Tuesday, June 23, 2015

There’s no such thing as “natural atheology”


In his brief and (mostly) tightly argued book God, Freedom, and Evil, Alvin Plantinga writes:

[S]ome theologians and theistic philosophers have tried to give successful arguments or proofs for the existence of God.  This enterprise is called natural theology… Other philosophers, of course, have presented arguments for the falsehood of theistic beliefs; these philosophers conclude that belief in God is demonstrably irrational or unreasonable.  We might call this enterprise natural atheology.  (pp. 2-3)

Cute, huh?  Actually (and with all due respect for Plantinga), I’ve always found the expression “natural atheology” pretty annoying, even when I was an atheist.  The reason is that, given what natural theology as traditionally understood is supposed to be, the suggestion that there is a kind of bookend subject matter called “natural atheology” is somewhat inept.  (As we will see, though, Plantinga evidently does not think of natural theology in a traditional way.)

Start with the “theology” part of natural theology.  “Theology” means “the science of God,” in the Aristotelian sense of “science” -- a systematic, demonstrative body of knowledge of some subject matter in terms of its first principles.  Of course, atheists deny that there is any science of God even in this Aristotelian sense, but for present purposes that is neither here nor there.  The point is that a science is what theology traditionally claims to be, and certainly aims to be. 

Take the Scholastic theologian’s procedure.  First, arguments are developed which purport to demonstrate the existence of a first cause of things.  Next, it is argued that when we analyze what it is to be a first cause, we find that of its essence such a cause must be pure actuality rather than a mixture of act and potency, absolutely simple or non-composite, and so forth.  Third, it is then argued that when we follow out the implications of something’s being purely actual, absolutely simple, etc. and also work backward from the nature of the effect to the nature of the cause, the various divine attributes (intellect, will, power, etc.) all follow.  Then, when we consider the character of the created order as well as that of a cause which is purely actual, simple, etc., we can spell out the precise nature of God’s relationship to that order.  (For Aquinas this entails the doctrine of divine conservation and a concurrentist account of divine causality, as opposed to an occasionalist or deist account.)  And so forth.

Even someone who doubts that this sort of project can be pulled off can see its “scientific” character.  The domain studied is, of course, taken to be real, and its reality is defended via argumentation which claims to be demonstrative.  Further argumentation of a purportedly demonstrative character is put forward in defense of each component of the system, and the system is very large, purporting to give us fairly detailed knowledge not only of the existence of God, but of his essence and attributes and relation to the created order.  Moreover, the key background notions (the theory of act and potency, the analysis of causation, the metaphysics of substance, etc.) are tightly integrated into a much larger metaphysics and philosophy of nature, so that natural theology is by no means an intellectual fifth wheel, arbitrarily tacked on for merely apologetic purposes to an already complete and self-sufficient body of knowledge. 

Rather, its status as the capstone of human knowledge is clear.  The natural sciences as we understand them today (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) are grounded in principles of the philosophy of nature, whose subject matter concerns what any possible natural science must take for granted.  Philosophy of nature in turn rests on deeper principles of metaphysics, whose subject matter is being as such (rather than merely material or changeable being, which is the subject matter of philosophy of nature; and rather than the specific sort of material or changeable world that actually exists, which is the subject matter of natural science).  Natural theology, in turn, follows out the implications of the fundamental notions of philosophy of nature and metaphysics (the theory of act and potency, etc.) and offers ultimate explanations. 

Again, you don’t have to think any of this works in order to see that what it aspires to is a kind of science.  By contrast, what Plantinga calls “atheology” could not possibly be any kind of science, and doesn’t claim to be.  For the “atheologian” doesn’t claim to be studying some domain of reality and giving us systematic knowledge of it.  On the contrary, his entire aim is to show that there is no good reason to think the domain in question is real.  You can have a “science” only of what exists, not of what doesn’t exist.  Otherwise “aunicornology” would be just as much a science as ichthyology or ornithology is.  Ichthyology and ornithology are sciences because there are such things as fishes and birds, and there is systematic knowledge to be had about what fishes and birds are like.  “Aunicornology” is not a science, because there is in the strict sense no such thing as a systematic body of knowledge of the nonexistence of unicorns, or of the nonexistence of anything else for that matter.  Suppose someone denied the existence of fishes and tried to offer arguments for their nonexistence.  It would hardly follow that he is committed to practicing something called “aichthyology” in the sense of a systematic body of knowledge of the nonexistence of fish.

Note that I am not saying anything here that an atheist couldn’t agree with.  The claim is not that one couldn’t have solid arguments for atheism (though of course I don’t think there are any).  The point is rather that even if there were solid arguments, they wouldn’t give you any kind of “science” in the sense of a systematic body of knowledge of some domain of reality.  Rather, what they would do is to show that some purported domain of reality doesn’t really exist.

So, it is inept to think that if there is such a thing as theology, then there must be some bookend subject matter called “atheology” -- again, at least if we are using “theology” the way it has traditionally been understood.  Now let’s turn to the “natural” part of natural theology.  “Natural” as opposed to what?  Well, the usual answer, of course, is “natural as opposed to revealed.”  The idea is that whereas some knowledge about God and his nature is available to us because he has specially disclosed it to us through (say) the teachings of a prophet whose authority is backed by miracles -- where such knowledge constitutes “revealed theology” -- there is other knowledge about God and his nature that is available to us just by applying our natural powers of reason to understanding the world, say by reasoning from the existence of contingent things to a necessary being as their cause (or whatever).  That’s where “natural theology” comes in.

