Monday, March 30, 2009

Fodor and Aquinas on the Extended Mind Thesis

Jerry Fodor reviews Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind. Clark, with David Chalmers, has defended what they call the “Extended Mind Thesis” (EMT), according to which the traditional distinction between the mind and the world is less clear-cut than is usually supposed. There are cases where purportedly “external” objects are (so the EMT claims) really parts of a mind. For example, the notebook in which you keep your friends’ addresses and phone numbers would on this view literally be as much a part of your mind as your memory of your own address and phone number. For in its relations to the rest of your mental life and to your behavior, it functions the way your memory does. Chalmers tells us his new iPhone is, similarly, literally a part of his own mind. And so forth.

If this strikes you as odd and implausible, Fodor agrees, and in typical Fodor style he deconstructs the EMT with clarity, elegance, and humor. Take a look. But in the spirit of Thomas Aquinas, who always sought to discern whatever kernel of truth might be hidden in even the most implausible views, let me note one respect in which the EMT might at least be gesturing in the direction of an important truth.

The EMT is part of a broader trend in recent philosophy of mind called “externalism,” which comes in many varieties but has at its core a critique of the Cartesian “inner theatre” conception of the mind as a realm of subjective, self-contained facts metaphysically sealed off from the “external” world. This conception has dominated philosophy since Descartes, in the thinking of empiricists and rationalists, materialists and dualists alike. The externalist reaction is motivated in part by a desire to overcome the epistemological and semantic gaps that the Cartesian picture notoriously opens up. If all we ever have direct access to is the subjective realm of the mind, how can we know that any external world really exists? Worse, how can we so much as form meaningful thoughts about it?

The externalist suggests various ways in which aspects of the so-called “external” world actually determine, or even constitute, the contents of our thoughts, so that the subjective/objective or internal/external divide is nowhere near as absolute as the Cartesian picture implies. Contemporary writers like Hilary Putnam, John McDowell, and Robert Brandom began this revolution (in their very different ways), inspired by hints found in writers like Sellars and Wittgenstein. (When I was in grad school, externalism was all the rage. It seemed you couldn’t walk into the men’s room at UC Santa Barbara without overhearing someone muttering about it from behind the partition. I might be exaggerating slightly.)

From the point of view of Thomists, who generally regard the Scholastic-to-modern transition as an across-the-board tragedy (philosophically-speaking, that is – no one denies that modern science has made tremendous advances), all of this is very salutary indeed. Still, from a Thomistic point of view, even the externalists are sometimes insufficiently anti-Cartesian. For their accounts still often smack of the idea that the mind-world relationship is essentially about the former “representing” the latter.

To be sure, externalists often regard themselves as critics of the “representationalist” picture of the mind, where this picture involves positing inner “representations” which either mirror or fail to mirror various aspects of external reality. Given this picture, the traditional epistemological-cum-semantic problem can be summarized in the questions: How can we know whether the inner representations mirror external reality accurately? What is the source of the “intentionality” possessed by these representations, in virtue of which they count as representations in the first place? Externalists like McDowell counter this picture with the suggestion that there is no gap between the mind and what it represents in the first place; when I truly think about the teacup next to me, the teacup itself is in a sense a constituent of my thought about it rather than something external to the thought. There is no epistemological or semantic gap between the thought and the cup that needs to be bridged, for the thought just wouldn’t be the thought that it is without the presence of the cup. (Various complications are added to the story in order to deal with cases of hallucinatory cups and the like.)

But as (the non-Thomist) Michael Lockwood notes in a sympathetic critique of this approach in his book Mind, Brain, and the Quantum:

Even if the mind is, so to speak, tucked up in bed with its objects, still it seems to me a mystery how its thoughts come to be about those objects. Making the object which a thought is about literally a component of that thought obviates the problem of reference only if one somehow thinks it unproblematic that an object should, as it were, mean itself. (p. 147)

Or, to put the point another way (and perhaps a way Lockwood would not put it himself) if one regards external objects mechanistically, as devoid of final causes or intelligible natures or essences, then they will be as inherently devoid of meaning or intelligibility when you “tuck them up in bed” with the mind as they were when conceived of as external to the mind.

Similarly, while McDowell speaks of the “space of causes” and the “space of reasons” – that is to say, of the world conceived of as governed by physical law, on the one hand, and of the intentional-cum-rational structure of thought on the other – as coming together in the human organism, how exactly this is supposed to work remains mysterious if one is beholden to a broadly mechanistic conception of the material world. If a dualist interpretation is rejected (as McDowell would reject it) the claim that human beings are governed both by physical law and by irreducibly intentional-cum-rational thought processes seems obscurantist. In particular, the externalist project can come to seem to rest on uncashed and uncashable metaphors – uncashable, anyway, in the coin of natural processes conceived of mechanistically.

