Friday, October 9, 2015

Walter Mitty atheism


While writing up my recent post on Jerry Coyne’s defense of his fellow New Atheist Lawrence Krauss, I thought: “Why can’t these guys be more like Keith Parsons and Jeff Lowder?”  (Many readers will recall the very pleasant and fruitful exchange which, at Jeff’s kind invitation, Keith and I had not too long ago at The Secular Outpost.)  As it happens, Jeff has now commented on my exchange with Coyne.  Urging his fellow atheists not to follow Coyne’s example, Jeff writes:

If I were to sum up Feser’s reply in one word, it would be, “Ouch!” I think Feser’s reply is simply devastating to Coyne and I found myself in agreement with most of his points.

As Jeff also writes:

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, that often the same atheists who are so dismissive of theism tend to use such awful arguments and objections against it. In a sense, this is understandable. If you’ve concluded that belief X is not only false but stupid or even irrational, then you’re unlikely to spend much if any time trying to understand the best arguments for X.
 
Now, the irony of this situation is that in every attempt to justify their dismissive attitude toward theism, New Atheists like Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins and myriad others only ever succeed in demonstrating conclusively that that dismissive attitude is unjustified.  For you cannot rationally reject a position, dismissively or not, unless you first understand what it is.  And every time they open their mouths, these New Atheists show that they very badly misunderstand the central claims of, and arguments for, theism.  Indeed, it is amazing how the very same crude misunderstandings recur again and again and again, even after they have been patiently, clearly, and repeatedly explained.

Consider, for example, that Coyne and I first had an exchange on the subject of cosmological arguments for God’s existence over four years ago.  Coyne claimed at the time that he really wanted to know what the best arguments for theism are, and insisted that he was “dead serious here, and not looking for sarcastic answers.”  I recommended that he study the arguments of Aquinas, with the help of some serious commentators who could explain the metaphysical background to the arguments.  (Unsurprisingly, I recommended my own book Aquinas, though I also cited some other authors.)  Coyne said he would do so.  Very soon thereafter I posted an article explaining in detail the various common misunderstandings of cosmological arguments, including the versions of the argument presented by Aquinas.  I explained, for example, why the argument does not rest on the premise that “everything has a cause”; why, accordingly, the argument does not make of God some arbitrary exception to a general rule; why the argument nevertheless does not make of God a brute fact who just exists without any explanation (since not all explanations are causes); why versions of the argument like the ones defended by Aquinas and Leibniz (and by me, for that matter) are not concerned to show that the universe had a beginning; and so forth.  Coyne commented on that article.  In the course of doing so, he accused me of “intellectual dishonesty” -- on utterly preposterous grounds, as I showed here.  But if Coyne himself is as intellectually honest as he would like us to think, he presumably read the article before commenting on it.  In which case he would know that the kind of cosmological arguments I defend do not argue for a temporal beginning of the universe, do not rest on the premise that “everything has a cause,” do not make of God a brute fact who just exists without explanation, etc.

Flash forward four years to our current exchange.  As I noted in my recent response to Coyne, despite all the back and forth of four years ago, despite his purportedly “dead serious” intention to find out what the best arguments really say, despite his commitment to study Aquinas in particular -- despite all that, he still falsely attributes to me a version of the cosmological argument that “insist[s] that that world had to have a beginning,” and still falsely attributes to me the thesis that God is “just there” without explanation! 

But it is worse even than that.  Even after my recent response to Coyne appeared, he posted a further comment in his combox still asserting -- wait for it -- that my “main argument… is that everything has a ‘cause’” and that I “rely on everything having a cause -- except God” (!)  And he said this in reply to an atheist reader who complained about atheists like Coyne misrepresenting what theists really say!

Could it get worse even than that?  Well, on Jerry Coyne’s blog it sure can, and it does.  In yet another post two days later, Coyne claimed that the cosmological argument’s answer to the question “Why does God exist?” is: “He just does,” without explanation (!)  This despite the fact that -- as I explained in my response to him just days before (and as I explained in my exchange with him four years ago) -- that is precisely the opposite of what Aristotelian, Thomist, Leibnizian, and other defenders of the argument actually say!   And when a reader pointed out in Coyne’s combox that this is a caricature of the argument, Coyne banned him from posting any further (purportedly on the grounds that the reader was being rude)!

Needless to say, there is something truly pathological going on here.  And that, by the way, is one reason Coyne, Krauss, and company are worth at least a little of our attention.  Some readers have asked me why I bother replying to people who are so extremely irrational and dishonest, and therefore unlikely to respond well to serious criticism.  Part of the reason is that though Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and many of their fans are indeed impervious to rational argumentation, there are onlookers who are not impervious to it.  And those people are reachable and worth trying to reach.  After all, Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and some of the other better known New Atheists are, though irrational and dishonest, not stupid.  In their own fields, some of them even do interesting work.  For that reason, some people who know as little about philosophy and theology as they do but who are rational and honest might falsely suppose that these New Atheists must have something important to say about those particular subjects.  Hence it is useful now and again to expose Coyne et al. for the frauds that they are, so that well-meaning third parties will see that they are not to be taken seriously on philosophical and theological questions.  The more they make fools of themselves, the more they should be discussed rather than ignored, at least so long as there is any intellectually honest person who still somehow thinks the New Atheism is anything but a bad joke.

Another reason for paying them some attention, though, is that Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and company are simply genuine curiosities.  Again, they are not stupid, and indeed have serious intellectual accomplishments to their credit.  And yet on the subjects of religion and philosophy they are incapable of seeing that their self-confidence is laughably, cringe-makingly out of proportion to their actual competence.  They exhibit exactly the sort of stubborn, bigoted closed-mindedness and ignorance that they smugly condemn when they perceive it in others.  What exactly is going on here?  What makes these weird people tick?  That is a question of real intellectual interest.

The answer, I would suggest, is sentimentality.  I use the word in a semi-technical sense, following the analysis offered in The Aesthetics of Music by Roger Scruton (who was in turn building on some ideas of Michael Tanner).  A sentimental person, according to Scruton, tends to be quick to respond emotionally to a stimulus, will appear to be pained but will enjoy his pangs, will respond with equal violence to a variety of stimuli in succession, will nevertheless avoid following his emotional responses up with appropriate actions, and will respond more readily to strangers and to abstract issues than to persons known to him or to concrete circumstances requiring time, energy, or personal sacrifice.  In short, a sentimental person is one whose emotional life becomes an end in itself and loses its connection both to the external circumstances that would normally shape it and to the behavior that it ought to generate. Feelings of moral outrage, romantic passion, and other emotional states become valued for their own sake to such an extent that the actual moral facts, the well-being of the beloved, etc. fade into the background.  

For instance, someone who constantly chats up the plight of the homeless, but without any real interest in finding out why people become homeless or what ways of helping them are really effective, might plausibly be described as merely sentimental.  “How awful things are for the homeless!” is not really the thought that moves him.  What really moves him is the thought: “How wonderful I am to think of how awful things are for the homeless!”  His feelings of compassion function, not to get him to do what is necessary to help those who are homeless, but rather to provide him with assurance of his superior virtue.  His high dudgeon functions, not to prod him to find out whether the homeless are really being victimized by evildoers, but rather to reinforce his assurance of his superior virtue by allowing him to contrast himself with the imagined evildoers.  This kind of onanistic moralism requires a fantasy world rich enough to sustain it.  Poignant or dramatic images of suffering and of injustices inflicted are far more likely to foster such fantasies than are cold statistics or the actual, mundane details of the lives of homeless people.  Hence someone who is merely sentimental about homelessness might prefer movies, songs, and the like to social scientific study as a source of “information” about homelessness and its causes.

Now, the New Atheism, I submit, is exactly like this.  The New Atheist talks, constantly and loudly, about reason, science, evidence, facts, being “reality-based,” etc.  Equally constantly and loudly, he decries dogmatism, ignorance, wishful thinking, whatever is merely “faith-based,” etc.  And he relentlessly denounces “religious” people, whom, he imagines, are central casting exemplars of the latter vices.  But it is not reason, science, etc. that really move him.  What really moves him is the pleasure that the thought of being paradigmatically rational, scientific, etc. gives him.  Nor is he really moved by what religious people actually think.  After all, he not only doesn’t trouble himself to find out what they actually think, but often will expend great energy trying to rationalize his refusal to find out what they actually think.  (Consider e.g. P.Z. Myers’ shamelessly question-begging “Courtier’s reply” dodge.)  Rather, what moves him is the self-righteous delight he takes in his belief in his intellectual and moral superiority over “religious” people.  His “rationalism” consists, not in actually being rational, but in constantly chatting up rationality and constantly badmouthing those who, at least in his imagination, are not as rational as he enjoys believing that he is.

Here too, we have a kind of moralistic onanism which requires a rich fantasy life to support it.  Finding out what thinkers like Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. actually said would completely destroy the fantasy, because they simply don’t fit the New Atheist’s caricature of religion.  Hence the New Atheist nourishes his imagination instead with made-up examples of purportedly theistic ideas and argumentation, which he typically derives from reading other New Atheist writers rather than by reading what religious thinkers themselves have written.  He repeatedly calls these examples to mind when he wants to reassure himself of the stupidity of religious people and of his superiority over them -- especially when he encounters some religious opponent who doesn’t seem to fit his stereotype.  He thinks: “First cause arguments start from the premise that ‘everything has a cause’; all such arguments founder on their inability to answer the challenge ‘What caused God?’; theism is incompatible with science, or at least presupposes outdated science; theism always ultimately rests on appeals to faith, or the Bible, or emotion…” and so forthNone of this is true, and it is all easily refuted simply by consulting the actual writings of religious thinkers.  But the New Atheist is able to keep himself from seeing this by translating everything an opponent says into something he pulls from his mental bag of clichés about “what theists think.”

Hence, in response to my recent articles about Krauss and Coyne, we have Coyne saying the Bizarro-world things cited above.  We have an irate Krauss fan asking: “Why do you believe in God?  Because the Bible told you to, right?”  We have one of Coyne’s readers saying: “I'll admit I haven't read your entire response to Jerry here” -- and then going on nevertheless to attribute to me outdated scientific ideas I not only have never endorsed, but have many times explicitly rejected.  We have other Coyne readers simply refusing to get over their fixation on the stupid “Everything has a cause” argument that no philosopher or theologian has ever defended, even in the face of other, more sober atheist readers’ begging them to stop attacking this straw man.  We have Krauss, in the New Yorker article to which I replied in Public Discourse, deluding himself into thinking that it is his impoliteness, rather than his incompetence, that prompts other atheists to criticize him.  We have the breathtaking chutzpah of Coyne accusing, not just critics of the New Atheism, but even atheist critics of the New Atheism, of “distortion” of the New Atheists’ views.

It is as if these people are so lost in their delusions that they literally cannot see what is really there on the page or the computer screen in front of them.  All they can see is the New Atheist Fantasyland they’ve constructed, where every ticket is a scarlet-A-for-atheist ticket, and Coyne and Co. keep going on the same rides over and over and over again.  The New Atheists like to think that they win every argument, and indeed they do, though only in the way Walter Mitty wins every battle.

281 comments:

1 – 200 of 281   Newer›   Newest»
Jinzang said...

I see the issue as an attachment to scientism arising out of a valorization of science. Because of the scientism no argument can be taken seriously unless it's cast in an empirical form, such as Russel's teapot. Philosophical distinctions such as contingent and necessary are lost, as they can't be understood empirically. So, since no philosophy, no philosophical argument for God. All such arguments are only word games and sophistry.

Irenist said...

I increasingly think Asperger's may be a factor: I'm not trying to poison the well; I sincerely worry that increased Asperger's prevalence may partially account for the popularity of the more obstinately point-missing New Atheists, whose blindness to commonsensical objections to their abstractions might seem more plausible to people with attenuated Theory of Mind abilities.

George LeSauvage said...

1. There is an error in the above article. Coyne commented on that article. In the course of doing so, he accused me of “intellectual dishonesty” -- on utterly preposterous grounds, as I showed here. The 2nd link ("as I showed here") is to an article directed against Jason Rosenhouse primarily, with Coyne mentioned only incidentally. I mention this because it leaves it open to some troll accusing you of dishonesty. (You know they will.) Better to seal off that route.

2. I hate to say it, but must point out that even Roger Scruton gives, in Modern Philosophy, "everything has a cause" as the basic cosmological argument. I don't think anyone can accuse him of ill-will; it's a common error. But wouldn't it be better to point out that all the real versions are saying exactly the opposite, that it cannot be true that everything has a cause?

3. I hope the above doesn't sound negative; the section on sentimentalism is excellent. Gnus really do spend a lot more time praising, than using, reason. Of course, even this has been anticipated. Here is the leftist Tom Lehrer's take:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-IlShKGgfjM

Or maybe it could just be summarized by paraphrasing T S Eliot: Santi Santi Santi.

Great column.

George LeSauvage said...

What's the code to make a net address active as a hyperlink?

Edward Feser said...

George,

1. What are you talking about? There is no error. Coyne himself had cited Rosenhouse's post as allegedly giving evidence of "intellectual dishonesty" on my part. Hence, in replying to Rosenhouse's allegation in the second link I was ipso facto replying to Coyne as well (and explicitly cited Coyne in the course of doing so).

2. I didn't say that no philosopher who simply happens to discuss the argument had ever formulated the argument that way. I have myself given many examples over the years of philosophers who have formulated it that way. I said that no philosopher who actually defends the argument formulates it that way. And Scruton is not a defender of the argument. (I'll have to go back and look at Scruton's book to see if he actually says what you attribute to him, but even if he does, again, he's not defending it but merely discussing it, so it's not a counterexample to what I said.)

Andrew Fruend said...

Now is my chance 😆 Thank you professor Feser for your book the last superstition, which brought me back to Christianity after militant naturalism, which turned to deism after my realization of what I now know to be the problem of emergence. Thanks to you I now have a good friend and mentor who teaches me the old and true ways of philosophy. Please keep a cool head about you while making your exposés it is what sets us apart from those who would see us abolished.

Anonymous said...

Although I haven't read much of Krauss and almost nothing of Coyne, would it be accurate to say that they are 21st century logical positivists? If they don't know that that is a dead and buried philosophical viewpoint, they really are as ignorant as they appear.

Glenn said...

George LeSauvage,

What's the code to make a net address active as a hyperlink?

The text which is to serve as a link is preceded by an opening tag [1] and followed by a closing tag [2].

[1] <a href="X"> (where X is the net address)

[2] </a>

- - - - -

Example (of how I do it):

1. A comment I'm making includes:

Here is the leftist Tom Lehrer's take.

2. I want the word 'take' to serve as a link to a youtube video.

3. I first add the opening tag without the net address:

Here is the leftist Tom Lehrer's <a href="">take.

4. I next add the closing tag:

Here is the leftist Tom Lehrer's <a href="">take</a>.

5. Then I insert the net address between the double quotation marks of the opening tag:

Here is the leftist Tom Lehrer's <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-IlShKGgfjM">take</a>.

6. The finished product, when posted, looks like this:

Here is the leftist Tom Lehrer's take.

Legion of Logic said...

Irenist, I myself am an Aspie. And I suppose that may partially account for some of my bluntness when trying to describe how stupid such things as new atheism and social progressivism are. However, the simple fact is that it is more satisfying to be blunt and to turn their tactics back onto them, so I can't really blame that on any autistic trait.

The Frenchman said...

It looks like many scientists, nowadays, scarcely engage into deep thinking by reasoning alone : without having any scientific tool...

As if science could answer absolutely all the most vital questions, such as "how to not fear death ?", for example...

The answer being - even though it might depend on the individual, "living without a self".

A common truth shared by Christianity and Buddhism, by the way.


To put it plainly, i seriously doubt they're as smart as people tend to think they are.

They're probably greatly overrated, and philosophers, on another hand, certainly just as greatly underrated.


Now, the concept of "intelligence" itself is pretty... "Slippery".


To many, "being intelligent" seems only to mean "thinking as i do".

Oh.

What a shame...

Eric MacDonald said...

Actually, Scruton does not (at least not in A Short History of Modern Philosophy) speak of a cause of God. He speaks of God as causa sui, which is a very different thing (see page 35).

Regarding Jeff Lowder, I have said very much the same kinds of things about Coyne, and was asked to go elsewhere if I had any criticisms to make (which is not a sign of intellectual honesty in itself), though he did not outright "ban" me, although I gather that my contribution is acknowledged in his new book Faith or Fact, a title which clearly expresses Coyne's prejudices.

I must say that, having left the narrow confines of Coyne's outlook, I have been greatly helped by Professor Feser's careful reading and argument, something that Coyne could not be accused of.

Scott said...

George LeSauvage:

What's the code to make a net address active as a hyperlink?

Enter this:

<a href="http://www.yourURLhere.com">hyperlink text here</a>

The result:

hyperlink text here

entirelyuseless said...

I agree with pretty much everything you've said about Coyne here. However, I would note that there is a danger when we see this kind of irrational behavior in someone else, because we will be inclined to think that we are the reasonable people and they are the unreasonable ones, while in reality pretty much everyone is reasonable some of the time and unreasonable some of the time, and we're likely to overlook the latter times when we are the ones being unreasonable.

The Frenchman said...

As for Dr. Feser's analysis of the New Atheist's psychology, as we say in my country ; "touché" !


Ego issues are the reason why New Atheism has rapidly become this strong, even in my country (our pseudo-intellectual Michel Onfray, is an equivalent of your Jerry Coyne).

Hopefully, we're many to think Onfray's just another arrogant piece of ****.





Eric MacDonald said...

Re Logical Positivism and the New Atheism. No, I don't think they are identical. Certainly, some of their viewpoints are. Their scientism is very much a follow on to Logical Positivism, but the Logical Positivists, despite their negative conclusions regarding religion (see Freddie Ayer, for example), were at least more informed in their approach, and more logical, even though, in the end, their position was as self-defeating as the New Atheists. The New Atheists think they have overcome the limitations of Logical Positivism, because, as they repeat ad nauseam, they construe science broadly. But the construal is not as broad as they think, and the claim that science comprehends everything that can be known is still not a scientific statement, however broadly they want to construe science. Thus they are, like the Logical Postivists, hoist by their own petard (a weapon, by the way, not, as it sounds, like a lance (as I used to think), but an explosive charge placed on a castle or keep door, in the endeavour gain access).

Eric MacDonald said...

Really, Frenchman, even though, in your words, Michel Onfray may be a pseudo-intellectual, he is much more sympathetic to religion, and seems to understand something of the religious point of view, and he does not try to establish science as the only possible kind of knowledge that we can achieve. In those respects he is streets ahead of the New Atheists, who still think that the term 'scientism' is a term of respect, and never bother to read or to try to understand religious arguments, holding them to be a waste of time, because, after all, as Coyne repeats over and over again, religious beliefs are simply "confections". In comparison to the New Atheists Onfray is a sophisticate.

Edward Feser said...

Hello and welcome, Eric!

Newer readers should know that, like Jeff Lowder and Keith Parsons, Eric MacDonald is someone with whom I've had some very heated exchanges in the past, but who has been happy to bury the hatchet and has shown tremendous grace, decency, and intellectual honesty in doing so. Eric's fine example proves that serious and respectful discussion is possible even between people who disagree greatly over the most fundamental issues.

Edward Feser said...

entirelyuseless,

You are right, of course, and it is important always to keep that in mind -- thanks for the reminder.

Geoffrey said...

"Here too, we have a kind of moralistic onanism which requires a rich fantasy life to support it."

Dayum.

Edward Feser said...

Andrew, many thanks!

Edward Feser said...

Re: logical positivism, like Eric, I would say that that is not a good comparison. Logical positivism was, needless to say, very deeply problematic, but it was nevertheless a serious philosophical program which provided a systematic rationale for its various notorious implications (scientism, anti-metaphysics, anti-theology, etc.) and which, over the course of its history as a school of thought, tried (unsuccessfully) to work its way out of the theoretical difficulties that afflicted it. Though a failed project, it is a failure that is instructive and interesting and repays serious study.

The New Atheism, by contrast, is just a bunch of ignorant people mouthing off. Its scientism is utterly crude and unreflective, and it has no serious or interesting criticisms to make of religious belief, aiming its fire instead at crude caricatures. Hence, unlike the writings of logical positivists, no would would ever study New Atheist literature for its intrinsic intellectual interest, because there isn't any.

In short, Coyne is no Carnap, and Dawkins is no Reichenbach. Indeed, even Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic, though famously a somewhat crude popularization, is more interesting than any New Atheist tome.

Edward Feser said...

Re: Scruton's discussion of the argument in Modern Philosophy, I've now taken a look. Eric is right, and I'm afraid George is mistaken. First of all, Scruton doesn't say anything quite like: "The cosmological argument says that everything has a cause, so the universe has a cause." Rather, he gives a more lengthy and loose exposition which switches between the notion of "cause" and the notion of "explanation," which, of course, crucially are not the same notion. So, he need not be read as claiming that the argument is committed to the premise that "everything has a cause." Indeed, when he goes on to consider the objections that an atheist might raise, he doesn't formulate the objection as "Why suppose that everything has a cause,?" but rather as "Why suppose that there must be an explanation of everything?" And while he also considers the objection "What caused God?", he doesn't treat this as some kind of magic bullet but instead uses it as a reason to launch into a discussion of the idea of God as causa sui. And that is not the notion of something that causes itself in the sense of efficient cause, but rather the idea of something self-explanatory.

Evidently Scruton's discussion is influenced here by the Cartesian/Spinozist conception of God, which I discussed in a post not too long ago:

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2014/07/clarke-on-stock-caricature-of-first.html

Anyway, ultimately this is all moot, because Scruton is not a proponent of the cosmological argument, but is merely trying to give an exposition of it in the course of an intro to philosophy book. Hence he would not have been a counterexample to what I said even if he had written what George attributed to him.

The Frenchman said...

Eric,


What i meant, when i said that Onfray and Coyne were similar, was that they're similar in terms of bigotry and anti-religious prejudice.

A fact that's made crystal-clear by Onfray's own quotes.


However, i didn't mean they were the same in every single aspect !


In spite of this, you are perfectly right when it comes to the fact that Coyne was not the best example to compare Onfray to.

The Frenchman said...

I might have exaggerated a little.

Not gonna apologize for someone like him, though.

Certainly not for a hedonist.

The Frenchman said...

"Militant" hedonist *


For many different reasons, but i don't want us to drift from the topic, so... Well.

Let's just stick to the topic.

moduspownens said...

Well, it seems to me this fetish sentimentality -- "onanistic" is a clever way of describing it -- applies in other areas and not just philosophy of religion. All the moral posturing, stern reprimanding that Obama and so many on the left like to deliver after the tragedies like the one in Oregon, an event that specifically comes to mind. You know, reproaches about "commonsense" steps like "comprehensive background checks" or those prevailing attitudes about us rubes in flyover country needing not to cling so tightly to our "guns and religion." If

These people like to lecture and hear the sound of their own voices, re-affirming their own self-righteousness but simultaneously still not having the slightest idea of what actually are the views of those people they feel so compelled to condescend to from on high. This can be applied probably unilaterally across the board: same-sex "marriage," abortion, illegal immigration, etc.

I think recent visitors here also have provided evidence for such a thesis, chiding us for "hiding behind our metaphysics" and not feeling enough or empathizing with the proverbial "other." They're like the stoned addict, who in his bliss, implores the non-user to just try heroin while remaining thoroughly oblivious to their own obvious impairment, degradation and overall obvious failings.

moduspownens said...

Though, perhaps I shouldn't have spoken about the devil...

George LeSauvage said...

My comment yesterday was a mess.

1. I absolutely didn't mean - and don't think - that there was anything actually misleading about the statement and the link, regarding Coyne. I can see that is what I implied, however unintentionally. All I had in mind was that it would be seized upon by Coyne, or one of his groupies, as grounds for such an accusation.

Of course, the answer is that trying to prevent the gnus from missing and distorting the point is like trying to prevent the sun from rising.

Mea culpa.

2. Yes, while Ed was tracking down my mistake, I discovered it myself. I flat-out screwed up, and I cannot even claim too much distance in time, as I did look at that chapter within the past 6 months. It doesn't say what I claimed it did. (I would have sworn it did, but it doesn't.) I will say that I never meant the point as more than evidence that people who make the claim aren't necessarily doing so for bad reasons. But still....

Mea sola culpa.

At this point maybe I should just apologize and slink away. As Emily Litella would say, "That's very different. Never mind."

