bookmark_borderResponse to Prof. Feser’s Response to…etc (Part II)

Ed, this will be a rather truncated response to these points because I will address just the arguments you present here. A fair treatment of your arguments would need to address your article on these topics in American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. However, two physical realities—time and space—limit me here.
The question I posed was why we should think that a presumptively fundamental physical reality (quarks and leptons, quantum fields, superstrings, or whatever) needs supernatural support in order to exist. Why isn’t the doctrine of continuous creation merely gratuitous? You reply:

“Now, this [my question] assumes that physical theory gives us an exhaustive description of electrons, quarks, and material reality in general, or at least something near enough to an exhaustive description for present purposes. For only if we make that assumption would the absence from physical theory of a reference to the need for a conserving cause give us any reason to think a material thing doesn’t require one. (Compare: The absence of legs from the Mona Lisa would give us reason to believe that the woman it pictures was legless only if we supposed that the portrait captures everything about her that there was to capture — which, of course, is not the case.)”

The Mona Lisa example is funny but misses the target. We know that women generally have legs, so viewing the Mona Lisa would never tempt us to believe that the woman in the picture had no legs. However, one of the salient issues between your view and mine is precisely whether we have any access at all to the nature of physical reality apart from the natural sciences. In my view physics gives us our only access to the nature of fundamental physical reality. If the “pictures” given by physics are the only representations we have, then, unlike Mona, we have no independent and reliable source of information about the properties of electrons. In that case, all we have to go on are the “pictures” of physics. By analogy, if I were to show you a picture of only one portion of one of those truly weird, unique creatures from the Cambrian-era Burgess Shale you would have no basis for judging whether the remaining portion had legs or not or, if so, how many. We can form no expectations at all on the basis of what we don’t know. Any attempt to do so would be a textbook instance of the argumentum ad ignorantiam.
A more fundamental point is that when I suggest that the notion of continuous creation is gratuitous, the argument is epistemic, not ontological. I take it for granted that it is not within the purview of physics to demonstrate metaphysical truth, e.g. about putative divine activities or the absence thereof. Rather, my point was that, since physical theory does not—cannot—indicate the need for the supernatural underwriting of the natural, why posit it? Why is such a supposition not episemically gratuitous? There may indeed be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our physics, but, without some adequate grounds for positing such things, it is those putative non-physical realities that remain dreams.
You argue however, that physics, in principle, cannot tell us the fundamental nature of things. You quote Bertrand Russell to the effect that fundamental physics can only reveal the “logical structure of events” while leaving us ignorant of the nature of the things that are changing. You continue:

“Now if physics gives us only the mathematical structure of material reality, then not only does it not tell us everything there is to know about material reality, but it implies that there must be more to material reality than what it tells us. For there can be no such thing as structure by itself; there must be something which has the structure.”

First of all, if physics cannot tell us the fundamental nature of things, what can? What other human cognitive enterprise has the impeccable credentials and track record of success that justify our confidence that it will triumph where physics supposedly must fail? Metaphysics? I am sure that I am not the only one to find such a suggestion deeply dubious. I would say that when it comes to knowing the nature of reality, it is physics or nothing.
Russell interpreted quantum mechanics as implying an ontology of events, not things. I think he failed to realize that when we are talking about ex hypothesi fundamental things like elementary particles, the commonsense distinction between things and what they do is blurred. What could an elementary particle be except a bundle of definitive and irreducible properties in virtue of which it has its characteristic powers and liabilities? Elementary particles have no parts, constituents, or internal structure, and such basic kinds have no identity apart from their defining properties. In other words, I think that to say that, e.g. an electron is something WITH a given mass, charge, and spin is less accurate than to say that it is something that IS a given mass, charge, and spin.
We define an electron as:

“One of the elementary particles…with a rest mass of 9.1093897 × 10 -31 Kg, an electric charge of -1.60218925 × 10-19 coulombs and a spin of ½ , which obeys Fermi-Dirac statistics (John Gribbin, Q is for Quantum, Free Press, 1998).”