The way to salvage the very real and deep insights of (some forms of) externalism is, for the Thomist, via a more thoroughgoing rejection of Cartesianism. In particular, it requires a rejection of the 17th century mechanistic revolution in philosophy of nature that opened up the epistemological-cum-semantic gap between mind and world in the first place (and, as I argue in The Last Superstition, opened up countless other philosophical problems – often called “traditional” but really just modern – as well). When the natural world is seen to manifest final causality from top to bottom anyway, the intentionality that characterizes the human mind no longer stands out as something poking out from the Procrustean bed, in need of either cramming back under the sheets or lopping off altogether.

More to the present point, when the objects that make up the material world are seen to possess substantial forms or essences, the kernel of truth in the externalist metaphor of the mind and world “interpenetrating” each other stands revealed. For on the Aristotelian-Thomistic account of knowledge, when the intellect comes to understand some object, what this essentially involves is the form that makes the object what it is coming to reside in the intellect itself. It isn’t that a “representation,” understood as a kind of internal object or particular, comes to exist in the mind and in some way mirrors or correlates with the (utterly distinct) thing outside the mind; it is that one and the same thing, the object’s form or essence, exists simultaneously in the intellect and in the object known by the intellect. They are formally identical and thus not utterly distinct. (It is because the intellect can thus take on a form without becoming the sort of thing that the form is a form of that, for Aristotle and Aquinas, the intellect must be immaterial. For when a material thing takes on a form, it necessarily does become the thing the form is a form of. For example, for a material thing to take on the form of a dog or a triangle just is for it to become a dog or a triangle, while the intellect can take on these forms without becoming either a dog or a triangle.)

The analytical Thomist John Haldane calls this the “mind-world identity theory,” for as Aquinas says in his commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, “the soul is in a way all things” insofar as it takes on the forms or essences of the things it knows, which could in principle be anything. But as the “in a way” indicates – and as the previous paragraph implies – the “identity” in question here is formal identity rather than identity full stop. The intellect isn’t identical to the dog it knows when it knows a dog, but since the same form or essence exists in the intellect and in the dog, there is at least an identity of form, since one and the same form exists in both places.

But is any of this really any better than what contemporary externalists have said? For isn’t this talk of something existing “in” the intellect itself metaphorical? It is not. Here we need to resort instead to Aquinas’s famous doctrine of analogy. When I “see” that the Pythagorean theorem is true, I obviously do not see it in the same sense in which I “see” the teacup on the floor next to me. The senses involved in these cases are not univocal. But neither are they equivocal or totally unrelated, as the sense of “see” in a reference to the Vatican as the Holy See is totally unrelated to “see” as used in the case of seeing the cup or seeing the truth of the theorem. Rather, the senses involved are analogous: there is in the event of seeing the truth of the theorem something analogous to the seeing of the cup. In the same way, the sense in which a form is “in” the dog is analogous to the sense in which the same form is “in” the intellect which knows the dog.

One of the themes of The Last Superstition is how frequently contemporary philosophers misinterpret the arguments made by Aristotelians and Thomists, because they tend inadvertently to interpret Aristotelian-Thomistic references to “cause,” “essence,” “matter,” and many other key concepts as if they meant more or less the same thing that modern philosophers mean when they use such terms. They forget, if (apart from those who have made a serious study of the history of their discipline) they ever knew, that the mechanistic revolution entailed a radical redefinition of most of the key concepts of traditional metaphysics. As Gyula Klima has emphasized in a series of important papers, a related problem is that contemporary commentators on medieval arguments in philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics are often unaware that these arguments presuppose a set of logical and semantic doctrines that are very different from but every bit as sophisticated and worked-out as those taken for granted by post-Fregean philosophers. Aquinas’s doctrine of analogy is a key example.

The conceptual revolution the Thomist would recommend is thus almost as radical as that entailed by the Scholastic-to-modern transition itself. (I say “almost” because it does not entail abandoning modern science wholesale and returning, say, to pre-modern physics and chemistry, but rather abandoning the assumptions that have come to define modern philosophy – albeit this would certainly require a reinterpretation of the philosophical significance of modern science.) But nothing less than such a radical revolution is required if the place of mind in the natural world is properly to be understood, because it was the Scholastic-to-modern transition that made that relationship problematic in the first place. (Indeed, nothing less is required if most of the so-called “traditional” problems of philosophy are to be solved, or so I argue in TLS.)

(N.B. Readers interested in an extended discussion of the relationship between the Thomist and externalist approaches to these matters are advised to take a look at John O’Callaghan’s book Thomist Realism and the Linguistic Turn.)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Pants on fire

My stalker Brian Leiter is at it yet again. This is becoming formulaic: First identify me as “the” author of the counter-petition. (That joke’s gone kind of stale by now, don’tcha think, Big Bri?) Then tell a few other fibs about matters you know your more robotic readers won’t bother to check up on for themselves. These things more or less write themselves, which means, I guess, that I can’t blame Leiter for their “inaccuracies” (ahem).

Here’s Leiter’s summary of The Last Superstition:

The "demonstration" consists in recycled Thomist arguments (with no meaningful attention to their now familiar refutations and the repetitive rhetorical trope that everyone [except Professor Feser] has failed to grasp the real import and nuances of these arguments) and some premodern Aristotelian metaphysics, recycled through the lens of Professor Feser's sad obsession with where sperm ends up.