(May I offer a small gesture of atonement in saying that I found the chapter on Ed's road from atheism to be fascinating. One difference between Catholics and my former fellow Anglicans is just how different we are, even if you restrict it to those with philosophical leanings. Being an Anglican is like living with your fellow college undergrads, you all have so much in common that it's easy to think everyone has your own preconceptions. RCIA was a shock to me here.)

But my real point is:

Mea sola maxima culpa.

Glenn said...

George,

At this point maybe I should just apologize and slink away.

Re the former, already done. Re the latter, don't you dare.

;)

Anonymous said...

Looking at those threads, "Vaal" is the only sane atheist poster on Coyne's site. I kind of wish he'd come over here and detail his objections to the cosmological argument.

Edward Feser said...

No problem, George, peace.

Vaal said...

Prof. Feser,

Vaal, atheist, here. I noticed you referenced Prof Coyne's reply to
my post(s) in the WEIT combox.

As I've mentioned at WEIT I'm quite sympathetic to some of your criticisms, especially when it comes to atheists straw manning theistic arguments. I do find myself sometimes disagreeing with Prof Coyne's characterizations of some theistic arguments. And I have no problem admitting that Lawrence Krauss does have me wincing a lot when he is skimming along philosophical subjects.

That said, personally I've become very cautious about engaging in pscychoanalysing "the other side" . Very often this leads to misdiagnosis, and hasty charges of "dishonesty." (You've been on the receiving end too, right?)

While charges of dishonesty have always flown between atheists and theists in debate, for me clashing with other atheists has been eye-opening.

Perhaps you've noticed that incompatibilism (Free Will Doesn't Exist) seems to be gaining more traction with some of the new atheist crowd. I argue for compatibilism because I find the incompatibilist accounts incoherent and compatibiilsm makes the most sense to me. But atheists, from Sam Harris to Jerry Coyne (and many in his combox) believe the conclusion of incompatibilism is so clear that compatibilists can't really have good reasons for why they argue for Free Will. So you get a lot of psychoanalyzing - "Compatibilists are motivated by wanting Free Will to be true, or because they are afraid of people not believing in Free Will".

It has been my experience that EVERY TIME the other side has seen to psychoanalyze me their diagnosis has been patently wrong (insofar as I have access to my actual psychological motivations). Prof Feser, I'm betting it's been the same for you. Has anyone on the "opposing side"of your position, ever struck you as having accurately depicted your motivations, when psychoanalyzing you? Have you ever found yourself thinking: "Yeah, you know, it really isn't that I believe what I say I believe, or that I believe my arguments make sense. I believe instead for the emotional reasons my opponent says I'm a believe!"

I doubt it.

If opponents on the other side of any debate subject regularly, predictably make incorrect inferences about my motivations, why should I presume I will be doing any better when I try to analyze their motivations? To me this raises Big Red Flags for this type of imputing the other side's motivation to psychology instead of reasoning.

Cont'd...

Vaal said...

I think it's not too hard to see where the impulse to diagnose the opposition as "dishonest" comes from. I think a certain appearance of close mindedness is, ironically, a sort of flip-side of the very nature of reasoning. When we are reasoning methodically toward a conclusion (e.g. Compatibilist Free Will, Natural Law Theory or whatever), considering the alternatives, finding reasons to reject one option and selecting another, we are sort of "shutting doors behind us as we go along" to our conclusion. "I've considered that route and rejected it, I'll continue down this route…"

In this way reasoning through to a conclusion, even when born of the desire to consider other views along the way, is somewhat like having gone down our own rabbit hole, closing hatches along the way. The *process* tends to produce a similar level of conviction whether we've made missteps along the way, or not.

And if we think we've reached a sound conclusion through reason, this pretty much implies that it's a conclusion that ought to be reached by anyone "being reasonable." If someone has reached an alternate conclusion well, it can't be strictly on the basis of reason, because if it were, they'd have reached the conclusion I reached. Something else must have led them astray. Ah-ha! Let's find the reasons in their psychology! And if they aren't accepting the good reasons for our argument, it suggests intellectual dishonesty.

"But hold on," many would say, "I don't just leap to the conclusion of dishonesty because someone doesn't agree with my argument;. Rather, it's after someone has been PRESENTED with their errors clearly and indisputably, and yet they go on to repeat those errors…well then those are equivalent to knowingly repeating falsehoods, lying."

But the problem is in debates we pretty much always think we have presented the other side their errors and misconceptions clearly, usually multiple times. It's why we all experience that head-banging sensation of"why don't they GET THIS?" And yet the other side keeps repeating the same crap. Since they must now know they are wrong, they can only be repeating falsehoods because they are dishonest.

When the incompatibilists in Prof Coyne's site start accusing me of arguing just like a theist for airy-fairy things like Free Will, the exact same thoughts are going through my head about their incompatibilist arguments. Because that is what the other side looks like, when you can't shake them of what seem like clearly false convictions.

So, I think a lot of what gets us motivated to conclude the other side is being dishonest springs not just from emotional motivations, but also from the very psychological nature of reasoning itself. Consequently, even when someone is repeating falsehoods about my position - which happens a hell of a lot - I wish to hold back presuming intellectual dishonesty. I really think the charge of "lying" and "dishonest" is often mistaken. More often, people really believe what they are writing, whether we think we gave them the alternative facts of the matter or not.
(I've explained my compatibilist stance almost continuously on the WEIT site, and it still gets repeated back to me incorrectly).

Vaal said...

One other thing:

I prefer not to discount someone - especially a smart person - on the grounds I think they have made some bad arguments.

For instance, Prof Coyne does make some of the mistakes you point out. But IMO that doesn't mean he doesn't get many other things right.
I would certainly endorse many of the criticisms he has made of religion and theistic beliefs.

Same with Sam Harris. I disagree with Harris on things like Free Will, Consciousness (and guns). But he has other bang on things to say when criticizing religion.

Same with your writing. I don't agree with your theistic beliefs such as I've seen them. But instead of taking the "Feser's a fool because he believes in theistic nonsense" route I am happy to recognize a smart person when I see one, and so I keep my eye out for areas of agreement, or education. There's all sorts of things you've written that strike me insightful or well reasoned - be it criticism of some atheists or other theists, or for instance your recent posts on humour which were quite compelling.

(I also feel the same way about William L. Craig. I disagree with his theistic arguments, but I appreciate that he is very good, and often right, at pointing out weaknesses in his atheist opponents).

Anyway, just some thoughts that arose when reading your post.

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Edward, you are right about no one studying the New Atheist literature for its intellectual insights. I would bet that Dawkins, Krauss, Harris, etc wouldn't have the foggiest notion of what Ayer, Quine and the rest even argued for. Heck, I can't even assure you that they would recognize the names of the logical positivists.

Bharat said...

Vaal, I think there is a small but important difference between the two situations you are characterizing. Feser is not trying to explain how people reach an atheistic conclusion (his reasoning can certainly apply, but that's not the purpose of his post), but rather how specific atheists (generally, the New Atheists) continue to misstate arguments and create strawmen when Feser has repeatedly explained what the actual arguments are. As Feser himself has said on many occasions, (I am just paraphrasing here) he doesn't think anyone who reaches an atheistic conclusion is full of shit (though of course he believes they're incorrect), but he does believe that the New Atheists generally are, because of their mischaracterization of theistic arguments and ignorance of the actual ones.

I'm only in my early 20s and I'm no expert on philosophy, but I did read The Last Superstition along with many posts on this website. With just a little study, to me Coyne's blog response to Feser on Krauss appeared as simply an embarrassment. How can someone so respected in another intellectual field engage in discussion with someone else for over 4 years and still not even know what their actual arguments are? A psychological explanation is sorely needed, and Feser's is a reasonable one.

As a side note, I did urge Coyne to read one of Feser's books since he (Coyne) was doing a disservice to his readers by not understanding the arguments he was criticizing. The comment was deleted and as far as I can tell, I am unable to make any more on Coyne's blog.

laubadetriste said...

@Dr. Feser: "The New Atheism, by contrast, is just a bunch of ignorant people mouthing off. Its scientism is utterly crude and unreflective, and it has no serious or interesting criticisms to make of religious belief, aiming its fire instead at crude caricatures. Hence, unlike the writings of logical positivists, no would would ever study New Atheist literature for its intrinsic intellectual interest, because there isn't any."

Since these comments contrast the New Atheism with logical positivism, I presume you implicitly mean something like that it has no "intrinsic [philosophical] intellectual interest." I for one have studied some New Atheist literature for its intrinsic intellectual interest. I will admit that this portion is only a minority of such literature, and also that its intellectual interest is not of the first rank. However, I suggest that it is not true that it has "no serious or interesting criticisms to make of religious belief, aiming its fire instead at crude caricatures," unless by "serious or interesting" you mean something properly philosophical. (If you do, then again I quickly concede the point.)

Take, only because I think he was the clearest counterexample, Christopher Hitchens. George Scialabba said of him, before pointing out that he was partly responsible for providing rhetorical cover for our disaster in Iraq (which is hardly a less-serious criticism than that he was philosophically incompetent), nonetheless said also that "It has always been with me a test of the sense and candor of anyone belonging to the opposite party whether he allowed Christopher Hitchens to be an ornament of Anglo-American literary journalism." And similarly I suggest that this journalist who had written from (as he put it once) "Baghdad, Banja Luca, Basra, Beirut, Belfast, Belgrade, Bombay, [and] Bosnia" did in fact have, in *God Is Not Great,* one or two serious and interesting criticisms of religious belief (such as about the persistence and intractability of religious violence and authoritarianism) aimed at more than *mere* crude caricatures; and ipso facto, that the New Atheists do so.

(Of course Coyne and Krauss et al. have earned much hyperbole from you with their calumnies. As a restorative, I suggest the Hitch's favorite whiskey: "The best blended Scotch in the history of the world--which was also the favourite drink of the Iraqi Baath Party, as it still is of the Palestinian Authority and the Libyan dictatorship and large branches of the Saudi Arabian royal family--is Johnnie Walker Black. Breakfast of champions, accept no substitute.")

Vaal said...

Bharat,

Actually my comments about being cautious with psychoanalysis pertained not just to the general subjects of atheist and theistic belief, but specifically to the types of disagreements Edward Feser has with Jerry Coyne. I was talking about the very nature of such disagreements, and why it can be compelling, in a misleading sense, to diagnose the other person as "dishonest" or lying (or only driven by emotion, etc).

Cheers,

Eric MacDonald said...

Professor Feser (or Ed, if I may?)

Thank you so much for your warm welcome. As you say, there are still points of disagreement between us, but one thing that we do not disagree about is the sloppiness of the New Atheism, a sloppiness that I once illustrated in some of my own dismissive language about religion. (I have in fact taken down all my posts, except a few that were published within the last year or so. I have saved them as an archive, and reading them I often find myself very ashamed of my haste to judgement on occasion, and my simple lack of judgement in others!) Of course, I never accepted the scientistic approach to epistemological issues, and that was undoubtedly the breaking point for me, the fact that the New Atheists are so hopeless at doing philosophy, even though they put on airs of such authority when they try. My atheism (which is modulating quite quickly into something else) was a response of anger towards what I still think of as the rather unyielding absolutism of much Christian morality. This is where our differences would become significantly more strained, though I hope that we could discuss them (should the occasion arise) in a spirit of charity and reason. But it is very nice to be welcomed so warmly to your pages! Peace, Eric

laubadetriste said...

@Vaal:

Hi!

(Atheist secret handshake).

I agree completely with your counsel about the blindness of people to others' motives, and hence the danger of bandying them about; and also about the general fatuousness of ascribing disagreement to dishonesty as a *motivation* (bulverism, etc.)

But in this particular case, is that not consistent with ascribing dishonesty to Coyne, *without* thinking dishonesty was a motive?

This might be a distinction without a difference, but could not he honestly have been shutting doors behind himself all along (as you put it), only to act dishonestly once he reached his destination?

Anyway, I gotta think there's a point at which Dr. Feser's saying about the Cosmological Argument that *no defender ever claimed what Coyne says they claimed* becomes pretty effing clear. Isn't that pretty much a paradigm case of the schoolbook experimental method? (Coyne's Cosmological Argument Hypothesis: *every* defender claimed as much. Results of the experiment [looking it up]: disconfirmed, disconfirmed, disconfirmed...)

Edward Feser said...

Hello again Eric. Yes, "Ed" please. And I am sure that charity and reason will indeed prevail in any exchange we might have even on those contentious matters.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Vaal,

Welcome. Yes, I agree that one must always be very careful about "psychoanalyzing" an opponent. However, there is a distinction to be made between:

(a) purporting to answer an argument by "psychoanalyzing" the person giving it, and

(b) "psychoanalyzing" a person in order to try to understand some odd behavior he is exhibiting.

Doing (a) amounts to a kind of ad hominem fallacy. But doing (b) is not fallacious. Now, what I was doing in the post above is (b). I was not saying "Coyne and Co. raise such-and-such objections to the cosmological argument. Let me answer those objections by uncovering what I take to be Coyne's hidden psychological motivation for raising them." That would be ad hominem. Nor, of course, did I ignore his actual objections. Instead, I explained how they rested on misunderstandings of the arguments he's attacking. And of course, neither did I say (nor would I ever say) that atheists in general have the psychological motivations described in my post. (Of course they don't.)

Instead, what I was saying is: "Coyne and others of a specifically New Atheist bent have a tendency to attack the same straw men over and over and over again, to ignore attempts to explain why they are straw men, to lash out even at fellow atheists who try to point out why these are straw men, etc. This is very odd and unusual, especially since these people are mostly not stupid. It cries out for explanation, and I think the explanation is this..."

But I agree that one needs to make sure that in doing (b) one does not slide into (a). And if Coyne ever actually tried seriously to respond to something I wrote, I would certainly not even get into (b) in replying to him, let alone (a).

Indeed, four years ago I really thought Coyne might do so when he said he was "dead serious" about wanting to find out what the best arguments for theism were, said he would read up on Aquinas, etc. I thought "Great, maybe he's a decent guy after all and this could lead to a more interesting exchange."

Hence it was very disappointing to see him almost immediately slide back into New Atheist hack mode and to see his pledge to look into the best arguments, study Aquinas, etc. go right down the memory hole.

I also want to emphasize that I don't dismiss the work of Coyne, Dawkins, Dennett, or other New Atheists in general. I think that Dennett, for example, has very interesting things to say on issues in philosophy of mind despite the fact that I think his whole project there is misguided and ultimately rests on certain key fallacies. In general, you can really learn from someone who thinks through a position thoroughly and systematically, even when the position is ultimately doomed. In part this is because an erroneous position typically takes one aspect of the truth and exaggerates its importance, and often people who do that will see things that are missed by people who don't make the same exaggeration. In part it's because an intelligent and systematic thinker is unlikely in the first place to be wrong about everything, but will make important discoveries which can be disentangled from his errors. And in part it's because errors themselves can be instructive in that we can learn how and why certain ideas and lines of argument which seem attractive ultimately won't work. Similarly, I'm happy to learn whatever I can from Coyne and Dawkins when they write on biology and other areas in which they have some real expertise.

The trouble is that these guys simply don't have anything interesting to say on religion, specifically. Many atheists do -- e.g. Mackie, Sobel, Oppy, and many others I've mentioned over the years -- but not the New Atheists. And it's such a glaring defect in the thinking of otherwise intelligent people that, again, it cries out for a type (b) treatment.

Edward Feser said...

Hi laubadetriste,

Actually, I have always had a soft spot for Hitchens, from the time I first became aware of him around 1990 when his book Blood, Class, and Nostalgia came out. I often disagreed with him, but always respected his intelligence and admired his wit and obvious talent as a writer, and have almost always found him worth reading even when I think he's wrong. Furthermore, even though I think the arguments he would give when wearing his New Atheist hat were of very poor quality and unworthy of him, he did not have the same visceral hostility to religious people that some other New Atheists have. Though often extremely unfair and blinkered on the subject of religion, it seems to me he was not quite the humorless ideologue that (say) Dawkins often comes across as.

Vaal said...

Prof. Feser,

Thanks for the reply.

What I wrote was not about making ad hominem arguments. Nor was it any accusation you were engaging in such. It was strictly pertaining to "(b)" - the attempt to understand someone's puzzling behaviour (in particular, as it pertains to disagreements like you and Coyne have with each other).

I was trying to get at the problem that arises between:

1. The completely reasonable desire to understand why someone is responding the way they are (particularly if it seems baffling or dishonest).

and

2. Our tendency to get it wrong, so often. (And why that is).

So it's not even about slipping into fallacious ad hominem; it's just about what compels our false analysis in the first place even when we aren't engaged in ad hominem.

For instance, you did speak of the way Coyne, despite every opportunity to learn otherwise, continues to straw man your position. And (I infer) this is why you labelled Coyne "irrational and dishonest."

But it seems to me Coyne could quite honestly be misunderstanding the arguments, or at least giving his honest impression of the arguments. He may be wrong, but not dishonest. Outside of professional philosophy (and sometimes even from within it, from what I've seen) it can be very difficult to find someone who disagrees with you, who can or will accurately represent your argument. I just don't think the act of misrepresenting arguments is so strongly predictive of dishonesty, since it's a pretty natural outcome of not accepting, or not understanding an argument. (For any myriad of reasons).

As I'd mentioned, I've explained compatibilism until I'm blue in the face on WEIT, and other secular places, and I find opponents continually mischaracterize it in their replies. But I have plenty of evidence of the general intellectual honesty of these people from other discussions, so I think it's better to impute this not to dishonesty, but to a misunderstanding (and I think this can REALLY get bad when we are at the level of duelling intuitions).

There is of course the problem that, no doubt, some people are certainly being dishonest, that they KNOW they are misrepresenting the other side. But it's my position that the impulse to conclude dishonesty is so ready in all of us, and we are so prone to error in doing so, that such accusations tend to more often be unproductive, and wrong, than not.
(Possibly for the reasons I explored earlier).

Finally, as to this comment:

"The trouble is that these guys simply don't have anything interesting to say on religion"

To no surprise, I disagree. I think New Atheists are purveying plenty of very important, often correct critiques of religion. The religions that the majority of the world actually believe (e.g. the revealed religions, not simple deism).

BTW, I recently read your older post on your path to atheism. It was quite fascinating but, drat, you stopped right before explaining your step from essentially deism to the revealed religion of Catholicism, which was really what I wanted to read. Did you ever follow up with that?

Cheers,

laubadetriste said...

@Vaal: "BTW, I recently read your older post on your path to atheism. It was quite fascinating but, drat, you stopped right before explaining your step from essentially deism to the revealed religion of Catholicism, which was really what I wanted to read. Did you ever follow up with that?"

Yes. Now, *that* would be cool to read.

Vaal said...

Whoops, in describing that older post, I meant Prof Feser's path to THEISM (he described going from theism through atheism to theism). I was interested in his path from atheism to Catholicism. That always strikes me as the bigger stretch than from atheism to deism. ;-)

Legion of Logic said...

New Atheists do make correct points about religious matters sometimes, but the problem is the correct points are intertwined with so many fallacies and completely incorrect points that it's often hard to muster the effort to filter out the occasional nugget of truth. Plus I also find that the correct critiques usually apply to far more facets of human nature than simply religious ones, yet they ignore all other instances. I see no reason to take them seriously.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Vaal,

Ah, OK, I see that your concern is not the same as the issue I was addressing. Fair enough. Well, I would say a couple of things in reply. First, there is the question of what we mean, or should mean, or might mean, by "intellectual dishonesty." Certainly I don't think Coyne or the more unreasonable people in his combox are consciously and explicitly thinking "I know this isn't what theists mean, but I'm going to pretend otherwise for rhetorical purposes." But I don't think that intellectual dishonesty is usually as blatant or self-conscious as that. I think it is usually a kind of self-deception, and self-deception is, of course, by its nature less than fully conscious. It involves a tendency to avoid letting one's attention dwell on unpleasant facts or ideas, a tendency to try to focus one's attention instead on evidence and ideas that will reinforce what one wants to believe, and so forth. It also typically involves a kind of touchiness when some other person raises some uncomfortable piece of evidence that might jeopardize the self-deceiver's attempt to convince himself that the thing he wants to believe is really true. Think of the alcoholic who doesn't want to face his problem, lets his mind dwell only on ways of interpreting his behavior which make it seem within the normal range, minimizes behavior that other people would take to be clear evidence of addiction, gets touchy and defensive when the subject arises, etc.

Now, when someone like Coyne keeps attacking the same straw men over and over and over again, over the course of many years and despite the fact that even people who otherwise agree with him gently advise him to stop doing it, when he gets touchy even with atheist readers who call him out on it, when he doubles down on the rhetoric about how obviously stupid his opponents' arguments are, etc. -- well, that sort of behavior is pretty consistent with that of someone who is interested in convincing himself that he was right all along rather than that of someone who really wants to find out if he is in fact right. That is to say, it sounds like classic self-deception. And that's the kind of intellectual dishonesty I'm talking about.

Second, it is true that analytic philosophers do, at least "officially" if (unfortunately) not always in practice, highly value a willingness and ability to try to reconstruct an opponent's arguments in as plausible and fair-minded a way as possible. Certainly that was something drilled into me in grad school, and I have always been grateful for it. Again, there are analytic philosophers who do not live up to this ideal, and I can certainly think of some analytic philosophers with a prominent online presence who do not even try to live up to it at all when they think that refraining from doing so might further some political cause they favor. Still, it is an ideal that analytic philosophers all know they should strive to live up to. It is also an ideal that Scholastic philosophers value highly.

(continued)

Edward Feser said...

(continued)

Now, as a Scholastic trained in analytic philosophy, it is certainly an ideal I value highly, and I confess that I have very little patience for academics and other intellectuals who don't value it. I make no apologies for that, because the reason analytic philosophers and Scholastics value it is that philosophy, science, and intellectual pursuits in general are about truth, about finding out how things really are and not merely confirming prejudices, furthering agendas, etc. Trying to give an opponent's views a fair-minded reading is just part of this project of attaining truth, both because you never know when an opponent might have seen something you've missed, and because getting into the practice of reading an opponent's views fairly is a good way of training oneself not to be blinded by one's own prejudices.

So, I don't see a willingness to try accurately to represent an opponent's views as merely a special interest of professional philosophers. I would argue that it is partially constitutive of serious inquiry of any kind, and thus of intellectual honesty. Hence, if someone is unwilling to make an effort to represent an opponent's views accurately, I would say that he is ipso facto intellectually dishonest. So, since Coyne and other New Atheists have demonstrated this sort of unwillingness, they have to that extent shown that they merit the charge of intellectual dishonesty.

Furthermore, Coyne and Co. make a very big show out of how much they allegedly value evidence, not letting preconceptions color one's inquiry, etc. So, they can hardly complain when they are asked to look at the evidence concerning what their opponents actually have said, and when they are expected not to let their own preconceptions about what theists believe color their interpretation of arguments like the cosmological argument. And they certainly get touchy when they think their own arguments have been misrepresented. So, they can hardly complain when someone expects them to show the same courtesy to their opponents.

So, though I don't doubt that some of these folks in some sense sincerely believe what they say, that doesn't absolve them of the charge of intellectual dishonesty. Self-deceived people would not be self-deceived if they didn't in some sense really believe what they say.

moduspownens said...

Vaal,

You're right to advise caution and restraint when it comes to psychoanalysis of your interlocutors. Yet, I'm not sure you're completely capturing intellectual dishonestly. Namely, your use of dishonesty precludes the possibility and I would say very real actuality that the New Atheists don't realize their misconduct; that, they're more willfully ignorant, obtuse and negligent to their absurd assumptions on discourse than deliberately deceptive. However, I feel this can still be characterized as dishonest.

For example, so many New Atheists are committed to defining "atheism as a lack of belief," and as such, the default position. I also guarantee, when they encounter a proof for God's existence, say this one:

1) If God doesn't exist, objective moral values don't exist.
2) Objective moral values do exist
C) God exists

They would deny a premiss, say 2). In other words, objective moral values do not exist -- morality's subjective. Then, is atheism a mere lack of belief anymore? They obviously are committed to at least one positive belief, i.e., morality is subjective, to diffuse the theistic conclusion.

