Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Kenny on TLS in TLS

Sir Anthony Kenny very kindly reviews The Last Superstition in the July 22 issue of The Times Literary Supplement.  From the review:

Edward Feser’s book The Last Superstition sets out to give a definitive death blow to all of [the New Atheists] at once.  

In this good cause he does not hesitate to use the same weapons as his atheist adversaries: tendentious paraphrase, imputation of bad faith, outright insult.  Fortunately, the book contains far more argument than invective, and in order to keep the reader’s attention Feser has no need to descend to vulgar abuse, because he has the rare and enviable gift of making philosophical argument compulsively readable.  The book fascinates because of the boldness of its metaphysical claims combined with the density of the arguments offered in their support.  One of its major merits is to present a forceful revisionist picture of the entire history of Western philosophy.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Rosenhouse redux

In fairness to Jason Rosenhouse, I want to call attention to some comments he makes in the combox of the recent post of his to which I replied earlier today.  First, in reply to some comments by Vincent Torley, Rosenhouse makes some remarks which include the following:

I intend to read [Feser’s book].  For what it's worth, I've actually enjoyed some of Feser's purely philosophical posts in the past.

Considering the heat that has characterized our exchange, this is very gracious, and I appreciate the kind words.  Unfortunately, he also goes on to say:

Grow up or shut up

I’ve pointed out that the argument so many atheists like to attack when they purport to refute the cosmological argument -- namely “Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause; so God exists” or variants thereof -- is a straw man, something no prominent advocate of the cosmological argument has ever put forward.  You won’t find it in Aristotle, you won’t find it in Aquinas, you won’t find it in Leibniz, and you won’t find it in the other main proponents of the argument.  Therefore, it is unfair to pretend that refuting this silly argument (e.g. by asking “So what caused God?”) is relevant to determining whether the cosmological argument has any force.    

I’ve also noted other respects in which the cosmological argument is widely misrepresented.  Now, in response to these points, it seems to me that what a grownup would say is something like this: “Fair enough.  I agree that atheists should stop attacking straw men.  They should avoid glib and ill-informed dismissals.  They should acquaint themselves with what writers like Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. actually said and focus their criticisms on that.”  But it would appear that Jason Rosenhouse and Jerry Coyne are not grownups.  Their preferred response is to channel Pee-wee Herman:  “I know you are, but what am I?” is, for them, all the reply that is needed to the charge that New Atheists routinely misrepresent the cosmological argument.  

Friday, July 22, 2011

New ACPQ article

My article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” appears in the latest issue of the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly.  Here is the abstract:  

The “existential inertia” thesis holds that, once in existence, the natural world tends to remain in existence without need of a divine conserving cause.  Critics of the doctrine of divine conservation often allege that its defenders have not provided arguments in favor of it and against the rival doctrine of existential inertia.  But in fact, when properly understood, the traditional theistic arguments summed up in Aquinas’s Five Ways can themselves be seen to be (or at least to imply) arguments against existential inertia and in favor of divine conservation.  Moreover, they are challenging arguments, to which defenders of the existential inertia thesis have yet seriously to respond. 

The article is a supplement of sorts to the discussion of the Five Ways contained in chapter 3 of Aquinas.  It sets out the arguments in a more formal manner and is concerned less with Aquinas’s own way of stating them than with the way they have been developed and refined within the broader Thomistic tradition down to the present day.  As the abstract indicates, the paper is particularly concerned to show how each of the Five Ways – or rather, how each of the general patterns of argument that the Five Ways represent – when followed out consistently implies that the world could not in principle continue for an instant without the conserving action of God.  In the course of defending this claim the paper also responds to the contrary arguments of writers like Mortimer Adler, John Beaudoin, J. L. Mackie, and Bede Rundle.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Does morality depend on God? (Updated)

