Since discovering Edward Feser, I have been reading and posting from his blog regularly. He is just the type of class-A thinker that I really enjoy, and his commentary seems to have such truthful gravity that I hardly can resist. Instead of posting a flood of his columns, I think it would be better to post some of the highlights of various ones I found useful. Enjoy.
Suppose (as I argue in TLS) that Rosenberg is right about what naturalism implies. In that case there are no beliefs or desires, nor is there any such thing as the “original intentionality” or meaning that common sense says thoughts have, and which it takes to be the source of the derived intentionality exhibited by language. But then, Rosenberg rightly concludes, there’s no such thing as “the” real or actual meaning of a work of art, a human action, or indeed of anything else. There is simply no fact of the matter about what anything means. So far so good, and so far what Rosenberg is doing is simply noting that Quine’s famous thesis of the indeterminacy of meaning is not some eccentricity on Quine’s part, but follows from the naturalistic assumptions Quine shares with most contemporary academic philosophers.
The trouble is that if this is correct, then there is in particular no fact of the matter about what Rosenberg or any other naturalist means when he puts forward a naturalistic thesis. Objectively speaking there is no more reason to think that their utterances express a naturalistic position than that they express a Cartesian one or an Islamic one, or indeed that they are anything more than empty verbiage. The choice is purely pragmatic, or determined by social or economic forces or toilet training, or by Darwinian selection pressures, or by whatever it is this year’s clever young naturalistic philosophers are saying determines it.
Now this is absurd enough, but naturalists have already long inured themselves to accepting such nonsense. Writers like John Searle have been pointing out the paradox for years, to no effect. It doesn’t phase the average naturalist, any more than the hardened criminal feels even a twinge of guilt upon committing his 345th felony. The mental calluses are too thick. You see, if naturalism leads to absurdity, then it must not really be absurdity; because, kids, naturalism just can’t be wrong. Only those dogmatic religious types think otherwise.
But it’s worse than all that. For it won’t do for the naturalist to say: “OK, so we’ve got to swallow some bizarre stuff. But we’re just following the argument where it leads!” What argument? There’s no fact of the matter here either – no fact of the matter about which argument one is presenting, and in particular no fact of the matter about whether one’s arguments conform to valid patterns of inference. In the case at hand, there is simply no fact of the matter about whether Rosenberg’s own arguments (or those of any other naturalist) are sound or entirely fallacious. So why should we accept them? I suppose Rosenberg could always do what any serious philosopher would when dealing with those who stubbornly disagree with him – start a petition to pressure the APA to settle the question in his favor. But until that happens, we’ll just have to wait on pins and needles.
More on that topic here.
Before explaining how, I want briefly to say something about the rational foundations of the doctrine. Some skeptical readers were critical of my appeal in my earlier post to Pope Pius XII’s Humani Generis, and mocked my statement that “there is no evidence against” the supposition that God may have infused human souls into creatures descended from sub-intellectual hominids. They seem to think that what I was saying is that because a certain religious authority has said something, that by itself suffices to show that it is true, or that the mere fact that there is no evidence against a proposition licenses us in believing it if we are so inclined. But this is a complete travesty both of my views and of Catholic theology.
To be sure, while it has sometimes been suggested that the doctrine of original sin can be defended on purely philosophical grounds, probably the more common view is that it is a matter of faith. But what is faith? It is not what most people think it is; in particular, it is not a matter of believing something without any grounds for believing it, or believing it simply because you’ve taken a fancy to it, or because through sheer will you’ve worked yourself into a state of belief in defiance of all the evidence. In short, faith, rightly understood, is in no way at odds with reason. On the contrary, faith is, in a sense, grounded in reason.
Suppose you know nothing about quantum mechanics but you do know a physicist who is both highly competent and scrupulously honest, and he tries to explain the subject to you. Suppose further that you only understand part of what he says, and even that part you understand only imperfectly. Still, you have no doubt that what he is saying is true. You trust him, because he knows what he is talking about and wouldn’t lie to you. You have faith in him, and your faith is perfectly rational. Indeed, it is grounded in reason in the sense that it is reason that tells you that he is a reliable source of information, and thus can be believed even when what he is saying is something you could not have discovered for yourself and cannot even fully understand.
