bookmark_borderAn Example of Why Atheists Need to do Effective Counter-Apologetics and an Example of How Not to Do That

1. An Example of Why Atheists Need to do Effective Counter-Apologetics
You could call this post a sequel to my earlier post, “On Caring about Whether Other People Become Naturalists.”
Christian apologist Greg Koukl has released a video arguing that, yes, atheists suppress the truth in unrighteousness. For those of us who are familiar with the Christian apologetics literature, it will come as no surprise that Koukl states that Romans 1 teaches this position, a position which Randal Rauser has called the “Rebellion Thesis.” I am no Biblical scholar, but if I were to attempt to translate that meme from ‘Christianese’ into ordinary English, it is roughly the position that atheists intentionally suppress the truth of God’s existence because they are in rebellion against God and want to live a sinful lifestyle.
While I don’t care that much about whether other people become naturalists, I care much more about people who harbor the prejudice that the Rebellion Thesis are true, since that prejudice is harmful to naturalists and atheists. We are fortunate, therefore, that Randal Rauser has directly challenged Koukl online. (See also the combox on Koukl’s website for an exchange between Rauser and someone who appears to agree with Koukl.)
Of course, atheists cannot and should not rely upon a lone Christian scholar to combat this prejudice, as helpful and welcome as his efforts are. Atheists also need to provide examples of why the Rebellion Thesis is false through their own examples. Part of this is by striving to be as moral as possible and part of this is by doing (or supporting) effective counter-apologetics. This leads to my second example (and point).
2. An Example of How Not to Do Counter-Apologetics
Some atheists seem to be opposed to the very idea of counter-apologetics for the same reason they are opposed to the very idea of even using the label “atheist”: they think it gives theism credibility it does not deserve. They dismiss things such as counter-apologetics as ‘god-bothering’ and, as the pejorative term suggests, they argue that atheists (of all people) should stop ‘god-bothering.’ With all due respect to such atheists, I find such notions to be out of touch with reality. The scientific evidence suggests that humans have a widespread tendency to form beliefs about invisible agents, including gods. (And notice this is true even if–especially if–God does not exist.) I can think of no reason to think such tendencies will go away with a contemptuous sneer.
Not all atheists refuse to do counter-apologetics, however. In fact, one might argue that some of the atheists in the first group, when they let their guard down, will occasionally do counter-apologetics. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, that often the same atheists who are so dismissive of theism tend to use such awful arguments and objections against it. In a sense, this is understandable. If you’ve concluded that belief X is not only false but stupid or even irrational, then you’re unlikely to spend much if any time trying to understand the best arguments for X. Furthermore, you just might come across as rude or patronizing when talking or writing about X.
Jerry Coyne’s recent diatribe against Catholic philosopher Edward Feser is an example of this. Feser has replied to Coyne. If I were to sum up Feser’s reply in one word, it would be, “Ouch!” I think Feser’s reply is simply devastating to Coyne and I found myself in agreement with most of his points.
But rather than pursue that line of thought, instead I want to offer some positive advice. To provide an atheist twist on another Bible verse often quoted in the Christian apologetics literature (1 Peter 3:15), atheists need to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks to give the reason for why you are a naturalist or an atheist, but do this with gentleness and respect.” To this I would add (but not nearly as eloquently), “And if addressing the arguments or objections of someone who disagrees with you, be informed about their actual position, arguments, and objections.” (Cf. a related comment by Erik Wielenberg on the ‘Courtier’s Reply’ here.)

bookmark_borderReply to Prof. Feser’s Response, (Part III)

Ed, Russell’s argument is from Why I am not a Christian, which was a popular talk given to a general audience. As you say, almost certainly he was aiming at popular apologetics. He could, however, address the argument at a much more sophisticated level. I think his best response to cosmological arguments came in his classic debate with Frederick Copleston. Since I have written on this debate, I hope you will not mind if I quote myself at length:

“Copleston’s first argument was the “argument from contingency”:

…the world is simply the real or imagined totality or aggregate of individual objects, none of which contain in themselves alone the reason for their existence…Therefore, I should say, since objects or events exist, and since no object of experience contains within itself the reason of its existence…the totality of objects, must have a reason external to itself. That reason must be an existent being…So, I should say, in order to explain existence, we must come to a being which contains within itself the reason for its own existence, that is to say, which cannot not-exist (Seckel pp. 124-125).

Russell starts by focusing on the idea of being that cannot not-exist…:

The word “necessary,” I should maintain can only be applied significantly to propositions. And, in fact, only to such as are analytic—that is to say—such as it is self-contradictory to deny. I could only admit a necessary being if there were a being whose existence it is self-contradictory to deny (Seckel, p. 125).

