Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Four questions for Keith Parsons [UPDATED 2/21]


Keith Parsons’ feelings are, it seems, still hurt over some frank things I said about him a few years ago (here and here).  It seems to me that when a guy dismisses as a “fraud” an entire academic field to which many thinkers of universally acknowledged genius have contributed, and maintains that its key arguments do not even rise to the level of a “respectable philosophical position” worthy of “serious academic attention,” then when its defenders hit back, he really ought to have a thicker skin and more of a sense of humor about himself.  But that’s just me.
 
Anyway, Parsons laments the bad “manners” I showed in having the temerity to give him a taste of his own medicine.  He says he wishes we could have had an “interesting discussion instead.”  So, in the interests of furthering that end I’ll refrain from returning his latest insults.  Instead I’d like to ask him four very straightforward questions to which I think both my readers and his would like to hear his answers.  A response should only take him a few moments.  I set out some context for each question, but I’ve put the questions themselves in bold so as to facilitate a speedy reply from Prof. Parsons.  Here they are:

1. Prof. Parsons, in your response to a reader’s comment, you say:

Unlike Prof. Feser, I would like to address the strongest claims of my opponents, and not those that seem weakest to me.

Evidently, then, you think I have failed to address the strongest criticisms either of my own arguments or of the arguments of philosophers to whose work I appeal (e.g. Aquinas).  So, who exactly are these critics I have ignored, or which of their criticisms, specifically, have I failed to address?  I’m sure you have something in particular in mind, so if you could take just a second or two to let us know what it is, I‘d appreciate it.

2. In the same response, you write vis-à-vis the doctrine of divine conservation:

Why, for instance, does a proton have to be maintained in existence? Why can't it just exist on its own? The very idea that existence is some sort of act that must be continually performed sounds to me, frankly, fatuous.

I assume, then, that you’ve studied and refuted the Scholastic arguments for divine conservation – which, of course, offer an answer to the question you raise -- and have just neglected to tell us where this refutation can be found.  So, could you tell us where we can find this refutation?  Is it in one of your books or journal articles?  Or could you point to some other author you think has adequately done the job?  (FYI, I have defended the Scholastic position at length in my American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways,” wherein I respond to the arguments on this topic presented by J. L. Mackie, Bede Rundle, John Beaudoin, and others.   I will be happy to email you a PDF of the article if you haven’t seen it, since I’d be very interested to hear which criticisms you think I’ve overlooked.) 

While I’ve got you, I also have a couple of questions about some remarks you made a few years ago when your dismissive remarks about natural theology were widely publicized: 

3. In response to a reader’s comment, you wrote:

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.

Now, your Secular Outpost co-blogger and fellow atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder agrees with me that this is not in fact a good objection to arguments for a First Cause, because it attacks a straw man.  Specifically, Lowder has said:

[N]o respectable theologian or theistic philosopher has ever made the claim, "everything has a cause." Yet various new atheists have proceeded to attack that straw man of their own making. I remember, when reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, where he attacked that straw man and cringing. There are many different cosmological arguments for God's existence and none of them rely upon the stupid claim, "everything has a cause."

You won't find that mistake made by Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, Paul Draper, or (if we add a theistic critic to the list) Wes Morriston.

End quote.  Now it would seem that what Lowder calls a “mistake” is one that you, Keith Parsons, have made.  But is Lowder wrong?  If he is, please tell us exactly which theistic philosophers who defend First Cause arguments – Avicenna? Maimonides? Aquinas? Scotus?  Leibniz? Clarke? Garrigou-Lagrange? Craig? -- actually ever gave the argument Russell was attacking.

4.  In response to another reader’s question, about Craig’s version of the First Cause argument, you wrote: “Both theists and atheists begin with an uncaused brute fact.  For Craig it is God, and for me it is the universe.”  Now, as you know, the expression “brute fact” is typically used in philosophy to convey the idea of something which is unintelligible or without explanation.  And your statement gives the impression that all theists, or at least most of them, regard God as a “brute fact” in this sense. 

But in fact that is the reverse of the truth.  Aristotelians, Neoplatonists, Thomists, Leibnizian rationalists, et al. would deny that God is a “brute fact.”  They would say that the explanation for God’s existence lies in the divine nature -- for Aristotelians, in God’s pure actuality; for Neoplatonists, in his absolute simplicity; for Thomists, in the fact that his essence and existence are identical; for Leibnizians in his being his own sufficient reason; and so forth.  (Naturally the atheist will not think the arguments of these thinkers are convincing.  But to say that they are not convincing is not the same thing as showing that the theist is either explicitly or implicitly committed to the notion that God is a “brute fact.”)

But perhaps you think the standard interpretation of the views of Aristotelians, Neoplatonists, Thomists, Leibnizian rationalists, et al. is mistaken.  Perhaps you think that these thinkers are in fact all explicitly or at least implicitly committed to the thesis that God is a “brute fact.”  So, could you please tell us where you have spelled out an argument justifying the claim that all or at least most philosophical theists regard God as a “brute fact” or are at least implicitly committed to the claim that he is?  Is there a book or journal article written by you or by someone else in which we can find this justification? 

Thanks.   I look forward to your answers and to an interesting discussion.

UPDATE 2/19: Over in his combox, Keith Parsons at first expressed interest in responding to my questions, but then in a follow-up comment wrote:

On second thought, after looking at your "straightforward questions" my answer is: Nah. I was expecting an invitation to a civil academic discussion, but I find that you are still in personal attack mode. My only response will be to assure you that you have not hurt my feelings at all. I think you are a horse's ass, and the disdain of your ilk is of no concern to me at all. Indeed, I consider it a badge of honor. Please do write more nasty things about me for the amusement of your ignorant and boorish followers. It makes my day when I piss off people like you guys.

I’ll let readers be the judge of which of us is “pissed off,” “nasty,” “in personal attack mode,” etc.; of whether I was right to characterize Parsons as too thin-skinned; and of why he decided not to respond to some polite and straightforward questions that should take him only a few moments to answer.  (Judging from his combox, Parson’s own readers aren’t too happy with his reply.) 

I’ve just posted a polite response in his combox.  Let’s see whether I’ve made his day again.

UPDATE 2/20: For those who aren’t following the proceedings in Parsons’ combox, in response to my polite restatement of my questions to him, Parsons wrote: 

Prof. Feser, 

You have written now, what is it, three lengthy columns attacking me? I think about you approximately zero percent of the time. Apparently, however, I am living rent free in your head. The kind of help you need is not the kind that I am professionally qualified to give.

By this point I found I couldn’t help but let slip the dogs of sarcasm, responding:

Prof. Parsons, 

Thanks for that. Just ran your comment through Google Translate. Here's what came out: "Prof. Feser, you've embarrassed me by asking four polite and simple questions I cannot answer, despite my having loudly shot my mouth off about the subjects in question for several years. So, I will try once again to deflect attention from this fact by accusing you of launching a personal attack, in the desperate hope that there might still be a few readers left who haven't bothered actually to read your blog post and see that my accusation is false. Also, I never give you any thought, except for all those times over the last few days and years that I've run to my computer to post comments to the effect that I never give you any thought." 

Can you confirm the accuracy of this translation?
 
To which Parsons replied: 

Prof. Feser, 

Thanks for the hysterical (in both senses of the term) calumny. You prove my point more eloquently than I ever could. Really, sir, you are in the grip of an irrational obsession. Get some help.  

Parsons’ readers have, almost to a man, expressed disappointment at his behavior, and now his co-blogger Jeff Lowder has called on Parsons to knock it off and just answer the questions I put to him.  But I doubt anything else he might say could be more illuminating than what he's said already.

UPDATE 2/21: If you’ve been following the continuing exchange in the combox over at Keith Parsons’ blog, you know that he has now agreed to an exchange with me, to be moderated by Jeffery Jay Lowder.  I’ll report the specific details after they are finalized.

371 comments:

1 – 200 of 371   Newer›   Newest»
Keen Reader said...

This Parsons bloke sounds like a right pompous arse.

Scott said...

@Keen Reader:

Well, he thinks he knows what he's talking about a good deal better than he actually does, at any rate.

Anonymous said...

Do you think he has actually read S.C.G. 3:65 or S.T. 1.104.1 ? I doubt it. And if he has he hasn't put much thought to it. It has been my experience that an atheist will no admit any thing that even hints that there may be a God, in the Christian sense.

Linus

Gene Callahan said...

Ed, you try to take the arguments of atheists seriously, and that is not always a bad thing!

But as Eric Voegelin noted, the denial of the divine ground of being is a pneumopathology, a spiritual illness. As in arguing with an alcoholic about drinking, there are many cases where these arguments are just not going to get any traction at all.

ccmnxc said...

This should be interesting. Perhaps he has elsewhere, but I haven't seen Parsons interact with a whole lot of Classical Theism before.

Anonymous said...

Yawn. I have some vague remembrance of reading Parsons' comments in the past, and he is spouting the same uncharitable nonsense today. "I would like to address the strongest claims of my opponents, and not those that seem weakest to me." "As for the Quinque Viae of Aquinas, these have been carefully examined and incisively criticized by some very patient, thorough, and acute philosophers such as..."

He apparently thinks that the arguments of the theistic personalists are quite weak. He judges that classical theists must have weak arguments because the conclusions seem abstruse to him. All of this sounds familiar, although maybe I am confusing him with another atheist writer who vaguely gestured at Anthony Kenny and J.L. Mackie.

Anonymous said...

@Gene Callahan.

Ed was an atheist, and he credits philosophical argument for bringing him into theism. I don't know whether he would describe his previous self as "ill" rather than just mistaken, but obviously he wasn't an "alcoholic."

Which perhaps you're aware of since you say "many" rather than "all" cases.

So, how can we know when we're "arguing with an alcoholic" and when we're not?

Jeremy Taylor said...

From what I have seen, although I have heard some qualified good things about Mackie and a few others, analytical philosophy of religion is a joke. It contains many of the negative things that are analytical philosophy is accused on in abundance: myopic, narrow insight and intellectual imagination and a great lack of historical knowledge. The problem of evil, for example, is usually discussed with some vague handwaving references to what the historic Christian tradition has taught. Otherwise, analytical philosophers of religion seem quite content, for the most part, to discuss it only in reference to the claims of recent analytical thinkers, religious and not. This is quite normal for this field.

I don't know if he is a philosopher of religion per se, but he certainly write on the topic, and Stephen Law is a perfect example of the depths to which analyical philosophy of religion has sunk. He has written in depth on the subject of the problem of evil but had, and still really seems to have, no real knowledge into how it has been traditionally dealt with in Christian thought.

David T said...

Well, in fairness to Parsons/Russell on #3, he is not saying that respectable theologians hold that everything needs a cause. He is presenting a dilemma. If you reject the first horn of the dilemma (everything needs a cause), then you fall victim to the second (if it is possible for something to exist without being caused, why not the universe?) Maybe most/all respectable theologians reject the first horn.

I hasten to add that the dilemma still misunderstands classical arguments for God, but it's not quite accurate to say that Parsons thinks classical theologians hold that "everything needs a cause."

Bobby Bambino said...

Dr Feser,

Perhaps I am missing something, but I don't think your response to Parsons' in question 3 addresses his point. I read Parsons' argument not as saying "If everything has a cause, then who caused God?" but I focus on the line "However, if anything can exist without a cause, it might as well be the universe as God.." It seems to me that he is saying he realizes that the theistic response is that "God is uncaused i.e. he does not require a cause." But then Parsons' counter to taht is "Okay, if we can posit God as a being uncaused, why can't we posit the universe as uncaused?" Obviously I still think this can be refuted, but I want to make sure we are understanding Parsons' correctly (or again, perhaps I am mistaken in my interpretation of Parsons).

Seamus said...

With regard to question no. 3: It isn't quite fair to say that Parsons assumed that theists believe that everything that exists had a cause, and to that extent attacked a straw man. His argument (following Russell) was that everything that exists either has a cause or is self-caused. If the former, then the cause of God is unexplained; if the latter, then the universe itself could be self-caused. IOW, he presented, not a straw man, but a dilemma. Since the first horn of that dilemma, standing alone, *would* be a straw man, that means that his real argument is the second horn, which needs to be refuted.

Anonymous said...

Well, in fairness to Parsons/Russell on #3, he is not saying that respectable theologians hold that everything needs a cause. He is presenting a dilemma. If you reject the first horn of the dilemma (everything needs a cause), then you fall victim to the second (if it is possible for something to exist without being caused, why not the universe?) Maybe most/all respectable theologians reject the first horn.

I hasten to add that the dilemma still misunderstands classical arguments for God, but it's not quite accurate to say that Parsons thinks classical theologians hold that "everything needs a cause."


I see where you are coming from. But his comments are exceedingly misleading:

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.

He says it is a "critique of all causal arguments." After such a characterization, that the first horn's antecedent is "everything requires a cause" suggests that there are some cosmological arguments made by major philosophers that have taken that as a premise. IOW, there is no one credible who has even felt tempted to grasp the first horn, but its rhetorical placement suggests that there is. (I fear that this might account for some of Dawkins' ignorance of cosmological arguments.)

Then the second horn simply begs the question against any cosmological argument. Any cosmological argument worth its salt (Aquinas's First and Second Ways, in any case) are not in the slightest threatened by the objection that the universe could have no cause, since they specify what a thing would have to be like in order to have no cause.

Dilemmas are supposed to put strain on someone's competing intuitions. Neither horn of Russell's does so.

Scott said...

"Ed was an atheist, and he credits philosophical argument for bringing him into theism."

Same here, although my route was different from Ed's (and didn't, for example, lead straight to Thomism and classical theism).

@Seamus:

"His argument (following Russell) was that everything that exists either has a cause or is self-caused."

Careful here—existing without a cause isn't the same as being "self-caused." The latter alternative is part of neither Russell's argument nor Aquinas's, and in fact is incoherent.

Scott said...

@Gene Callahan:

"As in arguing with an alcoholic about drinking, there are many cases where these arguments are just not going to get any traction at all."

There may be some such cases, but like Anonymous, I don't know how to distinguish them. At any rate, whether or not a reasoned reply has any effect on Parsons, it may on others who are following the discussion/debate.

ccmnxc said...

After such a characterization, that the first horn's antecedent is "everything requires a cause" suggests that there are some cosmological arguments made by major philosophers that have taken that as a premise. IOW, there is no one credible who has even felt tempted to grasp the first horn, but its rhetorical placement suggests that there is.

To be fair, unless I am perpetuating an urban legend, I think Russell made this point in his radio-aired debate with Copleston, so perhaps he was merely making a point to the audience due to the fact that some of them may very well have held to the "Everything has a cause" argument. To those who did hold to it, his first horn would have been a refutation of their position so far as I can tell.

Now, whether Parsons is guilty of dishonesty or manipulation depends upon his audience. If he is appealing to a broad atheistic (or theistic) audience, then I think his invocation of Russell can be interpreted more charitably than if he had been talking to an audience that should definitely know that refuting the "Everything had a cause" argument would be picking the low-hanging fruit.

That said, I think the argument can be very easily answered, and if Parsons is saying this dilemma to be a decisive refutation of cosmological arguments (as opposed to a decent rhetorical device that can help theists think more critically about their position), then I would consider him either dishonest or ignorant regarding cosmological arguments.

Scott said...

@ccmnxc:

"I would consider him . . . ignorant regarding cosmological arguments."

I think that's about the best that can be said for him. As Anonymous says, he does present Russell's proposed dilemma as a (successful) critique of "all causal arguments," which (I agree) suggests that there are some causal arguments that take the first horn as a premise. It also, I would add, evinces no awareness on Parsons' part that the "it might as well be the universe" bit in the second horn has ever been addressed in any of those causal arguments, when in fact it's a central and crucial part of them.

ccmnxc said...

@Scott

Upon actually doing more than skimming Feser's post, I see what anonymous (and you) pointed out regarding Parsons' view of Russell's dilemma: I think Bertrand Russell's beautifully succinct critique of all causal arguments holds good...

In which case, I'll defer to the point of Parsons at best being ignorant of most cosmological arguments. I also agree with your point that in advancing it, he seems to imply that the matter of the second dilemma is not well-addressed by most arguments, when in fact it is central.

The original Mr. X said...

"To be fair, unless I am perpetuating an urban legend, I think Russell made this point in his radio-aired debate with Copleston, so perhaps he was merely making a point to the audience due to the fact that some of them may very well have held to the "Everything has a cause" argument. To those who did hold to it, his first horn would have been a refutation of their position so far as I can tell."

