On Friday I am finally going to put up an extensive post dissecting the philosophical arguments that atheist blogger Leah Libresco has either made or referred to in defending and explaining her decision to convert to Catholicism. But first this post will make some more important preliminary points about the inadequacy of the reasons for Leah’s conversion and the bad arguments atheists made that apparently had the effect of goading her into it. And tomorrow and Wednesday I will take you on an important detour tomorrow into my own intellectual biography which will explain where I am personally coming from with respect to atheism and Catholicism. That will all set the stage for me to adequately address the philosophical substance of her metaethical claims in my posts for Thursday and Friday. If you simply cannot wait for my constructive views on moral philosophy which counter Leah’s pessimism about atheistic moral objectivity, the bottom of this post has copious links and a pair of short videos you can dig into in the meantime.
A lot of Christians, and Catholics in particular, want to trumpet that Leah’s conversion was an example of a serious minded, rational, and committed atheist who had a reason-driven conversion to Catholicism. They love the narrative of someone thinking hard and carefully and weighing atheism seriously before deciding Christian philosophy was robuster and, ultimately, truer. I deeply disagree with that conclusion. And I think Christians who want to claim that Leah’s conversion vindicates the rational merits of their faith should treat seriously and with an open mind the counterarguments I am going to give over a series of posts I am simultaneously putting up today responding one by one to the arguments she has made publicly in her first week as a publicly confessing Catholic.
But first, let me highlight in a broad way why I think that the premise that Leah adequately weighed the merits of an atheist perspective before abandoning it is flawed on the grounds that she insufficiently considered any of the more philosophically qualified atheists who shared some of her correct foundational premises and, rather, had atheism represented to her primarily (and possibly exclusively) by atheists who diverge in opinions from the majority of atheist philosophers, and who erroneously (and disastrously) told her that some of her correct premises required her to be a Catholic.
Last week in my initial analysis of her conversion, I concluded the following:
she sounds from [her original] self-description [written while still ostensibly an atheist] like someone who was an emptier philosophical vessel to start with who then was exposed to robust Catholic tradition and philosophy and thin, blogworthy, atheistic philosophy and under those conditions she not-so-stunningly opted to believe the more rounded out philosophical option of the two. What does she really know about naturalistic philosophy as developed by academic philosophers who do not write for popular audiences? From her own account of major influences and conversation partners, probably not much.
Leah has since confirmed that when it came to robust atheistic metaphysics and metaethics she was not well-versed in the works of actual atheistic professional metaphysicians and moral philosophers and especially she was not encountering realist ones (not even ones who exist in the atheist blogosphere like me or my guest contributor Eric Steinhart) who would at least have shown her that there were atheists who thought her conclusions were possible. Metaphysically and morally she was working on her own, without so much as a philosophy major’s worth of training in non-Catholic philosophy to guide her.
I basically ended up contrasting my very patchy, in progress atheist metaphysics with the coherent, well-fleshed out, but not necessarily true propositions of Catholicism.
She talks more about this view of Catholicism as “coherent, well-fleshed out, but not necessarily true” on CNN:
One thing that kind of happened is I thought it was a lot more plausible but not necessarily true, in the same way that I’m a big Harry Potter nerd and I can see how the whole world works and think about the dynamics of that world without thinking it’s true. That’s kind of how I came to see Christianity, a really well thought out interesting system that a lot of smart people had worked on but I didn’t think it was actually a true system.
So she had this coherent system she was looking at in Catholic philosophy, which in some ways—when you ignore the baseless theology and only look at the philosophy—is fairly sophisticated in a way that ostrich atheists want to ignore and hand wave away instead of take seriously, on the one hand and only a “very patchy, in-progress” atheist metaphysics. But she wanted to be fair to the atheistic option and give it credit that (supposedly) it just had not had enough time to get worked out yet and to consider that maybe the comprehensive Catholic approach fit just too well to be believed. So, she goes on right after the bit about her own patchy atheistic metaphysics to say the following:
It’s hard to figure out which one better matches the world when one hasn’t had that many people working on it for that long and the other might only look good because of overfitting. [...]