…A necessarily true proposition is what logicians call an “analytic” or “tautological” proposition. But the proposition “God exists” does not appear to be analytic or tautological; it does not appear contradictory to assert that God does not exist…
Copleston says “If there is a contingent being then there is a necessary being” is necessarily true, but is not a tautology (Seckel, pp. 125-126). He seems to mean that this proposition is necessary because to deny it is to deny an allegedly self-evident metaphysical principle. Though Copleston does not mention it by name, he apparently means the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR)… According to the PSR, nothing exists unless there is a sufficient reason for its existence. Further, everything that exists either is contingent, that is, it is not a sufficient reason for its own existence, or it is a necessary being, that is, it is its own sufficient reason for being. A contingent being, one that is not its own sufficient reason, therefore owes its existence to something else–ultimately to a necessary being (an unending chain of contingent beings that did not terminate in a necessary being would leave the whole chain unexplained, so the argument goes). Therefore, if we accept the PSR, the world, the totality of all physical objects, must either contain its own sufficient reason, or the world owes its existence to something else, a necessary being that is the sufficient reason for the world’s existence.
But why accept the PSR? Why not regard the world itself—or perhaps whatever cosmologists postulate as its initial state or condition (initial singularity, quantum vacuum, or whatever)—as an ultimate brute fact, i.e., as a primordial reality not explicable in terms of anything prior, deeper, or more basic? The motivation behind the PSR seems to be the demand that everything be intelligible. But if our explanations ultimately end with brute facts, then those brute facts will remain unexplained. It follows from the PSR that no particular contingent thing is satisfactorily explained until all contingent things are explained, and that the total explanation must appeal to something that is not contingent, something that is its own sufficient reason. Russell, however, rejects the PSR’s demand for total explanation:

RUSSELL: But when is an explanation adequate? Suppose I am about to make a flame with a match. You may say that the adequate explanation of that is that I rub it on the box.

COPLESTON: Well, for practical purposes—but theoretically, that is only a partial explanation. An adequate explanation must ultimately be a total explanation, to which nothing further can be added.

RUSSELL: Then I can only say that you are looking for something that can’t be got, and which one ought not to expect to get (Seckel, p. 129).

Russell’s remarks prefigure philosopher J.L. Mackie’s later critique of the PSR:

The principle of sufficient reason expresses a demand that things should be intelligible through and through. The simplest reply to the argument that relies on it [the PSR] is that there is nothing that justifies this demand, and nothing that supports the belief that it is satisfiable even in principle…Any particular explanation starts with premises which state “brute facts,” and though the brutally factual starting-points of one explanation may themselves be further explained by another, the latter in turn will have to start with something that it does not explain, and so on however far we go. But there is no need to see this as unsatisfactory (Mackie, 1982, pp. 85-86; emphasis in original).

In short, there just is no basis for saying that nothing is adequately explained until everything is. As Mackie notes, explanation is always in terms of something, which, at least temporarily, remains unexplained, but this implies no inadequacy in our understanding. Further, it is doubtful that the demand for total explanation is even in principle satisfiable because it is not clear what it is for anything—including God—to be its own sufficient reason. Copleston says that God’s self-sufficiency means that he “cannot not-exist (Seckel, p. 125),” and that God is a “…being the essence of which is to exist (Seckel, p. 128),” but what do these cryptic comments mean? How is it that God’s existence could be uniquely self-sufficient in a way that no other putative ultimate reality could be? Further, isn’t saying that God’s essence is to exist really just asserting that, after all, God’s existence is logically necessary?”

I am quoting from my chapter “Bertrand Russell” in Icons of Unbelief, edited by S.T. Joshi, Greenwood Press. The “Seckel” references are to the Russell/Copleston debate printed in Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, Al Seckel, editor, Prometheus Books.
It seems, then, that Russell, in his debate with Copleston did clash with the claims of the argument from contingency and did not just talk past it. Russell rejects the PSR. He also denies that anything can be its own sufficient reason. I think that these are precisely the lines that have to be drawn in the sand in confronting arguments from contingency.
Ed, let me conclude by saying how much I have gained from our exchanges on these points. I also look forward to future discussions. I deeply regret that our initial encounters were tainted by ill-conceived and intemperate remarks I made some years ago. Let me state clearly that in the course of our conversation I have come to respect your views and your very considerable skill as a philosopher. However, because of your graciousness in being willing to set aside bad feelings and enjoy an enriching intellectual exchange, I have come to respect you even more deeply as a person.

bookmark_borderResponse to Prof. Feser’s Response to…etc (Part II)

Ed, this will be a rather truncated response to these points because I will address just the arguments you present here. A fair treatment of your arguments would need to address your article on these topics in American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. However, two physical realities—time and space—limit me here.
The question I posed was why we should think that a presumptively fundamental physical reality (quarks and leptons, quantum fields, superstrings, or whatever) needs supernatural support in order to exist. Why isn’t the doctrine of continuous creation merely gratuitous? You reply:

“Now, this [my question] assumes that physical theory gives us an exhaustive description of electrons, quarks, and material reality in general, or at least something near enough to an exhaustive description for present purposes. For only if we make that assumption would the absence from physical theory of a reference to the need for a conserving cause give us any reason to think a material thing doesn’t require one. (Compare: The absence of legs from the Mona Lisa would give us reason to believe that the woman it pictures was legless only if we supposed that the portrait captures everything about her that there was to capture — which, of course, is not the case.)”

