Yesterday I appeared on The Michael Medved Show with Skeptic magazine’s Michael Shermer. (Unfortunately, the podcast seems to be behind a paywall. [Update: A reader kindly calls my attention to this link, where you can listen to the show.]) It was billed as a “debate,” though I would describe it as more of a friendly discussion. Shermer was very polite and even complimentary about my book Five Proofs of the Existence of God, which I appreciate. (Shermer says: "It's a good book... well-argued, well-articulated.") Naturally, he does not agree with the book, but as every philosopher knows, you can find a book interesting and worth reading and thinking about even if you don’t agree with it. But as it happens, we did end up agreeing on a few things, such as the weaknesses in certain pop arguments for God’s existence.
Medved started things off in an unusual and, I think, very interesting way. His first question to me was about what I thought was the weakest of the five arguments I defend in the book. Now, naturally I don’t think any of the proofs is weak. But some of them require more in the way of background argumentation for their key premises, and thus are bound to be less convincing to a determined skeptic. Based on that criterion, I cited the Augustinian proof, though perhaps on further reflection I’d opt for one of the others.
Anyway, Medved then asked Shermer what he thought was the argument from my book that is the most challenging to his own, skeptical position. His answer was the Aristotelian argument.
I don’t want to make too much of this, and I don’t know exactly how challenging or weak Shermer thinks the argument is at the end of the day. But it is an interesting response nonetheless. Aristotle’s argument for an Unmoved Mover is often quickly dismissed or ignored altogether on the grounds that it rests on archaic physics. But it doesn’t, as I show in the book. When people come to see this and consider more carefully the basic idea of the argument, I find that they often find it much more interesting than they had initially realized it was.
This was certainly my own reaction when I first began to examine the argument (in Aquinas’s version) more carefully back in my atheist days. Indeed, the Aristotelian proof, along with the rationalist proof, ultimately convinced me that atheism was false. I have found that many of my readers over the years have also come to give up atheism after being convinced by the Aristotelian proof.
As I noted in The Last Superstition, atheist philosopher Antony Flew attributed his late conversion to philosophical theism in part to a deeper examination of Aristotle. (Flew’s atheist critics at the time ignored this aspect of the story, preferring to turn the Flew controversy into yet another tiresome debate about “Intelligent Design” theory.) Flew was influenced by the philosophical theism defended in David Conway’s important book The Rediscovery of Wisdom: From Here to Antiquity in Quest of Sophia, in which Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover plays a key role. As I noted in my recent review of his book The Lagoon, Armand Marie Leroi there states: “Had I a God – had I a God – it would be Aristotle’s God.”
Aquinas famously described the Aristotelian argument from motion as the “more manifest” way of demonstrating God’s existence, and the attraction and interest it has even for some otherwise highly skeptical readers perhaps provides some confirmation for this.
It is worth adding that secular readers who are not at all attracted to Aristotle’s theology nevertheless often find themselves attracted to other elements of his philosophy – hence the neo-Aristotelian revivals in metaphysics and in ethics within contemporary academic philosophy.
Mid-twentieth-century Catholic critics of Neo-Scholasticism thought that the Aristotelianism of Thomists and other Scholastics couldn’t speak to modern people. Part of the problem with this is that what ultimately matters is whether an Aristotelian position on some issue is true, and if it is true, then it ought to be defended and applied, whether or not it is popular. But another problem is that it simply isn’t the case that a modern audience can’t take Aristotelian ideas seriously, as examples like the ones just given indicate.
Dr. Feser, it took some time but I did find a site that has it available to stream and I'm listening now.ReplyDelete
Fantastic, thank you. I've added that link to the post.Delete
Appreciate the link. I'm quite shocked at the respect Shermer gives for the arguments. He has gone up in my estimation! One annoying aspect was how often the host would interrupt. Someone needs to start a podcast where guests can just have a conversation. Give Ed and michael a solid hour to pick at each others positions!Delete
I think Shermer knew he was in way over his head so he was cautious. However, I can't stand him so I may be biased.Delete
Agreed on Medved, he was annoying.
Speaking of paywalls has anyone managed to get the review of The Experience of God out from behind its cover.ReplyDelete
I have it but I am not sure what the rules are about posting it.Delete
Which review do you want?Delete
What are your thoughts on the ghost story about the dog on the show, though?
Am I the only one that finds the Augustinian proof one of the strongest in the book?ReplyDelete
I liked it too. I also liked that is connects to a larger realism about our concepts.Delete
I also find it quite strong, especially as it doesn't rely on a PSR at all, so it could work even if we accept for the sake of the argument that the universe is a brute fact.
But I think that the real heavy lifting would have to be done to show that realism about universals actually entails them being grounded in an intellect.
