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The Road from Atheism: Dr. Edward Feser’s Conversion (Part 3 of 3)

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NOTE: On Monday we shared Part 1 of Dr. Edward Feser's conversion story from atheism to theism and on Wednesday we posted Part 2. Today we share the final Part 3.

We'd also like to note that Dr. Feser's contributions at Strange Notions were originally posted on his own blog, and therefore lose some of their context when reprinted here. Dr. Feser explains why that matters.


 
Several crucial background elements were in place by the late 90s.  Fregean and related arguments had gotten me to take very seriously the idea that something like Platonic realism might be true.  (I would later see that Aristotelian realism was in fact the right way to go, but the basic anti-naturalistic move had been made.)  The arguments of Searle and others had shown that existing versions of materialism were no good.  Russellian arguments had shown that modern science and philosophy had no clear idea of what matter was in the first place.  Whatever it was supposed to be, though, it seemed it was not something to which one could assimilate mind, at least not if one wanted to avoid panpsychism.  Naturalism came to seem mysterious at best.  Meanwhile, Aristotelian ideas had a certain plausibility.  All that was needed was some systematic alternative to naturalism.

Then, in the late 90s, while still a grad student, I was given an opportunity to teach a philosophy of religion course, followed by several opportunities to teach “intro to philosophy” courses.  In the latter, I wanted to focus on topics that would be of interest to undergrads who might have no general interest in philosophy.  Since everyone had some interest in religion (even if only, in some cases, a hostile interest), arguments for God’s existence seemed a good topic for at least part of the course.  Naturally, that was a topic for the philosophy of religion course too.  So, I had a reason to revisit the subject after having given it relatively little thought for many years.

At first I taught the material the way so many professors do: Here are the arguments; here are the obvious fallacies they commit; let’s move on.  I never came across like Richard Dawkins, but I no doubt did come across like Nigel Warburton (say): politely dismissive.  And, as I gradually came to see, totally ill-informed.  The “line ‘em up, then shoot ‘em down” approach was boring, and the arguments seemed obviously stupid.  Yet the people who had presented them historically were obviously not stupid.  So, it seemed to me that it would be interesting to try to give the arguments a run for their money, and to try to make it understandable to the students why anyone would ever have accepted them.

So I started to read and think more about them.  I came to find William Rowe’s approach to the Leibnizian sort of cosmological argument interesting and pedagogically useful.  He didn’t seem to accept the argument, but he made it clear that asking “What caused God?”, “How do we know the universe had a beginning?”, etc. weren’t really serious objections.  He also made it clear that the thrust of the argument had to do with what was a straightforward and undeniably serious philosophical question:  Should we regard the world as ultimately explicable or not?  If not, then the argument fails.  But if so, then it does seem to make it plausible that something like God, or at least the God of the philosophers, must exist.  And it didn’t seem silly to wonder whether there might be such an explanation.  Richard Taylor’s clear, punchy chapter on natural theology in his little book Metaphysics made the same point, and made for a useful selection for the students to read.

Naturally, I had already long been aware of this sort of argument.  The difference was that when I had first thought about it years before I was approaching it as someone who had had a religious background and wanted to see whether there was any argument for God’s existence that was really persuasive.  Russell’s retort to Copleston, to the effect that we can always insist that the universe is just there and that’s that, had then seemed to me sufficient to show that the argument was simply not compelling.  We’re just not rationally forced to accept it.  I had, as it were, put the argument on trial and it had been unable to establish its innocence to my satisfaction.  But now I was approaching it as a naturalist who was trying to give my students a reason to see the argument as something at least worth thinking about for a class period or two.  I was playing defense attorney rather than prosecution, but a defense attorney with the confidence of someone who didn’t have a stake in his client’s acquittal.  Already being a confirmed naturalist, I could be dispassionate rather than argumentative, and could treat the whole thing as a philosophical exercise.

And from that point of view it started to seem that Russell’s reply, while it had rhetorical power, was perhaps not quite airtight philosophically.  Sure, you could always say that there’s no ultimate explanation.  And maybe there’s no way to prove otherwise.  But is it really true?  Is it really even more plausible to think that than to think that there is an explanation?  Guys like Rowe and Taylor, by no means religious fanatics or apologists but just philosophers entertaining a deep question, seemed to take the question pretty seriously.  Interesting, I thought.  Though for the time being, “interesting” -- rather than correct or persuasive -- was all I found it.

Then there was Aquinas.  At the high tide of my undergrad Brash Young Atheist stage, I had taken a class on medieval philosophy with the late John Cronquist, an atheist professor at Cal State Fullerton who was absolutely contemptuous of Christianity.  Campus apologists of the Protestant stripe were a frequent target of his ire, though he had a choice quip or two about Catholicism as well.  He was one of the smartest and most well-read people I have ever known -- the kind of guy you find intellectually intimidating and hope not to get in an argument with -- and I liked him very much.  One of the odd and interesting things about that course, though, was how respectfully Cronquist treated some of the medievals, especially Aquinas.  He said that compared to them, contemporary pop apologists were “like a pimple on the ass of an athlete.”  (I remember him dramatically pointing to his own posterior as he said this, for emphasis.)  He obviously didn’t buy the Scholastic system for a moment, but he treated the material as worth taking a semester to try to understand.  And he said a couple of things that stood out.  First, for reasons I don’t recall him elaborating on much, he seemed to think that the Third Way in particular might have something to be said for it.  Second, he said that the mind-body problem, which he seemed to think was terribly vexing, really boiled down to the problem of universals.  For years I would wonder what he meant by that.  (I now think it must have had to do with the way our grasp of abstract concepts features in Aristotelian arguments for the immateriality of the intellect.)

At the time I filed these remarks away as curiosities (just as I had then regarded the material we covered in the class as mere curiosities).  But I think his example made it easier for me, years later, to take a second look at Aquinas as I prepared course material.  I look back at my first lectures on the Five Ways with extreme embarrassment.  If you’d heard them, you’d have thought I was cribbing from an advance copy of The God Delusion, if not in tone then at least in the substance of my criticisms.  But that started slowly to change as I read more about the arguments and began to work the material into my lectures.  A good friend of mine, who had also gone from Catholicism to atheism and was a fellow grad student, was familiar with William Lane Craig’s book The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz, and seemed to find it useful in preparing his own lectures on the subject.  Our discussions of the arguments were very helpful.  Furthermore, Atheism and Theism by J. J. C. Smart and John Haldane had recently appeared, with Haldane defending, and Smart treating respectfully, some old-fashioned Thomistic arguments for the existence of God.  Such materials opened up a new world.  The way I and so many other philosophers tended to read the Five Ways was, as I gradually came to realize, laughably off base.

The immediate effect was that I found a way to teach the Five Ways without seeming like I was putting fish in a barrel for the students to shoot at.  I still didn’t agree with the arguments, but at least teaching them was getting interesting.  I recall one class period when, having done my best to try to defend some argument (the First Way, I think) against various objections, I finally stated whatever it was I thought at the time was a difficulty that hadn’t been satisfactorily answered.  One of my smartest students expressed relief: She had been worried for a moment that there might be a good argument for God’s existence after all!  (Anyone who thinks wishful thinking is all on the side of religious people is fooling himself.)

None of this undermined my commitment to naturalism for some time.  I published my first several journal articles while still in grad school, and two of them were criticisms of the doctrine of the Trinity.  (I’m now a staunch Trinitarian, of course.  But once again, it turns out that I still more or less agree with the arguments I then presented.  The versions of Trinitarianism I then attacked are, I continue to think, wrong.  But Trinitarianism itself is true.)

But the language of act and potency, per se and per accidens causal series and the like started to enter my lectures on Aquinas, and before long, my thinking.  It was all very strange.  Aquinas’s arguments had a certain power when all of this metaphysical background was taken account of.  And there was a certain plausibility to the metaphysics.  There were reasons for distinguishing between actuality and potentiality, the different kinds of causal series, and so forth.   Yet no one seemed to talk that way anymore -- or, again, at least no one “mainstream.”  Could there really be anything to it all if contemporary philosophers weren’t saying anything about it?  And yet, precisely because they weren’t talking about it, they weren’t refuting it either.  Indeed, when they did say anything about Aquinas’s arguments at all, most of them showed only that they couldn’t even be bothered to get him right, much less show why he was mistaken.  Arguments from current philosophical fashion are bad enough.  But when most philosophers not only do not accept a certain view, but demonstrate that they don’t even understand what it is, things can start to smell very fishy indeed.

And so they did.  I already knew from the lay of the land in the philosophy of language and philosophy of mind that the standard naturalist approaches had no solid intellectual foundation, and themselves rested as much on fashion as on anything else.  Even writers like Searle, who I admired greatly and whose naturalism I shared, had no plausible positive alternative.  McGinn-style mysterianism started to seem like a dodge, especially given that certain arguments (like the Platonic realist ones) seemed to show that matter simply is not in fact all that there is, not merely that we can’t know how it can be all that there is.  Some secular writers were even toying with Aristotelian ideas anyway.  The only reason for not taking Aquinas and similar thinkers seriously seemed to be that most other academic philosophers weren’t taking them seriously.  And yet as I had come to learn, many of them didn’t even understand Aquinas and Co. in the first place, and their own naturalism was riddled with problems.  Against Aquinas, for naturalism -- the case increasingly seemed to come down to the consensus of the profession.  And what exactly was that worth?

It isn’t worth a darn thing, of course.  Careerists might not see that, nor might a young man more excited by the “question what your parents taught you” side of philosophy than all that “objective pursuit of truth” stuff.  But a grownup will see it, and a philosopher ought to see it.

I don’t know exactly when everything clicked.  There was no single event, but a gradual transformation.  As I taught and thought about the arguments for God’s existence, and in particular the cosmological argument, I went from thinking “These arguments are no good” to thinking “These arguments are a little better than they are given credit for” and then to “These arguments are actually kind of interesting.”  Eventually it hit me: “Oh my goodness, these arguments are right after all!”  By the summer of 2001 I would find myself trying to argue my wife’s skeptical physicist brother-in-law into philosophical theism on the train the four of us were taking through eastern Europe.

There’s more to the story than that, of course.  In particular, it would take an essay of its own to explain why I returned to the Catholic Church, specifically, as I would by the end of 2001.  But I can already hear some readers protesting at what I have said.  I don’t mean the New Atheist types. No, I’m talking about a certain kind of religious believer, the type who’s always going on about how faith is really a matter of the heart rather than the head, that no one’s ever been argued into religion, etc.  It will be said by such a believer that my change of view was too rationalistic, too cerebral, too bloodless, too focused on a theoretical knowledge of the God of the philosophers rather than a personal response to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But the dichotomy is a false one, and the implied conception of the relationship between faith and reason not only foolish but heterodox.  As to the heterodoxy and foolishness of fideism, and the correct understanding of the relationship of faith and reason, I have addressed that set of issues in a previous post on my personal blog.  As to the “heart versus head” stuff, it seems to me to rest on an erroneous bifurcation of human nature.  Man is a unity, his rationality and animality, intellect and passions, theoretical and moral lives all ultimately oriented toward the same end.  That is why even a pagan like Aristotle knew that our happiness lay in “the contemplation and service of God,” whose existence he knew of via philosophical argumentation.  That is why Plotinus could know that we “forget the father, God” because of “self-will.”  While the pagan may have no access to the supernatural end that only grace makes possible, he is still capable of a natural knowledge of God, and will naturally tend to love what he knows.

As Plotinus’s remark indicates, that does not mean that the will does not have a role to play.  But that is true wherever reason leads us to a conclusion we might not like, not merely in matters of religion.  And once you have allowed yourself to see the truth that reason leads you to, what reason apprehends is (given the convertibility of the transcendentals) as good and beautiful as it is real.  If you find yourself intellectually convinced that there is a divine Uncaused Cause who sustains the world and you in being at every instant, and don’t find this conclusion extremely strange and moving, something that leads you to a kind of reverence, then I daresay you haven’t understood it.  Of course, there are those whose heads and hearts are so out of sync that they cannot follow both at the same time.  But we shouldn’t mistake this pathology for an insight into human nature.

Speaking for myself, anyway, I can say this much.  When I was an undergrad I came across the saying that learning a little philosophy leads you away from God, but learning a lot of philosophy leads you back.  As a young man who had learned a little philosophy, I scoffed.  But in later years and at least in my own case, I would come to see that it’s true.
 
 
Originally posted at Edward Feser's blog. User with author's permission.
(Image credit: Art Reproductions)

Dr. Edward Feser

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Dr. Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. He has been a Visiting Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton. He is author of numerous books including The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (St. Augustines Press, 2010); Aquinas (Oneworld, 2009); and Philosophy of Mind (Oneworld, 2007). Follow Dr. Feser on his blog and his website, EdwardFeser.com.

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  • Peter Piper

    I'd like to focus on the question of `ultimate explanations'. Is there anyone here who thinks the question of whether there is an ultimate explanation raises serious difficulties for atheists? If so, please clarify what sort of thing would count as an `ultimate explanation' (for example, would it be the sort of thing that, like most explanations, could be written down on paper?).

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      I think just about every theist would agree that the inability to account for the existence of the universe is a major flaw in the atheist worldview. So to answer your first question, I'd say "almost every theist."

      To answer your second question, "God" would certainly count as an "ultimate explanation" if by that we mean the non-contingent source of being.

      • severalspeciesof

        Brandon, I'm pretty sure that an ultimate explanation cannot take the form of a negative statement as in : 'non-contigent source of being.

        If that is the case then an ultimate explanation of the color blue is that 'it is not another color'. Hardly satisfying, nor explanatory, even though that statement is true...

        Glen

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          Glen, thanks for the reply. I believe you're confusing the statement. To say "non-contingent" is to say the source doesn't depend on anything else. It's not a counter source (i.e. "non blue") but a sourceless source.

          • severalspeciesof

            I don't think I am confusing this... 'non' is a negation of whatever comes after, unless you know of a different definition of 'non' that I'm not aware of. Your 'sourceless source' still relies on the negation of the meaning of 'source' as in 'source' does not apply in this instance...

            Glen

          • DAVID

            Your 'sourceless source' still relies on the negation of the meaning of 'source' as in 'source' does not apply in this instance…

            A "sourceless source" is not self-negating. It affirms that it *is* a source without *having* a source.

          • Irenist

            Exactly right, DAVID. An "unelected elector" (e.g., an appointed member of the Electoral College in the U.S. system of presidential elections, or a hereditary Elector in the Holy Roman Empire) isn't a contradiction, either. Lots of English terms work like that.

