Friday, January 14, 2011

The brutal facts about Keith Parsons

At The Secular Outpost, Keith Parsons comments on all the commentary about him.  (HT: Bill Vallicella)  If you check out his combox, you’ll see that he there accuses me of “Parsons-bashing.”  I think a fair-minded reader of my recent post about him would agree that I wasn’t really criticizing him so much as those who’ve made a big deal out of his “calling it quits” on philosophy of religion.  All the same, I did have a few good-natured yucks at his expense, so I don’t blame him for being a little sore at me.

I do blame him, though, for providing further evidence that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, as he does in another one of his comments.  So, this time let’s really do a little Parsons-bashing, shall we? 

The offending comment occurs in a response to reader Dianelos Georgoudis.  Parsons says, as if it were something we could all agree on:

Both theists and atheists begin with an uncaused brute fact.

And the problem is that that is precisely not what theists do, at least not if we are talking about theists like Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, and all the other great representatives of classical theism.  Aristotle’s Pure Act is not a brute fact.  Plotinus’ One is not a brute fact.  Anselm’s That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Conceived is not a brute fact.  Aquinas’s Subsistent Being Itself is not a brute fact.  And so forth.  In each case we have arguments to the effect that the material universe in principle must have had a cause and that the divine cause arrived at not only happens not to have a cause (as a “brute fact” would) but rather in principle could not have had or needed a cause and in principle could not have not existed.  And the reasons, of course, have to do with the metaphysics of potency and act, the difference between composite substances and that which is metaphysically absolutely simple, the real distinction between essence and existence in anything contingent, and other aspects of classical metaphysics in the Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, and Scholastic traditions. 

At this point, I imagine Parsons might, like so many other atheists under the delusion that they’ve mastered the arguments of the other side, indignantly demand an explanation of all this obscure “act and potency” and “essence versus existence” stuff that he’s never heard of, and of how it is supposed to show what the thinkers in question say it shows.   (Or at least he might if he wasn’t retired and all.  Sorry if I’m keeping you off the links, Keith!)  If so, my response would be: If you really need someone to explain all that to you, then with all due respect, it’s a good thing you have given up philosophy of religion, because you are simply not competent to speak on the subject. 

Neo-Platonist, Aristotelian, and Thomistic and other Scholastic writers are hardly marginal theists, after all.  They are the paradigmatic theists.  They invented (what is these days called) the philosophy of religion and the core arguments in the field.  They represent a 2300 year old tradition of philosophical theism, and their thought has historically determined the intellectual articulation of revelation-oriented religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  In the case of Christianity – certainly of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy – you simply cannot understand the key theological ideas without an understanding of the Platonic and/or Aristotelian concepts in terms of which their orthodox formulations were hammered out.  And none of these thinkers would regard God as a “brute fact.”  Nor is this some incidental feature of their position; it is the very heart of it.  The whole point of theism, for these classical writers, is that the explanatory buck must stop with something that is in itself intelligible through and through – precisely because, unlike the mixtures of act and potency which make up the world of our experience, it is purely actual; or because, unlike the composite things of our experience, it is absolutely simple; or because, unlike compounds of essence and existence, its essence is existence; and so forth.  For an Aristotle, Plotinus, or Aquinas, to show that there is no such thing as Pure Act, the One, or Subsistent Being Itself would not be to show that God is after all just a “brute fact” among others; it would rather be to show that there is no God.

Would Parsons really need an explanation of all this?  The fact that he thinks that theism regards God as a “brute fact” is strong evidence that he would, because no one acquainted with the arguments of classical theists like the ones mentioned would say such a thing.  Nor am I unfairly pouncing on him for an offhand remark in a combox.  In a paper on the cosmological argument written in response to Roy Abraham Varghese, Parsons develops the “brute fact” theme at length, and expresses bafflement why anyone would think (a) that the universe is in principle in need of an explanation outside itself, and (b) that the cause of the universe would not in principle need one.  Again, no one familiar with the Aristotelian theory of act and potency, the Neo-Platonic distinction between composition and simplicity, the Thomistic distinction between essence and existence, etc. and the roles such concepts play in classical natural theology would be the least bit puzzled why classical theists affirm both (a) and (b).  Such a person could reasonably say “I understand why (a) and (b) follow from such metaphysical principles.  But here’s why I don’t accept those principles…”  What a reasonable person cannot do is (I) claim to know enough about “the case for theism” to be able to judge it a “fraud,” while at the same time (II) failing to evince the slightest knowledge of, much less bothering to answer, the core arguments of the classical theistic tradition.

It is pretty obvious that what Parsons has actually read in the philosophy of religion are, for the most part, contemporary authors like Plantinga, Swinburne, and Mackie, together with some anthologized snippets of older writers – where the older writers are taken to be significant only insofar as they anticipated the arguments of the more recent ones, and where research in the field is guided by the methodological principle that if some thinker, idea, or argument hasn’t been prominently discussed in the academic journals and books published in recent years, it must not be worth knowing about.  In other words, he is much like my younger atheist self – back in the days when I thought books like Parsons’ God and the Burden of Proof were hot stuff, before I actually started to read the older writers in depth and on their own terms, and found that contemporary writers rarely understand them correctly.  (Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism, for example – while otherwise an important book and one which had a great influence on me when I was younger – is hopeless on Aquinas, as I later came to discover and as I show in Aquinas.)

Parsons is not likely ever to find this out himself, however, for the same two reasons Dawkins, Harris, and other New Atheist types aren’t (reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere).   First, Parsons has by virtue of “calling it quits” on philosophy of religion now chained himself to the same question-begging merry-go-round occupied by Dawkins and Co.  It looks something like this:

I know that theism is too intellectually flimsy to be worth taking seriously, because the arguments for it that I’m familiar with are so bad.  And I know that I must be understanding those arguments correctly and that there are no better ones worth investigating, because theism is too intellectually flimsy to be worth taking seriously.  So nyah nyah!

Second, and again like the New Atheists, Parsons has now shot his mouth off so often and so loudly about how transparently “fraudulent” the “case for theism” is that the humiliation that would follow upon admitting that he was wrong might be too great to bear.  Certainly it is less attractive than the 15 minutes of fame he is now getting in the echo chambers and amen corners of the secularist blogosphere. 

So, I suspect we will not see Parsons again.  But of course, we will see his like again, dime-a-dozen as they are.  Hence, for any junior atheist apologist out there dreaming of that big day when you too can make your Grand Exit from the field – no doubt this will become a ritual with the Prometheus Books crowd – here’s some advice.  Before dismissing as “fraudulent” a tradition represented by the likes of Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, et al., try to learn something about it.  And if you refuse to do so, at least have the good taste not to whine that people are “bashing” you when they expose your breathtaking arrogance and ignorance for what they are.

82 comments:

Domini Canes said...

Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism, for example – while otherwise an important book and one which had a great influence on me when I was younger – is hopeless on Aquinas.

