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Refuting Coyne’s myth: Science progresses but theology doesn’t

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In a recent post over at Why Evolution Is True, Professor Jerry Coyne repeats the tired old canard that science progresses but theology doesn’t:

When lecturing on their incompatibility, I always mention that although science has progressed enormously in the past few hundred years, theology has not. That is, we know no more about the nature or existence of God than we did in, say, 800 C.E. Hell, theologians aren’t sure whether there’s one god or many gods (as Hindus believe), or a red-horned devil, not to mention more trivial issues like whether the wine and crackers at communion are wholly Jesus’s blood and body (“transubstantiation”) or only partly Jesus’s blood and body (“consubstantiation”). The only “progress” theology has made has been forced upon it by science, which made it abandon time-honored tenets of belief like Adam and Eve, Noah’s Flood, and the Exodus. Theology is like postmodern lit-crit: it wobbles from pole to pole but never arrives anywhere…

One need consider only this: if theology has arrived at “some truth concerning the world,” then that “truth” is flatly denied by adherents of other faiths. There is in fact no unanimity among religions about how many Gods there are, what God is like, what God’s commands are, whether there’s a hell or an after life of any sort, how you get saved, whether you’re reincarnated, and so on. There are, for example, more than 34,000 denominations of Christianity alone, and that doesn’t include all those other religions. And all of them differ not only in claims about the nature of God and how one is saved, but about things like divorce, sex, gay rights, and birth control…

There is, of course, no schism like this in science, which would be pretty much a straight line. There is no Hindu science, no Muslim science, no Catholic science — there’s just science, which does apprehend real truths (albeit, of course, provisional ones), and ones agreed on by scientists of all stripes, faiths, and ethnicities.

First, Coyne is making an apples-and-oranges comparison here. Certain rules of exclusion apply within the scientific community: to borrow one of Coyne’s examples, if you question the scientific truth that the chemical formula for benzene is C6H6, you will be treated as a crank or an ignoramus, and shunned by any self-respecting scientist. The term “theology,” by contrast, is used by Coyne to include religions of all stripes. No-one can get kicked out of Coyne’s “theology” – except by becoming an atheist! So it is hardly surprising that absurd and bizarre opinions continue to proliferate within the field of “theology,” as defined by Coyne.

Second, it would have been fairer of Coyne to compare the scientific enterprise with a religion that possesses (and sometimes wields) the power to excommunicate people whose views are deemed unacceptable – because that is, after all, what the scientific establishment does. Within any given religion, one usually finds that over time, teachings do progress. To see what I mean, try comparing what the Nicene Creed defined about God in 325 A.D. with what the Fourth Lateran Council decreed in 1215 A.D., or for that matter, what the Westminster Confession declared in 1647. Within Judaism, Moses Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, which were drawn up in the 12th century, are now widely accepted by Jews today as a fundamental statement of Jewish belief. One thousand years ago, there was no such common statement.

Third, if one looks at the world’s major religious groups, one finds that the about two-thirds of the 85% of the world’s people belong to one of the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Another 15% or so of the world’s religious adherents are Hindus, most of whom believe in one ultimate Divinity, Brahman. (Coyne’s claim that Hindus are polytheists is sheer nonsense.) So if one looks at the consensus view of the majority of the world’s religious adherents, once can discern major shifts in religious opinions over the course of time.

As an example of progress in theology, I’d like to list the following propositions, which are currently accepted by a solid majority of the world’s religious adherents, but which were accepted only by a tiny minority 2,000 years ago, and by almost nobody 3,000 years ago. I invite readers to add to the list as they see fit.

1. There is one God.

2. God does not have a body or bodily passions. God is a spirit.

3. God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipresent. That is, God can do anything within reason; God knows everything in the past, present and future; God is compassionate and all-merciful; and God’s power extends throughout the cosmos.

4. God is infinite.

5. God is immutable. God does not change.

6. God is not capricious.

7. God is the sole Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Everything in the cosmos is upheld by God’s command.

8. God is not a blind force, but a personal Deity. God has a personal relationship with each and every individual.

9. God is just. God rewards the good and punishes the wicked.

10. God is merciful. God is always ready to pardon a repentant sinner.

11. God is impartial. Distinctions of rank, race, sex, color or creed mean nothing to God. All individuals are equal in God’s sight.

12. God disapproves of the deliberate killing of innocent people.

13. God disapproves of infanticide.

14. God disapproves of killing girls.

15. God disapproves of euthanasia. In particular, God disapproves of killing the sick and elderly.

16. God disapproves of suicide.

17. God disapproves of ritual human sacrifices.

18. God disapproves of slavery.

19. God disapproves of domestic violence.

20. God disapproves of child abuse.

21. God disapproves of cruelty to animals.

22. God disapproves of compulsion in matters of religion.

23. God expects us to treat others as we would like them to treat us.

24. God expects us to bury our dead, instead of leaving their corpses lying in the street to be eaten by animals.

25. God expects us to not only be faithful to our spouses, but to love them as well.

26. God expects us to educate our children, both boys and girls.

27. God expects us to be honest and truthful in our dealings with friend and foe alike.

28. God expects us to be kind to strangers.

29. God expects us to help the poor, sick and needy.

30. God expects us to donate money to charity.

31. People who die in a state of friendship with God will enjoy happiness in Heaven with God for all eternity.

32. There will be a future resurrection of the dead and judgment will be pronounced on every human being.

33. God has at various times spoken to the human race through various prophets. God has communicated messages to these prophets, not only about God’s nature, but also about our duties to others.

