Thursday, November 10, 2022

Adventures in the Old Atheism, Part VII: The influence of Kant

Immanuel Kant was, of course, not an atheist.  So why devote an entry to him in this series, thereby lumping him in with the likes of Nietzsche, Sartre, Freud, Marx, Woody Allen, and Schopenhauer?  In part because Kant’s philosophy, I would suggest, inadvertently did more to bolster atheism than any other modern system, Hume’s included.  He was, as Nietzsche put it, a “catastrophic spider” (albeit not for the reasons Nietzsche supposed).  But also in part because, like the other thinkers in this series, Kant had a more subtle and interesting attitude about religion than contemporary critics of traditional theology like the New Atheists do. 

Why do I propose that Kant’s influence did even more to bolster modern atheism than Hume’s?  Because Kant offered a positive alternative to the traditional metaphysics that upheld theism, whereas Hume’s critique is essentially negative.  To be sure, contemporary commentators are correct to hold that it is too simple to read Hume as a mere skeptic, full stop.  True, he does try to undermine traditional metaphysical views about substance, causation, the self, moral value, etc.  But he also emphasizes that the hold such notions have over common sense cannot be shaken by philosophical skepticism, since they are too deeply rooted in human psychology.  And for purposes of “common life,” they are indispensable.  Hume’s aim is merely to clip the wings of highfalutin rationalist metaphysical speculation, not to undermine the convictions of the ordinary person.

All the same, precisely for that reason, Hume’s account of philosophy, if not of common sense, is essentially destructive.  Moreover, a consistent Humean will have to take a much more modest view of natural science than contemporary atheists are wont to do – in part because of Hume’s attack on attempts to justify induction, and in part because the deliverances of modern physics are hardly less abstruse and remote from common life than the rationalist speculations he was so keen to shoot down.  A Humean must also give up a rationalistic ethics, given that, as he famously holds, there is nothing contrary to reason (but only to the sentiments of the average person) to prefer that the entire world be destroyed than that one should suffer a scratch to his finger.  Humean arguments entail a pessimism about the powers of human reason that doesn’t sit well with scientism or with dogmatic and triumphalist versions of atheism (even if many atheists and adherents of scientism naively suppose otherwise).

Kant, by contrast, tied his critique of traditional metaphysics to an essentially positive and optimistic view of what reason could accomplish.  True, he did not think reason could penetrate into the natures of things as they are in themselves.  Since that’s what traditional metaphysics claimed to do, and natural theology is grounded in such metaphysics, his position entails a critique of traditional metaphysics and natural theology.  However, in Kant’s view this entailed no doubts about the rational foundations of morality or of science (which concerns the world as it appears to us rather than as it is in itself).  A consistent Humean has to put natural theology, natural science, and ethics in the same boat.  A consistent Kantian can leave natural theology in the boat by itself.

Ultimate explanation

All the same, Kant’s critique of natural theology did not stem from the view that it is an irrational enterprise.  Quite the contrary.  The New Atheist supposes that all theology reflects an insufficient respect for reason.  Kant argues, by contrast, that in fact natural theology reflects an excessive confidence in the power of reason.  In particular, it reflects the conviction that ultimate explanation is possible, that the world can be made intelligible through and through.  Nor did Kant suppose that natural theology looked for such explanation in the crudely anthropomorphic “sky daddy” of New Atheist caricature.  Here is how he describes the basic impulse behind philosophical theism in the Critique of Pure Reason:

Reason… is impelled… to seek a resting-place in the regress from the conditioned, which is given, to the unconditioned… This is the course which our human reason, by its very nature, leads all of us, even the least reflective, to adopt

If we admit something as existing, no matter what this something may be, we must also admit that there exists something which exists necessarily.  For the contingent exists only under the condition of some other contingent existence as its cause, and from this again we must infer yet another cause, until we are brought to a cause which is not contingent, and which is therefore unconditionally necessary

Now… that which is in no respect defective, that which is in every way sufficient as a condition, seems to be precisely the being to which absolute necessity can fittingly be described.  For while it contains the conditions of all that is possible, it itself does not require and indeed does not allow of any condition, and therefore satisfies… the concept of unconditioned necessity

The concept of an ens realissimum is therefore, of all concepts of possible things, that which best squares with the concept of an unconditionally necessary being; and… we have no choice in the matter, but find ourselves constrained to hold to it…

Such, then, is the natural procedure of human reason.  It… looks around for the concept of that which is independent of any condition, and finds it in that which is itself the sufficient condition of all else, that is, in that which contains all reality.  But that which is all-containing and without limits is absolute unity, and involves the concept of a single being that is likewise the supreme being. (pp. 495-97, Norman Kemp Smith translation)

Reason, Kant says, cannot be satisfied as long as the explanations it posits make reference only to what is conditioned, to contingent things.  Ultimate explanation must posit the existence of something which is absolutely unconditioned or necessary.  This something would be a single, unified “ens realissimum” or most real being, would be devoid of any defect, and would be the source of all other reality – it would possess “the highest causality… which contains primordially in itself the sufficient ground of every possible effect” (p. 499).  Naturally, it is not the likes of Zeus or Odin that Kant has in mind, but rather the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle and Aquinas, the One of Plotinus, the Necessary Being of Leibniz, and so on.