Now, I think this little illustration is devastating. The New Atheist can't really say they didn't really mean it when they denied 2), which is admitting dishonesty. But nor can the New Atheist insist they merely have a lack of belief in God either, without proving his dishonestly. Therefore, I think the only feasible horn of the dilemma is to suffer the humiliation of such ineptitude and abandon the "lack of belief" meme, but the fact that so many of them are loathe to do so and many New Atheists, with gnashing teeth, would rather go down with the ship so to speak and just reiterate their "lack of belief" is extremely telling.

I mean this is by no great effort an expensive concession to make. The God-question is still very much up for grabs. All this does is reset the game board, but many New Atheists, I imagine, can't bring themselves to do that. Therefore, this deserves some form of explanation. Especially when you consider other debates between diametrically opposing positions, e.g., capitalism vs. communism, rationalism vs. empiricism, dualism vs. monism, compatibilism vs. incompatibilism, even the similarly pitted ontic clash between Platonism (universals exist) and nominalism (no univerals, just bare particulars), none of these rivaling theories are ever defined as the lack of belief in what the other purports.

The fact that most likely, given these other debates, these same New Atheists would not set such a high bar, be so uncharitable to the opposing position as to thrust, by default, the burden of proof on those whom with they were disagreeing. But with atheism vs. theism, all of a sudden, this presumption suddenly comes into effect? Their lack of consistency and the inability, whether willful or not, to be introspective of it here can definitely be described as dishonest.

moduspownens said...

Looks like Professor Feser here is keying onto to the same thing too.

Edward Feser said...

Finally, re: the other points you raise: No, I haven't yet got around to writing up a piece on my path to Catholicism, specifically -- that's another long story -- but I will get to it at some point.

One slight (perhaps pedantic) correction, though: By "deism" I take it you mean purely philosophical theism, without admixture of allegedly revealed doctrine. But "deism" isn't a good label for that. "Deism" typically connotes a conception of God's relationship to the world on which the world could, in principle, carry on without him. It's a stereotypical 17th century "watchmaker" view of God, on which the "watch" might keep ticking over even if the watchmaker took off.

But there is nothing in purely philosophical theism per se that entails that view of God and his relationship to the world. On the contrary, classical (Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic) philosophy entails a non-deist conception of God. For Aristotle, change would stop if the Unmoved Mover were not constantly moving the world. For Neo-Platonism, the world exists at all only insofar as it participates in the One. The world has an intimate dependence on God at every moment at which it exists, which is the opposite of what deism implies. (This is why Jews, Christians, and Muslims found classical philosophy's view of God so congenial, whereas the modern deist view, by contrast, tended to function as a halfway house on the road away from Christianity and toward atheism. And this is one reason why it's extremely stupid for modern Christians to get excited by attempts to revive "watchmaker" arguments for God, which are bad arguments anyway.)

Vaal said...

Thanks Prof. Feser. I've only at the moment skimmed your response and will read it later. Point taken about "Deism," it was an off-handed label.

Edward Feser said...

No prob, Vaal. I know you weren't hanging anything big on that particular word, so, again, maybe I was being pedantic...

Vaal said...

moduspownens,

Just to be clear: I'm certainly not saying that analyzing people's motives is invalid. It's obviously a legitimate question, and after all, entire disciplines are dedicated to studying the subject.
It's just that when one is on one side of a debate, we can easily misfire.

Anyway, just quickly here…

"For example, so many New Atheists are committed to defining "atheism as a lack of belief,"

You missed one word: a lack of belief in God.

Your argument struck me as odd, and then I realized why :-)

Many atheists - "New Atheists" included, such as Sam Harris, are moral realists.
I'm a moral realist. So as to your syllogism, unlike what you predict I (and Sam Harris) would deny premise 1, not premise 2. (Though I think to undermine that moral argument one can deny, or at least question premise 2).

"Then, is atheism a mere lack of belief anymore?

Yes, a lack of belief in God. Just as it was before. (At least, if I am taking for the moment that definition of atheism).

They obviously are committed to at least one positive belief, i.e., morality is subjective, to diffuse the theistic conclusion."

And? Who said atheism entails having no positive beliefs? I could think of various possible entities that conflict with mundane positive beliefs you hold, and conjoin it into a syllogism so that in affirming a mundane positive belief (e.g. that tigers exist or something) you disconfirm God. But that's not terribly impressive.

The atheists who take atheism to be a "lack of belief in God" generally mean that as a statement of psychology: they don't hold a belief in any God. This is because they have not seen any convincing argument for God.

Given there are many different arguments (and for various types of God) yours would be taken as just one argument that failed to establish warrant for belief in God. But since there are many other possible arguments, the question remains open, though the atheist has not encountered a convincing one yet and so holds no belief in God as of yet.

You may produce every argument you know of and if the atheist denies a premise in every one of them, the atheist can still say "but there may be a good argument yet to be made for God. And in THAT sense I can't say I've refuted any possible reason to believe in God. Since that seems an impossible or unlikely task anyway - given God can be formulated as unfalsifiable as well, I'll stick to the more modest claim that I hold no belief in God. "

It's not disingenuous. There is some merit to the idea, as it actually derives from some epistemic humility. And that your argument (or arguments) for God are not the only ones, or only possible ones.

Cheers,

James said...

I think you hit the nail on the head, Prof. Feser. As Dante wrote, "l'afetto il intelecto legga," ("passion fetters the intellect"). In addition, I think that the style of the new atheists, which reveals a hatred for religion, is a sickness of soul, a serious character flaw. Thus it is not only their passion which helps to render them blind, but also the ugliness of their attitudes, manifestations of the ugliness in their characters. Such character traits are more or less incompatible with the love of truth, veracity, and the virtues of dispassion, impartiality, disinterestedness, all of which are aspects of the essentially luminous nature of intelligence, the greatest gift of God.

George LeSauvage said...

Aside from what Ed wrote in 2 comments at 10:34, I'd like to suggest one other test. Does someone show any respect for anyone on the other side? In Ed's article on the road from atheism, he cites one of his atheist professor's regard for Aquinas, something I noted in several of my professors, when I was in school. Here, an obvious example is the respect shown for Russell, by Ed and most of his A/T commenters. I note this respect was shown much earlier by Ronald Knox, in Broadcast Minds or Caliban on Grubstreet, where Russell comes off looking much better than, say, Mencken or J Huxley. And unlike, say, Orwell, there is very little to Russell's views on either religion or politics which will appeal to people here. With Coyne or Dawkins, is there a comparable case?

On compatiblism, I think you've picked a damn tough bullet to chew. I say that because I embraced it at one point on my road from Plato to Aristotle; I know that there is a big problem getting people to get what you're saying. I (in versions George 1.0 and 2.0) couldn't get it at all. Then during one semester, I saw it. I'd compare the problem here with those pictures that have some feature you just cannot see unless you look at it just right. So that is a paradigm case of where your plea for charity is appropriate.

But it doesn't apply so well elsewhere. Again in Ed's aforementioned essay, he refers to students just "tapping their toes" waiting to get on with the refutation they've already decided on, rather than really attending to the argument at hand. Surely this is behavior which, if continued, will end in dishonest arguments.

I'll end by quoting the first and (probably) the last great Anglican apologists. The former aligns with what you've said, the latter with Ed's comments.

THE BEST and safest way for you therefore, my dear brethren, is to call your deeds past to a new reckoning, to re-examine the cause ye have taken in hand, and to try it even point by point, argument by argument, with all the diligent exactness ye can; to lay aside the gall of that bitterness wherein your minds have hitherto over-abounded, and with meekness to search the truth. Think ye are men, deem it not impossible for you to err; sift unpartially your own hearts, whether it be force of reason or vehemency of affection, which hath bred and still doth feed these opinions in you. If truth do any where manifest itself, seek not to smother it with glosing delusions, acknowledge the greatness thereof, and think it your best victory when the same doth prevail over you. - Richard Hooker

"Friend, I am not suggesting at all. You see, I know now. Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and
plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started
automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? When did we put up one moment's real resistance to the loss of our faith?"

"If this is meant to be a sketch of the genesis of liberal theology in general, I reply that it is a mere libel. Do you suggest that men like ..."

"I have nothing to do with any generality. Nor with any man but me and you. Oh, as you love your
own soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn't want the
other to be true. We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes."
- C S Lewis

The Frenchman said...

"Does someone show any respect for anyone on the other side ?"


Nope.

Absolutely everyone here is a bigot.


More seriously, i do greatly respect atheist philosopher Quentin Smith.

His analysis of the Fine-Tuning argument is priceless, and he seems, to me, to be a great model of tolerance : he acknowledges the "erudite brilliance" of some contemporary theist philosophers' arguments, even though he isn't himself convinced by them at all !


Now, i don't know everything about him, of course.

But what i know of him, makes me like him.

moduspownens said...

Vaal,

My experience, and I think others here can confirm it as common or likely, that when atheists say "atheism is a mere lack of belief in God," it typically means:

1) A presumption of atheism that it's the default position in the debate
2) Requires no justification or positive case in its favor
3) Involves no positive beliefs

It's fine for an atheist claiming they lack belief in God if referring to a psychological state in a mundane or trivial sense of a description of oneself if asked, "what do you mean you're an atheist?" Ok, no one denies that there are people who don't maintain the proposition God exists, thereby "lack belief in it." It's trivially true. A theist can maintain that his psychological state is the "lack of belief" in the proposition "God doesn't exist." I mean this is all fine and dandy, but it's all mundane.

However, as mentioned earlier, I find that this isn't always what is meant by "atheism is a lack of belief is God." That, often what is meant both the psychological state and any combination of 1-3. And insistence otherwise is met with acerbic scorn. Here's a huge problems with this "terminological mischief," as Bill Vallicella calls it.

First, the suffix ism refers to a position or view. Atheism is a metaphysical position. What you described is a psychological state that can be charitably interpreted to only apply to rational persons, as it would otherwise imply objects with no cognitive capabilities, like nails, footballs, grass, etc., are all atheists. Rational persons aren't positions that can be true, false, entail, etc. Certainly, atheism is either true (theism false) or false (theism true). There is a difference between atheism and an atheist. Perhaps, atheism is "a lack of belief..." where the "is" enjoins or implies that an atheist can be ascribed as "lacking belief...," but this is not the same sort of "is" that signifies the definition, essence or identity of something as part of the predicate. What I'm getting at is that the terms atheism and atheist aren't being described univocally here; they're being falsely equated.

I would also maintain that you don't fully appreciate the problem I illustrated. Fine, you deny 1), but that can still be reformulated in such a way where you seemingly are committed to a moral ontology where the goodness is not grounded in God, but something else, for example, pleasure or well-being or what have you. That's a positive metaethical claim you're maintaining to stave off theism. Holding it rationally justifies your atheism and your refusal to acknowledge the proof as compelling. That, atheism is subject to logical justification by another proposition and thereby not a lack of belief. Either the atheist can abandon the meme as pertaining to definition, or the proof stands. The act of arguing shows that atheism cannot be a mere lack of belief, and that an atheist does hold positive beliefs to justify atheism. So, they can only lack belief in the narrow, trivial sense referencing their psychology, but not in any broad, meaningful manner encompassing 1-3 that many New Atheists cling to.

moduspownens said...

cont...

Admittedly, it's a simple demonstration, but that doesn't make it any less effective. And obstinately denying this as so for any prolonged period of time is one of the few cases in philosophy that indicates irrationality and the sort of self-deception Professor Feser talked about. Furthermore, given that no one else does this in any other debate makes these "lack of belief" distinctions, I think it's warranted to say that there is a strong case here that this legitimately shows intellectual dishonesty.

And I'm not meaning to imply that you're dishonest with your rebuttal to me, just that you haven't thought it completely through. It's honorable that you're defending your fellow atheists' integrity, but this is not a hill to die on for the likes of them. Let it be their grave, as their recalcitrance has earned it.

Unknown said...

Professor,

I liked your observations about "sentimentality." It really needs a fuller treatment in a follow up essay. My comment would be that to the extent that the atheist outlook is shaped by sentiment, we have left the domain of reason and entered the province of the will.

jmhenry said...

I wonder if something similar explains the bizarre episode of pro-choice advocates (who usually like to regard themselves as rational and science-minded) breathlessly praising Bill Nye's recent video on abortion -- even though it was riddled with logical fallacies and contained virtually no science.

I'd heard about the video (which apparently went viral), but only just recently got around to actually watching it. And it was worse than I'd imagined. Nye lectures pro-life advocates about being "fact-based" and how they should "respect the facts," even though he can't be bothered to get the facts of human embryology right. It goes downhill from there, as he veers from bad science into bad philosophy and moral reasoning. It's an incoherent, fallacious mess. And yet pro-choice advocates fell all over themselves praising it. That Nye's arguments (if you can call them that) themselves were contrary to facts and had some pretty glaring lapses in logic don't seem to matter. Since it's "The Science Guy" telling them what they want to hear, then that's enough to validate them in their belief that they are the "fact-based" ones, not the other side.

Vaal said...

Prof Feser,

I don't see much at all to disagree about there in general terms. Whether you have correctly diagnosed Prof Coyne I don't know, that to me is the tricky part whatever side of a debate.

To me the vast majority of the critiques of New Atheists look the same: the NA arguments tend to be either directly straw manned by their opponents, or the main thrust of their critique side-stepped no matter how often they explain the focus of their critique. When theists who worships from within a revealed religion (.e.g. the Abrahamic religions) downplays that aspect to a New Atheist to make the debate about the God-Of-The-Philosophers…THAT strikes me as disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. Particularly given the specific focus New Atheism puts on specifically religious beliefs. (It was, for instance, the proposition that the 9/11 hi-jackers flew the plane into the towers due to beliefs they derived from their Islamic faith that put Sam Harris to action. That the empirical bar-lowering we've allowed for belief in religious revelation has dubious consequences. He wasn't sitting around concerned we needed another book arguing against Aquinas or Aristotle).

So, that these theistic rebuttals *seem* knowingly formed to avoid the the main points of the New Atheist critique, may strike me as disingenuous, it doesn't mean the person isn't thinking in an honest way. Because I know from the other side it seems the same way: Those New Atheists disingenuously pick at the low hanging fruit, to avoid the really good arguments for God! So I'm careful to withhold judgement. (Though in the case of William L. Craig, I think it's fair to say all his debating moves are very calculated - he knows what he is doing and why to win a debate).

So, again, your analysis seems dead on to me in many ways, and perhaps you have diagnosed things accurately. But I personally remain cautious. (And I don't mean to really be here to engage in lengthy debate with anyone - I'm just throwing in my comments).

The Frenchman said...

What exactly do you mean, when you say the terrorists who blew themselves up against the twin towers, did it because of beliefs they "derived" from their Islamic faith ?


Also, does any one know whether or not the Harvard Talk on the immortality of the soul, will come up as a video ? :O


In advance, thanks a lot.

Brandon said...

When theists who worships from within a revealed religion (.e.g. the Abrahamic religions) downplays that aspect to a New Atheist to make the debate about the God-Of-The-Philosophers…THAT strikes me as disingenuous and intellectually dishonest.

I don't see how this makes any sense at all. Rational argument requires rational order; it's illegitimate to jump around as if different beliefs didn't presuppose other beliefs, or as if the dependencies didn't matter in arguing for them, and for theists arguing with atheists in general, the first point of difference is usually not going to be divine revelation. Trying to characterize an insistence on first-things-first as "disingenuous and intellectually dishonest" seems to require, as well, that in talking about "the God-of-the-Philosophers" worshippers in the Abrahamic religions are pulling a bait and switch; but this is not generally going to be so.

Vaal said...


moduspownens,

I've been in the trenches with the secular/religious debates for a couple decades now and have been through all the torturous debates, both within atheism and between atheists and theists, over the term "atheist" and it's many forms. Like theism, you can get different definitions from different atheists. So I grew tired of it long ago. I'm a "what do you believe and why?" guy.

But for the moment…

That's a positive metaethical claim you're maintaining to stave off theism.

No, not to stave off theism. It's just a positive belief I hold. That you can formulate an argument for theism around that positive belief seems no more to the point than that you could formulate an argument for God around my positive belief I just cleaned my kitchen. (E.g. if I just cleaned my kitchen…..then God does not exist). But would it be much of a "gotcha" to say that my having a positive belief I cleaned my kitchen entailed my atheism? Does it really make sense to say that in telling anyone I cleaned my kitchen I'm defending Atheism? That would seem a trivial connection. And the problem is there can be innumerable such arguments for all sorts of Gods. So it makes much more sense to use the term "Atheist" to simply denote a lack of belief in God.

My telling you I'm an atheist certainly tells you something non-trivial about me in a world full of theism. But it doesn't tell you specifically WHY I'm an atheist, what arguments I may or may not have heard and rejected, etc.

So long as the atheist happily admits he holds all sorts of positive beliefs (of course!) but that by "atheist" he simply wants to describe his belief-state about a single proposition - "Do you believe in a God?" - I think your "gotcha" point is more trivial than you imagine it to be.

BTW, here's one bunch of atheists view on the matter:

http://wiki.ironchariots.org/?title=Atheist_vs._agnostic

Anyway, Canadian Thanksgiving time, so I'm off…

Cheers,

Vaal said...

Brandon,

There is a big, wide world out there beyond the confines of spaces were people argue about Thomistic-Aristotelianism.

The vast majority of devotees to the Abrahamic Religion are focused on the God Of Revelation, Jesus, etc. That's why the "average believer's" emphasis is clearly on the Bible, rather than the abstruse arguments of the philosophers. This emphasis on God's revelation as the focus of most believers isn't something that can be reasonably denied.

Hence focusing on those beliefs - the ones that actually motivate most religious believers - certainly makes the most sense if you are concerned about the consequences of religious beliefs. (Having been discussing theism with Christians for a long time, it certainly is a fact that the first point of difference is their adherence to revelation).

If you feel most believers are going about it wrong, and should be emphasizing instead the god of Natural Religion (inferred arguments for God, not revealed knowledge) then I'd say you should take it up with them. But at this point, it's not the case and the New Atheist critiques hit a very real, very large target.

Vaal said...


typo, should be:

"But at this point, it IS the case and the New Atheist critiques hit a very real, very large target."

Daniel said...

If you feel most believers are going about it wrong, and should be emphasizing instead the god of Natural Religion (inferred arguments for God, not revealed knowledge) then I'd say you should take it up with them. But at this point, it's not the case and the New Atheist critiques hit a very real, very large target.

I don't see how this should be the case. If the majority of the New Atheist type criticism focused on claims for revealed religion e.g. the Resurrection, the historicity of Scriptural events or purported contradictions then I would agree but they don't; they focus on spurious 'Science has shown X' type counter-examples, which are clearly challenges, and singularly bad ones at that, to the notion of God itself.

I would also add that a lot of them appeal to what can only be called Herd Morality, that is they prey upon people's unreasoned acceptance that certain actions e.g. torturing a child for fun, taking part in the Holocaust et cetera et cetera are wrong without any formal ethical theory to back that up. (True some theists - I'm looking at you WLC - do the same)

(And for the record I don't endorse any form of revealed religion, so can quite happily by counted as a 'Deist' in that somewhat lose sense mentioned earlier)

Brandon said...

The vast majority of devotees to the Abrahamic Religion are focused on the God Of Revelation, Jesus, etc. That's why the "average believer's" emphasis is clearly on the Bible, rather than the abstruse arguments of the philosophers. This emphasis on God's revelation as the focus of most believers isn't something that can be reasonably denied.

That it is a focus of most believers is simply not determinative of whether it is the most reasonable focus of discussion between believers and atheists, which requires starting with the rational points of difference between believers and atheists; nor, if truth is a concern of the parties in question, does it seem particularly relevant whether the believers in question spend all that much of their attention on the abstruse arguments. As Daniel points out, for instance, it will depend in part on what the precise points of discussion are, and it is surely not going to be the general case that the point of discussion between a believer and an atheist is something that already presumes a particular revelation. Again, I don't understand what you think the logical order is here.

Hence focusing on those beliefs - the ones that actually motivate most religious believers - certainly makes the most sense if you are concerned about the consequences of religious beliefs.

This is not obviously true. If we are concerned with the consequences of beliefs most likely to be true, the latter characteristic is not determined by numbers. If we are concerned with consequences and not truth, as in a sociological or psychological investigation, then how to trace out the consequences will depend on the particular group of believers being discussed and the particular ends of inquiry.

Further your entire argument appears -- I do not know if it does, but it looks like it does -- to make an erroneous slide between de dicto and de re readings of phrases like 'God of the philosophers' and 'God of revelation'. 'God of the philosophers' can't here mean anything other than 'God, insofar as God can be talked about on the grounds of purely philosophical argument' and 'God of revelation' would appear to mean 'God, insofar as God can be talked about by appeal to particular revelation'. They aren't different topics; they are the same topic described with respect to different modes of discussing the topic. But reasonable people adjust their modes of discussion to the people with whom they discuss; and surely it will often be the case that in discussing matters with atheists it will be fruitless for the believer to appeal to revelation. So either you mean something else by these descriptions, or you are sliding between de re and de dicto reading of them, or you are claiming that believers in arguing with atheists should not prefer to appeal to more general rational considerations rather than considerations of revelation. None of these seem quite right.

So I still don't see how the line of reasoning is supposed to work.

Chris Kirk said...

T. Frenchman:

Quentin Smith was one of my professors. In person he is genuinely interested in what you have to say, and almost always has something thought-provoking in reply. I love my own mentor Tim McGrew; but I blush to say I never bent Quentin's ear enough. Advice to grad students, don't pass up any opportunity to talk to your professors, even those not directly related to your interests.

Chris-Kirk

Crude said...

It's the New Atheists who decided to argue that the existence of God or gods - full stop - is delusional, lacking evidence, poorly supported, etc. That's not something theists attributed to them in some imagined bait-and-switch tactic. Dawkins' Ultimate Boeing 747 argument had nothing to do with revelation, to give just one example. PZ Myers and company expressly dismissed philosophical and theological discourse about God as 'fairyology' that had no worthwhile content. The examples can be multiplied.

To throw out an example on this front: consider the reaction of the New Atheists to Anthony Flew's conversion. They didn't ho-hum it all, since Flew expressly converted to a belief in God rather than a religion; they went ballistic, with Carrier in particular yapping up a storm. And it's easy to see why it's their interest, even if one maintains that their main concern is with particular religions: because they see 'The God of the Philosophers' as lending support to the God of Christianity, etc, and thus attack the former. They've done a rotten job.

The New Atheists are the ones who picked the fight with belief in God and gods, full stop. That it turns out they've bitten off far more than they can chew doesn't absolve them.

If they, at this stage of the game, want to say that belief in God is rational, that they have no comment about the existence of the God of the Philosophers or the God of classical theism (or, for that matter, theistic personalism and polytheism), and that they only think going from that to revelation is a bridge too far, let them say as much. But it's going to be a change in their position, and a drastic one.

George LeSauvage said...

Vaal,

This may be relevant:

However, it is to be borne in mind, in regard to the philosophical sciences, that the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them, but leave this to a higher science; whereas the highest of them, viz. metaphysics, can dispute with one who denies its principles, if only the opponent will make some concession; but if he concede nothing, it can have no dispute with him, though it can answer his objections. Hence Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections — if he has any — against faith.

On the truth of Christianity it is pointless to argue from scripture against an atheist. But we can argue metaphysically for the prolegomena to the faith.

The other side of what you seem to be saying would amount to an argument about history, which would be a different matter, and an odd thing to go to a philosophy site for. But there too there is plenty of argument to be had. In my own case, I admit that finding out how much of the Whig version of history I was taught had as much to do with my switch as did philosophy. (Mostly simultaneously, but really the historical shock came first.)

George LeSauvage said...

"how much of the Whig version of history I was taught was false"

Sorry.

Qasim said...

Hello Dr. Feser. This is my first post here.

First of all I want to say that "The Last Superstition" was one of top three most enlightening books I have ever read, it truly changed the way I look at the world. I can't thank you enough.

The short portion of this post about sentimentality was absolutely incredible. This issue really is the crux of the matter when it comes to understanding "intellectual" discourse in present-day America. I would argue that this sentimentality is the ultimate explanation of liberals and the havoc their policies wreak on society. Someone (preferably you) should really write a whole book on this topic. Or are there a lot of other books (other than the one you mentioned in your post) already out there that I am just not aware of?

