Review of Edward Feser’s Review of Stephen Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now”

Something new and exciting, brothers and sisters. Inspired by some new friends I’ve made on twitter, I thought I might start making Youtube vids! What follows is a transcript for this video:

 

It’s very bad form to insult or deny the importance of science these days. Given that pretty much everybody loves their computers, cars, modern medicine, and so on, it seems almost suicidal to dismiss the science which made those things possible. Thus, whenever someone’s beliefs seem to conflict with science, they’ll rarely claim that science itself is wrong or misguided. Instead, they’ll try to come up with some rationalization as to why their curious ideologies are actually compatible with science, or even foundational to it! We can see an example of this strategy in Edward Feser’s recent review of Stephen Pinker’s recent book, “Enlightenment Now.” The review, titled “Endarkenment Later,” can be seen here:

https://www.claremont.org/crb/article/endarkenment-later/

According to Feser, Pinker holds that one of the greatest accomplishments of the Enlightenment was abandoning the notion of “final causality,” which enabled the voluminous scientific progress we’ve seen since the eighteenth century. Feser believes this is wrong, and that abandoning final causality was actually a huge step back in the progress of philosophy and understanding the natural world. The purpose of this essay–a review of Feser’s review, so to speak–is to critically examine these claims. After explaining what Feser means by final causality, I will demonstrate that Pinker himself, at least in Enlightenment Now, does not actually assert that all forms of final causality had to be abandoned for the sake of science-in other words, Feser was attacking a false target (if not really a strawman). With that correction made on behalf of Dr. Pinker, I proceed to go even further than he did. First, I demonstrate how one of Feser’s own examples makes final causes essentially unknowable. Second, I look at one of the analogies Feser uses to show how final causality isn’t even that useful in philosophical terms. Finally, in purely practical terms, I describe how abandoning final causes makes the actual process of scientific inquiry much more efficient; the implication is that societies which ignore final causality will enjoy a much more rapid pace of scientific discovery than societies which concentrate more on the sort of “wisdom” Feser prefers.

So, what is this “final causality” thing anyways? As Feser says in the review, the philosopher Aristotle, and his followers like Aquinas, believed there are supposedly four causes every object in the universe possesses that we must understand first before we can truly understand the thing as a whole. A thing’s material cause is what it’s made out of. Its formal cause is the pattern its matter takes that exhibits the qualities or behaviors typically associated with the thing. A thing’s efficient cause is what brought it into existence in the first place, and its final cause is “the battery of ends or goals towards which it tends.”[1]

Artifacts built with a purpose in mind are the most obvious examples of final causality–the final cause of a hammer, for instance, is to drive nails, as that was the toolmaker’s goal in building it–but Feser thinks everything has a final cause in the broader sense of “tending towards” certain goals. For instance, the final cause, or goal, of a cat is to catch mice and reproduce, because this is what healthy cats regularly do instead of, say, eating grass like cows or living in burrows like rabbits.

Now, in Feser’s view, while we can understand the material, efficient, and formal causes of most things in the universe without thinking about their final causes, it is final causality which is the most important, because nothing really makes sense without “tending towards” certain states or behaviors rather than others. It’s easy enough to tell a cat is furry and possesses claws and fangs (its material and formal causes), but you wouldn’t know why it had claws and fangs unless you understood its final cause was to hunt mice–without that knowledge, its reason for possessing those weapons becomes unintelligible.

The most important final cause of all, however, is God. As you might be able to figure out from the fact that he’s writing in The Claremont Review, Feser is a devout Christian (Catholic specifically), and thinks God is ultimately the Final Cause of Final Causes. A full explanation would have been too long for his review and too long here, so you can look at my other essay for an explanation. The very concise version is that if everything has goals or purposes (final causes), not just man-made artifacts but natural things like cats, there must be an intelligence holding sway over the entire universe to provide these goals, because only intelligent things can provide goals for anything else. Obviously, a universe-spanning intelligence would be God. As a result, philosophers and scientists during the Middle Ages were more interested in figuring out the final causes of the things around them rather than the material or efficient causes, in order to better understand the Final Cause of final causes, God. Again, it is true that one can understand all the other causes without understanding their final cause, and therefore understand most of the universe without understanding God (the Final-est cause of all), but they obviously thought final causes were more important than anything else.

