Sunday, August 21, 2011

Death as a Release

Andrew Stuttaford comments on a man with locked-in syndrome over on the Secular Right blog here. The syndrome is a horrifying state described in a quote from Stuttaford like this:

The man, known for legal reasons only as Martin, suffered a severe stroke three years ago, which left him unable to move. His only method of communication is by using his eyes.

Stuttaford is outraged that the British state does not allow Martin to commit suicide, and it is impossible not to sympathize with Martin's wish to end it all. But my purpose here is not to argue whether Martin should be assisted to commit suicide, or what the involvement of the state should be.

My point here is to remark that Stuttaford's post sets off my philosophical alarm bells. He is not arguing formally, of course, so it isn't fair to hold him to strict definitions, but there is nonetheless significance in the way we frame a discussion. The title of the post is "Shut in by the State", and Stuttaford repeats several times the notion of the "release" of Martin from his dismal condition. But Martin is not "shut in by the state"; he is shut in by an unfortunate act of nature. The state can't do anything about "releasing" him one way or the other. Surely a prisoner recognizes a distinction between being released from prison to go on with his life, and being "released" from prison in the sense of being put up against a wall and shot. Either way he is no longer in prison, but it is at best a euphemism to call the latter case a "release." Now it may be that a person prefers to be executed rather than remain in prison; but that is not a choice for "release."

No one can release Martin from his condition. But it is possible to do away with Martin altogether. Again it is not my purpose here to argue whether this is morally justifiable in this case. But, if the case is as morally self-evident as Stuttaford supposes, why must he resort to euphemism? Why not state plainly that for which he advocates - the death of Martin?

Euphemism is a misdirection used when we do not wish to state directly what we mean. It is sometimes justifiable, e.g. when sexual matters must be discussed in the presence of the young. Otherwise, and generally, it is simply a way to misdirect a reader away from the consequences of one's position, and is a philosophical "red flag." I see no legitimate reason for euphemism in the discussion of assisted suicide; in fact, the use of euphemism seems to me to be an indication that even assisted suicide advocates cannot face directly what they advocate.

The state is not "shutting Martin in." At most it is "forcing Martin to live," a proposition that more transparently carries the moral weight of the issues involved.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Maverick Philosopher on Hylemorphic Dualism

Edward Feser and Bill Vallicella (aka the Maverick Philosopher... isn't a philosopher by definition a maverick? Or can one truly be a philosopher yet follow the herd?) have been dueling over hylemorphic dualism. Vallicella thinks that the Thomistic doctrine that the soul is a subsistent form doesn't hold water. His latest is here.

The problem with the Mav's analysis can be located here:

Obviously, this won't do. Well, why not just say that the soul does not think, that only the compound thinks? One might say that soul and body are each sub-psychological, and that to have a psyche and psychic activity (thinking), soul and body must work together. Soul and body in synergy give rise to thinking which qualifies the whole man. But this makes hash of substance dualism. For one of the reasons for being a substance dualist in the first place is the conceivability of disembodied thinking. (We'll have to look at Kripke's argument one of these days.) Disembodied thinking is obviously inconceivable if it is a soul-body composite that thinks. Second, if it takes a soul and a body working together to produce thinking, then the soul is not a mind or thinking substance -- which again makes hash of substance dualism.

and followed by here: 

In the Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, chapters 49-51, we find a variety of arguments to the conclusion that the intellect is a subsistent form and so not dependent for its existence on matter. This is not the place to examine these arguments, some of which are defensible. Now since the intellect is that in us which thinks, the same ambiguity we found in Cartesian dualism, as between pure dualism and compound dualism, is to be found in Aquinas. Is it the composite that thinks, or a part of the composite?

Bill conflates the Cartesian thinking substance with the Thomistic intellect. But the the Thomistic intellect is not a thinking substance; the Thomistic intellect is the organ of knowledge, albeit an immaterial one. Like any organ, it only functions (except in extraordinary circumstances) in the context of the human being of which it is an integral part. Just as the eye doesn't see nor does the ear hear unless it does so in its organic role in the human body, neither does the intellect know except in its organic role in the human being - except under extraordinary circumstances. These extraordinary circumstances are when the soul, separated by death from the body, nonetheless comes to know through direct infusion of knowledge by God. In death, the subsistent form of human being still remains in existence, but it is "inert", utterly incapable of independent action detached from the material body of which it is a form, and this includes an activity like thinking.

