Saturday, October 30, 2010

The catastrophic spider

Immanuel Kant, this great destroyer in the realm of thought, exceeded Maximilian Robespierre in terrorism.

Heinrich Heine, Concerning the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany

Kant… This catastrophic spider…

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist

Taken as a whole, the Kantian influence on modern Christianity is so deep and pervasive that I believe in makes sense to speak of three great periods of Christian theology, each associated with a dominant philosopher. (1) The first period is the Platonic or Neoplatonic Christianity of the early church fathers; (2) The second is the Aristotelian Christianity of medieval or Scholastic theology; (3) and the third is the Kantian Christianity of the modern age …

As I see it, the validity of the new synthesis depends entirely on one issue: the ability to control Kant, to keep ‘Kant-in-a-box,’ as it were. For pure Kantianism is incompatible with Christianity… [I]f a Kantian conception of autonomy prevails, then God has become the servant of modern humanism and the synthesis is invalid.

Robert P. Kraynak, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy

As I noted in my recent post on God and obligation, from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, God only ever wills in accordance with reason and thus, given that reason is of its nature directed towards the good, only ever wills what is good. But He does so, not in obedience to a law outside Himself, but rather in accordance with His own nature. For He does not “have” rationality or goodness; rather, He is His infinite Intellect, He is perfect Goodness. To use the language central to Kant’s ethics, you might say that He is “autonomous,” that He is a “self-legislator” – that He follows no law save that which is dictated by His own rational nature.

But of course, Kant himself applies these concepts to us. We must in his view be “autonomous” if we are to be truly free – not lawless, to be sure, but not “heteronomous” either, not bound by a law external to us. Rather, we must be “self-legislators,” bound only by a law that is somehow of our own making. Kant also famously describes us as “ends in ourselves,” and holds that a truly moral community is one whose members strive to create a “kingdom of ends,” an order in which all are treated as self-legislating ends in themselves.

These ideas have been enormously influential. They inform the egalitarian liberalism of John Rawls, the libertarianism of Robert Nozick, and even the conservatism of Roger Scruton. As Kraynak emphasizes, they have also permeated contemporary Catholic and Protestant thought. Modern people of all political and religious persuasions have come to see “respect for persons,” “human rights,” “human dignity,””freedom,” and the like – rather than, say, submission to the natural law or to the will of God – as the fundamental categories in terms of which to address moral and political issues. To this extent, “We are all Kantians now.”

But from a traditional Christian point of view, and from a Thomistic point of view, there is something more than a little blasphemous in all of this. For classical natural law theory – the kind which grounds morality in human nature as understood in terms of a classical essentialist (Platonic, Aristotelian, or Scholastic) metaphysics – it is hard to see how human beings could intelligibly be described as “self-legislators” or “autonomous.” In no sense are we the source of the nature that determines our ends, including the end of reason itself; God alone is that. Hence nature, and ultimately God – rather than the individual reason of the moral agent – are what ground the content and obligatory force of the moral law. As Aquinas says:

In this way God Himself is the measure of all beings… Hence His intellect is the measure of all knowledge; His goodness, of all goodness; and, to speak more to the point, His good will, of every good will. Every good will is therefore good by reason of its being conformed to the divine good will. Accordingly, since everyone is obliged to have a good will, he is likewise obliged to have a will conformed to the divine will. (QDV 23.7)

Or as Someone once put it, “Not my will, but Thine, be done.” If that is heteronomy, so much the worse for Kantian autonomy.

The “ends in themselves” talk is no less suspect. Aquinas explicitly considers the question of whether “man himself were his own last end,” and answers that “man's last end is something outside of him, to wit, God” (ST I-II.3.5) since “all things are ordered to one good as their end, and that is God” (SCG III.17.6, emphasis added). Given the metaphysics underlying classical natural law theory, describing man as an “end in himself” is, like the idea of man as “self-legislator,” simply unintelligible. Of course, that same metaphysics informs the classical theist conception of God that we have recently been exploring in a series of posts, and it is precisely what makes it the case that such talk is intelligible when applied to God, and to God alone.

Thus, the abandonment of that metaphysics has resulted not only in an anthropomorphizing of God, bringing Him closer to man’s level – the classical theist’s complaint against theistic personalism – but also in a deification of man, raising him to the level of God. Modern people like to think that the first of the Ten Commandments is the one no one breaks anymore; after all, when is the last time you saw someone bow down to an idol? But we are blindest to the sins we are most in thrall to. Idolatry is in fact the defining sin of modernity, and it is all the worse for being directed at man. The ancient pagan at least knew enough to worship something higher than himself.

For this reason it is a grave error to think that the only problem with Kantian “self-legislator” and “ends in themselves” talk is that, absent the sort of moral standards that were taken for granted in Kant’s own time, it has a tendency to degenerate into a kind of libertinism. If you honor your parents, you do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not lie, and do not covet, you do well. You will have fulfilled what Christ called the second commandment – to love one’s neighbor. But you will not have fulfilled the first and greatest – to love God above all things. And if the reason you obey the second is precisely to honor man as an end in himself, you are in danger of violating the first and greatest. Kant himself was, of course, a very austere man; he would have been absolutely horrified at what liberals and libertarians now defend in the name of “autonomy.” Accordingly, the original sin of Kantianism is not abortion, fornication, dope smoking or the like. It is, rather, the codification of modern man’s blasphemous self-obsession, the raising of “It’s all about me” to a moral first principle. And the blasphemy is only heightened, not lessened, if the only reason the blasphemer refrains from the sins in question is that he thinks them incompatible with his pathological self-regard.

