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Making myself write one blog post per day; quality optional [Aug. 30th, 2012|01:41 am]
I am going to start reviewing The Last Superstition. This may take some time.

I interpreted it as having three main themes:

I. Prof. Feser really doesn't like the New Atheists. Really, really, really doesn't like them. Likes them so little it makes Osama bin Laden's view of America look like mild distaste, or Fred Phelps' views on homosexuality look like reasoned neutrality.

II. The conflict typified by New Atheism is not a conflict between science and religion, but a philosophical conflict between an Aristotelian philosophy that leads inexorably to religion and a mechanistic philosophy that leads inexorably to atheism, with science sitting quietly on the sidelines. Things that seem stupid, arbitrary, or hypocritical about religion are stupid only when it is viewed in the context of mechanistic philosophy, but make perfect sense within its own system. Faith is not involved, and there can be both reasonable religious people and reasonable atheists (though Feser would no doubt put the second "reasonable" in quotation marks and follow it with a "DIE DIE DIE I HATE YOU SO MUCH")

III. The Aristotelian philosophy that leads inexorably to religion is correct, the mechanistic philosophy that leads inexorably to atheism is false, and the current dominance of the latter is due to a historical mistake.

II is going to take a lot of time to unpack; III is going to take forever although I intend to try. I have only a short time tonight, so I want to concentrate on I, the mountains of abuse that Prof. Feser heaps upon atheism for several chapters before the book begins and at very regular intervals throughout. In particular, I want to say exactly what I think about this style of unabashedly and unnecessarily nasty polemic.

I like it.

I hope I won't be offending anyone here too much when I say scholastic philosophy is super boring. You know how philosophers start talking about universalizability and the sense-reference distinction and stuff and normal people just tune out because who cares? Well, when scholastic philosophers start talking, regular philosophers tune out. My professors at college explicitly treated scholastic philosophy more shallowly than most other schools because it was unpleasant to think about for too long. The archetypal boring useless question - how many angels can dance on the head of a pin - originated as a criticism of scholastic philosophy, and although there is no proof that scholastics actually discussed this they definitely explored very similar areas (Aquinas discusses whether multiple angels can occupy the same space; he concludes they cannot).

But Culture Wars are super interesting, in a horrible sort of way. I'm not saying that they should be, or that they don't appeal to our worst in-group / out-group / take-some-people-who-think-slightly-different-than-you-and-demonize-them instincts. I'm just saying that on all the websites I go to, the story about the discovery of the Higgs Boson gets five short comments, and the story about some podunk Republican saying something outrageous gets twelve hundred comments by people who obviously find it the most fascinating thing in the world. This is human nature, and I criticize it without asserting that it is possible or likely to behave any other way.

So when Feser says that he thinks gay sex is objectively horrible and that anyone who thinks otherwise is hopelessly confused, this creates just enough of a dopamine surge to make it possible to read another three pages about Aristotle, just to figure out how he got so wrong. When he says so a hundred times, you end up reading a three hundred page book about Aristotle without even trying, whereas otherwise it's not always easy to get through a Wikipedia article on this stuff.

Looking back, I realize how much of what I have learned in life I learned for terrible reasons. When I was young, I read some books about the Lost Continent of Atlantis, and wanted to see if it really existed. After devouring a bunch of ancient history and mythology it turned out it probably didn't, but this was a much quicker way to learn lots of ancient history and mythology than picking up The Oxford Compendium Of Extremely Dry Scholarly Papers About Near Eastern Pottery and hoping for the best. Reading Velikovsky didn't hurt either. And how many people would know anything about evolution nowadays if you didn't have to read TalkOrigins to debate creationists?

I guess what I'm saying is that it's really hard for me to really learn unless something is pushing me. When you're young and you have a lot of unanswered questions you have a lot of push. When you grow older and start accreting answers to those questions, it's harder and that's bad, even though some of your answers might be wrong or meaningless.

Sometimes humor and good writing work. Douglas Hofstadter, by means of awesomeness, got me to read a book about Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, which is prima facie pretty unlikely. Sometimes dangling the promise of vast new hidden knowledge does it - I can read all day about occult orders and conspiracy theories even though I know they're wrong.

And sometimes, you've just got to say something implausible and enraging, then tell me that I don't know enough to respond intelligently until I read three hundred pages about scholastic philosophy, and keep taunting me a few times each chapter until I finish.