The trouble with this sort of reasoning, Kant thinks, is not that its conclusion is false – again, he was no atheist – but rather that, given his epistemology, reason lacks the resources to transcend the empirical world and prove the existence of a necessary or unconditioned being outside it.  The notion of causality, he argues, applies only within the phenomenal world, the world of things as they appear to us, whereas reasoning to a necessary being would require applying it beyond that world, to the noumenal world or things as they are in themselves.  And we cannot, in his view, know the latter.

By no means does this make reasoning to such a divine first cause superstitious or otherwise foolish.  After all, Kant also thinks that the notions of space and time apply only within the phenomenal world and not to things as they are in themselves.  You might think it mistaken to suppose that the notions of space and time apply to things as they are in themselves, but few would regard it as superstitious, or irrational, or otherwise contemptible to do so.  By the same token, there is nothing superstitious, irrational, or otherwise contemptible in the idea of a first uncaused cause, even if one supposes, with Kant, that reason is incapable of validly drawing the inference to it. 

Again, in Kant’s view, it is not the abandonment of reason, but rather the attempt to fulfill reason’s ultimate ambitions, that yields natural theology.  And reason will remain frustrated even in the face of Kantian attempts to show that this ambition cannot be fulfilled.  It is “quite beyond our utmost efforts to satisfy our understanding in this matter” but “equally unavailing are all attempts to induce it to acquiesce in its incapacity” (p. 513).

The metaphysics of morals

“As follows from these considerations,” Kant says, “the ideal of the supreme being is nothing but a regulative principle of reason, which directs us to look upon all connection in the world as if it originated from an all-sufficient necessary cause” (p. 517).  Note that Kant is not saying that this ideal is an unavoidable useful fiction, but rather that it is unavoidable and useful even if (in his view) unprovable. 

Even so, he does not regard the affirmation of God’s existence as groundless.  On the contrary, he famously argues that a rationale for affirming it is to be found in practical rather than pure reason, in ethics rather than in metaphysics.  Just as reason seeks an ultimate explanation, so too, Kant argues in the Critique of Practical Reason, it seeks the highest good.  And the highest good, he argues, would be the conjunction of moral virtue, which makes us worthy of happiness, with happiness itself. 

Now, we are obligated by the moral law to try to realize this highest good.  And since ought implies can, it must be possible to realize it.  Yet it is obviously not realized in this life, since virtuous people often suffer and evil people often live lives of comfort and pleasure.  Moreover, Kant thinks, its realization cannot be guaranteed in this life, since there is, he thinks, no inherent necessary correlation between the demands of the moral law and the causal order that governs the natural world.  We can make sense of such a correlation only if we postulate a supreme being who brings the two orders into correlation (in the afterlife).

Kant does not take this to be a strict proof of God’s existence, but rather an argument to the effect that it is reasonable to affirm God’s existence.  And once again, the idea is not that theism involves believing something contrary to reason, but quite the opposite.  Affirming God’s existence is, in Kant’s view, precisely what is called for in order to make sense of what reason dictates in the realm of action.

The afterlife of Hume and Kant

It is widely supposed that Hume and Kant put paid to the arguments of natural theology.  But their critiques largely presuppose their background views in epistemology and metaphysics.  If you don’t buy those views (and I don’t) you needn’t accept their critiques.  Yet Hume’s and Kant’s general epistemological and metaphysical views are hardly uncontroversial, and many who suppose their critiques of natural theology to be compelling would not accept them (if, indeed, they even know much about them). 

Moreover, as I have argued, if you do accept these background views, then to be consistent you’d have to draw other conclusions that most New Atheist types would not want to draw.  Again, if you accept a Humean critique of natural theology, then to be consistent you should also be skeptical about the claims of natural science and ethics to tell us anything about objective reality.  And if you accept a Kantian critique of natural theology, then while you can consistently take natural science and ethics to have a rational basis, you cannot consistently treat theology with the contempt that Dawkins and Co. typically do.  Hence the lessons so many have drawn from Hume’s and Kant’s critiques is not the one either of those critiques actually supports.

Related posts:

The catastrophic spider

Sexual cant from the asexual Kant

Theology and the analytic a posteriori

The problem of Hume’s problem of induction

A world of pure imagination

Hume, science, and religion

Hume, cosmological arguments, and the fallacy of composition


  1. Contemporary atheism is founded on Hume's empirical atheism and Kant's conceptual agnosticism. That's why so many of them on YouTube and Facebook call themselves agnostic atheists: because atheism as it is recognized today is a marriage of the two.