What really irked me about TMoT was the author's curt dismissal of the First and Second Ways, which, to me at least, seem far more powerful than the Third. He excuses himself by saying something along the lines of "Kenny has shown them to be wedded to Aristotelian cosmology," which I took to mean "I don't want to seriously engage the arguments, so I'll appeal to someone who sounds like he knows about them to prove they're awful." Otherwise, though, the book seems fine.

BTW, do you address Kenny's Aquinas on Being in Aquinas?

And, as always, thank you for the excellent post.

Edward Feser said...

Hello Domini,

In fairness to Mackie, I think he did sincerely believe what he said about the first two Ways on the basis of Kenny's account. And I wouldn't be surprised if many have dismissed them on the basis of Mackie's say-so. ("Well, Mackie says that Kenny says that they depend on outdated cosmology, so they must not be worth studying any further..." That's the sort of thing that passes for serious historical scholarship with too many philosophers, I'm afraid.)

But that Kenny is just wrong should have been evident even at the time his book appeared from the fact that numerous Neo-Scholastic writers of the day had long been defending the arguments without ever having to appeal to any outdated scientific ideas. (Of course, Kenny and others might still have other objections to the arguments. The point is that the "archaic cosmology" objection won't fly.)

Anyway, it is too bad that certain contemporary atheist philosophers who have neither Mackie's ability, nor his learning, nor his integrity are trading on the quip that forms the title of his book. Mackie earned the right to be a bit cheeky; these glib and dishonest lightweights have not.

I do deal in the book with Kenny's Aquinas on Being, especially at pp. 55-60.

Matthew C. Lefavor said...

This really wasn't your main point here, but I was curious.

In each case we have arguments to the effect that the material universe in principle must have had a cause and that the divine cause arrived at not only happens not to have a cause (as a “brute fact” would) but rather in principle could not have had or needed a cause and in principle could not have not existed.

By this do you mean Subsistent Being Itself necessarily exists given that anything at all exists? Or do you mean that It/He necessarily exists in such a way that it is impossible for there to have been nothing (i.e. no Subsistent Being, and therefore no universe or anything else, either)?

I suppose the question is not entirely important, since something does, in fact, exist, and thus in either case we are left with the conclusion that Subsistent Being Itself necessarily exists. Nevertheless, this would go a long way to clear up the meaning of "necessary" in this particular context.

Thank you for your time!

Edward Feser said...

Or do you mean that It/He necessarily exists in such a way that it is impossible for there to have been nothing (i.e. no Subsistent Being, and therefore no universe or anything else, either)?

Yes, a Thomist would say that there could not have been nothing. Hence asking "Why is there something rather than nothing?", if that is meant to imply that there could in principle have been nothing, rests on a false assumption. Probably it is not always meant that way, though, but rather as a roundabout way of asking why the material world (which indeed could have failed to exist) exists at all. But as I have noted elsewhere, even that is probably not the right way to understand arguments like the ones Aquinas gives. Many Thomists (including me) would say that Aquinas's arguments are for the most part not really concerned to explain the universe as a whole. For a Thomist, you don't need to get into that in order to prove the existence of the God of classical theism. Starting with any mixture of act and potency, or essence and existence, or any composite thing, will do -- a bowling ball, a tree, whatever.

Anyway, it cannot be emphasized too much that the classical arguments (those of Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, et al.) should not be confused with the sort of cosmological argument Leibniz gives. (Mackie makes this mistake in discussing the Third Way.) Leibnizian rationalist natural theology is basically an attempt to re-state the older Scholastic arguments without committing to the underlying Scholastic metaphysics. And that is a grave mistake. The Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) principle of causality, for example, which is a metaphysical claim about the world itself, gets transformed into the "principle of sufficient reason," which is ultimately a claim about our criteria explanatory adequacy -- that is to say, a claim about the mind rather than about mind-independent reality. The move to the Kantian critique of cosmological arguments was a natural next step.

In general, A-T regards rationalism and empiricism as two of the many errors that spun off as the moderns rejected some parts of the Scholastic inheritance while preserving others, distorting them in the process since the original system formed a coherent whole carefully hammered out over the course of centuries. They are really just riffs on the old Parmenidean and Heraclitean errors that Aristotle had refuting centuries earlier. And Kantianism, far from being a middle ground between the rationalist and empiricist extremes, really amounts to embracing both at once. The real middle ground is A-T itself.

Anyway, I discuss some of this at length in The Last Superstition. The key point to emphasize is that one should never assume that what the ancients and medievals were up to when arguing for the existence of God is the same thing that modern philosophers are up to. Leibniz is about as close as the moderns get to being in the same ballpark, and even he is really outside of it.

Domini Canes said...

@Ed: Thank you for your reply. I agree completely vis-á-vis Mackie's (acquired) right to cheekiness: he was, whatever else his demerits, exceedingly well-read in the relevant literature. On the other hand, I sometimes doubt whether some of his successors are so much as aware that Aquinas, for example, wrote anything beside the Five Ways.

Man, I need to get my hands on that book!

@Matthew: Roughly, I take Aquinas' position on God's existence to be somewhat analogous to Saul Kripke's position on the H2O-ness of water: No matter whatever else might contingently be the case, it is absolutely necessary that God exist and that water be H2O. However, we know this from arguments (deductive or inductive) with contingent premises that entail this necessary conclusion. Tell me if I'm just obscuring matters or not answering your question.

Eric said...

Vallicella: "And Ed Feser rips into Parsons here, once again substantiating my playful reading of his name as an acronym: Filosophical Erudition Sans Excessive Restraint."

Oh, that's good!

It's wonderful to come across philosophers like yourself and William Vallicella who have such great senses of humor. So many philosophers on the web take themselves far too seriously. I know, it's a cliche, but look around -- it's true!

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Ed,

In fairness the context of Keith Parsons’ discussion was Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument, and its premise that “everything that begins to exist has a cause”. This premise has little to do with A-T or with the metaphysics of the Scholastic tradition. Not all theistic arguments are built on the principles of that tradition.

My contention was to agree that the universe did begin to exist, and that its cause was the Big-Bang singularity. Further, that the Big-Bang singularity itself did not begin to exist, because at the Big-Bang there was no time and therefore “begin” makes no sense in relation to it. Therefore, Keith and I think, the naturalist can reasonably claim that the Big-Bang is the uncaused cause of the universe.

Anonymous said...

"the Big-Bang is the uncaused cause of the universe."

But isn't the "Big Bang" more accurately described as an event rather than as a thing possessing inherent causal efficacy?

George R. said...

Therefore, Keith and, I think, the naturalist can reasonably claim that the Big-Bang is the uncaused cause of the universe.

Well, that does it. It's over. The Western intellectual tradition had a good run, but the all things must come to an end. Last one out of the house of intellect turn out the lights.

. . . and may the Big-Bang help us all!

Edward Feser said...

Hello Dianelos,

Yes, but as I note in the main post, Parsons says similar things in his reply to Varghese, where what is at issue is a beginningless universe. Furthermore, there is nothing in a Kalam argument that entails a "brute fact" conception of God any more than there is in an A-T argument (though the reasons why God cannot be a brute fact are, I would say, only perfectly clear when one brings in the relevant classical -- i.e. Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, or Scholastic -- background metaphysical principles. But one can do that in the context of a Kalam argument too).

