Monday, October 8, 2018

Theistic Proofs in an Echo Chamber

The atheist philosopher Simon Blackburn reviewed two books on atheism and theism, John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism and Edward Feser’s Five Proofs. The essence of Blackburn’s reply lies in this passage:
These principles [of the five proofs] are scholastic, both as a matter of history, and in the sense that they work in highly abstract terms that have little or no place in physical science. So in spite of Feser’s admirable industry the whole enterprise does little more than suggest Kant’s description of a dazzling and deceptive illusion. If reason did get us this far, it could only be because it had trespassed against its proper limits, suggesting, for instance, that we understand phrases like “subsistent existence itself”, or “purely actual actualizer”, giving them more content than a vacant “something-we-know-not-what”.
Feser replies to Blackburn that the Humean stance of skepticism is an impossible balancing act, since the skeptic has to doubt there’s any such thing as an ultimate explanation while not doubting our rational capacity to such an extent that philosophy and science become as dubious as scholastic theology. After all, writes Feser, the existence and nature of a divine first cause follows, according to the Scholastics, “precisely from an analysis of what it would be to be an ultimate explanation.” The scholastic “principle of sufficient reason,” for example, guarantees that the whole world is intelligible to humans. If you grant our rational powers such scope, you’re led to credit the most satisfying and comprehensive explanation we’re driven to propose as being grounded in reality rather than, say, in politically-motivated speculation or evolved intuitions. To give philosophical, a priori Reason its druthers is to anticipate an exhaustive, airtight explanation of all reality that presupposes nothing and rests only on axioms and logically proven conclusions. God is what you posit when you want a metaphysically complete, intellectually and morally satisfying explanation of everything. (The explanation turns out not to be complete or satisfying, since the concept of God is incoherent and a tool for our enslavement, but that’s another story.)

Otherwise, if you’re content with naturalistic cosmology, for example, you’ll say with the physicist Lawrence Krauss that the universe came from “nothing,” where “nothing” is really the highly-energetic something that follows from the laws of quantum mechanics, and you’ll leave those laws themselves unexplained. In short, you’ll be pragmatic about reason, accepting not the grandiose ambitions of conservative Christian theology but just methodological naturalism; you’ll say we should deploy reason where we can, without assuming the success of our investigations is preordained. So we may be able to explain the Big Bang with quantum mechanics without being able to explain quantum mechanics; we may have to presuppose some ideas in our theories much as an engineer needs tools to build machines. Science may be incomplete even in the end because it explains something by naturalizing it, and a natural creature needn’t be equipped to mentally encompass everything that exists; on the contrary, that uncompromising optimism would be bizarre since natural phenomena are largely accidental, limited, and—in the case of living things—biased towards their goals of surviving and being happy.

There’s a problem with Feser’s scholastic proofs, however. They’re not proofs at all in the sense of being demonstrations of the truth of some proposition based only on its logical connections to some other propositions. Blackburn hints at this point when he reminds the reader that scholastic discourse is so abstract that it’s inapplicable to the apparent world, and if that’s so the theistic “proofs” are misnomers since they could be neither true nor false. If Scholastics aren’t talking directly about the real world, what are they doing with what they call their “proofs”? The answer is that the proofs are myths for smug or disenchanted intellectuals who aren’t content with the soap operas of animistic folk religion. These pseudo-argumentative proofs are comforting analyses that are stripped of all drama and that describe how the world looks from a Christian perspective. To say that a Harry Potter novel is false is to miss the point of the story. The novel isn’t meant to prove that the real world has such and such properties; rather, the fiction provides a conceptual space for us to test our beliefs and our attitudes which do pertain to the actual world. We read stories to learn about foreign experiences and perspectives and thus to improve our character, avoiding the pitfalls of living in an echo chamber. Likewise, at their best, theological “arguments” lay bare certain religious assumptions so the theist can look in the mirror and ask whether she really believes that. Not sharing the background assumptions, the atheist dismisses the "proof" as preposterous. 

Feser’s revealing remark that scholastic theism follows, in short, from optimistic epistemology, from the concept of an ultimate explanation indicates that contrary to the title of his book and to the unbearable impudence of Catholicism in general, he’s not proving anything. He thinks he is but he’s not. The theistic philosopher of religion Philip Clayton explains this well in an episode of Closer to Truth (see 7:07 minutes into the program for the start of his segment). Clayton points out that “when you begin to look at the proofs themselves, what you actually find is that at some point a premise is brought in that the believer will accept and the nonbeliever will reject.” Thus, the “proofs” from “pure reason” beg the question and are better understood as descriptions or analyses of a worldview.

