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."


Notes:

[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)

10 comments:

Richard said...

I notice a lot of assertions on here about Ed's character, with just a scant little quote to back them up. I am also noting the fact that you are not using the most charitable interpretation of A-T and can only equate it with Protestant explanations in an effort to refute it. Even if Edward Feser were not a philosopher, which he is despite your baseless assertion, I would trust his notions of philosophy over yours simply due to the fact that he can provide a clearer view of his opponents than you can and he has more than baseless assertions to back up his arguments. Now, I am going to use language here that I would not use over at his blog, so please brace yourself. I am a liberal. I have non-procreative sex with my wife. I have had group sex. I have bottomed for some hot fucking men. I love black and death metal. I am most certainly not a Catholic. I don't believe that there is anything like a "free market". And still I can read Ed Feser's blog and comment respectfully because I am not. Fucking. Afraid.
Your fear and terror of conservatism oozes through this post like a foul, necrotic miasma that poisons everything you have to say. And the idea that A-T metaphysics is the new stalking horse for the ID movement? One of the dumbest things that I have ever seen spewed out anywhere on the Internet, and that is saying something. I highly doubt that Thomas Aquinas developed his work just for a lost battle in America's little culture war. Plus, A-T metaphysics, despite having intelligent proponents, isn't going anywhere when it comes to the larger Christian culture. Protestants aren't going to touch it, because it will seem too much like they are going back to the Catholic Church. And yet your post comes out like a desperate newsflash to your fellow New Atheists, warning them of the Catholic tyrants marching on our culture from the borders with rhetorical axes in hand. "Oh save us, godless ones!" Pathetic.
Hey, here is an idea. Go buy David Oderbergs Real Essentialism and point out what he gets wrong using your amazing philosophical skills. Be so impressive that Ed might actually need to comment on YOUR blog. Or you can even review the works of new essentialist philosophers of science and point out their mistakes and flaws. That should be right up your alley. You might even make a name for yourself in a way that being a breathless chicken little for new atheism will never manage.

djindra said...

"I notice a lot of assertions on here about Ed's character, with just a scant little quote to back them up."

Stay tuned.

"I am also noting the fact that you are not using the most charitable interpretation of A-T and can only equate it with Protestant explanations in an effort to refute it."

No kidding. And Feser doesn't use the most charitable interpretation of his opponents either.

"[Feser] can provide a clearer view of his opponents than you can and he has more than baseless assertions to back up his arguments."

Well, I'm not done with his views by a long shot and I've seen enough of his arguments to know he has no case. Zip.

"Now, I am going to use language here that I would not use over at his blog, so please brace yourself...."

I've been around the block too. Nothing is going to shock me. No confused alliance is going to surprise me. In this world Trotskyites become neocons and libertarians become essentialists. Politics, religion and philosophy make strange bedfellows. Now what does this have to do with anything?

"Your fear and terror of conservatism oozes through this post like a foul, necrotic miasma that poisons everything you have to say."

Truth is, I'm closer to conservative positions than either you or Feser know. I'm certainly not on the left. You seem to assume I think Feser is a conservative. I don't. He's a radical. Many people who call themselves conservatives these days are no such thing. Some are on their way to becoming Fascists. I take no prisoners when it comes to them. If you confuse my resolve with fear that's your problem, not mine.

"And the idea that A-T metaphysics is the new stalking horse for the ID movement? One of the dumbest things that I have ever seen spewed out anywhere on the Internet, and that is saying something."

Or maybe you just don't have the tools to see it.

"I highly doubt that Thomas Aquinas developed his work just for a lost battle in America's little culture war."

You'll have to do better than that. Paley didn't develop his argument for America's culture war either. That didn't stop the ID crowd from exploiting it.

"Plus, A-T metaphysics, despite having intelligent proponents, isn't going anywhere when it comes to the larger Christian culture."

Probably not "as is" but it's best to nip authoritarian falsehoods in the bud. Besides, Protestants have a habit of incorporating bits and pieces from anywhere and otherwise blowing with the wind.

"And yet your post comes out like a desperate newsflash to your fellow New Atheists"

I'm not writing to atheists. I don't hang out with any either (unless we count my wife and sons).

