Tag Archives: Edward Feser

#3 Post of 2015 – Why Can’t Science Explain Consciousness?

It is not uncommon these days to hear something like the following: “Science has explained just about everything else in the world, so it is inevitable that science will explain the mind and consciousness.” This kind of comment always makes me roll my eyes because the people who make this comment are making a colossal error, but an error that can be hard to see.

Philosopher Ed Feser gives a brilliant analogy that makes the error more obvious. He calls it the “lump under the rug” fallacy.

Suppose the wood floors of your house are filthy and that the dirt is pretty evenly spread throughout the house.  Suppose also that there is a rug in one of the hallways.  You thoroughly sweep out one of the bedrooms and form a nice little pile of dirt at the doorway.  It occurs to you that you could effectively “get rid” of this pile by sweeping it under the nearby rug in the hallway, so you do so.  The lump under the rug thereby formed is barely noticeable, so you are pleased.

You proceed to sweep the rest of the bedrooms, the bathroom, the kitchen, etc., and in each case you sweep the resulting piles under the same rug.  When you’re done, however, the lump under the rug has become quite large and something of an eyesore.  Someone asks you how you are going to get rid of it.  “Easy!” you answer.  “The same way I got rid of the dirt everywhere else!  After all, the ‘sweep it under the rug’ method has worked everywhere else in the house.  How could this little rug in the hallway be the one place where it wouldn’t work?  What are the odds of that?”

What is wrong with using the “sweep it under the rug” method to get rid of the dirt under the rug?

Naturally, the same method will not work in this case, and it is precisely because it worked everywhere else that it cannot work in this case.  You can get rid of dirt outside the rug by sweeping it under the rug.  You cannot get of the dirt under the rug by sweeping it under the rug.  You will only make a fool of yourself if you try, especially if you confidently insist that the method must work here because it has worked so well elsewhere.

So what does the “sweep it under the rug” method have to do with the issue of whether science will explain the mind and consciousness some day?

Now, the “Science has explained everything else, so how could the human mind be the one exception?” move is, of course, standard scientistic and materialist shtick.  But it is no less fallacious than our imagined “lump under the rug” argument.

Here’s why.  Keep in mind that Descartes, Newton, and the other founders of modern science essentially stipulated that nothing that would not fit their exclusively quantitative or “mathematicized” conception of matter would be allowed to count as part of a “scientific” explanation.  Now to common sense, the world is filled with irreducibly qualitative features — colors, sounds, odors, tastes, heat and cold — and with purposes and meanings.  None of this can be analyzed in quantitative terms.

To be sure, you can re-define color in terms of a surface’s reflection of light of certain wavelengths, sound in terms of compression waves, heat and cold in terms of molecular motion, etc.  But that doesn’t capture what common sense means by color, sound, heat, cold, etc. — the way red looks, the way an explosion sounds, the way heat feels, etc.  So, Descartes and Co. decided to treat these irreducibly qualitative features as projections of the mind.

The redness we see in a “Stop” sign, as common sense understands redness, does not actually exist in the sign itself but only as the quale of our conscious visual experience of the sign; the heat we attribute to the bathwater, as common sense understands heat, does not exist in the water itself but only in the “raw feel” that the high mean molecular kinetic energy of the water causes us to experience; meanings and purposes do not exist in external material objects but only in our minds, and we project these onto the world; and so forth.  Objectively there are only colorless, odorless, soundless, tasteless, meaningless particles in fields of force.

In short, the scientific method “explains everything else” in the world in something like the way the “sweep it under the rug” method gets rid of dirt — by taking the irreducibly qualitative and teleological features of the world, which don’t fit the quantitative methods of science, and sweeping them under the rug of the mind.  And just as the literal “sweep it under the rug” method generates under the rug a bigger and bigger pile of dirt which cannot in principle be gotten rid of using the “sweep it under the rug” method, so too does modern science’s method of treating irreducibly qualitative, semantic, and teleological features as mere projections of the mind generate in the mind a bigger and bigger “pile” of features which cannot be explained using the same method.