As to Parsons and other naturalists calling the Big Bang an Uncaused Cause, the trouble with that is that it equivocates on the expression "Uncaused Cause." The classical writers understand that expression to entail Uncaused in principle, that is to say, they understand it to entail something that is not a brute fact. Showing that the world does not rest on brute facts is the whole point. Hence it is silly for a naturalist to say "Well, we've got an equally good non-divine candidate for the Uncaused Cause," and then go on to suggest that such a cause is a brute fact, because in that case they're not talking about the same sort of thing. They've just changed the subject.

As I keep saying, the way Parsons keep framing the issues, and the specific theistic moves he considers and tries to counter, make it painfully obvious that he simply does not know anything about the classical tradition (which includes A-T, but is more than just A-T -- I'm not merely plumping for my own favored view here). I am not criticizing him for that; merely being ignorant of something is not necessarily a failing. What I do criticize him for is making these stupid remarks about "the case for theism" as such being a "fraud" and philosophy of religion as such being intellectually dubious, while at the same time showing that he does not know what have historically been the most important arguments and ideas in the field. For that Parsons deserves, and should get, the abuse I and others have been giving him.

Untenured said...

The problem runs a lot deeper than ignorance about the philosophy of religion. If you don't get the act/potency distinction, the essence/existence distinction, or the contingent being/necessary being distinction, then you are in no position to run your mouth about *any* topic related to metaphysics. This is because you haven't mastered some of the most basic concepts that underwrite the most historically important work on the subject. It would be like posing as an expert in the philosophy of language while having no idea what the sense and reference distinction is or what a rigid designator is supposed to be.

Edward Feser said...

Hello Eric,

Yes, it's true. There are exceptions -- Jerry Fodor and John Searle come to mind. You'll also notice that Fodor and Searle actually know how to write a readable sentence, and avoid the gratuitous use of logical symbolism, variables, and all the other marks of pseudo-rigor that nervous young philosophy professors pepper their work with lest it be though less than "serious." (Naturally, I don't mean to say that use of such things is never called for. Of course it sometimes is. But it is definitely overdone.) Also, their work is broad in scope -- they don't stick to the minutiae that a certain kind of philosophy professor thinks is the only "serious" subject matter for a philosopher.

Searle was my model for how to write philosophy back when I was in grad school, and I still think to this day that, while there are other, equally good models, there are no better ones.

George R. said...

If you don't get the act/potency distinction, the essence/existence distinction, or the contingent being/necessary being distinction, then you are in no position to run your mouth about *any* topic related to metaphysics.

Whoa. How doctrinaire! How insensitive! How intolerant!

I love it.

Edward Feser said...

Untenured,

Exactly. There is an ethos prevailing in a big chunk of "the profession" today according to which one is not serious unless one focuses obsessively on some narrow subset of a subset of questions in some one philosophical subdiscipline, with perhaps a little dabbling in a second subfield when one has a spare moment. "Big picture" thinking -- the kind of thing all the actual great philosophers of the past engaged in -- is regarded as unserious.

This is just stupid, because philosophical issues tend to be deeply interconnected; in particular, what one has to say about any one of them is always -- always -- deeply influenced by the general metaphysical presuppositions one is working with (often unconsciously). Hence, though one should of course pursue in depth whatever particular questions one is especially concerned with, a serious philosopher also has to be a generalist to some extent, and to have a good grasp of the history of the field as well, all the way back to the Pre-Socratics. In particular, he needs to know metaphysics.

The irony is that some of the same sorts of people who claim to eschew "big picture" thinking and purport to focus humbly on their own little corner of the field have no difficulty making sweeping dismissive statements about large matters they have little knowledge of -- classical natural law theory, say, or philosophy of religion.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Anonymous 9:28,

Events take place within time. Therefore I think it is an equivocation to hold that the Big-Bang is an event. Rather the Big-Bang is a precondition for events to be possible. (In the naturalistic worldview that is.)

There is a similar equivocation in the context of philosophy of mind: Consciousness is not a phenomenon. Rather consciousness is a precondition for phenomena to exist.

BenYachov said...

>Events take place within time. Therefore I think it is an equivocation to hold that the Big-Bang is an event.


You mean the Big Bang Singularity right?

BenYachov said...

Because wouldn't Big Bang merely be the Singularity changing into Time, Space and Matter/Energy?

George R. said...

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Dianelos doesn't get the potency/act distinction.

Will said...

Great post.

These guys really are a dime a dozen. More bullshit, from Brian Magee:

'I believe I am right in saying that it is still official doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church that the existence of God can be proved. I can see reasons why the Church does not wish publicly to renounce this doctrine, but it must know it to be false. The fact simply is that Kant has demolished the traditional "proofs" of God.' (Confessions of A Philosopher, 1998, p.198)

Jinzang said...

If the Big Bang were not an event in time, it could not be investigated empirically by astronomers. What is at question is whether time and space existed antecedent to the Big Bang, that is, whether they exist absolutely or only relatively. Obviously this is a metaphysical question and Einstein, for all his genius, did not resolve it.

Domini Canes said...

@Will: Yes, that really is bullshit, in the technical, Frankfurtian sense of the term: Magee, or at least others of his ilk, probably don't give a damn abut whether all analytic truths are discoverable a priori, or whether cognition of instances of the Categories can be had outside of the intuitions of space and time. They just like to throw Kant's imposing name around as evidence that the classical theistic proofs are "obviously" unsound. He's not bullshitting simply because he is wrong, but because doesn't care if he's wrong, only if he "beats" the theists.

Also, if the demonstrability of God's existence has been known to be impossible since the publication of Kant's first Critique in 1781, how come the Catholic doctrine in question was only defined in 1870?

Edward Feser said...

Will and Domini,

Yes indeed. What people forget is that Hume's and Kant's famous "refutations" of the central arguments of natural theology rest entirely on their respective broader epistemological and metaphysical positions. Few people these days would accept those broader positions, and yet for some reason it doesn't occur to them that the critiques might not survive if the epistemology and metaphysics are rejected.

Part of this, of course, is just rhetoric -- the vulgar atheist wants to be able to pretend that Hume and Kant put paid to the arguments way back when in some vaguely unspecified way, so as to facilitate the use of his beloved Horse Laugh Fallacy: "Oh dear, not the First Cause argument! Did you hear that, fellas, this guy apparently never read Hume! Can you believe it? Ha ha ha blah blah blah." But it isn't just that. It's also a simple failure to see the logical connections between the claims made in philosophy of religion on the one and, and the more general epistemological/metaphysical assumptions on the other, a failure which is a symptom of the hyper-specialization I complained about above.

Leo Carton Mollica said...

What people forget is that Hume's and Kant's famous "refutations" of the central arguments of natural theology rest entirely on their respective broader epistemological and metaphysical positions. Few people these days would accept those broader positions.