So, if that’s what natural theology is, what would “natural atheology” be?  “Natural” as opposed to what?  As opposed to “revealed atheology”?  But of course, the idea of “revealed atheology” would be absurd.  It makes no sense to say that there is such a thing as knowledge of the non-existence of God which has been revealed to us by God.  The “natural versus revealed” distinction simply doesn’t apply to anything an atheist might affirm, the way it does apply to what the theist would affirm.  So, again, it is inept to suppose that if there is such a thing as natural theology, then there must be some bookend field of study we might label “natural atheology.” 

To be sure, there is another possible reading of the “natural” in natural theology.  We might think of it on analogy with the “natural” in natural law.  The idea of natural law, of course, is the idea that what is good or bad and right or wrong for us is grounded in our nature, and that knowledge of good and bad and right and wrong can therefore be derived from the study of that nature.  So, perhaps we might also think of natural theology as knowledge of God that is available to us given our nature.  In particular, we might say that since the natural end or final cause of reason is to know the causes of things, and the ultimate cause of things is God, the ultimate end of reason is to know God.  Indeed, Scholastic thinkers like Aquinas would say exactly this.

Could there be such a thing as “natural atheology” in some parallel sense?  But that would entail that “atheology” -- denial of the existence of God -- is in some sense the natural end of reason.  And certainly no Scholastic would say that.  Plantinga himself, though he is no Scholastic, would not say that.  Indeed, I can’t think of any proponent of natural theology or revealed theology who would say that denying God’s existence is or could be the natural end of reason.  (I suppose some of them might say that fallen reason tends toward atheism, but that’s a very different idea from the claim that the natural tendency of reason is toward atheism.)  So, once again, it’s hard to see what it could mean to describe something as “natural” atheology. 

So, the expression “natural atheology” is inept.  But is this a big deal?  Well, I don’t know if it’s a big deal, and, if so, how big exactly.  But it’s not insignificant.  Because the problem is not just that the expression is, for the reasons given, semantically awkward.  There is also a substantive issue implicit in what I’ve been saying.  The expression “natural theology” is, as what I’ve said indicates, rich in meaning.  Historically, it conveyed, and was meant to convey, something important about our knowledge of God -- again, that that knowledge is scientific in the sense described above, and that much of it can be had apart from revelation.  Plantinga’s neologism obscures all that.  Consider what else he says in the passage quoted earlier:

The natural theologian does not, typically, offer his arguments in order to convince people of God’s existence… Instead the typical function of natural theology has been to show that religious belief is rationally acceptable.  (p. 2)

The idea here seems to be that natural theology is essentially a grab bag of moves one might make in order to counter atheist accusations to the effect that belief in God is irrational.  Its point is essentially defensive, rather than something that makes a positive and fundamental contribution to human knowledge. 

Now, this might be an accurate description of the Alvin Plantinga approach to natural theology.  But it is most definitely not an accurate description of the approach taken to natural theology by pagan philosophers like Aristotle or Plotinus, medieval philosophers like Maimonides, Avicenna, and Aquinas, modern rationalists like Leibniz and Wolff, or most other proponents of natural theology historically -- who thought that the key arguments of natural theology could and should be convincing even to someone who does not initially believe that God exists, and who thought that natural theology does provide a positive, fundamental contribution to the body of human knowledge.

Now, if you think that “natural theology” is nothing more than a label for the religious believer’s unsystematic grab bag of apologetic arguments, then it is clear why you might also think that “natural atheology” is an apt label for an atheist’s own grab bag.  But from the point of view of those who endorse the traditional and much more robust understanding of natural theology, you will thereby perpetuate a mistaken understanding of what natural theology is, and obscure that older conception.  (You will also encourage the pop apologist in his bad habit of deploying any old argument he thinks might win converts, whether or not it’s actually a good argument at the end of the day -- thereby helping to perpetuate the mistaken idea that apologetics is essentially an intellectually dishonest form of rhetoric rather than genuine philosophy.  I criticized this kind of apologetics in an earlier post.)

While I’m on the subject of God, Freedom, and Evil, I might as well note a couple of other peeves.  In the introduction to the book, Plantinga alludes to:

supersophisticates among allegedly Christian theologians who proclaim the liberation of Christianity from belief in God, seeking to replace it by trust in “Being itself” or the “Ground of Being” or some such thing. (p. 1)

This appears to be a reference both to the then-trendy “Death of God theology” and to the existentialist theology of Paul Tillich.  Naturally, like Plantinga, I am not a fan of either one.  However, the derisive reference to “’Being itself’ or the ‘Ground of Being’ or some such thing” is telling.  The “some such thing” makes it sound as if “Being itself” and related notions are flakey novelties introduced by modernist theologians.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Indeed, that God is “Subsistent Being Itself” rather than merely one being alongside others is at the heart of classical theism as expressed by thinkers like Aquinas and other Scholastics.  (As I discussed in an earlier post, while Tillich’s use of these notions is highly problematic, he is merely borrowing this language, perfectly innocent in itself, from the classical tradition.)  In fact it is Plantinga’s own “theistic personalism” (to borrow Brian Davies’ label for Plantinga’s view), which rejects the core doctrines of classical theism, which is the novelty.  (I’ve discussed the stark differences between classical theism and theistic personalism in a number of posts.) 

Then there is Plantinga’s discussion in God, Freedom, and Evil of Aquinas’s Third Way.  He is very critical of the argument, but in my view badly misunderstands it.  Plantinga wonders whether, by a “necessary being,” Aquinas means one that exists in every possible world; puzzles over what it could possibly mean to say that something derives its necessity from another; accuses Aquinas of committing a quantifier shift fallacy; and so on.  As I show at pp. 90-99 of my book Aquinas, when one reads the Third Way in light of the background Aristotelian-Scholastic metaphysics Aquinas is working with, it is clear that all of this is quite misguided.  (Even J. L. Mackie’s discussion of the argument in The Miracle of Theism is in my view better than Plantinga’s treatment here.  Though in fairness to Plantinga, he offers a more substantive treatment in God and Other Minds.) 

