Saturday, March 12, 2016

Parsons on Coyne


Readers of my recent First Things review of Jerry Coyne’s Faith versus Fact might find of interest atheist philosopher Keith Parsons’ comments on the review in the Letters pages of the latest issue of First Things.  My reply to Keith can also be found there.

(Related reading: A couple of years ago, Keith and I engaged in a very fruitful series of exchanges, an index to which can be found at The Secular Outpost.)

34 comments:

Mihret Gelan said...

To: Knowledgeable Thomists or Scholastics
I'm looking for a comprehensive work on Thomistic or Scholastic Metaphysics. I know of Thomas Harper's Metaphysics of the School which has 3 volumes of almost 2000 pages in total, but does anyone know of any other modern comprehensive treatments of thomistic/scholastic metaphysics.

Thanks.

Taylor Weaver said...

It would be nice to see someone like Coyne (or similarly bad, Krauss) have a debate/discussion with Parsons. Not where one is charged with defending theism, but instead charged with pointing to the fallacies of the scientist and how these fallacies weaken their arguments against the theist. Or something.

Basically, I think the scientist doesn't give a shit what Feser or anyone says. They have discounted you without taking account of your argument. But, it also extends to their asinine attitude toward philosophy. Seeing a professional atheist philosopher of religion point to the silliness would be nice to see.

Or perhaps I just want to see the reaction of Krauss being put in his place by someone on his side. No doubt Parsons would be discounted, much as Ehrman was when he critiqued new atheism for the insane assertion that Jesus didn't exist.

Taylor Weaver said...

@Mihret Gelan

Probably being a bit too obvious here, but Feser's Scholastic Metaphysics is an obvious answer.

Mihret Gelan said...

Well he says it's an introduction in the introduction of the book. I wanted a more comprehensive one that deals with the most obscure, nitty gritty debates in scholastic/Thomistic circles

Thanks anyways.

Anonymous said...

I'm pleased to see Parsons write that letter. However, if I remember correctly some of the arguments he made in his debate against William Lane Craig a long time ago, I'm not sure he's who they want to turn to either. Maybe he's changed.

Eric MacDonald said...

The point, surely, is not that you agree with Parsons on the subject of religion, but that the attempts at philosophy by the so-called New Atheists is incompetent, and Jerry Coyne is no exception. Almost every time he ventures a philosophical argument he falls flat on his face, and yet the New Atheists try to maintain the illusion that, since all knowledge can be reduced to statements in science, their arguments about religion vs. science must also be true, since religion, after all, presents no empirical evidence of the relevantly scientific kind for the beliefs they defend. Start from that premise, and, obviously, religion is just bunk. But that's where they start and end, and none of them do what Parsons calls the "hard work" necessary to understand philosophy, let alone practice it.

Anonymous said...

I understand, Eric, but Parsons arguments aren't much more sophisticated if you watch the debate he did with WLC in 1998.

Tomislav Ostojich said...

Hi Dr. Feser,

I tried sending emails to your hotmail account to no avail, and you're the only natural law scholar I know of who believes it for justifiable reasons, so I'm going to derail this combox with my own question on some completely unrelated topic. Again, sorry.

Scholastic natural law, especially regarding justice, seems really stupid to the point of ridicule. No offense is intended, but this is just how I see it. If you could explain it in a way that makes sense, it would be really appreciated.

Here is how I see scholastic natural law philosophy: a murderer kills someone, causing a "disturbance in the force," which results in the need for the state to mete out equal retribution, thereby putting "the force" in balance again. Of course, if murder doesn't actually cause a "disturbance in the force," then no such retribution is needed, and one could simply make judicial sentences a matter of preventing the perpetrator from harming others.

Perhaps you could offer a good apologetic.

Greg said...

Hi Tomislav. To avoid derailing this thread, you might ask your question here, where a lot of Feser-blog regulars congregate.

SK said...

Speaking of religion, when does your book on natural theology come out? I think you (referring to Dr. Feser) should give Coyne your book, so he can learn that theology is something much more complex and nuanced then he previously thought. Not for free of course! Since philosophers need some semblance of an income.

Also I was wondering if you would ever do a post on modern biblical scholarship and the philosophical issues and/or assumptions behind the methods? Considering such scholarship has a big impact on how one should interpret Scripture.

Philip Alawonde said...

Mihret Gelan,

Check out Wippel's The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas.

It tends to be more of a historically faithful reconstruction of the metaphysics of Thomas rather than a survey of later developments in Thomism, though.

Bobcat said...

I enjoyed Parsons's letter, but I wonder about this bit:

"I favor atheist advocacy that is argument-dense and skips the invective. Lampooning your opponents as ignorant Bible-beaters may be lowbrow fun, but it is bad manners, and, more to the point, ineffective. Don’t call them names. Defeat their arguments. That is the worst thing you can do to them. However, defeating your opponents’ arguments requires (a) taking their best arguments seriously, and (b) doing your philosophical homework. “Old” atheism is therefore hard. Caricaturing with broad strokes is easy, but it cannot be said to advance rational debate."

