The Last Superstition, part II: ditching Aristotle’s metaphysics

Edward Feser’s claim that there can be no morality without Aristotelianism is silly. But should we continue to accept Aristotle’s metaphysics in the face of modern science anyway? The answer is no–and understanding why will help us understand modern science.

Aristotle’s theory of change

Aristotle’s metaphysics has two key components: his theory of change, and his theory of causation. I’ll begin, as Feser does, with the theory of change. Feser sets up Aristotle as responding to an argument from Parmenides: For a thing to change, there must be a cause for the change outside the things itself. But there is only one thing in the world. Therefore, change is impossible. Yes, that really is the argument: Parmenides thought that the apparent existence of more than one thing in the world (my Mountain Dew bottle, my Nalgene bottle, my stack of six-ounce coke cans, etc.) is an illusion.

Aristotle, being not as crazy as Parmenides, though this was not an illusion, and therefore rejected the argument. But he and Feser accepted the claim that change must come from outside a thing, and thought this entailed the existence of a God of sorts: everything that causes change must do so of its own power, or as a tool of some other thing. In the second case, though, you will eventually get to something causing change of its own power. And there can only be one such thing, which must be God.

The reasons for this last claim are confusing, and Feser half-admits they depend on the Aristotelian version of the “explain why stuff exists” argument. He also makes this claim: if A changes B, and B changes C, then B isn’t changing C on it’s own, is being used as tool for change by A. This, though, is a fallacy: the Earth causes the Moon to orbit the Earth, and the Sun causes the Earth to orbit the Sun, but the Sun doesn’t use the Earth as a tool to cause the orbit of the Moon.

Aside from this, at first glance it looks like Aristotle was wrong accept Parmenides’ assumption that change must come from outside, since, if current understanding of physics is right, an object in motion (one that’s changing position) will stay in motion (keep changing position) until acted on by an outside force. Feser notices this problem, but counters:

we want to know why things are governed by this principle. To that one might respond that it is just in the nature of things to act in accordance with the principle of inertia… it just leads to the further question of what is the cause of a thing’s existing with the nature it has…

What Feser wants to say here, but does not say, is that motion is caused by a thing’s nature, and a thing’s nature is something outside the thing itself. I assume Feser wants this to be equivalent to what he does say, but I don’t know why this would be. By asking about the explanation for a thing’s existence, we also end up back at the “how do we explain existence” argument rather than the “how do we explain change” argument that Feser is supposed to be defending. But worse, from the point of view of defending Aristotle, is the fact that even if God had to cause the existence of natures, the nature of an object flying through space wouldn’t have to change as the object flies through space, which contradicts the Aristotelian model of how movement happens. Therefore, Feser has failed to square Aristotelianism with modern science.

The “existence” argument for God’s existence

This is the standard “how do you explain why things exist” argument for God’s existence. Skip this section if you’re only interested in Aristotle and science, but for those who care: Feser defend this argument by saying that God, alone, gets away with existing uncaused because God is “pure being.” I’m not entirely sure what this means, unless it means that God exists necessarily–could not possibly have not existed. But in order to get from this to a God as normal people understand it, he needs ever more assumptions:

1) A being that exists necessarily must be unchangable
2) To lack a feature is to potentially have a feature
3) To potentially have a feature is to be changable
4) If (2) and (3), then an unchangable being must have all features
5) A being with all features is God

Feser never gives a reason to think (1) is true. (2)-(4) seems plausible, except that the idea of a being with all features seems incoherent, which would mean there is no unchangeable being. Feser tries to get around this by saying that in cases where two features seem to be incompatible opposites, one is really a lack of a feature. But (2)-(4) seem on their face to be as applicable to lacks of feature as to positive features, so the argument doesn’t work. Thus, even aside from the scientific problems with Feser’s claims, his argument doesn’t amount to much.

Aristotle’s theory of causes

The conflict between Aristotle’s theory of change and modern science is small compared to the conflict with Aristotle’s theory of causes. Aristotle thought of things as having four causes: matter, form, the thing that brought it into being, and its ultimate purpose. Ultimate purpose is important for Feser’s natural law ethics, and it’s also a big point of contention between Aristotle and the scientific world view.