So, she’s not being hasty here. At least not at the time. She gives another description of this situation of having a patchwork atheist metaphysics she put together herself and putting it up against a coherent Catholic philosophy and she says the following:
I was ready to admit that there were parts of Christianity and Catholicism that seemed like a pretty good match for the bits of my moral system that I was most sure of, while meanwhile my own philosophy was pretty kludged together and not particularly satisfactory. But I couldn’t pick consistency over my construction project as long as I didn’t believe it was true.
But why not work some more on her atheism before giving up on achieving a workable atheistic metaphysics and metaethics? Why be so hasty?
She describes being in a situation of epistemic conflict between two pictures of the world and this was how she decided to resolve it:
While I kept working, I tried to keep my eyes open for ways I could test which world I was in, but a lot of the evidence for Christianity was only compelling to me if I at least presupposed Deism.
It’s pretty hard to come up with good tests to distinguish between local explanatory optima in high-level physics physics (funding is not the only barrier to checking if we live in a multiverse), and it’s at least as hard to create good Popperian tests of locally optimal metaphysical explanations.
I was trying to be epistemologically conservative, so I wasn’t going to be convinced by Catholicism just explaining something that different flavors of atheism hadn’t yet addressed. Atheism hasn’t been working on these problems for as long, so the tools just might not be available to us yet. I was looking for something that needed an explanation that atheism probably couldn’t address or denied needed an explanation at all. And then I leapt from peak to peak.
So, even though she found the choice between these two pictures of the world comparably coherent, she concluded that there were certain things that needed explanations and which atheism either “couldn’t address or denied needed an explanation at all”. She had concluded that there was probably no point in trying to work out metaphysical and moral philosophy answers to rival Catholic philosophical ones from an atheistic perspective. This frustrates and baffles me as someone who knows naturalistic explanations on both scores are far more plausible and intellectually satisfying than Catholic ones.
But reading further, I totally get how she was convinced this was impossible. Her atheist friends and the atheist blogosphere went out of their way to convince her that it was true that atheism made it impossible to explain anything about metaphysics or moral truth! Mind you, there is no indication in any of her public statements she rigorously read atheistic professional philosophers who are moral realists or moral metaphysicians. It was her conversations with philosophical lay atheists who seem to have convinced her of this. She describes the process:
I basically ended up contrasting my very patchy, in progress atheist metaphysics with the coherent, well-fleshed out, but not necessarily true propositions of Catholicism. It’s hard to figure out which one better matches the world when one hasn’t had that many people working on it for that long and the other might only look good because of overfitting. [...]
But more and more, my atheist friends and sparring partners thought I’d gone wrong one step back, and objected to my holding to the idea of morality as human-independent and objective (i.e. we uncover it like archeologists, we don’t build or design it like architects). To top it off, I’d switched to thinking of morality in a virtue ethics framework (your moral imperative is to reform your character and try build up a habitual attraction to right action). The trouble is, virtue eithics kind of presupposes teleology (these is some particular form you are called to embody) and my atheist friends thought that was pretty far out of bounds.
But I was as sure of the reality of moral law as I was of the reality of the physical world. Both of which can’t be proven since I can’t step outside them to examine them.
So, there you go, atheists insisted that it if she believed in objective morality, which she has a right intuition that she should, then atheism was going to be incoherent because it could not account for that intuition. Her Catholic metaphysics and moral philosophy had no such problem. In this way nominalist atheists congratulated Leah on her consistency in becoming a Catholic to match her belief in objective morality!
Some of my friends think I’m wrong now but I’m less wrong than I was. They thought my old position was less intellectually defensible, this is in some ways an improvement. And it’s exciting to be able to participate in the Mass and thinking that it’s actually the Eucharist… I had kind of had a mix of Christians and atheists both telling me that the things I thought made more sense in a Christian framework than in an atheist one. So I got double teamed on that…
See that! She got double teamed by Christians and atheists who agreed! She was working with premises, some of them good philosophically, that apparently none of the atheists around her shared. And those atheists she did talk to essentially told her that she had might as well be a Christian if she was going to believe in objective morality! That it would be more rationally consistent! Her belief in teleology and in objective morality would be more consistent within a Catholic framework! These were her strongest atheist influences! Gah! The philosophical incompetence of these atheists drives me crazy!
