Edward Feser on Humean skepticism

Responding to philosopher Simon Blackburn’s review of his book Five Proofs of the Existence of God in The Times Literary Supplement, fellow philosopher Edward Feser writes:

The broadly Humean epistemology he deploys against the Scholastic theism I defend in Five Proofs of the Existence of God requires a careful balancing act.  On the one hand, Blackburn must limit the powers of human reason sufficiently to prevent them from being able to penetrate, in any substantive way, into the ultimate “springs and principles” of nature.  For that is the only way to block ascent to a divine first cause – the existence and nature of which, the Scholastic says, follows precisely from an analysis of what it would be to be an ultimate explanation.

These limits have to be even more severe than those that Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas and other ancient and medieval philosophical theists would already draw themselves.  Precisely because of its ultimacy, the divine cause of things is only barely intelligible to the human mind.  Reason’s grasp of it is genuine, but only at the fingertips.  Hence Aquinas’s heavy emphasis on the via negativa and the analogical use of language.  The intellect gets in just under the wire.  To avoid theism, the Humean has to make sure that the intellect doesn’t even get to the wire.

On the other hand, Blackburn has to make sure that this skepticism is not so thoroughgoing that it takes science and Humean philosophy down too, alongside natural theology.

It is one of the key contentions of my book that this balancing trick cannot be pulled off – that to keep reason robust enough to support science and philosophy (even Humean philosophy) as going concerns will inevitably make it robust enough to support Scholastic theism as well.

One way to see this is by way of the principle of sufficient reason, which the Humean must deny.  According to the weak version of the principle that I would endorse (which owes more to Aquinas than to the excessive rationalism of Leibniz), all concrete reality is intelligible.  Humeans like Blackburn cannot accept the “all” without becoming Scholastic theists.  But they cannot replace it with “no” without undermining both science and their own philosophical position.  So they must claim that some concrete reality is intelligible and some is not.  But where to draw the line, and why there exactly?

No principled answer is forthcoming.  Certainly there is no coherent way to draw it, as many atheists attempt to do, at the fundamental laws of nature.  Higher-level laws are explained by lower-level laws in something like the way the book on the top of a stack is held up by the ones below it.  Take away the floor, and there is nothing that gives the bottom book any power to hold up the top book.  Similarly, make the fundamental laws into unintelligible brute facts, and they have no intelligibility to pass upward to higher-level laws – which in turn will have no intelligibility to pass along to the phenomena they are supposed to be explaining.  The world’s being just a little bit unintelligible is like its being just a little bit pregnant.  Or it is like having a cancer that metastasizes unto the remotest extremity.

Another way to see the problem is by consideration of Hume’s Fork in its contemporary guise – the conceit that if you’re not doing natural science, then the only thing left for you to be doing is “conceptual analysis,” which tells us at best how we have to think about reality, but not how reality itself really is.  The trouble with this supposition is that it is itself a proposition neither of natural science nor of conceptual analysis, but rather reflects precisely the third sort of perspective which it alleges to be impossible.  Faced with traditional metaphysical claims, the Humean begins with an incredulous stare.  But he ends with a coprophagic grin, caught in the very act – metaphysics – he decries as philosophically unchaste.

Read it all here.

Related: David Hume’s Double-Edge Sword.

P.S. “Coprophagic” — verbiage I had to look up — is a fancy way of saying “feces-eating.”


Evidence, miracles, and science: An argument against the existence of Jesus considered

In a recentish post, Arkhenaten advances two theses, one concerning the philosophy of science, the other history:

A) Sometimes science can test for and falsify supernatural phenomena (philosophy of science).

B) Jesus of Nazareth never existed (history)*.

More specifically, he writes:

If the theist wants the atheist to change – and aren’t they compelled to spread the Word? (sic) – then simply provide evidence that demonstrates the sincerity of their objective and the veracity of their claims.

At least provide the evidence that convinced them to become Christian.

Ah … but then we are back to things supernatural which cannot be tested by scientific means as they fall outside the natural world. Right?

Well, yes … and no.

Yes, he[Jesus] was a regular bloke. Except for miracles. The miracles he did. Not least of which was raising Lazarus from the dead.

And this is where we should expect to find evidence. Some independent attestation of the wondrous deeds he did. After all:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

John 21:25

It’s in the bible, and the bible is the inspired Word of God, right?

And, yet, what do we have?

Not a word, not a whisper.

A god who lived among humans as a human and as a god for over thirty years and left no trace outside of a story?

There is absolutely nothing that can be checked. Nothing to back a single claim.

In this case absence of evidence is most definitely evidence of absence.

Evidence of miracles? Hmm …. I don’t think so.

And under such circumstances it is perfectly reasonable to draw the only logical conclusion.

The biblical character, Jesus of Nazareth is simply a work of fiction.

