Friday, December 30, 2011

Hitchens, Dawkins, and Craig

As I have said, I never thought it was realistic to expect a deathbed conversion from Christopher Hitchens.  But for all his ill-informed ranting and raving on the subject of religion, Hitchens was capable of showing a manful, basic decency toward the other side in a way some other New Atheists are not.  Consider these remarks by Hitchens about William Lane Craig, prior to their debate:

And compare them to the cringe-makingly dishonest tactics employed by Richard Dawkins in avoiding the public debate with Craig that he so obviously fears, and to these remarks:

(Hat tip to Peter Byrom for calling my attention to Hitchens’ comments.   Peter is the guy in the second clip asking Dawkins the question about Craig.)

Dawkins is a petty man.  Hitchens was not that.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reading Rosenberg, Part V

In the previous installment of our look at Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, we began to examine what Rosenberg has to say about biological phenomena.  This time I want to take a brief detour and consider some of what Rosenberg says about the subject in his book Darwinian Reductionism.  I noted that while Atheist’s Guide pushes a generally uncompromising eliminative materialist line, Rosenberg resists the “eliminativist” label where issues in the philosophy of biology are concerned, and presents his views in that field as reductionist.  Darwinian Reductionism (a more serious book than Atheist’s Guide, and of independent interest) explains why.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Links of interest

Kathrin Koslicki and Tuomas Tahko are two important contributors to the current revival of interest in neo-Aristotelian metaphysics.  Tahko’s commentary on Koslicki’s book The Structure of Objects is available via his blog.

Mike Flynn, hard SF writer extraordinaire and friend of this blog, is interviewed here.

David Goldman argues that, like Europe, the Islamic world is facing a catastrophic decline in population.  

An interview at with the executive director of the winery that produces the Aquinas line of wines.

Robert Pasnau discusses Averroës, the decline of Islamic philosophy, and the revival of philosophy in the medieval West.

Metaphysician Stephen Mumford describes the influence superhero comic books had upon him.

New and recent books to watch for: 

Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, Getting Causes from Powers

Something new from the late David Stove: What’s Wrong with Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment [Links to reviews here.  Scroll down.]

Bruce Charlton, another friend of this blog, has recently published Thought Prison: The Fundamental Nature of Political Correctness

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hayek and Popper

My paper “Hayek, Popper, and the Causal Theory of the Mind” appears in the latest volume of Advances in Austrian Economics, a special issue edited by Leslie Marsh and devoted to the theme Hayek in Mind: Hayek’s Philosophical Psychology.  The publisher’s web page for the volume is here.  You can find Marsh’s website devoted to the book here, the table of contents here, and Marsh’s introduction to the volume here.  Here’s the abstract of my article (which follows the publisher’s required abstract format):

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Christmas gift to you…

We’ve had some things to say about nothing (here, here, and here), or at least about how some people who themselves claim to have something to say about nothing in fact have nothing, or at least nothing of importance, to say about nothing.  Or something like that.  One thing’s for sure, and that’s that this is a subject about which one had better have a sense of humor.

So, for the blog reader who has everything, here’s a little more about nothing, and on the lighter side.  (Nothing can be pretty heavy, after all.)  For something on nothing written along philosophical but humorous lines, there’s nothing better than P. L. Heath’s article “Nothing” from the 1967 Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards.  Something also worth reading about nothing is Jim Holt’s “Nothing Ventured,” from the November 1994 issue of Harper’s.  Holt’s book on the subject, Why Does the World Exist?, is due to appear (not out of nothing, presumably) next year.  I’ll no doubt have something to say about it when it does.  (Holt’s little book Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, about which I’ve long been meaning to write up a blog post, is terrific.)

No need to thank me.  It was nothing.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The phenomenology of spirits

Human life is tragic.  And while there are, without question, a great many evils we would all wish away in a heartbeat if only we could, to wish away all of them would be to wish away much of what gives our existence depth and meaning.  Every grownup knows that life would lose its savor if it entirely lost its bite.  (Of course, a certain kind of atheist thinks that a really loving God would have made the world a 24/7 Disneyland.  But I was talking about grownups.)  