          • severalspeciesof

            You are right. I was being clumsy expressing my thoughts regarding 'sourceless source' (I blame the lack of caffeine.. ;-) ). I still feel I'm right regarding the 'non-contingent' part as I feel it's not a good way to convey 'a sourceless source'. Beyond this,, IMO, 'a sourceless source' isn't an explanation, just a definition. I think we can all agree that 'definition' and 'explanation' are not the same...

            Glen

          • DAVID

            Right now, its true that we're looking at how its defined. But the "sourceless source" does serve as an explanation in the cosmological arguments. (In the first three arguments, at least.) The sourceless source is the Unmoved Mover, the Uncaused Cause, and the Non-contingent or Necessary Being. It serves as an explanation for change/movement in the universe, for the existence of things in the universe, and for how a universe, made up of contingent things, could start to exist in the first place.

          • severalspeciesof

            It serves as an explanation for change/movement in the universe, for
            the existence of things in the universe, and for how a universe, made up
            of contingent things, could start to exist in the first place.

            IMO it doesn't. It only serves as a stop-gap measure to avoid saying "I don't know" with a definition that conveniently changes the definition of what we perceive, i.e. "Everything that begins to exist/move etc. has..." (with the word 'everything' being a key aspect to our perception and the definition)...

            Glen

          • DAVID

            I guess that I would agree that it was a "stop-gap" measure if I agreed that we were being sloppy with definitions or "cooking the data," so to speak. But I really don't believe that. When I look at the data that is used, (things don't move/change themselves, things don't bring themselves into existence, etc.) it strikes me as being very hard to refute.

          • severalspeciesof

            From what I understand, science does say that some things can change by themselves, and that some things do 'pop' into existence with no known mechanism. Even if it didn't it doesn't mean that the idea that there has to be an unmoved mover, etc. also equates to what the RCC pushes forward as its idea of what god is. There could be more than one 'unmoved mover' etc.

            Glen

          • DAVID

            some things do 'pop' into existence with no known mechanism.

            My understanding is that the quantum field produces these particles. Even if we do not fully understand how this works, presumably the particles would not "pop" into existence if there were no quantum field to trigger such an occurrence. In which case, the particles do not really cause their own existence.

            science does say that some things can change by themselves

            I guess that I would need to know more about a particular example of this in order to comment.

            Even if it didn't it doesn't mean that the idea that there has to be an unmoved mover, etc. also equates to what the RCC pushes forward as its idea of what god is.

            That's a fair statement. At least for right now, we're limiting this discussion to the "God of the philosophers."

          • Michael Murray

            My understanding is that the quantum field produces these particles. Even if we do not fully understand how this works, presumably the particles would not "pop" into existence if there were no quantum field to trigger such an occurrence. In which case, the particles do not really cause their own existence.

            A particle is roughly an excited state of a quantum field. What you are saying is the quantum field "triggered" it's own excitation. It's a bit like seeing a guitar string suddenly start to vibrate without apparent cause and saying "the string must have triggered that because if there was no string there would be no vibration".

            At the very least you are confusing "A can't happen without B" with "B caused A to happen".

          • DAVID

            Although I grant that I expressed myself sloppily, I was primarily addressing the claim: "some things do 'pop' into existence with no known mechanism." If its true that the particle is "an excited state of a quantum field," then, at the very least, we can say that "A cannot happen without B, let alone all by itself."

          • David Nickol

            "A cannot happen without B, let alone all by itself."

            If A is the virtual particle, and B is the quantum void, B is not the cause of A popping into existence. I think we are talking about causes here.

            If I have a big block of ice, and as it melts it forms a precise image of the Manhattan skyline, that obviously could not have happened without the block of ice, but the block of ice didn't cause the image of the Manhattan skyline.

            If a giant block of ice were to melt into an exact replica of Michelangelo's Pietà, and absolutely no physical cause could be determined (and all physical causes ruled out), it would have to be considered a miracle. To argue that it wasn't a miracle because it couldn't have happened without the block of ice would be missing the point.

          • DAVID

            I have been told by Andy Thomas, who knows more about this than I do that:

            virtual particles are actually names given to quantum fluctuations of the underlying quantum fields.

            So, evidently we do know what causes these virtual particles: "quantum fluctuations of the underlying quantum field."

          • David Nickol

            So, evidently we do know what causes these virtual particles: "quantum fluctuations of the underlying quantum field."

            Knowing that something is a fluctuation is not the same as knowing what caused a fluctuation. Knowing that rain is drops of water falling from the sky is not knowing what causes rain.

          • DAVID

            But you'll notice that we have supplied a cause. Now, if the question becomes, "what caused that cause," then we're just kicking the problem back one step.

          • DAVID

            Let me give a better answer. If we ask what caused the fluctuation, we can answer: the quantum field. If we want to know how the quantum field produced a fluctuation, we might not have an exact answer, but we still know what caused it: the quantum field.

          • David Nickol

            Let me give a better answer. If we ask what caused the fluctuation, we can answer: the quantum field.

            I disagree. The quantum field didn't cause the fluctuation. Suppose you were out in the middle of a lake in a boat when a wave struck and almost capsized the boat. If you asked, "What caused the wave?" would the correct answer be, "The lake"? You need the lake in order to have the wave, and you need the quantum field to have a fluctuation, but the lake isn't the cause of the wave, and the quantum field is not the cause of the fluctuation.

          • DAVID

            I take the point of your analogy. But notice that what we're essentially describing is "something" interacting with the quantum field…just as "something" interacted with the lake to cause the wave. We're moving farther away from something just "popping" into existence.

          • David Nickol

            There are two distinct questions involved. First, can something pop into existence from nothing (the nothing of philosophers)? I don't see anyone arguing that it can. Second, can something pop into existence without a cause? The answer to that seems to be that it may very well be possible.

            If you filled a large container with oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, magnesium, and small amounts of a handful of other elements, and fully formed human beings periodically popped out of the container with no discoverable reason (and in fact, you proved that no reason could be discovered, and further, that there was no reason), it wouldn't be something from nothing. But it would be something without a cause.

          • DAVID

            To prove that "no reason could [possibly] be discovered" is an almost impossible thing to prove in science. You would have to have exhaustive knowledge of the universe, and the way it works, before you could say with certainty that "this cannot possibly have a reason." Science is not deductive. We can only figure out how things work as we go along. And I am comfortable in assuming that we're a far ways off from having it all figured out.

          • Michael Murray

            And I am comfortable in assuming that we're a far ways off from having it all figured out.

            The predicability of our theories suggests you are wrong. We are not "far ways off" from having it all figured out. The answer is just not what you (and others like Einstein, Bohm) would like it to be. We can predict less about reality than we might expect.

            Going back to the original claim of severalspecies

            From what I understand, science does say that some things can change by themselves, and that some things do 'pop' into existence with no known mechanism.

            This is correct. This is what science, aka the vast majority of physicists, do say.

          • DAVID

            To relate this back to the original discussion, to say that we do not know how the quantum field is excited or disturbed, thus producing fluctuations, or virtual particles, is not to say that these fluctuations make themselves happen. Its a major jump in logic to say, "this event has no known mechanism" and therefore to conclude, "this event caused itself to happen."

          • Michael Murray

            "this event caused itself to happen."

            Does anyone say that ? It doesn't sound to me like the kind of thing a physicist would say. I would have thought they would say "the probability of this fluctuation happening at this time and place is ..."

          • DAVID

            Whether or not the event caused itself to happen was one of the original points of this discussion.

          • Michael Murray

            OK thanks. I've always found it hard to follow discussion here as what Disqus actually shows me on the page is rather random (without apparent cause!) . So I must have come in halfway through.

          • Michael Murray

            Although I grant that I expressed myself sloppily, I was primarily addressing the claim: "some things do 'pop' into existence with no known mechanism." If its true that the particle is "an excited state of a quantum field," then, at the very least, we can say that "A cannot happen without B, let alone all by itself."

            But the excited state does pop into existence with no known mechanism.

          • Greg

            Non-contingent is a logical term. It means not contingent, ie. either it exists necessarily or necessarily does not exist. But in this case, it would not be an explanation if it were not to exist, so in context, non-contingent is logically equivalent to necessary.

          • genecallahan

            So instead of "non-contingent" fill in "necessary." Problem solved. Next?

          • severalspeciesof

            That's a problem solved for the theist... Next? ;-)

            Glen

          • Andy Thomas

            That's correct DAVID - virtual particles are actually names given to quantum fluctuations of the underlying quantum fields. Long lasting and stable "wave packets" are what we call normal particles, short term/unstable fluctuations are what are called "virtual particles". However to say that these virtual "particles" pop into existence "out of nothing" or with no known cause is scientifically incorrect

          • DAVID

            Thanks, Andy, for the support and clarification.

          • David Nickol

            However to say that these virtual "particles" pop into existence "out of nothing" or with no known cause is scientifically incorrect.

            On the contrary, it is scientifically correct to say virtual particles pop into existence "with no known cause." It might be going a little far to declare as an absolute and undisputed fact that they pop into existence with no cause at all, but as I understand quantum physics, things are believed to happen with no cause.

          • Michael Murray

            That's my understanding as well.

          • Andy Thomas

            Hi all - I think we need to make sure we aren't using a dessicated conception of cause. If we ever arrive at truly fundamental entities in the universe, then we are going to arrive at objects which behave in certain ways because that is just their nature to behave that way (we could discuss what gave them that nature, but that is out of the realms of science). The cause of such behaviour is therefore the nature or form of the thing, or in other words the formal cause.

            Now in the virtual particle case, the reason a boat sitting on a lake is a poor analogy is that it is not in the nature of liquid water that waves come about without an external force (say a strong gust of wind). However, it just seems to be the nature of quantum fields that they have a non-zero level of energy in a vacuum, and this non-zero energy causes stochastic fluctuations. The cause of these fluctuations (or virtual particles) would therefore be the nature of the field itself, plus the passage of time. In other words, the formal cause would be the form of the field, the efficient cause would be the passage of time, which actualises the potency of the field to fluctuate in this way.

            Take away either of these, i.e. the fields themselves or the passage of time, and you would have no virtual particles.

          • DarcyMarais

            In other words, because of initial conditions, something will happen occasionally and unpredictably. But the specific instance remains acausal: there is no reason for it happening at that time and at that place.

          • Andy Thomas

            Hi Darcy, I wouldn't say it's acausal, because this suggests it is without cause, which is what I was saying is definitely not the case. All you can really say is that it is unpredictable, but that's not the same as acausal and certainly doesn't do any damage to the principle of causality of the form that it utilised in all cosmological arguments that I am aware of.

          • DarcyMarais

            But it certainly provides a counter-example to the straightforward arguments of causality that Aquinas is so fond of.

            And it is without cause. That specific quantum effect is not caused by the possibility of that effect taking place.

          • Andy Thomas

            Hi Darcy, if the event is without cause absolutely, we would not be able to predict the likelihood of it. It would be completely detached from all causal factors whatsoever, and therefore we would have absolutely nothing to say about how likely it is that we see a virtual particle of energy X at time t.
            Now with respect to whether it provides a counter example to the causal arguments of Aquinas, I would dispute that. In the first way, Aquinas says that whatever is moved is moved by another, but this is a short hand way of saying that whenever a potentiality is actualised, it is actualised by an actuality. In other words, what causes the potential of an acorn to form into a tree is actual rain, not the mere potential of it.
            So we could say that the potential of the quantum field to fluctuate is caused by the actual evolution of the space-time manifold in which it resides, not a mere potential evolution of it. Alternatively, we could say that the potential of the quantum field to fluctuate is actualised by whatever efficient cause brought the fields into being in the first place. Either way, this is not a counter example to Aquinas' first way

          • Susan

            In other words, because of initial conditions, something will happen occasionally and unpredictably. But the specific instance remains acausal: there is no reason for it happening at that time and at that place.

            It would be useful if "cause" were defined clearly. There is a huge gap between Aristotle's ideas about it and what has been discovered since. It would be fascinating to see how Aristotle might rethink his four causes if he was privy to the evidence we have now.

            But without specific definitions, the word shape shifts. I'm more interested in 21st century evidence than in ancient efforts at organizing things but... for the sake of discussion.

            What do we mean by "cause"?

            How applicable to reality is that definition?

            (Thanks, Darcy. Nice to see you hear. You're doing a great job.)

          • Andy Thomas

            Hi Susan, I would argue that the four causes are still alive and kicking as much in modernity as they were in ancient Greece. It is just that most people aren't aware they are invoking them in their explanations. Take for instance two scientists talking to one another. One asks the other "tell me, what will happen to particle A when it interacts with particle B". The first thing the scientist in question will ask is, "what TYPE of particles are we talking about?". In other words, I need to know if A is, say, an electron otherwise I won't know what its nature or essential properties are. That is the formal cause of the interaction
            If the first scientist now responds, "A is an electron, B is a proton" the second scientist will also need to know that electrons always tend to be attracted to protons. That is the final cause of the interaction.
            So here we have a very modern scientific example of how formal and final causality are "snuck in" to causal explanations without anyone ever actually naming them as such

      • Loreen Lee

        Perhaps you would accept the 'positive' definition of God as an 'ultimate explanation', if it were phrased as necessary Being rather than non-contingent being or source of being.
        Also just did some Goggling on Leibniz's comments on the Ontological argument of Anselm and Descartes. Seems like he added that 'if it is possible that the essence of God exists, then it does exist'. What I found interesting is that this implies, (for me) that it is the 'essence' that is 'the existence'. This clarification is necessary I believe, because there is perhaps even subconsciously the tendency to equate 'existence' with matter, (even dark matter and dark energy, and energy???). As I associate essence with definition, and therefore with mind or consciousness, this supports my rationalist tendency over empiricism, and gives the biblical construct I am 'that' I am, a philosophical support that the I am constitutes intelligence/consciousness/will/judgment, what have you as well as simplicity/unity/necessity/Being.. Thank you.

        • severalspeciesof

          Perhaps you would accept the 'positive' definition of God as an
          'ultimate explanation', if it were phrased as necessary Being rather
          than non-contingent being or source of being.

          I can 'understand' the definition, but not as an 'ultimate expanation' as it doesn't explain anything. It is like saying (as per my previous example) that the color blue is blue because blueness is a necessary element of blue...