Did you catch that, TLS readers? I give “no meaningful attention” to the “now familiar refutations” of Thomistic arguments. Apparently the copy of the book Leiter read was missing chapters 3 through 6.

It’s also Feser alone whom I claim has properly understood the arguments. None of those citations of Neo-Scholastics, Analytical Thomists, historians of philosophy, etc., that you thought you saw in the book were really there. You dreamed them.

Oh, and the “premodern Aristotelian metaphysics” is recycled through a sperm obsession, or whatever. It was a Cartesian malin genie who made you think you read that chapter on the philosophical, scientific, political, religious, and cultural factors at work in the Scholastic-to-modern transition, and the deep philosophical problems that transition opened up. You were hallucinating when you thought you read all those arguments about how the work of analytic thinkers like Anscombe, Armstrong, Cartwright, Ellis, Molnar, Oderberg, Sehon, Schueler, and others points (whether all these writers intend this or not) to something like a revival of Aristotelian metaphysics. In reality it was all just 291 pages about sperm.

Now, look at this pocket watch go back and forth and repeat after me: There were no actual arguments there, just some religious bigot ranting. There were no actual arguments there, just some religious bigot ranting. You are getting sleepy… sleepy…

Well, we all know what’s coming next: Yet another frenzied response from Leiter about how I keep responding to him. More lies about how I am a lying liar who tells lies. Etc. Well, make it quick, Brian. I know you’ve got lots of free time, and these little exchanges are fun and all. But hey man, I’ve got stuff to do!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Last Superstition: the commercial

Steve Burton, my esteemed co-blogger at What’s Wrong with the World (and back in the day, at Right Reason) has a little fun with YouTube, in my honor (and, depending on how you look at it, at my expense!) I’m embarrassed as all hell. Too, TOO kind, Steve, thanks!

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.

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.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Straw men and terracotta armies

Every academic philosopher solemnly teaches his students never to commit the straw man fallacy. And yet relentlessly committing it oneself anyway is almost a grand tradition within certain precincts of our discipline. As readers of The Last Superstition are aware, most of what the average contemporary secular philosopher thinks he “knows” about the traditional arguments of natural theology and natural law theory is nothing but a hodgepodge of ludicrous caricatures, and the standard “objections” to these arguments, widely considered fatal, in fact have no force whatsoever. If such philosophers’ continued employment depended on demonstrating some rudimentary knowledge of (for example) the actual views of Thomas Aquinas, many of them would be selling pencils.

Consider this breathtaking example from an introductory book on philosophy:

The most important version of the first cause argument comes to us from Thomas Aquinas (1225-74).

The argument runs like this: everything that happens has a cause, and that cause itself has a cause, and that cause too has a cause, and so on and so on, back into the past, in a series that must either be finite or infinite. Now if the series is finite is [sic] must have had a starting point, which we may call the first cause. This first cause is God.

What if the series is infinite? Aquinas after some consideration eventually rejects the possibility that the world is infinitely old and had no beginning in time. Certainly the idea of time stretching backwards into the past forever is one which the human mind finds hard to grasp… Still we might note here that Aristotle found no difficulty in [this] idea. He held that the world has existed forever. Aristotle’s opinion, if correct, invalidates the first cause argument.

[From Jenny Teichman and Katherine C. Evans, Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide, Second edition (Blackwell, 1995), p. 22.]

Now, I don’t need to tell you what’s wrong with this, right?

Maybe I do. Teichman and Evans are not liars, after all; they just don’t know any better. And if this is true of two professional philosophers, it’s bound to be true of many non-experts. Explaining everything that is wrong with this travesty of Aquinas would take several pages, and since you can find those pages in The Last Superstition, I direct the interested reader there. But very briefly: Aquinas nowhere in his case for God’s existence argues that the world had a beginning in time; indeed, he rather famously argues that it cannot be proved that it had such a beginning. Nor was he unfamiliar with Aristotle’s views on this subject, given that Aquinas was – again, rather famously – probably the greatest Aristotelian after Aristotle himself, and the author of many lengthy commentaries on The Philosopher’s works. What Aquinas seeks to show in all of his arguments for God’s existence is not the existence of a first cause who operated at some point in the distant past to get the world going, but rather one who is operating here and now, and at any moment at which the universe exists at all, to keep the world going. And part of his point is that the existence of such a God is something that can be proved even if the universe has always existed. (He did not actually believe it has always existed, mind you; he just didn’t get into the issue for the purposes of arguing for God’s existence.)

I don’t mean to pick on Teichman and Evans. Indeed, I have profited from some of Teichman’s work, and I enjoyed her occasional contributions to The New Criterion back when she was writing for them several years ago. But this is not a mere slip of the pen. This is a basic failure to make sure one knows what one is talking about before writing on something of major importance. The reason Teichman and Evans could get away with it is that so many other philosophers get away with it routinely, and no one calls them on it. (Here’s a set of errors, by the way – far more egregious and undeniable than any error allegedly made in the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization – that Blackwell not only didn’t threaten to pulp the book over, but even left in the second edition!)