Much to Feser’s dismay, during the Enlightenment, in a process spearheaded by philosophers like Francis Bacon and Renee Descartes, science focused “on the way all natural phenomena may be treated as variations on the same basic material stuff…Instead of identifying the distinctive ends or purposes toward which nature aims each thing, the focus would be on identifying the law-like ways in which certain configurations of particles served as the efficient causes of others.” According to Feser, Pinker believes that Bacon and Descarte’s focus on efficient causality rather than final “was ‘perhaps [the] biggest breakthrough’ of the scientific revolution.” Not at all, cries Feser, because contra Pinker, abandoning final causality “implicitly undermines the very possibility of rationality itself…only if reason has as its natural end or purpose the pursuit of truth that we can say that there is an objective difference between good and bad reasoning…in a world without final causes, reason cannot aim at truth, because it does not aim at anything at all.”[2]

Now, more than anything else, the amusing thing is that Feser has directed all this firepower at an argument that Pinker himself does not actually make. Feser’s summary of him reads, “He dismisses the Aristotelian idea that there are final causes or purposes built into nature as an “illusion,” the abandonment of which was “perhaps [the] biggest breakthrough” of the scientific revolution.” But the actual passage the “biggest breakthrough” quote was from reads slightly differently on page 24 of Enlightenment Now:

“A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution—perhaps its biggest breakthrough—was to refute the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose. In this primitive but ubiquitous understanding, everything happens for a reason, so when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine, poverty—some agent must have wanted them to happen. If a person can be fingered for the misfortune, he can be punished or squeezed for damages. If no individual can be singled out, one might blame the nearest ethnic or religious minority, who can be lynched or massacred in a pogrom…and then there are disembodied forces like karma, fate, spiritual messages, cosmic justice, and other guarantors of the intuition that ‘everything happens for a reason.’

Galileo, Newton, and Laplace replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future. People have goals, of course, but projecting goals onto the workings of nature is an illusion. Things can happen without anyone taking into account their effects on human happiness.”[3]

Feser can be forgiven for merely summarizing Pinker rather than quoting him extensively–it was just a short book review with a particular word limit rather than an in-depth analysis. However, Feser’s summary does seem to misrepresent Pinker’s beliefs in important ways. Judging from this passage, Pinker is not actually arguing against the Aristotelian idea of final causes. He might actually concur with the broadest thrust of the Aristotelian argument, that the natural world is filled with regularities indicating that the various phenomena we observe are “directed towards” certain ends rather than pure randomness. Indeed, Pinker would apparently not deny that the human mind itself may possess final causality. He explicitly states that “People have goals, of course, but projecting goals onto the workings of nature is an illusion. Things can happen without anyone taking into account their effects on human happiness.”

So it seems Pinker is not contesting final causality at all, in a thin sense of “things being directed towards certain behaviors and outcomes rather than others.” He might even agree with Feser that the human mind ought to seek truth, since we (people) have goals and truth is almost always one of these goals. Pinker merely denies that the direction we see in the natural world is at the conscious behest of any entity that has a benevolent or malicious interest in human life. There is nothing, in fact, anti-Aristotelian in this worldview. While Aristotle did believe in God, Feser himself has described in Neo-Scholastic Essays how Aristotle did not think God was necessary to direct everything in the universe to particular ends–their regularities could be explained entirely by their Forms or Natures (though that’s a topic for another blog post). (Neo-Scholastic Essays, 156-158).

