Hot damn! It’s been way too long, brothers and sisters, but I finally kept my promise. I’m back in the philosophy groove, following up on the last philosophy piece I wrote a while ago—Aristotle’s Curse, which was a critique of Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition. That essay had a lot of history-related analysis mixed in with it, but this one will be more focused on ‘pure’ philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t consider myself a professional philosopher, or even as good a logician as I am a historian, but I think I’ve gotten enough experience to boost me up from “complete greenhorn” to at least “improving beginner” in this field.
Suitable for an improving beginner would seem to be Edward Feser’s Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, which I will review today. Don’t expect it to be the only book I cite, though! I’ll be talking a lot about The Last Superstition and one of Feser’s esays, “The Perverted Faculty Argument Defended,” as well. Why? Because, frankly, reasonably large chunks of Aquinas, especially near the beginning, are more or less taken right from TLS, and Feser’s essay takes from both books too. I’m not saying that to be insulting (though I will comment on it in my review), just stating a fact. And I hope it will excuse me if I re-copy a lot of direct quotes from Aristotle’s Curse. If Feser was allowed to crib from his previous work, I don’t see why I can’t either.
But, of course, I won’t only be relying solely on what I’ve already done, and there’ll be a lot of new material here too. In fact, a few other writers besides Feser will make an appearance! His friend David S. Oderberg has written a book which expands on many of his points, and many of his blog commenters have extended and refined some of his arguments. Thus, I figured it would be wise to address those as well. I want to fight the strongest opponent possible—there’d be no pleasure in victory otherwise, eh? And to be a bit more specific about what I’m fighting, I’ll concentrate primarily on metaphysics—Aristotle’s views (which were also those of Aquinas) on “essence,” potentiality and actuality, etc. Then I will attack Aquinas’s views on God (what he took to be God’s nature and characteristics), and then, lastly, “natural law” ethics (what people like Feser and his friends say is right or wrong).
On that note, I have to admit that, alas, I won’t cite as many academic sources aside from Feser and Oderberg. I’m well aware that other Thomists like Brian Davies have also written thorough defenses of “Natural Law.” However, those folks seem to write for academics and professional philosophers, and I’m still not quite up to that level yet. Since Feser generally writes for laymen and beginners, I’d be best served to focus on him, and since he’s such a fervent defender of Aquinas, I could also be assured I’d be taking on the strongest natural law arguments there are, rather than strawmen or nobodies. In Oderberg’s case, his book Real Essentialism is often used as a college text, from what I’ve heard, so I figured it would be more accessible than, say, particular philosophy papers. TL;DR: Feser (and to a lesser extent Oderberg) offers both intellectual rigor and readability, which is why I found it wise to frame this whole essay around his work.
With that introduction out of the way, let me begin.
Part 1.1: Metaphysical Meanderings: Puzzling Potencies
The first pages of Aquinas briefly describe the philosopher’s importance to philosophy and his personal background. On page two Feser claims that Aquinas’s work should be read “as a challenge to us today, and a challenge, as we shall see, not merely to our conclusions but to many of our premises too.” Suffice it to say this review will hopefully prove that challenge is not insurmountable.
According to Aquinas, at least in Feser’s account, “science is an organized body of knowledge of both the facts about some area of study and of their causes and explanations; and while this includes the field typically regarded today as paradigmatically scientific–physics, biology, and so forth–it also includes metaphysics and even theology. Furthermore, these latter sciences are as rational as the ones we are familiar with today. To be sure, a part of theology (what is generally called revealed theology) is based on what Aquinas regards as truths that have been revealed to us by God. To that extent theology is based on faith. But faith for Aquinas does not mean an irrational will to believe something for which there is no evidence. It is rather a matter of believing something on the basis of divine authority… In any case there is another part of theology (known as natural theology) that does not depend on faith but rather concerns truths about God that can be known by reason alone. It is these purely philosophical arguments of natural theology with which we should be concerned in this book, along with Aquinas’s views on metaphysics, ethics, and psychology.”
A couple of thoughts on this:
For folks who might not know, metaphysics is broadly speaking, the study of what is, or the nature of reality. This seems like the sort of work science does, but there is a subtle difference. The various branches of science deal with very specific parts of reality. For instance, physics deals with the laws of nature, chemistry deals with the interactions of atoms, and biology deals with how about the laws of nature and the interactions of atoms, influence living creatures. Metaphysics, on the other hand, is much more general and deals with reality as a whole.
And while the sciences rely on empirical observation, metaphysics relies on purely logical argument. This does not necessarily mean that metaphysics is any less capable of discerning the truth then empiricism. For instance, if I tell you that my friend John is a bachelor, you immediately know that John is unmarried. You haven’t discerned this through empirical observation, such as actually meeting John and talking to him, or observing that he has no wife. You know it instead through logical inference–the definition of bachelor is an unmarried man, so by logical necessity John must be unmarried if he is a bachelor, and this seems reasonable.
For that reason, I’ll be trying to fight Aquinas, and Aristotle, and Professor Feser and his allies, on their own terms. I will attempt to describe how many of their conclusions do not follow from their premises, or are internally inconsistent, unlike how the conclusion John is unmarried necessarily follows from the premise that John is a bachelor. Don’t worry, though, when Aquinas, Feser, or other Natural Law types get something empirically wrong I’ll be sure to point it out.
With that out of the way, we return to the introduction of Aquinas. There’s little else to be said about this part, as the rest of it is just a brief outline of Aquinas’s life, for historical interest. Yet this little aside also illustrates a strength and a weakness of Feser’s book. On the one hand, the prose is lucid and clear, unlike many philosophers (including Aquinas himself, IMO), which is a hallmark of Feser’s writing in general. On the other hand, a good portion of it is taken right from The Last Superstition. Feser’s retelling of how Aquinas chased a prostitute out of his room is almost exactly the same between the two books:
Beginner’s Guide, page 3-4: “he [Aquinas] chased her away with a flaming stick pulled from the fireplace, which he used afterwards to make the sign of the cross on the wall. As the story has it, he then kneeled before the cross and prayed for the gift of perpetual chastity, which he received at the hands of two angels who girded his loins with a miraculous cord.”
The Last Superstition, page 74: “he famously chased her away with a flaming brand snatched from the fireplace and then used it to draw a cross on the wall, before which he prayed for, and received, the gift of lifelong chastity.”
As you can see, aside from the bit in the first quote about the angels, it’s essentially the same passage. I’ll admit a good deal of the biography in the Beginner’s Guide isn’t present in the briefer one from The Last Superstition; the former also mentions Aquinas’s differences with the Muslim philosopher Averroes (who believed in a collective rather than individual human intellect) and his introduction to Aristotle under Albert the Great. But other passages, such as the amusing anecdote about Aquinas teaching a levitating nun a gentle lesson and the mystical experience he had at the end of his life, are also from The Last Superstition. This pattern is repeated throughout the rest of the Beginner’s Guide; many large passages ranging from the examples used to demonstrate “Forms” and “Essences” to the discussion of the immateriality of the intellect are taken almost verbatim from TLS. Once again, I imply nothing malicious about this. There’s nothing wrong with “borrowing” from your own work as there’s no point in writing the same thing twice, after all (when it comes to other people, Feser is scrupulous about crediting them in his notes). And there’s enough original content in both to make them worth reading. But…just keep in mind that if you plan on buying both, to some extent you’ll be paying twice for about a third of both books.
When it comes to material that hasn’t been repeated, once again, A Beginner’s Guide has much to both recommend it and not. Aside from the clarity of his writing, Feser is also much more generous and much less polemic than he was in The Last Superstition. He’s even kind to his atheist arch-enemy, Richard Dawkins! Additionally, Feser concentrates almost entirely on philosophical argumentation rather than (much) social or political pontification, which means we are spared his dreadfully facile analyses of Nazism and Communism in relation to Aristotle (I describe this much more elaborately in Aristotle’s Curse).
Unfortunately, this academic maturity, dispassionate tone and more focused approach also make for fairly boring reading. I said Feser’s writing was clear and understandable, I never said it was entertaining. Unlike The Last Superstition, where jokes at Dawkins’s expense or jaunty asides kept the reader engaged, A Beginner’s Guide is much more staid, occasionally even soporific. I suppose it couldn’t be avoided, though I will say I’ve tried my best to keep this essay, at least, a bit humorous and light-hearted without being mean-spirited (I’ve had problems with that before, as I’ve admitted). But if Feser couldn’t manage it, perhaps I can’t either. We’ll see.
And that does it for the intro—on to chapter 2, metaphysics!
Feser’s overview of Aquinas’s and Aristotle’s metaphysics is important enough to his succeeding arguments that they deserve to be quoted in full—and I beg your forebearance, as I’ll be doing this a lot, as I did for The Last Superstition. Even if it makes for a much lengthier read, at least my audience will see I’m dealing with my opponent fairly, exhaustively, and without cherrypicking his arguments. So let’s turn to page 9, where Feser says:
“[T]he Greek philosopher Parmenides notoriously held that change is impossible. For a being could change only if caused to do so by something other than it. But the only thing other than being is not being, and non-being, since it is just nothing, cannot cause anything. Hence, though the senses and common sense tell us that change occurs all the time, the intellect, in Parmenides’s view, reveals to us that they are flatly mistaken…. Aristotle’s specific reply to Parmenides appealed to the distinction between act and potency. Parmenides assumed that the only possible candidate for a source of change in a being is not being or nothing, which of course is no source at all. Aristotle’s reply was that this assumption is simply false. Take any object of our experience: a red rubber ball, for example. Among its features are the way it actually is: solid, round, red, and a bouncy. These are different aspects of its being there are also the ways it is not; for example, it is not a dog, or a car, or a computer. The ball’s “dogginess” and so on, since they don’t exist, are different kinds of non-being. But in addition to these features, we can distinguish the various ways to fall potentially is: blue if you painted it, soft and gooey if you melted it, and so forth. So, being and non-being are not the only relevant factors here: there are also a thing’ potentialities…
“Here lies the key to understanding how change as possible. If the ball is to become soft and gooey, it can’t be the gooeyness itself that causes this, since it doesn’t yet exist. But that the gooeyness is non-existent is not as Parmenides assumed the end of the story, for a potential or potency for gooeyness does exist in the ball, and this, together with some external influences such as heat that actualizrs that potential… suffices to show how the change can occur…
“So far this may sound fairly straightforward, but there is more to the distinction between act and potency than meets the eye. First of all, some contemporary analytic philosophers like object that a thing as potentially almost anything, so that Aristotle’s distinction is uninteresting. For example, it might be said by such philosophers that we can conceive of a possible world where rubber balls can bounce from here to the moon, or where they move by themselves and follow people around them in the same way. But the potentialities Aristotle and Aquinas have in mind are ones rooted in a thing’s nature as it actually exists, and does not include just anything that might possibly do in some expanded sense involving our powers of conception. Hence, why a rubber ball has the potential to be melted, it does not, in the Aristotelian sense, have the potential to bounce to the moon or to follow someone around all by itself.”
Since this is essentially the same explanation is on pages 53-54 of The Last Superstition, I think I’ll start off with the same retort I used last time:
“[I]f one thinks about it a little further—yes, perhaps even with some more thought experiments, even silly ones—one might find that the analytical philosophers might not be as far out as Feser implies—and that it should give moral realists a bit of pause, for reasons I’ll expound on later. The examples of potentialities the smug philosophers gave are indeed rooted in the thing’s nature—they weren’t being as silly as Feser implies. If you were to attach a strong magnet to the rubber ball, it would follow you around if you were wearing metal (and if you say that’s not a “potentiality” of the ball itself because you had to add something to it, the ball isn’t “potentially” blue either, because you have to add blue paint to it). It’s convenient for Feser to act as if a thing’s potentialities are easy to discern, but if we’re being rigorous, we find the task might be harder than we expect. I’m not denying that potentialities exist, and that objects have a limited set of them, but the fact that we can make *errors* in discerning them—for instance, denying them where they actually do exist, as I pointed out above—means they are not a perfect way of understanding the world, and that will be important later on (I think Aaron Boyden was exactly right to raise this point, think he was a little harsh on Feser as a whole).”
That argument was written a couple of months ago, and while I think it’s on the right track, I no longer agree entirely with it.
I think it doesn’t go far enough.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Aristotle’s reply to Parmenides, while having some merit, ultimately takes the wrong approach. The actual reality, however difficult it may be to comprehend and however much it may seem to fly in the face of common sense, is that anything that exists can potentially be nearly anything else. That is to say, at this point I’ve come around to denying that objects have a limited set of potentialities: I now believe they have an unlimited amount, or at least so many it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to grasp them all.
A rubber ball could indeed bounce to the moon if you slammed it into the ground with sufficient force for it to break out of the pull of gravity; indeed, on Mars or Mercury this would be very easy to do. It could indeed follow someone around by itself if you attached a magnet to it, or magnetized it. It is also potentially gas as well as gooey—if applying a certain degree of heat turns it to goo, applying even more would turn it to vapor entirely. It is potentially a weapon, if I throw it at someone hard enough to hurt them; it is potentially a murder weapon, if I stuff it down someone’s throat and suffocate them. It is potentially at least a figurine of a dog, if a skilled craftsman takes a knife to it and makes a little rubber sculpture of a doggie out of it. The list goes on—most things have so many potentialities that trying to categorize them based on potentials, or gauge which potentials belong to which actual objects, seems to me a futile and unhelpful endeavor.
Feser mentions in The Last Superstition an even more specific sense of potentiality “in the sense of a capacity that an entity already has within it by virtue of its nature or essence, as a rubber ball qua rubber ball has the potential to roll down a hill even when it is locked in a cabinet somewhere.” But this does not strike me as a particularly impressive refinement. A rubber ball just as a rubber ball, without being heated or attached to magnets or anything, and just being locked inside a cabinet, still has the “potential” to be a murder weapon without any changes made to it whatsoever, simply because if someone took it out and stuffed it down someone else’s throat it would suffocate them the same way it would if taken out and rolled down a hill. It is “potentially” a means of communication, if you bounce it on the floor so that the person below you hears thumps in Morse code. And so on. Even in the most limited sense of potentiality, there sure are plenty of ways most objects could “potentially” be.
So, if I’m not happy with Aristotle’s response, do I have a better one? I’d say I do. I’ll admit I haven’t read what Parmenides actually said, so I can only go off of Feser’s summary of it, which I hope is accurate. Assuming Feser was being scrupulous and honest, though, my approach would be this:
Parmenides had framed his query the wrong way. Yes, “Being” as a whole—that is to say, the category consisting of everything that exists—can’t change on account of non-being. But if Parmenides was grouping all of reality into just those two categories, it seems to me the categories he chose to focus on were particularly unhelpful. Within the large category of “Being” there naturally exist very many sub-categories: Namely, of course, individual beings, or individual things that exist, such as trees, people, forces of nature, and so. And those can clearly affect each other with no contradiction or issue. Or, to use a couple of pictures:
And this might be how Aristotle would respond:
(I know we haven’t gotten to Aristotle’s God yet, but we will in a second).
But this would be my argument:
Perhaps you can criticize the schematic I’ve given above—which, by the way, would be my own metaphysical (metaphysics is the study of being) and ontological (ontology is the study of how to categorize things/being/what is) theory—but at the very least, I’ve provided an alternative to Aristotle’s. It doesn’t strike me as immediately incoherent or self-contradictory, which should provide me a bit of cover as I continue to critique “Natural Law” metaphysics, based largely as they are on Aristotle’s actuality/potentiality distinction.
Feser goes on to say “though a thing’s potencies are the key to understanding how it is possible for it to change, they are merely a necessary and not a sufficient condition for the actual occurrence of change. An additional, external factor is also required. Potential gooeyness (for example), precisely because it is merely potential, cannot actualize itself; only something else that is already actual (like heat) could do the job. Consider also that if a mere potency could make itself actual, there would be no way to explain why it does so at one time rather than another. The ball melts and becomes gooey when you heat it. Why did this potential gooeyness become actual at precisely that point? The obvious answer is that the heat was needed to actualize it. If the potency for gooeyness could have actualized itself, it would have happened already, since the potential was there already. So, as Aquinas says, ‘potency does not raise itself to act; it must be raised to act by something that is in act’ (SCG I.16.3). This is the foundation of the famous Aristotelian-Thomistic principle that ‘whatever is moved is moved by another.’”
This is the “Principle of Causality,” which lead Feser and Aquinas, along with their predecessors, the Classical Theists of Greece such as Aristotle, to postulate the existence of a single monotheistic God (though Aristotle obviously wasn’t Christian). It is a very important principle, and we’ll return to this in much more depth later, I assure you, but a brief preview of their argument: Every potential needs to be actualized by something else that is already actual. For a solid ball to actualize its potential of gooeyness (that is to say, move from being hypothetically gooey to gooey in reality) it needs actual heat, that is to say, a fire that exists in reality.
But this chain of causation goes backwards a very long time. The actual fire (you use to heat the ball) itself had to be actualized by either another fire or something that’s not on fire but has the power to create fire, like a lighter, and that lighter had to be actualized (created) by someone else, like a worker in a factory who turns potential lighters into actual ones, and that worker had to have been actualized by his creators (his parents, who turned him from a potential worker into an actual one by conceiving, birthing, and raising him), who in turn had to be actualized by their parents, and their parents before them, all the way back to the primordial ooze, which had to be actualized into life via a lightning bolt (I guess, I dunno), which had to be actualized by primordial Earth’s atmosphere, which had to be actualized by atoms of rock, air, etc. forming a planet, and that was actualized by the laws of physics (or the universe itself), which were actualized by…well, God. At least as Aquinas/Aristotle would have it—even if they didn’t know about evolution, Feser thinks they’d say exactly this if they did. God necessarily exists because something of “pure act” (again, we’ll get to this in section 2.1) must be around to start the chain of actualization, which was already very long, judging by the beginning of this paragraph, from otherwise just going back eternally.
I don’t think I buy this, both because, as my picture above demonstrates, actuality/potentiality is not the only way to explain change, and also because I’m not sure the Principle of Causality would hold for all things besides God. But we’ll get back to that in Part 2 of this essay. For now, let’s move on to the next important part of this metaphysical framework: The definition of Forms, substance and accidents, and a funny word called hylemorphism.
According to Feser, what Aristotle and Aquinas meant by hylemorphism was that
“the ordinary objects of our experience are composites of form and matter. For instance, the rubber ball of our example is composed of a certain kind of matter, namely rubber, and a certain kind of form, namely the form of a red round bumps the object the matter by itself isn’t the ball, for the rubber could take on the form of a doorstop, and a razor, or any number of other things. The form by itself isn’t the ball either, or you can’t bounce redness, roundness, or even bounciness down the hallway, those being mere abstractions. It is only the form and matter together that constitute the ball. Anything compounded of form and matter is also compounded of act and potency, but there are compounds of act and potency that have no matter namely angels, as we shall see later on… being compounds, a form of matter is the specific way in which the things of our everyday experience are capable of undergoing change.
“Sometimes this change concerns some non-essential feature, as when a red ball is painted blue but remains a ball nonetheless. Sometimes it involves something essential, as when the ball is melted into a puddle of goo and thus no longer counts as a ball at all. Aquinas refers to the former sort of change as a change in accidents, and to the latter as a change in substance, and corresponding to each is a distinct kind of form: “What makes something exist substantially is called substantial form, and what makes something exist accidentally is called accidental form” (DPN 1.3). For a ball merely to change its color is for its matter to lose one accidental form and take on another, while retaining the substantial form of a ball and thus remaining the same substance, namely a ball. For a ball to be melted into goo is for its matter to lose one substantial form and take on another, thus becoming a different kind of substance altogether, namely a puddle of goo. Now the goo itself might be broken down into more basic chemical components. But what that would involve is the matter underlying the goo taking on yet different substantial forms. To be sure, Aquinas tells us that “what is in potency to exist substantially is called prime matter” (DPN 1.2), or in other words that we can distinguish between matter having no form whatsoever (“prime matter”) and the various substantial forms that it has the potential to take on. But this distinction is for him a purely conceptual one. In reality, however matter may be transformed, it will always have some substantial form or other, and thus count as a substance of some kind or other; strictly speaking, “since all cognition and every definition are through form, it follows that prime matter can be known or defined, not of itself, but through the composite” (DPN 2.14). The notion of prime matter is just the notion of something in pure potentiality with respect to having any kind of form, and thus with respect to being any kind of thing at all. And as noted above, what is purely potential has no actuality at all, and thus does not exist at all.”
Some of you might still be a little confused at this point, as Feser hasn’t clearly defined form or its related concept, essence yet. He’ll do so in a dozen pages, after describing efficient and final causes. If you wish he’d done that sooner, I do sympathize with your feelings. That’s actually another critique I have of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, namely that it seems to be somewhat strangely organized. If I were Feser, I’d have defined form and matter, as well as provided the historical background of these concepts (Plato first came up with the idea of “Forms”) before discussing hylemorphism. In fact, The Last Superstition analyzes Aristotle’s theories of forms and its historical context in much greater detail, describing how he differed not just from Plato and Parmenides but also Heraclitus and other Greek thinkers as well. That context is more or less absent from The Beginner’s Guide, though to Feser’s credit he addresses contemporary work on metaphysics (like Gyuma Klima and Saul Kripke, among others) in a more elaborate manner than in TLS. Still, I’d say the historical background TLS provides make its ideas more accessible for beginners, ironically enough, and it’s an approach I wish Feser had taken in his later work. Also, there are several philosophical terms, such as species and genus, which are used differently in philosophy than they are in biology. For total beginners, small explanations of those would have been useful.
Equally useful for beginners, IMO, would have been an explanation of realism and its advantages compared to competing theories of knowledge, such as nominalism and conceptualism. That specific term doesn’t come up in A Beginner’s Guide, but it’s very important in understanding why Aristotle and Aquinas’s ideas have (in Feser’s view) any convincing force as either metaphysics or ethics. And once again, TLS contains such a section. I’d say it’s even more of a shame those parts didn’t make it into the Beginner’s Guide, since Feser’s defense of Aquinas would be more convincing if he showed how “realism’ paved the way for the old Saint to solve contemporary problems. Feser does address how things like final causality can help and are even necessary for modern science, which is muchly appreciated, but he doesn’t do the same for philosophical realism, which is a tad disappointing. Fortunately for all of you, I’ll quote TLS extensively in the next section, along with David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism, which, as you can imagine, explores essences in even greater depth than Feser does. So, without further ado…
Part 1.2: Metaphysical Meanderings: Eliminating Essences (Again):
According to Feser, “[t]he essence of a thing is just that which makes it the sort of thing it is, [As Aquinas said,] ‘that through which something is a certain kind of being’ (DEE 1). It is also that through which a thing is intelligible or capable of being grasped intellectually. Hence to grasp humanity is to grasp that the essence of human beings – that which makes them human – and thus to understand what a human being is; to grasp triangularity is to grasp the essence of triangles – that which makes them triangles – and thus to understand what a triangle is; and so forth. A thing’s essence is also called its nature, quiddity, or form (though as we shall see, form sometimes has a narrow sense in which it refers to only a part of a thing’s Essence). The doctrine that (at least some) things have real (as opposed to merely conventional) essences is called essentialism. It is part of the essence of a triangle that have three straight sides, but not part of the essence that it be drawn with blue, red, or any other particular color of ink. That is why a triangle remains a triangle whatever color it is, but cannot continue to exist if it loses one of its sides.”
A succinct and eminently comprehensible summary—Feser at his best, I’d say. Indeed, this is one instance where he surpasses The Last Superstition. Here he makes clear something I was confused about when I first read the earlier work. I wasn’t sure what the difference was, exactly, between Forms and Essences, but thankfully I now have the answer: Forms are pretty much how we define purely abstract concepts like triangles or mathematical theorems or other things like that, or what the physical shape of a given thing might be. Essences are broader and incorporate more characteristics besides the physical, like behavioral (in the case of living things), though I notice the two terms are still often used more or less interchangeably in Feser’s work.
But I think I have some questions about it, and I suspect a few of you, dear readers, feel the same. Why should we assume anything has a real (as opposed to conventional) essence? Is Feser certain that triangles “really” have three sides, or is it merely one of our conventions?
He apparently is. In The Last Superstition, he writes, “[t]he view that universals, numbers, and/or propositions exist objectively, apart from the human mind and distinct from any material or physical features of the world, is called realism…let us briefly consider some of the reasons why realism, in some for or other, has seemed inescapable even to thinkers viscerally inclined to reject it; and why the escapes attempted by other philosophers- namely nominalism [there are no universals, numbers, or propositions, only general words we apply to many things, i.e there’s no such thing as “redness” but many similar things we call red], and conceptualism [which states that things like ‘redness’ are real but exist only in the human mind] have seemed ultimately indefensible.”
To save a bit of time, let me very briefly summarize a few advantages of realism Feser gives on the next pages: Individual triangles and red things could pass out of existence entirely, but could exist again afterwards, indicating triangularity and redness exist outside of human minds, mathematic truths like 2+2 = 4 are necessarily true and would continue to be true even if the universe were entirely destroyed, nominalists can’t claim a red thing resembles another red thing without appealing to a universal “redness” that exists outside of either thing and thus exists objectively outside of human minds, and when two people think of the color red, or a dog, they’re thinking of the same concept (even if not necessarily the same specific shade of red or type of dog), indicating again that concepts exist objectively outside of individual human minds. That’s not all of them, but it is most, and should give you a decent idea of why Feser thinks metaphysical realism is unavoidable.
To me—with the expectation and hope that those smarter than I would disagree—there’s little to contest here. It does seem there is an objective reality outside our minds, otherwise we would all act as if everyone and everything we saw and interacted with was just a figment of our imaginations. That doesn’t mean essentialism is necessarily true—another reviewer has pointed out there are alternatives to it, such as trope theory, which Feser doesn’t address in TLS. But I can’t deny, or at least don’t yet have the philosophical chops to deny, realism entirely.
Even so, I think Aristotle—and therefore, Aquinas, Feser, and “natural law” theorists in general—took and continue to take this idea too far. It’s one thing to say that mathematic axioms, universal concepts like colors, and scientific truths (like water having the chemical composition of H2O and freezing and boiling at specific temperature/pressure combinations) have objective reality. It’s quite another to say, as Aristotle, Aquinas, and Feser all did and do, that pretty much everything has an essence—human beings, squirrels, and even abstract concepts like justice, virtue, and love. Aristotle might have believed essences could not be considered entirely apart from the things which exemplified them, and did not believe (as Plato did) that they existed in some mystical “third realm,” but he did think the essences of most things in our experience were discovered rather than invented, and matters of objective fact rather than convenience or convention. And it seems to me this theory runs into some severe practical problems.
Epistemology—that is to say, the study of how we acquire knowledge—ought to give Aristotelians more than a bit of pause. It’s easy to see how we come to grasp mathematical truths, and as a result, easy to see why mathematical truths are more or less indisputable. We can prove, through logic, and without any doubt, that the essence of a right triangle is to have 3 straight sides, one 90 degree angle, and that the square of its longest side equals the sum of the squares of its other sides (the Pythagorean Theorem). That is, in Feser’s words, what makes a right triangle a right triangle, what defines it and differentiates it from, say, squares or isosceles triangles. But how, precisely, can we discern the “essence” of squirrels, dogs, humans, or other living things? There is no mathematic or logical equation which objectively states a squirrel or dog is specifically something or another, which would seem to indicate those things don’t have essences the way geometric shapes do.
It’s equally difficult to separate “essential” or “substantial” qualities from “accidental” ones, which Feser mentioned earlier—“For a ball nearly to change its color is for its matter to lose one accidental form and take out another, while retaining the substantial form of a ball and those remaining the same substance, namely a ball. For a ball to be melted into goo as for its matter to lose one substantial form and take on another, just becoming a different kind of substance altogether, mainly a puddle of goo.” Doesn’t a thing’s “substantial” qualities depend on your frame of reference? For instance, if you think of a red ball as a spherical red object instead, its shape would be its accidental property, not its color—melting it would turn it into a gooey red object rather than a spherical one. But if you painted it blue, it would be a substantial change from red thing to a differently colored thing. This is even more confusing when you think of animals, as I mention at length in Aristotle’s Curse:
“Aristotelianism runs into severe epistemological problems (how we know what we know). Essences (and by the same reasoning, Final Causes) are too difficult to discern to be of much use in moral reasoning, which means it runs into as many problems as consequentialism and utilitarianism do. Particularly difficult is separating accidental properties from essential ones (As an aside, I’m indebted to Aaron Boyden for much of this).
It seems to me that it’s easy enough to discern the forms of some things, along with their accidental and essential characteristics—triangles, for instance, axiomatically need three sides, while their color is irrelevant—but the business is much, much harder when it comes to living things. Once again, let us come to the squirrel. Feser tells us “a squirrel who likes to scamper up trees and gather nuts for the winter” is a more perfect instantiation of the Form of Squirrel than one who doesn’t. So it seems he considers the Form to refer to both physical attributes (two eyes, grey fur, bushy tail, mammal) and behavioral attributes (living in trees, eating nuts, burying acorns).
But how does he know this? Why should this be the case?
Feser would almost certainly admit that it’s possible to be wrong about what the Form of something is. If I were to say, “No, Dr. Feser, the Form of the Squirrel is to eat toothpaste or live on freeways, and a squirrel that does is a Good Squirrel!” or “Triangles *must* be black, any that aren’t are Bad Triangles!” he would obviously tell me I was incorrect.
But on what basis? It’s never made particularly clear in *The Last Superstition.* Again, it’s easy enough for triangles, nothing in their axiomatic definition says anything about color. But squirrels? It may be easy enough to determine their essential physical attributes by looking at them, but how’d Feser figure out their essential behavioral attributes? And how did he decide those attributes were essential rather than accidental?
Feser might say these are silly questions, but not so fast—we need to consider these epistemological issues because they seem to highlight some conceptual problems with Aristotelian morality. Plato tells us (according to Feser), a thing’s Form or Essence “defines it and distinguishes it” from everything else. They “are the standards by reference to which particular things in the world of our experience count as being the kinds of things they are.”But if these “standards” define a creature, who “defines” these standards? Why should we listen to Feser when he tells us eating nuts is part of what defines a squirrel (i.e its Form/Essence)? The dictionary certainly doesn’t agree:
It says a squirrel is “a small animal with a long tail and soft fur that lives in trees.” You’ll notice it says nothing about diet (or even number of legs, etc. but let’s leave that for now). Going by that definition—those “objective standards,” which supposedly thus determine the “Form of Squirrel” and therefore what is “Objectively Good or Bad” for it—its diet is an accidental, not essential characteristic. A squirrel that ate toothpaste would Instantiate the Form of Squirrel just as well as one that ate nuts as long as it had a long bushy tail, fur, and lived in trees, for the same reason a green triangle instantiates the Form of Triangle as well as a black one.
Again, Professor Feser might say I’m still being silly. “Of course we know that eating nuts rather than toothpaste is an Essential Characteristic, not an accidental one!” And once again, I would ask how. I have support from the dictionary, and where else are we supposed to go for definitions but a dictionary? Is it a question of logic? I would be very interested to see him axiomatically demonstrate though pure logic and/or mathematics that eating nuts is an essential, defining characteristic of a squirrel, in the same way that the Pythagorean Theorem can be demonstrated through a logical syllogism or geometric proof. This, by the way, should be casting a few more aspersions on Aristotelianism right now—it seems to rely on taking a methodology useful in some fields (formal logic, geometry, mathematics) and inserting them in very different ones (biology, human affairs); a sort of category error, if you will.
But in any case, perhaps Feser would say, “stop being obtuse! Sure, sure, we can’t determine what a biological creature’s form is through formal logic, but we have Empirical Observation and Common Sense!”
Well, the problem is, Feser’s own reasoning doesn’t make it clear that he or Aristotle or Aquinas would accept defining Forms based on empirical observation. Sure, I’ll admit Feser’s probably not wrong in his assessment of Mr. Squirrel. Our ‘empirical observations’ of squirrels everywhere are probably on point, the critters generally don’t eat toothpaste. But should that matter? If triangles were more often one color in our observed experience, would that mean color is an “essential” characteristic of triangularity? Feser could also argue that toothpaste is poisonous to squirrels, as can be demonstrated by digestive biology. But in that case, he would be deriving its form (an acorn rather than toothpaste-eating creature) from what was good (healthy) for it, rather than the other way around, as he says we should.