Nor are the pains always extrinsic to the pleasures.  Some of them are built in; indeed, the greatest earthly delights are never without a sharp sting.  Examples are all around us: Tobacco.  Women.  And whiskey.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Greene on Nozick on nothing

Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality surveys the various speculations about parallel universes on offer in contemporary physics.  Toward the end of the book, Greene discusses a proposal put forward by Robert Nozick in chapter 2 of his book Philosophical Explanations.  (Turns out that Greene took a course with Nozick at the time Nozick was writing the book.)  Greene notes that even if any of the multiverse theories currently discussed by physicists -- those inspired by quantum mechanics, string theory, inflationary cosmology, or what have you -- turned out to be correct, one could always ask why the world is as the theory describes it, rather than some other way.  (This is one reason why it is no good to appeal to such theories as a way of blocking arguments for God as an Uncaused Cause of the world.  We had occasion recently to note some other problems with this atheist strategy.)  But Nozick put forward a version that Greene regards as not subject to this question -- what Greene calls the Ultimate Multiverse theory.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

Christopher Hitchens, who had been suffering from esophageal cancer for over a year, has died.  I think I first came across his work around 1990, at the time his book Blood, Class, and Nostalgia appeared.  (My copy is still around here somewhere.)  I recall seeing him on television -- grilling some George H. W. Bush administration official, perhaps -- and being very impressed by his forceful and formidable intelligence.  I have always been conservative and have usually disagreed with him, but I followed his work with interest from that point on, long before he started to please right-wingers with his well-argued criticisms of the Clintons and support for the Iraq war.  He was almost always smart, funny, and interesting even when he was wrong.

Except on religion, where he was a complete bore and an insufferable hack.  There is no use sugar-coating that fact now that he is gone, and Hitchens was not in any event a fan of the polite obituary.  Religion is the last subject about which to have a tin ear or a closed mind, and Hitchens had both.  Some Catholics seem to have gotten it into their heads over the last year that he might convert -- as if someone who is overtly so very hostile to Catholicism simply must be compensating for a secret longing for it, and is sure to be moved by the prospect of imminent death to let his inhibitions fall away.  This struck me as romantic fantasy, born of too steady a diet of happy “crossing the Tiber” stories.  Sometimes a man has mixed feelings about you, but will accentuate the negative, loath as he is to acknowledge the merits of an adversary.  And sometimes he just hates your guts, and that’s that.  As far as I know, Hitchens was no closer on his deathbed to becoming the next Malcolm Muggeridge than he had been when penning his decidedly un-Muggeridgean book about Mother Teresa.   I very much hope I am wrong.  

The Hitchens jokes in The Last Superstition are the only ones with any affection behind them -- well, some of them have it, anyway.  (No one who knows me or my work could think I regard a crack about one’s affection for the sauce as a serious insult.  Which makes it ironic that the one joke my publisher demanded I remove was a certain jibe about Hitchens’ boozing.)  Of the four horsemen of the New Atheism, Hitchens was the only one I found likable, and the only one possessed of a modicum of wisdom about the human condition, or at least as much wisdom about the human condition as one can have while remaining essentially a man of the Left.  While there was rather too obviously something of the champagne socialist about him, I do not doubt that he had real concern for real human beings -- rather than merely for grotesque abstractions like “the working class” or “humanity” -- and that he showed real moral and even physical courage in defense of what he sincerely took to be the best interests of real human beings.  But love for one’s fellow man, however genuine, is only the second greatest commandment.  

May God comfort his family, and may God have mercy on his soul.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Reading Rosenberg, Part IV

Alex Rosenberg’s dubious use of physics was the focus of the previous installment of our look at his new book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  In this post we’ll look at his dubious biological claims.  “When physics disposed of purposes,” Rosenberg tells us, “it did so for biology as well.”  Now as I’ve noted before, in fact modern physics has not “disposed” of purposes at all, if what Rosenberg means by this is that physics has somehow established the metaphysical claim that the material world is devoid of objective teleological features.  All it has done is to make the purely methodological move of confining itself to non-teleological descriptions of the phenomena it studies.  This no more shows that teleology doesn’t exist than the fact that I am confining my comments in this post to Rosenberg’s work shows that no other philosophers exist.  Moreover, the non-teleological methodology of modern physics rules out irreducibly teleological explanations in biology only if you buy into Rosenberg’s “physics or bust” brand of scientism, which he has given us no good reason to do.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Radio Free Aquinas

I’ll be on The Frank Pastore Show on KKLA Radio on Thursday, December 8 (tomorrow) from 5 - 6 pm PST to discuss The Last Superstition and Aquinas