To be clear, I am not saying that anyone who uses Kantian language is guilty of blasphemy. As Kraynak emphasizes, Christian thinkers who have made use of it often transform it in the process, so as to make it compatible with Christian theology and natural law. But Kraynak is also keen to emphasize, quite rightly in my view, that the emphasis modern Christians often put on the Kantian moral categories is unwise. At its best, it is little more than a marketing gimmick, an attempt to “sell” traditional morality to the citizens of modern, liberal, secularized societies by showing them that it follows from premises to which they are already committed. And it rarely if ever works, because modern secular liberals are well aware that orthodox Christians and traditionalists do not interpret the premises in question the same way they do. Chanting “human dignity” and “respect for persons” like mantras is not going to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you to oppose abortion, euthanasia, pornography, and the like, precisely because human dignity and respect for persons are themselves highly contested concepts. What you need to do is to show exactly how the practices in question are incompatible with human dignity, and that means (I would argue) getting into precisely the sorts of classical natural law considerations one had hoped to be able to sidestep. There are no shortcuts. But then the “human dignity” and “respect for persons” stuff falls away as otiose.

At its worst, use of the Kantian categories can seriously distort our understanding of what natural law theory and Christian teaching actually entail, even when applied by otherwise traditionally-minded thinkers. To take just one example, “new natural law” theorists, who have a reputation for upholding Catholic orthodoxy and who have done admirable work in defending traditional sexual morality and opposing abortion and euthanasia, have also in recent years tended toward the view that capital punishment is unjust even in principle. This not only goes beyond anything the Catholic Church has ever taught, but (as I have argued elsewhere) is simply incompatible with both Catholic teaching and classical natural law theory. But (as I also argue in the piece linked to) it is not entirely unsurprising that they should reach such a conclusion given that, like Kant, they eschew any appeal to human nature understood in terms of essentialist metaphysics and instead ground their position in a theory of practical reason that puts the ends of the moral agent himself (rather than the ends set for us by nature or the will of God) in the driver’s seat.

Nietzsche famously characterized Kant as a “catastrophic spider” because he took him to have insinuated an essentially Christian morality into the secular German philosophical tradition. The truth is that he insinuated an essentially un-Christian morality into the Christian tradition, and into Western civilization as a whole. Rather than appropriating this work, conservatives and Christians should strive to undo it. Kraynak is right, we need to keep Kant in a box. A pine box, with a stake through his heart.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

God, obligation, and the Euthyphro dilemma

Does God have obligations to us? No, He doesn’t. But doesn’t that entail that He could do just any old thing to us? No, it doesn’t. But how can that be? To see how, consider first another, related false dilemma: the famous Euthyphro problem.

The Euthyphro dilemma goes like this: God commands us to do what is good. But is something good simply because God commands it, or does He command it because it is already good? If we take the first option, then it seems we are committed to the possibility that God could make it good for us to torture babies just for fun, simply by commanding it. If we take the second option, then it seems we are committed to saying that there is a standard of goodness independent of God, to which He refers us when He commands. Neither option seems a good one from the point of view of theism. The first makes morality arbitrary, and the claim that God is good completely trivial. The second conflicts with the core theistic claims that God is the ultimate cause of all things, and in particular the source of all goodness. So, we have a problem, right?

Actually, we don’t, because the dilemma is a false one – certainly from the point of view of Thomism, for reasons I explain in Aquinas. As with all the other supposedly big, bad objections to theism, this one rests on caricature, and a failure to make crucial distinctions. First of all, we need to distinguish the issue of the content of moral obligations from the issue of what gives them their obligatory force. Divine command is relevant to the second issue, but not the first. Second, it is an error to think that tying morality in any way to divine commands must make it to that extent arbitrary, a product of capricious divine fiat. That might be so if we think of divine commands in terms of Ockham’s voluntarism and nominalism, but not if, following Aquinas, we hold that will follows upon intellect, so that God always acts in accordance with reason. Third, that does not entail that what determines the content of morality and God’s rationale for commanding as He does is in any way independent of Him.

The actual situation, then, is this. What is good or bad for us is determined by the ends set for us by our nature, and given the essentialist metaphysics Aquinas is committed to, that means that there are certain things that are good or bad for us absolutely, which even God could not change (since God’s power does not extend to doing what is self-contradictory). Now God, given the perfection of His intellect, can in principle only ever command in accordance with reason, and thus God could never command us to do what is bad for us. Hence the first horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is ruled out: God can never command us to torture babies for fun, because torturing babies for fun is the sort of thing that, given our nature, can never in principle be good for us. But the essences that determine the ends of things – our ends, and for that matter the end of reason too as inherently directed toward the true and the good – do not exist independently of God. Rather, given the Scholastic realist understanding of universals, they pre-exist in the divine intellect as the ideas or archetypes by reference to which God creates. Hence the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is also ruled out.

Keep in mind also that, as I noted in my post on Law’s “evil-god challenge,” the metaphysics underlying the arguments for classical theism lead to the conclusion that God is not one good thing among others but rather Goodness Itself. Given divine simplicity, that means that what we think of as the distinctive goodness of a human being, the distinctive goodness of a tree, the distinctive goodness of a fish, and so on – each associated with a distinct essence – all exist in an undifferentiated way in the Goodness that is God. As I put it an earlier post, “in creation, that which is unlimited and perfect in God comes to exist in a limited and imperfect way in the natural order… The divine ideas according to which God creates are therefore to be understood as the divine intellect’s grasp of the diverse ways in which the divine essence might be imitated in a limited and imperfect fashion by created things.”