For the Thomist, there is no immaterial "thinking substance" like there is for the Cartesian. The subject of thinking, in the sense of an active process of reasoning is, for the Thomist, the particular human being, a composite of body and soul. Thinking involves the imagination, among other things, and the imagination is a function of bodily organs. There is no thinking as such after death. But there can be knowing, and a subject of knowing, should God grace a subsistent human intellect with infused knowledge.

Contra Bill's statement that one of the reasons for being a substance dualist is the conceivability of disembodied thinking, the Thomist is not a substance dualist because he is worried about disembodied thinking. He is a substance dualist because he recognizes that knowledge of universals cannot be the function of a material organ (which is the substance of the arguments the Mav cites in the Summa Contra Gentiles). St. Thomas is strictly disciplined in his conclusions from this fact: He has only proven that man must have an immaterial organ to know universals, not that man can think in a disembodied state. In a disembodied state he is a potential knower, but has no way to become an active knower absent the grace of God.

So man, the composite of body and form, is the subject of thinking. Within him, his immaterial intellect is the subject of knowing (universals). When he dies, the composite no longer exists, so there is no longer a subject of thinking. But there remains a subject of knowing.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

More Secular Miracles

Thumbing through my highlights in Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, I came across this passage:
The conceptual metaphors we met in chapters 2 and 4 were rooted in substance, space, time, and causation (itself rooted in force). These concepts were certainly within the ken of our evolutionary ancestors. In the preceding chapter we saw experiments by Marc Hauser and his colleagues showing that rhesus monkeys can reason about cause and effect (for example, they know that a hand with a knife can cut an apple but that a hand with a glass of water cannot).  In other experiments Hauser has shown that tamarin monkeys have a rich understanding of the spatial and mechanical relations we express with nouns, prepositions, and verbs. When given an opportunity to reach for a piece of food behind a window using objects in front of them, the monkeys go for the sturdy hooks and canes, avoiding similar ones that are cut in two or make of string or paste, and not wasting their time if an obstruction or narrow opening would get in the way. Now imagine an evolutionary step that allowed the neural programs that carry out such reasoning to cut themselves loose from actual hunks of matter and work on symbols that can stand for just about anything. The cognitive machinery that computes relations among things, places, and causes could then be co-opted for abstract ideas. The ancestry of abstract thinking would be visible in concrete metaphors, a kind of cognitive vestige. (p. 242, emphasis mine).
One of the attractive features of the Catholic Faith for me is its philosophical transparency. You must believe some hard-to-believe things, certainly, such as resurrection from the dead and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. But rather than hiding these doctrines in some obscure corner of the faith, they are put front and center; in fact they are celebrated weekly in the Mass. There are no surprises in the Catholic Faith in the sense that, after studying it for months or years, you won't stumble across a doctrine that is magnitudes more difficult to believe than the ones with which you are already familiar. The hard-to-believe doctrines are met directly and early on; from then on, everything gets more believable rather than less.

The opposite tends to be the case in secular philosophy. It initially sounds plausible: It is only after studying it for some time that you find yourself confronted with doctrines far more unbelievable than anything you have heard so far. Worse, secular philosophers often fail to recognize the implausibility of their doctrines. They spend book-length time proving the essentially trivial while accepting the outrageous in passing. They strain on a gnat while swallowing a camel.

