The Last Superstition Book Review

This book review was accidentally taken down in a site update. This is the most popular book review I have ever written, so it seems worthwhile to revisit. I've long been a fan of Ed Feser, and I recommend his work. The tone of The Last Superstition has been offputting to some, but Feser knew what he was doing. If you think Feser is bad, you should read the things his critics have said about him. At least Feser feels the need to prove his assertions. If that isn't your cup of tea, he has written plenty of books with a more academic tone. Philosophy of Mind is well done. I haven't yet read Aquinas, but I managed to acquire two copies already.

The Last Superstition
by Edward Feser
ISBN 978-1587314520; $19.00

Edward Feser's The Last Superstition is a polemical work. However, this should not be surprising for two reasons. First, Feser is dealing with amounts to not mere nonsense, but nonsense on stilts. Second, Feser once wrote an essay entitled, "Can Philosophy be Polemical?", pondering whether it is appropriate to engage in polemical debate over philosophical questions. In this book, Feser answers that question in the affirmative. He freely admits in the preface, "If this seems to be an angry book, that is because it is." (TLS, x) Feser regards the creed of the New Atheists as dangerous both personally and socially, and his response is écrasez l'infâme.

The Last Superstition is the book I had been wanting, not because it is a tract against the New Atheism, but because it summarizes the best arguments for an Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics in the face of modern objections. This metaphysics is presented as it developed historically, beginning with the pre-Socratics, on through Plato and Aristotle, to its full flowering among the Scholastics. Feser covers change, actuality and potency, form and matter, the four causes, arguments for the existence of God, and the rational foundations of morality.

By succinctly providing this history, Feser is providing a service to all those who have forgotten, or never truly knew what are the main features of an Aristotelian philosophy. For Feser's most damning criticism of Richard Dawkins et al. is that they have simply not bothered to do their homework. By not collecting the relevant data, they have sinned against the spirit of the science in whose name they crusade. To publish a scientific paper without any evidence would be scandalous, but is precisely the case that Feser makes against them. None of the New Atheists demonstrates any familiarity with the actual arguments of historical theist philosophers except for Rev. William Paley, who functions as a convenient whipping boy.

By way of example, Feser quotes the admission of philosopher Antony Flew in 2004 that he now believes in the existence of God despite a lifetime of argument to the contrary. Flew admitted that he had never actually considered the Aristotelian arguments for the existence of God, and was forced to admit their cogency upon doing so. Those whom Feser targets in The Last Superstition have not yet bothered to consult the texts. Feser documents this amply through quotations from the New Atheists' works.

The weakest part of Feser's argument is in the section on natural law. The difficulty is not that the best contemporary formulation is not presented. The difficulty is that contemporary natural law arguments use human, homo sapiens, and person univocally. These are not just different things, they are different kinds of things. To use the Scholastic terminology, each belongs to a different genus. However, this failure leaves Feser's main argument untouched, because Aristotle and Aquinas were alike able to discern rational foundations for morality without the benefit of a modern doctrine of natural rights that makes use of equivocal terms.

Feser's references are very good, providing further information for the many points which could be elaborated upon. Covering as much ground as this book does would be impossible without considering a great many complicated and subtle topics briefly. However, this is not to say that Feser does not adequately address his topic. He makes short work of the New Atheists due to the poverty of their arguments, and then briefly presents arguments that modernity is more comprehensible if one considers modern problems in light of broadly Aristotelian philosophy. In particular, many of the perennial questions of modern philosophy, such as the mind-body problem or the validity of inductive reasoning become explainable with Aristotle's more robust account of causation. Feser's task is made easier here by the latent Aristotelianism lurking in every corner of Western Civilization. We do not notice our debt to Aristotle for the same reason that fish do not feel wet.

Edward Feser's The Last Superstition is a worthy introduction to the realist philosophical tradition, and is enlivened by Feser's sharp wit. Good for anyone who would like to know more about Aristotelian philosophy.


The Long View: The Physics of Immortality

I'll freely admit this book review jaundiced me against Tipler's book. I'm still convinced this is not a bad thing. I brought this up in a philosophy course once, and my professor chided me. I'm still convinced this is not a bad thing. Tipler is an advocate of the idea that the universe may be a simulation. I regard this as best unproven, and as at worst ridiculous. Tipler uses this idea to explain how resurrection is just a complicated algorithm. I rather think he missed the point, but some rather smart people agree with him. On the plus side, Tipler's favorite dead theologian is Aquinas. While I do think Thomas got some of the foundational ideas of science right, I still think Tipler misses the point.

