Monday, June 6, 2011

Correcting some misapprehensions

A gentleman named Drake Shelton seems to have begun a series of blog posts in which he intends to present his confession of faith. Part one may be found here. My interest is less in considering or evaluating this confession and more in correcting what I understand to be mistakes in it related to St Thomas and Aristotle. In the first section, on epistemology, he offers the following quotation from a Protestant philosopher/theologian Gordon Clark and a few comments upon it. Mr. Shelton’s comments are primarily what interest me, but the rest of the quotation here is necessary for context:

Experience at best teaches us that one event follows another. It never shows that one causes the other. Experience at best gives sequence not causality. (pg. 24)…First of all causality is a relative term: That is, there can be no causes unless there is an effect. We say X causes Y. Omit either one of them and there is left neither cause nor effect (pg. 25)…a cause must be an event that guarantees the effect…There must be because the cause must produce its result. If in the time interval something happens, or even could happen, to prevent the effect, there is no cause…two objections. First, but illogically, he will say, ‘But I mean X cause Y if nothing intervenes.’ Stated thus baldly the fallacy is flagrant. However, it can be stated more covertly. Food nourishes us, if we do not get seasick, and if the stomach finishes its function, and if the juices are absorbed into the blood, and if the blood is brought to the muscles. But note well: We no longer have two event, X and Y. We have the definition of nourishment; and surely it is logical to insist that if we are nourished, it follows logically but not temporally, that we are nourished. (pg. 26) [emphasis in original]

And Mr. Shelton’s comments:

The context of this last section is the “spatio temporal” world of the empiricists and the Aristotelians. This view of God we reject. They will say that God causes all things because he is the first mover. This is not what a Scripturalist means when he says that God causes all things, because the Aristotelian view assumes that the subsequent motions are proximate causes. This Clark just refuted. Dr. Clark says, ”We now concur with the Islamic anti-Aristotelian Al Gazali: God and God alone is the cause, for only God can guarantee occurrence of Y, and indeed of X as well. [emphasis added]

Whatever may be the case about the book from which he’s quoting, it’s emphatically not the case that Clark has refuted Aristotle’s view of causality in the quotation above. Why do I say this? Because it does not even address it. Why do I say that? Because Aristotelian-Thomistic causality doesn’t have to do with temporal relations between events. Rather, it has to do with act and potency, and specifically with how potencies are raised to act. But Clark doesn’t address this in the quotation. Rather, he talks about events and relations and sequence. The whole quotation sounds a lot like Feser’s description and subsequent demolition of Hume’s critique of causality in chapters 2 and 3 of Aquinas. And Feser makes it pretty clear that Hume either didn’t understand or wasn’t talking about A-T causality, too.

Thirdly, although Shelton claims that Clark has refuted the A-T view of proximate causes, it seems pretty clear that this isn’t so. Why? Aside from the fact that nothing in the Clark quotation has to do with A-T causation per se, there’s nothing in the quotation that even refers to proximate causes. At any rate, I don’t see it. It may be that Mr. Shelton is referring to the hypothetical objection that Clark supposes might be raised to his argument: “But I mean X causes Y if nothing intervenes.” But this has to do with X being ordered to bringing about Y in such a way that Y is guaranteed unless something intervenes to prevent it. This is what the quote is talking about, after all, since Clark had just said:

If in the time interval something happens, or even could happen, to prevent the effect, there is no cause…

So proximate causes are not in view at all, since proximate causes do not prevent an effect.

(By the way, this one sentence shows that Clark’s argument doesn’t work against A-T causation, because in A-T causation the First Mover’s action and the resulting motion of the thing moved are simultaneous. Consequently there is no time interval at all.)

In short, then, it seems clear that Mr. Shelton’s claims against Aristotle (and consequently St Thomas, in this instance) don’t work.

Along similar lines there are a couple other observations about the post that seem worthwhile to make. A little later in the post, Mr. Shelton asserts:

Man receives no knowledge from created and empirical means. Eccles. 8:16-17.

But Mr. Shelton had to read (an empirical means) the Bible (a created means) in order to determine whether the given quotation might support this claim. So this seems to be pretty self-refuting. :-)

Toward the end of the article, he claims:

The law of contradiction is deduced from 1Co 14:6

It’s not clear whether his claim is “Among other ways, the law of contradiction may be deduced from 1 Cor. 14:6” or “The law of contradiction may only be derived from 1 Cor. 14:6.” If the latter: Parmenides (a Greek) formulated the law of contradiction 500 years before St Paul was born. So the latter claim would be clearly false.

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