=================================================

Most of the world’s religious people living today believe in the above propositions. The proportion of people who believed in these propositions 3,000, 2,000 or even 1,000 years ago was much smaller than it is now. I’d call that progress. Wouldn’t you?

And now, four questions for Professor Coyne.

First, can you name even ONE scientist who was instrumental in getting large numbers of people to accept any of the ethical propositions listed above?

Second, do scientists have an agreed position on things like “divorce, sex, gay rights, and birth control,” to quote from your own list?

Third, is there a scientific method for reaching agreement on ethical matters?

Fourth, are there any ethical facts? (If I understand Coyne correctly, his answer to the last question is negative.)

Comments
StephenB: Unfortunately I know St. Bonaventura only through secondary sources. It seems to me that I recall some important connection of him with Platonism. The impressions I have of his thought are positive, but without reviewing it, I can't say anything useful. Anyhow, Platonism survived throughout the Middle Ages, even after Aristotelianism became big. There are Platonic elements (probably derived more from neo-Platonism than from the tiny bits of Plato available to the Middle Ages) in Aquinas as well. But Platonism did not become dominant again until the Renaissance. It enjoyed favor throughout the Renaissance and into the 17th century. It combined in a creative way with Hebraism throughout that period. (Which doesn't fit with the narrative of certain Protestant apologists of the last 100 years who would pit Platonism starkly against Biblical thought.) And of course the writings of the Inklings are saturated in Platonism. So it's one of the great philosophical vehicles for Christian thought.Timaeus
February 6, 2013
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Timaeus, as a Platonist, are you attracted to the work of St. Bonaventure?StephenB
February 6, 2013
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Thanks, nullasalus. Let me say that I'm not in favor of pressuring Feser into agreeing with ID. Nor do I think he is a traitor for not agreeing with ID. I have no problem with philosophical critics of ID -- as I've shown with Kantian Naturalist here. To the extent that what you say is part of the story -- that many ID folks pressure the Thomists to come onside, and berate them if they don't -- I agree with you. There is no reason why Feser should be bullied into accepting conclusions he doesn't agree with as a philosopher. But the position of Feser (and Beckwith) is stronger than that. They have said that the kind of God that could be inferred from design inferences of the ID or Paley type is not the God of classical theism -- and thus by implication not the Christian God. They have thus made a theological claim -- and that's where my problem with them lies. My wisecrack about Catholicism had to do with this. I wasn't trying to take a shot at Feser for being Catholic. I admire Catholicism, and for that matter, I admire Thomas Aquinas (though "Thomism" as a fixed theological commitment I cannot endorse). Rather, I meant that his Thomistic and Catholic understanding of God is very naturally compatible with what he calls "classical theism" -- it is largely from the Western Christian tradition that he draws his notion of classical theism in the first place. But I've noticed a good deal of what I would call the Hebraic or Biblical idea of God seems missing from the God of Feser (and Beckwith). Their "classical" God is one, pure act, infinite, eternal, etc. -- all language that is very Greek and very philosophical. But it lacks Biblical "guts"; the way the God of the Thomists "acts" seems to be quite different, in some cases, from the way the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob acts. Put crudely and inaccurately, the God of the Bible is a "doer" in a sense which to "classical theism" must be regarded as crude pictorialization for the masses. Or put another way, the tidy, neat God of classical theism (nowhere tidier or neater than in Aquinas) needs, in my view, to be balanced with the terrible and the arbitrary God, captured in different ways by Rudolf Otto and voluntarist theologians such as Ockham and Scotus, if one is trying to capture the Biblical (as opposed to "classical") idea of monotheism. And this is not unconnected with the question of univocity. While no one would suggest that God is *fully* understandable in human terms, if the God of the Bible is a "doer" in a very concrete sense, then there is no reason why his making should not be in crucial ways like our making, and no reason why his designs should not be detectable by human reason. Or put more crudely, if the God of Paley is not the God of the tidy theoretical construct called "classical theism" -- so what? That does not matter to a Christian whose orientation is not toward philosophical theology, but toward the Biblical revelation of the God who acts in nature and history. And here I think that Feser and Beckwith overstep their bounds, when they move from *expositing* the Thomistic understanding of God (a perfectly reasonable thing to do) to using it as the measuring stick for other forms of theism, including some which -- in my view -- are a good deal more Biblical than Thomas's view. Now this may all sound odd coming from a Platonist, but actually the love of Platonists for some aspects of Hebraic thought is quite old in the Christian tradition. Anyhow, I don't really want to engage Feser in this indirect way. If I am going to invest time challenging Feser, I'll do it directly, on his blog site, and after I've read his books. I see no point in engaging with him when I have only a superficial view of his thoughts and can talk only to people who admire him, and not to the man himself. But at the moment I have no desire to fight with Feser. There are greater dragons to slay. So I'll drop this subject for now.Timaeus
February 6, 2013
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Timaeus, Always nice to speak with you.
I have disliked the somewhat supercilious way he has responded to a number of good critics, with Ph.D.s in philosophy quite as good as his own, including Vincent Torley and Jay Richards. He sometimes seems to forget that he is dealing with peers, not slow undergrads.