And there you have it. The very way science does its work is to exclude the qualitative features of reality as experienced by human consciousness. To lump the phenomena of consciousness in with the phenomena of gravity, cellular division, and star formation, is to try to get rid of the dirt under the rug by sweeping the dirt under the rug! It won’t work, ever.

How Is Science Like Checkers?

Philosopher Ed Feser recently introduced another useful analogy to explain why scientism, the idea that the scientific method is the only way to gain true knowledge of reality, is false. Feser writes:

Think of it this way: you can’t find out why checkers boards exist by looking at the rules of checkers themselves, which concern only what goes on within the game. The rules tell you how each piece moves, how the game is won, and so forth. But why are the pieces governed by these rules, specifically, rather than others? Why do any checkers boards exist at all in the first place? No scrutiny of the rules can answer those questions. It is impossible to answer them, or indeed even to understand the questions, unless you take a vantage point from outside the game and its rules.

How does checkers compare to science?

Similarly, what science uncovers are, in effect, the “rules” that govern the “game” that is the natural world. Its domain of study is what is internal to the natural order of things. It presupposes that there is such an order, just as the rules of checkers presuppose that there are such things as checkers boards and game pieces. For that very reason, though, science has nothing to say about why there is any natural order or laws in the first place, any more than the rules of checkers tell you why there are any checkers boards or checkers rules in the first place.

If science cannot, in principle, answer these questions, how do we answer questions about why there is any natural order or laws in the first place?

To answer those questions, or even to understand them properly, you must take an intellectual vantage point from outside the world and its laws, and thus outside of science. You need to look to philosophical argument, which goes deeper than anything mere physics can uncover.


Has Neuroscience Proven There Is No Free Will?

These days you may indeed be told that experiments conducted by neuroscientists and psychologists have proven that free will is an illusion. I always snicker when someone tells me this because it means that they did not come to that conclusion freely, but were determined by their brain chemistry. But, leaving that aside, how should we answer these challenges to free will?

Philosopher Edward Feser, in a book review written for City Journal, denies neuroscience has done any such thing. Feser is reviewing Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, by Alfred Mele, and he claims that “Mele demonstrates that scientific evidence comes nowhere close to undermining free will, and that the reasoning leading some scientists to claim otherwise is amazingly sloppy.”

Feser first tackles the work of neurobiologist Benjamin Libet. If you’re not familiar with Libet’s work, here is a summary:

In Libet’s experiments, subjects were asked to flex a wrist whenever they felt like doing so, and then to report on when they had become consciously aware of the urge to flex it. Their brains were wired so that the activity in the motor cortex responsible for causing their wrists to flex could be detected. While an average of 200 milliseconds passed between the conscious sense of willing and the flexing of the wrist, the activity in the motor cortex would begin an average of over 500 milliseconds before the flexing. Hence the conscious urge to flex seems to follow the neural activity which initiates the flexing, rather than causing that neural activity. If free will requires that consciously willing to do something is the cause of doing it, then it follows (so the argument goes) that we don’t really act freely.

The argument is that we don’t detect the conscious urge to flex our wrist until after we have sent instructions to flex our wrist, so we can’t be freely deciding to flex our wrist. Is this argument valid? Hardly.

As Mele shows, the significance of Libet’s results has been vastly oversold. One problem is that Libet did not demonstrate that the specific kind of neural activity he measured is invariably followed by a flexing of the wrist. Given his experimental setup, only cases where the neural activity was actually followed by flexing were detected. Also, Libet did not check for cases where the neural activity occurred but was not followed by flexing. Hence we have no evidence that specific kind of neural activity really is sufficient for the flexing. For all Libet has shown, it may be that the neural activity leads to flexing (or doesn’t) depending on whether it is conjoined with a conscious free choice to flex.

But there are other problems with the experiment “proving” free will doesn’t exist.

There’s a second problem. The sorts of actions Libet studied are highly idiosyncratic. The experimental setup required subjects to wait passively until they were struck by an urge to flex their wrists. But many of our actions don’t work like that—especially those we attribute to free choice. Instead, they involve active deliberation, the weighing of considerations for and against different possible courses of action. It’s hardly surprising that conscious deliberation has little influence on what we do in an experimental situation in which deliberation has been explicitly excluded. And it’s wrong to extend conclusions derived from these artificial situations to all human action, including cases which do involve active deliberation.

