I’m (In)famous!

My “retirement” notice posted on SO last Sept. 1 got MUCH more attention than I expected–or wanted. Religion Dispatches has an article about the announcement and the subsequent brouhaha:

Several letters were written and a couple of questions were raised that I would like to address:
1) Q: If I no longer respect the “case for theism” sufficiently to devote professional activity (teaching, writing) to it, why do I continue to discuss these issues on SO?
A: As I indicated in the original post, much of my reluctance to write anything more about theistic arguments is that a number of outstanding philosophers, like Graham Oppy, Richard Gale, and the late, great Jordan Howard Sobel have addressed these arguments with great subtlety, penetration, and sophistication, and I just do not feel that I have that much to add to their accomplishments. In my view, the “case for theism” has been thoroughly debunked by such scholars and there just is not much reason for philosophers to devote more professional energy to the task–any more than professional scientists should devote space in their journals to debunking creationism. Professional writings should do more than keep beating dead horses.
However, there is an important distinction between one’s role as a professional academic and the role of a “public intellectual.” Debunking creationism may not be an appropriate topic to submit to Evolution or Paleobiology, but creationism is believed by millions and supported by well-funded institutions that promote it avidly. Therefore, I think, in addition to their responsibilities to their professions, scientists also have a responsibility to enter into the public discussion on these topics. Otherwise, the field is just abandoned to the creationists. The same goes with topics like global warming and the weirdly resurgent phobia about vaccinations. These issues affect the public well-being and those with the expertise need to participate in the discussion. Similarly, participating in discussions on SO is my, very modest, way of playing the role of “public intellectual.”
2) Q: The article in Religion Dispatches concludes with a quote from me that in debates on topics in the philosophy of religion we reach basic intuitions beyond which there is nowhere to go, so the discussion ends. But, should not debate question intuitions? Should not these be subject to philosophical scrutiny as much as anything else?
A: My view is that conflicting intuitions are a great place to begin a philosophical discussion, but a lousy place to end one. Of course intuitions should be examined critically; that is how a good philosophical debate can start. However, if, after a long chain of argument, patiently examining premises and deploying examples and counterexamples, we find ourselves led right back to the same bedrock intuitions, then I think there is, eventually, reason to despair. That is precisely how some of my discussions and debates with people like Craig have gone. Craig argues that everything that begins to exist must have a cause. He somewhere illustrates the bedrock intuition underlying this claim by asking whether we could believe that a live Bengal tiger would just now materialize from thin air right here right now. Well (fortunately), of course not. But a tiger materializing IN space/time here and now, with conservation laws in place, is not at all the same kind thing as the beginning OF space/time and, concomitantly, the laws of physics. Therefore, I feel perfectly justified in not having the same intuitions about tigers as about universes. Really, in fact, I have NO intuitions about the beginning of the universe, and if I did have them, I would not trust them. The upshot is that after going round and round, Craig and the atheist seem to wind up pretty much where they started, and it is not clear where you go from there.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    You write: “Craig argues that everything that begins to exist must have a cause. He somewhere illustrates the bedrock intuition underlying this claim by asking whether we could believe that a live Bengal tiger would just now materialize from thin air right here right now. But a tiger materializing IN space/time here and now, with conservation laws in place, is not at all the same kind thing as the beginning OF space/time and, concomitantly, the laws of physics. Therefore, I feel perfectly justified in not having the same intuitions about tigers as about universes. Really, in fact, I have NO intuitions about the beginning of the universe, and if I did have them, I would not trust them.

    Perhaps Craig’s example is not the best. The intuition at hand here is not “Tigers don’t materialize out of nothing, therefore universes don’t either”. Rather the intuition is “nothing stays nothing”. This I think is a very strong intuition, for if out of nothing something could come, then it wouldn’t really be nothing, but rather nothing plus the potential of becoming something. Thus it follows that nothing begins to exist without some cause.

    On the other hand it seems to me that “Nothing begins to exist without some cause” presupposes the existence of time. Time must be there for “begin” to make sense. It is here where I find a problem with Craig’s argument, for I don’t see how the scientific Big-Bang model entails that the universe “began” to exist some 15 billion years ago. After all the idea is that at the Big-Bang itself there is no space and no time; so nothing “began” to exist at the Big-Bang. After the Big-Bang a lot of things began to exist caused, ultimately, by the Big-Bang event itself. But the Big-Bang event itself, it seems to me, did not “begin” and so does not require a cause.

