Thursday, August 15, 2019

Feser on simplicity redux

I commented on Ed Feser's reply to Ryan Mullins one before:

In his reply, Feser says he defends Thomistic simplicity at greater length in his book on Five Proofs of the Existence of God. So I'll turn to that. What he says on pp186-96 adds nothing of consequence to his response to Mullins. So I'll begin by sampling the argument in chap. 2: 

The things of our experience are made up of parts…There is a sense in which, in each of these cases, the parts are less fundamental than the whole…Still, there is obviously also another sense in which each of these wholes is less fundamental than its parts. For the whole cannot exist unless the parts exist and are combined in the right way. 

So, the things of our experience are composite, or composed of parts. And a composite is less fundamental than its parts in the sense that its existence presupposes that its parts are put together in the right way…Composite things have causes (chap. 2).

i) One looming problem is his appeal to experience. I'll revisit that momentarily.

ii) He admits that depending on the level of comparison, the parts are prior to the whole while the whole is prior to the parts. Yet his argument relies on a one-sided emphasis on the priority of the parts to the whole, even though he concedes that in another respect, the opposite is the case. So it's unclear why he thinks the priority of part to whole is relevant to his argument, but the priority of whole to part is not. 

To take a different illustration, consider a snowflake. On the one hand the whole or pattern depends on the water molecules that compose the snowflake. On the other hand, the hexagonal structure depends on the whole. The parts in and of themselves don't automatically have that arrangement. Although the parts exist independent of that configuration, their arrangement is constituted by the whole.  

iii) It is, of course, true, that physical objects are decomposable, and depend on something over and above the parts to cause the parts to combine. But of course, physical objects are contingent. So is the need for an external cause due to their complexity or their contingency? 

Perhaps the argument would be that their complexity is what makes them contingent. But is that the case? Consider complex abstract objects like the number Pi or the Mandelbrot Set. Their complexity doesn't make them contingent.  

According to Aristotelian philosophers, all physical substances are composites of form and matter…anything that is a composite of form and matter would have to have a cause which combines those parts…On the Aristotelian analysis, the form of something like copper or a tree is, all by itself and apart from matter, a mere abstraction rather than a concrete object…nothing but the potential to be something. It is only actually some thing if it has the form of some particular kind of thing. So, though form and matter are different, there is a sense in which form depends on matter and matter depends on form…Other metaphysical parts too might be identified. For example, Thomist philosophers hold that we can distinguish between the essence of a thing and its existence–that is, between what the thing is and the fact that it is…As with matter and form, then, the essence and existence of a thing depend on one another in such a way that if there were no cause outside of the thing that accounts for how the essence and existence are conjoined, we would have an explanatory vicious circle (chap. 2).

i) Notice how his definition or explanation of composition relies on Thomistic metaphysics. If, however, you don't define composition in reference to Thomistic categories, that cuts the ground out from under the argument for Thomistic simplicity. So a Thomist must first make a case for Thomistic metaphysics before the argument can go through. 

ii) There's also the question of why we should classify essence, existence, and potentiality as metaphysical "parts". What makes potentiality (or possibility) a "part" of something? Since potentiality is an unrealized possibility, how can it constitute something? 

Likewise, in what respect are essence and existence parts? Perhaps he means they are parts because they can be combined. Yet he also thinks there is no distinction between essence and existence in the case of God. But in that case, essence and existence aren't necessarily distinct, combinatorial parts. 

It is sometimes claimed that God's will could not be free given the doctrine of divine simplicity. For to act freely entails (so the objection goes) that one has the potential to act one way rather than the other, and that one goes on to actualize one of those potentials rather than the other. But according to the doctrine of divine simplicity, God is purely actual and lacks any potentiality. Hence, he must not be free. Or, if he is free, he must after all have potentialities as well as actualities and therefore not absolutely simple or noncomposite…But to conclude that all free action as such must involve the actualization of potentials would be to commit a fallacy of accident…

To be sure, it is difficult to get one's mind around the idea of that which wills freely but which lacks potentialities…As Brian Davies notes, it is easier to understand the assertion that God's will is free as a claim of negative theology–to the effect that God is not compelled to act by anything external or internal to him–rather than as a claim with positive e content. But all of this is only to be expected given that, as I have emphasized already, when we arrive at the notion of an uncaused cause of all things we are moving as far beyond the world of everyday experience as is possible. We know, from the considerations adduced above, that God must be both absolutely simple and free, and we know also that we should expect that his nature will be extremely difficult to grasp. That the freedom of the divine will is mysterious to us is hardly surprising, and hardly by itself a serious objection to the claim that God is both simple and free. (And after all, the freedom of our wills is famously mysterious too.) [225-26]. 

i) A predestinarian would say theories of libertarian freedom are mysterious because it's hard to provide a coherent model of libertarian freedom if libertarian freedom is false. So that comparison may backfire. 

ii) The objection to Thomistic simplicity is not that mystery is out of bounds. There's a necessary place for mystery in Christian theology. The problem is when the Thomist posits a claim (simplicity) which removes a necessary condition for God to be free. In this case, the mystery isn't generated by our finite minds in relation to God's transcendent nature, but by restrictions imposed by Thomism itself. God's nature in Thomism is "extremely difficult to grasp".

iii) To what extent does Thomism take refuge in apophatic theology due to the appeal to experience as the source and standard of knowledge?  Speaking for myself, although I affirm sense knowledge, and regard sensory perception as a necessary source of knowledge, it's not the only source of knowledge. The senses are the primary means by which we learn about the physical world. But when it comes to math, morality, and modality, I think intuition rather than observation is the source. To take some examples, In his book Final Causes, Paul Janet quotes an illustration by Pierre Gassendi: You hear a grandfather clock strike one o'clock four times, but the mind perceives it to strike four o'clock. In a similar vein is how Henri Poincaré makes fun of a nominalist/empiricist approach to mathematical understanding: 
The definition M. Couturat gives of the number one is more satisfactory. One, says he in substance, is the number of elements in a class in which any two elements are identical. It is more satisfactory, I have said, in this sense that to define 1, as he does not use the one; in compensation, he uses the word two. But I fear, if I asked what is two, Mr. Couturat would have to use the word one. "Mathematics and Logic." 

In addition, I think telepathy is a source of knowledge. Admittedly, telepathy dramatically lacks the near universality of sensory perception as a source of knowledge. 

Now from what I've read, Aquinas wasn't a strict empiricist. But Feser keeps leaning on experience as the benchmark of knowledge. So his resort to mystery to salvage simplicity takes Thomistic epistemology for granted. And that's a problem if he's constantly arguing from his Thomistic epistemology (and Thomistic metaphysics) rather than arguing for his Thomistic epistemology (and Thomistic metaphysics). For Christians with a broader epistemology or a different metaphysical paradigm, Feser's defense of simplicity loses traction. 

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