Even more fundamentally, why should we tie the conscious feeling in our brain that we made a decision with the fact that the decision was freely made?

Even if the neural activity Libet identifies (contrary to what he actually shows) invariably preceded a flexing of the wrist, it still wouldn’t follow that the flexing wasn’t the product of free choice. Why should we assume that a choice is not free if it registers in consciousness a few hundred milliseconds after it is made? Think of making a cup of coffee. You don’t explicitly think, “Now I will pick up the kettle; now I will pour hot water through the coffee grounds; now I will put the kettle down; now I will pick up a spoon.” You simply do it. You may, after the fact, bring to consciousness the various steps you just carried out; or you may not. We take the action to be free either way. The notion that a free action essentially involves a series of conscious acts of willing, each followed by a discrete bodily movement, is a straw man, and doesn’t correspond to what common sense (or, for that matter, philosophers like Wittgenstein or Aquinas) have in mind when they talk about free action.

Mele tackles other science that purports to disprove free will in his book. Given Feser’s review, this book may be well worth reading.

What Are the Limits of Physics?

Contrary to the disciples of scientism, physics has limits. Philosopher Ed Feser gives a quick run-down which is worth passing along. Feser writes,

As I have emphasized many times, what physics gives us is a description of the mathematical structure of physical reality.  It abstracts from any aspect of reality which cannot be captured via its exclusively quantitative methods. (emphasis added)

Let’s stop here because this is important. What Feser is saying is that when the methods of physics are applied to any object, any event, any piece of the world around us, the method only addresses the parts of that object, event, or piece of the world that can be mathematically quantified. Physics ignores any parts of the world that cannot be mathematically quantified.

One reason that this is crucial to keep in mind is that from the fact that something doesn’t show up in the description physics gives us, it doesn’t follow that it isn’t there in the physical world.  This is like concluding from the fact that color doesn’t show up in a black and white pen and ink drawing of a banana that bananas must not really be yellow.

In both cases the absence is an artifact of the method employed, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the reality the method is being used to represent.  The method of representing an object using black ink on white paper will necessarily leave out color even if it is there, and the method of representing physical reality using exclusively mathematical language will necessarily leave out any aspect of physical reality which is not reducible to the quantitative, even if such aspects are there.

But maybe all of reality is just composed of mathematical structure. Feser argues that this cannot be the case, that other aspects of reality must be there.

The quantitative description physics gives us is essentially a description of mathematical structure.  But mathematical structure by itself is a mere abstraction.  It cannot be all there is, because structure presupposes something concrete which has the structure.  Indeed, physics itself tells us that the abstraction cannot be all there is, since it tells us that some abstract mathematical structures do not fit the actual, concrete material world.

For example, Einstein is commonly taken to have shown that our world is not really Euclidean.  This could only be true if there is some concrete reality that instantiates a non-Euclidean abstract structure rather than a Euclidean abstract structure.  So, physics itself implies that there must be more to the world than the abstract structure it captures in its purely mathematical description, but it does not and cannot tell us exactly what this concrete reality is like.

Physics is one tool, a powerful one certainly, in our toolbox for describing reality. But to think that it is the only tool in the toolbox is just silly.

Does This New Argument for Scientism Work?

It’s been a while since we’ve beat up scientism on the blog, so I figured we were due again. It’s an “ism” that just keeps rearing its head over and over and thus needs to be slapped around over and over. Philosopher Edward Feser, in one of his blog posts, reviews yet  another version of the argument for scientism that he then critiques. Here is the argument:

  1. The predictive power and technological applications of science are unparalleled by those of any other purported source of knowledge.
  2. So science is a reliable source of knowledge.
  3. Science has undermined beliefs derived from other purported sources of knowledge, such as common sense.
  4. So science has shown that these other purported sources of knowledge are unreliable.
  5. The range of subjects science investigates is vast.
  6. So the number of purported sources of knowledge that science has shown to be unreliable is vast.
  7. So what science reveals to us is probably all that is real.

