Feser: Aquinas

A disappointing text.

Perhaps my expectations were calibrated too highly. I was hoping for an introduction that would sketch both the theoretical manifold of Thomism, and its motivations. I was only satisfied with the former. The proffered justifications of Thomism seemed targeted towards New Atheists, failing to engage more sophisticated philosophical frameworks. Further, Feser motivates his account by way of spurious empirical examples that I will now proceed to debunk.


Page 21 was particularly disappointing:

> Aquinas would also be baffled by the modern tendency to think of causation as essentially a relation between temporally ordered events.. For Aquinas, it is things that are causes, not events; and the immediate efficient cause of an effect is simultaneous with it, not temporally prior to it.. In the case of the broken window, the key point in the causal series would be something like the pushing of the brick into the glass and the glass’s giving way. These events are simultaneous; indeed, the bricking’s pushing into the glass and the glass’s giving way are really just the same event. Or (to take an example often used to illustrate the Aristotelian conception of efficient causation) we might think of a potter making a pot, where the potter’s positioning his hand in just such-and-such a way and the pot’s taking on such-and-such a shape are simultaneous, and, again, the same event described in two different ways.

Sheets of glass and shards of pottery are physical substances extended in space. Force-carriers do not travel from the point of contact to the rest of the surface instantaneously. Like all other particles, they are constrained by the speed of light. These analogies are empirically bankrupt.


Causal Series.

Feser introduces the concept of causal series in chapter 2. The idea is embedded within the standard Aristotelian Four Causes that Aquinas adopts: material, formal, efficient, and final. A key distinction here is that, whereas modern philosophy tends to read causality in the language of events, medieval philosophy interprets in the language of things. The two types of causal chains considered are the accidens series and the essential series. Let us now examine what Feser means by this distinction.


On page 13, Feser explains how substance and matter change:

> Sometimes change concerns some non-essential feature, as when a red ball is painted blue but remains a ball nonetheless. Sometimes it involves something essential, as when the ball is melted into a puddle of goo and thus no longer counts as a ball at all.. For a ball merely to change its color is for its matter to lose one accidental form and take on another, while retaining the substantial form of a ball and thus remaining the same substance, namely a ball. For a ball to be melted into goo is for its matter to lose one substantial form and take on another.

But this account does not treat the problem of ambiguity. Suppose I am microwaving my red ball:

* Eighty seconds into the process, 60% of Thomists would agree that the ball retains its Form.
* Eighty-one seconds into the process, 60% of Thomists would agree that the ball has traded its Form.

Let us suppose that, per Thomism, my red ball really did lose its form at the eighty-one second mark. What is it about the physical phenomena during that second that differed from the previous eighty seconds? If Forms substitution is really as clean and binary as Aquinas suggests, why don’t Thomists remain equally vulnerable to epistemic disagreement as the rest of us?


On page 15, Feser underscores a Thomistic asymmetry:

> On the hylemorphic analysis, considered apart from the substances that have them, form and matter are mere abstractions; there is no form of the ball apart from the matter that has that form, and no matter of the ball apart from the form that makes it a ball specifically.. While (contra Plato) no form exists apart from some particular individual substance that instantiates it, not every form exists in a material substance. There can be forms without matter, and thus immaterial substances – namely, for Aquinas, angels and postmortem human souls.. This recapitulates an asymmetry noted earlier: just as act can exist without potency even though potency cannot exist without act, so too form can exist without matter even though matter cannot exist without form.

But Feser does not provide an explanation for this curiosity.


This book could have been improved by a treatment of the following topics:

How can { Forms, final causality } be epistemically accessible?
How can the A-T framework mediate intra-group disagreement?
How does change in matter lead to change in substance, or change in Form?


On page 48, Feser presents an argument for teleology:

> As philosopher David Oderberg has noted, it is particularly evident in natural cycles like the water cycle and the rock cycle. In the former case, condensation leads to precipitation, which leads to collection, which leads to evaporation, which leads to condensations, and the cycle begins again. In the latter case, igneous rock forms into sedimentary rock, which forms into metamorphic rock, which melts into magma, which hardens into igneous rock, and the cycle begins again. Scientists who study these processes identify each of their stages as playing a certain specific role relative to the others. For example, the role of condensation in the water is to bring about precipitation; the role of pressure in the rock cycle is, in conjunction with heat, to generate magma, and in the absence of heat to contribute to generating sedimentary rock; and so forth. Each stage has the production of some particular outcome or range of outcomes as an “end” or “goal” towards which it points. Nor will it do to suggest that either cycle could be adequately described by speaking of each stage as being the efficient cause of certain others, with no reference to its playing a “role” of generating some effect as an “end” or “goal.” For each stage has many other effects that are not part of the cycle. As Oderberg points out, sedimentation might (for example) happen to block the water flow to a certain region, the formation of magma might cause some local birds to migrate, or condensation in some area might for all we know cause someone to have arthritic pain in his big toe. But [these examples] are no part of the water cycle. Some causal chains are relevant to the cycles and some are not. Nor is it correct to say that the student of the rock or water cycles just happens to be interested in the way some rock generates other kinds and how water in one form brings about water in another form, and is not interested in [these examples]. For the patterns described by scientists studying these cycles are objective patterns in nature, not mere projections of human interests. But the only way to account for this is to recognize that each stage in the process, while it might have various sorts of effects, has only the generation of certain *specific* effects among them as its “end” or “goal” and that this is what determines its role in the cycle. In short, it is to recognize such cycles as teleological.


