Feser on Schmid on Existential Inertia: An Argument Against EIT + More Demonstrable Misrepresentation | Part 7

Feser has recently responded to my IJPR article. I will respond to his post in a series of blog posts. Check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6. This post is Part 7, which deals with everything Feser says in his section ‘An argument against EIT’. In my next post, I’ll collect all the parts together into a single post.

After spelling out the argument from the Principle of Proportionate Causality (PPC), Feser proceeds to address my rejoinders thereof.

Before getting to Feser’s rejoinders, I want to spell out what I have come to see as the biggest problem for the argument. I don’t think I raised this problem in the IJPR article, but I take it to be the most serious problem for the argument.

In particular, I think premise (3) is straightforwardly false, and I have indirectly explained why throughout this series. Premise (3) says: “Something has existential inertia if and only if it has of itself [i.e., intrinsically or internally[Fn]] a tendency to persist in existence once it exists.”

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[Fn] It is clear from context, it seems to me, that this is what Feser means. Consider, for instance, that Feser seems to infer that ‘no material substance has a tendency of itself to persist in existence once it exists’ from the facts that ‘there are no other internal principles from which such a substance might derive such a tendency’ and ‘form and matter are internal principles from neither of which the substance can derive a tendency to persist’. This inference only seems to work if by ‘of itself’ Feser means ‘intrinsically or internally’.

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The left-to-right side of the biconditional here says that an existential inertial tendency intrinsic to S is a necessary condition for S’s persisting inertially. But this is essentially equivalent to what we saw Feser claiming in Part 3. Therein we saw Feser say, “if EIT is false, then it is not something intrinsic to the water; and if there is no sustaining cause, then it will not be something extrinsic to it either.”

But we also saw that this was mistaken. It is false that if there is no sustaining cause at t [or from (t-1) to t, which I shall hereafter drop], then the explanation for an object’s existence at t will not be something extrinsic to the object at t. For there are whole swathes of explanations of an object’s persistence that do not adduce sustaining causes and yet adduce facts extrinsic to the object itself at t.

Consider, for instance, one of the explanations I proffered in section 3 of my lengthier blog post and which I’ll adumbrate here:

For S to fail to exist at m despite existing from [m*, m), m* < m, is for some change to occur.[Fn] But a change occurs only if some factor causally induces said change. Hence, if no factor causally induces a change, then the change won’t occur. Thus, if no factor causally induces S to fail to exist at m despite existing from [m*, m), then S exists at m. Once we add that nothing came along to causally induce this — that is, once we addd that nothing came along to destroy S from m* to m — it simply follows that S exists at m. [Cf. Section 4.1 in the lengthier blog post for more on this line of thought.]

Here, we seem to have a perfectly respectable, perfectly legitimate explanation of S’s existence at m — and this explanation adduces facts outside of or extrinsic to S at m. And the explanation does, indeed, tell us how S exists at m. That was a straightforward deduction of the explanatory facts cited [namely, (i) S existed immediately before m, (ii) nothing causally induced S’s cessation at m [i.e., nothing destroyed S from the immediately prior moment(s) through m], and (iii) a change occurs only if some factor causally induces said change]. And so we do, indeed, have sufficient explanation for S’s existence at m, one that doesn’t adduce some extrinsic sustaining efficient cause. For me at least, the explanation certainly seems to remove mystery as to why/how S exists at m. The present explanation does, indeed, tell us how S exists at m. [I discuss and defend EIT-friendly explanations of persistence that adduce facts extrinsic to S at m along similar lines in this document here on no-change accounts. And again, Feser need not engage with this document if he responds. I include it for those who want to dig deeper.]

Or consider inertialist-friendly explanations based on laws of nature, which adduce facts extrinsic to S at m. Or consider inertialist-friendly explanations based on transtemporal explanatory relations, which adduce facts extrinsic to S at m. Or consider an explanation by appeal to the de dicto necessity of the inertial thesis (à la propositional necessity accounts). And on and on. Feser’s claim is just false.

To drive home the point, consider again Explanans 1, Explanans 2, and Explanandum from Part 5:

In the case of the transtemporal understanding of the first IJPR account, we have:

Explanans 1: (i) there is an absence of sufficiently causally destructive factors operative on S from (m-1) to m [where (m-1) is the moment immediately prior to m], and (ii) the state and/or existence of temporal concrete objects (or, at least, those within EIT’s quantificational domain) at a given moment (m-1) at which they exist causally produce their existence at the next moment, m, provided that no sufficiently causally destructive factors are operative.