None of this is meant to deny the importance of the central themes of God, Freedom, and Evil -- namely, Plantinga’s distinctive treatments of the ontological argument and of the problem of evil -- which are, of course, very clever and philosophically interesting.  But even here, Thomists and other classical theists will find much to disagree with, and it cannot be emphasized too often that the basic philosophical assumptions that inform much contemporary philosophy of religion are radically different from those that guided the greatest philosophical theists of the past.

69 comments:

Thursday said...

“Natural” as opposed to what? Well, the usual answer, of course, is “natural as opposed to revealed.”

While I get what is meant here, one has to be a bit careful with the terminology. Contrasting natural with revealed tends to imply that you can't learn anything about God from looking at the cosmos, that there is no revelation there. In fact, it's all revelation, which is why I prefer the terms natural revelation and special revelation. But that's a quibble. I have no quarrel with the substance.

Allen Hazen said...

There's an old book (published 1955; my copy is a 1964 pb reprint) called "New Essays in Philosophical Theology," edited by Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre: contains a bunch of (classic?) papers in analytic philosophy of religion by mostly British (& Commonwealth) writers, some defending and some attacking belief in a deity. The editors' preface touches on the nomenclatural problem:
"Our title perhaps calls for some explanation… We should like to have used the expression 'Philosophy of Religion' for its analogy with 'Philosophy of History', 'Philosophy of Science', and so on. … But this expression has become, and seems likely for some time to remain, associated with Idealist attempts to philosophical prolegomena to theistic theology. So we have adapted as an alternative title the expression 'Philosophical Theology'… We realize that many will be startled to find the word 'theology' so used that: the expression 'theistic theology' is not tautological; and the expression 'atheist theology' is not self-contradictory. But unless this unusual usage of ours is adopted we have to accept the paradox that those who reach opposite conclusions about certain questions must be regarded as having thereby shown themselves to have been engaged in different disciplines: the paradox that whereas St. Thomas's presentation of the quince viae is a piece of (Natural or Philosophical) Theology, Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion must belong to some other and nameless discipline."

[Comment: The expression 'Philosophy of Religion' seems to have lost its Hegelian associations, perhaps faster than Flew & MacIntyre thought it would. I think my former student Graham Oppy would be happy to have much of his work classified as 'Philosophy of Religion.' … 'Natural Atheology' may be inappropriate as a formal heading,but I think Plantinga wanted something catchy: he is willing to engage in a bit of light-hearted wordplay even when discussion the most serious topics! I think most 'athologians' would reject your cavils about the scientific nature of their work. They wood say, surely, that their arguments are as scientific as any in metaphysics, that they are studying a specify domain -- that of the whole empirically given ("natural") universe, and attempting to say something abut its nature: that it is not, or at least shows no symptoms of being, the creation of a god.]

Daniel said...

Now, this might be an accurate description of the Alvin Plantinga approach to natural theology.

This is indeed correct and it’s an attitude which has become quite wide spread. Classical metaphysics took knowledge of God as knowledge of the most fundamental aspect of reality, as a way of answering the question of being, rather than an attempt to justify already held religious beliefs. So in the wider context I would argue that Philosophy of Religion is an erroneous term since it a priori connects the existence of God with a creed.

A propos some of the points mentioned in the OP and Allen's post I would be tempted to say that at least some atheist philosophers of religion could also be called Natural Theologians in that their special area of study is the nature and existence of God. They just hold that the concept of God as understood by mainstream theism contains internal contradictions or at least is unlikely given the way reality is. God is still the subject matter however. Atheist philosophers of religion have commented extensively on the Divine Attributes and not always in the negative: it would be strange for instance to say that when J.H. Sobel defends Omniscience he's 'doing' Natural Theology, and that when he criticises the Kalam Cosmological Argument he's just engaged in unspecialised metaphysics. Likewise the more agnostically inclined such as Gale and Draper have given cautiously positive assessments and reformulation of some theist arguments even if they think Theism as a whole still has grave difficulties.

I agree that Plantinga's take on the Cosmological Argument in said volume is pretty atrocious. His look at the Teleological Argument, during which he just parrots out the weakest objections from Hume, is even worse. One might say though that if Thomas uses terminology in an unhelpful way (retrospectively of course) then it falls to the modern proponent of said argument to amend the phraseology. Conversely one could say that it behoves the critic to ascertain what Thomas meant when he used those words and present their criticism accordingly.

Kiel said...

Platinga looks like Abraham Lincoln.

Kiel said...

Just older and more theistically personal.

Tony said...

that at least some atheist philosophers of religion could also be called Natural Theologians in that their special area of study is the nature and existence of God.

That's what I would have said. If God exists, and if his existence can be derived through argument from the attributes we observe in nature (in all the experience that comes to us around and about natural objects), then the pursuit of those argument must be natural theology. If, on the second hand, God exists but his existence absolutely cannot be derived through argument from the things we observe in nature, then the due work of the natural theologian will be to show the defects and fallacies in all those wrong arguments purporting to prove the existence of God. This will still be natural theology.

If, on the third hand, God does not exist and this truth can be proven by argument from what we observe of nature, then these arguments will ALSO BELONG TO NATURAL THEOLOGY. For, it will belong to these scientists both to show forth the errors and mistakes in the arguments claimed by the natural theologians above, and also to show forth the positive proofs that prove there is no God. And it is impossible that it should be two different sciences that should show forth the valid proofs for some truth, and to disprove the erroneous arguments that claim the contradictory conclusion. It's all one science, and that science consists of "what can be known demonstratively of God by the evidence of nature." If God can be proven not to exist by the evidence of nature, that proof is part of natural theology if it is part of any discipline.