Meanwhile, she was impressed by reading Catholic philosophers and theologians who meditated a lot about interpersonal morality and instead of getting up into a lather about how morality was just a fiction or evolutionary convenience, actually taught her things about the ethical life she found useful. So she took this as a kind of confirmation of the truth of the general moral system they were working within:
It was kind of the same thing with any scientific theory almost–that it had more explanatory power to explain something I was really sure of. I’m really sure that morality is objective, human independent, something we uncover like archeologists, not something we build like architects. And I was having trouble explaining that in my own philosophy. And Christianity offered an explanation which I came to find compelling, especially because it had done other things that were good predictions or good moral teachings that surprised me but then I came around to.
So she has a “kludged” together, “patchy” atheistic metaphysics that cannot make sense of her surety of moral objectivity or of the teleological dimension that makes that possible in her mind. Her atheist friends tell her that if she is going to believe in objective morality and teleology then she’d might as well be internally consistent and be a Catholic.
But then! Similarly minded atheists—who are also self-congratulating masters of induction and protectors of reason itself—learn of her conversion and with all of the intellectual incuriosity of a Republican candidate for Congress accuse her of either suffering a stroke or wonder in bewilderment why someone would choose to be irrational. Genius inferences and questions! Such searching psychological, anthropological, and medical analysis! I’m so proud of you, atheistic community for really probing hard on this one!
So, gee, why would she choose to be irrational. What a deep question. I don’t know how to answer it. Why don’t all you know-it-all, scientistic, anti-realist, nominalist, subjectivist, relativistic, nihilist atheists out there tell me. Why do you “choose to be irrational”? Why do you insist on using moral terms like they are objective while thinking they are really just fictions. How is that any more rational than believing in fictions like God when there is no good reasons for doing so? Why do you mock and harangue people who try to work out coherent accounts of metaphysics that make your naturalism sensible on first order levels simply because they are not science when your science is formally inconsistent without its metaphysical implications fleshed out and clarified?
These. are. serious. fucking. questions. And you look willfully and emotionally irrational when you talk about what honest and serious critical thinkers you are and then give sloppy half-assed indifferent answers and dismissals to these incoherences rather than consider them with a rigorous intent to provide clarity and consistency to your viewpoints. Being an outspoken atheist means more than just picking the low hanging fruit of theological superstitions and religious atrocities. It means doing the hard fucking homework and hard work to develop coherent counter-philosophies to the religious ones. It means actually studying the intricate and clarifying distinctions that academic philosophers have worked out.
Do you actually care about truth or just science? Do you actually want to say and defend that your moral conclusions are true or just your feelings? And if they are just your feelings, then why are you in such a lather about religious people who live by their religions because of their irrational feelings based on fictions when by your own super-”knowing” and cynical understanding your own moral judgments are just irrational feelings based on fictions?
You get furious that Leah would side with an abominable institution like the Catholic Church but when pressed you say there really is not objectivity or rationality to a moral judgment like that. “That’s just your subjective feelings.” So how exactly are you good hard-nosed “rationalists” again when you self-conceive yourself as pressuring someone over what amount to only your feelings and not rationally binding and defensible reasons to think you’re right and she’s wrong?
On your interpretation ethics is you doing what you feel like works for you but you also think there is no objectivity to that judgment. But you do not entitle religious people to do what feels like will work for them because why? Their judgments are not objective? According to you, neither are yours! So, tell me and tell Leah, since you treat realists like us with such spitting contempt. Why do you choose to be so irrational?
(For more on these themes, see my post If You Don’t Believe In Objective Values, Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either and others listed at the end of this post which have nihilism or immoralism in their titles.)
For the record, I think objective morality and teleology are much more sensibly, coherently, defensibly, and truly understood naturalistically and atheistically. (See my posts Natural Functions, Goodness Is A Factual Matter, Goodness=Effectiveness, and Effectiveness is the Primary Goal Itself, Not Merely A Means, among many other posts listed at the end of this post which work out these themes from numerous angles for the curious.)
