Goldman’s opening shots are directed against the realist claim that things have mind-independent essences or natures. Goldman writes:
Sunday, April 2, 2017
Goldman on Dreher’s The Benedict Option
People have been asking me to comment on David Goldman’s review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. The reason is that among Goldman’s criticisms of Dreher (some of which I agree with) are a set of objections to metaphysical realism, which has its roots in Plato and Aristotle, was central to the thought of medieval philosophers like Aquinas, and was abandoned by nominalists like Ockham – an abandonment which prepared the ground for some of the aspects of modernity Dreher rightly deplores. (I’ve discussed the nature and consequences of this philosophical shift myself in several places, such as The Last Superstition.)
Goldman’s opening shots are directed against the realist claim that things have mind-independent essences or natures. Goldman writes:
[This] “essence”… is bound up with the idea that collections of things, or universals, have a metaphysical existence independent of the individual members of the collection. That is what William of Occam denied. Neither Plato’s theory of Forms nor Aristotle’s theory of Universals ever quite worked… At the age of 18 months my older daughter used the term “Wah-Wah” to refer to any four-legged animal, before she could differentiate between dogs and cats. Did she fail to grasp the essence of dogs and cats, or merely accept an arbitrary name for the two beasts? Metaphysical realism says the former, Nominalism the latter.
End quote. I’m not sure why Goldman thinks this example proves anything. One problem is that his argument presupposes a false dichotomy. True, his daughter did not know the essence of either a dog or a cat. But it doesn’t follow that all she grasped was some label she had arbitrary slapped onto these animals. Four-leggedness is a universal, and it is what Scholastics would call a “proper accident” of dogs and cats (and other animals too), which flows or follows from their essence. While her intellect had not penetrated to the essence of these animals, it did abstract out from them a feature which really is characteristic of mature and healthy specimens, even if it is a relatively superficial feature.
Another problem with Goldman’s objection here is that it seems to presuppose that realists think that the essences of things are fairly easy to determine from cursory inspection. That is the reverse of the truth. For Plato, inquiry into the essence of a thing begins with consideration and philosophical criticism of various proposed definitions – Socratic dialectic, which, let it be noted, is not employed by most 18-month-olds. And the point is to get us ultimately beyond observable features (like four-leggedness) to an essence which only the intellect, and not the senses, can grasp.
For the Aristotelian realist, meanwhile, we first have to sift out the proper accidents of a thing from its mere contingent accidents. That requires observation of a wide variety of specimens of a kind, and the noting of which features naturally tend to vary between specimens, which vary only in immature or damaged instances (such as the occasional three-legged dog), and so forth. Then we can inquire into the essence as that which underlies and grounds (but is not to be identified with) the proper accidents. As the technical jargon indicates, while the layman certainly might have a rough idea of the essence (or at least of the proper accidents) of everyday things, a rigorous account of essences is for the Aristotelian not possible without careful philosophical and scientific investigation.
It may be that Goldman is taking it for granted that the caricatures of Aristotelian-Scholastic thought one finds in early modern thinkers like Bacon, Descartes, Locke, et al., and which have been repeated ever since in countless histories and pop philosophy books, are more or less accurate portrayals. Here’s my tip for those commenting on medieval and early modern intellectual history: Never do that. (Contemporary historians of medieval and early modern philosophy – including, let it be noted, secular historians with no theological ax to grind – have mostly moved beyond these caricatures. Unfortunately, their work has had little effect on non-experts.)
Goldman develops his objection further, as follows:
The same problems that Plato and Aristotle encountered persist through the 20th century in the form of paradoxes in set theory. Do infinite sets have an independent metaphysical existence or are they simply arbitrary constructs by the mathematicians? That is related to the famous problem of the Continuum Hypothesis, which Kurt Gödel and Paul Cohen showed to be independent of any known system of mathematical logic. Georg Cantor, who discovered transfinite numbers and demonstrated that there are different densities of infinity, hoped to prove that the rational numbers and the real numbers constituted the first two such densities, and that no other kind of infinity could be identified in between them. Gödel’s answer appears to be that there are an infinite number of infinities, but we do not know in what order to put them, a conclusion that pleases neither Realists nor Nominalists, and has not created a consensus among mathematicians, let alone philosophers.
End quote. Needless to say, multiple complex issues are raised in this passage, but for present purposes it will suffice to make two points. First, Goldman once again presupposes a false dichotomy. We are not limited to regarding sets as either “hav[ing] an independent metaphysical existence” or as “simply arbitrary constructs.” The first option commits us to something like Plato’s “third realm” of abstract objects, and the second to the idea that mathematics is essentially a free play of signs. The Aristotelian, of course, rejects both positions. As with universals and mathematical objects in general, the Aristotelian view is that the abstractions of set theory do not exist as Platonic objects, but are nevertheless by no means the free creations of the mind. Rather, the intellect abstracts them from real, mind-independent features of concrete particulars.
(While Aristotelian realism has always been on the menu of options where the problem of universals is concerned, it has, unfortunately, been neglected in modern philosophy of mathematics. Fortunately, James Franklin’s recent book An Aristotelian Realist Philosophy of Mathematics has begun to remedy that.)