    1. WCB

      "I have never had the least sympathy with the a priori reasons against orthodoxy, and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school. Nevertheless I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel."
      Thomas Huxley - Letter to Charles Kingsley (6 May 1863)

      Huxley most famously invented the term agnostic. If an agnostic can see no reason to believe in God, then one can indeed also be an atheist. At bottom, the burden of proof lies with the theist.


  2. Are there any book-length analyses of Kant's philosophy that you could recommend from a Thomist?

    The only philosophy book I've read (so far) that gives an analysis of Kant is Peter Kreeft's book "Socrates Meets Kant" (which is written as a fictional dialog between those 2).

    I know that you (Feser) have addressed some of Kant's criticisms of Natural Theology in your books, but I was wondering if you could recommend any Thomists that have done more in-depth work on this.

    1. Try Etienne Gilson's The Unity of Philosophical Experience, which includes a penetrating analysis of modern philosophy, including Kant, from a Thomist perspective

    2. Also Gilson's Thomist Realism and The Critique of Knowledge and also Methodical Realism. The second one is good for beginners.

  3. Also the header of your last section fooled me. "The afterlife of Hume and Kant". Your previous section talked about how Kant believed moral values needed the next life, so I was expecting a discussion of how Kant's view of the afterlife was different from Hume's annihilationism.

    1. That Hume could be so confident that he would cease to be is quite funny with his view on casuality XD

    2. If Hume lived a little longer, he would have started to believe in some kind of rebirth. Bundle theories of self naturally lead to belief in rebirth.

    3. I heard once that there were some translations of some buddhist texts in Europe at his time. Funny to think how Hume reaction to they would be.

    4. @Talmid What do you think about this argument in favor of the bundle theory of self?

      1. If there is more to an object than its properties, then it is possible to conceive of said object with all its properties stripped away.

      2. That is inconceivable.

      3. Therefore an object and its properties are one and the same.

      Christians aren't allowed to believe in bundle theories of self, because we believe that G-d made us as perfect substances. That's why the church so strongly opposes this transgender madness.

    5. @Infinite Growth

      What do "stripped of all its properties" means? Even if you take away all of a being visible characteristics there would still be the potentials, the thing being a composite of essence and existence, the thing having started to be etc, so perhaps 2 is false.

      Besides, I'am against conceivability arguments in general. Aunt May sure can conceive of a Spiderman that is not Peter Parker, this is what she does, but he is still the Spider. But this is the less important point, for the argument is not the normal conceivability argument.

      On top of that, our cognition starts by a thing characteristics, we only know the substance latter, and we classify things according to the characteristics it has, so it is should not suprise us that we cant conceive of it with no characteristics.

      I mean, a human is a rational animal, the essence is separated by its characteristics. The diference between one essence and another is the essencial characteristics any has, so it is no wonder that we cant diferentiate one from another once we take the essencial characteristics away.

      So perhaps 1 is false, for it is probably the case that even on a substance view of the self we should expect 2 to be true. Maybe only on Scotus-like view were every thing has a natural "haecceitas"(had to google) 2 would be false.

      Sorry for not giving a straight answer, it is that my thinking got a to were it wanted to go, it happens with me :)

    6. Quite lovely tune.

  4. I'm no trained philosopher, but Kant's phenomenal/noumenal distinction seems really suspicious to me. It's hard for me to even understand why you would want to make such a distinction except unless you were motivated by the desire to deny the force of arguments for the existence of God.

    I don't get how the nouminal world can really be "things as they are" if they are entirely causally inert with respect to how we perceive things. This seems like a very "russel's teapot" kind of situation where if we can't draw any conclusions about things as they are, why are we even bothering to try to talk about "things as they are"?

    1. if we can't draw any conclusions about things as they are, why are we even bothering to try to talk about "things as they are"?

      I concur: the distinction is extremely suspect. For one thing, is there any "things as they ARE" about things "as they appear to us" (i.e. the phenomena)? Or really, how could there NOT be any aspect to "things as they appear to us" that "really are"? For instance, do they REALLY seem that way, or is it "just an appearance?" How, indeed, could we speak meaningfully about "things as they seem to us" without those things having characteristics (even if only seeming so - they SEEM to have certain characteristics, and that FACT is something that is so even apart from seeming). It is, further, utterly silly to simply posit the world of phenomena being utterly divorced from "things as they really are", and then talk about it with everyone else as if your experience had ANY relationality with them (or even their sheer existence). Your words would be (always) sheer gibberish to everyone else, and (at best) only seeming to you to have any sense at all.

      It seems to have all the worst drawbacks of the "mind is merely electron actions in neurons" approach, and then some.

    2. It's hard for me to even understand why you would want to make such a distinction except unless you were motivated by the desire to deny the force of arguments for the existence of God.