Second, both common sense and empirical observation can be and often are pretty badly wrong. ‘Common sense’ once told us that the sun orbited the earth, but as we all know that’s not true. ‘Empirical observation’ once told us the orbits of the planets were circular rather than elliptical, but that changed with Kepler. And even if our empirical observations aren’t outrightly false (again, though they often are), they can often be incomplete too. The squirrel proves this once again—Feser’s description of its Form, even if we were to accept it as broadly true, is actually not 100% true or complete either. As it happens, it’s not enough to say squirrels “bury acorns.” The interesting truth is, they only bury certain species of acorn, and are much more likely to eat other kinds immediately:
So Feser’s summation of the Squirrel’s Form is incorrect, or at least incomplete—and I’m very certain he didn’t know this until now. It’s not entirely correct to say the Form of a Squirrel is to live in trees and bury acorns, or that its Final Cause is to just bury acorns, it’s to “live in trees, eat white acorns (specifically) more often, and bury red ones (specifically) more often.”
I know what you’re saying. “Nitpicking about squirrels and acorns? That doesn’t actually refute Aristotelianism, does it?” Maybe not, but it should raise some pretty significant doubts about the system. At the very least, I have proven it is possible to be wrong about Essences and Final Causes when you have to rely on means other than formal or mathematical logic to discern them. And if Feser was wrong, *even slightly,* about squirrels and acorns, if his assessment of their Form and/or Final Cause was even slightly incorrect, what else might he (and by extension, Aristotle and Aquinas) be wrong about? Again, this is not just snide nitpicking. It’s merely funny if someone’s wrong about, or has misperceived, the true Form/Essence or Final Causes of a squirrel, but things can get very serious if we misinterpret, say, the Form of Human Beings or the Final Cause of our sexual faculties, even if we only get them slightly wrong, as that would have huge consequences for what we consider to be moral and how we organize society.”
The above passage refers more to ethics, which I’ll address in more depth later, but it should suffice to demonstrate the epistemological problems with essentialism. Even more troubling is the fact that living organisms change over time, in accordance with the reality of evolution. Dogs, for instance, started out as wolves, but over the course of thousands of years, they separated themselves from their “parent” species to become something different. When, specifically, did this happen? To quote Aristotle’s Curse again:
“I’m sure Feser would agree that part of the Form or Essence of a wolf is to prey on animals like sheep, while the Form or Essence of a good shepherd’s dog is to protect sheep and other farm animals. Yet the sheepdog evolved from the wolf, and the way humans domesticated it (well, dogs in general) was by selecting wolves with un-wolflike qualities (that is to say, “bad” ones from an Aristotelian perspective) and breeding them for those qualities over time. So at what generation did these creatures stop being “bad” wolves, imperfectly instantiating the Form of the Wolf, and become “good” sheepdogs, perfectly instantiating the Form of the Sheepdog? Indeed, an Aristotelian might argue it was somehow unethical to domesticate dogs because we humans were selecting “imperfect” specimens to breed. Of course, most sensible people, concerned with actual consequences rather than conformity to abstract notions of Forms or Essences, would simply point out that dogs, regardless of how much they may be “imperfect wolves” have proven themselves very useful, and there’s no point caring about when, exactly, Fido became a “fairly perfect dog” rather than a ‘very imperfect wolf.’”
I’d say those are some meaningful objections, but apparently, there’s one essentialist who anticipated them. Not Feser himself, but Dr. David Oderberg, responds to some of these critiques in Real Essentialism. Let me address them now, so my dismantling of ‘Natural Law’ is as comprehensive as possible (or at least as much as my time, interest, and expertise allow). Oderberg states,
“It might be thought that there is some sort of circularity lurking within the epistemology of essence that I have outlined. I have said that everything has an essence. This implies that all we need to do in order to know whether we are confronted with an essence (though we might not know what that essence is) is to identify something. But then how do we identify a thing without first knowing that it has an essence? Aren’t we caught in a circle?
The charge is specious. This can be seen most strikingly in the case of mathematics, where things have essences and we know they do. The first person to identify the essence of a circle presumably had identified circles before he did so, and was able to distinguish them from squares and triangles. This is of course more striking in the case of complex geometrical shapes, where identifying them prior to identifying their essence is quite plausible. Once the point is established in such cases, it is made in principle for the knowability of essence.
The sceptic might reply that there are important differences between mathematical and material objects, and she would be right to do so. None of the differences, however, supports the sceptic’s case. The most significant disanalogy seems to be that mathematical objects are typically identified by part of their essence, and then the rest of their essence is analysed and explicated. In the standard case, when a mathematician identifies a kind of geometrical figure, or a function, or an arithmetical operation, he thereby identifies something that belongs to its essence – having three sides, being discontinuous, being transitive, and so on. Often, however, when material objects are identified this is done by fixing on some accidental quality – being of a certain size, or colour, or shape, none of which might be essential to what is identified.
Note first, however, that, if genuine, the disanalogy only involves standard cases of identification at most. For some mathematical objects might be, and presumably have been, identified by wholly accidental qualities that the object might lack without ceasing to be what it is essentially. No one knows who identified the first triangles, but it is not wholly implausible that this person came across, or perhaps imagined or constructed, triangles that were isosceles, right-angled, or scalene before realizing (and eventually demonstrating) that none of these qualities was essential to triangles qua triangles (even if they are essential to the three species of triangles, which is another matter). It is not important whether this is how anyone actually came to know about triangles; that it could have happened that way is all that matters.”
It seems to me there are a few flaws in Oderberg’s reasoning here. First, he seems to gloss over how we actually extrapolate the essences of mathematical concepts (circles, triangles, etc.) from their physical instantiations. The way we do so—our methodology—is quite different when we look at non-mathematical things such as animals.
Let us go back to his example of the first Egyptian or Babylonian or caveman or whoever who discovered the first triangle. There may have been an element of empirical observation in our brave proto-geometrist’s case, but we can very safely assume it was quite minimal. It is not particularly likely that the triangle discoverer proclaimed that the essence of triangles was to have 3 sides after examining hundreds of triangular things like leaves or arrowheads or whatnot. It is more likely that he picked up a couple arrowheads and said, “Hmm, there’s something that these pointy things, despite being made of iron or bronze and being different sizes, have in common. They’re all closed, have three straight sides, and their angles add up to 180 degrees (even if not perfectly so). Therefore, I can logically deduce, with 100% confidence, that there’s a geometric concept called “triangularity” that I can apply to all other pointy things with three straight sides.”
The bolded part is very important. It doesn’t matter whether or not the First Geometer saw one arrow or a hundred of them. His conclusions logically followed deductively from his observations and held for literally everything else in the universe, regardless of whether or not he was aware of them.
Unfortunately for Dr. Oderberg, we cannot do the same for animals, among other things. If the first caveman who discovered, say, Feser’s squirrels was to come across a three-legged one (it was wounded or defective), or even a bunch of three-legged ones, he could not conclude with 100% certainty that squirrels in general have three legs. Even if his observation was correct, if he noticed that his squirrel or bunch of squirrels had four legs or were furry, he wouldn’t be able to generalize that observation to squirrels in general, much less everything in the universe. In short, our proto-biologist’s methodology would be inductive, in that his observations provide support for his general concept of a squirrel (or other living thing under observation), but do not logically entail it, and cannot be generalized further.
The distinction between ‘deductive’ and ‘inductive’ is an important one, indicating that there’s a difference between mathematical things and other types of things that is qualitative, not just quantitative—that is to say, a difference in kind, not just degree. And this important difference is something Oderberg papers over. He writes,
“Secondly, if the disanalogy is genuine there is a good reason for it – namely that mathematical objects have far more essential properties than they do accidental ones. More precisely, they have far more that is true of them either as part of their essence or as flowing from their essence than they do qualities that are wholly extraneous to their essence and so contingent on the kind of object under consideration. It might be accidental to circles as a species that they have any particular radius, and accidental to a particular circle that it has a given colour or that it is shaded, and so on. But when anyone identifies a circle, they are far more likely to do so via one of its essential properties, such as shape or having a radius equidistant from all points on the circumference. The reverse might seem to be true for material objects such as trees and tables, which tend to be picked out very often by wholly accidental characteristics. Now, if this is so, it is no aid to the sceptic’s case. All it shows is that since mathematicals have more essential than non-essential features, they are more likely to be identified by the former than is the case for material objects. It does not show we cannot know the essences of material objects – only that we have to work harder.”
But, of course, as I just said, it’s not a matter of “working harder,” it’s working in a completely different mode of thought—deductive versus inductive. The truths we discover about mathematics are both universal and divorced from the necessity of empirical verification. Even if we only see one triangle, if we disregard its accidents (color, isosceles vs, equilateral, etc.) we can reasonably apply its “essential” characteristics to all triangles everywhere—three straight sides and whatnot. This obviously does not apply to living things. If you see one tree, or even a forest of them, with green leaves, you cannot say that all trees everywhere have green leaves (especially not in autumn). If you see one table with four legs, you cannot say that all tables everywhere necessarily have four legs. It’s therefore a riskier business to claim these material things have essences based on a method that works in geometry.
Oderberg seems doggedly determined to deny these differences. He soldiers on:
“Thirdly, all the hedging and qualification above are because it is not clear that there is a disanalogy at all. For we do not merely identify material objects by their accidents, even if they have far more of them than mathematicals do. In the standard case we identify things also as living or non-living, animal or plant, rational or non-rational, body or non-body, substance or non-substance, spatial or temporal or both – and so on. Unless a person is a metaphysician he will not know the exact definition of substance, or of rationality, for instance. Unless he has some biological knowledge he will not have much technical grasp of the distinction between life and non-life. But, as has already been stressed, it is no part of essentialism that a person who knows the essence of something must know all of its essence or know its essence in precise detail. If I identify a human as an animal and a scarecrow as inanimate, I have identified part of the essence of each. It is at least arguable that in most cases of material object identification, just as in mathematical, we identify objects by parts of their essence, even if in the material case we also rely heavily on accidental characteristics. If, then, there is no disanalogy, the case against the sceptic is even stronger. We can know the essences of mathematicals. We identify them most often by their essential features. Since identifying them involves coming to know their essences, there is no circularity, contrary to the initial worry. The process is not crucially different for material objects, even though we rely more heavily on accidents when identifying them. Hence there is no circularity here either.”
But once again, the problem isn’t circular reasoning but epistemology and methodology. If you only saw one human or one scarecrow, on what basis could you claim that all humans are animals or all scarecrows are inanimate? Nothing about those facts (true or not) is necessarily universal and necessarily entailed by their definitions, which they would have to be if they had ‘essences’ like triangles or circles do. A triangle by definition is a closed figure with three straight sides and angles equaling 180 degrees—that is to say, everything about “the essence of triangularity” is contained within that definition. We cannot say the same for scarecrows or men. If the “essence of a scarecrow” is just “something intended to scare off crows,” then a kid clanging pots and pans to scare them off would count. If you were to say its essence was “an inanimate object designed to scare off crows,” we would then ask how you could be so sure—it’s easy to imagine a living scarecrow, like the one from The Wizard of Oz, while it’s impossible to even conceive of a square triangle or triangular circle. All this, of course, applies to the definition of man as a “rational animal.”
In short, there does not seem to be the same logical necessity in calling man a rational animal (as opposed to a hairless biped) or scarecrows inanimate as there is in calling triangles 3-sided. And since essences in geometry seem to rely on being based in logical necessity, it is not unreasonable to say they might not exist in things which are not logically necessary—that is to say, material things.
Oderberg ends this section of his book (chapter 3.4) with these ringing words:
“In general, it is true to say that we mostly identify and come to know the essences of material objects indirectly via their properties and accidents, whereas this is not the case for mathematical objects. Indirect knowledge, however, is still knowledge, just as indirect observation is still observation, as was pointed out in Chapter 2. The medieval Scholastics used to say that the human mind hunts after the essences of things, by which they meant that we do not have an intellectual intuition of essence or a faculty other than the general rational one for finding out what things are. Objects present themselves to our understanding with varying degrees of immediacy, mathematicals doing so more immediately and directly than material things. In most cases, however, when an object presents itself for inspection, as it were – even in the case of simple geometrical figures – we have to delve into its nature by finding out how it behaves, operates, functions, changes (if at all), what powers it has, what similarities or dissimilarities it bears to other things, and so on. By all of these means we are able to identify things and suppose them to fall under some genus or other, with some specific difference or other, yet without knowing what these might be (except perhaps at a very abstract level: for example, the thing concerned is physical, or mental, a quality, or a substance with some sort of independent existence, extended or unextended, and so on). All we need to do is to grasp the fact that there is some portion of reality before us, some kind of being or other. We never apprehend being in general, or being as such, even though this is the formal object of all metaphysical study. All we ever apprehend is being in its various manifestations, and since we do this we are already in a position to affirm that things have essences, that everything is something or other.”
And yet, for a third time, Oderberg glides over the different types of knowledge—not “direct” versus “indirect,” but deductive versus inductive. Mathematicals do not “present themselves to our understanding” more immediately or directly than material things, they are apprehended through the means of deductive logic, which relies on no empirical evidence (even if its elements are first made known to us through material objects, like rocks or arrowheads). We simply cannot reason ourselves to the characteristics of most material things the same way, no matter “how hard” we work, which ought to make us very skeptical of any possibility of reasoning ourselves to their “true essences.” Indeed, that’s cause for doubting the idea that material things even have “essences” at all, at least in the way Oderberg, Feser, Aquinas, and Aristotle would have it.
What applies to material things generally applies to living things particularly—recall the difficulties posed to essentialism by my example of wolves turning into dogs above. Oderberg, again, thinks he has addressed that in chapter 8. As he says,
“Biological evolution also involves an individual of one kind giving rise to an individual of a distinct kind – not through substantial change but through reproductive activity. The processes are different, but the outcome is the same. And neither refutes the thesis that each kind is a distinct essence. Moreover, neither essentialism nor evolution holds that transmutation between species involves one kind changing into another kind where the kind is understood as an abstract entity…The essentialist does not need to be a Platonist to hold that species do not turn into distinct species in any sense beyond the causation of individuals of one species to come into existence by individuals belonging to a different species.”
Essentially, Oderberg is saying that one day, two individuals with the “essence” of the wolf conceived an individual with the “essence” of being a little more dog-like, and this individual continued to mate with others like it, with each succeeding generation having its essence be more dog-like until finally some creatures are born that have the essence of “dog” rather than wolf. This is made clearer with his example of Archaeopteryx:
“To explain, consider the famous case of Archaeopteryx, generally held to be a transitional species in between reptiles and birds. The general consensus is that it is something in between a reptile and a bird…Now if we plausibly take Archaeopteryx as a typical case of indeterminacy as between reptiles and birds, the method of partition recommends placing it into a different species – neither reptile nor bird. Ontological vagueness is ruled out for the reasons I have given: Archeopteryx has some nature of other, some unified principle of structure, function, and behaviour. But to say that it is a reptile-bird in the sense of being both a reptile and a bird is metaphysically repugnant: these are two distinct forms, two distinct modes of being for the organisms belonging to these categories…[rather, it] is the possessor of a unique form similar to both in properties.”
It seems to me this approach creates as many problems as it solves. To say Archaeopteryx possesses its own “unique form” that’s merely similar to its antecedents and descendants is to gloss over the fact that it connects both. It is not the case that the ‘reptile-bird’ just happens to have the traits it does; any reasonable assessment of its “essence” would have to mention the fact that it was born from the former and eventually gave birth to the latter. It is, therefore, only a half-truth to say the creature was “unique.” If Archaeopteryx was just put together artificially with dashes of lizard and dashes of bird, yes, then you could say it was “unique.” But both we and Oderberg know that it was born from reptiles, meaning reptiles gave some of themselves to it, and it gave birth to birds, which meant it had some “bird-ness” to give. It was thus not “unique” but a true connector between birds and reptiles.
Even beyond that, Oderberg’s approach also makes a complete mockery of Aquinas’s ethics. Remember, Aquinas defines ‘good’ as ‘adhering to a paradigmatic standard defined by an object or creature’s Form.’ But as Oderberg has demonstrated, we can just make Forms up for living things if we desire—oops, wait, I mean, we just happen to discover that transitional species have their own special-snowflake forms, since it’s necessary to salvage essentialism. Archeopteryx has its own unique form! It’s neither a reptile with avian features (an imperfect reptile) nor an underdeveloped avian (an imperfect bird). It’s its own thing, a Fairly Perfect Instantiation of a reptile-bird (that’s not actually a combination of the two, it just happens to share properties from both). The same would assumedly apply to dogs and wolves—no need to worry about instantiating the Form of either, we just have a Wolf-Dog that perfectly instantiates its own form. Hooray!
That sounds great until you wonder why this wouldn’t apply to non-living things, and after that, to intelligent things like man. A kid draws a shaky triangle on the back of a bus seat? Feser would say he drew a “bad triangle,” compared to one drawn on paper with a straightedge, but Oderberg would promptly come to the rescue! It’s not that Junior drew a “imperfect/bad triangle,” it’s that he drew a good/perfect Bus Triangle, which happens to share elements of regular triangles (having three sides) but whose paradigmatic form is to be shaky, clumsily drawn, and instantiated on bus seats. A squirrel with no tail perfectly instantiates its own “unique form” of a tailless squirrel, or a squirrel that doesn’t bury nuts perfectly instantiates the “unique form” of a, uh, nut-hating squirrel! Will wonders never cease?
And what of human beings? Sure, our paradigmatic form we have to live up to is that of a Rational Animal, but if we can’t, no problem! We just instantiate slightly different forms unique to us! So, for instance, a gay guy might be acting “irrationally” in Feser’s view, but he possesses his own unique form only similar to that of a regular human being. He perfectly instantiates the Form of a Gay Guy! And since he’s perfectly instantiating that Form—even if he fails to instantiate the ‘rational animal’ Form—he’s technically “good” if we take Good to mean—as Aquinas does—conforming to Forms.
All in all, so far it seems essentialism is ridden with problems. Oderberg claims,“[t]he short answer to the question ‘Why real essentialism?’ is that it is the metaphysical system that captures the reality of things.”
Is that so? Well, judging by both Oderberg’s book, even if essentialism “captures the reality of things,” it doesn’t help us make sense of them or tell us anything useful about them—at all. I’d say we’d be well-served to discard that garbage.
Or…perhaps not. Perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you might say my grasp of philosophy is still a beginner’s, not yet strong enough to compete with Oderberg. But even if you believe that, I can think of two people more qualified than I to demolish essentialism—Thomas Aquinas and Edward Feser.
Weren’t expecting that, huh? Well, it just so happens that a certain doctrine Aquinas came up with has implications which seem quite fatal to essentialism. Even if you think I failed to topple Oderberg’s arguments, it’s safe to say the Saint succeeded.
This doctrine is on page 29 of the Beginner’s Guide, and I’m skipping over his discussion of final causality, which he mentioned after hylemorphism. I’ll eventually address that too, though again, I wish Feser had kept everything referring to essence in one section. But there’s nothing to be done about that, so let’s see what this mighty doctrine is:
“Here we come at last to Aquinas’s famous doctrine of the distinction between Essence and existence. To return again to our example of humanity, ‘it is… evident that the nature of man considered absolutely abstracts from every act of existing, but in such a way, however, that no act of existing is excluded by way of precision’ (DEE 3). That is to say, there is nothing in our grasp of the essence humanity as such that could tell us whether or not any human beings actually exist, if we didn’t already know they did… The phoenix example is perhaps more instructive than the humanity one: someone unaware that the phoenix is entirely mythical might know that its essence is to be a bird that burns itself into ashes out of which a new phoenix arises, without knowing whether there really is such a creature… or in other words, if it is possible to understand the essence of a thing without knowing whether it exists, its act of existing, if it has one, must be distinct from its essence, as a metaphysically separate component of the thing.”
At first glance, this may seem innocuous, perhaps even reasonable. But pay close attention to the stuff about the Phoenix—that’s where the real trouble comes in. In fact, if you think a little harder about it, you can’t take Oderberg’s “real essentialism” very seriously, and that means you we have less than absolute metaphysical certainty of many of Feser’s claims.
This sort of absolutism about essentialism is not an unfair exaggeration of Feser’s position. In The Last Superstition, he declared, “the essence of triangularity [is not] something that is purely mental, a subjective ‘idea.’ Nor is this essence a mere cultural artifact or convention of language. For what we know about triangles are objective facts, things we have discovered rather than invented. It is not up to us to decide that the angles of a triangle should add up to 38 degrees instead of 180, or that the Pythagorean theorem should be true of circles rather than right triangles.”
Uh-huh. But even if this is true of triangles, it is not true of phoenixes. Would Feser argue we “discovered” facts about those mythical birds? I should assume not. We, or at least the people who came up with the myth, simply made them up. Yet Aquinas seemed (and Feser apparently agrees) to treat them as if they actually did have essences. An even better example would be the Orcs from Lord of the Rings. It is, as I’m sure everyone would agree, the “essence” of an Orc to be green, ugly, barbaric, and so on. However, Tolkien did not “discover” these facts, he simply made them up. It was entirely “up to him” to decide that Orcs looked and behaved as they did, he could have easily given them wings or kindly dispositions or whatever if he so desired, and nobody would have had any right to tell him he couldn’t—they were his creatures and his universe. Yet it is also the case that Orcs have a fairly well defined essence—whenever someone thinks of an orc, they typically think of a big green monster that serves an evil overlord, though they may think of tusks and horns and other minor physical changes. So it seems reasonable to say that Orcs do have an essence, but it was entirely made up by Tolkien, and perhaps refined by other fantasy authors—even though such an essence has no basis in reality, just like the phoenix, however well-defined it may have been in myth, did not at all exist in reality.
Thus, it seems we cannot escape the conclusion that at least some essences are indeed a matter of convention or opinion rather than objective reality, that it is indeed “up to us” to define at least some of them, and that at least some of them do not exist outside of human minds—if we all went out of existence, it’s unlikely the concepts of “Orcs” or “phoenixes” would ever be thought of by any other sentient being that would evolve after we did.
And with this, the intellectual edifice Aristotle, Aquinas, Feser, and Oderberg have tried so hard to build comes tumbling down. Feser never admits this, of course, but it seems obvious to any perceptive reader. If human beings just “made up” the “essences” of Orcs and Phoenixes, as we obviously did, how can anyone be sure we didn’t just make up the “essences” of, say, “goodness” or “nobility” or “justice?” Since the whole point of “Natural Law” is to tell us what’s objectively good, it runs into a bit of a problem if goodness is as make-believe as Orc-ness or Phoenix-ness, and since “Natural Law” theorists hold God to be the ultimate of goodness and nobility (I’ll expand on what I said about goodness earlier in my discussion of transcendentals) if those things are a matter of human convention rather than indisputable, objective facts, it might cast doubt on God’s nature, if not His existence. The only way Feser can get around this is by claiming “good” is more like a geometric property, such as those belonging to triangles (which I did admit probably have real “essences).
While I’m not entirely certain, I suspect this is the approach Feser might try. As he says in his essay “In Defense of the Perverted Faculty Argument” (which we’ll examine in MUCH more depth later on), it is “natural substances” specifically which possess inherent Essences or Final Causes. What, precisely, is a natural substance? Feser explains it in the Beginner’s Guide chapter on Aquinas’s psychology. A natural substance is essentially anything that occurs “naturally” in nature and has its own “immanent causation,” in the case of living things this “begins and remains within the agent or cause (though it may also and at the same time have some external effects); and typically it in some way involves the fulfillment or perfection of the cause. Transeunt causation, by contrast, is directed entirely outwardly, from the cause to an external effect. An animal’s digestion of a meal would be an example of immanent causation, since the process begins and remains within the animal and serves to fulfill or perfect it by allowing it to stay alive and grow.” Artifacts, on the other hand, are human made objects, like computers or coffee machines, that have functions (to make coffee or run programs, obviously), but “have no inherent tendency to come together…[they] have to be arranged by us to do so.”
So that’s one way to avoid the problem: Just claim phoenixes are “artifacts” in a sense, and therefore have no inherent “essences” or “final causes” aside from those humans give them, just like computers and coffee machines don’t really have any inherent, or naturally arising “essences” or “final causes,” since they have to be built by humans and wouldn’t exist without us. Meanwhile, things like triangles do exist without us and therefore do have objective existence.
But, yet again, it’s not very convincing. Remember Oderberg’s example above of the Archaeopteryx—that was clearly a “natural substance,” not something created by humans, yet Oderberg just gave it his own idiosyncratic “reptile bird that’s not really a reptile or a bird but just happens to have elements of both” definition, that is to say, “Essence.” So again, what’s keeping us from doing the same with other “natural substances?” A gay guy is a living thing (that makes him a “natural substance,” not an artifact) with an essence different from straight guys, a tailless squirrel (or an urban squirrel) is another “natural substance,” with an essence different from regular squirrels, and so on, and so forth.
In fact, it’s now just occurred to me that we can see the crippling problems with essentialism: Even in naturally occurring substances that objectively exist (unlike phoenixes, which don’t exist at all, or computers, which are built by humans), there are some which don’t seem to have essences. Don’t believe me? Well then, you must have never heard of Griangles!
Wait, what? What the hell is a Griangle? Let me explain. Let’s first imagine an equilateral triangle. In addition to the normal 2 sides, 180 degrees, etc. of a triangle, its sides are all exactly equal, so each of its angles is 60. We can write out like this:
Equilateral triangles have,
1: 3 sides
2: straight sides
3: sides of the same length
4: So that each of its angles are 60 (which adds up to 180).
Make sense? I’m sure Feser would argue that equilateral triangles exist, they have an Essence which I’ve defined above, and that it would be foolish to deny these Objective Facts. I’m also sure he would say things are either good or bad Equilateral Triangles—there are some triangles whose sides are equal but jagged or unstraight, some triangle whose sides are almost equal but off by just a bit, and so on. Well, all of that can be said of Griangles too. What are those? Like equilateral triangles, they’re a type of triangle as well. Here is their essence:
1: 3 sides
2: straight sides
3: All sides are the color green (a perfect griangle would have an RGB value of 0-255-0)
4: So that each of its internal angles adds up to 180.
Isn’t that nice? It seems as if I’ve discovered a new type of triangle, one that’s every bit as real as an equilateral triangle, and one that has its own Essence. Feser must concede to the reality of Griangles existing, and ought to go around telling people things like “this triangle is not 100% green, which makes it a Bad Griangle” and that anyone who denies that is undermining the very foundations of reason itself.
Now, I’m again sure that Feser would call me a big ol’ silly-billy. “Griangles don’t exist! They’re an ‘artifact!’ You just made them up out of whole cloth, like Tolkien did for Orcs!” Yet I would ask what, precisely, makes him so sure? After all, there clearly exist green triangles in real life, which arise out of natural processes just as equilateral triangles sometimes do. And in any case, there’s no reason the Griangle should be any less real in a logical sense than any other geometric figure—sure, geometry deals in a logical sense with lines and angles rather than color, but color does objectively exist and there’s no necessary reason it can’t be used as part of the “Essence” of something.
After all, if “Griangles,” as things with a coherent and meaningful objective essence, are nothing but the product of my imagination, that would seem to have dire implications for essentialism generally. Perhaps Oderberg’s postulation of that idiosyncratic “reptile-bird” is as stupid, baseless, and unreflective of reality as me just making up “griangles” on a whim. Perhaps it really is the case that some “Essences” are completely made up, even when they refer to “real substances whose essences are conjoined to existence,” like green triangles. And if all that is so, maybe—just maybe—we might have made up “essences” for other things too, ranging from living things even up to humans ourselves.
If Feser wants to say that’s an impossibility, and persist in claiming that all “natural” substances have Essences we really can Grasp, then he’ll have to explain why equilateral triangles exist and can be grasped by reason, while Griangles do not.
Really, if you’re having a tough time following me, the point I’m making is that to a great extent, what Feser and Oderberg and I assume the “New Aristotelians” generally call “essences” are really contrivances of human convenience that don’t necessarily have any objective meaning, we simply hew to them because it’s easy for us to do so. Feser can claim all he wants that it’s an Objective Fact that equilateral triangles have 3 straight sides of equal length and 3 60 degree angles, but I can just as easily claim it’s an Objective Fact that Griangles have three straight sides that are colored green and 3 angles that add up to 180. Both equilateral triangles and my Griangles have well-defined characteristics (I won’t say ‘properties’ as that means something else in Aristotelian thought) with objective reality outside of human minds. The only reason we say the former is “real” while the latter is something I made up is because equilateral triangles can be utilized productively in architecture and geometry, while the concept of colored triangles has no particular use.
To break it down even further: it may be, and apparently is, the case that many things we see around us (“natural substances”) have characteristics (straightness, angularity, number of sides, color) that exist outside of our minds. But the way we organize them into “essences” in which these characteristics are enveloped into a set of standards to define objects which have them (the “essence” of triangles is to have those three characteristics; straightness, 180-degree angularity, and 3 sides) seems to be dependent on human interests rather than any objective reason those characteristics should “go together,” so to speak. Thus, it seems that Oderberg and Feser’s “Real Essentialism” is not really coherent, even if we accept the distinction between “natural substances” and things like computers or phoenixes. It runs into even more problems when it’s mixed in with theology, but we’ll see why when I address the topic of Transcendentals a little later.
Now, there may be problems with my own explanation—apparently, another philosopher named Crawford Elder argued
that conventionalism about essences is self-defeating. For we are the source of our conventions, and if conventionalism were true in general it would have to be true about us. But then our conventions would have to be logically prior to us; but, on the contrary, we are logically prior to our conventions. Hence conventionalism about us could not be true. (See Elder 2004: ch. 1.) The implication is that if conventionalism is not true in respect of us, why should it be true in respect of anything else? (There is a conventional aspect to the essences of artefacts, but that is not the same as saying that conventionalism about artefacts is true.)
There are a few responses I could give, even though I’m not a professional philosopher. Off the top of my head, it may be true that our minds have “essences,” but it’s obvious this doesn’t apply to everything else, both artifacts (phoenixes don’t have essences) and natural substances (Griangles don’t have a real essence, despite obviously existing). But that discussion would be suited for an essay laying out my own metaphysics rather than addressing Aquinas’s. In any case, even if conventionalism does not apply to us, it clearly does apply to many other things—my Griangles exist on their own and are no less “natural substances” than equilateral triangles are, so they cannot be “artefacts.” If I just made those up, it ought to cast a bit of doubt on essentialism, even if nothing more, and I’ll be happy with that for today.
Well, whether it’s a lot or a little, doubt is a scary thing, eh? Even a bit of it can shake the foundations of an ideology literally thousands of years old, dating from the days of Aristotle himself. Perhaps I should feel guilty about my attempts to undermine something so ancient and august. After all, it’s not like essentialists themselves are evil people—Oderberg has apparently spoken up for the good treatment (though not rights) of our cute animal friends, and Feser is a fan of jazz, so he can’t be all that bad (though, as we’ll see, he may well be pretty bad). But it seems to me essentialism can easily lead to some fairly deleterious effects, particularly in the world of science. Oderberg tries to defend it from this charge, saying
“the effect of essentialism on scientific practice should be the exact opposite of what Popper claims it to be. Rather than hinder progress, it is a positive stimulant to progress. The search for ultimate explanations provides a conceptual terminus that focuses and unifies enquiry. As long as the scientist does not believe reality to be far less difficult to grasp and comprehend than it is – and it is no part of essentialism that reality is easy to fathom – the promise of an ultimate explanation is precisely what should goad him into ever more strenuous efforts to reach that goal. It is the search for how things really are, in their ultimate reality, that encourages the scientist not to rest content with whatever observable characteristics of things happen to cross his gaze.”
This sounds all well and good, but if scientists themselves (as opposed to metaphysicians like Oderberg) have seen fit to abandon essentialism, I’m not terribly inclined to gainsay their conclusions. Less flippantly, insisting we look for “ultimate explanations” (as opposed to merely contenting ourselves with empirically observed patterns) is not a mode of thinking that will make scientists very productive. One reason science has been able to make so much progress in recent years is its specialization—we have chemists, physicists, and biologists, all of whom respect the other disciplines even as they recognize the distinctiveness of each. To insist that they’re all working towards some vague “ultimate explanation” would be to muddy the lines between their disciplines and introduce confusion where there was previously none before. Instead of just worrying about the definitions and interactions of fundamental particles (physicists), the way those particles combine to form molecules (chemists), and how those molecules interact among living things (biologists), all of our scientists would be muddling with each other about which of their disciplines reflects “how things really are” the best. Seems a little harder to get good work done in the lab.
