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Sometimes I feel like my purpose in life is to question teleology [Aug. 19th, 2012|09:01 pm]
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On advice from people on Unequally Yoked after I asked some questions about why Natural Law philosophy condemns homosexuality, I've been reading Ed Feser's The Last Superstition. Summed up in a single sentence, which it absolutely should not be, the premise is "Religious people who eg oppose homosexuality aren't being unreasonable and appealing to faith, they're being perfectly reasonable according to the Aristotelian and Medieval Scholastic principles of reason, which atheists don't know about and stubbornly refuse to investigate." After reading two-thirds of his book, it turns out he's completely right. Sorry, religious people who I have accused of being unreasonable!

(technically the previous sentence should have read "Sorry, less than one percent of religious people I have accused of being unreasonable who have so much as heard of Aristotelianism!" But then the bottom 99% of atheists aren't that hot either.)

So it seems as if I should learn about the Aristotelian/Scholastic principles of reasoning. I did learn a little bit about this in college, but I kind of rushed through them for reasons best expressed by Dave Barry:
"I was terrible at history. I could never see the point of learning what people thought back when people were a lot stupider. For instance, the ancient Phoenicians believed that the sun was carried across the sky on the back of an enormous snake. So what? So they were idiots."

But now that I know Aristotelian ideas are potentially important, I'm starting to wish I had asked my professors some questions while I had the chance. And since I didn't, I turn to you guys. To be clear, I am not asking atheists to tell me how stupid all of these questions are; at this point I don't disagree with you. I am looking for people who either agree with Aristotelianism (Will? Muflax? Leah? Gilbert?) or at least think it is a reasonable philosophy that other people could agree with to explain why it is reasonable.

I hope these questions come across at least a little as genuine requests for knowledge and not too much as "Ha, gotcha, you can't explain this!". I assume I am not the first person to wonder about any of these and that in twenty-five hundred years of Aristotelianism someone would have noticed if it there were a simple knock-down flaw.

So here are the first fifteen of what will probably be many questions:

1. What exactly is an Aristotelian form? I see two possible definitions: first, that it's some ghostly entity that adheres to matter in that shape - to use Eliezer's analogy, an XML tag reading {chair} "written" upon a chair. Second, that it's just the drop-dead obvious statement that this wood happens to be in the form of a chair, and not an amorphous blob.

2. If it's the first one, where does it come from? The carpenter shapes wood into a chair, but doesn't stick the XML tag on - does God have to do that?

3. If it's the second one, how come people keep using "form" to mean things beyond the drop-dead assertion that something is in a shape? For example, angels appear to be forms without matter, but without matter there's nothing to be in a particular shape. The human form (= soul) survives death, but the human shape doesn't, especially if the human is cremated. Likewise, it seems to be a big deal that God gives humans their form (= their soul) at conception, but this doesn't make sense if we're just talking about the matter being human-shaped, first because a zygote is not human-shaped and second because there doesn't seem to be any special intervention from God in giving a zygote its shape any more than in any other process of embryonic development. Is this an equivocation over the word "form"?

4. Exactly how many forms do things have? I have the form "human", but do I also have the forms "male", "white person", "doctor", "person sitting in a motel in Alabama", "person whose first name contains a prime number of letters", and "thing made of mass"? If not, what's the distinction? If so, how does one figure out which forms are more important than others?

5. On the very remote chance that there's anyone here who is familiar both with Aristotelian forms and with the idea of cluster-structures in thingspace, does the latter totally remove the need for the former, do they address different questions, or what?

6. What is the argument for believing all things have final causes? The only argument I have read is that many things seem to have final causes (eg humans, artifacts, biological organs), therefore all things must have final causes. But that sounds too inductive for Aristotle. What is the final cause of a broken shard of glass? What is the final cause of a rock? What is the final cause of a hydrogen atom outside our light-cone which will never come into contact with any intelligent being?

7. What is the final cause of an emu? Is it to make more emus? If so, does the species of emus, taken as a whole, have a final cause which is distinct from those of individual emus? Is this question identical to "Why did God create emus?"

