Tuesday, February 25, 2014

An exchange with Keith Parsons, Part I

Prof. Keith Parsons and I will be having an exchange to be moderated by Jeffery Jay Lowder of The Secular Outpost.  Prof. Parsons has initiated the exchange with a response to the first of four questions I put to him last week.  What follows is a brief reply.

Keith, thank you for your very gracious response.  Like Jeff Lowder, you raise the issue of the relative amounts of attention I and other theistic philosophers pay to “New Atheist” writers like Dawkins, Harris, et al. as opposed to the much more serious arguments of atheist philosophers like Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, and many others.  Let me begin by reiterating what I said last week in response to Jeff, namely that I have nothing but respect for philosophers like the ones you cite and would never lump them in with Dawkins and Co.  And as I showed in my response to Jeff, I have in fact publicly praised many of these writers many times over the years for the intellectual seriousness of their work.
I have given the “New Atheists” the attention I have only because they have themselves gotten so much attention and needed a vigorous response.  Even so, my book The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, is, the title notwithstanding, really less about the New Atheism per se than it is about defending the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, which is my preferred approach to philosophical questions in general and the philosophy of religion in particular.  And my (non-polemical and more academic) book Aquinas has almost nothing to say about the New Atheists, beyond some brief references to Dawkins.  
This interest in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition is key to understanding my attitude toward authors like the ones you cite.  I would distinguish what might be called classical and modern approaches to the key themes of natural theology.  The classical approach is represented by schools of thought like Aristotelianism, Neoplatonism, and Thomism and other forms of Scholasticism.  The key writers here would be thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, Avicenna, Averroes, Maimonides, Aquinas, Scotus, Suarez, and later writers influenced by them down to the present day (such as twentieth-century Neo-Scholastics and contemporary analytical Thomists). 

The modern approach is represented by Leibniz-Clarke style cosmological arguments, Paley-style design arguments and “Intelligent Design” theory, Plantinga-style ontological arguments, “Reformed epistemology,” Swinburne-style inductive arguments, etc.  Contemporary philosophy of religion is dominated by these modern sorts of arguments, though there are some thinkers (John Haldane, Brian Davies, Eleonore Stump, et al.) whose sympathies are classical.  These modern arguments typically operate with very different conceptions of causation, modality, substance, essence, and other key metaphysical notions than the ones classical thinkers would accept.

Now, my approach, being Aristotelian-Thomistic, is decidedly classical.  Like many other Thomists, I not only do not defend the sorts of arguments most other contemporary philosophers of religion do, but I am critical both of the metaphysical/epistemological assumptions underlying the arguments and of the conception of God the arguments arrive at.  For instance, I reject the possible worlds theories in terms of which modality is typically understood in the contemporary arguments; I think the “argument to the best explanation” approach gets reasoning from the world to God just fundamentally wrong; I think the rationality of theism does depend not only on there being evidence for it, but metaphysical demonstrations of an aggressively old-fashioned sort; and so forth.  I also reject the “theistic personalist” or “neo-theist” conception of God that underlies so much contemporary philosophy of religion, and regard classical theism and its key themes -- divine simplicity, immutability, eternity, etc. -- as non-negotiable elements of any theism worth defending.

Unsurprisingly, a great deal of contemporary atheist argumentation is devoted to criticizing these very ideas and arguments that I do not agree with myself.  Equally unsurprisingly, then, I have not engaged much with those atheist arguments.  I simply don’t have a dog in those fights, as it were.  I have tended instead to focus my attention on those objections that have been raised against classical arguments specifically, and especially against Aristotelian-Thomistic arguments.

Hence in my book Aquinas, for example, I have a lot to say in response to writers like Anthony Kenny and J. L. Mackie who have criticized Aquinas at some length. Naturally, I also have a lot to say there in response to Humean and Kantian objections to cosmological arguments in general.  Now, much of what contemporary atheists have to say in response to Aquinas is a reiteration of Humean objections, or of points made by writers like Kenny.  (For example, David Ramsay Steele in his book Atheism Explained, and to some extent even Mackie in The Miracle of Theism, suppose they can largely dispatch Aquinas by referring the reader to Kenny’s book on the Five Ways.)  Hence to respond to objections of the sort raised by Hume and Kenny is ipso facto to respond to much of what have become standard atheist moves vis-à-vis Aquinas. 