There are several things to be noted here:

1) Why must the Christian provide evidence to prove the “sincerity of their[sic] objective”? Why assume that when a Christian is evangelizing to the non-Christian he is doing so with nefarious intent? Perhaps this Christian knows nothing of apologetics and the rational case for the Christian worldview. Yet, when he recites John 3:16 to someone he’s proselytizing, what is there to suggest he’s doing so disingenuously and not with the belief that it’s for non-Christian’s best interest?

This Freudian slip suggests there is no “evidence” that will give Arkenaten cognitive pause because he is already convicted not to mull it due to prejudice he has about its source. Whether this prejudice is rationally justified, I’ll let the reader decide. For those who have met him online, I think the answer is readily apparent.

2) Arkenaten doesn’t flesh out the “scientific means” he has in mind to test the supernatural—also undefined. The supernatural, being super-, must be beyond the natural, which itself refers to what I’m interpreting as what the spacio-temporal exhausts. So, miracles from Jesus, Moses, or whoever are supposedly of the supernatural and workings not of this spacio-temporal realm. Indeed, according to Hume, miracles are by essence violations of observable natural laws. If science only operates within these observable natural laws of the spacio-temporal, then any miracle is beyond the reach of science to corroborate. To wit: Any miracle X that seems in violation of some natural law Y doesn’t provide prima facie evidence for the existence of X, but throws into question the veracity of Y as being a bonafide natural law.

So, it’s not clear what’s applicable for the natural can verify the supernatural. Though Arkenaten admits the difficulty here, he also thinks there is a way to get around this problem, vaguely appealing to “evidence.” However, it’s not obvious how science—understood as the empirical method that seeks knowledge of the physical spacio-temporal universe via continuous stages of observation, hypothesis, and experimentation—can provide evidence about whether a proposed historical figure existed (How do you test that?). The past isn’t empirical; why assume the “evidence” strictly is too?

Perhaps what Arkenaten means by “evidence” are archaeologically gathered artifacts, like contemporaneous manuscripts from the first century Roman Palestine. Well, deriving conclusions about the past from writings of a bygone era is not science but something closer to the discipline of history, which can be informed by science but not actually be of science as defined above.

So, Arkenaten seems to be stretching the bounds of empirical science in order to make a historical argument about whether Jesus existed. This either stems from a commitment to scientism, the incoherent view that the only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, or confusion about what science does and what constitutes its evidence. Regardless, both undermine his claim A) that science can test for and falsify supernatural phenomena. It also is unrelated to the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. These are separate issues.

3) As for Arkenaten’s historical argument for the non-existence of Jesus, it seems to be the following:

  1. If Jesus did exist, then there is independent attestation of his miracles.
  2. There is no independent attestation of Jesus’ miracles (indeed, nothing at all “outside of a story”).
  3. Ergo, Jesus did not exist.

As a modus tollens, the argument is formally valid, but that itself is not a guarantee of soundness. Indeed, I think both 1 and 2 can be rejected as false.

For premise 1, there isn’t a strong reason to think independent attestation, meaning contemporaneous references to Jesus’ miracles not from his disciples or their followers, would have much bearing on the question of Jesus’ existence. Either Jesus, as a mere man or the incarnated Son of God, did or didn’t exist; whether Roman historians or others of the time cited miracles attributed to him is logically irrelevant to the matter at hand. For it’s possible, even likely, that Jesus’ miracles wouldn’t be widely written down in the oral tradition-driven society of first century Judea. As for the occupying Romans, it’s probable they wouldn’t even be aware of Jesus until he would be leveraged as a symbolic figurehead for Jewish insurrection. The antecedent of 1 does not imply its consequent.

Moreover, Arkenaten provides no argument for this criterion of independent attestation found in the consequent. He just posits it as plausible and definitive. But why assume this? I mean, most of what we know about Socrates, a man who was amazing in his own right, comes from his followers. They’re not independent either, yet, while some might doubt some parts of Socrates’ life, no one doubts that Socrates even existed. That’s because there are other means historians use to establish the historicity of an event or person that this dogged insistence on independent attestation of miracles as what determines Jesus’ historicity precludes by seemingly capricious fiat. So, what is gratuitously asserted—if there was a historical Jesus, his miracles would be confirmed by contemporary independent sources—can be gratuitously denied.

Likewise, premise 2 can be regarded as false. Let’s grant Arkenaten’s call for “independent attestation,” albeit modified. While there isn’t a contemporary non-Christian reference to Jesus or his miracles (Tacitus and Josephus are later), it’s simply not the case that there is “Not a word, not a whisper … absolutely nothing that can be checked. Nothing to back a single claim” about Jesus. It’s not “In this case, absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” The Christian faith did not emerge from a vacuum. There are particular facts established by historian-developed methodologies in need of explanation which apologists use to make an abductive case for the Resurrection, the miracle upon which Christianity is erected, and, ipso facto, the historical Jesus.