8. Suppose it takes one thousand mutations for an ape to evolve into a human. An ape gets one such mutation. Does this make it a defective ape? An abnormally excellent ape? A defective human? A perfectly typical ape-with-one-mutation? Does it depend on whether the mutation taken alone is advantageous or detrimental to survival? Is there some point at which it changes all of a sudden from having the form of ape (plus some accidental mutations) to the form of a human (plus some accidental primitivisms)?

9. How does one distinguish between a defective Form A, and a perfect Form B? For example, is a triangle with one of the lines kind of bent a defective triangle, or is it a perfect exemplar of the form "bent triangle"? If the former, how do we know "triangle" and not "bent triangle" is the real form? Can we be certain that a perfect triangle isn't really just a bent triangle that happens to be defective? Is there any sense in which a square is a really defective triangle?

10. As I understand it, the Aristotelian solution to the problem of skepticism is to say that forms of things in the world directly and nonrepresentationally inspire forms in our intellect. Why is this process dependent on sensation, and how come it doesn't work when you turn off the light?

11. Does the existence of computers which can do simple categorization tasks disprove the Aristotelian contention that the human intellect must be non-material because it can apprehend non-material forms? If a computer were ever to reach human-intelligence-level AI, would that disprove the Aristotelian argument for an non-material intellect? Or would that computer have a non-material intellect in which it was apprehending those forms?

12. Does atomic theory, which explains why things have the shape they do by saying it involves the number and position of atoms they have, make forms superfluous?

13. Similar to Question 1, is Aristotelian potential a ghostly XML tag like {chair - can burn for heat}? Or is it just the drop-dead obvious statement that chairs can potentially be burnt for heat? Does a modern chemical explanation about how the hydrocarbons in the wood react with oxygen make the Aristotelian notion of potential burnability totally superfluous? If not, what extra explanatory power does it have?

14. I don't get efficient causation at all. Help! In particular, Feser's explanation of Aquinas' Uncaused Cause is really where I realize I am hopelessly confused. Is this sort of like a why-regress argument, or is it something more?

15. Is there any difference between saying "formal cause" and "form"? Is the formal cause of a chair the form of a chair? Is there any point to calling it a "formal cause" rather than a "form" other than that "The Four Causes" sounds better than "The Three Causes"?

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[User Picture]From: miss_sand
2012-08-20 06:31 am (UTC)
As far as I know, the theory of forms is a Plato's thing, not an Aristote one.

Francis Bacon and Luther desagreed strongly with Aristote's views.

In general, ancient greeks tend to be essentialist (the Forms are soooo essentialist !), while modern Sartre crushed that with existentialism.

Oh, and try to read Van Vogt ^^ (in A/non-A, A stands for aristotelician)
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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-08-20 12:25 pm (UTC)
Both Aristotle and Plato had forms, but with substantial differences between them.

(As for the rest -- argumentum ad verecundiam. And if by crushed, you mean ranted against, yes, Sartre crushed them.)
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From: captainbooshi
2012-08-20 07:06 am (UTC)
Sorry, this is not going to answer any of your questions, and is actually off-topic, but reading through that link at Unequally Yoked raised a question in my mind that I never saw addressed. I thought you might be able to answer it for me, since you've clearly read a lot more about Natural Law than me.

Everyone in that thread just seemed to take it as a given, but why is it so obvious that procreation is the primary purpose of human sex? Humans are one of the very few species to have a hidden estrus, and are thus compelled to have sex with little, possibly no, relation to the likelihood of pregnancy. As I understand Natural Law from that thread, shouldn't this indicate that procreation is not necessarily the primary purpose of sex for humans?

They did discuss in that thread multiple times how to determine the primary purpose of an act, and it seems to me that by their reasoning, the primary purpose for sex in humans should be pair-bonding, not procreation.

This is probably all driven by a failure to understand the philosophy, so I'm hoping that someone here might point out what I'm missing. Sorry about being so off-topic, I just wasn't sure where else I could ask this, since that thread doesn't seem active anymore.
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[User Picture]From: andrewducker
2012-08-20 07:29 am (UTC)
Your complaints seem entirely reasonable to me.