Quite true. I have always thought that it is nasty sophistry indeed to indict St. Thomas on account of his Aristotelian cosmology one minute, and to cite a man who based his entire metaphysical system on an indisputably outdated geometry the next.

Mickey said...

Dr. Feser,

I have something which may interest you. Consider what Parsons said in 1998:

"Many atheists seem to feel that the job of rebutting theism is done and that further such efforts would be an exercise in slaying the slain. I regard this as a most unfortunate attitude. Due to the work of a number of exceptionally qualified theistic philosophers, the defense of theism has taken a number of interesting turns in recent years. I believe that these arguments merit serious critical evaluation."

http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/keith_parsons/lively.html


Such an interesting turn.

Anonymous said...

I think the best way to take Parsons on this isn't as a slight against philosophy of religion or theism, but an honest admission about his own personal psychology. If he's become so locked into his atheism that, as Bill Valicella suggests, he can't even seriously entertain the idea of any theism (if theism, due to his intuitions or personal beliefs or whatever else, just isn't a live option for him), then what kind of arguments can he expect to offer up against the view? Probably not very good.

Even in the religion dispatches article Parsons mentions conflicting intuitions (such as regarding WLC) as one reason why ultimately these things aren't resolvable in his view.

Alyosha said...

Just finished your book "TLS", kinda blow me away since this is the first time in several years I have read something so interesting. Finished in 3 days. To be honest, not much exposure to Scholastic philosophy except an abstract of Five Ways of Aquinas and commentary on it). Now reading your Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide. Any suggestions for further study and defence of Scholastic Thomist/Aristotelian Realism?

Jarrett Cooper said...

Prof. Feser,

It too have the same question as Alyosha. Can you point me to some good resources on A-T, Neo-Platonism, and/or Scholasticism.

I know you mentioned David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism. Any other sources on those topics would be greatly appreciated.

I, unfortunately, do not know the definitions of any of those schools of thought. However, I'm quite interested in learning about each, and learning about their distinctions and how they are used today.

Eric said...

Alyosha and Jarrett, Professor Feser has four posts on this website responding to that very question. Search for "The Scholastic's Bookshelf," parts I, II, III, and IV (there may be more, but that's all I remember!)

Jarrett Cooper said...

Thanks, Eric!

I really want some good sources on these subjects, and the way the Internet usually works is you will only find tidbits of information, but with a book you get a better grasp of the subject.

I'll make sure to do the search.

Leo Mollica said...

@Alyosha: I just finished Brian Davies' Aquinas, which was an excellent introduction to St. Thomas' thought. And I have yet to encounter a more extensive exposition of the Angelic Doctor than Garrigou-Lagrange's Reality.

Ed also has a series entitled "The Scholastic's Bookshelf," which will probably keep you occupied for a few years:
http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/07/scholastics-bookshelf-part-i.html
http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/08/scholastics-bookshelf-part-ii.html
http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/03/scholastics-bookshelf-part-iii.html
http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/05/scholastics-bookshelf-part-iv.html

(Fun fact: Coffey's The Science of Logic, which Ed recommends in the fourth part of his "Bookshelf" series, was the subject of a short book review by a young Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of his only four non-posthumous publications.)

Ryan said...

"...why the material world (which indeed could have failed to exist) exists at all."

This has been bothering me recently. If God could have created differently, or not at all, then doesn't that indicate a potency in God -- viz., the alternative choice that is not actualized (assuming of course that matter is a direct creation of God)? And wouldn't that imply God does have potency, that He's therefore not purely simple?

It seems to me that anything one could call a potency in God would thus necessarily be impossible non-being, i.e., not a potency since "it" could never be actualized, according to divine immutability. How would you respond to the claim that, given Divine Simplicity, as well as God's having no non-actualized potency, anything that God can do He does do? I don't see how one could maintain any view such as that God had several merely possible/contingent options available to Him before Creation (if indeed anyone asserts that).

I plan to look up the Thomistic answer, but if anyone can provide one, I'll appreciate it.

Domini Canes said...

@Ryan: With regards to the possibility of God's either creating or refraining from creation, the potency and indeterminacy is to be ascribed, not to to the Divine Essence, which is purely actual and wholly necessary considered in itself, but rather to the created order. Similarly, the sun fails to illuminate certain terrestrial objects, not on account of some solar imperfection, but rather some defect in the would-be illumined object. Cf. ST, I:19:3:resp 4.

Edward Feser said...

Hello Ryan,

Take a look at my earlier posts on "Davies on divine simplicity and freedom" and "William Lane Craig on divine simplicity" for some discussion of that. (Just Google them here on the blog.)

Anonymous said...

With regard to spreading the word about the Tradition under discussion, I think that pointing people to works such as those found in Dr. Feser's Scholastic Bookshelf series will not do.

I believe that if a system of thought is to be taken seriously today, if it is to be considered as a real challenge to the ideas to which it is opposed, if it is to be understood as advancing a really respectable position on the matters it addresses, then it must find expression in a work that can stand as its charter, a work that is succinct yet precise, accessible yet rigorous. I believe that no such work represents the Tradition at hand. Further, were someone to claim that such a work existed, I am certain that others who subscribe to the Tradition would say, "Ah, but that work suffers from some grave deficiencies." Anyone who scratches the surface of this Tradition will find a great many disagreements among those who profess to adhere to it. Some of these disagreements are great enough to make responding to the Tradition, as if it were conceptually homogeneous, a very difficult task. More likely you would find yourself responding to several traditions grouped under one broader Tradition, or to several variations of this single Tradition.

My point is this: the best thing that could happen to the Tradition, or the best thing that could happen to whatever version of that Tradition you ascribe to, would be for a work such as I have described to be produced in defense of it. Ideally, this work would justify its concepts to the satisfaction of professional philosophers, not in the sense that they would all be won over by the case that is made, but in the sense that they would agree that a coherent position is being enunciated and is being defended with arguments that are understandable. The book would leave unsaid as little as possible, avoiding phrases like "...more could be said on this, but..." The work should not have the character of being a polemic against another position, such that it presents the Tradition from a defensive posture. It should simply state the case for the Tradition, addressing objections where necessary.

I believe that it is for want of such a resource that this tradition is very often ignored in present day philosophical discussions of God. No one wants to bother with what they consider to be mumbo jumbo, and, let's be honest, no one wants to dig up a never-before-heard-of book from 1924 that has been lauded as a Philosopher's Stone; a blog alone won't do either. Yes, "truth cold and naked" cares for none of this, but this is the nature of the world we live in.

We often hear politicians lament that they "failed to make the case to the people" in the wake of some political setback. They blame anything but the policies they advocate. The truth is that sometimes the message is the problem, and sometimes the content is the problem. I believe it is possible that philosophers have, in general, found the content of the Tradition problematic, whether because vague or unpersuasive; but I also believe it is possible that the Tradition has suffered for want of the defense it, as any respectable system of thought, deserves. The publishing of a work such as I have described, whether as a collaborative or lone endeavor, would ensure that the Tradition will not be ignored on account of its presentations being sub-par.

