Saturday, March 21, 2009

Scruton on the New Atheism

Among the claims defended in The Last Superstition is that the secularism of the New Atheists has no positive moral content, but can be seen on analysis to reduce to nothing more than an animus against religion, an entirely negative vision of the world. In the latest issue of The American Spectator, Roger Scruton reminds us of an earlier and more noble-seeming atheism and humanism and laments its decline into negativism, pseudo-scientific posturing, and shallow pleasure-seeking. Scruton suggests that the decline should not be surprising, but stops short of saying that it was inevitable. As I argue in the book, such a decline was inevitable, and further degeneration of secularist culture is also inevitable. The reason is in part that the high ideals of earlier generations of humanists were parasitic on the Christian worldview and cannot be coherently maintained in its absence. But another reason is that the metaphysical worldview the moderns put in place of the classical philosophy of the ancients and medievals, and which underlies modern atheism, is thoroughly mechanistic or anti-teleological; and (again, for reasons explained at length in TLS) any consistent development of this worldview necessarily undermines the very possibility of morality or rationality. The history of the West over the last four or five centuries – revolution after revolution, one authority, institution, or standard collapsing after another – can be seen as the gradual unfolding of the implications of the mechanistic, anti-classical, anti-Scholastic philosophical (not scientific) revolution inaugurated by Bacon, Galileo, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, et al. The breathtaking decline in private morals over the last several decades just marks the acceleration of this development, as the revolution has now reached into the core institution of all human society, the nuclear family. And things are only going to get worse. Much much worse. Brace yourselves.

UPDATE: Reader Jime calls attention to this interesting and somewhat related article by Julian Baggini, a far more reasonable and honest atheist than Dawkins and Co.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

All I can say about Scruton's recollection of humanism is that it seems remarkably naive. Admirable, but still naive.

Theists often get accused of relying on a crutch with their beliefs, but the brand of humanism Scruton is talking about seems worse. Namely, it seems like trying to be a theist-in-practice with none of the philosophical grounding. Lean on a crutch or lean on air - either way, you're still leaning. But the latter's one hell of a lot more likely to fall than the other.

Jime said...

It's a little bit off-topic, but atheist philosopher Jiluan Baggini has wrote an article entitled "The New Atheist Movement is destructive":

http://www.fritanke.no/ENGLISH/2009/The_new_atheist_movement_is_destructive/

Anonymous said...

Isn't Scruton an atheist?

I'm curious, Ed, whether you think that the world has to go to hell in a handbasket because Western civilization has rejected Christianity or because it's rejected a basically Aristotelian view of the world. You acknowledge in your book that you don't just get Christianity out of Aristotelian metaphysics, and also that lots of recent thought has been tending in a very Aristotelian direction without acknowledging (or perhaps even realizing) it. I know you also seem to think that once you grant the Aristotelian picture, you can get to Christianity rather easily, but I suspect you won't be surprised that I don't find it nearly so easy as you suggest. So, I'm curious whether you think that the real problem is the lack of Christianity or the lack of Aristotelianism. It would seem to me that especially if you think that revelation is not necessary for knowledge of moral truths, the idea that non-Christian Aristotelianism couldn't do the trick has less support. But I already know what my own view is; what I want to know is yours.

Jime said...

Today, I was re-reading a part of TLS book, where Dr.Feser refers to Galileo: "Galileo's difficulty arose, not because he advocated Copernican's views... but rather because he rashly insisted on treating them as more thatn hypothetical, as having been proved when they had not, at the time, been proved at all" (p. 173)

It remembered me of another excellent anti-atheist book: God's Undertaker by John Lennox.

Dr.Lennox also explain that the common "Galileo story" used by atheists is mostly a caricature, and refers how the personality of Galileo played a role in his problems. But in Lennox's view, the real opposition to Galileo was caused by Aristotelianism!

He writes "He was vigorously opposed by secular philosophers, who were enraged at his criticism of Aristotle.

... In his famous Letter to the Grand Duschess Christina (1615) he claims that it was the academic professors who were so opposed to him that they were trying to influence the church authorities to speak out against him. The issue at stake for the professors was clear: Galileo's scientific arguments were threatening the all-pervading Aristotelianism of the academy.

In the spirit of developing moder science Galileo wanted to decide theories of the universe on the basis of evidence, not of argument based on an appeal to a priori postulates in general and the authority of Aristotle in particular
" (p. 23)

I read Dr.Lennox's book before I read Dr.Feser's TLS; and in that moment I was pretty ignorant of Aristotle's philosophy.