> As philosophers like G.F. Schueler and Scott Sehon have argued at length, no attempt to analyze human action in non-teleological terms has succeeded.



On page 52, Feser addresses a counter-argument to the principle of proportionate causality (a cause cannot give to its effect what it does not have itself, whether formally, eminently, or virtually):

> It is nevertheless sometimes suggested that this principle is disproved by evolution, since if simpler life forms give rise to more complex ones then they must surely be producing in their effects something they did not have to give. But this does not follow.. Just as water in conjunction with something else might be sufficient to produce a red puddle even if the water by itself wouldn’t be, so too do the existing genetic material, the mutation, and environmental circumstances together generate a new biological variation even though none of these factors by itself would be sufficient to do so. Thus, evolution [does not] pose a challenge to the principle of proportionate causality. Indeed, as Paul Davies points out in *The Fifth Miracle*, to deny that the information contained in a new life form derives from some combination of preexisting factors – specifically, in part from the organism’s environment if not from its genetic inheritance alone – would contradict the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that order (and thus information content) tends inevitably to decrease, not increase, within a closed system.

This appeal to the Second Law seems empirically dubious.  In no sense is the Earth’s biosphere a “closed system”.


On page 57, Feser defends Aquinas against Anthony Kenny’s arguments are inadequate from a Fregean perspective.

> As Gyula Klima has said, “it is ludicrous to claim victory by yelling ‘Checkmate!’ in a game of poker. But this is precisely what Kenny seems to be doing whenever he is yelling ‘You are not a good enough Fregean!’ at Aquinas.’ Certainly other conceptions of existence are possible..

Tasteless, and misses the point. In order to sustain their school, Thomists must do more than simply regurgitate theories of a medieval Scholastic. They must engage with the current theoretical climate. If you want to deny Fregean essences wholesale, you must interact with their argumentative traditions.

Feser does later partially address Fregean thought, which to my mind partially redeems the above rhetorical device.


On page 28, Feser explains how Aquinas defends angelic differentiation:

> With what Aquinas calls “separated substances” – immaterial realities like the soul, angels, and God – things are not so straightforward. The soul.. must on Aquinas’s view be conjoined to matter at some point in its existence.. God is necessarily unique, so that the question of individuation cannot arise. But what about angels, which are supposed to be both distinct from one another and yet completely immaterial? An angel, says Aquinas, is a form without matter, and thus its essence corresponds to its form alone. But precisely because there is no matter to distinguish one angel in a species from another, “among these substances there cannot be many individuals of the same species. Rather, there are as many species as there are individuals”.

After this concession, Feser promptly moves on to a separate topic. But consider what this means: besides Triangle and Redness forms, Aquinas affirms that there is also JoeTheAngel form and a RobertTheAngel form. This seems an astonishingly ugly band-aid, and its ontological awkwardness is not acknowledged nor ameliorated.


On page 63, Feser sets the stage for the Quinquae Viae:

> The Summa, it must be remembered, was meant as a textbook for beginners in theology who were already Christian believers, not an advanced work in apologetics intended to convince skeptics. The Five Ways themselves are merely short statements of arguments that would already have been well known to the readers of Aquinas’s day, and presented at greater length and with greater precision elsewhere.

Historically accurate. But, if the Five Ways are not Aquinas’ best case for theism, I would rather attention be devoted to other, more incisive, arguments.


On page 65, Feser insulates Aristotelian metaphysics from Aristotelian physics:

> It has also sometimes been claimed that Aquinas’s proofs rest on outdated Aristotelian scientific theory, and thus are irrelevant in the present day. But as noted in chapter 2, Aristotle’s metaphysics stands or falls independently of his physics and, as we shall see, there is never a point in any of the arguments where appeal need be made to now falsified theories in physics or any of the other sciences.

Perhaps such sharp bifurcations between physics and metaphysics are irredeemably anachronistic. Aristotelian metaphysics were originally motivated by his physics. To insulate the former from the latter is to remove its original motivators.


On page 68, Feser addresses empirical counterexamples:

> As Rudy te Velde has suggested, some critics place too much significance on the physical details of the examples Aquinas gives in the course of the proof, failing to see that their point is merely to illustrate certain basic metaphysical principles rather than to support broad empirical or quasi-scientific generalizations.

If you can’t defend Thomas’ examples, fix them! Immersed in the context of the section, this passage seems to evidence a pathological reluctance to improve upon Aquinas at any point.


I stopped here. Since medieval philosophy poses an interesting challenge to more modern approaches, I hope to locate a more rigorous replacement soon.


One thought on “Feser: Aquinas

  1. Good stuff here. I haven’t read much Feser, though I am passingly familiar with Aquinas. My impression of ‘angelic differentiation’ is not that it’s supposed to be a band-aid over an otherwise egregious anomaly, but that it is meant to clarify something about the nature of angels in medieval/Catholic theology: namely, they are beings of pure thought (their esse is their rationality) and thus that they exist in the same ‘plane’ as the Forms which derive from human thought. Don’t know how well Feser explained this, and don’t know how much this helps, but let me know if you’d like to have a conversation.


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