      The motivation stems from Kant's attempt to respond to Humean skepticism. Kant thinks metaphysical principles (e.g. every event must have a cause) can only be justified in virtue of their expressing conditions of the possibility of experience, viz. the conditions objects must satisfy in order to be objects of experience for us. But this suggests the need to distinguish between two says of considering objects, namely in relation to subjects with our forms of cognition (things as they appear to us) and independently of such relations (things as they are in themselves).

      Now, I'm not a Kantian, and I don't think his views are ultimately satisfactory, but I hope this brief summary shows it isn't some misguided attempt to undermine natural theology.

    3. @Anon

      "It's hard for me to even understand why you would want to make such a distinction except unless you were motivated by the desire to deny the force of arguments for the existence of God."

      Well, Kant starts with the humean thesis that sense data can only generate contigent knowledge. He quickly realized that empiricism is dumb, for we do have necessary knowledge, so he was a sort of rationalist early. Necessary knowledge comes from reason.

      But them Kant understood that sense data is pretty much how we have information about reality, so if our necessary knowledge does not come from the senses them it either:

      1. Has no basis on reality and is mere play with definitions(which smart empiricists do defend).

      2. Come from something else.

      The prussian argued that at least mathematics is a sort of necessary knowledge that is not created by language, so 2 won. His answer was that we can know some truths about how we happen to organize sense data by analysing the necessary conditions to our experience to it to be how it is. For instance, every experience we have is in time, it has a sucession and all that, so we can derive several truths about that(inded, mathematics would have his origin on the forms of time and space).

      And so, by knowing this structure we could show that every possible experience we could have need to obey a certain structure and so gather several truths about how things appear to us. This method is worthless to know things we cant empirically know, though.

    4. Of course, this does not means that we do not know ANYTHING about how things really are, for Kant argued against things really having the characteristics our innate structure puts on they, like the forms of space and time or the categories like casuality. Read someday Sebastian Gardner book on Kant to get the details, it is a very good account of Kant views and arguments.

      Academics do dispute the view that the thing-itself is a separate thing from phenomena, the two-worlds interpretation, but i do feel like it gets close to Kant intend. Specially if one see things like his defense of free will.

      About a way of making this view sound coherent, Schopenhauer did a good job of deriving some conclusions about the thing-itself. Of all the germans, i still do not know which took Kant view to the more coherent direction, but he got to a interesting point.

    5. I would agree with John above that Kant wasn't motivated by a desire to undermine (Christian) theology, though he didn't help either.

      Hume has launched an attack on metaphysics, in particular, moral philosophy and theology. I suspect Kant’s response to Hume was an act of self-defence, or to borrow his own word in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, a “rescue” mission. In a rescue mission, one is forced to rescue what he cares about the most, and forgo the rest. Kant made a vigorous attempt to defend moral philosophy, but left theology to fend for itself, if not threw it under the bus.

  5. Garrigou_LaGrange, "God: His Nature and Existence" 2Vols. is still a classic.

  6. Also Brian Davies, OP "Thinking About God."
    and Dr Feser's "Aguinas."

  7. Your post reminded me of Heinrich Heine's comments on Kant's life/philosophy. The quote is from Heine's book "Religion and Philosophy in Germany: A Fragment". It's on pages 108-109 on this online version.

    “The history of Immanuel Kant's life is difficult to portray, for he had neither life nor history. He led a mechanical, regular, almost abstract bachelor existence in a little retired street of Königsberg, an old town on the north-eastern frontier of Germany. I do not believe that the great clock of the cathedral performed in a more passionless and methodical manner its daily routine than did its townsman, Immanuel Kant. Rising in the morning, coffee-drinking, writing, reading lectures, dining, walking, everything had its appointed time, and the neighbors knew that it was exactly half-past three o'clock when Kant stepped forth from his house in his grey, tight-fitting coat, with his Spanish cane in his hand, and betook himself to the little linden avenue called after him to this day the "Philosopher's Walk." Summer and winter he walked up and down it eight times, and when the weather was dull or heavy clouds prognosticated rain, the townspeople beheld his servant, the old Lampe, trudging anxiously behind Kant with a big umbrella under his arm, like an image of Providence.

    What a strange contrast did this man's outward life present to his destructive, world-annihilating thoughts! In sooth, had the citizens of Königsberg had the least presentiment of the full significance of his ideas, they would have felt far more awful dread at the presence of this man than at the sight of an executioner, who can but kill the body. But the worthy folk saw in him nothing more than a Professor of Philosophy, and as he passed at his customary hour, they greeted him in a friendly manner and set their watches by him.”
    (End quote)

    1. So, Kant is the human avatar of liberalism?

  8. Would you say Kant was a univocist? It seems that by saying reason cannot get to the ultimate foundation of reality because it cannot access things as they are in themselves, he is suggesting that there is no appropriate analogical predication of being.