But has anybody, even a non-specialist, ever actually held that "Everything has a cause" (as opposed to saying "Everything has a cause" but actually meaning "Everything in the physical universe has a cause" or some such)? Maybe I'm giving people too much credit here, but it seems to me that "What caused God?" is such an obvious objection to "Everything had a cause" that it would be completely impossible to consider a causal argument without also considering the objection.

Steve said...

It also, I would add, evinces no awareness on Parsons' part that the "it might as well be the universe" bit in the second horn has ever been addressed in any of those causal arguments, when in fact it's a central and crucial part of them.

Indeed, I would say that the "it might as well be the universe" conclusion demonstrates as much ignorance of the arguments as the "everything has a cause" notion does. But, we have now been deemed "ignorant boors" by Parsons, so I don't expect that any good faith attempts at clarification are on the way.

Bob said...

I previously was in a discussion on this blog, which led me to conclude that I must have a serious misunderstanding of the arguments being put forward here. So forgive me if this is a dumb question.

Regarding the following:

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.

Now, your Secular Outpost co-blogger and fellow atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder agrees with me that this is not in fact a good objection to arguments for a First Cause, because it attacks a straw man.


Doesn't the First Way conclude there must be an uncaused cause (an unmoved mover)? If so, I am not sure why the Russell quote is necessarily a straw man. Does the First Way necessarily preclude the Universe itself from being the uncaused cause? If so, how?

Daniel Joachim said...

@Bob

Because the Unmoved Mover would have to be Pure Act, with intrinsic causal power to move everything that's dependent on deriving their power from a prior (vertical) member.

Being material and subject to time is per definition to have a potential for "motion". Therefore, the universe itself is not a suitable candidate for being Pure Act.

@Everyone else

Check out Parson's reply for Ed in the combox of his latest post on why he won't address the four questions of Ed, after initially accepting to do so. Trying to understand why is pure Mysticism!

Bob said...


Being material and subject to time is per definition to have a potential for "motion". Therefore, the universe itself is not a suitable candidate for being Pure Act.


I think that this (material(? do you mean to say physical here?) and subject to time)applies to the contents of the universe, but how did you determine that this applies to the universe itself?

Brandon said...

Bob,

If you're suggesting that one could take a causal argument to terminate in the 'universe' as a first uncaused cause that is neither material nor temporal, it isn't clear what work the label 'universe' is doing, since it seems effectively to amount to calling 'the universe itself' something that everyone else calls 'God'.

grodrigues said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dover_beach said...

Ed, and others, might care to gander at the following post on gay adoption by Massimo Pugliucci at his blog which has since been reposted at Science 2.0 if only to see how incredible it is to find a professional philosopher describe the natural law argument against gay adoption/ surrogacy thus: "The a priori (i.e., philosophical) argument suffers from a number of — in my opinion fatal — flaws, depending on how the idea is cashed out. If it is a matter of children having a right to a mixed sex family because that is the natural state of affairs for human beings, then this is an argument based on an appeal to nature, which immediately runs afoul of the obvious objection that we do all sorts of other things to children (from education to vaccination) that is not natural at all, and yet to which only lunatics and Jenny McCarthy would object to. Not to mention, of course, that there are plenty of perfectly natural situations where children either have only one parent or no parent at all around during their upbringing. While the latter case is usually precisely why we allow adoptions, should we also put children of single mothers or fathers up for adoption on the grounds that they have a right to two parents of different sex? I doubt anyone would seriously pursue that logic, and yet it seems to follow from the way the objection is formulated."

There are numerous other errors in this quotation besides the one pointed out.

Anonymous said...

Daniel: "Check out Parson's reply for Ed in the combox of his latest post on why he won't address the four questions of Ed, after initially accepting to do so. Trying to understand why is pure Mysticism!"

Parsons:

"Prof. Feser,

On second thought, after looking at your "straightforward questions" my answer is: Nah. I was expecting an invitation to a civil academic discussion, but I find that you are still in personal attack mode. My only response will be to assure you that you have not hurt my feelings at all. I think you are a horse's ass, and the disdain of your ilk is of no concern to me at all. Indeed, I consider it a badge of honor. Please do write more nasty things about me for the amusement of your ignorant and boorish followers. It makes my day when I piss off people like you guys."



If he honestly thinks Ed was being "nasty" and insulting here, then he is seriously pathetic.

Scott said...

@Bob:

"Doesn't the First Way conclude there must be an uncaused cause (an unmoved mover)? If so, I am not sure why the Russell quote is necessarily a straw man."

The "straw man" is the horn of the proposed dilemma that begins, "If everything has a cause." No cosmological argument has ever used this as a premise, and in fact the argument is intended precisely to show that there is something without a cause. The actual premise is something more like, "Whatever begins to exist has a cause," or "Every change has a cause."

"Does the First Way necessarily preclude the Universe itself from being the uncaused cause? If so, how?"

Yes, by showing that the uncaused cause must be Pure Act. The "universe itself" doesn't qualify, because it (and everything in it) is subject to change and therefore to actualization of potencies.

"[H]ow did you determine that this applies to the universe itself?"

Yes, I do seem to recall that in the previous discussion you insisted on seeing a fallacy of composition where there was none.

If everything in the universe is changing and the universe is just the sum total of its contents, then the universe is changing. (If that's not what you mean by "universe," then as Brandon suggests, you may be talking about God under another name anyway.)

It's also possible to argue that the First Cause must be simple (not composed of parts), and the universe as the sum total of its contents (which are pretty obviously "parts" in the requisite sense) clearly doesn't qualify on that basis either.

dover_beach said...

"The "straw man" is the horn of the proposed dilemma that begins, "If everything has a cause." No cosmological argument has ever used this as a premise, and in fact the argument is intended precisely to show that there is something without a cause. The actual premise is something more like, "Whatever begins to exist has a cause," or "Every change has a cause.""

I can't believe that this has to be explained again.

Crude said...

My own take?

Parsons is refusing to reply because he knows that any reply he gives is likely to harm, not help, the promotion of atheism, and whatever promotion there is of himself as an advocate of atheism. He's outgunned in this situation in terms of argument and rhetorical skill. Hell, he ended up making the same mistake Lowder noted the New Atheists make, and which he takes Ed as having pounced on fatally.

This isn't about really being offended. It's about tactically being offended. We saw this with Dawkins v Craig - he found a reason to not debate Craig because he desperately needed one. The alternative was an intellectual pounding.

Scott said...

I see Parsons thinks Ed has an "ilk." Is that true, Ed? Maybe you can post some pictures of it!

(Seriously, I don't believe I've ever seen anyone ever use that word in a non-negatively-loaded way. "Hi, I'm Scott, and these are some of my ilk.")

Chad Handley said...

Check out Parson's reply for Ed in the combox of his latest post on why he won't address the four questions of Ed, after initially accepting to do so. Trying to understand why is pure Mysticism!

Extremely disappointing. Earlier in my philosophy of religion education, I actually thought Parsons was one of the more respectable atheist philosophers. However, this last dodge on his part is bringing me around towards Feser's opinion of him. There was nothing in Feser's post that merited Parsons calling him "a horse's ass." Further, he insults everyone here in the comboxes, despite the fact that several people here, none of them atheists, have been trying to defend him.

Scott said...

@Crude:

"This isn't about really being offended. It's about tactically being offended."

Bingo.

Scott said...

@Chad Handley:

Moreover, even those among us who aren't exactly defending Parsons aren't calling him names or refusing to engage his arguments. In fact it's precisely his arguments that everyone here has been discussing.

Chad Handley said...


Parsons is refusing to reply because he knows that any reply he gives is likely to harm, not help, the promotion of atheism, and whatever promotion there is of himself as an advocate of atheism. He's outgunned in this situation in terms of argument and rhetorical skill. Hell, he ended up making the same mistake Lowder noted the New Atheists make, and which he takes Ed as having pounced on fatally.

This isn't about really being offended. It's about tactically being offended. We saw this with Dawkins v Craig - he found a reason to not debate Craig because he desperately needed one. The alternative was an intellectual pounding.


For once we agree, and this is why I don't believe it's ever wise to engage in polemics against even the most deserving opponents. You're just giving them the excuse they need to run away.

As Parsons has unfortunately decided to demonstrate, they don't need much of an excuse.

grodrigues said...

@Scott:

"Moreover, even those among us who aren't exactly defending Parsons aren't calling him names or refusing to engage his arguments."

Well, somebody's got to do it. As one of the "ignorant and boorish followers", I will say that his justification for not answering Prof. Feser's question is a transparent intellectual dishonesty.

Anonymous said...

He cares more about ego and reputation than about truth.

Jason Thibodeau said...

You have misinterpreted Russell. Notice that Russell does not attribute the claim "everything has a cause" to anyone. So it is a straw man to suggest that Russell's argument is bad because he is guilty of a straw man. Russell is not characterizing anyone's argument when he says "If everything requires a cause, then God requires a cause."

Rather, Russell is setting up a dichotomy. One option is that everything has a cause. The other is that not everything has a cause. Russell is then arguing that neither option implies Theism. Why? Because the first option pretty clearly is incompatible with theism (since, on it, God would have to have a cause, which is incoherent). On the other option, we are allowed to posit the existence of things without a cause. Well, why not the universe?

Now, maybe you think Russell's argument is bad. But he is not misrepresenting anyone. Indeed he allows for the possibility that not everything has a cause (as the Kalam does, for example). His argument is that, even these versions of the Cosmological Argument do not work because, if we allow that some things exist that don't have causes, then nothing prevents us from suggesting that the universe might be one of those things.

monk68 said...

My favorite quote from Parsons comes just after the one which seemes to have prompted this article:

"I think you hit the nail on the head with the comment about having to accept the metaphysical assumptions of Aquinas and Aristotle in order to find this talk persuasive. I do not carry that metaphysical baggage and see no reason why I should. I have read Aquinas. At Emory University many moons ago I took an entire course on Aquinas--taught by a Dominican."

A whole course . . .

I'm speechless.

Crude said...

But he is not misrepresenting anyone. Indeed he allows for the possibility that not everything has a cause (as the Kalam does, for example). His argument is that, even these versions of the Cosmological Argument do not work because

It's still a misrepresentation of the arguments in question, since Russell treats 'Why not the universe?' as a question that said arguments don't deal with - as if discerning that something is uncaused is arbitrary and thus 'the universe' works just as well as 'God'. That's right on back to 'God as a brute fact' thinking, which itself is a misrepresentation of the arguments Ed is talking about.

David M said...

"So, how can we know when we're "arguing with an alcoholic" and when we're not?"

When you get an otherwise intelligent guy spouting embarrassingly stupid garbage like this: "On second thought, after looking at your "straightforward questions" my answer is:
"Nah. I was expecting an invitation to a civil academic discussion, but I find that you are still in personal attack mode. My only response will be to assure you that you have not hurt my feelings at all. I think you are a horse's ass, and the disdain of your ilk is of no concern to me at all. Indeed, I consider it a badge of honor. Please do write more nasty things about me for the amusement of your ignorant and boorish followers. It makes my day when I piss off people like you guys."
- you know you're dealing with someone who is ill.

David M said...

Jason wrote: "Now, maybe you think Russell's argument is bad. But he is not misrepresenting anyone."

Of course he doesn't (explicitly) refer to anyone either, so in virtue of that fact alone he can't be misrepresenting anyone. But of course to say that is to entirely miss the point. So maybe Russell (and Jason) aren't committing a straw man; maybe it's just an ignoratio elenchi. But is that really any comfort? "We haven't distorted anyone's arguments; we just don't understand them and accordingly will not be addressing hem."

dguller said...

The only sense that I can think of in which the universe is unchanging is if one looks at it as a four dimensional "block" of space-time. In that sense, the universe can be construed as unchanging, even though everything within the universe is changing.

But, I don't think that would solve the difficulty, because the universe as a whole is contingent, and thus does not necessarily exist. As such, it requires some reason or principle that accounts for its contingent existence, and that principle cannot itself be contingent, and thus that principle cannot be the universe itself.

Scott said...

@Jason Thibodeau:

"You have misinterpreted Russell. . . . [H]e is not misrepresenting anyone."

I don't think anyone has misrepresented Russell.

First of all, as Crude and David M have said in a different ways, Russell may not have been misrepresenting anyone, but he does misunderstand and thus misrepresent the argument he's addressing.

Moreover, it's a matter of history that Russell did accept the first-cause argument until he read this very counterargument in John Stuart Mill's autobiography, so he certainly seems to have regarded it as a reply (and a good one) to Aquinas's first way even if he didn't explicitly present it as such when he repeated it in "Why I Am Not A Christian."

Finally, if I recall correctly, Fr. Copleston called him on the very same misunderstandings when Russell repeated the argument in their famous radio debate. I don't recall that Russell's response was even remotely like No, no, you misunderstand; I didn't have anything along the lines of Aquinas's argument in mind at all.

Anonymous said...

Sorely unimpressed with Parsons' response.

He runs off his mouth claiming that Ed doesn't engage his best opponents and that Ed's views are flatly incoherent. When asked to substantiate his claim by providing the arguments that Ed has failed to address, he pivots and squabbles about how it's a "personal attack." In the course of doing so, he calls Ed a "horse's ass" in response to a post in which Ed agreed to cut the insults and ask him frank questions.

Sorry Prof. Parsons, but when you say, "Unlike Prof. Feser, I would like to address the strongest claims of my opponents, and not those that seem weakest to me," and then decline to indicate how the person you are engaging with has failed to address his strongest opponents, then you are in fact the one spouting out flimsy evasions in order to avoid addressing your strongest opponents.

Jason Thibodeau said...

Crude et al,
The fact that Russell does not agree that the universe needs a cause does not indicate that he has failed to understand the argument. It merely indicates that he does not agree with arguments to the effect that the universe does need a cause.

Now, you may disagree with Russell, that is fine. But the fact that you disagree does not mean that he has misunderstood the argument.

Scott,
I think you are wrong that Russell is trying to represent an argument when he says "If everything has a cause, then . . ." He is merely setting up on option in his dichotomy. The fact that Copleston called him on this alleged straw man and that Russell did not respond in the way that I suggest he should does not indicate that Russell indeed committed a straw man. It just indicates that he did not offer the best response.

Again, Russell was responding to the cosmological argument but he was obviously not claiming that this argument is committed to the claim that everything has a cause. How do we know this? Because he offered the other option, namely that not everything has a cause.

Bobcat said...

dguller wrote, "But, I don't think that would solve the difficulty, because the universe as a whole is contingent, and thus does not necessarily exist. As such, it requires some reason or principle that accounts for its contingent existence, and that principle cannot itself be contingent, and thus that principle cannot be the universe itself."

How do you know that the universe as a whole does not necessarily exist? By "universe as a whole" do you mean the thing that came into existence 13.7 billion years ago (or so)? Presumably, that didn't have to come out of the big bang, so that's contingent. But what if the big bang happened because there's an inflationary cosmic soup or some-such? What grounds do we have for thinking that that cosmic soup is contingent?

Kirill Nielson said...

A contingent being is a being that exists but could fail to exist. It is pretty easy to imagine a scenario in which the universe does not exist. That's why it's contingent.

Anonymous said...

Now, you may disagree with Russell, that is fine. But the fact that you disagree does not mean that he has misunderstood the argument.

I don't think either case is very flattering for Russell. He presented a dilemma, the first horn of which, no defender of the argument he is attempting to pose a problem for defends. The second horn is the assertion of a conditional that is precisely what his opponents were arguing against.

It seems even less flattering to think that Russell understood his opponents' arguments and still presented such a weak dilemma. If he knew that no one defended the first horn, then it is a rhetorical flourish, while the substance of his argument would have to be in arguing for the second horn. But the second horn, since it disputes exactly what his opponents are trying to prove, glosses over the issues. (The second horn would also be notoriously difficult to formulate against, for instance, Aquinas's First Way. If a theist argued that an essentially ordered series of movers must terminate in a purely actual first mover, it would make little sense to argue that the universe is a purely actual first mover with all of the attributes entailed by pure actuality. As such, it can be seen how the second horn, which the dilemma relies on, is helplessly simplistic. I find it implausible, though, that Russell would have stated the first horn if he was thinking of the fact that it plays no role in any major thinker's cosmological argument.)

dguller said...

Bobcat:

How do you know that the universe as a whole does not necessarily exist? By "universe as a whole" do you mean the thing that came into existence 13.7 billion years ago (or so)? Presumably, that didn't have to come out of the big bang, so that's contingent. But what if the big bang happened because there's an inflationary cosmic soup or some-such? What grounds do we have for thinking that that cosmic soup is contingent?