There are surely hundreds or even thousands of philosophers who think Aquinas is guilty of various fallacies because they simply don’t understand what his arguments are really about. And there are surely many more thousands of non-philosophers – including the students of the ignorant philosophers in question, and the readers of their works – who think the same thing. Widespread errors of this sort are an enormous part of the reason atheism has the respectability it has come to have. As I argue in TLS – indeed, as I claim to demonstrate there – atheism could not possibly have this status if most people who have an opinion on the traditional theistic arguments really knew what they were talking about. To be sure, there would still in that case be atheists (though far fewer of them); but they would know that the arguments on the other side are, at the very least, very challenging indeed.

The straw man argument is quite powerful, then – not logically, of course, but rhetorically. Indeed, it is especially powerful in the hands of philosophers, for unwary readers will naturally assume that a philosopher will be careful to have avoided fallacies, and will understand the philosophical ideas he is criticizing. Still, the traditional straw man has its limits. For there’s always the chance that someone will call attention to the real man. In the case of Aquinas, this has, thankfully, started to happen. Given the increase of interest in medieval philosophy over the last few decades, some awareness of what Aquinas really meant is starting, very slowly, to creep into the work of at least philosophers of religion who write on his arguments for God’s existence. It may take another decade or two, but we will hopefully get to the point where a passage like the one from Teichman and Evans wouldn’t pass the laugh test of any academic philosophy editor or referee anywhere, any more than would (say) a reference to Quine as a Thomist or to Nozick as a Marxist. And maybe a decade or two beyond that, the news will finally reach ignorant non-philosopher hacks like Richard Dawkins.

Even more powerful than this sort of straw man, however, is the sort that is not directed at any specific real man at all – a kind of free floating caricature of no one in particular, which can be associated or disassociated from particular targets as the rhetorical need of the moment calls for. Take what everyone “knows” to be the “basic” Cosmological Argument for God’s existence: Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause, namely God. This argument is notoriously bad: If everything has a cause, then what caused God? And if God needn’t have had a cause, why must the universe have one? Etc. The thing is, not one of the best-known defenders of the Cosmological Argument in the history of philosophy ever gave this stupid argument. Not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne. And, for that matter, not anyone else either, as far as I know. And yet it is constantly presented, not only by popular writers but also by professional philosophers, as if it were “the” “basic” version of the cosmological argument, and as if every other version were essentially just a variation on it.

Don’t believe me? Of course you do. Anyone who has ever taken a PHIL 101 course has heard this argument triumphantly refuted and quickly brushed aside so that the instructor could move on to the “philosophically serious” stuff.

In case there are any doubters, though, let’s look at a few examples. Here’s one from a New Atheist doorstop-sized pamphlet:

The Cosmological Argument… in its simplest form states that since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause – namely God… [But then] what caused God? The reply that God is self-caused (somehow) then raises the rebuttal: If something can be self-caused, why can’t the universe as a whole be the thing that is self-caused?

[From Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006), p. 242.]

“Well, come on,” you’re thinking, “that’s cheating. It’s Dennett! What did you expect, intellectual honesty and competence vis-à-vis religion?”

OK, then, here’s another one, from an introductory text on the philosophy of religion, no less:

The basic cosmological argument

1. Anything that exists has a cause of its existence.
2. Nothing can be the cause of its own existence.
3. The universe exists.

Therefore: The universe has a cause of its existence which lies outside the universe.

[From Robin Le Poidevin, Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Routledge, 1996), p. 4]

Curious title, that. Imagine a book called Arguing for Conservatism: An Introduction to Political Philosophy. Think Routledge would publish it? Me neither.

But precisely for that reason, some might think that this example too is unrepresentative. The guy’s writing a book to promote atheism, after all, even if (unlike Dennett) he actually knows something about philosophy of religion. So here’s one further example, from a book on logic, a subject one would think is as objective and free of partisanship as is humanly possible:

It’s a natural assumption that nothing happens without an explanation: people don’t get ill for no reason; cars don’t break down without a fault. Everything, then, has a cause. But what could the cause of everything be? Obviously, it can’t be anything physical, like a person; or even something like the Big Bang of cosmology. Such things must themselves have causes. So it must be something metaphysical. God is the obvious candidate.

This is one version of an argument for the existence of God, often called the Cosmological Argument.

[From Graham Priest, Logic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2000), at pp. 21-2.]

Examples could easily be multiplied. A cursory inspection of the bookshelves here in my study turns up Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, and Simon Blackburn’s Think as further examples of books earnestly presenting the “Everything has a cause” argument as if it were something that actual philosophical advocates of the Cosmological Argument have historically defended.