Divine simplicity also entails, of course, that God’s will just is God’s goodness which just is His immutable and necessary existence. That means that what is objectively good and what God wills for us as morally obligatory are really the same thing considered under different descriptions, and that neither could have been other than they are. There can be no question then, either of God’s having arbitrarily commanded something different for us (torturing babies for fun, or whatever) or of there being a standard of goodness apart from Him. Again, the Euthyphro dilemma is a false one; the third option that it fails to consider is that what is morally obligatory is what God commands in accordance with a non-arbitrary and unchanging standard of goodness that is not independent of Him. (As Eleonore Stump points out in her book on Aquinas, its role in resolving the Euthyphro dilemma is one reason theists should take seriously Aquinas’s doctrine of divine simplicity.)

Now, let us return to the question of whether God has obligations to us. To be obliged is to be subject to a law, where, as Aquinas says, “a law is imposed on others by way of a rule and measure” (ST I-II.90.4). Moreover, “the law must needs regard principally the relationship to happiness,” that is to say, the realization of what is good for those under it (ST I-II.90.2). But God has no superior who might impose any law or obligation on Him, there is no good He needs to realize since He is already Goodness Itself and therefore already possesses supreme Beatitude, and there is accordingly no rule or measure outside Him against which His actions might be evaluated. He is not under the moral law precisely because He is the moral law. “[A]ll that is in things created by God, whether it be contingent or necessary, is subject to the eternal law: while things pertaining to the Divine Nature or Essence are not subject to the eternal law, but are the eternal law itself” (ST I-II.93.4, emphasis added).

But to understand what this means is precisely to understand that God can only ever will what is good for us. For as noted above, God can only ever will in accordance with reason, and it would be perverse and irrational to will to create some thing without willing what is by its nature good for that thing. If “nature does nothing in vain” (Aristotle, De Anima III.9 432b21), then neither does God, the Author of nature. He allows evil, but only because He can draw good out of it (ST I.2.3). Thus, Aquinas, says, “as ‘it belongs to the best to produce the best,’ it is not fitting that the supreme goodness of God should produce things without giving them their perfection. Now a thing's ultimate perfection consists in the attainment of its end. Therefore it belongs to the Divine goodness, as it brought things into existence, so to lead them to their end.” (ST I.103.1)

In this way God loves us and loves us perfectly, because to love is to will another’s good, and God cannot fail to will what is good for us. Since moral goodness concerns the will, it follows that God is morally good, and perfectly so. But His moral goodness is not like ours, since it does not involve fulfilling obligations, acquiring virtues, or the like. Contrary to what some theistic personalists seem to think, that does not make His moral goodness somehow inferior to ours. It makes it infinitely superior.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fame is fleeting, babe!

Some dialogue following an attempted witticism during today’s Aristotle lecture:

Student 1: You make such obscure references!

Feser: Sorry. Guess I’m the Dennis Miller of philosophy.

Student 2: Who’s Dennis Miller?

Feser: See what I mean?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Harlan Ellison’s evil god

Suppose the omnipotent, omniscient, and supremely malevolent intelligence of Stephen Law’s “evil god challenge” really existed. What would the world look like? Like the actual world? A much more plausible answer is provided by Harlan Ellison’s classic short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” one of the most chilling pieces of fiction you’ll ever read. Law’s challenge is irrelevant to classical theism, but perhaps the theistic personalist could made hay out of Ellison’s scenario.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Law’s “evil-god challenge”

A couple of months ago, in the combox to a post on another subject, reader Eric asked for my opinion of philosopher Stephen Law’s article “The evil-god challenge.” I had not then read the article and did not have time to do so at that moment, but I commented briefly on the summary of Law’s views that Eric provided. To my surprise, Law posted a response to my (somewhat dashed off) comments in the same combox a couple of weeks later. I did not bother to reply, because Law’s remarks seemed themselves obviously dashed off and unserious – he misspelled my name four times and in two different ways, seemed uninterested in trying to understand or engage in any depth the views he was criticizing, and was apparently just blowing off steam. (I can understand if he was a bit testy, since my own comments in response to Eric were themselves a bit testy, though my testiness was directed not at Law specifically but more generally at atheists who do not understand the difference between classical theism and theistic personalism.) I have since learned that Law had also cited my remarks over at his own blog, and directed his readers to his response. So, evidently he does regard that response as a serious one, to which I should be expected to reply. So, here’s a reply – not only to his combox remarks, but also to his article, which I’ve now had a chance to read.

First, let me summarize Law’s position. Law claims in his article that “even if most of the popular arguments for the existence of God do provide grounds for supposing that there is some sort of supernatural intelligence behind the universe, they fail to provide much clue as to its moral character.” In particular, Law says, even if a design argument could show that such an intelligence exists, it could no more show that the intelligence in question is supremely benevolent than that it is supremely malevolent. In fact, he suggests, the overall evidence such arguments appeal to should lead us away from belief in a supremely benevolent supernatural intelligence. Law allows that what is often labeled the “logical problem” of evil – which supposes that the existence of evil is strictly incompatible with the existence of a good God – may not pose a serious challenge to theism. But he thinks the “evidential problem” of evil – which assumes only that the existence of evil is strong evidence against the existence of a good God – does pose a serious challenge, at least given that there are no strong arguments for the existence of such a God. And the standard theodicies – such as appeals to free will, to soul-making, or to the way in which certain goods presuppose evils – succeed in explaining at most only some of the evil that exists, not all of it, so that the overall evidential situation still fails to point in the direction of a supremely benevolent God.

So far all of that is just standard atheist argumentation, and Law’s overall position takes it for granted. In particular, Law presupposes that there are no strong arguments for God’s existence, that even if there were they wouldn’t lead us to a supremely good God, and that the evidence we do have points away from the existence of such a God. Law’s innovation is to suggest, first, that the hypothesis of an “evil god” – an omnipotent, omniscient, but supremely malevolent intelligence – is at least as well supported as the hypothesis of a supremely good God. And if a skeptic were to pose against such a hypothesis the challenge of an evidential “problem of good” – that is, if a skeptic were to ask why a supremely malevolent intelligence would allow the good that exists in the world – the defender of an “evil god” hypothesis could offer “reverse theodicies” which parallel the theodicies put forward by theists. He could say, for example, that free will makes possible certain evils that an evil god couldn’t realize without it; that certain evils presuppose the existence of good; that the evil god intends the world to be a vale of soul-destruction, which requires that there be some good in it so that we can be tormented by its loss; and so forth.