          Glen

          • Loreen Lee

            Then I don't suppose that you would 'believe' that ideas exist. -That the idea of the color of blue exists, -as an idea. That 'consciousness' has being. You would possibly believe that consciousness is perhaps as per Hofstadter, merely an illusion. I'm on the side of 'existence' however. I have no 'proof', but I believe consciousness/ideas, exist. That they are 'real'. (The existence of angels confirms that this is accepted within Christianity, as angels are 'intelligibles' - and we are the highest of the ;'animals' the lowest of the 'intelligibles'.

            As another example, a psychosis is very real for someone insane, and I give you this as a humorous appeal to the possibility of the reality of 'essences'. As another example, the Buddhists also believe that 'ideas' are real; that they exist. That is why they insist on calling 'No-thing-ness, Emptiness; i.e. because the bliss of ultimate knowledge is conceived as a some-thing, rather than a no-thing, only because ideas/thought/consciousness is considered to have Being. Modern philosophers consider 'ideas' to constitute 'pure being', as well. .

          • severalspeciesof

            Hi Loreen,
            Sorry for the delay in response [Too much pie on my table to eat ;-) ].

            I do believe ideas exist, but only within our brain, not physically like a rock or water. I am not familiar with Hofstadter, but I can agree with the idea that consciousness is an illusion. But not 'illusion' used in the generic sense of a wrong or false belief, but rather an 'incomplete, relational' belief. There's more empty space in a rock than there is actual stuff, yet we don't perceive it. We perceive a rock to be solid because our faculties are 'incomplete' in gauging the emptiness of it. 'Solid' is a relational rendering between dense and non-dense. It is indeed an 'illusion'. I know that's awkward, but at the moment I can't think of another way of pushing out my idea...

            Curious though as to why you 'know' angels exist (beyond the mere 'idea' of them...

            Glen

          • Loreen Lee

            Hi Glen. I liked your definition of 'illusion', but would not go so far as the Buddhist 'Maya'. Perhaps I could surmise that there are different levels of illusion as well as reality.
            On the angels, I apologized in another comment for getting all tied up with speculation on 'mind'. I don't 'know' that angels exist, (without (like in the case of God) being classified as an agnostic), except for what I believe constitutes a particular philosophical thesis, i.e. that there is a direct relationship between epistemology and ontology: knowledge and being. But I need far more study to be specific about this issue, even in its historical development.
            Simply put, if I have a psychotic idea, the existence of that idea could lead me into many difficult 'illusions' with consequences in the empirical world. So I like what you are saying, but it also suggests that I need continue to develop my understanding regarding these philosophical questions. Thanks Glen.

          • Loreen Lee

            I read recently that it is possible to regard even the contingencies within our day to day existence as necessities. This may be related to Hegel's saying that 'Freedom is the recognition of 'necessity'. The 'blueness' could thus be a way of regarding the particular blue of any discrete individual particular within the context of necessity. I mention this because of the on-going spiritualism of today which insists that the eternal can be lived within our life time; that it is all a matter of how we perceive/interpret reality. A little New Age perhaps, but also there is some truth to the Wittgenstein notion that reality is dependent upon how we 'see' it. Just a thought.

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          Interesting point, Loren. Aquinas famously maintained that God's essence *is* to exist--in other words, there's no distinction between his essence and existence. For more, I'd recommend his slim treatise titled "On Being and Essence." You can read the whole thing online free:

          http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/aquinas-esse.asp

          • Loreen Lee

            I must apologize to everyone. I didn't 'intend' to direct the conversation towards the ever-reoccuring debate on the validity of 'universals' as against various forms of nominalism. But it does seem that a 'form' of Platonism cannot be avoided, and is in evidence even in the cosmological argument of God's 'existence'. It is so difficult for us humans to sort out the distinction between Kant's productive and reproductive imagination (images) and the 'reality of ideas' in relation to the 'reality of the 'phenomenal world'. Indeed we can find those who would argue the pros and cons of these realities on both sides of the fence. Where do we draw the line on what constitutes 'reality'? or 'existence'. To this issue, Stephen Hawkins has just spoken up in the last week that we are not to regard black holes as 'existing' in the 'ordinary sense'. It seems that this is a 'confession' that this cosmological argument has a 'metaphysical' basis, and is a 'transcendental' conception of some sort. This dichotomy appears also among those mathematicians, functionalists I think they are called, who believe that mathematical 'objects' (i.e. numbers? are 'real'). The issue also appears in the debates re genesis and creation 'theory' vs. evolutionary theory. We can't escape the 'idea' that it is often difficult to sort out what is real and what is not real, what exists and what does not exist, even within those dialogues in which it is often so difficult to determine what is mere gossip and heresay from the 'truth'. Some of the difficulty, I posit, comes with distinguishing the intelligible from the imaginative, but that is another exercise and discipline to follow within our daily lives. P.S. I found that the 'third' (whatever) first appeared in dialogue over Platonic ideas. There is the particular apparently, and the ideal Platonic form, But in between there is the third object, whatever. And it is this third, the subtlety of differentiating all the levels of meaning and reference that perhaps presents us with the never-ending difficulties that characterize our dialogues. Thanks for your patience.

          • stevegbrown

            Hello Loreen, Actually I find your comments very much on topic. I was fascinated by Feser's recounting that his teacher:

            "Second, he said that the mind-body problem, which he seemed to think was terribly vexing, really boiled down to the problem of universals. For years I would wonder what he meant by that. (I now think it must have had to do with the way our grasp of abstract concepts features in Aristotelian arguments for the immateriality of the intellect.)"

            Cheers

        • DAVID

          Interesting post. I think that Aquinas had a problem with Anselm's argument. His problem was that we cannot know God's essence, as it is, in itself. God is mostly unknowable to us. What this means, as I understand it, is that you first have to know what you are talking about before you can say that it exists. We cannot know God in any comprehensive way, therefore, we cannot say that God exists. Of course, Aquinas thought better of proofs for God's existence which were indirect and based on what we can know about the world around us. I hope that makes sense.

          • Loreen Lee

            Kant also believed that we cannot know 'the "thing" in itself' which opened up another long and never ending controversy. Your last comment suggests to me that you would hold the argument from design to be a better argument than cosmological and ontological arguments. I agree.

          • DAVID

            I actually do like the cosmological arguments. In the cosmological arguments, God acts as the reason, the explanation for the most basic realities that we see around us. This seems to me to be a good approach. I part ways with Kant because I think that we can know the "thing in itself" as long as we're not talking about God :) In God's case, we're sort of locked in a mystery. I hold that philosophy cannot know Him directly but only through studying His works.

          • Loreen Lee

            Again I agree. Although the argument from design, i.e. Beauty is still my 'favorite' I especially agree about Kant that yes he denied our ability to know the thing in itself "about everything". Well science is down to 'quirks and quarks' :)!!! But when it comes to our consciousness, for instance, would this not deny Descartes' I think therefore I am? But even here in my case, for instance, to follow the Socratic dictum, and believe that I can actually 'know myself' certainly seems beyond my 'capability'. And this may apply to consciousness as the 'thing in itself' generally. (A little humor here, hopefully!!!!!). Thanks David.

      • Peter Piper

        Thanks for your reply, Brandon. My first question was really intended as an invitation, which I'm glad you have responded to. However, what I was asking for in my request for clarification was not an example of an ultimate explanation (particularly not one which is, by definition, unavailable to atheists). Rather, I would like to know in more detail, or in your own words, what you are asking for when you ask people to name an ultimate explanation.

        I'm afraid that from your reply I was not even able to determine whether you thought that an ultimate explanation should be the sort of thing that could be written down on paper. That is, did you mean that God Himself should count as an ultimate explanation? If so, He is an odd kind of explanation in that He cannot be written down. Or did you mean that the single word `God' should count as an ultimate explanation? That seems somewhat lacking.

        Perhaps, following your last sentence, your intent was to imply that something like the sentence `There is a non-contingent source of being,' would count as an ultimate explanation. But this just seems to be begging the question, as Glen has also pointed out.

      • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

        Why would you say that "that the inability to account for the existence of the universe is a major flaw". Why do we need to account for this? (Not that I am conceding atheism is a world-view or that theists have good reason to believe they have accounted for the universe.)

        • Irenist

          Mr. Adams:
          "Why do we need to account for this?"
          .
          Every existent (any object you'd care to name) or collection of existents (e.g., the observable universe) we are aware of is historically contingent rather than logically necessary. Thus, "the universe is just there" is metaphysically unattractive if one accepts the principle of sufficient reason, or even if one just prefers logical axioms to Searlean physical brute facts when one is making one's (inevitably aesthetic) life choice about how to deal with the Agrippan trilemma.
          .
          The typical atheist reply at this point is to plump for the cosmos as Searlean physical brute fact by saying that considering it to be contingent is a fallacy of composition. However, this confuses the quantitative conceptualization of the cosmos mentioned in my first sentence above (the set of all material objects) with the fact that anything exists at all. Even if the universe consisted of no more than a single cosmic string or quantum vacuum state, the fact that something (anything at all) exists rather than nothing would be a contingency for which a sufficient reason is wanted.

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            It seems to me that what you are saying is that there must be something unsatisfying to me to not know what the origin and nature of existence itself is. I admit that I find it amusing to contemplate things like this, but none of the proposed answers have ever appeared to me to be satisfying in any sense. An "infinite regress" is unsatisfying. "Eternal material persistence" is unsatisfying. A "transcendent being with a passing interest in foreskin" causing it all in some unfathomable way is, if anything, more unsatisfying.

            The theist accounting for these things seems to me to propose the word "God" be used instead of saying 'the mysterious unknowable cause that if we could understand it, would be satisfying'

            I think Douglas Adams called this bluff when he satirically proposed the number "42" as the place-holder. Saying "God did it", tells us no more than "42 is the answer".

            In any event, I was responding to a apparent flaw in my "world view". I don't equate world view with metaphysical accounting.

          • Irenist

            There are, however, certain things we can know about God.
            Consider the following:
            Parmenides proposes that all change is an illusion, because everything either is or is not, and nothing can come from what is not.
            Heraclitus (and various Buddhisms) propose that all is illusory flux.

            Aristotle (and Aquinas) distinguish between act and potency, and between being and becoming. Thus, things can both really exist, and really change.
            However, no potency can actualize itself. So every potency must be actualized by an already actual. (This is true even if the universe only exists instantaneously--it's an argument about instantaneous causality, like the causality exerted upon a window by an errant baseball, not about who threw the baseball, i.e, not about temporal beginnings like the Big Bang or a literal reading of Genesis 1).
            Thus, runs the argument, there must be a purely actual being to set off the dominoes of act and potency. However, a pure actuality would demonstrably also be an omniscience and an omnipotent.
            So while "passing interest in foreskin" is particular to the Abrahamic revelations of God, the God of the philosophers is both demonstrable (or so I assert), and logically knowable as to certain traits.
            The argumentative leaps from demonstrating that the God of the philosophers exists to arguing that Christ is God, or that Catholicism is Christ's Church are long, and entirely separate.
            But the problem posed by the paired paradoxes of Parmenides and Heraclitus is a real one, and worth becoming acquainted with. And the Aristotelian-Thomist solution is indeed satisfying. Learning to appreciate the problem, and then learning the relevant theology is pleasant in, inter alia, the way that reading the Parmenidean paradoxes of Zeno, and then learning Calculus is satisfying.

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            You have asserted some axioms and drawn some conclusions. I am familiar with these arguments. I have been neither convinced to accept the axioms or by the strength of the argument. You are extrapolating something about cause and effect in the material world and assume there is a similar rule with respect to the origin of matter in an ultimate sense. We have no idea of the origins of matter but we do know that the laws of physics break down in the early universe. Even if they did not we, we are extremely limited in our ability to demonstrate anything in the ultimate sense due to the problem of induction.

            Even if I could ignore all of this for the sake of argument, I don't see any reason to accept that this ultimate cause is a being with something like a mind.

          • DAVID

            You are extrapolating something about cause and effect in the material world and assume there is a similar rule with respect to the origin of matter in an ultimate sense. We have no idea of the origins of matter but we do know that the laws of physics break down in the early universe.

            If you'll pardon my jumping into this conversation…I've heard this brought up before and, for my own sake, I'd like to seek clarification as to what this means.

            I've always assumed that, from the beginning of the universe until now, there has been a causal chain which has taken us from the very "beginning," all the way through to the present moment. In other words, there has been a succession of events and conditions that has brought us to the present moment. Now, even if it were true that the known laws of physics didn't apply at some early stage of the universe, I still don't see how this would refute the claim that there has been a succession of events and conditions that has brought us to the present moment (a causal chain). In other words: does "cause and effect" require that the laws of physics be exactly as they are right now?

          • Irenist

            My layman's understanding is that without a unification of quantum and relativistic theory, prospects are dim for any understanding of the physics of the Big Bang singularity.

            However, I hasten to add that IMHO, discussions of the temporal beginning of the cosmos defined by our local light cone are less theologicallly fruitful than discussions of causal contingency that assume arguendo that the universe only exists for an instant, since per se causality, not per accidens causality, is central to classical arguments for God.

          • DAVID

            I take your point.

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            It is neither refuted nor supported. The point I am making is that we lose the ability to draw conclusions at that early point. I mean, physicist are making hypotheses and trying to test them but we just don't know.

            We infer this succession based on observing what we call causes and effects, but when time and space cease to exist and the force of gravity is indistinguishable from electromagnetism, I think we lose the ability to make inferences.

          • DAVID

            I think this leads to the strength of the cosmological argument which infers from the state of things as they exist in the present moment. Since we cannot affirm with certainty how things have always been, we need to start with the way that things are right now.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "Even if I could ignore all of this for the sake of argument, I don't see any reason to accept that this ultimate cause is a being with something like a mind."

            Classical theists don't conclude that this being must *have* a mind but that it *is* a mind.

            Let's say for the sake of argument that you agree the universe necessitates a transcendent, timeless, spaceless, immaterial cause. Other than a disembodied mind, what plausible alternatives do you propose?

          • David Nickol

            Other than a disembodied mind, what plausible alternatives do you propose?

            The problem, it seems to me—and I have talked with Irenist a little bit about this—is that if we think of God as an omniscient, timeless mind, it is very difficult to reconcile that concept (the God of philosophy) with what I will call "the God of religion." A God who answers prayers, either by granting what is asked for or saying "no," or a God who forgives, or a God whose decision it was to "call home" a baby who died of SIDS, or a God who is asked in an election novena to somehow effect an "outcome of the November election which is pleasing to Almighty
            God, and which best serves the eternal and temporal interests of all of
            His children"—all these versions of God are difficult to reconcile with an omniscient, omnipotent God who already knows the past, present, and future from outside of time.

