Saturday, December 31, 2011

Purpose-driven Purpose, Part 1

There's a new "conservative" attack on America that promotes itself as philosophy. In what might be an inside joke meant for esoteric Straussians, it calls itself an Aristotelian-Thomas philosophy, or A-T for short. What better way to merge Athens and Jerusalem than to mix Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas?

There may be those who promote the A-T "tradition" for reasons other than political. This is not directed at those lost souls. I'm interested in the hacks who dress up their politics to parody love of wisdom.

Edward Feser is one of the more obnoxious of those A-T proponents. He writes for several "conservative" publications including National Review, The American Conservative, and the Catholic, neocon propaganda tool, First Things. He's written several books and also teaches philosophy. His case demonstrates why teaching philosophy and writing about philosophy does not make one a philosopher -- like teaching literature and writing about great novels does not make one a novelist.

At the core of A-T is a fanatical belief in teleology, also referred to as "final cause." Most people would simply call teleology the purpose or design of a thing. So let's try to ignore the jargon. This is little more than a re-warmed version of Paley's divine Watchmaker argument. Though they adamantly deny it, A-T is yet another version of Creationism. When Creationism didn't fly it became Intelligent Design. Now that ID is embarrassing, the argument is repackaged by different players as "final cause." The difference is in the sublimity of the lie.

Remember how Intelligent Design proponents claimed they were not Creationists? Likewise Feser makes a point of distancing himself from the Intelligent Design movement.

ID is primarily concerned with life. Living things have parts that function as if they were intentionally designed for that purpose. A heart pumps blood therefore pumping blood is the heart's purpose. In A-T terminology, pumping blood is the heart's final cause -- the thing it is meant to do. A-T accepts the theory that evolution itself could be used to produce the heart. This question doesn't seem to interest them -- probably because the question has been so strongly answered in favor of Darwin. But, in some minds, Darwin doesn't answer more pressing questions: Why do things follow any law at all? Why does any substance have a limited set of properties? What gives them those properties? What hand directs them to behave in certain ways? Ultimately, what "power" keeps them in existence in the first place?

Feser expresses A-T final cause as "the directedness of brittle objects toward shattering, of soluble objects toward dissolving, of the phosphorus in a match head toward generating flame and heat." [1]

Why is this important? In a boldly silly sentence Feser explains: "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." [2]

In other words, we can't understand the fact that glass breaks unless we accept the fact that glass has within it an intent to break. Supposedly this is a more intelligible reason for why breakable objects break. The claim is that a history of observations that glass does break is less intelligible than if we assign purpose or intent to the glass itself. A keen mind would notice that we can assign that "purpose" only after we observe the facts that glass tends to break. So if purpose and only purpose can make the world intelligible, it's an unfortunate fact that it's simple observations that make "purpose" intelligible in the first place. Purpose is derived from observation and can only be so derived. So if observation is less intelligible than "purpose", what basis is there for the claim that intelligible "purpose" is derived from unintelligible observation? Obviously it's a false claim. As we will see in this series of posts, A-T rests on many false, often silly, claims.

So what causes glass to break? In the A-T dogma, it was intended to break. Intent was the cause! How do we know? Let's forget how we know. Let's first claim that observation itself is unintelligible. Nothing breaks except when it's intended to break. We should assume intent is the intent of someone. Take a wild guess as to who that "someone" is! God wills glass to break.

Paley stumbled upon a watch and asked who made it. Feser stumbles on glass and asks who made it breakable. It's the same argument no matter how much Feser claims that it's not.

This A-T dogma is a Christianized New Age mysticism. Let's call it Gnu Age -- to parody A-T rants about Gnu Age Atheists. To the Gnu Ager, the universe is alive with intention. Not only does a cat intend to climb a tree but a leaf intends to fall and the earth intends to break its fall. When a baseball is thrown to a window, the glass intends to break rather than stop the ball like a steal plate might intend to do. You see, metal and glass have a different purpose embedded into their existence. If we don't understand that we can't understand anything!

