books book reviews

Scholastic metaphysics books

reviewed by T. Nelson

book review Score+2

Scholastic metaphysics:
A Contemporary Introduction
Edward Feser
Editions Scholasticae, 2014, 302 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

Somehow I got the impression that this book would be about the scholastic metaphysics of Aquinas and his followers in the late Middle Ages. It is not. It turns out that scholastic metaphysics is still going on, and this is Edward Feser's defense of it as a branch of analytic philosophy.

It might come as somewhat of a surprise that after 269 years, there are many people still fuming about Hume's Fork, which says that “all the objects of human reason or enquiry may be naturally divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of Fact.”

In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume wrote:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

He wrote that way back in 1748, but philosophers of scholastic metaphysics still burn with rage about it.

The author of Scholastic Metaphysics is one of them. Chapter 0 is a fiery tirade against “scientism,” which is the idea that all questions of importance can eventually be answered using the tools of science. Feser says this position is incoherent. It is, he says, like saying that a metal detector is able to find everything of metal, and therefore only things made of metal are real.

He presents several arguments to back this up, some of which make reasonable points, and some, like this one, are close to being old-fashioned (and flammable!) strawmen:

There is, eliminative materialists' glib dismissal of the incoherence problem notwithstanding, no way in principle coherently to deny the existence of intentional thought processes . . . it is also impossible coherently to deny, in the name of science, the existence of change, causation, teleology, substance, essence, and other basic metaphysical realities.

Paging Daniel Dennett. Phone call for atheist Alex Rosenberg. Lawrence Krauss to the white courtesy phone.

It seems to me that in putting philosophy up against science, Feser is setting his colleagues up for a fall. The quote above implies that metaphysics, and specifically scholastic metaphysics à la Aristotle and Aquinas, does answer these questions. That may be a recipe for disappointment, because the job of philosophy has never been to answer questions, but to ask new ones. It is, as A.W. Moore wrote, not a body of knowledge but a process.

Feser gives us the example of Molière, who was once told by a doctor that opium causes sleep because it has “dormitive power.” This is not a tautology, says Feser, but is a deeper explanation than the one science offers because it sheds light on causation, whereas the modern concept (which invokes molecular and chemical mechanisms of causation) does not.

Perhaps more convincing examples are from Molnar (p. 58) who pointed out that gravitation, where a massive object is in continuous interaction with spacetime, is not captured by Hume's idea of causation; and Mumford, who says that a power is a kind of state while a manifestation of power is a kind of event, and that some powers (like a window's power to get broken a second time) do not persist after being manifest.

Feser concludes that in contemporary analytical metaphysics, Hume's counterfactual dependence is not constitutive of causal relationships; what is constitutive is power (note: physical power, not political power) and its manifestation.

What deep profundities does metaphysics offer? Suppose we go out on a limb and take for granted that causation and substances actually exist. What then? Feser says that modern science lacks a proper metaphysical basis. His idea is that instead of ‘cause and effect,’ we ought to use the expression ‘act and potency,’ ‘substance and its powers,’ or ‘categorical vs dispositional’ (p 72), The first is popular among SM'ers, while the third is used by analytic philosophers.

In what way, the reader might ask, could our choice of terminology contribute to our understanding of the world? It is not that questions about the nature of cause and effect are valueless: a goal of science is to establish cause and effect, and counterfactuals play a strong role in the design of experiments. But how can our choice of words, which are mere artificial shorthands for thinking, lead us to new meaning?

To an outsider like myself, it appears that there's mostly a lot of flaming going on here, and a lot of slagging off of poor old Hume. A pharmacologist who said a drug has “strong dormitive power” instead of “this drug is an agonist of the μ3 opiate receptor with a Kd of 0.25 nM” would invite ridicule. Science has made great progress in understanding the specifics of causation and substance, while metaphysics is still burned up about Hume.

Suppose I said that all we can be aware of is change. We cannot actually see objects like windows or rubber balls, only the photons that move from them to us. When we sense force and vibration, it is only because ions are changing and moving in our neurons. I might even say that physical objects are all merely hypothetical. It would be true, and maybe even interesting. But it's only a starting point.

That illustrates the problem with this book: the Hume-bashing gets in the way of making philosophical progress. Feser makes it seem that the closest metaphysics ever came to a truth was to prove that one thing can cause another. It's true, I suppose, but how does it help us?

After reading this the weather turned cold, and I found myself looking for something flammable to put in my wood-burning stove. Hmm, there must be something I could use . . . .

jan 28, 2018; edited feb 13, 2018