Arrogance doesn't really seem to be in short supply in these conversations, for better or for worse. And one can be polite in tone while at the same time slighting someone in fact. I think Ed does tend towards the sarcastic side. But I also think he tends to be content to do his own thing, focusing on his portion of metaphysics and philosophy, without taking many shots at ID or otherwise, unless someone brings the subject up. Which is usually and ID proponent trying to hook Thomism to ID somehow. He also tends not to talk much about Christianity or even Catholicism compared to the time he spends on far more broad topics - natural law and such.
(Of course, Christian for Feser means Catholic, but let’s leave that issue aside.)
That's really not fair. If you've followed his blogs, you're going to see that he spends shockingly little time on Christianity or Catholicism, period, save for how it relates to natural law thought or teleology. Most of the time if he's criticizing anyone, it's materialists and New Atheists. Yes, he's Catholic, and he's had some posts about Catholic viewpoints, but largely in the terms I've mentioned.
But when has Feser ever criticized the inadequate theology of the BioLogos or ASA TEs — which is generally *much* farther away from classical Christian thought than ID is?
Insofar as BioLogos endorses a theistic personalist view of God, he'd be criticizing them indirectly. He seems not to bother criticizing them directly because they are, for most purposes, just irrelevant to his aims - metaphysics and philosophy, which BL tends not to get into in any deep way. The one time a storm was being kicked up about the reality of Adam and Eve, Feser weighed in with a view that was probably contrary to the most popular BL alternative. Really, how relevant is BL anyway? What do they do that's noteworthy, other than now and then (unfairly) griping about YECs and ID? On the flipside, most times when Feser targets ID, it's usually in response to himself being targeted, or at least pressured about why he's not on the ID bandwagon. I've even seen Feser being described as a kind of quisling sucking up to the Darwinists, when really, what he has to say about science and nature is probably more threatening to Dawkins style Darwinists than the basic ID line in some ways, since it subverts the whole project.
The point is that if it is legitimate to have final causes in natural science, then there should be no *scientific* objection to the *type* of argument that Paley employs to show design, or to the *type* of argument used by Behe and Dembski. So then Feser would be saying — what? That design arguments are OK in science, but not in metaphysics, because they lead to the wrong God?
Why should he be saying much of anything? I recall Ed's said that he thinks ID proponents have been treated unfairly, and that his opinion of them is not to endorse that treatment. But otherwise, it's a whole other field than the one he's concerned with, certainly as far as he thinks. He believes Paley's arguments have to do with extrinsic, not intrinsic, teleology - something other than final causes. Let's say he's wrong. Okay, blind spot on his part. But if you're aware of the blind spot, it should be easy to understand why he's just not interested. And what could he do besides, say, write a couple lines expressing his sympathies, and leave it at that?nullasalus
February 5, 2013
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null: Thanks for chiming in. I have not read Feser's books. That's why I haven't commented on them one way or the other. I have read scores of posts on his blog site. I base my notion of his views on his arguments there -- while fully acknowledging that I might have to modify my views after reading his books. One of the reasons I haven't got to Feser yet is that I feel I still have to read many of the primary sources in the tradition, and many of the key secondary sources. Right now, I'm doing a slow and careful read of Paley's Natural Theology. A while back it was Aquinas's study of Creation in the Summa Contra Gentiles. But these things take immense amounts of time, and the writings of modern professors get put on the back burner. I have to admit that another factor is the academic arrogance that Feser frequently projects on his blog site. I have disliked the somewhat supercilious way he has responded to a number of good critics, with Ph.D.s in philosophy quite as good as his own, including Vincent Torley and Jay Richards. He sometimes seems to forget that he is dealing with peers, not slow undergrads. And he's not the only one. His pal Beckwith is similarly arrogant. There's something overbearing about converts to Thomism, it seems. ("I once was blind, but now I see" -- and now must convince everyone else that they are blind, too.) I'm also not too pleased with Feser's non-neutrality in the culture war between ID and TE. Feser has consistently rejected ID arguments for a designer for their theological implications -- allegedly they promote a "non-classical" kind of theism which in Feser's view is not Christian. (Of course, Christian for Feser means Catholic, but let's leave that issue aside.) OK, so let's say, for the sake of argument, that Feser is right. Let's say he is right to reject theories about origins if they imply ideas about God -- that are heretical or in violation of classical theism. But when has Feser ever criticized the inadequate theology of the BioLogos or ASA TEs -- which is generally *much* farther away from classical Christian thought than ID is? BioLogos flirts with Open Theism and all kinds of heretical ideas about providence and free will and randomness and nature's creativity which Feser must loathe. But in his blog writing it gets a free pass. So why the partisanship? If he's going to get involved in the debates over theology and science, why doesn't he do so in a more even-handed way? (This criticism applies to Beckwith as well, who took shots at ID from the safety of the BioLogos website; yet if Beckwith really endorses Thomism, he must have more contempt for the theology of BioLogos than for that of ID. So what happened there? Did personal resentment and political considerations triumph over truth in Beckwith's behavior at that moment? If so, he has never transcended that; two or three years later, he still hasn't said boo to any of the heresies of BioLogos -- it has been not the Thomists, but the Protestants like Jon Garvey who have done all the dirty work there.) All that said, I do think Feser is quite a clever fellow, and I do think many of his arguments are very good. I also am in great sympathy with his critique of modern philosophy, both in spirit and in many details. So I probably will get around eventually to reading what he has to say. Here is a remark for you: If Feser does not deny