Secondly, Oderberg is right that scientists should not “rest content with whatever they happen to observe,” but this is because they should recognize observations can be incorrect or fallacious, or, most importantly, not necessarily universal (at least for biologists). That is to say, they should evince an epistemological caution precisely the opposite of what an essentialist, with his belief that “real essences” are out there and only waiting to be discovered, would encourage. Even if one wishes to argue that the findings of physicists are as “universal” as those of geometers, the fact that they work in labs rather than only with calculators should encourage them to be more circumspect than “essentialism” encourages. If a mathematician gets a proof wrong, he can only blame himself. A physicist, on the other hand, always has to worry about dust getting into the Large Hadron Collider or Joe the Janitor spilling coffee into the fusion reactor. Even if his research into fundamental particles is universal, many more factors would blur their “true essences” than is the case for the mathematician. So much so, in fact, that he may be better off abandoning the quest to discern “how things really are” and satisfy himself with mere replicable regularities.
Finally, Oderberg himself gives a few examples of how meddling essentialists could conceivably hinder scientific progress. In the preface to Real Essentialism, he implies that metaphysicians should have the right to tell scientists, “‘According to sound metaphysical principles, it could not have happened like that – even if I cannot tell you how it did happen.’” A few pages later he attempts to defend essentialism from the charge that it propped up flawed scientific theories; for instance, phlogiston “was tenaciously held on to because for all its faults it had immense unifying and predictive power and seemed to explain such phenomena as the combustion of metals. Chemists thought they had alighted on an ultimate explanation, though it turned out to be false and was finally overthrown by Lavoisier. But there was no incompatibility between regarding phlogiston as ultimately explanatory while continuing to test the behaviour of metals in order to see whether the predictions of the theory were after all correct.”
But it’s obvious the only way Lavoisier was able to do this was because he didn’t have to worry about any nagging philosophers distracting him with “metaphysical” concerns. Imagine what would have happened if metaphysicians like David Oderberg had been around, shouting that “phlogiston is a metaphysical necessity, and however your experiments seem to be working, Lavoisier, they can’t be working like that—even if I don’t know how!” Lavoisier’s experiments would have been stopped in their tracks!
It therefore strikes me as the height of chutzpah for Oderberg to claim that essentialist metaphysics could not hinder science, indeed, that metaphysics itself is the “queen of the sciences.” Science has made impressive progress indeed by ignoring metaphysics, and it seems it can continue making such progress by continuing to ignore metaphysics. And while I won’t go so far as to say metaphysics is useless—that would be crass, and committing the sin of “scientism” which I find to be as annoying as the essentialism I’m critiquing—one can certainly make a cogent argument that science would be meaningfully worse off if anyone actually listened to Oderberg, or Feser, or Aristotelian philosophers in general like Nancy Cartwright, outside of the well-quarantined ivory tower of academic philosophy.
Feser seems to address these concerns, albeit cursorily, in A Beginner’s Guide. According to him, the “problem of induction” formulated by Hume implies that science is impossible, because it “is in the business of discovering objective causal relationships between things, of describing the world in general (the unobserved portions as well as the observed ones), and of making predictions on the basis of that description…The ‘mechanistic’ or non-teleological picture of the natural world that purportedly made modern natural science possible in fact seems to make it unintelligible.”
Sounds impressive, but note the mention of ‘teleology.’ Here Feser is referring to the idea of final causes, which we haven’t gotten to yet (soon, my friends, soon) but are distinct from the idea of essences we’re looking at right now. To say that “essences” are not always or necessarily objectively real and meaningful, or useful in science, is not to say there are no causal relationships at all between anything in general.
It is also to say that the business of at least some branches of science may be a bit humbler than Feser implies. You could argue that physics and chemistry often make general predictions based on limited experimentation—declaring that force = mass x velocity or that the chemical structure of water is H2O despite not demonstrating this on other planets. Thus, you could perhaps argue that physical forces and atoms (along with the molecules and chemicals they comprise) have essences in the sense Oderberg and Feser might like. But this quickly breaks down when you come to biology. At least some branches of biology tend towards description and discovery rather than prediction per se, and what predictions they do make tend to be fuzzier than those given by physicists—for instance, an ornithologist saying this or that species of bird will migrate is not saying they absolutely have to and absolutely will do so in the same sense water absolutely has to be H2O. Certainly, no biologist would say something like, “since this species of plant we discovered, or even this bunch of plants we’ve discovered, are green, it follows by logical necessity that plants in general are green.”
But should we care about scientific progress, whether in biology or anywhere else? As Feser says in the Beginner’s Guide, and in a passage mirrored almost word for word in The Last Superstition, “the moderns’ preference for the new [that is, non-essentialist, non-Aristotelian] method seems to have been motivated less by any purported metaphysical superiority it had over Aristotelianism – again, the philosophical arguments made in its favor were in general surprisingly feeble – than by a practical interest in reorienting philosophy and science to improving material conditions of human life in this world. The ancients and the medievals had tended to regard intellectual inquiry as a search for wisdom, understood as knowledge of the ultimate causes and meaning of things, in light of which one might improve one’s soul and prepare for a life beyond this one.”
Lofty words indeed, but alas, that’s not quite enough to convince me. First, as an amusing aside, this little sermon appears in a similar form in The Last Superstition, and one of Feser’s less-kind reviewers had this to say about it:
“Finally, Feser wants a return to the good old days of Scholastic values that include the “benefits of poverty” and rejection of the Reformer’s “industry, thrift and acquisition.” (3272.) So then why did I have to pay for this book? Why doesn’t Feser freely distribute it to promote Scholastic values and the love of wisdom? Looks like he’s not such a big believer in poverty-is-virtue after all and has become a hard-core, pipe-hittin’ Calvinist when it comes to book sales. ;-)”
Still, that’s a bit of a lark. More seriously, I very much suspect that Aristotle’s metaphysics are not as unassailable as Feser would have it. I’d say I’ve done at least a competent job of critiquing them in this essay so far (I confess to being proud of my little MSpaint potentiality pictures), and if I haven’t, Aristotelianism has been attacked, and its attackers (Hume, Descartes, etc.) defended, by enough guys with Ph.Ds (such as Aaron Boyden) that I suspect the old Greek is not entirely infallible.
Second, one would expect the true “meaning of things” to be reflected in the natural world, a subject studied by scientists rather than metaphysicians. The fact that scientists have had more success in abandoning Aristotle than following him would seem to lend some credence to the idea that his metaphysics might possibly be as mistaken as his attempts at science. Feser would rightfully say that’s not a slam-dunk argument, but surely it should at least make us a little suspicious.
Thirdly and lastly, the nice-sounding bit about the “health of the soul” and “life beyond this one” presupposes the existence of those immaterial things, as well as the idea that there is some objective way to benefit them. Feser thinks Aquinas firmly established the truth of both premises. Perhaps he has for the first one—I’ve little interest in demonstrating that human beings are soulless. But to insist there is some objective way of caring for the soul is another thing entirely. And Feser has not proved this, which a continued examination of his metaphysics shall demonstrate.
Part 1.3: Metaphysical Meanderings: Fumbling with Four Causes
Let us jump back in the Beginner’s Guide, from page 29 (essence and existence) to page 16, where Feser explores the idea of the four causes. A brief summary: Aquinas said (according to Feser) that everything has four causes, and Feser uses a rubber ball as an example. The ball’s “material cause” would be what it’s made of (i.e rubber), its formal cause would be what form it takes (the shape of a ball), its efficient cause would be how it was made and/or who made it (the worker at Acme rubber ball company), and its final cause would be why it was made, or its purpose, end, or goal (entertaining a child as a bouncy toy).
This schema, particularly the last bit, is crucial to Aquinas’s metaphysical system, and by extension his ethics, theology, and psychology. Biological organs such as the heart also have “final causes” or functions; that is to say, their goal is obviously to pump blood or oxygenate the blood. But for Aquinas, everything, and I mean absolutely everything, has a “final cause,” not just man-made artifacts or organs, and they don’t have to be aware of it either. As Feser said,
“All functions are instances of final causality, but not all final causality involves the having of a function…for the Aristotelian final causality or teleology (to use a more modern expression) exists wherever some natural object or process has a tendency to produce some particular effect or range or effects. A match, for example, reliably generates flame and heat when struck, and never (say) frost and cold, or the smell of lilacs…It inherently points to or is directed toward this range of effects specifically, and in that way manifests just the sort of end- or goal- directedness characteristic of final causality…goal-directedness exists wherever regular cause and effect patterns do…most final causality is thought by Aristotelians to be completely unconscious…The match is ‘directed towards’ the production of fire and heat, the moon is ‘directed towards’ movement around the earth, and so forth. But neither the match nor the moon is aware of these ‘goals’”
I suppose I can see that, but I’m rather more suspicious of the supposed importance final causality holds. Feser says “final causes are prior to or more fundamental than efficient causes, insofar as they make efficient causes intelligible (DPN 4.25). Indeed, for Aquinas the final cause is ‘the cause of causes’ (In Phys 11.5.186), that which determines all of the other causes. For something to be directed toward a certain end entails that is has a form appropriate to the realization of that end, and thus a material composition suitable for instantiating that form; a knife, for example, if it is to fulfill its function of cutting, must have a certain degree of sharpness and solidity, and thus be made of some material capable of maintaining that degree of sharpness and solidity. Thus the existence of final causes entails the existence of formal and material causes too.”
Hoo boy. Suffice it to say I think a robust critique of this will go a long way in disproving Aristotelianism and ‘natural law’ entirely.
First off, it seems obviously incorrect to claim “final causality makes efficient causality intelligible,” because that would seem to imply we cannot know, or understand, the efficient causes of a thing (what and how) without knowing its final cause, which is clearly incorrect. Take the pyramids of Egypt, which were made for the purpose of entombing their pharaohs (their ‘why,’ their final cause). Yet we do not need to know why they were built to know how and by whom they were built (their efficient cause). Even if someone with no knowledge whatsoever of Egyptian religion were to come across the pyramids, he could easily figure out they were built by ancient Egyptians moving and carving big stones around. He needs no recourse to the “final cause” of the pyramid. How, then, do final causes necessarily make efficient ones “intelligible?”
Indeed, simply knowing the final cause of things, either why they were made or what their function is supposed to be, tells us very little about their efficient causes, or even their forms. South Americans made fairly similar structures (the great ziggurats in what used to be the Aztec Empire) for completely different purposes (human sacrifice rather than entombment—that’s actually a vast oversimplification, as my South American history friends will tell me, but it suffices for this off-the-cuff example). Another example of the other way around would be lungs in mammals and gills in fish. Both structures have the same “final cause”—to oxygenate blood. But even if this tells us what the two organs are supposed to do, we cannot discern from it what their literal, physical forms are or how they do their job, what they’re made of, or how they were formed (their material, formal, and efficient causes). If you told someone who didn’t speak English that the words “lungs” and “gills” both referred to organs whose final cause it was to oxygenate blood, he might think they were just the same thing! And that would obviously be silly. So it seems to me that Feser is just downright wrong when he speaks of “final causality” as a methodological necessity, even if we concede it might be a metaphysical necessity. It seems to me we would be able to figure out at least a little bit about both lungs and gills even if we didn’t know—at first—what they were “for.”
If this is still hard to understand, allow me another example. Remember what Feser said about the moon being “directed” (its final cause) to orbit regularly around the Earth? Yet we could not discern this from its form alone; in fact, there is nothing about its form—a ball of rock smaller than the Earth itself—that dictates it would necessarily orbit the Earth. If it had been shaped like a triangle or square, or made out of rubber or blue cheese, it would still orbit the earth (necessary changes to its trajectory having been made to account for its changes in mass, of course). Indeed, many things which are completely different from it in material, formal, and efficient causes have the exact same “final cause.” Man-made satellites are “artificial” rather than “natural” substances, made out of different materials, and shaped completely differently from the moon, but they both have the exact same final cause—to orbit the Earth. Just as I said earlier, that you can make sense of the other 3 causes without knowing the Final Cause, the forms or essences of things, at least on their own, do not seem to necessarily determine their final cause. If Forms determined Final Causes, we would expect things with different Forms to have different Final Causes. But the moon and man-made satellites have completely different forms in every respect, yet their final causes (to orbit the Earth) are exactly the same.
I won’t say final causes are entirely unrelated to Form—if satellites were shaped aerodynamically like space shuttles, for instance, their final cause would be to survive atmospheric re-entry rather than orbit—but the relationship between the two is more complex than Aquinas or Feser seemingly allow.
Equally importantly, Aquinas, and by extension Feser, seem to commit a grievous error in placing both the functions of biological organs and the “ends to which inanimate objects seem to be directed” under the banner of “final causality.” Recall what he said: “All functions are instances of final causality, but not all final causality involves the having of a function…for the Aristotelian final causality or teleology (to use a more modern expression) exists wherever some natural object or process has a tendency to produce some particular effect or range or effects. A match, for example, reliably generates flame and heat when struck, and never (say) frost and cold, or the smell of lilacs.”
But note the word there—“never.” It’s not that matches “tend” to produce fire, or that the moon “tends” to orbit the earth, it’s that these things do so inevitably and unerringly. If a match “occasionally” produced lilacs, or the moon “occasionally” zigzagged across the sky, it would seem to disprove the existence of final causes, at least in regards to these things. But it seems this is precisely how the organs of the body work. Lungs occasionally produce phlegm rather than breath, the heart will occasionally stop, or shudder, or get plugged up. If they didn’t, and if organs always worked as invariably well as matches and the moon do, we wouldn’t have any of the health problems that obviously come with being human.
All of the above applies to living things as wholes as well, which will be of great import when we get to ethics. For now, though, it is enough to note that in living things particularly the distinction between form and “final cause” is very clear. For instance, the form of a squirrel might be a four-legged furry creature that lives in trees, and its goal would be to bury acorns. However, we cannot discern its goal or “final cause” from its form, because there are many four-legged furry creatures that live in trees that don’t bury acorns, such as chipmunks or monkeys. Similarly, it is possible for a squirrel to fail to instantiate its form but carry out its goal well, for instance a hairless squirrel could bury acorns as efficiently as a hairy one. By the same token, living things act in precisely the manner Feser says they would if they had no final causes. A cat, for instance, will not invariably chase a mouse the way water invariably boils. It often will, but sometimes it’ll just lie there lazily, or bat desultorily at the mouse, or just ignore it entirely. I take it animals do not have wills like humans do, but they act like the proverbial match that occasionally produces lilac rather than flame, as it would if not directed. Yet Feser would have us believe animals exemplify Final Causality? That’s easier said than done!
There are yet more issues I could discuss, many of which I already did in Aristotle’s Curse. To mention them again,
“I think Feser may be right in saying we can’t dismiss the concept of final causes so easily. However, I also think we must be very, very cautious in extending their use to the fields of morality or normative obligation in general. *Feser may be right to say (and I bold this and use caps because it really is very important) that final causes are extremely useful, perhaps even necessary, in making sense of human behavior, but that is because it is very easy to discern final causes, or purposes, through talking with people or observing their actions. For living organisms, the final cause of particular organs is equally easy to observe; you only need to remove them to observe their effect on the creature. It is therefore more difficult to observe the final causes of organisms as a whole, since you cannot ask who created them what their “purpose” is. It is also more difficult to discern the functions of things like “sexual faculties” (as opposed to just individual organs like the penis) since the term refers to a vaguer concept that can’t just be removed from the organism like an individual organ can.
For instance, in the case of the rubber ball, you need only ask the guys at the factory why they made it to discern its “final cause” (they’ll tell you they wanted to make something fun for kids). For an organism, you need only remove its heart on the dissection table to discern the heart’s function (blood will stop flowing and the organism will die). But for natural objects, or even non-vital organs in a living body, this is much harder, and it is therefore very unwise to draw comparisons between these two categories, as Aristotle did. We can observe that the “final cause” of the moon seems to be to orbit the earth, but no matter how regular and unerring our observations seem to be, we cannot know with absolute certainty that the moon is “meant” to do this, because the moon has no “creator” we can just ask the way we could with the rubber ball and the guys who made it. Perhaps the orbit of the moon is decaying imperceptibly, so that in a million or a billion years it’ll fly off into space or crash into the earth. We can’t know for sure. Similarly, there are several organs whose purposes remain unclear to this day—nobody’s sure what your appendix or tonsils do, we can apparently remove them without much ill effect, but who knows if they’re actually doing something.* Needless to say, discerning the “final causes” of people and sexual faculties is just as hard. It therefore strikes me as unwise to call things moral or immoral based on “final causes” which, even if they do exist, are hard to get right and easy to get wrong…
2: Once again, even if we accept the existence of final causes, *they seem to be not objective but very much relative.* If you ask a guy at the ball factory what the “final cause” of the rubber ball is, he might tell you it’s to provide fun for children. However, if you ask the CEO of Acme Ball Corp. what its final purpose is, he’ll say it’s to be sold in stores to produce the greatest profit possible. So how do we discern what the “true” final purpose of the ball is? Is it to provide fun for children, or provide profits for toy manufacturers? Neither Feser nor Aristotle seem to give any clear answers to this question (and it doesn’t seem as easy to answer as in the case of drugs like opium, as we’ll get to later). Similarly, is the “final cause” of the moon simply to orbit the Earth, or is it to influence the tides or provide light at night? Neither Feser nor Aristotle provide much guidance in discerning this, at least not yet.”
Aside from the epistemological difficulties in discerning final causes, and their seeming relativity, there’s another very big problem with them, one with absolutely dire ramifications for Scholastic metaphysics as a whole. I’m not sure if someone else has come up with this independently of me, but in case they haven’t, this is probably the formulation I’m most proud of:
There is apparently a very distinct difference between a thing’s “Form” or “Essence”—that which defines it, makes it what it is, and distinguishes itself from other things, or the “ideal set of standards” it ought to conform to—and its function, that which it is meant to do, or its “Final Cause,” that which it tends or is directed towards. Call this “Gunlord’s Principle of Distinction between Essence and End.”
This principle was implied by the example I gave in Aristotle’s Curse of the exact same thing having two different functions: The rubber ball could either bring amusement to children OR make money for Acme ball Co., OR do both. We could not discern any of this from the simple fact of its being rubber and bouncy and round. But this would seem to apply to just about everything, including natural objects. It was also touched on by my description of squirrels and monkeys having similar forms (4 legged tree-dwelling animals) but very different ends, or Aztec temples and Egyptian pyramids having similar shapes but different ultimate purposes. Allow me a few more quick examples to hammer in this point.
Imagine again the rubber ball Feser mentioned, intended to provide amusement to a child. It could be perfectly round, perfectly rubber, and perfectly bouncy, yet still fail to fulfill its Final Cause (bringing amusement to a child) if you give it to a kid who doesn’t like bouncing balls (he would rather play videogames or whatever). On the other hand, it is conceivable that a damaged rubber ball—one that’s not perfectly round or bouncy—could perfectly fulfill its final cause of amusing a child. Perhaps a kid who finds bouncing boring might be amused by a rubber ball that has been melted so that it’s gooey, as he would be able to play with it by shaping it.
Perhaps Feser would say that a thing’s End or Final Cause is contained within its Essence or Nature. But this cannot be so. If Feser were to define a rubber ball as “a round, spherical, bouncy object that brings amusement to children,” as opposed to saying it’s form/essence/nature is to be round, spherical, and bouncy, and its end or Final Cause is to bring amusement to children, he would be forced to say it ceases to be a rubber ball, or would be less of a rubber ball, if it should ever fail to bring amusement to a child. And this would clearly be absurd.
The same applies to living things. It is easy to imagine a squirrel deeply defective in form—perhaps having lost all its hair, or without a tail—still fulfilling its “function” of burying nuts, even if it maybe has a harder time doing so. By the same token, it is possible to imagine a squirrel completely perfect in form—one with four legs and a bushy tail with natural desires to scamper up trees and bury acorns—but which fails to bury acorns and scamper up trees (its final cause) because, say, it lives in an urban area and there aren’t many trees, so it scampers up telephone poles and has adapted to human food as well. This isn’t a thought experiment, this is what actually happened. See here:
“Human food waste provided a year-round source of nourishment that partly made up for the paucity of nut-bearing trees in many locations. Telephone and electric power lines provided security from dogs and cats and facilitated transit across the increasingly crowded, busy, and dangerous city streets.”
I’d just like to spend a little more time on the squirrel example, though, since it baldly demonstrates one of the most crippling flaws of Aristotelian metaphysics and ethics: Aristotle, and by extension all of his followers ranging from Aquinas to Feser, would apparently take a very dim view of adaptation, or really any sort of improvisation or changing oneself to fit changing circumstances. From an Aristotelian standpoint, using the example Feser himself has given, urban squirrels are “bad.” They don’t scamper up trees and bury acorns, which means they don’t “jibe” with what we think a squirrel should be, which is another way of saying they don’t live up to their essence. “Jibe” is literally the word Feser uses in The Last Superstition—it’s curious that a professional philosopher so concerned with rigor and precision would fall back on “well, it just wouldn’t jibe to us!” to justify his metaphysics and his ethics.
But that’s not even my main point, my main point is that by any reasonable standard, urban squirrels are actually “good.” If they’d hewed to their “proper characteristics and dispositions,” they’d have died out when cities encroached on their forests. But since they were willing (in a manner of speaking, not literally, of course) to break away from their essences—to be “bad” in an Aristotelian sense—they managed to survive and flourish, even if not in the way Aristotle would claim was “flourishing”—he cared more about teleology.
Yeah, well, what if Aristotle were to tell all those squirrels to hold to their “normal” behavior even as the world changed around them, even if it would lead to their deaths, because “being good” in a teleological sense meaningless to anyone who wasn’t a math dweeb outweighed adapting, surviving, and thriving? I’d say the squirrels would be justified in telling him to fuck right off—and you can surely pardon me for the crass language, given that I’m not a professional philosopher like Feser. But of course, squirrels, being squirrels, couldn’t tell “The Philosopher” anything. They wouldn’t listen to him either, though, they’d just keep adapting. In that sense, perhaps they’re smarter than Aquinas, or Feser, or Oderberg, or Philippa Foot or Nancy Cartwright, or anyone else foolish enough to follow Aristotle.
Phew! Sorry for the long parenthetical, my friends. It’s about as heated as I’ll get in this essay—while I’ve tried to be gentlemanly to Dr. Feser, the more I read of Aristotle, the more I hate him. Still, I must admit I may have been unfair to Dr. Foot and Dr. Cartwright…again, I haven’t read their books, so it’s very possible they might not agree with Feser or Oderberg either. I’ll have to give them a fair shot sometime, I suppose. In any case, that was a long little parenthetical, and as much as I wanted to get it out, the main thrust of this section was to prove Good in Form and Good in Essence are not the same. And that is very important to Aquinas’s theory of “transcendentals.” Let’s turn to that now.
Part 1.4: Metaphysical Meanderings: Trouble with Transcendentals
As we have discussed, Aquinas considered God to be Pure Act, which is “Just Existence,” or “Being Itself.” But what did he mean by “being?” Feser says that “strictly speaking, we cannot define a being the way we can define a species like humanity, by citing a genus it falls under [in philosophy, species and genus seem to be more like sub-category and category] and a specific difference that marks it off from other species in the genus. Being is the most comprehensive concept we have, applying as it does to everything that exists, so that there is no way to subsume it under something more general.”
After this there’s some description of how ‘being’ in the broadest sense is analogical, as well as how this applies to God, but that’s some very specific ontology that might be a little too particular for this essay to address. More relevant is Being’s status as a “transcendental,” and all that implies. Back to you, Ed:
“Being is also what is called in Thomistic philosophy a transcendental, something above every genus, common to all beings and thus not restricted to any category or individual. The other transcendentals, on Aquinas’s account, are thing, one, something, true, and good, and each is convertible with being in the sense that designates one and the same thing – namely being – under a different aspect…
“With respect to truth, it is useful, in understanding what Aquinas is saying, to think of true in the sense of real or genuine. A thing is true to the extent that it conforms to the ideal defined by the essence of the kind it belongs to. Hence a triangle drawn sloppily on the cracked plastic seat of a moving school bus is not as true a triangle as one drawn slowly and carefully on paper with a rapidograph pen and a ruler, for since its sides will be less straight it will less perfectly instantiate the essence of triangularity; a squirrel which due to injury or genetic defect has lost its tail or its desire to gather nuts for the winter is not as true a squirrel as one who still has its tail, its normal desires, and whatever other features flow from the essence of squirrels…Hence something has being as the kind of thing it is precisely to the extent that it is a true instance of that kind, as defined by the universal essence existing in the intellect [the universal intellect is God’s, who is also Being, since He conserves everything in existence it is also in Him where universals are]; and in that sense being is convertible with truth.
This also gives a clue as to how good is convertible with being. Philosophers in the classical (as opposed to modern) tradition, such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, tend to think of goodness in terms of conformity to the ideal represented by a thing’s nature or essence. To take the triangle example again, it is natural to describe the well-drawn triangle as not merely a true triangle, but also as a good triangle, and the poorly drawn triangle as a bad one. “Good” or “bad” are to be understood here in the sense in which we describe something as a good or bad specimen or example of a type of thing; and as this makes evident, the terms are therefore being used in a sense that is broader than (though as we shall see, it also encompasses) the moral sense of “good” and “bad.” As with true, then, something is good to the extent that it exists as, or has being as, an instance of its kind. As Aquinas says, “everything is perfect so far as it is actual. Therefore it is clear that a thing is perfect so far as it exists; for it is existence that makes all things actual” (ST I.5.1). Now it is also true that “the essence of goodness consists in this, that it is in some way desirable”; but “a thing is desirable only in so far as it is perfect,” and thus to the extent that it is actual or exists (ST I.5.1). “Hence it is clear that goodness and being are the same really. But goodness presents the aspect of desirableness, which being does not present” (ST I.5.1).
This last part of the argument is liable to be badly misunderstood if it is not kept in mind that by “desirable” Aquinas does not mean that which conforms to some desire we happen contingently to have, nor even, necessarily, anything desired in a conscious way. Here as elsewhere, it is the notion of the final cause – the end or goal towards which a thing is directed by nature – that is key (ST I.5.4). As we have seen, a thing’s final cause, and thus that which it “desires” (in the relevant sense), might be something of which it is totally unconscious, as in the case of inanimate natural objects and processes; in creatures with intellects, such as ourselves, it might even be something we consciously (if irrationally) try to avoid realizing. But since the realization of a thing’s good is what it is by its nature directed towards as its final cause, we see that Aquinas’s dictum (borrowed from Aristotle) that “goodness is that which all things desire” (ST I.5.4) is, when properly understood, not a dubious piece of armchair psychology, but rather (given his basic ontological commitments) a necessary truth of metaphysics.
The claim that being is convertible with goodness might nevertheless seem to be falsified by the existence of evil. For if evil exists, then (so it might be thought) it must have being; and since evil is the opposite of good, it would seem to follow that there is something having being that is nevertheless not good. But Aquinas would deny the first premise of this argument. He writes that “it cannot be that evil signifies being, or any form or nature. Therefore it must be that by the name of evil is signified the absence of good. And this is what is meant by saying that evil is neither a being nor a good. For since being, as such, is good, the absence of one implies the absence of the other” (ST I.48.1). Precisely because good is convertible with being, evil, which is the opposite of good, cannot itself be a kind of being but rather the absence of being. In particular, it is what the Scholastic philosophers called a privation, the absence of some perfection which should be present in a thing given its nature. Hence blindness (for example) is not a kind of being or positive reality, but rather simply the absence of sight in some creature which by its nature should have it. Its existence, and that of other evils, thus does not conflict with the claim that being is convertible with good.”
Hoooo boy. There’s quite a bit wrong here, I’d say, and it’ll be a lot of work to get through all of it, but fortunately this will also prepare us to take down ‘natural law’ ethics, so it’s a job worth doing.
First, let’s go back to this: “A thing is true to the extent that it conforms to the ideal defined by the essence of the kind it belongs to. Hence a triangle drawn sloppily on the cracked plastic seat of a moving school bus is not as true a triangle as one drawn slowly and carefully on paper with a rapidograph pen and a ruler…a squirrel which due to injury or genetic defect has lost its tail or its desire to gather nuts for the winter is not as true a squirrel as one who still has its tail, its normal desires, and whatever other features flow from the essence of squirrels.” I’ve already spent much of the essay so far explaining why applying the methodology of geometry to biology (and other things) is utterly foolish, and even if it weren’t, going from Oderberg’s “reptile-bird” example, there’s nothing preventing us from just coming up with “bus triangles” and “tailless squirrels (a new species! Wow!) and saying these ‘defects’ are perfect or “true” instantiations of those. But I’m sure Feser would probably say that’s just being silly. OK then, let’s think about these examples a little more deeply.
Let us assume a hastily-drawn triangle is not a “true” one. But how could we possibly separate “untrue” triangles from “untrue” instantiations of anything else? Take these two images:
Both seem like very bad triangles, right? Well, only the first one can be a “bad triangle,” as I was only trying to MSPaint a triangle there. The second one is a “bad circle.” But both are so “bad” or “untrue” that you could only tell the specific ways they were ‘bad’ after I told you my intent.
And, of course, it is entirely possible they wouldn’t be ‘bad’ or ‘untrue’ at all depending on my intent. If you were to see these and tell me, “Gunlord, these are Bad and Untrue triangles and circles! They Poorly Instantiate the Forms they’re supposed to participate in,” how would you respond if I said, “well, these weren’t actually intended to be triangles or circles (that is to say, they weren’t participating in the Forms of Triangularity and Circle-ness). They’re just squiggles I drew in MSPaint for fun, and they apparently perfectly instantiate/are ‘true’ instances of the Form of Squiggles.” It therefore seems that whether something is “true” or not depends on the subjective intent of the person who created whatever it is you’re judging, which means “truth” might not be as objective a feature of Being as Aquinas says.
The same applies with even more force to squirrels. Biological definitions simply are not as hard, fast, and binding as geometric or mathematical ones, no matter what Aquinas or Oderberg or Feser say, and no matter what Aristotle, Plato, or all the other Greek navel-gazers might have desperately wished to be true—because let’s face it, the reason guys who did math, geometry, and formal logic would have said their approach could apply to every subject under the sun is because they wanted the influence and prestige such beliefs would bring them, not because they were necessarily right. But back to the point, it makes no sense to call a “damaged” squirrel a “less true” squirrel, at least if you define “truth” as “conforming to a certain ideal.” Living things can be cogently said to be damaged or unhealthy, but not “true” or “untrue” in the same sense geometric figures are true. Regardless of whether or not geometric figures are objectively real (let’s say they are), they are indisputably intellectual abstractions, whereas living things are much messier affairs—not just because they’re material objects, but also because they come into being and grow via natural processes, not simple, clear, logical cogitation (If we see a triangular leaf, the triangularity we observe would be a characteristic it happens to have, but the leaf itself would have came into being through growth, development, and a degree of random chance). Consider how silly it would sound if you applied this reasoning to people: if someone lost his leg or suffered from an eating disorder, we might call him hurt or unhealthy, but I have never, ever heard any doctor say “Yes, he’s technically still a Human Being, but now he instantiates the Form of Man imperfectly!”
Once again, an apt quote from Oderberg serves very well here. He appeals to the “Unicity of form,” which “means that for any substance there is one and only one substantial form which it possesses. This is because a substance is one kind of thing, and substantial form determines the kind of thing it is. Hence when a substance comes into being it does so by virtue of acquiring a single substantial form, and when it loses that form it ceases to exist altogether as that kind of thing, even if something else is left over which is not that kind of thing. So when a lump of clay is smashed to pieces it ceases to exist altogether even though other, numerically distinct lumps of clay may come into existence by virtue of the persistence of clay material which is not itself a lump of any kind but rather the referent of the mass term ‘clay’.”
All very interesting, but it doesn’t say much about whether something can be “good” or “bad.” If a lump of clay is smashed into pieces, it ceases to become a lump of clay, and what we have instead are a bunch of “small numbers of clay”? Alright, then, so does that mean if someone loses a leg he separates into a “3-legged human” and a “severed leg?” If someone is born with a clubfoot—or gay (this is the example Feser himself uses, as we’ll see later on), couldn’t we say that they never instantiated the Form of Man in the first place, but rather they instantiate the Form of Clubfooted Man and Gay Man, respectively?
Indeed, this becomes even more problematic when we think of the geometric figures essentialism is based off of. Take a “perfect” triangle:
Now, let’s dent it a bit.