Feser grants premise 1 and 2, but thinks that premise 3 is not sustainable (in the post he explains why). However, in order to move the critique along, he grants, for the sake of argument, premise 3, and then proceeds to look at premises 4-7.

[P]remise (3) simply doesn’t give us good reason to believe step (4).  To see why not, suppose we replace “science” with “visual experience” in these two steps of the argument.  Visual experience has of course very often undermined beliefs derived from other sources of knowledge.  For example, it often tells us that the person we thought we heard come in the room was really someone else, or that when we thought we were feeling a pillow next to us it was really a cat.

Does that mean that visual experience has shown that auditory experience and tactile experience are unreliable sources of knowledge?  Of course not.  To do that, it would have to have shown that auditory experience and tactical experience are not just often wrong but wrong on a massive scale and with respect to a very wide variety of subjects.  And it has done no such thing.  But neither has science shown any such thing with respect to common sense.  Hence (3) is not a good reason to conclude to (4).

But do premises 4 and 5 support premise 6? Not really.

(4) and (5) also don’t give us good reason to believe (6).  Suppose we label the range of subjects science covers with letters, from A, B, C, D, and so on all the way to Z.  Even if science really did show that other purported sources of knowledge were unreliable with respect to domains A and B (say), it obviously wouldn’t follow that there were no reliable sources of knowledge other than science with respect to domains C through Z.

Feser, referring to his book Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Editiones Scholasticae), summarizes the case against scientism:

In any event, a theme that is developed at length throughout my book is that there are absolute limits in principle to the range of beliefs that science could undermine, and these are precisely the sorts of beliefs with which metaphysics is concerned.  The book aims in part to set out (some of) the notions that any possible empirical science must presuppose, and thus cannot coherently call into question.

Or put another way, science is built on a foundation of mathematics, logic, reliability of the senses, truth-telling, language, uniformity of nature, and so on. Without that foundation, science crumbles to the ground in a heap of debris.

Why Would You Expect to See a Painter in His Painting?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

A common complaint of religious skeptics is that they don’t have enough evidence that God exists. If God created the world, then we should be able to see him clearly and unequivocally with our eyes, and hear him with our ears, and touch him with our hands, etc.

This demand has never made sense to me, given who the God of Christianity is. Philosopher Ed Feser gives an apt analogy of the situation in this blog post:

Suppose you’re looking at a painting of a crowd of people, and you remark upon the painter’s intentions in producing the work. Someone standing next to you looking at the same painting — let’s call him Skeptic — begins to scoff. “Painter? Oh please, there’s no evidence of any painter! I’ve been studying this canvas for years. I’ve gone over every square inch. I’ve studied each figure in detail — facial expressions, posture, clothing, etc. I’ve found plumbers, doctors, dancers, hot dog vendors, dogs, cats, birds, lamp posts, and all kinds of other things. But I’ve never found this painter of yours anywhere in it. No doubt you’ll tell me that I need to look again until I find him. But really, how long do we have to keep looking without success until people like you finally admit that there just is no painter?”

Feser then comments on why Skeptic has completely missed the boat:

Needless to say, Skeptic, despite his brash confidence, will have entirely misunderstood the nature of the dispute between you and him. He would be making the crudest of category mistakes. He fundamentally misunderstands both what it means to say that there is a painter, and fundamentally misunderstands the reasons for saying there is one.

What are the mistakes that Skeptic is making?

[H]e’s treating the painter as if he were essentially some part of the picture, albeit a part that is hard to see directly. . . . [H]e’s supposing that settling the question of whether the painter exists has something to do with focusing on unusual or complex or hard-to-see elements of the painting — when, of course, that has nothing essentially to do with it at all.

In fact, of course, even the most trivial, plain, and simple painting would require a painter just as much as a complicated picture of a crowd of people would.  And in fact, the painter is not himself a part of the picture, and therefore, looking obsessively within the picture itself at various minute details of it is precisely where you won’t find him.

Why can’t we definitively find God with scientific observation? Why can’t we settle the question of God once and for all with our scientific instruments and methods?