Explanandum: S’s existence at m

In the case of the no-change understanding of the first IJPR account, we have:

Explanans 2: (i) S existed immediately before m — that is, at (m-1) — (ii) if S existed immediately before m but fails to exist at m, then S’s cessation is (or involves, or entails) some kind of change, (iii) nothing causally induces S’s cessation at (m-1) or m — that is, nothing destroyed S from the immediately prior moment, (m-1), through m — and (iv) a change occurs only if some factor causally induces said change.

Explanandum: S’s existence at m

Now, neither Explanans 1 nor Explanans 2 cite facts that explain the Explanandum [S’s existence at m] that are intrinsic to that Explanandum [i.e., that are intrinsic to S at m or S’s existence at m]. And yet both of these scenarios are ones in which S inertially persists. And hence something can inertially persist [i.e., persist without continuously and concurrently operative sustenance from without] without this inertial persistence being derived from [or resultant from or explained by or constituted by] some intrinsic principle [or tendency or what have you]. (Instead, for each non-first moment m of S’s life, the explanation of S at m is extrinsic to S at m but not a concurrently operative extrinsic sustaining efficient cause.[Fn]) Hence, premise (3) is false.

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[Fn] Alternatively, if one wants to say — at least with respect to the transtemporal understanding of the first IJPR account — that the explanation is intrinsic to S in the sense that the ‘principal explanatory mechanism’ — transtemporal causal relations that relate the successive phases of S’s life — is entirely contained within S’s life, that’s fine. Then premise (7) [“there are no other internal principles from which such a substance might derive such a tendency”] would be false, since there is something intrinsic to S’s life that accounts for S’s inertial persistence — to wit, transtemporal causal relations among the successive phases or states of S’s life.

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Anyway, I take the above objection targeting premise (3) to be the most powerful. But, alas, I only came to appreciate its force after writing the IJPR article. Nevertheless, I’ll proceed with the criticism in mind (being careful, of course, not to fault Feser for not addressing it).

Feser: “Schmid raises four objections against this argument.  First, he suggests that the defender of EIT could simply reject hylemorphism on the grounds that, if my argument is correct, hylemorphism would conflict with EIT.  Which is true, but not terribly interesting if I have independent arguments for hylemorphism – as, of course, I do.  But it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect Schmid to present a general critique of those arguments in a journal article devoted to another topic, so for present purposes we can put this issue to one side.”

I don’t have much to say about this, apart from the fact that it is important to note that the argument is only an argument against EIT conditional on the truth of hylemoprhism, and that this need not threaten those inertialists who reject hylemorphism. (And they’ll have responses to what Feser has written elsewhere regarding hylemoprhism; and, of course, Feser will have further responses; and they’ll have further responses; and so on.)

Feser: “Second, Schmid notes that the Principle of Proportionate Causality (of which premise 1 above is one formulation) allows that there are several ways in which what is in an effect may preexist in its cause.  And he suggests that a tendency to persist in existence may preexist in a material thing’s metaphysical constituents in a more subtle way than I consider.  In particular, he suggests that even if neither prime matter nor substantial form by themselves have a tendency to persist in existence, maybe in combination they will produce something that does have such a tendency – just as two colorless chemical constituents might be combined in a way that generates something that is red.”

This is a good exposition of how I articulated the objection in my IJPR article; however, we should note that at times in my IJPR article, I spoke of ‘a tendency’ in a metaphysically heavyweight manner, and I have explained why I would modify this in Part 4.

Feser: “One problem with this is that, just left at that, it doesn’t really amount to much of an objection.  For in the case of the chemical constituents, there are chemical facts we can point to that explain exactly why they will together generate something red.  But Schmid does not tell us exactly what it is about prime matter and substantial form that would (or indeed could), when they are combined, generate a tendency to persist in existence.”

This is not how the dialectical context works, though. My objection is an undercutting defeater. I don’t need to positively justify or spell out exactly what it is about prime matter and substantial form that would, when combined, result in such a tendency. I need only point out that nothing Feser says in his argument gives any reason for ruling this out, and that ruling this out is what he would need to do for his argument to succeed. In other words, I need only point out that Feser has not given the hylemorphically-inclined existential ienrtialist who does think that the form and matter, when combined, result in such a tendency sufficient reason to abandon their position. And so it is irrelevant that I don’t specify exactly what it is about form and matter that, when combined, results in such a tendency.