I think Parsons can be seen here to defend one of two claims: (1) if you want to convince people to become atheists, don't call religious people names; instead, defeat their arguments; or (2) if you want to advance rational debate, don't call religious people names; instead, defeat their arguments.

(2) seems to me to be true, but I have serious doubts about (1); indeed, I have a depressing hunch that name-calling probably works better to change people's minds than rational debate does. The problem with rational debate is that it's really hard for most people to follow, whereas name-calling is pretty easy to follow. And, when it comes to name-calling, I think the religious person is in a bind: if he doesn't respond in kind, then he'll seem to many people to be precisely the figure of fun that the new atheist makes him out to be; if he does respond in kind, then people will think (rightly or wrongly) that he's not really following his religious principles.

That said, all the above is just a hunch on my part. I don't know of empirical evidence that supports (or refutes) my claims.

Erich said...

I'm afraid I share Bobcat's hunch. Recent turns of event in modern politics might serve as evidence that people are now as ever more attracted by a good name-calling than by even the most slick attempts at positive persuasion (be they based on truth or falsity). The rational side of the battle must of course be fought, but it will find itself frustratingly limited in scope.

I recall a youtube video featuring Krauss and Dawkins sharing the stage, shortly after Krauss's Nothing-book came out, and the simple lies they repeated about "religious people" were potentially enough to allow any of their targets to sue for slander. "Religious people are all about certainty, they have no interest in mystery," was perhaps my favorite, as if mysterium fidei were not words practically crowning the mass every day. Krauss and Dawkins stood there grinning smugly, reminding me of nothing more than two mid-to-upper-level party officiates in some small German city circa 1933. Even those in the audience who know they're lying are for the most part vicariously enjoying the display of the power that let's them get away with it.

Tomislav Ostojich said...

"Religious people are all about certainty, they have no interest in mystery"

I've heard contradictory claims from atheists regarding religious people. One of them is that they're all blow-hard absolutists who have no taste for mystery. The other is that all religions are effectively a fetishization of mystery and ignorance and resent coming to real knowledge. But these claims, to a certain extent, feel mutually exclusive.

FuzzyBunny said...

I realize that this derails the conversation, but since we're on the subject of religion, scientism, and materialism...

It seems that most philosophers, theist and atheist, tend to assume that atheism implies materialism. But I do not see why this is. If the universe is a "brute fact," then why can't it be a brute fact containing some non-material component?

And if there are many universes, all springing from some primordial physical laws, why can't the matter which is created by and subject to these laws also possess some sort of directedness?

I am a Catholic undergoing a great deal of struggles in my faith. It seems like materialism is a dead-end, and if it were necessarily implied by atheism, it would be very helpful to my faith. But despite the apparent assumptions of most atheists and theists, I don't see why atheism necessitates materialism. Does anyone have any insight?

Greg said...

@ FuzzyBunny

I am a Catholic undergoing a great deal of struggles in my faith. It seems like materialism is a dead-end, and if it were necessarily implied by atheism, it would be very helpful to my faith. But despite the apparent assumptions of most atheists and theists, I don't see why atheism necessitates materialism. Does anyone have any insight?

I don't think that atheism necessarily implies materialism. (I think they are usually discussed alongside each other because materialism implies atheism.) Professor Feser does argue against materialism, but his argument is not directly: Materialism is false, atheism requires materialism, so atheism is false. He argues that materialism is false and that his correct alternative, Thomism, implies theism.

Other alternatives might be proposed. One example is Thomas Nagel's approach in Mind and Cosmos, which Feser has had a lot to say about. There you can find a lot of defense against Nagel's materialist critics, but Feser has also offered his own criticisms.

Greg said...

Looking at it now, I realize that post where Feser critiques Nagel is a bit short. There are other places where he argues against the position that there is immanent teleology without God. See, for instance, "Teleology: A Shopper's Guide" for some commentary on the different positions you could stake out. His defenses of Aquinas's Fifth Way are basically attempts to show that teleology properly understood implies theism; see "Between Aristotle and William Paley: Aquinas’s Fifth Way" for the full argument.

Of course, there might be other sorts of non-materialist atheisms, for instance certain forms of idealism.

Thursday said...

The thing about non-materialist atheism is that non-materialism usually ends up with mind as a fundamental constituent of the universe, which, if taken seriously, takes you dangerously close to religion.

Fred said...

Greg, It's not even true that materialism implies atheism. The ancient stoics were materialists but believed in the existence of a material god whose "atoms" were diffused into reality much as wine poured into water diffuses throughout the water, and that that material god designed the universe and directed it providentially. Hobbes also seemed to have believed in a material god.

