Monday, January 28, 2013

Attention, Everyone!

This is Somewhat Abnormal, the personal blog of Robert Oerter. It is where I write about things I am reading and thinking about and comment on them. It is not to be confused with the similarly named Journal of Somewhat Abnormal Philosophy, or the esteemed Proceedings of the Somewhat Abnormal Society. Sometimes I write about science, something I know a little bit about. I occasionally attempt some amateur philosophical commentary. Other times I remark on things I find interesting or amusing. Read at your own risk.

Ed Feser has written a long post in response to my very brief one about his recent paper on Aquinas and inertial motion. I really don't think my little remark is worth all this boring argument, but as Feser accused me of dishonesty in the comments of my post, I feel compelled to respond. I am often wrong, I sometimes say stupid things, and I sometimes don't make my point as clearly as I might have. But I am not dishonest.

Wherein lies the supposed dishonesty? Feser begins by complaining that I ignored the whole first half of his paper. Well, I did! That wasn't the funny part! Again: this is a blog, not a philosophical journal. I comment on what I want to comment on, in whole or in part. I am not obliged to analyze his whole paper in order to make my silly little point. If Ed think otherwise then I think he misunderstands the nature of a blog.

He goes on to say

In the second half of the paper I examine, without endorsing, several ways of construing the relationship between the two principles...

and lists three of these ways. Well, my post concentrated on just one of the three possibilities, but explicitly mentioned that he treated of other possibilities. So I can't be accused of misrepresentation on that point.

What about the case I made fun of? Did I misrepresent what he wrote in any way? No, Feser says, both in his comments on my post and in his own blog post, that I interpreted him correctly in that

...I do discuss (though I do not endorse) the idea that angelic substances are the cause of inertial motion.
 He complains that

Needless to say, the idea has nothing whatsoever to do with wings, golden hair, white robes and the other stuff of children’s books.
Well, guess what? I didn't write a word about wings, golden hair, blah blah. Such dishonesty, Prof. Feser! (OK, I did make a parenthetical jab about dancing and pins, but that could hardly be resisted under the circumstances.)

Now, as far as endorsment: Feser says he didn't endorse any of the three possibilities. So if I had chosen any of the other possibilities, or even if I had criticised all three, he could still have responded "Well, I didn't endorse any of those solutions, I merely mentioned them." But for the case in question, here is what he wrote (emphasis added):

Hence the only possible cause of inertial motion—again, at least if it is considered to involve real change—would seem to be a necessarily existing intelligent substance or substances, of the sort the earlier Aristotelian tradition thought moved celestial objects. (Unless it is simply God Himself causing it directly as Unmoved Mover.)

So, imagine I wrote a physics paper, in which I wrote

There are three possibilities for the Higgs: Supersymmetric models, grand unified models, and the Standard Model.... In the case of the Standard Model, the only possible cause of the Higgs couplings would seem to be that they are the result of the action of intelligent fairies.
 Now, if someone wrote a blog post saying, "Seriously, Robb? Intelligent fairies?" how should I respond? "What dishonesty! I didn't endorse that possibility, I only mentioned it. And you completely ignored my treatment of the supersymmetric and grand unified cases!"

Again: Feser suggested angels as a serious possibility - indeed, the only possibility - for the cause of inertial motion for the case under consideration. I think that's worthy of a comment. And a chuckle.

Alright, I almost regret having written the post, since, as I said, this is all a rather boring argument. But what made it all worthwhile was the 344 (!) comments on Feser's blog in which Feserite dittoheads demonstrate their philosophical acumen by writing, "Yeah, that Oerter's a complete idiot/jerk/brainless GNU." Ah, it warms the cockles of my heart.

Feser finally complains that I am "tossing some red meat to the New Atheist mob", who will now endlessly repeat "Feser claims that asteroids are moved around by angels!" Well judging by the comments here, my readership consists mainly of Feserite Thomists, so I can hardly be accused of playing to the audience. And I can only dream of having that kind of clout in the atheist blogosphere - I've never had 344 comments on any post, ever. I'm fairly sure my silly little jibe would have sunk without a trace had not Ed brought attention to it. So if what he fears comes to pass, he will only have himself to blame - in more ways than one.

Monday, January 7, 2013

... We Have Heard On High

Ed Feser has a new paper out explaining why Newton's First Law of Motion is not incompatible with Aquinas's principle that "whatever is in motion is moved by another." In it he expands on some comments he made in response to my criticism of his book, The Last Superstition.

Newton's law states that anything that is in motion will remain in motion unless acted on by an outside force, so the two principles seem to be directly contradictory, at least at first glance. Newton says that an object that is completely isolated, so that it has no external influences on it, will continue to move. Aquinas denies this.

So how does Feser resolve the conflict? Easy! The object in uniform motion is moved along by....

(wait for it)


Yes, angels are necessary to keep a moving object moving. I'm not making this up, he really says it:

So, it is difficult to see how inertial motion, when interpreted as involving real change, could have a physical cause. But as we implied above, even if its lacks a physical cause, there is nothing in the principle of inertia that rules out a metaphysical cause. Indeed, if inertial motion involves real change, then given the principle of motion together with the absence of a physical cause, such a metaphysical cause is necessary.

Of course, that raises the question of what exactly this metaphysical cause is....

If inertial motion involves real change, then, only a metaphysical cause external to the moving object could be the ultimate source. And we already have a model for such a cause in the Aristotelian tradition. For the motions of celestial bodies were in that tradition regarded as unending, just as inertial motion is (barring interference from outside forces) unending; and while this view was associated with a mistaken astronomy, a metaphysical kernel can be extracted from the obsolete scientific husk. Now the causes of celestial motion in this earlier Aristotelian tradition were, of course, intelligent or angelic substances....

Hence the only possible cause of inertial motion—again, at least if it is considered to involve real change—would seem to be a necessarily existing intelligent substance or substances, of the sort the earlier Aristotelian tradition thought moved celestial objects. (Unless it is simply God Himself causing it directly as Unmoved Mover.)

Here Feser is considering inertial motion as "real change." He also considers what happens if you consider inertial motion as a "state" that doesn't involve any real change: no actualization of a potential. Feser seems to be getting confused by the way physicists use the term "state": the "state" of a (classical) object refers to its location and its rate of change (velocity), so by definition it involves change. Ultimately, though, the question of whether inertial motion is or is not "real change" is not a physical question but a metaphysical one. One would think that Feser's Aristotelian-Thomian metaphysics would tell us which it is. That it cannot just shows how useless that metaphysics is.

The idea that angels are responsible for inertial motion raises a whole (heavenly) host of questions. Presumably, an object at rest doesn't need any angelic mover. However, in Newtonian physics, any uniformly moving reference frame can be considered to be at rest (Galilean relativity). If we have two objects in uniform motion relative to each other, which one does the angel need to guide? If we consider object A at rest, then the angel must move B. But if we consider object B at rest, then the angel must move A. What's a poor angel to do?

And how many angels are needed for this heavenly guidance? If an asteroid is being guided by an angel, and suffers an impact that splits it in two, does the angel recruit another angel to guide the second piece? Or can the first angel handle both pieces? What if the asteroid gets shattered into smaller and smaller fragments? Maybe each elementary particle has its own angel? How many angels are needed to guide a fragment the size of a pin? (And do they dance?)

Once again we see the Sophisticated Theologian in action. When the world doesn't work the way you want it to, just invent some invisible, undetectable beings to fill the gap.

I have to thank Prof. Feser for this paper; it shows more clearly than anything I could write what absurdities result when you try to force the world into a pre-conceived metaphysics.