Speaking broadly, my advice to supporters of the Tradition would be to publish aggressively in the way I have described in an attempt to give their system of thought a more prominent voice in present day discussions of the subjects which the Tradition focuses on, especially God, human nature, and morality. If this does not work -- if there is nothing that supporters of the Tradition have left unsaid in defense of their views -- then the next step would be to begin to reflect inwardly, as a community, on the reason why their views are rejected despite being clearly put forth.

David said...

Anon,

What does it matter if a book was written in 1924 if it speaks the truth? What does it say about our commitment to the truth if we are unwilling to read a book simply because it was not written in the last few years? Besides the fact that atheists regularly refer to 18th century philosophers (Hume and Kant) as definitive refutations of theism.

Edward Feser said...

Anon,

Well, sure. There is lots of work of that sort, from writers like Haldane, Klima, Oderberg, C.F.J. Martin, Braine, Davies, Ross, Barry Miller, and others.

On the other hand, contemporary academic philosophers need to get past the silly and completely groundless working assumption that if some work is out of print and not being referenced in the current journals, then there is probably nothing in it worth their attention. And it isn't just old Scholastic books that suffer unjust neglect as a result of this sort of attitude. Writers like Blanshard, Broad, Weiss, Hartshorne, and many others deserve consideration. And in the long run the main works of such authors will survive while most of the current journal articles will be completely forgotten.

Go to a good used book store and you'll find that there is an ocean of important and interesting philosophy, from various schools of thought, that few people are paying any attention to. For my money, the burden of proof isn't on the defenders of these writers to show that they are worth reading. It is on those who claim otherwise, and who consider "But no one talked about that stuff in grad school or at last year's APA meeting" a serious philosophical argument.

Jinzang said...

The academic world resembles a group of nine year olds playing soccer. Someone kicks the ball and everyone chases after it.

Hearing Aids said...

Superb blog post, I have book marked this internet site so ideally I’ll see much more on this subject in the foreseeable future!

MMcCue said...

I opine that the lack of understanding of Thomistic theism on the side of "professional atheists" is not in the arguments, but in their WILL and rabid DESIRE NOT to understand.

I say this because I was interested enough to spend years and years from 20 years of age on on to better understand Thomas etc.

Of course better intellects than I don't need that much time and dedication to understand him.

Also one of the of reasons for the rabid misunderstandings on the part of mod atheists MAY BE that they may have to change their behavior if they do find GOD is behind this universe. GOD FORBID !

machinephilosophy said...

Anon,
Some of us are in fact in the process of doing precisely what you described, not just in terms of argumentative essence and meticulousness, but also in terms of style, diplomacy, and anticipatory discourse.

Whether you're raising a teenager or proving the existence of God, although there are a number of complexly intermingled factors, in a very real sense it's a chess of remarks.

Brian said...

I have an off the wall question:

If you are a Catholic, is your philosophical outlook pretty much set for you? I mean, being a Christian would entail certain philosophical things that might exclude some schools of philosophy, but being a Catholic Christian seems to commit you specifically to Thomism, what with Transubstantion being a dogma and all.

Anonymous said...

^^I'm not a Catholic, but aren't you guys typically divided into Augustinians (influence of Plato?) and Thomists (influence of Aristotle?)?

Brian said...

"^^I'm not a Catholic, but aren't you guys typically divided into Augustinians (influence of Plato?) and Thomists (influence of Aristotle?)?"

Not really. I've met all kinds of Catholics with all kinds of philosophical views. One of my Catholic friends is a Kantian.

That being said, I wonder if Catholicism still commits one to some Thomistic thought, given some of the theology.

funnyatheists said...

Oh dear, if there was any doubt that Parsons don't get or haven't read Aquinas or Aristotle or know anything about the traditional proofs, his last comment removed all doubt.

Parsons: "Nah, when I look at even the latest stuff (e.g., Nagasawa), it really just sounds like more of the same to me. The "case for theism" has been made many times, and, though the details of arguments change, the basic problem remains the same: God is needed only if the universe is not enough. I think Bertrand Russell's beautifully succinct critique of all causal arguments holds good: "If everything requires a cause, then God requires a cause. However, if anything can exist without a cause, it might as well be the universe as God." Exactly. Every attempt I have seen to show that God, uniquely, does not require a cause (because he is somehow "necessary," etc,)or that the universe cannot be the ultimate brute fact has been a dismal failure. After a while ennui sets in, and I look for other, more interesting issues towards which to devote my remaining time."

Anonymous said...

"If everything requires a cause, then God requires a cause. However, if anything can exist without a cause, it might as well be the universe as God."

Goodness. Forget the whole A-T metaphysical apparatus. Any rube who's listened attentively to a WL Craig debate could debunk Parsons' piffle.


All sound and fury, signifying nothing. That is Parsons in a nutshell.

Domini Canes said...

[B]eing a Catholic Christian seems to commit you specifically to Thomism, what with Transubstantion being a dogma and all.

Not really. All it commits you to on its own is a broadly substantivalist ontology, which is compatible with, indeed integral to, several non-Thomistic schools of thought.

Domini Canes said...

Nah, when I look at even the latest stuff (e.g., Hawking), it really just sounds like more of the same to me. The "case for Einsteinian Relativity" has been made many times, and, though the details of arguments change, the basic problem remains the same: God is needed only if the universe is not enough. I think my beautifully succinct critique of all causal arguments holds good: "If everything is relative to a reference frame, then light's motion is relative to one. However, if anything can move without a reference frame, it might as well be a train as light." Exactly. Every attempt I have seen to show that light, uniquely, does not move relative to a reference frame (because it is somehow a "limit speed," etc.) or that a train cannot bethe exception has been a dismal failure. After a while ennui sets in, and I look for other, more interesting issues towards which to devote my remaining time.

(Please forgive my ignorance of the real physics: I hope you get the point.)

djindra said...

You assert, "Aristotle’s Pure Act is not a brute fact."

Isn't it? Surely this Pure Act requires a Pure Actor even if he's hidden behind a Pure Curtain. That looks suspiciously like a brute fact.

Leo Carton Mollica said...

@djindra:

Do you have any clue what Ed here means by "act"? Just curious.

djindra said...

Leo Carton Mollica,

I'm curious as to whether Feser has a clue. How does his "act" differ from "brute fact?" How is God as self-subsistent being any different than universe as self-subsistent stuff?

His answer in a nutshell is, "the material universe in principle must have had a cause and ... the divine cause arrived at not only happens not to have a cause (as a “brute fact” would) but rather in principle could not have had or needed a cause and in principle could not have not existed."

But that's no answer. Feser cannot define his way out of it. Definitions are not principles. The material universe does not "in principle" have to have a cause. The universe does not have to follow human definitions. It can easily be composed of its own essence. In that, the universe is no different than any god. That's Parson's argument (and mine) and Feser has not even begun to counter it.