For example, at least a few of Jesus’ apostles died espousing Jesus as Lord and Savior. Martyrs make terrible liars. It seems the likes Peter and Paul really believed what they were preaching. Well, it’s possible they hallucinated Jesus or were just plain crazy. But isn’t it much more likely they knew a person (or in Paul’s case, knew people who did) upon whom to base their radical new religion? As it so happens, the same sort of argument, mutatis mutandis, is used to claim the Resurrection as history.

So, it’s not enough for Arkenaten to declare victory here. These kinds of arguments from apologists have to be refuted, the historical facts explained better in terms New Atheists would accept, before justifiably dismissing Jesus’ existence, and thereby Christianity, not to mention the many secular accounts of the Gospels’ narratives in which Jesus is a historical figure.

4) Now, I’m sure this reasoning has little pull on Jesus mythicists, who occupy quite the redoubt on the internet when it comes to this area of New Testament scholarship. They’ll find this answer too speculative. After all, they’re demanding a “smoking gun” in a discipline where practitioners, more often than not, don’t possess one and must piece together what they do have to draw conclusions about the past. History is not a hands-on science.

Nevertheless, I suspect Arkenaten and company will treat it as such if it suits their ideological fancy. In my experience, “evidence” can be whatever they need it to be, hence the adamant Jesus mythicism in spite of the evidence that convinces the vast majority of academic historians, many of whom have no theological axe to grind, that Jesus, at least as a mortal, walked the earth two millennia ago.

Why do New Atheists cling to this benighted view about Jesus? My estimation: It’s not enough for Christians to be wrong—they must be hopelessly irrational too. Christianity, in their minds, is not merely false, but ridiculous. And those who believe in and live by the ridiculous in an increasingly secular society deserve ridicule from their more enlightened peers.

These anti-Christian beliefs form a cock-sure attitude. Neither falsifiable nor open for negotiation, they are dogma founded more in vitriolic politics than dispassionate reason.

For potential further evidence of it, read the comments.

*I’m not being uncharitable about Arkenaten’s position either. He’s maintaining it’s not merely the Christian conception of Jesus Christ that is the myth, which allows the possibility of a historical person known as Jesus who’s merely a man, not divine. It’s Jesus wholesale. Note that Arkenaten expresses skepticism about even the seemingly most mundane details of his life, writing, “Jesus was born, lived – and one can presume he slept, ate and used the toilet just like regular people – and of course he died. Or at least this is the claim [emphasis mine]. He’s also said as much in previous comments on another entry of this blog.

Atheism is still NOT a “lack of belief”: A polemical WilliamLaneCraigdum (addendum)

I’ve already written a refutation of the “atheism is a mere lack of belief” ploy abused by the New Atheists and their acolytes. However, I’ve conceived of another way to demonstrate and thereby lay bare this intellectually disingenuous tactic. And it’s going to mine deeper levels of irritation and gnashing of teeth by those married to deploying such rhetorical subterfuge. How so?

I’m about to invoke the Devil…

…at least the Devil for New Atheists: THE WILLIAM LANE CRAIG.

Yes, the mild-mannered philosopher, Christian apologist, debater and research professor at Biola University — who takes douchebaggery to whole new plane of existence, as he evidently doesn’t abide by the bro maxim of “sun’s out, guns out” — is such a Beelzebub-type archdemon in the collective conscious of online New Atheists. Their fermenting distaste for Craig and his arguments, in many respects, resembles a quasi-religious fervor and aversion that many hosts of the “deluded faithful” reserve for the malicious supernatural figure or forces that occupy some prominent adversarial role in their respective theologies.

Well, take heed of his baby, THE SPAWN OF CRAIG, his presentation of The Damien–I mean Kalam cosmological argument:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause

It’s simple, almost demure, making it both great for popular apologetics and easy to scoff at.

Now, for another plot twist, I have no interest in defending Kalam here. Nor am I about to make a case for the aforementioned cause as being what the theist affirms as God, like Craig eventually does. My prevailing intention is to dissuade you, good atheist, from ever adopting or resorting again to the “lack of belief” meme, which is typically used as follows:

  1. Atheism is merely a “lack of belief”
  2. One can’t argue for or prove a negative or a “lack of belief”
  3. Therefore, atheism does not require justification;
    is the default position in the debate;
    doesn’t have to provide any account for other phenomena like morality;
    isn’t a comprehensive worldview or ideology like that of religion;
    the burden of proof is solely for the theist; etc.

Well, I exclaim this will do you no good, atheist, especially if you’re one of those types who is so passionate about secularism, humanism and fending off oppressive religious dogma from infiltrating education, government and infringing on the non-religious’ liberties that you feel compelled to provide regular diatribes denouncing Christianity and its followers’ beliefs and actions as threats and functions of pernicious superstition. Conversely, I wholeheartedly concede and acknowledge there are atheists, who aren’t this noisy and just don’t believe in God, not giving the matter much thought in their daily affairs. So, my thesis here is not referring to these uncritical atheists, nor am I arguing about what makes one an atheist. I’m instead referencing the self-proclaimed “anti-theists,” often New Atheists, who are at least critical in voice if not critical in mind, as I’m about to show, and their definition of atheism as a mere “lack of belief.”

