Saturday, February 21, 2015

Clash of Worldviews: Islamist Terrorism Edition

MODERATOR: Welcome, viewers, to another clash of worldviews, the show that pits philosophies against each other. This evening, we’re joined by noted liberal secular humanist, Adam Garnett, self-proclaimed postmodern pessimist and cynic, Heather Fogarty, and influential conservative Muslim philosopher, Tariq Shadid. Recently, Islamist terrorists have been in the news for ISIL beheadings and immolations in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria, shootings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and the killing of Parisian cartoonists and Danish Jews and free speech supporters. Adam, why don’t you start things off by laying out the liberal’s case against those terrorists’ ideology?

ADAM: Sure, but I wouldn’t call it a “case,” exactly. A case is an argument that supports a viewpoint in a rational context in which the listeners understand and assent to logic and the rule of evidence. Religious faith, though, has utterly overtaken the sanity of these radical Islamists. Debating their ideology would be like teaching quantum mechanics to a four year-old.

But let’s begin by familiarizing ourselves with some highlights of the history of how we got here. In the eleventh century, al-Ghazali, the jurist, Asharite philosopher and Sufi mystic refuted the classical philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, in the name of Islamic theology. Whereas that philosophy was naturalistic, al-Ghazali’s book, Incoherence of the Philosophers, contends that nature entirely submits to God’s will, having no independent causal power. The laws of nature are just elements of God’s rationality, so that all the events we perceive are caused directly by God. When faced with the epistemological problem of skepticism about knowledge of the external world, al-Ghazali retreated to a kind of mysticism that substitutes God for that world and appeals to faith that God can do anything. In The Incoherence of the Incoherence, Averroes, the medieval polymath, defended classical philosophy, but while that defense led to the rise of naturalism and secularism in modern Europe, Averroism was rejected by most of the Muslim world, and so the way was cleared for today’s Islamist puritans who scoff at modern science and liberties. “God is great!” they chant, meaning that defiance of God is impossible because Islam is the one true religion that reflects God’s oneness and supremacy: the whole world isn’t just created by Allah but sustained, moment by moment, by him, so that when the radicals act out of intuition that they carry out God’s will, it’s God who acts through them. There is only illusory opposition to God, since everything must submit to the mightiest being, by definition. That’s the Asharite mysticism that al-Ghazali codified, which places revelation and mystical intuition before reason.

Later, in the eighteenth century, the Salafi reformer, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahab, preached that Muslims should return to monotheistic purity. He made a political pact with Muhammad bin Saud, who used the fundamentalist ideology to conquer territory and establish the Saudi state that survives to this day, by funding Salafism but directing it outwards to alleged external threats to Islamic purity, thus protecting the decadent Saudi family. Salafis reject scholastic philosophy (kalam) as a foreign, ancient Greek import that encourages free-thinking and debate to make theology rational. Adhering to a minimalist interpretation of Sunni, that is, the equivalent of Catholic Islam, Salafis regard speculative philosophy as a heresy of arrogance, of setting us up as rival gods who can learn the truth through our rational powers, without divine guidance, whereas the Islamic imperative is to submit to Allah. Salafis thus preach that the Quran, Hadith, consensus of elite Muslim scholars, and traditions from the first three generations of Muslims provide sufficient guidance for Muslims. In essence, this Salafism, which dominates Saudi Arabia and the UAE and which is the source of most Islamist terrorism today, is about submission to dogmas.  

Moderate Muslims and milquetoast centrists like President Obama contend that these terrorists merely distort true Islam and that no major religion justifies their savagery. Invariably, they remind us that the vast majority of Muslims reject the terrorist’s interpretation of Islam as “extreme” and as a “distortion” of the faith. Of course, anyone saying this should drop what they’re doing, pick up the nearest whip and flagellate the flesh of their back for wasting their listener’s time with a fallacious appeal to popularity. It goes without saying that the “correct” theological interpretation needn’t be the one that most people accept. More importantly, this debate about whether today’s militant jihadists betray or practice their religion isn’t worth having. There is no correct answer to the question, because the debate is theological. It’s exactly like asking which interpretation of Christianity is correct, Catholicism, Protestantism, or Fundamentalism (Evangelicalism). Even in Christianity, which at least honoured classical wisdom in medieval scholasticism, leading to naturalistic, systematic theology which ironically opened the door for modern science, reason has a precarious position, because of the alleged rival sources of knowledge in revelation, faith, and intuition. As I’ve just recounted, Islam as a whole lacks even the pretense that its theology owes its worth primarily to reason. Of course, for Muslims, reason is supposed to be compatible with faith, but that’s only because reason—like the whole of nature itself—is assumed to submit to God in the sense of being nothing without the deity. Christians went as far towards rationalism as to entertain deism, the possibility that God created an autonomous world that operates according to natural rather than divine laws, which reason can discover. By incorporating Sufi mysticism, Islam left no such room for reason’s authority and thus no room for modernity.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