Feser would think it’s just a slightly damaged triangle, right? Well, that’s not so. It’s actually a hexagon. An irregular concave hexagon, but a hexagon nonetheless. Let me label the sides.
If we dent Mr. Triangle, he becomes not a “damaged” or “dented” triangle, but something else completely—a hexagon. And when I say it’s an irregular hexagon, I don’t mean it’s anything but a perfect hexagon. An “irregular” polygon can still be a perfect one, but its angles are not exactly equal; “right triangles” are in fact examples of irregular triangles. Don’t believe me? Go to this website and fiddle with shapes yourself:
(The bottom side is very slightly angled, if you can’t see it, so it has 6 sides, not 5).
So, it seems to me that Aristotelian conceptions of forms are completely incoherent, not even keeping with geometric truth. If they existed, “Forms” and “Essences” would not exist on a spectrum of good to bad, or fairly perfectly instantiated to very imperfectly instantiated, but exist as a simple binary of yes and no. There is no such thing as a “damaged” or “imperfect” triangle; in the strictest of terms something either is a triangle or not. Therefore, “good” and “bad” are meaningless descriptors to use if we are being strict and rigorous, even if we often use the terms colloquially. It seems that Aristotle, far from harmonizing common sense with rigorous mathematical rigor, produced a muddle that has given us the very worst of both worlds.
But fine, let’s leave all that aside. Worse for Aquinas, the conception of the “good” here seems both silly and incompatible with his doctrine of transcendentals. I actually addressed some of this in Aristotle’s Curse, but in reference to ethics; Feser’s previous books didn’t mention this transcendental stuff. Thus, I’ll copy from my previous essay when we get to the section on ethics, but for now let’s just look at the idea of “good” as convertible with these other ideas, which will allow me to make some original arguments I haven’t published before.
Let’s again look at the statement, “[p]hilosophers in the classical (as opposed to Modern) tradition, such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, tend to think of goodness in terms of conformity to the ideal represented by the thing’s nature or essence. To take the triangle example again, it is natural to describe the well-drawn triangle is not merely a true triangle, but also a good triangle, and the poorly drawn triangle as a bad one. Good or bad are to be understood here in the sense in which we describe something as a good or bad specimen or example of a type of things.”
Yet I think I’ve spotted some metaphysical difficulties here. First, how does it apply to things which participate in more than one “nature” or “essence?” Imagine, for instance, a toy triangle with rounded edges, intended for young children to play with. The “essence” of a triangle is to have straight sides with angles that add up to exactly 180 degrees; therefore a triangle with rounded points would be a “bad triangle.” However, sharp points might injure a child accidentally, which would make it obviously a bad toy (one which brings pain rather than amusement). It therefore seems to me that any way you look at it, many things must necessarily be composites of goodness and badness, not due to some imperfection or “lack” of anything, but by their very “nature.” It is the very “nature” of a toy triangle to be a “bad” triangle, with rounded edges, because that is necessarily dictated by its purpose as a “good” toy. It therefore seems to be a logical necessity that in some cases, good is mixed in unavoidably with bad, as an inherent and necessary part of the “being” of at least some individual material things. This would imply that being is in some cases “convertible” with bad, not just good, which Aquinas says is impossible.
Another example might illustrate this even better: It seems to me that every instantiation of a thing, by logical necessity, implies a degree of “badness,” at least if badness is defined as “failure to adhere to a certain ideal or definition.” Allow me to explain further.
Think of the “ideal” triangle, that which all other triangles ought to imitate on pain of being “bad:”
A: It has 3 sides,
B: Which are straight,
C: and closed,
D: So that its angles add up to 180 degrees.
Now, let’s imagine a triangle that’s been sort of damaged—say, someone has erased a bit of it so there’s an opening in one of its sides. It no longer has 1 of its 4 properties (being closed), but it still has 3 of its other ones. So you might say it went from being 100% perfect to being 75% perfect. Now, if it was damaged further, like another of its sides being turned squiggly, you could say it’s an even worse triangle—fulfilling only 2 of the 4 things which comprise its “essence” or “nature,” meaning it’s only 50% perfect.
Still with me? Now let’s think of the “ideal” quadrilateral, that which all other quadrilaterals ought to imitate on pain of being bad.
A: It has 4 sides,
B: Which are straight,
C: and closed,
D: So that its angles add up to 360 degrees.
But note something interesting: This “perfect” quadrilateral is also, just going by its essence alone, 50% triangle! 2 of its elements (straight sides and closed sides) are shared with triangles, only its number of sides and total angles are different. So it seems that if one wishes to draw an absolutely perfect quadrilateral which perfectly instantiates all 4 elements of its essence, one has also drawn a relatively (50%) imperfect triangle, which instantiates only 2 of the elements of triangularity. And vice versa for triangles. Thus, it seems reasonable to say that every triangle, even a perfect one, could also be considered a relatively imperfect or “bad” or “untrue” quadrilateral, and that every quadrilateral, even a perfect one, could also be considered a relatively imperfect or “bad” or “untrue” triangle. It seems, therefore, that either many (if not all), instantiations of goodness, even in geometry, entail a degree of badness as well, if we continue to define good and bad as ‘conforming or not to a certain ideal,’ or as Feser put it in TLS, adhering or not to a sort of paradigmatic standard. Thus, to speak of ‘good’ in reference to these is meaningless, because conforming to one ideal or adhering to one standard necessarily obviates any given thing from conforming or adhering to another. Needless to say, it’s hard to see how something so necessarily subjective could be “convertible” with “being” or “truth” or the other nice-sounding transcendentals which are supposed to be aspects of God.
Perhaps Feser might try to get around this quandary by saying a thing should only be judged “good/true” or “bad/untrue” in reference only to the sort of Form it absolutely is in all respects, rather than the other Forms or Essences it may instantiate (by necessity) only in part. But that just runs into the problem of discerning which Form something is participating in: If we see a figure that looks almost like a triangle but apparently has four sides, are we looking at a triangle that somebody accidentally added a kink to one side, or are we looking at a perfectly drawn quadrilateral with one very oblique angle? “Good” as a result still remains subjective, ever-changing based on one’s perspective, and therefore difficult to call “convertible” with any aspect of an unchanging God.
Secondly, it still leaves Feser vulnerable to the strategy of making up Forms as one goes along. If he looks at the squiggly triangle drawn on the bus seat, the kid who drew it could easily say, “you can’t judge my work by the standards of a regular triangle! It’s not a regular triangle, I didn’t draw a regular triangle! I just drew a Bus Triangle, and the essence of that is to have squiggly or irregular sides.” In this way, then, and as dismaying for ‘natural law’ and ‘essentialist’ types as it may sound, even if you manage to ground an “objective” sense of good as inhered only to one specific form a given object participates in, you open the door to people to just make up their own “unique forms,” and if David Oderberg could do that with his reptile-bird, it’s hard to argue that everyone else shouldn’t do so either.
Thirdly, and most importantly, as we have seen in the previous section, there is a distinct difference between Good as in conforming to Essence and Good as in conforming to Cause. The two are not at all necessarily the same thing, or even related. This would seem to indicate that there are two different definitions of Good that refer to different things, not the same thing. And if Good is not even convertible with itself, well…I’d say strange things are afoot in Scholastic philosophy.
Finally, it seems obvious that Aquinas, at least by Feser’s account, *was* engaging in “dubious armchair psychology,” though perhaps not in the anthropomorphic sense Feser referred. Why? Simply put, to say that “all things desire the good,” in the sense of tending towards final causes, is at best a profoundly uninteresting and nearly content-free tautology.
“All things desire the good” is Aquinas’s way of saying “All things tend towards the fulfillment of their Final Causes.” And what are the Final Causes of things? Well, a match’s is to produce flame, and the moon’s is to revolve around the earth. But why are these the Final Causes of our examples? Because the chemical structure of matches is such that they produce flame, and the laws of gravity are such that the moon orbits the earth—all reducible to the laws of physics. So when Aquinas says, “all things tend towards the fulfillment of their Final Causes,” he’s really just saying, “all things follow the laws of physics,” which is not really especially mind-blowing.
Now, Feser might say, “it’s very significant that all things follow the laws of physics, because the only reason they do, and the only reason the laws of physics are laws at all, is because God wills it!” Fine, but in that case it seems as if the only thing God reliably wills is that everything follows the laws of physics. Squirrels sometimes fail to bury nuts, humans are sometimes “irrational,” but none of them will ever break the laws of physics. Therefore, it seems that God is much more concerned with everything, including living things, following the laws of physics than He is with living things flourishing in one way or another, whether burying nuts or ascertaining “truth.” This may seem like a droll point to make, but just wait, it’ll be very important in the sections on ethics.
And with that, my analysis of Feser’s metaphysical groundwork is complete. After all this, Feser mentions stuff that’s interesting but not directly relevant to my arguments (the necessity of teleology in evolutionary thought, a response to Gottlob Frege and Anthony Kenny’s criticism of Aquinas, and so on). I’ll only mention a couple of things in passing, namely some comments on his treatment of David Hume:
1: It seems to me Feser is a bit unfair to Hume’s critique of causation. Hume once claimed it is “conceivable” that throwing a brick at a window might result in the window not breaking, which meant that there might not be a necessary relationship between cause and effect—it’s just that causes seem to be followed by their effects more often than not. Feser says this is absurd, but in my view, we can’t say that just from the example Hume gave. It is easy to imagine a window not breaking if hit by a brick. If the brick wasn’t thrown with enough force, the window would just crack; if thrown with even less force, the window wouldn’t be much more than scratched, and the brick could miss entirely. So at the very least, to insist that windows always break when hit by bricks cannot be understood without the caveat of, “if and only if the brick is thrown with sufficient force and accuracy.”
2: Feser’s treatment of causality also strikes me as somewhat facile. Hume once said it might be possible for a bowling ball to just appear out of nowhere without a cause. But Feser says a bowling ball appearing out of thin air wouldn’t imply it had no cause—maybe it was teleported in, or appeared due to a quantum flux, or whatever. In the end, he says “even if we never find out, we’ll just say “I guess we’ll never know what caused it.’ We wouldn’t assume it had no cause at all.”
Yes, but our gut reaction wouldn’t necessarily reflect the actual truth of things—the fact that human beings generally see causes in everything is proof that we evolved as pattern-seeking creatures, but not in and of itself proof that causes necessarily exist. But even aside from that—Feser would probably say that’s a silly objection—it seems that a theist, at least a Classical Greek theist (like Aristotle) or a Catholic theist, ought to be given some pause by that example. As we’ll see later, the Classical Theistic God, as the “Being Itself” that keeps the laws of physics in motion, has the power to suspend or bend the laws of physics as He sees fit. He can send fire from the sky or raise the dead, as Feser believes He did for Jesus. But if He could resurrect Jesus, it seems he could easily make a bowling ball appear from nothing. And it seems equally possible He could do all other sorts of crazy things, albeit within limits (He couldn’t make a square triangle, for instance). So, then, if Feser saw a bowling ball appear out of thin air, why would he look for a “cause” instead of just saying, “Well, God, Mr. Pure Act, did it?”
A Catholic theist like Dr. Feser might say this wouldn’t be a bad way of thinking. The problem is, we run into trouble if we were to use it commonly. If a bowling ball appearing out of thin air would be proof of God doing His thing, why couldn’t we say the same for just about any curious thing we come across in our lives? If a match suddenly started producing lilacs or elephants, we’d just say it was the work of God, if the moon started zipping across the sky, it would be a miracle. What’s the point of even trying to find final causes of things—which Feser says ought to be the work of all philosophical and scientific endeavor—if it’s all up to God, anyways? There’s no point trying to figure out why the moon orbits the earth, or why matches produce flame—just say “God wills it” and be done with it. Needless to say, that’s not an attitude conducive to scientific endeavor, or really doing much of anything besides sitting around and praying all day.
So, aside from that little defense of Hume, there are just a few more things I’m concerned with: Aquinas’s principles of “proportionate causality,” causality and “finality.” We touched on them before, but Feser thought it was a good idea to review them at the end of this chapter, and I agree. So, to refresh everyone’s memory: The first principle of proportionate causality states that nothing can give to something else what it does not have to give. For instance, if you want to light a branch on fire (that is to say, if a branch is potentially on fire and you want to actualize that potency), you need to find something that actually contains fire (like a burning torch or something else that possesses fire) or something that actually has the power to generate fire (like a lighter, which can create a flame even if it’s not on fire itself). The second principle of causality is that every contingent thing (God does not count as contingent) has a cause. The third principle of finality is that “every object acts for an end,” which is what we talked about in reference to final causes earlier. These will be very important in understanding Aquinas’s “Five Ways” of concluding that God exists, so let’s turn to that now!
Part 2.1: Troubling Theology – The First Way
Aquinas’s first way of proving the existence of God is heavily dependent on the Aristotelian distinction between act and potency, and I have already described in section 1.1 of this essay a few good reasons to be dubious of that. But even if we accept it, Aquinas’s proof does not necessarily follow. Allow me to explain.
This is the “Argument from Motion.” Feser informs us that by “motion” Aquinas meant “change,” but many of his examples rely on literal motion as well, such as this one: Say you have a boy using a stick to move a ball around. The ball has the potentiality of being moved, which is actualized by the stick. But the stick itself must be moved to do so, and it is moved by the boy. But we have to go further and further—the boy’s potentialities for movement are actualized by his muscles, themselves moved by his neurons, and themselves moved by the laws of physics. Each is moved by something else. This is, by the way, what’s called an essentially-ordered series, where every member of it has to be moving at the same time or else it stops. So Aquinas—not entirely reasonably, IMO, arrived at the Principle of Causality we just mentioned: “Anything that changes (or is literally moved around) must be changed by another.” 
And by moving further and further back, we come to God. Remember the laws of physics? They had to be moved themselves by something else, and Aquinas takes that to be God. He also says that God is just where the line ends—you can’t ask “what created, or moved, God,” because God is by definition unmoveable, the “unmoved mover,” or as I like to put it, “the unchanged and unchangeable changer,” or the “unsustained sustainer.” To quote Aquinas directly, “it is necessary to arrive at the first mover, one put in motion by no other, and this everyone understands to be God.” In short, Aquinas said that God keeps everything in motion, or ordains the exact ways everything changes, in every second of every minute of every day, just like the kid with a stick must keep the ball moving constantly; if he stops so do the ball and stick.
Now, this doesn’t entail that God is all-good or all-knowing, but Feser says there are other ways to know that, so we’ll get to them when he does. For now, let’s just address why God cannot be moved Himself: the idea of Pure Act. Conveniently enough, this will also be relevant to the next sections, so let’s get it out of the way now:
“Now, a first mover in such a series must be itself unmoved or unchanging; for if it was moving or changing – that is, going from potential to actual – then there would have to be something outside it actualizing its potential, in which case it wouldn’t be the first mover. Not only must it be unmoved, though, it must be unmovable. For notice that, especially toward the “lower” levels of the series we were considering – the nervous system’s being actualized by its molecular structure, which is in turn actualized by its atomic structure, etc. – what we have is the potential existence of one level actualized by the existence of another, which is in turn actualized by another, and so forth. To account for the actualization of the potential motion of the stone we had eventually to appeal to the actualization of the potential existence of various deeper levels of reality. 16 But then the only way to stop this regress and arrive at a first member of the series is with a being whose existence does not need to be actualized by anything else. The series can only stop, that is to say, with a being that is pure actuality (or “Pure Act,” to use the Scholastic phrase), with no admixture of potentiality whatsoever. And having no potentiality to realize or actualize, such a being could not possibly move or change. That a stone is moved by a hand via a stick, then – and more generally, that things change at all – suffices to show that there is and must be a first Unmovable Mover or Unchangeable Changer. That is all pretty abstract, I realize; so much so that it might seem jarring when Aquinas goes on to say: “. . . and this we call God.” What he means by this is that, whatever else people might have in mind when they use the expression “God,” they mean to refer to whatever being is the ultimate explanation of the processes of change we observe in the world around us. It turns out that there really is such a being; and it also turns out that what it means for there to be such a being is for there to be a being describable in philosophical terms as “Pure Actuality,” even if this has (of course) never occurred to most people who believe in God.”
This is actually taken from The Last Superstition, but a shorter passage which essentially says the same thing is also present in the Beginner’s Guide.
Bluntly stated, this all seems like so much word salad to me. But I promised to take this stuff seriously, so I’ll try to soldier on.
First, it seems to me that the idea of “Pure Act” is incoherent. The whole reason we need the division between act and potency, according to Aristotle, is to explain how things change. To restate my summary from earlier, a dry tree branch just sitting around by itself will not spontaneously combust, but it is combustible—it certainly can be set aflame, or in other words, it’s “potentially” on fire. To actually set it on fire, we need something that’s either actually on fire or has the power to generate fire, like a lighter or a flint or whatever.
All well and good, but this should also raise some questions about whether or not a being can be “pure act.” “Act,” or “being actual” by itself is meaningless. Nothing is just “actual,” everything is actual in specific ways. A burning branch is actually on fire, but the “on fire” part is important. A lighter “actually” has the power to generate fire, but fire specifically, not just any old thing. In an essentially ordered series, the boy’s arm has the actuality of movement (which actualizes the potentiality to move in the stick and therefore the stone), but it has the actuality of movement specifically, not just “actuality” in some vague, general sense.
Thus, to say God is just “pure act” is incoherent, or at least very incomplete. It is never enough to say something is “just act,” we must also delineate the specific ways in which it is actual. When we look at God, then, we must ask how He is actual. According to Feser’s reasoning, He either set the universe in motion at first (which, while plausible, isn’t the “omnipresent sustainer” Aquinas was thinking of), or He keeps the laws of physics steady and constant, like the kid with a stick keeps the rock in motion. But in that case, we might simply say, “God has the actuality of keeping the laws of physics constant,” or “the actuality of conjoining essences to existence” without implying that He is necessarily “pure act” or “just existence itself.” Now, “that which keeps the laws of physics constant” or “perpetually conjoins existence to essence” may well be unchanging and unchangeable, but we need Him to exist only in relation to those physical laws, not everything else. The kid with the stick and the rock may be needed to explain why the stick and rock move, but he is not needed to explain, say, why the stick is made out of wood or why the rock weighs as much as it does. Thus, even if we take the First Way seriously, God is only necessary to explain the laws of physics, not absolutely everything as Aquinas and Feser would seem to have it.
Secondly, as I mentioned in Aristotle’s Curse, it is not clear why the laws of physics would not count as entities of “pure act.” Feser attempts to address this in his response to Newton’s discovery that things don’t have to be constantly maintained in motion: “it is no good just to say, ‘Well, it’s simply a law of physics that things in motion tend to stay in motion unless acted upon from outside.’ For one thing, there is still the question of what puts something in motion in the first place, and in general of a thing’s acquisition or loss of momentum, and explaining these events will require just the sort of explanation the First Way tells us other instances of change do. More fundamentally, we also still need to know what it is exactly for something to be a law of physics, and why such a law holds.”
But a closer look at the laws of physics can tell us they would be a reasonable candidate for “Pure Act.” The laws of physics can obviously influence everything in the universe, yet they themselves cannot be changed by anything we know of. And what of potentiality? They are “potentially” nothing other than what they are—perhaps we can conceive of, say, gravitational force being more or less than what it is, but there’s no way to actually make it so, meaning that it has no potentialities that are actually rooted in what it is as opposed to some “expanded sense involving our powers of conception.” Thus, it seems like these basic physical forces are themselves “pure act” without any “admixture of potency.” They have no potentialities whatsoever, they can only be what they are, which answers their “what” and “how.” Whence, then, comes the necessity of God?
Part 2.2: Troubling Theology – The Second Way
Feser says “The proof from causality begins by noting that the senses reveal to us an order of efficient causes. But nothing can be the cause of itself, for if it were then “it would be prior to itself, which is impossible” (ST I.2.3). Now in a series of efficient causes, the first cause is the cause of the intermediate cause or causes, which are in turn the cause of the ultimate cause. So if there were no first cause, then there would be no intermediate or ultimate causes at all (and thus no causes of the sort we started out acknowledging that we know through the senses). But if the series of efficient causes regressed to infinity, then there would be no first cause. Hence the series cannot go on to infinity, and “therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God” (ST I.2.3). Just as a note, the common objection to this is “everything has a cause, so what caused God?” But Feser says that’s incorrect, because not everything has a cause—“everything that is not God has a cause.”
To understand why, let’s skip back to page 11, which summarizes the Principle of Causality as “Potential gooeyness (for example), precisely because it is merely potential, cannot actualize itself; only something else that is already actual (like heat) could do the job. Consider also that if a mere potency could make itself actual, there would be no way to explain why it does so at one time rather than another. The ball melts and becomes gooey when you heat it. Why did this potential gooeyness become actual at precisely that point? The obvious answer is that the heat was needed to actualize it. If the potency for gooeyness could have actualized itself, it would have happened already, since the potential was there already.”
It seems to me as if this Principle of Causality is primarily temporal—that is to say, Feser, and Aquinas and Aristotle, believe, or at least this is one of their reasons for believing, “potency cannot actualize itself” because that’s the only way of making sense of events in time. For instance, let’s say we have a rubber ball created in 2010. It has and always had the potential for being gooey, but it becomes actually gooey after being heated up in 2016. The Aristotelian crew, I presume, would say we need to explain the “potentiality for gooeyness being actualized” via being heated up in 2016 because otherwise, if the ball could have actualized its potential for gooeyness on its own, it could and would have done so in 2011 or 2012 or any time before it actually did.
What applies to rubber balls and gooeyness applies to every single other thing in existence, according to the Aristotelians, including the universe itself. This is why we need God. God is “Pure Act,” meaning He always existed eternally. Since He always existed eternally, there’s no need to worry about what actualized His potentiality, since we only need to worry about actualizing a potentiality if there’s some time it could be actualized other than the time it actually was. So, since God is the one thing in the universe that didn’t need to be actualized (that is to say, He wasn’t created, or had His potentiality for being actualized by something else the way your mother “created” you,” God just always existed), He is also the one thing which could have created the universe, which assumedly had to come into being.
(This is Aristotle’s reasoning, by the way—remember God in my MSPaint image summarizing Aristotle’s beliefs? This is why his distinction between actuality and potency led him to a monotheistic God).
But I’m not so sure about that. I think the universe could have violated this principle of causality. I think it may well have been the one thing which can actualize its own potential, at least based off of this temporal, or chronological premise.
Why would I say this? Think of it this way: Time started when the universe began. Therefore, the universe could not have actualized itself at one point or another, it did so only at the very beginning of time—i.e that is literally the only date it could have become actualized. This makes it different from everything else we know, which generally have a wide variety of possible dates for any of their potentialities to become actual. It also raises the possibility for the universe to have actualized its own potentiality without something else already actual helping it along.
Remember, there was a range of possible times for the ball in my previous example to have actualized its potentiality for gooeyness on its own: 2011, 2012, 2013, etc. If you’ll allow me to be a bit flippant here—this will be very relevant for the next point—instead of using the A.D/B.C. dating system, we could say “Years Before the Actualization(creation/origination/Big Bang/whatever) of the Universe, or YBAU,” and “Years After the Actualization of the Universe,” or YAAU. So instead of 2011 AD, we could say the ball’s potentiality for gooeyness could have been actualized in 4,000,000,002,011 YAAU, or 4,000,000,002,012, and so on. The fact it happened specifically in 4,000,000,002,016 YAAU rather than any other time is because its potential was actualized by something already actual (heat) at that specific year.
However, there is no range of possible times at which the universe could have been actualized. It had to have been at exactly 0 YBAU. There is simply no other choice. This is a logical necessity—time itself began at 0 YBAU, it makes no sense to talk about what might have happened before then. Even if God created or “actualized” the universe, He would have had to do so at exactly 0 YBAU. Logically speaking, it would have been impossible for Him, by necessity, to have actualized/created/ the universe 1 Year Before the Actualization of the Universe, or 5 Years After the Actualization of the Universe (YAAU). Since the only time the Universe could have been actualized was exactly 0 YBAU, it is therefore reasonable to say its potential for existing actualized itself, for there is no reason to worry—in fact, no way we can worry—about why this potential was actualized at 0 YBAU as opposed to 5 YBAU or 20 YBAU or whatever.
Thus, the universe did not have to be actualized, at least not necessarily, and at least not if we are only going off of Feser’s temporal defense of the principle of potentiality. And this means the universe does not fall under the category of “contingent things that need to be explained,” which means it falls into the same category as God does, meaning the Second Way possibly allows for it to have created itself, rather than necessitating God created it.
The Second Way also deals with the distinction between Essence and Existence:
“Recall that for Aquinas, in everything other than God, essence is distinct from existence. (This isn’t to assume from the outset that God exists, an assumption which would of course make the argument that follows a circular one; the point is just that if there is a God – which at this stage of the argument is yet to be determined – in him alone essence and existence would be identical.) So, how does a thing come into existence? That is to say, how is its essence conjoined with an act of existence so that it is made real? “It is impossible,” Aquinas says, “that the act of existing itself be caused by the form or quiddity – and by ‘caused’ I mean as by an efficient cause – for then something would be the cause of itself and produce itself in existence, which is impossible” (DEE 4). In other words, a thing’s essence, form, or quiddity cannot be what brings the thing into existence, for considered by itself an essence is merely potential, and thus cannot cause anything. For an essence to be able to cause something it would first have to be actualized by being conjoined to an act of existing, and that would entail that the thing itself (since it just is a composite of an essence with an act of existing) would already exist. Hence the essence of a thing could cause its existence only if the thing already existed, in which case the thing would in effect be bringing itself into existence, which is incoherent. “It is therefore necessary that everything whose act of existing is other than its nature have its act of existing from another” (DEE 4). But a series of things deriving their acts of existing from something else cannot go on to infinity. Hence “everything which exists through another is reduced to that which exists through itself, as to a first cause” and “there must be something which causes all things to exist, inasmuch as it is subsistent existence alone” (DEE 4). That is, there must be something whose essence and existence are identical, and this we call God.”
An interesting riposte. To counter it, I’ll have to call in some help from an old buddy of mine…Son Goku!
I’m not just kidding around, there’s a method to my madness, as you’ll see in a moment. A brief explanation: Goku is a character from the Dragonball/DBZ/DB Super series of anime about a bunch of martial artists in a sci-fi setting who are capable of flying around, visiting other planets, and, eventually, destroying entire planets with their powers. Goku is the main character, and probably the strongest there is. Given the setting, this is another way of saying he’s the strongest fighter in the entire universe, though he does get beat up by the bad guys every now and then before increasing his power with training. So let’s look at these statements:
“Goku is the strongest fighter in the universe!”
“Goku is the strongest fighter in all of existence!”
“Goku is the strongest fighter that exists!”
Those three phrases can reasonably be interpreted as synonymous.
Now, we could also say “Goku is the strongest fighter that exists, has existed, or ever will exist!” This isn’t quite true, since Goku isn’t ‘eternal,’ he was born and he’ll grow old, and he isn’t the strongest fighter yet (He’s currently training with a bunch of supernatural kings who are stronger than he is at the moment). But if it were true, if Goku both existed eternally and was the strongest fighter ever at every moment of his existence, then most people would reasonably interpret this as saying the same thing as “Goku is the strongest fighter in the universe.”
We could replace all the words in the previous statements as symbols, rephrasing it as the sort of logical “equation” (or syllogism) that professional philosophers are so fond of. So let’s say “Goku” is G, the “strongest fighter” is Z, the word “in” represented by the familiar plus sign +, and “universe,” “existence,” and “all that exists, has existed, and ever will exist” as A, B, and C respectively.
“Goku is the strongest fighter in the universe!” would be: G = Z + A
“Goku is the strongest fighter in all of existence!” would be: G = Z + B
“Goku is the strongest fighter that exists, has existed, or ever will exist!” would be G = Z + C
As anyone who knows algebra can tell you, if the same thing (Z) added to A, B, or C gives the same sum every time, A, B, and C must be equal to each other. Therefore, the universe = existence…or, we could say, the universe is existence. It would be plausible to say that the universe “just is” existence, and its essence is “pretty much everything that does, has, or will exist.” And since the essence of the universe “just is” existence, it can therefore fulfill the role Feser says is necessary.
More amusingly, however, is that we can see the idea of God as the Unsustained Sustainer—perpetually conjoining the Essence and Existence of things for every second of every day—ironically enough proves Him to be not-sovereign. Think I’m crazy? Well, remember what Feser said on page 85:
“[I]t is not enough for a thing to be real that its essence and act of existing be conjoined merely at some point in the past; the essence and act of existing must be kept together at every point at which the thing exists.”
Obviously, the Big Guy keeping essence and existence together all the time would be God. However, it’s equally obvious that things pass out of existence constantly; Feser himself admits that to be the difference between eternal things (like God, yes, but also souls and angels) and non-eternal things. This implies that God would be severing the act of existing of individual things from their essences on a regular basis. For example, imagine a rubber ball falling into a furnace and being completely vaporized into its constituent atoms, not just gooeyfied. It no longer exists, but its essence would still be out there—perhaps not its individual essence (that would be a soul, which only humans have)—but the essence of rubber balls, which exist generally. So God must have severed the ball’s existence from its essence the moment it was vaporized. He was “conserving” it for every second of every day since it had been made in the factory, but He assumedly stopped when it was destroyed in the furnace.
So far, so good. But what if someone intentionally threw the rubber ball into a furnace? That is to say, destroyed it of his own volition, as an act of will? God would have to separate the ball’s existence from its essence. But notice the “have” to. God doesn’t “have” to do anything; He is completely independent of any of His puny creations, including humans. Yet it seems human beings can “force” Him to do things when we destroy other material objects in the exercise of our free wills, since God, if He conserves everything, would have to react to our destructive (or creative, now that I think about it) actions. I mean, OK, you could argue that God could “conserve” a rubber ball in existence even after someone throws it into a furnace, and perhaps that would be an example of a miracle, but I’ve not heard of something like that happening—most miracles I’ve heard of involve healing the sick and whatnot, so I don’t think it’s a very compelling example.
Or, to put it in the simplest terms I can: If everything is “conserved” in existence due to God’s will, and passes out of existence at His behest, that seems to imply God is “forced” to separate a thing’s existence from its essence when we destroy something, and “forced” to conjoin an essence to existence whenever we create something. This would clearly be absurd for a Being—Being Itself, in fact—that is supposedly sovereign. On the other hand, if we assume things can enter and exit existence without God being “forced” to do anything, either something else is connecting and severing their essences to existence, or essences can be conjoined to existences “on their own,” so to speak, which obviates the Second and Third Ways.
You could also say that God just foreordains the creation and passing of all things, but that would imply He also foreordains when human beings create and destroy things, which isn’t really compatible with any meaningful idea of free will—a subject to which we’ll return in Part 3 of this essay.
Part 2.3: Troubling Theology – The Third Way
Feser summarizes Aquinas’s argument as essentially thus: Things can either exist or not exist, as evidenced by how we see things be created and destroyed all around us. But if it is possible for a thing to be destroyed, or just not exist, at any time, then it inevitably will cease to exist at some point, even if in a thousand or a million or a billion years in the future. So if at some point nothing existed, then nothing would exist now, because you can’t bring something, or anything out of nothing. There must, therefore, exist something that has always existed and always will exist—something whose existence is eternal. It is that something out of which our universe was birthed. And that something, of course, would be God. Who else could it be aside from the Creator of the Universe?