And this is the exhaustive description of the natural kind “electron.” Therefore, Russell’s claim assumes a distinction between thing and what it does that is not clear when we are talking about ex hypothesi fundamental things, which just are the basic properties in virtue of which they interact the way that they do.
You continue:

“So, physics is of its very nature incomplete. It requires interpretation within a larger metaphysical framework, and absolutely every appeal to “what physics tells us” presupposes such a metaphysical framework, implicitly if not explicitly. This is as true of the appeals made by naturalists and atheists as it is true of the views of Scholastics.”

What metaphysical assumptions does physics make other than the ones necessary to do physics? Physics assumes the existence of an objective, external world that exhibits sufficient stability, regularity, and simplicity to be knowable. What else? Physics makes such minimal heuristic assumptions, and its very success justifies those assumptions. Does physics require—though physicists clearly seem oblivious to the purported fact—concepts like “prime matter” or “substantial form?” All I can say here is that I—and I imagine the vast majority of physicists—would find such a claim implausible in the extreme, and we would place a very heavy burden of proof on anyone claiming that physics does require such concepts. (Ed: when I—someday—get the time to review in detail your admirable book Scholastic Metaphysics I hope to say a great deal more).
To sum up (BTW, I am unabashedly fudging by not counting quoted material towards my 1000 word limit): Even if physics is incomplete, this does not show that physical reality is. Even if physics does not, or cannot, tell us the true nature of things, this conclusion does not establish that physical things need supernatural help to exist. To argue from the (alleged) incompetence of physics to discover the whole of reality to the probable or even plausible existence of non-physical realities (like continuous creation) is a clear argumentum ad ignorantiam. Such a claim rises and falls completely with the details of Scholastic metaphysics and is indeed gratuitous outside of that context.

bookmark_borderReply to Prof. Feser’s Fourth Question

Ed, Here is your fourth question to me:

“4. In response to another reader’s question, about Craig’s version of the First Cause argument, you wrote: “Both theists and atheists begin with an uncaused brute fact. For Craig it is God, and for me it is the universe.” Now, as you know, the expression “brute fact” is typically used in philosophy to convey the idea of something which is unintelligible or without explanation. And your statement gives the impression that all theists, or at least most of them, regard God as a “brute fact” in this sense.
But in fact that is the reverse of the truth. Aristotelians, Neoplatonists, Thomists, Leibnizian rationalists, et al. would denythat God is a “brute fact.” They would say that the explanation for God’s existence lies in the divine nature — for Aristotelians, in God’s pure actuality; for Neoplatonists, in his absolute simplicity; for Thomists, in the fact that his essence and existence are identical; for Leibnizians in his being his own sufficient reason; and so forth. (Naturally the atheist will not think the arguments of these thinkers are convincing. But to say that they are not convincing is not the same thing as showing that the theist is either explicitly or implicitly committed to the notion that God is a “brute fact.”)
But perhaps you think the standard interpretation of the views of Aristotelians, Neoplatonists, Thomists, Leibnizian rationalists, et al. is mistaken. Perhaps you think that these thinkers are in fact all explicitly or at least implicitly committed to the thesis that God is a “brute fact.” So, could you please tell us where you have spelled out an argument justifying the claim that all or at least most philosophical theists regard God as a “brute fact” or are at least implicitly committed to the claim that he is? Is there a book or journal article written by you or by someone else in which we can find this justification?”