Now, Law is happy to acknowledge that such defenses of the evil god hypothesis would not be very strong. But he thinks they are no weaker than the parallel attempts to defend the existence of a good God. There is, he says, a conceptual and evidential “symmetry” between the two views. But everyone, including theists, acknowledges that there is no good reason to believe in the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and supremely malevolent intelligence. So, shouldn’t they also acknowledge that there is no good reason to believe in a supremely good God? Isn’t the one view as unreasonable as the other? That is Law’s “evil-god challenge.”

So, what should we think of all this? Well, having now read Law’s paper, I must say that I find that my original comments, based on Eric’s summary alone, were exactly on the mark. Law’s argument may be an interesting challenge to a theistic personalist conception of God – I’ll leave it to theistic personalists themselves to figure out how they might respond to it – but it is completely irrelevant to classical theism. And that is no small lacuna. It means that Law’s argument is completely irrelevant to evaluating the truth of theism as it is understood by writers like Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, Maimonides, Avicenna, and Aquinas (to name just a few), and as it has been defined within Roman Catholic theology and traditional Christian theology more generally.

The reasons why should be evident from my recent post on the differences between classical theism and theistic personalism (which readers who are unfamiliar with those differences might want to read before continuing on). Consider, first, that central to classical philosophy and to the classical theist tradition that it informed is the thesis that evil is a privation, the absence of a good that would otherwise obtain rather than a positive reality in its own right. Accordingly, for classical theism, there simply is no symmetry between good and evil of the sort that Law’s argument requires. Astonishingly, though, Law’s article does not even consider, much less respond to, this core element of the classical theist position, despite the fact that he evidently regards his argument as a challenge to all forms of theism, and not just to non-classical forms. To borrow an analogy from another recent post, this is like evaluating The Godfather Trilogy without mentioning that the lead characters are Mafiosi, and focusing instead only on one of the romantic subplots in The Godfather Part III.

But Law did have something to say about the subject in his combox remarks. Here are those remarks, quoted in full:

Fesser’s [sic] “refutation” of my evil god argument is awful:

(i) it depends on the privation view of evil, which is wrong. (Why not flip this and say good is a privation of evil?!) Actually, *some* evils, like blindness, are best seen as privations of goods. But many appear not merely to be merely privations. And in fact in some cases it is more natural to see the good as a privation of evil (look up “peace” in the dictionary). That evil is in every case nothing more than a privation of some good is a myth that even many theists reject (philosopher Tim Mawson, for example). Fester [sic] is one of those theists who, when asked to justify the privation view, waffle and refer us to Aquinas, Aristotle, etc. Ask him him [sic] to explain, clearly, *exactly* what the argument is.

(ii) in any case, the privation view is not obviously incompatible with the existence of an evil God (we are at least owed some explanation for why it is – this is particularly clear if we see good as an abstract Platonic Form, say. (Fesser [sic] at this point just seems to *define* God as good – well, that doesn’t establish the impossibility of an evil God!)

(iii) even if the privation view were incompatible with an evil God, and it could thus be shown that an evil God was impossible, the evil God challenge can *still* be successfully run, as I point out in the paper. Perhaps Fesser [sic] should read it.

Let me respond to these points in order. Regarding (i), I cannot resist noting first of all that it is rather silly of Law to complain that I “waffle and refer us to Aquinas, Aristotle, etc.” rather than “explain[ing], clearly, *exactly* what the argument is,” when what he is replying to is something I said in a brief combox response to a reader’s off-topic question, not a formal argument presented in a book, a paper, or even a blog post. This sort of thing is depressingly common on the Internet: “You didn’t prove the truth of [Thomistic metaphysics, Darwinian evolution, quantum mechanics, etc.] to my satisfaction in your latest combox remark; therefore you’re an idiot!” One would hope a professional philosopher like Law would be above it (and perhaps he is – as I have acknowledged, he was probably just blowing off steam, which we all do from time to time). Suffice it to say that I have in fact addressed these issues at length elsewhere, such as in my book Aquinas. To paraphrase someone, perhaps Law should read it.

Second, since Law is the one claiming that his “evil-god challenge” is a threat to theism generally, including classical theism, the burden of proof is on him to show that the “evil as privation” view is false, not on the classical theist to show that it is true. It would be perverse for a critic of The Godfather Trilogy of the sort alluded to above to insist that those who disagree with him have the burden of showing that the organized crime theme really is, contrary to his analysis, a significant part of the story. It is similarly perverse for Law to insinuate – and in a dashed off combox afterthought at that, rather than in his original article! – that classical theists are the ones who need to show that the privation analysis that is central to their position is something he needs to trouble himself with.

Third, that means that Law has a lot of homework to do before he can pretend to have shown that his “evil-god challenge” really threatens theism generally, because it is evident from his remarks that he doesn’t understand the privation view, much less the classical theist tradition of which it is a part. To understand that view, one must first understand classical essentialism, whether of the Platonic or Aristotelian variety. That is a big topic – again, see Aquinas for the details – but it is clear enough how a privation view follows from the thesis that things have essences. For example, if it is of the essence of the visual apparatus – eyes, optic nerves, relevant areas of the brain, and so forth – that it serves the function of enabling an organism to see, then obviously blindness is a defect and it would be silly to suggest that perhaps it is sight that is the defect insofar as it involves the absence of blindness. Law himself acknowledges that the privation view is the most plausible way to understand blindness. He nevertheless insists that such an analysis wouldn’t work in all cases, yet he doesn’t offer any examples, and if some form of classical essentialism is true, the privation analysis would apply across the board.