Even the Christian Aquinas would not necessarily disagree with Pinker. While he did believe, unlike Aristotle, that every form of final causality was ultimately attributable to God’s conscious direction, he did not believe God ordained all, or even most final causes with a particular interest in humanity. Feser quotes Aquinas in one blog post as using the example of a farmer finding some buried treasure. Someone “intended” to bury treasure in that field and the farmer “intended” to plow it (examples of final causality), but the farmer finding the treasure was just a complete stroke of luck. So Aquinas might agree with Pinker: Aquinas would say that the laws of physics (or the nature of atoms or whatever) are purposefully mandated by God, but their interactions allow for a degree of randomness, so events like hurricanes or plagues are more similar to chance events like a farmer stumbling upon treasure than punishments mandated by God.[4]

Now, Pinker apparently is a dyed-in-the-wool atheist (https://ffrf.org/news/day/famous-freethinkers-secular-stars/honorary-board/item/14751-steven-pinker), so he would likely not agree with Aquinas’s preferred explanation.[5] But in reference to final causality, there at least is no necessary conflict between a Christian belief in a created, overseen universe and the presence of chance misfortune as opposed to ordained punishment.

In the end, then, Feser’s fervent fusillade on Aristotle’s behalf seems to be poorly aimed. Pinker’s denial of a “purpose-filled” universe does not necessarily entail denial of a universe with no direction whatsoever. Feser might have done better to pick on someone more explicitly anti-Aristotelian. As it is, this particular criticism of Pinker come across as directed more towards some other author than Pinker himself. I want to keep this essay on the shorter side, so I’ll not address Feser’s other criticisms of Pinker’s apparent materialism. It is enough to note that Pinker’s position in the text does not seem to be what Feser says it is.

On the other hand, I think I might be willing to go a bit further than Pinker. Even if he didn’t say so explicitly, he could have made a pretty solid argument that abandoning final causality, at least for the most part, really did represent a step forward for science, and that the concept is very obtuse and unhelpful at best, corrosive to scientific progress at worst.

As mentioned above, Descartes and Bacon heralded the modern scientific conception of the natural world, which was more or less secular–though both were Christian, God was not necessary to understand how the universe worked; that could be explained entirely by the movement of particles (material and efficient causes). Feser believes this represented an unfortunate withdrawal from the “wisdom” of the ancients like Aquinas, who believed that material and efficient causes were less important than understanding final causes, and of course the Final Cause of Final Causes (God). How was their conception of the natural world different than Bacon’s? Feser explains with an analogy:

“Nature’s relationship to God was seen as analogous to a story’s relationship to its author. The story as a whole wouldn’t exist in the first place if there were no author. But to understand the characters, events, and other details of the story, you can just focus on the story itself without constantly asking what the author had in mind. Similarly, though the natural world would not exist without God, you needn’t keep asking yourself what God intended in order to know a thing’s material, formal, efficient, and final causes. You can just study the things themselves.”

The problem with this analogy is that it makes it extremely difficult to ascertain what the final causes of anything actually may be. The author of a story would be able to tell you what its events or characters or whatever actually mean or actually are, but the characters within the story could not. For instance, Ridley Scott could tell you whether or not Deckard was actually a replicant in Blade Runner, but Deckard himself, within the context of the movie, was never certain and could never be certain.

By the same token, if we are analogically characters in a novel God is writing, we can never actually be sure what the events around us mean or even what the final causes, (and perhaps even formal causes) of the objects we see every day actually are. How can we really be sure the Final Cause of water or cats or whatever actually is what it seems to be? Yes, we can tell that cats generally chase mice in order to survive and reproduce, but how can we be certain that is actually their Final Cause, at least from God’s perspective? For instance, cats exhibit plenty of other regular behaviors aside from predation and reproduction–they “generally tend” to meow rather than bark, and “generally tend” to cough up hairballs. Perhaps those are actually their Final Causes that God intended–perhaps He likes the sound of meowing, or is amused by hapless cat owners cleaning up hairballs, and the apparent final causes of mice-eating and reproduction are merely secondary, “directed towards” producing more beings that can meow.

