Friday, October 24, 2014

Nudge nudge, wink wink

Suppose you go out on a blind date and a friend asks you how it went.  You pause and then answer flatly, with a slight smirk: “Well, I liked the restaurant.”  There is nothing in the literal meaning of the sentence you’ve uttered, considered all by itself, that states or implies anything negative about the person you went out with, or indeed anything at all about the person.  Still, given the context, you’ve said something insulting.  You’ve “sent the message” that you liked the restaurant but not the person.  Or suppose you show someone a painting and when asked what he thinks, he responds: “I like the frame.”  The sentence by itself doesn’t imply that the painting is bad, but the overall speech act certainly conveys that message all the same.  Each of these is an example of what H. P. Grice famously called an implicature, and they illustrate how what a speaker says in a communicative act ought not to be confused with what his words mean.  Obviously there is a relationship between the two, but they are not always identical.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Could a theist deny PSR?

We’ve been talking about the principle of sufficient reason (PSR).  It plays a key role in some arguments for the existence of God, which naturally gives the atheist a motivation to deny it.  But there are also theists who deny it.  Is this a coherent position?  I’m not asking whether a theist could coherently reject some versions of PSR.  Of course a theist could do so.  I reject some versions of PSR.  But could a theist reject all versions?  Could a theist reject PSR as such?   Suppose that any version of PSR worthy of the name must entail that there are no “brute facts” -- no facts that are in principle unintelligible, no facts for which there is not even in principle an explanation.  (The “in principle” here is important -- that there might be facts that our minds happen to be too limited to grasp is not in question.)  Could a theist coherently deny that?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Della Rocca on PSR

The principle of sufficient reason (PSR), in a typical Neo-Scholastic formulation, states that “there is a sufficient reason or adequate necessary objective explanation for the being of whatever is and for all attributes of any being” (Bernard Wuellner, Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy, p. 15).  I discuss and defend PSR at some length in Scholastic Metaphysics (see especially pp. 107-8 and 137-46).  Prof. Michael Della Rocca defends the principle in his excellent article “PSR,” which appeared in Philosopher’s Imprint in 2010 but which (I’m embarrassed to say) I only came across the other day.

Among the arguments for PSR I put forward in Scholastic Metaphysics are a retorsion argument to the effect that if PSR were false, we could have no reason to trust the deliverances of our cognitive faculties, including any grounds we might have for doubting or denying PSR; and an argument to the effect that a critic of PSR cannot coherently accept even the scientific explanations he does accept, unless he acknowledges that there are no brute facts and thus that PSR is true.  Della Rocca’s argument bears a family resemblance to this second line of argument.

Friday, October 3, 2014


While we’re on the subject of Steve Martin, consider the following passage from his memoir Born Standing Up.  Martin recounts the insight that played a key role in his novel approach to doing stand-up comedy:

In a college psychology class, I had read a treatise on comedy explaining that a laugh was formed when the storyteller created tension, then, with the punch line, released it... With conventional joke telling, there's a moment when the comedian delivers the punch line, and the audience knows it's the punch line, and their response ranges from polite to uproarious.  What bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgment that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song...

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Thomas Aquinas, Henry Adams, Steve Martin

In his conceptual travelogue Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres -- first distributed privately in 1904, then published in 1913 -- historian Henry Adams devoted a chapter to Thomas Aquinas.  There are oversimplifications and mistakes in it of the sort one would expect from a non-philosopher interested in putting together a compelling narrative, but some interesting things too.  Adams rightly emphasizes how deep and consequential is the difference between Aquinas’s view that knowledge of God starts with sensory experience of the natural order, and the tendency of mystics and Cartesians to look instead within the human mind itself to begin the ascent to God.  And he rightly notes how important, and also contrary to other prominent theological tendencies, is Aquinas’s affirmation of the material world.  (This is a major theme in Denys Turner’s recent book on Aquinas, about which I’ve been meaning to blog.)  On the other hand, what Adams says about Aquinas and secondary causality is not only wrong but bizarre.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

DSPT Symposium

God, Reason and Reality is a new anthology edited by Anselm Ramelow.  In addition to Fr. Ramelow, the contributors include Robert Sokolowski, Robert Spaemann, Thomas Joseph White, Lawrence Dewan, Stamatios Gerogiorgakis, John F. X. Knasas, Paul Thom, Michael Dodds, William Wainwright, and Linda Zagzebski.  The table of contents and other information about the book can be found here.

The Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA will be hosting a symposium on the book on November 8, 2014.  The presenters will be Fr. Ramelow, Fr. Dodds, and me.  Further information can be found here.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Review of Jaworski

My review of William Jaworski’s Philosophy of Mind: A Comprehensive Introduction appears in the latest issue (Vol. 88, No. 3) of the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly.  You can find a preview of the review here, though unfortunately most of the article is behind a paywall.  (I also say a bit about Jaworski’s approach to hylemorphism, and related contemporary approaches, in Scholastic Metaphysics.  See especially pp. 187-89.)

Friday, September 19, 2014


The Catholic Church makes some bold claims about what can be known about God via unaided reason.  The First Vatican Council teaches:

The same Holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason…

If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.

In Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII reaffirmed this teaching and made clear what were in his view the specific philosophical means by which this natural knowledge of God could best be articulated, and which were most in line with Catholic doctrine:

[H]uman reason by its own natural force and light can arrive at a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, Who by His providence watches over and governs the world…

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The straw man that will not die

What’s more tiresome than reading yet another brain-dead atheist attack on the “Everything has a cause” straw man?   Having to write up a response to yet another brain-dead atheist attack on the “Everything has a cause” straw man (as I did not too long ago).  It’s like being Sisyphus on a treadmill stuck in reverse.  It’s like that annoying Alanis Morissette song.  It’s like that annoying parody of the annoying Alanis Morissette song.  It’s like swimming through a sea of confusion, on a dead horse you’re flogging with a hoe in a tough row of run-on mixed metaphors.  ‘Til the clichés come home.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Try a damn link

Mike in/on motion: Michael Flynn is working through the Aristotelian argument from motion at The TOF Spot, with three installments so far (here, here, and here).  (Some bonus coolness: Mike Flynn covers from Analog.)

“New Atheist” writer Victor Stenger has died.  Jeffery Jay Lowder of The Secular Outpost recounts his disagreements with Stenger. 

What was the deal with H. P. Lovecraft?  John J. Miller investigates at The Claremont Review of Books.

At Philosophy in Review, Roger Pouivet (author of After Wittgenstein, St. Thomas) reviews Robert Pasnau’s Metaphysical Themes 1274-1671.  (You can find the current issue here and then scroll down to find a PDF of the review.)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Symington on Scholastic Metaphysics

Edward Feser demonstrates a facility with both Scholastic and contemporary analytical concepts, and does much to span the divide…

The final chapter [is]… a nice example of the service that Feser renders to the task of enhancing points of commonality between scholastic and analytic thinkers.  In this chapter, Feser defends a realist form of essentialism as well as argues for a real distinction between essence and existence.  As is characteristic of the book as a whole, Feser brings in contemporary views in way that makes good use of, and is charitable to, contemporary developments in metaphysics…

In all, Feser's new book is a welcome addition for those interested in bringing the concepts, terminology and presuppositions between scholastic and contemporary analytic philosophers to commensuration. In fact, I would contend that Feser's book will constitute an important piece in its own right for guiding the research program for contemporary Thomistic metaphysicians into the future.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Marmodoro on PSR and PC

Philosopher Anna Marmodoro is an important contributor to the current debate within metaphysics over powers and dispositions, and editor of the recommended The Metaphysics of Powers.  Recently, at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, she reviewed Rafael Hüntelmann and Johannes Hattler’s anthology New Scholasticism Meets Analytic Philosophy, in which my paper “The Scholastic Principle of Causality and the Rationalist Principle of Sufficient Reason” appears.  What follows is a response to her remarks about the paper.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Olson contra classical theism