In Feser’s case, one such dubious premise which presupposes God’s existence is the Panglossian epistemology. After all, human comprehension of ultimate reality would be a miracle under the evolutionary circumstances. It looks like the human brain developed to get by with other animals that struggle and die in an indifferent, amoral universe with no divine oversight, which is to say that God’s existence isn’t obvious in that no one can point to God. In God’s absence, our humbler purposes become paramount. The powerful Darwinian explanation of organic design turns out to be good enough, by Occam ’s razor, in which case we evolved because of mindless chemical processes that built life forms to shelter and transmit genetic codes over vast periods of geological time. As robots programmed by genes, animals are narrow-minded: they’re supposed to fulfill their lifecycle—maintain homeostasis, adapt to the environment, eat, defecate, mate, and die—not fathom the whole of reality. We’re special, more independent and high-minded creatures, but our accidental origin is shown by the unintended damage done by our freedom and rationality. Far from finding peace of mind as we contemplate the cosmos with science and philosophy, our knowledge makes us depressed and anxious as we continue to divide into warring tribes that boast that our respective ideas are supreme. Just as the trait of bipedalism gives us back pain, because the design of our body types wasn’t planned by an all-knowing, benevolent father figure, the cerebral cortex gets into all kinds of mischief because we’re making things up as we go along as actors on a stage with no assistance from any director.  

So to believe with the Scholastic that the universe is necessarily explicable to creatures like us is virtually already to believe that God exists, in which case no theistic proof is needed. Only God could equip us with a power adequate to the task of comprehending everything, given the inhuman physical scale of the universe, including galaxies that have nothing to do with how we evolved or with our earthly purposes. Only a supernatural being could guarantee the relevance of our personifications of natural patterns, since they would call us back from fallen nature to our true, timeless home in some immaterial realm where the deepest reality is personal. Only theism could vindicate the arrogance of presuming we have dominion over nature because we’re made to be perfect. By presupposing theism, then, the Scholastic isn’t really trying to convince nonbelievers that they should accept Catholicism. Rather, this theologian is exploring her perspective and encouraging her like-minded peers within their shared echo chamber. Like the elderly viewers of Fox News who’ve lost interest in challenging themselves by connecting with reality, and who only want to shore up confidence in their grotesque tribal biases, Feser pretends he’s reaching out to opponents whereas he’s actually talking just to himself and to those who already think as he does. If you’re so pompous as to take seriously the pseudo-rational scholastic vocabulary, you’re already arrogant enough to identify with a god. Conversely, if you dismiss that medieval discourse as obsolete, you’re humble enough to defer to the experimental methods of science in all their provisional, pragmatic glory, and to identify with hapless animals rather than any divine monarch who stands apart from the clusterfuck of life on earth.

To be sure, Feser attempts to persuade readers that they should adopt his theistic perspective. This is the point of his reply to Blackburn, that Humean skepticism refutes itself since such doubts take down vaunted science in addition to Christian philosophy, in which case there’s no naturalistic alternative to theism. But that friction between medieval confidence in metaphysical gibberish and pragmatic confidence in science for business purposes has nothing to do with proof. The two worldviews and character types run up against each other, and one may swallow the other as the European colonists devastated the Native Americans, but that outcome wouldn’t show one set of ideas is true while the other is false. Of course the skeptic is free to accept science even if it lacks metaphysical support—few working scientists are remotely interested in philosophy, let alone inclined to study abstract medieval rhetoric—on the grounds that science works: the theories make possible technological advances that raise the living standard. That doesn’t show science is metaphysically or absolutely True, but the methodological (pragmatic) naturalist isn’t an absolutist by character or experience and so she deems that deficiency negligible. What’s crucial to Feser’s Catholicism, then, isn’t the abstruse content of his “proofs,” but the arrogance of the man, the presumption that even after the obvious triumphs of science-centered naturalism, he can not only revert to scholastic theology but condescend to naturalists. Whereas the Christian god supposedly demonstrated humility by taking on human form and spending his time on earth not with royalty but with lowly prostitutes and fishermen in occupied Roman territory, Feser’s worldview is two millennia old and puffed up with partisan disdain for “heresies” and unbelief. But that attitude proves Clayton’s point: the disputants talk past each other because they’re locked in their opposing worldviews.

Feser would say this is only an illogical and unfair ad hominem attack. But by presupposing theism, by taking for granted the most optimistic expectations of human rationality (or by arguing for Panglossian epistemology using premises that are likewise question-begging), Feser’s the one who first steps away from logic. Moreover, by strawmanning atheistic skepticism, as though naturalism rests on nothing (not, for example, on the material success of science) and as though skepticism undermines itself with endless doubts, Feser insinuates that the atheist is headed for destruction in hell. At least, that’s what his proper Christian readers will take from his response to Blackburn. Needless to say, the insinuation that atheists deserve to burn in hell would be a personal attack. In any case, my point isn’t that Catholics are worse than atheists, since new atheists and secular humanists can be just as arrogant and tribal as religious fundamentalists. My point, rather, is that the pomposity of scholastic discourse is consistent with Philip Clayton’s deflationary view of analytic philosophy of religion. If those who claim to be proving or disproving God’s existence are really just talking to themselves and past each other, we’d expect them to condescend to their opponents and to divide into factions, testing their loyalty by committing to shibboleths that make no sense to outsiders.