This inane sentimentality is everywhere these days, I can't even go on my Facebook account without being barraged by it, it drives me bonkers. Sometimes my wife will go on and on about those poor whales at Sea World or some similar thing and I get so irritated, and then when she asks me why I sometimes have a hard time putting it into words, which gives her ammunition to say I am just uncaring, but now I will send her your post! This BS faux-concern about stuff thousands of miles away, the smug feeling of self-righteousness and the undeserved moral high that people who prattle on about these things so obviously crave, all coupled with the general lack of actually DOING anything about situations one could actually improve, your short post encapsulates this mindset perfectly.

One more thing. One of my favorite websites to read is The Unz Review. Dr. Feser, it would be amazing to see your columns posted there, they would fit in very well with the eclectic and erudite nature of the site.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Vaal,

You write:

When theists who worships from within a revealed religion (.e.g. the Abrahamic religions) downplays that aspect to a New Atheist to make the debate about the God-Of-The-Philosophers…THAT strikes me as disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. Particularly given the specific focus New Atheism puts on specifically religious beliefs. (It was, for instance, the proposition that the 9/11 hi-jackers flew the plane into the towers due to beliefs they derived from their Islamic faith that put Sam Harris to action. That the empirical bar-lowering we've allowed for belief in religious revelation has dubious consequences. He wasn't sitting around concerned we needed another book arguing against Aquinas or Aristotle).

Like Brendan, I find this charge very puzzling. First, whatever else the New Atheism is about, it is, obviously, about atheism. Hence, if you show that God exists, you’ve shown that atheism if false, and thus shown that a central claim (I would think the central claim) of the New Atheism is false. Obviously there are other issues that the New Atheists raise that would also have to be dealt with, but it would be absurd to say “Well, even if atheism turns out to be false, that doesn’t really affect the New Atheism much.” And I’m sure you wouldn’t say that. Hence I fail to see what could possibly be “disingenuous” about deploying Aristotelian and Thomistic theistic arguments against the New Atheism.

Second, this would be true even if the “God of the Philosophers” were different from the God of revelation. After all, the New Atheists don’t merely claim that Christian and Islamic theism are false; they say that theism in any form is false. So, to establish any kind of theism suffices to refute the “Atheist” part of the New Atheism. It would be quite silly to pretend that unless one establishes Christianity specifically, or Islam specifically, or what have you, then one hasn’t struck a major blow against the New Atheism. (Indeed, speaking is disingenuousness, I find it very disingenuous when New Atheist types dismiss cosmological arguments on the grounds that they don’t by themselves establish Christianity specifically -- as if proving God’s existence doesn’t suffice to refute atheism unless the whole Nicene Creed is proved as well!)

But third, mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have of course also insisted that the God of the Philosophers is the same as the God of revelation. So, to establish the existence of the God of the Philosophers is by no means ipso facto to change the subject (as you seem to think it is). Or at least, simply to assert that it is to change the subejct is merely to beg the question. True, one would have to say a lot more to show that the God established by a cosmological argument is identical to the God who revealed himself to ancient Israel, but (contrary to a favorite straw man of some Coyne readers) no one ever claimed in the first place that the cosmological argument by itself does that. That’s a separate issue which has to be treated via separate arguments. But if the cosmological argument works, that will at least show that the real debate isn’t between atheism and theism. Rather, it is between various specific kinds of theism (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, a purely philosophical theism, etc.). Why some people think a single argument should be expected to do everything, I have no idea. Certainly the New Atheists never hold themselves to that absurd standard.

Re: your remark that “the NA arguments tend to be either directly straw manned by their opponents…,” I’d have to hear a specific alleged example of an argument of theirs that is commonly straw-manned before I could evaluate this claim.

Edward Feser said...

Qasim, welcome and thanks!

Vaal said...


Daniel, (and Brandon…),

Have the New Atheists (and I'm referencing mostly the four) sometimes addressed natural religion arguments for God? Yes. Has that been their main focus and motivation for writing publicly? Not by a long shot. Their focus has very much been on revealed religion - the beliefs people hold regarding purportedly divine texts and the like. Again, this was definitely what drove Sam Harris to write the first book, which Wikipedia accurately describes:

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004) is a book by Sam Harris, concerning organized religion, the clash between religious faith and rational thought, and the problems of tolerance towards religious fundamentalism.

Harris has consistently attacked the idea of believing that a God wrote or inspired in any way the holy texts at the center of the revealed religions.

Same with Hitchens' book, the title of which is an obvious tip-off. Again, wikipedia:

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is a 2007 book by author and journalist Christopher Hitchens in which he criticises religion.
….His commentary focuses mainly on the Abrahamic religions,….


He clearly focused on criticizing organized religion/dogma in the book, and in his tours and debates.

Dennett's book "Breaking The Spell" likewise focused on trying to understand religion in what generally amounted to organized religions (e.g. Christianity etc).

Dawkins certainly did try to tackle some natural religion in his God Delusion. So, fair game when he did so. BUT that was far from his only focus, or motivation. As wikipedia describes of the book:

"The God Delusion is not just a defence of atheism, but also goes on the offensive against religion. Dawkins sees religion as subverting science, fostering fanaticism, encouraging bigotry against homosexuals, and influencing society in other negative ways.[25] Dawkins regards religion as a "divisive force" and as a "label for in-group/out-group enmity and vendetta".[26]
",


This was made only more clear with his follow up "Root Of All Evil" series, and all sorts of subsequent interviews and debates in which he criticized religious dogma and the reasons for belief in divine scriptures.

Again, none of the New Atheists were motivated by the idea that it's time to speak up against Cosmological Arguments or a First Cause.
The New Atheists know that the behavior they care about isn't motivated by "First Cause" arguments, but by believer's interpretation of their holy books. The liabilities of Billions of people believing that their ancient books in any way represent Divine Revelation, are clearly their center of worry. Hence they are completely justified in finding that to be the most important focus of their criticism.

And therefore to imply either that the New Atheists are firing blanks by avoiding the 'real' arguments for theism, or that New Atheists ought to be spending their time on First Cause-type philosophical arguments before, or instead of, criticizing belief in revelation, just doesn't fly.

I believe they are right not to fall for attempts at distracting from that target.

(Whether their arguments against religious faith/belief in revelation are any good is another subject. Since I've been there, done that, I'm not looking to engage anyone here in an extended discussion on that matter. Again, sorry we have even gotten into this subject. I was only mentioning a situation that *looks disingenuous* from my side of the fence merely as an example of how we can not necessarily see one another's motivations clearly).

Cheerio,

Edward Feser said...

Hi Vaal,

Yes, the New Atheists' main focus has not been on the arguments of natural theology. The reason is that they think those arguments have been decisively refuted, so that all one need do is rehearse some stock objections and then get on to other things. It's not that they think that responding to the arguments of natural theology is not important -- how could it not be important if one is going to claim that atheism is rationally superior to theism? Rather, it's that they think that the job has already been done.

The trouble, as many people (e.g. me) have demonstrated conclusively, is that the New Atheists simply don't know what they are talking about on the subject of natural theology. Hence their confidence that the job has already been done is completely unjustified. And thus their entire procedure -- spending very little time on natural theology, and the bulk of their time on stuff that presupposes that natural theology has been decisively refuted -- is massively misguided. They are most vulnerable precisely in the area they feel most confident, and upon which their entire edifice rests.

Hence, as I've said, it is by no means "disingenuous" or otherwise questionable to emphasize natural theology when responding to the New Atheists. On the contrary, that is precisely the thing to emphasize, because everything else of a distinctively atheist nature falls if that does. If they are wrong there, the whole New Atheist project collapses. It can't be the "New Atheism" anymore, but at best the New Some Other Thing.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Vaal writes,

it's not the case and the New Atheist critiques hit a very real, very large target.

Which critiques?

Since when have the New Atheists been incisive critics of organised religion? We have had this conversation before, I believe, but their attacks, even simply on religions as religions, has always struck me as crude, as well as quite political (they rely on their audience being under the sway of contemporary left-liberal assumptions). They hardly seem to have contributed anything to the understanding of man's religious experience as an Eliade, Campbell, or Jung might have.

Jeremy Taylor said...

I apologise, in a later post you do mention the main books of Hitchens, Harris, et al. You don't go into much detail though.

Personally, I have never seen much unique or enlightening concerning the nature of human religious experience in any of the books or TV series you mention.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Anyway, your division seems misplaced. The New Atheists might be more focused on revelation than natural theology, but they are quite ready and do quite often attack natural theology. The latter behaviour isn't quite the incidental afterthought you imply. New Atheist slogans often dismiss all religion as fairy tales. You even mention those you have had dealings with who went so far as to think compatibilism similar to fairy tales. Your characterisation is not accurate.

And as they bolster, quite readily, their attacks on revelation by attacks on all religion, and sometimes all but naturalism, materialism, or scientism, it is quite natural for those interested to draw attention to this quite large fault in the arguments of the New Atheists.

George LeSauvage said...

Vaal,

Of course, the non-philosophical claims made against religion are also contentious. They're usually based on many current assumptions, as Jeremy Taylor points out, but also on very simplistic versions of history. For several centuries there has been a dominant view of history (often loosely called "Whig") which really doesn't hold up.

There are some interesting posts here, on Galileo:
TOF Spot

Also, the old cliche that "more wars were fought over religion, etc" collapses if you actually study them. Even the Crusades and 30 Years War were more complicated than portrayed by popular histories.

Taylor Weaver said...

To be echo George, there has been much in recent scholarship dealing with the religious wars myth.

To laud on recent book, William Cavanaugh's Myth of Religious Violence is excellent.

https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_Myth_of_Religious_Violence.html?id=AxtJmQEACAAJ&hl=en

Brandon said...

Harris has consistently attacked the idea of believing that a God wrote or inspired in any way the holy texts at the center of the revealed religions.

But this is not a revealed-religion claim; it is a philosophical claim about the possibility of revelation, which could only be determined by looking at the philosophical arguments that concern logical preconditions for such a possibility, including those pertaining to the viability of natural religion (it logically matters to the possibility of revelation whether God exists, what we can know about such a God, etc.). The same is true with respect to Dennett -- who would be the first to point out that he is concerned with purely philosophical issues relevant to naturalism. Again, the fact that the believers in question accept a form of revealed religion, and that the atheists are targeting such believers in particular, does not itself entail that the primary points in question between atheists and believers are points of revealed religion rather than philosophical argument.

The problem I'm having again is that you seem to ignore the actual logical dependencies among different beliefs -- at least, I don't understand what you think they are. Indeed, it almost seems as if you think that beliefs can be considered in any arbitrary order in a discussion.

The Frenchman said...

Concerning religion and violence, there has also been a great deal of exaggeration on the matter of the inquisition.


Yes, it was horrible...

Yes, it was linked to religion...

... But no, it still was not, in reality, as deadly as the movies regularly make it look like.


That is (only) true in some countries.

Spain, for instance ; the Spanish inquisition lasted for an incredibly long period of time, and was an awful experience for Spanish people, England ; under Mary Tudor, also affectionately nicknamed "Bloody Mary", and France.

Well, my ancestors killed the "Cathares" for... I can't remember very well the reason why.


Now, i'm certainly not saying that the inquisition was a good thing.

Certainly and obviously not.

The point is rather that movies greatly exaggerate the deadly proportions the inquisition had (that's a movie maker's job to exaggerate... These people can be so similar to politicians, really...)

The Frenchman said...

Plus, the New Atheist always seems to forget USSR dictator Joseph Staline killed many religious people... Simply because they were religious.


They would also like to make every one believe Hitler was a christian, for, you know... Reasons.

Which is quite funny, because it is well-known Hitler became an atheist at a relatively young age (from a christian background, yes, but still an atheist), and that he simply used religion and God as tools to have the sympathy of christian Germans, who represented a vast majority of the country's population back in the 30's and 40's.


But, you know.

When you want your New Atheism to be heard so bad, distorting the truth does not often seem to be an issue... Does it ?

Don Jindra said...

The Frenchman,

"Which is quite funny, because it is well-known Hitler became an atheist at a relatively young age"

If it's "well known" do you have a primary source for that? Something other than hearsay?

The Frenchman said...

"The best thing is to let Christianity die a natural DEATH." - A. Hitler.

(Regarding the Christian religion) : "why did it have to be Christianity (our main religion in the European continent), with its MEEKNESS and FLABBINESS ?" - A. Hitler.


Doesn't seem very Christian, to my mind.

But now, what could have been Hitler, if not a Christian ?


Other sources of extreme interest, include Joseph Goebbels' famous diaries, the transcripts edited by Martin Bormann (a prominent Nazi official), the memoirs of Speer...


Most historians defend the position according to which Hitler was an atheist, and probably an anti-christian one with that.


No offense intended, but there might be some truth in the urban legend according to which Americans do not know much about what goes on in the rest of the world... Or so it seems.

To us Europeans, it is pretty clear Hitler was an atheist.


Now, as a Frenchman, i have contemplated fleeing before your daring comment for a very long time, before finally it...


Hah, clichés...

The Frenchman said...

As my people sometimes say :

"Courage, fuyons !" (let's be brave : let's flee !) - French people, brave, as usual.

George LeSauvage said...

Hitler's Table Talk has more evidence, but I don't know where my copy is. But he sometimes seemed to have occultist leanings, rather than atheist. But then, sometimes atheist. Not a coherent philosopher, and definitely a crank.

Jeremy Taylor said...

I am not sure Hitler had occultist leanings. I think that was Himmler and other Nazis. Hitler ridiculed them for it. I don't know whether it is correct to say Hitler was an atheist at a young age. What is clear is that the testimony of close associates, such as Speer, Bormann, and Goebbels, shows he was sceptical of religion, often mocked Christianity, and had a great belief in science as the only worthwhile form of knowledge. In the 30s and 40s he certainly held these views. Before that I'm not sure what he believed, but he doesn't seem to have had a deep religiosity.

The Nazis did try to co-opt German Churches and create a hybrid of Christianity with their Aryan ideology, but they gave up on this by about 1936, as it didn't work.

DNW said...

I don't know if it is even available in Europe, but anyone in the history field who has tried to read Mein Kampf in order to gain some insight into the mind of one of history's more famous "madmen", will come away with very little insight into anything concerning Hitler's intellectual and moral makeup other than the fact that if Hitler was anything, it was certainly not an even tepid disciple of Jesus Christ.

If I were to guess what he was, I would guess that he was more or less what he claimed to be: a "national socialist"; broadly, a social-ist on a national rather than international scale; a socialist in the sense that for him, a community - in his case a "nation" - was the primary world historical agent which exerted its claims unconditionally over the elements out of which it was comprised, i.e., individuals.

There's a lot of talk about evolution, and the struggle for life and all that.

I think he mentions "God" a few times, but he also mentions gods as personifications as we might refer to say, the gods of war. I would judge him a practical and certainly untroubled atheist. Though, what he might have imagined there to be in the way of impersonal cosmic forces - in a quasi occult sense as LeSauvage says, is probably an open question.

Heck, there are millions of Catholics and how many of them know or understand their own catechism; one that's been the object of precising formulations for thousands of years.

What the hell could a second-hand occultist have in the way of very definite or well formulated beliefs?

That said, it's only my casual opinion. Despite making a couple of attempts I had trouble trying to plow my way through it, and found that after a while it just left a kind of buzzing in my head, as if I were talking to a very boring, and amoral self-educated monomaniac of slightly above average intelligence and a way bigger than average conviction that he was meant to be important.

But I'm not even sure that historians are convinced that he wrote most of it, or that it can be said to constitute a coherent whole in any normal sense.

Vaal said...

Prof Feser,

Yes, the New Atheists' main focus has not been on the arguments of natural theology. The reason is that they think those arguments have been decisively refuted,

Not that my point turns on this in either case, but I don't agree that you are accurately capturing the views of the New Atheists. I believe you have it turned 'round. The New Atheists are far more confident that theism (in the sense here of revelation) is unsound than they are of Deism (though I take your earlier distinction about Deism, here I'm going to use it as someone like Christopher Hitchens tended to use it - simply to divide between the God you get from philosophical argument - "Deism" - vs claiming knowledge of God through a special revelation - "theism/religion").

I've read (and listened to) Sam Harris for many years and, unless I missed it, he has never produced any such confident statement that the "God of the philosophers" has been decisively refuted.

Anyway, it is hard to find much at all by Harris on the First Cause/Cosmologica/Continengency arguments because, as I said, they just aren't his focus. The closest I know of occurs in his interview with Lawrence Krauss.

A quote from Harris to Krauss:

Sam Harris: "It seems to me that this last condition—the absence of any laws that might have caused or constrained the emergence of matter and space-time—really is a case of “nothing” in the strictest sense. It strikes me as genuinely incomprehensible that anything—laws, energy, etc.—could spring out of it. I don’t mean to suggest that conceivability is a guide to possibility—there may be many things that happen, or might happen, which we are not cognitively equipped to understand. But the emergence of something from nothing (in this final sense) does strike me as a frank violation of the categories of human thought (akin to asserting that the universe is a round square), or the mere declaration of a miracle."

Those don't strike me as the words of a person who is already confident a First Cause has been easily dismissed. Harris just doesn't seem to care that much about such arguments because he is so focused on what he sees as the liabilities of religion (revealed).

Christopher Hitchens, did not, I believe, tackle cosmological arguments with nearly the confidence he did in criticizing religion. He raised as he admitted possible "layman" objections to them (e.g. infinite regress problems you would reject) but he was always at pains to say that even if these cosmological arguments are granted sound, "the deist has all his work still ahead of him (to get from deism to the revealed religions)." He said this so often it was virtually his slogan. Which, again, makes the point of his main thesis.

Dennett pays little heed to the cosmological arguments. As far as I can tell it's not because he thinks they are decisively refuted, but more that he doesn't find them compelling and in any case, they don't seem relevant to what he cares about in terms of religion etc. I'm familiar with the meagre mention he gives them in his Breaking The Spell. But I think a more developed, clearer picture of his attitude is found in Dennett's public response to Craig's presentation of the Cosmological Argument. Dennett responds that the premises come off as plausible, the argument is well developed, and that he admitted he even couldn't at the moment pin a contradiction/fallacy in the argument. Instead all he could give at the moment was a general call to caution, and that he would "point to areas of suspicion" in the argument. Basically he was more concerned about the confidence theists like Craig had in the conclusion of such an argument, than he was in refuting it decisively.

And, again, that speaks to the fact it's not his area of concern in terms of God belief. It's religion.

Vaal said...

cont'd...

Dawkins - yes I agree he was dismissive Aquinas' arguments in his God Delusion book. However, in a more general sense he has tended to be more cautious, not claiming to have refuted any possible argument that God exists. Rather, again, he has focused on religion/theism, the area where all the New Atheists are both most confident in their concussions, and which they hold by far of most concern.

Feser: "It's not that they think that responding to the arguments of natural theology is not important -- how could it not be important if one is going to claim that atheism is rationally superior to theism? Rather, it's that they think that the job has already been done."

See all my previous comments. It's not that the New Atheists focus on revelation BECAUSE they think natural religion has been refuted; it's because they think that arguing against revelation is FAR MORE IMPORTANT. In other words, the New Atheists may not believe philosophical arguments for God are successful, but they rightly think belief in revelation causes vastly more mischief, which is why they focus on God belief in that context.

"And thus their entire procedure -- spending very little time on natural theology, and the bulk of their time on stuff that presupposes that natural theology…"

Ah, but that assumes just what the New Atheists say you'd have to show, and have not! As Hitchens says, the deist has "all his work ahead of him" to justifying the beliefs in divine revelation held by the Abrahamic religions.

The New Atheists would say that even if you grant the arguments of natural theology - e.g. Aquinas' - that in no way justifies the belief in the *specific claims of revelation* such as those in The Bible. (And I agree, as I've argued here at length before). They (and I) have never seen anything close to a cogent argument moving from First Cause type arguments to justifying the divinity of the bible, specific Christianity etc. Which is, as I keep saying, a major reason why they don't spend much of their efforts on such arguments. They don't have to, not refuting the cosmological arguments doesn't undermine their major focus of critique. So, I think they are quite right there and haven't been refuted as far as I've seen.

Cheers,

Vaal said...


Ugh, sorry format error. In my "5:01" post above, it starts with a quote from Prof Feser that should have been in bold:

"Yes, the New Atheists' main focus has not been on the arguments of natural theology. The reason is that they think those arguments have been decisively refuted,..."

Anonymous said...

The "divinity" of the Bible? lol

Let's not kid ourselves, Gnus are utter garbage at attacking specifically revealed religion, too.

Vaal said...

Brandon,

"But this is not a revealed-religion claim; it is a philosophical claim about the possibility of revelation,"

No, it's not a claim about the *possibility* of revelation, but about the *probability* (e.g. plausibility) of the *particular claims to revelation* we have thus far.

As I've explained, the New Atheists don't deny the very possibility of a God revealing Himself. They can grant that possibility, but still argue that we should still hold claims of any *specific revelation* to high standards of skepticism. That we ought to be consistent in doing so (especially with the standards to which we hold any empirical claims). And that the nature of the claims in Christianity fall well below a reasonable standard for accepting those claims.

And of course I hold that they're right, and no one has refuted the New Atheists on this matter ;-)

Vaal.

Scott said...

If the "New Atheists" disbelieve, not necessarily in the existence of God (which some theists, including Catholics, take to be demonstrable by reason), but in the veracity of any particular claim of "revelation," then what is it that makes them atheists?

If their concern isn't with theism but with (revealed) "religion," aren't they "a-[ or anti-]religionists" or something?

Billy said...

Vaal,

"They can grant that possibility, but still argue that we should still hold claims of any *specific revelation* to high standards of skepticism. That we ought to be consistent in doing so (especially with the standards to which we hold any empirical claims). And that the nature of the claims in Christianity fall well below a reasonable standard for accepting those claims. And of course I hold that they're right, and no one has refuted the New Atheists on this matter ;-)"

But then they are making the claim that if sufficient evidence (which they believe is greater in terms of revelation claims) is not provided, then skepticism is the only reasonable answer. That would be an evidentialist position, a position that has been thoroughly destroyed, at least in its strictest form (considering evidentialism itself has no evidence to support it so it must be held with skepticism, making it self-defeating to accept).

I know Thomists don't really agree with Jamesian views of faith, but William James showed the incoherence of this view quite eloquently in The Will to Believe. Others have also have developed from his position also.

Billy said...

Or am I misunderstanding :-)

Vincent Torley said...

Hi Vaal,

Just a quick comment concerning the alleged vast leap from the God of the philosophers to the God of revelation. I addressed this point specifically in a recent short post of mine on Uncommon Descent at http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/coyne-and-krausss-cosmological-comedy-of-errors/ , where I addressed seven common objections to the cosmological argument. The last question was as follows:

"7. How does proving the existence of a Necessary Being get you any closer to the God of the Bible?

"The short answer is that while a Necessary Being doesn’t have to be the God of the Bible, it would be infinite and also intelligent, and it would therefore have the power to manifest itself in the way that the God of the Bible is alleged to have done. That being the case, the only question that needs to be answered is whether it actually did so. That’s a historical question, not a metaphysical one. And philosophers such as Feser would contend that there is very good historical evidence for the occurrence of miracles. Jews, for instance, frequently appeal to the kuzari argument ... to support their claim that God worked miracles in the Sinai desert which were witnessed by all the Israelites, while Christians appeal to the historical evidence for the Resurrection, and Catholic philosophers such as Feser would also contend that there is compelling evidence (see also here) for miracles worked since then."

I haven't included the hyperlinks relating to evidence for miracles in the text above, but you are welcome to check them out in my post. I also discuss the arguments for God's infinity in question 5. I hope that helps.

Brandon said...

No, it's not a claim about the *possibility* of revelation, but about the *probability* (e.g. plausibility) of the *particular claims to revelation* we have thus far.

(1) Your claims seemed to be very much a claim about possibility, not probability; you said that Harris "attacked the idea of believing that a God wrote or inspired in any way the holy texts at the center of the revealed religions"; so that was the reason for talking about possibility. (2) Probabilities, however, are just possibilities with a metric conditional on things that are known to be actual; what is probable can only be determined with respect to what is possible and actual.

As I've explained, the New Atheists don't deny the very possibility of a God revealing Himself.

As Scott notes, if they hold that there is a God who could possibly reveal Himself, they aren't atheists at all, so this has to mean that they hold that it would be possible only counterfactually, i.e., conditionally on other things that they actually think are false -- If there were a God, possibly He might reveal Himself. Perhaps there is a confusion of epistemic possibility and metaphysical or real possibility here. The New Atheists are not denying that, if there were a God, then for all they know, God might reveal Himself; but they are in fact denying that it is really possible that God reveals Himself, at least insofar as can be determined on the evidence available, because to be atheists they have to think there is no God to be able to reveal Himself.