After reading TLS, I'm not sure if Lennox's thesis on the opossition to Galileo is 100% correct.

However, Lennox has a point: if Galileo was opposed to by secular philosophers, and in that time Aristotelianism was "The worldview" and the mainstream view on academy, then we could expect that Aristotelianism (at least, as interpreted in that time) played a role against Galileo's discoveries (in addition to other factors as mentioned by Dr.Feser, like Galileo's dogmatic attitude)

I believe Aristotle's metaphysical ideas weren't refuted by science, as Dr.Feser argues in his book.

But I'm not sure that Galileo's problems were caused mostly by his dogmatic attitude regarding his hypothesis; it's possible that certain interpretations of aristotelianism of that time played a rol in that too.

I don't know if professor Feser has some additional comment about it.

Anonymous said...

Heya Jime,

I'm sure Ed Feser will have more to say here, but I think it's important to remember: Aristotle wrote on a diversity of subjects. Not just philosophy, but 'science' as well (biology, etc.) So I think some care should be taken to distinguish between aristotileanism as a whole (everything Aristotle taught) and aristotileanism confined to philosophy.

Edward Feser said...

Anonymous at 7:17,

The "hell in a handbasket" claim I was making had to do, specifically, with modern secularism's endorsement of a thoroughly mechanistic view of nature and rejection of the classical teleological-cum-essentialist view. I do believe that the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition is superior to other varieties of classical thought, and I also do believe that the purely philosophical arguments deriving from that tradition point in the direction of Christianity specifically. I believe too that a revived but non-Christian form of the classical worldview would be bound to lead to at least a harsher civilization than we have become accustomed to (as classical civilization was harsher than the Christian civilization that replaced it) even if it would be by no means nihilistic.

But no, I do not deny that there are alternative ways, in principle, of taking an anti-mechanistic view and thus avoiding the nihilism into which our culture is sliding. A non-Christian Aristotelianism would be one way, and Platonism another. In theory I suppose some only semi-mechanistic view like Cartesianism, or a modern anti-materialist view like idealism, could be as well, but these are inherently unstable, and I think it's no accident that historically they gave way to mechanistic materialism.

The bottom line is that, following Chesterton, I would say that the older, classical forms of paganism were noble, but Christianity is nobler still, and that every new form of paganism that has sought to replace Christianity (e.g. Marxism, National Socialism, secularist liberalism) has been ignoble or even positively evil.

Edward Feser said...

Jime and Anonymous at 10:17,

It's all of the above and more. Aristotle's metaphysics does not stand or fall with his physical science, but this distinction was not carefully made by his early modern critics; some late Scholastics were dogmatists and were peddling a bastardized version of Scholasticism that had been corrupted by the nominalist trend of late medieval philosophy; Galileo was an arrogant hothead and made trouble for himself with churchmen originally inclined to be sympathetic with him; there were political and anti-Catholic motives that led some moderns to oppose Aristotelianism and some Protestants to jump on the Enlightenment thinkers' dishonest Middle Ages-bashing bandwagon (little realizing they were only encouraging myths that would later come back to bite all Christians); etc. etc. The whole medieval-to-modern transition is an extremely complicated story, as is the story of how all the popular modern cliches about the Middle Ages got ingrained in the modern Western consciousness.

Edward Feser said...

Interesting article by Baggini, Jime, thanks. I've updated the post with a link to it.

Eric said...

"I do believe that the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition is superior to other varieties of classical thought, and I also do believe that the purely philosophical arguments deriving from that tradition point in the direction of Christianity specifically."

Ed, what do you make of this move by William Lane Craig in the direction of nominalism concerning abstract objects as an attempt to ward off what he conceives as a rock solid refutation of theism if Platonic realism about abstract objects obtains? What's the ontological status of abstract objects like numbers on hylemorphism, and is it vulnerable to the concern Craig voices? If moderate realism offers a way out of the problem Craig raises, then why do you think he prefers nominalism (or even conceptualism) to it?

Here's the relevant passage:

"For if we say that numbers do exist, where did they come from? Christian theology requires us to say that everything that exists apart from God was created by God (John 1:3). But numbers, if they exist, are almost always taken to be necessary beings. They thus would seem to exist independently of God. This is the view called Platonism, after the Greek philosopher Plato.

Someone might try to avoid this problem by espousing a modified Platonism, according to which numbers were necessarily and eternally created by God. But then a problem of vicious circularity arises: explanatorily prior to God’s creating the number 3, wasn’t it the case that the number of persons in the Trinity was 3? Of course; but then the number 3 existed prior to God’s creating the number 3, which is impossible!