As a fair warning, my physics education stopped at the undergraduate level. My philosophical education stopped partway through the masters level. I'm an amateur, and I like it that way.

The Physics of Immortality
by Frank J. Tipler
Doubleday, 1994
ISBN: 0-385-46798-2 $24.95

Cultures have their insistences. Navajos, I am told, tend to leave unfinished some little detail of any work they do, just for good luck. Thus, a geometrical design will have a corner undone, or a familiar story will be told on any given occasion with a minor incident omitted. The Bolshevik regime in Russia was vehemently anti-religious, yet its leaders found it perfectly natural to embalm and perpetually display the body of Lenin, for all the world like the incorrupt body of a Russian saint. America too has its insistences, features of its culture which are often invisible to the natives but the most striking characteristics of the country in the eyes of foreigners. America, we know from earliest report, has always managed to be both extremely religious and implacably antimetaphysical. Thus, America is the world capital both of textual literalism in religion and of science ambitious to prophesy. Without careful watching, Americans will tend to reduce metaphysical questions to engineering problems, all the while believing that they are resolving real metaphysical difficulties.

A particularly vivid example of this tendency is provided by Frank J. Tipler's recent book, "The Physics of Immortality." In this book Dr. Tipler, Professor of Mathematical Physics at Tulane University, purports to demonstrate scientifically the existence of God, the resurrection of the dead and the moral coherence of the universe (indeed, of all universes, since the author is an adherent of the "Many Worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics). "The Physics of Immortality" sets out an amplified and more extreme version of the speculations about the fate of the universe which appeared in "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle" (1986), a highly influential work which Dr. Tipler co-authored with the British astrophysicist, John D. Barrow. The gist of the earlier book, at least as I understood it, is that we are living in a very improbable universe. If any of the physical and mathematical constants on which physical reality depends were only slightly different, there would not only be no human race, there would be nothing worth mentioning. The Anthropic Principle is that, despite the modern cliche that we live in a hostile world unconcerned with human happiness, in reality the structure and history of the universe are friendly to man. Indeed, "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle" also claimed to prove that man is the only intelligent species in the universe, and will be the only progenitor of the greater intelligences yet to be. In "The Physics of Immortality," the author explains how the universe can be this way and what its future must be.


Free Will and the Science of Human Nature

Via hbd* chick, I came across JayMan's article, No, You Don't Have Free Will, and This is Why. JayMan is responding to an article by Roy Baumeister, Do You Really Have Free Will?. Baumeister has been featured on this blog before.

JayMan lauds Baumeister for avoiding any supernatural arguments in his article, but he criticizes Baumeister for confusing free will with agency,

that is, the ability to make decisions, especially those that involve human-level “self-control” and response to socially constructed rules...

I wouldn't identify free will with agency, but this isn't that bad of an argument. I will make an argument for the existence of free will on the terms presented in JayMan's blog, using agency as a tool. But first, lets look at JayMan's argument. I think is a good argument, one that should be considered in detail.

Baumeister said this, but I think it is pretty good:

There is no need to insist that free will is some kind of magical violation of causality. Free will is just another kind of cause.

Right, free will is a kind of cause. It is definitely not an uncaused cause, or some sort of causeless action. All acts have causes. Unless you are willing to consider the second of the Five Ways to prove that God exists, however, we are excluding supernatural explanations here.

JayMan next criticizes Baumeister for looking for free will in complexity. I also wouldn't go looking here. People forget that chaos theory, and other such scientific results are completely determinisitic. Complicated or hard to predict are not the same thing as free.

Baumeister next makes an Aristotelian argument, that plants lack locomotion, whereas animals have it. Animals need the ability to decide where to go based on sensory input, and thus make decisions.  All correct, and a very old argument. JayMan correctly notes that the ability to make a decision doesn't require it to be a free decision. The sensory outputs could completely determine the outcome. I doubt that Aquinas or Aristotle would have disagreed with that.

JayMan next points out that in aggregate, many human behaviors are predictable, and that we know that behavioral traits are somewhat heritable. This is the best part of the whole thing. I am absolutely fascinated by this, and I like learning about the ways in which our minds work. A lot of what we do is shaped by our personalities, our education, our upbringing, our past experiences, and even our genes.

