Hsiao’s Perverted Faculty Argument: Doesn’t Even Get off the Ground

Hsiao’s Perverted Faculty Argument: Doesn’t Even Get off the Ground August 27, 2019

The Perverted Faculty Argument (PFA) is a strand of Thomistic (Thomas Aquinas) thinking that is intertwined with Natural Law Theory (NLT)  of which I have been blogging lately. I was challenged by Vincent Torley recently to, if I was going to attack the PFA (as I have done here and here), attack the best form of the argument. The claim was that Timothy Hsiao’s defence was the best. It can be found here.

I also recently posted a piece concerning Hsiao’s formulation of the Perverted Faculty Argument (PFA). I initially posted Ficino’s notes on this and he did a great job at showing some pretty terminal weaknesses with it. I will continue by giving some of my own thoughts, all of which have no doubt previously been discussed in one context or another over many posts. This post will only be concerned with Premise (1)!

Here is his version of the PFA:

(1) For any x that is a K, if x is good, then x is a good K.

(2) If x is a good K, then x is good by being as Ks ought to be.

(3) Therefore, if x is a good human action, then x is good by being as human actions ought to be. (From 1–2)

(4) Human actions ought to be aimed at human goods that are proper to them.

(5) Human goods are that which fulfills human faculties.

(6) Therefore, human actions ought to be aimed at that which fulfills the human faculties that are proper to them. (From 4, 5)

(7) Therefore, if x is a good human action, then x is good by aiming at that which fulfills the human faculties that are proper to it. (From 3–6)

I think the opening premise is fundamentally problematic. Unsurpisingly, if you know me, this will entail ideas of nominalism against ideas of realism. Thomism falls apart under a nominalist or conceptual nominalist account of the world. In simple terms, abstract ideas only exist in the mind of the conceiver. This makes any objective claims about reality really troublesome.

The initial example given by Hsiao is of a pencil – if a pencil is a good pencil it is good at being a pencil. This is far more obvious with something of a simple function. Several things can be said here: first of all, what of something that is not a pencil fulfilling the function of a pencil? Secondly, what of multiple functions of a given thing?

Let’s shift this to a “chair” thing. We would need to agree on what the function of a chair is. Under Thomism, such a function is entailed in the essence of thing. Properties and functions appear to have ontic, objective existence. I would argue this is not true. I will quote at length from my book on the Kalam Cosmological Argument, Did God Create the Universe from Nothing? (UK):

To illustrate this, let’s now look at the “label” of “chair” (in a very cogent way, all words are abstractions that refer to something or another, but nominalists will say that these abstractions, or the relationship between them and the reference points, do not exist, out there, in the ether). This is an abstract concept, I posit, that exists, at most, only in the mind of the conceiver. We, as humans, label the chair abstractly and it only means a chair to those who see it as a chair—i.e. it is subjective. The concept is not itself fixed. My idea of a chair is different to yours, is different to a cat’s and to an alien’s, as well as different to the idea of this object to a human who has never seen or heard of a chair (early humans who had never seen a chair, for example, would not know it to be a chair. It would not exist as a chair, though the matter would exist in that arrangement). I may call a tree stump a chair, but you may not. If I was the last person (or sentient creature) on earth and died and left this chair, it would not be a chair, but an assembly of matter that meant nothing to anything or anyone.[i] The chair, as a label, is a subjective concept existing in each human’s mind who sees it as a chair. A chair only has properties that make it a chair within the intellectual confines of humanity. These consensus-agreed properties are human-derived properties, even if there may be common properties between concrete items—i.e. chairness. The ascription of these properties to another idea is arguable and not objectively true in itself. Now let’s take an animal—a cat. What is this “chair” to it? I imagine a visual sensation of “sleep thing”. To an alien? It looks rather like a “shmagflan” because it has a “planthoingj” on its “fdanygshan”. Labels are conceptual and depend on the conceiving mind, subjectively.

What I mean by this is that I may see that a “hero”, for example, has properties X, Y and Z. You may think a hero has properties X, Y and B. Someone else may think a hero has properties A, B and X. Who is right? No one is right. Those properties exist, in someone, but ascribing that to “heroness” is a subjective pastime with no ontic reality, no objective reality.

This is how dictionaries work. I could make up a word: “bashignogta”. I could even give it a meaning: “the feeling you get when going through a dark tunnel with the tunnel lights flashing past your eyes”. Does this abstract idea not objectively exist, now that I have made it up? Does it float into the ether? Or does it depend on my mind for its existence? I can pass it on from my mind to someone else’s using words, and then it would be conceptually existent in two minds, but it still depends on our minds. What dictionaries do is to codify an agreement in what abstract ideas (words) mean, as agreed merely by consensus (the same applies to spelling conventions—indeed, convention is the perfect word to illustrate the point). But without all the minds existing in that consensus, the words and meanings would not exist. They do not have Platonic or ontic reality.

 Thus the label of “chair” is a result of human evolution and conceptual subjectivity (even if more than one mind agrees).