Not the way many people think it does.  A reader asks me to comment on this post by Trent Dougherty over at The Prosblogion.  Dougherty notes that if someone accepts Aristotelian essentialism, it seems to follow that he ought to allow that morality can have a foundation even if there is no God.  For from an Aristotelian point of view, what is good for a human being, and thus how we ought to treat human beings, is determined by human nature, and human nature is what it is whether or not there is a God.  Well, I think Dougherty is more or less right about that much, though I would qualify what he says in ways I’ll explain presently.  And as I’ve argued elsewhere (e.g. in The Last Superstition), it isn’t atheism per se that threatens the very possibility of morality, at least not directly.  Rather, what threatens it is the mechanistic or anti-teleological (and thus anti-Aristotelian) conception of the natural world that modern atheists are generally committed to, and which they (falsely) assume to have been established by modern science.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

So you think you understand the cosmological argument?

Most people who comment on the cosmological argument demonstrably do not know what they are talking about.  This includes all the prominent New Atheist writers.  It very definitely includes most of the people who hang out in Jerry Coyne’s comboxes.  It also includes most scientists.  And it even includes many theologians and philosophers, or at least those who have not devoted much study to the issue.  This may sound arrogant, but it is not.  You might think I am saying “I, Edward Feser, have special knowledge about this subject that has somehow eluded everyone else.”  But that is NOT what I am saying.  The point has nothing to do with me.  What I am saying is pretty much common knowledge among professional philosophers of religion (including atheist philosophers of religion), who – naturally, given the subject matter of their particular philosophical sub-discipline – are the people who know more about the cosmological argument than anyone else does. 

In particular, I think that the vast majority of philosophers who have studied the argument in any depth – and again, that includes atheists as well as theists, though it does not include most philosophers outside the sub-discipline of philosophy of religion – would agree with the points I am about to make, or with most of them anyway.  Of course, I do not mean that they would all agree with me that the argument is at the end of the day a convincing argument.  I just mean that they would agree that most non-specialists who comment on it do not understand it, and that the reasons why people reject it are usually superficial and based on caricatures of the argument.  Nor do I say that every single self-described philosopher of religion would agree with the points I am about to make.  Like every other academic field, philosophy of religion has its share of hacks and mediocrities.  But I am saying that the vast majority of philosophers of religion would agree, and again, that this includes the atheists among them as well as the theists.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Tom and Jerry

Let’s give Jerry Coyne credit.  He asked for advice on what to read in order to understand what theists take to be the rational foundations of their position, I gave him some advice, and now he says he’ll take it.  And so, Jerry Coyne will soon meet Thomas Aquinas.  True, on the subject of the cosmological argument, Coyne still misses the point, which is that the pat “counterarguments” hacks like Dawkins give are superficial and directed at straw men.  Nor did I say he “must read many books” to see at least that much: Just reading a book like my Aquinas would suffice.  The point of my other references was merely to indicate where he might look if he wants to pursue the subject more thoroughly than just relying on little old me.

Do I expect Coyne to become a theist after studying Aquinas, or even to admit that the cosmological argument is more formidable than New Atheist types give it credit for?  Not for a moment – any more than Coyne expects that “Intelligent Design” theorists (my longtime sparring partners) would concede an inch even after reading one of the “one stop” books Coyne cites as sufficient to establish Darwinism.   

But, again, Coyne deserves credit for at least going through the motions, which is more than Dawkins, Myers, et al. bother to do.  In New Atheist Land, that’s a kind of progress.  (And by the way, Prof. Coyne, I’m not the “Skeptic” in the little dialogue presented in my previous post.  I’m the “Scientist.”)

Monday, July 11, 2011

A clue for Jerry Coyne

A reader alerts me that Jerry Coyne, whose philosophical efforts we had occasion recently to evaluate, has been reading some theology – “under the tutelage of the estimable Eric MacDonald,” Coyne tells us.  And who is Eric MacDonald?  A neutral party to the debate between theologians and New Atheist types like Coyne, right?  Well, not exactly.  Turns out MacDonald is “an ex-Anglican priest” who has been “wean[ed]… from his faith,” and who claims that “religious beliefs and doctrines not only have no rational basis, but are, in fact, a danger to rational, evidence-based thinking.”