final causation in natural science, then he shouldn't be so dead set against Paley. But he is. Oh, I understand his *theological* objection against Paley. He has said that Paley-like thinking about design yields the wrong kind of God, a God incompatible with classical theism. I think he's wrong on that, but that is not the point I'm addressing. The point is that if it is legitimate to have final causes in natural science, then there should be no *scientific* objection to the *type* of argument that Paley employs to show design, or to the *type* of argument used by Behe and Dembski. So then Feser would be saying -- what? That design arguments are OK in science, but not in metaphysics, because they lead to the wrong God? But that's hash, if God is the creator of nature which natural science studies. Now if you tell me that Feser doesn't explain all of this sufficiently on his blog site, and that I can't really understand Feser until I've read his books, then fine; let's put off this discussion until I have. I promise to give him a fair shake. But here I've been responding to people who are quoting Feser at me and demanding a response, and all I can give in the short term is a response based on his blog columns. If people want more than that from me, they will have to wait until I've read at least one of the books. And I can tell you right now that, given the back-up of other books and assignments, it won't be for 6 months or so.Timaeus
February 5, 2013
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What Feser appears to want to do is to go back to the metaphysics of Aristotelianism-Thomism, i.e., to deny the metaphysical foundations of modern science.
Feser would probably argue that people often confuse metaphysical claims for scientific claims, and that the 'metaphysical foundations' for modern science are anything but rapt, clear and unified. You can still see people trying to make sense of 'laws of physics', or whether to be realists or anti-realists with regards to science, or.. etc. Another way of putting it is, there seem to be multiple ways of getting to modern science - some are incoherent (Feser would argue naturalism is so), some are not (A-T).
Feser also has to explain how he intends to keep modern science (I assume he will keep using his computer and keep driving a car), while denying the understanding of nature that underlies it.
He does so. He even points at contemporary non-Thomists who, largely without the theological motivations, arrive at more or less the same conclusions as a broadly Aristotilean perspective would have. Not to mention argued modern habits of failing to exorcise teleological explanations despite claims to the contrary. I don't even see why you're throwing out the line about 13th century metaphysics, as if the date meant anything - especially in light of your thinking that simply doesn't go back far enough. Nor is it the case that Feser argues metaphysics is frozen in time and can't be updated or continually discussed, etc.
This is the difficulty faced by all modern Thomists. They *must* compartmentalize, because the unity of thought achieved by A-T has now been shattered.
Except they do not, and they have no need to. What they do is better called absorbing than compartmentalizing - they'll recognize that a given portion of an explanation (say, a mechanical explanation) is typically fundamentally incomplete, and that a complete explanation is going to require reference to metaphysics. Also that ultimately, metaphysical references are unavoidable anyway.
You see, I don’t accept Feser’s fundamental premise, i.e., that the four causes are a purely metaphysical analysis that cannot touch modern science.
Actually, Feser's premise is broader than that. My understanding is that he thinks metaphysical claims are largely prior to scientific claims - and as a result, talk of refuting a metaphysical claim through science is wrong-headed. That doesn't just apply to his metaphysical view, but such views generally - you're not going to find Descartes' mental substance under a microscope, you're not going to sit down in the lab one day and empirically show that all that exists is thought a la Berkeley, etc.
I think that if you deny final causation *in natural science*, you have already broken faith with Aristotle (and probably with Aquinas as well).
Feser doesn't deny final causation in natural science. And if you think he does, all I can say is - I really think you should actually read The Last Superstition and/or Aquinas.nullasalus
February 5, 2013
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Hi, Mung. Re 90: Exactly! And it's that understanding of nature that 17th-century science explicitly denied, as Lucretius had denied it 1800 years earlier. 17th-century science, however, imagined an *externally-imposed* teleology, whereby "laws" forced "bodies" (or later "matter") into orderly patterns. So it, like Aristotelianism-Thomism, was opposed to the "chance" understanding of the Epicureans. What Feser appears to want to do is to go back to the metaphysics of Aristotelianism-Thomism, i.e., to deny the metaphysical foundations of modern science. That's a pretty tall order, since modern science *works* and A-T science mostly *didn't*. Still, I'm sympathetic with reactionaries like Feser, and I like his idea -- only I would like to go further back, past Thomism (still too modern) to pre-Scholastic Platonist metaphysics. Feser also has to explain how he intends to keep modern science (I assume he will keep using his computer and keep driving a car), while denying the understanding of nature that underlies it. Is he going to live in the 13th century in his metaphysics, and in the 21st century in his science? With his mind split right down the middle, with scientific truth in one compartment and metaphysical truth in the other, and no clear connection between them? This is one problem I have with one source that Feser admires -- Gilson. Gilson was a great scholar, and I love much of his writing. But in his book on Darwin and Aristotle, Gilson seems to simply surrender the field of causal explanations for evolution entirely to modern science, with its restriction to efficient-cause explanations, while allowing teleological interpretation of evolution by keeping the interpretation of evolution in the field of philosophy of nature -- i.e., Gilson compartmentalizes. This is the difficulty faced by all modern Thomists. They *must* compartmentalize, because the unity of thought achieved by A-T has now been shattered. You see, I don't accept Feser's fundamental premise, i.e., that the four causes are a purely metaphysical analysis that cannot touch modern science. I think that *for Aristotle* (and probably also for Aquinas, but I will restrict myself to Aristotle), the four causes were principles of *physics* as well as *metaphysics*. And I think the two can't be disentangled in his thought. (His two books by those names don't correspond to the modern distinction, by the way.) I think that if you deny final causation *in natural science*, you have already broken faith with Aristotle (and probably with Aquinas as well).Timaeus