New Atheism and Edward Feser’s Thomistic Gambit

Imagine living in a country that’s been run by a dictator for decades. The dictator’s removed from power by progressive rebels, then humiliated and imprisoned. Instead of using his time in prison to reflect on the error of his ways and to repent, the dictator becomes bitter: holding the bars of his prison cell door, he excoriates the new administration’s progressive ideals and accuses his people of being fools for not allowing him to reign over them once more.

That’s an analogy for the uppity Catholic’s chutzpah. If you think the species of pompous, haughty Catholics is extinct, having been killed off in the last few centuries by skeptical hunters of dogmas, take a look at Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of New Atheism. To be sure, Feser, a philosophy professor, likely fills that book with disdain because he’s guided by the lex talionis, the principle that what goes around should come around: new atheists have sneered at and ridiculed Christians for long enough, so proud Christians should respond in kind. But this doesn’t entirely explain the tone of that book or of Feser’s blog in which he celebrates the absoluteness of scholastic theology. The question is how Christians today can find it in them to be proud of their faith, given that, like the dictator, the Church has lost its totalitarian control over Western life. How can a Catholic, in particular, examine Western history from the classical period to the modern one, and conclude not just that modern philosophy has been a farcical blunder but that the only solution is to return to the medieval way of thinking perfected by Thomas Aquinas?

The question is rhetorical, but this is exactly what Feser’s done and it accounts for the uncanny match between the style of his response to the current popularity of atheism, and the stereotype of modern Catholic apologetics as being mainly an expression of pretensions mixed with bitterness. In this respect, the Catholic polemicist is rather like a conservative Briton, exemplified by Niall Ferguson who admires the old British Empire. Not chastened but passive aggressive, these conservatives have the gall to side with the bully even after the bully’s disgraced himself. But whereas Ferguson does so for pragmatic rather than moralistic or philosophical reasons (Ferguson says the British Empire pioneered free trade and globalization, maintained global peace, and stood against the much worse empires of Germany and Japan in the last century), Feser argues that Thomism annihilates the philosophy of New Atheism.

You see, Feser isn’t merely playing a role, taking revenge against atheistic screeds for their hostility towards Christianity, or pursuing a marketing strategy. He seems genuinely furious because he thinks that New Atheism is so obviously false to those who know how to reason, that atheists are clueless about that fact, and that few recognize that Thomism is the supremely rational worldview. He’s thus very much like a resentful devotee to the imprisoned dictator, who labours under the delusion that his master was born to rule. The downfall of such a smug, sanctimonious institution as the Catholic Church is sublime, meaning that when the members of an institution become so powerful and thus naturally deluded and corrupt that an infinite abyss emerges between their inflated self-image and the reality of what they’ve become, their sudden fall echoes in that abyss like a mighty thunderclap heard around the world. Pride goes before the fall, but this is a secret recipe for the most exquisite comedy, because the greater the pride, the more monstrous the dupe who sets herself up for a pratfall, and we’d rather laugh at than be terrified by monsters. Not that all supervillains get their comeuppance, but when they do the comedy is poetically just. However, when the supervillains or their henchmen continue to curse those who’ve engineered their demise, vowing revenge even while wriggling beneath the superhero’s boot heel, there comes a moment when the impulse to pity them overtakes the urge to laugh at them.

Thomism’s Bastardization of the Perennial Philosophy

But let’s prepare ourselves to look at how Feser sees the world. Mind the lightshow now as we travel back in time to periods governed by strange, obsolete mindsets. According to Feser, the new atheist is hardly a superhero because she’s utterly blind to the nature of the conflict at hand. Often unwittingly, the new atheist subscribes to scientism, which is a form of idolatry in which science is regarded as the only source of knowledge. Thus, the new atheist mistakes all scientific progress for an intellectual development away from religion, whereas there’s no conflict between religion and science itself. Science is neutral on religious questions, because the terms of those questions are philosophical and theological. Science is only one kind of Reason, another being the philosophical evaluation of ideas which was developed long ago in the West by Plato and Aristotle and perfected by Augustine and Aquinas.