Neither are humans powerful enough to set up principles gods must follow. For argument's sake, Feser may define a divine cause. But this convenient human creation is not a principle. Ultimately he and all of his classical theists resort to a divinity with an essence that is the same as Parsons' "brute fact." All else is smoke and mirrors.

Tony said...

I believe it is possible that philosophers have, in general, found the content of the Tradition problematic, whether because vague or unpersuasive;

Anon, that is largely not actually what has happened. For example, when Descartes decided to dabble his pen in his discourses, he basically started from a completely fresh, blank slate of philosophical underpinnings, not because he had studied the Thomist schools, understood them, and then rejected them. Rather, he did not understand them, and so did not accept them as useful. Hume certainly suffered from similar problems, and Kant could not possibly have understood the Thomistic metaphysical underpinnings for the arguments for the existence of God when he wrote his antinomies.

What is more true is that the traditional theist metaphysics are extremely challenging, on two counts. First, they require considerable discipline to grasp to begin with. (By the way, the extent of the discipline required is not merely intellectual - the habitual character of a person who habitually lies to himself about what is morally upright is a natural impediment to the discipline required to humbly receive truth in other areas). Second, these truths bring with them an insistence for a life committed with discipline toward the true and truly good. Many men won't subject themselves to that discipline. They consequently resist the truths that lead in that direction.

Leo Carton Mollica said...

@djindra:

So, I'll take it that your answer to my question would be a "No"?

djindra said...

Leo Carton Mollica,

I'm sure you'll take my answer whatever way pleases you.

djindra said...

Tony,

You claim, "the habitual character of a person who habitually lies to himself about what is morally upright is a natural impediment to the discipline required to humbly receive truth in other areas."

And who decides what is morally upright? -- the morally upright seeker of truth? How much of this uprightness is required before a truth-seeker is disciplined enough to be convinced that gravity will keep him from floating away?

Leo Carton Mollica said...

@djindra:

I was just asking if you had a more than passing familiarity with the doctrines (the act/potency distinction, the real composition in creatures of essence and existence, etc.) that you were attacking as specious. 'Cause if not, you just might be making yourself look kinda foolish. That's all.

Leo Carton Mollica said...

@djindra:

Here's one reason I'm sceptical about your understanding of Ed's objection to Parson:

How is God as self-subsistent being any different than universe as self-subsistent stuff?

Well, they differ partly because the former is, unlike the latter, immaterial, infinite, immutable, and absolutely simple.

djindra said...

Leo Carton Mollica,

You're asking if I'm familiar with nonsensical doctrines like the act/potency distinction and "real" composition. Yes, I am familiar with such doctrines. You assert that gods, unlike matter, are infinite, immutable, and absolutely simple. Yet you have not a shred of evidence for this statement. It's merely the way you wish to define your gods. Such definitions are not facts. They are inventions. In this case they are inventions which tend to lead to nonsense.

David said...

Djindra,

You write that the act/potency distinction and "real" composition are nonsense, then demand evidence that god is infinite, immutable and simple. But these latter notions only make sense in terms of the former, which you have dismissed as nonsense, so your demand for evidence is itself nonsense, isn't it? How can one provide sensible evidence of the nonsensical?

Naturally, if you find the basic distinctions of Aristotelian philosophy nonsense, then any proof in its terms must be nonsense, including proofs concerning God. Which is why Ed spends so much time in The Last Superstition defending Aristotelian philosophy against its critics.

It would save everyone a lot of time if atheists would simply say up front that they do not accept the Aristotelian metaphysics on which proofs of God are based, and leave it at that. Either that or engage at the metaphysical level, which is where the real disagreement is.

Leo Carton Mollica said...

@djindra:

First, you can call me "Leo."

Second, I do not believe that "gods, unlike matter, are infinite, immutable, and absolutely simple." There are no gods, and a fortiori none possessing those attributes.

You seem to place a lot of weight on my arguing from "definitions" rather than "facts." I'm still confused, however, as to what you expect us to argue from. Definitions are the heart and basis of all argument.

Finally, you have yet to provide the least evidence that you understand what the hell Ed means by "act." Might such evidence possibly be forthcoming? Or am I wasting my time expecting it?

djindra said...

David,

I've already saved you time. I admit I do not accept Aristotelian metaphysics. And I've never accepted Plato's Forms. I see no reason I should. But you seem to suggest I must accept your terms or your axioms or whatever before you can make your case. It's a two-way street. I say if there is a solid case, you should start with my axioms and still make your case. I also say an argument based purely on metaphysical ground is lacking. At some point, the metaphysical must be re-enforced by the physical or we end up arguing over the number of angels that can fit on a pinhead. At the very least, I'd expect you to make the case that Aristotelian metaphysics is a valid reference point. That is a task in itself.

I'm going to suggest a blasphemy that may not be true but likely is. The real disagreement is never on the metaphysical although philosophers have a way of pretending so.

djindra said...

Leo,

Are definitions the heart and basis of all argument? It depends on the argument. There are some arguments in which agreement on definitions are vital. But even then, definitions by themselves are easily abused. Plato's Socrates was very good at taking advantage of men who never noticed this abuse. I don't pretend to be a mind reader. I don't know who Ed is or what he believes. I stumbled upon this site yesterday and it's the first I ever heard of him. So I don't know exactly how Ed uses "act." People interpret the ancients in various ways. I gather Ed's is yet another version of the existence vs. essence distinction distilled, through Aristotle and Aquinas, from Plato's Forms. All very nice. But it makes no difference to the cause. You may call the “permanent” anything you wish. Call it divine/pure/simple essence or act. It doesn't matter. It's all semantics. At the root, we still have an essence. You may prefer to see that essence as some sort of non-material stuff. I may prefer to see it as material stuff. The only difference between those positions is that we know we have material stuff (assuming we agree solipsism is silly). We don't know there is anything non-material. The best case is that we're in the same boat. The worst case is that we can't be sure you are sitting on anything.

Don.

Leo Mollica said...

@Don:

I don't know who Ed is or what he believes. I stumbled upon this site yesterday and it's the first I ever heard of him. So I don't know exactly how Ed uses "act." People interpret the ancients in various ways.

All right, here's some advice: try actually reading some of what Ed (or Aristotle, or Aquinas, or whoever) has written about act and potency before bullshitting about the arguments he presents. Sorry, but you're not allowed to say that someone is obviously wrong until you know what it is they're saying.

djindra said...

Leo,

Oh, but I am allowed because what he has written above is in fact b.s. He's playing a semantic game and I'm on to that.

Don.

Anonymous said...

Djindra said:

"Leo,

Oh, but I am allowed because what he has written above is in fact b.s. He's playing a semantic game and I'm on to that."


Don, if you had started off with that statement of motive rather than playing coy, you would have saved a lot of wasted time.

Leo Carton Mollica said...

@Don:

He's playing a semantic game and I'm on to that.

You must be remarkably clever indeed if you can both confessedly not understand what Ed is saying and nevertheless be "on" to his playing a "semantic game".

