Monday, September 29, 2008

Vallicella on intentionality and potentiality

Over at Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella takes note of some important analogies between, on the one hand, the potentialities and dispositions we find in material world, and on the other hand, the intentionality that Brentano famously took to be the mark of the mental. I pretty much endorse everything he says; indeed, Bill’s observations dovetail nicely with some of what I say in the second of my recent posts on dualism.

Still, in reply to that post, Bill today comments:

“What is less clear to me is whether intentionality strictly speaking is to be found in the material world, as Ed suggests in the first paragraph, or whether it is only something analogous to intentionality, a sort of proto-intentionality, that is found in the material world. My recent defense of the Potentiality Argument against the moral acceptability of abortion commits me to holding that there are irreducible potentialities in nature below the level of conscious mind. And perhaps this should soften me up for hylomorphic dualism, which is Ed's preferred solution to the mind-body problem. But I find some difficulties with hylomorphic dualism.”

In response, I would say, first of all, that I suppose it depends on what one means by “intentionality.” The Brentano-inspired definition Bill makes use of in his original post makes reference only to “aboutness” or directedness toward an object. And if that is all that intentionality entails, then it seems to me that the position I endorse, but also the position Bill defends, does indeed imply that intentionality exists in the material world below the level of consciousness, wherever potentialities and dispositions (or “potencies” and “powers” as we Aristotelian Scholastics would say) are found. Interestingly, this is a view that is coming to be taken seriously by thinkers well outside the orbit of either the Aristotelian-Thomistic-Scholastic family of views to which I am partial, or the more general blend of traditional metaphysical views to which Bill is sympathetic. David Armstrong, for example, has suggested that dispositions manifest a kind of “proto-intentionality.” The late George Molnar argued that causal powers cannot be understood except as instances of what he called “physical intentionality,” to distinguish it from the sort of intentionality mental states exhibit. The biologist J. Scott Turner argues that we must attribute a kind of “intentionality” to certain biological processes if we are to make sense of the distinction between the normal development of an organism and aberrant growth patterns. These are just a few examples; and in my view they support the conclusion that the Aristotelian-Scholastic notions of potencies, powers, and final causes are not only defensible today, but are in fact surprisingly widely defended today, even if those doing the defending often do not realize (given differences in jargon and certain false assumptions about what the Scholastics believed) that that is what they are doing. (I discuss this issue at length in The Last Superstition.)

Of course, given its typical usage, the term “intentionality” does smack of mentality, so that the idea of “intentionality below the level of consciousness” might seem jarring. And the medievals from whom Brentano derived the term did indeed use “intentional” as a way of characterizing the objects of the intellect. (To describe the phenomena Bill, along with Armstrong, Molnar, Turner, et al. are interested in, the medievals would just have spoken of potencies, powers, final causes, and the like, not intentionality.) So it is certainly defensible to suggest that “intentionality” be reserved to describe the kind of directedness that is associated with grasping something with the intellect (as we do but physical objects manifesting potentialities, dispositions, etc. do not), and perhaps more generally to describe the sort of directedness that animals exhibit in their various states of conscious awareness (as even creatures without intellects can do). In short, it seems to me that if there is a difference between Bill and me over the existence of intentionality below the level of mind, it is probably a verbal one.

Regarding hylomorphic dualism (or “hylemorphic” dualism, as it is sometimes spelled), I suppose someone could in theory accept the existence of irreducible dispositions, final causes, and the like without going the whole hog for Aristotelian hylemorphism and the sort of dualism thinkers like Aquinas would build on it. So we can bracket that question off for now. Still, it does seem to me that once one concedes the existence of inherent potentialities, powers, etc., then since these potentialities, powers, and the like are the potentialities, powers, etc. of certain kinds of thing (such embryos and acorns, to use Bill’s examples), one is also well on the way to conceding something like Aristotelian essentialism, which brings the question of hylemorphism onto center stage. But, again, that is a matter for another time.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Free speech in Los Angeles?

