Monday, January 10, 2011

Non-Story of the Year

Suppose Intelligent Design theorist Michael Behe announced that he was giving up biology. Or suppose the notorious catastrophist Immanuel Velikovsky had announced in the 1970s that he was “calling it quits” on astronomical research. Or suppose Einstein critic Petr Beckmann had announced before his death in the early 1990s that research in physics was no longer worth his time. Would academic blogs devoted to biology, astronomy, or physics have regarded these as “striking” developments, evidence that there might be something fishy about the disciplines in question? Obviously not. That someone whose views are radically at odds with those prevailing in his field decides to do something else instead is neither surprising nor noteworthy.

Somehow, though, the fact that middling atheist philosopher of religion Keith Parsons has decided to “hang up his hat” is being played up as what Joe Biden might call a Big F***in’ Deal, at least by those for whom philosophy is only ever politics by other means. The “story” first “broke” back in September – the lucky folks at The Secular Outpost were given the big “scoop” – and for some reason Religion Dispatches is now recycling it, complete with a photo of the great man himself staring off pensively toward the future, or at least toward the corner of his office. Parsons, it seems, has overnight become a Serious Thinker To Whom Attention Must Be Paid, his work suddenly worthy of the notice the press and profession had heretofore denied it, and precisely because he now says it isn’t worth anyone’s time. Funny old world!

All the same, others have been trying to stifle yawns, since Parsons’ retreat from the field is in fact about as objectively newsworthy as (say) my giving up libertarianism several years ago – the sort of thing that might be mildly interesting to those who are interested in that sort of thing, but hardly anything to stop the presses over.

In any event, I don’t mean to suggest that Parsons, Behe, Velikovsky, and Beckman are all on a par. That would be an insult to Behe, Velikovsky, and Beckman. For whatever one thinks of ID theory – and I have been very critical of it – it is evident that Behe knows far more about Darwinism than Parsons knows about philosophy of religion. Neither do I endorse the eccentric views of Velikovsky or Beckmann, but Beckmann knew more about relativity theory than Parsons does about philosophy of religion, and even Velikovsky probably knew more about astronomy. As I noted in an earlier post, Parsons’ work in philosophy of religion seems largely confined to answering recent analytic philosophers like Plantinga and Swinburne. That’s a start, I guess – not that he really does even Plantinga and Swinburne justice, but let’s grant it for the sake of argument – but it does leave the 2370 years worth of previous work in the field unanswered. In particular, it leaves out the great classical theistic tradition of Aristotle, Plotinus, Anselm, Augustine, Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, Scotus, et al. – that is to say, the most important philosophers of religion – whose conceptions of God and of the arguments for His existence are very different from (and, many of us would say, far more powerful than) those of “theistic personalist” writers like Plantinga and Swinburne. And I would bet cash money that Parsons, who is evidently prone to the same myopic presentism that so many other contemporary philosophers exhibit, doesn’t know the difference any more than the average non-philosopher of religion does. (Not too much money, though, since Parsons might easily bone up on the subject just by reading earlier blog posts of mine, such as this one, or this one, or this one, or this one.)

In general, philosophers who tend to shoot off their mouths about how breathtakingly bad the traditional arguments for God’s existence are demonstrably do not know what they are talking about, as we have seen here, here, and here. And they are the sorts of people who rarely want to engage the actual arguments themselves in any depth anyway. They prefer to offer elaborate rationalizations for refusing to do so. Come on, theistic arguments are really all about rationalizing preconceived opinions!” – said without a trace of irony – “Besides, did this Thomist whose work you recommend ever publish an article in The Philosophical Review? Did he teach in a PGR-ranked department?” That kind of thing. Shameless ad hominems and straw men coupled with a snarky, careerist conformism, all served up as a kind of higher philosophical method. Or, to call it by its traditional name, sophism. And now they’ve got a new “argument” to bounce around their echo chamber. It goes like this: “Even Keith Parsons says so!”


  1. Thanks for the great post, Ed.

    I have a question with regards to the caricatures of Aquinas & Co.'s theistic arguments: why do the atheists who peddle them think that theists put so much stock in philosophers like Aquinas? Do they really think the religious are so thick as to think "everything has a cause..." a profound insight? What accounts, in their minds, for the excellent reputation of an Anselm, Aquinas, or Spinoza?

  2. Domini and awatkins69,

    You both raise good questions.

  3. How is Parson's "move" any different from Billy leaving the playground in a huff (because he can't win at round-ball) while shouting "round-ball is a sissy game!"?

    I'm actually semi-serious... how is it possible that this "event" hasn't been exposed for the infantilism that it is? If parsons cannot demonstrate (i.e., using the tools of philosophy) his contention that PoR isn't worthy, then how in the world is he getting traction with this juvenile dismissal?