And I think the absurdities of Catholic theology rule it out the Catholic faith as true as a matter of principle. There is no positive reason to believe in divine revelation, a personal ground of all being (or “God”), or that the Catholic Church in anyway proves itself to be a specially guided to truth or goodness by an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient deity. Whatever goodness is in the Church is explicable in sheerly human terms and is indistinguishable from human goodness.
The Church evinces no special insights into morality or special gift for making people uniquely moral that require divine help. Obviously as a longstanding tradition with a lot of moral thought it some smart Catholic philosophers have come up with some moral wisdom and there are particular moral truths which are encapsulated or cultivated through the specific mythos and symbologies of Christianity. Yet these are not exhaustive of all that there is to morality. There are wealths of insights developed in both parallel and outright contrasting traditions of moral thought, both secular and religious which Leah has not immersed herself in before deciding that the Roman Church has a uniquely special and divinely granted insight into morality.
And the Church has been as wicked and corrupt down through the ages as any other institution. Its moral judgment has been consistently behind the times on issues like the evils of colonialism and slavery in the past and homosexuality today. The Bible is rife with condoned and commanded evils which prove that there was no Personal Morality guiding its writing. The haphazard ways that the Church has morally progressed are indistinguishable from a natural social and moral evolution in understanding, neither requiring nor evincing any special divine dispensation of moral wisdom.
Quite often the process of learning moral truth was just the same natural, human, socio-economically and politically determined one that it has been for every secular culture. And the process of moral discovery has been one that has been mutually informative between the religious and the secular spheres of inquiry for centuries. An actual look at the bottom up, real world driving forces that lead to moral discoveries and advances shows that it is an all too human process that requires no divine agency.
Assuming Leah still understands how natural selection works without an intelligent designer’s frequent interventions to tinker and create complexities so she should understand why it is unparsimonious and unwarranted in the extreme to posit special guidance to moral discovery from a Personal Moral Being.
She should also, as a scientifically inclined person, realize how much more parsimonious it is to reject mind/body dualism when we know full well that losing brain parts means correlated losses of mind functionalities. The mind is something the brain does. It is a well-established category error to think of it as a thing which can exist separably from a brain. It is also completely unjustified and irrational to posit that a basic metaphysical principle such as the ground of being or morality itself is personal.
Persons are complex emergent phenomena made of many parts. They are not observed as in any way being part of the basic constituents of life or of being. She should be far more suspicious of the mind’s overacting agency detection systems and its inclination to anthropomorphize what is clearly impersonal before accepting as a fundamental datum anything like the idea of a metaphysical ground of being morality principle that “loves her”.
Finally, if she was actually being as rationally rigorous as triumphalist Christians are wont to treat her, then she should have actually studied professional cutting edge contemporary philosophers. She may have learned that they are statistically speaking predominantly atheistic, predominantly moral realists, and predominantly metaphysical realists too before in ignorance concluding that atheistic philosophies either “probably” could not or would not endorse her moral, mathematical, or metaphysical realisms. If she wants to go on CNN to talk about who has the more coherent philosophical positions maybe she should actually study the opinions of the majority of the experts in the field of philosophy. And maybe the average atheist would do well to do the same before they concede moral and metaphysical coherency to religious people too.
Having not done so, her philosophical conclusions and her attendant religious conversion are hasty and insufficiently careful from a rational perspective.
In a follow up post I address straight on her metaethical arguments that she has made in reply to comments challenging her decision to convert and hopefully. This post was meant to clear the way. In the meantime, below are posts where I have already worked out numerous of the points that I hope to draw on in directly rebutting Leah’s philosophy point by point (that is, to the extent that I can glean her positions at this time).
For posts on my metaethics and my virtue ethics/perfectionist/indirect consequentialist moral philosophy see below. Or scroll down past these posts to find Eric Steinhart’s posts on realist, platonist, naturalist metaphysics which avoids the mistakes Leah commits: