Sunday, December 31, 2017

Rational Discussion With a Thomist

In my previous post, I attempted to show two things.  The first of these is that I understand a key concept that is part of the Thomistic cosmological argument - that is, what is meant by an "essentially ordered" causal series (or EOS).  This has been an area of contention, because they insist that I don't get it, and I am not alone in my ignorance - many atheists are similarly painted with this same brush, regardless of whether there is any truth to it.  The second thing is that regardless my acceptance of the meaning of this concept, it is still inconsistent with physical reality, and therefore, I reject the reality of the concept.  In response to this, Martin was good enough to make another post of his own to clarify his position and open up the topic for further discussion.  I congratulate him for his willingness to discuss something that has divided us for such a long time, and to try to clear the air in a rational manner.  To my surprise, I found that we couldn't even agree on something that I thought was already in agreement.

It seems that my understanding of what is meant by an "essentially ordered" causal series, even though it echoes the explanations given by many different Thomists, including Ed Feser, and Martin himself, misses the point.  And it isn't a question of my being just too dense to get the concept, but rather that I take them at their word for what it means.  It has to do with the concurrent nature of essentially ordered causation.  It is the idea that in this type of causation, there is a causal source (or instrumental cause, as Feser calls it) that may be passed through some number of causally inert elements to the final effect at the end of the series, and this is something that occurs in the moment.  But the explanation Martin now gives has changed.  Apparently because I pointed out that there is no truly simultaneous causation, he now says that the concurrent aspect of it is not what is important.
it is unfortunate that I’ve given the impression that the entire series must be simultaneous. - Martin
And this is despite the fact that it was not only important, but vital to him before:
We have here a concurrent chain of changers. and this is vital to understand for the next point: ... - Martin
Now, I understand that there is one sense in which the concurrent aspect of EOS doesn't hold.  As Feser explains, if this causal chain passes through some kind of time portal, then the effect is not simultaneous with the instrumental cause, but other than that it is simultaneous, according to Feser.  OK, fine.  But Feser's imaginary time portal doesn't change the the basic idea that the causal linkage from one element to the next doesn't incur any time delay.  It is "passed through", as Martin puts it.  This is also consistent with the explanation of EOS given in this paper, where simultaneity is not part of his definition of EOS, but it is an implication.  And the whole idea of concurrent causality is what I tried to show as being inconsistent with physical reality.  And please note that without the notion of concurrent causation, it is impossible to distinguish essentially ordered causation from accidental in any realistic physical sense.

I don't think Martin is in a position to argue against my physical explanation of how passing power through a wire to light a room involves many tiny time delays, so it really isn't concurrent, even though Martin used this as an example of EOS.  So now he insists that such time delays can indeed be part of the EOS, and that isn't what I should be focusing on.
Even if an effect lingers for a time after its cause has disappeared, we can still infer the cause from the effect. Would we, for example, be justified in rejecting the hypothesis of a burglar from the observance of a broken window and a missing TV set just because the burglar is long gone? - Martin
whether a series is simultaneous or not is not important, and can be dropped. When reasoning from effect to cause, it doesn't matter if the cause happened a while ago and is no longer present, as the burglar example shows. What is important is avoiding explanatory circularity - Martin
So now, we should forget about simultaneous causation, and just think about whether a cause can be inferred from an effect, because that's what is important about EOS.  What was that about inferring a burglary?  Was that supposed to be an example of EOS?  Please tell me more, because frankly, I don't see how that relates to EOS in any meaningful way at all.  I'm afraid that in his effort to discredit my understanding of the concept, Martin has managed to muddle it to the point that it is meaningless.  Consider, if you will, what distinguishes an essentially ordered causal series from accidentally ordered in light of this new definition.  Can we not infer some kind of cause in either case?  Given that we can always infer that there muse be some kind of cause, what's the point of talking about EOS at all? 

And I would add that the so-called instrumental cause in any EOS is itself caused by something else, too.  Which means that it really isn't instrumental, after all.  The hand that moves the stick is moved by the arm.  And you can take a causal series back as far as you like, but if you do, you must, at some point, cross the line into an accidentally ordered causal series.  Does Martin's explanation involving inference of a cause give us any guidance at all on where that line is drawn?

It seems that this whole side-trip down the rabbit-hole wasn't really to clarify a concept, but simply to discount whatever I had to say about it.  Whether of not my understanding is accurate, Martin must disagree.  And rather than discuss the issue (which I thought was the intent of that whole blog post), he now wants to divert the discussion away from the points I raised, and focus instead on how I should just accept his Thomistic dogma.
I think you should drop all the terminology of temporality, and linear this and that, and everything else, and pay attention to what I said - Martin
For the record, I have paid attention, and I hear things that raise issues, which I have tried to point out.  One thing I have always noticed in my discussions with theists is that whenever I make a point that they have no good answer for, they drop that line of discussion and turn to something else.  They never want to discuss it further.  They typically pretend it never happened.  But OK, I get it.  Martin doesn't really want to discuss what I have to say, and even if I agree with what he has said before, he will now disagree with it.  So I shouldn't even try to present my side of the story.  That's not what Martin is here to discuss.  I should just accept his presumptions and his arguments, and this discussion will conclude in a manner that is satisfactory to him.  And so goes my rational discussion with a Thomist.