Yet, for all that, I'm still going to argue the premises don't entail the conclusion, and free will exists. I actually have the easier part of the argument. In order for JayMan to prevail, no freedom whatsoever is permissible in decision making. I simply need to find a counter-example to prove the negative. I'm happy to agree that much of human behavior is determined by material causes. The philosophical tradition of which I am part agrees that we are material beings, and subject to material causes.

I agree that the process by which we process sensory input is determined by material causes. Complex ones, but material nonetheless. The trouble comes in the process of simulating the course of action. We know that hypotheses are underdetermined by data, no matter how much there is. It is not possible for a computation, or simulation, or whatever physical process is going on, to reduce a to determinate conclusion in all cases. Heck, I only need it to be true once for this argument to work. If your mind comes up with more than one possible course of action what is equally compelling [this is an assumption on my part, but I think a reasonable one], you need a way to choose between these courses. This is precisely what is meant by "free will", the ability to freely choose between limited goods. The cases gets more compelling when you consider that we never only want one thing. Being finite beings, we can't have everything we want. You can satisfy this genetic preference, or that one, but not both. The mere inability to choose seems a possible option, but it is clear most people manage to negotiate this impasse.

It seems likely that the way the mind works is to help you estimate probabilities of things happening: if you chose X instead of Y you are more likely to get Z. This seems to neatly explain our propensities to do things predictably without requiring us to eliminate free will. All the great masters meant by "free will" was that the logic in our minds is not powerful enough to force us choose one of the options our minds present to us, because this judgment is contingent, and therefore not capable of being determinative.

Even if we were to assume that the brain must always choose the highest probability option [and I think always would be hard to prove, and contrary to experience], it is not clear that a highest probability option must exist. To build a philosophically deterministic argument on a foundation of probability seems unwise. In order to prevail with a purely probabilistic materialist determinism, you need to smuggle in something more certain to clinch the argument, which is where I think Baumeister was trying to go with emergent properties.

I am perfectly happy to argue there are some determinative forces in nature that push us, and other things, in certain directions, but some of these things are immaterial, and I said I wasn't going to go there. I think pursuing this line of argumentation does not end well for the committed materialist.


Aquinas and Neuroscience

Non-linear Brain Dynamics and Intention According to Aquinas, by Walter J. Freeman.

We humans and other animals continuously construct and maintain our grasp of the world by using astonishingly small snippets of sensory information. Recent studies in nonlinear brain dynamics have shown how this occurs: brains imagine possible futures and seek and use sensory stimulation to select among them as guides for chosen actions. On the one hand the scienti c explanation of the dynamics is inaccessible to most of us. On the other hand the philosophical foundation from which the sciences grew is accessible through the work of one of its originators, Thomas Aquinas. The core concept of intention in Aquinas is the inviolable unity of mind, brain and body.

All that we know we have constructed within ourselves from the unintelligible fragments of energy impacting our senses as we move our bodies through the world. This process of intention is transitive in the outward thrust of the body in search of desired future states; it is intransitive in the dynamic construction of predictions of the states in the sensory cortices by which we recognize success or failure in achievement. The process is phenomenologically experienced in the action-perception cycle. Enactment is through the serial creation of neurodynamic activity patterns in brains, by which the self of mind-brain-body comes to know the world rst by shaping the self to an approximation of the sought-for input, and then by assimilating those shapes into knowledge and meaning.

This conception of the self as closed, autonomous, and selforganizing, devised over 700 years ago and shelved by Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza 300 years ago, is now re-emerging in philosophy and re-establishes the meaning of intention in its original sense. The core Aquinian concept of the unity of brain, body and soul/mind, which had been abandoned by mechanists and replaced by Brentano and Husserl using the duality inherent in representationalism, has been revived by Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, but in phenomenological terms that are opaque to neurscientists. In my experience there is no extant philosophical system than that of Aquinas that better ts with the new ndings in nonlinear brain dynamics. Therefore, a detailed reading and transcription of basic terms is warranted, comparing in both directions the signi cance of key words across 700 years from medieval metaphysics to 21st century brain dynamics.

My gratitude to the Social Pathologist, who pointed me to this paper inadvertently. Aquinas is my homie too.