Tuesday, March 24, 2009
The less Rey knows, the less he knows it
Apropos my post on straw man arguments in the philosophy of religion, reader Bobcat calls my attention to this article by philosopher of mind Georges Rey, which purports to show that theism, when held to by anyone with at least “a standard Anglo-European high school education,” necessarily involves self-deception. And for Rey, that includes – indeed, maybe especially includes – highly intelligent theists who happen to be philosophers. Rey starts out by acknowledging that he is “not a professional philosopher of religion and has no special knowledge of theology.” With that much, anyway, the reader can agree, for Rey’s article proves it conclusively. Why Rey thought himself nevertheless qualified to open his mouth on this subject is another question entirely, and the answer is by no means clear. I’ll leave it to those interested in plumbing the psychological depths of academic blowhards to consider whether self-deception might be a factor.
Now, my longtime readers know that I am loath ever to indulge in polemics, but I’m afraid in this one case the temptation is simply too great to bear. For Rey’s article is not merely mistaken on this or that point. It is not merely bad. As the kids would say, it totally sucks. Indeed, although it is of course better written than the average freshman term paper, it is even less well-informed. I apologize to those whose tender ears find it hard to bear such un-collegial harshness (not that Rey himself gives a hang about that vis-à-vis his theistic colleagues). All I can say in my defense is: Read the thing yourself and see.
Rey is not an unintelligent man. Indeed, he is a very intelligent man, and anyone who wants to understand the clever ways in which contemporary materialists attempt to surmount the many difficulties facing their position would do well to read his work in the philosophy of mind. It’s mostly wrong, of course, but still intelligent and worth reading. The article in question is another story. It is an object lesson in how ignorance coupled with arrogance can lead an intelligent man to make a fool of himself. (Not that another one is needed in this Age of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens.)
If any reader out there wants to evaluate Rey’s efforts at amateur psychoanalysis, knock yourself out. I’m more interested in the excuse Rey thinks he has for indulging in psychoanalysis in the first place. Why accuse even educated theists of being, not merely mistaken, but self-deceived? The reason, Rey repeats ad nauseam, is that the traditional arguments for God’s existence are obviously fallacious, are so bad that he simply can’t believe anyone takes them seriously, commit “blatant sophistries,” etc. Yet surprisingly, he says very little about exactly what the problems with them are supposed to be. As the impatient reader sifts through the trash talk and psychobabble in search of substance, he soon finds, first, that what Rey actually has to say about the arguments probably wouldn’t fill one side of an index card; and second, that it’s all wrong anyway.
One problem with Rey’s discussion of the arguments (such as it is) is the extremely crude, anthropomorphic conception of God he is working with. Like many atheists, he supposes that God is, like us, a “mental being” (as Rey awkwardly puts it) only “not subject to ordinary physical limitations.” Start with a human being, and abstract away the body parts. Then abstract away the limits on knowledge, and expand the range of sensory experience to include immediate perception of every corner of physical reality. Imagine that every experience of willing something is followed by the realization of that which is willed – for example, wanting the Red Sea to part is followed by the parting of the Red Sea, wanting a leper healed is followed by skin returning to normal, and so on. Throw in as well the tendency always to want to do what is right. Etc. The result is something like a super-duper Cartesian immaterial substance with a cosmic Boy Scout’s merit badge, far grander than any of the objects (material or immaterial) familiar from our experience, but differing from them in degree rather than kind.
It is no surprise that, with this “working model” of God, Rey and other atheists think Him comparable to Zeus, gremlins, ghosts, etc. To be sure, something like this conception – a conception Brian Davies has labeled “theistic personalism” and others have called “neo-theism” – has (unfortunately) featured, at least implicitly, in some recent work in philosophy of religion. But it has absolutely nothing to do with the God of classical theism – of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Leibniz, and countless others. It has absolutely nothing to do with the God of the great Christian creeds or the great Church Councils. That God is not “a being” among others, not even a really grand one, but Being Itself or Pure Act. Concepts like power, knowledge, goodness, intellect, will, etc. do apply to Him, but not (as in theistic personalism) in a univocal sense but rather in an analogous sense (where “analogy” is to be understood not on the model of Paley-style “arguments from analogy” – which in fact apply terms to God and to us in univocal senses – but rather in terms of Aquinas’s famous doctrine of analogy). And attributions of power, knowledge, will etc. to God are all necessarily informed by the doctrine of divine simplicity. Our philosophical conception of Him is not modeled on human beings or on any other created thing; rather, it is arrived at via reflection on what is entailed by something’s being that which accounts for the existence of anything at all.