X is contingent iff it is possible that X might not exist. Since it is possible that the cosmic soup never existed to begin with, then the cosmic soup is contingent. And if the cosmic soup is the source of the big bang, then the question is whether the cosmic soup itself is changing or unchanging. If it is changing, then it itself requires a deeper principle to account for its change and existence, and if it is unchanging, then if it also has other properties, such as a lack of composition, a lack of finitude, a lack of matter, and so on, then what you call “the cosmic soup” might actually just be what the theist calls “God”.

Scott Scheule said...

At times like this, when a debate is cowardly avoided, I've often wondered if we might be able to produce a sort of pseudo-debate by trying to imagine what the other side's response would be, were he to actually participate.

For example, Craig never debated Dawkins, but Dawkins's views are well enough represented by his writings that you can without much trouble imagine what Dawkins would say. And Craig gave a talk where he did just that.

We could try such an experiment here. Do our best to produce what Parsons would answer, were he brave enough to do so, to Feser's four questions. A pseudodebate can then proceed. If the person whose role is being manufactured objects, well then, he's welcome to participate in the debate himself--if he remains quiet, there is tacit acceptance.

Brandon said...

On the other option, we are allowed to posit the existence of things without a cause. Well, why not the universe?

It should be pointed out that this is not actually Russell's argument; the argument he is explicitly considering does not posit the existence of things without a cause, but claims that it is necessary to have a first cause. Positing has nothing to do with it (nor does Russell ever suggest that it does). He is not, I think, saying, "Well, if God why not the world," (if he were it would be a stupidly question-begging thing response, since, as Anonymous@1:57 notes, he's responding to an argument that by its very nature indicates exactly why there would be a difference if it succeeds, so he can't avail himself of such a question until he's already shown that there's something wrong with the argument); rather, he has to be saying that there is no reason to think that the first cause argument he is considering is right about the world in taking it to need a first cause. Since the first cause argument he explicitly considers is extraordinarily simplified and stripped down and has no subarguments supporting its premises, it's perhaps not surprising that he can declare victory.

Crude said...

The fact that Russell does not agree that the universe needs a cause does not indicate that he has failed to understand the argument. It merely indicates that he does not agree with arguments to the effect that the universe does need a cause.

It indicates that he's not representing the arguments correctly. Saying 'Well if something can exist without a cause then why not the universe?', as if this isn't addressed, is a misrepresentation.

Bobcat said...

dguller wrote:

"Since it is possible that the cosmic soup never existed to begin with, then the cosmic soup is contingent".

Right, but how do you know that it is possible that the cosmic soup never existed? Is it because you can imagine it not existing? That wouldn't be a good basis, for the reason that it's possible to imagine something that is necessarily false (e.g., I can imagine Superman not being identical to Clark Kent or Hesperus not being identical to Phosphorus).

Is the main reason we know that material reality is contingent is that it has parts? But why think there's a state of affairs in which every part is not in existence?

Brandon said...

Since it keeps getting talked about abstractly, or in terms of Parsons's arbitrary snippet, here's the full argument from Russell:

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination.

Crude said...

Bobcat,

Right, but how do you know that it is possible that the cosmic soup never existed? Is it because you can imagine it not existing? That wouldn't be a good basis, for the reason that it's possible to imagine something that is necessarily false (e.g., I can imagine Superman not being identical to Clark Kent or Hesperus not being identical to Phosphorus).

If we're going to say it's not possible for the 'cosmic soup' to have failed to exist, that's going to lead us to ask why - what must it be about the cosmic soup that it could fail to exist? If we're going to 'brute facts', then we're done - we're off in magic land. If we reject brute facts, then we're going to end up considering the question in such a way that leads us right down the path of classical theist reasoning anyway - and it turns out that this necessarily existent thing is (as others put it) just God by another name.

Jeremy Taylor said...

But isn't Parsons quite representative of analytical philosophy of religion? My impression has been that he is.

Step2 said...

In that sense, the universe can be construed as unchanging, even though everything within the universe is changing.

Time is a mystery.

Bobcat said...

Crude,

That's a good response. If I were to reply that the universe must exist because it's an unchanging changer, then I imagine that that would give us the result nothing changes and everything exists necessarily, which is an affront to common sense, though it could be right for all that. Or I could reply that I have no idea why the universe necessarily exists, which is unsatisfying, but, it seems to me, an admissible response. I think that both of those are better than saying that the universe is a brute fact, though!

Crude said...

Bobcat,

I think admitting the existence of something that necessarily exists - an 'unchanged changer' - is just going to lead down exactly the roads I already mentioned. We're going to have to define what we mean by 'the universe' (because it's certainly not going to be 'these physical laws' or 'these planets' or the like), and at that point the classical theist reasoning seems ready to swoop and and carry the reasoning out the rest of the way.

Which also makes the 'I don't know' response problematic. If you say you don't know why it's the case, then how are you affirming that it necessarily exists to begin with? And if you try to support it as necessarily existing, you're right back to asking the questions and dealing with the reasoning that the CT is trying to offer anyway.

Scott said...

@monk68:

"My favorite quote from Parsons . . . A whole course[.]"

I chuckled at that as well. And taught by an actual Dominican!

That last bit reminded me faintly of a former acquaintance who (thought he) played the blues harmonica, and once told me that he knew he was playing authentic blues because an actual black family told him so.

Come to think of it, that story confers more credibility on my former acquaintance than Parsons's does on him. At least Parsons doesn't say his Dominican teacher told him he was an authentic Thomist.

Jeremy Taylor said...

On the update, I've said it before and I'll say it again, Dr. Feser's blog attracts a host of commentators who are equal or greater in their philosopical prowess to professional philosophers like Parsons.

You just don't see this anywhere else. Only a small Platonic forum I'm a member of even comes close. Certainly I have never seen the like at atheist blogs - they tend to be infested by Gnus. At best they get that calibre of scientistic atheist poster who knows some scientific and analytical vocabulary and thinks this makes him an expert.

So the talk of ignorant and boorish followers seems strange.

Anonymous said...

slightly OT post, but I wondered if people could explain why the discovery of fundamental particles by physics render the notion of forms mistaken? I get that reductionism is false, but if anyone could bother taking the trouble to spell this out for idiots like me, that would be greatly appreciated.

Scott said...

@Jeremy Taylor:

"[T]he talk of ignorant and boorish followers seems strange."

Seconded, on all points. I've said it before too: I'm very impressed with the generally high quality of the comments and commentators on this blog, and I've never seen anything similar anywhere else either.

I'm perfectly content—indeed, I regard it as a not entirely deserved compliment—to be regarded as part of that "ilk."

rm said...

Scott,

You mentioned your route to theism...any details? No need for a blow-by-blow like Prof Feser's, but who were some of the thinkers who first caught your attention?

Thanks.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Also, the meat of Parson's article on the New Atheists does not suggest to me someone whose position against religion is so strong he can dismiss its learned supporters. It struck me as definitively lacking in insight or force, though I don't have the time to give a detailed critic (I'm procrastinating when I should be working as it is).

I will say I noticed some lazy modernist or liberal assumptions that Parson allowed to sneak in arguments. For example, he writes;

"So, however rhetorically overblown and simplistic Dawkins’s statements might be, at their core they make a legitimate complaint, namely, that their adherents often represent the creedal claims of religion as possessing a far greater degree of certainty or obviousness than is warranted. When this happens, the consequences are bad. Claiming more for your beliefs than is their due not only debases rationality, but is conducive to intolerance, fanaticism, and obscurantism."

There is some truth to this, but in part it is also nineteenth century liberal doctrine given new life - it could have come straight from John Stuart Mill. There is an old and hallowed, and I think correct, objection to this doctrine. It is that most men cannot be expected to live a good and profitable life under the sway of some sort of urbane scepticism: most men, as the saying goes, live by dogma. That is, they require relatively certain first principles.

This is a common position in New Atheism and militant atheism, and shows that certain modernist and liberal social, cultural, and political opinions are an important part of these contemporary movements.This is very different from the perspective of many earlier sceptics, such as Hume.

BenYachov said...

>slightly OT post, but I wondered if people could explain why the discovery of fundamental particles by physics render the notion of forms mistaken?

Briefly then the more intelligent then moi can chime in if they want. I'll answer your question with a Question.

Since when does a fundamental particle lack a form?

Anonymous said...

Ben,

Certainly any fundamental particle must a form of some sort but my question is that, if, as physics holds, a rubber ball(say) is ultimately a collection of fundamental particles, and we hold that on a common-sense macro-level the form of the ball is at least partly explained by having a spherical shape, these two views contradict each other.

That is, a particle cant be said to be spherical; therefore how does a collection of particles which make up the ball give rise to sphereness. Conclusion: it cant. therefore sphereness must be a human invention.

It seems either one must right. Thoughts?

Thanks for the reply.

Anonymous said...

That is, a particle cant be said to be spherical; therefore how does a collection of particles which make up the ball give rise to sphereness. Conclusion: it cant. therefore sphereness must be a human invention.

Why suspect that for a property to be real it must be aggregative? Or that for a whole to have a property, each of the parts must have a property?

Protomatter is a principle of potentiality, but that doesn't mean that all accidents are shared with smaller and smaller integral parts. That seems precisely contrary to the form-matter account; forms are irreducible principles of unity that need not be accounted for wholly by the constituents.

Can sphereness be a human invention? Is the account which leads you to conclude that, if all humans were to die, nothing would be spherical, correct?

BenYachov said...

I note two anons. Dudes distinguish yourselves please.

Thanks.

Second anon.

Good response.

BenYachov said...

Parsons has got the whole Passive Aggressive mojo down pat.

Not cool from one of the few that took on William Lane Craig and won.

But I like the fact some of Parsons Atheist readers are disappointed in him.

It is strangely comforting for me to see first hand not every Atheist is a Gnu.

I don't know why that is but I like it.

Electric_Poodle_Defenestrator said...

"Well, why not the universe?"

Seems like the 3rd way might be the most apt reply.

Bob said...

@Scott

The "straw man" is the horn of the proposed dilemma that begins, "If everything has a cause." No cosmological argument has ever used this as a premise, and in fact the argument is intended precisely to show that there is something without a cause. The actual premise is something more like, "Whatever begins to exist has a cause," or "Every change has a cause."


It does seem to me that Russell was commenting on the conclusion, the uncaused cause, not on the premises. However, I can see why one might read this differently.


Yes, by showing that the uncaused cause must be Pure Act. The "universe itself" doesn't qualify, because it (and everything in it) is subject to change and therefore to actualization of potencies.


You say that the Universe itself doesn't qualify, etc., but I am not sure how you might think you know this to be true?


Yes, I do seem to recall that in the previous discussion you insisted on seeing a fallacy of composition where there was none.


However, on the contrary, it does seem to be a fairly obvious example of a composition fallacy.


If everything in the universe is changing and the universe is just the sum total of its contents, then the universe is changing.


Not really, the universe would still just contain the sum total of its contents and the universe itself remain unchanged.


(If that's not what you mean by "universe," then as Brandon suggests, you may be talking about God under another name anyway.)


Perhaps.


It's also possible to argue that the First Cause must be simple (not composed of parts), and the universe as the sum total of its contents (which are pretty obviously "parts" in the requisite sense) clearly doesn't qualify on that basis either.


Is positing that the universe contains parts but that the universe itself is not identical with it's parts necessarily a logical contradiction?

Isn't this analogous to something like saying that a balloon is filled with air, but that a balloon itself is not air?

Brandon said...

However, on the contrary, it does seem to be a fairly obvious example of a composition fallacy.

Composition fallacy is a material fallacy, though; it's never possible to determine that an inference commits it simply from the inference itself.

Is positing that the universe contains parts but that the universe itself is not identical with it's parts necessarily a logical contradiction?

It seems to be. It seems that you're thinking of the universe as a sort of container; but then, depending on exactly how one takes the universe-as-container idea, what you are calling its parts are either not its parts (since the parts of the universe are the parts of the containing extension, not the things contained) or they are not all its parts (since the containing parts are not being counted). We see this pretty clearly with the balloon: to say that the balloon is not the air is to take the balloon itself to have no air as part, since its parts are actually parts of the rubber, not what the rubber is filled with; or we could change what we mean by 'filled' so that the balloon as filled has air as some of its parts, but then we are leaving out the containing parts (the rubber).

Bob said...

Thanks Brandon.

Regarding the composition fallacy, I am simply pointing out that the contents of the universe are not necessarily identical with the universe itself. As you point out, as a container to it's contents.

I simply do not see how this creates a contradiction, necessarily.

And if it not a contradiction then, if the universe itself is a closed system, I do not see how the first cause argument can get beyond the universe itself.

If the universe is not a closed system, then infinite regression seems to be on the table.

Brandon said...

I simply do not see how this creates a contradiction, necessarily.

Because there are two different ways a container can be related to its contents: the contents can be some of its parts, in which case the universe is identical with its all its parts, just not only its contained parts; or the universe is different from what it contains, in which case none of the contents are actually parts of the universe. In neither case can you get the result that the container is not the same as its parts: it either is the same as all its parts or the things it is not the same as are not its parts. In this case, the former is inconsistent with your claim, and if latter, then your solution equivocates on 'part'.

Bob said...

Hi Brandon,

I am not following your objection here.

Again, I am simply pointing out that the contents of the universe are not necessarily identical with the universe itself.

David T said...

Bob,

Again, I am simply pointing out that the contents of the universe are not necessarily identical with the universe itself

You are drawing a distinction between two things: the "contents of the universe" and "the universe itself." Brandon is asking what you mean by these terms, and specifically whether or not they overlap each other.

Are the "contents of the universe" part of (but not the whole) of the "universe itself"?

Or is the "universe itself" something entirely separate from the "contents of the universe."

By analogy, the "contents of the balloon" could be "air" and the "balloon itself" could be "rubber." In this case, they are entirely separate from each other.

Alternatively, we could say "contents of the balloon" is "air", and "balloon itself" is "air and rubber." In this case, the "contents of the balloon" is part of the "balloon itself."

It's unclear which of these alternatives you intend.

Brandon said...

But we aren't talking about contents; we're talking about parts. The parts of a container can be either

(a) simply the parts of that which contains;
or
(b) the parts of what contains and the parts of what is contained;
or
(c) the parts of what contains and the parts of what is contained and whatever other kind of parts one wants to add.

You, however, keep referring only to the contents (what is contained) as parts. But necessarily, for a container, the contents are either not parts at all (a) or are not all of the parts (b or c), because that which contains is always part of a container.

Bob said...

I thought I had already clarified this.

I am simply saying that the contents of the universe are not necessarily identical to the universe itself.

I have a basket of ripe, red apples, but the basket itself is not an apple, nor is it red, nor is it ripe.

Brandon said...

But the apples are not parts of the basket.

Bob said...

Hi Brandon,

The apples are part of the basket of apples though.

Brandon said...

True. But then it also follows that the apples are not all of the parts of the basket, and so the basket of apples is the same as the apple-parts plus a lot of other parts. Scott had said:

It's also possible to argue that the First Cause must be simple (not composed of parts), and the universe as the sum total of its contents (which are pretty obviously "parts" in the requisite sense) clearly doesn't qualify on that basis either.

But the fact that the universe of things is not just the parts of the things, but those parts and other parts, wouldn't change Scott's argument.

Bob said...

Hi Brandon,

It would if the universe itself is not composed of any parts, even if it contains parts.

At least I do not see any logical contradiction with it.

Brandon said...

It would if the universe itself is not composed of any parts, even if it contains parts.

To say that something contains something else is to say that it has some containing part(s).

I see only two options here: (1) You take seriously the idea that the universe is something that has contents, which means it has parts that contain; or (2) you can reject that the universe is anything like a container: there is no containing part, so there's nothing that actually contains and the 'contents' are not really contents because there is nothing that actually contains them. In the former case, Scott's argument goes through still. In the latter case, we'd need to know what the containment metaphor is standing for. The most obvious candidate would be to take "The universe contains such-and-such things" as being a metaphor for "The universe is the cause that unites those things". But that's the other branch that Scott had mentioned. So you'd need some third way of cashing out the statement.

dguller said...

Bob:

Think about it this way.

The claim here has been that the universe requires a first cause, because everything in the universe is changing, and such change, especially when it is per se change, cannot exist at any moment without an unchanging first cause.

Your reply has been that this argument commits the fallacy of composition, because the fact that everything in the universe is changing does not mean that the universe is changing, and you base this conclusion on the fact that the universe is not identical to what is in the universe in the same way that a container is not identical to what it contained within the container.

