Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The less Rey knows, the less he knows it

Apropos my post on straw man arguments in the philosophy of religion, reader Bobcat calls my attention to this article by philosopher of mind Georges Rey, which purports to show that theism, when held to by anyone with at least “a standard Anglo-European high school education,” necessarily involves self-deception. And for Rey, that includes – indeed, maybe especially includes – highly intelligent theists who happen to be philosophers. Rey starts out by acknowledging that he is “not a professional philosopher of religion and has no special knowledge of theology.” With that much, anyway, the reader can agree, for Rey’s article proves it conclusively. Why Rey thought himself nevertheless qualified to open his mouth on this subject is another question entirely, and the answer is by no means clear. I’ll leave it to those interested in plumbing the psychological depths of academic blowhards to consider whether self-deception might be a factor.

Now, my longtime readers know that I am loath ever to indulge in polemics, but I’m afraid in this one case the temptation is simply too great to bear. For Rey’s article is not merely mistaken on this or that point. It is not merely bad. As the kids would say, it totally sucks. Indeed, although it is of course better written than the average freshman term paper, it is even less well-informed. I apologize to those whose tender ears find it hard to bear such un-collegial harshness (not that Rey himself gives a hang about that vis-à-vis his theistic colleagues). All I can say in my defense is: Read the thing yourself and see.

Rey is not an unintelligent man. Indeed, he is a very intelligent man, and anyone who wants to understand the clever ways in which contemporary materialists attempt to surmount the many difficulties facing their position would do well to read his work in the philosophy of mind. It’s mostly wrong, of course, but still intelligent and worth reading. The article in question is another story. It is an object lesson in how ignorance coupled with arrogance can lead an intelligent man to make a fool of himself. (Not that another one is needed in this Age of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens.)

If any reader out there wants to evaluate Rey’s efforts at amateur psychoanalysis, knock yourself out. I’m more interested in the excuse Rey thinks he has for indulging in psychoanalysis in the first place. Why accuse even educated theists of being, not merely mistaken, but self-deceived? The reason, Rey repeats ad nauseam, is that the traditional arguments for God’s existence are obviously fallacious, are so bad that he simply can’t believe anyone takes them seriously, commit “blatant sophistries,” etc. Yet surprisingly, he says very little about exactly what the problems with them are supposed to be. As the impatient reader sifts through the trash talk and psychobabble in search of substance, he soon finds, first, that what Rey actually has to say about the arguments probably wouldn’t fill one side of an index card; and second, that it’s all wrong anyway.

One problem with Rey’s discussion of the arguments (such as it is) is the extremely crude, anthropomorphic conception of God he is working with. Like many atheists, he supposes that God is, like us, a “mental being” (as Rey awkwardly puts it) only “not subject to ordinary physical limitations.” Start with a human being, and abstract away the body parts. Then abstract away the limits on knowledge, and expand the range of sensory experience to include immediate perception of every corner of physical reality. Imagine that every experience of willing something is followed by the realization of that which is willed – for example, wanting the Red Sea to part is followed by the parting of the Red Sea, wanting a leper healed is followed by skin returning to normal, and so on. Throw in as well the tendency always to want to do what is right. Etc. The result is something like a super-duper Cartesian immaterial substance with a cosmic Boy Scout’s merit badge, far grander than any of the objects (material or immaterial) familiar from our experience, but differing from them in degree rather than kind.

It is no surprise that, with this “working model” of God, Rey and other atheists think Him comparable to Zeus, gremlins, ghosts, etc. To be sure, something like this conception – a conception Brian Davies has labeled “theistic personalism” and others have called “neo-theism” – has (unfortunately) featured, at least implicitly, in some recent work in philosophy of religion. But it has absolutely nothing to do with the God of classical theism – of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Leibniz, and countless others. It has absolutely nothing to do with the God of the great Christian creeds or the great Church Councils. That God is not “a being” among others, not even a really grand one, but Being Itself or Pure Act. Concepts like power, knowledge, goodness, intellect, will, etc. do apply to Him, but not (as in theistic personalism) in a univocal sense but rather in an analogous sense (where “analogy” is to be understood not on the model of Paley-style “arguments from analogy” – which in fact apply terms to God and to us in univocal senses – but rather in terms of Aquinas’s famous doctrine of analogy). And attributions of power, knowledge, will etc. to God are all necessarily informed by the doctrine of divine simplicity. Our philosophical conception of Him is not modeled on human beings or on any other created thing; rather, it is arrived at via reflection on what is entailed by something’s being that which accounts for the existence of anything at all.