See, in addition to their tirades against religion and insistence that atheism is a “mere lack of belief,” I guarantee these atheists can be and have been observed doing a particular behavior when stimulated by an argument for God’s existence. They vehemently deny one or more of the premisses, especially if the argument is structurally valid. Or in the case of Craig’s Kalam, for example, they reject as false either of the syllogism’s premisses: 1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause and 2) The universe began to exist. Hence, they are committed to some if not all of the following negations of the claims advanced in Kalam’s premisses:

  1. Everything that begins to exist doesn’t have a cause, i.e., some thing begins to exist without a cause
  2. The universe did not begin to exist, i.e., the universe has always existed
  3. The universe does not exist

Undoubtedly, these atheists would disregard 3, as so deduced here, making it of no further consequence. Nevertheless, they are stuck with 1, 2  or the combination of the two; and as such, their atheism no longer merely consists of a lack of belief in God. In addition to their alleged absence of belief, they at least uphold one positive belief in order to diffuse Kalam and its theistic conclusion. By the very act of arguing, they do show their noggin is indeed empty but certainly not in the sense they purport it to be. Simply, they doth protest too much.

Nor is this problem exclusive to Kalam. Sure, you might be an atheist invested in showing the folly of religious belief via your YouTube channel where you “refute” all the arguments for God’s existence in videos, yet your repudiation of any of those efforts’ premisses entails your subscription to some positive epistemic and or metaphysical proposition to maintain your atheism. As one of my philosophy professors, an open atheist, said once during lecture — and I’m paraphrasing: “For every solution to a philosophical problem, there is a cost.” Let’s explore said cost.

Again, referencing Kalam, to subvert the proof is to profess that some thing begins to exist without a cause and or the universe has always existed. Assuredly, there are atheists who do assert that something can begin to exist without a cause, citing that matter cannot be destroyed and utterly rejecting Aristotelian forms. I imagine even more believe the universe is eternal. Personally, the latter undermines causality, which, in turn, makes their precious science worthless, as the discipline utterly relies on matter interacting with other matter and causing new material states of affairs to appear that are empirically accessible. They would have to formulate some other causal principle that makes scientific investigation possible while remaining sterile for logical armament in cosmological arguments — not a trivial challenge, to be sure. Moreover, in regard to the former, it’s also difficult to justify the necessity of the universe and the existence of a quantitative infinite, which an eternal universe would be. Additionally, notions of causality, necessity and quantitative infinity are all metaphysical issues, thereby, demonstrating that metaphysics is not just theistic bullshit disguising mysticism but is inevitable for anyone treading in these waters.

Anyway, it’s not so much whether these naturalistic metaphysical theses can be stomached, but rather they are the sort of pills that must be swallowed. Admittedly, for the New Atheist, none of it is appetizing. If you actively reject the premisses in the arguments for God’s existence, then atheism is not a mere “lack of belief.” Otherwise, you don’t really believe the reasons as to why you find the cosmological, moral and ontological proofs flawed, essentially lying, which is dishonest. Or you can be true to character, dismissing my argumentation and stubbornly retaining that you can rebuff the premisses in the arguments for God’s existence and simultaneously affirm atheism as a mere “lack of belief,” which is dishonest. Ignorance no longer has any utility as an excuse. The only option is to forfeit the notion that atheism is a mere “lack of belief” in God.

It frankly is by no means an expensive concession to make. It has no bearing on whether or not atheism is any less true or false. The God-question is very much up for grabs. All it does is reset the game board and ensure that the deck is not stacked heavily in the atheist’s favor. What I have argued for is so modest of a proposal that it ought not have been a point of contention — simply fighting for a fair debate.

Undoubtedly, in doing so, however, I will have incensed many of the incorrigible New Atheists out there. They take their lack of beli–I mean positive belief in the purely natural and physical world very seriously. Old habits die very hard indeed. In fact, I would say their devotion can be characterized as spiritual in nature. Not only have I, the deluded Christian theist afflicted by “mind-viruses,” described their dislike for Craig as being so zealous, which is repulsive to them, I have struck at the veritable heart of their anti-theistic enterprise.

In their polemical sorties against religion, New Atheists love to attack from both the moral and cognitive high ground. They pride themselves on their understanding and application of reason and science, their open-mindedness and how tolerant they are. Well, I have stung their pride and impugned their self-indulgent romanticism. At least in this case, it’s been strongly implied but now will be explicitly stated that they are anything but superior, instead being dogmatic, dishonest, intellectually facile. Their self-ascribed righteousness is a resolute parody worthy of contempt.

