Saturday, October 16, 2010

Classical theism, atheism, and the Godfather trilogy

The history of philosophy is like The Godfather Trilogy. The Godfather is one of the best movies ever made. The Godfather Part II is at least as good, and in the view of many people, maybe even better. The Godfather Part III? Well, there is definitely some good stuff in it. And then there is Sofia Coppola’s acting, and the absurd helicopter scene, and the replacement of Robert Duvall’s character with George Hamilton’s.

Compare the ancient, medieval, and modern periods in the history of philosophy: The achievements of the Greek philosophers outshine anything the other pagans were able to accomplish. The great medievals built on, and (in the view of some of us) surpassed, those achievements. The moderns? Well, some of them are very clever; occasionally, they even have something to say which is both original and insightful. But for the most part, what’s new in their work isn’t true and what’s true isn’t new. What’s best about the best of them is mainly that they are effective critics of the worst of them.

Needless to say, that is not a judgment most of the moderns themselves share. But it’s a judgment I’ve defended at length in The Last Superstition, and it is relevant to what I’ve been saying in recent posts about classical theism and theistic personalism. Properly to understand and evaluate classical theism, one needs to have a fairly solid grounding in the ancient and medieval traditions in philosophy. And that is, unfortunately, something even contemporary philosophers tend not to have, let alone pop atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Co.

Unless they are specialists in the history of philosophy, contemporary philosophers mostly read other contemporary philosophers. In grad school, their grounding in the history of their subject usually consists in a course or three on some historical figure, and it is usually early modern thinkers – especially Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche – who are studied. Naturally, a course in Plato or Aristotle might be taken as well, but their metaphysical ideas are likely either to be treated as historical curiosities and veiled behind an impenetrable fog of caricature, or, when treated sympathetically, to be (mis)interpreted in a way that will make them conform to contemporary prejudices. (“Aristotle was a kind of functionalist!”) And for most grad students, the medievals are virtually invisible – a bunch of Catholics who may by accident have said something interesting here or there about logic or free will, but who have even less contemporary relevance than the ancients.

In short, the average contemporary philosopher is like the movie buff who has seen The Godfather Part III fifteen times, has seen a few scenes from The Godfather, though not the best parts, and has never seen The Godfather Part II at all, though he’s heard that a couple minutes of it might be OK. And on the basis of this, he judges that The Godfather Part III is obviously the best film in the series, that The Godfather has a few things going for it at least to the extent that it foreshadows Part III, and that The Godfather Part II isn’t worth bothering with. Needless to say, such a film buff wouldn’t even understand The Godfather Part III as well as he thinks he does, let alone the rest of the series; and most contemporary philosophers don’t understand even the modern period in philosophy as well as they think they do, let alone the centuries that preceded it.

To be sure, the contemporary atheist philosopher has usually read at least Aquinas’s Five Ways, but he also typically very badly misunderstands them, tearing them from their context and reading into them all sorts of modern assumptions that Aquinas would have rejected (as I show at length in Aquinas). You can find on YouTube all sorts of spoof trailers of famous movies “recut” to make them seem radically different – such as The Shining transformed into a romantic comedy, or Back to the Future remade in the image of Brokeback Mountain. The typical atheist commentator on the Five Ways is like the critic of The Godfather Part II who has seen only this YouTube goof assimilating Michael Corleone and Heath Ledger’s Joker.

More generally, judging theism exclusively on the basis of the work of theistic personalists like Paley, Swinburne, and Plantinga is (from a classical theist point of view, anyway) like judging The Godfather Trilogy as a whole on the basis of the best parts of The Godfather Part III alone. And judging theism on the basis of caricatures of theistic personalism – as New Atheist writers tend to do – is like judging the trilogy entirely on the basis of Sofia Coppola’s scenes in Part III. Nor does explaining this to New Atheist types ever seem to make a dent. The “Flying Spaghetti Monster” analogy, the “Courtier’s Reply” dodge, the “If everything has a cause, then what caused God?” canard – a certain kind of atheist is simply too much in love with these sleazy rhetorical moves ever to give them up. Just when you think you’re done with them, they pull you back in.


  1. Which early philosophers and which works would you recommend as "must reads"?

  2. "I'm gonna make 'im a syllogism he can't refute."

  3. Dr. Feser,
    You have got to check out this recut of The Ring:

    Full on emotional love story with Shawkshank Redemption "hope" theme.

    Hope you like it!!