The Mona Lisa example is funny but misses the target. We know that women generally have legs, so viewing the Mona Lisa would never tempt us to believe that the woman in the picture had no legs. However, one of the salient issues between your view and mine is precisely whether we have any access at all to the nature of physical reality apart from the natural sciences. In my view physics gives us our only access to the nature of fundamental physical reality. If the “pictures” given by physics are the only representations we have, then, unlike Mona, we have no independent and reliable source of information about the properties of electrons. In that case, all we have to go on are the “pictures” of physics. By analogy, if I were to show you a picture of only one portion of one of those truly weird, unique creatures from the Cambrian-era Burgess Shale you would have no basis for judging whether the remaining portion had legs or not or, if so, how many. We can form no expectations at all on the basis of what we don’t know. Any attempt to do so would be a textbook instance of the argumentum ad ignorantiam.
A more fundamental point is that when I suggest that the notion of continuous creation is gratuitous, the argument is epistemic, not ontological. I take it for granted that it is not within the purview of physics to demonstrate metaphysical truth, e.g. about putative divine activities or the absence thereof. Rather, my point was that, since physical theory does not—cannot—indicate the need for the supernatural underwriting of the natural, why posit it? Why is such a supposition not episemically gratuitous? There may indeed be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our physics, but, without some adequate grounds for positing such things, it is those putative non-physical realities that remain dreams.
You argue however, that physics, in principle, cannot tell us the fundamental nature of things. You quote Bertrand Russell to the effect that fundamental physics can only reveal the “logical structure of events” while leaving us ignorant of the nature of the things that are changing. You continue:

“Now if physics gives us only the mathematical structure of material reality, then not only does it not tell us everything there is to know about material reality, but it implies that there must be more to material reality than what it tells us. For there can be no such thing as structure by itself; there must be something which has the structure.”

First of all, if physics cannot tell us the fundamental nature of things, what can? What other human cognitive enterprise has the impeccable credentials and track record of success that justify our confidence that it will triumph where physics supposedly must fail? Metaphysics? I am sure that I am not the only one to find such a suggestion deeply dubious. I would say that when it comes to knowing the nature of reality, it is physics or nothing.
Russell interpreted quantum mechanics as implying an ontology of events, not things. I think he failed to realize that when we are talking about ex hypothesi fundamental things like elementary particles, the commonsense distinction between things and what they do is blurred. What could an elementary particle be except a bundle of definitive and irreducible properties in virtue of which it has its characteristic powers and liabilities? Elementary particles have no parts, constituents, or internal structure, and such basic kinds have no identity apart from their defining properties. In other words, I think that to say that, e.g. an electron is something WITH a given mass, charge, and spin is less accurate than to say that it is something that IS a given mass, charge, and spin.
We define an electron as:

“One of the elementary particles…with a rest mass of 9.1093897 × 10 -31 Kg, an electric charge of -1.60218925 × 10-19 coulombs and a spin of ½ , which obeys Fermi-Dirac statistics (John Gribbin, Q is for Quantum, Free Press, 1998).”

And this is the exhaustive description of the natural kind “electron.” Therefore, Russell’s claim assumes a distinction between thing and what it does that is not clear when we are talking about ex hypothesi fundamental things, which just are the basic properties in virtue of which they interact the way that they do.
You continue:

“So, physics is of its very nature incomplete. It requires interpretation within a larger metaphysical framework, and absolutely every appeal to “what physics tells us” presupposes such a metaphysical framework, implicitly if not explicitly. This is as true of the appeals made by naturalists and atheists as it is true of the views of Scholastics.”

What metaphysical assumptions does physics make other than the ones necessary to do physics? Physics assumes the existence of an objective, external world that exhibits sufficient stability, regularity, and simplicity to be knowable. What else? Physics makes such minimal heuristic assumptions, and its very success justifies those assumptions. Does physics require—though physicists clearly seem oblivious to the purported fact—concepts like “prime matter” or “substantial form?” All I can say here is that I—and I imagine the vast majority of physicists—would find such a claim implausible in the extreme, and we would place a very heavy burden of proof on anyone claiming that physics does require such concepts. (Ed: when I—someday—get the time to review in detail your admirable book Scholastic Metaphysics I hope to say a great deal more).
To sum up (BTW, I am unabashedly fudging by not counting quoted material towards my 1000 word limit): Even if physics is incomplete, this does not show that physical reality is. Even if physics does not, or cannot, tell us the true nature of things, this conclusion does not establish that physical things need supernatural help to exist. To argue from the (alleged) incompetence of physics to discover the whole of reality to the probable or even plausible existence of non-physical realities (like continuous creation) is a clear argumentum ad ignorantiam. Such a claim rises and falls completely with the details of Scholastic metaphysics and is indeed gratuitous outside of that context.

bookmark_borderResponse to Prof. Feser’s Response (Part I)