On Feser’s take, the end state that a thing is headed towards is literally it’s cause. If Acorn A is going to become tree A, then Tree A is actually causing Acorn A’s growth. Feser claims both that this is obvious and that this is a puzzle, and says this could only be if Tree A already existed in God’s mind when Acorn A began growing.

Like Aristotle’s theory of change, this seems to be contradicted by modern science on this ground: Acorn A becomes Tree A not because of some mysterious way in which a future tree guides the growth of a present acorn (what Feser would have us believe) but due to the complex historical processes called evolution, though those did involve lots of acorns becoming trees. In a sense, yes, the Aristotelian view looks right, but only because of a confusion between the causal work of the future Tree A and the causal work of a lineage of past trees closely resembling Tree A.

Feser defends Aristotle from Darwin with roughly the following argument: Aristotle was obviously right, and couldn’t possibly have been wrong, so he would have been right even without evolution. Trouble is, Aristotle’s metaphysics is nowhere near so obvious. Consider this quote from pre-Darwin philosopher Samuel Clarke, trying to protect the idea of purpose from the criticisms of Spinoza:

if there be any final cause [i.e. purpose] of anything in the universe, then the supreme cause is not a necessary but a free agent. This consequence Spinoza acknowledges to be unavoidable. And therefore he has no other way left but with a strange confidence to expose all final causes as the fictions of ignorant and superstitious men, and to laugh at those who are so foolish and childish as to fancy that eyes were designed and fitted to see with, teeth to chew with, food to be eaten for nourishment, the sun to give light, etc.

None of this is true in the sense that God obviously designed these things. And even allowing Darwinian purposes to be “final causes,” we know from modern science that food and sunlight are things which life on earth has evolved to exploit, much unlike eyes and teeth, which at least evolved for purposes. Clarke’s view of the world was naive, and not immune to scientific correction.

Science and mumbo-jumbo

In this post, I’ve tried to write around one aspect of Feser’s book: heavy use of (English translations of) Aristotelian jargon like “actuality,” “potentiality,” “final cause,” “form,” and so on. The words aren’t actually that important, if you know what they mean, go ahead and re-read the review making appropriate substitutions. But they do serve one important function in a system like Aristotle’s: they create a feeling of security, a feeling that you know what you’re talking about. If you have no idea how the world really works, they feel like a real explanation. But once you start seriously trying to figure out how the world might work–once you even notice the modern scientific worldview as a possibility–the “obviousness” is gone.

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  1. I was going to initially respond to the first objection of yours regarding Professor Feser’s position on Natural Law, but I figure that I’m going to save that objection for last since it’s actually a rather small part of his argument compared to his central thesis (which you try to attack here). Note, that I came across your blog when looking for reviews of “The Last Superstition”, so please don’t count me as a stalker ;)

    I noticed that you were an almost finished undergrad in philosophical studies. This is exciting for me to see as I meet very few people in my major. I too, am a student of philosophy and will be finishing soon.

    So, Insh’Allah (God Willing), this will be an interesting dialogue.

    I’m a little surprised how you critiqued these arguments and how you actually read and interpreted Feser’s work. Reason being, is because it doesn’t seem you have actually taken the time to read the actual book itself in detail or you haven’t actually studied metaphysics or philosophers such as Aristotle or Aquinas. I mean not to be rude, but it’s just very difficult for me to take it easy on an almost graduating philosophy student. I’m usually less blunt with non-philosophers, such as those who tout science around like it’s the ultimate way to truth and believe that Richard Dawkins is at the height of philosophical and theological thinking, but not so with those who should know their stuff.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, of course. Let’s begin…

    First you begin by generalizing the basic philosophy of Parmenides and you basically get it right (other than the inaccurate language), however, you’re wrong to assume that Feser was ‘setting up’ Aristotle as a response to Parmenides. Feser doesn’t do this at all and it is common knowledge among introductory philosophy students that Aristotle was responding to his teacher, Plato, not Parmenides. Parmenides is used as a teaching tool for those to understand Aristotle (note page 52) as disagreeing with Parmenides conclusion, but not his overall argument. Of course, this sets up Artistotles explanation of how change and permanence can happen at the same time; potentials and actuals.