  4. Dr. Feser....
    one last recut - Planes, Trains and Automobiles:

  5. Dr. Feser,
    having a pretty developed take on movies.... have you ever seen "Gone Baby, Gone" or "The Town"? If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts on them. "Gone Baby, Gone" has a very thick Catholic theme running through it (at least from the main actor's Casey Affleck's view).

    Or "No Country for Old Men"?

    Okay, I'll quit flooding your comment board with this stuff..... for now.

  6. I had a professor who occasionally reminded his students that his primary focus was Kant's work. We read primary sources in this class, but nothing pre-Descartes. One day, he said, "I predict, that in the next few years, we are going to be looking at a certain philosopher's ideas in a new light, and he will become fashionable and popular again. Hegel."

    Every experience I've had reinforces what you've said here. We don't study Aristotle, we study W.D. Ross, etc. Visiting lecturers give talks on Divine Command Theory and some insignificant quibble over some esoteric detail of an equally esoteric formulation of the argument. Everyone leaves confused and disenchanted. Kind of like how I felt after watching Godfather III, oh!

    I remember shuddering when Sofia first enters the frame to talk to Andy Garcia. At least give us something better to look at! Nepotism, ugh. Also, I find Sofia's films themselves are steeped in this modern "profundity", coincidentally.

  7. Dr. Feser,

    You have a keen sense of observation. Over the past 4 years, I've had an on and off dialogue with an atheist who thinks highly of Dawkins and Co. He holds a PhD in philosophy from a reputed Canadian university and matches in all respects your portrait of the "average contemporary philosopher". I think you'd excell at writing satiric novels about the views and attitudes of modern intellectuals. No doubt such novels would sell even better than your recent books.

  8. William Lane Craig has recently made another (very) short comment about divine simplicity:

  9. Great post!

    Of course, I'd agree with you about the superiority of the medieval thinkers. Thomas Aquinas, in particular, stands above them all. As a professor who has taught philosophy classes for a few years now I can definitely say that I enjoy teaching Thomas Aquinas more than any other philosopher. His writing is so clear.

    My only small gripe is that this post sort of ignores Postmodernism. Postmodern philosophy really is not the same as modern philosophy. There are similarities to be sure but I think we're playing a whole new game, especially after Derrida and the "linguistic turn".

  10. Maybe this is why I've lost interest in philosophy. The ancients were amazing. The moderns seem very confused.

    And the Medieval Philosophers, Aquinas included, seem like an entire waste of time.

  11. Michael:

    Somehow, outside of literary criticism, I just don't think postmodernism and deconstruction are a big problem in U.S. philosophy. In fact, most Anglo-American philosophers I've heard who have anything to say about Continental philosophy at all (and that's not most of them) seem to regard it as a bunch of pointless nonsense that no "real" philosopher would tolerate for a minute.

    Naturalism, scientism, and a refusal to concede that anyone born before Descartes could possibly have anything of merit to contribute to philosophical inquiry pose a much larger threat to American Catholic philosophy than postmodernism could dream of. Outside philosophy departments (literary criticism, cultural studies, etc.), matters might be different, but for the majority of American atheist philosophers Derrida is about as welcome as Thomas Aquinas, in other words, not at all.

  12. Paul, care to explain why Aquinas is a waste of time? Or do you prefer brash comments? Because a comment like that on this blog really needs to be substantiated.

  13. Hey guys.

    Regarding classical theism and the doctrine of simplicity, William Lane Craig recently wrote a Q&A response on his site that partly touched on this. Part of that response:

    Far from being a misguided attempt to save the cosmological and design arguments, simplicity is one of the classic attributes of God! For example, the very first attribute of God which is discussed by Thomas Aquinas following his five proofs of God’s existence is God’s simplicity (Summa theologica pt. 1, ques. 3).

    Thomas upholds an extraordinarily strong doctrine of divine simplicity, arguing that God is utterly without composition of any sort. In my discussion of this divine attribute in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP, 2003), I reject Thomas’ very strong view in favor of a weaker form of divine simplicity. I see no reason, for example, to think that God’s essence and existence are the same.

    Still, as a mind without a body, God is amazingly simple. Being immaterial, He has no physical parts.

    There's more to it on the site, but that's the gist. What I wonder is, does this make WLC a classical theist?

  14. A bit tangential perhaps , but could anyone tell me whether it's worth investing in Kreeft's Summa of the Summa or Penguin's Selected Writings of Aquinas for a comprehensive overview of Aquinas' writings?