Ed, for the convenience of readers, here is a link to your response to my answer to your first question.
Here is my response:
And thanks back to you for a very gracious and constructive reply! You clarify your position admirably. Also, you are right that philosophers do legitimately serve a role as “public intellectuals” in addressing popular arguments and claims. My friend philosopher John Beversluis published a superb critical study of C.S. Lewis, and I applaud him for doing so. His book was eminently justified by the enormous popularity and influence of Lewis and by the fact that nearly all published studies of Lewis were by admirers and were often tantamount to hagiography. Is further attention to (now not so new) “new” atheists by theistic scholars a needed public service or a redundant slaying of the slain? This is a judgment call, and Jeff and I judged that it was the latter, especially with so many much more formidable atheistic champions still in the field. Theists might reasonably judge otherwise and think that there is more that needs to be said in reply. I do think, as I have elsewhere said, that, though some of the “new” atheists’ arguments are overstated and intemperately expressed, with a bit of work some of these arguments can be made respectable. At any rate, I do not see any reason at all to press the point here. You clearly have tackled some of the “big boys” like Kenny, Oppy, and Mackie.
Also, I think that your final observation that we might have more in common than first appears is correct. Indeed, the unfortunate remark that I made that got us off on the wrong foot—that the case for theism was a “fraud”—was made with what you call the “personalist” accounts in mind, not the “classical theism” you defend (and “fraud” was a bad word choice even applied to those accounts). In 1989 I published a book, God and the Burden of Proof, that stated my criticisms of Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga. In my contribution to the book Does God Exist?, which contains the debate between Kai Nielsen and J.P. Moreland, I criticize Moreland’s argument. In two face-to-face debates with William Lane Craig I stated why I find his apologetic unconvincing. In a survey article on “Natural Theology and Analytic Philosophy” in The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology, edited by Russell Re Manning, I set out my reasons for thinking that analytic atheists have adequate replies to the “fine tuning” arguments of Craig and Robin Collins. On the basis of these and other studies, I concluded that the “case for theism” as articulated by some of its ablest exponents, had been duly and thoroughly debunked by leading non-theist philosophers such as Oppy, Sobel, Le Poidevin, Schellenberg, Martin, and many others.
As you note, contemporary atheists give short shrift to Aquinas and classical theism. I, like others, have perhaps too quickly assumed that the critics from Ockham to Kenny had done the job and that further attention to the Quinque Viae would be another instance of slaying the slain. Fair enough. However, some recent secular philosophers have addressed Thomistic arguments. For instance, in his classic essay “The Quest for Being” Sidney Hook examines the concept of “Being” and finds it irremediably obscure. He notes that Thomists respond that “Being” is to be understood in terms of the “act of existing”:

“A critic writes: ‘When Sidney Hook and company ask St. Thomas what is meant by saying of this table: ‘It has being’ or ‘it is’—the answer is that there is being predicated of the table the real act and perfection which is the basic cause of all other perfections and predicates.’ On this view, Being is not a noun but a verb and modes of Being are modes of action. Metaphysics apparently is the study of action qua action (The Quest for Being, Dell Publishing Co., 1963, p. 153).”

He continues:

“This does not escape difficulties. It only multiplies them. It is just as unclear how we get from the action of this and the action of that as how we get from the Being of this and the Being of that to Being qua Being. The terms ‘act’ and ‘action’ are just as systematically ambiguous as the terms ‘Being’ or ‘existence.’ In many if not most usages, when we speak of ‘act’ or ‘action’ or the behavior of something it clearly presupposes the antecedent existence of some power, material, or subject matter. And when it does not clearly suppose this, it sets a problem for inquiry. Otherwise we suspect the presence of mystification. No matter how ‘pure’ the act is conceived to be, it is linked in our understanding to a preposition; it is an act of. What acts in the act of Being or existing? Certainly not possibilities, essences, or natures. The meaning of ‘death’ is not lethal; the nature of ‘fire’ burns nothing (153-154).”

I would go further and extend the critique to “essence” as well. To say that there is an “act of existing” that can be added to or done to or brought to (it is hard to know how to express this) an essence thereby causing it to be instantiated inevitably implies—however loudly it is asserted that essence and existence are not really separable—that essences are in some sense “there” prior to actualization. Clearly, the conceptual (and, honestly, the motivational) antecedent to this account is the theological idea of divine creation. Essences exist as divine ideas prior to God’s free choice to actualize some of them in the creation-event. Yet the essence-cum-act schema is hard to justify on non-theological grounds. It seems to have things backwards. It is not that things are as they are because of essences, but that essences are as they are because of things.
As far as I can tell, the only justification for speaking of essences with respect to extra-conceptual (non-abstract) reality—in a sense that is de re and not merely de dicto—is with reference to natural kinds. Water, it seems, is essentially H2O. It is not just that we would not call a particular kind of liquid “water” if it were not H2O; it would not be water if its chemical composition were not H2O. Yet the de re necessity that the substance we refer to by the term “water” (the term is irrelevant) is H2O seems to be purely a physical necessity that derives from the physical facts about oxygen and hydrogen atoms. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms are such that they combine in a particular way to produce a molecule with a characteristic molecular mass, geometric configuration, and set of chemical properties. The only necessity here is physical necessity. Those essential properties that make a water molecule THAT kind of molecule are explained wholly in terms of further physical facts about hydrogen and oxygen atoms.
Oops. Looks like I have slightly exceeded the word limit too. I hope to finish our exchange later this week by replying to your responses to my answers to your second and third questions.

bookmark_borderReply to Prof. Feser’s Response, (Part IV)

