Sunday, December 7, 2008

An open letter to Heather MacDonald

Over at Secular Right, Heather MacDonald has added a reply of her own to John Derbyshire’s reply to my previous reply to her. Dizzy yet?

Anyway, here’s a response that I hope will bring this exchange, if not to a close, then at least into greater focus:

Hello again Ms. MacDonald,

If you’ll forgive me for saying so, it seems to me that you keep missing my point. On top of that, you are now trying to change the subject. If you will indulge me for a few minutes – and it seems that a more in-depth reply is, after all, what you are requesting of me – let me try to explain how.

The source of my dispute with you is the criticism that you (like Kathleen Parker and others) have been making of religion – not of this or that kind of religion, and not of this or that individual religious believer, but of religion per se – to the effect that it is irrational, and that this irrationality has something to do with its purported lack of scientific grounding.

I have said several times now that part of the problem with your position is that you assume – falsely, and certainly without any argument whatsoever – that the methods applied by the empirical sciences are the only rational methods of inquiry that there are. Yet you have failed to answer this criticism, or even, as I far as I can tell, to acknowledge it. Worse, you seem completely unaware that the assumption you are making is in fact a highly controversial one, and not just among religiously-minded thinkers. A great many secular thinkers would reject it. I gave the example of mathematics, the rationality of which no one denies, but which very few philosophers, mathematicians, or philosophically-inclined empirical scientists – including atheistic philosophers, mathematicians, and empirical scientists – would take to be an empirical form of inquiry.

Now I have claimed – as a great many other thinkers, both secular and religious, would claim – that philosophy, and in particular the branch of philosophy called metaphysics, is another form of inquiry which is both rational and at least in part non-empirical. It can be thought of as being similar to both empirical science and mathematics in some respects, and different from both in other respects. Like empirical science, metaphysics often begins with things we know via observation. But like mathematics, it arrives at conclusions which, if the reasoning leading to them is correct, are necessary truths rather than contingent ones, truths that could not have been otherwise. That doesn’t mean that the metaphysician is infallible, any more than the mathematician is. It means instead that if he has done his job well, he will (like the mathematician) have discovered truths about the world that are even deeper and more indubitable than the most solid findings of empirical science.

Indeed, many metaphysical issues are concerned precisely with matters that empirical science necessarily takes for granted. To take just one example, empirical science is concerned with investigating the relationships holding between observable phenomena, especially their causal relationships. But what exactly is causation in the first place? Is there more than one kind? Is it a real feature of objective reality, or only a projection of the mind? And what exactly are the things that are supposed to be related causally – objects, events, properties? All of the above? And what exactly is it to be “observable”? How can we be sure that our powers of observation adequately reveal to us the nature of the things we take ourselves to be observing? Note that these are all philosophical or metaphysical questions, not empirical scientific ones. And since they deal with what empirical science takes for granted, they are questions that empirical science cannot answer.

This is one reason why the view that empirical science is the only rational form of inquiry that there is – a view sometimes known as “scientism” – has been thought by many philosophers (and scientists too) to be incoherent and thus necessarily false. Indeed, the claim that empirical science is the only rational form of inquiry there is is itself not an empirical claim at all, but a metaphysical one, and thus it undermines itself.

Now, what does all of this have to do with the rational credentials of religion? Everything. For the traditional arguments for the existence of God – the sort given, for example, by Thomas Aquinas – are not intended to be exercises in empirical hypothesis-formation of the sort common in physics, chemistry, etc. But that does not mean that they are not rational arguments. Rather it means that they are rational arguments of a different sort, a philosophical or metaphysical sort. Indeed, they begin with facts about the empirical world that empirical science takes for granted – such as the fact that the empirical world exists at all, or that it undergoes change, or that it exhibits patterns of cause and effect – and they attempt to demonstrate that the only explanation of these facts that is possible even in principle is the existence of a divine First Cause.

Now, many readers, when they hear this claim, automatically think “Oh, I’ve heard all that before, but everyone knows that those arguments are easily refuted.” But in fact “everyone” knows no such thing. In fact, most people have no idea at all what the arguments as traditionally understood were really saying. What they do know are only the crudest clichés and caricatures of the arguments, as peddled in countless books of pop philosophy, pop atheism, and (yes) pop apologetics.

For example, it is very widely assumed that cosmological arguments of the sort give by Aquinas rest on the assumption that “everything has a cause.” But in fact, none of the major defenders of the cosmological argument – not Aristotle, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Clarke, not any other major thinker – assumes this at all. It is widely assumed that defenders of the cosmological argument are all trying to show that the world had a beginning, and that God must have been the cause of that beginning. In fact (almost) none of them are trying to show this, and most are happy to grant, at least for the sake of argument, that the world has always existed. It is very widely assumed that defenders of the cosmological argument say nothing to show that a first uncaused cause of the world would have to be all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, and in general to have the various attributes definitive of the God of traditional theism. In fact all of them say a great deal to demonstrate this, and many of them devote dozens or even hundreds of pages of rigorous argumentation to show that a First Cause could not possibly fail to be anything less than a single all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, eternal and immaterial being. It is very widely assumed that the arguments are “God of the gaps”-style attempts at empirical theorizing, when, as I have said, they are not that at all. They do not stand or fall with any particular empirical observation, but are rather metaphysical demonstrations seeking to establish the essential preconditions of there being any empirical world to study in the first place. It is widely believed that the claim that the First Cause is itself uncaused is an arbitrary and entirely undefended assumption. In fact this is not “assumed” at all. The argument for a First Cause rests on a sophisticated theory of causation from which it is conclusively demonstrated, and not “assumed,” that no causal series could exist at all even for an instant unless there were an uncaused cause sustaining the world, and every causal series within it, in being at every instant. And so forth.