You then have to explain what is left of the universe when you remove everything that is transient and changing from it, the idea being that what is left over would be unchanging. And since what is left over is unchanging, then it does not require an external cause, as demanded by the principle that if X is changing, then X requires an external changer of some kind to account for the change. And that would mean that that part of the universe does not require a first cause at all.

But when you then proceed to examine that the unchanging part of the universe would have to be like, then you discover several interesting properties that it must have to account for its unchanging nature.

First, not only would this unchanging part be unchanging, it would also have to be unchangeable. If it was capable of change, but was not changing, then why is it unchanging? What is stopping its potential to be something else from being actualized, especially when there is nothing outside of itself that exists? Therefore, it must be unchangeable, and thus lack any potentiality whatsoever, which means that it must be pure act.

Second, it would have to be outside of time, because everything within time is changing. And if it is outside of time, then it is eternal.

Third, it would have to be outside of space, because everything within space is changeable by virtue of changing position in space.

Fourth, if it is outside of space and time, then it is immaterial.

Fifth, it would have to be infinite, because there is nothing outside of it that delimits it in any way.

Sixth, it would have to be simple, because if it had parts, then there would have to be something higher that accounted for its unity.

Seventh, if you accept that the changing part of the universe requires an unchanging cause, and the unchanging part of the universe is the only thing that exists that is unchanging, then the unchanging part of the universe is the first cause of the changing part of the universe.

So, when you put it all together, the unchanging part of the universe must be pure act, eternal, immaterial, infinite, simple and the first cause of the changing part of the universe. At this point, it looks like you just took the God of classical theism and chose to rename him “the unchanging part of the universe”.

Bob said...


Hi dguller.

Thanks for the response. I also wanted to thank you for our previous discussion. You gave me a lot to think about.

So, when you put it all together, the unchanging part of the universe must be pure act, eternal, immaterial, infinite, simple and the first cause of the changing part of the universe. At this point, it looks like you just took the God of classical theism and chose to rename him “the unchanging part of the universe”.

Yea, this had been alluded to earlier in this discussion.

However and apart from some minor quibbles, it does sound a lot like the universe we actually live in overall.

dguller said...

Bob:

Thanks for the response. I also wanted to thank you for our previous discussion. You gave me a lot to think about.

No problem. It was beneficial to both of us, as it helped to clarify some ideas that had been mulling around in my own mind for some time.

However and apart from some minor quibbles, it does sound a lot like the universe we actually live in overall.

Then other than semantics, it seems that you would agree with the broad outline of the classical theist position. In that respect, you and I are fellow travelers. I too am reluctant to call this unchanging source of changing reality, “God”, even though it shares some properties with God, because I think that God includes other properties that the unchanging source lacks, such as listening to prayers, caring about each individual, creating an afterlife, assuming human form and dying on a cross, and so on. The missing piece is that I reject revelation as a legitimate source of knowledge about the unchanging source.

Daniel Joachim said...

@Scott

"Seconded, on all points. I've said it before too: I'm very impressed with the generally high quality of the comments and commentators on this blog, and I've never seen anything similar anywhere else either.

I'm perfectly content—indeed, I regard it as a not entirely deserved compliment—to be regarded as part of that "ilk.""

Third that. A rare experience. When even critics (like Bob and Lowder) genuinely try out objections in order to understand the arguments being made, instead of just looking for some rhetoric sophist points in order to increase self-esteem, then we're closing in on somewhat of a discussion utopia.

Creds to both Bob and Lowder!

Sorry for not following through my own latest entries to the discussion. Consecutive time periods are scarce between my own solitary Norwegian thomist-battles nowadays. :)

I enjoyed dguller's summary!

Bob said...

Hi dguller,

I think that we are pretty much in agreement here.

I am still trying to wrap my head around parts of the first way argument, specifically that I am not sure the "whatever is changing is changed by another" is actually true.

For instance, I have a hot cup of coffee. After a while, my coffee is cold. I am trying to figure out why this doesn't contradict the premise I mentioned.

Do I have this premise wrong, or am I misunderstanding it's application?

grodrigues said...

@Bob:

"For instance, I have a hot cup of coffee. After a while, my coffee is cold. I am trying to figure out why this doesn't contradict the premise I mentioned."

The cup of coffee exchanges energy with the *surrounding environment* and on balance, it grows colder.

Bob said...

Hi grodrigues,

Yes, but how does this not contradict the premise?


Dictatortot said...

Well, speaking as a past personal friend of Keith's, I'm willing to let his "ignorant and boorish" characterization of me slide. And it's true that not every debate with every comer is worth the oxygen.

But it's a problem when you're so transparently retreating from an intellectual hiding that even your own side is palpably uncomfortable with the obviousness of it. Not a great way to maintain one's brand.

Granted, not everyone is a polemicist at heart, or steely in the face of public would-be pantsers. Some fellows--even those who look up & find they've drifted into a career doing philosophy--have very powerful emotions & opinions about some subjects, have trouble not venting them occasionally ... and yet can't defend them as analytically and dispassionately as they've always wanted to be able to do. It's not an enviable spot to be in.

To be charitable here: Chesterton once mischievously defined a philistine as "a man who is right without knowing why." If some of the less polemically gifted atheists bothered to read Chesterton, and were much given to humility, those words might even describe their own image of themselves.

dguller said...

Bob:

Yes, but how does this not contradict the premise?

I think that what you are getting at is that the coffee’s hotness is due to the motion of the molecules in the coffee, which is due to their kinetic energy. As that kinetic energy dissipates and is released, the molecules slow down, and the coffee becomes cold. In this case, you have a transition from coffee as potentially cold to coffee as actually cold in the absence of any actual efficient cause that makes the transition happen.

I’ll leave it to those more versed in physics to answer your objection, but to a layman such as myself, it seems that the answer would lie in the fact that the kinetic energy is released into an actual environment that seeks equilibrium. So, there is the coffee and the environment, and the kinetic energy is released from the coffee and into the environment. They form a total system such that the actual environment, having lower energy than the coffee would pull the excess energy in the coffee into itself in order to attain equilibrium and balance between the two. If there were no actual environment in a particular energy state, then perhaps the coffee would not get colder at all.

Scott said...

@Bob:

"Yes, but how does this not contradict the premise?"

Understanding how it doesn't contradict the premise requires a prior understanding of how you think it might.

The coffee isn't changing itself. It's changing (as grodrigues has said, and this was his point in saying it) through interaction with its environment. Various parts of this overall system (including different spatial parts of the coffee itself) are changing each other in causal sequence. (Similarly, when an animal moves, some of its parts are moving the others at any given time.)

Where do you see something in that scenario that appears to pose a problem for the premise that whatever is changed is changed by another?

dguller said...

Bob:

I think that the right way to look at the principle in question is that you have X and Y. X is potentially F, and then becomes actually F. Y is the efficient cause if Y is actually present when X makes the transition from potentially F to actually F, and X could not have made that transition without Y's actual presence. In other words, an actual Y is a necessary and sufficient condition -- all things considered -- for X to transition from potentially F to actually F.

That's how I've always understood the principle that you're objecting to.

Scott said...

@Bob:

"It would if the universe itself is not composed of any parts, even if it contains parts."

No, that wouldn't change my argument at all, because I was careful to premise it explicitly on the understanding that the universe just is the sum total of its contents. On that understanding, the argument works just fine.

The problem is that this doesn't appear to be your understanding, and while I don't want to rehash the discussion you've gone on to have with other posters, it doesn't seem to me that you've yet addressed the apparent ambiguity in what you do mean by "the universe." You seem to be thinking of it as a sort of separate container rather than as an aggregate, but it's unclear whether you think its "contents" are included in it or not.

Obviously, if they are, then the overall system changes whenever one of its "contents" does so: if an apple in the basket goes rotten, then the "basket of apples" has changed so that it now contains a rotten apple. If not, then it's not clear to me what you mean instead.

Either way, though, my argument was (and is) just that the first alternative leads to the conclusion I stated. If you're choosing the second alternative, that doesn't alter my argument one iota; it just takes you to some form or other of the alternative I proposed in the first place.

Scott said...

@dguller:

"Y is the efficient cause if Y is actually present when X makes the transition from potentially F to actually F, and X could not have made that transition without Y's actual presence. In other words, an actual Y is a necessary and sufficient condition -- all things considered -- for X to transition from potentially F to actually F."

Strictly, though, Y needn't be necessary. That a cup of coffee cools in the presence of room-temperature air doesn't imply that it wouldn't also have cooled in the presence of ice water (into which, say, we've dropped the cup).

In short, what makes Y the efficient cause is that it's what makes X change from potentially F to actually F. It needn't be the only thing that could have done so.

The original Mr. X said...

I hope this doesn't drag the conversation too off-topic, but dguller, when you say that "[t]he missing piece is that I reject revelation as a legitimate source of knowledge about the unchanging source," do you mean that you reject divine revelation on principle, or simply that you find all purported claims of divine revelation (that you've come across) to be unconvincing?

Scott said...

@rm:

"You mentioned your route to theism...any details?"

I'll keep this very brief since it's rather off-topic, which unfortunately means my answer will be less than fully satisfactory. But I don't want to ignore your question either.

Basically, I came to theism by starting with Brand Blanshard (on whom I cut my philosophical teeth some thirty-odd years ago) and then working backwards through the modern opposition between idealism and materialism while taking the side of (absolute or objective) idealism en route.

dguller said...

Scott:

Strictly, though, Y needn't be necessary. That a cup of coffee cools in the presence of room-temperature air doesn't imply that it wouldn't also have cooled in the presence of ice water (into which, say, we've dropped the cup).

In short, what makes Y the efficient cause is that it's what makes X change from potentially F to actually F. It needn't be the only thing that could have done so.


Good point. I was wrong. The efficient cause is sufficient, but not necessary, other than in some specific scenarios, to cause the transition from potentially F to actually F.

Anonymous said...

I just thought of something (a joke?):
Every single thing changes incessantly.
Therefore if I define universe as a set of all changeable things it will be identical with the classic universe. Except that it will not change as long as all its members continue changing.
Something is wrong here, I know...

I have feeling that it may be wrong to consider universe as a "container" of all things because if so it would have to contain itself resulting in a new universe which of course would have to contain itself again...ad infinitum.

dguller said...

The original Mr X:

dguller, when you say that "[t]he missing piece is that I reject revelation as a legitimate source of knowledge about the unchanging source," do you mean that you reject divine revelation on principle, or simply that you find all purported claims of divine revelation (that you've come across) to be unconvincing?

Now, this is not a matter that I’ve read or contemplated at any great depth, and so some of my remarks may be ignorant and unpersuasive. That being said, I have a number of objections to revelation that are mostly consistent with Spinoza’s criticisms of revelation.

First, I do not understand why the ground of all being would care about a particular group of people to the point of communicating a specific message for their betterment, and ignore everyone else. The ground of all being is constantly acting to sustain contingent reality in an orderly and regular fashion. It seems that revelation, like miracles, is a disorderly interruption of a well-regulated and unified system that is completely arbitrary and unnecessary.

Second, there have been a number of alleged revelations in the past, and there does not seem to be any reliable methodology to determine which are true and which are false. It seems to me that either a revelation could be justified on the basis of its consistency with reason and natural theology, or it would have the source of justification within itself. If the former, then revelation is superfluous and unnecessary, other than as a way to communicate deeper metaphysical truths to the masses, and furthermore, it makes revelation subservient to human reason, which is a cardinal sin of onto-theology, and thus is unacceptable. If the latter, then one is hopelessly stuck in circular reasoning that would validate every revelation as authentic, because their source of justification was internal to themselves. So, either way, revelation is highly problematic.

Third, revelations seem more akin to artistic inspiration coming from deep within individual human beings that are brilliant enough to find profound ways of communicating certain inner experiences than the ground of all being targeting one individual with a specific message. In other words, I think that deeper truths are present within all of us by virtue of our dependent relationship with the ground of all being, and its immanent presence within our deeper selves, and that some individuals have been able to communicate this inner truth in effective ways, but that does not seem consistent with the traditional understanding of revelation in which the ground of all being specifically identifies one person as worthy of carrying a message.

If anyone has any comments on these claims, I’d be most interested.

malcolmthecynic said...

So, I wrote this as a response to Professor Parsons on his blog. Thought you guys might appreciate it:

Ah, yes! What an attack mode! With such quotes as:

I’m sure you have something in particular in mind, so if you could take just a second or two to let us know what it is, I‘d appreciate it.

And,

So, who exactly are these critics I have ignored, or which of their criticisms, specifically, have I failed to address?

Or,

Thanks. I look forward to your answers and to an interesting discussion.

But wait! I'm missing the insults! Such as:

...he really ought to have a thicker skin and more of a sense of humor about himself.

Truly, this is absolute proof that Feser is acting like a "horse's ass" and that "the kind of help he needs is help you are not professionally qualified to give". Indeed, it is undoubtedly the case that he is "hysterical".

And how noble your responses are! Look at how they are the utter pinnacle of reason! Such as:

Please do write more nasty things about me for the amusement of your ignorant and boorish followers. It makes my day when I piss off people like you guys.

And of course we've already gone over your ingenious "horse's ass" rebuttal.

I agree, Professor Parsons - All of the evidence points to you being the reasonable one in this case!

Either that or it proves you're a dick. One of the two.

David M said...

guller wrote: "Y is the efficient cause if Y is actually present when X makes the transition from potentially F to actually F, and X could not have made that transition without Y's actual presence. In other words, an actual Y is a necessary and sufficient condition -- all things considered -- for X to transition from potentially F to actually F."

Rather:
"Y is the efficient cause if Y is virtually present when X makes the transition from potentially F to actually F, and X made that transition in virtue of Y's operation upon it. In other words, an actual Y is a necessary, though not usually sufficient, condition for X to transition from potentially F to actually F. (Ordinary efficient causes are 'insufficient,' that is, insofar as they depend, for their existence and operation, upon the causal concurrence of the First Cause.)"

Anonymous said...

And I have another question (besides the one sent in earlier at 9:53 AM)

If man's essence is, according to Aristotle/Aquinas, a reasonable animal, would we need to consider human an outer space being, who were capable of reasoning?

dguller said...

Anonymous:

If man's essence is, according to Aristotle/Aquinas, a reasonable animal, would we need to consider human an outer space being, who were capable of reasoning?

That’s a great question. I guess the key issue is whether if X is a rational animal, then X is a human being is true. Perhaps there are different kinds of rational animals, i.e. different physiological processes, different evolutionary histories, different physical materials, and so on? In that case, “rational animal” would be a genus, and not a species.

dguller said...

DavidM:

"Y is the efficient cause if Y is virtually present when X makes the transition from potentially F to actually F, and X made that transition in virtue of Y's operation upon it. In other words, an actual Y is a necessary, though not usually sufficient, condition for X to transition from potentially F to actually F. (Ordinary efficient causes are 'insufficient,' that is, insofar as they depend, for their existence and operation, upon the causal concurrence of the First Cause.)"

I’m not too sure what you mean by “virtually” and how it is distinct from “actually”.

Scott:

Just to clarify something. I think that an efficient cause is necessary and sufficient to cause a transition, but there are different efficient causes that could cause the same transition, and thus although some efficient cause is necessary, it does not follow that one efficient cause is necessary.

Scott said...

"If man's essence is, according to Aristotle/Aquinas, a reasonable animal, would we need to consider human an outer space being, who were capable of reasoning?"

Metaphysically, yes.

If that seems odd or awkward, bear in mind that for Aristotelianism/Thomism, a "human" is an animal that has been endowed with a rational soul. There's no constraint on the underlying kind of animal; if it were to turn out that (say) dolphins had rational souls, they'd be human in this sense too.

of course they wouldn't belong to the biological species homo sapiens, but that's a different matter.

David T said...

dguller,

Very briefly (with all the caveats that implies):

1a. Revelation was not only for the betterment of the Jews, but for the betterment of everyone. But it was through the Jews that God intended to save all of manking. This is the famous "scandal of particularity."

1b. Miracles may seem disorderly from our perspective, but are perhaps not from God's perspective.

2. The traditional answer to this is that the Resurrection of Christ vindicated His claims about Himself. The Resurrection is neither deducible from philosphical principles, nor internal to Revelation itself, but a fact of history (or so the claim goes). So I think it avoids both horns of your dilemma.

3. In Christianity, the Person is the message. The message is John 3:15, and Christ is both the substance and carrier of the message. The content of the message is not anything that can be gleaned from any amount or depth of inner experience, because it concerns an objective fact: God's inbreaking into history through Christ and what that means for us and reveals about God.

dguller said...

Scott:

If that seems odd or awkward, bear in mind that for Aristotelianism/Thomism, a "human" is an animal that has been endowed with a rational soul. There's no constraint on the underlying kind of animal; if it were to turn out that (say) dolphins had rational souls, they'd be human in this sense too.