Rey, it is evident, knows absolutely nothing of all this, nothing of the radical distinction between the classical theistic conception of God and every other conception. But this is not some mere family dispute between theists, something that can be ignored for purposes of making general claims about religion. If you don’t know how classical theism differs from everything else, and in particular from the anthropomorphic conceptions of God underlying tiresome pop atheist comparisons to Zeus and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, then you simply do not and cannot understand the arguments of Anselm, Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al., and cannot understand the claims of Christianity as it has historically understood itself. It will not do to pretend that what your Uncle Bob or some TV evangelist has said about God can serve well enough as research for an argument against religion, any more than Uncle Bob’s or the evangelist’s conception of quantum mechanics would suffice as a “backgrounder” for an assault on modern physics.
So, Rey simply doesn’t know the first thing about what the people he dismisses as in thrall to self-deception even mean when they talk about God. That’s one problem. The other problem is that he evidently has no idea either of how the main traditional arguments for God’s existence are supposed to work. He is, for example, obviously beholden to the tiresome canard that defenders of the Cosmological Argument never explain why a First Cause would have to have the various divine attributes (unity, intellect, omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, etc.). This, I dare say, is an infallible sign of incompetence vis-à-vis the subject at hand; whenever you are reading an atheist writer who makes this common but preposterous claim, you can safely let out a contemptuous chuckle, close the book, and waste no further time with him, because you can be morally certain that he does not know what he is talking about.
As anyone who has actually cracked either the Summa Theologiae or Summa Contra Gentiles knows, Aquinas (to take just one example) actually devotes literally hundreds of pages of rigorous and painstaking argumentation to deriving the various divine attributes. (He does so in several other works as well.) Similarly detailed argumentation for the divine attributes can be found throughout the Scholastic tradition, in Leibniz and in Clarke, in more recent writers like Garrigou-Lagrange, and indeed throughout the 2,300-year old literature on the traditional theistic arguments beginning with Plato and Aristotle. The allegation that “Even if there’s a First Cause, no one’s ever shown why it would have to be all-powerful, all-knowing, etc.” is simply an urban legend. It persists only because hack atheists like Rey tend to read only other hack atheists, or read serious theistic writers only in tiny snippets ripped from context. (To judge Aquinas’s case for God’s existence by reading only the Five Ways – which were never meant to be anything more than an “executive summary” of arguments whose details are developed elsewhere – is like judging the arguments presented in Rey’s book Contemporary Philosophy of Mind by reading only the analytical table of contents.)
Rey confidently tells us that “the one argument” that tries to show that God “has a mind” – the correct way to put it would be to say that there is in God something analogous to intellect – is, “of course,” Paley’s design argument. But Aquinas’s Fifth Way is another – rather well-known – argument that takes the divine intellect as its focus. Like Richard Dawkins and most other atheists, Rey probably assumes that the Fifth Way is a mere riff on the basic design argument idea, but if so then he is once again just manifesting his ignorance, since the arguments could not be more different. Design arguments take for granted a mechanistic conception of nature, while the Fifth Way appeals to final causes; design arguments are probabilistic, while the Fifth Way is a strict demonstration; design arguments don’t claim to prove the existence of the God of classical theism, while the Fifth Way does just that; design arguments focus on complexity and especially the complexity manifest in living things, while the Fifth Way is not especially interested in either; design arguments have to deal somehow with objections based on evolutionary theory, while the truth or falsity of evolution is utterly irrelevant to the Fifth Way; and so forth. (See The Last Superstition and my forthcoming book Aquinas for the details.)
And then, as I have already indicated, the historically most important versions of the other main theistic arguments (e.g. Aquinas’s, Leibniz’s, or Clarke’s cosmological arguments, Anselm’s ontological argument), when fully worked out, all also claim to show that there cannot fail to be something analogous to intellect in God (alongside the other divine attributes). The thing is, you have to actually read them to know this. Pretty tough break for Uncurious Georges, I know, but believe it or not, philosophy of religion is a little like philosophy of mind in requiring actual research now and again.
As always with these things, it just gets worse the more ink is spilt. “Again, I’m not a scholar of theology,” Rey reminds us, before opining on theology; “however, I’m willing to wager that few of the details [theologians] discuss are of the evidential sort that we ordinarily expect of ordinary claims about the world.” And then – hold on to your hats – he actually gives “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” as an example.
[Cue Don Martin sound effect.]
One wonders whether Rey was the sort of high school geek who desperately tried to prove his athletic bona fides to his locker room tormenters by bragging about all the “touchdowns” he used to make in Little League.
Whatever the answer to that, the all-grown-up Rey can’t resist one more self-inflicted wedgie. On the heels of his learned allusion to medieval angelology, he earnestly considers the question of whether theologians might be guilty of “intellectual sloth.”
Self-awareness, thy name is not Georges Rey.
Well, I’ve wasted enough time on this, so let me close with the following thought. Suppose someone started out an article on why all materialists are necessarily engaged in self-deception by saying “I’m not a professional philosopher of mind and have no special knowledge of the materialist literature. But here goes anyway…” Now, how do you think Rey would…
Ah, never mind.