Not if "progressive" vandals, and the city government, have anything to say about it, according to this story. I live not too far from the house pictured at the left, and have always wondered whether they got any trouble over their (gigantic, and -- here in lefty-dominated L.A. -- refreshing) McCain sign. Now I know. (Hat tip: The Corner.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Some brief arguments for dualism, Part II

Following Aristotle, the Scholastic tradition famously held that final causes – goal-directedness, purposiveness, natural ends – permeate the natural world. Contrary to a popular misconception, this does not mean that they thought that everything in the world has a purpose or function in the sense that biological organs have purposes or functions. Hence it is no good to accuse them of thinking, absurdly, that piles of dirt, asteroids, mountain ranges, and the like simply must play some role within the universe as a whole that is somehow analogous to the role hearts and kidneys play in the body. Functions like the kind bodily organs play constitute only one, relatively rare, kind of final causality. Nor did they think that final causality is generally associated with anything like consciousness. For an Aristotelian to say that a plant by virtue of its nature “wants” to grow is just a figure of speech. Literally speaking the plant does not, of course, want anything at all, since it is totally unconscious. It is only in us, and in certain other animals, that final causes are associated with conscious awareness.

What the Scholastics did have in mind is summed up in Aquinas’s dictum that “every agent acts for an end,” otherwise known as the “principle of finality.” By an “agent” he means that which brings about or causes some effect. And what he is saying is that when a certain cause generates a certain effect or range of effects in a law-like way (as we would say today) that is only because it naturally “points to“ or is “directed towards” that effect or range of effects as its proper end. For example, a match when struck will, unless prevented (e.g. by being water damaged), generate flame and heat – and flame and heat specifically rather than frost and cold, or the smell of lilacs, or no effect at all. It has an inherent causal power to bring about that effect specifically. What Aquinas and the other Scholastics argued is that unless we acknowledge the existence of such inherent powers, unless we recognize that whenever a certain efficient cause A generates its effect B that is only because the generation of B is the final cause or natural end of A, then we have no way of making intelligible why it is exactly that A generates B specifically rather than some other effect or no effect at all. The existence of final causes is, in this sense, a necessary condition for the existence of efficient causes – of, that is to say, causation as modern philosophers tend to understand it. This is one reason Aquinas held the final cause to be “the cause of causes.”

Now modern philosophy, and in particular modern philosophy’s conception of science, is defined more than anything else by its rejection of final causes. Indeed, as philosophers like William Hasker and David Hull have pointed out, at this point in the history of science, what remains of the “mechanistic” picture of the natural world which we have inherited from the early moderns is really nothing but this rejection. As I argue in The Last Superstition, there has never really been any serious philosophical case for this rejection; it was, and still is, more ideologically than intellectually motivated. Moreover, there are in my view (and, again, as I argue in TLS) overwhelming reasons to think it was a mistake. One of them is that, as Hume’s famous puzzles illustrate, causation has indeed become seriously problematic in modern philosophy in exactly the way Aquinas’s analysis would lead us to expect it to, given the abandonment of final causes.

The abandonment of final causes has also crucially contributed to the creation of the “mind-body problem,” something that did not exist, certainly not in anything like the form familiar to contemporary philosophers, prior to the moderns’ rejection of the Aristotelian-Scholastic metaphysical framework. For to insist that the material world is utterly devoid of final causes – devoid, that is to say, of anything that inherently “points to” or is “directed toward” anything beyond itself – is implicitly to deny that intentionality could possibly be material, for intentionality, of course, is just the mind’s capacity to point to or be directed towards something beyond itself, as it does in thought. (See my previous post in this series.) Hence to insist that the material world is devoid of any inherent final causes while at the same time acknowledging the existence of intentionality is implicitly to commit oneself to dualism. Indeed, this is surely one reason why Descartes, one of the fathers of the “mechanistic” revolution in science, was a dualist. Far from being a kind of pre-scientific holdover, dualism of the broadly Cartesian sort is a logical consequence of the turn to mechanism that defined the scientific revolution.

The only way to hold on to the mechanistic conception of nature while rejecting dualism is thus to deny the existence of intentionality. And that is why, as John Searle has argued, all extant forms of materialism do indeed implicitly deny its existence, and thus (I would say) amount to disguised forms of eliminative materialism. This is halfway admitted by Jerry Fodor when he writes, as he does in Psychosemantics, that “if aboutness [i.e. intentionality] is real, it must be really something else.” That is to say, intentionality per se simply cannot be real given the mechanistic conception of the material world that Fodor, like all materialists, has inherited from the early modern philosophers. Hence the most the materialist can do is try to substitute for it some physicalistically “respectable” ersatz. But this is simply eliminative materialism in “folk psychological” drag; and eliminative materialism, however you dress it up, is simply incoherent. (Yet again, see TLS, and in particular chapter 6, for the details.)