UPDATE: It was a great show.  The podcast is now available on Frank's site.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Dawkins vs. Dawkins (Updated)

During my Catholic Answers Live interview last Monday, I noted that Richard Dawkins refuses to debate philosopher William Lane Craig.  Dawkins’ representative Sean Faircloth, who was also on the show, did not contradict this.  On the contrary, Faircloth defended Dawkins’ refusal to debate Craig.  Still, after the interview, Patrick Coffin, the host of the show, received the following email from Dawkins:

Dear Mr Coffin

Contrary to what was repeatedly said on your show, I HAVE debated William Lane Craig, in a nationally televised debate in Mexico in 2010, and he was DEEPLY unimpressive.  I hope you will correct the record in your next show.

Richard Dawkins

Now, I certainly want the record to be correct.  But if it isn’t true that Dawkins refuses to debate Craig, where could anyone have gotten the idea that he does refuse?  Well, for starters, from the fact that Dawkins published an article in the Guardian just this past October with the title “Why I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig” -- an article reprinted on the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and widely discussed online.  That does rather give the impression that Dawkins refuses to debate Craig, no?  So, perhaps Dawkins should send himself an email demanding a correction.  And if, in future, he doesn’t want people to get the idea that he refuses to debate with William Lane Craig, he might consider not saying -- loudly, publicly, online and in print -- things like “I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


The Montréal Review kindly runs a précis of The Last Superstition in their latest edition.  While you’re over there, do browse through TMR’s website -- lots of interesting pieces on philosophy, religion, politics, history, science, literature, you name it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

TLS on radio

I’ll be on the Catholic Answers Live radio show tomorrow at 7 pm ET to discuss The Last Superstition.  (You might be able to find podcasts of earlier radio interviews by following the links you’ll find here, though I believe most of them are no longer available.)

UPDATE: The podcast is now available here.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Palmer on libertarianism

My review of Tom G. Palmer’s recent book Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice appears in the latest issue of Reason Papers, now edited by Carrie-Ann Biondi and Irfan Khawaja.  (For the full contents of the current issue and of archived issues, go here.)

Friday, November 25, 2011

TLS and formal causes

The website Apologetics 315 kindly reviews my book The Last Superstition.  I’ll let you check out the nice things said about the book for yourself and cut to the reviewer’s main criticism:

Feser convincingly shows throughout the book that Final Causation is inevitable.  Even if someone might say they don't believe in it, no one can really escape it.  But once the Final Cause is firmly established, Feser tries to sneak in the Formal Cause as well, by piggybacking on top of it.  This seemed insufficient.  Based on what Richard Dawkins in particular has written, evolution itself undermines the Formal Cause.  He claimes [sic] that there is no static 'Form', because life is constantly and mindlessly changing.  Although Feser tackled the Final Cause aspect of this line of thinking extremely well, this reviewer would have liked to hear more about why Dawkins and others are mistaken about Formal Causality specifically.  Especially since so much rests on it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What part of “nothing” don’t you understand?

While we’re on the subject of bad cosmological speculations:  A reader asked me some time back to comment on this little video from New Scientist, which summarizes some of the claims made in an article from the July 23 issue on the theme “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  The magazine has been sitting on my gargantuan “to read” stack for a few months, and I've finally turned to it for some light reading.  And boy is it ever light.  Could anything possibly be as bad as the cringe-making pseudo-scientific amateur philosophizing on this subject we had reason to examine a few months ago?  Oh yes.  Oh my goodness, yes.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Broken Law (Updated)

So, a year after promising a reply to my detailed critique of his “evil god challenge,” Stephen Law’s long-awaited response (see the combox remarks he links to) mostly comes to this: You just don’t get it.  Go re-read my paper and this article by Wes Morriston.

“Courtier’s reply,” anyone?