I could and would argue that it would simply be the universe itself—its existence is not contingent (in the colloquial sense, Feser argues that Aquinas means something somewhat different by the word), it has existed and will always exist eternally, and cannot itself be “moved” or changed, though obviously the things inside it can (I say nothing of Pure Act vs. potentiality, since I have reservations about the concept as described above). But Feser says other philosophers such as J.L Mackie have raised this objection, and it doesn’t work. The following block quote will show why (and I’ve replaced the word ‘necessity’ with ‘everlasting’ or ‘eternal,’ since Feser said earlier that’s what Aquinas meant by the term):
“Aquinas would be quite happy, at least for the sake of argument, to concede that that material world as a whole might be a kind of necessary being, in the relevant sense of being everlasting or non-transitory…recall that at this stage of the argument Aquinas immediately goes on to say that “every [everlasting/eternal] thing either has its [everlastingness/eternal-ness] caused by another, or not’ and then argues that a series of [eternal/everlasting] beings cannot go on to infinity…we can see that it is not enough to show that the material universe as a whole…is a [eternal] being in the relevant sense. One also needs to know whether it is the sort of thing that could possibly have its [everlastingness/eternityness] in itself, or whether instead it must derive its [everlastingness] from something else, from something which keeps it in existence everlastingly…
It is immediately obvious, however, that matter qua matter cannot possibly have its [everlastingness] of itself, at least on an Aristotelian conception. For matter considered apart from anything else, and in particular apart from form, is just Prime matter or pure potentiality; and pure potentiality, since by definition it has no actuality, has no reality either, necessary or otherwise. Matter only exists in so far as it is combined with substantial form to comprise a substance. Nor would it help the critic of the third way to suggest that it does matter and form together that constitute a necessary being having of itself its own necessity. For one thing, as we have already noted, individual material things are constantly going out of existence and thus losing their forms, and it is in their nature to do so. Hence it cannot be any particular material substance, but only Prime matter, which can be said to be Everlasting and Prime matter, for the reasons just given, cannot have its Everlasting this of itself.
Second, even if there could be some composite of form and matter which exists everlastingly, since in purely material substances form depends on matter just as matter depends on form, we would have (as Martin has pointed out) an explanatory vicious circle unless we appealed to something outside the form/matter composite on which it depends for its existence.
Third, since (given Aquinas’s doctrine of essence and existence) the existence of any material thing is distinct from its essence, we would need in any case to appeal to something outside it in order to explain how its essence and existence come together so as to make it real. (Note that this particular point would apply to material things even if, contrary to Aristotle and Aquinas, we did not regard them as composites of form and matter.) There is no way, then, plausibly to hold that matter might have its necessity of itself. Even a “necessarily existing” or everlasting material world would have to depend on something outside it for its existence. And this something could not itself be a composite either of form and matter or essence and existence, on pain of infinite regress.”
Well, there are a couple of responses to this. First, as my Dragon Ball Z example illustrated above, it is plausible to say that the universe itself is something whose essence just is its existence, or to use the equation again, “the universe” = “existence.” Second, there’s no guarantee this everlasting being is actually intelligent, which I will demonstrate in my takedown of the Fifth Way.
Third, there seems to be quite an error when Feser says, “For one thing, as we have already noted, individual material things are constantly going out of existence and thus losing their forms, and it is in their nature to do so.” Aside from leaving himself open to the idea that humans can force God to cleave essences from given existences, it’s also not scientifically accurate. Individual material things may go out of existence, but the underlying matter they’re made of does not—in fact, cannot. One of the laws of thermodynamics state that matter is never created or destroyed, just changed to different forms. For instance, if you burn a log, you haven’t actually destroyed it, just turned it to smoke and ash (if you gathered up all the smoke and ash, it would weigh exactly as much as the original log). The atoms of the log are still there, just in different forms, as Feser himself might say. But since these individual atoms do not themselves go out of existence, or get corrupted (only break apart from one another, or join together in different ways), why, precisely, could they not fit the bill for that everlasting soup out of which everything else rises? They’re not “matter without form” that Feser said could not exist—they still have the Form of atoms, I suppose—but they seem to be “eternal” and “everlasting.” Perhaps we could summarize their Form or Essence this way: The Form of Atoms is:
1: To be made of protons, electrons, and neutrons
2: To change their accidental forms often, like giving electrons, splitting into different numbers of protons and neutrons, but still remaining atoms, just different types of atom (Hydrogen, Helium, etc.)
3: To “just be” existence, and to exist eternally.
Thus, if we say atoms exist eternally as part of their essence, we need to appeal to neither the incoherent idea of “Prime Matter” without form or an Unsustained Sustaining God.
Part 2.4: Troubling Theology – The Fourth Way
This way relies on Aquinas’s doctrine of Transcendentals, which I addressed back in section 1.4. Aquinas’s original formulation relied on an incorrect analogy to the Sun as the hottest thing in existence, but that particular analogy wasn’t crucial to the overall argument, so I’ll quote from the stronger version Feser has filtered out for us:
“The proof from the grades of perfection begins by noting that “among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble, and the like” (ST I.2.3). But things are said to be “more” or “less” a certain way to the extent that they “resemble” some maximum… But in that case, it follows that “there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest, and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being” (ST I.2.3). Now the maximum within any genus is the cause of everything in that genus… So there must be something which is the cause of the “being, goodness, and every other perfection” of all beings, and this is what we call God (ST I.2.3).”
Or, to put it another way, remember what we talked about in 1.4: Things are “good” or “bad” to the extent they conform to their ideal Forms, like a triangle is good/true if it has absolutely straight sides and its angles equal exactly 180 degrees, and bad/untrue if it doesn’t. From this, Aquinas concludes that God is the source of good for all things, filtering down through, say, the ideal Forms of Triangles or Squirrels or whatnot by which individual triangles and squirrels are judged.
Of course, this cannot be defended, as we have already seen. “Good” is necessarily subjective because fulfilling one form (such as that of a triangle) necessarily requires deviating from another (such as that of a quadrilateral), we really do just make up some Forms (as in the case of phoenixes and Orcs), making their ‘good’ subjective rather than objective, and we can also just make up forms willy-nilly (Oderberg’s “unique form of a reptile-bird,” the squiggly Bus Triangle, and so on). Feser condemns the “objection commonly heard in these more relativistic times, to the effect that standards of goodness, truth, nobility, and so on are all subjective. [But] if Platonism is true, then such relativism and subjectivism are no more plausible in the case of goodness and the like than in the case of mathematics.” Now, Feser and Aquinas are/were Aristotelians, not Platonists, but they still believed that good was objective, if not in exactly the same way. Well, I hate to break it to ‘em, but it seems like there’s something to be said for relativism.
Undaunted, Feser continues by saying, “This is also why [Aquinas] draws a related inference that might otherwise seem ungrounded to many modern readers, to the effect that that which is most true, good, and noble is “consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being.” For this follows automatically from the doctrine of the transcendentals.” But as I also mentioned in 1.4, this cannot be so, because “good” in the sense of conforming to a Form and “good” in the sense of fulfilling a certain function are not necessarily the same thing—it is possible to perfectly conform to a Form and yet fail to fulfill a function, and vice versa. This would seem to indicate that “good” is not convertible with itself (“good” as in form-conforming and “good” as in function-fulfilling are different things, not “different aspects of the same thing”), which deep-sixes the doctrine of Transcendentals as a whole—and resultantly wrecks the Fourth Way as well, since “good” cannot consist only of adherence to a certain ideal or standard, which means there’s no necessary reason to claim God is that ultimate ideal or standard.
Part 2.5: Troubling Theology – The Fifth Way
Aquinas’s last Way is a mildly interesting one. Remember the discussion of Final Causes back in part 1 of this essay, referring to chapter 2 of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide. Feser, following Aquinas, holds that everything is directed towards an end or goal because it’s obvious we don’t live in a chaotic universe. Matches regularly produce fire rather than lilacs or thunder, the moon regularly orbits the earth instead of just soaring around willy-nilly, and so on. Apparently, Aquinas saw this as evidence of a great Intelligence consciously directing all of these things. After all, “goals” and “ends” indicate intelligence, right? You need to be conscious to work towards a goal or direct something towards an end. But matches and moons are unintelligent—in fact, they’re not even alive. Thus, the argument goes, they must necessarily be directed in their regularity by a supernatural Intelligence, who would of course be God. Feser directly quotes Aquinas,
“things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result (ST 1.2.3). From this it is plain that they act ‘not fortuitously, but designedly’ (ST 1.2.3). But whatever lacks intelligence can only act for an end if it is directed by something which has intelligence, ‘as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer’ (ST I.2.3). Therefore ‘some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God’ (ST I.2.3).”
Hmm, I think I see a few problems here. First, as I mentioned in Aristotle’s Curse, it is not at all axiomatically true that things act towards ends, or direct inanimate things towards certain ends, only if they are intelligent. Ants are wholly unintelligent—for all intents and purposes they might as well be machines, with their puny nervous systems—but they obviously act towards ends, and they obviously direct inanimate objects (dirt, pieces of detritus, etc.) towards ends (becoming anthives). It is therefore far from self-evidently true that unintelligent things cannot act towards ends.
Perhaps Feser would say that ants themselves are directed by God, in the same way atoms and the moon and matches are directed by God—that’s what someone from Reddit, /u/hammiesink, once told me. In that case, I would ask, how intelligent does this Supreme Director have to be? Even if we assume Aquinas’s proof as a given, the old Saint said nothing about how intelligent those things had to be. A genius like Albert Einstein and a dullard like Lenny from Of Mice and Men are both equally capable of acting in a directed fashion, despite Einstein being many times smarter than Lenny. Both, of course, would also be capable of directing unintelligent things towards an end—it’s easy to imagine both Einstein and Lenny using an unintelligent stick to push an unintelligent ball, though Einstein would likely do it to teach a class something about physics and Lenny would do it just to have fun. But if we can accept that even relatively unintelligent beings can act towards ends so long as they have even a vague spark of intellect, we come to the possibility that God just might be such a dim-witted being, albeit an immensely powerful one. Perhaps God directs moons in their orbit, ants in their work, and the laws of physics in their constancy without necessarily understanding how or why, just like the, er, mentally-challenged Lenny would push a stick and ball around just for the fun of it, without performing any higher thought.
Now, Feser would say that God is necessarily supremely intelligent because immaterial things are smarter than material things. This might seem strange, but he goes into more detail in the next chapter, so as usual, I’ll address it in section 3.1. For now, I’ll just be satisfied with having proven that Aquinas’s Fifth Way, by itself, has not decisively demonstrated that God is Supremely intelligent. At most, it has proven that God is intelligent to some degree, and that He is very powerful, or at least powerful enough to hold and maintain the laws of physics.
But even that may be conceding too much to Aquinas. Now that I think of it, I also begin to suspect that Oderberg’s essentialism also obviates the need for a Supremely Intelligent Director. Ironic, huh? Let me explain. Bluntly stated, I am unsure why we need a God to explain the regular behavior of the objects of our everyday experience any more than we need Him to explain the nature and properties of triangles. It is simply the nature of triangles to have 3 sides and so on, and this is an axiomatic truth that needs no explanation. Feser claims that if everything went out of existence, it would still be true that triangles would have 3 sides, and nothing could change it. It seems reasonable to assume, in fact, that not even God could change this brute fact of logic. Perhaps, by the same token, it is simply the nature or essence of matches to produce fire regularly, or simply the nature of the moon to orbit the Earth. Now, as I mentioned in my critique of Oderberg, this strikes me as problematic, there are many reasons to doubt the truth of essentialism. But I very much doubt Feser would be willing to abandon his friend’s philosophical positions, and he would far more likely want to defend essentialism to the death. So be it. Claiming everything in existence can be compared to geometric and mathematical objects is a double-edged sword, and if Feser wishes to live by it, he can die by it as well. He must be prepared to admit that essentialist metaphysics allows, at least theoretically, the non-existence of a Supreme Director: All we need to say is that the essence of the laws of physics is to remain what they are, constant and unbending and to have existed eternally, and furthermore part of their essence is to be “pure act” and not born from either a creator or a sustainer, and we have obviated the need for God.
There are even more problems with the idea of a Supreme Director—I’d say the Problem of Evil raises one, in fact. It seems to me that if God directs everything to an end, he does so very poorly, at least in regards to living things. Or why does God direct unliving things better than he directs dead things? If God is absolutely and perfectly rational, he should be able to direct everything—both dead things, like rocks, and living things, like squirrels and men—to their ends perfectly. Yet there are plainly and obviously many instances of things not reaching their ends—defective squirrels or evil and irrational humans. This means either God is not doing his job or is unable to conceive of everything in His mind perfectly enough to make everything, well, perfect (a point I raised above). It is, in short, the problem of evil. The existence of a “Supreme Director” or something that directs everything towards Ends does not really do anything to solve this problem. Now, Feser has some responses to this, but we will address them in much more depth in the last section of this essay, At the moment, we continue to…
Part 2.6: Troubling Theology – Touched (Badly) By an Angel
As an aside before moving on to his psychology, I’d like to touch on a subject Feser only touches lightly himself, at least in the Beginner’s Guide. It’s almost an aside in that book, but, IMO, it’s quite revealing in regards to his general philosophy.
I refer to angels. Yes, angels.
Like I said, I’ll be trying to take this seriously, so let’s not dismiss what Feser says out of hand. Recall his discussion of forms back in the Introduction. Aristotle’s doctrine of “hylomorphism” is that everything in our experience is comprised of form and matter: A rubber ball is made out of matter (rubber) in the form of a spherical object—a ball. But according to both Plato and Aristotle, Forms can exist without matter, and objectively exist outside of human minds. Aristotle was a little more “down to earth” in that he didn’t think Forms existed in some third realm, but he did think Forms could exist outside of matter, since, after all, the concept of “balls” can exist in our mind outside of any particular ball actually existing.
From this, Aquinas deduced, and Feser agreed, that angels exist. I’ll allow Ed to speak for himself:
“there are compounds of act and potency that have no matter, (namely angels)…An angel, says Aquinas, is a form without matter, and thus its essence corresponds to its form alone (DEE 4). But precisely because there is no matter to distinguish one angel in a species from another, ‘among these substances there cannot be many individuals of the same species. Rather, there are as many species as there are individuals…But relative to the act of existing, both pure form (as in an angel) and a composite of form and matter (as in a material object) are themselves in potency or only potential. Hence even angels, like material things, are composites of an essence with an act of existing…Angels, being devoid of matter already, have yet a higher degree of act [relative to humans], though even they fall sort of the summit of reality, God…Aquinas does not mean…that an angel is a form full stop, as if there were nothing more to be said; as we have seen, he regards an angel as a form or essence conjoined to the act of existing. Hence, the particular subject or substance that a certain angel (Gabriel, say) is identifiable with should be obvious: it is Gabriel’s form conjoined with his individual act of existing. This also gives us the answer to a rhetorical question Kenny raises: ‘What, we wonder, is the difference between the angelic pure forms that Aquinas accepts and the Platonic ideas or Forms that he rejects?’ (p. 30). The difference is that an angelic pure form is a concrete (though immaterial) particular, with its own individual act of existing, while a Platonic Form is a universal…material things and angels both have being, but angels (since they lack matter and are composed of pure form together with an act of existence) are metaphysically simpler than material things and lack the tendency towards corruption that material things possess.”
As George Takei might say, “oh my.” It’s obvious I think this all seems rather silly to me, but I promised to take it seriously, so I shall. Here are my most sober critiques of this:
1: What, exactly, is an angel? The above quote incorporates every mention Feser made of them, judging from the index in the back of the Beginner’s Guide, but I still have no clear idea of what they actually are (or what their essence actually is, in other words), and I suspect I wouldn’t be the only one. Let me try to define them as best I can. For comparison, the “essence of triangularity:”
A: Three straight sides
B: Angles that add up to 180 degrees
C: Closed figure
So let’s see what an angel—oh, a particular angel, since Aquinas and Feser say they all have their own existences. So what’s the essence of Gabriel:
A: He has no matter
B: As a consequence of A, he has more “act” than material human beings
C: He’s conjoined to the act of existing
D: He has less of a tendency towards corruption (by ‘corruption’ Feser means the tendency to decay or degrade, i.e die, so he’s essentially saying Gabriel is immortal)
E: He’s necessary (in the sense of eternal/everlasting)
F: Uh…his name is Gabriel?
As far as I can tell from Feser’s descriptions, and I’ve quoted them as exhaustively and honestly as I can, that’s all I can say for Gabriel’s essence. Okay. And as far as I can tell, it’s completely useless. First, how is it even possible to separate him from any other angel? Feser and Aquinas say angels can’t fall under one “species,” they each have to have their own, right? But how do we discern one “species of individual angel” from another? For instance, here’s what I imagine the “essence of the angel Michael” to be:
A: He has no matter
B: As a consequence of A, he has more “act” than material human beings
C: He’s conjoined to the act of existing
D: He has less of a tendency towards corruption (by ‘corruption’ feser means the tendency to decay or degrade, i.e die, so he’s essentially saying Gabriel is immortal)
E: He’s necessary (in the sense of eternal/everlasting)
F: Uh…his name is Michael?
As you can see, the only difference is apparently in name. Perhaps Feser or other Catholics would say I’m being flippant here, but honestly, how am I supposed to get anything else from Feser’s description? The only things he says about angels in the Beginner’s Guide (he barely mentions them in The Last Superstition) is that they’re immaterial, or forms without matter (with all that entails), conjoined to the act of existing, and that each species (type) of angel is entirely individual, so Gabriel and Michael aren’t just generic angels but each their own specific type of angel. It’d be nice if there was some concrete way to distinguish the two, but…there apparently isn’t, or at least Feser doesn’t give it. In fact, we have no idea what Gabriel and Michael even do, anyways. They have no matter and they’re conjoined to the act of existing and they have different names. Okay, so what? Do they serve any purpose or get anything done, or do they just sort of hang around “conjoined to the act of existing” while being “immaterial?” That, uh, doesn’t sound very impressive. I looked around on Feser’s blog and found this:
Feser seems to postulate that angels might be responsible for inertial motion. But, once you get past the bits where Feser is angry about the other guy making fun of him, it turns out he only postulated that and doesn’t actually believe it:
“All I was saying in that passage is that IF one regards inertial motion as genuinely involving the actualization of potency and IF we reject the thesis that the external physical initiator of motion is sufficient to account for inertial motion and IF we also reject the impetus theory and IF we also reject the idea that the Unmoved Mover directly causes inertial motion, THEN the notion of intelligent or angelic substances might provide a model for a cause of inertial motion. But I never endorsed every or even any of the options in this decision tree.”
Phew! I guess we don’t have to worry about our friend from Los Angeles going too far out there. But that still leaves us wondering about what angels actually do, and I haven’t been able to find any other answers at the blog even after looking up “angels.” So I turned to other sources. It seems the Catholic Encyclopedia (at which there’s the full text of Aquinas’s writings translated for free, which I’ll quote from later), gives a more comprehensive definition of angels:
“their essential function, viz.: that of attendants upon God’s throne in that court of heaven…The angels of the Bible generally appear in the role of God’s messengers to mankind. They are His instruments by whom He communicates His will to men.”
Okay. That makes a little more sense. So perhaps we can summarize the essence of the angel Gabriel as such:
A: He has no matter
B: As a consequence of A, he has more “act” than material human beings
C: He’s conjoined to the act of existing
D: He has less of a tendency towards corruption (by ‘corruption’ Feser means the tendency to decay or degrade, i.e die, so he’s essentially saying Gabriel is immortal)
E: He’s necessary (in the sense of eternal/everlasting)
F: Uh…his name is Gabriel?
G: His function (“final cause”) is to, um, attend the throne of God—why Being Itself has a throne, I don’t know—and pass on messages to people.
That’s a little more reasonable, as it gives an idea of what these immaterial beings are actually supposed to be doing, even if it’s still unclear what separates each “species of individual” from each other aside from F (their names). But there are still a couple of problems with this:
1: This is taken from some Catholic website, not Feser’s own writing, so I have no idea if he agrees with this or not,
And 2: Even if he does, there are still no compelling reasons to believe in angels, even if we accept that God exists.
Again, let’s briefly review the reasoning behind classical theism: God is a metaphysical necessity because He is the only ultimate explanation behind why change happens, why the laws of physics stay constant, and why things have “final causes” instead of the universe being random and chaotic. Yet even if we accept this (I hope I’ve given ample reason in the preceding pages to doubt it), it does not follow that angels necessarily exist (even if Feser might say the soul does). What metaphysical work do they do? Passing on messages? They could do that, but there’s no reason they have to; God could speak to us directly if He was so inclined. Are they necessary to understand, say, why things have final causes? No, if God sets final causes for everything, He doesn’t need angels to do it. In short, even if we concede to Feser that the existence of a classical theistic God can be proven through reasoning, we cannot possibly do the same for these angels.
At least from Feser’s account. A Beginner’s Guide is, after all, just a beginner’s guide, so maybe Aquinas himself tried to describe angels more thoroughly. Thus, I attempted to find more about him online, and came across this:
and as far as I can tell, this is the closest Aquinas comes to an explanation:
“For what is principally intended by God in creatures is good, and this consists in assimilation to God Himself. And the perfect assimilation of an effect to a cause is accomplished when the effect imitates the cause according to that whereby the cause produces the effect; as heat makes heat. Now, God produces the creature by His intellect and will (14, 8; 19, 4). Hence the perfection of the universe requires that there should be intellectual creatures. Now intelligence cannot be the action of a body, nor of any corporeal faculty; for every body is limited to “here” and “now.” Hence the perfection of the universe requires the existence of an incorporeal creature.”
But this hardly explains anything. If the “perfection of the universe requires the existence of an incorporeal creature,” why does it have to be an angel? Why would it have to be any group of angels, in fact? Not the use of the singular—an incorporeal creature. Why couldn’t God have created just Gabriel, instead of Michael, Raphael, and innumerable others (Aquinas says there’s a “host” of them). And of course there’s just plain old metaphysical silliness there. It’s dubious enough that “good consists in assimilation to God himself,” (remember my critique of the doctrine of Transcendentals), but let’s accept it for the purposes of argument. If it were the case, why would God bother to create anything at all? If angels (the effect) imitate God (the cause) by being immaterial, and are superior to material objects because of it, why wouldn’t God just stop at creating immaterial things instead of bothering with a very imperfect material world? Aquinas’s line of reasoning is hard to follow, to say the least, and certainly doesn’t seem to imply the metaphysical necessity of angels, or even any particular angel, the way God is necessary (in the modern sense, not the “everlasting” sense).
Equally importantly, if Aquinas—and Feser—allow for the existence of angels, there seems to be no way to disprove the existence of any particular angel, and we can just make them up as we please with no way to say they’re any more or less “real” than Gabriel or Michael. For instance, let me posit the existence of Mr. Grumblepants:
A: He has no matter
B: As a consequence of A, he has more “act” than material human beings
C: He’s conjoined to the act of existing
D: He has less of a tendency towards corruption
E: He’s necessary (in the sense of eternal/everlasting)
F: His name is Mr. Grumblepants
G: His function (“final cause”) is to attend the throne of God and pass on messages to people in Alabama specifically.
How, precisely, could Feser demonstrate—metaphysically or otherwise—that Mr. Grumblepants does not exist? There is nothing in his “essence” that’s any more objectionable than in Michael or Gabriel’s, save for his silly name and the reference to Alabama. The same applies to Pufflechuff, who sends messages to plumbers specifically, Tiggledoggle, who makes people have weird dreams at God’s behest, and so on, and so forth, into infinity.
If you think these examples are dumb, what about other supernatural creatures? Muslims, for instance, believe in a type of being called a Jinn, which at first glance seem to be closer to sand or wind creatures, but could easily be interpreted as beings of “pure form” who simply manifest themselves as the variety of things they do (according to Wikipedia, shapes like vultures and snakes and the like) the way the cherubim manifested itself with a flaming sword at the Garden of Eden (according to Genesis). Or perhaps the angel Moroni was real, and passed messages on to John Smith—which would imply Mormonism, not Catholicism, is true. There seems to be no specific or compelling metaphysical way for Aquinas or Feser or Oderberg or any of these ‘natural law’ or Scholastic types to claim that these entities do not exist, which would seem to lead us into a rather strange philosophical wilderness.
Part 3.1: Puzzling Psychology – Immaterial Intellects?
Now that we’re done with the strange stuff about angels, we can move back to the main meat of the text. Chapter 4, Psychology, deals with how Aquinas conceived of the mind and, by extension, the immortal human soul. I actually won’t spend too much time here, as I have little interest in proving humans are “soulless” and the question isn’t as directly relevant to the ethics, metaphysics, and theology I am interested in refuting. What does have direct relevance to those subjects is Aquinas’s argument for intelligence and immateriality being directly correlated, and the implications that has for the Fifth Way we discussed earlier. Allow me to quote Feser’s summary in whole:
“[W]hen the intellect grasps the form of a thing, it is necessarily one and the same form that exists both in the thing itself and the intellect. The form of triangularity that exists in our intellects when we think about triangles is one and the same form that exists in actual triangles themselves; the form of ‘catness’ that exists in our intellects is one and the same form that exists in actual cats and so forth. If this weren’t the case, then we wouldn’t really be thinking of triangles, cats, and so on in the first place, since to think about these things requires grasping what they are, and what they are is determined by their forms. Now suppose that the intellect were a material thing (some kind of brain activity, say). Then for the forms of our example to exist in the intellect would be for them to exist in a certain material thing. But for a form to exist in a material thing is just for that material thing to be the kind of thing the form is a form of. For example, for the form of triangularity to exist in a certain parcel of matter is just for that parcel of matter to be a triangle; for the form of ‘catness’ to exist in a certain parcel of matter is just for that parcel of matter to be a cat; and so on. Thus, if your intellect were really a material thing, it would follow that that material thing—that part of your brain, say—would become a triangle whenever you thought about triangles, or a cat whenever you thought about cats. But of course, that’s absurd. Hence, the assumption that intellect is material leads to absurdity, we must conclude that the intellect is not material…
The second of Aquinas’s main arguments for the immateriality of the intellect is as follows…Precisely by virtue of being universal, the objects of the intellect are not material, for all material things are particular rather than universal. This or that individual triangle is a material thing, but the universal triangularity is not…[if we were to assume] a thought about triangularity for example, would consist of some physical representation of triangularity in the brain somewhere (in the form of a neuronal firing patter or whatever), no such physical representation could possibly count as the universal triangularity, because like any other physical representation of a triangle, this one too would be just one particular material thing among others, and not universal at all. Thus the operations of the intellect cannot consist of purely material processes.”
I won’t opine on whether this is right or wrong, but I will hold it up to the inference Aquinas derived from it:
“The immateriality of the intellect has several consequences for Aquinas’s overall system of thought. For the reasons just stated, material things cannot possess more than one form precisely because they are material, and intellects can do so precisely because they are not. But that is what the intellect’s having knowledge of things amounts to: its possession of a thing’s form without itself being that thing. Aquinas infers from this that the farther a thing is from materiality—the further it is up the hierarchy of reality that extends from prime matter at the bottom to pure act at the top—the more it is capable of having knowledge. And that is ultimately why God, as pure act, must be all knowing.”
This is why Aquinas claimed God had to be all-intelligent if He was proven to be intelligent, as in the Fifth Way. But it seems to me this inference is rather baseless. First, it is manifestly untrue that a material thing cannot possess more than one form. Think of a small plastic triangle, a Lego piece or something. It participates in the form of triangularity, if it has 3 sides, 180 degree total angles, and so on, but it also participates in the form of toy-ness, as it was intended to a child to play with as a building block or whatnot. Still, this may be an incorrect interpretation–I think either Aquinas or Feser might have meant “grasp forms” rather than possess them, as that would make more sense—a Lego block might possess both triangularity and toy-ness, but it can comprehend neither.
But even if we’re being charitable, Aquinas’s inference still does not follow. Remember that it states, “the farther a thing is from materiality—the further it is up the hierarchy of reality that extends from prime matter at the bottom to pure act at the top—the more it is capable of having knowledge.” But also recall what Feser himself said about universals: “This or that individual triangle is a material thing, but the universal triangularity is not.” So Aquinas said that the farther a thing is from materiality, the more it is capable of having knowledge…and since the universal “triangularity” is not material, or at least less material than this or that particular triangle, it would seem to follow that “triangularity” is more capable of having knowledge. But this is clearly absurd. The concept of triangularity, such as it is, is no more intelligent than this or that particular material triangle. Indeed, the concept of triangularity would obviously be less intelligent than the person conceiving of it, despite that person being instantiated in a particular material body as opposed to existing as an immaterial “universal concept of triangularity.” From this, it seems possible that there do exist immaterial things that are ‘dumber’ than material things, and we may further conclude there is not necessarily a 100% correlation between immateriality and intellect. Therefore, it is only possible, not absolutely logically necessary, that God is the most intelligent being in the universe simply because He is the least material.
One quick aside, just for fun, before we go: If intellect is positively and necessarily connected (not even just correlated) with immateriality, does this mean smarter people are less material than dumber people? Albert Einstein had the capability to grasp more forms than, say, the “mentally challenged” Lenny did. It would seem to follow, then, that he was “less material” than Lenny, or at least his soul was. Yes, yes, I know, Feser would say this is not the sort of question which can be disproved through empirical evidence, we must rely on metaphysics. If so, it seems to me these metaphysics are a good deal sillier than anything we’d find in, say, geometry.
Part 3.2: Puzzling Psychology – Are we Slaves or Free?
There was one issue I was rather confused about when I read The Last Superstition, and I’m glad Feser has clarified it in Aquinas. He captures my question more or less word for word:
“Now a question suggested by our discussion of the argument from motion in chapter 3 is whether our wills can in fact be free. For if God is the first mover underlying all the motion or change that takes place in the world, that would have to include the motion or change that results from our voluntary actions, in which case God must be the ultimate cause of those actions. But in that case, how can they be free actions?”
The answer, it seems, is this:
“Aquinas considers this question himself (QDM 6; cf. ST I.83.1). His answer is that though God does move the will, “since he moves every kind of thing according to the nature of the moveable thing … he also moves the will according to its condition, as indeterminately disposed to many things, not in a necessary way” (QDM 6). That is to say, the nature of the will is to be open to various possible intellectually apprehended ends, while something unfree, like an impersonal physical object or process, is naturally determined to its ends in an unthinking, necessary way. When you choose to have coffee rather than tea, you could have done otherwise, whereas when the coffee maker heated your coffee, it could not have done otherwise. This is so because your will was the cause of your having coffee, while something outside the coffee machine – your having keyed certain instructions into it the night before, say, together with the electrical current passing into it from the wall socket, the laws of physics, and so forth – was the cause of its behavior. But God causes both events in a manner consistent with all of this, insofar as in causing your free choice he causes something that operates independently of what happens in the world around you, while in causing the coffee machine to heat the coffee he causes something that operates only in virtue of what is happening in the world around it (the electricity, laws of physics, etc.).”
Alas, I’m not entirely convinced by this. It is true that if I have coffee in the morning, I “could have chosen to do otherwise,” but it’s also true that my choice was influenced by many factors. For instance, if I had to get up early to get to work (which I had no control over), if I like coffee or not (in accordance with my tastebuds, which I have no control over), and so on, and so forth. Even if I seem to be making a choice to drink coffee, it’s an illusionary choice, because my circumstances compel me to do so. And since God ultimately controls the circumstances of everything, it seems we are all puppets doing His bidding, even if we think we’re not.
We have even more reason to consider ourselves puppets of God by looking at Feser’s arguments to the contrary. See, for instance, this blog entry:
“[God] is more like the writer who decides that the characters will interact in such-and-such a way. And so His being the ultimate source of all causality is no more incompatible with human freedom than the fact that an author decides that, as part of a mystery story, a character will freely choose to commit a murder, is incompatible with the claim that the character in question really committed the murder freely.”
This is, of course, silly. Fictional characters may act as if they have free will, and we can read a story as if they do, but we know, at least when we are adults capable of separating fantasy and reality, that they are actually just puppets controlled by the author. This is why suspension of disbelief is important to maintain in fiction. Or, to put it another way, IF Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, and the other characters in A Song of Ice and Fire were real people outside of GRR Martin’s imagination, THEN we could say their actions were truly chosen freely OUTSIDE THE CONTEXT OF THE STORY. Within it, yes, we can believe they’re free actors, but that’s really a pretense, we’re pretending they’re something more than puppets to make reading the story fun. But since we know they’re fictional characters, we know they’re dancing to GRR Martin’s strings, even if they were to break the forth wall and try to tell us they’re totally real.
So, taking Feser’s analogy, IF God didn’t exist (or consciously directed us to ends), THEN we could say we truly have free wills. However, since we (according to Feser) know He exists, we must also know that we are but puppets controlled by Him alone. We may try to deny it, but it is no more convincing than if Jon Snow were to scream in the latest book, “GRR MARTIN DOESN’T CONTROL ME!” We would all know very well it was Mr. Martin writing those words.
Or maybe it’s not God pulling our strings—it could easily be His angels, for angels as Feser has described them seem to have their own dire implications for the idea of free will. Remember, those guys are “form without matter,” but Catholics believe they can interact with our material world—along with demons, apparently. I’m not sure if Feser believes that, but it’s a reasonable bet he does, and as “traditional” Catholic theology would have it, angels and demons (having no matter of their own) interact with the material world by influencing the immaterial minds of material creatures. So demons make people go crazy, while angels are responsible for what we’d call lucky breaks.