(Blackburn, incidentally, has made the attacking of straw men something of a second career. In a review of a book of essays by Elizabeth Anscombe some years back, he peddled some stale caricatures of natural law theory. In his book on Plato’s Republic, he throws in several gratuitous, and indeed bizarre, references to neo-conservatives as disciples of Thrasymachus and advocates of cynical “realpolitik” – perhaps less a straw man than an outright smear, since the usual caricature of neo-conservatives paints them as naïve Wilsonian democratic idealists. Anyway, if Blackburn is looking for some imperative to use as a title for a sequel to Think, he might consider something like Repeat Clichés Fashionable Among Liberal Academics.)

The obvious “So what caused God, then?” rejoinder is usually made next (as in Dennett), though sometimes some other obvious objection is raised. For example, Martin asks “How do we know the first cause is God?” Slightly more creatively, Priest suggests that the argument commits a quantifier shift fallacy. (Even if everything does have a cause it does not follow that there is something that is the cause of everything.)

Now some of these writers go on to acknowledge that there are other and more sophisticated forms of the argument. In fact, Le Poidevin even admits that “no-one has defended a cosmological argument of precisely this form” (!) So why bother with it?

Well, here’s one possibility: Because, though shooting this fish in its barrel accomplishes exactly zip logically speaking, rhetorically the atheist’s battle against the Cosmological Argument is half-won by the time the unwary reader moves on to the next chapter. By effectively insinuating that the argument’s defenders must surely be a pretty stupid or at least intellectually dishonest bunch, anything you represent them as saying afterward, no matter how intrinsically interesting or philosophically powerful, is bound to seem anticlimactic, a desperate attempt at patching the gigantic holes in a pathetically weak case. Dennett, admitting that there are more sophisticated versions of the argument, suggests that only those with a taste for “ingenious nitpicking about the meaning of ‘cause’” and “the niceties of scholastic logic” would find them of any interest. Why waste time addressing them, then? And so he doesn’t. What the greatest defenders of the Cosmological Argument have actually said doesn’t matter. Poking holes in an argument that “no-one has defended” is enough to refute them.

As I have said, this is more effective than the usual “straw man” argument precisely because there is no “real man” being criticized. It isn’t strictly a distortion of anything any specific philosopher has actually defended. If you say “Hey, Aquinas [or Aristotle, Leibniz, or Maimonides, or whomever] never said anything like that!” the atheist can always reply “I never said he did – no straw man fallacy here! I’m just talking about, you know, the Cosmological Argument in general.” And yet somehow, the mud still sticks to Aquinas, Leibniz, Maimonides, and Co. anyway. It’s as if, in place of a single straw man, the atheist has constructed an entire field filled with straw men, in one fell swoop. Or, to shift analogies, instead of attacking the formidable Cosmological Argument army made up of the philosophical giants listed above, the atheist has decided to take on instead a clay or terracotta army of the sort the first Chinese emperor had buried with him. His “victory” is hollow, but since most readers wouldn’t know the real army from the clay one, it seems very real indeed.

If you’re a secularist reader having trouble working up much outrage over this, consider the following analogy. Suppose some conservative suggested in a book called Arguing for Chastity: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Sex that the following is “the basic argument” for the moral legitimacy of homosexual acts:

1. All sexual activity is good.
2. Homosexual acts are a kind of sexual activity.
3. So homosexual acts are good.

Suppose he then went on to point out that this is a terrible argument, that it would justify rape, adultery, child molestation, etc. And suppose further that he also acknowledged that “no-one has defended an argument of precisely this form” but claimed that it was somehow nevertheless a good starting point from which to assess the morality of homosexual acts, giving the impression that everything else actual liberals have ever said about the subject was essentially a desperate attempt to patch up this feeble argument.

I submit that any defender of liberal views about sex would consider this an outrage. And rightly so. But the way a great many philosophers present arguments like the Cosmological Argument is not one whit less outrageous.

And yet generations of philosophers have been formed in their thinking about religion by works taking this sort of dishonest (or at least woefully uninformed) rhetorical approach, not only where the Cosmological Argument is concerned (this is just one example) but also where other arguments for religion are concerned, and where arguments for traditional views about sex are concerned too, for that matter. The result is that lots of people who think they more or less know what the basic arguments are vis-à-vis these subjects know nothing of the kind. And as one of their number likes to say, the less they know, the less they know it.

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.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The latest on the APA petition controversy

Over at First Things, Keith Pavlischek reports on the reactions of various Christian colleges to the American Philosophical Association petition controversy. (Pavlischek had reported earlier on the controversy here.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How (some of) your professors see you

Lydia McGrew, my esteemed co-blogger at What’s Wrong with the World, calls attention to this moment of honesty from the late liberal pragmatist Richard Rorty:

It seems to me that the regulative idea that we—we...liberals, we heirs of the Enlightenment, we Socratists—most frequently use to criticize the conduct of various conversational partners is that of “needing education in order to outgrow their primitive fear, hatreds, and superstitions.” This is the concept the victorious Allied armies used when they set about re-educating the citizens of occupied Germany and Japan. It is also the one which was used by American schoolteachers who had read Dewey and were concerned to get students to think ‘scientifically’ and ‘rationally’ about such matters as the origin of the species and sexual behavor [sic] (that is, to get them to read Darwin and Freud without disgust and incredulity). It is a concept which I, like most Americans who teach humanities or social science in colleges and universities, invoke when we try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.