Though he dismisses them as “awful,” Law does not respond in any substantive way to the points I made in my critique.  He does offer a few brief remarks intended to clarify his position, but they serve only to reinforce, rather than answer, my objections.  I’m not going to repeat everything I’ve said before -- if you haven’t already, go read my original post on Law (since which I’ve written a few other relevant posts, which I’ve linked to here).  But you might recall that the problem with Law’s position is as follows.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Reading Rosenberg, Part III

Continuing our look at Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, we come to Rosenberg’s treatment of the question “Where did the big bang come from?”  As serious students of the cosmological argument for the existence of God are aware, most of its defenders historically (including key figures like Aristotle, Aquinas, and Leibniz) are not arguing for a temporal first cause of the world.  Their claim is not that God must have caused the world to begin (though some of them believe that He did, for independent reasons) but rather that He must continually be sustaining the world in existence, and would have to be doing so even if the universe had no beginning.  But there is a version of the cosmological argument that does argue for a temporal first cause of the world, namely the kalām cosmological argument.  Rosenberg does not explicitly address any specific version of either argument, but he is, in effect, trying to rebut them both.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Reading Rosenberg, Part II

We saw in part I of this series that Alex Rosenberg’s new book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality is less about atheism than it is about scientism, the view that science alone gives us knowledge of reality.  This is so in two respects.  First, Rosenberg’s atheism is just one implication among others of his scientism, and the aim of the book is to spell out what else follows from scientism, rather than to say much in defense of atheism.  Second, that it follows from his scientism is thus the only argument Rosenberg really gives for atheism.  Thus, most of what he has to say ultimately rests on his scientism.  If he has no good arguments for scientism, then he has no good arguments either for atheism or for most of the other, more bizarre, conclusions he defends in the book.

So, does Rosenberg have any good arguments for scientism?  He does not.  In fact, he has only one argument for it, and it is quite awful.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Crickets still chirping... (Updated)

Over a year ago, in the combox of a post on another topic, a reader asked for my opinion of Stephen Law’s “evil-god challenge” to theism.  In the same combox, I dashed off some brief remarks in response.  To my surprise, Law called attention to my off-the-cuff remarks over at his own blog, and offered a testy response in my combox.  He suggested that I read his article on the subject and told his own readers: “I have rattled [Feser’s] cage with a comment… Wonder if he'll respond?”

Well, I did read his article and I did respond both to the article and to his combox remarks, non-polemically and in detail.   Over a year later, I am still waiting for Law’s reply – a reply he said he would write.  Wonder if he’ll ever get to it?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Reading Rosenberg, Part I

I called attention in an earlier post to my review in First Things of Alex Rosenberg’s new book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  Here I begin a series of posts devoted to examining Rosenberg’s book in more detail than I had space for in the review.  The book is worthy of such attention because Rosenberg sees more clearly than any other prominent atheist just how extreme are the implications of the scientism on which modern atheists tend to base their position.  Indeed, it is amazing how similar his conclusions are to those I argue follow from scientism in chapters 5 and 6 of The Last Superstition.  The difference is that whereas I claim that these consequences constitute a reductio ad absurdum of the premises that lead to them, Rosenberg regards them as “pretty obvious” and “totally unavoidable” truths about an admittedly “rough reality,” which atheists should embrace despite its roughness.  How rough is it?  Writes Rosenberg:

Science -- especially physics and biology -- reveals that reality is completely different from what most people think.  It’s not just different from what credulous religious believers think.  Science reveals that reality is stranger than even many atheists recognize. (p. ix)


The right answers are ones that even some scientists have not been comfortable with and have sought to avoid or water down. (p. xii)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Magic versus metaphysics

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke

Any sufficiently rigorously defined magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Larry Niven

Some atheists are intellectually serious.  Some are not.  There are several infallible marks by which an atheist might show himself to be intellectually unserious.  Thinking “What caused God?” is a good objection to the cosmological argument is one.  Being impressed by the “one god further” objection is another.  A third is the suggestion that theism entails a belief in “magical beings.”  Anyone who says this either doesn’t know what theism is or doesn’t know what magic is.  Or (no less likely) doesn’t much care one way or the other – it’s another handy straw man, useful for those who want to believe that theistic arguments are manifestly fallacious or otherwise silly, or who find it rhetorically useful to pretend that they are.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tollefsen channels Rawls

Over at Public Discourse, Chris Tollefsen has replied to my most recent contribution to our ongoing exchange over the death penalty.  (Go here for links to the earlier parts of the exchange.)  Tollefsen claims that I have not adequately addressed his arguments against capital punishment.  Echoing liberal political philosopher John Rawls’s conception of justice as “political, not metaphysical,” Tollefsen insists that just punishment, in particular, ought to be construed as political rather than metaphysical.  That is to say, it is a means of “restor[ing] a kind of equality between citizens that the criminal’s overly self-assertive act(s) of will had disrupted,” and not a matter of inflicting on criminals something that they “deserve… in some absolute sense.”  The trouble with my position, Tollefsen says, is that it is metaphysical, a matter of looking at justice “from the point of view of the universe, not of the state.”