We have, then, another brief argument for dualism, which can be summarized as follows: If materialism is true, then (given that it is committed to a mechanistic conception of the material world), there are no final causes, and thus nothing that inherently “points to” or is “directed at” anything beyond itself; and in that case, there can be no such thing as intentionality; but there is such a thing as intentionality; therefore materialism is not true.

This is an argument for dualism, I should say, at least if one admits that the material world exists in the first place (which, of course, everyone other than a few adherents of idealism would admit), because it implies that there are features of the world other than its material features. The only way to avoid the dualistic consequences (other than opting for eliminativism or idealism) would be to acknowledge that the Aristotelians were right after all, and that final causes are a real feature of material reality. But that would, of course, be to abandon the entire modern mechanistic-cum-materialistic interpretation of science. Nor would it really stave off dualism for long, for it would simply open the door to the Thomistic or hylemorphic (as opposed to Cartesian) version of dualism. But that is a story for another time – a story which, like other details of the argument sketched here, can be found (if I might be forgiven one more shameless plug) in The Last Superstition.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Some brief arguments for dualism, Part I

It is unreasonable to expect even the best argument for a controversial philosophical position to be capable, in one fell swoop and all by itself, of convincing the most skeptical opponent – or, indeed, even to move him slightly in the direction of reconsidering his position. That is (usually, anyway) simply not how the human mind works. A dispute over some particular argument for the existence of God, mind-body dualism, or traditional sexual morality (to take just three examples) can reflect a tacit disagreement about fundamental metaphysical assumptions that is so deep and unconscious that the parties to the dispute (or at least one party, usually the skeptical or “naturalist” one) are barely aware that it exists at all, and often talk past each other as a result. What seems like an obvious objection to an argument can often constitute in reality a failure to see the point of the argument, and in particular a failure to see that what the argument does is precisely to call into question the intelligibility or rational justifiability of the objection itself. While the argument in question can in many cases be stated fairly simply and straightforwardly, pages and pages, indeed an entire book, might be required in order to set the stage so that its terms and basic assumptions are properly understood, and that countless point-missing objections might patiently be swept away like so much intellectual rubbish standing in the way of understanding.

Some common objections to dualism are like this. They falsely assume, for example, that any argument for dualism must be something analogous to a “God of the gaps” argument – a “soul of the gaps,” as it were – which seeks to exploit some current lacuna in our knowledge of the brain and to suggest that the “hypothesis” of an immaterial substance might explain what neuroscientists have so far been unable to. It is then objected that such an explanation would violate Ockham’s razor, that neuroscience has already “explained” x, y, and z and thus can be expected to explain everything else, etc. etc. I hear these objections frequently. They are often presented by people who mean well, and who are not entirely uninformed about some of the arguments presented by both materialists and anti-materialists in the philosophy of mind. But they nevertheless reflect a very shallow understanding of the debate. For the main arguments for dualism do not have this structure at all. They are not quasi-scientific “explanatory” “hypotheses” which “postulate” the existence of this or that as one way among others (albeit the most “probable”) of “accounting for” “the evidence.” They are intended rather as strict metaphysical demonstrations. They either prove conclusively that the mind is immaterial or they prove nothing. And if they work, there can be no question of the materialist looking for other possible ways to explain “the data.” For the existence of an immaterial mind, or an immaterial aspect to the mind, will, given such a proof, simply have itself to be taken as a piece of data for which any acceptable theory has to account.

Again, this doesn’t mean that one should judge such arguments based on one’s immediate reaction to a first reading; to prove something conclusively doesn’t mean to prove it instantly, to the immediate satisfaction of the most hostile and stubborn skeptic. Even properly understanding an argument, especially in metaphysics, can require a great deal of effort and sustained thought. Still, some dualist arguments are straightforward enough that at least their basic thrust can be put fairly succinctly, even if a complete treatment would require various further explanations of this or that premise or key concept. In this post and several succeeding ones I want to present some of these arguments, in as brief a form as possible. (Further elaboration can be found in my books Philosophy of Mind and The Last Superstition.)

