Thomas Aquinas & Philosophical Realism

The Statistician to the Stars, Writer of the Stars, and Rock Star Philosopher.
The Statistician to the Stars, Writer of the Stars, and Rock Star Philosopher.
Dozens of big brains, and one fat head held aloft by Yours Truly, crammed into a small room yesterday to hear all there was to know, more or less, about Thomas Aquinas & Philosophical Realism.

The meta-lesson of the conference was, that each and every day, unlike the mass of unfortunates who switch on the television to learn what to think, you should visit the blogs of Ed Feser, Mike Flynn, and Yours Truly. Immunize yourself against silliness. Spread the words!

Now to the regular lessons. First, realism does not necessarily mean what a civilian means by realism. But that’s the case with many, most, or maybe all philosophical jargon.

A civilian looks out his kitchen window to his car sitting in his driveway and thinks, “I have to replace that wretched muffler.” But an academic philosopher who has set his mind against realism will say, “The muffler, the car, the window, and even this kitchen, is a product of my imagination.” This won’t save the academic from having to visit his mechanic, but it might land him a job at a prestigious university.

But never mind. Thomistic realism is the kind of realism you most likely have in mind when you bother to think about the subject at all. Stuff exists, it’s out there; other people exist; trees make noise if nobody is around to hear them fall, and so on.

James Brent

James Brent, OP.
James Brent, OP.
Leading off was James Brent, O.P. (“Oh, a Priest”), from The Catholic University of America, with his patriotically titled “The Principle of Non-Contradiction Yesterday, Today, and Forever.”

Brent, incidentally, gave his talk in the form of an scholastic argument, which is a clean form for presenting objections and resolutions. See this argument of Thomas for an example.

Can we know any truths? Yes. And if you disagree, you agree. The principal of non-contradiction, so familiar its earned its own acronym, is one of these truths, which comes in three flavors. The one most familiar to readers here is the epistemic version, which is that a proposition cannot be both true and false simultaneously (given the same evidence). The metaphysical flavors are that something cannot be and not-be at the same time, and something cannot exist and not-exist simultaneously.

The PNC is something each of us knows. How do we know it? We don’t know. This knowledge was a gift. We cannot prove the PNC. It is obviously true. Well, the PNC is not the only item we know without proof. This is why we have the word axiom.

One of the better objections to the PNC, and by “better” I do not mean good, is the “So what?” objection. Nothing, the critic ventures, follows from the PNC. The answer to this is, “Oh yeah? So what yourself.”

No, really: that is the answer. Even if nothing follows from it, it doesn’t follow the PNC isn’t true. Nothing follows from Peano’s first axiom, either. We need to add to it a couple of other true-without-proof propositions, and then all of mathematics tumbles out. The PNC, I repeat, is not the only thing we know.

(I pay most attention to Brent and Feser’s talks because they cover ground well trodden by regular readers.)

Candace Vogler

Candace Vogler.
Candace Vogler.
Speaker two was Candace Vogler, University of Chicago with “Nature, Human Good, and Culture in Aquinas”.

As far as I understand it (which isn’t very far), there has been a creeping, cautious return to teleology in metaphysics. Directedness, powers, and all that is what frightened the Enlightened into Hume’s curious views of causation, created the so-called “mind-problem” problem, and so forth. See, if there is a direction, if actualities and potencies and all that are the right way to think of things, then this implies there might be somebody in charge of traffic flow. And that somebody is somebody we moderns are anxious not to know.

But there just isn’t any way to expunge teleological talk in many areas of science, particularly biology. “What’s the heart for?” “It’s not for anything! Everything is random meaninglessness.” People say that sort of thing, but nobody believes it. But they do say these things, which we must understand as their blustery strategy of keeping teleology at bay.

Vogler gave an interesting summary of how certain philosophers are reconsidering the old ways. They speak in new words. This has two advantages: it keeps civilians baffled, and it proves what many philosophers are ever anxious to prove, that they are independent of all those other philosophers. (That’s my view, not Vogler’s, who is vastly politer than I.)

Her best quip, in answer to a question about modern physics: “I have yet to meet the analytic philosopher who is troubled by physics.”

Again, we must keep in mind the differences between metaphysical explanations of causality and the epistemological implications of this. We don’t, it is obvious, always recall the distinction.

Ed Feser

Batting third was Ed Feser (whose picture at the podium I neglected to take; but see above), Pasadena College with his “An Aristotelian Argument for the Existence of God”. Regular readers know it (see the extended review of his book The Last Superstition). Feser had a handout which delineated the argument in a way that would make any mathematician smile, complete with diagrams. Luckily it was already given in another paper (or I would have been far too lazy to type it out):

  1. That the actualization of potency is a real feature of the world follows from the occurrence of the events we know via sensory experience.
  2. The occurrence of any event E presupposes the operation of a substance.
  3. The existence of any natural substance S at any given moment presupposes the concurrent actualization of a potency.
  4. No mere potency can actualize a potency: only something actual can do so.
  5. So any actualizer A of S‘s current existence must itself be actual.
  6. A‘s own existence at the moment it actualizes S itself presupposes either (a) the concurrent acutalization of a further potency or (b) A‘s being purely actual.
  7. If A‘s existence at the moment it actualizes S presupposes the concurrent actualization of a further potency, then there exists a regress of concurrent actualizers that is either infinite or terminates in a purely actual actualizer.
  8. But such a regress of concurrent actualizers would constitute a causal series ordered per se, and such a series cannot regress infinitely.
  9. So either A itself is purely actual or there is a purely actual actualizer which terminates the regress of concurrent actualizers.
  10. So the occurrence of E and thus the existence of S at any given moment presupposes the existence of a purely actual actualizer.