But I think I will now cease, for we ought "not argue with every one, nor practise upon the man in the street: for there are some people with whom any argument is bound to degenerate. For against any one who is ready to try all means in order to seem not to be beaten, it is indeed fair to try all means of bringing about one's conclusion: but it is not good form. Wherefore the best rule is, not lightly to engage with casual acquaintances, or bad argument is sure to result."

djindra said...

Leo,

So now you quote your holy book instead of attempting to make a case. When this happens I'm fairly confident the opponent has no case. It's probably lost in that nowhereland between "composite substances and that which is metaphysically absolutely simple." There must be a gaping hole in the universe in that space. Anyway, I feel a lot of hot air from that direction.

Don.

funnyatheists said...

Farting into the wind, especially into a thunderstorm, generally brings hot air. Careful there Don. Rather read up before attempting to make a logical criticism old boy :).

Tony said...

Don, that's pretty funny. You cut the rug out from underneath any attempt to use words to mean something (if no non-material essences, then no meaning), and then suggest that your opponent stopped arguing because "the opponent has no case."

Yeah, I guess you are right: no case that can be made without words, at least. Farting into the wind, indeed: for words become mere mouth farts if there is no meaning.

djindra said...

Tony,

"You cut the rug out from underneath any attempt to use words to mean something (if no non-material essences, then no meaning)"

If I understand your meaning I'd enjoy seeing you make that case.

Tony said...

Hahahaha. You go from joke to joke. Ed Feser has made that case repeatedly in this blog. But nobody who has read what you said above would even want to start to "make that case" without your prior firm commitment to the proposition that words have determinate meaning. For myself, I will leave Ed to make the argument, since he has done it so much, as in here (and its links).

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/08/dretske-on-meaning.html

djindra said...

Tony,

Thanks for the link. I'll check it out. Btw, I'll agree that words should have an agreed-upon meaning.

Don.

Anonymous said...

Hey Hey, it's Pere/J / He's nuts and here to have his say / Hates the jews (and catholics too!) / And just can't get enough of you!

djindra said...

Looking closer at the topic, Feser takes issue with Parsons' assertion that: "Both theists and atheists begin with an uncaused brute fact."

On this, Feser accuses Parsons and "so many other atheists" of not mastering the arguments of the theist side. Yet on inspection I find that Feser has misrepresented Parsons. This is how Parsons defines his usage:

"By 'ultimate brute fact' I mean a primordial or original state of affairs, one which, though its existence is logically contingent, is not caused by, dependent upon, conditioned by, reducible to, or supervenient upon any other prior or more basic entity or state of affairs."

Does Feser expect us to believe Aristotle, Plotinus, Anselm, or Aquinas did not believe God exists as an "original state of affairs," a state "not caused by, dependent upon, conditioned by, reducible to, or supervenient upon any other prior or more basic entity or state of affairs?" I think this would come as quite a surprise to these men.

Feser has merely paraphrased Parsons' meaning then erroneously claimed Parsons' meaning is somehow different. It isn't. And it is clearly not different. So what is really going on here?

Edward Feser said...

djindra,

You ignored the key part of the very Parsons quote you cited. As you just said, Parsons thinks that a brute fact is "logically contingent." But God is not logically contingent in the view of the philosophers I cited.

That does not mean that any of these thinkers is committed to the view that God can be "defined into existence," in the sense in which modern philosophers would understand that expression. It does not mean that they are subject to the objection that the cosmological argument reduces to the "ontological argument," or any of the other stock objections borrowed from Kant or Hume, which presuppose various modern (e.g. Leibnizian) metaphysical and logical assumptions. The views that Aristotelians, Scholastics, etc. have about the nature of logical truth, necessity, and related notions are simply not the same as that of either the modern empiricist or the modern rationalist. But I doubt Parsons knows the difference. And if either he (or you) would need it explained in a combox, that merely proves my point, viz. that Parsons and other pop atheist hacks don't have a clue about what Aristotelians, Thomists and other classical and Scholastic writers actually thought, and thus shouldn't be opening up their mouths about the subject.

I would advise you to stop wasting your time trying to defend a lightweight like Parsons. He shot his mouth off and he deserves the abuse he gets. Try instead seriously to study the work of writers like the ones I've mentioned, and of contemporary philosophers influenced by them. If you end up disagreeing anyway, fine, but at least your disagreement will be informed. This will require actually cracking a book or three, though, rather than hanging out in comboxes.

djindra said...

Edward,

Perhaps if Aquinas really thought God was not "logically contingent" he would not have bothered to offer his proofs at all. If non-existence of God, as a thought in itself, is logically impossible why bother with five proofs? Why bother with even one? Why bother starting his Third Way with observations about the world as we find it? That's an empirical start. Obviously, if one has to "prove" God is non-contingent after a line of reasoning that includes empirical input, it is not purely logical. Presumably, if God's existence was truly a logical starting point, and God's existence was logically necessary, Aquinas would have followed Aristotle's advice: "about things that could not have been, and cannot now or in the future be, other than they are, nobody who takes them to be of this nature wastes his time in deliberation." So I think you misrepresent Aquinas and the others.

However, even being generous to your POV, I have to add, I think you overreact. After all, it doesn't matter what these men may believe. Parsons is not referring strictly and only to their beliefs. He does not take it for granted, as you appear to do, that their beliefs and their assertions are necessarily correct just because they may believe them.

Don.

Edward Feser said...

Don,

You seem hell bent on proving my point for me every time you try to counter it.

Aquinas takes God's existence to be self-evident in itself but not self-evident to us given the way our intellects work. That is why he thinks we need to arrive at God's existence via causal arguments, and why he rejects Anselm's argument.

Now, this is an extremely well-known fact about Aquinas's natural theology. Anyone who actually knew anything about Aquinas would know this. But, here and elsewhere, instead of doing your homework, you toss off some criticism you pulled out of your hat on the basis of what you thought you could piece together from a few combox remarks.

Really, this is a waste of time. Arguing with people like you is like arguing with someone who thinks that chemists literally believe that molecules are tiny wooden balls held together by sticks, and offers snarky challenges to anyone who disagrees to prove to him otherwise. You don't know what you are talking about and you don't care to know. You are embarrassing yourself and wasting my time.

As to your insinuation that my problem with Parsons is that he doesn't agree with Aquinas et al., this is just yet another typical village atheist ad hominem. As I've made clear several times now, my beef with Parsons is that he dismissed an entire field of inquiry as a "fraud" and as intellectually unserious while at the same time showing that he did not know what the historically most important writers actually said. If he had merely expressed disagreement with those writers, without the clueless dismissal, I wouldn't have written my original post and we wouldn't be having this discussion.

djindra said...

Edward,

I looked up reviews of The Last Superstition. A frequent observation was that it's liberally sprinkled with ad hominems. So I'm going to take recognition of my so-called ad hominem as a pat on the back. But, honestly, I don't deserve the honor. I merely pointed out an erroneous characterization of Parsons. It's unworthy of distinction. Enough applause.

Now, getting back to Parsons and Aquinas, I don't totally disagree with you: "Aquinas takes God's existence to be self-evident in itself but not self-evident to us given the way our intellects work."