But then why identify rational animality with humanity at all? If human beings were just one possible instantiation of rational animality, then to call all rational animals human beings would be like calling all human beings Socrates.

David M said...

@guller:
"First, I do not understand why the ground of all being would care about a particular group of people to the point of communicating a specific message for their betterment, and ignore everyone else."

The point of communicating the specific message to particular people is surely not in order to ignore everyone else. How is this different from saying: "I do not understand why the ground of all being would care about Ed Feser and his ilk to the point of making them much more intelligent than the rest of us, and ignoring everyone else." (1) Who's ignoring? (2) Facts are not negated by our inability to fully understand them.

"Second, there have been a number of alleged revelations in the past, and there does not seem to be any reliable methodology to determine which are true and which are false. It seems to me that either a revelation could be justified on the basis of its consistency with reason and natural theology, or it would have the source of justification within itself."

It's true, perhaps, there is no neat and reliable methodology. But go ahead and read Fides et ratio all the same.

"Third, revelations seem more akin to artistic inspiration coming from deep within individual human beings that are brilliant enough to find profound ways of communicating certain inner experiences than the ground of all being targeting one individual with a specific message."

How do ya figure?? I'd have thought that revelations in the strict sense, by definition, do not come from within.

Anonymous said...

dguller,

..."the key issue is whether if X is a rational animal, then X is a human being is true."

I considered it too, of course. On the other hand if having black skin, blond hair, or club foot are accidental (not essential) then why should not having, say, wings, two heads, three feet etc.. be also considered accidental?

David M said...

guller: "Y is the efficient cause if Y is actually present when X makes the transition from potentially F to actually F, and X could not have made that transition without Y's actual presence."

The locution "actually present when" is suggestive of spatio-temporal proximity as a fundamental element in efficient causality, whereas it is virtual presence (the presence and exercise of a thing's power) which is what matters (regardless of spatio-temporal conditions). And the "couldn't/wouldn't have transitioned without actual presence" business is not specific enough - there may be sine-qua-non conditions for some actualization of a potency, without which it wouldn't have taken place, which nonetheless do not count as the efficient cause of that change.

Scott said...

@dguller:

"Just to clarify something."

Understood and, I think, pretty much agreed. Also, for some Y to count as "sufficient," there are ordinarily many implied "background" conditions that already have to be satisfied in order for Y to have its effect or even exist at all. In that sense Y is "sufficient" only within a fairly narrow range of scenarios as well.

dguller said...

David T:

1a. Revelation was not only for the betterment of the Jews, but for the betterment of everyone. But it was through the Jews that God intended to save all of manking. This is the famous "scandal of particularity."

How exactly could God save all humanity through the Jews when they existed in a particular geographic location, were quite isolated from a cultural standpoint, and lacked any means or desire to spread their message to the world? Rather, the Jews focused upon themselves and living righteously according to their laws, and any influence upon the wider world was more by osmosis than direct intent. Furthermore, what about human beings that were so far in the distance, such as those in Asia, that would only get a diluted form of Jewish influence at all? It seems horribly inefficient.

1b. Miracles may seem disorderly from our perspective, but are perhaps not from God's perspective.

That’s true. But since we lack God’s perspective, we cannot appeal to it, either.

2. The traditional answer to this is that the Resurrection of Christ vindicated His claims about Himself. The Resurrection is neither deducible from philosphical principles, nor internal to Revelation itself, but a fact of history (or so the claim goes). So I think it avoids both horns of your dilemma.

But that just assumes that the resurrection was a historical event, which presupposes reliable eyewitness testimony, i.e. the testimony is not biased, based upon perceptual distortion, wishful thinking, and so on. That is hopelessly impossible at this point in time, and the only possible testimony is a revelation, i.e. the Gospels.

3. In Christianity, the Person is the message. The message is John 3:15, and Christ is both the substance and carrier of the message. The content of the message is not anything that can be gleaned from any amount or depth of inner experience, because it concerns an objective fact: God's inbreaking into history through Christ and what that means for us and reveals about God.

But you could say the same thing about the Prophet Muhammad, whose every word and deed was painstakingly recorded by his followers on the understanding that his character and conduct was a living commentary on the Qur’an. In fact, I’m hard pressed to come up with an example of a prophet who delivered a religious message from the divine whose non-revelatory words and deeds were not also deemed significant and important as a necessary commentary on the revelation.

David M said...

Malcolm: ...Either that or it proves you're a dick. One of the two.

Parsons: Keep it coming! It makes my day when I piss off people like you guys.

Malcolm: No, I was presenting an argued case for the claim that you're a dick.

Parsons: Oh no, I've pissed you off, and I am loving it! Today is a good day - truly this is what I live for.

Malcolm: Okay, but the point is, you're a dick...

Parsons: ...and loving it! Oh yes, I am loving it!

Gene: Ed, you try to take the arguments of atheists seriously, and that is not always a bad thing...

Scott said...

@dguller:

"But then why identify rational animality with humanity at all?"

If by "humanity" you mean "membership in the biological species homo sapiens," then it's because we're the only demonstrably rational animals we've ever encountered.

If we ever run across another—if, for example, we meet that hypothetical rational extraterrestrial, or if we find that God has endowed a dolphin-Adam with a rational soul—then we'll probably need to use two different words for "metaphysically human" and "biologically human," because the two uses of "human" are equivocal.

dguller said...

DavidM:

The point of communicating the specific message to particular people is surely not in order to ignore everyone else. How is this different from saying: "I do not understand why the ground of all being would care about Ed Feser and his ilk to the point of making them much more intelligent than the rest of us, and ignoring everyone else." (1) Who's ignoring? (2) Facts are not negated by our inability to fully understand them.

But the manner in which the message is communicated necessarily ignores the vast majority of mankind, and thus is a horribly ineffective way to communicate any religious message, which God surely must have known in advance. For example, if I say that I bought a car in order to reach New York, and the car fails to reach New York due to its inherent limitations, then if I already knew that the car couldn’t possibly reach New York, then I would look pretty silly.

It's true, perhaps, there is no neat and reliable methodology. But go ahead and read Fides et ratio all the same.

Man, my reading list is already getting out of control. Any chance you could state what JPII’s main point is about methodology to determine the validity of a revelation?

How do ya figure?? I'd have thought that revelations in the strict sense, by definition, do not come from within.

I think that some of the deepest “revelations” do come from within the self as inspirations and visions that seem to come from without. This is in keeping with classical mystical terminology in which to ascend higher, one must descend inner.

The locution "actually present when" is suggestive of spatio-temporal proximity as a fundamental element in efficient causality, whereas it is virtual presence (the presence and exercise of a thing's power) which is what matters (regardless of spatio-temporal conditions).

I agree. All I meant was that the efficient cause must be actually there in some sense to be able to exert its power to cause the transition in question in the patient. For example, God is a constant efficient cause, because he is actually immanently present in some sense.

And the "couldn't/wouldn't have transitioned without actual presence" business is not specific enough - there may be sine-qua-non conditions for some actualization of a potency, without which it wouldn't have taken place, which nonetheless do not count as the efficient cause of that change.

I suppose that some mention of proximity would be necessary, i.e. distal factors are not efficient causes, but proximal factors are efficient causes. So, general background conditions may be necessary for an agent to cause a change in a patient, but since the agent is the proximal cause, and the background conditions are distal causes, the proximal cause is deemed the efficient cause.

dguller said...

Anonymous:

I considered it too, of course. On the other hand if having black skin, blond hair, or club foot are accidental (not essential) then why should not having, say, wings, two heads, three feet etc.. be also considered accidental?

Because having wings, two heads, three feet, etc. would count as deformities of a human being. If they were irrelevant, then they wouldn’t be considered as imperfections and defects at all, much like having blonde hair is not defective.

Scott said...

Malcolm: Okay, but the point is, you're a dick...

Parsons: ...and loving it! Oh yes, I am loving it!

Gene: Ed, you try to take the arguments of atheists seriously, and that is not always a bad thing..

Other Poster on Parson's Site #1: Wow, Parsons really is being a dick. Maybe Feser's questions are good ones after all. I think I'll head over to his blog and do a little reading, and perhaps follow up on this Aquinas stuff.

Other Poster on Parson's Site #2: Me too!

Other Poster on Parson's Site #3: Yeah, if the best Parsons can do in reply to what are obviously very serious questions, presented civilly, is to act like a dick, then maybe his position isn't too strong after all. At the very least, I'm curious to know what it is about Thomism that throws him into such fits of dickness.

Gene: Hmm, I guess taking atheists' arguments seriously isn't such a bad thing, even when they're dicks.

malcolmthecynic said...

dguller,

It seems horribly inefficient.

I know, right? And yet, here we are, in a world where Christianity is the world's largest religion (albeit with Islam growing rather quickly), and Catholicism its largest branch.

David and Scott,

Malcolm: Okay, but the point is, you're a dick...

Parsons: ...and loving it! Oh yes, I am loving it!


The sad thing is, its not even an exaggeration of his response.

Anonymous said...

dguller,

I may be wrong, but is it wrong to think that metaphysically imperfections are accidental?

Please, bear with me - I'm not a philosopher, far from it, besides English is not my native tongue.

Also, I wonder if you could find a minute to look at my post of 9:53? Thank you.
T. H

Scott said...

@dguller:

"How exactly could God save all humanity through the Jews when they existed in a particular geographic location, were quite isolated from a cultural standpoint, and lacked any means or desire to spread their message to the world?"

I think you'll want to distinguish carefully here between Judaism's understanding of itself and Christianity's understanding of it. These are not the same.

Judaism in and of itself is not and has never been a "salvation religion." For Jews it's a matter of history that God "saved" Israel from bondage in Egypt, and a matter of theology that anyone can repent and turn to God at any time. Nobody has to be Jewish in order to be "saved." So from a Jewish point of view, the answer to your question would be that it's based on a misconception; Judaism isn't supposed to "save all humanity" in the sense you intend.

From a Christian point of view, though, Judaism is only part of a much larger plan not limited by space and time. In the Christian sense, to say that salvation is "through the Jews" doesn't mean that the spread of Judaism was itself supposed to save everybody; it means that Judaism was part of the preparation for a cosmic event with non-local effects. If Christ's atonement was/is effective, then anyone anywhere (and anywhen) can be saved, though it's perhaps an open question whether any specific person will.

dguller said...

Anonymous:

I may be wrong, but is it wrong to think that metaphysically imperfections are accidental?

I’m not too sure what you mean. An imperfection is just any actualization of a potency that falls short of full actualization. The greater the residual potency, the greater the degree of imperfection.

David T said...

dguller,

That’s true. But since we lack God’s perspective, we cannot appeal to it, either.

Right, which is why arguments to the effect that "God wouldn't do it that way" don't work, e.g. God wouldn't perform miracles because they are disorderly, or God wouldn't work through the Jews because it is inefficient. Those arguments only work if they are made from God's perspective.

Muhammad: The only miracle he is said to have performed is the Quran itself. So you are right, in his case, that the validation of the revelation is the revelation itself.

Not so with Christ, where it is claimed that the validation is the historical fact of the Resurrection.

I won't argue the historical case for the Resurrection - I'm sure you are well familiar with those arguments. The point is that the case for the Revelation is not itself the Revelation. (The Gospels contain a mix of Revelation - what Jesus revelas to us about God - and historical facts to back up that Revelation, e.g. his resurrection.)

dguller said...

Scott:

From a Christian point of view, though, Judaism is only part of a much larger plan not limited by space and time. In the Christian sense, to say that salvation is "through the Jews" doesn't mean that the spread of Judaism was itself supposed to save everybody; it means that Judaism was part of the preparation for a cosmic event with non-local effects. If Christ's atonement was/is effective, then anyone anywhere (and anywhen) can be saved, though it's perhaps an open question whether any specific person will.

Fair enough. But if any claimed revelation is genuine insofar as it contributed to this broader divine plan, then how does this help to determine which claimed revelations are genuine revelations at all? It seems that anyone who claimed to receive a revelation would have to be part of the broader divine plan, and thus all claimed revelations are genuine. And this just begs the question as to why a revelation must have cosmic and broader implications at all? Why can’t a revelation be local and proximate in nature? One would have to already accept that all revelations must be part of a broader divine plan in order to be authentic, which is something that would only be valid if a particular revelation was already true.

Scott said...

@dguller:

"It seems that anyone who claimed to receive a revelation would have to be part of the broader divine plan, and thus all claimed revelations are genuine."

The second statement doesn't follow from the first. If classical theism is true (which I think can be established solely by natural reason with no reliance on special revelation), then anyone who claims to receive a revelation is part of the divine plan for the simple reason that everything is part of the divine plan. That doesn't mean all claims to revelation are genuine, any more than it means no human acts are sinful.

"And this just begs the question as to why a revelation must have cosmic and broader implications at all?"

Who says it must? In principle I suppose God could reveal to me where I mislaid my car keys or something. But this particular claim to revelation does involve a cosmic event, and according to the Church it's the sort of revelation one could reasonably expect on the basis of purely natural theology.

Scott said...

(And of course, as David T has said, there are historical arguments in favor of the view that the Christian revelation is this reasonably-to-be-expected one.)

Scott said...

"Therefore if I define universe as a set of all changeable things it will be identical with the classic universe. Except that it will not change as long as all its members continue changing."

I don't think I quite understand this. If the universe simply consists of all changeable things, then surely it changes whenever one of its components does.

Perhaps the problem is with the word "set." If I have a set {A, B, C} of things that are changing, then in some sense the abstract set doesn't change even if its individual members undergo change.

But that sort of set is an abstract mathematical object, not the actual collection consisting of A, B, and C. That collection, that aggregate of real "things," does change whenever (say) A does. If the potato peelings in my compost heap are rotting, then the heap itself is physically changing.

Tor Hershman said...

)))((((((
(·)...(-)
....v....
.[___].---{This blog has given me an erection}

dguller said...

Scott:

The second statement doesn't follow from the first. If classical theism is true (which I think can be established solely by natural reason with no reliance on special revelation), then anyone who claims to receive a revelation is part of the divine plan for the simple reason that everything is part of the divine plan. That doesn't mean all claims to revelation are genuine, any more than it means no human acts are sinful.

Then being a part of a broader divine plan cannot be a differentiating feature between authentic and inauthentic revelation, which means that the claim that the Jewish revelation is authentic, because it is part of a broader divine plan, is invalid. There must be some other feature that distinguishes authentic from inauthentic revelations, and I’m keen to learn what they are, and how they were discovered to be reliable.

Scott said...

@dguller:

"Then being a part of a broader divine plan cannot be a differentiating feature between authentic and inauthentic revelation[.]"

I didn't say it was. I wasn't claiming to offer a way to distinguish genuine revelations from false ones; I was replying only to your question How exactly could God save all humanity through the Jews when they existed in a particular geographic location, were quite isolated from a cultural standpoint, and lacked any means or desire to spread their message to the world?

" . . . which means that the claim that the Jewish revelation is authentic, because it is part of a broader divine plan, is invalid."

That claim is indeed invalid, and not only for the reason you state; it's also question-begging. Did someone make it?

Crude said...

dguller,

There must be some other feature that distinguishes authentic from inauthentic revelations, and I’m keen to learn what they are, and how they were discovered to be reliable.

What's your standard for reliability here? I don't think reliability like rapt logical arguments will work. Likewise for scientific theories. Do you think you can put this into words?

Anonymous said...

The only two "insults" I see are Feser saying his "feelings are hurt," which might be the sort of thing you say to a child but not to a grown man, and the "thin skinned" remark, which - like the "feelings" quip - may also come across as patronizing.

Still, all relatively minor stuff. It doesn't warrant a refusal by Parsons.

Scott Scheule said...


Malcolm, I propose we run with this.

The argumentum ad culum equi, the so-called "horse's ass fallacy" or, simply, "the ad culum," is a fallacious attempt to prove one party is being unadmirably rude by being unadmirably rude. Typically the first party is not, in fact, being unadmirably rude, leading to the general puzzlement of many and often all spectators. E.g., a typical instance of the ad culum may proceed as follows:

Party 1: I realize we've gotten off to a bad start, but can we put that aside and have an intelligent and hopefully constructive exchange?

Party 2: Stop insulting me, you horse's ass.

The traditional ad culum allows for several (in principle, infinite) iterations, as:

Party 1: I don't see how I'm being insulting--could you perhaps point out where you think I've been less than polite?

Party 2: I thought I told you to stop insulting me, you horse's ass.