One aspect of the mind that philosophers have traditionally considered particularly difficult to account for in materialist terms is intentionality, which is that feature of a mental state in virtue of which it means, is about, represents, points to, or is directed at something, usually something beyond itself. Your thought about your car, for example, is about your car – it means or represents your car, and thus “points to” or is “directed at” your car. In this way it is like the word “car,” which is about, or represents, cars in general. Notice, though, that considered merely as a set of ink marks or (if spoken) sound waves, “car” doesn’t represent or mean anything at all; it is, by itself anyway, nothing but a meaningless pattern of ink marks or sound waves, and acquires whatever meaning it has from language users like us, who, with our capacity for thought, are able to impart meaning to physical shapes, sounds, and the like.

Now the puzzle intentionality poses for materialism can be summarized this way: Brain processes, like ink marks, sound waves, the motion of water molecules, electrical current, and any other physical phenomenon you can think of, seem clearly devoid of any inherent meaning. By themselves they are simply meaningless patterns of electrochemical activity. Yet our thoughts do have inherent meaning – that’s how they are able to impart it to otherwise meaningless ink marks, sound waves, etc. In that case, though, it seems that our thoughts cannot possibly be identified with any physical processes in the brain. In short: Thoughts and the like possess inherent meaning or intentionality; brain processes, like ink marks, sound waves, and the like, are utterly devoid of any inherent meaning or intentionality; so thoughts and the like cannot possibly be identified with brain processes.

You can, as I have implied, look at this as just a “puzzle” for materialism – one which might be solved by developing a complex functional analysis of mental states, or by framing materialism in terms of the concept of “supervenience” rather than identity or reduction, or whatever. Or you can see it as a very simple and straightforward statement of an objection that, while it can also be formulated in much more sophisticated and technical terms and in a way that takes account of and preempts the various objections materialists might try to raise against it, nevertheless goes to the core of the problem with materialism, and indeed shows why materialism cannot be true. This latter view is the one I endorse. I maintain that the problem for materialism just described is insuperable. It shows that a materialist explanation of the mind is impossible in principle, a conceptual impossibility. And the reason has in part to do with the concept of matter to which materialists themselves are at least implicitly committed. Some of the further posts in this series will develop this suggestion. Along the way we will see (among other things) that the common materialist claim that “everything else has been explained in materialist terms” is an urban legend, based on nothing more than conceptual sleight of hand coupled with historical ignorance. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Philosophy and polemics

Readers of The Last Superstition will find that it is as polemical as it is philosophical. But shouldn't philosophy be non-polemical? No, not always, as I argued in a post at the now defunct Conservative Philosopher group blog which Bill Vallicella kindly archived at his own (highly recommended) site some time back. In light of the publication of TLS it seemed to me a good time to call attention to that post once again, since if anyone has been crying out for a simultaneously polemical and philosophically rigorous response, it is the "New Atheists."

Don't have enough to read?

For those readers who might be interested, archives of many of my past articles, posts to the now defunct group blogs Conservative Philosopher and Right Reason, and some unpublished pieces can be found at my main website.

Pre-Socratic natural theology

Western philosophy begins with the Pre-Socratics. So too did my own interest in philosophy, which was sparked by an encounter with Thales, Heraclitus, Parmenides and company in a course on Greek literature I took as an undergraduate, over twenty years ago now. These thinkers are endlessly fascinating. I am currently teaching a course on ancient philosophy and will have significantly fallen behind schedule by the time we move on to Socrates himself, loath as I am to rush too quickly through the ideas of his predecessors.

It is a commonplace that the defining characteristics of Western philosophy and science can be found in embryo in the Pre-Socratics. Thales and other Ionian monists give us the first attempts to reduce all the diverse phenomena of nature to a single material principle, and their methods (so far as we can determine on the basis of usually scanty evidence) seem to have been largely empirical. Pythagoras and his followers inaugurate the emphasis on mathematical structure as the key to unlocking nature’s secrets. In Parmenides and Zeno we see the first attempts to provide rigorous demonstrations of far-reaching metaphysical theses. The distinction between appearance and reality, the tension between rationalist and empiricist tendencies of thought, and the rational analysis and critique of received ideas are all evident throughout the Pre-Socratic period. It would go too far (to say the very least) to suggest that we go Alfred North Whitehead one better by making all of Western philosophy out to be a footnote to the Pre-Socratics rather than Plato. But it might not be too much of a stretch to say that at least the seeds of what was to come during the next two and a half millennia can all be found in their work.