There are good ways and there are bad ways to do this. In particular, Feser specifically acknowledges many atheists can individually be intelligent and morally decent people. He promises that he will explain each of his insults and why they are correct, then goes on to actually do so. He doesn't take too many cheap shots (except when talking about the "Four Horsemen", for whom he has a particular loathing). And something about his criticism stands out as an invitation to a fair fight rather than a bullying attempt (which I don't get with, say, criticism from some of the worse forms of atheism or feminism or political extremism). It may be that it's criticism without Bulverism, an insistence that the other side is legitimately wrong about a legitimate question which is legitimately worthy of debate; in fact, his criticism is often that they are not debating the topic with the gravity it deserves. Or maybe - in fact, most likely - it's that he's criticizing from a position of weakness and so lacks the threat of social stigma possessed by more popular groups. Oh no, the Catholics don't like me! What are they going to do? Write an angry encyclical?

In any case, good work. I just spent three hundred pages reading about Aristotle and scholasticism, which is not something I expected to do. I can only hope that someone will one day write a book called Updateless Decision Theory and the Global Warming Hoax.

[NOTE: Other times when people are angry and insulting, I get extremely upset and never talk to them or read anything they've written ever again. This is probably more common when it's in a personal discussion as opposed to a mass-market book. In any case, I wouldn't recommend trying it.]

[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-08-30 06:46 am (UTC)
Thanks for the section about learning because of (at best) dubious motives. Very funny and very true.
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[User Picture]From: sniffnoy
2012-08-30 08:43 am (UTC)
(except when talking about the "Four Horsemen", for whom he has a particular loathing)

Hm -- something bugs me about this. Actually, I suppose I should have flagged at the mention of "New Atheism", but I didn't.

Dennett and Dawkins have always struck are guys who know what they are talking about. Hitchens and Harris, not so much. But it's Harris I want to focus on, because, well, is Harris even a materialist? I get the impression he's not.

The point is, that the "Four Horsemen" seem to me to be more representative of atheism as a political alliance than of materialism/naturalism/monism/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. (And this is why I say I should have flagged at the mention of New Atheism -- New Atheism is a political alliance, a marketing platform, not a philosophical movement!)

So while it might make sense to hold particular loathings for the Four Horsemen, it doesn't make sense to me to group them together; they're too heterogeneous. Or at the very least, Harris seems to be something of an odd man out.
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[User Picture]From: reddragdiva
2012-08-30 05:00 pm (UTC)
Hitchens knew lots about politics and literature, and got angry at things he considered wrongs. Hence the approach he took in "god is not Great", which is in fact about the best thing he ever wrote.
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[User Picture]From: delphipsmith
2012-09-02 03:44 pm (UTC)
Hitchens...got angry at things he considered wrongs... -- This is my favorite thing about Hitchens. One should get angry at wrongs. (And of course, by "angry" I mean "righteously vexed and motivated to argue intelligently in an attempt to change things" not "insult folks on AM radio" or "go out and shoot people.") Today it's more a case of "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity..."
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[User Picture]From: reddragdiva
2012-09-02 09:14 pm (UTC)
Hitchens at his best was an accomplished polemicist, and god is not Great is an amazing polemic, worthy of study as such.
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[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-08-30 09:46 pm (UTC)
Conversely, Dennett's tone seems the least inflammatory of the four. Not that I've read Hitchens or Harris but I'm guessing they're not less hostile than Dawkins (except when Harris talks about Buddhism), where IIRC Dennett's much more philosophical compared to Dawkins' "referring to children as some specific religion is abuse".

Dawkins knows his biology; some people say he doesn't know his religion, though I remember him granting in _The God Delusion_ that he was mostly talking about Abrahamic monotheism and that he didn't know much about other types of religion.
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[User Picture]From: reddragdiva
2012-08-31 07:10 am (UTC)
Hitchens makes Dawkins seem gentle.
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[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-08-30 09:14 am (UTC)
I'm very interested in what you end up thinking of this.