What is the relation of this idea to the regulative idea of ‘reason’ which Putnam believes to be transcendent and which Habermas believes to be discoverable within the grammar of concepts ineliminable from our description of the making of assertions? The answer to that question depends upon how much the re-education of Nazis and fundamentalists has to do with merging interpretive horizons and how much with replacing such horizons. The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire “American liberal establishment” is engaged in a conspiracy. Had they read Habermas, these people would say that the typical communication situation in American college classrooms is no more herrschaftsfrei [domination free] than that in the Hitler Youth camps.

These parents have a point. Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical communication situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students....When we American college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists, we do not consider the possibility of reformulating our own practices of justification so as to give more weight to the authority of the Christian scriptures. Instead, we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank.

Putnam and Habermas can rejoin that we teachers do our best to be Socratic, to get our job of re-education, secularization, and liberalization done by conversational exchange. That is true up to a point, but what about assigning books like Black Boy, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Becoming a Man? The racist or fundamentalist parents of our students say that in a truly democratic society the students should not be forced to read books by such people—black people, Jewish people, homosexual people. They will protest that these books are being jammed down their children’s throats. I cannot see how to reply to this charge without saying something like “There are credentials for admission to our democratic society, credentials which we liberals have been making more stringent by doing our best to excommunicate racists, male chauvinists, homophobes, and the like. You have to be educated in order to be a citizen of our society, a participant in our conversation, someone with whom we can envisage merging our horizons. So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours.”

I have no trouble offering this reply, since I do not claim to make the distinction between education and conversation on the basis of anything except my loyalty to a particular community, a community whose interests required re-educating the Hitler Youth in 1945 and required re-educating the bigoted students of Virginia in 1993. I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents. It seems to me that I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause. I come from a better province.

Richard Rorty, from "Universality and Truth," in Robert B. Brandom, ed., Rorty and His Critics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 21-22.

So there you have it. You either accept liberal and secular attitudes about religion and sex, or you are a “bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalist,” comparable to a Nazi or a racist, or at best to an ignorant child. There is no third option, and in particular no philosophically sophisticated and scientifically respectable way of holding conservative religious views or traditional attitudes about sexual morality. A college education, then, is not about studying the debate between different sides on these questions, but about indoctrinating students into one side by painting the other, conservative side as beyond the pale, possessed of no interesting arguments or thinkers to speak of, a political obstacle to be surmounted rather than an intellectual and moral alternative to be considered.

Do all academics think this way? Even all liberal academics? By no means. But a hell of a lot of them do. If you doubt this, take a look at the comboxes of philosophy blogs where the APA petition controversy has been discussed. Or sit in on a course in ethnic studies, women’s history, or gay and lesbian history – where, as everyone knows, you will never hear that there are two sides in the debate over affirmative action, or feminism, or “gay rights.” What you will hear instead is rather: “Here are the good guys (liberals) and the bad guys (conservatives), here’s how the former have made ‘progress’ in defeating the latter, and here’s where further ‘progress’ still needs to be made.” This is liberal apologetics, politics by other means, masquerading as objective scholarship. Not that all left-wing academics realize this. The inability of some of them even to conceive of a serious argument for conservative religious and moral views – that is to say, their own bigotry and ignorance – is touted precisely as unanswerable evidence of the objectivity and rational superiority of their position. “Such ideas are beyond the moral and intellectual pale. I know that because there are and can be no serious arguments for them. And I know there are and can be no serious arguments for them because, you know, look how immoral and intellectually frivolous they obviously are!” The circle is closed. Like the fundamentalist of liberal caricature who dismisses all objections a priori as Satanic deceptions, (some) left-wing academics dismiss conservative arguments a priori as mere rationalizations of superstition and prejudice.

It is amazing how exactly Rorty’s acknowledged program corresponds to the agenda I attributed to the modern university in the second of a three-part Tech Central Station series on universities and the Left I wrote several years ago. (See here, here, and here.) As I argue in the series, that agenda cannot properly be understood except in religious terms – as the propagation of a counter-religion intended to supplant the traditional religious worldview of the West. The origins of this counter-religion, and its inherently immoral and irrational character, are among the themes explored in The Last Superstition.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Vallicella on hypocrisy

Bill Vallicella has some characteristically wise remarks on what hypocrisy is, and what it isn’t. As he notes, a failure to live up to one’s own high moral standards does not necessarily make one a hypocrite; it could be just a matter of ordinary human weakness. (Critics of Bill Bennett’s gambling take note.) To add to what Bill says, we might also note that someone who condemns actions he once practiced himself is not necessarily a hypocrite either; he may simply have changed his mind. (Critics of Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s early love life take note.) Nor is someone whose children have failed to live up to the moral standards he has taught them necessarily a hypocrite either – how does A’s failure to follow B’s advice reflect on B’s character? (Critics of Sarah Palin’s child-rearing, take note.)

