’s examples of riding a beam of light or falling into a black hole) no significance other than as loose illustrations of certain abstract concepts -- in this case the concepts of instrumental causality, the actualization of potency, and the like.  The actual physical details are completely irrelevant, just as the fact that you’d be torn apart if you fell into a black hole and the fact that a photon is too small to sit on are completely irrelevant to the points the physicist is trying to make.  And just as it would be silly to harp on the impossibility of riding on a photon or surviving a fall into a black hole as proof that a certain physicist hasn’t gotten his physics straight or that he doesn’t care about the actual empirical facts, so too is it silly to harp on the physics of the local motion of sticks and stones as proof that Aquinas, Feser, et al. haven’t gotten our physics straight or that we don’t care about the actual empirical facts.  For the point the Thomist is making isn’t a point about physics in the first place, but about metaphysics (more precisely, it is a point about the philosophy of nature -- I explained the difference and the relationship between natural science, philosophy of nature, and metaphysics in the post cited above).

Now, given the concepts illustrated by these examples and other theses argued for independently -- such as the Aristotelian hylemorphist thesis that everyday substances are composites of form and matter, and the Thomist metaphysical thesis that they are composites of essence and existence -- I argue that whatever the fundamental natural substances that exist at any given moment turn out to be (fermions and bosons, or whatever) they will as composites of form and matter and essence and existence necessarilydepend for their very being at that moment on a purely actual conserving cause.  The physical and other details of this or that case of local motion or efficient causation (sticks, stones, Hallquist’s spring example, or whatever) do not at the end of the day matter at all for purposes of the argument.  For whatever those details turn out to be, they will all involve the operation of some bottom level of natural substances which will be composites of form and matter and essence and existence, and anything that is composite in these ways will depend via instrumental causality on that which is not composite in these or any other ways.  For its very existence will at any instant be merely potential apart from its actualization by that which is pure actuality and thus does not need to be actualized by anything else.  (For interested readers, I explain all this in a more streamlined way than in the Aquinasbook in my ACPQ article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” -- more streamlined insofar as, unlike the Aquinas book, the article did not have to address various secondary exegetical questions concerning the meaning of Aquinas’s own texts.)  

Now Hallquist anticipates the objection that he is simply confusing metaphysics and physics:

“But!” Feser will insist. The laws of physics can’t possibly matter here, because we’re talking about metaphysics! 

But his only response is merely to assert, without any argument whatsoever:

Except they do matter.  Feser just doesn’t understand physics well enough to see that.  And worse, his lack of understanding of physics leads him to imagine that as a philosopher, he knows that philosophical arguments are the way to determine whether he needs to know any science to do his philosophy, and the philosophical arguments have proven he doesn’t need to know any science, so he can be sure that anyone who tries to explain to him that he has his science wrong (and that this matters) is philosophically ignorant.  That’s not a hole Feser can dig himself out of without learning more science, but he’s convinced there’s no reason for him to do that.

It seems like a rather nice example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

End quote.  Of course, what is actually going on is that Hallquist is just shamelessly begging the question, since whether the matter really is one of physics rather than metaphysics is precisely what is at issue.  And of course, it is Hallquist whose ignorance and pigheadedness are painfully manifest.  For to show (rather than merely assert) that the issue is really scientific rather than metaphysical, he’d actually have to study and refute the metaphysical arguments put forward by Thomists, and that (as we know from his willingness to dismiss a book based on the perusal of a few pages) is precisely what he refuses to do.  To paraphrase Hallquist:

“But!” [Hallquist] will insist. The [claims of Thomistic metaphysics] can’t possibly matter here, because we’re talking about [physics]! Except they do matter.  [Hallquist] just doesn’t understand [Thomistic metaphysics] well enough to see that.  And worse, his lack of understanding of [that metaphysics] leads him to imagine that as [a guy who has read some Wikipedia entries about physics], he knows that [scientific] arguments are the way to determine whether he needs to know any [metaphysics] to do his [pop science based atheist apologetics], and the [pop science] arguments have proven he doesn’t need to know any [Thomistic metaphysics], so he can be sure that anyone who tries to explain to him that he has his [metaphysics] wrong (and that this matters) is [scientifically] ignorant.  That’s not a hole [Hallquist] can dig himself out of without learning more [metaphysics], but he’s convinced there’s no reason for him to do that.

In short, like other New Atheist types, Hallquist is guilty of exactly the sort of intellectual vice of which he accuses others.  In particular, he has so fallen in love with the dogma that theists just haven’t “learned the science” that he thinks that merely reasserting the dogma amounts to arguing for it.  Call it the “Hallquist effect.”

Hallquist’s inability to understand what he has read is also evident from a more general criticism he raises against me:

[O]ne of my main issues with [Feser] is that his main substantiative [sic] thesis ends up being that Aquinas has been widely misunderstood... which is actually completely boring if you understand history of philosophy. Any time a philosopher gets famous, there end up being a lot of disagreements on what he intended to say, and since not everyone can be right it follows that the philosopher is widely misinterpreted.  What would be interesting, and where Feser is lacking, is actual arguments that Aquinas was right…

Compare William Lane Craig.  Craig is a horrible person in more ways than one, but at least when he presents Kalam, he tries to present an argument for the existence of God and doesn't waste time doing anything else, and especially doesn't devote all his time talking about how philosophers have misunderstood al-Ghazali and are terrible people for having done so.