Also "Primary purpose" indicates "as decided/assigned by..." to me - and nature doesn't work that way.
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[User Picture]From: Gilbert_en
2012-08-20 10:55 am (UTC)
Whoa. No need for your worry, you're not coming across as insincere. But it is a bit of a "write me a book" set of questions. So here's a very quick and unsatisfactory reaction:

If this is the direction you want to investigate in, your next book is Real Essentialism by David S. Oderberg. It's more technical than The Last Superstition, but mostly the modern kind of philosophical technicality, i.e. pitching A-T thought to modern philosophers which includes talking like them. I understand you used to be a phil major and if so you won't have problems getting it. It's also thrice as expensive as Feser's book and I have no "but" on that. On the plus side, it's the closest real thing to the book your questions seam to ask for.

Quicker, and less comprehensively, I had a blog post (http://last-conformer.net/2012/01/24/im-not-sure-i-understand-matter/) on the form-matter distinction a few months ago and I think it may help with your first three questions. Basically it's not only form that doesn't mean "shape", "matter" doesn't mean what you think it does either and that has implications on what "form" means too.

If nobody else comes along to try, I may eventually give some of these questions a shot. But that will take a while and a complete reply is pretty much out of the scope of a comment or blog post.
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[User Picture]From: Gilbert_en
2012-08-20 11:28 am (UTC)
B.t.w., how are links supposed to work here? I see them in other people's comments, but this is the second time I tried making one and it turned into a bold text + URL in parenthesis combination.
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[User Picture]From: pw201
2012-08-20 10:58 am (UTC)
Feser has a blog. Since his perennial complaint there is that people criticise Aquinas/Aristotle without having read his books, I'd've thought he'd welcome your questions.

I ought to get back to Brandon Watson on this thread, I suppose, though I'm still not sure where he thinks you're being inconsistent.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-20 10:15 pm (UTC)
Feser seems very busy, and I would feel bad demanding his personal attention until I had finished reading all of his books on the subject (he has a lot).

He's also really scary. Asking him to read my blog might be a case of "do not call up what you cannot put down".
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[User Picture]From: hentaikid
2012-08-20 11:06 am (UTC)
I have no answers for you but regarding point 11, in Terry Pratchett's latest book, the Long Earth, there's an AI called Lobsang who claims it is the reincarnation of a tibetan bycicle repairman. It is not made clear whether the AI is lying to obtain human rights or if it's claim that the substrate of an AI is equally as attractive to a disembodied human soul as a newly formed fetus is true.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-08-20 02:16 pm (UTC)
Why are you even considering any of this? It seems your intent is to see whether the position is coherent rather than whether it stands on firm ground. This is like granting teleportation is possible so that you can reason about the possibility that a person in Canada murdered a person in Japan.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-08-20 02:23 pm (UTC)
I.e., this will only make sense if you grant that God exists.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-08-22 09:49 pm (UTC)

Aristotle answers

Hi, I'm Esar from LW.

1A. The second thing is sometimes right. It’s not clear that there’s an informative, perfectly general answer to that question. In the cases of geometrical 2d or 3d figures, and perhaps also for simple artifacts, the form really is just ‘shape’ (Aristotle occasionally uses ‘morphe’, shape, to refer to form). He also uses the word form to refer to a system of interacting parts, a principle of organization, etc. But Aristotle also thinks that the real furniture of the universe is plants and animals, and for them ‘form’ means their being alive. There’s a lot more to say here, but I want to move on.

2A. It’s not the first one. Things get their form from their efficient causes (Aristotle even thinks these two kinds of cause can be conflated), so in the case of a chair, the carpenter, and in the case of an animal, the male parent. For Aristotle, God doesn’t (indeed, can’t) do anything.

3A. Aristotle doesn’t have any idea what an ‘angel’ is, and if you suggested it to him, he would laugh at you. Aristotle is explicit (De Anima II.1) that the human soul does not survive death: the human soul is the life of the human. God doesn’t give humans their form, their parents do. God can’t do or create anything, ever. Aristotle knew nothing of Christian theology, and his theories (metaphysical and ethical) are generally antithetical to Christianity. Aristotle says that an egg (sometimes the menstrual fluid) acquires human form because of a certain motion imparted by the sperm. The resulting ‘zygote’ is only potentially alive, and only potentially a human (it will not be fully human until puberty).