This can be done in 2 ways:
Universals are intentional and the type of intentinality they possess is analagous to the intentionality our thoughts and concepts have.
The second way is to point out how ideas are present to the intellect as forms in a virtual fashion, and then how the subsistence of universals mirrors that relation in our own intellects.
While the second way is certainly sound, one has to admit a slightly Aristotelian-like account of the way our intellects possess ideas.
The first way would be a more direct way of showing how universals must exist in an intellect, but one problem I see with assuming that intentionality requires intellect is that, at least on an A-T account of nature, everything does have intentionality in a sense which is a thing's final cause.
This objection could be handled though by showing how the intentionality possessed by universals is very much analagous to the intentionality of ideas inside our own intellects to the point where their intentionality is of a much higher degree than mere final causality.
One more thing that's actually amazing about the argument is that a seperate argument could be constructed using logical possibility as a universal where the Principle of Modality, which says that possibilities are only real insofar as there is a higher reality out there to ground them, could be used to show that there must be a logically necessary absolute reality that is pure act and possesses these possibilities in a way analagous to how our own intellects possess possibilities.
Re your last paragraph, it doesn't refer to universals per say but what you outline is basically Scotus Cosmological Argument.Delete
I actually think the argument entails the PSR once you get to realism and then dismiss platonism due to it's issues. Consider that we have to explain neccessary mathematical and logical truths (plus the necessary truth of some proposition being true). With Aristotelian realism, these mathematical truths, say, can only exist in the properties of the physical world or in intellects. Say the skeptic argues that the material world ultimately explains such neccessary truths (appealing to an eternal, unchanging block universe say) then he cannot appeal to the existence of the universe as a brute fact. It would have to be necessary (as Ed notes quoting Welty). But that entails the PSR. When I come to think about it, even Platonic realism may entail the PSR, but I havent thought about it in much depth.
Though the Augustinian proof doesn't rest on the PSR I think it entails it once you get to at least Aristotelian realism.
Re: "But I think that the real heavy lifting would have to be done to show that realism about universals actually entails them being grounded in an intellect."Delete
JoeD, I know we've talked about this before, but just wanted to throw in my two cents again. I think the harder part of the argument is going to be showing the realism of universals in the first place. Especially given that William Lane Craig has just spent 10 years studying the literature and come out with big books that advocate anti-realism.
His arguments deserve a response to anyone promoting the Augustinian argument.
To be fair, JohnD, WLc is mostly concerned with Platonism. He doesn't define realism in the sense that Feser does (similarly, when Feser quotes Welty who interacts with Craig, Welty describes his argument as divine conceptualism).Delete
I believe WLC even said he has nothing per se against scholastic realism on his website.
I find the Augustinian argument quite persuasive, but I can see how a skeptic might be more willing to deny one of the premises of that argument by embracing nominalism, conceptualism, or even Aristotelian realism. It seems much harder to deny the core premise of the Aristotelian argument, namely, the existence of change. Speaking of the Aristotelian argument, I found it interesting that Professor Feser's presentation of that argument emphasizes the actualization of the potency of existence, rather than actualization of potency more generally. The actual of the potency of existence strikes me as another way of formulating the Thomistic argument. To say that something has a potency for existence that needs actualizing is to say that its essence is separate from its existence. I read the traditional Aristotelian argument, including as presented by Aquinas, to be more ambitious, i.e., to argue that the actualization of any potencies at all ultimately depends on something that is pure act. In this respect the argument is "more manifest" but also arguably more counter-intuitive to the modern mind, who may struggle with the notion that all change/actualization of potency is derivative of the purely actual actualizer. Query whether Professor Feser believes this more expansive reading of the argument is sound, as opposed to the more existential version he presents.ReplyDelete
The thing about the Aristotelian argument is that, once you have proved the existence of an unmoved mover, it then requires you to engage in considerable argumentation to get to a personal God anything like that of the Abrahamic religions.Delete
On the other hand, though it may take more initial argumentation, the Augustinian proof goes right to the necessity of an ultimate mind.
I second Bradley's query above.ReplyDelete
Let's say someone believes in God but doesn't find any of the arguments in favor of his existence persuasive. Should such a person stop believing, then? If not, how is that different from fideism?ReplyDelete
I would note that when Vatican I declared that God can be known by reason with certainty from created things, it used the verb "can" not "has been." So I take it one isn't obliged to accept a particular historical argument for God's existence if one remains unconvinced of its soundness. One might think that we must wait for the restoration of pre-fallen, uncorrupted reason in order to know God in such a way.