The Catholic loyalty-testing embarrassment is the resort to obsolete scholastic abstractions. Likewise, a new atheist shibboleth is the conceit that atheists are especially rational even though the atheist generally commits herself to naturalism, which commits her to cognitive science, which commits her to the discovery that all normal human brains are fundamentally irrational. Witness the irrationality of dreams, love, sex, sports, politics, war, unsustainable hyper-capitalism, and most other aspects of all human cultures, including liberal humanism. The secular Western lifestyle isn’t conspicuous for its rationality, but for its Faustian arrogance. What makes animals embarrassingly, self-destructively overconfident isn’t theism or atheism, but the power that comes with material success. Thus, the Scholastics were boastful in their day when the Catholic Church ruled an empire, and American-led new atheists and secular liberals are hubristic today when the American dollar is the world’s currency, the American military is the mightiest on the planet, and almost all American behaviour is functionally atheistic.

Feser should be expected to accuse this line of argument of being tantamount to late-modern relativism or antirealism. He wants to say that a worldview or perspective can be objectively true, not just that a statement can be true when evaluated from within a worldview. To say that Christian and secular philosophers only talk past each other because they’re trapped in their opposing mindsets might suggest that truth and intellectual progress are illusions. There’s no need to chase down that red herring, however, because I haven’t said that people with different worldviews are necessarily confined to their echo chambers. On the contrary, a benefit of engaging with fictions and philosophical speculations, as I said, is to challenge your assumptions by contemplating foreign ones on a probationary basis. Much as you can engage with your fear mechanism in the safety of a movie theater when watching a horror film, you can imagine what it would be like to think differently without having to give up on your way of life and go native. You can dip your toe in the water, as it were, without diving into the deep end. Just because Feser and many new atheists are absolutists doesn’t mean all theists and secularists have to follow their example.

Moreover, there’s a way of evaluating worldviews without appealing to the irrelevant standard of mathematical proof. We can entertain Feser’s “proofs” not as arguments but as inadvertent descriptions of what it’s like to think as an anachronistic Scholastic, and we can ask ourselves whether that way of thinking is attractive in aesthetic, ethical, or otherwise existentially responsible terms. From within a naturalistic perspective, at any rate, the cosmicist upshot is that our notion of objective, metaphysical truth is parochial and that our theories and worldviews are, at best, psychological and social mechanisms or expressive works of art. Our thoughts don’t ultimately agree with reality, because we social creatures are bound to sympathize with the myriad victims of evolution and to find nature’s inhumanity and prevailing lifelessness to be profoundly disagreeable; likewise, the alien universe will one day squash our species and our galaxy, and the total cause of that event will be inexplicable, in which case our intellectual grasp on nature will all along have been only for some subjective, illusory benefit. An authentic theist shouldn’t be far behind cosmicism, given Rudolph Otto’s analysis of the concept of holiness, according to which God is necessarily horrific to his creatures.

The question whether a worldview can prove itself by refuting an alternative one, then, is wrongheaded. This isn’t because all worldviews are equal or because there’s no such thing as a worldview’s truth status; rather, a worldview’s conception of the relation between world and worldviews in general needn’t be presupposed in the fundamentalist manner. Feser says the relation is objective, because God gave us Reason to prove that God exists. The naturalist says the relation is pragmatic, because science deals only with nature and natural creatures are mostly pitiful rather than being well-positioned to ferret out the essence of reality. A connoisseur of ideas should be free to range across worldviews in making sense of experience, committing to an idea not for primitive tribal reasons but by way of conceding to the idea’s power to elicit an admirable emotional response.


  1. "The powerful Darwinian explanation of organic design turns out to be good enough, by Occam ’s razor, in which case we evolved because of mindless chemical processes that built life forms to shelter and transmit genetic codes over vast periods of geological time."

    This is in the eye of the beholder, last time I checked, many leading evolutionists don't share your optimism, the picture looks rather bleak according to someone like Stuart Newman:

    "First, let's look at some of the expectations of the natural selection-based modern synthesis: (i) the largest differences within given categories of multicellular organisms, the animals or plants, for example, should have appeared gradually, only after exceptionally long periods of evolution; (ii) the extensive genetic changes required to generate such large differences over such vast times would have virtually erased any similarity between the sets of genes coordinating development in the different types of organism; and (iii) evolution of body types and organs should continue indefinitely. Since genetic mutation never ceases, novel organismal forms should constantly be appearing.