Sure, it sounds silly, but that doesn’t make the point wrong. Since characters in any kind of story are often unaware of the true natures of the events or objects around them, with that knowledge reserved exclusively for the author, it follows that if we humans are analogous to characters in a novel “written” by God, then only God would would truly know the final causes of the various things we see in the world around us.

If this is the case, then “understanding and respecting the natures and purposes of things,” as Feser claims the pre-modern Scholastics did and claims we should do again, is not the pursuit of “wisdom” but precisely the opposite: An exercise in utter futility. Due to our limitations as created beings, characters in God’s novel, we can never really understand the natures and purposes of things (their final causes). However, we can understand their material and efficient causes well enough–again, Deckard in Blade Runner wasn’t sure if he was a human or a replicant, but did know that he could bleed and sweat. Thus, Feser’s critique of philosophers like Francis Bacon and Renee Descartes becomes much less cutting. He says those modern philosophers should have focused more on final causes like Aquinas did, rather than the “prediction and control” of nature. However, since we can’t truly comprehend final causes, we might as well stick to what we can understand and utilize, which would be the efficient and material causes of things. Ironically, it seems like Bacon and Descartes possessed more “wisdom” than Aquinas–intentionally or not, their view of science more practically and realistically accounts for human limitations compared to God.

That relates to my third point with which I will end this essay: Feser has inadvertently proven why science has progressed at such a remarkable pace since the Enlightenment, and why that progress is intimately related to the dismissal of “wisdom” as opposed to “power.” We don’t need metaphysics to demonstrate this–a bit of common sense will do.

Time and knowledge are both scarce resources, in that human beings, with our finite lifespans, can never have as much of either as we’d like. Just about every course of action we take necessitates tradeoffs. If I spend a certain 30 minutes out of a certain day studying history, I cannot also spend that thirty minutes studying chemistry or any other subject. The limitations on time thus entail a limitation on knowledge and expertise. If I spend a decade straight doing nothing but studying history, I will become an expert on the subject, but at the cost of knowing very little about chemistry, computer science, or whatnot. If I spend about half my time during that decade on studying history and the other half on studying chemistry, I might become good at both, but I will likely not have the mastery of either subject I would have if I studied one exclusively.

I am, of course, not the only person to whom this scarcity applies. Though polymaths certainly exist, even great minds are generally limited by the fact that there is simply not enough time in the world to master every subject they might like. Similar concerns apply to institutions. Imagine you’re the administrator of a large, famous research university. No matter how large your endowment–even if you have a billion dollars from donors and government grants to throw around–you will eventually have to make tradeoffs. Spend that billion dollars on hiring the greatest chemistry professors in the world, and you won’t have anything to spend on your history department. Spend that billion dollars on constructing the most magnificent, elaborate particle-physics laboratory anywhere in the world, and you won’t have any money to spare on the construction and maintenance of a massive set of archives for your historians or a world-class school of engineering.

What does any of that have to do with science and final causes? Well, if talented people, their time, and the money it takes to support them are all scarce, finite resources, a wise society will husband those resources as efficiently as it can, which implies that a wise society that cares about scientific advancement will pay much more attention to “predicting and controlling nature” rather than “understanding the true essences and final causes of things.”

Dr. Feser can talk all he wants about how science is unintelligible without the theology of Aquinas he prefers, how final causality is more important than material and efficient causality, and so on. But a society which gives philosophers and theologians a very high amount of respect and prestige is a society which will likely give such thinkers more support and resources and encourage more of its populace to follow those career paths. That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself, but recall what I just said about scarcity. If your society only has a limited number of people in it, more of them becoming philosophers and theologians necessarily means fewer will become scientists and engineers. Of course, people can do both, but then we run into the matter of time–even if a society produces many enlightened philosopher-scientists or theologian-engineers, and even if they excel in both fields, the time and effort spent on philosophy and theology mean they would simply not be able to excel as much in science and engineering as they would have if they specialized exclusively in the subjects. And, of course, there is just the brute matter of money and resources. A society which spends more money on paying the salaries of theologians and philosophers will have less money to spend on scientists and building laboratories.