Rey, it is evident, knows absolutely nothing of all this, nothing of the radical distinction between the classical theistic conception of God and every other conception. But this is not some mere family dispute between theists, something that can be ignored for purposes of making general claims about religion. If you don’t know how classical theism differs from everything else, and in particular from the anthropomorphic conceptions of God underlying tiresome pop atheist comparisons to Zeus and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, then you simply do not and cannot understand the arguments of Anselm, Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al., and cannot understand the claims of Christianity as it has historically understood itself. It will not do to pretend that what your Uncle Bob or some TV evangelist has said about God can serve well enough as research for an argument against religion, any more than Uncle Bob’s or the evangelist’s conception of quantum mechanics would suffice as a “backgrounder” for an assault on modern physics.

So, Rey simply doesn’t know the first thing about what the people he dismisses as in thrall to self-deception even mean when they talk about God. That’s one problem. The other problem is that he evidently has no idea either of how the main traditional arguments for God’s existence are supposed to work. He is, for example, obviously beholden to the tiresome canard that defenders of the Cosmological Argument never explain why a First Cause would have to have the various divine attributes (unity, intellect, omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, etc.). This, I dare say, is an infallible sign of incompetence vis-à-vis the subject at hand; whenever you are reading an atheist writer who makes this common but preposterous claim, you can safely let out a contemptuous chuckle, close the book, and waste no further time with him, because you can be morally certain that he does not know what he is talking about.

As anyone who has actually cracked either the Summa Theologiae or Summa Contra Gentiles knows, Aquinas (to take just one example) actually devotes literally hundreds of pages of rigorous and painstaking argumentation to deriving the various divine attributes. (He does so in several other works as well.) Similarly detailed argumentation for the divine attributes can be found throughout the Scholastic tradition, in Leibniz and in Clarke, in more recent writers like Garrigou-Lagrange, and indeed throughout the 2,300-year old literature on the traditional theistic arguments beginning with Plato and Aristotle. The allegation that “Even if there’s a First Cause, no one’s ever shown why it would have to be all-powerful, all-knowing, etc.” is simply an urban legend. It persists only because hack atheists like Rey tend to read only other hack atheists, or read serious theistic writers only in tiny snippets ripped from context. (To judge Aquinas’s case for God’s existence by reading only the Five Ways – which were never meant to be anything more than an “executive summary” of arguments whose details are developed elsewhere – is like judging the arguments presented in Rey’s book Contemporary Philosophy of Mind by reading only the analytical table of contents.)

Rey confidently tells us that “the one argument” that tries to show that God “has a mind” – the correct way to put it would be to say that there is in God something analogous to intellect – is, “of course,” Paley’s design argument. But Aquinas’s Fifth Way is another – rather well-known – argument that takes the divine intellect as its focus. Like Richard Dawkins and most other atheists, Rey probably assumes that the Fifth Way is a mere riff on the basic design argument idea, but if so then he is once again just manifesting his ignorance, since the arguments could not be more different. Design arguments take for granted a mechanistic conception of nature, while the Fifth Way appeals to final causes; design arguments are probabilistic, while the Fifth Way is a strict demonstration; design arguments don’t claim to prove the existence of the God of classical theism, while the Fifth Way does just that; design arguments focus on complexity and especially the complexity manifest in living things, while the Fifth Way is not especially interested in either; design arguments have to deal somehow with objections based on evolutionary theory, while the truth or falsity of evolution is utterly irrelevant to the Fifth Way; and so forth. (See The Last Superstition and my forthcoming book Aquinas for the details.)

And then, as I have already indicated, the historically most important versions of the other main theistic arguments (e.g. Aquinas’s, Leibniz’s, or Clarke’s cosmological arguments, Anselm’s ontological argument), when fully worked out, all also claim to show that there cannot fail to be something analogous to intellect in God (alongside the other divine attributes). The thing is, you have to actually read them to know this. Pretty tough break for Uncurious Georges, I know, but believe it or not, philosophy of religion is a little like philosophy of mind in requiring actual research now and again.

As always with these things, it just gets worse the more ink is spilt. “Again, I’m not a scholar of theology,” Rey reminds us, before opining on theology; “however, I’m willing to wager that few of the details [theologians] discuss are of the evidential sort that we ordinarily expect of ordinary claims about the world.” And then – hold on to your hats – he actually gives “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” as an example.

One wonders whether Rey was the sort of high school geek who desperately tried to prove his athletic bona fides to his locker room tormenters by bragging about all the “touchdowns” he used to make in Little League.

Whatever the answer to that, the all-grown-up Rey can’t resist one more self-inflicted wedgie. On the heels of his learned allusion to medieval angelology, he earnestly considers the question of whether theologians might be guilty of “intellectual sloth.”

Self-awareness, thy name is not Georges Rey.

Well, I’ve wasted enough time on this, so let me close with the following thought. Suppose someone started out an article on why all materialists are necessarily engaged in self-deception by saying “I’m not a professional philosopher of mind and have no special knowledge of the materialist literature. But here goes anyway…” Now, how do you think Rey would…

Ah, never mind.