I remember the sense of panic that I felt in my breast when I first heard this objection raised at a philosophy conference in Milwaukee. It seemed to be an absolutely decisive refutation of theism. I didn’t see any way out.

The way out, I discovered, is to deny the Platonist view that abstract objects like numbers exist. My first inclination was to adopt some sort of Conceptualism which construes abstract objects as ideas in God’s mind. This may still be the route I’ll take, but the more I’ve studied the problem the more attracted I’ve become to various Nominalistic or anti-realist views of abstract objects which flatly deny their existence rather than re-interpret their existence in terms of conceptual realities."

Edward Feser said...

Hello Eric,

I don't know why Craig finds this so challenging. The traditional Scholastic view is that numbers, like universals, exist as ideas in the divine mind. This view, which is a variation on Aristotelian or moderate realism, is sometimes called "Scholastic realism."

It is wrong (or at least highly misleading) for Craig to call it "conceptualism," though. "Conceptualism," as that term is usually used, implies the view that universals are created by the intellect. But on moderate or Aristotelian realism, though universals qua universals don't exist outside the intellect, they nevertheless really do exist in actual things, just "bound up" with the things' particularizing features. (E.g. Socrates' humanity really exists in Socrates -- it's not a sheer invention of the mind a la conceptualism -- just not apart from his snub-nosedness.) So when the intellect abstracts away from the particularizing features to form a universal, it is as it were just uncovering what was always already there, not making something up that wasn't there before.

That's true of finite intellects, anyway. In the case of the divine intellect, universals do exist qua universal, as the archetypes according to which God creates. But here too, that doesn't mean that the divine intellect creates the universals, as the "conceptualism" label would imply. He does not create them; they are eternally contemplated by the divine intellect. And given the doctrine of divine simplicity, they are ultimately not distinct from the divine nature itself.

Anyway, for the reasons I spell out in TLS, nominalism and cocneptualism are non-starters and should be avoided like the plague.

Eric said...

"Anyway, for the reasons I spell out in TLS, nominalism and conceptualism are non-starters and should be avoided like the plague."

Yes, I thought you made a strong case against nominalism and conceptualism, which is why I found it hard to understand why a philosopher as solid as Craig would advocate such positions to avoid a challenge to theism, especially if a more tenable alternative is available.

Thanks for the explanation!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Dr. Feser:

I quoted your Catholic Culture piece here approvingly [and authoritatively!]:

http://www.positiveliberty.com/2009/03/americas-key-founders-as-judeo-christians-apriarians-and-jews.html

Thx, keep up the ace work, and best regards.

The Deuce said...

I read Julian Baggini's article, and liked it, but I think he's wrong about this part:

It is only because of historical accident that atheism is not widely recognised as a world-view in its own right. This world view is essentially a very general form of naturalism, in which there are not two kinds of stuff, the natural and the supernatural, but one. The forces that govern this substance are also natural ones and there is no ultimate purpose or agency behind them. Human life is biological, and thus does not survive beyond biological death.

I think it is most certainly *not* a historical accident that materialist atheism isn't a worldview in it's own right.

It's simply not a viewpoint that any rational individual would come to left to their own devices.

Things like conscious awareness, intentionality, and qualia are just too obvious. They are raw data, as clear as the nose on your face (clearer actually), as is their conceptual distinction from matter as it is conceived by materialists. And, from there, it's a simple inference to mind as a basic reality, and thus to some form of either theism or pantheism.

Nobody would ever think to deny these things (to do so would be considered a form of insanity even) unless they were in an ideological war with someone who affirmed them, and were so opposed to them that they felt compelled to deny everything that they stood for.

That's also why the New Atheist movement is so predictably angry. Nobody would think to deny these things except in anger.

The materialist atheist phenomenon really only makes sense in the context of an angry reactionary movement responding to a culturally dominant teleological worldview (ie Christianity).

Rob G said...

Scruton was an agnostic, but never a 'militant' one; he was one of those who saw the cultural and social value of religion as positive even if the foundational stories weren't true. Recently, though, he has returned to some version of the faith of his youth, which was Anglicanism, I believe.

Michael B said...

In a manner that is perhaps analogous to the Marxism vs. Capitalism debate, the new atheism (or antitheism) vs. theism set of discussions and contretemps is often very poorly founded.