As an aside, you will also find people denigrating the very notion of "natural law" because they find that natural law proponents often talk of God and our duties to honor God, from which they conclude that the phrase "natural law" is a dishonest attempt to import the religious claims of theists and force them onto non-religionists without succeeding in converting them first. They ignore the basic fact that the demands of natural law do not derive their source from revealed religion, but from nature, from arguments about nature that show the existence of a God and what must be true of God given what we know of nature.

David M said...

So be it resolved: There can in fact be a science of non-existent things. But the subject matter of this science would have to be a 'thing of reason,' so it wouldn't be a 'real' science. And it would still be silly to call such a science 'a-theology' (or 'a-unicornology', etc.) - the 'a-' makes no sense and should be dropped.

Plantinga: "the typical function of natural theology has been to show that religious belief is rationally acceptable." My reaction to this is that this is the function of revealed theology (to show that truths which cannot be known apart from revelation are nonetheless not contrary to reason). And natural theology deals with truths about God that are knowable to reason and that function as preambles to religious belief (faith).

John West said...

Daniel,

if Thomas uses terminology in an unhelpful way (retrospectively of course) then it falls to the modern proponent of said argument to amend the phraseology. Conversely one could say that it behoves the critic to ascertain what Thomas meant when he used those words and present their criticism accordingly.

It's unfair of people to criticize Thomas's use of words. It' s not like he was using non-possible worlds modal notions because he was being idiosyncratic, or rebellious, or a hipster. He was just using the words in the standard way they were used by philosophers of his time.

David M.,

So be it resolved: There can in fact be a science of non-existent things. But the subject matter of this science would have to be a 'thing of reason,' so it wouldn't be a 'real' science. And it would still be silly to call such a science 'a-theology' (or 'a-unicornology', etc.) - the 'a-' makes no sense and should be dropped.

Well, it would still be a science of existent things. Scholastics would hold that, strictly speaking, things (or beings) of reason do exist. Their existence is just mind-dependent.

DS Thorne said...

Ed - I love your books and your blogposts. What I'd love to have you write on are the current hot debates about gun control and climate change (the latter especially in light of the recent encyclical), and maybe even the confederate flag issue, all from the natural law standpoint -- unless you have written on these things and I just missed it, that is.

I would go so far as to say you lose credibility in my eyes and perhaps those of your other readers to the extent you let these things slide by, while pouncing on other hot issues as you did with Prop.8...

My two bits..

John West said...

I would go so far as to say you lose credibility in my eyes and perhaps those of your other readers to the extent you let these things slide by, while pouncing on other hot issues as you did with Prop.8...

I think I'm on the opposite side on this. Since I think Ed would run the risk of ending up posting about culture war stuff all the time (and I find most of it utterly tiresome), I'm thankful he doesn't pounce on every conservative culture war issue that pops up.

David M said...

John West,

I suppose. But "non-existent things (or beings)" isn't simply an oxymoron - it clearly enough refers to things/beings that really exist (as opposed to simply "nothing"), just not in the primary (non-mind-dependent) sense.

In any case, we could say, be it resolved: There can in fact be a science of non-existent (i.e., mind-dependent) things.

So could there in fact be a science of atheistic theology? Not really. The notion of atheistic metaphysics (or atheistic first philosophy) is intelligible enough, but not "atheistic theology," since theology implicitly refers to the science of a real being (that we call "God"), not that of a merely mind-dependent one. It would be like "a-metaphysical metaphysics" - you might thus oxymoronically describe some domain of probabilistic reasoning, but it simply wouldn't be metaphysical science in the proper sense.

John West said...

David M,

I suppose. But "non-existent things (or beings)" isn't simply an oxymoron - it clearly enough refers to things/beings that really exist (as opposed to simply "nothing"), just not in the primary (non-mind-dependent) sense.

Yeah. Okay. Well, this is in line with how Russell uses the words. He says something exists only if it's mind independent, and is real but doesn't exist if it's mind-dependent.

Hiero5ant said...

"But of course, the idea of “revealed atheology” would be absurd."

The practice may invariably be, but the idea is not. It's a good description of what e.g. C.S. Lewis was doing when he claimed the obvious pre-Gospel parallels in pagan mythology were Satanic counterfeits before the fact, or when Buddhist or Christian missionaries explained to the locals that their gods were never real, they were simply demons.

Once a religion starts making exclusivistic truth claims, it needs a plausible explanation for how every other religion came to exist even though they're all false; and it needs to do it in a way that avoids dragging its own prior probability down into the weeds.

Chad Handley said...

Can anyone recommend any good introductory books on The Philosophy of Nature?

John West said...

Might try starting with this.

Scott said...

@Hiero5ant:

…what e.g. C.S. Lewis was doing when he claimed the obvious pre-Gospel parallels in pagan mythology were Satanic counterfeits before the fact…

Where did Lewis make this claim? As I recall his view (and I don't remember offhand where he stated it), it was that the (rough) parallels represented a common motif of a "Dying God" that came to fruition in the real, historical Jesus, and that the absence of such parallels would actually be a "stumbling block." I certainly don't remember him calling them "Satanic." Did he do so somewhere else and then change his mind?

Scott said...

@Chad Handley:

John West beat me to it. Wallace has a book I'd have otherwise recommended, but that online series is a great place to start.

Brandon said...

what e.g. C.S. Lewis was doing when he claimed the obvious pre-Gospel parallels in pagan mythology were Satanic counterfeits before the fact

This is indeed an utterly baffling claim, since this is directly the opposite of Lewis's actual view; he regards pagan parallels as 'good dreams' (to use the phrase from Pilgrim's Regress) inspired by God, anticipations that culiminate in and are perfected by Christianity. This is a recurring theme in his work.