  4. Doug:

    Parsons was asked something similar in the thread at his announcement. If, say, Kreeft or Plantinga had at some point just said, "You know what? I've heard all the objections to theism, refuted all the failed arguments for atheism, and there's just no there there, so I'm hanging it up to get back into my hobby––haberdashing animals inside whisky bottles", how would Parsons react? He said he'd probably just shrug. Tu quoque.

    To his credit, I like the fact that Parsons is bowing out precisely because he feels he has nothing to offer anymore, at least compared to the works he says make the case for atheism. Assuming it's genuine, that's called humility. I also give him credit for citing a dozen or so works he believes do make the case for atheism, rather than just handwaving about academic consensus. Verily, some of the works he cites are by formidable, serious scholars and I don't think analytic PoR will be one iota closer to a "settlement" without engaging those works and their kind. Having said that, I am also aware of the outstanding theistic work in PoR which give those other works the challenge Parsons says isn't there.

    I also happen to have the worst captcha word verification I've ever seen.

  5. a bit tangential:

    why is the field called "philosophy of religion"? why not "philosophy of God" or something like that? "religion" is a horribly vague and imprecise word that can denote any number of things, and (leaving aside the intellectual dishonesty/willful ignorance factor) i think it has done more to muddy up dialogue between atheists and theists than anything else. all that modern atheists and secularists seem to care about these days is babbling about "religion" in the abstract, while imagining that the word refers to something concrete. it doesn't refer to anything.

  6. VJTorley has provided a response to this Parsons business, if you're interested:

  7. "Anon -January 11, 2011 9:28 AM" makes a very good point. Especially since your average New Atheist Fundie equates Aristotle's concept of the Unmoved Mover with Space Unicorns or microscopic objects in the for of a Teapot orbiting Mars.

    For him it's all religion including philosophy.

    Mr. Sad Git or what?

  8. @Domini Canes: There is no single answer to your question. I think a lot of philosophers unreflectively endorse something like the following account of Aquinas's philosophy: Much of it rests on outdated Aristotelian science, and the parts that don't were refuted by Descartes, Hume and co. Theists are just refusing to get with the program, and all of these modern day Thomists are just a bunch of relics that get hired at Catholic institutions and don't do "real" philosophy. And, of course, "real" philosophy consists in publishing in venues like Nous and Mind, reading other people who publish in venues like Nous and Mind, and teaching at Leiter-top-50 universities.

  9. Untenured:

    I'm clicking Facebook's "Like" button on you here.

  10. Slightly off topic, but I can't resist. I saw the post over at "Religion Dispatches" about Mr. Parsons and I immediately came over here as I wanted to know if you had already commented on this news! My inspiration was obviously rewarded! But how did I stumble onto "Religion Dispatches" you ask? Well, I found it via a Bloggingheads 'diavlog' which you can watch for yourself (if you can stomach it) here:

    I recommend the section in which Peter Laarman, who is one of the Contributing Editors at "Religion Dispatches" explains why the core religious issue of the day is "inequality", not those irrelevant issues like abortion, homosexual marriage, Islam, etc. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry as I watched him speak. I guess I really didn't think people who thought of themselves as Christian really talked like Laarman.

  11. @Anon 9:28:

    "Philosophy of religion" is not necessarily restricted to (a)theistic arguments. It also deals with topics like the (im)mortality of the soul, religious practice, etc.

  12. When this "news" first came to my attention, I wondered, "What if [insert prominent theistic philosopher of religion] announced that he was no longer going to do any work in philosophy of religion because the arguments for atheism were were mind numbingly bad -- fraudulent, even (to use Parson's term, which he concedes was hyperbolic)? Would we ever see a post on Leiter Reports like this: "This is Striking: Peter Kreeft Quits Philosophy of Religion, Claims the Case for Atheism is a Fraud," followed by serious analysis of Kreeft's claims about the overall weakness of the case for atheism? Not likely. (In Parson's defense, I asked him this question, and he said that he thinks his decision vis-a-vis philosophy of religion has "zero epistemic significance," and that he was surprised by all the attention it got in the blogosphere.)

  13. I always liked Velikovsky. Some of his predictions were correct.

    I think he was hated for being a generalist in a world of specialists.

    -Neil Parille

  14. @Eric: Of course this is of zero epistemic significance, and I would wager that the most of the people who are making a big fuss over this know so. They are making a fuss over it for purely rhetorical purposes, in order to try and push Theism further outside the "space of reasons". The most charitable interpretation of these "new" atheist's behavior is that they are engaging in calculated dishonesty.

