Give me a break

February 24, 2015 § 4 Comments

The recent usury discussionfest, sparked by a comment thread at the Orthosphere, tossed a bit of a monkey wrench into my plans to take a break from blogging in the fall; so I’ll probably avoid even commenting on other blogs for the next while just to stay out of trouble.  That’s an oblique way of letting y’all know I’ll be taking a break from blogging for a bit (and I really mean it this time, honest — so don’t say anything interesting, doggone it!)

For those who stumble upon the blog for the first time, it isn’t really ‘about’ any particular subject or subjects; but our discussions on usury, liberalism, positivism, democracytorture, and game are probably the most ‘popular’ (or controversial). The first four are personal hobby horses of mine; the latter were more a matter of just going where the discussion leads.  Feel free to browse around and make comments: I probably won’t be gone forever, since the sirens always seem to call me back; and the regulars may have something to say even if I don’t.

Speaking of the regulars – and you know who you are – in the words of the Prophet Bilbo Baggins, I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

Secret agency, man

February 15, 2015 § 66 Comments

I haven’t written much on the “Intelligent Design versus Aristotlean-Thomism” debate since I became bored out of my mind by it several years ago.  But recently I’ve taken it up again, if only out of a sense of masochism.  (In reality it was probably because David Oderberg’s book Real Essentialism ended up synced to my newish Kindle Voyage, one thing leading to another — such is the whimsy of life).

The criticism of evolutionary “theory” which goes by the name “intelligent design”, the tip of the spear of which was Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box, has been subject to consistent and vocal attack by Aristotlean-Thomist critics over the past half decade or so.  (It should be said that I have no idea how representative this cadre of vocal critics is of AT in general). This criticism depends crucially on the AT distinction between artifacts and natural objects, the latter which (on the AT metaphysical account) have substantial forms and the former which have merely accidental forms.

All of that can be stipulated without in any way giving rise to a legitimate criticism of Michael Behe’s inference to intelligent agency from the data of microbiology.  (There may be plenty of legitimate criticisms; but the AT criticism based on the natural-artifactual distinction isn’t one of them).

Here philosopher and author Edward Feser clarifies his contentions about art versus cultivation in a fairly recent post:

… the distinction Aristotle is getting at here is really the distinction between substantial form and accidental form, and whether something came about through human interference or not is at the end of the day a secondary issue. For there are man-made things that have substantial forms and are thus “natural” in the relevant sense (e.g. new breeds of dog, water synthesized in a lab) and there are things that are not man-made but rather the result of natural processes that are nevertheless not “natural” in the relevant sense but have only an accidental rather than substantial form (e.g. a random pile of stones or dirt, qua pile, that has formed at the bottom of a hill). The usual cases of things with merely accidental forms are man-made, though, so that we tend (wrongly) to regard the man-made as per se “unnatural,” and the usual cases of objects that occur apart from human action are “natural” in the sense of having a substantial form, so that we tend (wrongly) to assimilate what is “natural” in the sense of occurring apart from human action to what is “natural” in the sense of having a substantial form or intrinsic principle of operation.

Whatever one thinks of the distinction between art and cultivation, it is simple enough to reframe Michael Behe’s design inference in a way such that the AT objection collapses on itself and goes away.

Suppose a living thing is found and examined, and it is determined that it is statistically ludicrous to suggest that this living thing occurred in unaided nature: the evidence clearly shows it to be the result of genetic engineering or tinkering by intelligent agents. Think of an apple tree which produces apples with “GMO Red Delicious, by the Secret Agent” embedded in the DNA of the apple. Or a tree that produces chairs. Or a bacteria that eats oil spills.

We may not know who the intelligent agents happen to be: that might remain hidden, a secret.  But nevertheless we can tell, as a forensic matter, that they exist(ed) and must have tinkered.

The ID guys observe this ‘signature in the cell’ and infer that the (efficient) causes of the apple tree must include the actions of an intelligent agent.  Just as the regular rows of corn in a farm imply a farmer, the signature in the cell implies a signer.

Now we can grant that the ID guys didn’t go out of their way to learn everything about AT metaphysics before studying microbiology, and pre-frame their writing on the design inference – its facticity as deduced from empirical evidence – in such a way as to avoid getting AT knickers in a twist.

But whose job is it to interpret factual claims through the lens of AT metaphysics? Is that the job of empirical fact finders, or is that really the job of AT metaphysicians?