    All these predictions of the standard [Darwinian] model have proved to be incorrect." (Stuart Newman, Where Do Complex Organisms Come From?)

    Or how about Gregory Chaitin, still working hard on trying to show that evolution actually can do the job we have been told it does just fine:

    “For many years I have thought that it is a mathematical scandal that we do not have proof that Darwinian evolution works.” (Proving Darwin: Making Biology Mathematical (2013)

    1. Just judging from their Wikipedia pages, stabilizing selection is part of Newman's theory of the formation of animal types, and Chaitin is a mathematician who apparently thinks biology should be subject to mathematical standards of proof, whereas it's hardly obvious that that should be so.

      I don't think natural selection is the only mechanism responsible for biological evolution, but it's certainly one of them.

      If you're a skeptic about Darwinian explanations, what's your explanation of speciation? Does it involve intelligent design?

  2. You did a great job on this one.

    The comparison between traditionalist scholastic types and new atheists is one I can’t believe isn’t made more often. Both are overwhelmingly unpleasant, loud, overconfident and totally unwilling to seriously entertain objections to their worldviews. The New Atheists often get (rightfully) criticized for this, but it seems the Catholics get off the hook a lot easier (maybe it’s just because no one is really listening to them anymore?).

    On the whole though, I think internet Thomists are worse than the new atheists. The new atheist is naive and pitiable, for sure, but I find there’s often something exceptionally sinister and cold about the internet Thomist that I don’t see as often with the others.

    I think they are pretty hypocritical, too. They always criticize atheists for being ignorant and failing to engage with the strongest cases for theism, but they themselves often have a very impoverished knowledge of the strongest cases for atheism.

    For example, I’ve never seen them critically engage with Kant or Hume, who are widely regarded as having dealt the death blows to the ontotheology the scholastics still think is self-evident. They seem to rest easy on objections from Feser, who badly strawmans Kant and Hume every time he discusses them - so in effect, isn’t the internet thomist just as culpable here as say, the New Atheist who gets their understanding of Aquinas from Dawkins?

    As someone who was raised irrelgious, then has gone from Evangelical Protestant, to New Atheist, to Traditionalist Catholic, and now just calls themself an irreligious naturalist, I notice the same ills plague people on all sides. I’ve changed my mind so much because I actually did seek out the strongest objections to my beliefs and, if I found them unconvincing as I often did, endeavoured to understand them until I could see why someone would find them convincing. Maybe it’s a character flaw in me, and it’s really none of my business, but it really bothers me when others don’t do this. And I think the Thomists are the worst for this, probably because they are dogmatically bound to not question too much.

    Although I’m tempted to say the faith of many a traditionalist Thomist is far from sincere. It’s hard not to suspect that they adopt Catholicism just to give their far-right political opinions a basis is some kind of ancient wisdom, and thus some perceived legitimacy. If this is true, I guess the fact that there exist powerful objections to the content of their beliefs in Hume and Kant (or even more recently in say, Mackie or Oppy or Schellenberg) is irrelevant because the content of their beliefs doesn’t actually mean much to them - it’s the function of the beliefs they value. If Christianity is supposed to be about love and charity (which is debatable, depending on your interpretation), then these people really don’t scream Christian to me. Doesn’t it often seem like Aquinas is their God, Feser is their Jesus, and their only commandments are to undo all moral progress since the Middle Ages?

    1. Thanks. I think the difference here is just between human arrogance and humility. Power or fame makes anyone arrogant, although the Catholic variety of smugness is particularly galling because of the mixed bag of Catholic history, to say the least. Likewise, weakness and failure humble anyone. So it's not really about Catholicism or atheism. Atheists became arrogant when the new atheist movement became famous, and Catholics are arrogant because their Church ruled the Western world for centuries.

      By contrast, philosophy is unpopular because it's bad for your health and business. So the Socratic lesson of humbling yourself before the truth that the wisest philosopher knows only that he knows nothing--ultimately because nature is absurd and horrific and makes all our knowledge claims laughable--is rarely learned. When we think objectively and wonder whether our beliefs are correct, we're humbly admitting the possibility that we've failed in our cognitive task. That's easy if little depends on our judgment, but suppose you're a professor with a lifetime of work under your belt, or a blogger like Feser with a sizable following, or a famous podcaster and debater like Sam Harris. If you lead a movement, you get trapped by your fame, as everyone from Jesus to Kurt Cobain found out, making authenticity impossible for them.

      South Park had a brilliant take on Catholicism when it depicted the Church as a giant spider that had nothing to do with Jesus's message. It's the difference between Jesus and Paul, which The Last Temptation of Christ movie also made clear. Jesus's message of radical ethics was meant for the End Times, but they never came, which led the Christian institution to have to fudge its way through inauthenticity. This is also what Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor parable is about.