Monday, October 17, 2011

Review of Rosenberg

My review of Alex Rosenberg’s new book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality appears in the November issue of First Things.  (Unfortunately, the review is behind a pay wall, or I’d link to it.)  If you want a sense of what the book is like, first consider all the ludicrous implications that I argue follow from scientism in chapters 5 and 6 of The Last Superstition; and then consider someone taking (at least some of) those implications, not as a reductio ad absurdum of scientism, but as a set of surprising consequences that every atheist should happily embrace.   Whatever else one could say about him, Rosenberg is more consistent than other naturalists.  For that reason the book deserves a wide readership.  Those beholden to scientism should know that they are committing themselves to a position that is absolutely bizarre, and indeed utterly incoherent. 

We have had reason to discuss Rosenberg’s ideas before (here, here, and here), when considering an essay of his that first sketched out the themes he now develops at greater length in the book.  We will have reason to consider them further, for I intend in a series of future posts to analyze the book in greater detail than I had space for in the review.  Stay tuned.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Weekend reading

A few articles worthy of your attention: R. J. Stove, conservative writer and son of the late conservative atheist philosopher David Stove, writes movingly of his parents and of his conversion to Catholicism.

Some Aristotelian metaphysics: David Oderberg’s article “Essence and Properties,” from the latest issue of Erkenntnis.  

More metaphysics: A review of philosopher Crawford Elder’s important new book Familiar Objects and Their Shadows, a defense of commonsense realism.

In his recent book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, atheist polymath philosopher Raymond Tallis takes out the “neurotrash” that passes these days for the scientific study of human nature.  One response to Tallis cited in the Chronicle article stands out for its sheer comedy value: 

Perhaps the harshest reaction comes from [Daniel] Dennett, an influential U.S. philosopher whose books square human life with science.  He sympathizes with Tallis's concerns.  But what every philosopher should know is that any philosopher—Plato, Hume, Kant, take your pick—"can be made to look like a flaming idiot if you oversimplify and caricature them," Dennett tells me.

"Tallis indulges in refutation by caricature," says Dennett, a professor of philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.  "He's not taking his opponents seriously.  He's sneering instead of arguing.  He's ignoring the complexities of the arguments.  So he's not really doing philosophy.  He's doing propaganda." 

Why, one would almost think Dennett was talking about the author of Breaking the Spell -- who, as someone once showed, has nothing to offer in the way of criticism of the philosophical arguments for theism except oversimplification and caricature. 

This sort of hypocritical whining is nothing new from Dennett.  He may just be the most self-unaware human being on the planet.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tollefsen on capital punishment

My article “Punishment, Proportionality, and the Death Penalty,” a reply to Christopher Tollefsen’s latest piece on capital punishment, is now up over at Public Discourse.  (If you’re trying to keep track of the recent debate: Tollefsen’s earlier Public Discourse article on capital punishment can be found here, and I replied to it here, with a follow-up here.  Steven Long replied to Tollefsen’s earlier piece here.  I have also discussed Catholic teaching on capital punishment here and here.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Upcoming conferences

St. Louis University will be hosting the American Catholic Philosophical Association annual meeting this year, on October 28 -30.  I’ll be presenting a paper on “The Medieval Principle of Motion and the Modern Principle of Inertia” at the session of the Society for Medieval Logic and Metaphysics.

The Franciscan University of Steubenville will be hosting a conference on the theme Can Science Inform Our Understanding of God?, on December 2-3.  Speakers include Stephen Barr, Michael Behe, William E. Carroll, Jay Richards, Alvin Plantinga, Benjamin Wiker, and me.  My paper will be on the theme “Natural Theology Must Be Grounded in the Philosophy of Nature, Not Natural Science.”