ID (whatever one thinks of its veracity or plausibility as an empirical matter) is first and foremost a factual claim: a claim that the observed properties of life cannot be explained by (the efficient causes of) chance and the laws of physics, and that therefore, as a forensic inference, life could not be here absent the intervention of intelligent agency — not (necessarily), it is true, the creation ex nihilo of God, but the ordinary agency that slams us in the face with a hammer every time we observe human beings make choices.

When confronted with this factual claim, AT metaphysicians have two intellectually honest choices qua AT metaphysicians: they can dispute the factual claim, or they can go to work explaining how the factual claim is explicable through the lens of AT metaphysics.

The vocal AT critics of ID have done neither of these two things.

There were times when I thought they were disputing the factual claim. That can’t be the case though, because if it were the case they would be admitting the empirical falsifiability of their metaphysics.

And they certainly have not attempted to explain the empirical factual claim through the lens of AT metaphysics.  Instead they have spent enormous energy arguing that ID is incompatible with AT.

So my conclusion is that they’ve spent years of attack dog articles avoiding the central issue and changing the subject.

“God does not play design!”

February 13, 2015 § 30 Comments

In the comments of the post below I compared the putative theistic personalism of “intelligent design” to the putative anti-realism of quantum mechanics.  Perhaps, we might propose, AT critics of ID are just insisting that “God does not play dice!”

But it isn’t as if Einstein could have coherently characterized quantum mechanics itself as intrinsically misguided, to wit:

“[X] is implicitly committed to metaphysical anti-realism, and is therefore a misguided attempt to make sense of reality.”

Replace X with “quantum mechanics” and it is a ludicrous statement. Replace X with “the Copenhagen interpretation” and it is at least arguable. The latter implicitly and explicitly makes much more concrete and specific metaphysical commitments than the former.

“[X] is implicitly committed to theistic personalism*, and is therefore a misguided attempt to make sense of reality.”

Replace X with “the design inference in Darwin’s Black Box” and it is a ludicrous statement (whatever one thinks of the design inference as an empirical matter or theistic personalism as a theological matter). Replace X with “Dembski’s interpretation” or “Torley’s interpretation” and perhaps it isn’t (emphasis on ‘perhaps’: I haven’t read all of the back and forth because it frankly is not relevant to my own interests).

* This could as easily be “a mechanistic conception of nature” rather than “theistic personalism”.

Is rice allowed on the Paleyo diet?

February 12, 2015 § 24 Comments

The big beef with William Paley’s watchmaker argument seems to be that it involves an inference to a watchmaker as opposed to a farmer or cultivator.  Watches are artifacts while living things are not, and this (supposedly) invalidates Paley’s argument.  I propose the following update to his argument to eliminate this objection:

In [exploring the moon], suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a [crop of rice which, when its DNA was analyzed, revealed the (statistically impossible as random chance) message “Genetically modified by Monsanto for lunar cultivation” in the DNA code], and it should be inquired how the [rice] happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the [rice] might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an [cultivator or cultivators], who formed [the rice] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the [genetically modified rice], exists in the works of nature; …

—William Paley, Natural Theology (1802) [my updates]
The AT observation that a watchmaker analogy is not an argument for the God of natural philosophy is true enough: the watchmaker is an argument for some sort, any sort, of intelligent agency manifested in living things, and no more.  What isn’t clear though is why, once that is acknowledged, that doesn’t resolve all of the AT objections.

Intelligent design, AT philosophy, and growing rice on the moon

February 12, 2015 § 15 Comments

I’ve always been – and still remain – puzzled by the hostility that contemporary Aristotlean-Thomist philosophers exhibit toward so-called ‘intelligent design’ theory. In the comments to an old post by my former blog colleague Ed Feser at What’s Wrong with the World, the possibility of cultivating living things from nonliving – not actually living – materials in the laboratory was addressed by the commenter Brandon:

Both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas lived in times when spontaneous generation was considered not only possible but common; they thought nature itself created organisms “from non-living raw materials using electrical, mechanical, and chemical processes” — well, electrical would not have been on their list — every single day. That human beings can do the same thing would no more surprise them than that farmers can grow seeds into plants; and thus, naturally, there’s nothing in either of their approaches to nature that rules it out. What it would show is that there is some underlying intrinsic and natural facility for certain things to come together under certain conditions so as to be alive; and art can, of course, take advantage of such natural powers — there’s probably no natural capabilities human art can’t take advantage of, in fact. But, of course, precisely what is required by the hypothetical scenario is that exactly the same natural capabilities be involved in the laboratory case as in nature: what is done in the laboratory is, ex hypothesi, not the building of an artificial simulacrum but the cultivation of a natural organism by selectively accelerating/decelerating/encouraging/discouraging, etc., various processes by which natural organisms already can come about (whether they would actually do so rarely or for the most part makes no difference to the principle).

