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.