Tommy said...

OFF-TOPIC (but that kinda makes my point):
For me Ed's writings raise as many questions as they answer, but this combox is non-ideal to raise them. Is there a discussion forum anywhere that discusses these "traditional" arguments, and isn't polluted by New Atheist kiddies? If not, would anyone be interested in getting one going? Something like feser-friends-and-foes@gmail.com perhaps? :-)

John West said...

Really? I think this blog is ideal for asking questions about Thomism. But if people want answers to their questions, they have to ask them.

iwpoe said...

@ Tommy

It does raise a lot of questions, but much of the time this question increase over atheism is little but the increase that comes from moving from a skeptical refusal to know to a position of partial knowledge. I hardly think that skepticism has a true virtue in the fact that it presents fewer questions.

DNW said...



Well, and perhaps somewhat tangentially, I think that it would be fair to say that anyone who had followed some of William Lane Craig's debates on the sufficient grounds of moral reasoning, would probably concede that what Craig was doing was essentially attempting to demonstrate the logical insufficiency or lack of coherence of a non-theistic moral framework which was pretending to describe or entail intrinsic values or objectively mandated duties.

His astonishing harrowing of Sam Harris in debate would I imagine, constitute an example of that approach.

DNW said...

Hey, the Feser quote before the reply disappeared.


It was,

"Its point is essentially defensive, rather than something that makes a positive and fundamental contribution to human knowledge.

Now, this might be an accurate description of the Alvin Plantinga approach to natural theology. But it is most definitely not an accurate description of the approach taken to natural theology by pagan philosophers like Aristotle or Plotinus ..."

Edward Feser said...

DS Thorne,

I don't tend to comment on whatever the political controversy dy jour is unless I have something to say that isn't already being said by lots of other people. On Prop 8 and related issues (to take your example), my view is that most people simply aren't saying what needs to be said, because what needs to be said is what a traditional natural law theorist would have to say -- as opposed to what a "new natural law" theorist, or a "theology of the body" adept, or a legal commentator, or a political strategist, or the like, would have to say. And the traditional natural law position is simply not well represented. So, for that reason, I'll sometimes comment on something like that. But on gun control, etc., I don't have much to add that other people aren't already saying.

Furthermore, "same-sex marriage" and related issues are light years beyond gun control and the like in importance -- not that the latter issues aren't important (of course they are). And the former issues are more important, in part, precisely because they go to the very core of morality in a way issues like gun control do not. So, there's simply much more of philosophical interest to say about them, and they are more urgent.

And this is, essentially, a philosophy blog, not a political blog, even if it happens to be a blog written by a right-winger. And everybody already knows my politics anyway. There's no point in ranting about whatever it is Obama or whomever has done this week unless I have something of philosophical interest to say about it. Such rants may or may not bore my readers, but they would sure as hell bore me.

Anyway, why this has anything to do with my "credibility," I have no idea.

Edward Feser said...

Whoops, I meant "du jour." But then, French is all Greek to me.

Tommy said...

@John West,

The blog isn't *bad* for questioning, but simple practical things like lack of threading are clearly less than optimal. Comboxes are designed for commenting, not for discussing. That's why forum/listserv software exists.

Also, some of the questions I refer to come not from the blog, but from Ed's books. Furthermore, I personally benefit from the comments of some of the more learned commenters themselves, so it's not just about being able to talk about Ed's specific words.

Overall, Ed has created a little "community" here, but the blog combox mechanism is sub-optimal for certain (important) aspects of such community life. I'm saying nothing new here -- there are umpteen expert bloggers who keep a sideline forum going on, so that a richer discussion may ensue.

Of course one potential issue is that any forum would "steal focus" from the combox, to the latter's detriment. Or, vice-versa, maybe a forum could never get off the ground because any poster would have to decide "Combox or Forum", and sheer momentum would tend to favour the Combox.

Perhaps there's a combination mechanism -- Disqus maybe? But that would require Ed to do some of the work. An advantage of the forum is that one of us could get it going.

All that said, I many of the things I'd like to discuss are not Feser-specific. So if anyone knows of an existing forum aimed at discussion of A-T philosophy and theology, or even just "Non-New-Athiest-Stupidity Philosophy and Theology", I'd appreciate a pointer.

Tommy said...

s/Athiest/Atheist

Sigh.

Tommy said...

@iwpoe, sorry, I didn't follow any of that. Can you re-state it?

Edward Feser said...

Tommy, I'm not involved in it -- I barely have enough time to breathe as it is -- but I understand that there is a Thomism discussion group on Facebook which might be just the sort of thing you're looking for.

iwpoe said...

@ Tommy

What I'm saying is that Feser is doing fundamental philosophy and his opponents are usually people who are simply skeptical that you can even do that (or, more accurately, naively unaware that there is a domain of knowledge covered by fundamental philosophy). As metaphysical skeptics of course Feser's opponents will seem to raise fewer questions, but this is merely because they refuse to explain vast areas of inquiry.

If I explain the tides by way of the moon and you say simply that the tides are something no one can explain, it's a matter of course that my approach raises more questions than yours, but that seems no virtue of your position.

John West said...

Tommy,

The only thing I like more about Disqus is the edit button. Though, I think vote-up/vote-down type functions are in general bad for philosophy blogs.

As for other Thomist blogs, the links bar on the right side of the blog's front page has several links to websites run by Thomist or Aristotelian philosophers that you may find interesting. I've never visited it, but Kiel posted a link to a Facebook Thomism Discussion Group a while ago too (which, on previewing my comment, I see Ed just mentioned).

ccmnxc said...