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Harper on original sin

In the last of my recent posts on original sin, I cited Thomas Harper’s long out-of-print little book The Immaculate Conception as containing a very useful discussion of the doctrine.  The book is actually an edited excerpt from Harper’s larger 1866 work Peace Through the Truth, or Essays connected with Dr. Pusey’s Eirenicon.  A reader, FrH, has kindly alerted me that the section from Peace Through the Truth containing Harper’s discussion of original sin is available online here.  (Take note of the “Transcriber’s note” at the beginning of the passage.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Best book titles ever

Well, the best of those I see around me on the bookshelves in my study, anyway.  And by “best” I don’t mean “most profound” or “most helpful in conveying the book’s contents.”  I mean “funniest.”  But I don’t mean funniest among the titles of books that are themselves intended to be funny.  I mean funniest among the titles of “serious” books.  The list is surprisingly short.  Serious writers, it seems, just don’t give funny names to serious books.  Go figure.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

On rehabilitation and execution

If you haven’t seen it yet, you should take a look at Steven Long’s response to Chris Tollefsen’s recent arguments against capital punishment.  Tollefsen has now replied to my own criticisms of his views, and I will respond to his latest, and address some of the issues Long raises, in a later post.  In this post I want to respond to some questions raised by a reader of my article on Tollefsen.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

In defense of capital punishment

I have a new piece up over at Public Discourse responding to a recent critique of capital punishment by Christopher Tollefsen.  (In earlier posts I have defended the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment from the point of view of traditional natural law theory and Catholic moral theology.  In this post I criticize the failure of some churchmen to present the entirety of Catholic teaching on this subject, and to convey thereby the false impression that the Church’s attitude toward capital punishment is “liberal.”  In this post, I criticize an earlier piece by Tollefsen.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Modern biology and original sin, Part II

In part I of this series (and in a response to critics of part I) I addressed the question of whether monogenism of the sort entailed by the doctrine of original sin is compatible with modern biology.  I have argued that it is.  In this post I want to address the question of whether modern biology is consistent with the claim that the ancestors of all human beings transmitted the stain of original sin to their descendents via propagation rather than mere imitation.  The correct answer to this question, I maintain, is also in the affirmative.  Critics of the doctrine of original sin often suppose that it claims that there is something like an “original sin gene” passed down from parents to offspring.  And this, of course, seems highly dubious from a biological point of view.  They also suppose that to say that Adam’s descendents inherited from him the stain of original sin is like saying that Al Capone’s descendents somehow inherited from him his guilt for the crimes he committed, and deserve to be punished for those crimes.  And this too seems absurd and unjust.  But both of these objections rest on egregious misunderstandings of the doctrine.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Pop culture roundup

Two or three of my readers have expressed interest in my posts on movies, popular music, and pop culture in general.  And I’ll bet at least twice that many are interested.  So, for you fans of pretentious pop culture analysis, here’s a roundup of relevant posts and articles.  For the most part I’ve included only those that are fairly substantive.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Some varieties of atheism

A religion typically has both practical and theoretical aspects.  The former concern its moral teachings and rituals, the latter its metaphysical commitments and the way in which its practical teachings are systematically articulated.  An atheist will naturally reject not only the theoretical aspects, but also the practical ones, at least to the extent that they presuppose the theoretical aspects.  But different atheists will take different attitudes to each of the two aspects, ranging from respectful or even regretful disagreement to extreme hostility.  And distinguishing these various possible attitudes can help us to understand how the New Atheism differs from earlier varieties.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Monkey in your soul?

Before we get to part II of my series on modern biology and original sin, I want briefly to reply to some of the responses made to part I.  Recall that my remarks overlapped with points recently made by Mike Flynn and by Kenneth Kemp in his American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly article “Science, Theology, and Monogenesis” (which, I have since discovered, is available online).  If you haven’t yet read Flynn and Kemp, you should do so before reading anything else on this subject.  As they argue, there is no conflict between the genetic evidence that modern humans descended from a population of at least several thousand individuals, and the theological claim that modern humans share a common pair of ancestors.  For suppose we regard the pair in question as two members of this larger group who, though genetically related to the others, are distinct from them in having immaterial souls, which (from the point of view of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy and Catholic theology) are a necessary condition for the possession of genuine intellectual powers and can be only be imparted directly by God.  Only this pair and their descendents, to whom God also imparts souls and thus intellects, would count as human in the metaphysical and theologically relevant sense, even if the other members of the original larger group are human in the purely biological sense.  As Kemp writes:

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten years on

I had been out of grad school for a couple of years, but I was still keeping grad school hours.  Having stayed up very late the night before and not having to teach that day, I was exhausted and intent on sleeping in.  So when my wife tried to wake me before leaving for work, I barely registered what she was telling me.  World Trade Center?  Airplanes?  What the hell is she talking about?  Doesn’t she know I’m not going to get anything done today if I don’t get some rest?  I rolled over, weariness, irritation, and confusion drowning curiosity, and fell back asleep.