    Sorry to be nitpicky. That’s what we philosophers do, however, right?

    Now, the next critiques are where you get a little more technical (while still avoiding the necessary language of the argument), but I think you actually misinterpret what Aristotle, Aquinas, and Feser are trying to say. As a side note, I also don’t see why you keep mentioning Aristotle as the primary voice behind the arguments either. He was simply the foundation. Feser is a Thomist in regards to the existence of God and morality, one who follows Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas would certainly be considered an inheritor of Aristotle, but not exactly like him.

    But I digress…

    You being to mention the Feser’s argument of change in ordered series of causes (the second being mentioned as an essential series, not an accidental) as being “fallacious”, without actually telling us what the fallacy is, much less how the analogy fits with the claim at all. Last time I checked, the Earth does not cause the Moon to orbit it, but gravity. The poor analogy aside, you forget the necessary functions of actuals and potentials.

    It all actually makes quite a bit of sense once you view this way. As per example of the train cars in his book, where the caboose is being pulled by X car, which is being pulled by Y car, etc. But to explain the motion (change) of each car simultaneously, you cannot simply keep adding cars. There has to be something that is moving them. To have an infinite series of moving vehicles does not explain the motion itself. Essential Series explain WHY things REMAIN existing, rather than how they came into existence. In order for things to remain as such, there must have always been something existing to begin with, as existence does not come from non-existence (Being from Non-Being, as Parmenides would say). In other words, there cannot be an infinite series of things (even accidentals) because that assumes there are an infinite series of potentials, which can only exist if there is an actual to change from. But there cannot be an infinite series of changes (potentials > actuals > potentials >actual etc.) because change (a Potential to an Actual) requires a foundation of its own (note the train car analogy). Remember, a potential cannot exist by itself.

    So there must be a Prime Mover or a Primary Actual (existence itself), which is God. In other words, existence must exist before anything can happen; something that cannot be acted upon (since then it would not be something primary, but secondary and lack all the necessary features of pure being [i.e. perfection]). Note that this attacks another criticism of yours…the thing that must be the Prime Actuality, has to have all the necessary features (being that it must be ALL…for if it lacks something then it is not the all-encompassing actuality).

    This also strikes down your assumption that Feser doesn’t give an explanation as to how the Prime Being (God) cannot be changed, or immutable as we like to say. Of course he gives a reason. He’s been giving a reason since chapter 2. I just explained it in case you don’t want to go back and actually read the book. If the Prime Being is to be changed then it must be changed by something outside of itself, which then means it isn’t the Prime Being. It’s self explanatory. And we’ve already mentioned the inadequacy of an infinite regress both in context of Accidental Ordered Series and Essential Ordered Series, so I don’t see why we need to get back into that.

    Please ask any questions if I sound incoherent to you, though I hardly believe this is difficult to understand.

    You go on to mention one of Feser’s rebuttals to the Newtonian principle of inertia, but only ONE of them, as though that’s the entire shabang. You respond to the “nature of the thing” argument, but you forget that this doesn’t affect the Primary Actual/First Cause argument, as it simply raises the question as to why such a thing has that nature at all (and leads us back to the obvious answer of God). I would hope you’d also like to explain the other 2 explanations by Feser (pg. 102), if you wish to be honest to your readers.

    Going back to a previous point, I’d also like to ask how you believe a being with all features is somehow “incoherent”? Strikes me as odd to say if you actually understand the Aristotelian/Thomist explanation.

    Moving on to your critique of the 4 causes…I find this rather an embarrassment on your part. Not only do you not critique the four causes, but you seem to place them all in the same boat by claiming that Feser is only claiming that cause is of it’s “Final” form (purpose). There are obviously other causes in play (the first three come to mind). Again, the existence of potentials can only be so based on a foundation, thus the need for a super-intellect (just as the analogy of the painting and the painter explains). The potentials are hidden within the ultimate actual, which encompasses all existence. Take this for an example. Say that the Prime Actuality is a tree. From that tree are several potentials, such as the use of housing by insects or small birds, paper, etc. Now, if the tree is all that exists (being existence itself), then everything that that tree COULD be (in a lesser sense, not greater) is potentialized in its form. Therefore, everything that comes from that tree, its potential must exist before it is actualized as THAT particular thing. It’s existence, however, is already established in the Prime Actuality.