4A. Everything has only one form. The language of form has two real homes. First as a theory of ontological priority, and second as an account of generation. I’ll talk about ontological priority: things like color, size, (in many cases) shape, etc. aren’t self standing things. They are attributes or properties of things. You don’t get blue simply, but blue flowers. But you do get things like tables, chairs, people, plants, animals, etc. simply. These things that aren’t predicated of anything else are substances, and form is a way of talking about substance.

5A. Aristotle would have been very interested in that account. Aristotle’s physics is largely concerned with developing (to mixed results) a phase-space theory of change, wherein all changes can be plotted as continua isomorphic with time. The cluster-structure of ‘bird’ would have been, for Aristotle, a good way of exploring the forms of birds. The cluster structure as described would incorporate a lot of stuff unimportant to form (like mass) and leave out a lot of stuff important to it (like behavior). But this isn’t an easy question to answer: Aristotle doesn’t deploy ‘form’ language much in his actual biological works, and so its hard to know what he would say about the form of a bird. He often speaks as if forms should be simple and not in any way discursive (which would obviously exclude the cluster-structure), but its hard to see how this could really work.

6A. The argument for final cause is a very long and complicated one having to do with the intelligibility of causal chains. I can get into detail here if you like. Only substances have final causes, and broken shards of glass, rocks, etc. aren’t really substances on Aristotle’s view. Substances, things which Aristotle thinks are the self-standing furniture of the universe, are limited to living things, and possibly also basic material stuffs like earth, air, fire, and water.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-08-22 09:50 pm (UTC)

Answers, continued

7A. The form of the emu. It’s not just to make more emus, though that’s one way of accomplishing the end. The goal of emus is something like flourishing emu life, both in the sense of health and in the sense of reproduction. In a more narrow sense, it is the pleasure an emu takes in the good emu life. For Aristotle, God didn’t create emus, because God didn’t create anything. Emu’s have always been around.

8A. I have no idea what Aristotle would have said about evolution. He thought species were eternal. It might be interesting, but pretty pointless, to try to figure out how he would have incorporated evolution into his thinking.

9A. Forms themselves can’t be defective. Form-matter composites can be defective, and they’re generally defective on account of some accident in their generation or some damage to their body (which Aristotle calls the matter of an animal). Geometrical figures are, for Aristotle, abstractions. They have what forms we say they have (unlike living things). I expect he would say that if you were trying to produce a triangle, and you got a bent one, then it’s defective. And if you were trying to produce a bent triangle, and you got a bent one, it’s the form you intended and its fine.

10A. Aristotle has no solution to the problem of skepticism, because he predates skepticism in any recognizable form by several centuries. For Aristotle, we discover the forms of things by repeated observation, memory, imagination, and reasoning: for Aristotle all knowledge begins in experience (though not all knowledge is empirical). Knowing the form of something like an animal is a serious achievement requiring a great deal of experience. Knowing the form of a house requires a mastery of architecture.

11A. Aristotle’s claims about the intellect are hard to figure out. All or almost all of them are made in De Anima III, which is a textual train wreck. I have no idea what Aristotle would have made of computers, but he’s enough of a functionalist that he might say that AIs are basically human beings and that much of his account of reasoning would apply to them too. He considered many of the processes you and I understand as thinking (memory, imagination, perception, maybe inference) as at least in part physical processes.