    Or should I just read a couple more introductions such as Brian Davies' Aquinas and leave it at that? I cannot commit myself to thousands of pages as an undergrad. philosophy student endowed with a poor memory. I thoroughly enjoyed and devoured ( with notes) Feser's book.

  15. It is a bit of a blanket statement. So I'll qualify.

    There are ways in which Aquinas is useful.

    He's useful for getting smart agnostics to become Catholic.

    He's useful for getting smart Catholics to become agnostic (I'm thinking of Umberto Eco, who said that his study of Aquinas "miraculously cured me of my faith.")

    He's also useful if you're interested in understanding Aristotle better. His commentaries are amazing.

    In terms of getting at reality without assuming the answer beforehand, or of clarity, avoidance of nonsense, Aquinas is generally useless. He gets a few good insights, but for the most part parrots superstitions in the language of Aristotle.

    For two reasons (the superstition and the language of Aristotle), he's not typically worth the time it takes for me to read him anymore.

    I'm trying to think of a trilogy, but nothing's coming to me, so I'll name three movies that seem to work. Maybe this is better, because philosophy, especially modern philosophy, is very disjointed.

    It's like "La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc", "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" and "The Fountain".

    The first is original and powerful, the second is a rehash of the first (anything the same is boring, and anything different is terrible), and the third is incomprehensible, generally irrelevant, and not even about the same subject, but it seems like it should be profound.

  16. In terms of getting at reality without assuming the answer beforehand, or of clarity, avoidance of nonsense, Aquinas is generally useless.

    I appreciate you trying to explain the comment a bit more....
    but this still is a blanket statement.
    Never once in reading Aquinas have I ever felt the need to assume so many of the conclusions before hand.
    As a matter of fact, compared to other philosophy I have read.... Aquinas is probably the best at not having to assume too much before hand.
    Like with God being Pure Act - if I think of the consequences of Act and Potency and then I reflect on something that exists in my day to day experience (say a tree in my yard)... and then I think about its ability and potential to change (what is required for any change to occur as well as what can actually change about it); I'm quickly brought face to face with the reality of Act and Potency. The need for something currently in act to bring about the potency (potency to actuality) that exists in something else.
    The potential for that change is not enough on its own to actualize that potential.... for one; non-being can't bring about being; and for another, if that mere existence of potential was enough then it would have already happened. That change would have occurred already.
    Reasoning back from this to a conscious being that is pure act does not require the assumptions nor does it require me to already assume the existence of God.

  17. Yesterday I was quietly studying in a corner cafe on my university's campus when I overheard two Atheists nearby start talking. One of them promptly said "I really liked Aquinas because I could just be like everything needs a cause, so what caused God then? He was so easy to refute."

    I had to walk outside and smoke two cigarettes to get over this.

  18. The new blanket statement is better because it's accurate.

    Your example is a good case of what frustrates me about Aquinas. We have this idea of act and potency, which seems to be a good model of everyday phenomena, and then with this other idea that non-being can't actualize being (what is it to actualize? what is being? and why can't something come from nothing? Also, I'm not sure if it is meaningful to really talk about nothing), we get God somehow.

    This assumes the answer (God) before we even get anywhere. It's like the "Elephants all the way down". Some people seem to really need to be able to answer everything, and when they get to a question they can't answer, like "what does the elephant stand on?", they say that there's a certain point at which you can't ask anymore for reasons. There are certain self-evident assertions that it makes no sense to question.

    Why not just say "I don't know" and really look for it? And if, after working on it, there's no good answers, give up and look at something else for a while.

    Maybe after studying origins, we'll come to the conclusion that there's this creative force behind everything. But for now, the best we can do is to say "I don't know".

    Aquinas reaches so far, into the lofty heights of the heavens, where stars are dying embers, and angels are flies. He is satisfied with nothing less than the face of God. But the reason he can reach so far is he assumes all his answers. If he was really searching for what's true and what's real, he'd hardly have gotten anywhere.

    But it'd be more satisfying, because he could be confident about what he did get. Maybe someday we can reach to these stratospheric ideas, and really come to understand some of them, as much as primates ever can, but I prefer to do it a step at a time.

    Leaping forward results in nonsense and wrong ideas that need inquisitions, excommunications and executions to enforce.

    I understand that, for the Catholic, this would be a different story. But I don't understand why someone would bother with these sorts of answers. Maybe it's too hard to say "I don't know". Maybe it's too hard to live not knowing.

    But I don't know. And talking about what you don't know like you do is generally a waste of time, and it's what Aquinas spends most his time doing.