    1. Kant seems to consider that phenomena has a lower degree of existence than the thing-itself while considering phenomena real, so it will depend on the view that one takes on the relation between the two.

      If we take a two-worlds interpretation them i suppose that both phenomena and noumena "are" but on diferent ways, so we need something like analogy. If we take a two-aspects interpretation them it seems like they are just one thing, so there is only a mode of existence. If we take something like S. Gardner view, that we dont know the relation at all, them who knows.

  9. Oh boy, the prussian would not exactly be a fan of being here XD

    "Yet Hume’s and Kant’s general epistemological and metaphysical views are hardly uncontroversial, and many who suppose their critiques of natural theology to be compelling would not accept them (if, indeed, they even know much about them)."

    Perfect. If one uses their criticism while not really accepting their views them you know that there is no serious thinker in front of you.

    And i do find Kant system very good to a atheist, probably the best dificult to natural theology, but i admit that reading your post make me reconsider the possibility of a kantian atheist, Dr. Feser.

    The kantian "moral argument" seemed kinda weak to me, for pratical and theoretical reason could just be contradictory and that is all. But this would seriously wreak the power of reason and the confidence on science and morality, so yea, kantism loses its appeal(one might as well go to something even more modest, like Hayek).

    1. There are Kantian atheists. A Kantian atheist could accept his general metaphysical system while discarding his views on natural theology just like he could accept Kant's position on mathematics while judging him to have erred with regards to holding Euclidean geometry as logically necessary.

  10. You know, i got a idea:

    "Moreover, Kant thinks, its realization cannot be guaranteed in this life, since there is, he thinks, no inherent necessary correlation between the demands of the moral law and the causal order that governs the natural world. We can make sense of such a correlation only if we postulate a supreme being who brings the two orders into correlation (in the afterlife)".

    Can't not one, in a wink to Schopenhauer, use this reasoning to get as well to something more eastern like a sort of moksha? It would require a pantheist/panentheist deity being the thing-itself and a completely detached moral life(Kantian ethics meet the Gita!) would help one become one with God and all that.

    Besides not being atheistic, a weakness of it when compared with theist kantism is that it would not be capable of having objective morality, for there is no real "I" that is the author of my acts, but it could make Kant argument less probable.

    1. Hun. It seems that this alternative view would not be capable of getting us to objective morality, there is no self, so it would not serve as a alternative to Kant theistic account.

      No wonder that Schopenhauer ethics seems more focused on describing that prescribing.

  11. WCB

    "We can make sense of such a correlation only if we postulate a supreme being who brings the two orders into correlation (in the afterlife)".

    See Plato, "The Laws - Book X". Here Plato tries to find arguments to convince atheists to believe in God. Plato's Good Workman argument. God is a good workman and so if good people suffer unfairly in this life, God will fix that in the afterlife. Plato pretty much invented natural theology aimed squarely at atheists. The trouble with his good workman hypothesis is it proves nothing. It is based solely on hope. Maybe there is no God, no afterlife. And a truly good workman does not allow errors now, that have to be rectified later. So the Problem Of Evil rears its ugly head.


    1. "His argument doesn't work because he might have been wrong."

      Wow. Yet another devastating critique of the theistic tradition. Guess we ought to just shot down the blog. WCB really has our number.

    2. WCN and Papalinton are the voices of reason and sanity here. I hsve learned so much from them. Thank you guys.

    3. @WCB

      Its been a while since i read The Laws, but in there Plato argues for:

      - the existence of gods, with his cosmological argument that leads to the existence of souls
      - self movers - that started all other movement.

      - That the gods care about us, by pointing out that a better caretaker cares about the details of his works, so the gods do care about everything.

      If these arguments come before Book X, i dont remember, them the Good Workman Argument does sound reasonable to one who accept these premises. Like Kant moral argument, hard to dismiss if you agree with the initial premises, it is just that atheists do not.

      About the problem of evil, i dont remember Plato adressing it at all*, but he believed that:

      - the soul is living in a innatural condition when stuck in the body

      - that the soul is only happy when it goes to the intellectual goods, which every soul has the potential to do.

      - that after death the soul just goes eventually to another body

      It seems that these premises do help developing a response to the problem of evil. Proclus,probably the best neoplatonist, did make a interesting little book on it, worth a reading.

      *makes sense that the hebrews would know it(see the Torah and Job) before him, the gods that the atheists/agnostics of his time were discussing were the greek ones, so it would not come from they, and Plato was not only a elitist but also probably a ascetic, hardly the guy to care about lower people not having material goods

    4. WCB

      What evidence is there, hard evidence, we have a soul that survives evidence and that there is a heaven. Other than ancient opinions? Why is life after death and heaven and hell not mentioned at all in the Pentateuch?