Imagine we live in 1000 BC without any knowledge of the underlying chemistry of chemical species A, B, and C. I have gone blind recently, but you haven’t. Before going blind, I interacted a lot with A and B and know that they are colorless liquids. But neither you nor I have combined A and B together to see what results. Today, though, that’s gonna change. We combine A and B together to produce C. You can see that C is a vibrant red liquid. I, of course, cannot. You tell me it’s vibrant red. I scoff, responding with the following:

“But that’s not possible. The only things from which C could derive such a feature would be A and B, and neither of them have the feature to grant to C. They are both colorless. And so there is simply nowhere from which C could derive this vibrant color. You must therefore either be lying to me, or playing a trick on me, or your visual apparatus is malfunctioning.”

You respond:

“But your argument there assumes that there is nothing about A and B such that, when combined, they are able to manifest this further feature not found in either of them individually. Think of it like wine. Wine has a flavor none of its various constituents individually do.”

Imagine I respond:

“That doesn’t really amount to much of an objection! In the case of the wine, there are facts we can point to that explain exactly why they will together generate something with a distinctively wine-like flavor. But you do not tell us exactly what it is about A and B that would (or indeed could), when they are combined, generate this vibrant red color.”

This response is confused. It is irrelevant whether you can point to facts about A and B that illuminate why they generate redness when combined. For I was the one offering a positive argument that A and B cannot generate redness. And my argument assumed that there couldn’t be anything about A and B that can combinedly manifest some feature not individually found in either. You then pointed out that my argument needs to assume this in order to succeed, but that absolutely no reason was provided for such an assumption. And you pointed to a case wherein precisely this ‘manifesting of a feature not individually found in any of the constituents’ occurs in order to bolster the in principle legitimacy of this kind of phenomenon. My argument does nothing to rule this out in the case of A, B, and C, and yet ruling this out is precisely what needs to be done for my argument to work. So, my argument fails. And for the same reason, Feser’s argument fails. [The case of A, B, and C is structurally identical to the dialectic with Feser’s PPC argument.]

Feser: “Another problem is that even if substantial form and prime matter would together yield something with existential inertia, that would just leave us with another version of the circularity problem discussed above.  Existential inertia, as a power or property of the whole substance, would depend for its existence at any moment on the parts of the substance (prime matter and substantial form) being combined; and the parts of the substance being combined at any moment would depend on its power or property of existential inertia.  (As I have said before, there really is no way around this sort of problem for anything that is composed of parts.  Only an absolutely simple or non-composite thing can have existential inertia.)”

But I have already shown in Part 5 why this objection fails, and so it’s clearly false that there is no way around this problem.

Feser: “Now, toward the end of his paper, Schmid does say something that might seem to provide a solution to this circularity problem.  He says that it is the parts of a substance at time t – 1 that explain the whole’s existence at t.  But there would be vicious circularity only if it were the parts at time t that were claimed to explain the whole’s existence at t.

But this simply ignores the sub-argument of the Aristotelian proof, referred to above, which claims that even considered at time t, the parts of the water (or of any other physical substance) considered just qua parts of the kind they are (particles, prime matter and substantial form, essence and existence, or whatever) are merely potentially water, so that some additional factor active at t must be brought in to account for why they are actualized as water at t.  What happened at an earlier time t – 1 is not sufficient to account for that.  But if the additional factor is some other part of the water itself, then we will be back with the circularity problem.”

But I have already addressed Feser’s argument here in my lengthier blog post. For one thing, I’ve already explained why the explanatory facts adduced in each of Explanans 1 and Explanans 2 do suffice to explain Explanandum, i.e., S’s existence at m. And so Feser’s claim that past things don’t suffice is false. But for those who haven’t read my lengthier blog post, I do want to address exactly what Feser says in his Aristotelian proof chapter by way of justifying the explanatory insufficiency of past things.