Thursday said...

The ancient stoics were materialists but believed in the existence of a material god whose "atoms" were diffused into reality much as wine poured into water diffuses throughout the water, and that that material god designed the universe and directed it providentially. Hobbes also seemed to have believed in a material god.

Yeah, but these are "gods," and are more akin to powerful space aliens than to gods as we normally understand them.

Greg said...

@ Fred

Greg, It's not even true that materialism implies atheism.

Yeah, I thought about adding a qualification about this but decided not to. I was thinking that most materialist theism that I would consider doesn't really look enough like theism, but I don't know enough about the Stoics to say.

There is also stuff like this. Though I also suppose it depends on how one understands materialism. Johnston is a naturalist (specifically non-supernaturalist) theist, but maybe he doesn't consider himself a materialist. (I don't know.) Both terms have lots of latitude.

Philip Alawonde said...

Thursday said, 'Yeah, but these are "gods," and are more akin to powerful space aliens than to gods as we normally understand them.'

Hmmm, it would be a very absurd kind of 'atheism' indeed which would agree to the existence of any kind of "gods", don't you think?

Gerard O'Neill said...

This false dichotomy between the Good Old Atheists and the Bad New Atheists might be good blog material, but it doesn't hold up to scrutiny.
Christopher Hitchens, for all his faults, was one of the masters of debate and the written word. There is a YouTube video titled 'Christopher Hitchens - The Indifference Of Heaven' which contains various recordings of Hitchens' brutal attacks on religion. This 10-minute video is so violent in the dismantling of Theistic conceit it's hard to imagine anyone calling themselves a believer after watching it.

Anonymous said...

Yes I see what you mean....well except for his championing of Krauss whose abilities as a philosopher are a bit limited ( see many entries here and elsewhere). Oh and his reading of original sin is both simplistic and really plain wrong ( posts on that too). He commits a few howlers as well. His take on the crucifixion suggests he knows hardly anything about the doctrine he wishes to critique. He does make a few attempts to wrestle with the problem of evil, bu, of course, Aquinas got there long before Hitch. He seems blissfully free from any metaphysical analysis, and continues on his merry way with what I guess is meant to be his devastating empirical insights (actually nothing new or noteworthy). Um actually I don't see how anyone interested in the subject could come away from the video with anything but a deep sense of ennui. However it is only ten minutes long, it has that going for it.

Gerard O'Neill said...

Hitchens doesn't tout Krauss as a philosopher in that video fyi -- he cites a scientific article Krauss wrote.
blissfully free of any metaphysical analysis
in other words, he refuses to engage in pointless word games

Glenn said...

What is a pointless word game? We need an example. Oh, yes, you have provided one:

Treating "...his championing of Krauss whose abilities as a philosopher.." as if it were "...his championing of Krauss for his abilities as a philosopher..."

Congratulations. For having provided an example of a pointless word game, you've earned yourself a banana.

Anonymous said...

@Gerard O Neill

I think the problem here, and it is a pretty basic one, is that you have advanced a manifesto rather than an argument. Now Hitch makes any number of assertions in the video, but try as you may you will not find an argument. He does draft in Krauss to help the cause, and with Krauss we know an attempt to make nothing of something cannot be far behind, and so he does. However Hitch treats this, as well as his own opinions as a given. He then raises his eyebrows to the sky and shakes his head that some folks really are credulous. He then retires to The Rose and Crown for a pint...metaphorically. There is a metaphysical assertion in both Krauss and Hitch, but where is the argument one wonders. You may stand by all this stuff (chacun a son gout) but there's no there there.

Chrysostom said...

Norris Clarke's "The One and the Many" is pretty good. At least I though so.

Anonymous said...

I think the only thing that exceeds Hitch's ignorance of science is his ignorance of philosophy--wait that doesn't leave room for his ignorance of Christianity.

Taylor Weaver said...

Peole still take Hitchens seriously? He was a masterful wordsmith, and did great work broadly. But his forays into merchandising his atheism with crude arguments and puerile reasoning was simply asinine.

Taylor Weaver said...

Peole still take Hitchens seriously? He was a masterful wordsmith, and did great work broadly. But his forays into merchandising his atheism with crude arguments and puerile reasoning was simply asinine.

Anonymous said...

He did have a nice understanding of history and literature, I will give him that. But philosophy? Religion? Science? Very shabby. Even his brother Peter admits that they didn't receive a very good scientific education growing up

Fred said...

I'm not even so sure about history. He seems to have bought into the standard Enlightenment myths about the middle ages and Church history, e.g., the myths about Hypatia's persecution, the burning of the library at Alexandria, and the Galliano affair.

Fred said...

Galileo. Damn you autocorrect.