  1. Surely if you have a strong opinion on a topic but are also ignorant of its best thought, then you'd make some effort to cover up your ignorance. But there seems to be a worrying trend within the so-called 'new atheism' whereby its proponents not only admit to being ignorant of the relevant literature, but positively brag about their ignorance. And when admitting ignorance is considered a boast rather than a confession... what more is there to say? Rational argument simply comes to an end.

  2. Loot at this Ray's hypothesis:

    Despite appearances, most Western adults who’ve been exposed to standard science and claim to believe in God are self-deceived; at some level they know full well the belief is false.

    That comment implicitly assume that scientific findings are incompatible with God. Thus, if science is true, then God doesn't exist, and the belief in him is false. (and only psychological self-deceiving can hide so obvious fact. Hence, only a psychological study can explain and expose so obvious irrationality)

    Dr.Ray uses references of prominent philosophers of religion (Plantinga, Taliaferro, etc.) so total ignorance can't be the cause of his dissmisses of the arguments. Probably the cause is psychological!

    I dare to formulate the following hypothesis:

    Despite appearances, most Western philosophers who’ve been exposed to materialism and claim to rationally believe in it are self-deceived; at some level they know full well the belief is false

    Professor Feser, maybe you should to send to Dr.Ray a copy of your book TLS. Even thought, I doubt it would change his mind (probably he'd use it in another paper on metaatheism as another example of "sophistry")

    My opinion is that, in most cases, you can't change the mind of people, including philosophers, using rational arguments alone (these arguments can work on trivial topics; or in topics where you don't have a stron opinion or emotion; but when you're convinced of something, it's very hard, almost impossible in most cases, to persuade you with arguments. I think the history of philosophy is evidence of it)

    Rationality is part of the mind, and the latter includes non-rational factors (interests, bias, preferences, etc.)

    If we don't addresses these irrational factors, our rationality will be affected or undermined.

    A book that teaches how to handle them is Edward de Bono's Thinking Course. I learnt from it that pure intellectualism or "reason", when isolated of big picture of mental functioning, has its traps too (and paradoxically, these traps are pretty irrational).

  3. Dr. Feser, historical (especially medieval) theology and philosophy, and the intersection of both, is something I've been interested in for quite a while. Would you happen to have any book recommendations concerning these topics?

    On a side note, Conor Cunningham, a lecturer at the University of Nottingham in the UK, recently gave a great interview concerning the importance of the topics above. He's also put together a BBC documentary, Did Darwin Kill God?, which will air soon:

    Documentary Description:

    Cunningham who has just completed a new book-Evolution: Darwin's Pious Idea, which will be published in the autumn, was approached by the BBC and asked to write and present a one hour documentary exploring Darwinism's apparent impact on Christianity. According to Conor, the cultural war between religion and evolution, most vocally represented by American creationists and scientists such as Richard Dawkins is completely unnecessary and more than that, it is damaging for both religion and science. In his documentary - Did Darwin Kill God? - Conor travels around England, America and Israel interviewing philosophers, Bible scholars and scientists in a bid to discover how this destructive conflict arose, and in the process concluding that it is based on bad science, inaccurate history, inadequate philosophy and even worse theology.

    The main purpose of the documentary is to offer a critique of both Christian fundamentalists who reject evolution, doing so, Conor argues, because they display a complete lack of understanding about the Christian tradition, and Darwinian fundamentalists - those such as Dawkins who take Darwin's theory beyond the domain of science and apply it to all aspects of life, and is so doing undermine the very cogency of evolution as a science. Consequently, Darwinists such as Dawkins are as great a threat to evolution as are creationists. In addition Conor seeks to remind viewers of the orthodox understanding of Christianity's God, for it is this understanding that makes opposition between Darwin's theory of evolution and Christianity not only misplaced but impossible.

  4. Even Daniel Dennett, from what I read, was willing to admit that theism was compatible with evolution in his debate with Plantinga. (Though Plantinga does take a tact stronger than that.) So Dennett's strategy is to argue that even if theism is compatible with science it should be ignored, just because he doesn't like it.

    Psychoanalysis like the sort Rey engages in says vastly more about Rey than it does anything else. Great to see Feser pointing out the dearth of knowledge Rey has when it comes to the traditional arguments for God and such - and Rey's psychoanalysis is pathetic to say the least.

  5. Marvellous smackdown. While it's much like using a tactical nuke to kill a mosquito, still I guess it's necessary (not to mention satisfying) when one is in the middle of a mosquito-infested swamp... as we indeed are.

  6. I listened to the mp3 based interview featuring Univ. of Nottingham lecturer Conor Cunningham and provided by T'sinadree. Sound, intriguing and probative, refreshing.