Our minds do expect satisfying truths. Logic is not inherently satisfying. Yet you take issue with "logical contingency" when applied to Aquinas and his understanding of the statement, "God exists." I seriously doubt Aquinas would find logical contingency an issue -- primarily because it's so pointless to ponder "God does not exist" as a *logical* contradiction rather than as a statement of factual error. This is why he has no problem admitting, "No difficulty, consequently, befalls anyone who posits that God does not exist." So if you wish to transform Aquinas' "necessary being" to the "logically necessary being," I'll admit "God exists" has the excellent profundity of "All bachelors are unmarried." But my reading of Aquinas, such as it is, convinces me that he was interested in the ontological necessity of God, not the logical necessity of the proposition.

I know it must frustrate a theist that we so easily dismiss proofs of God. But that's the argument's fault. There is nothing particularly challenging about them. And they are not hard to understand. Plus, it's not as if "the historically most important writers" were unaware of this. I suggest Aquinas wasn't overly optimistic. That's likely why he admits what many of the more ignorant would consider unthinkable: "self-evident in itself" includes that which can be taught. It is only necessary that "custom in a child comes to have the force of nature." Through Boethius, he suggests "there are some mental concepts self-evident only to the learned." He further admits self-evidence does not imply truth: "After all, many ancients said that this world itself was God." This smacks of esoteric "knowledge" and the power of myth. Some would consider that prudence.

Don.

funnyatheists said...

That's it, don is convinced he understands Aquinas and easily dismisses him without ever taking the opportunity to actually read up on him or what he actually thought. Oh well, don is obviously a genius.... or a fart in a thunderstorm making "lots of noise". Oh the frustration... what to choose, what to easily dismiss based on my ignorance... Mmmm....

Anonymous said...

Oh, this is endlessly frustrating...

Here's a point of view. I am not convinced by Feser's arguments or by the Aristotelian-Thomistic view as I understand it. The trouble is, I'm not convinced of it because I am convinced that I don't quite understand these issues well enough. It seems pretty clear to me, for instance, that a whole lot rides on how we understand things like necessity and contingency, matter and form, potentiality and actuality, and causation. I think I understand roughly how Thomistic Aristotelians understand these. What I'm convinced that I don't adequately understand is all of the complex problems that arise when we try to decide whether or not these ideas really do adequately describe the structure of being, or whether or not we even can in principle understand the structure of being. So, what I would like to see is a genuinely informed critique of A-T metaphysics. But I haven't found one. I find, instead, only two sorts of thing: 1) sophisticated and challenging defenses of views that are incompatible with A-T metaphysics, but do not engage with the A-T tradition in any sustained way; 2) people who clearly don't know much about A-T metaphysics dismissing it out of hand, often in ways that make clear to me, as a non-scholar, that these people don't really understand the position they're attacking (at times it's really like listening to critiques of 'Darwinism' that rattle on about how if a bunch of airplane parts were to fall out of the sky, they wouldn't turn out as a functioning airplane...). Most often, the situation is even worse, as it has been in this combox: we get comments by people who not only don't understand A-T metaphysics, who not only think that they don't even need to bother to understand it, but who don't even understand very much about any sort of philosophy at all.

I would blame these people for wasting my time, but unfortunately I'm too cleary aware that it was my own stupid choice to keep reading...

djindra said...

Anonymous,

You say you would like to see a genuinely informed critique of A-T metaphysics yet you admit you don't adequately understand key parts. This makes me wonder how you'd judge either party actually does understand the metaphysics? How do you know you haven't been exposed to that critique already? How do you know my dismissal of a doctrine is based on unwillingness to wrestle with the text? You make unwarranted assumptions.

Maybe I didn't make myself clear earlier. Asking me to seek answers in the A-T texts is like a Catholic telling a Baptist to seek answers in the Bible. They may read the same words but they come to different conclusions. I don't really care to debate Aquinas. He's dead. He can't clarify his position in reference to the things we know today and he did not.

I'll tell you what's frustrating from my point of view. Okay, it's not exactly frustrating. It's more of a curiosity. Why do people who claim to know where the answer are have such trouble making the case themselves? Why do they presume there is a difference between arguments for a sweet-smelling god versus arguments for a foul-smelling god? Gods are gods. God-seed is god-seed. I've stumbled into an essentialist enclave yet the denizens refuse to admit their essentialism applies to "proofs" of God as well.

Don.

Jason T. said...

You say,
"The whole point of theism, for these classical writers, is that the explanatory buck must stop with something that is in itself intelligible through and through"

I wonder if you've read Schopenhauer's On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. I think he presents an interesting challenge to this approach to the cosmological argument. Schopenhauer claims that the causal sequence is infinite in both directions (backwards as well as forward in time). Causation, S correctly observes, is about change; and thus it concerns origins only indirectly, i.e., in as much as the origination of something consists of a change. Every change presupposes a preceding state of affairs that brought about the new state of affairs. But that prior state, precisely because it occurred at the given point of time rather than before, immediately implies a prior state that preceded it and is its causal precursor. And so on, ad infinitum. This, says S, is the principle of sufficient reason as it occurs in causation.

The cosmological argument tries to bring this chain of causation to an end (in the backward direction). But it does so only by applying the principle of sufficient reason of a distinct form, that is as it functions in the grounding of knowledge. The chain of reasons linking a judgement to its ground can come to an end, says S, unlike the chain of causes.
Thus, theists, in an attempt to bring the chain of causes to an end (again, in the temporally backward direction) posit an intellectual entity, on that is "intelligible through and through." It is only by doing so that the sequence of reasons can come to an end. But, says S, this involves a confusion between two utterly different kinds of reason: reasons as causes and reasons as the grounds of knowledge.

Thus the cosmological argument ultimately rests upon an equivocation of the term 'reason.'
Properly understood, the principle of sufficient reason of becoming (i.e., causation) implies that the causal chain cannot have temporal ends (beginning or end in time). So there can be no first cause. For any alleged first cause, the PSR of becoming would license us to ask "what state of affairs preceded this cause, i.e., why did it happen precisely at this point rather than at some time prior to it?" But the chain of reasons as grounds of judgement can come to an end. The Cosmological argument confuses the one with the other.

Given that you have obviously spent considerable time studying these issues, I am very interested to hear your take on Schopenhauer's argument.

Anonymous said...

The irony of these claims by parsons, dawkins, pz and every other anti-intellectualist atheist is that it is their own belief, namely atheism, that is in fact the greatest fraud ever perpetuated on the human mind.

There is not a single piece of evidence for atheism, not a single coherent argument or anything remotely intellectual about it. All the atheist has is skepticism for the sake of skepticism and a bunch of objections (which have either been adequately addressed or refuted by Theists). Never has there been any proof for atheism and bertrand russell (surprisingly) conceeded that.

So what else does the atheist have other than his anti-intellectualisms? Well, an emotionally driver animus towards religion and meaning.

Thanks for playing keith. Try harder next time.