Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Corrupting the Calvinist youth [UPDATED]

Some guy named “Steve” who contributes to the group apologetics blog Triablogue informs us that “Feser seems to have a following among some young, philosophically-minded Calvinists.”  (Who knew?)  “Steve” is awfully perturbed by this, as he has “considerable reservations” about me, warning that I am not “a very promising role model for aspiring Reformed philosophers.” And why is that?  Not, evidently, because of the quality of my philosophical arguments, as he does not address a single argument I have ever put forward.  Indeed, he admits that he has made only an “admittedly cursory sampling” of my work -- and, it seems, has read only some blog posts of mine, at that -- and acknowledges that “this may mean I'm not qualified to offer an informed opinion of Feser.”  So he offers an uninformed opinion instead, making some amazingly sweeping remarks on the basis of his “admittedly cursory” reading.  (Why that is the sort of example “aspiring Reformed philosophers” should emulate, I have no idea.)

Normally I ignore this sort of drive-by blogging, but since Triablogue seems to have a significant readership among people interested in apologetics, I suppose I should say something lest “Steve” corrupt the Calvinist youth by his rash example.

Friday, April 25, 2014

A second exchange with Keith Parsons, Part I

I’d like once again to thank Keith Parsons, and moderator Jeffery Jay Lowder, for the very fruitful first exchange we had a few weeks ago.  You can find links to each installment here.  Per Jeff’s suggestion, our second exchange will be on the topic: ”Can morality have a rational justification if atheism or naturalism is true?”  Jeff has proposed that we keep our opening statements to 2500 words or less, and I will try to rein in my logorrheic self and abide by that limitation.  That will be difficult, though, given that my answer to the question is: “Yes and No.”

Let me explain.  I’ll begin by making a point I’m sure Keith will agree with.  Many theists and atheists alike suppose that to link morality to religion is to claim that we could have no reason to be moral if we did not anticipate punishments and rewards in an afterlife.  I am sure Keith would reject such a line of argument, and I reject it too.  To do or refrain from doing something merely because one seeks a reward or fears reprisals is not morality.  I would also reject the related but distinct claim that what makes an action morally good or bad is merely that God has commanded it, as if goodness and badness were a matter of sheer fiat on the part of a cosmic dictator who has the power to impose his will on everyone else.  This too would not really be morality at all, but just Saddam Hussein writ large.

Friday, April 18, 2014

God’s wounds

The God of classical theism -- of Athanasius and Augustine, Avicenna and Maimonides, Anselm and Aquinas -- is (among other things) pure actuality, subsistent being itself, absolutely simple, immutable, and eternal.  Critics of classical theism sometimes allege that such a conception of God makes of him something sub-personal and is otherwise incompatible with the Christian conception.  As I have argued many times (e.g. here, here, here, and here) nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, to deny divine simplicity or the other attributes distinctive of the classical theist conception of God is implicitly to make of God a creature rather than the creator.  For it makes of him a mere instance of a kind, even if a unique instance.  It makes of him something which could in principle have had a cause of his own, in which case he cannot be the ultimate explanation of things.  It is, accordingly, implicitly to deny the core of theism itself.  As David Bentley Hart writes in The Experience of God (in a passage I had occasion to quote recently), it amounts to a kind of “mono-poly-theism,” or indeed to atheism.

But it is not only generic theism to which the critics of classical theism fail to do justice.  It is Christian theism specifically to which they fail to do justice.  One way in which this is the case is (as I have noted before, e.g. here) that it is classical theism rather than its contemporary rival “theistic personalism” that best comports with the doctrine of the Trinity.  But to reject classical theism also implicitly trivializes the Incarnation, and with it Christ’s Passion and Death.

Friday, April 11, 2014

What We Owe the New Atheists

Last week I gave a lecture at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA, on the theme “What We Owe the New Atheists.”  You can read the text and/or listen to the audio of the lecture at TAC’s website.  The faculty, students, and guests who attended were a wonderful bunch of folks and I thank them for their very kind hospitality. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Anthony Brueckner (1953 - 2014)

Philosopher Tony Brueckner of UC Santa Barbara died this week.  Tony was a professor of mine when I was in graduate school, and served on my dissertation committee.  I remember him as an excellent teacher, a formidable philosopher, and a nice guy with a droll sense of humor.  I recall a phony pop quiz he handed out in class one day.  The first multiple-choice question read: “What is your name? (A) Bruce, (B) other.”  After a reference he once made to the tune in a comment in the margins of a term paper of mine, I can never listen to Steely Dan’s “The Fez” without thinking of Tony.

Tony was a philosopher’s philosopher, and his work was largely devoted to a rigorous investigation of the philosophical issues surrounding Cartesian skepticism.  No one seriously interested in that topic can avoid grappling with Tony’s work on it, most of which is collected in his book Essays on Skepticism.  Related issues are pursued in Debating Self-Knowledge, co-written with Gary Ebbs.

By all accounts (such as this one) he was a kind man.  R.I.P.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Self control

The relationship between memory and personal identity has long been of interest to philosophers, and it is also a theme explored to good effect in movies and science fiction.  In Memento, Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce) has largely lost his ability to form new memories following an attack in which he was injured and his wife raped and murdered.  He hunts down the attacker by assembling clues which he either writes down or tattoos on his body before he can forget them. 

In Philip K. Dick’s short story “Paycheck” (which is better than the movie adaptation starring Ben Affleck), the protagonist Jennings has agreed to work for two years on a secret project knowing that his memory of it (and of everything else that happened during those years) will be erased when the task is completed.  When he awakens after the memory wipe, he learns that he had, during the course of the two years, voluntarily agreed to forego the large paycheck he had originally contracted for in exchange for an envelope full of seemingly worthless trinkets.  He spends the rest of the story trying to figure out why he would have done so, and it becomes evident before long that it has something to do with the secret project’s having been a device which can see into the future. 

(Readers who haven’t either seen Memento or read Dick’s story or seen the movie version are warned that major spoilers follow.)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Welcome to the machine

Not too long ago I attended a conference on theology and technology sponsored by First Things.  Unsurprisingly, the question arose whether modern technology is on balance a good or bad thing, and the general view seemed to be that it was in itself neutral -- its goodness or badness deriving from the circumstances of its use.  As Fr. Thomas Joseph White pointed out, however, from a Thomist point of view, while circumstances can certainly make the use of technology bad, of itself it is actually good rather than merely neutral.  It is the product of the practical intellect, the exercise of which per se helps perfect us (even if, again, circumstances can make technology, like other products of practical reason, evil). 

Naturally I wholeheartedly agree, being not only a Thomist but a confirmed city dweller and something of a technophile.  Still, it is worthwhile considering whether there is something special about modern circumstances that makes technology morally problematic.  I think there is, though by no means do I think these circumstances suffice to make modern technology on balance a bad thing.  On the contrary, I think on balance it is a very good thing.  But all good things can lead us to hubris if we are not careful, and there is a special way in which we moderns need to be careful.