Some time later I woke up again.  The edge had been taken off exhaustion and curiosity took control.  As I lay there rubbing the sleep from my eyes I tried to remember.  What was it that she had said?  Something weird.  I got up and turned on the TV. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Modern biology and original sin, Part I

Our friend John Farrell has caused a bit of a stir in the blogosphere with his recent Forbes piece on modern biology and the doctrine of original sin.  Citing some remarks by Jerry Coyne, John tells us that he agrees with Coyne’s view that the doctrine is “easily falsified by modern genetics,” according to which “modern humans descended from a group of no fewer than 10,000 individuals” rather than just two individuals.  Those who have responded to John’s piece include Michael Liccione, Bill Vallicella (here and here), James Chastek, and Mike Flynn

Several things puzzle me about John’s article.  The first, of course, is why he would take seriously anything Jerry Coyne has to say about theology.  (We’ve seen ample evidence that Coyne is an ignoramus on the subject -- some of the relevant links are gathered here.)  The second is why John seems to think that the falsification of the doctrine of original sin is something the Catholic Church could “adapt” to.  (John’s article focuses on Catholicism.)  After all, the doctrine is hardly incidental.  It is de fide -- presented as infallible teaching -- and it is absolutely integral to the structure of Catholic theology.  If it were wrong, then Catholic theology would be incoherent and the Church’s teaching authority would be undermined.  Hence, to give it up would implicitly be to give up Catholicism, not merely “adapt” it to modern science.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Movies, comic books, and sequential art

I had occasion recently to take a few of the kids to see Captain America: The First Avenger.  As a lifelong movie, comic book, and science fiction fan I was preprogrammed to like it so long as it met the minimal standards a comic book flick is expected to live up to these days.  And I think the movie not only met but exceeded them.  Characters like Captain America and the Red Skull can look striking on a comic book cover, if you’re into that sort of thing.  (Some nice examples from over the decades can be found here, here, and here.)  But getting them to look anything but ridiculous in flesh and blood is very hard to pull off.  Yet the filmmakers did it.  Indeed, what I found most remarkable about the movie was just how gorgeous the thing looked up there on the big screen.  Its art deco, pulp magazine aesthetic conveys an almost completely convincing science-fiction version of the 1940s.  (I say “almost” only because I thought the Hydra agents’ uniforms and weaponry could have been given a somewhat more retro look.)  Similar things have been done in the Indiana Jones movies, The Rocketeer, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but Captain America raises the bar.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Vallicella on hylemorphic dualism, Part III

Bill Vallicella and I have been debating Aquinas’s hylemorphic dualism (HD).  Earlier posts (here, here, here, and here) have focused on Aquinas’s motivations for combining hylemorphism and dualism.  As we continue Bill and Ed’s Excellent Adventure, the discussion turns to questions about the internal coherence of the view.  In a new post, Bill summarizes what he takes to be one of the main problems with HD.  Give it a read, then come back.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Development versus decay

A reader asks an interesting question: 

You write often of the loss of Aristotelian metaphysics (specifically as adopted and developed by St. Thomas) and all the modern philosophical "problems" that have arisen as a result. Discussions of God's existence, the mind-body relation, ethics, etc. all become "problematic" when we remove formal and final causality.  I find this amazingly effective in answering modern arguments because it is often their metaphysical presuppositions that cause problems in the first place.

My question is: were the concepts of final and formal causality present in the Patristic era?  As I understand it, most of the Church Fathers were only marginally (if at all?) influenced by Aristotle, and were typically more dependent on Platonic or Neo-platonic metaphysics.  Does this mean that up until the time of Aquinas, when Aristotle is "rediscovered" in the West, that Christian philosophy was incoherent because it depended more on a Platonic metaphysics than an Aristotelian metaphysics? 

Saturday, August 20, 2011


I want to call my readers' attention to Eric MacDonald’s blog post of earlier today, and in particular to the combox discussion it has generated.  As you will see from the latter (scroll down to my exchange with him), MacDonald has graciously and honorably offered to bury the hatchet, and I very happily accept his offer.  As you will also see, he and I and some of his readers have been having a fruitful discussion. 