    My point is this: Theists claim that the uncaused cause is God. I don’t see why the naturalist may not claim that the uncaused cause is the Big-Bang.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,

    Thanks for your comment and happy new year! Your last sentence is precisely my position. Both theists and atheists begin with an uncaused brute fact. For Craig it is God, and for me it is the universe. The reason why the "ex nihilo nihil fit" intuition has no appeal to me is that it illicitly reifies "nothing." If "nothing" is assumed to be a ghostly "something"–a vast empty space, say–then indeed there is a question of how something could arise out of this vast emptiness. But "nothing–in the sense relevant here–does not name or refer to anything, not even emptiness. There is no "nothing." The problem is the limits of language. When we say that before the big bang there was nothing, this seems to posit a something which we cal "nothing" that existed prior to the big bang. It is much better to put it this way: There wasn't anything before the big bang. No space, no time, nothing. With the disappearance of "nothing" as the name of a ghostly, pre-cosmic matrix of some sort, the intuition about something coming "from" nothing has no anchor.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14642725101009530480 Larry Tanner

    Dr. Parsons,

    Just wondering if you have posted/published a reply to Paul Herrick, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/paul_herrick/parsons.html.

    Or maybe's there little value in responding? Herrick's argument is interesting and well presented, but I'm not sure I see much that hasn't been counter-argued before.

    I'm curious since it was brought up at Uncommon Descent.

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/why-the-moon-isn%E2%80%99t-made-of-green-cheese-part-one-of-a-reply-to-professor-keith-parsons/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07756050919206832506 Peter Lupu

    Prof. Parsons,

    First, let me note that I am an atheist. I have always been an atheist. Nevertheless, I am deeply interested in issues in Philosophy of Religion; I view examining these issues as an important inquiry into the human condition; and I respect responsible, sincere, and serious thinkers about issues in the Philosophy of Religious regardless of the side they take.

    Second, I wish neither to critique nor applaud your decision. I take it for granted that your decision is the product of a sincere contemplation of your intellectual interests at this time and a self-reflective assessment of the subject matter you have been seriously examining for many years. A person’s somber and earnest decision about such matters must be respected. I dare comment about it only because you have made your decision public and it generated predictable reactions on both sides of the theism/atheism divide. And once you have made your decision public, it took a life of its own as I am sure you are painfully aware.

    And now to my comments. Consider the concept of infinity. It took over two thousand years (perhaps more) before human intellectual ingenuity was able to produce a theory (set theory) that was sufficiently precise so as to make sense of the concept of infinity. And yet even at the present time not all questions are settled. Another example is the atomistic conception of matter. There are numerous examples that follow the same historical path.

    The early beginnings of a concept or idea almost always exhibit a lot of confusion, vagueness, lack of clarity, puzzlement, etc. Nevertheless, despite what frequently appears to be a lost cause, the persistent and collective work by many often yields surprising and very rich results. The motivation that fuels the hard work invested by many in such inquiries is a sense or intuition that there simply must be something revelatory about the concept in question. And while this intuition is far from veridical, it nonetheless inspires pursuing further the inquiry in the face of what often appears as insurmountable difficulties. During the tortuous history of a maturing concept many thinkers must have experienced the same sense of exhaustion and a temporary or permanent loss of interest as you now feel.

    I do not pretend to know whether the issues and debates surrounding theism will ultimately yield fruitful results. I am, however, fairly certain that these issues offer the opportunity to confront some of the most haunting, deepest, and most important problems of the human condition. At the least, these issues encourage examining the question of how to reconcile our own sense of meaning, purpose, and value within the vast span of a meaningless, purposeless, and indifferent universe. And this question, it seems to me, cannot be dismissed as a “fraud”.

    I sincerely regret that you have arrived at the conclusion to say “Goodbye to All That”; but as I said above I respect your decision. I thank you for your contribution thus far to the subject and I wish you all the best in your future pursuits.

    Peter Lupu

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07756050919206832506 Peter Lupu

    (This post is divided into two parts because it turned out to be too long)

    Prof. Parsons,

    I.
    First, let me note that I am an atheist. Nevertheless, I am deeply interested in the Philosophy of Religion. I respect responsible, sincere, and serious people who explore issues in the Philosophy of Religious regardless of the side they take. Second, I wish neither to critique nor applaud your decision. I take it for granted that your decision is the product of a sincere contemplation of your intellectual interests at this time and a self-reflective assessment of the subject matter you have been seriously examining for many years. A person’s somber and earnest decision about such matters must be respected. I dare comment about it only because you have made your decision public and it generated predictable reactions on both sides of the theism/atheism divide. And once you have made your decision public, it took a life of its own as I am sure you are painfully aware.

    (Cont.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07756050919206832506 Peter Lupu

    II
    And now to my comments. Consider the concept of infinity. It took over two thousand years (perhaps more) before human intellectual ingenuity was able to produce a theory (set theory) that was sufficiently precise so as to make sense of the concept of infinity. And yet even at the present time not all questions are settled. Another example is the atomistic conception of matter. There are numerous examples that follow the same historical path.