A reader asks me to comment on this blog post by Baptist theologian Prof. Roger Olson, which pits what Olson calls “intuitive” theology against “Scholastic” theology in general and classical theism in particular, with its key notions of divine simplicity, immutability, and impassibility.  Though one cannot expect more rigor from a blog post than the genre allows, Olson has presumably at least summarized what he takes to be the main considerations against classical theism.  And with all due respect to the professor, these considerations are about as weak as you’d expect an appeal to intuition to be.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Morrissey on Scholastic Metaphysics

At Catholic World Report, Prof. Christopher Morrissey kindly reviews my book Scholastic Metaphysics.  From the review:

The great strength of Feser’s book is how well it exposes the shortcomings of the speculations of contemporary analytic philosophy about the fundamental structures of reality. The most recent efforts of such modern philosophical research, shows Feser, are remarkably inadequate for explaining many metaphysical puzzles raised by modern science. In order to properly understand the meaning of humanity’s latest and greatest discoveries, such as quantum field theory in modern physics, an adequate metaphysics is urgently required, now more than ever…

Feser has a notable flair for being both witty and engaging and for using entertaining and vivid examples. The book demands much from the reader’s intellectual abilities, but like reading St. Thomas Aquinas himself it is always rewarding and exhilarating. Page after page, insight after insight piles up—so many that if you have any philosophical curiosity at all, you simply cannot stop reading.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Science dorks

Suppose you’re trying to teach basic arithmetic to someone who has gotten it into his head that the whole subject is “unscientific,” on the grounds that it is non-empirical.  With apologies to the famous Mr. Parker (pictured at left), let’s call him “Peter.”  Peter’s obviously not too bright, but he thinks he is very bright since he has internet access and skims a lot of Wikipedia articles about science.  Indeed, he proudly calls himself a “science dork.”  Patiently, albeit through gritted teeth, you try to get him to see that two and two really do make four.  Imagine it goes like this:

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Carroll on Scholastic Metaphysics

Edward Feser’s latest book gives readers who are familiar with analytic philosophy an excellent overview of scholastic metaphysics in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas…

Feser argues that Thomistic philosophy can expand and enrich today’s metaphysical reflection. His book is an effective challenge to anyone who would dismiss scholastic metaphysics as irrelevant.

Those familiar with Feser’s many books and lively blog will recognize his characteristic vigor and his wide-ranging reading of contemporary and medieval sources. This book is particularly aimed at those trained in the Anglo-American analytical tradition, repeatedly referencing contemporary debates in this tradition…

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

You’re not who you think you are

If I’m not me, who the hell am I?

Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in Total Recall

If you know the work of Philip K. Dick, then you know that one of its major themes is the relationship between memory and personal identity.  That is evident in many of the Dick stories made into movies, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which was adapted into Blade Runner, definitely the best of the Dick film adaptations); “Paycheck” (the inferior movie adaptation of which I blogged about recently); and A Scanner Darkly (the movie version of which is pretty good -- and which I’ve been meaning to blog about forever, though I won’t be doing so here). 

Then there are the short stories “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (the first part of which formed the basis of the original Total Recall and its pointless remake), and “Impostor” (the basis of a middling Gary Sinise movie).  These two stories nicely illustrate what is wrong with the “continuity of consciousness” philosophical theories of personal identity that trace to John Locke.  (Those who don’t already know these stories or movies should be warned that major spoilers follow.)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Around the web

Back from a very pleasant (but exhausting!) week in Princeton.  While I regroup, some reading to wind down the summer:

Andrew Fulford at The Calvinist International kindly reviews my book Scholastic Metaphysics.  Stephen Mumford tweets a kind word about the book.  Thanks, Stephen!

It’s bold.  It’s new.  It’s long overdue.  It’s The Classical Theism Project.  Check it.