Give Coyne’s post a read, then come back.  Now, you might recall my fanciful dialogue from a few months back between a scientist and a bigoted science-bashing skeptic.  The point was to try, through analogy, to help New Atheist types see how they appear to others, and how irrational and ill-informed they really are.  (If you haven’t seen the dialogue, go read that too, then come back.)  To see what is wrong with Coyne’s latest remarks, we can imagine that that dialogue might continue as follows:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

On some alleged quantifier shift fallacies, Part II

Continuing our look at alleged cases of the quantifier shift fallacy committed by prominent philosophers, let’s turn to an example from John Locke.  As we’ve seen, Harry Gensler accuses Locke of reasoning as follows: “Everything is caused by something, so there must be some (one) thing that caused everything.”  What does Locke actually say?  The relevant passage is from Book IV, Chapter 10 of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

[Man] knows also that nothing cannot produce a being; therefore something must have existed from eternity.  In the next place, man knows, by an intuitive certainty, that bare nothing can no more produce any real being, than it can be equal to two right angles.  If a man knows not that nonentity, or the absence of all being, cannot be equal to two right angles, it is impossible he should know any demonstration in Euclid.  If, therefore, we know there is some real being, and that nonentity cannot produce any real being, it is an evident demonstration, that from eternity there has been something; since what was not from eternity had a beginning; and what had a beginning must be produced by something else.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A first without a second

For the Thomist, to say that God is the First Cause of things is, first and foremost, to say that He is the cause of their existence at every moment at which they do exist.  God creates things out of nothing precisely in the act of conserving them in being, and apart from His continual causal action they would instantly be annihilated.  You, the computer you are using right now, the floor under your feet, the coffee cup in your hand – for each and every one of these things, God is, you might say, “keeping it real” at every instant.  Nor is this causal activity something anything else could either carry out or even play a role in.  Creation – which for Aquinas means creation out of nothing – can be the act of God alone.

Of note…

For your consideration on this fine Fourth of July:

Tuomas Tahko posts video of Kit Fine’s talk at a recent conference on Aristotelian Themes in Contemporary Metaphysics. 

From David Oderberg, two recent articles: “Morality, Religion, and Cosmic Justice” and “The World is Not an Asymmetric Graph.” 

In The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Mark Anderson discusses Julian Young’s Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography and its sources.  Young replies and Daniel Blue comments.

Christopher Kaczor has edited a volume of essays written in tribute to the late Ralph McInerny. 

The Catholic University of Paris is hosting a conference on Hume’s Legacy in Contemporary Philosophy this September.  Speakers include Helen Beebee, Paul Clavier, Peter Kail, Catherine Larrère, Eléonore Le Jallé, Michel Malherbe, Frédéric Nef, David Oderberg, Thomas Pink, Yann Schmitt, Ronan Sharkey, and Anna Zielinska. 

New books:  Brian Davies, Thomas Aquinas on God and Evil; Jeremy Dunham, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Sean Watson, Idealism: The History of a Philosophy; Crawford Elder, Familiar Objects and Their Shadows; Paul Feyerabend, The Tyranny of Science; Anton Ford, Jennifer Hornsby, and Frederick Stoutland, eds., Essays on Anscombe’s Intention; William Jaworski, Philosophy of Mind: A Comprehensive Introduction; Rex Welshon, Philosophy, Neuroscience, and Consciousness; and W. Jay Wood, God.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Editiones scholasticae

Editiones scholasticae is a new German publishing venture devoted to publishing works in Scholastic philosophy, including reprints of works which have long been out of print.  Among the first titles announced are reprints of Bernard Wuellner’s two invaluable reference works Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy and Summary of Scholastic Principles, used copies of which can be expensive and hard to find.  A very worthy enterprise!