February 5, 2013
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I expect that my copy of On the Nature of Things will arrive tomorrow, but in the meantime:
In Aristotle's view of the world, everything that exists or comes to be "by nature" comes to be or changes, unless prevented, for a purpose and towards an end, and is present for the sake of that purpose or end. This goal-directedness is an internal tendency possessed by all natural things, which means that teleology operates among all of nature... - Leunissen, Mariska. Explanation and Teleology in Aristotle's Science of Nature
I hope you won't be too disappointed to hear that Feser is not my master.Mung
February 5, 2013
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...the very fact that nature exists means that there are ends or purposes in it.
I would not put it that way. There are potentially many ways in which nature might exist according to which it would be utterly unintelligible. It could be totally random. Total chaos. So what is it that makes the universe non-chaotic? Why is it intelligible at all? What is it that allows for distinctions and abstractions?Mung
February 5, 2013
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Mung: Lucretius gives *the* classic statement in the West of the *non-teleological view of nature* -- a notion which you (and apparently Feser) think to be self-contradictory, since for you (and apparently for Feser), the very fact that nature exists means that there are ends or purposes in it. But if I were to tell you in 1903 that heavier than air flight was possible, and you denied it because some theoretical physicist named Feser had proved it to be impossible, and I took you to Kitty Hawk and showed you the flight of Orville Wright, it would be incumbent upon you to abandon your theory and renounce your master Feser. I am hoping that once you read Lucretius, you will understand that in fact a non-teleological understanding of nature is quite possible. Ask yourself, in his scheme, what the *telos* of any of the atoms is. But read the book first. But of course you should read Aristotle as well. Read the *Physics*. But it might be wise to read the *Categories* first. Actually, my view of teleology *is* partly Aristotelian. But I think that Feser misunderstands Aristotle's view of natural ends. (Based on his blog posts -- I haven't read his books.) Also, I don't think that Aristotle had the monopoly on teleological thinking -- on some questions Paley (whose writing Feser appears to dismiss on the basis of a stereotype of Paley rather than what Paley actually wrote) is much clearer and more precise. And there are internal strains in Aristotle's thought -- some of which are well-discussed in Sedley's book. I think Aquinas's interpretation of Aristotle is probably better than Feser's interpretation of Aquinas's interpretation of Aristotle. :-) I don't actually disagree with Feser on everything. I think we would have virtually complete agreement on the errors of modern philosophy from Bacon onward; but I go further; I think that even Aquinas is still too modern. I think it was a big mistake to cast Christian theology in Aristotelian terms. Nobody could have done it as well as Aquinas; and Christian Aristotelianism is far from the worst theology imaginable; but at its best, it's still (in the words of a wise man) a "darkening" of Christian truth. A Platonist I am, and a Platonist I shall remain. (Which does not exclude admiring and supporting much that is in Aristotle and Aquinas.)Timaeus
February 3, 2013
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Timaeus, Why are you suggesting that I read Lucretius to understand your view of teleology? Shouldn't I be reading Aristotle? I gather that your view of teleology is non Aristotelian? Does that mean that your view of teleology is likewise contrary to Aquinas's interpretation of Aristotle? That would certainly explain your disagreement with Feser.Mung
February 3, 2013
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What I *would* suggest is that you read Lucretius’s *De Rerum Natura* (“On the Nature of Things”) — it is much easier to understand than Aristotle. After you have read it, you will see what I’ve been intending all along by “teleology” (and the denial of teleology).
ok, you talked me into it, lol.Mung
February 2, 2013
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KN, You recommended On the Nature of Things as "indispensable." Why? I say that materialism denies things and natures. The alternative is that materialism affirms things and natures. A materialism that affirms things and natures is incoherent.Mung
January 30, 2013
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Mung: @ 78: No, you haven't been offensive, and you owe me no apology. I wasn't complaining about your manners, merely about what seemed to me to be overconfidence in the lines of argument you were offering, and what seemed to me to be a reliance upon current opinions rather than the primary texts. @79: I'm not sure why you speak of reading Aristotle in Latin. He wrote in Greek, so Latin would be a translation. If one can't read Greek, one might as well read a good English translation as a Latin one. As for the business about whether Aristotle actually wrote Aristotle, well, the only Aristotle we have, or ever will have, is the textual corpus that comes down to us as "Aristotle": Categories, Nichomachean Ethics, Physics, Metaphysics, De Caelo, etc. There's no hope of "getting behind" those texts to some allegedly different teaching of "the historical Aristotle." So all we can do is interpret the texts we've got. As for the undoubted fact that Aristotle can be at times hard to understand -- well, read him more slowly, then. Read with intensity for no more than an hour at a time. If you get only 4 pages per hour read, you're doing fine. That's better than reading a scholarly summary of Aristotle at 30 pages per hour, or a vulgar summary at 60 pages per hour. And there are books you can get to assist which don't end up controlling your interpretation. Peters's book on