The only purported counterexample to the privation view Law does suggest is, not a case of an evil which is not a privation, but rather an example of a good – peace – which, appealing to the dictionary, he evidently would define (quite plausibly) as the absence of war. Now, the privation view is certainly not the sort of thing one could refute by appealing to dictionaries, because it is not a theory about how we use words like “good” and “evil,” but rather a theory about the metaphysical status of good and evil themselves. But that is beside the point in the present case, because the privation view doesn’t entail that there are no goods that can be defined in terms of the absence of evil. It holds only that not all goods are so definable, while all evils must ultimately be understood in terms of the absence of some good. That is to say, the bottom level of the analysis of good and evil will include only goods, even if there will also be some goods appearing at higher levels of the analysis. In the case of war, the analysis will involve an appeal to the idea that moral goods are to be understood in terms of the ends set for us by nature. Since among those ends is giving to others what is due to them, war can be analyzed as a certain kind of failure to give others their due, namely by using force to take from them what they have a right to (their lives, property, security of their borders, etc.). Even if peace is the absence of war, then, war itself is the absence of a certain kind of good, a good which cannot in turn be analyzed in terms of the absence of some evil.

Regarding Law’s point (ii), for Law to claim that I “just seem to *define* God as good” – as if what is in question here is some eccentric ad hoc stipulation on my part – and to assert that “the privation view is not obviously incompatible with the existence of an evil God,” is just to manifest his unfamiliarity with, or at least to ignore, the central arguments of the classical theistic tradition and the metaphysical ideas underlying it. For when one takes account of those ideas – the act/potency, essence/existence, and simple/composite distinctions; the doctrine of the convertibility of the transcendentals; the principle of proportionate causality; the doctrine of privation; and so on – there is no mystery at all as to why the classical theist regards a demonstration of God’s existence as ipso facto a demonstration of that which is necessarily devoid of evil. Given the underlying metaphysics, to assert that God cannot possibly be evil is no more a matter of arbitrary stipulation than saying that the Pythagorean Theorem must hold of right triangles is a matter of arbitrary stipulation.

Consider that the classical (Platonic, Aristotelian, and Thomistic) arguments for God’s existence are arguments to the effect that the existence of compounds of act and potency necessarily presupposes the existence of that which is Pure Actuality; that the existence of compounds of essence and existence necessarily presupposes the existence of that which is Being Itself; that the existence of that which is in any way metaphysically composite presupposes that which is absolutely simple; and so forth. Given the doctrine of the convertibility of the transcendentals, on which being is convertible with goodness, that which is Pure Actuality or Being Itself must ipso facto be Goodness Itself. Given the conception of evil as a privation – that is, as a failure to realize some potentiality – that which is Pure Actuality and therefore in no way potential cannot intelligibly be said to be in any way evil. Given the principle of proportionate causality, whatever good is in the world in a limited way must be in its cause in an eminent way, shorn of any of the imperfections that follow upon being a composite of act and potency. Since God is Pure Actuality, he cannot intelligibly be said either to have or to lack moral virtues or vices of the sort we exhibit when we succeed or fail to realize our various potentials. And so on. All of this is claimed to be a matter of metaphysical demonstration rather than probabilistic empirical theorizing, and the underlying metaphysical ideas form a complex interlocking network that is (as anyone familiar with Platonism or Aristotelianism realizes) motivated independently of the problem of evil or the question of God’s existence. That is to say, the concepts are not introduced in an ad hoc way so as to get around objections of the sort Law raises. They are already there in the underlying metaphysics, and rule out from the get-go objections of the sort Law raises, at least insofar as they are directed at classical theism.

Law’s point (iii) – which he develops on p. 20 of his paper – is equally misdirected, because it too simply assumes that good and evil are on a metaphysical par. Law suggests (if I understand him correctly) that any reasons a theist could have for denying that an “evil god” is in principle possible could be mirrored by reasons suggesting that a good God is in principle impossible. But that just begs the question against the classical theist, who holds that evil is metaphysically parasitic on good, and thus (given the convertibility of the transcendentals) on being, in such a way that whatever is Being Itself would have to be Goodness Itself and therefore in no way evil. Hence, since God is Being Itself, the claim “If God exists, then He is good” is metaphysically necessary, while the claim “If God exists, He might be evil” is necessarily false. In any event, since Law is the one raising the “evil-god challenge,” the burden is on him to show that the idea of an “evil God” is even intelligible given the metaphysical presuppositions that classical theism rests on, and not on the classical theist to show that it is not intelligible.

Now, I am not here attempting to convince the uninitiated or hostile reader that this complex metaphysical picture I have been describing is correct or even plausible. That would take at least a book, and since Aquinas is just such a book, I direct the interested reader to that. I am also not saying that no reasonable person who familiarizes himself with it could disagree with that picture. I am merely saying that before one disagrees with it, one ought at least to try to understand it. And the things Law says seem to me to show that he does not understand it. An atheist could intelligibly say “I don’t believe that the God of classical theism exists.” He could intelligibly reject the whole metaphysical picture – the privation view, the convertibility of the transcendentals, God as Pure Actuality, the whole ball of wax. What he cannot intelligibly say is “The God of classical theism might in principle have been evil.” Again, the metaphysical system underlying classical theism simply rules out the very idea of an “evil God” on entirely principled and independently motivated grounds – not as a matter of mere ad hoc stipulation – and thus rules out Law’s “evil-god challenge” on entirely principled grounds. Hence, if you want to reject classical theism and not just theistic personalism, you had better look for grounds other than Law’s “evil-god challenge.” To insist on pressing that challenge against it is just to demonstrate one’s fundamental misunderstanding of the position one is criticizing, like the creationist who rejects Darwinism on the grounds that he just can't see how a monkey could have given birth to a human infant.