But (1) the probability of a God revealing Himself, if there is a God, is going to be affected by the arguments for believing that there is a God who could reveal Himself, and what those arguments imply about God. In other words, they are going to be affected by issues relevant to the real possibility of revelation, including arguments for the existence of God and arguments about what can be known about God.

And (2) if there is a good argument for the existence of God, it follows directly that the New Atheists are wrong about the actual atheism of the New Atheism; and therefore the arguments about the revelation would have to be considered in light of the argument -- not in terms of mere speculation but in terms of the real reasoning establishing the existence of God. New Atheists could get around this if their analysis of the arguments for the existence of God were so thorough and rigorous that they had followed through, logically and properly, all the relevant implications of all the arguments; but that is just to say that believers would be unreasonable to be focusing on the arguments for the existence of God if the New Atheists had already done all the relevant work on such arguments for them, and in such a way that it could be trusted. As others note, the reasons for thinking this latter bit is the case are slight at best; one thinks (to give one example) of Dawkins saying that he once criticized an ontological argument and the philosophers he was talking to had to resort to modal logic to prove that he was wrong, which is one of those head-on-desk things that flag that someone who has just been talking about an ontological argument doesn't know much about ontological arguments. So it's unclear why believers wouldn't go back to the basics and expect the atheists to build their case from there rather than from far down the line, well beyond where the believers have reason to think that the atheists have been going wrong.

John Quin said...

I wonder if any sociology experiments have been conducted to determine whether spending too much time in an internet echo chamber causes brain damage?
Just a thought.

Daniel said...

A final point:

If Vaal is correct and the New Atheists see their prime target as 'revealed religion' then they still face the pointed charge of being woefully ignorant of their chosen target. When have any of those four showed a serious understanding of Christian Theology? One thinks of Harris' laughable construal of various Gospel passages. Needless to say this weakens one's confidence in their capacity to critique religious dogma (as often what they are critiquing turns out to be their own creation)

Likewise many of the historical claims they put forward are plain false, even if they correct in their moral summary of these religions the examples they give of their misdeeds are often fraudulent.

So, in short there's still little reason why this people need to be read let alone published on such a scale. If anything atheists ought to decry them for misrepresentation.

JohnD said...

It would be great if there was a new book on natural theology to point to in defense of theism. . .

The Frenchman said...

Personally, i do not think that the problem with the New Atheists is that they feel organized religion should not exist any more, and that a secularized society would benefit to every one...

They got the right to think, and to say whatever they believe is true, on condition that what they say isn't an attack on a group of people themselves : for WHO they are !


The real issue with them, is that they go as far as belittling their fellow human beings, simply because they do not share their atheistic beliefs.

Take that old jerk, Richard Dawkins, for example.


And THAT, is the problem with the New Atheists.

They completely mix up "the religion", and "the religious", and that's where they screwed up.


They're similar to those among us, who bear signs where "God hates fags" or "Go to hell" is written.

They should be banned from public space, just like these Christians should be.


Now, that's only an opinion, but i think freedom of speech often goes way too far and, just like pretty much every thing else, should have some LIMITS that it barely seems to have.

The Frenchman said...

Now, i'm not even American.

So the whole thing, is up to you to handle !

Don Jindra said...

The Frenchman,

"The best thing is to let Christianity die a natural DEATH."

That was 1941. That is about Christianity, not belief in an almighty god. Your claim was this:

"Hitler became an atheist at a relatively young age."

Hitler was 52 in 1941. That's not a young age. Furthermore, plenty of God-believers would like to see Christianity die. So your quote doesn't imply atheism. Likewise a claim that Christianity is meek and flabby does not imply atheism.

I'm aware of other sources like Goebbels and Speer and Table Talk. But those are not the best of sources and they're mostly concerned with Christianity, not atheism.

So I think rather than Hitler's "well known" atheism we should be talking about his "well assumed" atheism. This has to ignore considerable rhetoric and action which indicates a fondness for theism and even a hatred for atheism.


Patrick Dalroy said...

Don Jindra,

I recommend You to read any serious biography of Hitler. For example that one:

http://www.amazon.com/Hitler-Study-Tyranny-Alan-Bullock/dp/0060920203

Bullock explicitly says, that Hitler, as opposed to his comrades like Himmler (who was an ardent occultist), was an atheist and a materialist.

Dhay said...

Now, the irony of this situation is that in every attempt to justify their dismissive attitude toward theism, New Atheists like Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins and myriad others only ever succeed in demonstrating conclusively that that dismissive attitude is unjustified. For you cannot rationally reject a position, dismissively or not, unless you first understand what it is.

Jerry Coyne is still at it: his 13 October blog, "Atheists are not what they used to be", approvingly shows a Pliny the Elder cartoon with speech bubbles saying, "Alas, where are all the great thinkers like Hume who's criticisms were part of a life-long study of the source theology?" and "If I had to guess I'd say they're probably distracted by all the science, mathematics, technology and art that wasn't available to guy who died in 1776."

Well, that's Coyne: your opponents' arguments will be ignored because you have found some shiny distractions.

Vaal said...

Scott,

"If the "New Atheists" disbelieve, not necessarily in the existence of God (which some theists, including Catholics, take to be demonstrable by reason), but in the veracity of any particular claim of "revelation," then what is it that makes them atheists?'

I'd gone over that in my earlier discussion (above) with moduspownens,

To your question: "what is it that makes them atheists" a common answer would be:

That they do not hold a belief in a God.

It's a description of their beliefs status as it concerns God(s).

They could have been presented perfectly sound arguments for God, but if they were not convinced into believing God exists by the arguments, they are still atheists.

This concept of "Atheist" recognizes that one can not disprove every possible God concept, that there are many, many arguments for believing in God(s) - almost countless if you include individual arguments from personal experience etc - and so it is impractical to use the term to denote one who has *justified* her belief there is no God by dispatching all the arguments. So it makes more sense to use "Atheist" to denote a belief state.

So "Atheist" tells you the belief state of a person as it regards Gods, but it doesn't (and isn't supposed to) tell you whether she has justified
that belief state, with regards to any particular arguments.

An Atheist can look at, for instance, two types of God belief:

The God propositions one can derive directly from philosophical/first-cause type arguments.

The claims of specific revelation, dogma and doctrines people appeal to in Holy Texts, personal revelation etc.

Since the latter seem to have far wider liabilities, it's perfectly reasonable to concentrate on countering those types of beliefs.

(And of course, many Christians will say their Christianity encompasses both - natural and revealed knowledge of God. But this doesn't change the equation: it's the latter type of knowledge that New Atheists will be most concerned about).

Vaal said...

Billy,

No atheist, "New" or otherwise, is necessarily beholden to defending some naive version of "evidentialism" of the type you believe has been "thoroughly destroyed." (Very few atheists I know, for instance, would hold the type of naive epistemology that is easily self-refuting, where empiricism simply justifies itself. Empirical-type philosophies, which of course incorporates evidence, will still appeal to underlying axioms/premises to *get* to justifying empiricism).

Whatever the case may be concerning the grounding of a theism or a secular view, the atheist can still check for consistency - e.g. "If you accept that our general experience justifies X form of skepticism when it comes to empirical claims, especially extraordinary claims, then show you are being consistent in accepting this particular claim."

By pointing to everything from our everyday empirical reasoning where we understand it is wise to be able to rule out variables, to the rigor exemplified in science (as accepted by the religious believer) the atheist can point out the inconsistency of believing specific claims such as ancient resurrections and the like.

The problem is that metaphysics doesn't get you to justifying resurrection claims, and some form of empiricism and skeptical/careful method of inquiry necessarily drops in to the picture on the way. It's navigating that divide, justifying miracle claims while having to accept the epistemic virtues of empirical skepticism, that New Atheists say religion does very badly.

The Frenchman said...

"The best thing is to let Christianity die a natural DEATH."

"That is about Christianity, not belief in an almighty god."


Hah, come on. Almost every one who believed in an almighty God at that time, and in Europe specifically, was either Christian or Jewish.

Was Hitler a Christian ?

Nope ; not according to all the aforesaid sources.

Was Hitler a Jew ?

I have some serious reasons to doubt it.


"Likewise, a claim that Christianity is meek and flabby does not imply atheism."


I didn't say they necessarily "implied" atheism.

I thought these quotes were extremely relevant, because they "point" to atheism, in a 1940s European context.

And you perfectly know it points to atheism, considering that a Christian would have never said that, and that Hitler wasn't a Jew either.


Which leaves us with an either atheist, agnostic, or deist Hitler.

*Then*, the other sources come into play to indicate his manifest atheism specifically.


"So I think rather than Hitler's "well known" atheism we should be talking about his "well assumed" atheism."

The only part i can agree with.


Also, and finally, by "young age", i'm afraid i didn't express my thoughts very well : i'll give you that one.

However, i believe i also wrote *relatively* young age, a detail i believe you to have missed, and which gives the sentences another meaning than simply "young age" alone, on its own.


Finally, "this has to ignore considerable rhetoric and action which indicates a fondness for theism, and even a hatred for atheism."


Which doesn't mean a thing at all.

As i said, most people at that time were Christian ; hence, what do you think Hitler would do : show his scorn for Christianity in public and every time he could... Or praise it (the religion of his people), when delivering speeches to popular crowds ?
(I also insist on the word "popular").


I seriously can't believe that this logic, however simple, doesn't strike every one's mind.


Now, Hitler was an absolute madman.

Who knows the real thoughts of a man so mad ?

Some could even suspect him to not know what he himself believed, and that wouldn't surprise me that much.


But the claim many New Atheists have, is that Hitler was a Christian who partially persecuted Jews apparently for religious reasons.

And THAT is utter BS, considering that the evidence makes it far more reasonable to think Hitler was an atheist, than a Christian.


Now, New Atheists can believe what they want to believe.

But they cannot say what is completely false, and make it appear as if it were true.


That's just another of the numerous beefs i have with them.

The Frenchman said...

Plus, and as i have said, most historians seem to think Hitler was an atheist.


" But that doesn't mean a goddamn thing hahahahah ".


Oh yes.

Oh yes, it does mean something.


It isn't a piece of evidence in itself, okay, but the opinion of a majority of specialists, certainly is significant.


Would most people believe in the truth of the theory of evolution, if it weren't supported by a so overwhelming majority of scientists, but by, say, (only) 55 percent of them ?

Well, many still would.

But i'm pretty sure many would reject it in that case, and / or have their belief in it undermined.


BTW, i believe the theory of evolution is true.

We European Christians are different than your Bible Belt fundies.

The vast majority of us do not try to force our Christian beliefs and values into laws.

We're just doing our thing ; living and practicing our religion, in complete peace and privacy.

Scott said...

Vaal:

It's a description of their beliefs status as it concerns God(s).

But so what? If, as you seem to be insisting, that lack of belief isn't what they think is important and they're not targeting theism per se, then why are they named after their disbelief? If their actual target is really "(revealed) religion," then any one of them could at any point cease to be an "atheist" in your sense without giving up the battle. The fact (if it is one) that they haven't yet done so is irrelevant.

Vaal said...

Brandon,

There's a lot there to contest, but to grab at some of it…

The New Atheist - or just "atheist" like myself - will argue that even granting Deism (remembering I'm using that term as a stand in for what can be inferred via natural religion/philosophical argument), you do not end up in a substantially different place in relation to any *specific claims of miracles.*

What you get from deism is simply the *possibility* of miracles, you don't get "that any specific miracle happened" or significantly raise the probabilities of *any specific miracle claim.* So when it comes to the claim of a resurrected person 2,000 years ago, all that deism grants you is that you can be open to the *possibility* that it happened.

The atheist is in essentially the same position as it regards such miracles as the Deist.

As an atheist I want to be open to whatever is true about reality, with the obvious recognition that I could be wrong (especially about any empirical matters). So when it comes to any claims about a miracle, for instance Jesus' resurrection, I (like any New Atheist) will say "I could be wrong. God may exist and may have manifested as Jesus, risen from the grave etc." Therefore, in that sense I am open to the possibility it happened, just like the Deist.

The question therefore becomes: How Would We Know A Miracle Occurred? Given all our experience (that makes up our priors) of human fallibility, delusion, how do we sensibly navigate the EMPIRICAL claims of miracles, when to accept them or not?

That is THE main message of New Atheism in regards to religion.
Because the moves that religion has been allowed to make to believe in specific revelations are - on their and my view - profligate in the amount of epistimic, and social costs.

And (2) if there is a good argument for the existence of God, it follows directly that the New Atheists are wrong about the actual atheism of the New Atheism",

Yes. But that doesn't mean they aren't atheists, since they hold no belief in a God (hence still aptly named). More important, it does not invalidate their critiques of the "God Of Revelation." (Belief in the claims of the Bible etc).

I would agree that New Atheists (the big 4 in particular) are weaker in countering Deistic arguments. But they are very strong IMO in their main area of contention, undermining the reasonableness of Christianity and the like (special revelation).

cont'd...

Vaal said...

Brandon,

Note that you and others keep raising the implication that the philosophical arguments somehow conjoin with Christianity to raise justification for specific Christianity, implying the necessity for New Atheists to grapple with the philosophical arguments for God even when countering Christianity. But I strongly disagree.

Adding a God into the mix doesn't change our empirical inferences about the predictability of the world we live in. Every time you do an empirical test to infer the nature of a phenomenon, you are getting the same probabilities whether you add "God is there" or not.

If we is testing gravity without the assumption a God exists, by dropping balls to the ground or whatever, we can say that each test adds confirmation to the hypothesis that it is the nature of mass to attract in that specific way (hence balls will always fall to the ground all other things being equal).

If you say "there is a God sustaining the phenomenon you are testing" then you are stuck just re-formulating things to say "the results suggest it is God's nature to sustain gravitational pull…" leaving you with exactly the same results, same probabilities as without postulating God. And accepting the proposition there's a God who could intervene and alter natural law, you are still in the same position - you are building a probability theory that amounts to saying "it is not God's nature to interfere with gravitation." And you have the SAME probabilities as without God.

This is why no one here is going to happily jump out a tall window any time soon, as if presuming a God with the power to interfere with gravity has raised your odds in any way of falling to your death.

Since empirical inference/probability-building doesn't change with the addition of a God, we have the old "I have no need of that hypothesis."

And this has all the implications New Atheists say it has ass applied to miracle stories of the revealed religions. It's why typical objections like "New Atheists are naive and making a category error when they apply naturalistic probabilities to the claims of miracles. No one claims Jesus could rise NATURALLY from the dead, the claim is Jesus rose SUPERNATURALLY and regular empiricism and science just doesn't speak to such metaphysical claims." Except…it does, for the reasons I've just given. Adding the mere possibility of miracles (e.g. A God exists) does not change the empirical inferences as to the likelihood of miracles.

Now, IF there were truly good arguments showing how Deistic arguments significantly raise the probabilities of any specific miracles, that would be another thing. But I've never seen any remotely successful attempt.

Vaal said...

Vincent Torley,

That being the case, the only question that needs to be answered is whether it actually did so.

Exactly. Please see my response above to Brandon for why the metaphysical arguments neither establish probabilities for a Resurrection, nor undermine the project of critiquing specific religious belief by the New Atheists (or any atheist).


That’s a historical question, not a metaphysical one.

I disagree, it's more of a scientific question.

It's a popular Christian gambit to appeal to historical validation, but I see this as hopeless in establishing warrant for such claims.

Belief in extraordinary claims, especially the particular ones in Christianity such as someone rising from the dead, manifestations of a God and other miracles can not be justified simply by appeal to "historical methods." It's not for nothing
historians generally don't claim to be able to establish miracles, and generally produce historical pictures establishing what they can "naturally" winnowed from whatever miracle claims may be involved. They know their discipline can't justify miracle claims of the past.

When we want to be most sure of an empirical claim - something that happened in the world - we employ the methods of science. An extraordinary claim - e.g. someone rose from the dead - is a claim that would especially raise our demands for the best possible evidence, and we'd want to include the type of hypothesis testing, etc, we use in verifying new phenomena. The ancient accounts of a resurrection would clearly never pass scientific muster. Which is to say: those claims fail to provide the level of evidence we should (in being empirically consistent) require in order to verify those claims.

But we went through some of that on your site :-)

Take care,

Vaal

Billy said...

"No atheist, "New" or otherwise, is necessarily beholden to defending some naive version of "evidentialism" of the type you believe has been "thoroughly destroyed." (Very few atheists I know, for instance, would hold the type of naive epistemology that is easily self-refuting, where empiricism simply justifies itself. Empirical-type philosophies, which of course incorporates evidence, will still appeal to underlying axioms/premises to *get* to justifying empiricism)."

Tell that to William Clifford. A C Grayling, among many others, have defended Clifford explicitly. Clifford went as far as saying it is morally wrong always to believe anything at all on insufficient evidence.

"It's navigating that divide, justifying miracle claims while having to accept the epistemic virtues of empirical skepticism, that New Atheists say religion does very badly."

The new atheist slogan is "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", which is a ridiculous claim that just backs up how naive their evidentialism is.

The Frenchman said...

... And most of us Christian Europeans, believe the theory of evolution to be true.

Dammit, i'm so distracted nowadays that i forget the gist of my sentences...

Never mind.

DavidM said...

Ed wrote: "Another reason for paying them some attention, though, is that Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and company are simply genuine curiosities. Again, they are not stupid, and indeed have serious intellectual accomplishments to their credit. And yet on the subjects of religion and philosophy they are incapable of seeing that their self-confidence is laughably, cringe-makingly out of proportion to their actual competence."

Yes, genuine curiosities! And yet Ed makes a curious juxtaposition here too: these people have 'serious intellectual accomplishments' to their credit; *yet* they wildly misjudge their own competence in regard to things that have nothing to do with their 'serious intellectual accomplishments.' The discussion of sentimentalism is interesting. But I question the nature of this "yet": Why assume that an adversative is appropriate in this context? Why imply that we *should* reasonably expect some correspondence between competence in natural science and competence in religion and philosophy?

I wonder how a really dumb view like that of Stephen Jay Gould's 'non-overlapping magisteria' view of science and religion might fit into this analytical schema. It's not the same kind of self-righteous indulgence in believing in his own rationality-qua-atheist-scientist, it seems like a sincere (and hopelessly simplistic and silly) attempt to acknowledge the limitations of his own field; but does it still fit the mould of Ed's sentimentalism?

What do we say about people like Hume, or Peter Singer, or John Rawls, or Walter Kasper (or most academic philosophers)? Do they even actually have 'serious intellectual accomplishments'? If we admit that they do, it seems that we could still diagnose them in terms of sentimentalism, but it is precisely in the area in which they are credited with 'serious intellectual accomplishments' that they prove themselves "incapable of seeing that their self-confidence is laughably, cringe-makingly out of proportion to their actual competence." I wonder if such cases are perhaps even greater curiosities. Or if a more fundamental explanation here (in the case of Coyne et al. too) is to be found in the dialectical power of ideology, rather than in sentimentalism per se.

The Frenchman said...

Vaal,


You said that, a few comments ahead,

"I (like any New Atheist), will say "I could be wrong". "God may exist and may have manifested (himself) as Jesus, risen from the grave, etc."


Wrong, amigo.

Perfectly *unlike* you, most New Atheists do not seem to think they could even possibly be wrong at all, in the very first
place !


Furthermore, it is exactly THAT kind of "i already know everything anyway, and far better than the inferior others" thinking, that leads to EXTREMIST behavior.

Which is the behavior of the average New Atheist, not like you, once again.


And i seriously do not think i have exaggerated anything.

That "i know better, and you're inferior because you're not an atheist like me", is what many of us feel when talking to militant New Atheists.

That's the impression they convey.

DavidM said...

"I tell you truthfully, the man who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a child, will never enter into it."
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."

Vaal said...

Billy,

Your reference to Clifford/A C Grayling doesn't undermine my point at all. I'm not familiar with Clifford's writing as I am with some of A.C. Grayling. Grayling's writing one skepticism and epistemology is certainly done with a historical awareness of the arguments and he does not simply assert the type of naively self-refuting epistemic slogans that are often raised by theists. Grayling attempts to carefully justify his position through supporting arguments of pragmatism, necessary or unnecessary assumptions, etc.

That…down the line after establishing his epistemology…Grayling would identify a moral question in how we form our beliefs is hardly surprising.
Given our beliefs inform our actions and our actions affect others - shouldn't we attempt to be responsible in how we acquire our beliefs, so as to avoid causing unnecessary harm? (A debate for another time…and certainly something like this is part of the New Atheist critique.)


The new atheist slogan is "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", which is a ridiculous claim that just backs up how naive their evidentialism is.

Opinion noted. ;-)

George LeSauvage said...

Vaal,

1. It's unfortunate that you use "deism" as you do, as the word - in its usual meaning - is relevant here. (N.B., "theism" is the more usual usage for what you mean.) I mean in the sense that Voltaire and Robespierre were Deists. Both were every bit as hostile to revealed Christianity as any NA you can name, neither believed in the miraculous. (In less ferocious forms, this view was fairly widespread in the 18th C.) Yet Robespierre, at least, was just as intent on suppressing atheism as Catholicism. That seems to fit poorly with your model.

2. Because the moves that religion has been allowed to make to believe in specific revelations are - on their and my view - profligate in the amount of epistimic, and social costs.

You really should be more specific just what those costs are, in your view.

3. Belief in extraordinary claims, especially the particular ones in Christianity such as someone rising from the dead, manifestations of a God and other miracles can not be justified simply by appeal to "historical methods."

and

When we want to be most sure of an empirical claim - something that happened in the world - we employ the methods of science. An extraordinary claim - e.g. someone rose from the dead - is a claim that would especially raise our demands for the best possible evidence, and we'd want to include the type of hypothesis testing, etc, we use in verifying new phenomena. The ancient accounts of a resurrection would clearly never pass scientific muster. Which is to say: those claims fail to provide the level of evidence we should (in being empirically consistent) require in order to verify those claims.

I think these miss the point. It is quite explicitly the point of miracles that they cannot pass scientific standards, as they are scientifically impossible. They are events that are out of line with the way the world works. Were this not so, no one would think them miraculous.

Now there are 2 ways this can apply, for the atheist.

(a) You can say, as you seem to be saying, that you will not rule them out, so long as you can have assurances that they are not scientifically explained. That's fair enough, and in fact is pretty close to the approach the Church takes to current claims of miracles.

(b) Of course, (a) can be applied only to those in very recent history. That means, apparently, that you therefore reject all such claims from before about the mid-19th C.

4. This brings us to your statement that Belief in extraordinary claims, especially the particular ones in Christianity such as someone rising from the dead, manifestations of a God and other miracles can not be justified simply by appeal to "historical methods."

This is questionable, and only avoids outright falsity by the use of "simply". The fact is that there is no other way, than through history, to discuss human actions from earlier times. None. Even the methods of archaeology can give only guesses, in the absence of some historical record.

Vaal said...

The Frenchman,

Wrong, amigo.

Perfectly *unlike* you, most New Atheists do not seem to think they could even possibly be wrong at all, in the very first
place !



Nope. I've been part of the secular community debating theism for decades and that describes almost no atheist I know or have interacted with, "New Atheist" or otherwise.

Dawkins' own book explicitly repudiates the stance you've just described (he does not say he could not possibly be wrong). Hitchens regularly pointed out it seemed that the claims of his atheism were more modest, that he could not disprove God but also could not believe the claims of religion, and that the arrogance was on the other side where theists seem to hold certainty of such knowledge.

None of the Big Four New Atheists hold that view either. It's just a plain mischaracterization. Depending on the specific God claim they are dealing with they express various levels of confidence about their conclusions (e.g. the God of Christianity has many more improbable claims associated with it than a Deist God). But never that I have seen do they ever claim to not possibly be wrong about the existence of a God.



Brandon said...

Note that you and others keep raising the implication that the philosophical arguments somehow conjoin with Christianity to raise justification for specific Christianity

In the first place, your original claim was that believers focusing on the philosophical differences rather than on specific revelational claims struck you as "disingenuous and intellectually dishonest"; this is a claim about argumentative strategy from the believers' strategic position, not from your own standpoint. Whether or not you agree with the believer is entirely irrelevant to your original claim.

