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.