      And yes, a truly good workman ala Plato would not make mistakes that need rectifying.

      Why not start with creating all sentient beings good and in eternal bliss in heaven to begin with? And then back to theological fatalism which i laid out in an earlier thread? I never got a decent answer there.



    5. LAA

      Well, fellow Anon, you know what WCB means, right?
      "Winners Can't Believe". And since he's not a believer, he's a winner.

      I mean, such a strong act of destruction from his part, I now have to stop believing in God, and turn Aquinas to ashes. Such a powerful act!


      (LAA : Losers Are Atheist)

    6. WCB, this is a philosophy blog. We do philosophy here. If logical demonstrations don’t qualify as “hard evidence” for you, you can go back to Matt Dillihunty et al.

      The problem of evil (or at least the logical version of the problem of evil that you keep harping on about), is a philosophical demonstration that the existence of evil is inconsistent with God’s attributes of goodness, omnipotence, etc. If Plato’s good work an argument provides a potential “out” then the argument in the problem of evil fails because the conclusion does not follow from the premises.

      Notice how in the thousands of words that Dr. Feser has devoted to the topic of existential inertia, he has never once asked “where is the hard evidence for existential inertia?” Because it doesn’t matter if you have independent reasons to think such a thing exists. If the mere possibility of it’s existence is consistent with the metaphysical premises of the classical theists, then (most) cosmological arguments fail.

      You’re allowed to think that such theodicies are super unsatisfying explanations, but stop pretending that “theists btfo with FACTS and LOGIC!!” Nobody is going to take you seriously when you overstate your case like that.

    7. @WCB

      Googled it and it seems that Proclus book is called "On the Existence of Evils". It is quite a good "theodicy" on a neoplatonical theism. Read it eventually, it is small but quite cool.

      Neoplatonism is very diferent than christian theism, but both do overlap a bit on some aspect of theodicy. And the neoplatonics do escape of some problems than the christians have on this theme. If you are interested on theism but the problem of evil is a great preocupation them give Proclus a chance.

    8. Book IV of Divine Names is even better because Dionysius modifies Proclus's privation view of evil to be compatible with a Christian perspective. Proclus doesn't think spiritual creatures can be evil, but Dionysius does.

    9. Thanks. Still need to read Dionysius.

    10. WCB


      Down at the bottom of neoPlatonism is Parmenides. Parmenide's metaphysics gave us the claims that change is impossible, and that the multiplicity of things is illusionary. There is only "the one". The root of the metaphysical claim that God is simple. Plato's dialogue "Parrmenides" is one of the oddest writings on metaphysics ever. Parmenides claims that space and time are illusionary and change is impossible. Where that leaves the evil of this world is problematic.


    11. Oh boy, that Plato book sure is odd. I still need to read it again, maybe i get it them!

      And while Parmenides probably did not had a way of accounting for evil, or any other event, neoplatonists did have their ways. The Proclus book i mentioned is very interesting, probably would interest you.

    12. That "God is simple" isn't from Parmenides. Correcting his error with truth doesn't mean truth is from his error.

      Tom Cohoe

  12. WCB

    The moral nature of man argument. If God decides to create man. Including mankind's moral nature.

    God has three choices
    1. Create mankind with a bad moral nature.
    2. Create mankind with an indifferent moral nature.
    3. Create mankind with a good moral nature.

    Our God given moral nature constrains our free will the free will argument for existence of moral evil fails. Creating mankind with an indifferent moral nature does not confer free will on mankind, just gurantees moral evil will be committed in this world.

    If God is good, just, merciful, compassionate, and wise and cares about us, God must choose to create all mankind with the best moral nature possible.

    The Problem Of Evil is not really A Problem, but is many such little problems that have no answers. Theology should be about logic if Theologians give us claims without hard evidence. The hard evidence in this world is moral evil exists. Logic such as above demonstrates theological opinions seem to be very wrong. How many logical dead ends like this does an Atheist need to acknowledge the God hypothesis of a wise, perfectly good God fails?


  13. I hope this series will become a book.

    1. Agreed! Hope we still have a lot of atheists* on the line. Very good reflections.

      *and Kant

  14. Dr. Feser,

    How do you think Kant's nominalism played into his abandonment of metaphysical proofs for God's existence? Michael Oberst recently wrote an article in History of Phil Quarterly (2015) where he notes that while Kant says little explicitly about universals, his recent interpreters agree that he "rejected universals." Oberst agrees with some nuance (trying to situate Kant in some middle ground between nominalism and realism).

    Without getting into exegesis of Kant on this point, do you think nominalism might account for his denial of metaphysical proofs? It seems to me that his nominalism would account for this and for his epistemology as well (with nominalism understood as the denial of universal, extra mental form). Any thoughts?