Greek philosophical terms, for instance. But the main point is that no one who has not read the actual text of Aristotle should ever pretend to know what Aristotle taught. And that's true of Aquinas or of any author. Secondary sources should be consulted as aids to interpretation, not as the basis of one's interpretation. Also, if you have a day job, you can probably take a Greek philosophy course in the evening, if you live reasonably near a large urban center that has a major college or university. It would be better to read Aristotle's own writing under the tutelage of a scholar, than to read a book about Aristotle without actually reading Aristotle. @82: What onslaught? I said clearly that if you insisted on using "teleology" with a broader meaning, I would let it go, and simply not participate in discussions that presumed that meaning. I indicated that I would "live and let live," with you using an extended meaning and myself using the conventional, more restricted meaning. Yes, teleology can mean "the study of" ends and purposes, but often it refers to just the existence of ends or purposes. For example, when we ask: "Is there teleology in nature?" that is a technically inaccurate, but still understandable, way of asking: "Are there ends or purposes in nature?" I don't have a clue what your alternatives (1a, 1b, 1c) mean. But I can tell you that Lucretius does provide a classic example of "anti-teleological materialism." In fact, I can't think of any "materialisms" (in the Western setting, anyway) that aren't "anti-teleological." But of course "materialism" is one of those terms that is used differently by different people, so if we start on that, we may end up repeating the problem with "teleology," and that's not something I care to do. :-) What I *would* suggest is that you read Lucretius's *De Rerum Natura* ("On the Nature of Things") -- it is much easier to understand than Aristotle. After you have read it, you will see what I've been intending all along by "teleology" (and the denial of teleology).Timaeus
January 30, 2013
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Are ‘anti-teleological materialism’ and ‘purposive creationism’ the only two options? Does Lucretius fall in the camp of anti-teleological materialism? Was his opponent purposive creationism?
Well, all this isn't really my area, you know. Most of what I know is what I've picked up from Sedley and a few other sources here and there. But, I would say, "no," "yes," and "yes," respectively.Kantian Naturalist
January 30, 2013
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Timaeus, I have no intention of meekly folding in the face of your onslaught. While I am open to your analysis of how I say things, it's no substitute for an analysis of what I say. 1.) I used the word teleology without defining it. Big deal. So did KN. Say we define teleology as follows:
the study of ends or purposes
To which I would add *function. Anti-teleological materialism : 1.a.) The subject of study is real but can't be studied. 1.b.) There is no subject of study except as imagination. 1.c.) There is no subject of study. Where are you, Timaeus? * - is function the means by which we ascertain end or purpose?Mung
January 30, 2013
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So, KN:
For those interested in the history of the debate between anti-teleological materialism and purposive creationism: Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things is indispensable.
Are 'anti-teleological materialism' and 'purposive creationism' the only two options? Does Lucretius fall in the camp of anti-teleological materialism? Was his opponent purposive creationism? cheersMung
January 30, 2013
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But perhaps I am confusing what he wrote with the order in which it ought to be presented.Mung
January 30, 2013
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Timaeus:
The obvious way of settling that question is to read Aristotle himself!
In Greek or in Latin? As KN pointed out, it's not easy to "read Aristotle himself." My understanding is that when someone reads Aristotle they are not really reading Aristotle anyways, but his followers.Mung
January 30, 2013
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Timaeus, It seems that you have taken my comments the wrong way. If I've been offensive I apologize.Mung
January 30, 2013
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Footnote re Mung to Kantian: "That is one of the things I am trying to tease apart. What would ‘pure’ Aristotelianism look like." The obvious way of settling that question is to read Aristotle himself!Timaeus
January 30, 2013
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Kantian: Thanks for all your able discussion and references in your last couple of posts. I'll consult some of this material when I can. Must run.Timaeus
January 30, 2013
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Kantian Naturalist:
The detailed story of how Aristotle was discovered and interpreted is in Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages, which I recommend very highly.)
I thought I had purchased that but it looks like maybe I hadn't. Thanks for the reminder! (At least now it's on Kindle.)
...and that makes the very real (but subtle) differences between Aristotelianism and Thomism easier to grasp.
Again thanks for the recommendation. That is one of the things I am trying to tease apart. What would 'pure' Aristotelianism look like. How was Aristotle changed by the Muslim and Scholastic scholars? Do you know of any books that treat of that second question specifically? By the way, I have quoted Johnson a couple time. He's anti-id (after a manner of speaking). ;)
Monte R. Johnson is an associate professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. He teaches and researches the works of classical Greek philosophers, especially Democritus and Aristotle, and their influence on subsequent philosophy and science. He is currently working with D. S. Hutchinson on a critical edition, translation and commentary on Aristotle's lost dialogue, the Exhortation to Philosophy (Protrepticus).
For easier reading than what you are suggesting! http://www.amazon.com/dp/0684838230 http://www.amazon.com/dp/068481868X lolMung
January 30, 2013