If you argue that objective ideas do exist, then it is also the case that the range of all possible entities must also exist objectively, even if they don’t exist materially. Without wanting to labour my previous point, a “forqwibllex” is a fork with a bent handle and a button on the end (that has never been created and I have “made-up”). This did not exist before now, either objectively or subjectively. Now it does—have I created it objectively? This is what happens whenever humans make up a label for anything to which they assign function etc. Also, things that other animals use that don’t even have names, but to which they have assigned “mental labels”, for want of better words, must also exist objectively under this logic. For example, the backrubby bit of bark on which a family of sloths scratch their backs on a particular tree exists materially. They have no language, so it has no label as such (it can be argued that abstracts are a function of language). Yet even though it only has properties to a sloth, and not to any other animal, objectivists should claim it must exist objectively. Furthermore, there are items that have multiple abstract properties which create more headaches for the objectivist. A chair, to me, might well be a territory marker to the school cat. Surely the same object cannot embody both objective existences: the table and the marker! Perhaps it can, but it just seems to get into more and more needless complexity.

When did this chair “begin to exist”? Was it when it had three legs being built, when 1/2, 2/3, 4/5, 9/10 of the last leg was constructed? You see, the energy and matter of the chair already existed. So the chair is merely a conceptual construct. More precisely a human one. More precisely still, one that different humans will variously disagree with.

Let’s take the completed chair. When will it become not-a-chair? When I take 7 molecules away? 20? A million? This is sometimes called the paradox of the beard / dune / heap or similar. However, to be more correct, this is an example of the Sorites Paradox, attributed to Eubulides of Miletus. It goes as follows. Imagine a sand dune (heap) of a million grains of sand. Agreeing that a sand dune minus just one grain of sand is still a sand dune (hey, it looks the same, and with no discernible difference, I cannot call it a different category), then we can repeatedly apply this second premise until we have no grains, or even a negative number of grains and we would still have a sand dune. Such labels are arbitrarily and generally assigned so there is no precision with regards to exactly how many grains of sand a dune should have.

This problem is also exemplified in the species problem which, like many other problems involving time continua (defining legal adulthood etc.), accepts the idea that human categorisation and labelling is arbitrary and subjective. The species problem states that in a constant state of evolving change, there is, in objective reality, no such thing as a species since to derive a species one must arbitrarily cut off the chain of time at the beginning and the end of a “species’” evolution in a totally subjective manner. For example, a late Australopithecus fossilised skull could just as easily be labelled an early Homo skull. An Australopithecus couple don’t suddenly give birth to a Homo species one day. These changes take millions of years and there isn’t one single point of time where the change is exacted. There is a marvellous piece of text that you can see, a large paragraph[ii] which starts off in the colour red and gradually turns blue down the paragraph leaving the reader with the question, “at which point does the writing turn blue?” Of course, there is arguably no definite and objectively definable answer—or at least any answer is by its nature arbitrary and subjective (depending, indeed, on how you define “blue”).

So, after all that, what has begun to exist? A causally inert abstract concept.

What this means is that there is no objective agreement as to what a thing actually is or its function. We might agree, by consensus, amongst humans, as to what a chair is. But even in doing so, this does not assume we will agree on whether a particular one is a good one in fulfilling its function.

This problem is also twofold. Firstly, some might agree a thing is a chair because it looks like a chair but people might disagree on its function. Imagine a tiny chair, the size of a marble. We may or may not agree on it being a chair largely on account of agreeing or not over its function. It might look like a perfectly formed chair, and so some will argue it as a chair, but not have the function of any other chair for a human. This would, again, take consensus.

Okay, let’s assume we agree on a tree stump being a chair. Let’s assume a given group of people come to a consensus that it qualifies in every way (aesthetics, form, function) as to being a chair. Now we have a second problem. What happens when a cat or small boy decides to sleep well on it, laying down? It is now arguably a good bed, under Thomism, and not a good chair. It has various functions depending on who is using it and who is evaluating that use.

This causes terminal problems for such essentialism (what is its true essence?), but is perfectly explicable under conceptual nominalism – it is whatever it is to the conceiver, and to anyone else whom the conceiver can convince by good, convincing (rational?) argument.

I may use a blunt, broken pencil to somehow save my life. That is now a good pencil, to me! But it’s crap at writing.

As soon as you start drawing absolutist lines in the sand, things fall apart like a house of cards. It’s why context makes mockery of moral (think biblical) absolutism.

(1) For any x that is a K, if x is good, then x is a good K.

In conclusion, premise (1) is fundamentally flawed, primarily in terms of its attempt to be objective (in even claiming that there are, objectively, Ks!).

[The second part to this can be found here.]

[i] Wittgenstein, in his later thought, would have claimed meaning in a word from its use. This of course hints at no objective overarching meaning for groups of things, but meaning derived from each individual usage of language in each context. If anything, this plays into the point I am making. Things only have meaning to the conceiver, thus don’t ‘exist’ objectively outside the mind of the conceiver, as abstract ideas.

[ii] This text is variously available online. I picked it up from:
http://www.christianforums.com/t7536666/#post56778897  (Accessed 09/12/2015)

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