The passage highlighted above is such a camel. There is a world of philosophy hidden in Pinker's casual suggestion to imagine neural programs cutting themselves loose from matter and working on abstract symbols. It is the fact that such a thing is unimaginable, and in fact inconceivable, that led classical philosophers to conclude that man's intellect must be immaterial - for only an intellect abstracted from matter could understand abstract symbols. The classicals were perfectly happy to allow that feelings and states of mind could have a purely material origin, and even that something passing as reason (e.g. the animal cleverness cited by Pinker) could be material in origin. Where they drew the line was at the understanding of universals, or "abstract symbols." Monkeys can reason about cause and effect, that has been shown. But there is no evidence that they can reason about cause and effect as such; that is, the notions of cause and effect abstracted from any particular instance and considered universally. That is the reason monkeys can reason about cause and effect in particular cases, but have no monkey culture that develops a science or philosophy based on universals like substance, accident, and being, or force, mass and acceleration. Each instance of cause and effect is sui generis for the monkey, whereas for us, each can be an example of the universal classes of cause and effect.

The quote from Pinker at least has the value that it tacitly admits that the transition to a truly intellectual reason is not merely an evolutionary innovation of no more significance than any other. It is one thing for a monkey to evolve a new trick for gathering food; quite another for the monkey to evolve an intellect that is capable of understanding "food gathering tricks" as an abstract universal applicable to all his prior activities. The former monkey is merely an animal in an environment; the monkey with the intellect is a rational being in a world. Surely this passage merits more than a passing mention; it really should have a place in secular thought analagous to the place of the Resurrection or the Eucharist in Catholic thought.

Aristotle's Rational Animal

Aristotle famously describes man as a rational animal. We may not appreciate the depths of Aristotle's view if we interpret him within the modern evolutionary categories that are our default intellectual equipment. We probably imagine, sometime in the past, an animal like any other animal that, through evolutionary circumstance, happened to develop a particularly clever brain. Our picture is that of a layer of rationality imposed on an irrational animal nature underneath. This isn't Aristotle's view.

Consider the start of Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics. Here Aristotle discusses the relationship of the virtues to nature. The virtues cannot be contrary to nature, or it would be impossible to achieve them. Nor do they come to us by nature, for then no effort would be required to obtain them. "So virtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature, but nature gives us the capacity to acquire them, and completion comes through habituation." (From the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy version of the Nichomachean Ethics).

Not all acts conduce to virtuous development, however. Which ones do? That is a question for reason to determine. Given that habituation to virtues perfects human nature, we are left with the following conclusion concerning man: His nature is constituted such that its development and completion is possible only through a course of action prescribed by reason. This is a remarkable statement, for it means that what we think of as the "irrational", animal part of man's nature is ordered to reason; rationality, for Aristotle, is not limited to the roof of man's nature but penetrates all the way to the basement. Reason is to man's nature something like the way the sun is to a tree's nature; the tree's leaves may be the immediate interface to the sun's energy, but the entire nature of the tree is ordered to the capture and exploitation of solar energy. Similarly, "the brain" may be the immediate organ of reason, but man's entire nature is ordered to the development of, and subjection to, reason.

The analogy is far from perfect. For one thing, the sun is external to the plant's nature, but reason is internal to ours, and indeed constitutive of it. This is why we are free in a way that plants and animals are not. The plant's nature is immediately ordered to an external being; our nature is only indirectly ordered to it, as the truth of our end discovered by reason. Our nature is immediately ordered to reason; rather than blindly following the sun, we follow the truth as we come to know it, the truth about ourselves, the universe, and God. This is what it means to be a rational animal.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

On the superficiality of the New Atheists

Edward Feser often complains that the New Atheists have a superficial and inaccurate understanding of the traditional arguments for God (for example, see the posts here, here and here).  There is considerable merit to Feser's complaint, as an inspection of Ch. 3 of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion will readily confirm. What interests me here, however, is not showing the inadequacy of Dawkins's treatment of Aquinas's Five Ways (Feser does a better job of that than I ever could), but the relationship of New Atheist thought to its original inspiration in the Enlightenment. Specifically, Dawkins et. al. seem unaware of the movement of thought that gave birth to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment never "refuted" the reasoning of the classical philosophers; instead, in a bold move, it simply put the classical tradition aside and started philosophy afresh.