    Probably a better example is this. A piece of pie is a pie in whole, but you take a piece of the pie away, and you get a piece of a pie. The pie itself is not a piece, but it has the potential of pieces in it. It is not made up of pieces, but the potential for pieces are there.

    I also don’t see how Feser “defends” Aristotle from Darwin. Darwin doesn’t affect Aristotle or Aquinas, because neither of them are arguing based on probabilities or the lack of Final Causality. Feser makes this point clear in one spot (pg. 113) and in other places as well.

    Feser would not have us believe that a “future” tree causes a previous tree to exist. He would never argue that a future link in an Accidental Ordered Series would affect a previous link in the chain. He merely argued that the potential for X thing already exist within the Prime Actual/First Cause.

    I’m sure you’ve been taught about Strawmen in introductory logic?

    Sorry to be so harsh, but I seriously cannot understand your criticisms here as being accurate to the actual picture being drawn. I may move on to your previous post.

    Take care.

  2. My apologies for any typos as well.

  3. Chris Hallquist

    Ali… re-read your comment. At one point, you seem to notice the problem with it, but then you quickly banish the thought.

    If you can’t figure this out on your own: yes, you do sound incoherent, and you really are “that hard to understand.” You throw around jargon indiscriminately, without ever explaining what it means. Do you know what it means? Define it for yourself, you may be surprised at how hard this is to do. Throwing around jargon with no clear meaning in mind is a trap that’s easy to fall into if you study philosophy long enough, I’ve fallen into it.

    You may believe that Feser defines every ounce of jargon perfectly clearly, but I couldn’t find any such clear explanations while reading his book. There was a little evidence, for example, that “pure being” meant “being that could not possibly not exist,” but the way Feser and you use such terms often seems to suggest it must mean more than this. What does it mean? Enlighten me.

    You’re also weak on logical connections between your ideas. You like the phrase “in other words,” which normally indicates that one statement is just a paraphrase of the other, but you never explain how this is so in the cases where you use the phrase. Perhaps you think this would be obvious if only the jargon were explained, but have you tried explaining the jargon to yourself to make sure you understand it?

    Minor points: Yeah, I know Aristotle was Plato’s student and all that. But it’s stupid to say that if a philosopher responds to his immediate predecessor, then he isn’t responding to any other philosopher, ever. Furthermore, Feser clearly does use the historical figure of Parmenides to establish, rhetorically, that there is a problem of change and permanence, it’s in just that sense that Feser uses Parmenides to set up Aristotle (though maybe “argument of Parmenides” is too strong, perhaps “problem promoted by Parmendies”?)

    As for the solar system: denying that it is not the Earth but gravity that causes the moon to orbit is like looking at a ball on a string, and saying that it is not the string that causes the ball to go round in circles but tension.

  4. So was this an actual response to my objections to you or a call out on grammar correction, which I find rather hypocritical in light of your own statements in the initial post.

    I’d be more than happy to explain “pure being” to you if you’d like, minus my need to explain statements such as “in other words”. I’m sure you can be gracious to me, being that you lack the need to formally and systematically construct anything yourself or use proper terminology.

  5. Chris Hallquist

    Uh, if you’re happy to explain your jargon (not grammar, no idea why you mentioned grammar) then explain it, rather than announcing your happiness to explain it.

  6. I am currently working on a review of Feser’s polemic and thank you for presenting your views on the matter of Aristotle’s theory of ’cause’. It is helpful to understand that his account of ‘causality’ is not without problems or critics, as one might be led to believe.

    I find it fascinating that Aristotle’s arguments (once used to ‘prove’ his Pagan God) works equally well to ‘prove’ the existence of Allah before becoming known in the West, and finally (!) the Catholic God of Aquinas. It seems that even if it works as advertised, what it proves is so amorphous and obscure it is irrelevent to the beliefs of ordinary theists one is likely to encounter.

    It seems that like most syllogistic arguments, its conclusion is hidden in the premises – i.e. isn’t the notion of Final Causality smuggling in the idea of a being (called God in the conclusion) whose purpose is being served?