Party 1: Hmm. I guess... well. That is to say.. well, I, uh, I'm not sure I quite see your point.

Party 2: (points at Party 1 and then points to picture of horse's ass)

Party 1: ... ok.

Following the equine-caudal nomenclature, each iteration of the ad culum is typically called a "swish."

Also known as Parsons's Parry, after the philosopher Keith Parsons, who first deployed the fallacy in debate with fellow professor Edward Feser. Three swishes were attested to in that circumstance, but further study has found many instances in the history of philosophy with more swishes. Particularly notable is Schopenhauer's dismissal of Hegel as: 1. a camel's hump; 2. an ox's anus; 3. a goose's gizzard; 4. an auroch's vas deferens; 5. a squid's inkbag; 6. a caribou's nethers; and, finally; 7. a ferret's taint. Equally famous is Russell's exchange with Bergson, the language of which is too crude to repeat here.

Anonymous said...

Scott,

”Perhaps the problem is with the word "set." If I have a set {A, B, C} of things that are changing, then in some sense the abstract set doesn't change even if its individual members undergo change.

Yes, in some, but also in a very strict sense. The definition is: a set of all changeable things. Which mean as long as the things change the set itself doesn’t (because it has been defined as a set of all changeable things). The set will only change if one of its members stops changing.
But, as you agreed, the set is not exactly a collection. Not always, anyway.

But is the universe (in the usual sense of the word) any less abstract than the one I propose?
I am not sure and here is why:
We define universe as collection of all things. The problem is the word all. Every object is a collection of things, be it a computer, dog, my left sock…But the “things” in these collections are “parts” of these collections. If you remove enough of things from any of these collections they cease to be what they originally were. But the things that constitute the collection we call universe in the same sense as the head of the dog is its part. That’s why even if everything in the universe ceases to exist except a single hydrogen atom the universe continues to exist.
That is why I think the “classical” universe is just as much a definition, or as abstract mathematical object as the universe I proposed. It is not real in the same sense as any other object.
Also, if it contains verything existing then it must contain itself too, which invites the infinite regress.

thank you for answering me
T.H.

Scott said...

@T.H.:

"That’s why even if everything in the universe ceases to exist except a single hydrogen atom the universe continues to exist."

That would sure be one hell of a change, though, wouldn't it?

Anonymous said...

I wrote:
"But the things that constitute the collection we call universe in the same sense as the head of the dog is its part."

it should be:

But are the things that constitute the collection called universe its part in the same way dog's head is a part of dog?

Anonymous said...

That would sure be one hell of a change, though, wouldn't it?

Not in principle

Scott said...

"Not in principle"

If the universe went from what it is now to a single hydrogen atom, that would very obviously be a change. You might as well say that if a dog loses a leg, he hasn't changed "in principle" because he's still a dog—in fact the same dog.

Anonymous said...

"That would sure be one hell of a change, though, wouldn't it?"

Ok Then. So lets remove everything except some million galaxies. Galaxy is a pretty big thing, so million of them are considerably more than a hydrogen atom. Still, they would constitute only a tiny fraction of 1% of the original universe. So that too "would be one hell of a change"

David M said...

Gene:

Hmm, I guess taking atheists' arguments seriously isn't such a bad thing, even when they're dicks. (Although in the case of Parson's 'arguments,' they clearly consist of nothing more than the ad culum fallacy, which in point of fact is simply very hard to take seriously.)

Aquinas:

Indeed, Gene. But you are also right to be realistic and indeed cautious in correcting brother Parsons: For it might seem that one ought not to forbear from correcting someone through fear lest he become worse. For sin is weakness of the soul, according to Psalm 6:3: "Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak." Now he that has charge of a sick person, must not cease to take care of him, even if he be fractious or contemptuous, because then the danger is greater, as in the case of madmen. Much more, therefore should one correct a sinner, no matter how badly he takes it.

But on the contrary, It is written (Proverbs 9:8): "Rebuke not a scorner lest he hate thee," where a gloss remarks: "You must not fear lest the scorner insult you when you rebuke him: rather should you bear in mind that by making him hate you, you may make him worse." Therefore one ought to forego fraternal correction, when we fear lest we may make a man worse.

Remember that simple fraternal correction is directed to the amendment of the wrongdoer, whom it does not coerce, but merely admonishes. Consequently when it is deemed probable that the sinner will not take the warning, and will become worse, such fraternal correction should be foregone, because the means should be regulated according to the requirements of the end.

dguller said...

Crude:

What's your standard for reliability here? I don't think reliability like rapt logical arguments will work. Likewise for scientific theories. Do you think you can put this into words?

I’m looking for any set of criteria that one can use to distinguish authentic revelation from inauthentic revelation. For example, all forms of authentic revelation have X, Y and Z. This revelation lacks X and Y, and thus this revelation is inauthentic, and can be rejected as false. I’d also like to know how one discovered the criteria in question, and how one determined that it was a reliable indicator of authentic revelation.

dguller said...

Scott:

That claim is indeed invalid, and not only for the reason you state; it's also question-begging. Did someone make it?

I thought that David T made it when he wrote: “Revelation was not only for the betterment of the Jews, but for the betterment of everyone. But it was through the Jews that God intended to save all of manking”. Perhaps I was wrong, but I took that to be a distinguishing feature of an authentic revelation.

But that's not really important. The bottom line is that one of the main reasons why I reject revelation is that there seems to be no question-begging non-circular way to distinguish authentic from inauthentic revelation. If you have read anything on the subject that may shed some light on my dilemma, then it would be most appreciated, if you share it.

Scott said...

"So that too 'would be one hell of a change'"

The point is that it's any sort of change at all, no matter how small.

There is a perfectly clear sense in which, the universe, regarded as an aggregate of everything it "contains," changes whenever anything in it changes, just as a compost heap changes whenever a bit of potato peel rots. It does't matter if there's also an abstract sense in which it's "in principle" still the same universe.

By the way, I'm not sure which anonymous posters are which any more, so if this becomes the least bit confusing, I'm done until you find a way to distinguish yourselves.

Crude said...

dguller,

I’m looking for any set of criteria that one can use to distinguish authentic revelation from inauthentic revelation. For example, all forms of authentic revelation have X, Y and Z. This revelation lacks X and Y, and thus this revelation is inauthentic, and can be rejected as false. I’d also like to know how one discovered the criteria in question, and how one determined that it was a reliable indicator of authentic revelation.

Okay. I'm not trying to be pedantic here, I'm just trying to draw out your approach.

Let me ask you this: do you look for this kind of thing with any other conversation? Like do you go, when interacting with a person, 'I am looking for X Y and Z that indicates that I should trust you.'? I'm not implying it would be irrational to do that, let me say up front - I think you can loosely categorize things that way, perhaps. So do you? And if you do, can you lay out the formula for, say... historically trusting X said something true? If Plato said he was a student of Socrates, what do you do to accept his claim?

Scott said...

@dguller:

"The bottom line is that one of the main reasons why I reject revelation is that there seems to be no question-begging non-circular way to distinguish authentic from inauthentic revelation. If you have read anything on the subject that may shed some light on my dilemma, then it would be most appreciated, if you share it."

In Ed's nutshell summary:

[T]he Catholic view is that the occurrence of a divine revelation is something that should be and can be confirmed via its association with miracles, where the occurrence of the miracles in question itself can and should be confirmed by rational arguments.

If you want much more than that, I'm afraid you'll have to add to your reading list. ;-) But at the very least, I think you can see easily enough that this approach is not question-begging or circular.

dguller said...

Crude:

Let me ask you this: do you look for this kind of thing with any other conversation? Like do you go, when interacting with a person, 'I am looking for X Y and Z that indicates that I should trust you.'? I'm not implying it would be irrational to do that, let me say up front - I think you can loosely categorize things that way, perhaps. So do you? And if you do, can you lay out the formula for, say... historically trusting X said something true? If Plato said he was a student of Socrates, what do you do to accept his claim?

I think that one can reasonably come up with a set of plausible criteria for historical accuracy for a particular claim: independent lines of historical evidence converge upon that claim, the claim is physically possible, the claim would helpfully explain some other historical claims, the testimony has not been shown to be fabricated or erroneous by other lines of evidence, and so on. Now, I would stipulate that none of the aforementioned criteria mean that the historical claim is 100% true, but I think that they add an element of plausibility and support to the claim that justifies our belief in its truth, at least until new information comes to light that may force us to revise our opinion. And I’m also perfectly content to say that we really don’t know whether Plato was the student of Socrates, on the basis of the historical evidence that we have, for example.

Now, I’m wondering whether some similar set of criteria have been determined for the authenticity of revelation. Revelation has been present for millennia, and there must have been some religious thinkers who have thought deeply about what counts as an authentic revelation, and I’m curious what they have come up with.

The original Mr. X said...

dguller:

"I thought that David T made it when he wrote: “Revelation was not only for the betterment of the Jews, but for the betterment of everyone. But it was through the Jews that God intended to save all of manking”. Perhaps I was wrong, but I took that to be a distinguishing feature of an authentic revelation."

I don't think that David T was claiming to offer proof of the Jewish revelation's truth, but rather an explanation of why God might choose to make His revelation to one people. He was (I think) saying that "Giving a revelation to one nation" and "Saving the whole of mankind" aren't mutually exclusive, not that this one revelation is necessarily the true one.

"But that's not really important. The bottom line is that one of the main reasons why I reject revelation is that there seems to be no question-begging non-circular way to distinguish authentic from inauthentic revelation. If you have read anything on the subject that may shed some light on my dilemma, then it would be most appreciated, if you share it."

You'd examine the purported revelation using the same criteria you'd examine any other historical claim, surely. So look at how trustworthy or untrustworthy the revelatee seems, whether they might have any ulterior motives, whether there are any signs (e.g., miracles) which could be corroborated by others, how far the reported revelation fits in with what we already know both about the nature of God and the circumstances in which it happened. So, for example, a convicted fraudster who claimed that God appeared in his dreams telling him to seize political and religious power, and who also claimed that God had a beginning in time, would fail on all counts. The Gospel, however, whose early proponents gained little earthly power or wealth and often ended up being horribly executed, which reports widely-witnessed miracles, which includes elements which a 1st-century Jew would be unlikely to invent (e.g., the first witnesses to Jesus' resurrection being women, the disciples bickering amongst themselves and not understanding Jesus' words -- heck, even the Resurrection itself), and whose picture of God coheres with what we know from natural theology, is in a much stronger position as a potential revelation.

Scott said...

@David M:

"Although in the case of Parson's 'arguments,' they clearly consist of nothing more than the ad culum fallacy, which in point of fact is simply very hard to take seriously."

That's certainly true of Parson's current arguments (to whatever extent they're offered as "arguments" at all, which I think is not unsmall), but it's not true of the arguments to which Ed was originally responding.

dguller said...

Scott:

In Ed's nutshell summary:

[T]he Catholic view is that the occurrence of a divine revelation is something that should be and can be confirmed via its association with miracles, where the occurrence of the miracles in question itself can and should be confirmed by rational arguments.

If you want much more than that, I'm afraid you'll have to add to your reading list. ;-) But at the very least, I think you can see easily enough that this approach is not question-begging or circular.


First, take the communication from God to Jacob at Genesis 28:10-19. God spoke to Jacob, which would count as a revelation, I believe. And yet what was the associated miracle? Under Feser’s criteria, Jacob did not receive a revelation from God. And in that case, did he just dream the whole experience?

Second, would that mean that a Catholic would accept divine revelation from other spiritual and religious traditions as authentic? For example, what if there was a miracle performed by a Hindu that was “confirmed by rational arguments” and the Hindu declared that God said that Jesus was not the Son of God, then would a Catholic accept that revelation? Probably not, which means that the “rational arguments” in question would have to already presuppose the truth of Catholicism, and thus would seem to beg the question after all.

Third, does the revelation have to be immediately associated with the miracle, or can it be more distally connected? For example, Jesus said a number of things in the absence of any particular miracle, and yet they would probably still be considered to be revelations from God. Perhaps one could argue that Jesus himself is a constant miracle, being the Son of God, but then one could say the same thing about the Prophet Muhammad, whose every word and action was guided by Allah, such that his entire life is an example that Muslims must emulate. Certainly, that degree of guidance could be construed as miraculous, because it is not present to the vast majority of human beings.

Fourth, I hate reading lists.

Anonymous said...


Scott,

"The point is that it's any sort of change at all, no matter how small."

Of course. i have no problem with it.
The thought experiment involving the drastic "reduction" of universe as compared to the reduction of anything else was to illustrate my point how profoundly universe differs from any other thing. I think it supports my conviction that universe is an abstraction whereas everything else is not.

about identity:
I used to have one "qavistas" and we actually had a short exchange when it was available to me. i don't understand what hapened now as I am unable to use it. Ill try to find out. In the meantime I will remember to sign with T.H.
thank you,

T. H.

Scott said...

@dguller:

In the interests of space (and of not wandering too too far off-topic), I'll stick to items 1 and 4.

First: The direct revelation described in Genesis 28 was to Jacob himself, not to us; if Jacob needed an associated miracle in order to accept it himself, at least some extra-biblical sources say he had one (the four stones on which he slept became one stone overnight). The overall revelation of which the Church claims to be the repository (and which includes the authoritative nature of Genesis 28 as Scripture) is a different revelation, associated with a different and later set of miracles.

If we today accept Jacob's experience as a direct revelation on the basis of miracles, it's not because of any miracle(s) that may have confirmed it to him but because of the miracles by which the overall authority of the Church is confirmed to us. Someone who doesn't accept those latter miracles might quite reasonably think that Jacob just had a peculiarly vivid dream.

Fourth: Same here. I have more of a "reading pile," myself.

Crude said...

dguller,

I think that one can reasonably come up with a set of plausible criteria for historical accuracy for a particular claim: independent lines of historical evidence converge upon that claim, the claim is physically possible, the claim would helpfully explain some other historical claims, the testimony has not been shown to be fabricated or erroneous by other lines of evidence, and so on.

Well, aside from 'shown to be physically possible', I think revelation claims can certain compete with each other in part on those terms. So that's a start, right?

Scott said...

@T.H.:

"I think it supports my conviction that universe is an abstraction whereas everything else is not."

Well, okay. But apropos of the current topic, that view of "the universe" is (so far as I can see) irrelevant to the First Way and Bob's objections to it.

"I used to have one 'qavistas' and we actually had a short exchange when it was available to me."

Ah, yes, so we did. Hello again. ;-)

"I will remember to sign with T.H."

Thank you. I know I won't be alone in appreciating that.

Jeremy Taylor said...

dguller,

I share your hesitancy to give exclusivity to one faith. I'm a Christian Platonist, but I leave the door open to other faiths. I have never really come up, or seen, a good answer for why Christianity is the only revelation and yet came so late and to a limited geographical space.

As a Platonist, I tend to see man's end as knowing and being with God, and that this is achieved in the mysterical sense akin to the Eastern Orthodox Theosis. I do not see how revelations are contrary to God's nature, quite the reverse. It seems to be me that God would wish, as part of his very nature, us to know him and find, as he is the supreme good and ground of our being. As man at this stage in the cosmic cycle can rarely achieve this union on his own, it seems to me he requires the support of God in the form of the initiatory, imaginal, and moral matrix of a religious tradition. This is why I am a practicing Christian and tend to support a fairly orthodox practice and interpretation of the faith.


Have you ever read the works of Henry Corbin? I strongly recommend them.

Crude said...

Jeremy,

I'm a Catholic, but I think I share that sentiment in some ways. I've written before that intellectually I'm a theist first. I may think Catholicism is the most intellectually respectable faith of the lot I've seen, but I don't think someone is automatically ludicrous to be a mere theist, much less a theist of another religion.

Anonymous said...

@Scott,

Hello, again! ;-)

"...that view of "the universe" is (so far as I can see) irrelevant to the First Way and Bob's objections to it."

I wasn't actually proposing it as an attempt to refute, or support, the first way (and Bob's objection to it). It was more like musing. But now when you mention it I will try to look at the relevance it may, or may not have. Well, it is almost 1:am here (Copenhagen), so I'd better retire and resume the thinking tomorrow. I Will be back if I have something concrete to say.

T.H.

Step2 said...

Fifth, it would have to be infinite, because there is nothing outside of it that delimits it in any way.

Didn't Aristotle consider actual infinity to be an incoherent and meaningless concept? He allowed for potential infinity, but that is within a time framework.

As for rejecting revelation, what does it mean for the "ground of all being" to issue a commandment forbidding the eating of pork? It may have made prudential sense from the perspective of disease control way back when, but to ascribe it to infinite being is bizarre.

ccmnxc said...