Here, as elsewhere, liberals who like to accuse others of simplemindedness often fail to make fairly obvious conceptual distinctions – perhaps out of carelessness born of the heat of political argument. Or perhaps because they are hypocrites themselves.

UPDATE: Bill has now added two further posts on the subject (here and here), addressing some of the points made above and in the comments section below.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

ForeWord on TLS

ForeWord Magazine is a trade journal directed at librarians and booksellers and devoted to reviewing books published by independent and university presses. I am pleased to learn that The Last Superstition, having been put on Booklist’s Editor’s Choice list for 2008, has now been named by ForeWord a finalist for the Book of the Year Award in the field of religion.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Oderberg on bioethics

Natural law bioethicist David Oderberg reports on the state of "Bioethics Today" in The Human Life Review. Particularly timely given President Obama's latest abomination.

Bonus article: Oderberg on "What's Wrong with Embryonic Stem Cell Research?", also from The Human Life Review. [Can't link to it from here for some reason: To access this article, go to Oderberg's home page and scroll down to "Miscellaneous Writings," near the bottom.]

Sunday, March 8, 2009

“Yawn” indeed

An embarrassed Brian Leiter frantically updates his post yet again, and devotes 194 words to ridiculing my “lengthy” (360 word) “cyber-treatise.”

Coming soon: A new post from Leiter explaining why I am beneath his attention!

Ross’s Thought and World

For readers interested in a detailed and rigorous contemporary defense of Aristotelian metaphysics written from a point of view informed by analytic philosophy, I have several times recommended David Oderberg’s excellent Real Essentialism. I am pleased to be able now to recommend another book as well, namely James Ross’s recent Thought and World: The Hidden Necessities. Ross’s 1992 Journal of Philosophy article “Immaterial Aspects of Thought” is in my view one of the most important papers ever written in 20th century philosophy of mind, and gets to the heart of why a naturalistic account of the mind is in principle impossible in a way other recent critics of materialism have not. Ross’s article “The Fate of the Analysts: Aristotle’s Revenge” is also important. The themes of both articles are developed at length in the new book (and the “Immaterial Aspects” paper more or less appears as chapter 6). As Bill Vallicella has said, Ross “is not easy to read, in part due to the difficulty of the matters he discusses and in part due to his own intricate and idiosyncratic mode of expression; but he is worth the effort.”

Friday, March 6, 2009

So am I a crank and a liar, or not?

Mark Murphy has put forward a draft letter to the APA critical of Charles Hermes’ petition, though for reasons different from (though not incompatible with) the reasons put forward in the counter-petition several philosophers (including me) put together in response.

In commenting on Murphy’s letter, Brian Leiter wrote:

“The quality of argument and reasoning here is certainly more substantial than in the counterpetition--not surprising, giving that Murphy is a very good philosopher (and lightyears more able than cranks like Ed Feser, author of the counterpetition [Professor Feser has been denying, by the way, that he is the sole author, but, oddly, hasn't been able to name any other authors]) -- though, for reasons addressed by others responding to Professor Murphy here, not particularly compelling.”

Or at least, that’s what he wrote earlier today. The relevant post has since been altered and the words in boldface consigned to the memory hole (though they are, for the moment anyway, still available in Google’s cache).

Why the change? Did Leiter decide that calling me a crank and (in effect) a liar would perhaps not reflect well on the cause of Hermes’ petition (which he has done more than anyone other than Hermes to promote)?

Did it occur to him that his readers might reasonably infer from his intemperate language that he also regards the other authors of the counter-petition – and perhaps all the signers of the counter-petition as well (268 of them as I write, including Alasdair MacIntyre, Roger Scruton, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Peter van Inwagen, and many other well-known philosophers) – as “cranks”?

Did someone who actually knows the facts of the case inform Leiter that I am not lying, and that several other people were involved in writing the counter-petition? Did his lawyer’s conscience kick in for a moment on reconsidering his libelous insinuation?

It’s the other authors’ business, by the way, whether they want to identify themselves, not mine. Of course, doing so will just open them up too to Leiter’s standard ad hominem way of dealing with people he disagrees with – as Leiter well knows.

In any event, the petition speaks for itself.

As do Leiter’s actions.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Searle and property dualism

David Lewis once wrote that “philosophical theories are never refuted conclusively. (Or hardly ever, Gödel and Gettier may have done it.)” To this list should be added John R. Searle, who has in my estimation conclusively refuted the computationalist theory of mind – not so much with his famous “Chinese Room” argument, but with the less well-known but far more devastating arguments presented in his paper “Is the brain a digital computer?” and in chapter 9 of his brilliant book The Rediscovery of the Mind. When (not if, but when) the philosophers and psychologists of the future look back at the bizarre fad for characterizing the brain as a kind of computer and the mind as software, and ask “So what the hell was that all about?”, Searle will be remembered as the man who did more than any other philosopher to break the spell of this illusion.