Ed, I am going to take the liberty of first replying to your response to my answer to your fourth question. I am going to do this because I think that this is where we most significantly clash, that is, where our fundamental disagreements are most apparent. I want to address these points right away, and the others I will take up after the 15th when I will be back at my office.
Sorry if I was unclear and gave a misleading impression. I do, in fact, think that the laws of nature are best conceived in terms of the powers and liabilities of the entities and systems of entities that make up the natural world. That is, natural regularities are ultimately explicable in terms of the dispositional properties—the powers and the liabilities—of physical things. The most fundamental laws are the active and passive potentialities of the most fundamental physical things—whatever those are. If and when science reaches explanatory “rock bottom,” it will be in terms of some set of simple entities, i.e. some set of entities which, since they have no constituents, will be nothing other than a set of irreducible properties in virtue of which those entities possess their capacities to act or be acted upon. Along with Harré, Madden, Bhaskar, and Cartwright, I “…take the Laws of Nature to be about the powers, dispositions, or tendencies of natural systems to bring about observable phenomena (Harré, ‘Laws of Nature,’ A Companion to the Philosophy of Science, ed. by W.H. Newton-Smith, p. 218).”
In short, I think you and I agree that explanatory hierarchies will come to an end (if they do come to an end) with an uncaused cause—something that has no causal antecedents and is the original, fundamental, or primordial reality that possesses a set of distinctive properties which constitute the ultimate terms of every explanatory regress. I see no reason why that ultimate reality cannot be the original, fundamental, or primordial—and brutally factual—physical reality. Where is the incoherence? A brute fact would be a state of affairs that just is, with no cause or explanation of its existence or nature. There seems to be nothing about the idea of a brute fact per se that entails a logical contradiction.
You argue—quite correctly—that just because something is conceivable does not mean that it is realizable. You can conceive of impossible objects, and even illustrate them as in M.C. Escher drawings, but that does not mean that such objects are realizable in three-dimensional reality. But where is the incoherence or impossibility of the realization of a brute fact? What, if not logical inconsistency, would make brute facts unrealizable? Your answer is that a version of the PSR must be true. I quote your argument at length:

“Consider that whenever we accept a claim as rationally justified, we suppose not only that we have a reason for accepting it (in the sense of a rational justification), but also that our having this reason is the reason why we accept it (in the sense of being the cause or explanation of our accepting it). We suppose that our cognitive faculties track truth and standards of rational argumentation, and that it is because they do that we believe the things we do. But if PSR is false, then we can have no justification for supposing that any of this is really the case. We may in fact believe what we do for no reason whatsoever, and yet it might also falsely seem, again for no reason whatsoever, that we believe things for reasons. And our cognitive faculties may have the deliverances they do for no reason whatsoever — rather than because they track objective truth and standards of logic — and yet it might also falsely seem, for no reason whatsoever, that they do track the latter.
In short, either everything has an explanation or we can have no justification for thinking that anything does. No purported middle ground position, on which some things have genuine explanations while others are “brute facts,” can coherently be made out. If there really could be unintelligible “brute facts,” then even the things we think are not brute facts may in fact be brute facts, and the fact that it falsely seems otherwise to us may itself be yet another brute fact. We could have no reason to believe anything. Rejecting PSR entails the most radical skepticism — including skepticism about any reasoning that could make this skepticism itself intelligible. Again, the view simply cannot coherently be made out.”

For you brute facts are like Descartes’s evil genius. If we admit to such a possibility, it could show up anywhere, making us think that we have knowledge when we are really dead wrong. My first response will be a tu quoque: Affirming the PSR provides no protection at all against universal skepticism. It is one thing to think that things have sufficient reasons; it is something else entirely to say that we are in the epistemological position to discover them. We might go wrong every time we think that we have found the sufficient reason for anything. In Med. III Descartes famously attempted—using nothing but his own ideas and the PSR (or a principle very close to it)—to prove that a good God exists who will not allow us to be constantly deceived. By nearly universal philosophical consent, Descartes’s argument failed. So, to anyone who tries to succeed where Descartes failed—i.e. to prove the existence of a good God using only his own ideas and the PSR—I will only say “Lotsa luck!” It seems, then, that once the boogeyman of universal skepticism is set loose, merely affirming the PSR will not put him back in his cage again. Indeed, the very reasons we adduce for accepting the PSR could themselves be wrong (as, I maintain, they in fact are!).
But is it really so that “…either everything has an explanation or we can have no justification for thinking that anything does?” Why do we think that some things have explanations? Not for any a priori reason but just because we find that they do. Ancient astronomers discovered that the explanation of lunar eclipses is that the moon moves into the earth’s shadow. Finding that the moon sometimes moves into the earth’s shadow is simply the discovery of a fact about the world—a fact that explains another fact. When you stop and think about it, the early Pre-Socratic philosophers really went out on a limb to think that you could explain natural things in terms of other natural things. They had no a priori guarantee of success, and prior accounts had invoked gods and magic. Yet no Las Vegas jackpot has paid off as lavishly as that speculative leap. Success breeds confidence, and finding scientific explanations is the biggest success story the human race has to tell.
Could we be wrong about everything? Sure, if by “could” we mean “is a logical possibility”—and, again, the evil genius is not exorcised merely by invoking the PSR. But—and this is the only answer to the bogey of universal skepticism—the logical possibility that I could be wrong is insufficient reason to think that I might actually be wrong. All contemporary epistemologists of whom I am aware are fallibilists, that is, they hold that we can know that P even if possibly not-P. For skepticism to have any bite against a fallibilist epistemology, it must do more than simply indicate that we could be wrong. The skeptic must take on a burden of proof and show not just that mistakes are possible but that they have some significant degree of probability. Likewise, for your skeptical argument to be cogent, you would have to show that your scenario is not only possible but significantly probable. That is, you would have to show that, given the possibility of brute facts, they are likely to pop up even where they most clearly seem to be absent, i.e. where we seem most clearly to have reliable explanations (e.g. lunar eclipses).
Finally, what about the terms used to justify the claims that God is self-explanatory? Did I unfairly dismiss these as ad hoc devices? The fact that a concept has a respectable pedigree does not mean that it has legitimate application in a given context. As you note, the actuality/potentiality was developed by Aristotle to deal with the challenge of the Eleatics about change. There is nothing wrong with concepts of actuality and potentiality per se; indeed, as I indicate above, I endorse their use in the philosophy of science. But, as Kant argued at great length, even concepts that are quite innocent in one environment can become obscurantist in another. Such—or so it appears to me—is the case when the innocent actuality/potentiality distinction becomes the basis for saying things like “God is pure actuality” or “God is the act of existence.” It makes sense to say that something actualizes its potential, but even if something actualizes all of its potentials, it does not thereby become “pure actuality”—whatever that is. We speak meaningfully of tasks being completed but nothing is “pure completeness.” An empty vessel can be filled, but nothing is “pure fullness.” “Actuality,” like “completeness” or “fullness,” seems to me to be an abstract noun that has it uses but cannot constitute the identity of a substance.
BTW, saying, as I did, that these terms sounded obscure and fishy to me was a personal confession, not a blanket condemnation. The EPR paradox sounded obscure to me until Prof. John Earman explained it to me in grad school. Saying how these terms sound to me was not a dismissal but an invitation to be instructed. Tell you what: If you will send me a (signed, if you would) copy of your book Scholastic Metaphysics, I will read it carefully and give it a thorough review.
I will address your other responses after 3/15. Thanks much for this enjoyable and informative exchange.