But if this is the case, how could we prove someone else’s will was their own at any given moment?
For instance, perhaps I’m not writing all this “evil anti-Catholic doggerel” of my own free will—maybe I’ve been possessed by, um, Mr. Flarblegrump, the demon of anti-Aristotelianism, whose Form is to be immaterial, immortal, named Mr. Flarblegrump, and has the “final cause” of making people hate Aristotle. And if Dr. Feser or any of his friends should ever attempt a refutation of this essay, how can we be sure they’re acting of their own free will? Maybe they’re under the influence of Mr. Snugglemuffin, the Angel of Aristotle, whose Form is that of an immaterial immortal named Mr. Snugglemuffin who influences human beings to defend the old Greek.
As you might be able to tell, this is a riff off of the idea of a “Philosophical Zombie,” which Feser says is “a creature physically and behaviorally identical to a human being but devoid of any sort of mental life. “ He also says such a creature could not exist under an Aristotelian theory of mind as simply the essence of a rational animal (humans), but it seems to me that Aquinas adding talk of angels to all of this opens up the possibility of “angelic zombies.” If you think there are “immaterial” creatures out there who can influence human behavior, then there’s no way to tell if any given human you encounter is acting on his own volition or if he’s a zombie controlled by one of these crazy little Forms without Matter.
Part 4.1: Egregious Ethics:
Ethics is, of course, a bit more disappointing a subject if one doesn’t assume human beings have free will, so for the last part of this essay, let’s ignore the arguments of the preceding paragraphs. Remember everything concerning transcendentals we discussed earlier, especially in regards to “good” consisting in “conforming to certain standards (in accordance with one’s essence) or fulfilling a function or end (in accordance with a Final Cause)?” Well, it all comes back here with a vengeance. Let me quote the relevant bits from the Beginner’s Guide:
“From the traditional Thomistic point of view, however, there simply is no “fact/value distinction” in the first place. More precisely, there is no such thing as a purely “factual” description of reality utterly divorced from “value,” for “value” is built into the structure of the “facts” from the get-go. A gap between “fact” and “value” could exist only given a mechanistic-cum-nominalistic understanding of nature of the sort commonly taken for granted by modern philosophers, on which the world is devoid of any objective essences or natural ends…it is of the essence of a triangle to be a closed plane figure with three straight sides…These are straightforward objective facts, and remain so even though there are triangles which fail perfectly to match this description. A triangle drawn hastily on the cracked plastic seat of a moving bus might fail to have sides that are perfectly straight, and thus its angles will add up to something other than 180 degrees. Even a triangle drawn slowly and carefully on art paper with a straight edge and a Rapidograph pen will contain subtle flaws. Still, the latter will more perfectly approximate the essence of triangularity than the former will. It will be a better triangle than the former one. Indeed, we would naturally call the former a bad triangle and the latter a good one. This judgment would be completely objective; it would be silly to suggest that it reflects nothing more than a subjective preference for triangles with angles adding up to 180 degrees. It would be equally silly to suggest that we have somehow committed a fallacy in making a “value” judgment about the badness of the triangle drawn on the bus seat on the basis of the “facts” about the essence of triangularity. Given that essence, the “value judgment” in question obviously follows necessarily. This example illustrates how an entity can count as an instance of a certain kind of thing even if it fails perfectly to instantiate the essence of that kind of thing; a badly drawn triangle is not a non-triangle but a defective triangle. It also illustrates how there can be a perfectly objective, factual standard of goodness and badness, better and worse…
“Living things provide examples that bring us closer to a distinctively moral conception of goodness, as has been noted by several contemporary philosophers who, though not Thomists, have defended a kind of neo-Aristotelian position in ethics. For instance, Philippa Foot, following Michael Thompson, has noted how living things can only adequately be described in terms of what Thompson calls “Aristotelian categoricals” of a form such as S’s are F, where S refers to a species and F to something predicated of the species. “Rabbits are herbivores,” “Cats are four legged,” and “Human beings have thirty-two teeth” would be instances of this general form. Note that such propositions cannot be adequately represented as either existential or universal propositions, as these are typically understood by modern logicians. “Cats are four legged,” for instance, is not saying “There is at least one cat that is four legged”; it is obviously meant instead as a statement about cats in general. But neither is it saying “For everything that is a cat, it is four legged,” since the occasional cat may be missing a leg due to injury or genetic defect. Aristotelian categoricals convey a norm, much like the description given above of what counts as a triangle. Any particular living thing can only be described as an instance of a species, and a species itself can only be described in terms of Aristotelian categoricals stating at least its general characteristics. If a particular S happens not to be F – if for example a certain cat is missing a leg – that does not show that S’s are not F after all, but rather that this particular S is a defective instance of an S. In living things the sort of norm in question is, as Foot also notes, inextricably tied to the notion of teleology; as Aquinas puts it, “all who rightly define good put in its notion something about its status as an end” (QDV 21.1). There are certain ends that any organism must realize in order to flourish as the kind of organism it is, ends concerning activities like self-maintenance, development, reproduction, the rearing of young, and so forth; and these ends entail a standard of goodness. Hence an oak that develops long and deep roots is to that extent a good oak and one that develops weak roots is to that extent bad and defective; a lioness which nurtures her young is to that extent a good lioness and one that fails to do so is to that extent bad and defective; and so on. As with the triangle example, it would be silly to pretend that these judgments of goodness and badness are in any way subjective or reflective of mere human preferences, or that the inferences leading to them commit a “naturalistic fallacy.” For they simply follow from the objective facts about what counts as a flourishing or sickly instance of the biological kind or nature in question, and in particular from an organism’s realization or failure to realize the ends set for it by its nature. The facts in question are, as it were, inherently laden with “value” from the start. Or, to use Foot’s more traditional (and less misleading) language, the goodness a flourishing instance of a natural kind exhibits is “natural goodness” – the goodness is there in the nature of things, and not in our subjective “value” judgments about them. What is true of animals in general is true of human beings. Like the other, non-rational animals, we have various ends inherent in our nature, and these determine what is good for us.”
Lots of silliness here. I won’t say anything about Dr. Foot, as I’m not sure if she’d agree with everything Feser writes, but I can certainly critique what he seems to be arguing.
First, we once again must deal with the rather annoying habit of extending mathematical concepts to the much messier real world. Calling a given geometric figure “good” or “bad” might make sense if you’re doing geometry, but not outside the whiteboard. For one, recall what I said in section 1.4: To say something is a good or bad triangle, you must first be sure it’s actually “trying” to be a triangle—if you shout at some kid on a bus, “you’ve drawn a bad triangle!” you’ll look like a moron if he tells you he was just making squiggles. Thus, in that sense, “value” is clearly not an objective judgement, it depends on the intent of whoever set a given object’s final cause.
Second, there’s also the matter of whether or not things can be “good” or “bad” instantiations of a form, as opposed to simply instantiating a form or not. The example I gave of a dented triangle becoming a hexagon would seem to indicate the latter, not the former.
Third, we also have the problem of discerning what Forms are, and who gets to set them. The aforequoted review from Dan Lawler says it perfectly:
“Even assuming the existence of Forms, who defines them and determines which particular things belong to what Form? That is an insurmountable problem for Aristotelianism. Take Ed Feser (please!) who considers himself an authority on the identification of Forms and their corresponding particulars. He writes, “Paying your phone bill, staying faithful to your wife, and voting to strike down Roe v. Wade are just actions because they participate in the Form of Justice.” (796.) Sez who? Ed? Even if you agree with his assessments here, what about the countless other Forms and particulars out there. Do you have to check in with Ed on those too? Whomever you let define the Forms and allocate the particulars becomes the god of your life; your creator of reality, truth and meaning. Who possesses this god-like authority, and what check is there against its abuse? Aristotelianism has no answer.”
This applies to final causes as well, I’m sure Mr. Lawler would agree. Speaking of final causes, again, to repeat myself, they’re distinct from essences. A lioness could lose a leg or an eye—that is to say, become “damaged” or “less perfectly instantiate her Essence” but still fulfill her “final cause” of protecting her cubs. It doesn’t matter how long an oak tree’s roots are if it can grow properly (for instance, if it’s been planted in shallow but rich soil). Thus, even under an Aristotelian framework which holds Good as conforming to an essence and/or fulfilling a certain “Final Cause,” it’s possible to do one without the other, making it a somewhat dubious benchmark of “objective good.”
We see more problems with this supposedly objective moral theory as Feser says, “[t]here are certain ends that any organism must realize in order to flourish as the kind of organism it is, ends concerning activities like self-maintenance, development, reproduction, the rearing of young, and so forth; and these ends entail a standard of goodness.” This may seem to be unobjectionably true—even if a lioness can protect her cubs after losing a leg, she’ll have a harder time of it, and in general “damaged” specimens of creatures obviously seem, well, damaged or unhealthy. However, it indicates that the only “final cause” it is meaningful to discuss in reference to living creatures is survival and reproduction—something the most cold-hearted and materialist of Darwinians would agree with, by the way. Again, this sounds sensible until you consider what it entails for Aquinas’s moral theory. “Good” doesn’t reside in adhering to a form, it is merely to survive and reproduce, and that applies to every living creature—including humans. If we look at morality from this perspective, human beings would therefore have no obligations to anyone or anything aside from ensuring our own health and that of our children. We would be justified, even positively encouraged, to lie and cheat or murder and steal, if it ensured we could continue to live for even one more day. We would be morally obligated to kill other people’s children to ensure the survival of our own. In short, we would live in a brutal, merciless world, “red in tooth and claw,” because survival at any cost seems to be the “final cause” of living things in general—whether prey like squirrels, predators like lions, or sentient beings like men.
There are two ways Feser could deal with this: First, he could admit that, yes, survival is the “final cause” of human beings, but it’s much easier to survive if we cooperate with each other instead of mercilessly screwing each other over. If a group of people agree to work together in exchange for not harming each other’s children, their kids have a much better chance of surviving than those of a “community” that’s composed only of entirely atomized, self-interested individuals with no sense of morality or a common good beyond brute survival.
This seems rational, if perhaps not exactly noble…except Thomas Hobbes came up with it, and Feser apparently rejects it. The outline I’ve given above is essentially Hobbes’s social contract theory, and according to Feser in The Last Superstition, it consists of making morality a mere pretense, with the result that “If it were ever to prevail in society at large the result would be disastrous. For our understanding of the grounds of morality can hardly fail to influence the seriousness with which we try to practice it…Would you be more inclined rigorously to abide by policy X if you were truly convinced that God or nature unconditionally commands it, or if instead you were sure it was just something we feeble humans have cooked up because it is ‘mutually advantageous?’”
Welp, there goes our argument that “the Final Cause of humanity is, like all other living things, survival, so we’d better help each other do it.” Of course, Feser’s objections strike me as callow: Regardless of whether or not social contract theory would be more effective than divine command or “natural law,” it’s better than nothing if it turns out Final Causes aren’t what Feser says they are (I’m not even denying “Final Causes” exist here, but hopefully by now you’ve started to doubt them). Second, I think Feser severely underestimates the power of pragmatism and mutual self-interest. Third, if the threat of hell (and let’s face it, that’s what this boils down to) is so effective, what’s the point of all this “natural law” disputation? It seems to me that “We would be more inclined to abide by policy X” if we just knew straight-up we’d burn for eternity for violating it than if we got confused, and wasted our time, by reading the millions of words (literally) Aquinas wrote on the subject.
Fourth, Feser is also somewhat hypocritical about this. See his response to Aaron Boyden here:
“Well, thanks for the honesty, Aaron. “I reject your metaphysics, because I don’t like the moral implications.” And here I thought it was we theological types who were the ones who tailored our philosophical conclusions to fit our prejudices! Funny old world.”
Really, now? One might imagine Hobbes saying something similar to you, big guy. “My social contract theory would undermine morality in general? So what? All that counts is whether it’s correct or not. And that’s what’s most important, isn’t it? ‘Getting to the reality of things?’ Consequences be damned, all that counts is being right!” Kinda funny Feser, and Oderberg, and apparently Aristotelians in general mock anyone who points out how much misery Aristotle’s metaphysics have wrought, but are more than happy to fall back to consequentialism when they try to convince the rest of us that the world would fall to chaos if anything other than Aristotelianism informed our ethics.
But OK, whatever, let’s toss out social contract theory for now. So how else can Feser ground his morals? Well, fortunately, it turns out mere survival isn’t the Final Cause of human beings. We have a higher goal! Let’s see what it is:
“The point of fulfilling the vegetative and sensory aspects of our nature is, ultimately, to allow us to fulfill the defining rational aspect of our nature. What specifically will fulfill that nature? Or in other words, in what does the good for us, and thus our well-being or happiness, ultimately consist? It cannot be wealth, because wealth exists only for the sake of something else which we might acquire with it (ST I-II.2.1)…It cannot be pleasure, because pleasure is also a consequence of realizing a good rather than the realization of a good itself; even less likely is it to be bodily pleasure specifically, since the body exists for the sake of the soul, which is immaterial (ST I-II.2.6)…Obviously, then, it cannot be found in any created thing whatsoever; our ultimate end could only possibly be something “which lulls the appetite altogether,” beyond which nothing more could be desired, and thus something absolutely perfect (ST I-II.2.8). And “this is to be found,” Aquinas concludes, “not in any creature, but in God alone … Wherefore God alone can satisfy the will of man … God alone constitutes man’s happiness” (ST I-II.2.8).”
So, essentially, Aquinas and Feser are saying humanity’s Final Cause is not just to survive and reproduce, as is the case for all other living things, but to know and serve God, which only we can do because we are the only ones with rational souls (the definition of that is somewhat more complicated, and Feser explains it in both TLS and Beginner’s Guide, but for the purposes of my argument all you need to know is that “rational soul” equates to more or less human sentience). Feser lays it all out directly in an earlier chapter, which is perhaps a more succinct summary:
“The natural end or final cause of the intellect, with its capacity to grasp abstract concepts and to reason on the basis of them, is to attain truth (In Meta I.1.2–3). The natural end of the will is to choose those courses of action which best accord with the truth as it is discovered by the intellect, and in particular in accordance with the truth about human nature. (This, as we will see in the next chapter, is precisely what morality is in Aquinas’s view: the habitual choice of actions which further the hierarchically ordered natural ends inherent in human nature.) But the intellect’s capacity to know the truth is more fully realized the deeper is its understanding of the nature of the world and the causes underlying it; and in Aquinas’s view the deepest truth about the world is…that it is caused and sustained in being by God. Hence the highest fulfillment of the human intellect is to know God (ST I-II.1.8).”
Doesn’t this sound like a nicer, kinder alternative to the bloody Darwinian ruthlessness of social contractarian pragmatism? Unfortunately, as nice as it sounds, it’s not necessarily true. It has several weaknesses.
1: It’s not at all apparent that the purpose of human rationality is to know God. Yes, our minds seem to be—heck, I’ll say they are—directed towards searching for truth, or, more specifically, at least some truth. But does that lead us to God? Not necessarily, and to understand why we need to understand why human beings have intellect in the first place—the “final cause” of our intellect, so to speak.
Feser would agree, I’m sure, that the body parts of animals in general have specific “final causes” in the sense of having specific functions or doing certain things, but that their true purpose is to ensure the overall health of the organism. A spider’s fangs have the specific function of piercing prey and injecting venom, but that serves the overall higher final cause of feeding the spider and ensuring its survival, not because piercing and poisoning are good on their own. A squirrel buries nuts in order to store food for the winter, not because storing nuts is any sort of final goal in and of itself.
This is all basic evolutionary theory, and given that Feser has criticized “intelligent design” proponents in both The Last Superstition and the Beginner’s Guide, I doubt he’d contest it. However, when we apply this line of thought to people, things get a little interesting. Human beings, as it turns out, are queer creatures. We must hunt and gather to eat, but we have no in-built weapons like spiders do, and we can’t just bury nuts and then eat them raw like squirrels can. So how did we survive before the advent of civilization? Well, it turns out our intellects were our best weapons. Our ability to grasp concepts like triangles helped us craft stone and flint weapons to kill dangerous foes far larger than even the nastiest spider (triangular arrowheads are better than, say, circular ones), and our ability to comprehend patterns of regular behavior and cause-effect relationships allowed us to invent agriculture and gain our food that way.
Good for us—but you’ll notice I haven’t mentioned God once. It seems, taking an evolutionary view of our “nature” as “rational animals,” that rationality itself is, first and foremost, a tool we used to survive. Perhaps it’s a good thing that we can comprehend God exists, but if so, that would be merely an “accidental characteristic”—the actual end, or “Final Cause” of our rationality is to help us survive, reproduce, and keep our children fed.
It is rather depressing to say, but there really is nothing especially noble or praiseworthy about the human intellect, at least if we regard the final causes of things in light of evolutionary theory. We do not in the least have to resort to the “materialism” Feser decries, we can come to this conclusion relying entirely on his own metaphysical methodology. Again, a spider’s fangs have the function of killing prey—that is its immediate Final Cause. Its true final cause, however, is to kill prey so it can be digested and help the spider survive. A squirrel buries nuts—that is the immediate final cause of its instincts. But the true final cause of its behavior is to store food so it can survive winter. And human beings are the same way. Our minds are capable of grasping truth because we lack fangs or claws and needed something else to help us survive, and an intellect that could grasp, say, triangularity or predictable animal behavior would allow us to create pointy arrows and spears and hunt dangerous animals better. From this perspective, then, the Final Cause of our intellect is not necessarily to know God, but to know just enough to ensure our survival, preferably in the sort of “enlightened self-interest” way Hobbes would approve of.
2: That might be a little depressing, so here’s something a little more light-hearted: “Knowing God” cannot be our Final Cause, because our very nature as material beings—our Form or Essence as rational animals—prevents us from fulfilling that particular purpose very well.
This is actually the conclusion I’ve drawn after reading one of Feser’s blog entries. Look at this:
“Consider first that, at least on the conception of God enshrined in classical theism (especially, I would say, as interpreted within Thomism) it is quite obviously far more plausible to suppose that God should be incomprehensible to us than that the relationship between matter and consciousness should be. If God exists, then He is Pure Actuality…and thus beyond the classifications by means of which we understand the things we can understand. He is not one object among others within the world but that which sustains all objects in being, from outside any possible world. What we say of Him is true not univocally but analogically. Etc. Neither matter nor consciousness is anything remotely like this. Instead, they are both conceptually and epistemically far closer than God is to the things we suppose we can understand. Hence there is prima facie a much stronger case for supposing that God’s nature should be incomprehensible to us than there is for saying that the relationship between matter and consciousness should be. God is precisely the sort of thing we should expect to be unable fully to understand, while matter and consciousness are not (even if it turns out that we cannot fully understand them either).”
Very nice, and I will admit this makes sense, given everything else Feser has written. If God truly were the Ground of All Being, it would follow that He is the most immaterial thing in existence, then it seems plausible He would be very difficult for humans to grasp, as our minds are material and limited. We haven’t even figured out fusion yet, it’ll be quite a while before we unlock the secrets of the creation of the universe, right?
But…that should tell us that perhaps understanding God isn’t our final cause, from an Aristotelian standpoint.
Remember, Feser’s big on the idea the form follows function. I’ve critiqued that idea heavily already, but let’s pretend to accept it at the moment. Even if we do, it’s obvious that the Form of Humanity is very poorly suited for the “final cause” of knowing God. We may perhaps be better at it than dumb animals, but that’s not saying much. If God had really wanted us to know Him, He could have made us much smarter and/or less material than we actually are. The fact that we’re not, however, seems to be proof that we weren’t really intended to know Him. Or, to put it another way, if you encountered a blunt object with a minimal (if any) edge, would you conclude it was a knife with the “final cause” of cutting? Of course not, or at most, you would conclude it was a very blunt knife, so poorly suited to its purpose that it ought to be thrown away. So if you look at human beings, with our minimal capacity, at best, to know God, would you conclude that knowing God was our Final Cause?
I think not. But if you’re still not convinced, this leads us to the next consideration…
3: Even if we ignore everything I just said and assume the Final Cause of our intellect is to Know and Honor God, why should we assume He cares or that He’s listening to us, much less that He punishes or rewards us after death?
An analogy might be useful here. Imagine yourself trundling along the sidewalk on a nice summer day. Do you consider all the ants and worms, even the tiny microscopic bacteria, on the ground below you, as you go about your rounds? Of course not. Now, imagine if, somehow, a bunch of ants near you—hell, even the bacteria—suddenly, somehow, became aware of your existence and decided to worship you. If some ants in Edward Feser’s backyard decided to hold little parades in his honor and build a tiny ant formation that wrote, “EDWARD FESER IS AWESOME,” do you think he’d even notice? Probably not. And do you think he’d be interested in either rewarding the little ants or punishing those who refused to worship him for whatever reason? I…well, OK, maybe Feser might, but you and most other people wouldn’t. It’s more likely the thought wouldn’t even cross your mind.
It seems to me that would apply with even more force to God. God is as far above us as we are above ants, or even microorganisms—farther, actually. As the Ground of All Being, why would such a mighty entity—not even just a mighty entity, but Mightiness Itself—spare even a moment of thought to us? There’s certainly no reason to assume he’d find us worth punishing or rewarding, much less incarnate Himself as a human being (Jesus Christ) and die for us. In short, the God of Classical Theism seems like He should be far, far less inclined to give half a rat’s ass about puny humans when compared to, say, a theistic personalist God, and Feser doesn’t like that one. As I wrote in Aristotle’s Curse, the God of Aristotle represents an unfathomable Lovecraftian cosmic force rather than anything you’d see in the Bible. It’s even less likely that “Pure Act” would have anything resembling love, mercy, justice, or other puny human conceits, “analogically” or not.
But once again, for the purposes of argument, let’s assume that for whatever unfathomable reason, the Ground of All Being takes an interest in people, and it therefore really and truly is our Final Cause to worship Him. Fine. But how would we do that?
Religion, of course—specifically Roman Catholicism, which Feser and Aquinas both prefer. Feser doesn’t say much about this in The Beginner’s Guide, but he says a little bit in The Last Superstition. Thus, I’ll just briefly summarize his arguments there and my replies to them:
Feser claims that there can only be one being of Pure Act, since something that has nothing but actuality could not be meaningfully separated from anything else that’s also pure actuality (we can discern a red ball from other balls because it’s actually red as opposed to blue or green, but God is just plain actuality). So that rules out polytheistic religions like the Greek pantheon, we’re left only with monotheism. And the only reason we have to believe in a particular monotheistic religion would be if it has a lot of miracles to prove its chops (God can produce miracles because he can suspend or twist the laws of physics at His will, since He is their Unsustained Sustainer). And since Christianity has the resurrection of Jesus (along with all the Old Testament miracles), it’s naturally the best candidate (Islam doesn’t count because it only has the Qu’ran as its “miracle,” which is “rather anticlimactic, especially given that the contents of the Qu’ran can be quite easily accounted for in terms of borrowings from Jewish and Christian sources”).
Well, there are a few problems with that, which I mentioned in Aristotle’s Curse: One can easily make polytheism “monotheistic” by positing Zeus (or Odin, or whoever) as Pure Act and all the other gods (Athena, Thor, etc. ) as Forms divorced from Matter but conjoined to Existing (like angels, more or less). And as for Islam, the Qu’ran isn’t the only miracle they have, I’ve heard stories about stuff like Muhammad splitting the moon and other such silliness–I don’t believe any of it, as I mentioned before, I think Islam is hooey, while I’m mildly sympathetic to Christianity. But on the subject of Christianity, we can’t be sure Catholicism is the True Faith. After all, many Protestant sects have both the miracle of Jesus and stuff like faith-healers and snake handlers and speaking in tongues and whatnot. And what about the Mormons? They believe Jesus rose from the dead, and they think he performed all manner of nifty tricks in the Americas. If it’s miracles you want, our friends from Utah have got you made.
Feser’s choice of miracles also seems somewhat curious. In this blog entry, he says:
“Our background knowledge just doesn’t make any of these conclusions plausible. For example, we just know, with greater certainty than we could know any of these conclusions, that round squares are impossible. We know that “Kilroy is here” is a stereotypical graffito, that the Matrix is a stereotypical mind-blowing science fiction scenario, and that Steve Jobs is a stereotypical tech biz whiz. If we found in every human cell a phrase referring to Kilroy, round squares, the Matrix, or Steve Jobs, we would judge it far more likely that someone, somehow, is playing a massive joke on us than that the Matrix or round squares exist, or that Kilroy or Steve Jobs is responsible. Nor would we judge that a “transcendent intelligence” — if by that we mean a strictly divine one (i.e. an intellect that was infinite, purely actual, perfectly good, etc.) — was responsible. (Indeed, I would say that when we understand what it would be to be the divine intellect, we can see that such a frivolous action would be ruled out.) And we might not even attribute the scenario to intelligence at all; on the contrary, you might judge that everyone’s cognitive faculties — or maybe just your own (including your perceptions of what other people were reporting about what they’d seen in the cell) — were massively malfunctioning and producing pop-culture-influenced hallucinations…. In short, we could take “Made by Yahweh” to be a sign from Yahweh only if we already have, on other grounds, good reason to think Yahweh exists and is likely to send us messages by leaving them in cells. And in that case the occurrence of the phrase in the cell would not be giving us independent reason to think Yahweh exists.”
Yet all this applies even if we do assume the existence of Aristotle’s God. Even if “Yahweh was here” would not, in and of itself, be more likely a proof of Yahweh’s existence than a cosmic prank or a failure of our observational capacities, why would the same not apply to the resurrection of Jesus?
For instance, it is at least conceivable that aliens landed on Earth in 32 A.D., possessing technology far greater than anything we could imagine even today, and sent down an android version of Jesus to fool everyone (as a joke, for an alien sociological experiment, or whatever). Or perhaps the Apostles were hallucinating when they saw Jesus rise. Or perhaps Aristotle’s God was actually testing the Jews to see if they could be fooled by a “Messiah” who didn’t save them in this world. A good God could do that, as evinced by God sending Satan to test Job—there’s no necessary reason to believe Jesus’s resurrection wasn’t a trick designed to separate the gullible Jews from the fastidious ones. Note that I haven’t even gotten to the empirical evidence of the Resurrection, I’m arguing from metaphysics, just as he says I should. Even if we had good metaphysical reasons to believe Aristotle’s God existed, the Resurrection of Jesus would not necessarily entail that God would be the Catholic one.
Religion also seems to bring up the distinction, or at least non-convertibility, between Essence and End I mentioned earlier. Feser claims man is a rational animal, that is to say, a truth-seeking creature, and thus his Final Cause is to find God. Yet many people have “sought truth,” that is to say, exemplified their Forms relatively perfectly, and still failed to find God in the form of the Catholic Church. Take Albert Einstein as an excellent example. It seems reasonable to assume Einstein, being more intelligent, was more rational and less material, and therefore more perfect, in the sense of instantiating the Form of Man as a Rational Animal, than Edward Feser or David Oderberg or any number of other Catholic philosophers. Sorry guys, you may be smart, but you’re probably not as smart as Einstein, and it seems fair to say you haven’t discovered as much Truth as he has. You might be refining Aquinas’s arguments, but you still haven’t really discovered anything he (assumedly) did not, while Einstein’s thought revolutionized our understanding of the universe.
Yet, since Einstein was not Catholic, he fulfilled his Final Cause, or Function, of worshipping God less well than the more imperfect Feser. How could this be so? Since Einstein discovered so much truth, one would assume God would be more pleased with him than with Feser, but if the objective of the truth is to worship God (i.e become a Catholic), Einstein failed, and would therefore be…well, not burning in hell (I get the impression Catholics are marginally less damnation-happy than, say, Calvinists), but kicking his heels in purgatory. How can something that more perfectly instantiates its Form fail to fulfill its Final Cause in terms of religion?
All this might make us wonder why God didn’t just tell us explicitly which religion is true, and that might make us wonder about the perennial problem of evil. Feser spends a little more time on this in TLS:
“There is no reason whatever to think that an all-powerful and all-good God would prevent the suffering we see around us – for it is ‘part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it to produce good.’ If God can bring out of the evils that we actually experience a good that is far greater than what would have existed without them, then of course He would allow those evils. But God is infinite in power, knowledge, and all the rest – Pure Actuality, Being Itself, Goodness Itself, and so forth, as we have seen – and, since human beings have immortal souls, so that our lives in the here-and-now are but a trivial blink of the eye compared to the eternity we are to enter, there is no limit to the good result that might be made in the next life out of even the worst evils we suffer in this one. For even the worst evils we suffer are finite. Therefore there is every reason to think that God can and will bring out of the sufferings of this life a good that so overshadows them that this life will be seen in retrospect to have been worth it.
”We are familiar with small-scale analogues to this from everyday life. Suppose your child is trying to learn how to play the violin. This will require much practice, and thus a sacrifice of time that could be spent playing. It will also require hours of frustration and boredom, some pain and discomfort as he gets used to keeping his arms and head in an awkward position for prolonged periods of time and builds up calluses on his fingers, and possibly humiliation when at recitals and the like he makes serious mistakes in his playing or sees how much better other students are than he is. He may often want to give it up, and keeping him from doing so may require not only encouragement but also occasional punishments for failures to practice every day. On bad days he might almost hate you for what you’re putting him through. But eventually he becomes very good indeed, and the frustration he once felt disappears entirely. He might even forget about it almost completely, and if he is a normal, sane human being he certainly will never hold it against you or think the suffering he once thought was unbearable is even worth thinking about now. Indeed, if anything, his accomplishment will have the value for him that it does precisely because he had to suffer for it. In hindsight, he might well say that he wouldn’t have had it any other way. Such examples could be multiplied indefinitely. Of course, I am not claiming that the relatively minor suffering in question is comparable to the death of a child, or bone cancer, or Auschwitz. But then, neither could the relatively minor joy of being a great violinist compare to the beatific vision. Indeed, even the greatest horror we can imagine in this life pales in insignificance before the beatific vision.”
In response, I’ll quote Aaron Boyden, who I think put it best (and whom I originally quoted in my old essay too):
“God might have good reasons for evil which are very much like the good reasons a person might have for causing or enduring some unpleasantness, totally ignoring that for a person causing or tolerating something bad often seems like the best choice precisely because our options are limited, because we’re not omnipotent. But Feser hasn’t forgotten God’s omnipotence; it gives God endless capacity to bring unlimited good out of any evil. And yet Feser’s imagination suddenly stops again before the obvious next step, or perhaps God’s omnipotence disappears and we’re back to non-analogical human-like powerful God, as Feser doesn’t even consider that God’s omnipotence should surely extend to the endless capacity to bring all the same unlimited good out of no evil.”
That’s a pretty biting critique, but now, a couple months after I read it, I think I have a couple of my own to add. First, Feser’s argument in TLS doesn’t seem to be consistent with one he asserts in Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide. In speaking of transcendentals, he says:
“The claim that being is convertible with goodness might nevertheless seem to be falsified by the existence of evil. For if evil exists, then (so it might be thought) it must have being; and since evil is the opposite of good, it would seem to follow that there is something having being that is nevertheless not good. But Aquinas would deny the first premise of this argument. He writes that “it cannot be that evil signifies being, or any form or nature. Therefore it must be that by the name of evil is signified the absence of good. And this is what is meant by saying that evil is neither a being nor a good. For since being, as such, is good, the absence of one implies the absence of the other” (ST I.48.1). Precisely because good is convertible with being, evil, which is the opposite of good, cannot itself be a kind of being but rather the absence of being. In particular, it is what the Scholastic philosophers called a privation, the absence of some perfection which should be present in a thing given its nature. Hence blindness (for example) is not a kind of being or positive reality, but rather simply the absence of sight in some creature which by its nature should have it. Its existence, and that of other evils, thus does not conflict with the claim that being is convertible with good.”
Hey, wait a second. In TLS, Feser told us God can bring infinite good out of evil—just like one can bring being a master violinist out of the annoyance of learning to play, God can bring the “beatific vision” out of Auschwitz. But Feser also told us that the principle of proportionate causality states that nothing can give to something else what it does not have to give. According to Aquinas and Feser, evil is nothing at all, simply the absence of being, or good. But God allows evil so that good may come of it. Yet that would seem to imply that evil has something of good inside it, whether an “eminent power to generate good” or something else, which both is absurd and in contradiction to Aquinas, who claimed that evil was nothing at all. But if evil was truly just nothing, nonexistence, or nonbeing, how could it give rise to good, which is something, existence, and being? Remember Parmenides—nonbeing can’t produce being, right?