FWIW, just based on what you said, my predictions would be something like:

* Accurate description of the two philosophies: 70%
* Other interesting thoughts: 70%
* Makes sensible points about difference in attitudes between atheism and religion corresponding to difference in philosophy: 70%
* But isn't as comprehensive a difference as it thinks it is: 80%
* Philosophy is actually relevant to gay sex in a non-cherrypicking way: 40%
* Something approximating a logical proof of the abhorance of gay sex: 0.5%

That's pretty vague, but I hope interesting.
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-08-30 01:13 pm (UTC)
The big problems with scholastic philosophy are the Platonic concept of Forms (that everything in the real world is a manifestation of an idea in the ideal world) and the notion of teleological causation (that everything must exist for a purpose). Both notions are false, but were not easy to spot as false from a pre-modern natural philosophical point of view.
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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-08-30 01:39 pm (UTC)
On what grounds do you assert their falsity?
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-08-30 03:55 pm (UTC)
That they are both large claims resting upon absolutely no evidence. They were originally made because the Classical and Medieval natural philosophers were limited to a "snapshot-in-time" view of both Nature and human society: hence they saw that (for example) all squirrels tended toward a certain Form and seemed to have been created toward the End of hiding nuts, not realizing that "squirrel" as a type is transient in Deep Time, and that the lineage found its own End through the cruel process of those who chose or were born to impractical Ends dying generation by generation, leaving the ones which chose or were born to fit a viable niche to survive and create in our minds our concept of "squirrel."

The degree to which pre-scientific philosophers were time-bound is hard to appreciate today: not only did they not understand Deep Time (because they thought the world was only a few millennia old) but they did not even understand Historical Time very well, because they did not grasp the extent to which even societies with which they thought they familiar had changed over time. For instance, the general life of Julius Caesar was well-known to learned Medievals, but there was a very strong tendency for them to try to fit him into the image of a medieval Western Emperor (head of what we now call the "Holy Roman Empire") and to treat his conquest of Gaul as "knightly adventure." It was not until the Renaissance at the earliest that scholars started to seriously grasp how the past was different from their present; and not until the 18th-19th century that the study of what we now call "social history" became common.

We know more today about the world of the Late Republic in which Caesar lived than did the scholars of the High Middle Ages -- despite the fact that it was only 1200 years before their time, and is over 2000 years before ours. This gives us greater perspective.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-10-27 09:02 pm (UTC)
I've no idea if anybody is still reading this thread, but I'll reply anyway.

You offer no reason for the non-existence of forms and final causes. Instead, you merely state that they don't exist, and, having done so, offer us a post-hoc rationalisation as to why the ancients and medievals were ignorant enough to believe them in the first place. You go on to assert - again, without evidence or argument - that the fact that the squirrel did not exist at some point in time somehow disproves forms and final causes. You end by positing a nominalist/conceptualist position, again without evidence.

The second paragraph is true on a few specific points, but bears little relation to the first, and little relation to the argument at hand.
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-08-30 03:59 pm (UTC)
To conclude:

If you don't know that societies, species, even planets change over time (if you don't even have a very clear notion of what constitutes a species or a planet), it seems reasonable to assume that the "kinds" you see around you (kinds of animals, plants, people, custom) are each generated by some ideal Forms to which types they are drawn. It is only when you gain the perspective in time -- offered by Science -- of how transient are these "kinds" that you grasp that it is generalization from the individual that forms the "kind," and not individuation from the Form. And if you understand how societies and species come into being -- an understanding also only attainable through a long-term scientific perspective on time -- that you realize that they find their own Ends, rather than being caused to render these Ends fated.
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[User Picture]From: eyelessgame
2012-08-30 07:39 pm (UTC)
There is also the greater understanding of the relationship between perception and reality: that the human mind (for good reason) has evolved to be very good at pattern-seeking and pattern-matching, and that this necessarily produces (tentative) false-positives: we will perceive relationships and patterns that aren't there. It is a natural process of the human brain, as evolved, to imagine an idealized thing and then perceive actual items' similarity to the idealized thing as evidence for reality of the idealized thing.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-10-27 09:32 pm (UTC)
Again, you're begging the question. You assume the ancients were wrong, then propose a cause for their error (a cause, note, not a reason). It's like me saying "John is an atheist; John was tutored by an atheist professor at university; this is the cause of John's being an atheist. [So far so good.] Therefore [this is where the error begins] I can discount John's arguments for atheism. Therefore [a further error] atheism is false."

I would rightly be mocked for making such an argument, though atheists make it in reverse all the time. But your explanation above commits the same fallacy. Somebody may have come to believe something through his being 'time-bound' - that's not the case here, by the way, but let's pretend for a minute - but that doesn't necessarily make his belief false. Nor does it explain why his belief is false, if it is false. I politely suggest you explore the difference between a cause and a reason - C.S. Lewis's book Miracles would be a good place to start.