Dear Anonymous: One aspect of this is the meaning of the word "certainty." I can be certain of God's existence, let's say from personal experience. I think it was Kierkegaard who said something like "How can there be no God when I know that He has saved me?" However, that doesn't entail 100 percent locked-down logical certainty. As Aquinas writes, that kind of 100 percent certainty changes faith into knowledge. If A = B and B = C, I don't "have faith" that A = C; I "know" it.Delete
So even fideism can be "rational" to hold, although perhaps many fideists do not think so. Is this perhaps a part of what Vatican II means by knowing with certainty? My faith in God is supported by rational praeambulae, even if it isn't an absolute logical demonstration such as what Anselm was aiming for?
I guess what I am saying is (cue music) don't stop believing.Delete
I'm not sure that failure to find an argument persuasive is quite the same thing as disbelieving it.Delete
For example: there are certain Catholic dogmas whose reasoning eludes me, or that strike me as less than fully convincing. However, if I am convinced on separate grounds that a) the Catholic church is what she claims to be, and b) the church has to right to teach infallibly on those subjects that trouble me, then I'd have reason to infer that there's something to its arguments on those subjects that I'm overlooking, but that I might eventually come to discover. Here, logic suggests that however it currently seems to me, I haven't fully sifted the arguments.
This example strikes me less as "fideism" than as a parallel (maybe a second-order?) means of adjudging truth.
This example strikes me less as "fideism" than as a parallel (maybe a second-order?) means of adjudging truth.Delete
It strikes me as "faith", properly understood, which is distinct from fideism. When I have faith in God and in Jesus and in the Church He established, I also have faith in the dogmas she teaches, even when I don't "see" the rationale perfectly. Admitting that "there might be some aspect of what the Church says that I, in my limitations, am not competent to judge" is the required humble part of faith.
I'm wondering what Professor Feser thinks of Kurt Godel's conjectural proof of the existence of God.ReplyDelete
'The power of the 22nd Thomistic Thesis compels you! The power of the 22nd Thomistic Thesis compells you!Delete
I doubt he would have much time for it.
I wish Thomists had jumped on the Kripke-boat and stopped using the term A Priori.
(Interestingly Modal Perfection Arguments, of the type put forward by Godel and Maydole, may constitute disproofs of Analogical predication0
Wait, are you a classical theist?
For some reason I get the suspicion you may be a Scotist.
Yes, I'm a classical theist. I'd just call myself a Scholastic rather than any more specific label.Delete
I'm not hostile to Thomism, far from it, though hold that some of its major claims re epistemology,mind-body relation, principle of individuation and free will. I'm just against the closed attitude towards non-Thomists arguments and other aspects of Philosophy of Religion.
Ironically I am closer to Scotus than Thomists on certain questions (I focus more on modality as the basis of metaphysics, hold individuation to be a primitive of Kind-Instances and hold a non-imagist account of cogition of singulars). I'd put my general approach to Natural Theology more down to Leibniz, though as has been remarked he sat on Scotus shoulder much as did Thomas on Aristotle's.
Aristotle also convinced me....ReplyDelete
Didn't Shermer author an article a few years back about some spooky experience he had where he said he admitted it made him think a bit more about things beyond this reality? And that lead to his article being mocked by some of his fellow atheists?ReplyDelete
Yes on his wedding day something to do with a radio that had value to his wife or something. Not that he started believing in the paranormal or anything. Its even a little touching, but then the internet trades in mockery.Delete
lol what the heck did I just listen to? I almost feel sorry Ed and Michael Shermer had to endure that.ReplyDelete
Yeah that started out ok and then derailed didn't it? Maybe save the Tom Price updates until after the interview!!Delete
I had the same feeling. The callers really ruined it and the host wasn't very helpful.Delete
You know what would be refreshing? A "debate" or conversation where the ill-informed host doesn't interject the moment things start getting interesting. I can't tell you the number of debates I have seen where the two debaters start going back and forth on a important issue and the host comes in and says they can't do that. The host implies that they are wasting time by doing that! It's insane that it is considered wasting time to have a rigorous debate.Delete
At the very beginning of my class (back in the day), I began with distinguishing the proper objects of the sciences a la Aquinas (Division & Methods of Sciences). This quelled a lot of wasted time on advocates of Sciencism.ReplyDelete
While as a person, as far as I remember, Michael Shermer seems to be a very ncie fellow, I always experienced his posts and articles to be very subpar, quality wise. Presupposing materialism, attacking simplistic pictures of God, committing many fallacies.ReplyDelete
Does my memory fault me? Should I give him another chance?
You're opinion of Shermer is spot on. Nice guy but a terrible debater and not very well prepared. I saw him debate John Lennox on youtube and I almost felt bad for Shermer because he was so ill-prepared and presented 8th grade arguments.Delete