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Mung, you wrote: "If Aristotle studies are your cup of tea you really might want to check out Aristotle on Teleology." And if Aristotle studies are *your* cup of tea, you ought to check out the *classic* accounts of Aristotle's thought, and not rely exclusively on the new-fangled ones. :-) "This is all very new to me, but I am trying to do my homework." Yet your argumentative "tone" -- if I may put it that way -- is not the tentative tone of someone who finds these things "all very new" but the tone of someone who believes himself to have come up with decisive and issue-settling arguments. Speaking as someone for whom this material is *not* "very new," I can say that such overconfidence is intellectually dangerous. I would add that there is no replacement for knowing the primary sources (start with Aristotle's Physics) very well; and it's best to struggle through the primary sources, no matter how tough they are, for as long as one possibly can, before going to secondary sources, because they tend to "color" all one's subsequent reading of the primary sources afterward. I get the strong impression that your discussion is based on (1) very modern secondary sources, and not at all on (2) classic secondary discussions and (3) the primary texts (beyond snippets quoted by your modern secondary sources). Am I right? Or have you actually spent a great deal of time reading significant amounts of Aristotle and Aquinas on your own? If so, I hope you will reference passages in the future, and give your own (not someone else's) exposition of the passages, so I can see how you are interpreting the sources. That would greatly facilitate communication. But enough. Back to work for me.Timaeus
January 30, 2013
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But I would urge anyone who speaks about final causes, teleology, etc. to read the relevant passages in Aristotle’s *Physics* (preferably in a good scholarly edition with notes discussing the vocabulary)
The edition I like to use is Aristotle's Physics: A Guided Study. The translator, Joe Sachs, has a very specific axe to grind in his translations of Aristotle: he wants to get away from all the Latin terms that have crept into the discussion of Aristotle. This is both good and bad. It's bad, because one won't find in Sachs' translations the 'standard' terms that we find in Aquinas or in modern Thomism, so it can be tricky to piece together the commonalities. (Aquinas, I believe, used Latin translations from Arabic translations. The detailed story of how Aristotle was discovered and interpreted is in Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages, which I recommend very highly.) The advantages of Sachs' translations, however, are considerable, because he is trying to present, in very accessible English, a version of Aristotle that isn't refracted through Scholastic vocabulary, and that makes the very real (but subtle) differences between Aristotelianism and Thomism easier to grasp. As Timaeus correctly pointed out, Aquinas has concerns and commitments that aren't Aristotelian. For example: as a Christian, Aquinas beliefs that God created the world ex nihilo. Aristotle has no such notion, since he argues (in the Physics) that the cosmos has no beginning in time. So Aquinas has to think through just what divine creativity really amounts to, and this brings him to focus much more on the idea of prima materia, 'primary matter,' which Aristotle doesn't really have, matter which has no form to it at all. (Some scholars have suggested that the Scholastic doctrine of prima materia is an ancestor of Descartes' notion of res extensa; that seems basically right to me. It has also been suggested that the Scholastic doctrine of substantial form -- which also has no clear analogue in Aristotle, so far as I know -- is the ancestor-concept of Descartes' concept of the mind, res cogitans. So one can think of Cartesian metaphysics as basically saying that human beings are the only finite things that have forms, in the Scholastic sense. For more on this, see Between Two Worlds: A Reading of Descartes's Meditations and Physiologia: Natural Philosophy in Late Aristotelian and Cartesian Thought.)Kantian Naturalist
January 30, 2013
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Timaeus:
Part of the problem is that you are citing interpretations of Aristotle by very recent authors, such as Kreeft and Monte Ransome Johnson, the latter of whom I’ve never even heard of, and neither of whom are necessarily authoritative interpreters of Aristotle.
I'm glad I could introduce you to someone new! If Aristotle studies are your cup of tea you really might want to check out Aristotle on Teleology. Review here.
As should be clear by now, I wasn't greatly moved by Johnson's criticisms of anthropocentric and cosmic teleology. However, great stretches of this book are clear, persuasive, and well-documented. Johnson is, then, to be congratulated on having written a comprehensive and stimulating study on an important topic. Anybody interested in teleology will want to read and probe the arguments of this book.
I hope you are encouraged that I don't just uncritically accept what someone else has written and then parrot it without caring to attempt to understand it. This is all very new to me, but I am trying to do my homework. :)Mung
January 30, 2013
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Mr. Murray (61): I think that certain questions need to be separated. The question: "Why are there natural laws at all?" is a good one, and on the basis of that question, one can proceed to various arguments for the existence of God. (Whether or not those arguments are successful is another matter, but that is not my point here.) The question: "Why do some natural objects show the particular forms of end-directness that they show?" is also a good question, and on the basis of that question, one can again proceed to various arguments for the existence of God. (And again, whether such arguments for the existence of God are valid is not what I'm addressing here.) However, the two questions are different questions, and I think that the term "teleology" is best applied to the second question, not the first. The disagreement we are having is that Mung (along with apparently Feser and others) thinks that the term "teleology" applies to the first question as well. I am contesting, as a point of *history* -- the history of usage of the term -- that it has generally *not* been applied in this way. One of the problems of modern debates on these subjects, I've found, is that people with only cursory training tend to pick up terms "by ear" (i.e., by "guessing from context" -- a lazy strategy consecrated by post-1960s schoolteachers, but an abomination from a scholarly point of view) as they read books or internet columns etc., and rarely do a careful study of the origin and history