bookmark_borderReply to Prof. Feser’s Fourth Question

Ed, Here is your fourth question to me:

“4. In response to another reader’s question, about Craig’s version of the First Cause argument, you wrote: “Both theists and atheists begin with an uncaused brute fact. For Craig it is God, and for me it is the universe.” Now, as you know, the expression “brute fact” is typically used in philosophy to convey the idea of something which is unintelligible or without explanation. And your statement gives the impression that all theists, or at least most of them, regard God as a “brute fact” in this sense.
But in fact that is the reverse of the truth. Aristotelians, Neoplatonists, Thomists, Leibnizian rationalists, et al. would denythat God is a “brute fact.” They would say that the explanation for God’s existence lies in the divine nature — for Aristotelians, in God’s pure actuality; for Neoplatonists, in his absolute simplicity; for Thomists, in the fact that his essence and existence are identical; for Leibnizians in his being his own sufficient reason; and so forth. (Naturally the atheist will not think the arguments of these thinkers are convincing. But to say that they are not convincing is not the same thing as showing that the theist is either explicitly or implicitly committed to the notion that God is a “brute fact.”)
But perhaps you think the standard interpretation of the views of Aristotelians, Neoplatonists, Thomists, Leibnizian rationalists, et al. is mistaken. Perhaps you think that these thinkers are in fact all explicitly or at least implicitly committed to the thesis that God is a “brute fact.” So, could you please tell us where you have spelled out an argument justifying the claim that all or at least most philosophical theists regard God as a “brute fact” or are at least implicitly committed to the claim that he is? Is there a book or journal article written by you or by someone else in which we can find this justification?”