Perhaps the most succinct statement of the Enlightenment attitude toward the philosophical tradition is expressed by Immanuel Kant in the Preface to the Second Edition of his Critique of Pure Reason (from Cambridge Edition of the CPR):

Whether or not the treatment of the cognitions belonging to the concern of reason travels the secure course of a science is something which can soon be judged by its success. If after many preliminaries and preparations are made, a science gets stuck as soon as it approaches its end, or if in order to reach this end it must often go back and set out on a new path; or likewise if if proves impossible for the different co-workers to achieve unanimity as to the way in which they should pursue their common aim; then we may be sure that such a study is merely groping about, that it is still far from having entered upon the secure course of a science; and it is already a service to reason if we can possibly find that path for it, even if we have to give up as futile much of what was included in the end previously formed without deliberation.

Kant's paragraph simultaneously reveals what the Enlightenment sees as the problem with classical philosophy, and provides the Enlightenment solution to it. The problem (as the Enlightenment sees it), is this: Philosophy, as traditionally practiced, is futile. Rather than continue along the traditional lines, Enlightenment philosophers prefer to jettison the philosophical tradition altogether and make a fresh start, a start that promises to support the new science then emerging and perhaps make progress in its own right. But how does one reasonably dismiss the philosophical tradition as futile? Something is futile if it fails to do what it proposes to do. It seems like the Enlightenment philosopher must therefore be a master of the philosophical tradition, at least enough to understand what it proposes to do and to show that it fails to achieve it, and will continue to fail.

Understanding the philosophical tradition, however, is a task for a lifetime, and it is just this task that the Enlightenment philosopher is desperate to avoid; at all costs he must avoid engaging the classical philosopher in a never-ending roundabout concerning the meaning and "end" of classical philosophy. What the Enlightenment philosopher requires is a means to summarily dismiss the philosophical tradition, a means that relieves him of the task of engaging the classical philosopher on the latter's preferred ground and allows him to get on with the modern project of reconstructing philosophy.

In the Preface, Kant both proposes such a means and applies it. He writes that a "treatment" can "soon be judged by its success." We immediately hit a snag. Mustn't we understand the philosophical tradition so that we can know what "success" means with respect to it? We are right back to engaging the classical philosopher in his favorite game of never-ending debate. Kant first deals with this problem rhetorically, by hurrying the reader past it with that "soon." He then sidesteps it by proposing, or rather asserting, several measures by which a project of thought may judged. First, does it "get stuck" when it approaches its end (i.e. goal)? Second, does it repeatedly start over again in frustration? Third, does it result in unanimity of opinion as to its conduct?  Kant applies his criteria to logic, mathematics and the new science of physics in turn, not surprisingly concluding that they all pass the test. He then turns to metaphysics (i.e. classical philosophy):

Metaphysics - a wholly isolated speculative cognition of reason that elevates itself entirely above all instructions from experience, and that through mere concepts (not, like mathematics, through the application of concepts to intuition), where reason thus is supposed to be its own pupil - has up to now not been so favored by fate as to have been able to enter upon the secure course of a science, even thought it is older than all other sciences, and would remain even if all the others were swallowed up by an all-consuming barbarism. For in it reason continuously gets stuck, even when it claims a priori insight (as it pretends) into those laws confirmed by the commonest experience. In metaphysics we have to retrace our path countless times, because we find that it does not lead where we want it to go, and it is so far from reaching unanimity in the assertions of its adherents that it is rather a battlefield, and indeed one that appears to be especially determined for testing one's powers in mock combat; on this battlefield no combatant has ever gained the least bit of ground, nor has any been able to base any lasting possession on his victory. Hence there is no doubt that up to now the procedure of metaphysics has been a mere groping, and what is the worst, a groping among mere concepts. (again from the Cambridge Edition of the CPR).