At NDPR, Thomas Williams reviews Thomas Osborne’s new book Human Action in Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Haldane on Nagel and the Fifth Way

Next week I’ll be at the Thomistic Seminar organized by John Haldane.  Haldane’s article “Realism, Mind, and Evolution” appeared last year in the journal Philosophical InvestigationsThomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos is among the topics dealt with in the article.  As Haldane notes, Nagel entertains the possibility of a “non-materialist naturalist” position which:

would explain the emergence of sentient and then of rational beings on the basis of developmental processes directed towards their production.  That is to say, it postulates principles of self-organization in matter which lead from the physico-chemical level to the emergence of living things, which then are further directed by some immanent laws towards the development of consciousness, and thereafter to reason for the sake of coming to recognize value and act in response to it, a state of affairs which is itself a value, the good of rational life. (p. 107)

As the phrases “directed towards” and “immanent laws” indicate, what Nagel is speculating about is a return to a broadly Aristotelian notion of natural teleology.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Logorrhea in the cell

In a recent post I commented on a remark made in one of the comboxes by a reader sympathetic to “Intelligent Design” (ID) theory.  At the ID website Uncommon Descent, Vincent Torley has responded, in a post with the title “Hyper-skepticism and ‘My way or the highway’: Feser’s extraordinary post.”  The title, and past experience with Torley, led me to expect that his latest piece would be short on dispassionate and accurate analysis and long on overheated rhetoric and misrepresentation.  Past experience with Torley also led me to expect that it would simply be long, period, indeed of gargantuan length.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Marvel Team-Up: Spider-Man and The Patriarchy

It isn’t news that fathers are often portrayed as doofuses in pop culture.  An interesting aspect of the Spider-Man movies is how aggressively they buck this trend.  The theme of fatherhood and its responsibilities absolutely permeates the series.  The noblest characters are almost all either father figures or those who honor father figures.  When father figures are portrayed negatively, it is always because they have failed to live up to the responsibilities of fatherhood, which the series clearly honors.  Indeed, once you first note this aspect of the series, you start seeing it everywhere.  The Spider-Man movies constitute one big patriarchy-fest.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Signature in the cell?

In the combox of my recent post comparing the New Atheism and ID theory to different players in a game of Where’s Waldo?,  a reader wrote:

One can run a reductio against the claim that we cannot detect design or infer transcendent intelligence through natural processes.  Were we to find, imprinted in every human cell, the phrase "Made by Yahweh" there is only one thing we can reasonably conclude.

I like this example, because it is simple, clear, and illustrative of confusions of the sort that are rife in discussions of ID.  Presumably we are all supposed to regard it as obvious that if this weird event were to occur, the “one thing we can reasonably conclude” is that a “transcendent intelligence,” indeed Yahweh himself, had put his “signature in the cell” (with apologies to Stephen Meyer -- whose own views I am not addressing here, by the way).

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Where’s God?

Here’s an analogy that occurs to me as a way of thinking about some of the main issues debated here on the blog over the years.  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?”

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Back from Berkeley

Got back last night from the very fine DSPT conference on the relationship between philosophy and theology in Berkeley.  The main presenters were Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, Linda Zagzebski, Fr. Michael Dodds, John Searle, Fr. Michał Paluch, Allred Freddoso, John O’Callaghan, and me.  Responses to these talks were given by Fr. Richard Schenk, Fr. Bernhard Blankenhorn, Fr. Simon Gaine, Steven Long, Fr. Michael Dodds, Matthew Levering, Fr. Thomas Joseph White, and Fr. Michael Sherwin.  There were also many excellent talks given during the breakout sessions.   

My paper was titled “From Aristotle to John Searle and Back Again: Formal Causes, Teleology, and Computation in Nature.”  Some photos taken during the talk can be found here.  Photos from the other talks can be found by scrolling down here.  My understanding is that conference papers will be published in a forthcoming volume.  Fred Freddoso’s paper “The Vindication of St. Thomas: Thomism and Contemporary Anglo-American Philosophy” is available at his website (along with a great many other works by Fred that you should read).  Many thanks to the Dominicans for their warm hospitality!