  15. Kant was one of the world's greatest thinkers. He phillosophy foresaw quantum mechanics.

    Kant did not view things-in-themselves as containing the sum of all possibilities, and phenomena all actualities; but this duality is conformable to Kant's metaphysics as to none other. As a contribution to the metaphysics of possibility, the quantum mechanical wave function can easily be seen as complementary to Kant's idea of things-in-themselves, where various kinds of things can happen (like free will) that are not comprehensible in terms of phenomenal reality. Kant would just have to allow that characteristics of physical reality can intrude some depth into things-in-themselves, which he would not have considered -- though we can also handle this by positing an intermediate level of reality, between true unconditioned things-in-themselves and true discrete phenomenal objects -- as Kant otherwise actually does himself for space and time as "pure intuitions." The wave function straddles the classic Kantian boundary, sharing some properties with phenomena, others, as underlying phenomena, with things-in-themselves.

    Thus, where Kant would have considered all of phenomena governed by determinism, we now see the wave function as deterministic, while the collapse of waves into particles is random. Although chance in quantum mechanics has often been argued as allowing for free will, a free cause is still a very different thing from a random cause, which doesn't need mind or self or intention. Moral freedom is thus still left among things-in-themselves. Kant himself would have had difficulty placing randomness in his ontology, if he, like Hume, believed that chance violates determinism. Since chance is now part of the physics, it cannot be denied; but it also still remains a different matter from purposive freedom.

    Kant's idea that space and time do not exist among things-in-themselves has been curiously affirmed by Relativity and quantum mechanics. In Relativity, time simply ceases to pass at the velocity of light: for photons that have travelled to us as part of the Cosmic Background Radiation, time has stood still for most of the history of the universe. On the other hand, quantum mechanics now posits "non-locality," i.e. physical distances, and so the limitation of the velocity of light in Relativity, don't seem to exist. This means that although time may apply to the wave function, space may not. The full empirical reality of space is only found among discrete particles and objects.

    This curious result is the consequence of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) Paradox, which was intended by Einstein as a reductio ad absurdum of quantum mechanics. If, for instance, a positron and an election are both created from an energetic photon, the conservation of angular momentum requires that one be spinning one way, and the other the other. But the complementary spins are equally probable for each particle. Thus, in quantum mechanical terms, the wave functions of each particle divide without a discrete state being determined. The particles might then separate to even cosmological distances, but as soon as the spin of one particle is observed, the other particle must have the opposite spin, which means that the wave function has collapsed across those cosmological distances and caused the other particle to assume a predictable spin. If this occurs instantaneously, it would violate the limitation of the velocity of light in Special Relativity.

    This has now been shown to actually occur on the basis of Bell's Theorem (from John Bell, 1928-1990), meaning that Quantum Mechanics does violate Special Relativity by allowing instantaneous interactions across even cosmological distances. However, once observed, processes must still obey Special Relativity and the limitations of spatial distance, creating the kind of duality described by Kant.

  16. "The trouble with this sort of reasoning, Kant thinks, is not that its conclusion is false – again, he was no atheist – but rather that, given his epistemology, reason lacks the resources to transcend the empirical world and prove the existence of a necessary or unconditioned being outside it. The notion of causality, he argues, applies only within the phenomenal world, the world of things as they appear to us, whereas reasoning to a necessary being would require applying it beyond that world, to the noumenal world or things as they are in themselves. And we cannot, in his view, know the latter." Trouble is, if Kant is right, nobody can know he's right, including Kant. Right?

  17. WCB

    "WCB, this is a philosophy blog. We do philosophy here. If logical demonstrations don’t qualify as “hard evidence” for you, you can go back to Matt Dillihunty et al."

    Assertion alone are not anything more than assertions. Claims about souls are based solely on unfounded assertions. Pointing that out is very much philosophy.

    The problem is soul as a theory has problems as a concept.

    Consider this, Hiram. The village atheist has an IQ of 150. Danny the village idiot has an IQ of 50. How does concept of soul account for this? Is it Danny's soul that is intellectually deficient? Or does his deficient brain throttle his soul's itellect? How about Hiram? Is his soul's real IQ 200? Could it be we are all deficient as to our brains and withou that, we would all have IQs of 200?

    How does soul interact with a human brain?
    Let's do some real philosophy here. This is an old issue extensively argued over by many philosophers from the days of Descartes. No sound solution to this issue was found despite mighty efforts of many philosophers. This is a philosopy blog? Let's see some philosophy here.


    1. IQ is not really a measure of intellect. Your misleading questions spring from an incoherent "philosophy" also known a superstition.

      Tom Cohoe

    2. Splendid! Finally an actual argument.

      Let’s recap: your initial claim is that the logical problem of evil provides good philosophical reasons not to believe in the God of classical theism because it shows there is no way to reconcile the bad things that happen to people with “Omni” attributes we want to affirm about God.

      A response to this claim was then given that one possible “out” that can preserve these divine attributes by hypothesizing that God could make restitution to the wronged parties in the next life.

