Thursday, October 27, 2011

Reading Rosenberg, Part I

I called attention in an earlier post to my review in First Things of Alex Rosenberg’s new book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  Here I begin a series of posts devoted to examining Rosenberg’s book in more detail than I had space for in the review.  The book is worthy of such attention because Rosenberg sees more clearly than any other prominent atheist just how extreme are the implications of the scientism on which modern atheists tend to base their position.  Indeed, it is amazing how similar his conclusions are to those I argue follow from scientism in chapters 5 and 6 of The Last Superstition.  The difference is that whereas I claim that these consequences constitute a reductio ad absurdum of the premises that lead to them, Rosenberg regards them as “pretty obvious” and “totally unavoidable” truths about an admittedly “rough reality,” which atheists should embrace despite its roughness.  How rough is it?  Writes Rosenberg:

Science -- especially physics and biology -- reveals that reality is completely different from what most people think.  It’s not just different from what credulous religious believers think.  Science reveals that reality is stranger than even many atheists recognize. (p. ix)


The right answers are ones that even some scientists have not been comfortable with and have sought to avoid or water down. (p. xii)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Magic versus metaphysics

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke

Any sufficiently rigorously defined magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Larry Niven

Some atheists are intellectually serious.  Some are not.  There are several infallible marks by which an atheist might show himself to be intellectually unserious.  Thinking “What caused God?” is a good objection to the cosmological argument is one.  Being impressed by the “one god further” objection is another.  A third is the suggestion that theism entails a belief in “magical beings.”  Anyone who says this either doesn’t know what theism is or doesn’t know what magic is.  Or (no less likely) doesn’t much care one way or the other – it’s another handy straw man, useful for those who want to believe that theistic arguments are manifestly fallacious or otherwise silly, or who find it rhetorically useful to pretend that they are.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tollefsen channels Rawls

Over at Public Discourse, Chris Tollefsen has replied to my most recent contribution to our ongoing exchange over the death penalty.  (Go here for links to the earlier parts of the exchange.)  Tollefsen claims that I have not adequately addressed his arguments against capital punishment.  Echoing liberal political philosopher John Rawls’s conception of justice as “political, not metaphysical,” Tollefsen insists that just punishment, in particular, ought to be construed as political rather than metaphysical.  That is to say, it is a means of “restor[ing] a kind of equality between citizens that the criminal’s overly self-assertive act(s) of will had disrupted,” and not a matter of inflicting on criminals something that they “deserve… in some absolute sense.”  The trouble with my position, Tollefsen says, is that it is metaphysical, a matter of looking at justice “from the point of view of the universe, not of the state.”

Monday, October 17, 2011

Review of Rosenberg

My review of Alex Rosenberg’s new book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality appears in the November issue of First Things.  (Unfortunately, the review is behind a pay wall, or I’d link to it.)  If you want a sense of what the book is like, first consider all the ludicrous implications that I argue follow from scientism in chapters 5 and 6 of The Last Superstition; and then consider someone taking (at least some of) those implications, not as a reductio ad absurdum of scientism, but as a set of surprising consequences that every atheist should happily embrace.   Whatever else one could say about him, Rosenberg is more consistent than other naturalists.  For that reason the book deserves a wide readership.  Those beholden to scientism should know that they are committing themselves to a position that is absolutely bizarre, and indeed utterly incoherent. 

We have had reason to discuss Rosenberg’s ideas before (here, here, and here), when considering an essay of his that first sketched out the themes he now develops at greater length in the book.  We will have reason to consider them further, for I intend in a series of future posts to analyze the book in greater detail than I had space for in the review.  Stay tuned.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Weekend reading

A few articles worthy of your attention: R. J. Stove, conservative writer and son of the late conservative atheist philosopher David Stove, writes movingly of his parents and of his conversion to Catholicism.

Some Aristotelian metaphysics: David Oderberg’s article “Essence and Properties,” from the latest issue of Erkenntnis.  

More metaphysics: A review of philosopher Crawford Elder’s important new book Familiar Objects and Their Shadows, a defense of commonsense realism.

In his recent book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, atheist polymath philosopher Raymond Tallis takes out the “neurotrash” that passes these days for the scientific study of human nature.  One response to Tallis cited in the Chronicle article stands out for its sheer comedy value: 

Perhaps the harshest reaction comes from [Daniel] Dennett, an influential U.S. philosopher whose books square human life with science.  He sympathizes with Tallis's concerns.  But what every philosopher should know is that any philosopher—Plato, Hume, Kant, take your pick—"can be made to look like a flaming idiot if you oversimplify and caricature them," Dennett tells me.

"Tallis indulges in refutation by caricature," says Dennett, a professor of philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.  "He's not taking his opponents seriously.  He's sneering instead of arguing.  He's ignoring the complexities of the arguments.  So he's not really doing philosophy.  He's doing propaganda." 

Why, one would almost think Dennett was talking about the author of Breaking the Spell -- who, as someone once showed, has nothing to offer in the way of criticism of the philosophical arguments for theism except oversimplification and caricature. 

This sort of hypocritical whining is nothing new from Dennett.  He may just be the most self-unaware human being on the planet.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tollefsen on capital punishment

My article “Punishment, Proportionality, and the Death Penalty,” a reply to Christopher Tollefsen’s latest piece on capital punishment, is now up over at Public Discourse.  (If you’re trying to keep track of the recent debate: Tollefsen’s earlier Public Discourse article on capital punishment can be found here, and I replied to it here, with a follow-up here.  Steven Long replied to Tollefsen’s earlier piece here.  I have also discussed Catholic teaching on capital punishment here and here.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Upcoming conferences

St. Louis University will be hosting the American Catholic Philosophical Association annual meeting this year, on October 28 -30.  I’ll be presenting a paper on “The Medieval Principle of Motion and the Modern Principle of Inertia” at the session of the Society for Medieval Logic and Metaphysics.

The Franciscan University of Steubenville will be hosting a conference on the theme Can Science Inform Our Understanding of God?, on December 2-3.  Speakers include Stephen Barr, Michael Behe, William E. Carroll, Jay Richards, Alvin Plantinga, Benjamin Wiker, and me.  My paper will be on the theme “Natural Theology Must Be Grounded in the Philosophy of Nature, Not Natural Science.”

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Harper on original sin

In the last of my recent posts on original sin, I cited Thomas Harper’s long out-of-print little book The Immaculate Conception as containing a very useful discussion of the doctrine.  The book is actually an edited excerpt from Harper’s larger 1866 work Peace Through the Truth, or Essays connected with Dr. Pusey’s Eirenicon.  A reader, FrH, has kindly alerted me that the section from Peace Through the Truth containing Harper’s discussion of original sin is available online here.  (Take note of the “Transcriber’s note” at the beginning of the passage.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Best book titles ever

Well, the best of those I see around me on the bookshelves in my study, anyway.  And by “best” I don’t mean “most profound” or “most helpful in conveying the book’s contents.”  I mean “funniest.”  But I don’t mean funniest among the titles of books that are themselves intended to be funny.  I mean funniest among the titles of “serious” books.  The list is surprisingly short.  Serious writers, it seems, just don’t give funny names to serious books.  Go figure.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

On rehabilitation and execution

If you haven’t seen it yet, you should take a look at Steven Long’s response to Chris Tollefsen’s recent arguments against capital punishment.  Tollefsen has now replied to my own criticisms of his views, and I will respond to his latest, and address some of the issues Long raises, in a later post.  In this post I want to respond to some questions raised by a reader of my article on Tollefsen.