Although scientific observation can certainly point us toward God, and even strongly toward a very powerful and intelligent Creator, at the end of the day, one has to do metaphysics to close the deal. Feser summarizes:

It is not a question of natural science — which, given the methods that define it in the modern period, can in principle only ever get you from one part of the world to another part of it, and never outside the world — but rather a question for metaphysics, which is not limited by its methods to the this-worldly.

This is why I have explained to my skeptical friends over and over and over again that their skepticism is usually rooted in their metaphysics, and they need to start there before bothering with anything else.

Can Atheists Avoid a Cause of the Universe?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

That is exactly what Sean Carroll attempted to do in his recent debate with William Lane Craig. Here is what Carroll said:

Why should we expect that there are causes or explanations or a reason why in the universe in which we live? It’s because the physical world inside of which we’re embedded has two important features.

There are unbreakable patterns, laws of physics — things don’t just happen, they obey the laws — and there is an arrow of time stretching from the past to the future. The entropy was lower in the past and increases towards the future. Therefore, when you find some event or state of affairs B today, we can very often trace it back in time to one or a couple of possible predecessor events that we therefore call the cause of that, which leads to B according to the laws of physics.

But crucially, both of these features of the universe that allow us to speak the language of causes and effects are completely absent when we talk about the universe as a whole.  We don’t think that our universe is part of a bigger ensemble that obeys laws.  Even if it’s part of the multiverse, the multiverse is not part of a bigger ensemble that obeys laws.  Therefore, nothing gives us the right to demand some kind of external cause.

If Carroll’s argument works, then atheists have discovered a clever way to avoid any form of the cosmological argument for God’s existence. But does his argument really work? According to philosopher Ed Feser (in this blog post), it does not, at least not if Carroll is arguing against classical Christian theology.

Feser takes up Carroll’s argument:

Now in fact it is Carroll who has said absolutely nothing to establish his right to dismiss the demand for a cause as confidently as he does. For he has simply begged all the important questions and completely missed the point of the main traditional classical theistic arguments . . . .

One problem here is that, like so many physicists, Carroll has taken what is really just one species of causation (the sort which involves a causal relation between temporally separated events) and identified it with causation as such. But in fact, the Aristotelian argues, event causation is not only not the only kind of causation but is parasitic on substance causation.

Feser continues:

But put that aside, because the deeper problem is that Carroll supposes that causation is to be explained in terms of laws of nature, whereas the Aristotelian view is that this has things precisely backwards. Since a “law of nature” is just a shorthand description of the ways a thing will operate — that is to say, what sorts of effects it will tend to have — given its nature or substantial form, in fact the notion of “laws of nature” metaphysically presupposes causation.

So what does causation look like if it is not essentially about tracing a series of events backwards in time?

On the Aristotelian-Scholastic analysis, questions about causation are raised wherever we have potentialities that need actualization, or a thing’s being metaphysically composite and thus in need of a principle that accounts for the composition of its parts, or there being a distinction in a thing between its essence or nature on the one and its existence on the other, or a thing’s being contingent.

The universe, however physics and scientific cosmology end up describing it — even if it turned out to be a universe without a temporal beginning, even if it is a four-dimensional block universe, even if Hawking’s closed universe model turned out to be correct, even if we should really think in terms of a multiverse rather than a single universe — will, the Aristotelian argues, necessarily exhibit just these features (potentialities needing actualization, composition, contingency, etc.). And thus it will, as a matter of metaphysical necessity, require a cause outside it.

Thus the universe requires a cause outside it. As Feser explains, only that

which is pure actuality devoid of potentiality, only what is utterly simple or non-composite, only something whose essence or nature just is existence itself, only what is therefore in no way contingent but utterly necessary — only that, the classical theist maintains, could in principle be the ultimate terminus of explanation, whatever the specific scientific details turn out to be.

In the end, Carroll has simply not addressed the arguments from classical Christian theology and philosophy. He has not, therefore, successfully avoided the need for the universe to have a cause.

#10 Post of 2013 – How Do We Know the Universe Hasn’t Existed Eternally?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

For those of you who look to science to answer every question, cosmologists are pretty unanimous in agreeing that our universe is not eternal, and in fact begun about 14 billion years ago. You may not like this answer, and so go running toward alternative cosmologies to escape the standard big bang model of the universe. Unfortunately, there is no salvation there either.