Tommy, as a member of said Facebook group, I would indeed recommend taking a look at it (though it requires approval, it shouldn't take too terribly long for acceptance from what I can tell). We have some interesting discussion threads, and there are several professional philosophers ambling about on there as well (Rob Koons is one prominent example). So I'd say to check it out and come join the conversation(s)!

Daniel said...

The problem with Thomist forums, at least from my limited experience is that there is often A, an overtly dogmatic theological focus and/or B, a get caught up in complex exegetical issues regarding later Thomists. Certainly Ed's blog and combox are far superior in terms of the broader philosophical discussions had.

For me Ed's writings raise as many questions as they answer, but this combox is non-ideal to raise them. Is there a discussion forum anywhere that discusses these "traditional" arguments, and isn't polluted by New Atheist kiddies? If not, would anyone be interested in getting one going? Something like feser-friends-and-foes@gmail.com perhaps? :-)

All that said, I many of the things I'd like to discuss are not Feser-specific. So if anyone knows of an existing forum aimed at discussion of A-T philosophy and theology, or even just "Non-New-Athiest-Stupidity Philosophy and Theology", I'd appreciate a pointer.


I'm in complete agreement with Tommy here. It would be nice to have somewhere to discuss more varied philosophical topics from a broadly Classical Theist point of view (of course well informed intellectually honest Naturalist are welcome to engage in debate). Ideally it should encompass:

1. Discussion and understanding of other Classical theist perspectives e.g. Scotism, Sufi Illuminism, Neoplatonism et cetera

2. Discussion of modern Analytical philosophy of religion and the issues it raises i.e. Theistic Activism. Also I think it would be of great benefit to discuss some of the objections professional atheist philosophers have raised in a non-troll bait way.

If any enterprising individual wanted to get people and organise something like this I’d be more than willing to help out. Unfortunately I’ve very little knowledge of forum soft-ware and stuff or I’d offer to set up a discussion group myself.

Daniel said...

CONT.

Failing that even something like a Reading Group, where every couple of months we all decide on a book to read and discuss it afterwards. Or even just an essay maybe - that way we could just share it around in PDF form so people need not worry about massive costs. Any ideas?

Timocrates said...

@ Professor Feser,

I am not quite sure what you mean or understand by "theology of the body adepts"? I find it unlikely that Pope St. John Paul II's theology of the body would be philosophically unworthy, especially from the same Pope who's treatise on Faith and Reason insisted on the principle of finality.

Dennis said...

Recently, I've been asked to read 'Theology of the Body," and the people have been hailing the work as in and of itself to be enough to ordain Pope St. John Paul the 2nd as a Doctor of the Church. One thing I dislike about modern times is that if you're not present in a good enough circle of people who are actively looking into anything and everything, you get so left behind(as was I, thankfully all of that changed). Is this a fair decree? Fr. Z has petitioned St. John Paul II to be ordained a Doctor. If it's not much to ask, I'm curious as to what other people who are familiar with the Pope's corpus here think about it, thanks.

John West said...

Daniel,

It would be nice to have somewhere to discuss more varied philosophical topics from a broadly Classical Theist point of view (of course well informed intellectually honest Naturalist are welcome to engage in debate). Ideally it should encompass

If the purpose is more cloistering to avoid “New Atheist” interference, I doubt you're going to get many well informed naturalists. Certainly not more than here.

Also I think it would be of great benefit to discuss some of the objections professional atheist philosophers have raised in a non-troll bait way.

For what it's worth, when I see or think of an objection I like, I usually try to raise it in a diabolus advocatus sort of way. That's why my metaphysic probably looks like it's all over the board, on here. I've never once caught flack for this.

Failing that even something like a Reading Group, where every couple of months we all decide on a book to read and discuss it afterwards. Or even just an essay maybe - that way we could just share it around in PDF form so people need not worry about massive costs. Any ideas?

Something like this could operate through email or Google+, avoiding needing to build a whole website. I would be interested. I would be even more interested in blogs or circles focussing on philosophy of mathematics (but fat chance of that).

Edward Feser said...

Timocrates,

By a "theology of the body adept" I mean someone with special interest and expertise in the theology of the body. Where did I say it is "unworthy"?

There are lots of people in Catholic circles writing on issues of sexuality from a TOB point of view. But there are not so many writing from a traditional natural law point of view. That is all I was saying.

John West said...

"For what it's worth, when I see or think of an objection I like, I usually try to raise it in a diabolus advocatus"

advocatus diabolus, even.

John West said...

Wait, that's still wrong. Fah. Latin.

Tommy said...

@Various,

I'm not too concerned about avoiding NA types completely; I'd just like any forum to have a decent number of more rigorously-thinking atheists or agnostics (I'm not sure I don't fit into the latter classification, certainly the "agnostic" portion if not the "rigorously-thining" one). For example, I personally find Sam Harris a very different animal from Dawkins, Krauss, or the late Hitchens. My main concern stems from the fact that I have zero motivation[1] to hear yet another "OK, but who caused God then!?" objection.

But let's assume the FB group doesn't meet the need[2], could I take a quick poll to see if anyone else (in addition to me and @John West who has already nodded in an earlier comment) would (at least in theory) be interested in something like a Google Group[3]?

Tommy

[1] In selfish terms of how it will benefit me. In theory, engaging with an open-minded NA on that point could help *then*, although the number of YouTube videos with titles of the form " utterly destroyed by "some NA>" suggests that "open-minded New Atheist" may be a contradiction in terms.

[2] From the point of view of structural support for discussion (e.g. effective threading, searchability) FB may be superior to Blogger's default comment system, but only slightly. From the POV of software, neither are especially *good* for discussion; there are several far better tools.