You could say it’s God who’s producing good, not the evil itself. But in that case, it would seem He is producing something (good) from nothing (evil). Would that not violate the principle of causality, that contingent things have a cause? You can either have eternal things who just are (like God) or contingent things that are either produced by those eternal things or the same thing as the eternal thing (Good = God), but you can’t have things (good) coming out of nothing (evil). If God is drawing good from evil, He seems to be violating that principle. Even if we say that’s within His power, why would He go through the trouble? Why not, to paraphrase Boyden, just pull Goodness out of Himself instead of going through the Nothingness that is evil?
On the subject of good, we then come to my objection #4: None of this actually addresses the Euthyphro argument at all. We might not be able to torture babies for fun, but according to William Lane Craig, we can kill them if we’ve been commanded to—as he said, horrendously, “So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.”
If, according to Craig, God could justify the slaughter of children, why couldn’t He justify the torture and death of babies? Joshua killed his own daughter on God’s behest, and Feser says filicide is a grave violation of our “natures” (Now, before my theologically-inclined friends say this is a naïve reading of these stories, I am aware there are other interpretations—some say “burnt offering” referred to the daughter becoming a cloistered nun, I personally think the story is allegorical, not literal. The same applies to the stories about genocide, I think Craig’s literalism is stupid. I’m just saying it is plausible for God to order us to do evil things yet still expect us to obey). If Joshua was ordered to do that, how can we be sure God won’t order us to do something similar?
Now that I’ve mentioned Craig (ugh), I suppose I should address his unpleasant response to that quickly. Forgive the slightly off-topic digression, but for the sake of completion I’ll ask you to look at this: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-slaughter-of-the-canaanites-re-visited
“I find it ironic that atheists should often express such indignation at God’s commands, since on naturalism there’s no basis for thinking that objective moral values and duties exist at all and so no basis for regarding the Canaanite slaughter as wrong. As Doug Wilson has aptly said of the Canaanite slaughter from a naturalistic point of view, ‘The universe doesn’t care.’”
Yeah? Well, even if we assume a Godless universe, there’s lots of things it doesn’t care about. If it wouldn’t care about the genocide of the Canaanites, it wouldn’t care about the genocide of, say, people like William Lane Craig either, now would it? It may be true that in a cold, Godless universe, there’s no such thing as right or wrong, and everything is meaningless. I guess that makes believers killing unbelievers not much better or worse than the reverse. But as it just so happens, there are more unbelievers than there are True Believers like Craig and his ilk. How many Christians are there, 2 billion out of 6 billion? And the vast majority of those Christians, I’d wager, would find Craig’s “divine command” morality as abhorrent as the nonbelievers do—if they didn’t, nobody would care about the Euthyphro dilemma in the first place. So if the only thing that matters is who’s strong enough to commit genocide (and not whether it’s right or wrong), I’d say the rest of us have numbers on our side—meaning there’s no particular reason we shouldn’t slaughter Craig and his friends like he claims God ordered the slaughter of the Canaanites.
Of course, we wouldn’t—not only because that would make us as bad as he is, but because if we killed everybody who said stupid things (and stopped at just saying stupid things), it would likely end up causing a great deal of chaos and destruction on its own. So we agree to “tolerate,” in the sense of “not slaughter wholesale” guys like Craig simply because it allows us to concentrate our efforts on those who actually pose a threat to us—i.e, those who violate the social contract instead of merely disparaging it.
Well well. It seems like we’re back to Hobbes’s social contract, aren’t we? Even if everything—life, morality, everything—is meaningless, pure pragmatism means that utter sociopaths will find themselves outnumbered and hunted down anyways, whether or not society as a whole thinks God and/or Nature dictates it.
Phew! Once again, sorry for the digression. My own sense of completionism wouldn’t let me just brush over what Craig said. I think it may have been for the best, though, as in writing a response to Craig, I’ve come up with one that applies to Feser as well.
It’s quite likely Feser wouldn’t agree with my defense of social contract theory, but he also would probably not approve of Craig’s straight-out Divine Command morality. Indeed, in The Last Superstition Feser asserts that the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus and William of Ockham denied any basis for morality other than God’s will (Ockham even asserted that hating God would be good to do if God commanded us to do it), because they denied we could know anything outside of revelation from God, which lead to the denigration of reason (Feser says) modern philosophy embraces.
I must respectfully demur from saying anything more about Scotus and Ockham, as the history of philosophy isn’t really my field. But in terms of ethics, Feser’s “natural law” philosophy doesn’t seem to do much better. Let’s assume genocide, or torturing babies for fun (that’s the example Feser gives) is wrong because it contravenes our purpose, or “nature” as “rational animals.” But it seems to me this isn’t really a middle way between the two horns of the dilemma (On the one hand, Craig and Ockham say we do what is Good without god, on the other hand, atheists say that if what is Good is independent of God, God is not necessary).
Rather, it seems to just kick the problem up a level. Are things Good because our natures tend toward them, or do our natures tend towards them because they are Good? If God made us rational animals so that torturing babies is not Good for us, is it because God thinks there’s something objectively bad about torturing babies outside of reference to human “nature,” that is to say, our Final Causes, or is it just a side effect of having made us rational animals, so that some non-rational animal or machine could have its actual Purpose be to torture babies? I suspect Feser would tend towards the second explanation, but most people would see that’s absurd. I, of course, tend towards the first one, for all the reasons I’ve spent so long discussing: It’s difficult enough to say the Forms and Essences and other kinds of Paradigmatic Standards exist in the real world outside of a math classroom, and it’s even more difficult to say they have any normative or obligatory force outside of the desires and purposes human beings impose on them.
In light of all this, Aquinas’s challenge to utilitarianism seems much less cutting. “Bodily health” cannot be our final cause because our bodies exist only so that we may worship God? It’s uncertain whether or not God wants us to Worship Him or if He cares if we do, but since survival seems to be the final cause for life in general, it seems like a good one for us. “Pleasure cannot be our final cause because it’s merely a result of fulfilling our final causes?” Even if that were so, it would seem pleasure serves as a good pointer towards what our ever-elusive Final Causes might actually be, so we might as well pursue it anyways (and if someone derives pleasure from hurting other people, one could argue their sense of pleasure is “corrupted” the same way Feser argues rationality can be “corrupted”). Similar arguments can be made for honor, power, and the other goods Aquinas described. I don’t really want to go too hard on him since I am sympathetic to the idea that wealth and power don’t bring happiness (in the colloquial sense) on their own, but I can’t ignore how his arguments don’t seem to be as airtight as Feser makes them out to be.
Part 4.2: Egregiously Applied Ethics (Aggravating Abortion)
For our last stop on the Aquinas train, let’s take a look at two examples of how Thomistic ethics would actually be applied: Abortion and sex. The first subject is a little heavy, so I won’t spend too much time on that, but I will try to treat it somberly—though, I must warn you now, I will also treat it very coldly. The second subject is more entertaining, but I’ll try to treat it seriously too, because it actually raises some interesting logical questions, so we can give our skills with logic a workout in untangling them.
To quickly summarize Feser, abortion (and killing people in permanent comas like Terri Schiavo, by the by) is wrong because a fetus is a human being, not just a clump of cells. Why does it count as a human being? Well, remember our discussion of potentialities: A red rubber ball can become a blue rubber ball even if it’s not yet blue, so it’s “potentially” a blue rubber ball. For living things, however, it works a little differently. See, for Aquinas, the soul was a type of essence—the Form of a human being, that which makes humans what we are, but since we’re the only “rational animals” in the universe, it has special characteristics no other forms have, such as immortality (he goes into some detail about this, but it’s not relevant to my arguments in this essay, so I skipped over it). Since a soul is an essence, what a human being is, it enters into a human being at the very moment his or her life begins, which would (in Feser’s view) be conception. Thus, a fetus is actually a human being, just one which hasn’t realized its potentials yet, making them innocent people, which therefore makes abortion the killing of innocent people (i.e murder).
But even if we consider it murder, is it necessarily a very serious kind of murder? This sounds like a very strange thing to say, so let me quote again from TLS quickly. There, to further illustrate how Terri Schiavo’s death was wrong, Feser says
“A human being, in the Aristotelian-Thomistic view, is a composite of form and matter, the soul just being the form of the matter of the body. Now any material thing is bound to fail perfectly to instantiate its form in some respect or other. An oak tree might be stunted in its growth due to disease or to some external circumstance, but it is still an oak…Hence Terri Schiavo, as I have said, was still a rational animal even though given her condition she could no longer exercise her capacity for rationality.”
How interesting–let’s go with the oak example further. If this is the analogy Feser has chosen to use, let’s see if we can mirror it to abortion. If a human becomes human as a matter of essence at the moment of conception, it seems reasonable to assume that a tree would become a tree at the moment of its conception—perhaps when its seed fell to the ground, sprouted roots, and began to grow. Now, trees don’t have souls as we rational animals do, but they do have “nutritive” souls, if I recall Aristotle correctly. Thus, in the same way a fetus is a human who hasn’t actualized all his/her potentialities, a sprouting seed is a tree that hasn’t actualized its potential of being a mighty oak.
Yet we obviously do not take the destruction of seeds and saplings to be the same thing as the destruction of actual trees. If, one day, Feser were to see someone cutting down a tree in his backyard, I’m sure he would be angry: Either the falling tree could damage his house, or just that the tree had been there for a long time and it was his property. But imagine if a seed fell from the tree and began to sprout, and someone dug it up or destroyed it. Feser might be irritated, sure, but he probably wouldn’t be as mad as if someone destroyed the tree itself, as there would be less risk of damage to his house, a small, minor, easily replaceable thing would have been destroyed as opposed to something that had taken many years to grow, and so on.
Unfortunately, we can apply this reasoning to fetuses as well. Even if they are “actually human beings who merely have yet to realize their potentials,” they are still less actual than human beings who have, well, actually been born. Just as killing an actual grown tree entails many costs, killing an actual born human entails costs of its own (the dangers inherent in murder, the loss to society of someone who has contributed to it for many years, etc). And just as destroying an oak seed (since it’s smaller and less risky to destroy, and there hasn’t been years of care put into it) is less of a crime than cutting down (illegally) a fully-grown oak tree, destroying a fetus would be less of a crime than killing a born human, as destroying a fetus doesn’t entail the risk to others that, say, shooting someone does, and not as much time and effort has been spent into ensuring the fetus grows as society has put in to someone who has actually been born.
Moreover, it’s questionable whether or not even a fetus is innocent. It’s essentially draining nutrients and taking up space in the mother’s body, the most direct and cumbersome of thefts. Yes, of course, the fetus is innocent in the sense that it’s not choosing consciously to do this. But Feser has also said that sins are sins even if the sinner “can’t help himself”—as he wrote in TLS, “[i]t [cannot] possibly be good for an alcoholic to indulge his taste for excessive drink…whatever the reason is for someone’s desire to act in a way contrary to nature’s purposes—whether simple intellectual error, habituated vice, genetic defect, or whatever.” Feser of course would hasten to add that the fetus’s “parasitism” is part of nature’s purposes and cannot therefore be regarded as evil, but theft is a violation of one of the Ten Commandments, even if part of “nature’s purposes,” and even if the fetus is compelled to do so by necessity rather than “habituated vice.” Killing a fetus therefore seems qualitatively different from killing an infant whose umbilical cord has been severed (and of course anyone older than that), since while both crimes may be violations of nature’s purposes, the infant is at least entirely independent and not draining resources from anyone, and therefore more “innocent.”
Yes, these are very ruthless things to say, my friends, and I beg your forbearance. I am simply hewing to my promise: I said I would treat this soberly, but I also said I would treat it as if my blood ran ice-cold. However, it is precisely this passionless, unsentimental, coldly ruthless logic that a philosopher should display, correct? If Dr. Feser wished to prove me wrong, he would not do so by simply calling my argument monstrous. He would have to point out the flaw in my analogy (my interpretation of his own analogy, actually) or a weak link in my chain of reasoning.
He might also do well to remember that his own intellectual idols made similar arguments. As Feser himself once noted:
“they [Plato and Aristotle] did not condemn infanticide when done for eugenic reasons.”
I’ll admit it may be cold and ruthless of me, and yes, I’m sure Feser would say “irrational,” to even try to justify the “murder” of fetuses on pragmatic grounds. But if Plato and Aristotle could justify actual infanticide on the equally pragmatic grounds of eugenics, it would seem I have good company—at least by Feser’s standards.
This should also, by the by, make us a little leery of natural law’s claims to provide an “objective” basis for morality. If two of its foundational thinkers thought infanticide was OK, how, precisely, can we say no natural-law theorist, even a “traditional” one, will ever agree? Maybe it’s true that “from a traditional standpoint contemporary Western civilization, or at least its liberal-progressive ‘mainstream,’ cannot fail to seem a stinking cesspool of wickedness and irrationality.” But if it’s Aristotle and Plato who’d be telling me that, well, at least in regards to abortion they’d be the pot calling the kettle black.
Part 4.3: Egregiously Applied Ethics: Pray the Gay Away!
Sheesh, all that stuff about abortion (with a side of genocide) was kinda depressing. I really don’t care for doing the whole “cold and ruthless” thing, it doesn’t really suit me. And I don’t have the looks to pull it off, anyways—fedoras and katanas are not my style. High time for us to move on to a lighter subject, and end everything on a high note, too. Let’s turn to the subject of gay marriage, and homosexuality in general.
Feser doesn’t say all that much about it in the Beginner’s Guide, saying “[t]his is a large topic which cannot be treated adequately here. (I discuss Aquinas’s approach to sexual morality in my book The Last Superstition).” He certainly is true to his word there, and spent several pages discussing the matter—I responded in kind in Aristotle’s Curse. However, more recently—most recently, in fact, as he published Neo-Scholastic Essays just last year as of 2016—he wrote a longer paper that dealt exclusively with sexual morality and addressed many of the criticisms he assumedly received in The Last Superstition. I have cited it already, it’s called “In Defense of the Perverted Faculty Argument,” and I’ll refer to it as PFA in the notes. Since it’s his most extensive treatment of the subject, I figured it would be best to address that. As I said at the beginning, I don’t want anyone accusing me of fighting strawmen. So, let’s start!
Feser introduces his essay with a criticism of the “New Natural Law” theorists, who are apparently some Catholics who have tried to “modernize” the old-school natural law tradition (to which Feser belongs). I’m not Catholic m’self, obviously, so I surely cannot be blamed if I choose to sidestep that internal debate. Instead, let’s move right on to section II of the essay, “The Old Natural Law Theory.”
To be frank, this is essentially an expanded version of the discussion of ethics provided in Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, which means it’s essentially taken word for word from the relevant sections of The Last Superstition. Again, no big deal, but it does mean most of what I’ve said already also applies here. I won’t go over it all again, but a quick review would be nice to conclude everything, since I’m sure at least a few folks wouldn’t mind a refresher.
Feser again makes the point that the “activities and processes characteristic of a natural substance are ‘directed toward’ certain ends or outcomes, and inherently so, by virtue of the nature of the thing itself.” But as I said above, this is problematic for a host of reasons. At best, it’s uninteresting and uninformative, as the only thing pretty much anything seems to be “directed towards” is simply following the laws of physics in accordance with its chemical structure or physical makeup. The moon is “directed towards” orbiting the earth because it’s large enough and was traveling at just the right speed that the laws of motion dictated it orbit us, matches produce fire because that’s what the laws of physics say they’ll do when heated up, and so on. At worst, it’s an unhelpful way of looking at the world, since the Forms or Essences of most things are intelligible without knowing what they were “directed toward”—you don’t need to know Egyptian pyramids were directed towards entombing pharaohs to know they’re made of stone and built by Egyptians.
For these reasons, Feser remains incorrect when he defends the Aristotelian view of “the good” being completely objective and gives us his favorite “triangle drawn on the back of a seat of a moving bus” example. There’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” triangle in a strict, rigorous logical sense, something either is a triangle or isn’t. A triangle with a dent becomes a hexagon, a triangle on the back of a bus isn’t a triangle but a “bus triangle” with a different essence, and in any case a kid drawing one is not likely to care whether it’s “good” or “bad,” he just wanted to amuse himself. Yes, you could argue that even a triangle drawn with a ruler contains “tiny imperfections,” and yes, it technically wouldn’t be a triangle in the most rigorous sense. But its imperfections are so small we call it a “good triangle” and treat it as such anyways, because there’s no practical purpose in being anal about it. The “practical purpose” bit is important, as it tells us we should judge anything by the “standard” of its Form on a practical basis, not as if those “standards” were good in and of themselves, because they only properly apply on a yes or no, binary basis.
This means it’s even harder to say living things have “forms” or “essences.” Here Feser brings in philosophers named Philippa Foot and Michael Thompson, who claimed that Aristotelians used a logical syllogism formulated as “S’s are F, where S refers to a species and F refers to something predicated of a species… ‘Cats are four-legged’ would be [an instance] of this general form [gunlord note: Cats is S, Four-legged is F]…if a particular S happens not to be F—if, for example, a particular cat is missing a leg—that does not show that S’s are not Fs after all, but rather that this particular S is a defective instance of S.”
I haven’t read either Foot or Thompson’s books, so I’m not sure if they’d agree with Feser’s summation. If they would, however, I’d again argue they seem to be hopelessly confused. Wouldn’t David Oderberg say that if you severed a cat’s leg, you’d now have two things instantiating two different forms (a 3-legged cat and a severed leg), like how a lump of clay shattered into many lumps no longer exists, and has been replaced by many things with the forms of small lumps of clay? And once again, as I demonstrated above, something either is S or is not S, there is no “good” or “bad.” If we say triangles are S and three-sided is F, so S’s are F means triangles are three-sided, an object with four sides would not be a defective triangle, but a square (and of course an object with 2 sides would be…I dunno, a line? Wikipedia says “digons” are two-sided figures that actually look like circles).
All this, of course, should make us very suspicious of doing any kind of moral reasoning based on the Form of Man and his supposed Essence and Final Causes. Since, per Oderberg, everything can have its own special-snowflake form, maybe gay folks perfectly instantiate the Form of Gays, and even if that weren’t the case, there’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” instantiation of a human being, someone either is human or they aren’t. Thus, we might possibly conclude that Aquinas (and by extension Feser) was wrong when he talked about “the natural teleology of our capacities, their inherent ‘directedness’ towards certain ends.” My Essence-End distinction tells us that we can’t discern what an object is directed towards just from its form or physical makeup, and even if we could, it’s unclear that God cares about any “end” aside from obeying the laws of physics, which means sodomy, masturbation, fornication, and all that are A-OK with Him so long as we don’t break any physical laws while doing so.
God’s relative indifference should also tell us we probably have no particular End in regards to our “rationality.” In reference to living things, a lioness that fails to look after her cubs or an oak that failed to grow big would be “bad,” at most, in the sense of failing to survive and reproduce. If you’re absolutely determined to stick with this Final Cause/Natural End silliness, that’s the only “End” human beings have ourselves, even if we’re “rational animals.” Our rationality is only a tool to help us survive and reproduce, which would be the only “good” for us that “nature intends,” as Aquinas and Feser might put it. And if masturbation and sodomy frustrate the “reproduction” part of that, well, so does celibacy. An oak that shed no seeds or a lioness that never had cubs at all are as “defective,” in the long run, as anything else that fails to reproduce. And before Feser says celibacy’s OK because it’s for a “higher cause,” or because it doesn’t “actively frustrate” anything, remember that I just pointed out we don’t necessarily have any “higher cause” on account of or rationality, and if our final cause is reproduction, it shouldn’t matter whether we frustrate that cause “actively” or by omission. The lioness that has no cubs is as much of an evolutionary dead end as the lioness that eats them. There’s no meaningful difference, regardless of whether or not the former committed sins of omission and the latter actively sinned.
This should make Feser’s defense of natural law sexual ethics given later a little less effective. On the question of certain “perverted” desires being inborn, Feser says, “that someone is born with a clubfoot doesn’t mean that his feet have a different natural end than those of people with normal feet. It means that while his feet have the same natural end, they are defective in a way that makes them less capable of realizing that natural end.”  Yet, once again, there’s no particular reason we can’t say clubfeet actually do have different ends than “normal feet,” since they obviously instantiate a different Form, not an “imperfect” one; since triangles and other geometric figures cease to be what they are and become different things if they’re damaged even slightly, the same would hold for human beings; “Aristotelian norms” are not consistent with a metaphysics based on extrapolation from hard mathematic truth. And what applies to clubfeet would apply to gays: They’re not “defective” people, they’re different Forms of people, with accordingly different ends.
Having undermined the foundation of Feser’s sexual ethics, let’s address them directly. As he says, “what is good for us in the sexual context can only be what realizes the ends of our sexual faculties.” A dubious enough proposition due to everything we’ve discussed, but for fun we can run with it for the moment. So, what are the ends of our sexual faculties? Here’s what he tells us:
“[S]exual pleasure has as its own natural end the getting of animals to engage in sexual relations, so that they will procreate. This parallels the situation with eating: Even though eating is pleasurable, the biological point of eating is not to give pleasure, but rather to provide an organism with the nutrients it needs to survive…Notice also that nature makes it very difficult to indulge in sex without procreation. There is no prophylactic sheathe issued with a penis at birth, and no diaphragm issued with a vagina…So, sex exists in animals for the sake of procreation, and sexual pleasure exists for the sake of getting them to indulge in sex, so that they will procreate. And we’re built in such a way that sexual arousal is hard to resist and occurs very frequently, and such that it is very difficult to avoid pregnancies resulting from indulgence of that arousal. The obvious conclusion is that the natural end of sex is (in part) not just procreation, but procreation in very large numbers. Apart from the Aristotelian jargon, everything said so far about the natural ends of sex and sexual pleasure could be endorsed by the Darwinian naturalist as a perfectly accurate description of their biological functions, whether or not such a naturalist would agree with the moral conclusions natural law theorists would draw from it.”
“Now in light of all this, it does seem that Mother Nature has put a fairly heavy burden on women, who, if “nature takes its course,” are bound to become pregnant somewhat frequently. She has also put a fairly heavy burden on children too, given that unlike non-human offspring they are utterly dependent on others for their needs, and for a very long period…So, nature’s taking its course seems to leave mothers and offspring pretty helpless, or at any rate it would do so if there weren’t someone ordained by nature to provide for them. But of course there is such a person, namely the father of the children. Fathers obviously have a strong incentive to look after their own children rather than someone else’s, and they are also, generally speaking, notoriously jealous of the affections of the women they have children with…Even considered merely from the point of view of its animal, procreative aspects, then, the natural teleology of sex points in the case of human beings in the direction of at least something like the institution of marriage. Here too nothing has been couldn’t be endorsed by secular social scientists or evolutionary psychologists…
If we consider the structure of the sexual organs and the sexual act as a process beginning with arousal and ending in orgasm, it is clear that its biological function, its final cause, is to get semen into the vagina. That is why the penis and vagina are shaped the way they are, why the vagina secretes lubrication during sexual arousal, and so forth. The organs fit together like lock and key. The point of the process is not just to get semen out of the male, but also into the female, and into one place in the female in particular. This too is something no one would deny when looking at things from a purely biological point of view…Whatever else sex is, then, it is essentially procreative.
Good Lord. I hate to be blunt, but there’s something wrong in each of these three paragraphs. Allow me to explain:
1: “Nature makes it very difficult to indulge in sex without procreation?” “It is very difficult to indulge in sexual arousal without getting pregnant?” If these are nature’s ends, she has done a remarkably poor job of carrying them out. Feser has six kids, so maybe he got lucky, but for many, even most couples, who want a baby, getting one the natural way can be a Herculean task. Even fertile couples have to have sex several times before the woman gets pregnant, and many other couples need fertility treatments, and on occasion even things like in-vitro fertilization, to overcome problems with either the husband’s sperm or the mother’s eggs or both. I’d wager more than a few husbands and wives WISHED it was “difficult” to have sex without getting pregnant!
And reproduction in “large numbers?” Please, most evolutionary biologists would call that absurd (according to the endnotes the source Feser relies on is Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, and Wright is a journalist, not a professional scientist). But anyways, one of the distinguishing characteristics of human beings, and many other large, intelligent mammals such as other apes, whales, or elephants, is that we can bear relatively few offspring over our lifetimes, which also require a great deal of care, as Feser noted. How many kids does Feser have, seven? Even large families have 10 or so kids, almost never much more than that; according to the Daily Mail the world’s largest family consists of 39 wives and 94 children. 94 sounds like a lot, but remember that animals like spiders and octopi often lay hundreds of eggs. If Mother Nature—or God, given how many words Feser has spent arguing that He directs everything to its Ends—intended us to procreate in large numbers, we would create little egg sacs containing hundreds of tiny children every time we reproduced. As it happens, however, the fact that we are apparently not meant to have that many offspring, but we are expected to bond with other humans to take care of them, would seem to tell us that “Nature” or “God” actually would expect us to use our abilities as Rational Animals to “foil” our “procreative faculties” occasionally. Using our assumedly God-given intelligence to figure out how to reproduce only when we want to would seem to be a good way of allowing a couple to bond (sexually) with each other without popping out more kids than they could care for, which would violate the Natural End of human reproduction as a limited, “quality over quantity” affair.
2: The “natural teleology” of sex directs us towards marriage (heterosexual and monogamous or otherwise)? Absolute nonsense! As historians and anthropologists who have actually studied the subject (like Stephanie Coontz) can tell you, human beings have existed for far longer than marriage has, at least in the sense Feser means of one man taking care of one woman and her children in return for “sexual fidelity.” Even aside from that, looking at the basic biological facts of men and women should make us very leery of any idea that God or anyone else “intends” monogamy. It’s “blindingly obvious” that women get pregnant and men don’t. In fact, it’s “blindingly obvious” that one man can get very many women pregnant at virtually no cost to himself. This is even apparent in the nature of sperm and eggs: Men produce literally trillions of sperm over the course of their lifetimes, while women produce only a few hundred (at most) egg cells. Therefore, it seems “blindingly obvious” the “Nature” and/or God intends for men to have harems, not be monogamous. As for the raising of children, well, I mentioned that in Aristotle’s Curse as well. To repeat what I said there, “many monks and nuns have run orphanages where children were raised—successfully—without the help of caretakers of the opposite sex. Widows and widowers have raised children on their own (I’ll say nothing about single parents; it seems likely Feser would consider them an augur of social decay).” It therefore seems less than absolutely certain monogamy has been ordained by some higher power for the sake of “the children.”
As another aside, to briefly address something exceptionally silly Feser said in his blog, the vagueness of Forms in regards to human beings and human institutions also means it’s quite unclear (to say the least) the marriage has any formal metaphysical definition, especially when we consider Feser’s distinction between “natural substances” and “artifacts.” Look at what he said here and see if you can figure out what’s wrong with it:
“Of course, I’m not trying to insinuate that “same-sex marriage” is as stupid as this – because in fact, it’s far more stupid. Consider: Who’s the bigger fool, the man who thinks two imaginary apples added to two real ones make four real apples, or the man who thinks two real apples and two further real ones make five apples? I’d say the latter – the former may be delusional, but at least he can add. Similarly, someone who wants to marry Lois Lane at least wants to do something that is logically possible – for Lois Lane might have existed, even though in fact she does not. But someone who wants to “marry” someone of the same sex wants to do something that is logically impossible, just as making two and two five is logically impossible.”
But there’s obviously nothing “logically impossible” about marrying someone of the same sex, because marriage is a human invention. Unlike, say, triangles or the laws of addition, whose “essences” we discovered, marriage is something we simply made up, just like we made up phoenixes or orcs. At most, it’s an “artifact” of sorts—something we created to perform a certain function, the way computers or coffee machines do things for us, but not something that reflects a deeper reality or has any “immanence,” “self-perfection,” or even existence in and of itself (that is to say, a “natural substance”). And Feser can’t say men and women seem to be “directed towards” monogamous marriage, because the design of the human male seems to be “directed towards” polygamy and impregnating tons of women.
Thus, we might have come up with the institution of marriage to help us ensure paternity, but since we did come up with it and didn’t “discover” it, we can re-define it as we like, so there’s nothing at all “logically impossible” in redefining it to encompass two men, or two women, or a man and his computer game, or whatever. We can certainly debate the prudence of such actions—it strikes me as sillier to marry people who don’t exist than it does to marry people who do, even of the same gender—but you can’t really form a metaphysical argument for or against them unless you toss out the artifact/”natural substance” distinction.
3: The whole digression about the shape of the penis and vagina is just laughable. “The organs fit together like lock and key?” Considering the incredible variety of girths and lengths penises come in, it sure doesn’t seem like any locksmith spent much time standardizing those “keys.” The vagina gets lubricated for the sake of penetration? When experiments were done, they found women’s vaginas got lubricated for an extremely wide range of stimuli, not just (in fact, not at all for) naked men. I mean, yeah, sure, the organs can fit together, but that doesn’t necessarily entail that they should only fit together to the exclusion of anything else, or even at all, actually. This really goes to demonstrate what I was talking about in distinguishing between essence and end. It’s just about impossible to discern what something is “for” if the only thing you look at is what it looks like and what it seems to do.
But really, if all that wasn’t enough, the existence of wet dreams (technically called nocturnal emissions) ought to pop a hole in all of this—Feser doesn’t mention them once in any of his books or writings I’ve read, and searching for the terms on his blog doesn’t give any results, so while I hope he’s aware they exist, I’m kinda not betting on it. But anyways, I also mentioned them in passing in Aristotle’s Curse, and a more, uh, involved analysis of what they are can help us see how Feser’s gotten the “final cause” of our sexual faculties completely wrong.
As I wryly noted previously, wet dreams are a common occurrence for most young men, yet they have absolutely no procreative or unitive aspect to them, “you ‘bond’ with nothing but your bedsheets,” were my words. Yet God clearly intended us to have them, or else they wouldn’t be common—they are clearly not a defect. Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that ejaculation, which Feser above has insisted “naturally ends” for the sole purpose of getting sperm cells to egg cells, with pleasure only being a means to that end, has a legitimate natural purpose outside of that single end. It seems reasonable to conclude that Nature intends for us to ejaculate regularly, whether or not we ejaculate in a vagina. It doesn’t matter how ferociously you guard your chastity, you’ll violate the supposed “final cause” of your penis when you’re sleeping after enough time has passed, even if it’s supposed to “fit” inside of a vagina or whatever.
This means, of course, that masturbation, or gay sex, or fornication, or even bestiality (it disgusts me to say that, but I do have to be logically consistent—we will see, however, that bestiality is qualitatively different from gay sex on practical grounds) are not necessarily bad, even if we accept the idea that it is “always wrong to use a faculty in a way contrary to its end as dictated by nature and/or God.” While procreation may be one end of ejaculation, the male’s “sexual faculties,” it is obviously not the only end, and indeed will be carried out, totally unconsciously and on its own, even when there’s absolutely zero chance of procreation taking place.
A brief aside: Why would “pointless” ejaculation during wet dreams happen, from an evolutionary perspective? I’m hardly an expert, but someone on Reddit has some plausible answers:
“The best theory at the moment is that it empties out your prostate so a new fresh batch of sperm and semen can come into being. Sperm doesn’t live very long and semen doesn’t support sperm much longer either, so by removing the old and replacing it with a new “batch” is our best understanding as to why. However, I should note that sperm and semen are constantly made, not just when you’re aroused. Another idea is that wet dreams keep the muscles and nervous systems involved in ejaculation fully operating and prevent them from becoming weak with non-use. And also as a trigger to associate the area with pleasure for first-time users. Of course, it could be a combination of all of these.”
Thus, it seems to me that masturbation, or even gay sex, can easily be justified. Human males need to ejaculate on a regular basis to ensure the health of our faculties, if we didn’t, the quality of our sperm would degrade and the muscles involved in ejaculation would atrophy. So why not take control of it ourselves? Masturbation is not only fun, but it’s also more convenient than waking up in the morning feeling both disappointed (man, I wish that dream was real) and, well, yucky. Of course, excessive masturbation, or masturbating to sick stuff, is bad from both an Aristotelian perspective and (a more reasonable) consequentialist perspective (as it reduces your ability to have sex, which is even more fun). But this also applies to exercise; exercise too much or wrongly and you’ll hurt yourself rather than grow stronger. The blanket Thomistic condemnation of masturbation thus strikes me as no more reasonable than a sex-addict’s blanket worship of it. As in many things, moderation and a sensible middle ground is to be preferred.
