Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Can machines beg the question?

I thank Robert Oerter for his further reply to my recent comments (here, here, and here) on his critique of James Ross’s argument for the immateriality of the intellect.  You will recall that, greatly oversimplified, Ross’s argument is: (A) All formal thinking is determinate, but (B) No physical process is determinate, so (C) No formal thinking is a physical process.  You will also recall that Ross makes use of thought experiments like Kripke’s “quus” example to argue that given only the physical properties of a system, there can be no fact of the matter about whether the system is applying modus ponens, squaring, adding, or computing any other function.  That is what he means by saying that “no physical process is determinate.”  Finally, you’ll recall that among Oerter’s criticisms is that he thinks Ross is being inconsistent.  If we consider Hilda, a human being who can add -- or, as Oerter puts it in his latest post, who can ETPFOA (“execute the ‘pure function’ of addition”) -- then Ross’s argument would, Oerter says, apply to Hilda just as much as to a machine.  Yet Ross, Oerter claims, applies it to the machine but not to Hilda.  Hence the alleged inconsistency.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Some varieties of bullsh*t

Harry Frankfurt’s famous essay “On Bullshit” first appeared back in 1986 and was republished a few years ago in book form.  Though it has surely attracted too much attention from people who get an adolescent thrill out of the idea that they can do philosophy in a way that involves repeatedly saying the word “bullshit,” Frankfurt’s thesis is serious and important.  Bullshitting, Frankfurt argues, is not the same thing as lying.  The liar, like the truth-teller, cares about what is true.  The difference is that the truth-teller conveys it while the liar wants to cover it up.  The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t really care one way or the other about the truth.  He isn’t using his communicative faculties for the sake of conveying either truth or falsehood, but rather for some other end, such as promoting himself.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Do machines compute functions?

Robert Oerter has now replied to my most recent post about his criticisms of James Ross’s argument for the immateriality of the intellect.  Let me begin my rejoinder with a parable.  Suppose you presented someone with the argument: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal.  He says he is unconvinced.  Puzzled, you ask him why.  He replies that he is surprised that you think Socrates is mortal, given that you believe in the immortality of the soul.  He adds that all you’ve done in any case is to make an epistemological point about what we know about Socrates, and not really given any reason to think that Socrates is mortal.  For though the conclusion does, he concedes, follow from the premises, and the premises are supported by the evidence, maybe for all we know there is still somehow more to men than what the premises tell us.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Oerter on indeterminacy and the unknown

I thank Robert Oerter for his reply to my recent comments on his criticism of James Ross’s argument for the immateriality of the intellect.  Please do go read his reply -- and never fear, he is a much less long-winded fellow than I am -- as well as my own previous post (If you haven’t done so already), before reading the following response.

Oerter repeats his claim that “Ross's argument never gets him beyond epistemological indeterminacy.”  Oddly, Oerter writes: “Oddly, Feser doesn't specifically respond to my criticism.”  What is odd about this is that I did respond quite specifically, and at length, to that criticism, though it appears Oerter has missed the point of what I wrote.  He seems to think that my entire response to the objection in question consists in my calling attention to the fact that Ross, and Kripke (whose work Ross makes use of), explicitly present their arguments as metaphysical rather than epistemological. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Some questions on the soul, Part II

In a recent post I responded to a reader’s question about the Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of the soul.  Another reader asks another question.  Let me set out some background before addressing it.  From the Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, strictly intellectual activity -- as opposed, say, to sensation or imagination -- is not corporeal.  This is the key to the soul’s immortality.  A human being is the sort of thing that carries out both non-corporeal and corporeal activities.  Though less than an angel, he is more than an ape, having a metaphysical foot, as it were, in both the immaterial and material camps.  That means that when his corporeal operations go, as they do upon death, it doesn’t follow that he goes.  He limps along, as it were, reduced to the non-corporeal side of his nature.  This reduction is drastic, for a great deal of what we do -- not only walking, talking, breathing, and eating, but seeing, hearing, smelling, and so forth -- depends on the body.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Oerter and the indeterminacy of the physical

Many readers will recall some worthwhile exchanges on causality and motion that I had some time back with physicist Robert Oerter.  (You’ll find my contributions to our discussion here, here, and here.  Oerter exhibited a lapse in judgment more recently, but we should forgive that.)  In a recent post, Oerter comments on James Ross’s argument for the immateriality of the intellect -- an argument Ross put forward in his Journal of Philosophy article “Immaterial Aspects of Thought” and his book Thought and World, and which I have developed and defended at length in my ACPQ article “Kripke, Ross, and the Immaterial Aspects of Thought.”  What follows are some remarks on Oerter’s remarks.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Why Is There Anything At All? It’s Simple

Note: The following article is cross-posted over at First Things.

I thank John Leslie and Robert Lawrence Kuhn for their gracious and substantive response to my recent comments on their fine anthology The Mystery of Existence: Why Is There Anything At All?  In the course of my earlier remarks, I put forward a “friendly criticism” to the effect that John and Robert had paid insufficient attention in their book to the tradition of classical theism, which has its philosophical roots in Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic thought and whose many illustrious representatives include Augustine, Anselm, Avicenna, Maimonides, and Aquinas.  Though there are selections from some of these writers, they are very brief, and the bulk of the theological selections in the book are from recent writers of what has sometimes been called a “theistic personalist” or “neo-theist” bent.  John and Robert have offered a lively defense of their approach.  In what follows I’d like to respond, pressing the case for the primacy of the classical theistic tradition.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Leslie and Kuhn reply

Back in July my review of John Leslie and Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s anthology The Mystery of Existence appeared over at the First Things website (and was cross-posted here).  Leslie and Kuhn have now replied in an article of their own for First Things.  My rejoinder will appear at First Things on Friday.

Kuhn, you will recall, is the creator and host of the Closer to Truth series on PBS, and you can find a great deal of material from the show on its companion website.  You can find segments in which Kuhn and Leslie discuss issues pertaining to the subject of their anthology here.  A reader recently emailed me to suggest that readers of this blog might find especially interesting Kuhn’s discussions with Eleonore Stump, which you can find collected here.  And if you visit the site’s gigantic list of participants you will find links to a great many other segments that readers of this blog are bound to find of interest.  You’ve now got your weekend planned out!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Philip Kitcher, bait-and-switcher

Here’s a thumbnail history of philosophy and science since the early modern period, in three stages.  First, the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition had by the beginning of this period hammered out a conception of the natural world that is at the same time unified and radically anti-reductionist.  It is unified insofar as to all natural phenomena we can apply the theory of act and potency, the hylemorphic analysis of material substances, the doctrine of the four causes, and other components of Aristotelian philosophy of nature.  It is radically anti-reductionist insofar as it affirms that certain divisions in nature -- between the inorganic and the organic; between the merely “vegetative” or non-sentient forms of life and the sensory or animal forms; and between the merely sensory or animal forms of life and the distinctively rational or human form -- are nevertheless differences in kind rather than degree.