12A. Probably not. Aristotle was familiar with, and critical of atomism (at least to the extent you describe it), and he points out that, for one thing, the arrangements of the atoms in animals and plants changes all the time, and atoms would be in constant influx and outflux. Since animals and plants persist though these changes, their forms must be something else. But modern atomic theory isn’t intended to be an account of the lives of animals and plants.
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[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-09-03 06:25 pm (UTC)

Re: Answers, continued

"Aristotle has no solution to the problem of skepticism, because he predates skepticism in any recognizable form by several centuries"

The Sophists pre-dated Aristotle, and Pyrrho was his contemporary, though younger enough to maybe not be significant in his lifetime.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-08-22 09:51 pm (UTC)

Answers, concluded

13A. Understanding Aristotle’s account of potentiality is very difficult. I think potentiality is often something like a derivative property: in virtue of actually being such and such, wood has the potentiality to burn. In such cases, it’s not something which fits into the same slot as the modern chemical explanation, and the modern chemical explanation is only an explanation insofar as it already involves the idea of a potential. But in other cases, potentially is not something one has in virtue of actual properties, but rather, potentiality can be something one is. Matter is like this: my matter, my bones, flesh, organs, etc. don’t just have a potentiality for life, they are a potentiality for life. Their existence and nature can only really be understood in reference to that potential.

14A. Here’s basically how efficient cause works for Aristotle (Aquinas may or may not be consistent with this). Efficient cause explains what brought about some particular thing or state of affairs. Efficient cause always has two elements, the proper cause, and the helper cause. The proper efficient cause is always extensionally identical to the form of what is brought about in the change. So if a horse, the form of the horse, if heat, heat, if a square, a square. The helper efficient cause is always the particular thing which caused that form to be brought about. So a particular architect is the helper efficient cause of the house, and the form of the house in his mind is the proper efficient cause.

Its extremely important to remember that Aristotle has almost no theory of mechanics. Causes relate primarily to natural changes, and by ‘natural’ Aristotle means to exclude accidental changes. So if one particle knocks into another, and you asked Aristotle cause of the second particle’s motion, he would shrug and say ‘there was no cause, it was just chance.’ Aristotle’s physics is just not aimed at mechanical explanations.

15A. That’s up for debate, but no, I don’t think there’s any difference between saying ‘formal cause’ and ‘form’. Causal language is aimed at explaining changes, and the idea of ‘form’ as a cause is important especially when we’re looking at things like animal nutrition, reproduction and growth. This is a limited analogy, but you can go a long ways thinking of the form of an animal as its DNA, and understanding this as a cause. Aristotle was very happy with formal causal explanations similar in structure to the replication of DNA into RNA, and the production of proteins.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-23 06:03 am (UTC)

Re: Answers, concluded

Thank you very much. The angels+God bit were because I'm learning this from Feser who is associated with a scholastic-Thomist version of Aristoteliasm, but your answers are helpful in showing the original version.
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[User Picture]From: lastconformer
2012-08-23 10:40 pm (UTC)
Over at my place, I have a post on your question #5.

Edited at 2012-08-26 06:36 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-27 04:12 am (UTC)
I responded, and sent a friend who unlike myself actually knows how machine learning works your direction.
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[User Picture]From: delphipsmith
2012-08-26 01:52 pm (UTC)
"13. Similar to Question 1, is Aristotelian potential a ghostly XML tag like {chair - can burn for heat}? Or is it just the drop-dead obvious statement that chairs can potentially be burnt for heat? Does a modern chemical explanation about how the hydrocarbons in the wood react with oxygen make the Aristotelian notion of potential burnability totally superfluous? If not, what extra explanatory power does it have?"

I'm amused and intrigued at your use of XML analogies here :) I think Aristotelian potential would be more like an attribute than a tag; the tag is "chair," I suppose, and then you have a list of attributes, one of which might be "burnability". I don't think the modern chemical explanation replaces the idea of potential burnability in the Aristotelian sense -- they serve two different purposes. One is to describe the chair in terms of potential burnability/non-burnability, the other is to describe the process by which that attribute changes from potential to fact, or how that attribute can be enacted or invoked.

Another reason the two aren't interchangeable is that lots of things can have potential burnability, not just chairs; not all chairs have potential burnability; and different kinds of materials may both be burnable but it may be a different chemical process.

<table material="plastic" burnability="true">

Edited at 2012-08-26 01:55 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: delphipsmith
2012-08-26 01:55 pm (UTC)
(oops, apparently there's a comment limit, or my XML examples screwed things up...trying again...)