The reason theistic personalism doesn’t rule Law’s challenge out from the get-go is that theistic personalism typically rests on a very different sort of metaphysics, and conceives of God in far more anthropomorphic terms. In particular, the theistic personalist tends not to think of God as Pure Actuality, Being Itself, Goodness Itself, or the like, but rather as “a person without a body,” like us but without our limitations, who might intelligibly be said to be morally virtuous and to have duties he lives up to. (Again, see the earlier post of mine linked to above.) Theistic personalism is also often associated with a conception of God’s relationship to the world on which it is at least in principle possible that the world might have existed apart from God, so that the question of whether God is the cause of the world becomes an “evidential” or “probabilistic” matter, rather than a matter of strict metaphysical demonstrations of the sort classical theists typically attempt to provide. Hence it becomes a real question for the theistic personalist whether the balance of probabilities really supports belief in a supremely powerful disembodied person who lives up to all his moral obligations, etc. – a way of framing the issue that is, from a classical theistic point of view, totally wrongheaded from the start. In any event, as all of this indicates, the way Law sets up his challenge to the theist clearly presupposes an essentially theistic personalist construal of theism. He does not seem to be aware that there is any difference between this construal and that of classical theism, or that it is the latter view that has, historically, characterized mainstream Christian theology and philosophical theism.

For those who are interested in exploring in greater depth the classical theist approach to the problem of evil, I recommend, as I have before, Brian Davies’ The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil. There is also the late Herbert McCabe’s God and Evil in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, which was recently published and which I have only just started to read, but which promises to be a useful exposition of the Thomistic approach to the subject.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Classical theism, atheism, and the Godfather trilogy

The history of philosophy is like The Godfather Trilogy. The Godfather is one of the best movies ever made. The Godfather Part II is at least as good, and in the view of many people, maybe even better. The Godfather Part III? Well, there is definitely some good stuff in it. And then there is Sofia Coppola’s acting, and the absurd helicopter scene, and the replacement of Robert Duvall’s character with George Hamilton’s.

Compare the ancient, medieval, and modern periods in the history of philosophy: The achievements of the Greek philosophers outshine anything the other pagans were able to accomplish. The great medievals built on, and (in the view of some of us) surpassed, those achievements. The moderns? Well, some of them are very clever; occasionally, they even have something to say which is both original and insightful. But for the most part, what’s new in their work isn’t true and what’s true isn’t new. What’s best about the best of them is mainly that they are effective critics of the worst of them.

Needless to say, that is not a judgment most of the moderns themselves share. But it’s a judgment I’ve defended at length in The Last Superstition, and it is relevant to what I’ve been saying in recent posts about classical theism and theistic personalism. Properly to understand and evaluate classical theism, one needs to have a fairly solid grounding in the ancient and medieval traditions in philosophy. And that is, unfortunately, something even contemporary philosophers tend not to have, let alone pop atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Co.

Unless they are specialists in the history of philosophy, contemporary philosophers mostly read other contemporary philosophers. In grad school, their grounding in the history of their subject usually consists in a course or three on some historical figure, and it is usually early modern thinkers – especially Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche – who are studied. Naturally, a course in Plato or Aristotle might be taken as well, but their metaphysical ideas are likely either to be treated as historical curiosities and veiled behind an impenetrable fog of caricature, or, when treated sympathetically, to be (mis)interpreted in a way that will make them conform to contemporary prejudices. (“Aristotle was a kind of functionalist!”) And for most grad students, the medievals are virtually invisible – a bunch of Catholics who may by accident have said something interesting here or there about logic or free will, but who have even less contemporary relevance than the ancients.

In short, the average contemporary philosopher is like the movie buff who has seen The Godfather Part III fifteen times, has seen a few scenes from The Godfather, though not the best parts, and has never seen The Godfather Part II at all, though he’s heard that a couple minutes of it might be OK. And on the basis of this, he judges that The Godfather Part III is obviously the best film in the series, that The Godfather has a few things going for it at least to the extent that it foreshadows Part III, and that The Godfather Part II isn’t worth bothering with. Needless to say, such a film buff wouldn’t even understand The Godfather Part III as well as he thinks he does, let alone the rest of the series; and most contemporary philosophers don’t understand even the modern period in philosophy as well as they think they do, let alone the centuries that preceded it.

To be sure, the contemporary atheist philosopher has usually read at least Aquinas’s Five Ways, but he also typically very badly misunderstands them, tearing them from their context and reading into them all sorts of modern assumptions that Aquinas would have rejected (as I show at length in Aquinas). You can find on YouTube all sorts of spoof trailers of famous movies “recut” to make them seem radically different – such as The Shining transformed into a romantic comedy, or Back to the Future remade in the image of Brokeback Mountain. The typical atheist commentator on the Five Ways is like the critic of The Godfather Part II who has seen only this YouTube goof assimilating Michael Corleone and Heath Ledger’s Joker.