I think that whole "being tactically offended" point is being played out rather well with Parsons' recent responses, to the point where its becoming hard to tell that we aren't dealing with Parsons, but with some angsty New Atheist. Frankly I think all meaningful dialogue has broken down at this point (though one could make the argument that it was never there to begin with), but being the ignorant and boorish follower of Feser that I am, I sure do take some rather cynical entertainment value out of it all.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Step2,

I'm not sure why it would be bizzare to link a law like restrictions on pork to God. A revelation, even if it comes from God, has to meet man somewhere. It has to be expressed in such a way that man can make sense of it - although it will have different layers for different kinds of men.

I have a hard time understanding an objective or absolute reason pork shouldn't be eaten, but a revelation might easily make use of certain symbols and rites to lead men to God.

In fact, as a Platonist, I think this is what a revelation is. It is a matrix of symbols and imaginal aspects, initiations, rituals, sacraments, and doctrines that provide an immersive, full path to salvation and, eventually, sanctification.

Chad Handley said...

The combox over at the Secular Outpost is heating up with some interesting exchanges.

As of 30 minutes ago, Parsons agreed to a brief debate with Feser mediated by Lowder.

dguller said...

Scott:

First: The direct revelation described in Genesis 28 was to Jacob himself, not to us; if Jacob needed an associated miracle in order to accept it himself, at least some extra-biblical sources say he had one (the four stones on which he slept became one stone overnight). The overall revelation of which the Church claims to be the repository (and which includes the authoritative nature of Genesis 28 as Scripture) is a different revelation, associated with a different and later set of miracles.

First, to me, a revelation is a direct communication from God to a particular human being. Whether that communication is to be further shared to other people is a secondary issue, and just distinguishes a private revelation from a public revelation. But the problem with identifying a revelation itself remains.

Second, sticking with the matter of private revelation, take the example of Abraham, as dramatized by Kierkegaard. Abraham had an experience in which he was commanded to kill his son, Isaac, and he is celebrated as the father of faith for choosing to listen to that experience, even though it demanded the murder of his only child. Today, he would not be praised, but rather committed to a mental institution for psychiatric treatment. We certainly wouldn’t praise someone who claimed to hear voices that commanded them to kill family members. So, what is it about Abraham’s experience that distinguishes it from an auditory command hallucination that would be a mark of mental illness?

If we today accept Jacob's experience as a direct revelation on the basis of miracles, it's not because of any miracle(s) that may have confirmed it to him but because of the miracles by which the overall authority of the Church is confirmed to us. Someone who doesn't accept those latter miracles might quite reasonably think that Jacob just had a peculiarly vivid dream.

But that doesn’t solve the problem, because it would follow that any time a member of the church claimed to receive a revelation from God, then their claims would automatically be authentic, because they are part of a church tradition that includes miracles at some point in time. In other words, there could be a wide swath of space and time separating a revelation and a miracle, and yet if there is some continuity, then the revelation is valid. That seems far too weak of a justification.

dguller said...

Crude:

Well, aside from 'shown to be physically possible', I think revelation claims can certain compete with each other in part on those terms. So that's a start, right?

But it’s not a promising start. Using the historical criteria that I mentioned would only help to show that a person actually claimed at some point in time to have a revelation from God. It would have no bearing upon whether they actually did have a revelation from God. That would require a different set of criteria.

Crude said...

dguller,

But it’s not a promising start. Using the historical criteria that I mentioned would only help to show that a person actually claimed at some point in time to have a revelation from God.

I think it's promising when you're trying to sort among competing revelation claims. Credible miracle claims also would seem to help.

tz said...

Is an anti-proton merely a conton?

Anonymous said...

"As of 30 minutes ago, Parsons agreed to a brief debate with Feser mediated by Lowder."

Wonder why Parsons chose to debate rather than answering the questions via a blogpost. Seems a lot less convenient.

Scott said...

@dguller:

"First, to me, a revelation is a direct communication from God to a particular human being. Whether that communication is to be further shared to other people is a secondary issue, and just distinguishes a private revelation from a public revelation. But the problem with identifying a revelation itself remains."

Sure, and that was part of my point. But it's not just that. There are two different alleged revelations at issue in your example: God's alleged direct revelation to Jacob, and God's alleged revelation to the rest of us that Jacob's experience was a direct revelation. The two revelations aren't confirmed by the same miracle(s).

That point is intended (only) to address your questions: [T]ake the communication from God to Jacob at Genesis 28:10-19. God spoke to Jacob, which would count as a revelation, I believe. And yet what was the associated miracle? Under Feser’s criteria, Jacob did not receive a revelation from God. And in that case, did he just dream the whole experience? No. Under Feser's criterion (which, as I understand it, is the Church's), Jacob might not have been justified in believing his experience to be a direct revelation if it wasn't accompanied by an attesting miracle, but that alone wouldn't entail that his belief was incorrect (or even that he didn't have other grounds for accepting it).

In other words, it's not the case that under Feser's criterion, Jacob didn't receive a revelation—just that from Jacob's own point of view, he might arguably have believed on the basis of insufficient evidence even though his belief was correct. That's not exactly anomalous: nobody seriously claims that every Catholic believes in God (etc.) solely on the basis of rational arguments and evidence, just that rational arguments and evidence suffice to establish certain points for those who are receptive to them.

"So, what is it about Abraham’s experience that distinguishes it from an auditory command hallucination that would be a mark of mental illness?"

I don't know. But my point is that whether or not Abraham himself was justified in regarding it as a private revelation (and perhaps he wasn't!), we today have different, additional grounds for regarding it as such: namely, the miracles that allegedly attest to the authority of the Church as a repository of an overall revelation that includes the story of Abraham's command to scarifice Isaac.

"But that doesn't solve the problem, because it would follow that any time a member of the church claimed to receive a revelation from God, then their claims would automatically be authentic, because they are part of a church tradition that includes miracles at some point in time."

Why in the world would that follow? If I believe there's extraterrestrial life, then I have to accept that every UFO sighting is a geuine example of alien visitation? Why is the Church be so deliberately demanding about proof of miracles, then?

Scott said...

"Scarifice." Oy.

Sacrifice.

Scott said...

@Chad Handley:

"As of 30 minutes ago, Parsons agreed to a brief debate with Feser mediated by Lowder."

So he has. Let's hope that works out.

Incidentally, and quite off-topic, I'm happy to see from your comments in Parsons's combox that you're taking classical theism seriously. I really think classical theism is the best answer to your questions about why anyone would take belief in God seriously in a universe that has superheroes in it.

Dr. Hackenbush said...

dguller:

"First, I do not understand why the ground of all being would care about a particular group of people to the point of communicating a specific message for their betterment, and ignore everyone else."

Not only a particular group of people, but a select group within that people. If Christ had announced his divinity early on to the Apostles (much less the masses)and they believed him, they would have fallen on their faces in slave-master fear, never to apply their knowledge of Christ to the Father.

As it was, Christ allowed for the "Messianic secret" until such a time as Peter's confession. The Apostles had grown in their intimacy with Christ through daily life in his presence. They could then leave behind the master-slave relationship for the familial, Father-son (and daughter) relationship that Christ came to reveal, in the fullest sense (theosis, as Jeremy mentioned).

Jeremy Taylor said...

Can we not rather easily exlude some potential revelations?

Surely, those which ultimately are metaphysically absurd - Mormonism, Scientology, perhaps Manichaeism - are to be ruled out.

We can also rule out, surely, those that look too humanistic, rationalist, and contrived, such Baha’i?


We can probably also rule out various neo-pagan and new age nonsense as contrived and silly. Also, whatever the status of ancient Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic, and so on faiths in their own times, if they were once legitimate revelations it has clearly providence to bring them to an end, and it seems unlikely that a few new agers pretending they are Druids are going to bring proper life back to these tradition.


I think we can pretty quickly reduce the possible legitimate, living revelations to traditional tribal religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and the Far-Eastern religions.

Scott said...

@Jeremy Taylor:

"I think we can pretty quickly reduce the possible legitimate, living revelations to traditional tribal religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and the Far-Eastern religions."

And not even all of those make any claims to any sort of revelation beyond natural reason (although the fact that they don't claim any doesn't alone imply that they don't have any).

Michael Demers said...

Parsons sounds more like a politician than a professor.

Bob said...

Hi dguller and Scott.

Thanks for your responses regarding the First Way premise that I am having problems with.

Here is the premise from Aquinas that I am working with:


But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality.


One could say that the actually cool air acts on the potentially cool coffee leaving actually cool coffee, in accordance with the premise.

However, one could also say that the actually hot coffee is acting on the potentially hot air leaving actually cool coffee, in other words, cooling itself.

This seems like a problem to me in that the premise seems successful for energy gained but seems to fail for energy lost. If the cool air is not, in fact, cooling the hot coffee; it is the hot coffee that is heating the cool air and in the process cooling itself, thereby actualizing it's own potential, or so it would seem.

I think that this problem is easier to see if we were to look at what happens to the same hot coffee in a vacuum.

In a vacuum, the coffee would probably boil (turn into a gas, due to the relation between boiling point and pressure) and subsequently turn directly into a solid. However, in a vacuum, there is no other actual, other than the coffee itself, to actualize the coffee's potential to become actual frozen gas.

I could say that there is an actual vacuum, (here I am trying to figure out how to salvage the premise), but when I think about it, it still appears that the thing doing anything at all is just the coffee itself.

Another problem I think that I am seeing here, one I have to give a whole lot more thought to, is that it does seem that a mover must itself be moved by that which it is moving. If this is the case, then I am not sure how one can reason to Pure Act using an argument from motion (change).

Any help here would be appreciated.

David T said...

So, what is it about Abraham’s experience that distinguishes it from an auditory command hallucination that would be a mark of mental illness?

God, being God, can provide the condition for the recipient knowing the private revelation is true in the communication itself. Such an experience is entirely sui generis and there is no way to tease out, a priori, what those conditions might be. The revelation is a miracle and the conditions by which the recipient knows it is true is also a miracle.

What would such an experience be like? I can't say, never having had one. Even if I had, that experience could not be generalized to any other experience of private revelation, since they are by nature singular.

Note the logic here. It is only "True private revelation provides condition for its own belief" and not "Impossible to be mistaken about a private revelation." The true prophet knows he is true but that doesn't preclude false prophets, both false prophets that are self-aware (i.e. con-men) and sincere false prophets.

Furthermore, there is no way for other people to have access to the private condition that validates a revelation for a particular person. That's why public miracles are necessary for the rest of us to believe in a prophet, whatever he believes about himself.

Scott said...

@Bob:

Coffee is composed of molecules in motion that act on each other.

Glenn said...

tz,

Is an anti-proton merely a conton?

Let us suppose that it is. Now, given that Parsons has agreed to a brief debate with Feser mediated by Lowder, and assuming said debate does commence, we shan't at all be surprised if Parsons should abruptly withdraw in a huff on the mere grounds that it is his feeling that Feser's remarks are anti-protumely.

Glenn said...

Bob,

Any help here would be appreciated.

Examples are sometimes used for illustrative purposes, e.g., to illustrate a principle. The example of a cup of hot coffee can be used to illustrate the principle that potentiality is reduced to actuality by something already actual.

If I wrap my cold hands around a cup of hot coffee, not to cool down the coffee but to warm up my hands, then the actuality of the coffee's heat reduces the potential of my hands to be warmer to the actuality of being warmer.

And if I blow on a cup of hot coffee, not to warm up my cooler breath but to cool down the hotter coffee, then the actuality of my cooler breath reduces the coffee's potential to be cooler to the actuality of being cooler.

In either case, a potentiality has been reduced to an actuality by something already actual.

dguller said...

DavidT:

Right, which is why arguments to the effect that "God wouldn't do it that way" don't work, e.g. God wouldn't perform miracles because they are disorderly, or God wouldn't work through the Jews because it is inefficient. Those arguments only work if they are made from God's perspective.

That’s true. Neither theist nor atheist can appeal to God’s perspective, because no-one has access to it, and thus it is fundamentally unknowable and unknown.

Muhammad: The only miracle he is said to have performed is the Quran itself. So you are right, in his case, that the validation of the revelation is the revelation itself.

That isn’t entirely true. Muhammad did claim additional miracles, such as the Miraj, in which he rode to Jerusalem on a winged creature and then ascended through heaven, passing the previous prophets, and reaching Allah, albeit through a veil. It would be more proper to say that the Qur’an is his greatest miracle, probably because it is a public document that has a direct, and potentially transformative, impact upon other people, which is supposed to be a sign of its miraculous nature. That’s the Islamic claim.

Not so with Christ, where it is claimed that the validation is the historical fact of the Resurrection.

So, the validation of Christian revelation is a historical event that has limited evidence in support of it. That doesn’t seem very promising.

I won't argue the historical case for the Resurrection - I'm sure you are well familiar with those arguments.

I’m not, actually.

The point is that the case for the Revelation is not itself the Revelation. (The Gospels contain a mix of Revelation - what Jesus revelas to us about God - and historical facts to back up that Revelation, e.g. his resurrection.)

I’m not too sure that will work.

First, an argument could be made that everything in the Gospels reveals something about God to believers, and thus the entirety is a revelation.

Second, the resurrection itself is supposed to tell us something about God, and thus should be a revelation, which means that the case for the revelation is still the revelation itself.

Third, I’ve never understood why Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is so earth shattering that it validates everything that he taught. In ancient times, numerous figures were claimed to rise from the dead, which would have a twofold effect. One, if Christians accepted those prior resurrections as true events, then Christ’s resurrection loses its fundamentality, becoming just another resurrection and not unique. Two, if Christians rejected those prior resurrection events, then if the reasons that they rejected them also apply to people today who are trying to determine whether Christ was resurrected, then we should also reject the resurrection as false.

God, being God, can provide the condition for the recipient knowing the private revelation is true in the communication itself. Such an experience is entirely sui generis and there is no way to tease out, a priori, what those conditions might be. The revelation is a miracle and the conditions by which the recipient knows it is true is also a miracle.

So, as long as something genuinely believes that their experience is from God, then they are justified in believing that it is an authentic revelation? I have met numerous psychotic individuals who have met that criteria in my practice. Would you say that all of them were truly receiving a communication from God? Or maybe only some of them? But then how would you know which people who genuinely believed that they were receiving a message from God were truly doing so and who were hallucinating? Again, you need some kind of criteria other than firm belief to distinguish the two.

dguller said...

What would such an experience be like? I can't say, never having had one. Even if I had, that experience could not be generalized to any other experience of private revelation, since they are by nature singular.

So, a private revelation is singular, unique and un-repeatable. I don’t think that’s really a sustainable position. It must have something in common with other private revelations that would justify their all being called “private revelations”. Otherwise, you are using the term equivocally.

Note the logic here. It is only "True private revelation provides condition for its own belief" and not "Impossible to be mistaken about a private revelation." The true prophet knows he is true but that doesn't preclude false prophets, both false prophets that are self-aware (i.e. con-men) and sincere false prophets.

Then how is one to distinguish between being a true prophet and a sincere false prophet? In both cases, there are vivid and profound subjective experiences that cause firm belief in their truth, and yet one experience is true and another is false. It seems that your position is that the differentiating factor is something, but this “something” is completely unknown and undetectable. If that is true, then there is absolutely no way to distinguish between an authentic private revelation and an inauthentic one.

Furthermore, there is no way for other people to have access to the private condition that validates a revelation for a particular person. That's why public miracles are necessary for the rest of us to believe in a prophet, whatever he believes about himself.

It would stand to reason that any revelation would have a few possible criteria: (1) consistency with previous validated revelations; (2) publicly verifiable miracles that are associated with the prophet; and (3) the prophet has been shown to be an honest and upright individual of moral character. (1) seems to be true, because any revelation that flatly contradicted other revelations that had a more solid claim to justification would result in a logical inconsistency in the divine message. (2) seems to be true, because a miracle of that kind would demonstrate the supernatural influence upon the prophet. (3) seems to be true, because if someone was dishonest and deceptive in general, then it would be likely that they were being deceptive about their claims to prophecy.

With regards to (1), the Christian revelation did contradict the earlier Jewish revelation. No Jew believed that God could assume human form, and so this was a radical deviation from Jewish revelation. In fact, the belief that the divine could assume human form was more consistent with paganism and polytheism than Judaism, and yet Christians did not appeal to polytheistic texts to justify their claims, but rather to Jewish texts, which they flatly contradicted on this score.

With regards to (2), the only miracle that you used to justify the Christian revelation is the resurrection of Jesus. And I’ve already mentioned some problems with this above.