Other objections, as I have showed at length in Aquinas and The Last Superstition, are based on misunderstandings of the metaphysical underpinnings of Aquinas’s arguments, and often on a tendency to read modern assumptions that Aquinas would have rejected back into his arguments.  For example, it is very common for critics of Aquinas to be unaware of the distinction between what Scholastics call a per se or essentially ordered causal series and a per accidens or accidentally ordered causal series, and they fail to realize that when Aquinas rules out a regress of causes it is the first rather than the second sort he has in mind.  Critics also often wrongly assume that in the Third Way Aquinas is appealing to something like a modern understanding of modality.  And so forth.  Once these misunderstandings of the background metaphysics are cleared up, it can be seen that many standard moves against Aquinas simply miss the point.  This is true e.g. of Oppy’s treatment of Aquinas in Arguing About Gods.  I have nothing but respect for Oppy; he is smart and well-read and a formidable philosopher.  Still, in my view he just misreads Aquinas and his objections thus misfire. 

For this reason I haven’t commented explicitly on every single contemporary atheist philosopher who has criticized Aquinas.  For in the main they are offering variations on standard objections which I answer in my books and other writings, so that anyone who has read both my stuff and (say) Oppy’s book, or Sobel’s, would know how I would respond to their objections.

I don’t want to offend too much against the word limitation Jeff has proposed to us, so I will resist my tendency toward long-windedness and close with the following thought.  You may or may not know that I was an atheist myself for about ten years, and that my journey back to theism involved a discovery of what classical thinkers like Aquinas had actually said.  I recounted this intellectual journey in a blog post some time back, and as I note in that post, many of the objections I had as an atheist to the work of modern philosophers of religion are objections I still would raise as a classical theist.  So, perhaps we have at least a little more in common that it might seem at first glance!


  1. Should be an interesting exchange.

  2. Anonymus, I agree that the exchange will be a very interesting one. Hopefully when the conversation ends, if it ends, Dr. Feser can comment of what he thinks about the arguments that are defended in:The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.

  3. Spell Check = Anonymous

  4. I read Sobel's "Logic and Theism" where among other arguments he criticizes the Second Way. Either I don't understand something, or he completely misses the thrust of why Aquinas doesn't believe in infinite regress of efficient causes. It's not because of "first, intermediate, and last" parts of the chain, it's because in such a chain there is no room for the impulse of movement. Since no non-living being can move itself, the entire chain won't be able to move itself. You'd have to posit that the impulse of movement just runs through it on its own somehow, which is unintelligible.

    But then again, may be it's me who misses something.

  5. I am happy to see that you posted a link to your conversion story. I had not looked at that yet.

    I have been struggling, for many months now, to not only read, but absorb your Philosophy of Mind book (I am not there yet :) ). The chapters on dualism were easy enough to understand, but I have had to read and reread the chapters on Russel and Chalmers. You conversion story gives me a very high level view on the importance of these thinkers in your intellectual journey to the classical theistic position, especially around the question of the nature of mind and matter. It seems to me that this aspect of your journey would also be important for anyone else to come to understand and appreciate how classical theistic arguments are not only plausible, but true. Because if we can prove, conclusively, that the mind is not ultimately reducible to the brain, and that there is an immaterial aspect to mind, then it becomes all the more plausible to accept arguments postulating an immaterial cause for the material universe.

    There is still many aspects of your conversion story that I would like to investigate myself, such as the influence of Frege that moved you from naturalism to the idea that something like Platonic realism might be true.


  6. Krill,

    I've always thought of the Second Way in terms of something that puzzled me as a child. I always thought it was thrilling to go with my father to the bank, because the bank was a place where money magically appeared - my childish mind thought a bank was just the kind of thing that naturally produced money. I thought it would be awesome to own the bank because you add access to free money.

    My dad eventually told me that the bank only has money because people deposit it there. Where does the deposited money come from? Well from another bank, which just compounds the puzzle. It turns out you eventually have to get to a First Bank, or a bank that is a natural source of money (i.e. the Federal Reserve)for there ever to be money in the system at all. Without a First Bank, all the other banks would simply sit empty.
    Substitute "efficient cause" for "money" and I think this is what the argument is getting at.
    And it turns out it is awesome to own that money-creating bank... awesome for the Fed, at least, maybe not so much for us.