            It is impossible, it seems to me, to begin to conceive of a "mind" outside of time. Consciousness and thinking, as we know them, take place in time. It is difficult, at best, to try to conceive of analogous processes taking place outside of time, and may well be meaningless (since they are processes, and processes by their very nature take place in time).

            It used to be thought that life (even for the simplest and most minute creature) had to be sustained by some "vital principal," and that a living thing could not merely be a complex chemical process. Now that view has gone out of fashion, and it is consciousness, not life, that allegedly just can't be without some super-natural principle enabling it. But it seems to me we will continue to understand more and more about life, and we will also make progress in understanding consciousness and/or mind so that maybe it will not be reasonable even to hypothesize that there is not a naturalistic (materialist, physicalist) cause. It's really just impossible to know at the present time, so I think that those who already believe the "God hypothesis" is the only possible explanation will believe the evidence points to God, and those who feel there is no need for that hypothesis will consider it at best premature to claim that science points the the existence of God and at worst a betrayal of the scientific method and a resort to a God of the gaps.

            I suspect that if science comes closer and closer to explaining consciousness as a material/physical process, the religious attitude will become, "Why would anyone have ever believed that God, who created matter from nothing in the first place, was incapable of creating it in such a way that a complex arrangement of living matter was able to give rise to consciousness? Why would anyone claim there are limits to what God can do?"

          • DAVID

            It is impossible, it seems to me, to begin to conceive of a "mind" outside of time. Consciousness and thinking, as we know them, take place in time. It is difficult, at best, to try to conceive of analogous processes taking place outside of time, and may well be meaningless (since they are processes, and processes by their very nature take place in time).

            Just thought I'd throw out an idea. God is sometimes referred to as "pure actuality." Now, it seems to me, that such a being would think all thoughts, all at once, all the time. The only qualifier would be that, since God is outside of time, this is only an analogy.

          • Max Driffill

            Why does the term "pure actuality" have any meaning for you at all? How does one make the leap from the term to "that such a being would think all thoughts, all at once, all the time?" And on what basis to get to make the qualifier a meaningful statement?

          • DAVID

            Actuality can be contrasted with potential. Potential is sort of a latent capability. Actuality is a state in which something is no longer latent but fully realized. Now, if we think of this in terms of intelligence, a fully actualized intelligence has exhausted the limits of potentiality: all potential thoughts are fully realized. Not only this, they cannot stop thinking one thought in order to think another thought, because then they would have to move from one potential state of mind to another. They cannot have the scope of their thinking limited in any way..because that would imply some potential which has not yet been realized. A fully realized intellect cannot have any potential at all: it must think all thoughts, all at once, all the time.

          • Susan

            Actuality is a state in which something is no longer latent but fully realized.

            OK.

            Now, if we think of this in terms of intelligence, a fully actualized intelligence has exhausted the limits of potentiality

            What do you mean when you say intelligence? How do you define it? What is a fully actualized intelligence? What is potentiality? How would we fully recognize it in order to recognize that it has limits and what those limits are?

            all potential thoughts are fully realized.

            I have no idea what means and am hopeful that you will explain it.

            A fully realized intellect cannot have any potential at all: it must think all thoughts, all at once, all the time.

            Here are some things that count as thoughts.

            1) I really like vanilla.
            2) Where can I buy gas at this hour?
            3) You have toothpaste on your beard.
            4) I don't know.
            5) I really wish I did know but I don't know.

            Those are five thoughts among all thoughts. How do those factor in?

          • Susan

            ...

          • Moussa Taouk

            Have you read CS Lewis' books? He says that God, knowing in one instantaneous thought all that happens (and will happen) in the whole span of creation, accounts for all the prayers that will be said, and in the act of creation responds to those prayers from all eternity in a way that is in harmony with His will. Is that sufficient?

            Ultimately one must realise though that we can't grasp God with our minds. I'm surprised that we can even "grasp" anything with our minds (a fact that fascinates me endlessly)... let alone the Being who transcends all of creation.

            I'm guessing that if one has grasped god, then they haven't really grasped God but a miniature of the Almighty. In which case, awe suffices. But gallop on, seeker of truth! For, amazing indeed is the human mind's thirst for infinite Truth!

          • David Nickol

            Have you read CS Lewis' books?

            In high school and college, I read a great deal of C.S. Lewis (including the Space Trilogy, but excluding the Narnia books). There is also a wonderful move called Shadowlands or C.S Lewis: Through the Shadowland (the version with Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom, not the remake with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger). The one book that really holds up for me is A Grief Observed.

            . . . . in the act of creation responds to those prayers from all eternity in a way that is in harmony with His will

            It sounds like saying if it happens in a flash, it is not happening in time. But it still seems to me to have a before and after. Also, it seems to me that answering prayers "from all eternity" necessarily changes the course of history so that there might be different prayers that then have to be answered from all eternity, and so on, and so on.

            It sounds like a simplified version of something from Aquinas that we discussed over on dotCommonweal some years ago. Here is the key message from the thread:

            In his Summa theologica, 2a-2ae, q. 83, a. 2, St. Thomas Aquinas asked whether there is any point in praying. He gave three reasons why there is no point to it: (1) God doesn't need to be told what we need; (2) Gods will is immutable; (3) a supremely liberal God doesn't need to be asked. On the other hand, there was the authority of Lk 18:1: We ought always to pray, and not to faint.In setting out his own answer, Aquinas noted three ancient errors with regard to praying: (1) that human affairs are not governed by divine providence; (2) that everything, including human affairs, happens of necessity; (3) that divine providence is variable and can be changed by prayers. The remainder of his answer to the question about prayer sums up the arguments by which he had refuted the three errors in the first part of the Summa.The argument, in short, is that God has created a universe in which not only is he the first cause of all that happens but there are also secondary causes that are genuine causes. God wills not only that there be created effects, but that there be genuine created causes of created effects. We are not to pray in order to change Gods plan about things, but rather that we pray for that which God has planned was to happen because we prayed for it.In Ia, q. 19, a. 5, St. Thomas provided a neat statement of the underlying notion. Many people imagine this scenario: A prays for B; because God sees A praying for B, God decides to do what A has prayed for. As prayer, then, causes God to help B. This is a popular imagination, and the one that often underlies questions about praying. Aquinas, however, denied that there can be any cause of Gods willing anything the divine transcendence required this conclusion. But God who created and sustains all things, necessary things and contingent things, also created and sustains the order of a universe in which certain things are causes of certain other things, either necessarily or contingently or freely. In the order of human affairs, one example of a created cause having a created effect is when one person prays for another.In the neat Latin: Vult ergo hoc esse propter hoc; sed non propter hoc vult hoc. Loosely translated: It is not because of A that God wills that B happen; but God wills that B happen because of A. Applied to praying, this would read: It is not because A prayed that God decided on B; but God willed that B happen because A prayed.

            I trust that clears up everything! :-)

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            I don't propose any alternatives. I cannot even begin to conceive of what kinds of "things" can "be" timeless, spaceless and a cause. To me it is meaningless to speak of causes absent space and time, my understanding of causation is an event that occurs materially in space and time.

            I cannot even use words like "be" and "exist". To me when you take away matter and space/time you are left with nothing in the ultimate sense.

            It really seems to me that while we might use fancy words, at the end of the day the cosmological or contingent argument are arguments from ignorance. I see nothing wrong with a worldview that simply admits ignorance of ultimate origins. The only place this seems to be an issue is with some philosophers and theists.

          • Max Driffill

            "It really seems to me that while we might use fancy words, at the end of the day the cosmological or contingent argument are arguments from ignorance. I see nothing wrong with a worldview that simply admits ignorance of ultimate origins. The only place this seems to be an issue is with some philosophers and theists."
            Exactly.

          • Susan

            Let's say for the sake of argument that you agree the universe necessitates a transcendent, timeless, spaceless, immaterial cause.

            OK. For the sake of argument but I'm not even sure what I'm agreeing to for the sake of argument. I've never been given a clear definition of transcendent or immaterial in any of these discussions.

            Nor do I understand what any individual means when they say "timeless" and "spaceless", especially when it comes to minds. I'm not sure how we haven't wandered into "married bachelor" territory on that subject as no one has ever explained how a "mind" can be "timeless" and "spaceless". No explanation whatsoever.

            That said... OK. For the sake of argument. ;-)

            Other than a disembodied mind, what plausible alternatives do you propose?

            There don't need to be plausible alternatives if a disembodied mind is implausible and undemonstrated.

            Are you suggesting that without plausible alternatives, the idea of a disembodied mind is therefore plausible at all, let alone THE most plausible explanation?

          • Max Driffill

            Brandon,"Let's say for the sake of argument that you agree the universe necessitates a transcendent, timeless, spaceless, immaterial cause. Other than a disembodied mind, what plausible alternatives do you propose?"
            I hate to seem rude here, but isn't this kind of speculation kind of like playing tennis without a net?

            I mean sure we could grant you for the sake of argument all the postulates you've just asked for, but at this point you could throw in whatever "transcendent, timeless, spaceless, immaterial cause" you like. For instance maybe the universe necessitates a transcendent, timeless, spaceless, immaterial superstructure for the mind to move about its spaceless space. Perhaps the universe requires a timeless, spaceless, transcendent, immaterial Bob to keep this other entity company.

            I hope my comments are not seeming glib, but there is no logical place to turn off this kind of speculation about things unseen, and no logical place to start. We can grant postulates all you like and play with them. But its hard to see what good they do when they don't obviously have actual real world referents.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            Max, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I'd like to respond to each part individually:

            "[M]aybe the universe necessitates a transcendent, timeless, spaceless, immaterial superstructure for the mind to move about its spaceless space."

            Words like "superstructure" and "move" insinuate a spatial dimension, which a spaceless cause would necessarily transcend. Therefore it's self-contradictory to posit a spaceless being moving through a superstructure.

            Similarly, "spaceless space" is a self-contradiction. It's just as metaphysically impossible as a square circle or a married bachelor, none of which can exist in any possible world.

            "Perhaps the universe requires a timeless, spaceless, transcendent, immaterial Bob to keep this other entity company."

            First, an "immaterial Bob" is a contradiction if by "Bob" you're referring to a human. If you're not referring to a human, but a bodiless person, then we're just engaging in semantics: you're calling "Bob" what classical theists name as "God." Both have identical properties.

            Second, if you're suggesting that the universe might have *two* timeless, spaceless, transcendent, immaterial causes, you're violating the law of parsimony (aka Occam's Razor.) There's no reason to propose two causes when one will suffice, that is unless you have good evidence or reason to suppose there are two.

            "there is no logical place to turn off this kind of speculation about things unseen, and no logical place to start."

            Just so I understand you before responding, are you suggesting that we can't even begin to reason about things we can't see?

            "But its hard to see what good they do when they don't obviously have actual real world referents."

            This begs the question because it *assumes* what is under discussion, namely that the universe has no "real world" reason for its existence, and thus no referent.

          • Max Driffill

            Brandon,

            "Second, if you're suggesting that the universe might have *two* timeless, spaceless, transcendent, immaterial causes, you're violating the law of parsimony (aka Occam's Razor.) There's no reason to propose two causes when one will suffice, that is unless you have good evidence or reason to suppose there are two."

            There is no reason to assume parsimony here. Or to trot out Occam's Razor when you yourself seem incapable of utilizing in the first place, for use of that trusty blade would have us discard the whole, "spaceless, timeless, transcendent, immaterial" being to begin with. There is simply no evidentiary reason to posit such a thing. And no reason to suppose that such a being could affect things in this spaced, timed, material realm, even if such a being did exist.

            Also, I thought I was being clear. My proposed superstructure is is a structureless structure. It exists outside space and time, it is transcendent, and immaterial.
            EDIT: Also thanks for the response.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            Thanks again for the reply, Max. A few thoughts in response:

            "There is no reason to assume parsimony here."

            There does appear to be a good reason, which I explained. You simply never responded to my reason, namely that two transcendent causes are not necessary when one suffices.

            "for [your] use of [Occam's Razor] would have us discard the whole, "spaceless, timeless, transcendent, immaterial" being to begin with. There is simply no evidentiary reason to posit such a thing."

            Once again, you beg the question as you assume the very thing under discussion: whether the existence of the universe demands an explanation. I say it does, due to the principle of sufficient reason, and proposed two alternatives: an abstract object or a disembodied mind. You've simply asserted that it doesn't and refrained from engaging either of my proposed explanations.

            On a related note, we've argued extensively elsewhere why a spaceless, timeless, transcendent, immaterial cause of the universe is necessary. This isn't the thread to rehash these same arguments. Instead, we began our dialogue assuming this was the case and then asking what that cause could be. To jump back to the deeper question is to flee the question at hand. For the sake of productive dialogue, let's try to stay on topic.

            "And no reason to suppose that such a being could affect things in this spaced, timed, material realm, even if such a being did exist."

            It doesn't appear logically or metaphysically impossible for a transcendent God to interact with his material creation. Yet once again, this is independent of our original discussion about whether the universe has an explanation. Let's please stay on one topic at a time.

            "My proposed superstructure is is a structureless structure."

            I'm still confused as this sounds, again, like a self-contradiction. It would be like a colorless color or a soundless sound, both of which are logically impossible absurdities.

        • DAVID

          Humans, as intelligent animals, seek to know their place, their role, in the cosmos. Its as natural as wanting to identify one's place in the workplace, or in a relationship. Its just a question asked on a bigger scale. The only way that they will know their role in the universe is by knowing what the universe is and why it exists.

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            I know my place and role in the cosmos. I believe I am an independent agent on planet earth.

      • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

        the inability to account for the existence of the universe is a major flaw in the [sic] atheist worldview

        One concept that I assign a significant probability mass is this:

        Everything that can self-consistently exist does exist.

        That includes our universe. It probably doesn't include God, depending on which definition of "God" we're using. In part this concept seems plausible because the best definition for "exist" that I've come across is: A thing x exists if and only if, for every proposition P, Px ⊕ ¬Px.

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          "Everything that can self-consistently exist does exist."

          Thanks, Noah. I'm not sure what you mean by "self-consistently" here. Can you explain? Do you mean that the being or object in question must not be a logical contradiction? If so, I agree that it's impossible for a square circle or a married bachelor to exist.