Of course this is trivial nonsense. It wouldn't be worth contemplating or countering if there was no purpose behind it. But Feser's interest, his real final cause, is human behavior. There's a political purpose behind his purpose. You see, humans have a final cause too and, if we disobey, we break as surely as a window. Or more ominously, we deserve to be broken. Or even more ominously, we should be prevented from breaking. Self-assigned purpose, our own invented final cause, becomes sin. This dogma, which Feser refers to as classical natural law theory, is the sole reason why this A-T "tradition" is of any interest. The "philosophy" is blatantly political.

In the The Last Superstition Feser makes his political interest clear. Same-sex marriage 1) confounds good with evil, 2) confounds reason with insanity, 3) represents a total collapse of traditional morality, 4) demonstrates a low point in our civilization, and 5) shows we have succumbed to meglomania and erotomania. Accompanying this mania has been a rise in the "ostentatious unbelief" of the smart set. "It's as if the urbane cocktail hour secularist liberalism of the twentieth century has, by way of the slow but sure inebriation produced by an unbroken series of social and judicial triumphs, now become in the twenty-first century fall-down-sloppy drunk and lost all inhibition, by turns blaspheming, whoring, and otherwise offending all sane decent sensibilities as the mood strikes it." [3] That hogwash reminds me of the emotional screeching in Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah.

Far from being an appeal to reason, Feser's A-T is a flourishing of the irrational. It fuels the fears of an authoritarian personality. In one deranged moment out of many Feser asserts that the "metaphysical absurdity" of "same sex marriage" is not a matter of choice. "It is no more up to the courts or 'the people' to 'define' marriage or to decide whether religion is a good thing than it is up to them to 'define' whether the Pythagorean Theorem is true of right triangles, or water has the chemical structure H2O." [4] Such things are discovered through reason. These are not things for "democratic procedure to stipulate."

In short, Feser rejects democracy. Oh, he might permit it for a few things, but he rejects it for the important things -- those things he thinks he can discover through smugness. His mission is to ensure "classical theism and traditional morality of Western Civilization" be "restored to their rightful place as the guiding principles of Western thought, society, and politics." His boogeyman is a specter called "secular liberalism." And it's not simply wrong, it's "a clear and present danger to the stability of any society, and to the eternal destiny of any soul that falls under its maligned influence."

Feser demands much more than a "'place at the table' of some great multicultural smorgasbord" Instead his views "ought to be restored to their rightful place as the guiding principles of Western thought, society, and politics." This rhetoric is suspiciously totalitarian. In fact, through Feser's liberal application of words like "necessity" we find his view is necessarily totalitarian.

He declares that "secularism is necessarily and inherently a deeply irrational and immoral view of the world." When one claims a worldview is necessarily immoral, there's no room for tolerance. There's no looking the other way. And when he further claims the same worldview is insane, you had better keep him away from the straight-jacket closet. It does pose a peculiar paradox: Can an "insane" person be held responsible for immoral behavior at all? Likewise, can he be expected to cast a sane vote? Should insane people be allowed to vote?

If the secularist is indeed insane, there is obviously no need to listen to his reasoning. There's no need to consider his positions. There's no need to compromise. To compromise with insanity is insane. And finally, if that 'liberal secularist' cannot be shut-up, if he insists on insane policy, what option do we have left? How can we justify letting the insane vote? It may sound undemocratic to think we could strip votes away, but it's not so hard. We already have the method. As soon as we convict a secularist of a felony, he has no vote.

Necessity breeds necessity. Party Members! The Central Committee is in session! The issue before us is purpose. What is man's purpose? Surely no man can decide! Let us collectivize all men into one great, purpose-driven ant hill. Let us destroy the individual! Let us call upon Natural Law to make men live under Natural Law like billiard balls bounce under physical laws.

Feser constantly insists that this or that secular worldview leads, necessarily, to this or that conclusion, no matter what the advocate might argue in his defense. So Feser gets the same treatment from me. His worldview leads, necessarily, to totalitarianism.

I'll continue exploring this issue next time by examining his paper, "Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation."


[1] "TLS and formal causes" paragraph 4

[2] Ibid

[3] Feser's The Last Superstition, pages vii, viii, x, for this paragraph.

[4] The Last Superstition, page ix

(working on references)