  7. The other interesting thing about the bank analogy is that it relates to the principle of divine conservation. Even when a local bank has Federal Reserve notes on deposit, they only mean anything because the Fed says they do. In other words, the Fed is a sustaining cause that keeps all the money out there working as money. If the Fed shutdown (i.e. if Fed reserve notes were declared to be no longer payment for debts owed the government), not only would it stop being the efficient source of money, but all the money already in existence would go poof and lose all its value.

    This analogy of Federal Reserve = God is really something I could run with.... :)

  8. The Fed analogy seems like it also raises a version of the problem of evil. Why does something putatively good seemingly cause so much pain? (Talk to any retiree trying to live on savings if you want to understand some of the pain).

  9. Does the Fed cause pain, though? Isn't pain just the absence of money?

  10. "The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology"

    How much of a "companion" can it actually be if it didn't include any essays in classical natural theology?

  11. So now Parsons, in his response to Dr. Feser's third question (here), refers to Dr. Feser not as someone who once embraced atheism, not as an ex-atheist and not as a former atheist, but as a current atheist.

    It should be noted, however, that, in keeping with the guidelines of the debate, the reference to Dr. Feser as a current atheist is made in a cordial manner.

  12. That's an... odd tactic

    How so? It fits in nicely with his other tactics.


  13. This may be slightly off-topic, but since I need the attention of some quality Thomists. I've gotten into an argument with someone online who maintains the following:

    "Aquinas is simply restating Aristotle - no more and no less, within Catholic dogma. With respect to Nagel, his objections are semantic and not scientific. He is in a classical Wittgenstein language muddle where language conflicts with reality."

    I get the feeling I'm being fobbed off with long words, but what,exactly, do you think I should say to such a proposal?

  14. @Cantus:

    I'm not sure what position your interlocutor is defending, but I suspect it's probably not compatible with the claim that language can conflict with reality. That claim already implicitly acknowledges a whole host of very Nagely things about thought, intentionality, and consciousness.

  15. Oh, and Aquinas does a good deal more than restate Aristotle. He doesn't even always agree with Aristotle, and although Aristotle is his primary influence, he's not the only one.

  16. @Glenn:

    "So now Parsons . . . refers to Dr. Feser . . . as a current atheist."

    Are you thinking of the description of Lowder as "your Secular Outpost co-blogger and fellow atheist"? Although Parsons doesn't make it clear, he's actually quoting Ed at that point.

    Or does Parsons say something else that I'm overlooking?

  17. Is he now? Let me go check again...

  18. Cantus,

    Aquinas develops Aristotle, for instance, in his essence/existence distinction, which has substantial bearing both on the nature of God (and on demonstrations like the Second Way) and on the nature of the soul (ie. in the possibility of a disembodied form). That is one important philosophical (and not dogmatic) development that Aquinas makes on Aristotle, although there are many more.

  19. Scott,

    You are 100% right. I stand corrected, and retract my previous two comments.

    Thanks for bringing it to my attention; much appreciated,

  20. Scott,

    Worse than making a mistake like that, is later finding out for myself that I made it, knowing that, surely, others must have noticed it, and yet no one said anything. So, thanks again.

  21. @Glenn:

    No problem. It was an easy mistake to make; Parsons wasn't any too careful with his formatting and didn't make it at all clear which parts were quotations. I had to reread it closely myself to be sure.

  22. Yeah, I had noticed that, the lack of clear formatting, and so had thought, "Better be careful here..." And still I stumbled.

    Oh well, at least it wasn't an odd mistake (as it fits in nicely with my other mistakes). ;)

  23. Re: Eleonore Stump
    In her Closer To Truth video she espouses a possible worlds scenario to explain immutability combined with responsiveness. She apparently does this to preserve our free will so our choices create change across possible worlds instead of in time.

  24. Very interesting, Step2. I've now bookmarked that site. Seems fascinating.

  25. Could someone explain the difference between the possible worlds model of necessity and possibility and the classical conception? Or point me to where an explanation can be found? (Preferably online, e.g. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy?)

  26. FYI -- I've tried to fix the formatting in his blog posts.

  27. Jeffery,

    FYI -- I've tried to fix the formatting in his blog posts.

    The effort is appreciated; thank you.