          But if that's your usage, then your assertion does little to explain the universe's existence. It doesn't answer the question, "Why does the universe exist?"

          Also, if that's your usage, it would be untrue. For example, a fifty-foot tall man is certainly self-consistent--there is nothing inconsistent or logically contradictory about a man being fifty-feet tall--but such men do not exist. Therefore, your assertion does not hold.

          • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

            Do you mean that the being or object in question must not be a logical contradiction?

            Close, but much stronger. Roughly, the concept is that a thing exists if and only if everything that can be said about it is either true or false, and not both or neither. A few examples: There's no fact of the matter about whether the current king of France is bald--he doesn't exist. The liar paradox talks about its own truth value in a way that can't settle into truth or falsehood--its truth value doesn't exist. The number 7 is consistently defined in Peano Arithmetic--it exists. I don't know everything about my grandmother but I do believe everything said about her is either true or false but not both or neither, and I do believe she exists.

            To me, the main value of that approach to the meaning of "exist" is that it plays well with both physical objects and mathematical objects.

            As applied to the universe, it suggestively points to the curious fact that some cosmological models describe the physical universe as inflating from a singularity that had only mathematical, non-physical properties. But more importantly, it's basically a more rigorous version of the Plenitude principle, or as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy responded to the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" -- "Well, why not?".

            a fifty-foot tall man is certainly self-consistent--there is nothing inconsistent or logically contradictory about a man being fifty-feet tall--but such men do not exist

            Not here, anyway. Maybe somewhere else. It's hard to prove a negative.

        • Greg

          "A thing x exists if and only if, for every proposition P, Px ⊕ ¬Px."

          Saying "Px v ~Px" (what I'm taking your strange symbols to mean) does not provide a useful condition for existence since it presupposes existence. "Existence is not a predicate" and all that. If you predicate P of something in your domain, you are already committed to its being in the domain you're quantifying over; that is how the sentential calculus works. For all x in your domain, Px v ~Px. But that doesn't do anything at all other than assert that x is in your domain.

          • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

            Roughly in order...
            (1) That's the standard symbol for xor. If you really didn't know that, then I have to wonder if the rest of the post was posturing more than dialogue. :D
            (2) Given that I'm proposing a meaning for "X exists" and "X does not exist", "existence" definitely is a predicate in this context. As it always is in real life, outside some quite irrelevant mathematical formalisms and bunkum philosophical schemes.
            (3) xor isn't or. More generally, No, I'm not committed to something existing before I can talk about it, particularly when the "domain" is "things of which we can ask whether or not they exist".

          • Greg

            "That's the standard symbol for xor. If you really didn't know that, then I have to wonder if the rest of the post was posturing more than dialogue. :D"

            I have not used a separate symbol for xor, since it is of course reducible to more basic symbols. But when the disjuncts in question are "p" and "not p", or is equivalent to xor.

            "Given that I'm proposing a meaning for "X exists" and "X does not exist", "existence" definitely is a predicate in this context. As it always is in real life, outside some quite irrelevant mathematical formalisms and bunkum philosophical schemes."

            You are the one trying to use predicate logic (a mathematical formalism) to define existence. "Px" is only a well-formed formula if x exists (actually, Px is supposed to be within the scope of an existence-asserting quantifier). Don't use the predicate calculus if you want to avoid needless formalism.

            "xor isn't or. More generally, No, I'm not committed to something existing before I can talk about it, particularly when the "domain" is "things of which we can ask whether or not they exist"."

            Whether "xor" is exclusive or not is beside the point that predicate logic is already existence-assuming. One quantifies over domains. Saying that the domain is "things of which we can ask whether or not they exist" doesn't solve the problem, since it is not the case that things which don't exist should lack your condition if they are in your domain. For any v in the domain, Pv or ~Pv. (And given ~(Pv & ~Pv), we can deduce exclusive or from this as well.) So you are committed to everything in your domain existing, if you define existence in that way.

          • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

            I have not used a separate symbol for xor, since it is of course reducible to more basic symbols.

            All the common logical operations are reducible to NANDs or NORs, so that's no excuse.

            when the disjuncts in question are "p" and "not p", or is equivalent to xor.

            Nope. When P and ¬P are both true or both false (as in intuitionistic logics) or either is neither true nor false (as in many-valued logics), then XOR and OR differ.

            You are the one trying to use predicate logic ... Don't use the predicate calculus if you want to avoid needless formalism.

            Well there's your basic error. I wasn't trying any such thing. You're the one who brought up predicate logic (which kind?) and said I had to be using it. You never gave a reason why I had to do that. All I did was use common abbreviations to express the principle of bivalence.

            That mistake at the root of your posts in this thread nicely explains all the rest of those mistakes, so we can consider this case closed if you like. See elsewhere in this thread for some examples of applying the definition.

      • DarcyMarais

        First, atheism is not a worldview; it is a statement about belief.

        Second, while theists might feel that an inability to account for the existence of the universe is a major problem, most atheists don't.

        Third, "God" is not an explanation. God is simply an assertion.

  • David Nickol

    I have been thinking perhaps it would be better to try to find something positive to say about about new posts before launching into criticisms. But I am having a hard time with this one. I did, at some risk of an avalanche, retrieve Feser's The Last Superstition from near the bottom of one of my many stacks of books, but I found myself irked by the title. Now I have read the first paragraph of the Preface and Acknowledgments, which is as follows:

    At the time of this writing, exactly one week has passed since the Supreme Court of the State of California decreed that homosexuals have a "basic civil right" to marry someone of the same sex. Whether these Golden State solons will follow up their remarkable finding with a ruling to the effect that an ass is the same as a horse, it is too early to say; but they have already gone well beyond the sophistical orator of Plato's dialogue in "confounding good with evil," not to mention reason with insanity. Malcolm Muggeridge famously said that "without God we are left with a choice of succumbing to megalomania or erotomania." The court's majority, in declaring by sheer judicial fiat the equal dignity under the law of the family and sodomy, would appear to have gone Muggeridge one better by succumbing to both at one time.

    In digging out the book, I was ready to read a long assault on ideas that I think may be reasonable. But if it is all ultimately to be used in service of conservative political positions that I loathe, I am not going to waste my time. Why did Feser feel the first words in his books should be an attack on gay people and same-sex marriage? I see from the index that this is the first of several such passages on homosexuality and/or same-sex marriage. What is Feser interested in? Convincing people there is a God, or fighting another battle in the culture war?

    I can't bring myself to read this book.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    This is off topic but I think legitimate.

    Another group of commenters has been banned from SN and (evidently) all of their previous comments removed. I have not seen any explanation for this. If I have missed seeing the explanation, someone please direct me to it. If no explanation has been given, I don't see why one cannot be supplied.

    • David Nickol

      Kevin,

      In addition to what you bring up here, comments have been disappearing without the "This comment has been removed" notice. I posted the following this morning, and it has completely disappeared:

      I have been thinking perhaps it would be better to try to find something positive to say about about new posts before launching into
      criticisms. But I am having a hard time with this one. I did,at some risk of an avalanche, retrieve Feser's The Last Superstition from near the bottom of one of my many stacks of books, but I found myself irked by the title. Now I have read the first paragraph of the Preface and Acknowledgments, which is as follows:

      At the time of this writing, exactly one week has passed since the Supreme Court of the State of California decreed that homosexuals have a "basic civil right" to marry someone of the same sex. Whether these Golden State solons will follow up their remarkable finding with a ruling to the effect that an ass is the same as a horse, it is too early to say; but they have already gone well beyond the sophistical orator of Plato's dialogue in "confounding good with evil," not to mention reason with insanity. Malcolm Muggeridge famously said that "without God we are left with a choice of succumbing to megalomania or erotomania." The court's majority, in declaring by sheer judicial fiat the equal dignity under the law of the family and sodomy, would appear to have gone Muggeridge one better by succumbing to both at one time.

      In digging out the book, I was ready to read a long assault on ideas that I think may be reasonable. But if it is all ultimately to be used in service of conservative political positions that I loathe, I am not going to waste my time. Why did Feser feel the first words in his books should be an attack on gay people and same-sex marriage? I see from the index that this is the first of several such passages on homosexuality and/or same-sex marriage. What is Feser interested in? Convincing people there
      is a God, or fighting another battle in the culture war?

      I can't bring myself to read this book.

      Now, of course Feser's position on same-sex marriage will be no problem for most people who are inclined to read the book. And even if Feser were demonstrably wrong about homosexuality and same-sex marriage, that does not mean he is wrong about materialism and the existence of God. But I think in all fairness, the message should stand if only to alert people who might be interested in the book that it is not a purely theological and philosophical work about the existence of God. It contains (according to the index) arguments on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, abortion, and the Terry Schiavo case.

      • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

        David, I edited your original comment to read "EDIT: Red herring criticism of Dr. Feser's person which is irrelevant to this post",w hich it was. Dr. Feser's views about homosexuality are inconsequential to this piece (or the prior two.) I later deleted the comment.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          I just tried to respond to a comment of David's below and it, too, had been removed.

        • David Nickol

          As I said in my second message that was deleted, Feser's moral views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage do not call into question his views on materialism and the existence of God for people who agree with his views on morality. And a reader who disagrees with Feser on these issues can bracket Feser's moral arguments on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion, and the Terry Schaivo case and read The Last Superstition purely for the arguments against materialism and for the existence of God may very well find the book helpful. But—and this is a comment on the book, not on Feser—The Last Superstition would appear to argue that since the "New Atheists" are wrong, since materialism is false, and since God exists, those who believe same-sex marriage is a basic civil right are "'confounding good with evil,' not to mention reason with insanity." It was not my intention to write a "criticism of Dr. Feser's person." It was my intention to say that I pulled The Last Superstition from the bottom of a stack of my books to give it a second look, hoping to find an argument against materialism and the New Atheism, and I was quite disappointed to find that the book is interlaced with arguments about homosexuality, abortion, and other moral issues that I would be happy to see addressed separately, not as arguments integrated with a discussion of the existence of God, and arguments that are assumed to be true merely because God exists.

          It would be irrational to argue that Feser is against gay rights, and therefore what he says about materialism and atheism is untrue. But I did not say that. What I did say—in criticizing the book, not Dr. Feser's person—is that I don't want to read a book that assumes as part and parcel of its arguments, that if God exists, same-sex marriage is evil and support for it is irrational or insane. I do not have a litmus test and refuse to read any authors who condemn homosexuality. However, I think it is perfectly fair to say I am unwilling to read The Last Superstition because it is a book that integrates into its arguments for God's existence moral arguments that I profoundly disagree with. As I noted in my two deleted messages, the opening paragraphs of The Last Superstition ridicule the California Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage. His message seems to be, "This is what you get when people don't believe in God." But of course the majority of people who support same-sex marriage clearly don't buy the argument, "God exists, therefore same-sex marriage is irrational." I was willing to give The Last Superstition a second look as a book about philosophy and theology, but I am not willing to give it a second look if it is a book that assumes certain moral and political positions are self-evident if God exists. I would be perfectly willing to read a book that argued against materialism and for theism, and a second book that argued that certain moral and political positions followed from the acceptance of theism. In short, I think "God exists," "Homosexuality is evil," and, "Same-sex marriage should not be legal" are three different propositions. Even if all three propositions are true, and the second two follow from the first, I want to be convinced of the first independently. I don't want to accept all three as a package deal.

          I do think the three-part series by Dr. Feser has been about him personally. It has not been a sustained argument against materialism, but his personal story of how his views changed. Since he didn't mention homosexuality in the series, it would perhaps have been wrong to introduce the topic to criticize the series. But I was discussing The Last Superstition, not the series. If you believe it is a "red herring" to bring up one of his books because it is only mentioned in his bio (with a link to Amazon) and not in his posts, then feel to delete this. But I really don't think it is off topic to bring up and discuss one of Dr. Feser's books—the one I think most here would consider reading if they found this three-part series interesting.

          • Lionel Nunez

            Moral arguments that you profoundly disagree with? Because they're wrong or because you don't like them?

          • David Nickol

            Because they're wrong or because you don't like them?

            I think the words "moral arguments that I profoundly disagree with" don't require clarification. But reading between the lines of your questions, I think you meant to ask if I really disagree with the arguments, or I just don't like the conclusions and merely claim I disagree with the arguments. So what you are really asking is if I am disingenuous. If you would like to ask me that directly, I'll be happy to answer. Meanwhile, I will just take your questions as veiled ad hominems.

          • Irenist

            Mr. Nickol,
            I suspect Mr. Nunez is attempting to get you to say that you disagree because the arguments are wrong, and then to ask you how anything can be wrong or right in an atheistic cosmos. IOW, I think he was attempting a Socratic question on behalf of theism, not an ad hominem.
            Best regards.

          • Lionel Nunez

            Not really, but yours is a better interpretation of my words than his.

          • Irenist

            That of kind of you to say, Mr. Nunez. Nevertheless, sorry to have misconstrued you.

          • Lionel Nunez

            Let me be more specific, do you not like moral arguments in general or do you just think these arguments fail to make their point?

          • David Nickol

            I think the arguments fail to make their point. I love arguments, otherwise I wouldn't be here arguing all the time!

          • Irenist

            Mr. Nickol,

            You might have better luck with David Bentley Hart's "The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss," which covers much of the same theological territory, but without the political stuff.

          • David Nickol

            Irenist,

            Thanks for the recommendation. By coincidence, I risked my life once again pulling something from the bottom of one of my stacks, and it was David Bentley Hart's The Atheist Delusion. It seems a reasonable alternative. I don't own the newer book, but I have been eyeing it on Amazon. I do have a copy of The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

            Thanks again.

          • Irenist

            Happy reading! (And if you decide to try my Hart recommendation, perhaps consider following my lead and getting the Kindle edition--your book stacks are apparently already tall enough!)

          • Greg

            I think Dr. Feser writes about homosexuality and other moral issues in The Last Superstition because he is responding to people like Sam Harris who draw massive ethical conclusions from materialism (ie. "Every time you scratch your nose, you have committed a Holocaust of potential human beings." Therefore, abortion is justified, and suggesting that embryos are dignified is absurd.).

            Based on your post, you seem to be a literate person, so I assume you would be able to read The Last Superstition and evaluate whether Feser's moral positions are logically entailed by his natural philosophy. I don't recall (though I haven't read it recently) that his moral positions are "assumed to be true merely because God exists." I believe he offers them in separate chapters. (His position is that the same first principles entail both conclusions, that God exists and homosexuality is immoral, not that God exists entails that homosexuality is immoral.)