of the terms before they start using them. They thus often repeat these words, using them in confident-sounding sentences, on the basis of a very imperfect understanding. Thus, words like "teleology" and "gnostic" and "dualism" and "deism" and "providence" and "random" get thrown around with many different meanings, and writers don't specify which meaning they are employing (as if think the meaning they have guessed is universally accepted), and this produces intellectual confusion. It's because I've constantly seen discussions bogged down by this problem that I'm trying to restore a little historical and philological discipline to the discussion here. If teleology is *defined* in a certain way, then *of course* the existence of any natural laws at all points to teleology. But if teleology is defined in another way, natural laws *alone* do not imply teleology. It would thus help if, before writers assert that the existence of natural laws imply teleology, that they *define the term "teleology"*. I doubt I can say anything more that is clear on this subject. But I would urge anyone who speaks about final causes, teleology, etc. to read the relevant passages in Aristotle's *Physics* (preferably in a good scholarly edition with notes discussing the vocabulary), and also to read the standard academic histories of science, in which one will find, fairly regularly, the affirmation that one of the main changes between ancient and modern science (the latter of which certainly believed in natural laws!) was the abandonment of a teleological in favor of a non-teleological view of nature.Timaeus
January 30, 2013
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Mung: Re 63 and ff.: No, my point has nothing to do with animate versus inanimate objects *per se*. Some inanimate "substances" in Aristotle's sense (certainly artificial objects) clearly have "final causes." Part of the problem is that you are citing interpretations of Aristotle by very recent authors, such as Kreeft and Monte Ransome Johnson, the latter of whom I've never even heard of, and neither of whom are necessarily authoritative interpreters of Aristotle. I was raised in the "classical" understanding of Aristotle and I understand his remarks on teleology in that light. But the books and articles in which you find this classic interpretation will in most cases not be found on the internet, and you will have to go to a university library to read them, or buy them online. Any of the great Oxford, Cambridge, Chicago or Harvard scholars of old -- David Ross or Cornford or McKeon etc. -- should confirm my interpretation. I also think that there is a problem in that Aquinas, though certainly a very fine student and analyst of Aristotle (one of the best ever), had some interests -- Biblical and Christian ones -- that were alien to the purposes of Aristotle, and I am not convinced, as Feser and others are, that Aquinas has not to some extent distorted the original Aristotelian teaching in order to fit into his Christian Aristotelian view of things. That said, I will summarize: if you are determined to say that the existence of natural laws *at all* automatically implies teleology, then I can, for the purpose of following your argument, adjust temporarily to what you mean by "teleology." But I don't think that your wider usage of teleology is as intellectually *useful* as the narrower one which focuses on ends of particular substances. (Or, the fine-tuning argument for an anthropocentric universe, on the end or purpose of the fundamental laws and constants of nature.) Thus, Newton teaches us that a body, if not affected by an outside force, will continue in a straight line. For you, apparently, that proves that nature is teleological. I would not say so, because the body has no aim or end in its continuation in a straight line. It is not as if there is some target at the end of the straight line that it is trying to hit (think acorn and oak). Further, "body" is an abstraction common to a variety of "substances" in the Aristotelian sense; it is not a "substance" in the sense that a horse or a man is. So the attachment of causes to the notion of substance in Aristotle gets lost. None of the points you have made have addressed these defects of the wider definition. That's all I have time for on this thread. But I forewarn you that, in conversing with others here, I intend to use "teleology" in the more restricted sense that I've indicated. I won't quarrel with your more extended sense, now that I know what you mean, but I won't enter into discussions that presume the validity of your extended sense. So readers here should be forewarned that you and I are using the term in different ways.Timaeus
January 30, 2013
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The reason why eclipses are not explained according to the cause for the sake of which, is that they are not substances. There is nothing in the natural phenomenon of of an eclipse, however regular it might be (and it is far more regular than rainfall) that corresponds to a thing in a state of completion. The moon being screened by the earth is not a state of completion of the moon, the earth, or the sun. It was established in Chapter 3 that teleological explanations have to be made with reference to specific substances, and substances that do achieve such states of completion, and so can be identified as beneficiaries of the end. Since an eclipse is not a substance, it is not explained that way. Similarly, rainfall is not a substance. Water is a substance, and so it can be teleologically explained. But it would be bad science to explain the existence of water or the phenomenon of rainfall with reference to how it relates to animals or other beings. To Aristotle's credit, he does not explain it that way. The teleological explanation of water discusses its properties and principles - what Aristotle calls the functions of water, principles intrinsic to water. - Johnson, Monte Ransome. Aristotle on Teleology
Mung
January 29, 2013
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An efficient cause determines matter to be shaped into one form or another, but a final cause answers a different question: why the efficient cause produces this given effect rather than some other. We cannot confuse the two questions, or reduce either one to the other: (1) What caused this effect? and (2) Why did it produce this effect rather than some other one? Efficient causality supplies the power, but final causality focuses it. Kreeft, Peter. Summa Philosophica
Mung
January 29, 2013
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