More generally, judging theism exclusively on the basis of the work of theistic personalists like Paley, Swinburne, and Plantinga is (from a classical theist point of view, anyway) like judging The Godfather Trilogy as a whole on the basis of the best parts of The Godfather Part III alone. And judging theism on the basis of caricatures of theistic personalism – as New Atheist writers tend to do – is like judging the trilogy entirely on the basis of Sofia Coppola’s scenes in Part III. Nor does explaining this to New Atheist types ever seem to make a dent. The “Flying Spaghetti Monster” analogy, the “Courtier’s Reply” dodge, the “If everything has a cause, then what caused God?” canard – a certain kind of atheist is simply too much in love with these sleazy rhetorical moves ever to give them up. Just when you think you’re done with them, they pull you back in.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Reno and Beckwith on Aquinas

Some very kind words from theologian R. R. Reno over at First Thoughts:

As long as I’m quoting Ed Feser, I’ll recommend his superb book on the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide. I started reading it on the plane back to Omaha last Friday and couldn’t put it down. Feser explains basic concepts in metaphysics very well, and he gives the clearest, most helpful account of the famous Five Ways, the proofs St. Thomas gives for the existence of God, that I’ve read. I’ve often taught the Five Ways, and after reading Feser I’ll do a much better job next time.

And philosopher Francis Beckwith recommends Aquinas alongside the works of Ralph McInerny and Brian Davies. I’m red-faced. Thanks, fellas!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Very informal fallacies

Logic students sometimes misremember or misspell the names of fallacies. One danger this poses is that it can inspire bored logic teachers to take a break from grading exams and write up ill-considered “humor” pieces. And so, in this blog’s proud tradition of rollicking comedy, here are some fallacies you’ve never heard of (though I bet you’ve committed a few of ‘em):

Post doc, ergo propter doc: The delusion that a Ph.D. confers wisdom, or even basic competence. Example: “Of course the medievals thought the earth was flat. It says so in the book! Who’s the professor here, anyway?”

Red hair-ing: Believing that something is true simply because a really hot redhead said it. Example: “Omigosh, Christina Hendricks is so hot. I would totally believe anything she says.”

Appeal to minority: The smug presumption that popular opinion, tradition, and plain common sense are always likely to be wrong. Often committed in conjunction with the Post doc fallacy. Example: “Of course, this goes against everything your parents, your pastor, and pretty much everyone else have always believed. So it must be true!”

Question the begging: Knee-jerk tendency to think that panhandlers, hard-up relatives, government employees, etc. are only going to blow any money you give them on booze and cigarettes. Not really a fallacy at all. Example: “I don’t care if he’s a legless veteran with five children and rickets! Didn’t you see that iPod?”

Democratic fallacy: Being a member of the Democratic Party and/or voting for Democratic Party candidates. Example: “I intend to vote Democrat this year.”

Affirming the consequences: Assuming that consequences are all that matter in morality. Also known as “consequentialism,” and often mistaken for an actual moral theory. Example: Pick any random sentence from a Peter Singer book.

Ad Eminem: Paranoid suspicion among some readers of right-wing blogs that absolutely everything about modern culture leads inexorably to rap music, pornography, and women wearing slacks. Example: “Did you read Feser’s blog post defending jazz?! Next he’ll be linking to YouTube clips from The Marshall Mathers LP!”

Friday, October 8, 2010

God, man, and classical theism

In the discussion generated by my recent post on classical theism (both here and at What’s Wrong with the World), several people have raised the question of whether the seemingly remote and abstract God of classical theism can plausibly be thought to take any interest at all in human beings, and in particular whether he can plausibly be identified with the God of Christianity, who definitely has such an interest. The theistic personalist claims that the conceptions are incompatible, which is why he rejects classical theism. I want in this follow-up post to note some of the problems with this position.

1. As Aquinas says, the argument from authority is the weakest of arguments when the authority in question is a human one. But it is still an argument. And it is the strongest of arguments when the authority is divine. Consider, then, that many of the great classical theists referred to in my previous post – thinkers like Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas (to stick just with the A’s) – were also among the greatest of Christian theologians, and not only saw no difficulty in identifying the God of classical theism with the God of the Bible, but appealed to scriptural passages no less than to philosophical considerations in defending classical theism. Consider also that some of the key elements of the classical theist conception of God – such as God’s simplicity, immutability, and eternity – are considered irreformable, de fide doctrines of the Catholic Church, affirmed by the fourth Lateran council and the first Vatican council. For Catholics, who believe on independent grounds that the solemn doctrinal pronouncements of such councils are infallible, that suffices to show that classical theism is backed by divine authority. Non-Catholics will, naturally, take a different view, but if they take Christian tradition seriously they must at least regard the testimony of Church fathers, and of eminent theologians and ecclesiastical councils over the course of many centuries, as weighty evidence in favor of classical theism.

2. It is no good merely to point out that certain biblical passages seem to conflict with the conception of God affirmed by classical theism. For no one, not even theistic personalists, believes that all biblical descriptions of God are to be taken literally in the first place. For example, no one thinks that God literally has eyelids (Psalm 11), or nostrils (Ezekiel 18:18), or that he breathes (Job 4:9). These can’t be literal descriptions given that the organs and activities in question presuppose the having of a material body, which God cannot have since He is the creator of the material world. So, if the theistic personalist wants to insist on a literal reading of some passage that seems incompatible with classical theism, he needs to give us some account of why we should take that passage literally even though we shouldn’t take other ones literally. And he is going to have a hard time doing that. For notice that the reason why we don’t take the passages about eyelids, nostrils, etc. literally is that a literal reading would conflict with other things we know about God from the Bible, such as that He is the creator of the material world. But this same consistency criterion poses problems for some of the things the theistic personalist wants to affirm. For example, some theistic personalists hold that God is (contrary to what classical theism holds) capable of changing, on the basis of biblical passages which when taken literally would imply that God sometimes changes His mind. But other biblical passages (e.g. Malachi 3:6 and James 1:17) insist that God does not change. How do we reconcile them? The classical theist answers that we already know from following out the implications of God’s being the first cause of all things that He must be simple and thus unchanging, so that it is the passages that imply otherwise that must be given a metaphorical reading.