    • severalspeciesof

      Yes, I've come back to see quite a few deleted. Kind of makes the idea of dialogue as a non-idea...

      Glen

    • Greg Schaefer

      Hi Kevin.

      Go to http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-moderation-actions-thread.html

      You'll find commentary there from a number of the commentators who have been banned from Strange Notions, both in the "Round 1" purge as well as in the recent "Round II" purge.

      Also note that for whatever reason, David Nichol's first comment on this OP from this morning is also now gone missing. If the mods have gotten to the point of deleting David Nichol's posts, it's hard to see how this site will be anything more than an echo chamber very shortly.

      Perhaps that was inevitable, once Brandon took his new job with Father Barron. In my experience, the Catholic Church doesn't brook criticism or open inquiry challenging Church dogma well.

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      Kevin, a handful of commenters (including Catholics and atheists) were banned after repeated warnings and deleted comments--they simply appeared unwilling or unable to engage in civil, respectful dialogue. When we removed them from the site, however, we unintentionally removed the last 60 days of their comments. It wasn't our goal. It was a Disqus snafu that is unfortunately irreversible.

      From here on out, we'd like to focus the dialogue on the content at hand rather than moderation activity. Thanks!

      • severalspeciesof

        Could you supply evidence of the repeated warnings? This is of course off topic from the above writing from Dr. Feser. But it certainly is not off topic to the whole of the purpose of this website...

        Thanks,
        Glen

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          Glen, thanks for the comment. All of the commenters we have ever banned received several warnings in the comment boxes about their snark, sarcasm, or personal attacks. And each of them had multiple comments banned, which too served as a warning.

          Yet after repeated please to engage more respectfully went unheeded, and after several independent emails specifically lamented a small group of commenter by name, we felt it served the site's dialogue better to remove them.

          • John Cocktosen

            So, you are saying that all of the people banned (both this time and last time) are lying about not getting any warning? That seems very fishy.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            I'm not accusing anybody of lying. Perhaps they have a different definition of "warning" and expected a private email.

            But every person we banned was warned *several* times both in the comment boxes and through deleted comments that violated our policy. None of them, I hope, would deny this publicly verifiable fact.

          • John Cocktosen

            The fact that there are dozens of people who claim their banning was a complete surprise suggests to me that you either don't know what a warning is or you never issued a warning. I know which explanation I prefer.

          • Sample1

            My post was just deleted. In it I discussed my disappointment with your moderation and, more germane, the observation that calling the deletion of prior discussions an unfortunate "snafu" seems odd considering the way blacklisting in Disqus works.

            But now that that post was deleted, is THAT considered some sort of warning?

            What rule did I violate? You have every right to delete posts, (it's your site), but to say we are warned is a most peculiar way to frame your actions.

            Can you at least see my point? Deletions are warnings? One would think, barring some sort of terrible language, a warning would precede being deleted. Again, am I missing something here?

            Mike

          • severalspeciesof

            But every person we banned was warned *several* times both in the
            comment boxes and through deleted comments that violated our policy.
            None of them, I hope, would deny this publicly verifiable fact.

            Then make it public. They are denying it...

            No need to respond, since you've made it clear that you won't reply any more in this regard ...

            Glen

      • Susan

        were banned after repeated warnings

        Yet, every report from people banned in the first and second purge says that they were not warned. Every single one of them.

        It seems unlikely that they would all lie about that.

        From here on out, we'd like to focus the dialogue on the content at hand rather than moderation activity

        It's very difficult to participate in a discussion wondering if the next thing you type could get you banned without warning.

        It doesn't make for balanced and reasoned dialogue. That's why there are so many people here concerned about it.

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          Susan, thanks for the comment. I'm sorry you're concerned. A few replies to your comment:

          "Yet, every report from people banned in the first and second purge says that they were not warned. Every single one of them"

          I answered this elsewhere, but I'll explain again. Every person we have ever banned here was warned repeatedly, through comment box pleas and deleted comments, to cease the mockery, sarcasm, and personal attacks which laced their posts. Those unwilling or unable to oblige were removed. We did, however, grant each of them a long leash for a long time, often at great detriment to the charitable conversation we aim for.

          "It's very difficult to participate in a discussion wondering if the next thing you type could get you banned without warning."

          I hope you don't feel this way. Our commenting rules are fairly simple and straightforward, and we've tried to be consistent in applying them (which is why we've warned and banned Catholics nearly as much as atheists.) Disagreeing with an article or comment is fine--even encouraged! But we only ask for a basic level of respect and charity. If your comments are civil and meet our fair criteria, you have nothing to worry about it.

          • severalspeciesof

            Brandon, I hate to be a pest, but several links to these 'several warnings' would suffice to be evidence of your claims. You could then point people to the comment that posts these links should further skepticism come up.

            Glen

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            Glen, I appreciate the request but I just don't have time to track them down. You'll find plenty of explicit warnings and evidence of deleted, violating comments on almost every major thread, though. I suggest cycling through the most commented-on threads in the God and Atheism categories. There you'll discover an overwhelming number of the sorts of comments you're looking for.

            Hope that helps!

          • severalspeciesof

            No, it doesn't help. I perused the last 25 days of your comments. I didn't count how many, but to find only two 'warnings' amongst the many tells me that these warnings are indeed lacking for the most part. I realize there are other mods, but I think that if I were to look at there comments, I'd find a similar pattern. Though perhaps I may be wrong. This, for another time...

            Glen

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            Glen, I'll let this be my last reply to you about this. Per my comment elsewhere in this thread, when we banned users recently, we unintentionally deleted the last 30 days worth of their comments (including those that were previously moderated for violating our commenting policy.) I'd suggest looking a bit further back for the evidence you seek.

          • Susan

            I answered this elsewhere, but I'll explain again. Every person we have ever banned here was warned repeatedly, through comment box pleas and deleted comments, to cease the mockery, sarcasm, and personal attacks which laced their posts. Those unwilling or unable to oblige were removed.

            I understand that this is off-topic on this site so this will be my last comment on it. I hope you understand that it's fair that I respond to your post and I will leave it at that.

            If every single poster on the first purge felt that they were banned without warning, causing a huge number of high quality participants to abandon the site in protest and THEN in the second purge, the same thing happened (to many posters with whom catholics and atheists alike had developed respectful dialogue) AND a month's worth of their posts just disappeared to boot, it leaves the impression that reason does not hold priority.

            That shows a serious breakdown in communication and I'm afraid you are outnumbered on the subject. Some incredibly smart, generally very decent people who in almost every way attempted to engage respectfully with people who use very different methodologies and hold very different opinions appear to have been banned without clear justification. The people on this side can't make sense of it although many charitable efforts have been made to do so.

            I hope you read this twice if you don't like it the first time. I am saying it respectfully and doing my best to respond to your final post to me on the subject (and I understand and will respect that this comment or your response to this comment are THE final post on the subject between you and me at this site.

            Something has gone TERRIBLY wrong in civil discourse here and there is something to be learned from it.

            Thank you for leaving my previous post up and I hope you leave this one up as well but that, of course, is up to you.

            Susan

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            Susan, thanks for the feedback. I guess we just disagree on what constitutes respectful dialogue. For example, you say that the commenters we banned "in almost every way attempted to engage respectfully". I could hardly disagree more. And I received many emails from people who would disagree with that depiction, too.

            I'm sorry you feel that the dialogue here has gone "TERRIBLY" wrong. However, it seems you have two options in response: 1) to help improve the dialogue or 2) to comment elsewhere. I really hope you choose the first.

          • David Nickol

            Brandon,

            I think what worries some of us is that we feel it is difficult to know where we stand. If one of our messages disappears, one possibility is that it's because of a glitch in Disqus. (For some reason, the notice that a message has been deleted doesn't always appear.) Another is that it has been deleted by a moderator who considers it a "venial sin" and is just trying to keep the thread on track, with no number of "venial sins" adding up to a "mortal sin." (Or another way to put it is that the message is deleted because the moderator thinks it is a problem message, but does not consider the poster himself or herself to be a problem.) Another type of deletion would (in the moderator's mind), be an "if this keeps happening, a ban is going to be imposed" deletion.

            Long, long ago, I participated in a forum in which moderators issued friendly warnings in the case of minor violations of guidelines, formal warnings in the case of serious infractions (in effect putting posters on probation), and temporary suspensions if the formal warnings didn't work, followed by permanent bans if all else failed.

            It is of course up to Strange Notions to decided how to deal with moderation, and I am not suggesting you adopt the above scheme. My only point is that I think it is helpful to have a scheme where the posters know clearly what the moderators are thinking.

            In the forum I described above, as I recall, there was a way to appeal a moderator's decision, but there was a very strict rule which I am sure you would appreciate: No arguing with the moderator!

            I think many of us, theists, atheists, and fence-sitters alike, have very strong opinions, and sometimes in setting them down we think, "But I'm only telling the truth, and how could anyone object to that?" But of course what one person thinks of as truth (e.g., "The fool says in his heart . . . . ") is to someone else an insult.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            David, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I'm not sure how to address the first issue. If I delete a comment, you're right that it's indistinguishable from a Disqus glitch. One idea might be just to edit the comment and note: "EDIT: [insert reason for deletion]". I did try that for a while but was lambasted for editing comments without approval. It seems no matter what I do, save for allowing mockery to flow free, will be scorned by some. I'll try this approach again, however.

          • Susan

            I guess we just disagree on what constitutes respectful dialogue.

            I am sorry that I can't respond to your entire comment. but rules are rules, and anyway, I gave you my word and I intend to stick by it.

      • Sample1

        Just throwing this out there for Strange Notion readers to contemplate: It is true that Disqus has an "apply to the past 30 days" checkbox that you can use when blacklisting a user; however it seems unlikely that the use of that option on all of the affected users would have been an accident.

        Brandon, I was disappointed with your explanation six months ago. I really don't understand you. As such, I probably won't be returning (unless it is to provide a response to yet another future purge of the thoughts and ideas!)

        Bon voyage,
        Mike

  • Danny Getchell

    A Deist or a Unitarian could find no fault with Feser's conclusions. What aspect of them is Christian, or more specifically, Catholic, is not visible to me.

    • Irenist

      There isn't anything Christian or Catholic about them, other than that Feser references Aquinas rather than equivalent pagan, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu thinkers who followed similar logical arguments to conclude that God (the One, YHWH, Allah, Brahman, etc.) exists.
      Feser's conclusions are what Aquinas called the "preamble of faith": once a nonbeliever is convinced that God exists (and that God is necessarily the ground of being, and therefore in turn necessarily omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent) THEN the believer in the "God of the philosophers" is willing to start asking whether Christ is God.

      The move from "God exists" -> "Christ is God" is a huge one, and many writers and mystics have discussed it. Siminarly, once one is a Christian, the question of "Which is the true Church?" arises, and there are many books arguing that it is the Catholic Church.
      However, the topic of this single blog post isn't even a proof of God's existence, but merely a discussion of Feser's personal history of reading himself into being convinced of God's existence. In short, the reason the specific aspects ("God exists" -> "Christ is God" -> "Catholicism is Christ's Church") aren't visible here is that none of them are the topic of this particular entry. Hope that's helpful. All the best to you.

      • Danny Getchell

        once a nonbeliever is convinced that God exists

        I'm quite prepared to stipulate this for the purpose of discussion.

        (and that God is necessarily .....
        omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent)

        This is in fact an entirely separate step from what is stipulated above, unless we are willing to join in Dr. Pangloss' observation that everything that is, is God's will, and is therefore good.

        THEN the believer in the "God of the philosophers" is willing to start asking whether Christ is God.

        Or whether God is God alone, as the Jews and Muslims believe. Or whether Christ is subsidiary to God. Or, or, or.........

        In my experience, (and I certainly will not generalize to all skeptics) skeptics are who we are not because we reject the attempts to "prove God" using formal logic, but because we reject theism as it appears in practice and as it is generally taught and believed in the "front lines" of the world's religions.

        It's quite possible that there exists a rarefied superset of philosophers who, as Feser personally admits in the first article of this series, "find theistic personalism objectionable" while still considering themselves Catholic. But that is not the group, nor the doctrine, that most of us expect to contend with when dialoging with those who style themselves as Catholic apologists.

        • Irenist

          Mr. Getchell,

          "This is in fact an entirely separate step"

          Yes. I telescoped things terribly.

          "Or whether God is God alone, as the Jews and Muslims believe. Or whether Christ is subsidiary to God. Or, or, or........."

          To be sure. The step from classical theism to a specifically Christian (or Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu) theism is vast.

          "In my experience, (and I certainly will not generalize to all skeptics) skeptics are who we are not because we reject the attempts to "prove God" using formal logic, but because we reject theism as it appears in practice and as it is generally taught and believed in the "front lines" of the world's religions."

          As you know, Catholicism is hierarchical. It is perfectly appropriate to engage philosophically with "front line" believers beliefs in less hierarchical religious communities, because each believer is a sort of Magisterium of one. However, Catholicism as a dogma isn't what (often poorly catechized) parishioners might think it is, but what the Church says it is. And the Church, throughout its institutional history, and including the work of Augustine, Aquinas, and the 1879 encyclical "Aeterni Patris" recommending Thomism to clerics, has said that the God demonstrated by philosophy is our God.

          Atheists often recoil from this analogy, but for a theologically educated Catholic, the prospect of defining our God for purposes of philosophical discussion by what the average unschooled parishioner might think is like asking someone to defend evolution via natural selection from a creationist solely from the mouths of high school biology students, without any appeal to textbooks or the works of, e.g., S.J. Gould. Catholicism sees theology as a technical field in which one may possess--or lack--expertise. Popular misunderstandings of God's nature no more discredit technical theology than popular scientific misunderstandings discredit science, in our view.

          "It's quite possible that there exists a rarefied superset of philosophers who, as Feser personally admits in the first article of this series, 'find theistic personalism objectionable' while still considering themselves Catholic."

          The entire history of Catholic theology from its inception is part of this "rarefied superset." Being the mainstream of Catholic theology, it is certainly entitled to consider itself Catholic. Theistic personalism has its roots in Protestant attempts to both hew more closely to the literal reading of various Biblical texts about God's wrath and whatnot, and to accomodate the mechanistic metaphysics of figures like Locke that has dominated modern thought.