[3] Google Groups are but one option. However, one I'd definitely exclude is StackExchange. That's a fine system, but targeted at getting succinct and more-or-less definitive answers. It is specifically, and by design and culture, *not* intended for discussion.

Daniel said...

@Tommy,

You can count me in of course. If anyone needs to contact me I can be reached at evans_lichamleas@nospam2yahoo.com (obviously remove the spam shield and number)

@John,

I put that in really as a way of seeing I don't mind having people who disagree as long as they actually give intelligent, informed objections (a while ago I looked up the name of the home of the trolls in Norse mythology; it turned it was 'Reasonable Faith Message Boards'). There used to be more interesting dissenting voices around here - I wish Kantian Naturalist still frequented these comboxes.

John West said...

Daniel,

1. Discussion and understanding of other Classical theist perspectives e.g. Scotism, Sufi Illuminism, Neoplatonism et cetera

2. Discussion of modern Analytical philosophy of religion and the issues it raises i.e. Theistic Activism. Also I think it would be of great benefit to discuss some of the objections professional atheist philosophers have raised in a non-troll bait way


I guess my only questions are (1) why do you think don't/can't do your 1. and 2. here? (2) Given your answer to (1), is it really the sort of thing that building a new website can fix? I liked your reading circle idea, but I'm not sure that building a new website is actually a good way to get your 1. and 2. (ie. the reason there are more Thomist-focussed discussions online than Scotists or sufis is, I think, simply that there are far more Thomists and far more Thomists doing rigorous philosophy).

For example, here we have a perfect chance to go in on Plantinga's work, which is surely substantive analytical modern philosophy of religion work, and yet no one is. Why not? Is it because of the website, or because Plantinga's work is so riddled with problems from a classical theist perspective that no one here is willing to defend it and one-sided conversations are boring? I blame summer barbeques.

(On previewing my comment, I notice you've posted a reply to my previous comment. This was written before I read it.)

Daniel said...

Btw I don't know that much about it but possibly a Goodreads group would be an option?

Daniel said...

@John,

Ah I dashed off that short reply about Goodreads without seeing your last message. That's for the email btw.

About 1 and 2 well we do and E'ds generally very tolerant of it - there's only so far we can go holding a conversation about a completely different topic in a combox discussion marked for something else though. It would be better to have the topics formally sign-posted as it were. If one of us were to start a discussion, say, Thomas Morris 'Absolute Creation', it would get far less responses from the people here than if Ed were to do so(rightly so it being his blog).

I take your point about the number Thomists verses the others though - it would be good to have those interested in Thomism to study these other thinkers too: after all there is more to Natural Theology than just Thomas. Perhaps a web-site is a bit far to - I'd be interested to look into the reading group idea, whether by email list or Goodreads,

I know the Plantinga bit is in part a rhetorical question but I would hazard a guess that only a limited number of the posters here have read The Nature of Necessity - do correct me if I'm wrong people. There's a lot one could say about Plantinga in the context of Classical Theism both negative and positive - to give an example his work revives ancient and baroque (literally) dispute over whether Thomism is compatible with Molinism.

(For what it's worth I was going to talk about Ed's other Plantinga but it would have amounted to another discourse about the OA to the effect that said argument does not presuppose we have a direct grasp of the Divine Nature only that we be able to state true propositions about it)

John West said...

Daniel,

I know the Plantinga bit is in part a rhetorical question but I would hazard a guess that only a limited number of the posters here have read The Nature of Necessity - do correct me if I'm wrong people.

Well, here's an online copy for anyone interested in remedying that. Whatever else there is to say about Plantinga, Nature of Necessity is a good book. Not even Daniel Dennett denies Plantinga that. Anyone interested in metaphysics of modality ought to read it.

(For what it's worth I was going to talk about Ed's other Plantinga but it would have amounted to another discourse about the OA to the effect that said argument does not presuppose we have a direct grasp of the Divine Nature only that we be able to state true propositions about it)

There was a guy I ended up discussing modality and PSR-cosmological arguments with a few threads back, who also asked about objections to the OA here and here. They seem worth mentioning again now.

There's a lot one could say about Plantinga in the context of Classical Theism both negative and positive - to give an example his work revives ancient and baroque (literally) dispute over whether Thomism is compatible with Molinism.

Why would (or why wouldn't) they be incompatible? I'm not familiar with this dispute.

Anonymous said...

Forum of Catholic Answers (http://forums.catholic.com/) also has a part dedicated to Philosophy (and somewhat dominated by Catholics (often Thomists)), if that's what is necessary...

Craig Payne said...

I second what Anonymous just said. I haven't been on that forum since about 2003 or so, but the last time I looked at it, it was still good. The only problem is that it is highly repetitive, since people with questions very rarely check for previous threads on the same question. I mean, how many threads do you actually need for the ontological argument? But other than that, Catholic Answers is the first place I'd check out.

Douglas said...

Plantinga's natural theologian seeks to make belief in certain propositions rationally defensible without seeking to make belief in them rationally compelling. From his viewpoint, a proposition can be rationally discretionary for a thinker: you can rationally accept or deny a proposition if the evidence for it is fair and not compelling. I doubt that's right.

If your evidence for a proposition is less than conclusive, then you should have a corresponding degree of confidence in the proposition. If your argument for a proposition makes that proposition have a probability of 3/4, then you should have a 3/4 degree of confidence in the proposition. You shouldn't believe or disbelieve the proposition outright. In moral philosophy, perhaps, a proposed course of action might be permissible without being obligatory. But I can't see an epistemic parallel. Natural theologians should try to show the central propositions of their discipline to be rationally compelling.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Here you go. Just set up a forum for Classical Theism:

http://classicaltheism.boardhost.com/index.php

Jeremy Taylor said...