3. Of course, the theistic personalist may at this point decide to modify his understanding of God as creator rather than accept classical theism. For example, he might acknowledge that the classical theist is correct to say that if God has the sort of absolute metaphysical ultimacy classical theism attributes to Him, then He must be simple, immutable, and eternal, in which case biblical passages like those which seem to imply that God sometimes changes His mind could not be taken literally. But the theistic personalist might then respond by rejecting the idea that God is absolutely metaphysically ultimate in the way the classical theist claims He is, so as to preserve a literal reading of the passages in question. But there are two problems with this sort of move. First, it is doubtful that it can be reconciled with what has traditionally been understood to be Christian orthodoxy – though this would, of course, not necessarily trouble process theologians and other theological revisionists. But second, the move in question does nothing to show that the arguments of classical theists are wrong. After all, the classical theist typically claims that we can show through philosophical arguments that the God of classical theism exists. If this is correct, then if we also accept the biblical descriptions of God, it follows that the only right way to read them is in a way consistent with classical theism. And as I have said, that is, of course, exactly what the great Christian theologians of the past and the councils cited above did. The Christian classical theist holds that his approach is the only way to reconcile what we know of God from both reason and revelation. It won’t do, then, for the critic of classical theism to dig in his heels and insist on a literal reading of biblical passages that seem to support theistic personalism. He has to show that the philosophical arguments for classical theism are mistaken, and thus that the possibility of a literal reading is open to him in the first place.

4. It is in any event a serious mistake to think that classical theism is motivated by purely philosophical considerations (and “Greek” or “pagan” ones at that) while theistic personalism is more sensitive to specifically Christian and biblical concerns. Consider the central theistic personalist thesis that God is a person like we are, only without our bodily and other limitations. As Brian Davies points out in The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, one of the most remarkable things to note about this sort of claim is how foreign it is to what has historically been regarded as Christian orthodoxy:

The formula ‘God is a person’ is (given the history of theistic thinking and writing) a relatively recent one. I believe that its first occurrence in English comes in the report of a trial of someone called John Biddle (b. 1615), who in 1644 was brought before the magistrates of Gloucester, England, on a charge of heresy. His ‘heresy’ was claiming that God is a person. Biddle was explicitly defending Unitarian beliefs about God, already in evidence among Socinians outside England.

In other words, Biddle’s ‘God is a person’ was intended as a rejection of the orthodox Christian claim that God is three persons in one substance (the doctrine of the Trinity). One can hardly take it to be a traditional Christian answer to the question ‘What is God?’ According to the doctrine of the Trinity, God is certainly not three persons in one person. And when orthodox exponents of the doctrine speak of Father, Son, and Spirit as ‘persons,’ they certainly do not take ‘person’ to mean what it seems to mean for [Richard] Swinburne and those who agree with him. They do not, for example, think of the persons of the Trinity as distinct centres of consciousness, or as three members of a kind. (pp. 59-60)

Davies goes on to emphasize that as used within the context of Trinitarian theology, “person” translates the Latin persona, which in turn was intended to translate the Greek theological terms prosopon and hypostasis – both of which have precise theological meanings and neither of which is intended to convey the idea of a “person” in the sense in which a human being is a person. Indeed, even apart from questions of orthodoxy, the idea that God is three Persons in one substance entails that God cannot “a person” in the way that we are, since for there to be two or more human persons is precisely for there to be two or more substances. (This is true regardless of which theory of personal identity one endorses, even a Lockean “continuity of consciousness” account. For even if two streams of consciousness, and thus two Lockean persons, existed in the same body, qua persons they would be only contingently associated with that body and thus not “in” that one material substance in the sense in which the three divine Persons are “in” one divine substance.)

In short, for the classical theist, theistic personalism is bad philosophy and bad theology.

5. As I emphasized in the earlier post, that does not mean that God is impersonal, since according to classical theism there is in God something analogous to what we call intellect and will in us, and other attributes too which presuppose intellect and will (such as justice, mercy, and love – where “love” is understood, not as a passion, but as the willing of another’s good). And this brings me to one final point, which is that even apart from biblical revelation, and on philosophical grounds alone, we have reason to conclude that the God of classical theism takes a special interest in man.

Consider that for at least some classical theists, philosophical arguments alone can tell us not only that there is a God, but also that human beings have immaterial and immortal souls. For Thomists, they tell us further that the soul is related to the body as form is to matter, so that though the soul survives the death of the body, the human person does not, and can come to life again only if soul and body are reunited; that the soul cannot arise out of the material processes that suffice for the generation of lower animals but must be specially created by God with each new human being; and that our natural end is God Himself, so that we cannot be happy apart from Him. Now, that there will indeed be a resurrection of the dead, as well as the details of the Christian account of salvation, are further facts that cannot be known apart from divine revelation. But what (many) classical theists regard as knowable through reason alone and apart from specifically Christian theology already suffices to show that God has a very special interest in man indeed – so much so that He specially creates each individual human soul for a natural end that involves knowing Him everlastingly, in a way that requires a further divine intervention in the form of a resurrection if it is perfectly going to be fulfilled. It can hardly be that surprising, then, that the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob turn out to be the same.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Philippa Foot (1920 – 2010)

My interest in Aristotelianism began as an interest in Aristotelian ethics, specifically. It was sparked by my discovery of the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Philippa Foot while I was still an undergraduate. A close associate of Elizabeth Anscombe, Foot was among the key thinkers responsible for the revival of Aristotelian themes in ethics, and of “virtue ethics” in particular. Her books Virtues and Vices and Natural Goodness are among the best things written in contemporary moral philosophy. Here and here are the obituaries from The Telegraph and The Guardian; some reflections from Lawrence Solum; and an interview reprinted by The Philosophers’ Magazine. RIP.