  15. Untenured, you should write a book. I'd buy it.

  16. I think I know whom you primarily have in mind when you speak of "those for whom philosophy is only ever politics by other means." I don't wish to mention him by name, though, for he is a notorious self-Googler.

  17. Another thing: Compare the reception that Parsons received to the one Anthony Flew got. Parsons is a nobody; a two-bit net skeptic who writes a lot of so-so replies to Plantinga and co. Flew, on the other hand, is a fairly prominent philosopher who has a number of well-known articles and books to his credit. When Parsons says that the case for God is a fraud: "Devastating! Maybe the case for Theism *is* a fraud!" When Flew abandons Atheism- "He's soft in the head! Doesn't know enough "science"! Yeah, sounds 'bout right to me.

  18. A poem relating to "professional philosophers"

    I am a Prestigious Professor of Philosophy,
    At a quite Elite University.

    I get generous grants,
    To sit on my pants,

    And write books that nobody reads.

  19. I think something has been said about John Beversluis taking the same route. He would be unheard of if atheists hadn't been parading him around as the definitive rebuttal of C.S. Lewis.

  20. Speaking of misunderstanding the arguments for theism, I read last night some of your old posts about misunderstanding the first cause argument and they were quite excellent.

    The other one misunderstood the most I think is the moral argument. They never get it right or they assume the only argument is the divine command theory and here comes Eurypthro.

    I'm going through The Portable Atheist right now and told my wife last night that I'm nearly 3/4th of the way through and I don't think I've seen an actual argument yet.

  21. Personally I'm a fan of the following limerick concerning the current status of the American higher educational system:

    There Once was a man of Esser,
    Whose knowledge grew lesser and lesser...

    It at last grew so small,
    He knew nothing at all
    And now he's a college professor.

  22. Agreed, Dave. Allan Bloom pegged it: "The universities are like refugee camps, where all the geniuses have been run off by an unfriendly regime."

  23. I read Dave's limerick, and I couldn't resist:

    There once was an old man from Texas
    Who pondered the heavenly nexus.
    He said of his study,
    “I must’ve been nutty.”
    And now he drives a new Lexus.

  24. There was a professor named Dickie
    Whose source on doctrine was Wiki.
    He just found it odd
    People still saw a God
    And could not accept his work as just icky.

  25. Dave, George and Nick:

    You just made my day. I'm saving all those limericks.

  26. For other people stepping outside their realm of expertise, "The Amazing Atheist" on YouTube has made a video trying to take down the arguments of Aquinas called "Thomas Aquinas sucks."

    My wife actually said while I was watching it that I don't have to shout.

  27. Wow. I never thought I'd see the day when "The Amazing Atheist" would be mentioned on the blog of someone as erudite and level-headed as Edward Feser. Talk about polar opposites.

  28. @Nick: Wow, I thought that Dawkins didn't get Aquinas. What frightens me most about the video, though, is that one of his more asinine comments on the First Way is actually pretty close to a widespread criticism of Cosmological Arguments. TheAmazingAtheist says, "Aquinas, like ourselves, doesn't know about infinity, so he can't make use of it," and a lot of contemporary philosophers (I remember seeing Edwards do this) say basically, "Aquinas lived before Cantor talked about transfinite numbers, ergo any reference of his to infinity is ipso facto unworthy of my investigation."

    So, cheer up, TAA, for one day you might be able to get published as a philosopher of religion. And maybe, if you're very lucky, you can one day quit it and declare the opposition fraudulent.

  29. Domini. This was brought to my attention on TheologyWeb and I'm the main Thomist on there so I'm working with a friend to put together a reply. My concern with someone like that is most people will see it and if they're Christian, they could be tempted to think Christianity is nonsense without ever reading Aquinas themselves. If they're atheists, they'll think they won't have to read them if he's "So obviously stupid."

    My main thought is putting something together and saying that TAA is so bad, he's not even wrong! Calling him wrong would actually make it seem like a serious answer!

  30. @Nick: Tell us when and if you complete that reply. I, for one, would like to see it.

    I thought, despite its many other defects, that TAA's video communicated a grain of truth: lots of Christians probably just have heard from their pastor, religion teacher, favourite apologist, etc. "Yeah, Thomas Aquinas proved God's existence in five ways," and leave their knowledge of the Doctor Angelicus at that. Dismaying as it sounds, they likely know no more of the Ways than does the average hack atheist, and thus silly "refutations" like "Thomas Aquinas Sucks" seem more powerful than they really are. By which I mean, of course, that they seem powerful at all.

  31. @domini

    Gladly. I wouldn't mind interacting with more experienced Thomists anyway.

  32. Interesting biography. I have never heard of him. By the way, what do you think about Dante's Christianity VS Augustine's?