  19. Hi Paul,

    I really don't follow.
    "What is non being and how can something not come from non being?"

    Well, take something that can undergo some change: a tree.
    Now that tree can combust and burn into ash. There's potential for that change.
    "how come something can't come from non being?".
    That potential state is "non being".... it hasn't been actualized. Do you think that that state of a tree engulfed in flames to becoming ash can "actualize" that potential simply by virtue of that potential? If so, it would have already happened. And if it hasn't, then how are we to determine when the thing was able to change itself simply because of that inherent potential?

    How you think all of this presupposes God is entirely beyond me.

  20. Ok. So this system of potential and actual kind of works for trees. I'm still unclear about a lot of things, but lets leave trees behind for a moment.

    An electron in an excited state can change its energy. That's its potential. This can happen without any apparent cause. So why hasn't it already happened for all excited electrons, and how do we determine when it will happen? We can answer these questions for large groups of electrons. But for a single electron, the process appears essentially random.

    So should we throw away potentiality and actuality? Or do we say that it works only for trees, but not for electrons? Or do we hold out hope that this system still works for electrons, but we don't understand how?

    The system you've come up with presupposes the answers about potentiality and actuality. The proofs of God presuppose God.

    I am unconvinced that the world works by these sorts of rules. And I'm amazed by all that I don't know, and about all that there is to explore, even in these most fundamental systems.

    After all, an electron is much simpler for a tree. You'd think it'd be easier to understand and explain in Aquinas's systematic thinking. But even if it can be, what new insight does that give us about electrons, or anything else?

  21. Hi Paul,

    In your day to day experience with the macro world you see things as they are and in some instances know the potential change they can undergo. If you'd drive past a forest that had been ravaged by something that left the trees leaf less, looking like sticks of coal while ash blew against your car you'd reference the fact that electrons "apparently" can change states by virtue of themselves as a reason to think "nothing actual/external caused the trees to look like this.... they jumped, uncaused, from one state to another."?

    If you truly think that these electrons can jump (on their own accord in the absence of any current actual state/external factor) from one energy level to another.... then determinism is done for.

    But still, your reply is inundated with many "apparents".

    So should we throw away potentiality and actuality? Or do we say that it works only for trees, but not for electrons? Or do we hold out hope that this system still works for electrons, but we don't understand how?

    You admitted that you don't know that it doesn't work for electrons. An electron; which we can't even observe directly, whose existence we've concluded based off of indirect means.
    This isn't to say that we should doubt the existence of the sub structure of nature - but it should certainly humble us when coming to conclusions of "causeless change" (unless you'd be willing to attribute consciousness to these subparticles).

  22. Manuel, you ask some good questions, and I wish I could give you better answers. But I am not confident enough, either in what I personally know, or in what is known by humans, to reach far enough for the answers you might want.

    If I saw a forest burnt down, I'd say a fire started there. But I'd be open to being wrong. The basis for establishing this would be further evidence.

    The thing is, trees aren't electrons. If some sort of reasoning works for trees, maybe it doesn't work for other things. Maybe it doesn't work for what trees came from.

    And for determinism, I don't know. It seems not to be doing very well right now with quantum mechanics, but there's so much to know and so little that is actually known. I'm agnostic about determinism. There's some interesting arguments for free will and the unknowability of the future.

    I'd wager that God doesn't really know what's going to happen next. He has no idea when the electron's going to lose energy, or when the C-14 atom is going to decay, or exactly what I'm going to do next. I think he knows all the possibilities, but I don't think he knows what's actually going to happen.

    But that's just it. It's pure speculation at that point. And making up reasons doesn't cut it. That's why I'd wager. My bet would be as big as you like, because who's going to prove me wrong?

    I don't think subatomic particles are conscious, though some very prominent physicists do (like Freeman Dyson), and for this very reason.

    I'd simply say that no one knows how this stuff works. But if we don't know how causality works for a the transition of single electron, who are we to say how causality works for the beginning of our universe?

    Speculation on both sides, to get to God or the multiverse or what have you, is just making up answers when the best response is three words:

    "I don't know."

  23. Prof. Feser,

    I was wondering what the A-T position would be on the theory of time--does it embrace the A-Theory, the B-Theory, or is it compatible with both? Thanks.


  24. Thanks for the things to think about, Paul. Hope to chat with you some more on here. I've got a lot more reading and thinking to do on the topic. You've brought up some things I haven't thought about to deeply before.