What is perhaps less widely remarked upon is the extent to which the Pre-Socratics set the stage for the later development of natural theology. To be sure, that Xenophanes criticized the anthropomorphism of Greek polytheism and that Anaxagoras got into trouble for characterizing the sun as a hot stone rather than a god are widely regarded as great advances in human thought. But the usual reason they are so regarded seems to be because these moves are considered steps along the way to a completely atheistic, or at least non-theistic, account of the world. That Xenophanes wanted to replace polytheism, not with atheism, but with monotheism, and that Anaxagoras regarded Mind as necessary to an explanation of the world, are often considered less significant – as if these ideas were not as essential to their thought as the skeptical elements, and as if these thinkers, and the Pre-Socratics generally, lacked the courage of their convictions, and could not bring themselves completely to let go of superstition. This is certainly the impression that Christopher Hitchens (for example) leaves in his brief and characteristically amateurish discussion of early Greek philosophy in God is not Great, which assures us that the early atomists’ ignoring (rather than explicitly denying) the gods for explanatory purposes was “at the time… as far as any mind could reasonably go.” Had the Greeks been able politically and psychologically to push their rationalism through to its logical conclusion, then (so we are to believe) they would all have been atheists.

The truth, though, is that the advances made by the Pre-Socratics, when consistently worked out, no more point in the direction of atheism than they point in the direction of skepticism about the external, physical world. If you want to talk the way Paul Churchland and other eliminative materialists do (something you should not want to do, but never mind), you might say that what the Pre-Socratic thinkers (or some of them, anyway) saw is that in the light of reason, “folk physics” – our crude, commonsense understanding of the workings of the physical world – ought to give way, not to no physics at all, but rather to scientific physics. Similarly, “folk theology” – the crude anthropomorphisms of polytheism and superstition – ought to give way, not to no theology at all, but rather to rational theology, to what has since come to be known as natural theology. Indeed, as was once common knowledge among Western philosophers, as David Conway has recently reminded us in his The Rediscovery of Wisdom, and as Lloyd Gerson documents at length in God and Greek Philosophy, the great Greek thinkers, including many of the Pre-Socratics, regarded theism as essential to a complete scientific account of the world.

Those vulgar atheists (“new” and otherwise) who purport to find in the Greeks the seeds of their own position fail to perceive the centrality of theism to the Greek tradition for several reasons. First, they quite stupidly assume (there is no way to put it that is both kinder and still accurate) that monotheism is just like polytheism only more economical, as if the God of classical philosophical theology (and of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam for that matter) were just like Zeus or Odin, minus the entourage. Since polytheistic gods are typically conceived of in crudely anthropomorphic terms, it is concluded that the God of classical philosophical theology must at bottom be just the same sort of being – stripped of some of the more blatant anthropomorphisms, perhaps, but essentially like the other “gods” except for there being only one of him. Thus does Sam Harris assure us that for the President of the United States to appeal in public to God should strike us as just as outrageous and absurd as a presidential invocation of Zeus or Apollo would be.

Of course, one has to be extremely ignorant of the history of religion, theology, and philosophy to think that philosophical theism, or theism in general, is in any way comparable to crude polytheism; and culpably ignorant too, for the New Atheists, who style themselves as well-educated and sophisticated enlighteners of the ignorant masses, could easily apprise themselves of the facts if they really wanted to. Yet Harris, Hitchens, and Co., in an amazing feat of intellectual Jiu-Jitsu, have somehow made their opponents out to be the ignorant and dishonest ones. In any event, if one really thinks that to regard theism as essential to science is like regarding belief in Pan or the Tooth Fairy as essential to science, then it is not surprising that one will fail to see how the great Greek philosophers, brilliant as they were, could possibly have regarded theism as the capstone of the scientific enterprise.