A final word on Eric MacDonald

That Eric MacDonald’s criticisms of my book The Last Superstition are devoid of any merit whatsoever is clear from the evidence adduced in the two posts I have devoted to him already (here and here).  If there is any lingering doubt, the present post will dispel it.  A slightly chastened MacDonald has now himself admitted (in what he says will be his final word on my book) that he “was not comfortable with [the] conclusions” he had drawn after his first attempt to deal with the substance of my arguments, that he has “misunderstood” at least some of those arguments, and that his contemptible Himmler comparison “was perhaps over the top.”  Yet he commends to us his final feeble effort to respond to my arguments, still appears to cling to for the most part to his earlier criticisms, and retracts none of the nastiness he has relentlessly directed towards me personally.  (To be sure, he thinks this nastiness is justified by the polemical tone of my book and by my aggressive response to his nastiness.  It is not, for reasons I will get to presently.) 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Eric MacDonald’s assisted intellectual suicide

Having embarrassed himself by answering serious philosophical arguments with cheap ad hominems and other blatant fallacies, Eric MacDonald has now back-pedaled and decided that maybe he ought to address the substance of those arguments after all.  Unfortunately, he has succeeded only in further discrediting himself.  For MacDonald’s treatment of my criticisms of Daniel Dennett in my book The Last Superstition is an absolute disgrace.  He can be acquitted of the charge of grave intellectual dishonesty only on pain of conviction for gross incompetence.  Indeed, it is quite clear that MacDonald simply doesn’t understand the philosophical arguments he is dealing with.  Hence he prefers instead to criticize a few sarcastic quips of mine while ignoring the substantive arguments that occur in the passages from which he took them.  When that ploy doesn’t work, MacDonald “translates” my arguments into something he thinks he can handle, in the process mangling them beyond recognition.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Vallicella on hylemorphic dualism, Part II

Bill Vallicella has kindly replied to my response to his recent post on hylemorphic dualism.  The reader will recall that Bill had suggested in his original post that, given the apparent tension between hylemorphism and dualism, Aquinas’s hylemorphic dualism seems ad hoc and motivated by Christian theological concerns rather than by philosophical considerations.  I argued that this charge cannot be sustained.  Whether or not one ultimately accepts hylemorphic dualism, if one agrees that there are serious arguments both for hylemorphism and for dualism, then -- especially when we add independent metaphysical considerations such as the Scholastic principle that the way a thing acts reflects the manner in which it exists -- one should at least acknowledge that hylemorphic dualism has a philosophical rationale independent of any Christian theological concerns.  It seems Bill still disagrees, but I do not see how his latest post gives any support to his original charge.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Argumentum ad Himmlerum

Want to be a New Atheist blogger?  It’s easy!  Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Launch an unhinged, fallacious attack on your opponent, focusing your attention on arguments he has never given.

Step 2: Studiously ignore the arguments he actually has given.

Step 3: Declare victory and exchange high fives with your fellow New Atheists, as they congratulate you for your brilliance and erudition.

Step 4: When your opponent calls attention to this farcical procedure, accuse him of making unhinged, fallacious attacks on you.  Throw in the Myers Shuffle for good measure. 

Step 5: Exchange further high fives with your fellow New Atheists.

Step 6: Repeat 1 - 5 until your disconnect from reality is complete.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The metaphysics of Vertigo

[T]here are six people involved in every encounter: the two people as they see themselves, the two as they are seen by the other, and the two as they really are, whatever that is.

Charles Barr on Hitchcock’s Vertigo

I may be a hopeless reactionary when it comes to politics, philosophy, and theology, but I’m pretty conventional when it comes to movies.  What I think is good is pretty much what everyone else thinks is good.  Well, to a large extent, anyway.  Star Wars?  Sorry, can’t stand it.  David Lynch?  Ugh.  But Citizen Kane, Blade Runner, The Third Man, The Godfather and its first sequel, High Noon, even 2001: A Space Odyssey, ending and all -- yes, they deserve the hype.  And then there’s Vertigo.  The mystery genre may be the greatest of film genres, and Vertigo is certainly the greatest of mystery flicks.   AFI says so, so there.  (On the other hand, they put Lynch on the list.)   And as everyone knows, the reason it is the greatest mystery movie is not because of the murder, but because of the woman.