Second, set theory and mathematical logic are, of course, exact sciences and paradigms of objective knowledge. Their results are ironclad; you are not going to change them by tinkering with the symbols we use to express them. That is, of course, a well-known problem with interpreting them nominalistically, and it is a problem that cannot be conjured away merely by citing difficulties with the Platonist alternative. And if both nominalism and Platonism are judged problematic, that is itself an argument for the conclusion that there must be a third alternative – an alternative which is, of course, precisely what the Aristotelian claims to possess.
Goldman has other arrows in his quiver. He says:
It wasn’t William of Occam who overthrew the medieval order, though, but Leibniz and Newton, who demonstrated – against Aristotle – that there are indeed objects in our mind that are not in our senses that nonetheless are provably real: for example, the arbitrarily small (“infinitesimal”) increments of movement of cannonball in flight that the Calculus can sum up into a positive number…
Here too, however, Goldman seems to misunderstand the Aristotelian position. To be sure, Aristotelians do indeed hold that all knowledge is grounded in sense experience. But they also hold that the intellect is capable of abstracting out from what is observed patterns that could not themselves be observed. For example, the senses reveal particular triangles and trees to us, and the intellect abstracts out the universals triangularity and tree-ness. These universals could not themselves be observed. You can observe this or that particular triangle, but you cannot observe triangularity in the abstract; you can observe this or that particular tree, but you cannot observe tree-ness in the abstract; and so forth. This is why, for the Aristotelian, to have a concept of a thing is not the same as being able to imagine it. You cannot literally imagine triangularity in the abstract, because anything you can imagine is going to be merely some particular triangle or other – a black right triangle, say – rather than what is common to all triangles. Still, it is only by working over the raw material provided by the senses that the intellect can proceed to abstract out these patterns. In the absence of this raw material, the intellect would be inert.
Now, early modern rationalists and empiricists did not like this particular combination of views, and each responded by preserving one half of the Aristotelian position and chucking out the other half. Rationalists agreed with the Aristotelian that concepts cannot be identified with mental images and went beyond anything we could observe. But the rationalists judged that, if that is the case, then (contra Aristotle) concepts cannot really be derived even indirectly from sensory experience. Hence their adoption of the doctrine of innate ideas. Modern empiricists, meanwhile, agreed with the Aristotelians that sensory experience must be the foundation of all our concepts. But they judged that, if that is the case, then (contra Aristotle) the intellect cannot really arrive at concepts that go beyond anything we could experience. Hence they tended to identify concepts with mental images and to conflate the faculties of intellect and imagination. (This is the source of all the metaphysical mischief we find in Berkeley and Hume. Correct this one simple error and their entire systems collapse. But I digress.)
Goldman’s problem is that he is essentially attributing to the Aristotelian the account of concept formation that we find at least implicit in Locke and explicit in Berkeley and Hume. For only given that modern empiricist position can the sorts of examples Goldman cites seem problematic. Goldman might yet reject the Aristotelian position for other reasons, but it is no objection at all to point out that we have concepts of things we cannot directly experience. For that is just what the Aristotelian himself has always affirmed.
(For readers interested in the dispute between realism and nominalism and related issues, I might note that my forthcoming book Five Proofs of the Existence of God deals with these matters in considerable detail, in a long chapter devoted to the Augustinian argument from eternal truths.)
Goldman has one last objection against metaphysical realism. It is this:
Unlike Rod Dreher, I don’t see the Middle Ages as a model to return to. The mathematicians and physicists overthrew Scholasticism, and the philosophers came trundling along afterward to sweep up the pieces. Thanks to them we live in a world where no-one need starve, where mothers need not bury half their infant children, and where I can tap the entire store of human knowledge from the device on which I am now writing. The theology that attended the scientific revolution assigned extraordinary freedom and responsibility to individuals...
Once again, though, Goldman presents us with a false alternative. He seems to think that to embrace the metaphysical realism of Aquinas and Co. requires rejecting the scientific and political benefits of modern society. But that simply isn’t the case.
It is true that the “mathematization” of nature facilitated the predictive and technological successes of modern science, with all the good that has come from them. But this is in no way incompatible with the central claims of metaphysical realism. It merely reflects a difference in emphasis. The ancients and medievals were more interested in the why of things than in the how. They wanted to know our first cause and last end, and thus tended to focus on issues like the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. The specific mechanisms by which the material world operates were, for them, of merely secondary interest. The moderns, by contrast, turned their attention precisely to those mechanisms, and in general made of intellectual life a more practical and this-worldly enterprise than it had been for the ancients and medievals. It is hardly surprising that, having turned their attentions to the precise workings of this world, they found out more about them than their predecessors had.
Similarly, emphasizing as they did the social nature of man and the eternal destiny of the individual soul, the ancients and medievals were less concerned than the moderns are with improving political arrangements in a way that would encourage individual initiative and liberty.
Naturally, one could criticize the ancients and medievals for being insufficiently attentive to improving life in the here and now. But by the same token, one could also criticize the moderns for having swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. A conservative like Goldman would surely agree that the aspects of modernity he rightly celebrates have their downside too. Respect for science too often degenerates into scientism; respect for individual initiative and liberty too often degenerates into contempt for traditional institutions and the demands of social order.
Be all that as it may, the fact that modernity has brought us certain benefits simply does not by itself show that it was in every way an improvement over what came before, or that the ancients and medievals have nothing to teach us, or that there isn’t a baby out there who got thrown out with the bathwater and needs to be retrieved.