28 June 2014

Thomism and magical thinking

Occasional commenter 'Dante' linked to an article by Ed Feser (purveyor of all things Thomistic and Aristotlean) called Magic versus metaphysics, in which he purportedly counters the notion that theists believe in 'magic'. I replied to Dante with a massive quote from Harvard physicist Lisa Randall (from her book Knocking on Heaven's Door), which serves as a nice primer and/or companion to what I'm about to argue, but I thought that Feser's post was worthy of at least some level of analysis.

The first question is what exactly what we mean by 'magic', and I think Feser gives a fair summary:
“Magical” powers, as [Hilary] Putnam here describes them, are powers which are intrinsically unintelligible. It’s not just that we don’t know how magic operates; it’s that there is, objectively, no rhyme or reason whatsoever to how it operates.
Robert Todd Carroll, at his fantastic (but now retired) blog Unnatureal Acts That Can Improve Your Thinking, defines magical thinking as,
... a belief in the interconnectedness of all things through forces and powers that transcend physical connections.
After a bit of background into about the perspectives of various philosophers, Feser opines,
But a potential, precisely because it is merely potential and not actual, cannot actualize itself; only what is already actual can actualize it. And if that which actualizes a potential is itself being actualized as it does so, it must in turn be actualized by something else. Such a regress of causes would be of the essentially ordered or instrumental kind; and it can only terminate (so the A-T philosopher argues) in that which can actualize without itself having to be actualized -- something which just is “pure actuality.” And that is the metaphysical core of the A-T conception of God.
He then sets the trap, arguing that it's unreasonable to think that such a conceptualization has anything to do with 'magic' in the sense defined above:
You might disagree with the argument; you might think (quite wrongly, I would say, but let that pass) that it has somehow been superseded by modern science, or that in some other way it is fallacious or rests on mistaken premises. What you cannot reasonably do is deny that such an argument is a genuine attempt at explanation, rather than an appeal to something inherently unintelligible. The same can be said of the Thomistic argument from the distinction between a contingent thing’s essence and its existence to God as a cause whose essence just is existence; or the Neo-Platonic argument from the existence of multiplicity to a cause which is an absolute unity; or the Leibnizian argument from contingency to a necessary being; or indeed of any of the other major theistic arguments. It is one thing to reject these arguments after a serious analysis of them. But to dismiss them as appeals to “magic” is just silly.


Actually, it's not quite so silly. I'm really tempted to go off on a tangent about how  a god who is "pure actuality" is by definition a being that is utterly inert — because to be capable of any sort of change is to require, on the Thomistic definition, 'potentiality'. So God cannot think, act, interact with the world, or really do anything at all whatsoever, including 'moving potentiality to actuality', as a Thomist would say. Sounds a lot like the kind of god this atheist believes in.

That's a bit of a tangent, but it begins to highlight the problem. We have a thoroughly comprehensive scientific framework by which to account for natural, physical phenomena at a great range of scales, from infinitesimally small particles to galactic superclusters. This understanding of the mechanistic, materialistic framework of the universe is what has allowed us to unlock the secrets of subatomic particles, predict the existence of black holes, and create everything from vaccines to supercomputers.

Certainly, there are plenty of questions science has not yet been able to answer. But the problem with a theological explanation such as 'potentiality and actuality' is that it requires us to invoke a new level of description that defies empirical observation. According to the Thomist, God sustains the universe's existence by moving potentiality to actuality. But how does God do this? We know the physical forces at play in our universe. Even if God is merely said to be influencing our thoughts, our thoughts rely on electric and chemical processes in the brain. If God has no influence over physical forces, nothing moves.

So, the Thomist thinks that indeed God does have influence over physical forces. But how? How, exactly, is God exerting His will? What is the mechanism by which God transcends the supernatural domain to influence the natural? Positing an invisible, undetectable force that inexplicably influences forces or objects in the universe is, without a doubt, magical thinking in the most precise and commonly understood definition of the term. As Lisa Randall so incisively puts it, 
A religious or spiritual belief that involves an invisible undetectable force that nonetheless influences human actions and behavior or that of the world itself produces a situation in which a believer has no choice but to have faith and abandon logic—or simply not care.

For the Thomist, this is compounded by the ambiguity of 'potentiality' and 'actuality' themselves. Presumably, we are to believe that potentiality and actuality are not merely abstractions of the human mind imposed on the universe, but fundamental properties of extant things. But properties in what sense? When we discuss potential energy  — a well-defined and robustly verified scientific concept — we know precisely what is meant. The forces at work are purely physical, and their effects readily predictable and observable. But Feser wants us to entertain the notion that there is some extra level of description, one that defies material and scientific description but is nonetheless an integral description of the properties of material things. The conundrum he's put himself in should be obvious: these are purportedly properties of empirical things which underlie all the mechanistic processes of the universe, yet these properties cannot be accounted for empirically in any way whatsoever. In what sense, then, can such things even be meaningfully called 'properties' of empirical things at all?


Feser's arguments further highlight the dubious nature of 'metaphysics' to begin with. The notion that God inexplicably acts on the universe to sustain it by changing 'potentiality' to 'actuality' is problematic not only because potentiality and actuality can't actually be shown to be properties of physical things in any coherent or meaningful way, nor only because the idea of a being that is 'pure actuality' that can nonetheless change and influence the universe is itself paradoxical; the problem is that the idea of inexplicable forces exerting an undetectable influence over physical things is flatly in conflict with our material, scientific understanding of the universe, and masking such sophistry with a quasi-academic veil of 'metaphysics' doesn't make the underlying concept any less illogical, unscientific, and absurd.

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