The short answer is that my statement was not meant as a historical remark, but as an assessment of what I see as the genuine philosophical alternatives. As I see it, the choice between naturalism and theism comes down to a choice between ultimate brute facts: God or the universe. Which is the more satisfactory terminus of or explanatory chains, the primordial or fundamental features of the universe, on the one hand, or a supernatural being with the omni-predicates attributed by theism? My view is that the former choice is at least as defensible as the latter, and that each choice amounts to the selection of a brutally-factual end-point for our explanatory enterprises.
As for your historical analysis, you are, of course, exactly right. Traditionally, most theists have regarded God as in some sense self-explanatory. Recently, perhaps in response to accumulated skeptical responses to traditional metaphysics, some leading theists seem to be backing away from those claims. My reading of Richard Swinburne is that he concedes that the universe could be the ultimate, uncaused existent, but that theism is the preferred hypothesis because of its allegedly greater simplicity (an argument I challenge in detail in my 1989 book God and the Burden of Proof). Likewise, as I understand William Lane Craig, his argument does not rest on the Principle of Sufficient reason, or any definition of divine necessity, but upon the metaphysical intuition that whatever begins to exist must have a cause. When it comes to things that begin in space and time, I share Craig’s intuition. When it comes to the origin of space/time itself, I do not.
Why think that there could be brute facts? Two reasons: (1) Our ordinary explanatory practices definitely do not require total explanation, and (2) The alternative to brute facts—that anything could be self-explanatory—is highly dubious.
(1) In all of the modes of explanation in natural science and ordinary life, explanation proceeds piecemeal from explanandum to explanans, where the latter, at least temporarily, is left unexplained. There is nothing wrong with this procedure. I can know that the pipes burst because of the freezing temperatures and the fact that ice is less dense than water, even if I do not have detailed knowledge of the structure of the water molecule. In tracing back causes to effects we hope ultimately to come to some set of completely general and basic laws and some set of fundamental entities. Let’s suppose that the Holy Grail of physics is found and a satisfactory TOE is one day established. We will then have some set of ultimate facts for which no deeper explanation exists, and this is precisely what we have hoped all along to find. In explanation, something is always left unexplained, and that this is the case when we reach physical “rock bottom” should neither surprise nor chagrin us. Indeed, there are logically only two alternatives to reaching a brutally-factual explanatory “rock bottom”: Either the explanatory chain proceeds back ad infinitum, or it terminates in something that is not brutally factual but is, in some sense, self-explanatory. As for the first alternative (and pace Prof. Craig), we cannot know a priori that the chain does not extend forever. I am supposing that, in fact, it seems to terminate in a fundamental theory. The second alternative to a brutally-factual explanatory terminus is something that is self-explanatory.
(2) What could it possibly mean to say that something is self-explanatory? I know that, as you note above, Ed, many philosophers have made suggestions here. I find these to be very obscure. They sound to me like verbal formulas devised to obviate a problem rather than solve it. I am not even sure that it is coherent to say that “God is pure actuality” or “God is his own sufficient reason.” I would have to ask for a very careful unpacking of these phrases before I would concede that they are meaningful.
In the meantime, it seems to me that the most obvious way for something to be self-explanatory would be for its existence to be logically necessary. But this option leads us into all the notorious problems associated with the ontological argument. How can there be a concept that guarantees its own instantiation? It can never be contradictory to deny the exemplification of a concept, because that denial does not contradict any of the content of that concept, but only denies that such content is instantiated in extra-conceptual reality. “The non-existent necessarily existent being,” is, of course, a contradictory concept. However, there is, and can be, no contradiction in saying “The concept of the necessarily existent being is not instantiated.” In fact, as has long been known since Russell’s famous example of “the present King of France,” to deny that concept is exemplified is merely to say “There is no x such that x exemplifies predicates P1, P2, P3…Pn.” Such a statement in no way contradicts the mentioned concept, whatever its content.
In what other way, other than by being logically necessary, could an entity be self-explanatory? Well, it could be metaphysically rather than logically necessary. As far as I know, the best candidate for specifying a notion of metaphysical necessity is the PSR, which we may express as: “Nothing exists or is what it is unless there is a sufficient reason for its existence and its nature.” But why should we accept the PSR? As I say above, our ordinary explanatory practices do not presuppose it. Is it intuitively obvious, as I think that Leibniz held that it was? Not to me. On the contrary, with Hume, my intuition is that there very well could be something that exists without any explanation. As curious creatures we may hanker for an explanation for, literally, everything, but I can see no a priori basis for thinking that reality owes us such satisfaction.
The upshot is that if there are no indisputable principles requiring either a logically or metaphysically necessary being, then it is eminently rational to posit brute facts.
Ed, thanks for the chance to address these questions. As always, the subsequent discussion could go on forever, but life is short, and you and I both have many other pressing duties.

bookmark_borderReply to Prof. Feser’s Third Question

Ed, your third question and accompanying commentary was this:

In response to a reader’s comment, you wrote:
I think Bertrand Russell’s beautifully succinct critique of all causal arguments holds good: “If everything requires a cause, then God requires a cause. However, if anything can exist without a cause, it might as well be the universe as God.” Exactly.
Now, your Secular Outpost co-blogger and fellow atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder agrees with me that this is not in fact a good objection to arguments for a First Cause, because it attacks a straw man. Specifically, Lowder has said:
[N]o respectable theologian or theistic philosopher has ever made the claim, “everything has a cause.” Yet various new atheists have proceeded to attack that straw man of their own making. I remember, when reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, where he attacked that straw man and cringing. There are many different cosmological arguments for God’s existence and none of them rely upon the stupid claim, “everything has a cause.”
You won’t find that mistake made by Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, Paul Draper, or (if we add a theistic critic to the list) Wes Morriston.
End quote. Now it would seem that what Lowder calls a “mistake” is one that you, Keith Parsons, have made. But is Lowder wrong? If he is, please tell us exactly which theistic philosophers who defend First Cause arguments – Avicenna? Maimonides? Aquinas? Scotus? Leibniz? Clarke? Garrigou-Lagrange? Craig? — actually ever gave the argument Russell was attacking.

My response: In effect, I responded to this in a reply I made to Jeff. Let me quote that:

“What about Russell’s claim, to which Ed adverts, that (paraphrasing): “If everything has a cause, then God has a cause. On the other hand, if something can exist without a cause, then it might be the universe rather than God.” Does this attack a straw man? Well, as usual, it depends on how we read it. Is Russell charging that theists make the following argument?
If everything has a cause, then there has to exist something without a cause.
Everything has a cause.
Therefore, something (i.e. God) exists without a cause.
I think it is safe to say that you will not find such an argument outside of the paper of a “C” student in Phil. 101. The conclusion contradicts the second premise and the first premise is necessarily false since the antecedent contradicts the consequent. If Russell is caricaturing theistic philosophers as the authors of this or a similarly bad argument, he is indeed attacking a straw man.
Once again, however, I think that there is a good idea here that can be turned into a much more challenging argument. I would propose the following quasi-Russell argument
QRA: If everything has an explanation, then God has an explanation, or, if it is possible that something does not have an explanation, then the universe might be that unexplained “something.” Symbolically, I would represent this argument as follows:
[□(∀x)Hxe → □Hge] v [◊(∃x)~Hxe) → ◊(x = u)]
I think Ed would have no problem with the left disjunct and would argue that God has an explanation in the sense that he is self-explanatory.
I would opt for the right since I consider brute facts to be possible, and that the universe (or, rather, its primordial state or fundamental aspects) can be brutally factual.”

The problem here, of course, involves the word “cause” which even philosophers often use imprecisely. The notion of “cause” has also changed over the history of Western philosophy. Penelope Mackie gives a succinct statement of some of those changes in here essay “Causality” in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy:

“In modern philosophy (as in modern usage in general) the notion of cause is associated with the idea of something’s producing or bringing about something else (its effect); a relation sometimes called “efficient causation.” Historically, the term ‘cause’ has a broader sense, equivalent to ‘explanatory feature.’ This usage survives in the description of Aristotle as holding ‘the doctrine of the four causes.’ The members of Aristotle’s quartet, the material, formal, efficient, and final cause correspond to four kinds of explanation. But only the efficient cause is unproblematically a candidate for a cause that produces something distinct from itself.”

My hypothesis is that Russell, an author of two comprehensive histories of philosophy, was using “cause” in the broader, historical sense that was much closer to “explanation” than to “efficient cause.” This was certainly the sense I intended when I endorsed Russell’s comment. In that case, I don’t think Russell’s statement, or my endorsement, was quite the straw man Jeff decries!

bookmark_borderIndex for Feser-Parsons Exchanges

The purpose of this blog post is simply to provide a convenient index to all of the posts in the planned two series of exchanges between Edward Feser and Keith Parsons. Feser’s contributions will be posted on his blog and Parsons’ contributions will be posted on The Secular Outpost.
This post will be updated with links as as they become available.
Exchange #1: Feser’s Four Questions for Parsons
Feser’s Initial Statement: “Four Questions for Keith Parsons
Parsons’ Initial Response:

Feser’s Counter-Response:

Parsons’ Counter-Response:

Exchange #2: Debate: “Can morality have a rational justification if atheism or naturalism is true?”
Feser’s Opening Statement: “A Second Exchange with Keith Parsons, Part I
Parsons’ Opening Statement: “Morality and Atheism: An Exchange with Prof Feser
Feser’s Response: “A Second Exchange with Keith Parsons, Part II
Parsons’ Response: “Belated Response to Ed Feser