      You then made a bunch of irrelevant remarks about how everyone who disagrees with you on this topic is stupid, and most people probably gave up on the conversation. But now we actually have a non-trivial and non-circular response! An immortal soul cannot exist that survives after death because we don’t know how a soul interacts with the brain, so it is therefore impossible for God to offer restitution to a person after death.

      Now that we have that all our of the way, ready for the philosophy? You sure? Ok here it is:

      I reject your premise. An unsolved question is not a demonstration that two concepts are incompatible.

      This is further justified by the arguments that Dr. Feser has made here (and others have made elsewhere) that the mind cannot be wholly materially determinate, and that there must be an immaterial component to our thoughts (which is positive evidence for the soul).

      I conclude that the above theodicy has not been rebutted, and therefore the problem of evil fails to demonstrate what you want to claim.

    3. @WCB

      "Consider this, Hiram. The village atheist has an IQ of 150. Danny the village idiot has an IQ of 50. How does concept of soul account for this? Is it Danny's soul that is intellectually deficient? Or does his deficient brain throttle his soul's itellect? How about Hiram? Is his soul's real IQ 200? Could it be we are all deficient as to our brains and withou that, we would all have IQs of 200?"

      It will depend on the school, but most dualists i can think of can account for this.

      Take for instance  the more platonic/dharmic/spiritist view that the soul is a substance whose nature is other than the body and that not only has no necessary conection with it but is actually weakened by being stuck with it. This is pretty straightfoward here: the soul is stuck with the body limitations and so its natural capacities will be worser on a crappier body.

      Take now the cartesian view were the soul  is a substance whose nature is other than the body but is made to function with the body. Here the sould and the body must function together to it to work well, so a bad body will make the soul less capable of functioning.

      Now take the thomistic view were the soul is the form of the body. Here things also work well, for the body is responsable for sense data, memory and imagination and the intellect(that the soul is responsable for) needs sense data everytime it needs to function*, so if the body do not work well, them the sould is screwed.

      So it seems that the forms of dualism defended by philosophers, at least with a religious mindset, can work well on this case. The only type of dualism i can't see explaining it is the one you see on most fiction with superhumans or magic were someone can turn into a fly or a bird, say, and still think. If the soul can work well on these situations, brain damage should be easy.

      *St. Thomas even say that folks in heaven now only can think at all because God is making it possible, a bodyless soul would not be capable of it alone

  18. Kant took the emergent sense of self of his era, and made it the seat of all knowledge. He first promulgated the belief that it is the subject (the viewer) that is central to knowledge, and not the object viewed. Socratics believed that truth was a quality that existed outside of human perception. It was a philosopher’s job to search it out. Plato, unwittingly, gave a demonstration of this in his famous parable about shadows in a cave that we have touched on. People are chained to a cave wall and can see only shadows thrown from objects passing before a fire behind them. Since this is all they ever see, they will mistake the shadows for reality. In this example, perception is not the seat of knowledge at all, but instead a false prophet. Truth does not exist in the perception of the person in the cave, but is an independent quality that is outside not only the viewer’s perception, but also outside the cave itself. Jesus took this a step further in describing truth not as a quality, but as a god, as independent from a man’s perception as it is possible to be. Truth was God, and came from God, and it was our job to accept God and His will for us. Saint Paul, foremost architect of the Christian church, anticipates Kant’s description of spiritual truth as something outside of sensory perception in I Corinthians Chapter 2: “We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, ... Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared”. In Paul’s view, we don’t get knowledge of God through our senses, but “God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit.” Truth is truly outside of ourselves, and absolutely outside of our perception. It must be revealed by God. “Now we have received … the spirit which is of God; that we might know … not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth”. In this case, a viewer’s perception is useless, for truth can be known only through revelation to the spirit. Kant turned this around to teach that we cannot truly know any object outside of ourselves. All we can know is our view of that object. Thus, all knowledge is contingent on the subject, or subjective. There is no truth that we can find in an object, because we see that object only through our view. We see only our piece of it. From this point, he built a philosophical system which used scientific observation as a lens to determine what we can know, how we can know it, and how we learn it and describe it. At the same time, Kant held on to the notion that there may be truth that is outside of our ability to observe its phenomena, and so prove it. In fact, Kant felt he had proved that there were phenomena that did not have any observable traces, and so could not be known. He used the origin of matter in the universe as an example. It is here. It had to get here from somewhere, but where did it come from? Everything we can sense has an action and reaction. Everything has a start. So, what about matter? In short, Kant proved that we see things subjectively, but went on to show that this does not mean that objective truth does not exist, but only that we cannot observe objective truth, since we cannot observe the object itself. I will give you a CliffsNotes version to say that Kant built a science-based philosophy that still left room for Saint Paul’s belief that God’s truth could not come to us through our senses, but only through revelation.