          " But that is not the group, nor the doctrine, that most of us expect to contend with when dialoging with those who style themselves as Catholic apologists."

          Well, if you expect apologists for, e.g., the ignorance of uniformed Catholic layman Bill O'Reilly's "You can't explain that" remark that launched an internet meme, or the folk piety of illiterate peasants who probably are and always were theistic personalists, I'm not sure what your goal is.

          I won't accuse you of strawmanning Catholicism, because the unschooled certainly outnumber the theologically proficient, just as laypeople outnumber experts in any other area of human endeavor. However, I'm not sure what your goal would be in seeking to dialogue with any but the strongest version of an idea with which you disagree.

          What are you seeking from dialogue here? How can I help with that?

          • David Nickol

            Catholicism sees theology as a technical field in which one may possess--or lack--expertise. Popular misunderstandings of God's nature no more discredit technical theology than popular scientific misunderstandings discredit science, in our view.

            Here is a brief excerpt from Michael Robbins' review in Commonweal of David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (the Kindle edition for which I did decide to buy):

            It was Aristotle who wrote that “one and the same is the knowledge of contraries.” Denys Turner, in his recent Thomas Aquinas (which makes a fine companion piece to The Experience of God), puts the matter like this: “Unless . . . what believers and atheists respectively affirm and deny is the same for both, they cannot be said genuinely to disagree.”

            There are, then, a great many people who say “God” and mistakenly believe that they have the notion, at least, in common. Hart is interested in clarifying the notion, and one of his deeper points is that the major theistic religions do indeed have something in common when they say “God.”

            It seems to me, though, that there is a huge disconnect between the God of theology/philosophy and the "everyday" (including Sunday!) God as most religious people regard him. For example, the question of whether (and how) an omniscient God outside of time answers prayers is a very difficult one, but it is never raised when, say, the USCCB promotes a "presidential election novena" with the intention: "For an outcome of the November election which is pleasing to Almighty God, and which best serves the eternal and temporal interests of all of His children."

            Michael Robbins says in the review I link to above that "the New Atheists ingeniously deny the existence of a bearded fellow with superpowers who lives in the sky and finds people’s keys for them." But this is the God I learned about in what I believe was a very good Catholic education (early 1950s to mid-1960s) and strikes me as the God the vast majority of Christians (and other monotheists) worship today.

            I have read none of the major books of the New Atheists, but I think it is somewhat unreasonable to expect them—as critics of religion—to delve deeply into the theology and philosophy which is basically unknown to the audiences they write for, try to educate the masses in the way the Catholic Church and other religions have failed to do, and then refute ideas that would no doubt still be way over the heads of their readers.

            It the New Atheists are indeed dispelling a false conception of God, then it seems to me they are making a vital first step, if there is a compelling and true conception ready to replace it. But it seems to me (and this is just an impression which I can't document) that what many critics of the New Atheists are intent on doing is using just enough theology and philosophy to try to discredit them so that ultimately people wind up hanging on to the "bearded fellow with superpowers who lives in the sky and finds people’s keys for them."

          • Irenist

            "It seems to me, though, that there is a huge disconnect between the God of theology/philosophy and the "everyday" (including Sunday!) God as most religious people regard him."

            Absolutely! Similarly, most laypeople's idea of the modern scientific consensus about evolution by natural selection often has the following errors:

            1. Evolution is teleologically directed toward "better" life forms, rather than being an entirely stochastic process in which humans, e.g., are just one random twig of an ever-expanding bush, not some summit of awesome. (S.J. Gould is good for correcting this, but few people bother to read him.)

            2. Evolution is Lamarckian.

            3. Hominid and hominin evolution looks anything like those old charts with a knuckledragging troglodyte at one end and a respectable middle class white guy at the other.

            4. Common chimps (Pan troglodytes)--or worse, "monkeys"--are our ancestors, rather than "sister" species with which we share relatively proximate common ancestry.

            These grave popular misconceptions neither discredit nor define the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis. However, they are a clarion call for far better science education to fend off creationism and intelligent design theory. Similarly, to me as a Catholic, parishioners' theological ignorance bespeaks an urgent need for better Catholic catechesis, not least to to provide parishioners with preparation for the arguments of Protestants and the irreligious.

            "I have read none of the major books of the New Atheists, but I think it is somewhat unreasonable to expect them—as critics of religion—to delve deeply into the theology and philosophy which is basically unknown to the audiences they write for, try to educate the masses in the way the Catholic Church and other religions have failed to do, and then refute ideas that would no doubt still be way over the heads of their readers."

            It depends on the New Atheists' goals. If their goal is to convert people from shallowly understood religion to shallowly understood irreligion, then they need only shoot fish in the barrel of popular misconceptions. However, if they aim to make serious philosophical arguments, they need to engage their opponents' philosophical arguments. Either goal is understandable. But they should be carefully distinguished. And if you'll pardon the concern trolling, shallow converts away from religion should be just as easy to convert back to religion; deeper argumentation will leave either camp with firmer (non)adherents.

            "It the New Atheists are indeed dispelling a false conception of God, then it seems to me they are making a vital first step, if there is a compelling and true conception ready to replace it."

            Indeed! In fact, my personal hunch is that God has permitted the vogue for irreligion in our culture as a Providential chastisement leading His Church to better catechesis. I feel rather similarly about the Reformation.

            "But it seems to me (and this is just an impression which I can't document) that what many critics of the New Atheists are intent on doing is using just enough theology and philosophy to try to discredit them so that ultimately people wind up hanging on to the 'bearded fellow with superpowers who lives in the sky and finds people’s keys for them.'"

            I think this would be an unworthy motive, and I don't think it's accurate to impute it. I think critics like your humble interlocutor here mean to deepen popular understanding of God *at least* as much as to keep our team's players on side.

          • DAVID

            I think that the "bearded fellow" drives home the idea that God is not an impersonal reality. The Creator of all things, including of persons, cannot be less than personal. If the Creator was less than personal, then we would have to seek another source for personhood. The Catholic Church has complete sympathy for people who cannot conceptualize a God beyond the "bearded fellow."

          • David Nickol

            The Catholic Church has complete sympathy for people who cannot conceptualize a God beyond the "bearded fellow."

            What do you mean "has complete sympathy"? And are you really saying the Catholic Church does, or you do? The Catechism says:

            370 In no way is God in man's image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective "perfections" of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband.

            Would the Catholic Church have complete sympathy for people who cannot conceptualize God other than a wise old woman? Or a beautiful young woman?

            The Creator of all things cannot be less than an amphibian, but that doesn't mean the Creator of all things may be thought of as an amphibian.

          • Moussa Taouk

            I would think that the Catholic Church cares more about people's living rightly with God than She does about how well they can conceive or imagine God.

            The other factor is that most people don't have the education or perhaps even the capacity to conceive God as the "non-contingent being" or "He whose very essence is existence" or whatever other philosophical ideas might be used to best describe God.

            Combining these two points, I dare say that the Church is sympathetic with the people who are only capable of associating God with some paternal, human image and if they associate Him with being "up" in the sky rather than present in a way that is beyond space/time.

            Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your hearts...". That's of prime importance. "Understand God with all your intellect" is very much secondary. No doubt the second one should be pursued if it leads one to increase and fortify the first. But if it's carried out with a self-serving purpose of entertaining curiosities or revelling in intellectual pride, then better to give it little energy.

          • David Nickol

            I would think that the Catholic Church cares more about people's living rightly with God . . .

            Fr. Komonchak over on dotCommonweal, the blog for the magazine Commonweal, often asks, in conversations like this, "What do you mean by the Church?" I understand what you are saying, but I don't think there is much of anything you would be able to point to that would show that it is the official or unofficial teaching of the Church.

            I dare say that the Church is sympathetic with the people who are only capable . . . .

            Once again, one might ask what you mean by the Church when you say that "the Church is sympathetic." Certainly whatever is meant by the Church, I don't think it is going out on a limb to say it expects people to understand anything beyond their capacity to do so. On the other hand, don't people have an obligation try to understand their own faith? No one can reasonably be expected to learn what is beyond their capacity to learn, but the constant complaint one hears from religious educators is how "badly catechized" Catholics are—which I take to mean that they have failed to learn the things they should have and could have learned.

            Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your hearts...". That's of prime importance. "Understand God with all your intellect" is very much secondary.

            Don't you see a very real problem in that loving God without understanding who and what he is could easily be loving a figment of your own imagination? Please don't forget the original passage I quoted:

            "[T]he New Atheists ingeniously deny the existence of a bearded fellow with superpowers who lives in the sky and finds people’s keys for them."

            I take him to be saying that it is ingenious of the New Atheists to deny the existence of such a being because (a) it is not God and (b) it is a very common conception of God. Consequently those who have this conception of God are quite vulnerable to believing the New Atheists successfully debunk religion.

            Please don't latch on to the "bearded fellow" part as if it were the only important part of the quote. It has four parts to it:

            1. bearded fellow
            2. with superpowers
            3. lives in the sky
            4. finds people's keys for them

            Now, if it is beyond a particular person's capacity to delve deeper and deal with a more adult conception of God, it would be unjust to blame such a person for his or her severe intellectual limitations. But surely most people can do better than that.

          • Moussa Taouk

            "Don't you see a very real problem in that loving God without understanding who and what he is could easily be loving a figment of your own imagination?"

            Not at all. Look at a child how he loves his mother. The child can't grasp anything like "parenthood" or "sacrifice for the sake of one's children" etc. But yet without understanding this person, the child loves his mother such that he completely. Love doesn't equal understanding. Perhaps understanding helps. But I don't think it's a necessary pre-requisite.

            Having said that, I don't want to downplay the importance of the intellect. I agree for sure that anyone with the capacity to do so should make use of their God-given mind to seek out Truth. I agree also that many people don't do this enough. I'm just saying that from my experience, it's rare to find people with much of a capacity or a care to pursue those things of the intellect.

            If they don't care because they're lazy, I'm 100% with you. If they don't care because they're at peace with God (and their simple understanding of God) and they are instead caring for their family and children, then I can understand that.

          • Danny Getchell

            Actually, I have lived on the boundary between agnosticism and deism for many years now. By no means do I reject an "impersonal" theism.

            I have (for the same many years) investigated the arguments for personal theism and have so far found them all lacking.

            Thought that I might discover some on SN but clearly that's been shown to be a complete non-starter. Perhaps you are right in that I need to scale back my participation here....

          • Irenist

            Danny,

            Your position is an uncommon one in modern debates, which seem dominated by the atheist and the religious. I'm intrigued by your worldview.

            May I ask what description you might be able to give of the impersonal deity you are on the boundary of believing in? Do you define the deity as a first cause, or as the essentially existing, or.... Depending on the way you conceptualize the deity, different arguments for personal theism will have more (or, to be honest, less) force.

            All the best to you.

    • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

      Speaking as a Unitarian Universalist, the list of things that UUs might believe is ridiculous enough that we ridicule ourselves for it. :) But you're definitely right that I could well become a theist again based on natural theology arguments related to those Feser referenced and remain happily UU. Feser's blog's "classical theism" arguments tend to be mere word soup, but sometimes I think the mathematical platonism of, e.g., Bruno Marchal could lead in a theistic direction. There's no motivation to try to develop PA theorems to show that, though, since the existence or non-existence of a God wouldn't affect what's right and wrong in this world.

      • Irenist

        I was UU for some years. A very congenial community!

        "Feser's blog's 'classical theism' arguments tend to be mere word soup,"

        Technical philosophical argumentation of any kind whasoever (Anglo-American analytical, Continental, Existentialist, Postitivist, Hegelian, Kantian, Idealist, Empiricist, Scholastic, Madhyamaka, Advaita, Neoplatonic, Pyrrhonist, Epicurean, Stoic, Peripatetic, Platonist, etc.) often reads like "word soup" if one is unacquainted with the vocabulary, concepts, and key debates.

        • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

          As I presume you know, technical philosophical argumentation of any kind whatsoever ... often reads like "word soup" if one is unacquainted with the vocabulary, concepts, and key debates.

          That's true, though mitigated for many of the analytical philosophers. I don't mean to say Feser's own style is "reads like" word soup, though, as much as I mean to say that's what it is, metaphorically of course. As the delicious ingredients of a soup all swirl about each other in an unstructured broth, word soup philosophy has many delightful ideas but the relations between them are so flexible and inconsistent that it's generally impossible to know what is a valid inference from them and what is not. If there's nothing backing it up except each individual author's intuitions, then there's little reason for people without those intuitions to care.

          Could you please elaborate?

          Sure. I don't believe it, FWIW, but it's a neat idea. Start with Schmidhuber's "Great Programmer", i.e. an entity using a Universal Dovetailer algorithm to simulate every possible world at every possible level of detail. The Great Programmer would still have to be part of some world, however. Marchal basically argues that computationalism (in the philosophy of mind sense) implies a "computational theology" that Peano Arithmetic can do everything the Great Programmer can all on its own. I also found a few short paragraphs on the topic toward the end of this article.

          God as understood by any classical theist (including a Platonist) is defined such that His Being just is His All-Goodness just is His Omnipotence, etc. Thus, to establish the existence of God is to overcome the Euthyphro dilemma in ethical reasoning. This has deep moral implications.

          OK, but by the same token it's very important to recognize that classical theists then turn around and try to define what God's goodness is in terms of existing. Even hypothetically supposing that notion of God were coherent and the God it describes were real, there's no automatic reason to expect any overlap between divine "goodness" and ordinary human notions of goodness. The morality embodied by such a God would be just as irrelevant to our lives as the Heartstone. It would be just a label, so far as I can tell.

          • Irenist

            "That's true, though mitigated for many of the analytical
            philosophers."

            David S. Oderberg’s "Real Essentialism" offers what this layman takes to be a rigorously analytic discussion and defense of one of the key posits of Thomism—hylomorphism—in his book "Real Essentialism." Feser’s popular writings (blogging, anti-atheism books) aren’t going to offer that level of rigor.

            "As the delicious ingredients of a soup all swirl about each
            other in an unstructured broth, word soup philosophy has many delightful ideas but the relations between them are so flexible and inconsistent that it's generally impossible to know what is a valid inference from them and what is not."

            The disputations of the Scholastics were quite structured, and the whole tradition, from Peter Abelard to Suarez and Molina to the later manualists, was scrupulously punctilious about defining terms. However, beginning with a more popular treatment (e.g., Feser’s “Aquinas” or Garrigou-Lagrange’s manual “Reality”) can help you see the forest for the trees so the arguments make sense.