  7. I'm glad that Cunningham brought up, even if only briefly, that what transpired in the Wilberforce-Huxley debate was much, much different from popular myth would have us believe. J.R. Lucas wrote a wonderful article on this; it's available on his website (linked in the right-hand side column of this blog).

  8. That was a long screed in which you never really got around to Rey's central arguments.

    I read this back in '05, but IIRC his armchair psychoanlysis is based on data that 1st person reports on beliefs are unreliable in a lot of cases in general.

    In the religious case in particular he points to actions by believers which speak against belief in God like fearing death and selfishness,

    One explanation is that so-called bellievers have a 2nd-order belief that they believe in God but this belief is a kind of delusion b/c they hold no genuine 1st order belief in God.

    you've nitpicked around the edges here about his failure to address and distinguish between different proofs for God's existence and different conceptions of God.

    But I think the central idea is worth discussing and something like it has probably occurred to many believers. At least I sometimes wondered growing up why myself and everyone was crying at a funeral since the dead person is supposedly living in eternal bliss and we'll all be seeing him/her shortly.

    Rey's hypothesis for this is that tho people have the 2nd-order belief that they believe in God, they don't have a genuine 1st order belief.

    Again, you've just given a very wordy and very dismissive response to this article without even seriously tangling with it.

  9. Lumpenprole,

    Rey's "central arguments" presuppose that the traditional theistic aguments are not only something about which reasonable people can disagree, not only less than compelling, but blatantly fallacious, sophistical, not worth taking seriously for a moment, etc. If this presupposition is false, then the "central arguments" are moot. Hence (as I made clear in the post) my focus on this presupposition, which is (I maintain) itself obviously false from the POV of someone who actually knows something about the arguments in question.

  10. Fair enough that Rey makes that assumption.

    But suppose the proofs for God's existence are sound.

    The question remains how to interpret behavior by 'believers' that seemingly conflicts with belief in God's existence. Even if apologetics is airtight, why do people nevertheless seem worried about death, etc.?

    One hypothesis is that 'believers' reports re: their belief in God aren't accurate.

    That's what I regard as the challenge of the paper to theists anyway. Maybe you're merely under the impression that you're a believer.

  11. Lumpen:

    The attempt to show that self-proclaimed believers don't really believe in God faces a few huge problems:

    1. It assumes that anyone who has a belief X can never act in ways inconsistent with belief X. If that assumption doesn't seem ridiculous on its face, consider that it entails that people cannot hold contradictory beliefs, since doing so would entail acting in ways inconsistent with at least one of those beliefs, which itself entails (given the problematic assumption) that the people in question do not actually hold the beliefs. So the strategy's assumption is deeply counter-intuitive and has even more counter-intuitive consequences. Admittedly, they aren't incoherent, but taking them seriously involves some seriously revisionist psychology.

    2. The argument makes the further arbitrary assumption that first-order beliefs are more genuine than second-order beliefs. Perhaps one could give an argument for that view, but it's worth pointing out that philosophers who deal with the question overwhelmingly tend to consider the second-order beliefs more central to 'personhood.' So the assumption, besides being arbitrary, contradicts the usual assumption of philosophers who explicitly address the question.

    3. If you still embrace these revisionist assumptions, then you will need to maintain not only that many self-professed theists do not believe in God, but that almost all relativsts, subjectivists, and other moral anti-realists do not believe their own theories either, since these people clearly go around acting and arguing as though there were moral claims that can be true or false. Eliminativists and reductionists in the philosophy of mind will also be unable to believe their own theories, since they all clearly walk around behaving as though other people had minds. Worse yet, any atheist who has ever had a moment of desperation and uttered a prayer will now fail to be an atheist simply because of that moment of desperation.

    No doubt you're objecting to these objections. You might say: a) the objections about theoretical beliefs fail to allow the proponents of those theories to offer an alternative explanation or justification of their own behavior; b) the theories don't really have the implications I say they do; c) the praying atheist just shows that people's beliefs aren't stable.

    But all of those responses amount to an admission of defeat for the original thesis that self-proclaimed theists don't actually believe in God because their behavior isn't consistent with it. The theist has all the same responses. For one thing, no intelligent theist I've ever known has maintained that death is not to be feared or that simply believing in God guarantees perfectly virtuous behavior. Not only does theism not have the implications your research project assumes it does, but theists can offer perfectly consistent explanations for their behavior. Finally, even if a theist accepts your counter-intuitive assumptions about beliefs, he can still just maintain that beliefs aren't necessarily stable over time. Since that admission pretty much amounts to the same thing as saying that a single person can hold contradictory beliefs, it gives us yet another good reason to give up on the counter-intuitive assumption about beliefs that started this whole mess.

    In short, I submit that the strategy is a complete and utter failure. Besides being based on some counter-intuitive assumptions with wildly implausible implications for which no argument has been made, even if we concede the assumption, the argument has no force against theists actually believing in God.