As summarized nicely on the Wintery Knight blog, “The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin [theorem] shows that every universe that expands must have a space-time boundary in the past. That means that no expanding universe, no matter what the model, can be eternal into the past. Even speculative alternative cosmologies do not escape the need for a beginning.”

So it would appear that science is no help to those who want to desperately cling to an eternal universe. What about philosophy?

The dominant ancient metaphysical traditions have also demonstrated why the physical universe cannot be eternal. Here we quote from Edward Feser in an article he wrote for First Things:

In general, classical philosophical theology argues for the existence of a first cause of the world—a cause that does not merely happen not to have a cause of its own but that (unlike everything else that exists) in principle does not require one. Nothing else can provide an ultimate explanation of the world.

For Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, for example, things in the world can change only if there is something that changes or actualizes everything else without the need (or indeed even the possibility) of its being actualized itself, precisely because it is already “pure actuality.” Change requires an unchangeable changer or unmovable mover.

Feser goes on to consider other great thinkers of the past:

For Neoplatonists, everything made up of parts can be explained only by reference to something that combines the parts. Accordingly, the ultimate explanation of things must be utterly simple and therefore without the need or even the possibility of being assembled into being by something else. Plotinus called this “the One.” For Leibniz, the existence of anything that is in any way contingent can be explained only by its origin in an absolutely necessary being.

But why can’t the first cause, the necessary being, “the One,” be the universe itself instead of God? What is the difference between an eternal Creator and an eternal universe?

The difference, as the reader of Aristotle or Aquinas knows, is that the universe changes while the unmoved mover does not, or, as the Neoplatonist can tell you, that the universe is made up of parts while its source is absolutely one; or, as Leibniz could tell you, that the universe is contingent and God absolutely necessary. There is thus a principled reason for regarding God rather than the universe as the terminus of explanation.

So, positing the universe as an eternally existing thing that is the cause of everything else both collides with modern science and with classical metaphysics. I happen to think the metaphysical arguments are stronger, but maybe you prefer the science. Either way, it don’t look good for an eternal universe.

Why Do You Need to Understand the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

One of my favorite writers these days is Edward Feser. He has a unique way of explaining the most complex concepts about theology and philosophy in ways that laypeople can understand. I was reading a blog post he wrote that explains why the doctrine of divine simplicity is so important.

Feser begins:

At the core of classical theism is the notion of divine simplicity — the idea that God is non-composite or without parts.  This is a doctrine having its philosophical roots in Plato and Aristotle and defended by pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers as diverse as Philo of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Plotinus, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, Aquinas, and Scotus.  The doctrine is the de fide teaching of the Catholic Church and is endorsed by many Protestant theologians.  The point of all this name-dropping is to emphasize how absolutely central the doctrine of divine simplicity is to the mainstream Western tradition in philosophical theology.

Feser is pointing out that divine simplicity, the idea that God is not composed of parts, has a deep philosophical history among the greatest thinkers of the past 2,500 years. So why is it so important that God doesn’t have parts, that he is simple?

The reason is that for the classical theist, whatever else we mean by “God,” we certainly mean by that label to name the ultimate source, cause, or explanation of things.  Properly to understand classical theism, the hostile atheist reader might even find it useful to put the word “God” out of his mind for the moment — given all the irrelevant associations the word might lead him to read into the present discussion — and just think instead of “the ultimate source of things.”  The classical theist maintains that whatever is in any way composed of parts cannot be the ultimate source of things.  For wherever we have a composite thing, a thing made up of parts, we have something that requires a cause of its own, a cause which accounts for how the parts get together.

Feser backs this point up from our everyday observations of the world:

This is obviously true of the ordinary things of our experience.  For example, a given chair exists only because there is something (a carpenter, or a machine) that assembled the legs, seat, etc. into a chair.  And the chair continues to exist only insofar as certain combining factors — such as the tackiness of glue or friction between screw threads — continue to operate.  The point applies also to things whose composition is less crudely mechanical.  A water molecule depends for its existence on the oxygen and hydrogen atoms that make it up together with the principles of covalent bonding.