Finally, the Greeks were well aware that things did change over time - answering it was almost an obsession for them. The logic of (say) Plato's explanations isn't affected by whether change occurs over seconds, or over millenia. So your first sentence, while perhaps true in a very limited way, is irrelevant.
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[User Picture]From: ari_rahikkala
2012-08-30 01:52 pm (UTC)
Sometimes dangling the promise of vast new hidden knowledge does it

You know how I like ineffectually trying to annoy you? Well, http://www.vetta.org/2011/06/a-self-reflective-universe/ - hope you like 200-page mathematical monographs!
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[User Picture]From: eyelessgame
2012-08-30 02:15 pm (UTC)
Loving your note at the end. :)

I think the key to being interested instead of simply enraged lies in not taking the insults, or insulting implications, personally - the ability to separate oneself from the target of the author's ire. Obviously much harder to do one on one, when someone is speaking directly to you.
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[User Picture]From: ari_rahikkala
2012-08-30 02:27 pm (UTC)
By the way, I'd like to throw out a different hypothesis on why you enjoy conspiracy theories and bullshit like that. I'm sure you've noticed the feeling of vicariously enjoying someone else's eureka moments. The Wikipedia article about the black hole information paradox, a good engineering postmortem, the Sequences, anything said by V. S. Ramachandran - basically, understanding gives you a good feeling, and it turns out that that feeling can be transmitted through explanation.

I think conspiracy theories and occultism and new-age and etc. are fun because you can get that same vicarious enjoyment out of them, and in fact more reliably than from science. I'm watching http://thespiritscience.net/spirit/2012/08/28/spirit-science-19-cosmic-connections/ right now, and it's just this constant string of fake insights that felt real to the author - and whose enjoyment of those insights you can then enjoy the same way you enjoy the excitement of the author of a really good philosophy book.

Not sure how to test that hypothesis. I haven't done a lot of experimental design in my life. One problem is that a lot of people don't believe in the bullshit they themselves push, so it must be reasonably easy, at least for a good fraudster, to fake being excited by an insight.
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[User Picture]From: reddragdiva
2012-08-30 04:48 pm (UTC)
Someone else's epiphany addiction as entertainment?
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[User Picture]From: ari_rahikkala
2012-08-30 05:10 pm (UTC)
The excitement of scientific insight seems to me pretty different from the excitement of insight from self-help blogs: In the former, I'm not really thinking about anything about the subject itself, while in the latter, I'm fantasizing about being the better person I wanted to be, about starting to finish my projects, getting a good job and a good mate, etc.. Not that different from what I'd fantasize if I played the lottery, I think. But something like the Sequences has aspects of both. Maybe it's a continuum.
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[User Picture]From: reddragdiva
2012-08-30 04:44 pm (UTC)
This is why I was hoping the Jesus thing would get people to read Carrier's Proving History. So far I'm through chapter three and it's just nicely setting out why Bayes' Theorem means "no, you really can't get away with pseudohistorical stupidity on my watch." Perhaps the next book (where he actually turns his shiny new weapons on the Historical Jesus question) will troll people sufficiently.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-30 07:37 pm (UTC)
The Jesus thing? That description could apply to...quite a lot of what's happened over the past 2000 years, actually.
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[User Picture]From: reddragdiva
2012-08-30 09:45 pm (UTC)
The fact that he's claiming there was likely no historical Jesus (let alone Historical Jesus). This appears not to have captured the world's attention, so so much for my human emulator. It's a great book, though. Must cobble together a review for LW.
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From: graehl
2012-08-30 10:05 pm (UTC)
What of Feser do you plan to incorporate into your own beliefs or rhetorical style?

"position of weakness" seems likely. It sounds like Feser's side is losing badly, but through his mighty striving, he can just barely sleep at night. Or maybe he's one of those smart people who can never admit having been wrong, in anything. Or maybe he's a genius troll.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-31 03:24 am (UTC)
Thus far very little, but I hope to investigate it further.
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From: harpersprose
2012-10-23 09:49 pm (UTC)
> I guess what I'm saying is that it's really hard for me to really learn unless something is pushing me.....

I feel the same way, especially about the lure of secret knowledge.

I remember having a burning curiosity about physics because I wanted to understand how fundamentally the world worked... then I realised how quickly we reach "thats just how it seems to work," and also that you were required to do a lot of boring memorisation and legwork to get to the interesting bits.

I've reached a similar point with philosophy now, realising that a lot of questions either cannot be satisfactorily answered, or that the answers people defend are independent of the arguments.

Now I'm not really sure what to do, possibly I should self modify to feel some sort of burning rage at the opposite of whatever I need to write.
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