Searle is also an effective critic of other materialist theories of the mind. But though he rejects all extant forms of materialism, Searle also famously denies being any kind of dualist. Still, his critics regularly insist that his views nevertheless entail dualism whether he realizes it or not, and that this suffices to show that they are mistaken. In short, Searle says: “My arguments are correct, and they do not entail dualism,” while his critics say: “Searle’s arguments do entail dualism, and therefore they are incorrect.” In my view both sides are partly right and partly wrong: Searle’s arguments are correct, and they do entail dualism.

As my longtime readers know, the version of dualism I think one ought to accept is Aristotelian-Thomistic hylemorphic dualism. As it happens, Searle’s views have been compared by some commentators to Aristotle’s (see e.g. Alan Code’s essay in Lepore and van Gulick’s John Searle and his Critics). But Searle rejects any such interpretation. (At a conference at which Searle and I were both presenters, I gave a paper the first part of which put forward a diagnosis and critique of naturalistic theories of the mind, and the second part of which proposed a return to hylemorphism as a remedy. Searle called the first part “brilliant” and the second part “crazy.” Coming from a man whose work I admire so much, that was good enough for me. The first part, incidentally, would go on to become “Hayek the cognitive scientist and philosopher of mind,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hayek. The second part was merely a sketch of ideas that I have developed in more detail elsewhere, most fully in The Last Superstition and in the forthcoming Aquinas.)

Indeed, when Searle has worked his positive views out more fully, the version of dualism they end up resembling most is property dualism. But Searle rejects this interpretation as well, arguing against it at length in his article “Why I am not a property dualist.” Victor Reppert kindly linked yesterday to a paper of mine, “Why Searle is a property dualist,” which replies to this article of Searle’s. Since Searle’s essay has just been reprinted in his new anthology Philosophy in a New Century, I thought I would post a link of my own to my reply, for what it is worth.

(Bonus link: Here is an interview Steven Postrel and I did with Searle for Reason magazine some years back. Among other things, it gives a good sense of Searle’s political views, which aren’t quite the sort you’d expect from a UC Berkeley professor.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

And on the Leiter side…

Brian Leiter “learns” from Charles Hermes that the counter-petition mentioned below is “the creation of Edward Feser,” of whose “unhinged screed” Leiter has (as my long-time readers know) been critical before. Except that, as even a cursory reading reveals, the counter-petition was sponsored by a group calling ourselves “Concerned philosophers." And except that, in my response to the email from Hermes cited by Leiter (a response Hermes posted on Leiter’s own blog), I refer to the “authors” of the petition. Leiter, apparently fascinated by minutiae to the point of carefully inspecting his commenters’ IP addresses (see the crack detective work in identifying “Matt Hart” and “Michelle” exhibited in the first link above), has, nevertheless, apparently yet to master simple English plural noun forms.

Leiter kindly directs his readers to my book The Last Superstition, which he compares, bizarrely, to Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. Apparently Leiter hasn’t mastered the difficult art of reading subtitles either, since a glance at mine would reveal that my book has absolutely nothing to do with the topic Goldberg addresses. (Yes, my puzzlement is feigned. The scare reference to Goldberg is, of course, just “boob bait for the bubbas,” viz. Leiter’s left-of-center readers.)

Readers unfamiliar with Leiter should be made aware of the moral seriousness he brings to this debate. As someone who knew him back in the day has attested, Leiter “was the only guy I knew who openly regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Those wondering how any philosopher could countenance turning the APA over to ideologues and commissars, take note.

Politicizing philosophy

Charles Hermes, a philosopher at UT Arlington, recently started a petition calling on the American Philosophical Association to stigmatize academic institutions whose ethical norms lead them to prohibit homosexual acts among their faculty, staff, or students. (Among the institutions Hermes wants censured are Azusa Pacific University, Belmont University, Bethel University, Biola University, Calvin College, Malone College, Pepperdine University, Westmont College, and Wheaton College.)

The suggestion that the APA should officially endorse one side in a matter of longstanding philosophical controversy (in this case, a question of sexual ethics) is, of course, outrageous. Concerned about this attempt to politicize the profession, and about the discrimination the proposed policy would encourage against philosophers whose religious, political, and philosophical convictions lead them to disapprove of homosexual acts, several of us started a counter-petition calling upon the APA to reject the proposal in question. (Since APA policy inevitably affects the entire profession, the counter-petition is addressed to all professional philosophers, whether they are affiliated with academic institutions or think tanks, or are independent scholars or grad students. If you are not a professional philosopher, please do not sign it.)

Predictably, the original petition’s defenders compare the policy of the institutions they want censured to racial discrimination – despite the obvious fact that a person’s actions (which, unlike his race, are within his control) have a moral relevance that his race does not have, and despite the fact that whether disapproval of homosexual acts is really comparable to racial discrimination is precisely (part of) what is in question in the debate between conservatives and liberals over this matter. For some philosophers, it seems, begging the question and failing to make a rather obvious conceptual distinction are legitimate if done in the service of advancing a political agenda.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Kimball on the ECC controversy

Roger Kimball has a fine piece on the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization controversy in the latest New Criterion. There's some new information there, so check it out. (For my own previous articles on this issue, see here, here, and here.)