Their abuse of philosophy to buttress their ideology is abominable. They have no respect for it and it’s purposeful quest for the truth. Instead of honest inquiry, they wield philosophy as a blunt instrument, denying causality to defend their hollow “lack of belief,” for example, all the the while negligent to the absence of their own foresight to determine that such a denial leads into utter Humean skepticism. It’s true that everyone who enters the struggle between theism and atheism is at once a neophyte. But, at some point, it behooves that person, regardless if they align philosophically with ranks transcendental or physical, to mature and be mindful of not only what they belief but how they believe it.

With their persistence in the “lack of belief” meme and other gauche conduct in discourse, I cannot perceive any such humble introspection from the New Atheists and other anti-theists: The Dawkinses, the Graylings, the Dennetts, the Barkers and the Thunderf00t’s of the world. Despicable, the lot of them and what amounts to their anti-philosophy. Of course, there are thoughtful and erudite atheists I admire, but the New Atheists and their disciples are not among them when it comes to philosophy of religion. Oh, I know I’m not making any friends here. Yet, one must first be a friend of Truth first before one can have a productive and amicable discussion with someone whom one diametrically disagrees with. If we are to personify Truth, then she is a fair maiden to be courted.

The New Atheists are unsavory, rapacious and ungentle in pursuit of her,

Modus Pownens

Bill Vallicella on why naturalism and Nietszche Kant be good for “social justice”

Inspired not only by relatively recent online exchanges, this entry is prompted also by two independent posts by Siriusbizinus at Amusing Nonsense and the MaverickPhilosopher himself, Bill Vallicella. Sirius bats around the question whether it’s better to be a good person or a good Christian. Taking motivation from a piece from The Guardian, Vallicella argues, via Nietzsche and Kant, that goodness is not at least a bit difficult for the critical atheist to grasp. I can’t help but notice there’s a connection worth drawing.

Given his atheism, Sirius concludes that being a good person is better than being a good Christian; i.e., the two aren’t mutually inclusive as he once believed when he was a Christian. My solution to the dilemma is to recognize it as false: For the Christian, there is no such thing as a good person — or meaningfully, a good Christian either — but just a sinful, fallen creature who either can strive to accept or reject Christ.

Now this isn’t to rain on Sirius’ parade. I understand his blog is cathartic for him, as he documents his deconversion, and I don’t intend to be mean-spirited. My post here isn’t so much a confrontational rebuttal to his introspection here, which also criticizes the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac (I’ve addressed something similar here). It’s more about raising the question that logically follows for atheists, in general. As Nietzsche famously noted and then tried to address: “God is dead” but now what?

Likewise, if it’s better to a be a good person, then what does that exactly mean for the atheist? What is goodness? Before one can be moral person or have a system of ethics that directs one toward right action, one must have an account of what it means to be good or moral. In this regard, atheism and naturalism — which many, though not all, atheists are committed to — has its work cut out for itself.

Bear with me as Vallicella makes the case:

I myself do not see how naturalism is up to the task of providing an objective foundation for even a minimal code of morality…

…No God, no objective morality binding for all.  Suppose that is the case.  Then how will the new atheist, who is also a liberal, uphold and ground his ‘enlightened’ liberal morality?…

…Consider equality.  As a matter of empirical fact, we are not equal, not physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, socially, politically, economically.  By no empirical measure are people equal.  We are naturally unequal.  And yet we are supposedly equal as persons.  This equality as persons we take as requiring equality of treatment.  Kant, for example, insists that every human being, and indeed very rational being human or not, exists as an end in himself and therefore must never be treated as a means to an end.  A person is not a thing in nature to be used as we see fit.  For this reason, slavery is a grave moral evil.  A person is a rational being and must be accorded respect just in virtue of being a person.  And this regardless of inevitable empirical differences among persons…

…Kant (also) distinguishes between price and dignity. (435)  “Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has dignity.”  Dignity is intrinsic moral worth.  Each rational being, each person, is thus irreplaceably and intrinsically valuable with a value that is both infinite — in that no price can be placed upon it — and the same for all…

…These are beautiful and lofty thoughts, no doubt, and most of us in the West (and not just in the West) accept them in some more or less confused form.  But what do these pieties have to do with reality?  Especially if reality is exhausted by space-time-matter?

Again, we are not equal by any empirical measure.  We are not equal as animals or even as rational animals. (Rationality might just be an evolutionary adaptation.)  We are supposedly equal as persons, as subjects of experience, as free agents.  But what could a person be if not just a living human animal (or a living ‘Martian’ animal).  And given how bloody many of these human animals there are, why should they be regarded as infinitely precious?  Are they not just highly complex physical systems?  Surely you won’t say that complexity confers value, let alone infinite value.  Why should the more complex be more valuable than the less complex?  And surely you are not a species-chauvinist who believes that h. sapiens is the crown of ‘creation’ because we happen to be these critters.

