Monday, June 14, 2010

Chomsky by way of Feser

Ed Feser has yet another great post up touching on a favorite topic of mine - namely, the emptiness of the words "physical", "material", and (not discussed, but implied) therefore "naturalism".

Ed actually takes a different tact from me on this, insofar as - while his quoted Chomsky makes it clear how empty physicalism is ("as soon as we come to understand anything, we call it ‘physical’") - Ed thinks there's one definite and particular line in the sand that can't be crossed. Sayeth Ed:

There is, however, another, more fundamental and indeed absolutely “non-negotiable” component of the mechanistic picture of the world inherited from the early modern philosophers, one well-known to regular readers of this blog: the rejection of Aristotelian formal and final causes.

Formal and final causes, of course. Those, Ed maintains, are for the most part expressly banished - scientists and philosophers may be grasping to figure out what the 'material' even is (Really, does it make sense to call it the 'material' anymore, given that?) But what they do "know", or at least insist upon, is that formal and final causes can't be a part of the real picture. Those must be banished.

So, where do I disagree with any of this?

The disagreements are pretty minimal, but here are my thoughts on it.

* Ed himself points out in TLS that moderns have a tendency to 'slip into' Aristotilean talk, or at least come across as if they are in their explanations, without realizing it. I agree with him on this, in a number of ways. But I think that illustrates that A) most modern philosophers and scientists, or 'physicalists', don't even have formal/final causes on their radar, and B) to the extent that they do, they're usually gross misunderstandings - the usual "rocks fall to earth because they consciously want to" talk. (Frankly, that seems more at home with panpsychism to me.

* Chomsky is pointing out that the Cartesian conception of matter is gone, and has not really been replaced. Indeed, I wonder if he'd argue it's only gotten worse (since Newtonian views were at least partially, but still deeply, modified by quantum mechanics). And Ed himself notes that regardless, 'science' has never kicked formal/final causes out the door - philosophers have, and they didn't do so justly. In fact, if I read TLS right, part of their reasoning for performing this 'kick' was political expedience, as well as material expedience (in the sense of, hey, let's focus on the 'easy' problems. Final/formal cause questions are too 'hard').

So what am I getting at? Simply this: I think there's more people who, knowingly or unknowingly, embrace 'formal' and 'final' causes than Ed suggests. And I think that what is primarily resisted are particular formal and final causes - those unpopular ones of western religion and civilization, the Catholic church's, etc.

I think I've already done it once or twice, but yet again I point at Stanley Fish's Are There Secular Reasons?, if only because he explicitly talks about teleology and formal/final causes - and admits that the 'secular' people who were supposed to have given them up, are smuggling them in as far as politics, law, and social order are concerned. I suspect that this sort of 'smuggling' isn't limited to those spheres either.

So, amateur and nobody that I am, I offer this up for consideration: Maybe, even here, the number of actual "naturalists" has been greatly overestimated. Maybe, for all the gesturing to the contrary, what's being encountered is just a new, weird breed of teleologist.

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