With regards to (3), Jesus did lie to his follows on some occasions. For example, he said: “There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16: 28). Unless you want to claim that some people that heard Jesus’ words at that time are still alive today, Jesus clearly told an untruth. He also said: “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret” (John 18:20). However, did he did preach out in public, and not exclusively in synagogues or temples. So, Jesus did lie on occasion.

Chris said...

Some thoughts/questions on religious plurality....The Second Person of the Trinity, Christ the Son, exists for all eternity. Is it possible that the Logos can (or has) appear(red) in ways other than Jesus of Nazareth?
That is, "without denying that there is only one Son of God, or that He alone is the author of salvation, or that Jesus Christ is that Son", could it be that this one Son did/will not limit His saving work to his incarnate presence as Jesus?

dguller said...

Bob:

This seems like a problem to me in that the premise seems successful for energy gained but seems to fail for energy lost. If the cool air is not, in fact, cooling the hot coffee; it is the hot coffee that is heating the cool air and in the process cooling itself, thereby actualizing it's own potential, or so it would seem.

You have the following factors:

(1) The coffee is actually hot
(2) The coffee is potentially cold
(3) The environment is actually cold
(4) The environment is potentially hot

Your question is whether the coffee that is actually hot or the environment that is actually cold is the primary agent of change, and whether the coffee that changes from hot to cold or the environment that changes from cold to hot (or warm) is the primary change. I think that’s the wrong way to look at it.

Let’s start with the question of what is actually changing, i.e. the coffee or the environment. The answer is that there is only one change, i.e. the flow of energy from the coffee to the environment, but it is described in two different ways, i.e. focusing upon decrease in energy in the coffee or upon the increase in energy in the environment. That there is an increase in one direction and a decrease in another direction are just two different ways of describing the flow of something from one thing to another.

Now, with regards to the agent of change, because the agents themselves change in the process, I don’t have a problem with saying that there are two agents of change and that the changes in themselves are analogous to the changes in the patients, because in this case, the agents are also patients. In other words, the coffee both changes and is changed, and likewise for the environment. Since they are both material entities, this is not problematic, because some agents of change themselves change in the process, and their change is essential to their activity, and other agents of change do not change.

I could say that there is an actual vacuum, (here I am trying to figure out how to salvage the premise), but when I think about it, it still appears that the thing doing anything at all is just the coffee itself.

Well, a vacuum would just be absence of matter in space-time. But there is still the actual presence of space-time, and space-time is a something that affects the coffee, and is affected by the coffee.

Another problem I think that I am seeing here, one I have to give a whole lot more thought to, is that it does seem that a mover must itself be moved by that which it is moving. If this is the case, then I am not sure how one can reason to Pure Act using an argument from motion (change).

Like I said above, it is not necessary for an agent of change to itself change in the process. Sometimes, an agent of change will change, such as in the example that you mentioned with the hot coffee and the cold environment, and other times, the agent of change does not itself change, such as God.

Bob said...

Hi Glenn,

Thanks for the response.

If I wrap my cold hands around a cup of hot coffee, not to cool down the coffee but to warm up my hands, then the actuality of the coffee's heat reduces the potential of my hands to be warmer to the actuality of being warmer.

True in that respect the premise holds, but in doing so (reducing the potentiality of your cold hands to be actually warmer) the actually warmer coffee reduces it's own potential to be cooler, so the premise seems to be contradicted.

And if I blow on a cup of hot coffee, not to warm up my cooler breath but to cool down the hotter coffee, then the actuality of my cooler breath reduces the coffee's potential to be cooler to the actuality of being cooler.

Not really.

The actual coffee warms your potentially warmer breath thereby actually cooling itself, (reducing it's own potential).

Tricky...

dguller said...

Crude:

I think it's promising when you're trying to sort among competing revelation claims. Credible miracle claims also would seem to help.

It’s helpful, but only up to a point. And sure, a miracle would help to increase the likelihood of the spiritual and supernatural bona fides of the prophet in question, but one would still have to be able to distinguish between an extremely unlikely event that could have a natural explanation that simply eludes us at this time, and a genuine miracle that was caused by divine intervention. Furthermore, one would have to be sure that the individual associated with the miracle was who God intended to be associated with the miracle. Perhaps there was someone else that remains hidden? In addition, one would have to be reasonably sure that the prophet understood and accurately communicated the religious message properly without any distortion. Finally, one would have to be sure that those who heard this message also understood and interpreted it correctly without bias or distortion when they shared it with others.

All of which is to say that I have a tremendous amount of skepticism for revelatory claims, becuase it always seems more likely that people were hallucinating or deluded, were being deceptive and lying for the sake of some alterior end, or that the miracle in question was due to natural causes that are simply unknown at this time than due to a genuine intervention of a deity for the purpose of communicating a message to mankind.

Scott said...

@Glenn:

"[W]e shan't at all be surprised if Parsons should abruptly withdraw in a huff on the mere grounds that it is his feeling that Feser's remarks are anti-protumely."

I agree; that wouldn't be surprising at all. However, at this point it's all anti-projecture; there could be any number of other reasons they might protinue.

PatrickH said...

It would be the potentially cool coffee becoming actually cool coffee or the potentially hot air becoming actually hot air.

Aquinas never talks about change as being something moving from being actually some way to actually some different way. For example, the wood heated by the fire in the First Way's first part is described as potentially hot becoming actually hot and when actually hot as potentially cold. He does not talk about actually cold wood becoming actually hot.

As for the vacuum example, the vacuum is actually cold, so the potentially cold coffee is made actually cold coffee by the actually cold vacuum.

Scott said...

@PatrickH:

"As for the vacuum example, the vacuum is actually cold, so the potentially cold coffee is made actually cold coffee by the actually cold vacuum."

Heh. Contrary to what you may have seen in the movies, vacuum isn't cold (it has no temperature) and the only way the coffee can lose heat to it is through radiation. (Coffee doesn't get cold when you put it in a Thermos bottle, does it?)

As Bob says, the coffee would boil—not because of heat but because of the absence of air pressure.

Bob said...

Hi dguller,


Since they are both material entities, this is not problematic, because some agents of change themselves change in the process, and their change is essential to their activity

I take it from this part that we seem to agree that some things seem to be able to actualize their own potential, in the relevant sense.


and other agents of change do not change.

This part needs more work, I think, as you conclude:

Like I said above, it is not necessary for an agent of change to itself change in the process. Sometimes, an agent of change will change, such as in the example that you mentioned with the hot coffee and the cold environment, and other times, the agent of change does not itself change, such as God.

How do you actually get to an agent of change that does not change itself?

Glenn said...

Scott,

I agree; that wouldn't be surprising at all. However, at this point it's all anti-projecture; there could be any number of other reasons they might protinue.

'tis true what you say, yes indeed.

But notice that if we expand the scope (rather than, say, protract it) then not all is anti-projecture -- for Parsons clearly confesses to be[ing] an atheist.

David T said...

dguller,

I'm arguing the narrow point that the basis for belief in the Christian revelation is separate from the Revelation itself. With respect to Muhammad, you clearly know more about it than I do, but it sounds like the miracle of the Miraj is not adduced as a public miracle performed for the purpose of converting the unconverted. That work is done by the miracle of the Quran, so we are still left with the case that in Islam, the Revelation is itself its own proof.

The Christian Gospels make a clear distinction between what is known through Revelation (e.g. the Trinity), and the basis for believing the Revelation (e.g. Mary Magdalene seeing the tomb empty and then Jesus alive). We only know about the Trinity because God told us. But we don't need a miracle to know about Mary Magdalene. We know about that through ordinary human communication - she told somebody, who told somebody else, who wrote it down, and preserved the story in the enduring organization of the Church. There is nothing essentially miraculous about that process, or the story they tell.

Now whether you find the story believable is a different question from whether that story is itself part of the Revelation. It's not... Mary did not hear from God that Jesus rose from the dead, but saw the tomb empty and the now-living Jesus for herself.

dguller said...

Bob:

I take it from this part that we seem to agree that some things seem to be able to actualize their own potential, in the relevant sense.

I’d rather say that some things have parts in act that actualize other parts in potency.

How do you actually get to an agent of change that does not change itself?

That is the conclusion of the First Way. Unless there is an unchanging and unchangeable changer at the start of a sequence of per se causal changes, then change is impossible.

Glenn said...

Bob,

True in that respect the premise holds, but in doing so (reducing the potentiality of your cold hands to be actually warmer) the actually warmer coffee reduces it's own potential to be cooler, so the premise seems to be contradicted.

Ah. So the coffee radiated to me its intent to cool off, thereby compelling me to wrap my cold hands around it, that it might realize its end?


Tricky indeed.

Bob said...

Hi dguller,

Yes I know that is the conclusion of the First Way, but given that I think the premise we have been discussing may fail, it seems that we can no longer draw an unmoved mover as a conclusion.

If that premise does indeed fail, then I think that the conclusion of an unmoved mover may be a non-sequitor.

I have to consider this a lot more.

Man...this stuff is interesting!

dguller said...

Bob:

Yes I know that is the conclusion of the First Way, but given that I think the premise we have been discussing may fail, it seems that we can no longer draw an unmoved mover as a conclusion.

Fair enough. I was just responding to your question of why someone would believe that an unchanging changer is possible, and the answer is that one becomes necessary to avoid an impossible infinite regress of per se causes that are composed of both act and potency.

If that premise does indeed fail, then I think that the conclusion of an unmoved mover may be a non-sequitor.

Indeed. I long wrestled with the First Way, but in the end couldn’t help but conclude that it is a sound argument, because the rejection of its key premises would require accepting absurd consequences, such as the possibility of genuinely uncaused events that would utterly destroy science and human knowledge. After all, how could one distinguish between an uncaused event and one with an unknown cause? If you truly believed in the former, then when would you know to just stop looking for causes and accept a brute uncaused event as the only possible explanation?

Man...this stuff is interesting!

Agreed.

Scott said...

@Glenn:

"But notice that if we expand the scope (rather than, say, protract it) then not all is anti-projecture -- for Parsons clearly confesses to be[ing] an atheist."

That is anti-confoundly true.

dguller said...

DavidT:

I'm arguing the narrow point that the basis for belief in the Christian revelation is separate from the Revelation itself.

And I’m not seeing how that is possible, if you define “revelation” as something communicated from God to mankind about himself. The resurrection certainly counts as a revelation in that sense. I think it’s fair to say that one revelation supports another revelation, though, but then you still have to justify the supporting revelation itself as genuine.

With respect to Muhammad, you clearly know more about it than I do, but it sounds like the miracle of the Miraj is not adduced as a public miracle performed for the purpose of converting the unconverted. That work is done by the miracle of the Quran, so we are still left with the case that in Islam, the Revelation is itself its own proof.

It can get a little tricky, but the Miraj was a public miracle in the sense that Muhammad observed caravans and activities during his journey that he could not possibly have known, and that were later confirmed by the arriving caravans themselves, further bolstering his claims.

The Christian Gospels make a clear distinction between what is known through Revelation (e.g. the Trinity), and the basis for believing the Revelation (e.g. Mary Magdalene seeing the tomb empty and then Jesus alive). We only know about the Trinity because God told us. But we don't need a miracle to know about Mary Magdalene. We know about that through ordinary human communication - she told somebody, who told somebody else, who wrote it down, and preserved the story in the enduring organization of the Church. There is nothing essentially miraculous about that process, or the story they tell.

But if what justifies the revelation is something that was observed by someone, and then communicated to other people in oral and written forms, then you introduce a number of possible biases and cognitive distortions that would have to be controlled for somehow. And since communication, especially oral communication, is prone to errors in transmission, then it stands to reason that the original message has necessarily been distorted, and thus is unreliable without independent confirmation.

Furthermore, just because a person claims a divine message and is the instrument of a miracle does not necessarily mean that they are telling the truth. Prophets are flawed human beings who are prone to anger, deception and sin, and thus even a miracle does not guarantee the validity of a message. A prophet may willfully ignore or twist the message out of spite or pride, or some other such psychological quirk.

Mary did not hear from God that Jesus rose from the dead, but saw the tomb empty and the now-living Jesus for herself.

If that is what she actually saw.

Crude said...

dguller,

It’s helpful, but only up to a point. And sure, a miracle would help to increase the likelihood of the spiritual and supernatural bona fides of the prophet in question, but one would still have to be able to distinguish between an extremely unlikely event that could have a natural explanation that simply eludes us at this time, and a genuine miracle that was caused by divine intervention.

See, this is where we disagree. You say we'd have to be able to distinguish, but here that seems to imply 'tell apart with utter reliability'. I don't think mere distinguishing is a problem to reasonably believe in, and utter reliability would be far too high of a standard.

Furthermore, one would have to be sure that the individual associated with the miracle was who God intended to be associated with the miracle. Perhaps there was someone else that remains hidden?

I think once you've reasonably concluded you're dealing with a miracle, you know you're in the ballpark to the degree that you're down to arguing what revelation to accept, not whether.

In addition, one would have to be reasonably sure that the prophet understood and accurately communicated the religious message properly without any distortion.

Yep, but oddly enough that doesn't seem too hard.

Finally, one would have to be sure that those who heard this message also understood and interpreted it correctly without bias or distortion when they shared it with others.

Yep, do a reasonable amount of research. And/or invest trust in relevant authorities. (This gets into a touchy issue for me, since my views about this are rather liberal.)

All of which is to say that I have a tremendous amount of skepticism for revelatory claims, becuase it always seems more likely that people were hallucinating or deluded, were being deceptive and lying for the sake of some alterior end, or that the miracle in question was due to natural causes that are simply unknown at this time than due to a genuine intervention of a deity for the purpose of communicating a message to mankind.

Well, here's the thing. This implies you already have an answer to the question you asked me - you're able to tell what is or isn't divine revelation versus 'not'. So how do you determine these things such that you can assign likelihood?

David T said...

All of which is to say that I have a tremendous amount of skepticism for revelatory claims, becuase it always seems more likely that people were hallucinating or deluded, were being deceptive and lying for the sake of some alterior end, or that the miracle in question was due to natural causes that are simply unknown at this time than due to a genuine intervention of a deity for the purpose of communicating a message to mankind.

This is a respectable and hardheaded position... but I find the consequences of the revelation need to be taken into account. I would expect the consequences of a mass delusion or fraud to to be a short-lived movement or a cult like Heaven's Gate. Its falsity is demonstrated by the fact that it soon self-destructs and is forgotten.

I would have expected this to happen in the Christian case if it was based on a hallucination or fraud. The effect can't be greater than the cause. But, it seems to me, the Christian revelation led to the most remarkable thing in human history, the trajectory of Western Civilization, which broke out of the universal pattern of growth and collapse (e.g. the Egyptians, Greeks, Incas, Hittites, Romans) or stasis over millenia (India and China). The medieval civilization was constructed explicitly on Christian principles and, out of the rubble of the Roman Empire, created a civilization of relentless innovation socially (the separation of secular and relgious authority), culturally (Gothic cathedrals, Aquinas, Dante, art) and technologcially(the plow, harness, finance, navigation, eyeglasses, water wheels, etc.) that led to the modern world. This trajectory is unique in human history.

I find it implausible that this sort of revolution in human history could be caused by a fraud or hallucination. Those things just aren't deep enough. Something happened in the first centuries AD to knock human history off its natural pattern... and it seems me that something was the inbreaking of God into history in Jesus Christ.

That's all based on my personal reading of history, of course, and yours will differ. But I think something like my view is why many people think the Christian revelation can't be just your run-of-the-mill hallucination or fraud.

David T said...

But if what justifies the revelation is something that was observed by someone, and then communicated to other people in oral and written forms, then you introduce a number of possible biases and cognitive distortions that would have to be controlled for somehow. And since communication, especially oral communication, is prone to errors in transmission, then it stands to reason that the original message has necessarily been distorted, and thus is unreliable without independent confirmation

That's all true and the defender of revelation must overcome those objections. Not something I can do a thorough job of in one comment, but this briefly is why I find the Christian revelation credible:

There is no doubt that the Catholic Church has been proclaiming the same basic message about the Gospel since the 4th century, as summarized in the Nicene Creed. I recite that same Creed every week in Mass that they were saying in the 4th century. So I know that the Church has been a consistent and reliable carrier of this message for the last 1700 years, and has done so without distortion (I'm not talking about ancillary doctrines, but about the basic Gospel message in the Creed).

Then the question is: What about the 300 years before then? The history gets a little fuzzy, but based on the later 1700 years, I don't find a reason to doubt that the Church was consistently proclaiming the same message all the way back to Christ (and early versions of the Creed, agreeing in the basic details, are found in the letters of Paul, the oldest NT documents).

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