If we are unequal as animals and equal as persons, then a person is not an animal.  What then is a person?  And what makes them equal in dignity and equal in rights and infinite in worth?

Now theism can answer these questions.   We are persons and not mere animals because we are created in the image and likeness of the Supreme Person.  We are equal as persons because we are, to put it metaphorically, sons and daughters of one and the same Father.  Since the Source we depend on for our being, intelligibility, and value is one and the same, we are equal as derivatives of that Source.  We are infinite in worth because we have a higher destiny, a higher vocation, which extends beyond our animal existence: we are created to participate eternally in the Divine Life.

But if you reject theism, how will you uphold the Kantian values adumbrated above?  If there is no God and no soul and no eternal destiny, what reasons, other than merely prudential ones, could I have for not enslaving you should I desire to do so and have the power to do so?

If you deny the transcendental, good luck affirming other things that aren’t readily empirical like value and dignity as persons — Kantian accounts or otherwise — that many people readily recognize and argue for in moral terms as humanists and secularists. Now, Vallicella delivers the Nietzschean knockout blow:

No God, then no justification for your liberal values!…Make a clean sweep! Just as religion is for the weak who won’t face reality, so is liberalism.  The world belongs to the strong, to those who have the power to impose their will upon it.  The world belongs to those hard as diamonds, not to those soft as coal and weak and womanish. Nietzsche:

Here one must think profoundly to the very basis and resist all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity, obtrusion of peculiar forms, incorporation, and at the least, putting it mildest, exploitation – but why should one for ever use precisely these words on which for ages a disparaging purpose has been stamped?

Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter 9, What is Noble?, Friedrich Nietzsche    Go to Quote

What Vallicella is basically getting at is one of the glaring contradictions and challenges for any atheist who thoroughly considers the implications of his or her unbelief. It’s just fascinating how he walks the problem through Nietzsche and Kant; I was made aware of it via G.E. Moore’s “open question” arguments and subsequent atheists who bit the bullet and developed non-cognitive and nihilistic meta-ethical theories. In short, like God, they maintained right and wrong as incomprehensible and or illusory. Following from this claim, why should should we take ethics seriously at all, let alone questions of “social justice” like “diversity,” “income inequality” and “marriage equality.” In a world beyond good and evil, the will of Nietzsche starts to look more and more plausible and unavoidable; God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac looks more and more inconsequential; and striving to become what we typically consider as a “good person,” impossible.

Hail the ubermensch!

Modus Pownens

P.S. I mean Vallicella, not Nietzsche.

Atheism is NOT a “lack of belief”

One of the tactics new atheists (i.e., those who think drink the infantile swill of Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Dan Barker, Bill Maher or Jerry Coyne as if it’s the Kool-Aid of Jim Jones) employ that just aggravates me more than the Seahawks not giving the ball to Marshawn Lynch at the goal line in the Superbowl is defining atheism as a “mere lack of belief in God.” Frankly, it’s intellectually lazy, intellectually dishonest and utterly unacceptable.

Isn’t this assessment a little uncouth and uncivil, Modus Pownens? Well, those who claim to have the market cornered on reason and wax on about how they sit at the intellectual big kids table in contrast to us delusional, superstitious faith-based types should behave as exemplary masters of incisive and profound erudition. If you talk big game and belittle, you better bring it. If you’re a superior thinker, conduct yourself accordingly. And those who repeatedly lord their alleged cerebral advantage over others yet continually produce hollow rhetoric deserve to be exposed similarly like the ancient sophists were appropriately trivialized by Socrates. In the words of Bill Vallicella: “Civility is for the civil.”

Now that that’s out of my system, I don’t think of myself as Socrates. I’m no more intelligent than the average person, and I’m always still learning and refining my views and argumentation. However, it’s no braggadocio for me to claim that I’m more initiated in “the love of wisdom” than the typical online, armchair philosopher of religion. I’m far from an expert, but my prowess in the subject likely extends beyond my undergraduate minor, as I’ve taken non required upper level courses in ethics and metaphysics and continue to keep my skills sharp by reading the writings of professional philosophers when I can. I present all this modestly, yet accurately, as I’m about to put this irksome meme — because that’s what it really is — into the ground.

Let’s start with the commonly articulated reasoning to this claim of “lack of belief” — if any is given at all — which is based in etymology. Basically, it’s the prefix “a” refers to a lack thereof, and “theism” means belief in God, ipso facto, atheism is a “lack of belief” in God with no positive beliefs of its own. Apart from the latter part of the conclusion being patently false as atheists appeal to positive claims about reality when they argue for atheism against theism, the breakdown of the word is equally egregious.