The Marxism vs. Capitalism debate is generally poorly based because Marxism outwardly avows to be a rather complete world view, whereas capitalism, rightly conceived and despite Marx's totalizing assumptions, is an economic tool commonly used within classical liberal forms of governance (Locke and Montesquieu being the most prominent germinal representatives), which form of governance itself does not reflect a weltanschauung to the degree Marxism or neo-Marxism does. So there are two or three degrees of "incommensurateness" occuring in the Marxism vs. Capitalism set of discussions, all to the favor of the Marxism side of the debates. But it eventuates in something worse than a merely incommensurate quality, because the result is a much more dissolute and deleterious quality, evidenced, for example, in the very tone and standards of the contesting sides. That is of course a generalization and one requiring a qualitative "sympathy" and comprehension, but a critical and probative one nonetheless.

Much the same occurs in the "theistic" vs. "anti-theistic" set of discussions and power struggles, for that is what they are at base. E.g., flying spaghetti monsters are placed on equal footings with the most conscientiously developed forms of natural theology or more specific forms of Christian or Judaic theology, developed over millennia. But that is one, secondary example only.

Anonymous said...

"It's simply not a viewpoint that any rational individual would come to left to their own devices.

Things like conscious awareness, intentionality, and qualia are just too obvious. They are raw data, as clear as the nose on your face (clearer actually), as is their conceptual distinction from matter as it is conceived by materialists. And, from there, it's a simple inference to mind as a basic reality, and thus to some form of either theism or pantheism."


I'm afraid not. At least, not obviously. First of all, the atomists and their followers in antiquity came to some pretty austere views "left to their own devices." Anti-religious motivation couldn't explain their philosophical views, since there were other philosophical alternatives that didn't include traditional pagan religion or anything remotely resembling God as conceived in later philosophical traditions [many of the atomists, esp. the Epicureans, were also not atheists, at least so far as traditional pagan gods are concerned, though of course they would have rejected any transcendent being]. I'm not defending ancient atomism by any means; I'm just defending its historical proponents as "rational individuals" who developed their views "left to their own devices."

Secondly, I suggest that no "rational individual left to his own devices" could conclude that from the untenability of eliminative and reductive materialism, it is "a simple inference to mind as a basic reality, and thus to some form of either theism or pantheism." For one thing, an atheist need not be a naturalist in any interesting sense; he could be a skeptic or an anti-realist or whatever. For another, an atheist need not be a reductive or eliminative naturalist. He could be an 'emergentist' or even adopt a hylomorphic account of material beings. Even if he were to accept 'mind' as the 'basic reality,' he could still do that without being a theist or a pantheist: panpsychism does not yield theism of any variety.

Again, I'm not defending these views. I'm simply insisting that they aren't obviously false (though I've never heard of a really coherent version of panpsychism). Even if all of Aquinas' arguments are iron-clad and Ed is right that theism is, at the end of the day, actually demonstrable, it doesn't follow that it's easy to see that it is or that no other philosopher has ever been rationally justified to believe otherwise. I'm pretty sure Ed would agree that there is a huge difference between, say, Richard Dawkins' atheism, which could only be rationally justified if Dawkins were not culpable for the ignorance that makes his own view seem more reasonable than what he thinks is theism, and, say, John Searle, who is not a reductionist or an eliminativist but is an atheist and would have no truck with Thomistic metaphysics. Ed obviously believes that Searle is wrong and that there are extremely excellent arguments to show that he is; but I doubt that even Ed thinks that Searle is irrational, or that his views are not those of "a rational person left to his own devices."

I may be wrong. Ed is certainly extremely confident in his own philosophical views -- far more confident than I can ever imagine myself being. But whatever Ed thinks, it hardly seems reasonable to imagine that philosophical questions are so simple that only stupidity or wickedness could keep someone from getting the right answers.

Edward Feser said...

Hello Anonymous,

I certainly have a great deal of respect for Searle, and where atheism is concerned, I also certainly respect his views on the subject more than Dawkins'. Still, from the little has has said on the subject, I think even Searle's thinking on the matter is a bit shallow. I've elsewhere given Quentin Smith, J. L. Mackie, and J. J. C. Smart as examples of atheists for whom I have a lot of respect, and whose position is, I think, much better worked out than most.

