Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Feser Responds

Dr. Feser has been kind enough to deem my critique of The Last Superstition worthy of a detailed response over on his blog. I want to say I'm genuinely grateful for this; it's not often I get the opportunity of interacting with the author of a book I'm reading in this direct way. (I also have to thank him for the photoshop job in his second response, which makes me look cooler than I've ever looked in my life.) While I'm sure that many of his accusations of conceptual confusion on my part are on target, I'm going to continue to push back, in the hopes of (a) clearing up some of my confusion, and (b) understanding his position better.

I also appreciate the great discussion that's going on in the comments - you folks post comments faster than I can respond to them, but other commenters are making many of the same responses that I would make, so all's well as far as I'm concerned.

My main point in this post was just that, whatever you think of universals such as numbers and propositions, colors at least are not mind-independent. In TLS, Feser made mind-independence part of his definition of realism:

The view that universals, numbers, and/or propositions exist objectively, apart from the human mind and distinct from any material or physical features of the world, is called realism.... (p.41)

And in his argument for realism, he emphasized that

When you and I entertain any concept - the concept of a dog, say, or of redness.... - we are each entertaining one and the same concept; it is not that you are entertaining your private concept of red and I am entertaining mine, with nothing in common between them. 

In his first response, though,  he seems to concede both these points. When he distinguishes between "RED" (the sensation or experience) and "red" (the physical properties that produce this sensation), he defines them as follows:

RED: the qualitative character of the color sensations had by a normal observer when he looks at fire engines, “Stop” signs, Superman’s cape, etc.

red: whatever set of physical properties it is in fire engines, “Stop” signs, Superman’s cape, etc. that causes normal observers to have RED sensations...

These definitions both refer to "a normal observer" and so are implicitly mind-dependent definitions.  (Unless Feser thinks we can define "normal observer" without reference to the physiological and psychological properties of human beings.) And he states

And even if it turns out that what you call RED and what I call RED are qualitatively different, that wouldn’t make any difference either.  For then it will still be the case that every instance of RED in my sense of “RED” is an instance of the same one universal, and every instance of RED in your, different sense of “RED” is an instance of a different universal, and so forth.

But in that case, we wouldn't be entertaining one and the same concept.

Feser calls his position "Scholastic realism,"

...on which universals exist either in the things which instantiate them or in intellects, but where the latter includes the divine intellect, in which they pre-exist as the archetypes according to which God creates.

That they can exist "in intellects" seems to allow for a certain amount of mind-dependence of universals - clearly a more nuanced view than what he presented in the book. I don't understand why this mind-dependence doesn't put him in the conceptualist camp, rather than the realist camp. But it seems that on the basic point - the mind-dependence of colors - we are in agreement. 


  1. I believe the view that makes Prof Feser an Essentialist or Realist rather than a Conceptualist is that although he acknowledges that the 'universals' are present in the minds of the beholders, he presumably believes that they ultimately derive from 'ideal forms' in the metaphysical realms.

    Contrast this with the uber-Conceptualism of Buddhism, where universals are constructed by the mind and do not reside anywhere else. Buddhist universals are far from ideal forms, in fact they are Boolean holes in the form of a taxonomic tree, rather than a library of blueprints or specifications for instantiations.

    "... the information (as measured by Shannon's entropy statistic) required to identify an arbitrary object is at most 20 bits. The game of 20 questions is often used as an example when teaching people about information theory. Mathematically, if each question is structured to eliminate half the objects, 20 questions will allow the questioner to distinguish between 220 or 1,048,576 objects. Accordingly, the most effective strategy for Twenty Questions is to ask questions that will split the field of remaining possibilities roughly in half each time. The process is analogous to a binary search algorithm in computer science or successive approximation ADC in analog-to-digital signal conversion."

    1. >While I'm sure that many of his accusations of conceptual confusion on my part are on target, I'm going to continue to push back, in the hopes of (a) clearing up some of my confusion, and (b) understanding his position better.

      Which is why even thought I am unmoved by your criticism thus far you have not lost my respect and going the way you are going most likely never will loose my respect.

      Good on you sir! I wish more of the Atheist critics where like you.


    2. That last was directed at Prof Oerter.

  2. Feser's Scholastic realism is a type of moderate realism, which differs from Plato's extreme realism. In Plato's version, forms exist in a "third realm" and the objects we see are mere shadows of them. If you're familiar with the allegory of the cave, you should have a clear idea of how this works.

    Moderate realism denies the third realm in favor of universals that are immanent in everything. "Cat-ness" is immanent in every cat; the two are not ontologically separate. Minds are capable of abstracting forms, but forms have no existence outside of the things that instantiate them or the minds that contemplate them. In other words, no cats and no minds thinking about cat-ness, and cat-ness ceases to exist. (Notably, Scholastic realism states that forms are also contemplated by the "mind of God", and therefore cannot fail to exist even if no human mind thinks about them and nothing instantiates them.) Therefore, forms are both mind-independent--in that they are a real part of the world--and mind-dependent, in that they can only be considered apart from their instantiations by minds.

    Note that a universal/form/essence is not connected to mental imagery. As Feser loves to say, it is possible to grasp the concept (i.e. form) of a chiliagon, but it is not possible to differentiate its mental image from, say, that of a 997-sided geometric shape. To grasp a form is to grasp an abstract concept along the lines of "gold is a metal with atomic number 79" (to use an example from David Oderberg's Real Essentialism).

    1. That was very clearly put - thanks for the explanation!

    2. No problem. Glad I could help.

  3. >My main point in this post was just that, whatever you think of universals such as numbers and propositions, colors at least are not mind-independent.

    But quibbling over that is not really philosophically interesting. It doesn't show me how the concept of Universals or moderate/Scholastic Realism could be wrong.

    Nor does it give me any reason to buy into the Nominalism & skepticism of Hume or doubt Feser's critique of him. Which makes it very very very hard for me to be an Atheist on the intellectual level without Nominalism & Humean Skepticism.

    Red certainly seems to be a Universal in the sense that everybody sees Fire Engines and Stop Signs as says they are this color "red" because they all have properties to produce this universal color. But even if you drop color as a universal you still seem to have Universals that exist independent of the Human mind.