Hume: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Quotes

On Academic Consensus And Faith:
The vulgar, indeed, we may remark, who are unacquainted with science and profound inquiry, observing the endless disputes of the learned, have commonly a thorough contempt for philosophy; and rivet themselves the faster, by that means, in the great points of theology which have been taught them.  
(Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part 1, page 4).

On The Universality Of Philosophy:
He considers, besides, that everyone, even in common life, is constrained to have more or less of this philosophy; that from our earliest infancy we make continual advances in forming more general principles of conduct and reasoning; that the larger experience we acquire, and the stronger reason we are endued with, we always render our principles the more general and comprehensive; and that what we call philosophy is nothing but a more regular and methodical operation of the same kind.  To philosophize on such subjects is nothing essentially different from reasoning on common life, and we may only expect greater stability, if not greater truth, from our philosophy on account of its exacter and more scrupulous method of proceedings.  
(Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part I, page 7).

On Atheists:
Philo: Don’t you remember, said Philo, the excellent saying of Lord Bacon on this head?
Cleanthes: That a little philosophy, replied Cleanthes, makes a man an atheist; a great deal converts him to religion.  
Philo: That is a very judicious remark, too, said Philo.  But what I have in my eye is another passage, where, having mentioned David’s fool, who said in his heart there is no God, this great philosopher observes that the atheists nowadays have a double share of folly.  For they are not contented to say in their hearts that there is no God, but they also utter that impiety with their lips, and are thereby guilty of multiplied indiscretion and imprudence.  Such people, though they were ever so much in earnest, cannot, methinks, be very formidable. 
(Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part I, page 11).

On Underdetermination And Its Relation To Experience:
Again, after he opens his eyes and contemplates the world as it really is, it would be impossible for him at first to assign the cause of any one event, much less of the whole of things…. He might set his fancy a rambling, and she might bring him an infinite variety of reports and representations.  These would all be possible; but, being equally possible, he would never of himself give a satisfactory account for his preferring one of them to the rest.  Experience alone can point out to him the true cause of any phenomenon.  
(Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part II, page 17).

On The Poor Theology Of The God Of The Design Argument:
I was from the beginning scandalized, I must own, with this resemblance which is asserted between the Deity and human creatures, and must conceive it to imply such a degradation of the Supreme Being as no sound theist could. 
(Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part II, page 18).
[Note: This argument overlaps Ken Miller’s chapter on the “God Mechanic” in his Finding Darwin’s God.]

On Infinite Explanatory Regress:
How, therefore, shall we satisfy ourselves concerning the cause of that Being whom you suppose the Author of Nature?  Have we not reason to trace that ideal world into another ideal world or new intelligent principle?  But if we stop and go no farther, why go so far? Why not stop at the material world?  How can we satisfy ourselves without going on ad infinitum?  And, after all, what satisfaction is there in that infinite progression?  Let us remember the story of “turtles all the way down”.  It was never more applicable than to the present subject.  If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other, and so on without end.  It is better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world.  By supposing it to contain the principle of its order within itself, we really assert it to be God; and the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better.  When you go one step beyond the mundane system, you only excite an inquisitive humor which it is impossible ever to satisfy. 
(Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part IV, Page 31).

On The Advantage Of Skepticism:
All religious systems, it is confessed, are subject to great and insuperable difficulties.  Each disputant triumphs in his turn, while he carries on an offensive war, and exposes the absurdities, barbarities, and pernicious tenets of his antagonist.  But all of them, on the whole, prepare a complete triumph for the skeptic, who tells them that no system ought ever to be embraced with regard to such subjects, for this plain reason: that no absurdity ought ever to be assented to with regard to any subject.  A total suspense of judgment is here our only reasonable resource.  And if every attack and no defense among theologians is successful, as is commonly observed, how complete must be his victory who remains always, with all mankind, on the offensive, and has himself no fixed station or abiding city which he is ever, on any occasion, obliged to defend?
(Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part VIII, Page 53).

On Theism And The Flaws Of Nature:
[Were I to] show you a house where there was not one apartment agreeable; where the windows, doors, fires, passages, stairs, and the whole economy of the building were the source of noise, confusion, fatigue, darkness, and the extremes of heat and cold, you would certainly blame the contrivance, without any further examination. The architect would in vain display his subtlety, and prove to you that, if this door or that window were altered, greater ills would ensue.  What he says may strictly be true: the alteration of one particular, while the other parts of the building remain, may only augment the inconveniences.   But still you would assert in general that, if the architect had had skill and good intentions, he might have formed such a plan of the whole, and might have adjusted the parts in such a manner as would have remedied all of most of these inconveniences.  His ignorance, or even your own ignorance of such a plan, will never convince you of the impossibility of it.  If you find any inconveniences and deformities in the building, you will always, without entering into any detail, condemn the architect.  
In short, I repeat the question: is the world, considered in general and as it appears to us in this life, difference from what a man or such a limited being would, beforehand, expect from a very powerful, wise, and benevolent Deity?  It must be strange prejudice to assert the contrary.  And from thence I conclude that, however consistent the world may be, allowing certain suppositions and conjectures with the idea of such a Deity, it can never afford us an inference concerning his existence. 
(Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part XI, Page 68-69).

On The Appeal Of Indifference Arguments:
There may four hypotheses be framed concerning the first cause of the universe: that they are endowed with perfect goodness; that they have perfect madness; that they are opposite and have both goodness and malice; that they have neither goodness nor malice.  Mixed phenomena can never prove the two former unmixed principles; and the uniformity and steadiness of general laws seem to oppose the third.  The fourth, therefore, seems by far the most probable.
(Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part XI, Page 75).

On Theism’s Relationship With Fear:
It is true, both fear and hope enter into religion because both these passions, at different times, agitate the human mind, and each of them forms a species of divinity suitable to itself.  But when a man is in a cheerful disposition, he is fit for business, or company, or entertainment of any kind; then he naturally applies himself and thinks not of religion.  When melancholy and dejected, he has nothing to do but brood upon the terrors of the invisible world, and to plunge himself still deeper in affliction.  It may indeed happen that, after he has, in this manner, engraved the religious opinions deep into his thought and imagination, there may arrive a change of health or circumstances which may restore his good humor and, raising cheerful prospects of futurity, make him run into the other extreme of joy and triumph.  But still it must be acknowledged that, as terror is the primary principle of religion, it is the passion that always predominates in it, and admits but of short intervals of pleasure.
(Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part XII, Page 87).

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.