Hence when I denied that religion was “unscientific,” I did not mean that there were double-blind experiments or the like which could validate claims about magic pills, etc. I meant instead that there are serious rational arguments of a specifically metaphysical nature which show that the existence of God is a necessary condition of the intelligibility of science itself. You might disagree with this claim, but surely you can see that it is a serious claim which has to be met with a serious reply, a reply informed by knowledge of the relevant disciplines: philosophy, especially metaphysics and philosophy of religion; philosophy of science; theology; and, I would add, the history of ideas. It will not do simply to mock a few hapless unsophisticated religious believers, toss in a simplistic version of the atheistic argument from evil, and then pretend that one has more or less demonstrated that religion per se is an irrational enterprise. And as someone who has long admired your work on public policy, I know that you are capable of better than this.

It also will not do to try now to shift the ground of debate to the question of what sort of attitudes sophisticated believers have or should have toward less sophisticated ones. The claim that people like you and Kathleen Parker have been making is that religious belief per se, and not just the views of this or that religious believer, is irrational. I have been arguing that you have made no serious or well-informed case whatsoever for such a claim. Perhaps because you see that I am right, you now want to change the subject and discuss instead the topic of whether I ought to approve of the magic pill priest. Well, apart from the fact that, other than what you have told us, I have no knowledge whatsoever of this fellow, and no interest in finding out more, I have also already spent a good part of a week – and now all of a Saturday night I could have been spending on the couch with Ben and Jerry and the remote control – to pursuing the debate we started out having. I’ve no time for a second one, thank you very much.

Suffice it to say that if you think a sophisticated believer must either endorse every single oversimplification and/or superstition adhered to by his less sophisticated fellow believers, or attack every single one of them with the sort of outrage and contempt that you do, then you have just committed what logicians call the fallacy of false alternative. Some simplifications are just that – simplifications – and are harmless, or even useful as a way to convey difficult ideas to the less sophisticated. (Scientists do this all the time – think e.g. of the little stick-and-ball model used to convey the idea of a molecule.) Others are oversimplifications or even superstitions, and should be rejected, even harshly in some cases. We have to go case by case. Why you insist on taking extreme cases like Fr. Magic Pill and extrapolating from him to religion as a whole, or even to unsophisticated religion as a whole, I have no idea.

Anyway, perhaps you can see why I have insisted that there is little point in getting into these matters in a blog post – and, given my verbosity here, you no doubt wish at this point that I hadn’t said even this much. But the issues are complex, and the reams and reams of disinformation that a serious defender of religious belief has to overcome are many. It all has to be addressed at length or not at all. That’s why I wrote The Last Superstition.

As a conservative, you are already familiar with this sort of phenomenon. You know all too painfully well that what “most people,” even most educated people, claim to “know” about (say) conservative approaches to poverty, or health care, or free-market economics in general, is a pile of worthless caricatures and clichés. You know how common it is for them to take the worst representatives of conservatism, or even people who are not truly conservative at all but represent only a distortion of conservatism, and present them as if they were paradigmatic of conservatism per se. And you also know how very difficult it is, accordingly, to get through the deeply entrenched prejudices of such people, which keep them even from understanding what a real conservative argument is, much less giving it a fair hearing.

It seems to me that, with respect to religion, you have fallen into the same trap these critics of conservatism have. And like them, it seems to me you are unwilling even to consider the possibility that you might be mistaken. (And please don’t bother trying to fling the same accusation back at me. I once had views very much like your own, having being an atheist, and a “secular conservative,” for many years before rational arguments persuaded me of the truth of theism and related doctrines. I have considered the very best arguments for both sides, and in great detail.)

Like the dogmatic socialist or welfare statist who insists that he needn’t bother reading a Hayek or a Friedman because he “already knows” what they are going to say, “already knows” that their conclusions must be wrong, and “refutes” them without reading them by spouting clichés the hollowness of which these writers would easily expose, if only they were given a fair hearing – like them, you, it seems to me, insist on repeating the same points over and over without realizing that what is in question are precisely the assumptions underlying those points.

If you have no desire to read my own book, fine – I could certainly understand why not, given the testiness of our exchange, on my side as well as yours. But please, please do your homework before making claims of the sort you have been making. And stop pretending that in the dispute between secularists and religious believers, only the former can plausibly claim to have reason and science on their side. It is not true, and it neither rational, nor scientific, nor conservative to pretend that it is true.

Ed Feser


  1. Prof Feser.

    I've got your book and am hoping to dig into it over the next few days. The cover needs to be more appealing.

    I'd never imagined that the so called secular conservatives would have so much venom directed towards religion. We are truly living in the dark ages of conservatism.

    I suppose the only good thing to come out of the Secular Right website is the knowledge that the people who we thought were our allies were really the enemy as well. It's good to separate the shit from the clay. It seems like we're a very small band after all.

  2. I may read your book, at least the material pertaining to Frege and Descartes.

    Secular Right seemed interesting for a few days, with the inductive stuff, a bit of Founding father libertarianism, and "David Hume" posts: Hume may have been a scoundrel--perhaps of the first sort-- but at least a rational scoundrel.

    Now SR's fallen into the hands of the usual Aynnie Rand quacks and hacks. Rand's Objectivism is not merely bad aristotelian hubris (and some vapid excuses for laissez-faire), but Czarist-zionist nostalgia masquerading as bad aristotle, or something to that effect. And SocPath is correct that that SR crew has no idea of religious tradition, even in a pragmatic sense.

    1. so you are capable of making decent(or almost that at least) comments. maybe you were just too angry and edgy then but matured a bit? if so, good for you.