We must therefore conclude that the move away from final causality in philosophy enabled, to at least some extent, the flourishing of science and technology in the post-Enlightenment West. Bluntly stated, the more time, money, and manpower medieval societies spent on “contemplating God,” the less of those scarce resources they could allocate to science and engineering. It may be true that the Middle Ages that Aquinas lived through had a fair share of impressive scientific and technical achievements (the architecture of the cathedrals, for instance), but Feser himself concedes that our “material conditions” have improved “astoundingly” since the Enlightenment. Though he doesn’t say so explicitly, given his general acceptance of Pinker’s praise for the Enlightenment, Feser would probably concede that the pace and magnitude of post-Enlightenment science is much greater than that of the Middle Ages, even if they supposedly had more “wisdom.”

The uncomfortable implication (for Feser) is that this just might have something to do with the rejection of the medieval worldview. Regardless of whether or not it was philosophically justified, it is at least reasonable to posit that an increased focus on efficient and material causes encouraged Christendom to spend more time and money on science and engineering rather than philosophy and theology. If nothing else, in purely practical terms that would have led to an increase in scientific progress. Considered as a problem of simple economics–the allocation of scarce resources–the followers of Bacon and Descartes received a considerably higher return on their intellectual investments than did the followers of Aristotle and Aquinas.

Now, Feser could say that running water and electricity and all that isn’t really so important–contemplating God, the Greatest Final Cause of them all, is what really matters. But if that were so, one would expect God to have given some sign of His favor to His most able and devoted disciples.  If philosophers and theologians really were doing God’s work, one would expect them to have enjoyed as many benefits as the more secular scientists Pinker applauds. Some spark of inspiration giving a theologian insight into some intractable scientific problem, a revelation allowing a philosopher to become an expert in both pondering final causes and mastering material ones without spending the time required to achieve the latter. Obviously, this has not happened. The progress Feser rightly applauds seems not to have slowed down one iota for lack of philosophy and/or piety.

Amusing, I suppose. Recall that final causality is “the battery of goals towards which [a given object] tends.” Another way of looking at Feser’s very first example, a cat, is by noting what contributes to the cat’s survival and flourishing. We say eating mice and reproducing are the Final Causes of a cat because healthy cats feed well on prey and sire many kittens, while unhealthy ones starve without leaving descendants. That being the case, it seems that humans survive and flourish much more when we spend our limited resources on controlling nature rather than pondering its Author or contemplating final causes. Under Feser’s own reasoning, then, the Final Cause of humanity would be to mostly ignore final causality itself and spend much more time on efficient and material causality.

Feser might say that undermines the pursuit of truth (and therefore science). I wouldn’t agree–I’d simply call it ironic. And nobody–not even Aristotle or Aquinas–ever said that God has no sense of humor.

Phew! Not the longest thing I’ve written, but still a good deal longer than Feser’s original review. I hope you enjoyed this essay, friends. If you did, feel free to drop me a token of appreciation at my Ko-Fi:

https://ko-fi.com/X8X15WBQ

Of course, as always, it’s entirely optional–just if you want to leave a token of appreciation if you found my work particularly enlightening or educational. If you don’t want to, that’s alright–the knowledge you might have gained something from my video is reward enough for me 😀 See you around, guys!

[1] Edward Feser, “Endarkenment Later,” The Claremont Review of Books, July 30, 2018, https://www.claremont.org/crb/article/endarkenment-later/ , last accessed September 21, 2018.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Stephen Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Allen Lane, 2018), 24.

[4] Edward Feser, “Spinoza on Final Causes,” Edward Feser, April 19, 2009, last accessed September 21, 2018, http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/04/spinoza-on-final-causes.html

[5] Bonnie Gutsch, “Steven Pinker,” Freedom from Religion Foundation, last accessed September 21, 2018, https://ffrf.org/news/day/famous-freethinkers-secular-stars/honorary-board/item/14751-steven-pinker

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