So why must God be simple? Anything composed of parts must have had a composer, but we are looking for the being that has no composer, that is uncomposed. So the ultimate source, cause, or explanation of things cannot be composed by a composer.

Any doctrine of God which denies his simplicity, then, will fall prey to the Dawkins question, “Who designed the Designer?” A simple God needs no designer, but a God composed of parts does.

How Does Christian Metaphysics Ground the Good? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In parts 1 and 2, we spelled out how classical Christian metaphysics is able to identify the good for human beings, and thus provide a sturdy foundation for Christian moral realism. Moral values and duties really exist and they transcend time and place.

In a previous series of blog posts, we looked at why Sam Harris’s metaphysical naturalism utterly fails to identify the good with anything transcendent. It will be instructive to compare Harris’s identification of the good with the Christian identification of the good.

Recall the difficulties with Harris’ identification of the good.  First, he falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy.  Harris identifies the brain states that constitute human well-being with the good, but G. E. Moore has persuasively argued that natural facts about the world (e.g., brain states) cannot deliver values, on metaphysical naturalism.

For a Christian theist in the Aristotelian–Thomistic tradition , the naturalistic fallacy is simply not a problem.  On his metaphysics, values are built into the world, and the good is located in formal and final causes.  Edward Feser elaborates in his book Aquinas:

A gap between ‘fact’ and ‘value’ could exist only given a mechanistic-cum-nominalistic understanding of nature of the sort commonly taken for granted by modern philosophers, on which the world is devoid of any objective essences or natural ends.  No such gap, and thus no ‘fallacy’ of inferring normative conclusions from ‘purely factual’ premises, can exist given an Aristotelian–Thomistic essentialist and teleological conception of the world.

Harris’ next difficulty is his assertion that moral values can conceivably reverse in the future.  Cruelty and cheating could possibly become good if neuroscience can deliver feelings of well-being to individuals who are cruel and who cheat. Even worse, Harris concedes that rapists, liars, and thieves could occupy peaks on the moral landscape that are equivalent to peaks occupied by saints.

Although he believes that these scenarios are highly unlikely, his metaphysics allows for the possibility.  For Aquinas, no such scenarios are possible because the good is located proximately in a fixed human nature and, ultimately, in the unchanging nature of God.  Moral values, therefore, can never be reversed in the future, and the goodness of rapists, liars, and thieves can never be equivalent to the goodness of a saint.

Harris’ final difficulty is his belief that it would be morally good for human beings to be sacrificed for the well-being of a vastly superior alien race.  Here again, Aquinas would disagree.  The good of human beings is located in the human nature given us by God, and there is nothing in human nature that would lead us to believe we are designed as sacrifices for an alien race.

Instead, we are designed by God, in his image, as living, free creatures with intellect, will, and passions.  To be used as sacrifices for super-aliens runs counter to the purposes for which God created us, and is, therefore, clearly not good.  Natural law theory affirms our deepest moral intuition, that to be abused by superior conscious beings would be morally wrong, contrary to Harris’ bizarre reasoning.

So what can we conclude from this analysis? It should be abundantly clear that Harris’ naturalistic metaphysics leads him to a completely inadequate account of the source of moral values.  The well-being of conscious creatures fails to provide an unchanging, transcendent ground for the good.  The good is apt to be different for each person, depending on what gives him feelings of well-being.  Although Harris emphasizes that human evolution and the common laws of nature should produce moral values that are more or less constant, the fact of the matter is that nothing in Harris’ metaphysics guarantees what seems completely obvious to all of us: moral values are transcendent.

Christian metaphysics, as expounded by the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, does provide a grounding for moral values that supports our most deeply held moral convictions.  Moral values are based upon human nature and the ends toward which it points.  The finite goods of human beings – health, virtue, pleasure – are the same for Sam Harris and Thomas Aquinas.  However, Aquinas can affirm these as eternally fixed by God, whereas Harris can only affirm them as transient byproducts of purposeless physical processes.  The gaping metaphysical hole in Harris’s moral landscape, then, is the Being of pure actuality from which every good thing comes.  Without God, man is truly a conscious creature of no consequence.  To quote Aquinas, “God alone constitutes man’s happiness.”