"Go buy David Oderbergs Real Essentialism and point out what he gets wrong using your amazing philosophical skills."

Oderberg is in the works.

Btw, I seem to have struck a nerve. Good. That's partly my intent.

DNW said...

Well, Don, I see that you have finally taken my advice to post your objections to Feser's philosophy up on your own site.

This way you will be able to ramble on about the Straussian threat to (what you seem content to deceptively insinuate is) classical liberalism, to your heart's content; and to make whatever converts to your position which the logical force of your arguments, or a lack of critical sense in your readers, allow you to make.

It might be mildly interesting to see how far you can take this attack on Feser, without actually revealing your own sociopolitical baseline "values" and assumptions. I say this because as has been noted before, although you repeatedly make libertarian-like allusions and references, and motion toward "conservativism" as if it lies at your own right hand, your comical expressions of indignation - for example over homosexual issues as if there is an objective substantive question rather than a purely formal one to be addressed - are seemingly as much about issues of mandatory inclusion, affirmation, and socially distributive cost-sharing solidarity, as about any abstract individual liberty to choose, and individually pay the cost.


Perhaps you would be willing to correct any possible misimpressions by categorically stating that neither communitarian, nor social solidarity, nor civic republicanism principles underly any part of your implied political "critique".

If you can do so, we might be able to show you how your paranoia is unfounded.

One the other hand, if you really expect more from your political cohorts than a purely formal arm's length tolerance when they are dealing with annoying or uncongenial sorts ( individuals whom they may also believe on defensible grounds to be seriously disordered and desire to shun for reasons of rational self-interest) then, your anxieties may well be justified ...

BenYachov said...

(I might as well get in on this bash djindra band wagon. It should be fun)

Richard,

You forgot to add that djindra's fruit-bat ignorant analysis of Philosophy & Thomism is no better than some Young Earth Creationist's 5th grade knowledge of biology set against Richard Dawkin's Oxford Professor's knowledge of the same.

(You & I know Dawkins is a total idiot in regards to Philosophy and Religion but he knows his Evolutionary biology. If djindra wasn't a Gnu'Atheist he would be a fundamentalist Christian. They are the same thing intellectually after all)

djindra said...

BenYachov,

Don't you get tired of being a lapdog to that spineless coward who is Feser? I guess I shouldn't be surprised. He puts up a mean face when he gets to make the rules. But in a fair fight he'd cave both intellectually and morally. I was gentle with the guy and he still took it personally. I won't be gentle with him anymore.

djindra said...

DNW,

I'll probably disappoint you if you want me to make categorical statements about politics. I guess I can categorically state Communism and Fascism are bad. And if I bowled I would be perfectly happy bowling alone. I've been a runner since I was 16 and I used to love going out on those 10 mile runs by myself. I'm certainly no communitarian in spirit. I doubt Putnam is right about much. I don't think social solidarity or group consciousness is good for much except maybe temporarily in sport or dire times of war. Civic republicanism, as in the way it was practiced by ancient Rome, doesn't appeal to me. I'm no Libertarian though I do have a libertarian streak. I'm not licentious at all. So my object is not in a selfish desire to misbehave. At risk of being vague and boring I'll say I simply prefer the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and the US Constitution -- including the amendments -- to anything else. My "critique" of Feser, Strauss, and all of the despisers of modernity is rooted in that. I'm an American through and through and it bugs me when I see other Americans reject its founding principles.

BenYachov said...

djindra,

So what are you gonna do djindra?

Ban me if I spend 24 hours a day bad mouthing, insulting you and acting like a dick? :-)

Like I'd give a shit.

You are a mentally weak-minded Gnu. Nothing more. You are at best an amusement at worst....you are still only an amusement.

That is what you are and that is all you will ever be.

Live with it.

djindra said...

BenYachov,

No, you can be as silly as you want to be here -- not that it would be anything new for you.

Don.

BenYachov said...

Except unlike you I have a life.

djindra said...

BenYachov,

"Except unlike you I have a life."

Does an alter-ego have a life? Does Ed know?