Then there is the crude scientism of vulgar atheists, according to which “scientific method” as they learned it in high school constitutes the only true route to knowledge – notwithstanding that such a claim is itself a philosophical one and not scientific (by their own standards, anyway) at all, and that what counts as “scientific method” is itself a philosophically complex and controversial subject. Beholden as they are to a cartoonish just-the-observable-facts-ma’am picture of what science involves, they cannot fathom how anyone could regard anything super-empirical as within the range of scientific knowledge. Hence they cannot understand how the theological tendencies of the Greek philosophers could have been part and parcel of their scientific advances, rather than a deviation from them.

As Christopher Martin shows in Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations, you cannot fully understand Aquinas’s arguments for God’s existence (or their Aristotelian precursors) unless you understand how they fit in to the Aristotelian conception of what science is, and that they are intended to be (and indeed are) perfectly respectable scientific arguments given that (still perfectly defensible) conception. (Note that I am saying that it is the Aristotelian conception of what a science is that is still defensible – not this or that specific scientific claim made by Aristotle, many of which have of course been refuted.) Regardless of whether the Aristotelian conception of what counts as science is correct, though, empirical science as practiced today is only possible given certain philosophical assumptions, especially about the nature of causation. As I argue at length in The Last Superstition, these assumptions entail, when worked out consistently, the existence of a divine First Cause. And I mean entail: The classical tradition in natural theology does not suggest, after the fashion of William Paley and his successors in the “Intelligent Design” movement, that something kinda-sorta like the God of traditional theism is “probably” behind this or that specific complex feature of the world. It holds that the existence of the God of traditional theism is necessary, and rationally unavoidable, given the existence of any causation at all in the world, even of the most simple sort. And as Gerson shows, it is evident from what we know of at least some of the Pre-Socratics that they had more than an inkling of this. That is to say, they saw (or some of them did) that it is theism rather than atheism that is the logical outcome of a rationalist approach to the world.

That some of them were as willing as they were to thumb their noses at Greek polytheism, even to the point of suffering persecution, only reinforces the point. As Gerson emphasizes, there is nothing whatsoever of the apologetic motive in the thinking of philosophers like Xenophanes and Anaxagoras. They were not rationalizing some prejudice or received idea, for they rather loudly rejected the received ideas, and their theism (or proto-theism) was itself a novelty. They thereby give the lie to one of the favorite slanders of the vulgar atheist, to the effect that philosophical arguments for God’s existence are only ever dishonest attempts to bolster comforting illusions rather than reflective of a sincere pursuit of the truth.

In the work of the Pre-Socratics we find precursors of some of the key elements of the classical theism of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. In Anaximander’s notion of the apeiron or “unbounded” we have an anticipation of the insight that that which ultimately explains the diverse phenomena of the world cannot itself be characterized in terms that apply to that world (or at least not univocally, as the Thomist would add). From Parmenides we get the principle that ex nihilo nihil fit (out of nothing comes nothing), which foreshadows the Scholastics’ “principle of causality” and the argument to the First Cause that rests on it. We derive from him too the discovery that ultimate reality must be Being Itself rather than a being among other beings, unchanging and unchangeable, and necessarily one rather than many. In Anaxagoras we find the realization that the cause of things must be a Mind rather than an impersonal absolute. It would take the work of later thinkers – Plato to some extent, Aristotle to a great extent, and the Scholastics to a greater extent still, culminating in Thomas Aquinas and the Thomistic tradition deriving from him – to work these insights out in a thorough and systematic way. But as with Western science and philosophy more generally, the seeds are there already in the Pre-Socratics; in particular, they made the decisive break with anthropomorphism in thinking about God.

The New Atheists, then, with their crude straw man conception of God, are less advanced intellectually than those pioneers of two and a half millennia ago. But to be fair to them, this is not entirely their fault. For contemporary popular apologetics, and even some contemporary philosophy of religion, has been infected with an anthropomorphism which, while less crude than that of ancient polytheism, nevertheless opens its adherents up to objections that have no force against the likes of Aristotle, Augustine, Anselm, or Aquinas, not to mention their Pre-Socratic precursors.