But in the second, this is not at all the point; the point is about the logical dependencies among beliefs. (I have not made any claim about how the philosophical implications "conjoin" with Christianity to raise justification for Christianity; any such interpretation is entirely in your head.) As I pointed out, the claims you have made repeatedly appear to ignore the fact that the beliefs at issue have logical dependencies on other beliefs; and you have not given any alternative account of the logical dependencies that would make sense of your claims, despite my having twice pointed out that I didn't understand what you thought they were. And your next comment strongly suggests that this is because you don't actually have any such account:

Adding a God into the mix doesn't change our empirical inferences about the predictability of the world we live in. Every time you do an empirical test to infer the nature of a phenomenon, you are getting the same probabilities whether you add "God is there" or not.

This is not even coherent in context; the specific claims you are talking about are, as you have already pointed out, claims about God inspiring texts. That is the kind of inference you are talking about (and that you have specifically insisted that you are talking about); and it is quite clear that the probabilities of this cannot be the same between two states, one in which God is assumed not to exist and one in which God is assumed to exist. Changing the assumption between "X exists" and "X does not exist" is directly relevant to any claim of X does Y, even though it doesn't determine probabilities on its own. Your example makes precisely the elementary error of not taking into account logical prior information. The two following states are not

(1) the probability of "God sustains phenomenon X" given empirical tests about the phenomenon X and the assumption that God does not exist; and

(2) that probability of "God sustains phenomenon X" given empirical tests about the phenomenon X and the assumption that God does exist, including whatever other information about God might be obtained from the reasons for thinking that God exists.

You have no argument that these probabilities are the same; and there is, indeed, no way to determine whether they are the same or not without looking at the reasons for thinking that God exists.

Indeed, if anything has the look of disingenuousness here, even if it's only the look, it's insisting that believers answer a particular set of objections about claim B while simultaneously trying to deny them any access to any argumentative resources that they think are helpful for making their case for B in their arguments for claim A, on which claim B logically depends.

Now, IF there were truly good arguments showing how Deistic arguments significantly raise the probabilities of any specific miracles, that would be another thing.

As was noted in comments above, deism implies the exclusion of a large number of claims about the nature and activity of God that are common among theists; we aren't in any way discussing deistic arguments.

George LeSauvage said...

(cont)

What we get from "prehistory" is really just whatever explanations are in vogue at a given time, so far as human actions an motives are concerned.

And it must be thus. Because just as the miraculous falls outside the purview of science, so does human action. Take the case of a battle. Sure, you can measure the effect of the cannon's shot, and the position of the ships, the wind, the casualties. But science cannot show you the tactics, the strategy, the doctrine, of the forces involved, or the historical and personal backgrounds that made them what they were. (10 years ago there was, naturally, a spate of books on Trafalgar. Those which tried to be most "scientific" were - at least those I saw - precisely the most useless. Well, those an the cutesy revisionists.)

5. The point is that you are setting a contradictory test. The question about miracles is why people who believed them impossible nonetheless accepted them. And that is, paradigmatically, a question of history.

Further, your objection that adding God to the picture adds nothing to the science, is odd. Of course it doesn't. Why should it? I just finished rereading a book on the 1927 Yankees. No divine intervention involved there*. Am I to suppose that baseball proves atheism?

*Well, the fact that the St Louis Browns, after 21 straight defeats, beat they Yanks in their final matchup may be borderline.

The Frenchman said...

Vaal,


You say you never encountered any New Atheist holding the views i have described, in years of interaction with the secular community.


Well, that certainly is a good thing, but i have no idea how you've achieved this.


Now, another thing : when i said "New Atheists", i didn't necessarily mean "New Atheist *representatives*".

I said "New Atheists".

I did not say "the four horsemen specifically" (voluntarily not putting capital letters, they're not worth it).

Rather, i was talking about everyday life know it all militant New Atheists who i also have in my own country, and who, to put it in plain terms, are uppity assh...


Now, you said you've been debating theism for decades, if memory serves me well.

Well, that's okay to me, i don't see any problem in it.


But, i mean... What's the point.

That's not an attack on you as an individual, but i absolutely see no point whatsoever transcending what you've been doing.


Defending the position according to which we have no value except for... Ourselves ?

Defending furthermore, that there's no objective goal in life ? (Therefore, i am led to believe, "do whatever the heck you
want" ?)


Wow.

Seems great to defend that position !


By the way, i'm a former atheist myself.

And even when i still was an atheist, i considered my fellow *militant* atheists to be wasting great amounts of otherwise valuable time... For absolutely no good reason whatsoever.


What a waste.

The Frenchman said...

A few minutes of my very first interaction with New Atheists, were enough to me to despise them... While being a skeptic myself at the time.


So when you say you never met any one among your fellow atheists who were like those i've described...

Well, let me seriously doubt this.

George LeSauvage said...

@The Frenchman:

I think the answer would simply be that one should argue for what one believes to be true, and against that one believes to be false. Which would certainly get my agreement, so far as it goes.

As best I can tell, Vaal is arguing for a particular view of the world, which seems to reject the notion of revelation, although doesn't quite absolutely reject the notion of miracles, per se, but only those which happened - or are alleged to have happened - historically. (Though not for historical reasons, apparently.)

Beyond that, I cannot distill much out of it. I am unsure how Vaal's view of an atheist differs from an agnostic or a mysterian. Or exactly what the " epistimic, and social costs" of religion.

Vaal said...

George LeSauvage

1. It's unfortunate that you use "deism" as you do, as the word - in its usual meaning - is relevant here.

I was stuck with the predicament of defending folks like Hitchens and in doing so I would have to invoke his words, which used Deism in the sense I've explained. So I figured that would clarify what Hitchens meant.

Unfortunately "Theism" is not automatically clear, as the term comprises people who both accept the philosophical arguments for God AND revelation, where I'm at pains to separate the two.

If I'm to have a term to refer only to the God known through philosophical arguments like First Cause arguments, what term would you prefer? "First Cause God?" Or maybe "NT God?" (Natural Theology God).

Regarding the "profligate in the amount of epistimic, and social costs"
anyone who has followed New Atheists enough to warrant critiquing them should already know what I'm alluding to. It's pretty much the whole thesis of Harris' End Of Faith, which NA repeat ad nauseum.

I'm specifically not trying to get into defending all the arguments against special revelation. Having done that at extreme length here before it would just get into repetition. Instead, I wished to confine
my point: that whether or not New Atheists have defeated or properly dealt with First Cause arguments etc, this provides no excuse for dismissing the general area of their critique, which involves looking at
claims of revelation in terms of consistency with existing empirical norms of evaluation.

(a) You can say, as you seem to be saying, that you will not rule them out, so long as you can have assurances that they are not scientifically explained.

Caveats with the wording aside, essentially: yes.

But this is a conclusion that has further reaching consequences than most theists seem to want to admit. Because even if the Christian agrees Christian miracle claims do not meet the standards of scientific evidence, the Christian STILL wants to claim he is justified in his confidence the miracles occurred. He can not do this either by appeal to his metaphysical arguments (they don't raise probabilities of those specific miracles) nor to any consistency with generally accepted empirical skeptical methods of inquiry.

We are left assessing any claim, modern or ancient, on our best current understanding of how the world seems to operate, and thus apply such inferences to whether miracle claims, of any time, warrant our confidence.

If a God decided to manifest revelation in a manner that does not allow our strong verification of the claim, so much the worse for his method of communication. It ain't our fault. ;-)

Vaal said...

Brandon,

and it is quite clear that the probabilities of this cannot be the same between two states, one in which God is assumed not to exist and one in which God is assumed to exist. Changing the assumption between "X exists" and "X does not exist" is directly relevant to any claim of X does Y,

With respect, I think you are going to spend a lot of unnecessary time in your replies by missing this point that I've made several times:
The atheist as I have described is NOT assuming God does not exist in order to dismiss miracle claim. The atheist (on grounds of epistemic humility) is open to the POSSIBILITY God exists and performed miracles. And the atheist is saying "Ok, if a God exists and does miracles, HOW will we decide a miracle occurred?"

And if you understand that your follow up comments start with an incorrect assumption, you'll understand why they were irrelevant.

Again, I claimed that, unless you can show otherwise, the God adduced via natural theology arguments do not help in our inferences of probabilities concerning "the natural order" and for just the same reason do not help in adjudicating claims about miracles or violations of the natural order.

But be my guest and please show how this is wrong. Explain to me how
natural theology arguments should change our inferences about, the probability of coin flips, the predictability of how water freezes or boils, the likelihood of earthly gravity being suspended at any moment, the likelihood of anyone particular disease process…ANYTHING. Show me how our inferences and expectations would be or ought to be altered by adding the NT (Natural Theology) God.

Brandon said...

Sorry for the typos and revision residues in my prior comment; had to finish it up in a hurry.

I think it's worth adding to it that your comment put the matter as if it were a question of raising the probability of Christianity. But this is not actually the context with which we are concerned. The actual starting point is New Atheist objections to certain revelational claims; and thus the question is not about a full argument for the believers' position, but about what is involved in responding to a specific kind of objection. One can respond to objections by independently supporting the claim against which they are objecting, or by directly answering the objection -- or by arguing against the presuppositions of the objection, which, again, gets us into the question of what the logically prior topics are.

Brandon said...

The atheist as I have described is NOT assuming God does not exist in order to dismiss miracle claim. The atheist (on grounds of epistemic humility) is open to the POSSIBILITY God exists and performed miracles. And the atheist is saying "Ok, if a God exists and does miracles, HOW will we decide a miracle occurred?"

As I explicitly noted before, this appears involve an error in modal logic: the atheist is not an atheist if he holds that there is a real possibility that God exists and performed miracles; thus the possibility in question must be epistemic or doxastic, and thus is sensitive to the argumentative resources available (the evidence, arguments with independent premises, and the exact content of arguments relevant to logically prior topics on which the propositions in question depend).

Indeed, it is trivially easy to see this point. If the question is,

Assuming (for the sake of argument) that God exists and does miracles, how will we decide a miracle occurred?

then a logical prerequisite for answering this question is knowing what the reasons taking God to exist would actually be and what they would actually imply about God. Again, despite having pointed out three times already that your lack of clarity about the logical dependencies of beliefs was the problem, we see you here again talking as if there were no logical ordering of beliefs by presupposition and implication, so that any belief can be considered in an arbitrary void without regard for the actual reasons relevant to it and what else they may imply about the topic of the belief.

As for the rest, as I noted in my previous comment, which passed yours in publication, you are starting to slide around rather than actually focusing on the point in question, which is whether it makes much sense to say that believers focusing on philosophical arguments on logically prior topics in response to a specific kind of objection by New Atheists is the sort of thing that is "disingenuous and intellectually dishonest".

The Frenchman said...

"If a God decided to manifest revelation in a manner that does not allow our strong verification of the claim, so much the worse for his method of communication. It ain't our fault."


I sincerely agree on that specific matter : God could have quite obviously been clearer in his revelations.


But it's certainly not up to me to judge him.

As the muslims say ; (if God exists, then) "God knows best".

If he exists, he certainly knows better what exactly he has to do, than we do !


And if one's an authentic believer in God, then, i believe one knows that indeed, he cannot possibly be right, while God himself would be wrong ! (Sorry if my english is lame).


Now, i can hear some NA say "ow, so you believe the massacres God committed in the Bible were morally right".

'Course not.


I don't believe God did such a thing.

I'm pretty sure the believer(s) who wrote these passages, were telling God intervened in X or Y massive destructions because nothing can happen without God's consent : thus, it was as if God had destroyed X or Y cities or armies himself.


I realized it was likely to be the case while studying Islam, where these thought processes, although not written nor referred to, seemed to me pretty visible.

But that's not the topic we're having, so i'm not gonna go into details.


... Am i clear, when i express myself ? :/

I'm pretty sure we don't have the same rules of writing, or something of that sort...

Vaal said...


George LeSauvage

Beyond that, I cannot distill much out of it. I am unsure how Vaal's view of an atheist differs from an agnostic or a mysterian.

George, I find your confusion…confusing. You don't write as if you'd be unfamiliar with some fairly standard distinctions between "atheism" and "agnosticism."

A pretty common distinction is this one:

Atheism concerns belief-states, whether someone holds a belief in a God. (Not on what grounds).

Agnosticism deals with rational claims to asserting belief - it's an epistemological concern about what CAN be known or not about a God.

So to say I'm an Atheist tells you I hold no belief in a God. But it doesn't tell you whatever Agnostic stance - my epistemic attitude - I may have taken on God.

I would tell you, for instance, that I do not take the strong agnostic stance that the existence of a God is unknowable. It seems to me a God remains in principle knowable (depending on the claims associated with the God in question).

Vaal said...

Brandon,

As I explicitly noted before, this appears involve an error in modal logic: the atheist is not an atheist if he holds that there is a real possibility that God exists and performed miracles;

You are shoehorning the atheist in to the wrong box of your choosing, and continuing to draw wrong conclusions.

I do not hold a belief that Alien life exists on mars. In that sense I am an A-ETist. But that position does not logically entail I DENY the POSSIBILITY of life on mars. My acknowledging the possibility that life exists on mars does not contradict my current *lack of belief* in life on mars. But this raises the question of "how would we KNOW if there is life on mars?"

This question of justification arises whether we are talking about someone who DOES believe in ETs on mars or not (e.g. "By what method do you know there is life on mars)?

The atheist as I've described stance exactly in the same relation to questions of a God existing and doing miracles. That I hold no belief in a God does not logically entail I have denied the POSSIBILITY that a God exists, or performs miracles.

So your raising of a modal problem is a strange red-herring.

Assuming (for the sake of argument) that God exists and does miracles, how will we decide a miracle occurred?

then a logical prerequisite for answering this question is knowing what the reasons taking God to exist would actually be and what they would actually imply about God.


Yes, of course! That is exactly the issue I keep raising.

IF the theist claims his metaphysical arguments SAY SOMETHING - i.e. raise the probabilities and rational justification for belief in ancient resurrections and other such biblical claims, THEN he should present that argument.

So…can I be expecting this argument at some point from you? (Prof Feser has earlier said he's more inclined to had these issues off to people like William L. Craig, FWIW).

And the point in my asking how your metaphysics alter the probabilities of our empirical inferences is very pertinent here. Because even if you CAN somehow find, for instance, some suggestion your metaphysics, such as that God would have an interest in special intervention, this can not exist in isolation. You will have to show how the metaphysics alter, if they do, our everyday empirical inference-building about the consistency of nature. If your metaphysics DOES NOT suggest an alternative approach to our existing probability inferences, then you still have the massive probabilities associated with "people not resurrecting from the dead" to contend with, when positing that *anyone in particular rose from the dead.*

(Or was cured miraculously, etc, etc).

In other words, it seems highly unlikely (and I've never seen it done) that any metaphysics you produce will alter the need for normal empirical skeptical demands, hence it's really just a red herring in regards to whether particular miracles can be satisfactorily verified via our normally accepted methods of empirical inquiry.

Vaal said...


The build of of typos in my posts is sign for me to take a break here...:-)

Brandon said...

I do not hold a belief that Alien life exists on mars. In that sense I am an A-ETist. But that position does not logically entail I DENY the POSSIBILITY of life on mars

Again, there is no such shoehorning. As I already noted, what is relevant here is the nature of the possibility in question -- it is illegitimate to treat everything called a possibility as if it was the same as everything else that is called a possibility. The possibility that is relevant in this case is necessarily a possibility concerning what could be known (or reasonably believed) given certain prior assumptions. This follows logically and necessarily from your own question,

Assuming (for the sake of argument) that God exists and does miracles, how does one decide that God has done a miracle?

The question can only be answered in light of what is being assumed in light of the assumption that God exists and does miracles. The same point becomes obvious from exactly the opposite direction. If the believer is addressing an objection to the claim 'God inspired such-and-such text', then any argumentative resources for addressing the claim will be found in part in what else can be known about God. In both directions, part of where one would have to start is with the reasons why one might take God to exist and what they would imply about God (and other things, for that matter). I have pointed out several times that I don't understand what other logical ordering of the discussion you take to be relevant; I have received no clarification about this.

So…can I be expecting this argument at some point from you?

Again, this is sliding into a different subject. You made a particular claim; I have pointed out that your claim appears to make several mistakes in the first place about the nature of reasoning. The particular claim was not about theism but about reasoning:

When theists who worships from within a revealed religion (.e.g. the Abrahamic religions) downplays that aspect to a New Atheist to make the debate about the God-Of-The-Philosophers…THAT strikes me as disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. Particularly given the specific focus New Atheism puts on specifically religious beliefs.

My argument has since been, quite explicitly, that this claim seems to make several errors about reasoning -- in particular, both in itself and in how you've developed it, it appears to require ignoring logical dependencies among beliefs. When one looks at the logical dependencies, it seems so far from disingenuous and intellectually dishonest that it appears to be the obvious rational starting point; I have tried to get you to give a different account of the logical dependencies that would make sense of your claims, but I still don't know what such an account would be.

In other words, it seems highly unlikely (and I've never seen it done) that any metaphysics you produce will alter the need for normal empirical skeptical demands, hence it's really just a red herring in regards to whether particular miracles can be satisfactorily verified via our normally accepted methods of empirical inquiry.

Again, what is relevant to the claim being discussed is what the believer would have reason to think, not what your own view is.

Scott said...

If we understand a "miracle" to be an event resulting from direct intervention by God, then the probability of a miracle on the hypothesis that God doesn't exist is zero, and no amount or quality of evidence could support belief in one. On the other hand, the probability of a miracle on the hypothesis that God does exist is positive—perhaps very small, and surely dependent on precisely what else is being claimed about God, but nonzero and able in principle to be affected by evidence.

I'd say that's a crucial difference.

Anonymous said...

What I see as crucial to the entire viability of any theistic religious belief is a robust defense of the existence of God. Any movement from non-belief to belief or from doubt to faith must presuppose such arguments for the existence. The lack of such arguments is corrosive to faith in general.

Having established that God exists, one can begin the journey of faith. One has created fertile ground for its growth. Depending on your historical or geographic context, you will find yourself a Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. Perhaps you will move from one faith to another. You will perceive this movement as a progression towards to greater experience of truth or fullness.

Atheists, it seems, find this pull towards fulness as being completely within the horizons of this life. Often times this trajectory is set very early on in ones experience. Just like my trajectory towards faith occurred early on in my life. That said, faith was very painful to me before I found good arguments that would satisfy my intellect. My faith was a very irrational experience. An embrace of madness that left the door open to the possibility that there was something in existence on the other side of my external experiences, even underlying my very thoughts, and sense of self that gave unity to my experiences. That experience was personal and focused on Christ.

I am not at all sure how one can move from non-theistic horizons to one that is theistic. The arguments themselves are not enough in most cases it seams. But I will say, if you start to become convinced of such arguments, you have certainly created fertile ground for the next steps. You have established that there is a center external to this universe we exist in that may have claim on your thoughts.

Cheers,
Daniel

laubadetriste said...

@Vaal: "When theists who worships from within a revealed religion (.e.g. the Abrahamic religions) downplays that aspect to a New Atheist to make the debate about the God-Of-The-Philosophers…THAT strikes me as disingenuous and intellectually dishonest."

@Scott: "If the 'New Atheists' disbelieve, not necessarily in the existence of God (which some theists, including Catholics, take to be demonstrable by reason), but in the veracity of any particular claim of "revelation," then what is it that makes them atheists? / If their concern isn't with theism but with (revealed) 'religion,' aren't they 'a-[ or anti-]religionists' or something?"

This thread bugs me. On the one hand, when I started reading what Vaal was saying, above, I thought, Right on! I've seen that dodge used sometimes, too!

But on the other hand, the several folks subsequently who pointed out the proper place of the praeambula fidei, are surely correct.

So: was I wrong to be irritated, or wrong about the character of what irritated me?

I figured I'd best try to be specific, and so I started to re-read *God Is Not Great.* I haven't put my finger on what irritated me, but I thought of something else which may prove fruitful.

I think that the term "New Atheism" was from the start something of a misnomer. I don't mean that the Four Horsemen aren't atheists--

(for what it's worth, Vaal's distinction at 2:05 PM not only accords with my own experience of secular discussion dating back to the 90s on Internet Infidels, but also seems to have some pretty strong historical backing, as rehearsed briefly by George H. Smith here, and as shown by the emergence of the term "atheist" from its prior history as a term of abuse, shown in Don Cameron Allen's *Doubt's Boundless Sea: Skepticism and Faith in the Renaissance,* and Alan Kors's *Atheism in France, 1650-1729, Volume I: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief*)

--but rather that they were always better described, in motivation and method, as freethinkers. When re-reading Hitchens, the affinities seem clear. What more like are those moments of beautiful humanism, than the speeches of Robert Ingersoll? The pop science, than the gushing of Annie Besant about the evolution of the eye? The partisan history, than the philippics of Joseph McCabe? The Whig philosophy, than the triumphalism of Chapman Cohen? The defense of the rights of secularists, than the efforts of Charles Bradlaugh? The biblical criticism, than the indignation of Thomas Paine? The proud moral stands, than those episodes of French history, from the Calas case to J'accuse? Indeed, re-reading Hitchens is very like strolling through the historical section of the Secular Web library.

@Brandon: "As I explicitly noted before, this appears involve an error in modal logic: the atheist is not an atheist if he holds that there is a real possibility that God exists..."

I saw you reaching for S5, and so I reached for my gun. It's unnecessary to scare people like that. :)

Brandon said...

I saw you reaching for S5, and so I reached for my gun. It's unnecessary to scare people like that. :)

:) Quite true! It should have been 'error involving modality' rather than 'error in modal logic', in any case, and the 'God exists and works miracles' part was ambiguously worded. Very difficult to say precisely what you mean in a comments thread, particularly with distractions around....

I don't know if it's relevant, but something else that might be relevant is simply argumentative cost -- it is massively harder work to argue with someone who is arguing about a claim solely on hypotheticals for the sake of argument than than it is to argue with someone who shares the things treated as hypothetical in the other case. (It often takes forever to make sure the assumptions are being handled properly in the hypothetical, for instance.)

Jeremy Taylor said...


I'm aware of other sources like Goebbels and Speer and Table Talk. But those are not the best of sources and they're mostly concerned with Christianity, not atheism.

I see Don is on his usual form.

I'm struggling to think who would be better sources than Goebbels, Speer, and Bormann.

And, yes, these sources do show Hitler is quite contemptuous of religion in general, and saw science as the future, replacing religion

Jeremy Taylor said...

I'm sorry Vaal, but your charactiseration of the New Atheists is simply inaccurate. Perhaps they do have special contempt for those who believe in revealed religions, but the irrationality of all believers, non-naturalists, and, at times, even all who have time for a philosophy separate from natural science is at the heart of New Atheism. You yourself mention how some claim that belief in any sort of free will is like believing in Fairy Tales.

If they spend more time worrying about Christian beliefs, rather than philosophical theism, they make it clear they reject the latter and this rejection (the irrational nature of such theism) is an important part of their attacks on religion. It is natural, as well, for arguments between them and theists to begin with natural theology, therefore.

laubadetriste said...

@The Frenchman: "To us Europeans, it is pretty clear Hitler was an atheist."

I note in passing my pleasure to find that, inside a conversation about the New Atheists, we are having a conversation about Hitler, and that the whole thing is fairly quiet. This is rather like finding that, inside spinning rings of fire, there are circus dogs successfully juggling knives.

We have been fairly focused on Hitler himself, and a few close associates. But on those occasions when I have seen historians argue that Christianity is partly responsible for what happened in Germany, or defend Christianity against such an accusation, they have dwelt more upon the mass of Germans, than upon Hitler himself. One man, however diabolical, can do only so much.

Jeremy Taylor said...

laubadetriste,

I think Christopher Hitchens is the only one of the New Atheists whose religious and cultural commentary will be read once the New Atheist movement finally dies. He does have a good prose style and was a quite interesting essayist, though David Bentley Hart as ably summed up the flaws in his actual arguments against religion. I do think, though, his fans somewhat strangely elevate him. They act as if he were the greatest essayist since Orwell, whereas I can think of quite a few writer at least equal to him from the last few decades (including his brother, Peter).

George LeSauvage said...

Vaal,

1. To my mind, "classical theism" and "revealed religion" are likely terms to make what you mean clear.

2. Your usages of "atheist", etc, while not wildly eccentric, are hardly standard. "Atheist" is most often used to designate a disbelief, not simply the absence. At least in America.