  1. I suspect it may come down to whether some of our basic intuitions - like "things happen for a reason" - continue to apply when we consider ultimacies...


    1. I'm not sure exactly what you mean. (Sometimes your comments are a bit cryptic.)

      Thomists claim their philosophy is based on observation of nature. That is explicitly stated in Aquinas' five ways. So ideas like "things happen for a reason" take on the status of inviolable laws. But then, with the advancement of science and our ability to observe how things really work, we see that some of those old observations turn out to be false. They seem intuitive to us, but our intuition can be wrong. Take, for example, relativity - not consistent with our intuition, but nevertheless, verified by empirical means. The problem for Thomists is that their fundamental assumptions about reality are based on those intuitions that seemed to be consistent with reality long, long ago. Those intuitions have, in many cased been proven to be false. Yet they persist as "laws" in the mind of the Thomist. And wherever the conflict is apparent, they now claim that these old laws are just "metaphysics", and they don't really conflict with science at all. Which is just a way of clinging to the old beliefs in spite of modern knowledge that refutes it.

    2. My suspicion is that the kind of thing Martin means is a bit different....

      Like, there should be problem with an infinite (temporal) causal chain anyway for the PSR (or so some modern rationalists claim), even one extending infinitely in both temporal directions. Because, according to the principle, there must still be a reason for the WHOLE CHAIN (taken as a single thing). What's the reason for that? What's the meta-reason that allows the existence (or at least seeming-existence) of "causes" for things, even infinite varieties of them?

      I think Martin has a distinction like this in mind with his "horizontal vs vertical forms of causation" concepts too.

    3. Like, there should be problem with an infinite (temporal) causal chain anyway for the PSR ...
      - Thomists say (and Martin agrees) that an infinite temporal causal chain is possible. Tat's the whole point of distinguishing the horizontal (temporal) from the vertical (concurrent), because it is the infinite concurrent causal chain that they say is not possible. (And their philosophy demands a causal terminus, which is God.) Well, I actually agree with that, but I would add that ANY concurrent causal chain is physically impossible.

    4. Well, what about quantum entanglement?

      Is entanglement "causeless"?


    5. I have purposely stayed away from quantum phenomena.

      One reason is that I think we still have much to learn about the underlying reality of quantum phenomena. At this level, things do appear to be causeless. At least the notion of causation is different from any kind of causation that we understand at the macro level.

      Another reason is that you generally can't you can't extrapolate individual quantum events to the macro level. The causeless aspect of individual particle movements does not imply any such thing at the macro level, where things are always caused by aggregate quantum events, and any random element is effectively cancelled out in the aggregate. The same might be said of the entanglement phenomenon. It only applies for individual particles, but there is no corresponding entanglement at the macro level.

      Whenever someone tries to invoke quantum phenomena to try to explain macro-level things (as, for example, using the indeterminacy of quantum events to explain free will), they are generally making a mistake.

    6. Well, physicists use entanglement to describe the construction of spacetime itself, these days....

    7. That may be the case, but it doesn't change what I said. Thomistic metaphysics was not conceived with modern physics in mind, much less quantum mechanics - it was based on an outdated and thoroughly debunked notion of reality. And the new observations and mysteries of physics in the quantum realm still don't change the scientific realities of how things work in the world of our everyday experience.

    8. Well, my knowledge of Aquinas is too sketchy to comment much there....

      Could there be infinite levels of "grounding", of levels of reality underneath observable physical reality? That seems pretty chaotic and opposed to the orderliness we observe in nature, but otoh concepts of "chaos" vs "order" might only arise from OUR limitations, whether or not a pattern is simple enough for us to recognize as such. In that sense, could there be a pattern - an "essential series" - underlying physical reality with an infinite amount of complexity and no initializer at all. Or would that be "mere chaos" ?

    9. I doubt levels of reality extend infinitely beyond our ability to observe, and that is something Thomists would agree on. But even if there were, It doesn't seem to me that it would imply some kind of chaos.

      BTW, chaos, as we understand it, is just our own perception of patterns that we can't easily predict, due to their complexity. Chaotic systems still follow a deterministic order.

    10. Well, okay... but I was trying to use the term there in a little looser sense, a bit more vernacular, not quite so formally.

  2. How do you have a rational argument with a Thomist? More germane to the query, in light of modern physics how can Thomism be deemed rational today?
    Just saying.

    1. It's funny. They adopt Thomistic philosophy because it seems rational to them. I can understand that, I guess. But it is an isolated system, where things fit together if you ignore the real world, and if you ignore all those people who are trying to point the flaws in their thinking. Only then can they pretend to have a philosophy that works. And they love to hold their supposed intellectual superiority over those who don't swallow it.