Theism also isn’t strictly confined to meaning a belief in God, as the suffix “ism” has other connotations. As per Wikipedia, “Ism is a derived word used in philosophy, politics, religion or other areas pertaining to an ideology.” By their nature, ideologies or philosophical positions are not devoid of beliefs. But more importantly, theism, loosely speaking, can and has been accurately defined to remove belief from its articulation to the philosophical position that God exists. If atheism is derived from how theism is defined as the New Atheists seem to do, then why can’t atheism, loosely speaking, be expressed as the antithetical philosophical position that God does not exist?

Moreover, the more we scrutinize here, the New Atheists’ semantic game appears more and more questionable. Even if we define theism in the terms of a belief in God, beliefs are often held by philosophers to be propositions, meaning they express statements that are either true or false. As atheism is held in direct opposition to theism, yet if it is a “lack of belief,” then it can’t be either true or false. But this can’t be right, as it doesn’t square with the behavior of atheists, who maintain both the claim that God does not exist  — and by extension, atheism —  is true and conversely the claim God does exist — and again by extension, theism — is false. Simply, “lack of belief” is a psychological state or a property. A property is not the sort of thing that can be true or false. Atheism clearly is considered to be either true or false. It’s not a property like having blueness or sadness, and anyone who argues otherwise clearly brings into doubt as whether or not they should be taken seriously.

What’s also worth talking about is the host of ideologies and positions that feature the suffix “ism.” Why are these never defined as an “absence of belief” in something? Conservatism isn’t considered the “absence of belief” in liberalism and vice versa. Likewise, communism isn’t deemed a “lack of belief” in capitalism, and we can go on indefinitely. What about atheism makes it different than every other “ism” out there? Even in the case of positions that make statements about what or what not exists, the position defending the negative claim is never defined as a “lack of belief.” In philosophy, nominalism is the view universals don’t exist, but it is never posited as being a “lack of belief” in universals. It seems to me, the new atheists reek of special pleading.

Then there’s philosophy of religion and philosophers of religion. Shouldn’t the very discipline and its experts, the people whose livelihoods are based on their ability to think critically and be rational, likely know what’s best? Here’s some quotes:

Atheism is the view that there is no God.

Matt McCormick

‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.

J.J.C. Smart

An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not.

Bertand Russell, the father of analytic philosophy

I anticipate there will be those who will bring up strong/weak varieties atheism. Oh, I’m well aware, but I find the strong and weak forms of atheism as problematic to establish a presumption of atheism not only for the above reasons, but it also obfuscates perfectly good terms like atheist and agnostic, puts an unreasonable burden of proof on the theist and distracts what’s at issue, i.e., whether or not God exists.

I suppose I always can redefine theism as the lack of belief in metaphysical naturalism and see how the atheist likes it.

That’s only fair, right?

Modus Pownens

“What Rise of Atheism?”

Happy summer all!

It’s been awhile, but this post demonstrates I’m not dead.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to post more content as this summer I should have some free time.

Now down to business.

If you frequent the blogosphere for the debate between theism and atheism, a common sentiment often echoed by the New Atheists and their acolytes is the rise of atheism within the Western world, especially recently in the United States.  They herald an imminent Age of Reason that will trump and supplant the Age of Religious Superstition and Dogma.  A few years back, you guys assembled en masse in Washington as a manifestation of this apparent truism.  It was quite a pow wow.  Or was it?

I stumbled upon a YouTube video series within which user UNFFwildcard claims the contrary.  He raises some interesting statistical, demographic and historical arguments I think are worthy of cognitive pause.  The effort he puts forth is well beyond the norm for YouTube.  So please, if you have the time, review his work.

Now, I would like to invite any atheists who watched these videos to vote and comment whether or not you think UNFFwildcard’s points have merit.  In other words, do atheists, especially the ones of the Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and late Christopher Hitchens stripe, need to spend more type addressing these mentioned problems to fortify their own ranks instead of proclaiming atheism’s inexorable triumph?

Thank you for taking the time to satisfy my curiosity,

Modus Pownens

Evading the Euthyphro Dilemma

Oh, it comes to this as I knew it must.  The dreaded Euthyphro Dilemma: A prowling shark, unavoidable for any theist who swims frequently and deeply enough in these waters.  I’ll admit I’ve been attacked by this shark, and I didn’t have the philosophical muscles or shark repellant to unclamp its jaws from my leg.

In my humble opinion, the Euthyphro Dilemma is without a doubt the most formidable argument against grounding morality in God.  An atheist should be keen to have it in his or her arsenal.  Well, without further ado, here’s my best effort at concocting “shark repellent.”

The Dilemma actually comes from Plato, who allegedly captures Socrates posing this riddle to Euthyphro.   I’ll give a paraphrased or modern summary of it: “Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?”  Either answer is undesirable for the theist.

Riddle me this, Euthyphro!

If the first horn is taken, something is good because God commands it, morality is rendered ultimately subjective.  Whatever is good is a matter of God’s opinion.  Also, it implies a deplorable action, like torturing babies for fun, could have actually been praiseworthy only if God had decided differently.  Therefore, instead of establishing an objective morality grounded in God, morality appears to be just a product of seemingly arbitrary divine fiats.