3. Regarding the "profligate in the amount of epistimic, and social costs"
anyone who has followed New Atheists enough to warrant critiquing them should already know what I'm alluding to. It's pretty much the whole thesis of Harris' End Of Faith, which NA repeat ad nauseum.


Well, no, I haven't followed them that closely, nor do I see a reason to. When Dawkins came out, I looked at him, and he pretty clearly was no advance on the Wells of Crux Ansata. He managed the Perry Mason trifecta, Incompetent, Irrelevant, and Immaterial. I have finite time, and other interests (in fact, I've only just come back to this stuff in the last few years.)

Barring some reason to believe I will see something which has advanced the ball since a century ago, I'll pass, given that today's output is much less honest than its ancestors, more ignorant, and worse written. (I'll except Pinker; he's pretty sharp.) So I've limited my readings from bopping about the web. And it sure seems to be the same old thing: very bad philosophy, worse history, and tendentious and unexamined social/political views. Until I see a reason to expect a payoff, I'll stick with Orwell, Mencken, Wells, and the like, who are at least a pleasure to read.

In general, I don't see where the "epistemic" question comes in. You seem to expect belief in God to change everything, in an unrealistic sense. Were I to become an atheist, I would be no better a cook, or bridge player, or sailor, than I've ever been. Expecting otherwise is just a kind of category mistake; it's not that kind of belief.

To take an example from the stuff I was reading earlier in the century, Henry the Navigator (like his explorers) was very much a late medieval Catholic. That doesn't mean that we must study the 5 Ways to understand Portugal's explorations throughout the following century. It is relevant to his motivations and his understanding of his project; but not to the means.

(Note, btw, that Henry of Portugal's interest in exploration began in earnest within just 2 or 3 years of his cousin, Henry of England, winning the battle of Agincourt. If one pays any attention to dates, the standard world picture we are taught comes crashing down. As it richly deserves to do.)

Gottfried said...

Vaal,

It strikes me that your thesis could be proven fairly easily. Why not approach the major New Atheists and their followers on their blogs or social media and say something like:

"Y'know guys, the arguments for the existence of God are actually not half bad. Why don't we concede that there's a pretty good chance that God is real and focus even more on attacking the other claims of religion."

Then report back here with the results. From what you've said I have no doubt you will be warmly received.

The Frenchman said...

"I think Christopher Hitchens is the only one of the New Atheists whose religious and cultural commentary will be read once the New Atheist movement finally dies. He does have a good prose style and was a quite interesting essayist, though David Bentley Hart as ably summed up the flaws in his actual arguments against religion. I do think, though, his fans somewhat strangely elevate him. They act as if he were the greatest essayist since Orwell"


That sums up pretty much every essential thing to know about Hitchens and his fans' relation to him, perfectly fine.


It's as if NAs worship Hitchens...

Which seems quite odd to me, as that worship-like behavior of an intellectual... Comes from people who themselves claim to, ALLEGEDLY, "THINK by THEMSELVES"...


That behavior seems to go pretty far, for people claiming such a thing.

George LeSauvage said...

Sorry, got interrupted. (My wife is very ill, which matter a lot more than this or any other thread, subjectively.)

The biggest problem I have with the "science" standard is that it makes claims I do not believe are true. It simply is not the case that my belief that I will never see my parents again is based on anything science has taught. Dead people don't come back; this is a truth universally acknowledged; Homer knew it, as did everyone else. The discoveries of scientists here don't change a single thing about the matter. They just give us more detailed accounts of what happens to our bodies when we die.

A further problem I have is that science-ists have long played a kind of shell game, in pushing their argument. They extend "science" in two directions, to include both mathematics on one side, and our crafting of artifacts on the other. While there are of course relations, these are not 3 features of one thing. With the former (math) this is at least strongly argued, though sci-guys tend to ignore this. But technical advances are not so closely tied to science as people think, either. Very often the latter is truly, almost purely, empirical, as empirical as the Ptolemeic system. The need for general laws is very much a lower order priority, and when they have been formulated, they have often proved detrimental to really building workable machines. Now, maybe with computers this has changed - that's arguable. But it is not yet clear that it has.

@Jeremy Taylor:

I'm struggling to think who would be better sources than Goebbels, Speer, and Bormann.

Well said; I was trying to formulate something to that effect. All I could come up with was too wordy and diffuse. Thank you.

Scott said...

George LeSauvage:

My wife is very ill, which matter a lot more than this or any other thread, subjectively.

It matters more objectively as well. Prayers and best wishes.

George LeSauvage said...

Thank you, Scott. On the bright side, she's much better than a month ago.

Vaal said...

(My apologies for tardy replies: I'm trying to allow myself just a bit of time, once a day, on the net so I can get my work done).

Brandon,

I'm afraid it's hard to find anything to respond to, as you seem to just keep repeating fairly vague generalities. This is why I keep talking about the probably issues in terms of concrete problems as examples (e.g. mass attracting, dead people staying dead, etc).

Your generalities tend to sort of assume what you want me to accept.

Assuming (for the sake of argument) that God exists and does miracles, how does one decide that God has done a miracle?

The question can only be answered in light of what is being assumed in light of the assumption that God exists…..


Yes, of course! That's what I keep saying, so I don't know why you keep raising this as some sort of objection????

The person who believes the conclusion of a cosmological argument (or natural theology) can try to leverage that to answer the question of "how does one decide that God has done a miracle?"

The atheist can, likewise, (as you said) assume for the sake of argument that the natural theology God arguments work, and then ask exactly the same question: GIVEN the proposition that God exists, "how does one decide that God has done a miracle?"

The answer, of course, will depend on WHAT HAS BEEN GRANTED - i.e.the traits of the God uncovered by natural religion arguments - and whether those traits can be used to significant raise probabilities enough to help with the "miracle"problem noted above.

Nothing you are writing is at all contradicting the points I'm making.
We can grant these things, but what we need is the argument from "classical theism" TO the specific claims of a revealed religion. So I'm simply left repeating my request:

Vaal: So…can I be expecting this argument at some point from you?

Brandon: Again, this is sliding into a different subject.

No, it's exactly where this subject leads.

You can't keep harping on vague generalities that "The possibility that is relevant in this case is necessarily a possibility concerning what could be known (or reasonably believed) given certain prior assumptions"
when I keep granting that and moving on to point out "The question is WHETHER the assumptions of classical theism/natural theology affect the empirical inquiry regarding miracle claims, and if so HOW."

I see you as simply spinning your wheels here until you acknowledge this and move on towards it.

Now, honestly, I don't care if you don't wish to present the argument showing how classical theism conclusions support any specific miracle claims. At this point I merely wanted to show your objections along the way are missing the point, repeatedly, and I think we are therefore falling into unnecessary repetition here.

Vaal said...

Scott,

If we understand a "miracle" to be an event resulting from direct intervention by God, then the probability of a miracle on the hypothesis that God doesn't exist is zero, and no amount or quality of evidence could support belief in one. On the other hand, the probability of a miracle on the hypothesis that God does exist is positive—perhaps very small, and surely dependent on precisely what else is being claimed about God, but nonzero and able in principle to be affected by evidence.

This IMO makes the same mistake I keep pointing out here.

When it comes to a posteriori/empirical claims, such as those in science, the assumption is NEVER zero probability. This is contained in the very nature of scientific "hypothesis." It's a possible explanation, which typically one can test and find SUPPORT for the hypothesis, but it is never confirmed with ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY. The possibility of the hypothesis (and theory) being wrong is always held open. If that weren't the case, science could never progress or consider new hypotheses in place of previous ones. So you must see you've got something seriously wrong in there.

I, like most atheists I know, am applying the same mind-set to claims about God. To not hold a belief in God (or even to hypothesis that there IS no God) is not to assign zero probability, because I accept the possibility I may be wrong. And therefore I can provisionally accept ideas like "Ok, if there is a God" to ask "how will we know if He has intervened in the natural order?" This is precisely the same question left to the theist. And it is up to the theist to answer the question, to show how belief in God will answer the question of when to conclude "miracle."

Vaal said...

laubadetriste,

Hi from a fellow old timer Internet Infidel! (I go way back as well).

Vaal said...

Jeremy Taylor,

I'm sorry Vaal, but your charactiseration of the New Atheists is simply inaccurate.

No, my characterization here is accurate:

1. The New Atheists dismiss both natural theology and special revelation. But..

2. The New Atheists are far more concerned with special revelation, as displayed by their emphasis and concern with that subject over the former.

This is pretty much indisputable should anyone be familiar with the bulk of their work (as I am).

My main point being:

3. Whether New Atheist arguments are lacking for #1 or not, this is not grounds for being able to dismiss their critiques for #2.

(And I'd add, their critiques for #2 are strong).

(Anyone else getting hungry from all the food CAPTCHAs?(

Vaal said...

George LeSauvage

In general, I don't see where the "epistemic" question comes in. You seem to expect belief in God to change everything, in an unrealistic sense.

The New Atheist critique, especially from Sam Harris, has been that the type of epistemic moves religious believers allow themselves for believing their holy texts, amount to major liabilities.

Our beliefs inform our actions, and our actions often affect other people, so the way in which we form and hold our beliefs will have consequences we should be concerned with. Aside from examples drawn from history, even today you have people who for instance
rally against the nature and rights of homosexuals, based on their reading of their holy text. You've got people trying to undermine good science education (e.g. creationists) for similar reasons as well. And this spans all the way to the retrograde views of women's (and human) rights shown by various theocratic countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia), down to the horrors being committed by ISIS, in their interpretation of their religion. So clearly, the way in which we form and hold our beliefs is consequential and worth worrying about.

Religious belief (especially in personal revelation, special revelation/holy texts etc) inevitably relies on special pleading, question-begging and the like (not all Christians/Muslims believe the same things, but somewhere they are committing significant inconsistencies in reasoning to justify their belief in revelation). So for instance, when the Christian engages in exhausting in the bias effect when attributing successful results to prayer, or interpreting God's influence in his life, or when the Christian lowers the epistemic bar - special pleading - to believe in the divinity claims of his own religion, he is pulling the rational rug out from underneath himself. And therefore undermines his ability to argue against others doing the same. (Essentially he is weakening the "epistemological web" that helps hold us together, find ways of agreeing, etc).

This allows all sorts of competing claims to go rationally unchallenged. Hence the proliferation of competing religious claims.
The problem is each religious person tends to easily recognize the special pleading of another religion, and so dismisses it, and does not recognize his own special pleading. There are many ways in which religions tend to make rational critique particularly difficult, and this is very problematic given the influence religions have on the behavior of their adherents.

Now, it's not my intent to provide all the arguments in support of this thesis - the New Atheists do plenty of that (which of course folks here will criticize). I'm just pointing out WHY the New Atheists worry about the epistemic question. It's because the method by which we gain and hold our beliefs will have consequences for how people treat other people, and for our ability to modify our beliefs when we should.

Vaal said...


George LeSauvage, (pt 2)

The biggest problem I have with the "science" standard is that it makes claims I do not believe are true.

But I wonder if this is based on claims that I would actually be making.

I would say that science is simply a word for when we are being our most careful and rigorous in assigning confidence to empirical hypotheses. Science doesn't deny personal experience; it accepts it but augments it, puts it against the backdrop of what we have learned about human bias, and fundamental epistemological problems like "the problem of variable" (both in assigning causes, and in supporting explanations/hypotheses).

So someone may eat some bread, later have an upset stomach, read that bread has gluten, that some people are allergic to gluten, and then infer "I'm allergic to gluten." We know this is a fairly standard method of loose inference shown by human beings. But is that the *most justified* level of inference we have on such matters? Clearly not: when doing science we acknowledge we have to account for variables - e.g. *what else* might the person have eaten that could also cause the upset stomach. And *is there a plausible account for how gluten would cause stomach upset* and *how will we decide between competing explanations we may conceive to explain the connection?* (Hence you set up experiments where you control variables, set up predictions to test, etc).

Do you actually deny the general proposition that (as per examples like the above) science represents the attempt at "greater epistemic responsibility" insofar as it tries to account for variables that more informal methods of inference do not account for?

Having said that…the issue of whether adding the God of classical theism helps in deciding miracle claims does not depend on science per se. At bottom, as I've said, it simply asks if our general method of empirical inferences about how the world works is changed by those metaphysics. So….

It simply is not the case that my belief that I will never see my parents again is based on anything science has taught. Dead people don't come back; this is a truth universally acknowledged; Homer knew it, as did everyone else.

Yes. Exactly. And how did you, and pretty much everyone else, come to conclude that "Dead people don't come back?"

Clearly it's an empirical inference built upon human experience of dead people staying dead. The question I keep posing is: If this is our method of empirical inference, how we decide on the likelihood of things like "an apple falling up instead of down" or "someone rising from the dead," why would this change if you add in the God of classical theism? As far as I can see, there is no - can be no - change in how we go about our empirical inferences. So long as we allow ourselves methods like induction, etc, we are still building the same case against the likelihood of a claim that "someone rose from the dead" as we would with or without the existence of a God.
(God "could" raise someone from the dead..but given our empirical experience God does not do so, this justifies great skepticism against any new claim that God DID raise someone from the dead).

Cheers,

Brandon said...

Yes, of course! That's what I keep saying, so I don't know why you keep raising this as some sort of objection????

Then I don't understand what your original claim was supposed to convey. Your original claim was:

When theists who worships from within a revealed religion (.e.g. the Abrahamic religions) downplays that aspect to a New Atheist to make the debate about the God-Of-The-Philosophers…THAT strikes me as disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. Particularly given the specific focus New Atheism puts on specifically religious beliefs.

But now you've explicitly noted that the question that you say is at issue between New Atheists and believers can only be answered in light of what is being assumed in assuming that God exists and acts; which is entirely a question of philosophical arguments about God's existence and what can be known about God.

We can grant these things, but what we need is the argument from "classical theism" TO the specific claims of a revealed religion.

No, the argument has been specifically about your claims about the nature of the reasoning in the case of believers answering a particular kind of objection from the New Atheists. Your repeated attempts to try to make this an argument about revelation rather than about reasoning is precisely that: an attempt to change the subject and pretend that it is what has been discussed the entire time, despite the fact that I have pointed out what the subject was in every single comment I have given.

Anonymous said...

@Vaal
Step1: God defined by Philosophy
“All powerful, all intelligent, all knowing, transcends time and space, creator of the universe”

God defined by Christian revelation “All powerful, all intelligent, all knowing, transcends time and space, creator of the universe, All Loving Father and Just Ruler”

Step2: See definition of miracle Oxford dictionary

Step3: See that God defined in step1 can easily do a "miracle" as defined in step2

Scott said...

Vaal:

When it comes to a posteriori/empirical claims, such as those in science, the assumption is NEVER zero probability.

You're confusing the conditional probability of an event given a hypothesis with the prior subjective probability of the hypothesis itself.

If we define

H: God exists
E: a miracle* occurs

then P(E|~H) = 0 no matter what prior probability you assign to H itself. Allowing for the possibility that God exists doesn't alter the fact that miracles can't happen if He doesn't.

----

*As previously defined.

Scott said...

(And, as I said above, P(E|H) > 0 since, if God does exist, miracles can occur—in principle, even if they never do in fact. So no, I'm not "mak[ing] the same mistake [you] keep pointing out here," as should now be clear if you reread what I wrote.)

The Frenchman said...

Vaal,


You previously said, in one of the comments you wrote further above :

"Now, it's not my intent to provide all the arguments in support of this thesis - the New Atheists do plenty of that (which OF COURSE folks here will CRITICIZE)" - end quote.


Given what you wrote between the two parentheses, you seem to believe every one here will automatically oppose himself to New Atheism SIMPLY because we're religious and that's New Atheism.


That couldn't be further from the truth.

We are NOT rejecting New Atheism because it is not religious, but atheist indeed.


In fact, some of us are completely fine, i think, and even sympathetic regarding some of the things New Atheists defend !

Take their belief that atheists should have just as many rights as believers have, for instance !

I'm pretty sure many among us would find themselves sympathetic towards New Atheism on THAT matter !

Or at least, I certainly would !


We do not criticize EVERYTHING within New Atheism, JUST because it bears the logo "New Atheism".

On the contrary, many of us think we should ALL indeed have the same rights no matter our religious or other cultural differences, and that no one should have to suffer from persecution for such trivial things !


It is rather the deep lack of "education" (politeness), the arrogance, as well as the unbearable smugness all combined, that characterizes New Atheism, that makes absolutely all of us go against it.


To many among us - if not most of us indeed, the opposition we display does NOT come from a difference of religious convictions.

It comes from a difference of convictions concerning what's MORALLY acceptable in a civilized society ; how a civilized human being should behave towards another civilized human being.

Because New Atheists do not seem to hold the same conviction than us on THAT specific point - a fact made obvious by their own behavior, THEREFORE, we oppose them.

We do not do so simply because they do not share our worldview !


And by the way, this opposition extends to some of our OWN co-religionists, who'd like to see gays regularly hanged to trees on a daily basis.


Hope i made it clear we're absolutely not opposing ourselves to everything New Atheism holds dear... Simply because it one idea has that (stupid) logo sticked on it.

Which you sir seem to have (absolutely wrongly) implied.

Scott said...

Just to be clear here: What I have in mind in that last pair of posts (and the one before it on which they're elaborating) is Vaal's claim that "adding God to the mix" doesn't alter the probabilities of any events or explanations thereof. Miracles (including divine inspiration of texts) are an important type of example for which this claim seems clearly to fail, and they're specifically the type of example Vaal was addressing in the first place; indeed, as Brandon observes, he's insisted repeatedly on that point.

Don Jindra said...

The Frenchman,

You say, "Almost every one who believed in an almighty God at that time, and in Europe specifically, was either Christian or Jewish."

That's a very bold statement. It ignores all of the mysticism of the 19th and 20th centuries (Blavatsky, Huxley & James come to mind). It presumes a god-like ability on your part to know the hearts and minds of the population. It ignores a considerable amount of Christian theology that debates the sincerity of mere religious profession. And it ignores Germany's interest in its pagan past. The Nazis themselves used a technical category called gottglaubig -- "believing in god" -- which implied a belief in a higher power that was not Christian, and surely not Jewish.

The quotes you cite do not "point" to atheism in any context.

You ask, "Who knows the real thoughts of a man so mad?"

-- Apparently you claim to know.

You also assert "the evidence makes it far more reasonable to think Hitler was an atheist, than a Christian."

But I can find no good evidence that he was an atheist. It was suggested by others that we should look to Table Talk or Speer or Goebbels. I don't have much confidence in those sources but nevertheless it's tough to find evidence there:

"The Fuhrer is deeply religious, though completely anti-Christian. He views Christianity as a symptom of decay." -- Goebbels Diaries, entry on December 29, 1939

Albert Speer's "Inside the Third Reich":

"He [Hitler] was forever holding up to himself a mirror in which he saw not only himself but also the confirmation of his mission by divine Providence. His religion was based on the "lucky break" which must necessarily come his way; his method was to reinforce himself by autosuggestion. The more events drove him into a corner, the more obstinately he opposed to them his certainty about the intentions of Fate. Naturally, he also soberly understood the military facts. But he transmuted them by his own faith and regarded even defeat as a secret guarantee, offered by Providence, of the coming victory. Sometimes he could realize the hopelessness of a situation, but he could not be shaken in his expectation that at the last moment Fate would suddenly turn the tide in his favor. If there was any fundamental insanity in Hitler, it was this unshakable belief in his lucky star. He was by nature a religious man, but his capacity for belief had been perverted into belief in himself." -- p357

When Hitler learned of the death of Roosevelt, Speer said Hitler was ecstatic. "He could not calm down. He thought this was proof of the infallible Providence watching over him." p463

From the dubious translation of Table Talk, Feb 27 1942, midday:

"I believe that Providence gives the victory to the man who
knows how to use the brains nature has given him."

"Man must be put in a position to develop freely the talents that God has given him."

Hitler was anti-clerical -- but so are a lot of religious people.




Jeremy Taylor said...

Vaal,


2. The New Atheists are far more concerned with special revelation, as displayed by their emphasis and concern with that subject over the former.

This is pretty much indisputable should anyone be familiar with the bulk of their work (as I am).


The problem is you are implying their attacks on natural theology, and indeed all non-naturalism, are occasional, isolated afterthoughts. Yes, they may spend a little more time on special revelation, but in the vast majority of cases strong, crude, and usually silly attacks on all supernatural belief are a major part of their attacks on special revelation.

Look at Dr. Feser's arguments with Coyne - they show a clear blend of mixing #1 and #2, the same blend that is normal for New Atheists. Or take the BBC debate Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens had with Anne Widdecombe and a Catholic Bishop had on the Catholic Church, in Fry was quick to make silly critiques of all non-naturalism based on appeals to empiricism, whilst also attacking the Church as an institution.

With the possible exception of Christopher Hitchens's prose, I cannot think of anything intellectually or culturally interesting or stimulating in the works of the New Atheists (that is their works specifically as New Atheists, rather than their technical works, such as Dawkins's works on biology). I think they rank just above Jezebel.com feminists in this regard. I have no noticed their arguments about #2 were strong.

Step2 said...

@Scott
Allowing for the possibility that God exists doesn't alter the fact that miracles can't happen if He doesn't.

I'm pretty sure I'm misreading this. Are you claiming that only the existence of the god of classical theism can account for miracles? If by direct revelation you knew that a miracle happened because of the intervention of a pagan god (Odin, Apollo, etc) or that some of the greatest literature and songs ever written were inspired by them what happens to your claim?

Jeremy Taylor said...


I don't have much confidence in those sources but nevertheless it's tough to find evidence there:

I know it is useless to argue with you, as you are a troll (and I believe one banned from here for trolling), but I note you have not given the slightest indication why you doubt that Hitler's closest confidants, high ranking members of the Nazi party, are bad sources.

From Hitler's Table-Talk:

"The dogma of Christianity gets worn away before the advances of science. Religion will have to make more and more concessions. Gradually the myths crumble."

Hitler was not a systematic thinker. Indeed, he his thought was positively chaotic. But it is clear that his general sympathies were anti-religious and more or less scientistic.

Jeremy Taylor said...

- that should have been doubt they are good sources.

The Frenchman said...

Don Jindra,


"The quotes you cite do not 'point' to atheism in any context."


Perhaps ; however, the most important thing is that Hitler was assuredly NOT a Christian, contrarily to what so many New Atheists would very much like to make their gullible audience believe.

That Hitler was not THAT MUCH of an atheist after all, or that he was even deeply "spiritually confused", MAY, possibly, be
- Even though we clearly have very good reasons to doubt it.


The point is rather this : while Hitler's alleged atheism MAY indeed be debatable (and i might have unintentionally exaggerated a little bit on the degree of certainty we can have on Hitler's religious views, i'll grant this to you), it is however CERTAIN and almost beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Hitler was indeed not a Christian.

And here lies many New Atheists' fallacy, as i have already pointed out (and that was the primary goal of my comment : to point out THAT utter distortion of reality in particular).


Second, there is also those sentences you quoted and / or wrote :


"Almost every one who believed in an almighty God at that time, and in Europe specifically, was either Christian or Jewish."

To what you replied : "That's a very bold statement. It ignores all of the mysticism of the 19th and 20th centuries (Blavatsky, Huxley & James come to mind). It presumes a god-like ability on your part to know the hearts and minds of the population... And it ignores Germany's interest in its pagan past".


Oh, please.

As if those eccentric beliefs were WIDESPREAD among the general public, outside of some (equally eccentric) intellectual circles...


Furthermore, my assertion was absolutely not bold the least bit : i wrote "almost" every one who believed in God, and in Europe, AND at that time (what's more), was either Christian or Jewish.

It very clearly indicated an extremely large majority, yes, of course ; but that certainly did NOT mean "EVERY SINGLE European believer at that time", that's absolutely not what i've said, nor implied ("almost" means what it's supposed to have always meant).


And so i'll repeat myself once again : at that time, and in Europe, "almost" every one who believed in God, was either Christian or Jewish.


Repeating myself being perfectly okay, as what you did, citing a few names of intellectuals, does not change anything to my assertion on the 'general' public of mid-20th century Germany, an assertion which is based on very common knowledge no one ignores.


So okay ; i might have been wrong indeed when i said that it is common KNOW-ledge that Hitler was an atheist.

I should probably have rather sticked to Socrates' famous "I only know that i know nothing", as i NORMALLY do
(but hey, nobody's perfect).


But my main point nevertheless remains : many New Atheists are distorting the truth ON PURPOSE, to fit their ideological agenda.

