Friday, March 21, 2014

I was wrong about Keith Parsons


Longtime readers know that Prof. Keith Parsons and I have not always gotten along.  Some years ago he famously expressed the view that the arguments of natural theology are a “fraud” that do not rise to the level of a “respectable philosophical position” worthy of “serious academic attention.”  I hit back pretty hard at the time, and our subsequent remarks about each other over the years have not been kind.  I had come to the conclusion that Prof. Parsons was unwilling to engage seriously with the best arguments of natural theology.  But I am delighted to say that I was wrong.  Prof. Parsons has said that his earlier remarks about the field were “unfortunate” and “intemperate and inappropriate, however qualified.”  He has shown admirable grace and good sportsmanship in his willingness to bury the hatchet despite how heated things had been between us.  And he has most definitely engaged seriously with the arguments of traditional natural theology in our recent exchange.  I take back the unkind remarks I have made about him in the past.  He is a good guy.

Keith is now wrapping up his side in our initial exchange.  If you have not done so already, give it a read.  In the near future we will have an exchange on the subject of atheism and morality.  I look forward to it.  Keith has also expressed to me his admiration for the quality of the comments readers have been making on our exchange.  I agree, and I thank the readers both of my blog and of Keith’s blog over at Secular Outpost.

40 comments:

Catholicz said...

Nice. I do believe atheists can and in many cases are moral persons... It's more the shifting sands of justification that worry me. I look forward to this exchange! :)

Untenured said...

@Catholicz:

The sands are shifting, but not necessarily in a way that should worry you. The fact is this: Parsons and certain other Atheists are now willing to walk it back from their previous over-the-top dismissals of Theism. Bashing Theism as "stupid" and obviously wrong is slowly staring to become less acceptable in serious academic discussions.

This is because people like Ed have been landing body-blows against the received naturalistic consensus; not necessarily in terms of academic significance and prestige, but, as of right now, by exposing how tenuous the current consensus is and how comparatively weak the arguments for naturalism really are.

This exposure has forced, shall we say an "attitude adjustment" from the cocksure atheists who thought it was "Game, set, match" simply because they could counter Plantinga and company.

Tom said...

This has been a very good series of posts from both of you, and the next one looks great as well.

There was a link to this article attacking the cosmological argument in one of the other posts on the Secular Outpost. Would you, or any of the other posters here, mind commenting on it?

http://exapologist.blogspot.com/2013/06/theism-and-material-causality.html

Tim said...

Good news.
Glad to see Prof Parsons did engage.
Despite Being Itself insisting to Prof Parsons to ignore you.

malcolmthecynic said...

Both sides have ended up looking very gentlemanly in the end after all. Bravo!

Robert Coble said...

As a long-distance student (by way of his writings) of Dr. Feser, I am thoroughly heartened by the current exchange between Dr. Parsons and Dr. Feser. It is so refreshing to hear reasoned arguments rather than the polemics normally associated with the New Atheists!

I can't wait for the US issue of Scholastic Metaphysics!

ccmnxc said...

The morality discussion will be interesting to me, since I am not well-versed in that area. Good luck; I'm looking forward to it.

CatholicGuy said...

@Tom,

I see the problem with the article you cited as failing to note that which all A-T devotees know by heart, "Nothing comes from nothing."

The article presents a overly simplified version of contingent entities and their dependence on a non-contingent entity. Even if the universe has a material cause it does not follow that it is the only cause. And given that "nothing comes from nothing" there must be a non-contingent "something" to cause the other-contingent-something.

Greg said...

This has been an exciting exchange, and I'm glad it has been civil. If only some of the posts could have been longer. Looking forward to the debate.

Tom said...

@CatholicGuy

Well, the first comment (from Jason Thibodeau, who's been around here a few times) seems to suggest that the standard account of creation actually violates the idea that "nothing comes from nothing," as Catholic doctrine explicitly holds that the universe was created from nothing.

I asked a similar question on Mark Shea's blog a few months back (speaking of which, we teamed up on an atheist the other day on there, so it's good to see you again), and a few kind responders said that God has the ability to create the universe from nothing, but that seems to be precisely what the argument is attacking: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/2013/11/when-somebody-tries-to-sell-you.html

Catholicz said...