The short answer is that my statement was not meant as a historical remark, but as an assessment of what I see as the genuine philosophical alternatives. As I see it, the choice between naturalism and theism comes down to a choice between ultimate brute facts: God or the universe. Which is the more satisfactory terminus of or explanatory chains, the primordial or fundamental features of the universe, on the one hand, or a supernatural being with the omni-predicates attributed by theism? My view is that the former choice is at least as defensible as the latter, and that each choice amounts to the selection of a brutally-factual end-point for our explanatory enterprises.
As for your historical analysis, you are, of course, exactly right. Traditionally, most theists have regarded God as in some sense self-explanatory. Recently, perhaps in response to accumulated skeptical responses to traditional metaphysics, some leading theists seem to be backing away from those claims. My reading of Richard Swinburne is that he concedes that the universe could be the ultimate, uncaused existent, but that theism is the preferred hypothesis because of its allegedly greater simplicity (an argument I challenge in detail in my 1989 book God and the Burden of Proof). Likewise, as I understand William Lane Craig, his argument does not rest on the Principle of Sufficient reason, or any definition of divine necessity, but upon the metaphysical intuition that whatever begins to exist must have a cause. When it comes to things that begin in space and time, I share Craig’s intuition. When it comes to the origin of space/time itself, I do not.
Why think that there could be brute facts? Two reasons: (1) Our ordinary explanatory practices definitely do not require total explanation, and (2) The alternative to brute facts—that anything could be self-explanatory—is highly dubious.
(1) In all of the modes of explanation in natural science and ordinary life, explanation proceeds piecemeal from explanandum to explanans, where the latter, at least temporarily, is left unexplained. There is nothing wrong with this procedure. I can know that the pipes burst because of the freezing temperatures and the fact that ice is less dense than water, even if I do not have detailed knowledge of the structure of the water molecule. In tracing back causes to effects we hope ultimately to come to some set of completely general and basic laws and some set of fundamental entities. Let’s suppose that the Holy Grail of physics is found and a satisfactory TOE is one day established. We will then have some set of ultimate facts for which no deeper explanation exists, and this is precisely what we have hoped all along to find. In explanation, something is always left unexplained, and that this is the case when we reach physical “rock bottom” should neither surprise nor chagrin us. Indeed, there are logically only two alternatives to reaching a brutally-factual explanatory “rock bottom”: Either the explanatory chain proceeds back ad infinitum, or it terminates in something that is not brutally factual but is, in some sense, self-explanatory. As for the first alternative (and pace Prof. Craig), we cannot know a priori that the chain does not extend forever. I am supposing that, in fact, it seems to terminate in a fundamental theory. The second alternative to a brutally-factual explanatory terminus is something that is self-explanatory.
(2) What could it possibly mean to say that something is self-explanatory? I know that, as you note above, Ed, many philosophers have made suggestions here. I find these to be very obscure. They sound to me like verbal formulas devised to obviate a problem rather than solve it. I am not even sure that it is coherent to say that “God is pure actuality” or “God is his own sufficient reason.” I would have to ask for a very careful unpacking of these phrases before I would concede that they are meaningful.
In the meantime, it seems to me that the most obvious way for something to be self-explanatory would be for its existence to be logically necessary. But this option leads us into all the notorious problems associated with the ontological argument. How can there be a concept that guarantees its own instantiation? It can never be contradictory to deny the exemplification of a concept, because that denial does not contradict any of the content of that concept, but only denies that such content is instantiated in extra-conceptual reality. “The non-existent necessarily existent being,” is, of course, a contradictory concept. However, there is, and can be, no contradiction in saying “The concept of the necessarily existent being is not instantiated.” In fact, as has long been known since Russell’s famous example of “the present King of France,” to deny that concept is exemplified is merely to say “There is no x such that x exemplifies predicates P1, P2, P3…Pn.” Such a statement in no way contradicts the mentioned concept, whatever its content.
In what other way, other than by being logically necessary, could an entity be self-explanatory? Well, it could be metaphysically rather than logically necessary. As far as I know, the best candidate for specifying a notion of metaphysical necessity is the PSR, which we may express as: “Nothing exists or is what it is unless there is a sufficient reason for its existence and its nature.” But why should we accept the PSR? As I say above, our ordinary explanatory practices do not presuppose it. Is it intuitively obvious, as I think that Leibniz held that it was? Not to me. On the contrary, with Hume, my intuition is that there very well could be something that exists without any explanation. As curious creatures we may hanker for an explanation for, literally, everything, but I can see no a priori basis for thinking that reality owes us such satisfaction.
The upshot is that if there are no indisputable principles requiring either a logically or metaphysically necessary being, then it is eminently rational to posit brute facts.
Ed, thanks for the chance to address these questions. As always, the subsequent discussion could go on forever, but life is short, and you and I both have many other pressing duties.

bookmark_borderReply to Prof. Feser’s Third Question

Ed, your third question and accompanying commentary was this:

In response to a reader’s comment, you wrote:
I think Bertrand Russell’s beautifully succinct critique of all causal arguments holds good: “If everything requires a cause, then God requires a cause. However, if anything can exist without a cause, it might as well be the universe as God.” Exactly.
Now, your Secular Outpost co-blogger and fellow atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder agrees with me that this is not in fact a good objection to arguments for a First Cause, because it attacks a straw man. Specifically, Lowder has said:
[N]o respectable theologian or theistic philosopher has ever made the claim, “everything has a cause.” Yet various new atheists have proceeded to attack that straw man of their own making. I remember, when reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, where he attacked that straw man and cringing. There are many different cosmological arguments for God’s existence and none of them rely upon the stupid claim, “everything has a cause.”
You won’t find that mistake made by Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, Paul Draper, or (if we add a theistic critic to the list) Wes Morriston.
End quote. Now it would seem that what Lowder calls a “mistake” is one that you, Keith Parsons, have made. But is Lowder wrong? If he is, please tell us exactly which theistic philosophers who defend First Cause arguments – Avicenna? Maimonides? Aquinas? Scotus? Leibniz? Clarke? Garrigou-Lagrange? Craig? — actually ever gave the argument Russell was attacking.

My response: In effect, I responded to this in a reply I made to Jeff. Let me quote that:

“What about Russell’s claim, to which Ed adverts, that (paraphrasing): “If everything has a cause, then God has a cause. On the other hand, if something can exist without a cause, then it might be the universe rather than God.” Does this attack a straw man? Well, as usual, it depends on how we read it. Is Russell charging that theists make the following argument?
If everything has a cause, then there has to exist something without a cause.
Everything has a cause.
Therefore, something (i.e. God) exists without a cause.
I think it is safe to say that you will not find such an argument outside of the paper of a “C” student in Phil. 101. The conclusion contradicts the second premise and the first premise is necessarily false since the antecedent contradicts the consequent. If Russell is caricaturing theistic philosophers as the authors of this or a similarly bad argument, he is indeed attacking a straw man.
Once again, however, I think that there is a good idea here that can be turned into a much more challenging argument. I would propose the following quasi-Russell argument
QRA: If everything has an explanation, then God has an explanation, or, if it is possible that something does not have an explanation, then the universe might be that unexplained “something.” Symbolically, I would represent this argument as follows:
[□(∀x)Hxe → □Hge] v [◊(∃x)~Hxe) → ◊(x = u)]
I think Ed would have no problem with the left disjunct and would argue that God has an explanation in the sense that he is self-explanatory.
I would opt for the right since I consider brute facts to be possible, and that the universe (or, rather, its primordial state or fundamental aspects) can be brutally factual.”