And it is THAT deed, that is morally UNACCEPTABLE.


Good night ! :)

laubadetriste said...

@Jeremy Taylor: "... I can think of quite a few writer at least equal to him from the last few decades (including his brother, Peter)."

I very much liked his book on Britain. Tell me--always good to find stuff one's missed--, who else had you in mind?

@George LeSauvage: "If one pays any attention to dates, the standard world picture we are taught comes crashing down."

My best wishes as well for your wife. If you have a moment, could you elaborate? I am curious.

@Vaal: "We can grant these things, but what we need is the argument from 'classical theism' TO the specific claims of a revealed religion."

We should acknowledge that there are such arguments.

"Hi from a fellow old timer Internet Infidel! (I go way back as well)."

Hi. :) Yes, that site meant a lot to me.

"Our beliefs inform our actions, and our actions often affect other people, so the way in which we form and hold our beliefs will have consequences we should be concerned with... [...] Religious belief... inevitably relies on special pleading, question-begging and the like..."

Change "inevitably" to "frequently" and I think this much would be widely accepted.

This part seems important. I would paraphrase you as saying, that people often learn bad epistemic habits from their religion; that those habits produce ills in the world, which ills are made intractable by those habits; and that it is good to fight that religion, since it is the source both of those ills and of their intractability. Is that a fair paraphrase of this part of what you said?

The Frenchman said...

Also, i think enough's been said on Hitler... Personally.

Plus, to be honest, that isn't the one topic of discussion that captivates me most.


So if we could move on, as i have tried to in some previous comments, that'd be great : i'm persuaded we can talk about stuff way more interesting than this.

Even though it is me - if memory serves me well, who introduced that topic of discussion myself, i certainly didn't think we would linger on it for so many hours... It eventually turned into being pretty boring.


Not interesting, but at least i learnt Hitler's atheism may not as certain as i thought it was, though.

Always good to learn something new !


Regards,

The Frenchman said...

Laubadetriste,


"... And that it is GOOD to FIGHT that religion, since it is the source both of those ills and of their intractability".


Highly doubt it has ever produced anything GOOD to actually FIGHT a CULTURE (because that's also what a religion is)...


As for your vision of religion, it seems rather deeply close-minded...

You seem to completely forget all the positive effects religion has, positive effects ALSO doomed to perish if your little (and perfectly vain) "fight" against religion ever succeeds.


That's yet just another beef with New Atheists : they see the world as black and white, when it's as grey as city fog.


Very late at night, now, in my country.

Should shut my poor eyes.


Bye !

laubadetriste said...

@The Frenchman: "As for your vision of religion, it seems rather deeply close-minded..."

:) I didn't say that was my vision. Goodnight.

laubadetriste said...

Re my post 3:57 PM, "his book" is Peter's book, "elaborate" is on the Henry of Portugal comment, "we should acknowledge" is we atheists, and "this part" is Vaal's post at 9:18 am.

DNW said...


Technically off topic but ...

Speaking of Walter Mitty and making the world fit for the dreams we dreamily wish to dream and the expressions we expressly wish to express - before a captive audience of course - recall the recent and infamous Obergefell exercise in constitutional subversion: worked in the name of "equality and dignity", i.e., as categorical chaos and absurdity in the name of true love.

Well, here's a response. About time. https://americanprinciplesproject.org/founding-principles/statement-calling-for-constitutional-resistance-to-obergefell-v-hodges%E2%80%AF/

No doubt Feser will post something up on this once he has had time to give it due consideration.

The question of course, David Brooks's salivating locker-room humidity level ode to unconditional social solidarity and a sharp crease in the pants aside, what's the point of treating a Potemkin Moral Community, or a pantomime of republican law, as the real thing? Whose interest is served in such a charade?

Don Jindra said...

Jeremy Taylor,

"I note you have not given the slightest indication why you doubt that Hitler's closest confidants, high ranking members of the Nazi party, are bad sources."

I didn't do so because I don't want to spend too much time here. But I'll briefly state my reasons.

Goebbels was perhaps the ultimate propagandist. His analysis of the Jews was flawed. Would his analysis of the Fuhrer be more reliable? Would he recall conversations accurately without bias? I'm skeptical.

Table Talk has a strange history. It was the brainchild of Martin Bormann, who was notoriously anti-Christian. Only shorthand notes were allowed. Bormann edited those notes and they were translated into French. The French was translated again into English. Some of the anti-Christian rhetoric in the English translation is not found in the original German notes made by Picker. Picker himself said the Bormann version was unreliable. I don't speak German and I don't have access to the original anyway so all I can go by is the fact that there is disagreement on the reliability of the English version we commonly see quoted.

Speer is the most reliable of the three sources, imo. Nevertheless, I don't believe his testimony at his trial was completely honest. How honest was he after that? I don't know. But even if you take him at face value, he does not claim Hitler was an atheist.

Btw, if you spend time reading some of Table Talk, Hitler does not come across as an atheist. He seems to equate God with piety toward laws of nature, which seem to have a powerful spiritual attraction for him. He denies atheism is good. For example, there's this bit:

"The Russians were entitled to attack their priests, but they had no right to assail the idea of a supreme force. It's a fact that we're feeble creatures, and that a creative force exists. To seek to deny it is folly. In that case, it's better to believe something false than not to believe anything at all. Who's that little Bolshevik professor who claims to triumph over creation? People like that, we'll break them. Whether we rely on the catechism or on philosophy, we have possibilities in reserve, whilst they, with their purely materialistic conceptions, can only devour one another."


The Frenchman said...

So Hitler saw God as nature, perhaps in a Spinoza-like fashion.


Which doesn't make Hitler a Christian in any case, once again, contrarily to what many New Atheists have frequently tried to make people believe for their own and dubious ends.


Second, that does nothing to the fact that most historians, still, maintain Hitler was an atheist.

Which is NOT a piece of evidence in itself, once again ; but which still has considerable value nevertheless, as they are professionals specialized in their specific field of study.


Now, let's talk about something else, i guess... For everything important seems to have already been said, and thus i'm afraid the conversation is clearly about to become circular.

A thing that, i'm afraid, does not really captivate me, personally...

The Frenchman said...

Also, THAT being said, i'd like to thank you Jindra for your comments.


They certainly lead me closer to the truth than where i was when i said that it was a FACT Hitler was an atheist.

Your participation made me realize my strong belief in the fact-like atheism of Hitler was perhaps too strong (even though i still think he's an atheist, for some of my arguments are still valid).


That's always good to learn something new : thank you !


Also, i'm not angry at all when i write in capital letters (in case it makes me look angry).

That's just that some of my keyboard keys do not work well, italics included (therefore, capital letters use).


Thanks again !

DNW said...

Look ... he says the "God word" hehehe

He must believe in God, hehehehe

"The Weltanschhauung which bases the State on the racial idea must finally succeed in bringing about a nobler era, in which men will no longer pay exclusive attention to breeding and rearing pedigree dogs and horses and cats, but will endeavour to improve the breed of the human race itself. That will be an era of silence and renunciation for one class of people, while the others will give their gifts and make their sacrifices joyfully.

That such a mentality may be possible cannot be denied in a world where hundreds and thousands accept the principle of celibacy from their own choice, without being obliged or pledged to do so by anything except an ecclesiastical precept. Why should it not be possible to induce people to make this sacrifice if, instead of such a precept, they were simply told that they ought to put an end to this truly original sin of racial corruption which is steadily being passed on from one generation to another. And, further, they ought to be brought to realize that it is their bounden duty to give to the Almighty Creator beings such as He himself made to His own image."


See? hehehehe Your friend Beavis ...



"They do not place their trust in money but in other gods, into whose hands they confide their lives. ...

It may be that money has become the one power that governs life to-day. Yet a time will come when men will again bow to higher gods ...


If these people try to disparage the importance of the spoken word to-day, they do it only because they realize - God be praised and thanked - how futile all their own speechifying has been.

... all earthly wisdom is useless unless it be supported by a measure of strength, that the gentle goddess of Peace can only walk in company with the god of War ...


In recent years things have gone so far that patriotic circles, in god-forsaken blindness of their religious strife, could not recognize the folly of their conduct ...

... in the case of a people like the Germans, whose history has so often shown them capable of fighting for phantoms to the point of complete exhaustion, every war-cry is a mortal danger. By these slogans our people have often been drawn away from the real problems of their existence. While we were exhausting our energies in religious wars the others were acquiring their share of the world.

As far as regards that kind of ‘patriotic’ warrior, on behalf of the National Socialist Movement and therefore of the German people I pray with all my
heart: "Lord, preserve us from such friends, and then we can easily deal with our enemies."


... secretaries, treasurers, representatives of the members of the organization, propaganda agents and God knows what else.


... it must be quite clearly understood that we cannot get back the territories we have lost if we depend on solemn imprecations before the throne of the Almighty God or on pious hopes in a League of Nations, but only by the force of arms.

... such action as is undertaken to secure those ends can it be lawful in the eyes of God and our German posterity to allow the blood of our people to be shed once again. Before God, because we are sent into this world with the commission to struggle for our daily bread, as creatures to whom nothing is donated and who must be able to win and hold their position as lords of the earth only through their own intelligence and courage.

... this State may tranquilly condemn us for our conduct at that time, but History, the goddess of a higher truth and ..."

I guess there's no doubt he was a true believer ...

Jeremy Taylor said...

The problem Don is that, perhaps with the partial exception of Bormann, you don't really give evidence why these figures would have lied in this particular situation. Why does Goebbels being the Nazi propagandist mean he is untrustworthy in this particular instance, where it is not about propaganda but his diaries? That seems just to be looking for reasons to reject this testimony. Speer lied at Nuremburg, therefore his recollections of Hitler are completely untrustworthy? That doesn't seem like a good argument. With the exception, perhaps, of Bormann, you do not really give a proper argument for not trusting their testimony.

Remember that these three seem to concur on this issue. Their testimony generally matches. So it is not the case that it is simply one senior Nazi and confidant of Hitler whose testimony we have.

It is true that Hitler at times seems to refer to spiritual forces, yet he also seems to, confusingly, naturalise them. He seems to have a naturalist view of nature and yet think it has marked him out as a particularly important individual. We, in fact, see this in Mein Kampf. Hitler's thought was chaotic.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Don,

Also, given your past behaviour, it is a wonder you have the gall to make such an argument.

laubadetriste,

Would it be stretching it to call Russell Kirk and Malcolm Muggeridge writers and essayists from recent decades? Apart from them I say Wendell Berry and John Michel, though very different and very different from Christopher and Peter Hitchens, are their equals. He may be so different as to not be worth comparing but I'd also name Peter Simple (Michael Wharton), the most brilliant satirist of recent times (in my opinion).

Vaal said...

Brandon,

But now you've explicitly noted that the question that you say is at issue between New Atheists and believers can only be answered in light of what is being assumed in assuming that God exists and acts; which is entirely a question of philosophical arguments about God's existence and what can be known about God.

One more try I guess….


The arguments for classical theism, for instance where Aquinas tries to demonstrate necessary conclusions about God, are different from the type of argument for contingent claims of God's specific intervention in the world (revelation).
They are different in type, and different in the information they purport to deliver us about God. You know it. I know it. Philosophers know it. Edward Feser knows it. Aquinas knew it (which is a reason Aquinas drew the distinction between what we know of God through reason, vs faith - Revelation). You don't get justifications for specific Christian beliefs from the conclusions of classical theism. There is a significant divide there, and anyone claiming classical theism aids in justifying Christianity owes an argument for that claim. Until that happens, the New Atheists don't need to grapple with classical theism in order to criticize belief in Christian revelation.

But given you seem still confused by this argument, perhaps a simple syllogism will make my point even more clear.

(Where "Christian Beliefs" are those beliefs derived from specific revelation/The Bible/personal revelation).

P1. If the arguments from classical theism do not aid in justifying Christian beliefs, then the New Atheists do not have to contend with classical theism in order to criticize the justification for Christian beliefs.

P2. The arguments from classical theism DO NOT aid in justifying specific Christian beliefs.

Conclusion: The New Atheists do not have to contend with classical theism in order to criticize the justification for Christian Beliefs.

Given that is what I've continually argued here…

It naturally follows that if you want to contest what I've claimed, you'd have challenge P2. Hence…you would have to show how classical theism aids in justifying belief in specific Christian revelation.

So, far from this "switching of the subject" you keep accusing me of (I'm pretty familiar with the point I'm actually arguing), I'm following through quite logically on the subject.

This is why I've given some reasons to support P2 (e.g. how granting a God who can do miracles doesn't alter our empirical probability inferences regarding specific miracles). I don't see any rebuttal whatsoever from you - apparently because, very strangely, you think it's irrelevant to do so (though no one else has directly tackled the problem I've raise either).

I've never seen anything close to a cogent argument against P2, (and Edward Feser, as intelligent as we know he is, has self-admittedly not really tried to produce one. He's only hinted at the possibility). Until a cogent argument is produced, I believe the New Atheists are just fine and dandy when critiquing Christianity (and Islam, etc) without having to produce sound critiques of classical theism.

Vaal said...

Scott,

Once again, I'm talking of the empirical attitude a rational person will have to vetting miracle claims. The attitude toward specific miracle claims ought not change if you add belief in God (that is the information about God delivered by classical theistic arguments). This is because "that God" does not help to raise probabilities of any specific miracle.

If you are arguing against this claim you MUST be arguing that
belief in the classical theistic God ought to ALTER our empirical attitude toward specific miracle claims. That is, it somehow aids in justifying belief that, for instance, Jesus rose from the dead 2,000 years ago.

Remember the contention here is the belief in specific miracle claims. So take the belief you seem to think alters this equation:

Christian belief: God exists.


Well, what does this mean for miracles? This has to be spelled out a bit more. You did it so I'll borrow your own words:

Christian: IF God does exist, miracles can occur—in principle, even if they never do in fact.

Great! I can, and happily will, state exactly the same:

Atheist (me): IF God does exist, miracles can occur—in principle, even if they never do in fact.

You see, even as a Christian you have to appeal to conditional statements when deriving the possibility of miracles from the existence of God. I can happily appeal to the same conditional statements as the Christian. And since it's a conditional, expressing this conditional and reasoning from it does not (necessarily) contradict my atheism. Anymore than your saying "IF superman existed, he could fly" would be inconsistent with your lack of belief in superman.

Affirming the same conditional puts us in EXACTLY the same position in respect to the odds of a miracle.

And this naturally leads right to the question I keep saying it does: IF miracles can occur, HOW will we know when a miracle has occurred?"

All the squirming around on this issue can't avoid this. The only way you can avoid it is producing arguments for how assuming God (of classical theism) actually DOES raise the odds of, or help justify belief in, any specific miracle.

Chad Handley said...

Vaal,

As the existence of God is a specific Christian belief derived from specific revelation/the Bible/personal revelation, I would think P2 is self-evidently false. (Even if the existence of God can also be proved by reason, it is nonetheless a "specific Christian belief" as you define it.)

And if your point is that the New Atheists need only deal with the specific arguments for things like the Resurrection as offered by apologists like William Lane Craig, Clark H. Pinnock, N.T. Wright, Richard Swinburne,etc, then can you direct me to where they've done so in their writings?

Scott said...

Vaal:

Affirming the same conditional puts us in EXACTLY the same position in respect to the odds of a miracle.

Which helps your own argument not a whit, so far as I can see. Your claim was that introducing the hypothesis of God doesn't alter the probabilities of miraculous events; now you're simply conceding that of course it does, and merely adding that you don't happen to concede the truth of that hypothesis yourself.

You seem to think I'm trying to argue that you're somehow contradicting your "atheism" by allowing that the non-zero probability of miracles follows conditionally from the hypothesis that God exists. But that's pretty clearly not my point; of course you're doing no such thing, and why you'd expect me to think otherwise I do not know. My point, again, is that in acknowledging this, you're contradicting your previous claim that the hypothesis of God, even as a hypothesis, doesn't have any effect on the conditional probabilities of miraculous events.

Anonymous said...

@Vaal

What else other than the existence of God shows that Jesus rose from the dead? How is that not a miracle? How can adding the creator of the universe not raise the probability of a specific miracle?

Scott said...

…like, in Anon's example, the probability of Jesus's miraculous resurrection from the dead.

Anonymous said...

"You see, even as a Christian you have to appeal to conditional statements when deriving the possibility of miracles from the existence of God. I can happily appeal to the same conditional statements as the Christian. "

This is trivial. The important claim is "God does (not) exist"

M is 'a miracle has occurred' and G is 'God exists'

1. M implies G
2. ~G (G)
3. ~M (M)

If you were to be open to the possibility of miracles occurring, for the sake of some investigation into the matter, it would not be on account of endorsing the conditional premise, but granting that God exists. You can't reason from the conditional to conclude that a miracle occurred unless you pass through that middle term. As far as I can tell, everyone in the course of the conversation has agreed that G does not imply M!* Brandon's been making this point about logical dependency already, but you don't seem to understand it. That you don't understand it is (I wager) preventing the discussion from moving forward to the question of how one knows when a miracle has occurred.

I also wonder - what do you think a miracle is? If it is a special instance of Divine action, then it is fairly clear how e.g. the five ways affect the probability that a miracle has occurred.



Brandon said...

You don't get justifications for specific Christian beliefs from the conclusions of classical theism.

If by 'justifications' you mean 'proofs', that's certainly the case; but you have already recognized in your own comments kinds of justification that are just probability-raising, and there are in addition pragmatic justifications, with respect to what makes it easier to take some prior claim into practical account or shows promise for further inquiry or growth on the basis of prior claims. And, as has already been noted by Scott, your claim that classical theism does not raise probabilities for miracle claims does not appear to be even coherent. Thus your argument appears, as I have previously noted on multiple occasions, to be based on very defective account of reasoning.

You've claimed at least once that focusing on the philosophical arguments is a red herring; that requires that the philosophical arguments be irrelevant. But they are quite clearly relevant -- they address at least necessary conditions, as I have pointed out, and classical theism overlaps Christian theism so that for any claim 'God does X', classical theism will confirm at least part of the Christian account, and your argument that there is no way to use them to do more does not seem convincing, as Scott has noted.

Gottfried said...

Would it be bad form to suggest that making sense of Vaal's position may require some psychoanalysis?

Okay, I won't.

Greg said...

@ Scott

Your claim was that introducing the hypothesis of God doesn't alter the probabilities of miraculous events; now you're simply conceding that of course it does, and merely adding that you don't happen to concede the truth of that hypothesis yourself.

I think Vaal sometimes obscures his point by using 'miracle' inconsistently. For instance, he writes:

The attitude toward specific miracle claims ought not change if you add belief in God (that is the information about God delivered by classical theistic arguments). This is because "that God" does not help to raise probabilities of any specific miracle.

His concession that "IF God does exist, miracles can occur—in principle, even if they never do in fact" does contradict his last sentence here; if God doesn't exist, then the probability of any event being a miracle is 0, and if God does exist, then it is nonzero.

In the other sentences, he is referring to miracle claims. I understand his argument like this: Let R be the event that "A was resurrected". Let E be the event that "I am certain that A had died and I am certain that A is now alive". To "justify" "Christian beliefs" probabilistically, one has to judge P(R) to be high. E is the event that evidence for R occurs, so we are interested in P(R|E). But now let C be the truth of classical theism. Vaal's claim seems to be that P(R|E) = P(R|(E&C)), so that someone who wants to attack Christian beliefs need only argue that P(R|E) is low.

Maybe this is the wrong way to formulate things, since and P(C) = 0 or 1. C really provides the context in which one ascribes values to P(R) and P(R|E), so it may not make sense to let it be its own event. Instead, we can formulate his claim as: Coming to accept C should not change what one judges P(R|E) to be.

I am not sure why this is supposed to be true. P(R) = 0 if God doesn't exist, and P(R) is nonzero if God does (as Vaal eagerly affirms), so... or else we need an explanation of what counts as a "miracle" if God doesn't exist.

Maybe I am confused here?

Greg said...

If my interpretation is correct, then the difficulty I raise might be evaded in this way: Drop the heuristic of talking about what changes as one comes to accept C. Argue against Christian belief by claiming that, given P(R|E) is low even for one that believes C. That abandons the whole point of the argument though. The original argument is basically trying to claim that the probability can non-question-beggingly be judged as though we were all naturalists.

Greg said...

All right, one more post...

I don't think it helps his argument to talk about the differences between people who believe C and do not believe C, and the impact that accepting C has on one's evaluation of a single miracle claim (on the value one ascribes to P(R|E) for some A).

But in fairness to Vaal, he does sometimes make this argument:

Argue against Christian belief by claiming that, [] P(R|E) is low even for one that believes C.

He does this by citing various other religious claims. More than one religion has made a miraculous claim. Someone who is not a universalist must believe that some of these events have not occurred. Let R'and E' be the corresponding event and evidence. A Christian has to judge P(R|E) to be high but P(R'|E') to be low. In this case, both judgments are being made assuming C, so the problem that P(R) and P(R') are only nonzero if C does not arise. This argument depends on finding some miracle claim that is very evidentially similar to Christianity's, and which could not be argued to be conceptually repugnant given C.

Anonymous said...

What about Walter Mitty theism and religion, and "metaphysics" (meataphysics) too!All of our beliefs whether secular or religious are just ways of feeling comfortable about the fact that this place is hell-deep entirely uncomfortable, or that death really does rule to here.
Hence the "gospel" of Ralph.

It is just Ralph. All of this is Ralph, and that is it. It is just a Ralphing. You are being Ralphed. You are Ralph. You do Ralph. You believe in Ralph. You hate Ralph and resist Ralph. You are troubled about Ralph. You fear Ralph. Ralph is going to snuff you completely sooner or later. You breathe Ralph and are completely dependent of Ralph. You think Ralph. You are in charge of Ralph and attempt to subordinate Ralph to your desire for immunity. Ralph is in charge of You.

Substitute any other word or name for Ralph and see that it is all nonsense.

Real life, true existence, all comes down to non-conceptual Reality, the Reality of Non-Separateness. There are no ultimate explanations for IT and no way to differentiate yourself from IT or get control over IT. You must just spontaneously and non-strategically give yourself up to "Ralph", the Unknown and the Unknowable, That Which is Beyond yourself. You cannot Understand the Real until you stop being your-self, stop separating yourself, and stop suffering the mind-created illusions of separateness.

When there is no mind-created separation, no gesture, effort, or result of self-possession, then the "Ralph", or God, or Truth, Reality, is Inherently Obvious

Don Jindra said...

Jeremy Taylor,

"Remember that these three seem to concur on this issue."

They seem to concur that Hitler was no atheist. I've not made the argument that Hitler was a Christian. In that argument I sort of agree with The Frenchman -- it's a boring question. Christians themselves quite frequently tell each other they aren't "real" Christians. Professing Christians regularly try to mold Christianity into something much like themselves. Hitler's so-call "positive Christianity" appears to me to be cousin to Doug Giles' "bulldog" Christianity. Is any of that stuff a sincere religion? I have my doubts. If Hitler's Christianity is bogus why isn't all politically motivated religion equally bogus? If you want my true opinion on the matter (which I doubt) there are very few real Christians in this world.

"It is true that Hitler at times seems to refer to spiritual forces, yet he also seems to, confusingly, naturalise them."

Many "God believing" people do this. Thomas Jefferson is a good example. He was no atheist. But he called himself a materialist and an Epicurian. He said those who believe in an immaterial God believed in nothing and were therefore atheists. Yet that doesn't stop some Christians from claiming Jefferson as one of their own. How do we categorize people like Jefferson and possibly Hitler? Are they sloppy thinkers because they can't grasp, for example, the Trinity or supernatural miracles? Jefferson might say Trinitarians are the sloppy thinkers and are being hypocritical when judging his thinking.

"Also, given your past behaviour, it is a wonder you have the gall to make such an argument."

My past behavior has been totally misrepresented by some here. So I don't know which imaginary me you expect. Besides, maybe I've been "born again" as a clear thinker and the god of reason has forgiven my past sins. :)


Scott said...

Greg:

Instead, we can formulate [Vaal's] claim as: Coming to accept C should not change what one judges P(R|E) to be.

I am not sure why this is supposed to be true. P(R) = 0 if God doesn't exist, and P(R) is nonzero if God does (as Vaal eagerly affirms), so... or else we need an explanation of what counts as a "miracle" if God doesn't exist.

Maybe I am confused here?


If you are, you're in good company, or at least in mine. ;-)

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