@Tom
Strictly speaking God was the 'something' and continues to be the something from which all things that came to exist or are held in existence rely. In fact it can be argued if one so wished from the Thomistic or Post-Thomistic position that even an eternal universe relies on God as first cause.

Catholicz said...

So to clarify the universe 'materially' came from nothing but ultimately came from the something of God's will/power.

Scott said...

@Tom:

I've commented on that post before; here's a short summary of what I had to say about it.

There's nothing in the Aristotelian understanding of a "material cause" that strictly requires it to pre-exist that of which it is the material cause. Sure, that's the usual case. But if God makes a bronze statue pop into existence out of nothing, the statue is still made of bronze, isn't it? It's just not made from (pre-existing) bronze.

Also, since Aquinas didn't think hylemorphism applied universally, there's nothing in Thomism that requires everything whatsoever to have a "material cause" anyway. Angels don't. This objection may not be entirely to the point, however, since angels, unlike the physical universe, aren't supposed to be "material" in the first place.

Scott said...

And I'll just add my agreement to Catholicz's response that creation ex nihilo isn't an example of nothing coming from nothing. God isn't "nothing."

Scott said...

(Sorry, that should be "an example of something coming from nothing.")

Tyrrell McAllister said...

An off-topic question: Are there any Thomists who buy all of the Natural Theology in Thomism, but who buy absolutely none of the “sacred science” beyond that?

In other words, I'm looking for explicit, self-avowed Thomists who don't believe in any additional divine revelation. Is there anyone, now or in the past, who says something like the following?

[Begin hypothetical position]
"I completely agree with Aquinas about what human reason alone can tell us about God. Everything that he says about God that he attributes solely to human reason is completely persuasive to me. “I also agree with him completely about what the limits of human reason are. I further agree with him that all the additional Christian beliefs that he attributes to divine revelation are logically coherent; that is, all of Aquinas's defenses of these beliefs from charges of incoherence succeed. I also agree that, when Aquinas uses human reason to draw implications from divine revelation, he makes valid conditional inferences.

“BUT I don't buy any claim that any divine revelation has actually happened. I agree with Aquinas about how far human reason can take us, but I think that, beyond that point, there is no justified belief. I think that a rational appraisal of the evidence would find vanishingly little support for a divine origin of any of the purported revelations that have come down to us.

“I concede that human reason leaves ‘gaps’ in our picture of God (e.g., about whether God is ‘three persons, one being’). I offer no alternative account to fill in these gaps. I agree that the Christian account is one possibility (epistemically speaking) for what might truly be the case. Certainly something is the case, some account is true, if not the Christian one. But I assert that there is no justification for believing in any account that goes beyond what human reason along can provide.”
[/End hypothetical position]

Tyrrell McAllister said...

Sorry for mucking up my quote marks, there. The whole portion between the "[Begin hypothetical position]" and the "[\End hypothetical position]" is supposed to be one hypothetical quotation.

Tom said...

@Alistair:

I'm not one, but dguller, who's around here often, sounds at least close to the position you describe. He started out as an atheist, but he accepted God and an Aristotelian philosophy in general despite explicitly denying a belief in revelation.

Tom said...

Sorry, @Tyrrell. Don't know why I thought it was Alistair. Clearly, I'm not actually literate.

Anonymous said...

=
Whilst I agree with Dr. Feser that Parsons has acted very well in this present debate, his arguments have hardly been of the quality to support his previous dismissals of theism. Indeed, although I'm perhaps baised, I think Dr. Feser got the better of the argument in the debate. But it is good to see that he has seemingly been open to a rethinking of that dismissal.

Step2 said...

Strictly speaking God was the 'something' and continues to be the something from which all things that came to exist or are held in existence rely.

Doesn't that still assume that something can be drawn out of nothing? Otherwise it would seem the universe is composed of "God-stuff" which I've read is a heresy.

Anonymous said...

When can we expect Coyne to exhibit Parsons-esque behavior?

Jinzang said...

"An off-topic question: Are there any Thomists who buy all of the Natural Theology in Thomism, but who buy absolutely none of the “sacred science” beyond that?"

I think Mortimer Adler is going to be the closest you'll find to someone like that.