Brian Davies has usefully distinguished between classical theism – which dominates the great mainstream tradition in natural theology, as represented by figures like those just mentioned – and “theistic personalism,” which he detects in the thinking of contemporary philosophers of religion like Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga, and which I think can also clearly be found in William Paley (who models God on human designers), in the contemporary “Intelligent Design” movement, among adherents of a currently fashionable view known as “open theism,” and in countless works of popular apologetics. Classical theism’s conception of God begins with the idea that God is the sustaining cause of the world and thus utterly distinct from it. “Theistic personalism” (also known as “Neo-theism”) begins with the idea that God is “a person” alongside other persons, only without the limitations characteristic of the persons we are most familiar with (namely us). Whereas classical theism typically arrives at a detailed conception of God by determining what such a cause of the world would have to be like – and famously arrives at a God who is very radically different from us indeed (outside time and space, pure actuality, being itself, etc.) – “theistic personalism” develops its conception of God by progressively abstracting away the characteristics typical of us as finite persons. Hence it makes God out to be a person sort of like us, only without a body, without our moral weaknesses, without the barriers to knowledge and power we have, and so forth. The conception of God that results is, to be sure, very different from Zeus, Apollo, or Pan. But it is also clearly anthropomorphic, even if somewhat rarefied.

As Davies points out, many of the objections leveled by skeptics at theism and at the traditional theistic arguments really have force only against “theistic personalism,” and not against classical theism. (Davies has developed this idea most fully in relation to the problem of evil. See his book The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil.) Given the New Atheists’ bizarre obsession with Paley (as if he were the only person ever to give an argument for God’s existence), and that their acquaintance with other thinkers probably extends no further than a quick thumbing-through of some popular apologetics tract, it is perhaps not surprising that they would think that theism is essentially more-or-less anthropomorphist. Again, this does not excuse them: Anyone evincing the sense of moral and intellectual superiority that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens do had better damn well do his homework and grapple seriously with the mainstream theistic tradition represented by Aristotle, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Leibniz, just to name a few; and (as I demonstrate in The Last Superstition) none of the New Atheists comes anywhere close to doing this. Still, the explicit or implicit “theistic personalism” of Paley and his successors and of certain contemporary philosophers of religion has muddied the intellectual waters considerably and (in my view) unwittingly given aid and comfort to the enemy.

Here as elsewhere in human life, the remedy is to return to and learn from our forbears, including those fathers of philosophy, science, and natural theology, the Pre-Socratics.

Postscript 1: For those interested in Pre-Socratic philosophy, Raymond Tallis’s new book on Parmenides looks very interesting indeed. Unfortunately, it is also frightfully expensive. But a free prĂ©cis can be found here.

Postscript 2: My reference to “vulgar atheists” naturally raises the question of whether I would acknowledge that there are non-vulgar atheists. The answer, of course, is yes. I would like to think that my former self would be one example. (I was an atheist for many years, before I became convinced that the traditional theistic arguments, when properly understood – that is to say, when the stupid caricatures and worthless objections peddled by the New Atheists and their ilk are swept aside – are compelling. People who say that philosophical arguments never lead anyone to God don’t know what they’re talking about.) More important examples of serious or non-vulgar atheists are J. L. Mackie, J. J. C. Smart, and Quentin Smith.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Last Superstition

I am pleased to announce that my book The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism will be published this October by St. Augustine's Press. Information about the book can be found here. I am honored to learn that it will receive a starred review in the October issue of Booklist. From the advance reviews:

"Anyone who comes away from The Last Superstition thinking that potboiler atheism has anything to recommend it, or that belief in God is irrational, will not be convinced by anything... If Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens were at all interested in a serious rebuttal, they now have it." David Oderberg, Professor of Philosophy, University of Reading

"A thoughtful and theologically sophisticated sally into the ranks of the New Atheism. Feser has written a lively and well-informed polemic... serious and passionately engaged..." Roger Kimball, co-editor and publisher, The New Criterion

"Feser provides persuasive arguments that show that God is knowable and that what is knowable is larger than the set of that which is empirically detectable. This is a tour de force that should be in the library of every thinking citizen, believer or unbeliever." Francis J. Beckwith, Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, Baylor University

"Feser gives the 'New Atheists' a dose of their own polemical medicine, but with a difference: Unlike them, he knows what he is doing. This rollicking counter-attack is learned, carefully reasoned, and philosophically astute." J. Budziszewski, Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin, author of What We Can't Not Know: A Guide

SPPC conference on Ownership and Justice

I will be presenting a paper on "Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation" at the conference on Ownership and Justice to be held at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center in Bowling Green, Ohio from Sept. 18-20. Conference details can be found here.