Basically, as long as the potentialities are there in the actually non-living matter, it isn’t a priori impossible to synthesize life from non-life in the lab. Stated that way it is pretty difficult to disagree: if the potentialities for X aren’t in the raw materials, we can’t build X from those raw materials.  My read on it at the time was as follows:

If I understand Brandon’s comment … properly, an A-T philosopher who does not think it impossible to assemble life in a lab [Me today: if this is understood to be a priori impossible, it follows that the philosophy which asserts this a priori impossibility is in principle empirically falsifiable] can distinguish between Creator and Cultivator, if you will; and what ID is attempting to show is that a Cultivator was required to kick-start life. Life as we know it is empirically incapable of kick-starting without, not only a Creator, but a Cultivator. Nothing wrong with that, especially if it is true, and it does create stumbling blocks for the modern materialist.

This subject came up again in the comments to my recent post the other day.

It seems to me that the probabilistic arguments made by ID theorists like Michael Behe, which address the ‘whether they would actually do so rarely’ pivot in Brandon’s parenthetical – whatever one may think of those probabilistic arguments as an empirical matter – should be no more controversial to the AT philosopher than the observation that in order to grow rice on the moon, intelligent agency is required.

So why they be hatin?

I’m too sexy for contemporary Aristotleanism

February 5, 2015 § 183 Comments

I’ve mentioned before that, as unfashionable as it may seem, I think I am probably some sort of metaphysical Platonist.  I’m not really a philosopher, but as I understand it in order to be an Aristotlean I would have to believe that universals or forms don’t exist except as abstractions from actually existent particulars. (I could easily have that wrong – actual Aristotleans should feel free to correct me, as I am just responding to what I’ve read from my own perspective).  So airplane-ness doesn’t exist unless particular airplanes really exist, and airplane-ness ceases to be once all airplanes no longer exist. The species or category ceases to exist once all instances of it are gone, and presumably reappears if new instances appear.  Furthermore, if we postulate some unique kind of vehicle which never actually is invented at some point between the Big Bang and the Gnab Gib, never actually occurs in our universe, or perhaps even is not comprehensible to limited human intellect – call this conveyance a grook – then grook-ness just doesn’t exist at all, even in the mind of God.

(As an aside, it seems to me that the endless war between philosophical idealism and realism might be a consequence of the fact that we are Imago Dei and thus live in world which is external and real to us but which is subordinate to the mind and ideas of God. Somewhere in there is an argument for theism, for silly people who need such a thing).

Another problem I have with Aristotleanism (or at least with my own understanding of it) is that I don’t think it is essentialist enough about reality.  I’ve mentioned before that Aristotleanism appears to me to be too reductionist when it comes to certain – I’ll use what I hope is the neutral term ‘attributes’ – of certain things, especially attributes of artifacts made by human beings.  Said differently I believe that artifacts do have objective essences independent of human purposes, and are not merely collections of accidents cobbled together and possessing only human-subjective meaning: mousetraps in my view have a mousetrappishness to them even in a forest when no man is around to hear them snap shut on a mouse.  (Once again the fact that we are Imago Dei may come into play here).

Beyond that I think that Aristotleanism, at least as expressed by present-day Aristotleans, has positivist tendencies.  Positivists make a kind of argument from incredulity to the effect that if formal completeness is not possible then definite meaning must be impossible: if it is impossible in principle to specify the essence of a thing formally and completely, it is impossible in principle to say anything definite about the essence of that thing. Therefore, it is suggested, objections to completeness claims are irrational: definitions just are complete specifications of essence a.k.a. species, else definition is not possible.  If we have to abandon our completeness claims we have to abandon reason altogether.  So “if we accept argument A it implies that we will always necessarily have an incomplete definition of the essence of thing X” is employed, fallaciously in my understanding, as a reductio ad absurdam of argument A.

The postmodern, with just slightly more insight than the positivist, understands that completeness claims – claims that (say) a definition can completely specify the kind of thing that a real object essentially is ontologically – are incoherent.  Unhappy with the fact that he is not God even in a limited sense, the postmodern simply embraces this putative incoherence and descends into madness.

By way of further background, genus, for the Aristotlean, refers to mutually exclusive categories like ‘bacteria’ and ‘cat’. The existence-in-principle of a formal hierarchical structure defining mutually exclusive categories from the highest level of generic Being to a bottom layer of species is (I am led to understand) central to the Aristotlean project. No cross-classification of genus is permitted: attributes shared across genera are properties or accidents.  Properties are essential inasmuch as they flow from a thing’s essence, and are otherwise accidental. The color of a leaf is a property of leaves, since it is the essential nature of a leaf to have a color; but that the color of that leaf happens to be green or red is accidental.