            “If there's nothing backing it up except each individual
            author's intuitions, then there's little reason for people without those intuitions to care.”

            Even symbolic logic has axioms. Obviously, the fewer, the
            better. But a nonzero number of axioms is unavoidable, AFAIK.

            (reply on other topics below)

          • Irenist

            “Start with Schmidhuber's "Great Programmer", i.e. an entity with using a Universal Dovetailing algorithm to simulate every possible world at every possible level of detail.”

            Interesting. But arguments (e.g., those I often encountered in my transhumanist days) that assume with Hans Moravec that our subjective conscious reality is the same as a simulation of it seem to me to mistake, e.g., the person sitting for the portrait for the painting. As Dale Carrico says, “You are not a picture of you.” Basically, I’m with John
            Searle on this one. So I fail to see how such an argument could get off the ground. But thanks very much for sharing it!

            “Even hypothetically supposing that notion of God were coherent and the God it describes were real, there's no automatic reason to expect any overlap between divine "goodness" and ordinary human notions of goodness.”

            Sure. Indeed, Aquinas asserts with most other classical theists that our understanding of God can only be analogical: His Goodness and His Being and so forth are analogous to ours, not the same.

            (reply on other topics below)

          • Irenist

            “The morality embodied by such a God would be just as irrelevant to our lives as the Heartstone. It would be just a label, so far as I can tell.”

            Well, a theist virtue ethicist might want to cite the contemplation of such a God as the highest human activity per his or her reading of the Nicomachean Ethics. If a theist has other reasons for accepting, e.g., formal and final causality (as do Thomists), then the contemplation of such a God is a plausible telos for a being essentially defined as a rational animal—again with various important ethical implications, as found in, e.g., the natural law tradition of moral thought. To be sure, though, the rubber really hits the road if/when the theist moves from “mere theism” to a specific religion’s theism. To the extent that proofs of theism lay the groundwork for that, they are also indirectly morally relevant in that way.

            A word on the Consequentialism FAQ and the Heartstone fable: It looks like Scott Alexander to me. He is AWESOME. That said, although he’s blogged about virtue ethics elsewhere, he doesn’t really seem to address it well (if at all) in the FAQ, which instead seems to assume that deontology (including divine command theory) is the only live option opposed to consequentialism. Thomism, which embraces virtue ethics, claims that assiduous meditative contemplation of and persevering communion with God
            through prayer and sacrament will improve your character. (No claims are made for nominal Catholicism or just showing up on Sunday to impress the neighbors). In consequentialist terms, it should increase your propensity to act well. Whereas the Heartstone is presented as a kind of “get of jail free” card w/r/t arbitrary rules, following God, at least in the Catholic understanding as opposed to the “snow on a dunghill” understanding common in Protestant thought) is (ideally!) supposed to mold you into a saint, not just give you a pass out of Hell—even if most of us schlubs in the pews will be lucky to scrape our way into Purgatory. Further, because God IS Goodness, the rules aren’t arbitrary.

            To the extent that contemplation of God (either in the specifically Christian understanding, or even in the “mere
            theist” understanding of contemplation of the divine as edifying one finds in the Nichomachean Ethics) makes you more virtuous, you’re not going to do something like killing kittens (as in the Heartstone fable). If anything, your
            pangs of conscience at cruelty will (ideally!) be intensified, not assuaged--at least in the Christian view. (Aristotelian “magnamity” is frankly a bit more Nietzschean than the Christian view of virtue). It should be noted that while
            many “devout” people through the centuries have been quite bloodthirsty, the specifically “mystical” relationship with God I’m describing has, in all the world religions, generally produced pretty amiable, peaceable folks. Someone who believes all the right doctrines but is still a judgmental sourpuss with an arid prayer life isn’t who I’m thinking of here. The Heartstone fable doesn’t really make sense if one is thinking of goodness as virtue, rather than as divine commands that may or may not be held against you depending on whether you have the right tribal fetish in your pocket. In fairness to atheism, I think living in a Protestant culture (where the “snow on a dunghill” Atonement theology is the dominant understanding of the Christian theology of grace, and where divine command
            theory is more common than Catholicism’s usual classical theist teleological natural law virtue ethics) makes it easy for an atheist to understand “God” as being like the Heartstone. But at least in the Catholic understanding (and in fairness to them, I think in the Protestant understanding too, even if their rhetoric obscures it) isn’t like the Heartstone.

          • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

            If a theist has other reasons for accepting, e.g., formal and final causality (as do Thomists), then the contemplation of such a God is a plausible telos for a being essentially defined as a rational animal—again with various important ethical implications

            First, of course, I think trying to tease out "oughts" from the "is"es in descriptive teleology is a logical error, and that we have no observations to suggest other forms of teleology exist.

            Second, the "rational animal" definition of human is not significantly better than "hairless biped".

            although he’s blogged about virtue ethics elsewhere, he doesn’t really seem to address it well (if at all) in the FAQ

            He didn't use the term, for some reason, but he did talk about it in his sections 3.3 - 3.5.

            It should be noted that while many “devout” people through the centuries have been quite bloodthirsty, the specifically “mystical” relationship with God I’m describing has, in all the world religions, generally produced pretty amiable, peaceable folks.

            Got any stats on that?

          • Irenist

            "First, of course, I think trying to tease out "oughts" from the "is"es in descriptive teleology is a logical error,"

            In Thomism's hylomorphic essentialist teleology, oughts are merely a subset of is'es, because the account of human nature is thicker. Hume's Guillotine assumes a different, materialist metaphysics without formal causes, just as his Problem of Induction is an artifact of mechanist empiricism's having stripped final causality from its consideration of efficient causality.

            "and that we have no observations to suggest other forms of teleology exist."

            There wouldn't be any inductive empirical "observations" to support essentialism, but thinkers like Oderberg (and Aquinas, and Aristotle) offer deductive arguments.

            'He didn't use the term, for some reason, but he did talk about it in his sections 3.3 - 3.5."

            That'll teach me to rely on skimming and Ctrl+F "virtue" when I'm rushed.....

            "Got any stats on that?"

            No. Not sure if one could, in the nature of the case. How would survey-takers code for "he's a jerk" vs. "he radiates holiness"?

            At any rate, I was mostly just attempting to forestall the objection to theism from the misbehavior of Torquemada, the Crusaders, Pope Alexander VI Borgia, or whomever by specifying that I was thinking specifically of contemplative mystics in arguing for the ethical import of God, rather than just any old adherent to naked dogma about His existence: charity, not just faith. Other than that, I had no deeper point to drive at. It was probably overkill.

          • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

            arguments ... that assume ... that our subjective conscious reality is the same as a simulation of it seem to me to mistake, e.g., the person sitting for the portrait for the painting. As Dale Carrico says, “You are not a picture of you.”

            Indeed, Marchal endeavors to make it clear that his conclusions follow if and only if computationalism is granted. And we don't know yet whether it is true -- though since Marchal and others go on to derive some physics from computationalist and similar assumptions, they are managing to bring their theories of mind partially into the realm of the scientifically testable. Inasmuch as their predictions are correct, I'll become much more inclined to take their theories seriously versus the unsupported intuitions of Carrico, Searle, and whomever else.

            FWIW, there are theists who suppose that the world exists precisely by being a simulation in the mind of God, as his perfectly accurate and comprehensive thoughts about the world are (they say) indistinguishable from the world existing. So computationalism is not limited to atheists.

            Aquinas asserts with most other classical theists that our understanding of God can only be analogical: His Goodness and His Being and so forth are analogous to ours, not the same.

            If God's "Goodness" and human notions of goodness are only analogous, it should be more precisely true to say that God is not good.

          • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

            David S. Oderberg’s "Real Essentialism"...

            I'll look into it a bit.

            The disputations of the Scholastics were quite structured, and the whole tradition, from Peter Abelard to Suarez and Molina to the later manualists, was scrupulously punctilious about defining terms.

            Right. Those are the ingredients. Some of the definitions are fine. Some (like "goodness" in the Summa) are weasely. Inferences, however, require not just definitions but grammar -- the agreed-upon structure that is missing in word soup.

            Even symbolic logic has axioms.

            There's a world of difference between a publicly stated axiom and an intuited "Why does this deduction follow? It just does, obviously."

          • Irenist

            Your points are well taken. To the extent (and I'm too much of a neophyte to say) that Thomism has this problem, I think the modern growth of analytical Thomism is a salutary step. I'm not familiar enough with the analytical Thomist literature to make a good book recommendation (other than the Oderberg, although I don't know that he's a Thomist as such), but it's my understanding that's it's a relatively active theological area, if you're interested.

  • David Nickol

    While the pagan may have no access to the supernatural end that only grace makes possible, he is still capable of a natural knowledge of God, and will naturally tend to love what he knows.

    My understanding is that the Church teaches the "pagan" does have supernatural assistance. The Catechism says:

    847 This affirmation ["Outside the Church there is no salvation"] is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

    Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.

    If one needs to be "moved by grace" to attain salvation, surely that grace must be offered to everyone (whether they are moved by it or not), otherwise "those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church" would be destined by circumstances utterly beyond their control to be damned.

  • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

    I appreciate Feser's commentary on his blog about all this, linked to at the start of this page. The acerbity of some of his other articles reprinted here makes sense in its original context.

    Now, acknowledging that Feser was not attempting to make an argument...

    Whatever it was supposed to be, though, it seemed it was not something to which one could assimilate mind, at least not if one wanted to avoid panpsychism. Naturalism came to seem mysterious at best. Meanwhile, Aristotelian ideas had a certain plausibility. All that was needed was some systematic alternative to naturalism.

    There is, as yet, no wholly satisfactory account of the mind-matter relationship in any branch of the philosophy of mind. If Feser treated that situation as making naturalism less plausible and supernaturalism more plausible, then he did so in error -- an informal appeal to ignorance.

    A successful account of how qualia works must explain, at the least:

    1. What substance qualia are made of.
    2. Why patterns of ions and neurotransmitters crossing bilipid membranes in certain regions of the brain correlate perfectly to qualia, and why when we intervene to change the former, it causes changes in the latter also.
    3. How a quale is related to what it is about, and what a quale is about when it is caused by artificially stimulated neurons, dreams, hallucinations, sensory illusions, etc.
    4. How qualia can be distinct "sensory" information that can affect the brain's subsequent processes, i.e. how it is that we can talk and write about qualia.
    5. How we can know that the brain processes that lead to our belief in qualia are justified.

    Lots of intellectual theists seem to get hung up on #1 and so propose dualism. Dualism, unfortunately, makes #2-5 very difficult if not impossible. Some other theories get farther down the list with greater success. I don't know any that propose a credible solution to all five.

    Aquinas’s arguments had a certain power when all of this metaphysical background was taken account of. ... Yet no one seemed to talk that way anymore -- or, again, at least no one “mainstream.” ... Indeed, when they did say anything about Aquinas’s arguments at all, most of them showed only that they couldn’t even be bothered to get him right, much less show why he was mistaken.

    This is a failure of Catholic apologetics and philosophy that has been pointed out many times. The proponents often appear to be slavishly committed to using the same terminology and same argument structure as Aquinas. If there's something true and valuable there, then it should survive being updated into modern idiom. But if an argument is ultimately backed up by "You should read Aquinas", that suggests that there is nothing more valuable to it than word games.

    When I was an undergrad I came across the saying that learning a little philosophy leads you away from God, but learning a lot of philosophy leads you back. As a young man who had learned a little philosophy, I scoffed. But in later years and at least in my own case, I would come to see that it’s true.

    This is an annoying conceit that comes up occasionally but shouldn't. Taken literally, it is of course a falsehood, as can be demonstrated by doing a count of converts back to theism versus maintained atheism among philosophers. To many atheists, the main social function of the quote appears to be an insult along the lines of "Ah, foolish grasshopper, you haven't flown far enough yet".

  • Jimi Burden

    Philosophy is often drive by life circumstance and/or emotional landscape. In this long, rambling series of intellectual detours, the good Dr. never once alludes to what was happening to him that would make him convert. Thus, this entire series should not be called a "conversion" story. At best, it is a series of intellectual snapshots one of who was an atheist, but for whatever reason, later became a Catholic.

    • Kerk

      Armchair psychologist detected!

      • Jimi Burden

        Yes, and my psychological instinct is telling me that I'm not dealing with the brightest bulb.

  • Pancho Panpsy

    Here's an excerpt of a project I'm working on that I think pretty much nails it. Hopefully I'll be allowed to post the link http://universal-communism.blogspot.mx/, in case anyone cares to read the whole thing as it is developing.

    "First of all, the mind-body problem comes down to the logical impossibility, in our subject-object relation, for objective knowledge (science) to reach that which makes it possible: the subject, the mind, consciousness. In other words, the spacetimeless experience that we call consciousness cannot be known in the same scientific way we know every spacetime element that causes it (which is simply saying that the objective knowledge of the hardware will never be objective knowledge of the Internet). Objective knowledge of consciousness will always come in the form of the actual experience of consciousness. And science, again, doesn't have access to this experience, even just to confirm objectively that it is happening. To illustrate this matter, we have a neuroscientist in our days claiming that consciousness arises within any sufficiently complex, information-processing system. This panpsychic scientist, by the name of Christof Koch, holds that all animals, from humans on down to earthworms, are conscious, and that even the Internet could be conscious. And the only thing that keeps his claim from being an objective truth is, again, the mind-body problem.

    But the idea I'm trying to get across here is about the logical impossibility for religion, philosophy and science to surpass the mere assumption of God, the Being and consciousness, respectively. This shows that the claim of a spacetimeless experience, whether it's God, the Being or consciousness, will be arbitrary (an oxymoronic act of faith, if you will) as long as it is done from spacetime, dualism, plurality or the subject-object perspective. In any case, a scientist would be on better grounds for his arbitrary claim based on both the experience of consciousness and the example of the Internet as results of the interaction of a plurality of neurons and computers; whereas the religious spacetimeless God and the philosophical spacetimeless Being will always be nowhere to be observed or experienced in order to be explained as consequences of the spacetime plurality we're living.

    Therefore, the question if science will ever explain the universe as a spacetimeless experience can only have a negative answer, because science can only confirm if the criteria is met for that experience to happen (Koch's theory of consciousness). But the moment science tells us that every element in the universe is interacting with one another, the moment we will have a scientific explanation of the universe as to suppose the spacetimeless experience of consciousness, God, the Being, whatever."