Faith in the religious context — or at least in the Catholic theological context — is like that. To cite a representative definition, “faith is adhesion of the intellect, under the influence of grace, to a truth revealed by God, not on account of its intrinsic evidence but on account of the authority of Him who has revealed it” (Parente, Piolanti, and Garofalo, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, p. 101). That is to say, faith involves believing some proposition we could not have discovered on our own and perhaps cannot even fully understand, but which we know must be true because God, who is omniscient and cannot lie, has revealed it. But this faith is grounded in reason insofar as the claim that the proposition in question has in fact been revealed by God is something that can and should be independently rationally justified. In short, reason tells us that there is a God and that he has revealed such-and-such a truth; faith is then a matter of believing what reason has shown God to have revealed. In that sense faith is not only not at odds with reason but is grounded in reason.
Of course, how we know through reason that God exists and that He has revealed some truth is a large and complex matter. I have defended several of the traditional arguments for God’s existence in several places (here, here, and here). The way to get from God’s existence to the justification of the claim that some particular Christian theological doctrine (such as the doctrine of original sin) really has been divinely revealed would have to involve a number of further steps. In particular, it would have to involve a defense of the claim that Jesus Christ claimed divine authority for His teaching, that He was resurrected from the dead, that only God could have effected this resurrection and that it therefore constitutes a divine seal of approval of Christ’s teaching, that Christ founded a Church with authority to pass on and interpret His teaching, and so on. In other words, the rational defense of any particular purportedly divinely revealed Christian doctrine presupposes an independent rational defense of the truth of theism, of the veracity of Christ, and also (I would say) of the specifically Catholic understanding of revelation and authority.
Obviously I can hardly accomplish all of that here, in a single blog post, though of course many theologians have defended all of these points in detail over the centuries. The point for now is just to emphasize that believing the doctrine of original sin is not a matter merely of appealing to authority, as if the reliability of the authority did not itself need to be rationally established (of course it does). And I am not, in any event, pretending in this series of posts to establish the doctrine of original sin to the satisfaction of someone who is not already familiar with and convinced by the arguments for theism and Catholicism. My aim is rather only to answer certain specific criticisms of the doctrine. Hence when I said that “there is no evidence against” the novel monogenesis scenario sketched in my previous posts, I was not saying “There is no evidence against it, and that suffices to justify us in believing it.” I was saying “This scenario is compatible with the genetic evidence, so the claim that the genetic evidence has refuted the doctrine of original sin fails.” Naturally, a positive case for the doctrine would have to say a lot more than that.
Now some Catholic readers might wonder if I am presenting too rationalist an account of faith (as some readers of my book The Last Superstition seem to think I did there). In particular, they might think that I have ignored the role grace plays in faith (a role referred to in the definition I cited above). As the Catholic Encyclopedia says in its article on faith:
[I]n the minds of many faith is regarded as a more or less necessary consequence of a careful study of the motives of credibility, a view which the Vatican Council condemns expressly: “If anyone says that the assent of Christian faith is not free, but that it necessarily follows from the arguments which human reason can furnish in its favour; or if anyone says that God’s grace is only necessary for that living faith which worketh through charity, let him be anathema.”
But what I am saying is in no way in conflict with Catholic teaching, and is in fact just standard Scholastic theology. As the very same article immediately goes on to say:
On the other hand, we must not minimize the real probative force of the motives of credibility within their true sphere—”Reason declares that from the very outset the Gospel teaching was rendered conspicuous by signs and wonders which gave, as it were, definite proof of a definite truth” (Leo XIII, Æterni Patris).
And as the same encyclopedia puts it in its article on fideism:
As against [fideistic] views, it must be noted that authority, even the authority of God, cannot be the supreme criterion of certitude, and an act of faith cannot be the primary form of human knowledge. This authority, indeed, in order to be a motive of assent, must be previously acknowledged as being certainly valid; before we believe in a proposition as revealed by God, we must first know with certitude that God exists, that He reveals such and such a proposition, and that His teaching is worthy of assent, all of which questions can and must be ultimately decided only by an act of intellectual assent based on objective evidence. Thus, fideism not only denies intellectual knowledge, but logically ruins faith itself.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Church has condemned such doctrines… On 8 September, 1840, Bautain was required to subscribe to several propositions directly opposed to Fideism, the first and the fifth of which read as follows: “Human reason is able to prove with certitude the existence of God; faith, a heavenly gift, is posterior to revelation, and therefore cannot be properly used against the atheist to prove the existence of God”; and “The use of reason precedes faith and, with the help of revelation and grace, leads to it.” … [T]he [first] Vatican Council teaches as a dogma of Catholic faith that “one true God and Lord can be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason by means of the things that are made”…
As to the opinion of those who maintain that our supernatural assent is prepared for by motives of credibility merely probable, it is evident that it logically destroys the certitude of such an assent. This opinion was condemned by Innocent XI in the decree of 2 March, 1679… and by Pius X in the decree “Lamentabili sane”… Revelation, indeed, is the supreme motive of faith in supernatural truths, yet, the existence of this motive and its validity has to be established by reason.