This alone would devastate the “traditional Catholic” position on non-procreative sex, but let’s continue, since Feser does. He tells us,
“our rationality raises our animality to a higher level without in any way negating it…A human visual experience is a seamless unity of the rational and the animal; that we (unlike non-human animals) conceptualize what we receive through sensation does not make a perception less than sensory, even if it makes it more than merely sensory. Similarly…A human sexual act is a seamless unity of both the procreative and the unitive, directed at the same time toward both biological generation and emotional communion. Hence there is no such thing as a sexual act which of its nature is merely unitive and in no way procreative.”
But, as we have just seen, a wet dream is precisely such a “sexual act” which occurs on a very regular basis yet which does not have a unitive or a procreative aspect. If Nature and/or God ordains a sexual act that has neither of those aspects, I very much doubt an act with just one of them would be so bad. Thus, gay sex isn’t necessarily ruled out either, though the fact that animals can’t consent in any meaningful, conscious way should probably rule out bestiality. And if you want to wax eloquent about our rationality “raising” our animal nature, the use of contraception just might fit that bill—Nature obviously intends for us to have smaller numbers of well-cared for children rather than masses of them, so using contraception would be exercising our rational faculties in an effort to fulfill Nature’s will even more perfectly.
This also gives us a reply to Feser’s statement that “[w]ithout either the unitive or procreative ends there would be no reason for nature to make sex pleasurable.” But once again, the fact that ejaculation has health benefits would be one reason nature would make it pleasurable, not just for the sake of procreation. If ejaculating is fun, men will be encouraged to do it, and therefore maintain the muscles involved and the health of their sperm, in a similar way playing sports is fun because it gets us to exercise and keeps us fit. Thus, we once again arrive at the conclusion that procreation is not the only end of our sexual faculties, and it is therefore acceptable to use it for things other than procreating.
The “other than” is very important—in fact, a crucial distinction Feser himself acknowledges when he discusses the logical formulation of his moral theory. Here it is:
“Where some faculty F is natural to a rational agent A and by nature exists for the sake of some end E (and exists in A precisely so that A might pursue E) then it is metaphysically impossible for it to be good for A to use F in a manner contrary to E.”
Obviously, F is our sexual faculties, A is us, and E is the Natural End, which as we’ve seen, Feser takes to be procreation. But even though we’ve already demonstrated that the big E is not necessarily procreation, let’s be generous and go with this definition for the moment. Notice that Feser said “contrary to” rather than “other than” procreation, as I did above. This is because he realizes that his formulation would prohibit everything from earplugs to chewing gum to walking on one’s hands if he condemned everything any given body part or “faculty” could do aside from anything that would obviously be its “end.” To avoid the humiliation, Feser pleads,
“the premise does not entail that a faculty F cannot have more than one natural end, and neither does it entail that it cannot be good for A to use F for an end other than E.For ‘different from E’ and ‘other than E’ do not entail ‘contrary to E. Nor does it entail that we have to use F at all…The premise says only that if A is actually going to use F, then even if he uses it for some reason other than E, it cannot be good for him to use it for the sake of actively frustrating he realization of E…Hence examples like chewing gum (which is merely other than, rather than contrary to, the natural end of our digestive faculties)…simply miss the point of the argument.”
Uh-huh. However, this premise would still seem to let homosexuality, some forms of masturbation, and maybe even bestiality off the hook.
The key word is “actively frustrating.” It seems to me that intent is an important factor in (Feser’s assessment of) the morality of sexual activity. Just a bit later he says that sex while the wife is pregnant, or when one or both spouses are infertile, is OK, because “[f]oreseeing that a certain sexual act will in fact not result in conception is not the same thing as actively altering the relevant organs [gunlord note: i.e attaching a condom or diaphragm to one of them] or the nature of the act [gunlord note: gay sex, masturbation, bestiality, etc.] in a way that would make it impossible for them to lead to conception even if they were in good working order.”
But what if a man having sex with a condom, or having sex with another man, does not actively intend for the act to fail to produce a pregnancy? Take the example of one spouse contracting an STD—they may want children, but realize they can’t pass the disease down, so they have sex with condoms to prevent further transmission of it. However, they would have kids if they could, so even though they “foresee” that the act of prophylactic sex is infertile, that’s just an unhappy side effect of protecting themselves.
And gay guys aren’t consciously trying to “not have babies” whenever they give each other BJs or buttsex or whatever. They may obviously foresee that their sex acts won’t lead to procreation, but that’s just an unfortunate side effect rather than an actively intended outcome of their actions—if there was some way to get other men pregnant, many gay guys would take it. Since they aren’t consciously intending to “not have babies” by simple dint of being gay, they’re not “actively” trying to frustrate their “function.” Same applies to masturbation—if someone has to be away from his wife for a long time and jerks off to the thought of her so he doesn’t end up cheating, he’s not “actively trying to frustrate” the procreative nature of his ejaculatory process, even if he can “foresee” it won’t amount to anything. Any failure is just an unfortunate side effect of his wife not being there with him.
Finally—and this is gonna be my favorite part of this section—using and refining the semi-formal syllogism Feser gave us, I can prove through logic (not empiricism) that masturbation, contraception, and homosexuality are technically not “bad” under an Aristotelian/Thomistic framework. I told you this part of the essay was going to be serious, not just kidding around! Let’s begin.
Feser’s semi-formal syllogism above can be further simplified, for our purposes, to this:
“If a faculty F (in this case our sexual Faculties) exists for End E (opposite-sex unity and procreation), it is wrong to use it in a manner contrary to E.
However, from what Feser said above, he would probably agree with this:
“If a faculty F exists for End E, it is morally neutral to use it in a manner that is merely other than/different from E.”
So now we come to the question: What, precisely, distinguishes “other than” or “different” from “contrary to?”
Feser himself isn’t very clear about this, one could easily argue his examples of earplugs and chewing gum could go either way. Footnote 11, where he attempts to defend the morality of blowjobs and handjobs, is particularly amusing. He laments that one “objection holds that the mouth is not a proper receptacle for sexual organs,” and responds by saying “this is like objecting to passionate marital kissing on the grounds that the mouth was made for food and is not the proper receptacle for someone else’s lips, tongue, or saliva. In neither case is the natural function of the relevant organs being frustrated.” Really? Why not? You can’t use your mouth at the same time you’re “passionately kissing,” and moving your mouth is an act you consciously start, meaning you’re not allowed to move your mouth yet intend to “frustrate” its purpose for either eating or talking. This is, after all, why he claims we can’t “start” a process that will end with ejaculation unless we know the ejaculate will end up in a vagina. He then points out that claiming oral sex is “intuitively obviously objectionably undignified” is “hard to distinguish from a sheer appeal to one’s subjective prejudices, which is no argument at all.” Of course, to say that it’s “intuitively obvious” the penis is “meant” to go into the vagina, and only one vagina at that, seems equally unfounded. After all, I’ve already demonstrated that penises don’t seem to fit into vaginas generally any better than they can fit into plenty of other things, and the fact they ejaculate so much sperm isn’t making anyone think men were made for “one wife.” I hate to say it, since Feser is the (comparably) sensible one here, but he’s not getting the best of his foes when it comes to determining what’s proper or not.
It would be nice if, in responding to these silly moralists, Feser got some idea of how silly Aristotelian ethics look to everyone else, but I’m not betting on that. We have no choice but to continue our efforts to distinguish “other than” from “contrary to,” and Feser himself doesn’t seem to be much help. Fortunately, from what he has said here and elsewhere, we can make a very educated guess that’s probably close to the truth.
In TLS, he says that holding some carpentry nails in one’s teeth would not frustrate the “chewing functions” of one’s mouth, but vomiting up food so as not to gain weight would. So, what can we learn from this? It seems that Feser thinks using a faculty as the exact opposite of its End is the actual bad thing. Put simply, food is made to go in the mouth, but vomiting sends it out. In and out are exact opposites. On the other hand, holding nails in one’s mouth is just that—simply holding them. Even though you’re not using the mouth to put stuff in your body, you’re just using it to hold something, and holding is not the opposite of in; the concepts have no particular relationship. In fact, we could say that “holding” is “not-putting-in” or just “un-putting-in,” while vomiting is more severe—it’s “putting-out,” which would be anti-putting-in, or opposite-putting in. This would be what Feser means by “contrary to.”
Thus, we can further simplify Feser’s syllogism:
“If a faculty F (in this case our sexual Faculties) exists for End E (opposite-sex unity and procreation), it is wrong to use it in a manner that is anti-E, or the opposite of E.
However, from what Feser said above, he would probably agree with this:
“If a faculty F exists for End E, it is morally neutral to use it in a manner that is merely not-E, non-E, or un-E.”
In regards to procreation, we would therefore conclude that it is wrong to use our sexual faculties for an anti-procreative purpose, or for the opposite of procreation, while it’s OK to use them for a merely non or un-procreative purpose.
So, what would “anti-procreative” be? Procreation means “giving life,” right? “Birthing” or “creating.” Anti-procreative, or the opposite of procreation, would be destruction—taking away life, giving death, or actively killing.
And when we understand this, it becomes apparent that masturbation, contraceptive sex, and sodomy are merely non or not-procreative, rather than anti-procreative (deadly). It is obvious that while masturbation and sodomy may not result in life, they do not in and of themselves take it away either. And while contraception might prevent a new life from being generated, to prevent life from forming is a different thing from actively destroying life—prevention and destruction are not synonyms, therefore prevention is not the antonym, or opposite, of procreation. Therefore, sodomy, masturbation, and contraception are, under an Aristotelian ethical framework, morally neutral. It seems to me these things are not, in and of themselves, any more “anti-procreative” or “anti-unitive” than, for instance, regular, common wet dreams. The semen ends up on Kleenex, in rubber, or inside of some gay guy rather than bedsheets, but none of those locations is any more or less “open to life” than said bedsheets. Similarly, contraceptive sex is no barrier at all to male-female unity, masturbation can contribute to that unity if the man thinks of his wife, and gays and lesbians don’t have a capacity for “opposite sex” unity anyways if we assume (as is reasonable) they were born gay for whatever reason.
As an aside, you’ll notice thus far that I’ve been discussing homosexual men, not lesbians. This is because lesbians are more or less immune from all this silliness about “frustrating ends,” despite Feser likely loathing them—er, “pitying them for being defective” too. Unlike male orgasms, which always have a “procreative” component, women can orgasm whether or not they get pregnant, and they can very often get pregnant without orgasming. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that a woman’s “sexual faculties” (in the sense of her ability to orgasm, as opposed to her, um, uterine and ovarian faculties specifically) are not as “obviously” geared towards procreation as the man’s penis, and therefore it’s less wrong, and perhaps not wrong at all, for her to “frustrate” them by masturbating with a dildo, allowing a lesbian lover to finger her, and so on, and so forth.
So anyways, back to the main topic, we are led to the question: what would constitute anti-procreative sex? Well, if the “final cause” of sex is to create life, the opposite of that would be to create death. So sex that results in death or physical harm would be “anti-procreative” and thus what Aristotle would condemn. Unsafe sex the spread STDs which lead to death would also obviously be morally bad. But contraception and masturbation, harmless as they are, obviously wouldn’t, and gay sex between two people who were un-infected by any disease would be fine, and not “evil” compared to heterosexual sex, since straight folks can get and pass STDs as well.
This, by the by, is why bestiality wouldn’t be justified. It’s often dangerous to either the animal (for small creatures) or the human, there are news stories about people getting killed by horses that way. So, I’ll have to disappoint anyone expecting me to go full libertine, that’s one philosophical bullet I don’t think I have to bite.
Anyways, back to more wholesome (relatively) subjects. At long last, my friends, we’re almost at the end of this gargantuan review! In what remains of this section, I’ll just deal with a few of Feser’s objections to objections, in the next I’ll address some of the things his friends have said, and then I’ll conclude.
For Feser, “acting contrary” to the End of a faculty isn’t the only way one can misuse it; “actively frustrating” it is just as bad: “contraception, homosexual acts, and the like do involve the use of a faculty but precisely in a way the actively frustrates the natural ends of such use rather than facilitating the realization of those ends.” But, I can repeat myself here: Ejaculation apparently keeps sperm and penile muscle quality up, so masturbation can be seen as a more convenient form of exercise, it’s plausible that gay people have a different Form than straight people and thus different Ends for their sexual faculties, and contraception, while most obviously “frustrating” the purpose of procreation, can uphold its larger purpose in ensuring fewer children with better life chances are born. In none of these cases is it necessarily true that individual acts of “intentional” non-procreative ejaculation necessarily frustrate the cause of our sexual faculties as a whole.
It’s even harder to argue Feser’s position if you take wet dreams as being part of our sexual faculties, which they obviously seem to be. If it is wrong to frustrate something’s cause intentionally, we should conclude that it is merely less wrong to frustrate it unintentionally—not that there is no wrong at all. After all, someone who drives a car over someone else with the intent to kill them is guilty of murder, while someone who does the same while under the influence, or just because they’re a bad driver, is guilty of negligent manslaughter. Therefore, Feser must admit that wet dreams, as “unintentional” frustrations of the Procreative End, are wrong. If he does not, there is little reason to assume intentional frustrations of it are wrong, or at least significantly wrong, either.
Second, Feser draws a distinction between “an individual deliberate act of using a bodily faculty and an ongoing and involuntary physiological process.” In his view, using antiperspirants or cutting one’s hair is not a frustration of the natural function of sweat or hair growth, since those things happen constantly and individual instances of foiling them don’t “frustrate” them permanently. “By contrast, the process that begins with sexual arousal and ends with ejaculation within the vagina is episodic rather than ongoing, and its outcome, which is a specific event, is frustrated by masturbation, contraception, and the like.”
But, once again, we come to the topic of wet dreams—a wet dream is a “specific event” that doesn’t happen constantly (we don’t go around ejaculating the way we perspire, obviously), even if it’s not a deliberate act. If nature “intended” us to ejaculate only when vaginas are present, we wouldn’t have those dreams. Thus, it seems that “individual deliberate sexual acts which don’t result in procreation” are either not wrong or not much more wrong than “individual un-deliberate acts which don’t result in procreation.”
Finally, Feser tosses us anti-Aristotelians a bone: “A genuine counterexample to the perverted faculty argument’s key premise would have to involve an action that both involved the active frustration of the natural end of a faculty and yet which was in no way contrary to what is good for us, not even in a minor respect. I submit that there are no such counterexamples, and that there could not be any given an Aristotelian-Thomistics metaphysics of the good.”
Yeah? I can think of one real quickly: Providing semen samples for doctors to test. On many occasions hospitals will need to look at your sperm to determine your health. For the most part this is done to gauge fertility—they’ll see how quickly your little guys swim, whether they’re well-shaped or malformed, etc—but semen can also be used to diagnose several very serious health problems, like prostate cancer:
Needless to say, the process of acquiring these samples “frustrates their end,” as Feser would say. You have to masturbate into a cup or do coitus interruptus and ejaculate elsewhere; they can’t just take some fluid out of a vagina you’ve “properly” ejaculated in because that would lead to impurities in the sample. Thus, the only way to get a proper sample is “frustrating the final cause of ejaculation.” And since this is obviously “in no way contrary to what is good for us,” (diagnosing infertility will get it cured, “restoring” the sexual faculty, while diagnosing cancer will let you live longer) it seems I’ve found just the counterexample Dr. Feser is looking for.
But hey, if he would prefer a misdiagnosis for prostate cancer just because Aristotle might disapprove, he can be my guest. His funeral, not mine.
And that covers it for the bulk of the “Perverted Faculty Argument”—Feser responded to some other objections, but the ones I covered seemed to me the most important, and the conclusion of his essay is directed towards other Catholics, so it wasn’t my business. Let’s move on to…
Part 4.4: Egregiously Applied Ethics: Praying the Gay Away, With Friends!
This’ll be quick. As I promised at the beginning of this essay, I’ll go through a few other papers or comments I found defending Feser’s ethics, and explain my responses to them.
The author here addresses the argument that frustration of our “procreative ends,” to a degree, may be ethical to avoid overpopulation, which would obviously entail the destruction of our species as a whole. In this Thomist’s view, ”the irony of arguing that we have to frustrate the very thing that allows for our continuance as a species in order to ensure it is not lost on anyone.”
Well, life is full of ironies, isn’t it? But in this case, “frustrating our reproductive purposes to ensure our long-term survival” doesn’t seem to be that hard to understand. Earplugs, for instance, obviously frustrate the “final cause” of our ears. Would Thomists find it perplexing we must “frustrate the very things that allow us to hear” to preserve our sense of hearing entirely?
Assumedly not, and this is a great opportunity to segue to what Feser said about earplugs in PFA, which I only touched on. He says they’re okay because “though artificial [they] facilitate the realization of our natural ends insofar as they protect the ears from excessive noise, facilitate sleep, etc.” Yet it seems to me this misses the point of the example entirely. Earplugs work by frustrating the final cause of the ears. Ears are obviously (far more obviously than penises) made for hearing, yet earplugs prevent you from hearing significantly, or in some cases entirely. Thus, if Aristotelian ethics say “it is always wrong to frustrate the Natural End of any organ,” it must be wrong to use earplugs, because that prevents ears from hearing and therefore frustrates their Natural End.
But Feser says earplugs are okay, even though they prevent you from hearing, because they facilitate the final causes of the organism as a whole even if they frustrate the final causes of one particular part of it. It’s “morally licit” to use earplugs at, say, the firing range, because frustrating your hearing temporarily will keep you from going deaf, which would be a permanent frustration of the Final Causes/Natural Ends of your ears. It’s also acceptable to use earplugs to help you sleep, since frustrating their Natural Ends for a night is justified if in service to the more important end of overall survival, which necessitates getting enough rest.
Alas, the exact same arguments would justify the use of condoms. If it’s okay to temporarily frustrate our hearing faculties to preserve them in the long term or ensure our overall health, why is it not okay to temporarily frustrate our sexual faculties to either preserve them or ensure our overall health? Remember, even if one “sexual act” is frustrated in its Natural End of procreation, you can just take the condom off the next time you have sex, much like even if the “natural end” of your ears is frustrated when you put earplugs in at bedtime, you can just take them out when you wake up.
Similarly, preserving the health of a relationship itself, as a whole, can justify the use of condoms. To take the example of a couple who already has many children (Feser uses a Mormon husband as his example), if they already have as many kids as they can deal with, using condoms after the birth of the last one would allow them to stay connected as a couple without having any more “happy surprises” that would impinge on the security of their remaining brood. Feser would say they should just practice chastity rather than use condoms, but that would place stress on their marriage, as sex is one of the most important bonds between husband and wife, even if not the only one. A “chaste” marriage would likely see either the husband or wife, or both, getting very frustrated and thus less able to take care of their kids. But if they kept having sex while “open to life,” they’d eventually have more children which would stretch their resources past the breaking point and wreck their family. But if they use condoms, they can have all the unitive sex they want without the risk of acquiring more kids than they can handle. Thus, it seems acceptable to frustrate the “natural end” of the sexual faculties in order to facilitate the higher end of preserving the bonds between husband and wife and the financial stability of the family as a whole.
Next, we have some points raised by some of the people in Feser’s endnotes. Let’s see what Steven Jensen has to say about sex and earplugs in Good and Evil Actions: A Journey through Saint Thomas Aquinas:
“Given this analysis of a voluntary error, it becomes clear why Grisez’s example of earplugs is irrelevant (section 6.1.1). we do not choose to engage the power of hearing as a means to achieve some goal. Rather, the power of hearing is passive, always receptive, and earplugs merely reduce this receptivity. There is no question of attempting to use the power of hearing for some contrary purpose that excludes the order to hearing. indeed, the power of hearing is not voluntarily engaged at all, and the order to its end is in no way seen as useful under the circumstances. not every instance of inhibiting some natural function, therefore, counts as a voluntary error. we must voluntarily use some power that directs to some end Teleology or some material, but we divert that power to some other end or material. We do not usually choose to hear (it merely happens), and by using earplugs we do not direct the power of hearing to some other end or some material, but we divert that power to some other end or material. we do not usually choose to hear (it merely happens), and by using earplugs we do not direct the power of hearing to some other end.”
I’ve already gone over the problems we’ve had with defining “contrary,” to some End rather than just not or other than, so I won’t repeat it here. However, reading Jensen’s account, it also makes me wonder if our “sexual faculties” are better thought of as ongoing processes themselves. Remember, our testes don’t just start producing sperm when we will it, they do so constantly and mindlessly. And while “unused” sperm just gets absorbed back into the human body, it does seem that it’s healthy, possibly even necessary, to get it out on a regular basis, as the existence of wet dreams attests.
Thus, masturbation, homosexual sex, and contraception seem less “wrong” on this account, because any individual sex act isn’t a sex act on its own, but rather the culmination of a process (the unconscious production of sperm and related materials). Thus, foiling any individual sex act doesn’t foil the larger unconscious process of gamete production, just like stopping yourself from hearing for a brief period doesn’t stop your unconscious process of hearing as a whole.
I’ll end with the most interesting defense of natural law sexual ethics I’ve come across so far, from Gerard Bradley and Robert George’s essay “Marriage and the Liberal Imagination:”
“Chewing gum, rocking in a chair, and taking a walk are examples of “innocent pleasures.” The pleasure they provide is effortlessly integrated with larger projects (such as concentrated thinking), and for most people these activities present no hazard to any aspect of the person’s well-being. (Chewing or smoking tobacco, by contrast, presents a different sort of case, not because these activities are disintegrative, but rather because they may imperil physical health.) The important point is that in the activity of chewing gum, no existential separation of the bodily self and the consciously experiencing self is typically effected. In that activity, the body is not typically commandeered into the service of a project that is fully and accurately described (and, thus, morally specified) as producing pleasure, whether as an end in itself or as means to other ends.”
For these two, it seems that sex is particularly problematic because it involves a sort of “high,” a disassociation of mind and body (you literally forget about everything else when having sex). Yet many leisure activities also involve this disassociation. If you go to a theme park, for instance, you’ll achieve such a “disassociative high” when riding a roller coaster, since the sheer speed and sensation of the ride prevents you from thinking about anything else. If you watch a very scary horror movie, you’re “disconnected” from your rationality because you’re so absorbed in it that you think the monster or whatever is actually in the theater with you (that’s why you jump when something scary happens even though you “rationally” know you’re safe). If sex and/or drugs are bad because they disassociate you from your reason, these things would have to be bad as well. But I doubt George and Bradley would say so.
And, well, that pretty much wraps up this essay for me. Finally!
I’ve been pretty hard on Aquinas, Aristotle, and all those other guys, so I suppose it’d be unjust not to provide my own alternatives to their metaphysics and ethics. Alas, at over 55,000 words, this essay is long enough as it is and I’m at the end of my patience with philosophy for at least a month. Honestly, however, I think I’ve dropped enough hints of alternatives, ranging from my little pictures of potentiality and actuality to my defense of social contract theory, to satisfy most of my readers.
Alas, I doubt it would quite satisfy Feser, in the unlikely prospect he ever reads all this (I’m just some guy with a blog while he’s a tenured professor), nor would it satisfy his Aristotelian comrades, in all likelihood. I’ve yet to really master the art of philosophy the same way folks with Ph.Ds have, though I think I am getting better at it, slowly and surely.
So then, you may be wondering, dear reader: Why did your ol’ Gunlord spend nearly a month and nearly 60,000 words on this subject? Was it all just useless, and a waste of time?
Nah. First, it was fun for me. You may find it weird that someone would write what is nearly a dissertation just for fun, but hey, I’m a weird guy. 😛
Second, I’d wager someone will come across this sooner or later. Maybe through a link from Reddit, maybe after a search for “Perverted Faculty Argument.” Given that I take a dim view of homophobia these days (I’ll write a piece about that later), if all these words can (even if in the smallest way) aid gay folks in their struggle for a better life, wherever they may be, I’ll be happy. And if this long essay gives even one person, gay or straight, religious or atheist, some food for thought—perhaps even a tiny bit of ammunition in a fight against one of Aquinas’s disciples, or a bit of doubt about Aristotle’s ethics—then I’ll be satisfied. Taking even the slightest bit of “sting” out of Aquinas’s “challenge to modernity” will be enough for me.
And, of course, it’ll be enough for this week. More than enough, in fact…I’m exhausted! But no rest for me…I’ll have to start preparing for my trip back to New Haven to meet with my advisors on October 12. That’s coming up soon, so I’ll be busy busy…ugh. The work of a Gunlord is never done…
 Edward Feser, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford, England: Oneworld Books, 2011), 2. Hereafter this shall be cited as Beginner’s Guide.
 Beginner’s Guide, 9-11, The Last Superstition (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), 53-54. Hereafter it will be cited as TLS.
 Your Favorite Gunlord, “Aristotle’s Curse: An Extremely Lengthy Review of Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition,” at https://gunlord500.wordpress.com/2016/06/14/a-little-late-but-not-too-late-my-book-review-of-edward-fesers-the-last-superstition/#_ftn11 and Aaron Boyden, “Feser Chapter 5,” at http://protagoras.typepad.com/adrift_on_neuraths_boat/2011/10/feser-chapter-5.html, both accessed 9/10/2016. Hereafter my blog entry will be cited as Aristotle’s Curse.
 TLS, 128.
 Beginner’s Guide, 11. Feser reminds us that when Aquinas says “move,” he’s actually referring to what we know as any kind of change. Going from solid to gooey would be “movement” for him, not just moving from place to place, so you should read his principle as “anything that is changed has to be changed by something else.”
 Beginner’s Guide, 13-16.
 Ibid., 24, 24-26.
 TLS, 41-42.
 Ibid., 42-46.
 Arithomoquine, “Universals and an Argument for the Existence of God: More on Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition, an Unpublishable Review, part 2,” published at The Unpublishable Philosopher (blog), Friday, July 07, 2012, at http://currentlogic.blogspot.com/2012/07/universals-and-argument-for-existence.html, last accessed on September 29, 2016.
 Originally quoted from Aristotle’s Curse; the citations in the original were from TLS, 32-36, and Boyden, “Feser Chapter 5.”
 David S. Oderberg, Real Essentialism, (Routledge, 2008), 54-55.
 Ibid., 54-55.
 Ibid., 56.
 Real Essentialism, 58-61.
 Ibid., 205.
 Ibid, 231.
 Real Essentialism, 20.
 Beginner’s Guide, 29.
 TLS, 34.
 Edward Feser, “In Defense of the Perverted Faculty Argument” in Neo-Scholastic Essays (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2015), 379. This will be subsequently referred to as PFA in the last section about ethics.
 Beginner’s Guide, 135-137.
 Real Essentialism, 44.
 David S. Oderberg, “Animals – The need for a new Catholicism” in New Blackfriars (Volume 70, Issue 827, May 1989), 245–248, accessed at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-2005.1989.tb04672.x/abstract;jsessionid=A27C3A3D4D29E3FD252B7B3867495484.f03t03
 Edward Feser, “The Metaphysics of Monk,” August 31, 2010, http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/08/metaphysics-of-monk.html
 Real Essentialism, 33-34.
 Ibid, xii.
 Ibid, 33.
 Ibid., xii.
 Beginner’s Guide, 43.
 Ibid., 39-40.
 John Lawlers Amazon Review of The Last Superstition.
 Beginner’s Guide, 16.
 Ibid., 17-19.
 Ibid., 17-18.
 My response to a comment from giorgiouscholarous, June 15, 2016, https://gunlord500.wordpress.com/2016/06/14/a-little-late-but-not-too-late-my-book-review-of-edward-fesers-the-last-superstition/#comment-790
 Etienne Benson, “The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States” in the Journal of American History (2013) 100 (3): 691-710. doi: 10.1093/jahist/jat353
 TLS, 136.
 Ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 33-34.
 Real Essentialism, 68.
 Beginner’s Guide, 23.
 Beginner’s Guide, 65-66.
 Ibid, 66.
 The Last Superstition, 96-97, Beginner’s Guide, 75.
 Beginner’s Guide, 77.
 Ibid., 81.
 Beginner’s Guide, 84-85.
 Beginner’s Guide, 85.
 Beginner’s Guide, 90-95.
 Ibid., 95-96.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 102-103.
 Ibid., 105-106.
 Ibid, 110.
 Beginner’s Guide, 28-29, 31.
 Edward Feser, “Oerter on Inertial Motion and Angels,” posted on January 7, 2013, http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2013/01/oerter-on-inertial-motion-and-angels.html, accessed on September 29, 2016.
 H. Pope, “Angels” originally found In The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907). Retrieved September 24, 2016 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01476d.htm
 The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Second and Revised Edition, 1920, Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Online Edition Copyright © 2008 by Kevin Knight
 Beginner’s Guide, 153-155.
 Ibid., 157.
 Beginner’s Guide, 149-150.
 Edward Feser, “Are you for real?” published on May 8, 2011, at http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/05/are-you-for-real.html and accessed on September 29, 2016.
 Edward Feser, “Zombies: A Shopper’s Guide,” published on December 19, 2013, accessed at http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2013/12/zombies-shoppers-guide.html on September 29, 2016.
 Beginner’s Guide, 175-179.
 TLS, 215.
 Edward Feser, reply to Aaron Boyden at What’s Wrong with the World, accessed at http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2010/01/an_offer_you_must_refuse.html on September 29, 2016.
 Beginner’s Guide, 181.
 Ibid., 142-143.
 Edward Feser, “Trinity and Mystery,” February 10, 2010, last accessed at http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/02/trinity-and-mystery.html September 24, 2016.
 TLS, 154-161.
 Edward Feser, “Signature in the Cell?” published on July 26, 2014, on edwardfeser.blogspot.com, accessed at http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2014/07/signature-in-cell.html on September 29, 2016.
 TLS, 161-162.
 Aaron Boyden, “Feser Chapter 5,” published on October 21, 2011 at http://protagoras.typepad.com/adrift_on_neuraths_boat/2011/10/feser-chapter-5.html
 Beginner’s Guide, 34-35.
 Beginner’s Guide, 183-185.
 William Lane Craig, “Slaughter of the Canaanites” on Reasonable Faith, published on August 6, 2007 at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites#ixzz4LBPtPXys, accessed at September 29, 2016.
 TLS, 167-170, Beginner’s Guide, 182-183.
 Beginner’s Guide, 138-141, TLS, 128-129.
 TLS, 203.
 Ibid, 145
 Edward Feser, “Why Allow Abortion but Not ‘Same-Sex Marriage?’” on November 6, 2008 at https://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2008/11/why-allow-abortion-but-not-same-sex.html on September 24, 2016.
 TLS, 224.
 Beginner’s Guide, 186.
 PFA, 380.
 Ibid., 381.
 PFA, 382.
 Ibid., 383-385.
 PFA, 399-400.
 Ibid., 387, 389.
 Ibid, 387-391.
 Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (Penguin Books, 2006), 35-40. Coontz points out that archeaologists, anthropologists, and historians have found that early human male hunters shared their food and resources with their entire tribe, which back then would have been small communities. Only when human beings moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture did the accumulation of private property become practical, and thus the idea of providing for one’s own family to the exclusion of anyone else’s become plausible.
 Edward Feser, “Almost as stupid as ‘same-sex marriage,’” published at What’s Wrong with the World, on November 3, 2008, accessed at http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2008/11/almost_as_stupid_as_samesex_ma.html on September 29, 2016.
 Anna Pulley, “7 Weird Things that Turn Women On,” published on Salon on January 5, 2015,, accessed at http://www.salon.com/2015/01/05/7_weird_things_that_turn_women_on_partner/ on September 29, 2016.
 PFA, 395.
 PFA, 398.
 Ibid., 399, 406.
 Ibid, 400.
 Ibid., 402.
 TLS, 148.
 PFA, 405.
 Ibid, 407.
 Ibid, 409.
 James Chastek, “Analogous to the Vestigial,” published on April 16, 2015 at Just Thomism, accessed at https://thomism.wordpress.com/2015/04/16/analogous-to-the-vestigial/ on September 29, 2016.
 PFA, 406.
 PFA, 397.
 Jensen, Steven J. Good and Evil Actions: A Journey through Saint Thomas Aquinas. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed September 23, 2016). 245-246.
 Bradley, Gerard V. and George, Robert P., “Marriage and the Liberal Imagination” (1995). Scholarly Works. Paper 878. http://scholarship.law.nd.edu/law_faculty_scholarship/878
 Beginner’s Guide, 192.