Don't know if anyone is planning to join, but will take me a little while to set up the best division of subforums and the like. So bear with me.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Daniel, John West, or anyone else,

Anyone want to be a moderator?

Daniel said...

@Jeremy,

Excellent! I'd be happy to moderate if need be. No problem if not though.

(Will give a more in-depth reply tomorrow morning)

Scott said...

Just registered myself. Thanks, Jeremy.

iwpoe said...

I'll moderate. I've served in that capacity for 16 years elsewhere.

Pulau harapan said...

There’s no such thing as “natural atheology”

Jeremy Taylor said...

Daniel and iwpoe,

Thanks for that. I made you guys moderators.

Anonymous said...

Ed, would you mind making a link on your page to Jeremy's forum?
Thanks

Mr. Green said...

I’m impressed when people manage to hold serious conversations in commenting systems that were designed for “me too”, “LOL”, “This is a very good post on a good topic, pleese read more good posts on this topic at www.nigerianprinces.com.” I’ve always been fond of Usenet, made as it was for the purpose of ongoing discussions… although not made for things like italics, and how can you truly have a serious philosophical discussion without italics? A mailing list with public archives might be more practical. Of course as soon as anything has to get practical it’s far too intractable for a theoretician like me….

Chad Handley said...

Belated thanks to John West and Scott for the link.

Tommy said...

@Mr Green wrote:
> I’ve always been fond of Usenet, ...

Ah, the Elder Days of "rn" and comp.arch, when even alt.humor was filled with light (OK, maybe not _filled_[1] with it, but at least enough to see a DECWriter's paper by). Before the Coming of the AOLers, and long ages before the Rise of the Dark Lord Zuckerberg. Simpler times they were, and Nobler. Truly it was a Blessed Age, and one for whose passing we greybeards weep and rend our garments.

[1] Who says -- _who_ -- you can't do italics in ASCII?

Don Jindra said...

Was Aristotle practicing natural theology or a type of physics? If "Natural theology ... follows out the implications of the fundamental notions of philosophy of nature and metaphysics ... and offers ultimate explanations," is it natural theology only if it reaches specific conclusions? At what point does it deviate from a study of unbiased reality to "natural theology?" If natural theology proceeds to ultimate explanations, how does that differ from a search for ultimate explanations by atheology? Does unicornology purport to lead to ultimate explanations?

IMO,natural theology is a misnomer too. Both the natural theologian and the atheologian start from common ground. They search for the same ultimate explanations. The "sciences" are not bookends. They are fundamentally the same thing. Otherwise the natural theologian cannot make the claim he's an unbiased seeker of truth.

Mr. Green said...

Tommy: Simpler times they were, and Nobler. Truly it was a Blessed Age, and one for whose passing we greybeards weep and rend our garments.

There certainly was a more academic character, which wasn’t perfect, but perhaps more congenial to us academically-inclined types. And I don’t mind complexity, if it is constructive — there are many ways in which Usenet could be improved, but it seems we’ve lost all the good features it had and gained very little in its place. I’m disappointed, and a bit surprised, that a more capable successor hasn’t appeared (unless it’s hiding out there and I just haven’t seen it). I guess the demand for anything beyond “LOL”, “me too” is pretty limited.

Who says -- _who_ -- you can't do italics in ASCII?

Ah, one can of course represent italics, but as we all know the italic is determinate in a way that prime text can never ascii-alise. (And for that, er, matter, observe that the use of underscores itself is a smuggling in of the classical typesetter's notation that points to, or is directed at, italicisation, despite being allegedly thrown out by the moderns because they claimed to have no need of it in order to communicate!)

Tommy said...

@Mr Green

I doubt it's a machinery problem -- many of todays forums use software that is far superior to that which implemented Usenet. I reckon it's a social/cultural issue, and may be coming from the very same source which gives us university graduates who have never even heard of, much less read, The Nicomachean Ethics (say), and academics of even higher learning who insist on asking, dripping with ill-justified arrogance and contempt, questions like, "OK, in that case who caused God?"[1]

On italics, from my LaTeX days I still consider it my responsibility as an author to encode the fact that I would like a word _emphasized_, but whether that emphasis is to be _implemented_ using an italic font is above my pay grade. Typesetting -- another old craft almost dead in the Internet era of popularization and Comic Sans.

[1] I recently read Newman's "The Idea of a University" and was dismayed to realize that I, as not _that_ old a git, but in possession of a Science-based doctorate, have a gaping hole in my own education. I, until recently, had never heard of, much less read, The Nicomachean Ethics (say).

David M said...

Don Jindra: "At what point does it deviate from a study of unbiased reality to 'natural theology?'" - 'deviate'? Why think that there is a deviation involved?

"If natural theology proceeds to ultimate explanations, how does that differ from a search for ultimate explanations by atheology?" - There just isn't such a thing. Ultimate explanation in terms of a 'not-something' just isn't ultimately explanatory.

"Does unicornology purport to lead to ultimate explanations?" - No.

"IMO,natural theology is a misnomer too. Both the natural theologian and the atheologian start from common ground." - But are there any atheologians? (Who do you have in mind? If there aren't any, then nobody has any common ground with them.) What is the common ground alleged here?

Don Jindra said...

David M, You ask what's the common ground alleged here? I think Mr. Feser has asserted his case can be made without presuming his conclusions, and that the atheist is bound by objective reasoning to reach the same conclusions as Aquinas, Aristotle, himself and others. If you deny this then that's fine by me. It explains your other objections. And it explains why I'm not obligated by reason to follow.

David M said...

@DJ: Sorry, I don't follow.

J Ro said...

Could you write more about the "Death of God theology" movement? I'd love to know exactly what you think about it.

Sarah Hall said...

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