In short, the teaching that grace guides us to faith does not entail that at some point we just have to close our eyes real tight and will ourselves into believing some proposition for which there are insufficient rational grounds. That is William James style fideism, not Catholicism. When someone says “There but for the grace of God go I,” he does not mean that he did not freely choose to avoid a life of sin and that God somehow programmed him to avoid it, as He might program a robot. Similarly, when we say that we are led to faith by God’s grace, this does not mean that we are not at the same time led to it by reason.
One of the most (truthfully) insulting columns I have ever come across, can be found here. It doesn’t even need to apply to Coyne; we all know people like this in the theism debate:
As longtime readers of this blog know from bitter experience, there’s little point in engaging with [insert name here] on matters of philosophy and theology. He is neither remotely well-informed, nor fair-minded, nor able to make basic distinctions or otherwise to reason with precision. Nor, when such foibles are pointed out to him, does he show much interest in improving. (Though on at least one occasion he did promise to try actually to learn something about a subject concerning which he had been bloviating. But we’re still waiting for that well-informed epic takedown of Aquinas we thought we were going to get from him more than two years ago.)
Naturally, his incompetence is coupled with a preposterous degree of compensatory self-confidence. As I once pointed out about Dawkins, [insert name here] may by now have put himself in a position that makes it psychologically impossible for him even to perceive serious criticism. The problem is that his errors are neither minor, nor occasional, nor committed in the shadows, nor expressed meekly. He commits a howler every time he opens his mouth, and he opens it very frequently, very publicly, and very loudly. His blunders are of a piece, so that to confess one would be to confess half a decade’s worth — to acknowledge what everyone outside his combox already knows, viz. that he is exactly the kind of bigot he claims to despise. That is a level of humiliation few human beings can bear. Hence the defense mechanism of training oneself to see only ignorance and irrationality even in the most learned and sober of one’s opponents; indeed, to see it even before one sees those opponents. And so we have the spectacle of [insert name here]’s article last week on David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God, wherein he launches a 2800 word attack on a book he admits he has not read. The sequel of self-delusion, it seems, is self-parody.
Still, it is worthwhile responding now and again to people like [insert name here], so that bystanders who wouldn’t otherwise know any better can see just how pathetic are the “arguments” of New Atheists. Consider [insert name here]’s recent response to Douthat. As is typical of the New Atheist genre, we are confronted with a blizzard of sweeping and tendentious assertions, straw men, begged questions, missed points, well-poisoning, and other evidence that the writer has read a book about logical fallacies and mistaken it for a “How-To” guide. It would take a short book to unpack all of [insert name here]’s errors here. Indeed, even to see everything that is wrong just with [insert name here]’s remarks about the self and its purposes would take a mini lecture on the philosophy of mind. So let’s do something of which [insert name here] is incapable. Let’s focus. Let’s set out — precisely, calmly, and without all sorts of irrelevant remarks about Douthat’s desire for a cosmic father figure and the Inquisition and what a Martian would think of the Catholic Mass — one very specific objection to materialism and see why [insert name here] fails even to perceive it, much less answer it.
. . . If [insert name here] were at all interested in the objective pursuit of truth — as opposed to scoring cheap points against someone whose views he viscerally dislikes — he would have seen that this, rather than some exercise in Freudian wishful thinking, is what Douthat is on about [in their recent argument]. Materialism could still be false even if atheism were true, and Douthat’s point was about materialism, not atheism per se.
Read the whole thing for a bit more depth in the philosophy in question. These types of takedowns would be funny, were they not sad and true.
Don’t miss Feser’s breakdown of scientism, if you have time.