What fully constitutes a thing’s essence on this account is its species, that is, its formally specific terminal position in the taxonomic tree of an in-principle formally definable reality:

The Porphyrian Tree forms an upper semi-lattice, as attributed by Thomason (1969) to all taxonomic systems (without reference to the Tree).  Hence any two kinds K1 and K2 have a least upper bound (LUB), that is, a lowest higher kind that contains them both … hence there can be no cross-classification …

The reason why there must be a summum genus and an infima species within a [taxonomical Porphryian] tree is that otherwise there could be no definition at all.  If an entity could fall, in principle, under even higher genera, or be a member of a species that contained ever lower species, it would be impossible to give its definition.  In the former case, the proximate genus would be undefinable since there would be no final answer to the question ‘What is it?’  Whatever answer one gave to the question of the proximate genus, it would be incomplete. … Similarly, if species could forever be broken up into smaller species, we could never reach a specific difference. For every time we thought we had reached it, it would turn out that what we had reached was either an accident, and so no part of the definition, or else just another part of the genus of the object being classified, with differentia yet to be found. – David Oderberg, Real Essentialism (emphasis mine)

But answers to questions about Being – for example questions which ask “what, essentially, is this real thing right here-now as ontologically distinct from other things” – are always, necessarily incomplete. That is the nature of the world as we actually find it in conjunction with the nature of the language we use to describe that world. The essences of real things – what makes it that kind of thing and not something else – cannot ever be completely specified by formal definitions, formal models like taxonomic trees, and formal expressions like language; not even in principle.

Men and women are human beings, but maleness and femaleness is in my view a manifest specific difference between them.  Other animals are also differentiated by sex, so it seems to me that either the real word actually does exhibit cross-classification at the level of genera or that we have to treat maleness and femaleness as a kind of mere accident.  If I were an Aristotlean of the sort committed to the existence-in-principle of an upper-lattice porphyrian tree formally partitioning reality, it seems to me that I would have to believe maleness and femaleness to be accidental.  Sex may be an essential property – a property which follows from man’s essence in the normative case – but like the color of a leaf, whether differentiated into male or female in particular is merely accidental — like being left handed, right handed, or ambidextrous. Maleness and femaleness, then, are not part of the essence of a particular person– they do not specify anything essential about that person, only something accidental. Sexedness is essential to man generically speaking but, simultaneously, maleness and femaleness in particular are as accidental as eye color.

It is possible and even likely that I don’t understand the Aristotlean arguments I have read, or that there is something wrong with my own thoughts.  It is also possible that the contemporary Aristotlean framework is not internally consistent, in which case there would be no unequivocal way to understand it at all.  To the extent that it is characterized by positivist incredulity at rejection of completeness claims about formal definitions – incredulity at rejection of the claim that completeness is possible in principle (even if no particular definition of a particular species is asserted to be complete) – then the latter must be the case.

But whatever else does obtain, I suspect that there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Maybe hiring a hypothetical night watchman would be cheaper

February 3, 2015 § 8 Comments

The “night watchman” is actually a canonical example in debate over usury. For some reason supporters of usury tend to think that night watchmen don’t do anything actual. But a night watchman clearly does something actual, or else his activities would be just as valuable – and he would get paid just as much – if he sat at the bar down the street drinking beer rather than manning his post. But he actually does provide a deterrent to thieves by his actual presence, his actual vigilance actually does prevent theft when theft is attempted, and his actual witness to what happens helps in actual investigation and prosecution even if an actual theft is successful.

As I mention in the Usury FAQ, modern supporters of usury tend to suffer from a kind of anti-realist materialism. So every time I use the word “actual”, they hear “physical”. If anything non-material is actual, in their confused view, then everything non-material must be actual.

So opportunity costs – profits intentionally foregone by an investor in hypothetical investments that he did not actually make – are as “real” to the modern mind as the protection provided by a night watchman.

While it is doubtless true that my editorial choices could be improved and perhaps even are atrocious, I cannot explain things to people until they reach the point where it is possible for them to understand what I am explaining. I really have to leave it to others to determine how much of the incomprehension on the subject is because of my editorial incompetence and how much is because of the incapacity of certain readers to understand. But I am working on the editorial end of it all the time.

Finally, it would be a mistake to conflate incomprehension with genuine disagreement. On this subject, as on many, there is far more incomprehension than there is comprehension accompanied by genuine disagreement.

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