[chair material="wood" burnability="true"]
[chair material="steel" burnability="false"]
[table material="wood" burnability="true"]
[table material="plastic" burnability="true"]

The chemical description for what happens when you burn a plastic thing will be different from what happens when you burn a wooden thing.
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[User Picture]From: delphipsmith
2012-08-26 02:12 pm (UTC)
#5. On the very remote chance that there's anyone here who is familiar both with Aristotelian forms and with the idea of cluster-structures in thingspace, does the latter totally remove the need for the former, do they address different questions, or what?

I'm by no means an expert, but I think that they address different questions. Cluster-structures admit of uncertainty, that something can fall anywhere within that cluster and still be that thing (the Wikipedia article uses the example of the cluster-thing "mother" which encompasses adoptive mothers, biological mothers, surrogate mothers, etc.).

So far as I can tell, Aristotle thinks in terms of points, not clusters. A=A, it can't be anything else. A form is that which a thing must have in order to be the thing it is, so by definition you can't really have clusters. Either a thing IS this, or it IS NOT this. It can't be SORT OF this, or MOSTLY this, or KIND OF this.

Edit: This post on Less Wrong actually compares cluster-structures with Aristotle.

Edited at 2012-08-26 02:29 pm (UTC)
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-08-27 07:32 pm (UTC)
The idea of cluster-structures in thingspace, at least as it is described in the LessWrong article, seems basically nominalist. That is, it presumes that names have no actual relation to the reality of things, but rather are the labels of convenience we give to the things in our experience.

Aristotle, on the other hand, is a realist: our names refer to some actual reality of things. We can be right or wrong about calling something a "bird" - a liar rather than an outrageous outlier. We run into trouble because A) language is finite and the world is practically infinite, and B) the distinctions between things are not always easily accessible to our senses or our minds. In other words, we can make mistakes, but the world remains as it is despite what we think about it.

- Robert King
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[User Picture]From: delphipsmith
2012-08-26 02:28 pm (UTC)
4. Exactly how many forms do things have? I have the form "human", but do I also have the forms "male", "white person", "doctor", "person sitting in a motel in Alabama", "person whose first name contains a prime number of letters", and "thing made of mass"? If not, what's the distinction? If so, how does one figure out which forms are more important than others?

The test is this: if you change or lose that form, are you still you? If yes, that's a "substantial form", a property that you need in order to be the thing you are. If not, that's an "accidental form," a property that you can have or not have and still be you. If you weren't in a motel in Alabama, you'd still be you. If you weren't a white male, you wouldn't. Being in a motel is an accidental property; being a white male is an essential property.

Some are harder to tell: if you weren't a doctor, would you still be you? I think not, since if you'd chosen investment banking nothing essential would change -- just the "details" like where you go to work and the specific actions you do during the day.

Of course Aristotle didn't know about DNA. I wonder what he would have made of that...
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-26 04:07 pm (UTC)
This test seems open to interpretation. If a wizard turned me into a frog, but I kept my mind and my powers of speech a la The Frog Prince, my intuition tells me I would still be myself (which seems to throw out "human").

If I were transgender and got a bunch of surgeries to turn myself into a woman, even hypothetical surgeries beyond present tech level that could make me 100% biologically female, my intuition tells me I'd still be myself.

On the other hand, if you stole thirty IQ points from me, took away my interest in medicine, and gave me an obsession with reality television, would I still be me? Not so sure about that one. Yet "person who is not obsessed with reality television" hardly seems like a valid Form.
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[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-08-27 08:45 pm (UTC)
Hm. I was very interested by the question you posted, and although I don't know enough for the philosophical discussion to mean much to me, interested to see what interesting philosophy I was unaware of.

However, unfortunately, I have to say, by far my best guess is that if you learn a lot about this it will turn out to have some interesting philosophical arguments, and they will be mixed in with statements of the perils of homosexuality, but there won't actually be any connection from the one to the other.

Even within religious communities, there are wide variation in belief whether gay sexual behaviour is sinful, but the sheer level of revulsion seen in some seems to come from cultural norms, not any theology.
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