The second horn doesn’t bode better.  It implies morality and the good are external from God, and he does not even factor into ethics.  Moreover, it challenges God’s sovereignty as he is subject to the moral standard like every other moral agent.

Ouchie!  So now what?

The False Dilemma Response

The most common theistic response is to split the horns in half and declare the dilemma a false one.  In other words, the theist isn’t confined to the two options, but there’s a third.  It’s to declare that God is the good, and his commands are reflections of his all-good nature.  Under this third choice, God couldn’t command torturing babies for fun as morally praiseworthy because it violates his good nature.  It also solves morality appearing to be external to God as it posits the good as a part of God’s haecceity or essential essence and grounding morality within it.

This third option happens to be Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig’s response of choice for the Dilemma and has probably achieved popularity among Internet and YouTube apologists thanks to his espousal.  Craig’s stamp of approval on it has also made it too tempting of a target for Internet and YouTube atheists, who have developed a rejoinder to it.

I’m unsure of who came up with it, but these defenders of the veracity of the Euthyphro Dilemma claim this doesn’t solve the issue for the theist, but instead pushes it back into different terms: Is God’s nature good because he chooses it or is his nature good because of some other external force?  Unfortunately, this riposte is not as lethal as internet atheists believe it to be.  Often this erroneously triumphed death stroke is asserted with little or no argumentation whatsoever.  This question is a fair one to ask about God’s ontology, but it doesn’t directly follow from the Euthyphro Dilemma.

If only all philosophers looked so hardcore when they think.

I, however, still must contend there are other ontological problems with this false dilemma response and subsequent doctrine of divine simplicity.  Namely, God becomes identical to his properties and becomes relegated to something of an abstract object without agency or causal power.  Philosopher Alvin Plantinga puts it this way:

If God is identical with each of his properties, then, since each of his properties is a property, he is a property – a self-exemplifying property. Accordingly God has just one property: himself. This view is subject to a difficulty both obvious and overwhelming. No property could have created the world; no property could be omniscient, or, indeed, now anything at all. If God is a property, then he isn’t a person but a mere abstract object; he has no knowledge, awareness, power, love, or life. So taken, the simplicity doctrine seems an utter mistake.[1]

Enter the Mawson

The response I think is in the theist’s best interest comes from philosopher T.J. Mawson.  Instead, Mawson takes the second horn of the dilemma, but argues theists should view some moral truths like the laws of logic in relation to God.  In fact, most theists are of the mind that the laws of logic don’t constrain God’s omnipotence or freedom.  Likewise, moral truths like torture is wrong should be considered necessarily true, hence it’s not within God’s power to make torture good.

T.J. Mawson

If we view God’s omnipotence as not requiring of Him that he be able to bring about logically impossible states of affairs, then as of logical necessity agonizing pain can only ever refer to something bad, not even God can be required to be able to make agonizing pain refer to something and yet the thing to which it refers not be bad. Since of conceptual necessity torture involves the inducing of agonizing pain, so not even God can be required to be able to make a universe whereby something picked out by the concept of torture is good. We are hence not forced to say of God that he could make torture good; we are indeed forced to say the opposite, which is what our intuition told us to say anyway: not even God could make torture good in the same way that not even God could make bachelors married.[2]

Is this to say God has no role in morality?  Hardly.  Instead he instantiates these moral truths via his act of creation.  This especially works nicely when put into conjunction with the universal contingent facts about our actualized personhood that God chose freely to create.  Mawson explains it thusly:

As it happens, all people in this world have the property of suffering agonizing pain if a large amount of electricity is passed through their bodies; this being so, it is a universal truth that it’s bad to pass this amount of electricity through people. But the universal badness of passing large amounts of electricity through people is obviously the result of contingent features of the natural world, features that on theism God has freely chosen to create and that consequently it is not at all counterintuitive to suggest could have been different. Thus the theist is free to say that all substantive moral truths (as opposed to conceptual necessities) depend on God’s will in creation, but this does not, after all, have the counterintuitive consequence that we must say that God could make torture, for example, good. As we have just seen, torture is of logical necessity bad and thus not even God could make it good.[3]

There we have it!  Thanks to Mawson’s response, God is still pivotal to morality while his sovereignty is still very much intact.  I think it’s fair to say this is a common response to the Euthyphro Dilemma most theists and atheists online haven’t thought about.  I’m receptive to any feedback, critical or concurring, that would be given.  But until I get some:

Take that, shark!!!

Modus Pownens

[1] Plantinga, Does God Have A Nature? 47, cited in Nash, Concept of God, 94.

[2] Mawson, The Euthyphro Dilemma, http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Mawson-The-Euthyphro-Dilemma.pdf.

[3] Ibid.