Feser very carefully—one could almost say painstakingly—one will—and painstakingly differentiated two kinds of series, accidentally and essentially ordered. Accidental series are those like “for the want of a nail a kingdom was lost.” These do not form the basis of his proof. Essentially ordered series do. The old saw of stick-pushes-rock modified is the saw is cutting the wood, the arm is pushing the saw, the muscle is pushing the arm, the cells are releasing proteins, the atom are wiggling this way, the quarks that way, and so on down to the foundation, which initiates the process, which is operating now; all members in the series are changing now, in this simultaneous moment, all pushed along by the foundational unchanging and unchangeable cause.

There must be a foundation to any such essentially ordered series: it cannot infinitely regress like an accidental series or nothing could ever change. That foundation, it turns out, has to have certain properties, all of which may be summarized with the word God. Yeah, that guy.

After Feser’s talk, a line of his numerous fans started forming at the podium. Mike Flynn, the Incomparable Marge, the Number One son, and I tried to walk to the back of it. But the line was so long it led out the door, down the sidewalk, and ended in front of a pub—where we repaired and drank pints of Guinness to wait out the storm and to sing sad songs about nobody buying our books.

John Haldane

John Haldane.
John Haldane.
Cleanup was John Haldane, St. Andrew’s University and “Aquinas and Realism”. Turns out there are several things that can be meant by “realism”: hard versus moderate versus anti, metaphysical versus epistemological, and so on. Thomas is what people usually call a “moderate” realist, the version of realism most closely akin to commonsense.

Among other things, Haldane built a circumstantial case that a well known (to other philosophers, anyway) philosopher named Étienne Gilson came to his view of Thomas’s realism because G.K. Chesterton had the same view. Or, no, wait: it’s the other way around. Anyway, the Guinness and the massive plate of eggs (topped by, I kid you not, what was billed as “angry” Hollandaise sauce) I mistakenly ate had its effects and I admit that what was left of my powers of concentration were bent on finding a corner into which I could squeeze myself into and doze.

I did hear the terms “avowers and deniers”: I liked “avowers.” Something about knowing things as they are in themselves. And that put my mind back to David Stove’s contest to discover the Worst Argument in the World.

I’ll say this for Haldane (to whom I apologize for my not paying attention): he was only one of three people in the room to wear a pocket square. Curiously, his respondent, a professor my son knew from Fordham, was the second. You know who the third was.

The brings us to our second meta-lesson. Stay away from pubs before lectures.

Infinite loop update Click on this link, then click on the appropriate link on the link. Repeat.

Hyperdrive update The OFloinn himself weighs in here.

Hammertime update Jerry Pournelle plugs the post here.


  1. An Engineer

    I am reminded of the Bill Crosby comedy routine – “Noah: Right!”

    Neither a Philosopher nor Theologian, holding just slight competence in Newtonian Mechanics, Hydraulics, Thermodynamics, Statics and Dynamics, and Soil Mechanics, I firmly assert there is a God. I see evidence of His presence everywhere I look. There is a universal order to things I see, and this order is not explained by scientific or engineering dictums. So if He tells me to build an ark, I won’t ask about cubits but saws will be cutting wood.

  2. Scotian

    Quote “Her best quip, in answer to a question about modern physics: “I have yet to meet the analytic philosopher who is troubled by physics.”” Quip for quip, here is Bohr “For those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.” My poor country physicist’s impression is that philosophers are way too addicted to quip and snark. It makes it difficult to take them seriously.

    Quote “one could almost say painstakingly”. You said it brother.

    Quote “I see evidence of His presence everywhere I look. There is a universal order to things I see”. I wish that I had your insight but one man’s order is another man’s disorder. A Panglossian view?

  3. Don

    Wow – if David Bentley Hart had been in the top photo I would be begging for a copy suitable for framing . . . 3 mighty bloggers there.

  4. “Can we know any truths? Yes. And if you disagree, you agree.” Maybe not!
    I can’t claim to “know” you’re wrong, but I can sure as hell *think* you are.

  5. Ye Olde Statisician

    I can’t claim to “know” you’re wrong, but I can sure as hell *think* you are.

    Actually, Fr. Brent’s (and Aristotle’s) point was that you can “say” it is wrong, but you cannot “think” it. That is, you can hold PNC false “in words” but not “in thought.”

  6. Wing Flanagan

    Marvelous! Thanks for the reportage. I especially appreciate the concise summary of Feser’s “Aristotelian Argument”. I shall steal it immediately! Be on notice, the both of you!


  7. Anthony

    Is there a way to obtain a copy of Haldane’s talk?

  8. Briggs


    It wasn’t recorded. But it has the look of one he’s done before and will likely do again. Might look up his schedule. Think he said he’s in the States for a semester.

  9. John

    Have you ever noticed that none of the usual big-time-religious-talkers ever use the word Consciousness with a capital C, or even small c for that matter. Nor do they talk about Light which is the Energy of Consciousness. Which is quite strange because Consciousness and Light are the two irreducible aspects of Reality.

    Please find an altogether different Understanding of Reality via these references:

  10. I recorded all presentations. If there is no official prohibition I will post all on my apologetics blog.

  11. Briggs


    I suggest asking Father Thomas Joseph White, op. He ran the show. Email me for his email, or Google it; easy to find.

    Incidentally, like the article you on the home page.

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