Non-Catholic Thomists are scarce on the ground, sort of like non-Hindu admirers of Adi Shankaracharya.

Catholicz said...

True that would be but you seem to be creating a false division. The concept and power of that something and its absolute perfection existence in God. It's irelavent to speak of no material thing coming from an absencr of material things as illogiaal when we are talking about a non-material cause that isn't just a 'thing among things'. I suspect that several logical fallacies are being applied by those who thing this is a good rebuttal.

Catholicz said...

Pardon my reply Step2 . I am using a touch screen. You are right about that being a concept
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emanationism

The argument from contingency doesn't have any of these issues.

Bill said...

There are non-Catholic Thomists. Norman Geisler and Ravi Zacharias are notable examples.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Jinzang


Non-Catholic Thomists are scarce on the ground, sort of like non-Hindu admirers of Adi Shankaracharya.


I'm not sure what you mean by admirers but there are a lot (relatively speaking) of non-Hindu admirers of Shankara. I'm one of them.

I'm also a non-Catholic admirer of Thomism.

Anonymous said...

I have read a number of times that Mortimer Adler converted to the Roman Catholic Church in his very old age. (He was almost 100 when he died.)

Jeff said...

Even atheists cannot escape their share of common grace.

Prince Randoms said...

Has he really changed his opinions on the field though? He said it was "intemperate and inappropriate" not that he was disagreeing with his previous statements. "However qualified"

Philothumper said...

I pretty much fit this description except that I'm pagan.

Matt Sheean said...

I think he meant "however it might be qualified, it would still be intemperate and inappropriate".

bitvast said...

Yay! my copy of SM is on the way (that's Scholastic Metaphysics, not sadomasochism - please carefully note the difference).

Step2 said...

It's irrelevant to speak of no material thing coming from an absence of material things as illogical when we are talking about a non-material cause that isn't just a 'thing among things'.

In the "Fifty Shades of Nothing" post a while ago I thought there was a consensus among the theists that absolute nothingness cannot include immaterial entities either, it is devoid of all characteristics and potentials. Therefore when you say that nothing is formed into something by the ultimate being who creates and changes it moment to moment, that underlying power is all there is since the "object" transformed was nothing.

There is a theoretical quantum analogy to this power known as a false vacuum but its transition to a ground state doesn't annihilate things in the usual sense although it could change the universe or parts of it into something unrecognizable.

Tony said...

Step2, I think your question hones in on a potential equivocation.

"Nothing (1) comes from nothing (2)".

"Comes from" refers to cause or conditions contributing to. It does not mean strictly "material stuff made up of."

Nothing (1) means "no entity", as in no entity has as its cause...

Nothing (2) means nothingness, a condition of nothing including no entity.

Out of a condition of there being nothing including no entity, there will result, as effect from cause, no entity. Or: An existent is not caused by nothing.

Since creation constitutes results as entities, it is not a result of nothing. It is caused by God.

Being materially nothing is only one aspect to there being nothing at all, of course. "Before" God created, there was something but not something material. Before God created, there was "nothing" only in a different sense, there was no created being, but of course there was God. The first created beings that were made up of material stuff were not made up of God-stuff. But then the principle isn't that "a being made up of material stuff cannot "come from" non-material stuff." Nor is it "from a condition of no-material stuff". They were made by God as cause, but not by God as being their material cause. Thus they do not violate the principle "nothing comes from nothing".

Step2 said...

Since creation constitutes results as entities, it is not a result of nothing. It is caused by God.

I understand the argument from the point of view of causation but the problem with the ex nihilo formula is that God is also the entire effect because there is no other entity, material or immaterial, to combine with, receive or modify God's power.

Ed said...

@Scott - I'm sorry if this seems forward, but I'm hoping to ask you a question. Do you share an email address for private correspondence?

Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Dr. Feser,

I think if you simply put the two debates between you and Keith Parsons into book-form, you would sell a lot of copies. I would definitely purchase it. Please consider this suggestion.

And thanks for standing up for classical theism in such an effective way.

Scott said...

Ed has my email address, so I've deleted the post in which I gave it. Of course I trust all the regulars on this site not to misuse it, and I'll post it again if anyone wants to send me a private email. But I see no reason to invite spam.