Metaphysics, according to Kant, fails all his tests for a successful "treatment of cognitions." It repeatedly "gets stuck", it must repeatedly start over, and their is no unanimity of opinion in its adherents. The question of the "success" of classical philosophy still lurks in the background, since a philosophy "gets stuck" to the extent that it no longer makes progress toward its end (goal); but it would seem one must know the end of something to know if progress is being made towards it, so Kant's conviction of metaphysics on the charge of "getting stuck" implies that Kant knows the end of classical philosophy. As noted, however, Kant wants to avoid the question of the end of philosophy at all costs, as it will (he thinks) lead him into the interminable debates of the philosophical tradition. He cleverly brackets the question of the end of philosophy by saying that metaphysics "does not lead where we want it to go", changing the objective question of the end of philosophy to the subjective question of whether it gives us what we want; and in Kant's case, it manifestly doesn't. And this is the bold stroke of the Enlightenment that allows it to summarily dismiss the classical philosophical tradition: It is the philosopher himself, and his subjective desires, that is the measure of philosophy.

We can sympathize with the motivation of the Enlightenment philosophers. The world seemed to be undergoing revolutionary change; from the discovery of new continents, to the staggering innovation that was the birth of modern science, to new, republican political ideas, everything was becoming new; and the philosophical tradition appeared (I emphasize appeared) to be inadequate to deal with it. What was needed was a revolutionary new philosophy to accompany the revolutionary new world in the making. Slogging through the finer points of the Five Ways or Plotinus to eventually disprove them would miss the point entirely. Columbus didn't spend a lifetime justifying his voyages to skeptics; he never would have gotten out of port if he had wasted time on the timid. Nor did Galileo or Newton puzzle themselves over whether their new physics could fit within Aristotelian metaphysics. Like Columbus, they simply and boldly went ahead with their investigations and discovered what would never have been discovered any other way. Aristotle must reconcile himself to the new physics, not the other way around. Similarly, the Enlightenment philosopher cannot bear to be bound within the philosophical tradition as in a cage. Like Columbus and Newton, he must leave the past behind and strike out for fresh lands.

But there is a key difference between Columbus and Newton on the one hand, and a philosopher on the other. In a certain sense it doesn't really matter if Columbus or Newton knew what they were doing; Columbus always thought he actually made it to the East Indies, and Newton spent much of his time in bizarre religious speculation. But you can still discover the Caribbean even if you're navigation is so poor that you think you've arrived in Indonesia. The philosopher, however, is the wise man, and the wise man, as opposed to the fool, knows what he is doing. Philosophy, perhaps, may even be defined as striving to know what you are doing. So the philosopher must be self-aware in what he is doing, and this holds true for the Enlightenment philosopher as much as the classical. Kant can't simply assert that he doesn't like classical philosophy and he's going to try something new; he's got to give a reason for dismissing classical philosophy.

As I've hope I've showed above, the reasons Kant gives for dismissing the philosophical tradition are a bit of a bluff. He says that philosophy has proven itself futile, but he never actually proves the point; he asserts that it has and hopes the reader goes along. He must bluff because the attempt to prove the point would lead him into the interminable arguments so beloved of the classical philosopher, and this is just what he wishes to avoid.

And this is what Richard Dawkins doesn't seem to understand. Similar to the typical Enlightenment philosopher, he doesn't really have time for classical philosophy, which he sees as a waste of time. He should, then, summarily dismiss it in the fashion of Kant. Not having the self-understanding of a true philosopher like Kant, however, he instead takes a halfway position that is unreasonable on any account. He gives a little time to classical philosophy, enough to rapidly refute classical arguments for God, he thinks. But all his simple refutations reveal is his simplistic and superficial understanding of the arguments involved. This doesn't bother him, however, because he has already decided on Enlightenment grounds (i.e. the manifest futility of classical philosophy) that the arguments are worthless. Rather than an insult, I suspect he sees his condescending to treat the classical arguments even in a superficial manner as generous, since from his perspective they rate no treatment at all.

Efforts like those of Richard Dawkins discredit the Enlightenment tradition (if we can call a "tradition" something that was born in the rejection of tradition). Kant dismissed classical metaphysics as a mere "groping" among concepts, but at least the classical philosophers knew what it meant to grope. Even more embarrassing is a contemporary thinker, supposedly freed two hundred years ago by Kant from even needing to address classical philosophy, blundering about in classical philosophical concepts in a manner that it would be too kind to call "groping."