End quote.  Most readers can no doubt see all the many things wrong with this, but since Hallquistcannot I suppose I have to spell it out.  

First, while it is indeed a general theme of my work that “Aquinas has been widely misunderstood,” that is hardly my “main substantive thesis.”  Anyone who has actually read The Last Superstition or Aquinas knows that they are concerned to show that Aquinas’s arguments for God’s existence, the immortality of the soul, and the natural law conception of morality are not only misunderstood but are in fact essentially correct.

Second, such readers also know that the correctness of Aquinas’s views in these areas is in fact something that I argue for.  That Hallquist asserts otherwise shows either that he has not in fact read my work, or has serious reading comprehension problems, or is simply dishonest.  It is true that in Aquinas the form of the defense amounts to something like: Here are Aquinas’s arguments; here are the reasons to accept the metaphysical premises that they rest on and to judge that the conclusions really follow; here is why various objections to the arguments rest on misunderstandings or otherwise fail.  Since the book is about Aquinas rather than me, that seemed a natural way to proceed.  And why Hallquist thinks this doesn’t amount to giving “actual arguments that Aquinas was right,” I have no idea.  Perhaps he thinks that every time someone gives an argument, he ought to do so in the first person and explicitly in his own name and to set out each step in bold caps: “I, Edward Feser, hereby give the following argument for CONCLUSION XPREMISE 1 reads as follows…” or some such.  Given some of his own strange literary antics, Hallquist should hope for his own sake that his readers are not as robotically literal-minded as he is.

Third, why Hallquist thinks it is “boring” to point out that Aquinas has been widely misunderstood I also have no idea.  Surely he would agree that it is important correctly to understand what a writer says before rejecting his arguments?  (Maybe not.  As we’ve seen several times now, he certainly does not bother to try to get my views right before criticizing them.)

Fourth, it is not true to say that I accuse allof those who have misunderstood Aquinas of being “terrible people for having done so.”  For example, I think Anthony Kenny and J. L. Mackie get Aquinas wrong in various respects, but I have always treated their work with respect, because I think they do at least try seriously to engage his arguments.  Writers like Dawkins, by contrast, misinterpret Aquinas in ways that would be obvious to anyone who has done the minimal homework, while simultaneously dismissing those arguments with an arrogance that more learned critics like Kenny and Mackie would never exhibit.  (And contrary to what Hallquist insinuates, the errors in question do not amount to mere matters of interpretive disagreement of the sort that surround the work of any famous philosopher.  For example, that Aquinas was not trying in the Five Ways to prove that the world had a beginning in time is not open to debate, especially given that he famously wrote a whole book against the claim that this could be proved.   That Aquinas did give arguments for the various divine attributes is also not open to debate, as anyone who has bothered to read just the table of contents of the Summa Theologiae knows.  And so forth.)

Fifth, the reason Craig does not go on about how people have misinterpreted al-Ghazali is that before Craig revived the kalamargument, almost no one in contemporary philosophy of religion was even talking about al-Ghazali.  Hence there are no widespread misunderstandings to rebut in the first place.  Aquinas’s arguments, by contrast, have always been a standard topic of discussion in the modern philosophy of religion literature, even when they are cited merely briefly to dismiss them.  There are, accordingly, a large number of misunderstandings that any defender of the arguments is going to have to call attention to.  (And of course Craig is not “a horrible person,” but that goes without saying.)

Sixth, a normal person would think that the most important question here is whether my charge that Aquinas’s modern critics have generally misunderstood his arguments is true.  Hallquist seems strangely uninterested in that question.  But of course, if these critics have misunderstood Aquinas, then their reasons for rejecting his arguments are themselves called into question.  That means that a serious atheist will have to revisit the arguments and try to find some way of rebutting them that doesn’t rest on misunderstandings.  But like the teenager who says “You’re always going on about that!” when challenged on his drug use, Hallquist would rather complain about a charge than actually answer the charge.  

So, as we saw in my earlier post on Hallquist, his modus operandi is to dismiss what an opponent has written while admitting that he hasn’t even read it; shamelessly to distort what the opponent has written when he does bother to read it (the straw man fallacy); and to dismiss the opponent’s arguments en masse as a “transparent post-hoc rationalization for bigotry” (ad hominem).  And as we’ve seen in the present post, to this bag of sophistries Hallquist now adds: complaining about an opponent’s tendency to raise a certain objection rather than answering the objection (red herring); asserting without argument that physics is relevant to evaluating Aquinas’s First Way, when whether that is really the case is precisely what is at issue (begging the question); and, of course, the inability to understand plain English.  To paraphrase Wanda’s words to Otto, to call Hallquist an incompetent hack would be an insult to incompetent hacks.
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