In the Aristotelian proof chapter, all we’re offered by way of justifying the claim that what happened prior to t is insufficient to explain why the water exists at t, as far as I can tell, is the following passage:

“[I]t is that matter’s potential to exist as water that is being actualized right now. Why? It is no good to answer that such-and-such a process occurred at some time in the past so as to combine the hydrogen and oxygen in just the right way. That tells us how the water got here, but that is not what we are asking about. It is also no good to point out that nothing has yet come along to separate out the hydrogen and oxygen. That tells us how the water might someday go out of existence, but that isn’t what we’re asking about either. What we’re asking about, again, is what keeps the water in existence at any instant at which it does in fact exist. ” (2017, p. 26)

But this amounts to simply asserting that the appeal to past things is insufficient to explain the present existence of the water; it is hardly a justification for it. The philosopher who thinks that the existence of S at moment m is adequately explained by the conjunction of |(i) S existed immediately before m and (ii) nothing destroyed S from then through m| will simply say: “Au contraire; on my view, these do suffice to explain it. Nothing you say in the quoted passage gives me any reason to think my proffered explanation is inadequate. You can retort that it’s ‘no good’, but you need to show why it’s no good. My view is precisely one according to which the conjunction of (i) and (ii) tells us not merely how the water got here, and not merely how the water might go out of existence, but also why the water exists at m. All you have done is simply asserted that the conjunction of (i) and (ii) doesn’t tell us why/how the water exists at m. But that’s precisely my view. And merely asserting a denial of my view is hardly grounds for rejection of said view. And note, moreover, that the onus in the present dialectical context is not on me to positively demonstrate why (i) and (ii) suffice to explain S’s existence at m; rather, you are the one giving a positive argument here, and hence you are the one who needs to give me sufficient reason to think my view is false. I do not, in this context, need to positively justify why my view is true. I need only point out that you haven’t proven it false.” [For a more fleshed out discussion of transtemporal explanatory accounts of EIT, check out this document here.]

Finally, once again check out my discussion of each of Explanans 1 and Explanans 2 from Part 5, since therein I explain how the explanatory facts cited are sufficient. [Strictly speaking, though, remember that all I need to do is point out that nothing Feser says on behalf of premise (7) gives those who do think past things sufficiently explain the present existence of S sufficient reason to abandon their position.]

Feser: “Schmid’s third objection to my argument is directed at step 7.  He says that, for all I have shown, existential inertia itself might be a further internal principle of a substance.  Hence, he claims, the premise begs the question.

To see the problem with this objection, consider an EIT-rejecting reductive naturalist who argues as follows:

The physical world consists of nothing more than fermions and bosons and the laws that govern them.  But there is nothing in the nature of fermions and bosons or the laws that govern them that entails that they have existential inertia.  Hence, there is no such feature in the physical world.

Whatever you think of such an argument, would it beg the question?  Not if the speaker has independent grounds for being a reductive naturalist.  Hence, in response to such a reductive naturalist, a defender of EIT would either have to give some argument against reductive naturalism, or show that the conclusion does not follow from the premises.  It would not be enough merely to accuse the speaker of begging the question.  But by the same token, my argument does not beg the question if I have independent grounds for being a hylemorphist, which I do.  Hence, even if Schmid had other good reasons to reject the argument, accusing step 7 of begging the question is not a good one.”

Suppose I’m a theist, and suppose I argue as follows:

  1. God exists.
  2. Therefore, God exists.

Now suppose you’re an atheist and you charge me of question-begging. In Feserian fashion, suppose I respond:

“Whatever you think of such an argument, would it beg the question? Not if I have independent grounds for being a theist. Hence, in response to such an argument, an atheist would either have to give some argument against theism, or show that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. It would not be enough merely to accuse me of begging the question.”

This response is confused. And yet it is precisely the response Feser has given to my charge of question-begging. It is irrelevant whether the proponent of the argument has independent reasons for accepting one of the premises. What matters, instead, is whether the argument — its premise(s) and that which is said on their behalf — gives those who don’t already accept it sufficient reason to abandon their position. And the job of the detractor of the argument is not to give some argument against the premise, i.e., some argument positively justifying its denial. Feser’s response, then, fails.

Feser: “Schmid’s fourth objection to my argument claims that if it succeeded, it would take down EET as well as EIT.  For why would a material substance’s substantial form and prime matter give it a tendency to expire any more than they give it a tendency to persist?  But Schmid’s objection misunderstands the position of those who reject EIT and endorse EET.  Their claim is not that material substances have an intrinsic tendency to go out of existence.  It’s rather merely that they lack any intrinsic tendency to continue in existence. 

Schmid considers this response, and says in reply that it presupposes that the falsity of EIT gives us reason to believe EET, which, he claims, it does not.  But I have already explained above why he is wrong about that.  The falsity of EIT does in fact give us reason to endorse EET.”