The problem here, of course, involves the word “cause” which even philosophers often use imprecisely. The notion of “cause” has also changed over the history of Western philosophy. Penelope Mackie gives a succinct statement of some of those changes in here essay “Causality” in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy:

“In modern philosophy (as in modern usage in general) the notion of cause is associated with the idea of something’s producing or bringing about something else (its effect); a relation sometimes called “efficient causation.” Historically, the term ‘cause’ has a broader sense, equivalent to ‘explanatory feature.’ This usage survives in the description of Aristotle as holding ‘the doctrine of the four causes.’ The members of Aristotle’s quartet, the material, formal, efficient, and final cause correspond to four kinds of explanation. But only the efficient cause is unproblematically a candidate for a cause that produces something distinct from itself.”

My hypothesis is that Russell, an author of two comprehensive histories of philosophy, was using “cause” in the broader, historical sense that was much closer to “explanation” than to “efficient cause.” This was certainly the sense I intended when I endorsed Russell’s comment. In that case, I don’t think Russell’s statement, or my endorsement, was quite the straw man Jeff decries!

bookmark_borderIndex for Feser-Parsons Exchanges

The purpose of this blog post is simply to provide a convenient index to all of the posts in the planned two series of exchanges between Edward Feser and Keith Parsons. Feser’s contributions will be posted on his blog and Parsons’ contributions will be posted on The Secular Outpost.
This post will be updated with links as as they become available.
Exchange #1: Feser’s Four Questions for Parsons
Feser’s Initial Statement: “Four Questions for Keith Parsons
Parsons’ Initial Response:

Feser’s Counter-Response:

Parsons’ Counter-Response:

Exchange #2: Debate: “Can morality have a rational justification if atheism or naturalism is true?”
Feser’s Opening Statement: “A Second Exchange with Keith Parsons, Part I
Parsons’ Opening Statement: “Morality and Atheism: An Exchange with Prof Feser
Feser’s Response: “A Second Exchange with Keith Parsons, Part II
Parsons’ Response: “Belated Response to Ed Feser

bookmark_borderReply to Prof. Feser’s Second Question

Ed, I would like to respond to each question first before responding to your responses; otherwise things could get confusing.
Here is your second question:

2. Could you tell us where in your writings or in someone else’s that we can find what you take to be the strongest criticisms of the Scholastic arguments for the doctrine of divine conservation?

Good question. Actually, I think that recent atheist writers have been remiss in not addressing this question or Thomistic metaphysics in general nearly as much as they should. Nicholas Everitt does have an interesting discussion of the Cartesian conception of continuous creation on pp. 271-274 of his book The Non-existence of God. In general, however, recent atheist writers have focused on the more recent theistic arguments, such as those by Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, William Alston, William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Robert M. Adams, Peter Van Inwagen, and others. This is too bad since Thomism remains a respectable tradition with many knowledgeable and articulate supporters. BTW, in teaching my history of philosophy class today, I still draw on Etienne Gilson’s little classic Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages. Gilson’s writings were some of the most useful when I was studying theology and the history of philosophy at Emory University in the 1970’s.
My view of divine conservation is that it is rather plainly a gratuitous notion. Why would, say, an electron or a quark (considered fundamental particles in the Standard Model) need any help in remaining in existence? The idea seems very odd to me, like the idea of “vital force” to a modern biologist. We know that highly respectable biologists of the past, like Louis Pasteur, adhered to the doctrine of vital forces, but it eventually was discarded as non-explanatory. Similarly, I have to ask what explanatory work is done by the principle of divine conservation. What legitimate questions does it answer? Is there anything missing from an electron that would have to be filled in or supplied from outside?
There is nothing in our physical theories that indicates such a lack. Of course, there is the famous “measurement problem” of quantum mechanics. The dynamic properties of quanta have no specific value—but are represented as a superposition of possible values—prior to measurement. Still, whatever solution to the measurement problem we favor, I do take it that most scientific realists (like me) hold that quarks and electrons do objectively exist “out there” independently of us. As Ian Hacking notes, in many ways subatomic particles can be used and manipulated like other things. We can store them, shoot them, block them with barriers, and achieve all sorts of effects (some quite horrible) with them. As Hacking once said “If you can spray them, they are real!” I would say that if you can vaporize cities with them they are real.
Back to the point: It is, of course, not an argument against divine conservation that I express incredulity towards the idea. It seems an obviously dubious notion to me, but, of course, assertions of obviousness always do carry that “to me” rider, and so are not polemically potent to those for whom it is not obvious. But such statements do serve to state where we stand at the start of a discussion. Those who begin a discussion with very different priors (as you and I do) will diverge greatly on what seems plain or obvious. All we can do is state things as we see them and invite our interlocutors to supply reasons for seeing things otherwise. So, that is what I am doing here. I conclude, then, by putting the question to you:
Why does an electron, or any other fundamental physical entity, need divine aid to continue in existence?