I'd also give David Stove as an example, because though an atheist, Stove was agnostic about many things that I think too many naturalists are too glibly confident about (e.g. the power of Darwinism to account for all aspects of the biological realm -- you don't have a to be an ID theorist to doubt that). Stove takes the approach that I think a serious naturalist informed of all the difficulties with naturalism would have to take: We just don't remotely know how to explain such-and-such with the models available and maybe never will, but here's why naturalism is the best view anyway etc. You find the same sort of realistic approach in Fodor and Nagel. Mind you, I think these guys are all still way too glib in rejecting the arguments for theism, and usually not that up to speed on them in the first place. But at least they don't turn atheism into an ideology or go laughably beyond what any naturalist can claim to have shown vis-a-vis the mind, mathematics, etc.

Re: the ancient atomists, I've actually been meaning to write a blog post on them for some time, because I respect them much more than their modern descendants. Hope to get to it before long.

The Deuce said...

For another, an atheist need not be a reductive or eliminative naturalist. He could be an 'emergentist' or even adopt a hylomorphic account of material beings. Even if he were to accept 'mind' as the 'basic reality,' he could still do that without being a theist or a pantheist: panpsychism does not yield theism of any variety.

Emergence is either nominalistic (where no objectively new category of thing emerges into existence, but only a pattern that seems different to us), in which case "mind" is just a term that we attach to complicated machines that in actuality reduce to regular old matter, or realist (where something fundamentally new, and not determined by or reducible to its immediate causes, emerges) in which case mind is a fundamental reality. It seems to me that a lot of emergentists sort of vaguely conflate these two definitions, to try to convince themselves that there's a "3rd way".

And I think it's splitting hairs whether panpsychism counts as a type of pantheism.

But, I'll readily grant that one can be an atheist without being a reductionist or eliminativist. In my post, I was specifically referring to reductionist/eliminativist atheism, which is the form that Western atheism has predominantly taken by far.

And I don't think it's a coincidence at all that this form of atheism never took root as a worldview in its own right. It's an extreme, and very counter-intuitive position, which is really only explicable within its historical context as a reaction against Christianity and wholesale denial of all its assertions. It's sort of the philosophical equivalent of the historical position that Jesus never even existed.

Anonymous said...

I'll grant you that I misread "a basic reality" as "the" basic reality, and that your response re: emergentism is basically right (though I doubt that the issue is quite so simple). But it seems to matter very little for atheism if "mind" is "a basic reality" in this sense.

Also, if you think that distinguishing between panpsychism and pantheism is just "splitting hairs," you aren't a philosopher, and you should probably just give up trying to be. There's a world of difference between saying that all things in the universe have basic mental properties (i.e., panpsychism) and saying that everything is divine or that the totality of existence adds up to something divine (or however else you want to cash out pantheism). Granting basic mental properties to everything in existence in no way commits the panpsychist to believing in or talking about divinity or god or anything of the sort. Similarly, pantheists need have no truck with the idea that everything in existence has basic mental properties. Neither position is very definite or very plausible, but the fact is that they just are two very different things, and if you think that's "splitting hairs," then you've got no business talking about kinds of emergence either.

Furthermore, the claim that there are good reasons why austere naturalism has never taken root as a dominant worldview doesn't establish anything about whether or not an intelligent rational person motivated by the spirit of inquiry would come up with it. Most atheists happily acknowledge that there are "sociological and psychological" reasons why most people have not been atheists; many atheists actually embrace that fact, since it makes them feel more extraordinary. The tendency of people to believe in supernatural beings does nothing to help theism or harm austere naturalistic atheism. So I just don't see the point of invoking it.

Michael B said...

"... the claim that there are good reasons why austere naturalism has never taken root as a dominant worldview doesn't establish anything about whether or not an intelligent rational person motivated by the spirit of inquiry would come up with it." Anonymous

I'm unaware of any notable claim that such an intuitive or abductive suggestion presumes to "establish" anything, only that it is suggestive in an intuitive or abductive (i.e. hypothetical) sense.

"Most atheists happily acknowledge that there are "sociological and psychological" reasons why most people have not been atheists ..."There are also "sociological and psychological" reasons why people do become atheists (e.g., the frison resulting perceiving one's self as different, as among some vanguard, some cutting edge sensibility) so in and of itself this too establishes nothing.

"... many atheists actually embrace that fact, since it makes them feel more extraordinary."Precisely. It makes them feel a certain way, when contrasting themselves with their perception of the masses, those who conform, the Stepford Wives (which, in part, is why Hollywood produces such dramatic commentary), etc.

"The tendency of people to believe in supernatural beings does nothing to help theism or harm austere naturalistic atheism. So I just don't see the point of invoking it."Again, re-emphasizing the initial point made, if it were invoked in a conclusory manner you'd have a point. But it's invoked in an intuitive and abductive sense, not a deductive and "establishing" manner.