And I have already explained in Part 3 why Feser is wrong here. So I won’t belabor the point here.

Feser: “Schmid also suggests that if I agree that things do not have a positive intrinsic tendency to go out of existence, then that would be enough to vindicate EIT.  But that doesn’t follow at all. Again, the lack of a tendency to persist in existence is by itself sufficient to undermine EIT.”

What? This is NOT what I suggest. I am genuinely baffled (but not, at this point, surprised) at this misrepresentation. (I don’t think it’s intentional misrepresentation. But it’s misrepresentation nonetheless.) Let’s see what I actually write at this stage of the paper:

Notice what I actually claim: “So if Feser claims EET is vindicated by the absence of a tendency to persist, it will follow that EIT is equally vindicated by the parallel argument that things have no tendency to expire.”

Now compare that sentence with what Feser says I claim: “if [Feser] agree[s] that things do not have a positive intrinsic tendency to go out of existence, then that would be enough to vindicate EIT.”

These are completely different claims, and indeed I never have (and don’t) endorse the conditional Feser attributes to me. In fact, I explicitly deny the conditional Feser attributes to me in the paper. In particular, one of my criticisms of Beaudoin’s account of EIT in the paper was precisely that the mere absence of a tendency to expire is insufficient for EIT. That is an explicit denial of what Feser attributes to me. See, for instance:

So, Feser has blatantly misrepresented me yet again. At this point, though, I’m not surprised.

Finally, I will note, in connection with Feser’s claim that ‘the lack of a tendency to persist in existence is by itself sufficient to undermine EIT’, that this is false — I have explained many different accounts of inertial persistence in this series that don’t ontologically commit to some (intrinsic) tendency to persist but are still inertialist-friendly. So after misrepresenting me, Feser made a false claim.

Feser: “(Compare: If there is nothing intrinsic to me that allows me to see as far as a mile, then I am simply not going to see as far as a mile, unless some additional factor – such as a telescope – is brought into the picture.  The mere absence of some factor that prevents me from seeing that far – such as a barrier – is not going to suffice for me to see that far.  Similarly, the mere absence of a positively self-destructive tendency is not going to suffice to ensure that I continue in existence.”

I had already made the exact same response to Beaudoin. And yet Feser presents this as if it is a response to what I said. [Indeed, it is a response to the claim Feser attributed to me, but ironically I never made that claim and, indeed, explicitly denied that claim in my article.]

Feser: “If there is nothing intrinsic to me that positively ensures that I do continue in existence, then I am simply not going to continue in existence, unless some additional factor – an external sustaining cause – is brought into the picture.)”

I have already explained why this is false. There are whole swathes of extrinsic, inertialist-friendly explanations of persistence.

Feser: “Yet as we have now seen in two detailed posts, those arguments are seriously problematic – being sometimes unclear in their formulation, begging the question, and, in some cases, beholden to straw men and red herrings.  But as I have said, Schmid is an intelligent fellow and he certainly tries to engage his opponents’ arguments in a serious and civil way, and for that I thank him.”

As we’ve seen in my first post and in my detailed series of responses to Feser, my arguments are not problematic. Almost none of Feser’s responses succeeded, and indeed they were rife with misunderstandings of the dialectical context, misrepresentations, and missed points. But, of course, Feser is an intelligent man and he certainly tried to engage my arguments in a serious and civil way, and for that I thank him.

Author: Joe

3 Comments

  1. Pingback:Feser on Schmid on Existential Inertia | A Comprehensive Response | Majesty of Reason

  2. Guy Incognito

    This is great stuff Joe. I’ve been waiting for someone to give a thorough critique of Feser’s argument (I know Oppy has written on it, but I haven’t seen his stuff which is behind a paywall). Something which really stuck out for me that Feser said was this:

    “…with lions, Tyrannosauruses, water, etc., there is simply nothing about their natures or essences that entails that they exist *at all*. So how could it be just a *basic and necessary* feature of a world comprised of such things that they *persist* in existence?”

    But as the great philosopher Cameron Bertuzzi once said, questions aren’t arguments! Feser’s rhetorical question here just amounts to an implicit bald denial of the necessity account. I mean, it may be that Feser finds it intuitive that the necessity account is false, and that’s fine, but he hasn’t given any *argument* against it, as you point out.

    Anyway, keep up the good work. Your writing and video expositions are great.

    Best regards,
    – Some random guy with no life

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