    The early beginnings of a concept or idea almost always exhibit a lot of confusion, vagueness, lack of clarity, puzzlement, etc. Nevertheless, despite what frequently appears to be a lost cause, the persistent and collective work by many often yields surprising and very rich results. The motivation that fuels the hard work invested by many in such inquiries is a sense or intuition that there simply must be something revelatory about the concept in question. And while this intuition is far from veridical, it nonetheless inspires pursuing further the inquiry in the face of what often appears as insurmountable difficulties. During the tortuous history of a maturing concept many thinkers must have experienced the same sense of exhaustion and a temporary or permanent loss of interest as you now feel.

    I do not pretend to know whether the issues and debates surrounding theism will ultimately yield fruitful results. I am, however, fairly certain that these issues offer the opportunity to confront some of the most daunting, deepest, and most important problems of the human condition. At the least, these issues encourage examining the question of how to reconcile our own sense of meaning, purpose, and value with the vast span of a meaningless, purposeless, and indifferent universe. And this question, it seems to me, cannot be dismissed as a “fraud”.

    I sincerely regret that you have arrived at the conclusion to say “Goodbye to All That”; but as I said above I respect your decision. I thank you for your contribution thus far to the subject and I wish you all the best in your future pursuits.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Hey folks, check out more Parsons-bashing here:

    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/01/non-story-of-year.html

    Who is Edward Feser?

    Actually, I love it when these types get nasty. Makes my day. I hear the nastiness for what it is–a squeal of rage and fear, rage that anyone would question their sacrosanct dogmas and fear that we atheists might be right.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Mr. Tanner,

    No, I have not replied to Mr. Herrick yet. Thanks for your interest. He responded at GREAT length to my little essay, and I have not had time to give it the attention it needs. Anyway, I'll probably (despite my "retirement") get to it in a few months.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07756050919206832506 Peter Lupu

    Sorry about the repeat; I thought the first post was rejected.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Mr. Tanner,

    I did take a brief look at the essay on the Uncommon Descent site. I note that it says that if I do not reply to the Herrick critique, I am guilty of "ignominious retreat." Ignominious retreat? Are Professor Herrick and I involved in some sort of battle or duel so that we are guilty of cowardice if we do not reply blow for blow? Hmmm. Besides, I consider pretty much everything those ID types do to be ignominious.

    Anyway, as I say, the Herrick critique was several times longer than my original essay and raises many important points that will need serious attention. I have a job with many responsibilities and I have to make my contributions to SO and Secular Web in my spare time (and, contrary to what the radio pundits tell you, we university professors do not sit around the faculty club all day sipping Chablis and making disparaging comments about God, patriotism, and NASCAR). I am amazed at how prolific some bloggers are. What do they do for a living that leaves them that much time?

    I should be done with current writing commitments in a month or two and maybe can devote time to the Herrick piece then. Thanks again for your interest.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05912821497230325956 Mickey

    Dr. Parsons,

    Consider what you said in 1998:

    "Many atheists seem to feel that the job of rebutting theism is done and that further such efforts would be an exercise in slaying the slain. I regard this as a most unfortunate attitude. Due to the work of a number of exceptionally qualified theistic philosophers, the defense of theism has taken a number of interesting turns in recent years. I believe that these arguments merit serious critical evaluation."

    http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/keith_parsons/lively.html

    Has the case for theism become a "fraud" so quickly? I find that hard to believe.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Mickey,

    Thanks for your question. As I said in my original notice, I do hope others will carry on the good fight. As for me, I've criticized theistic arguments since my master's thesis in 1982, and, yes, it is now time for me to move on. Since 1998 the "serious critical attention" has been given to these arguments, and I do not have much more to add to that critique.

    I do regret using the word "fraud" since that inevitably implies intentional deceit (despite my immediately following disclaimer). I should have said "vacuous." Though I retain enough interest in religious issues to continue to contribute to SO, professionally I plan to do other things.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05912821497230325956 Mickey

    Dr. Parsons,

    I was not hung up on your use of the word 'fraud'. I never meant to treat it as a jab towards theists themselves, although I do look at it as implying that the case for theism is laughable; and therein lies my problem.

    I just find it so hard to believe that the case for theism fell apart so much after your assessment in 1998. Indeed, I have followed the debate to the best of my ability, and it seems to be just more of the same sort of stuff.

    Mind you, it is clear to me that skeptics offer better argument than their counterparts. But, that said, the skeptics' attack is not as disarming as you make it seem, nor are the theists' arguments that lame. Indeed, the arguments from thinkers such as Pruss, Maydole and Nagasawa are challenging. Wouldn't you agree? If you were to agree, then it would seem excessive for you to attribute the case for theism with such poverty.

    If you had just said that you have nothing more to contribute than that which has already been said, then I'd be silent. In fact, I'd be sympathetic. But you didn't, and so I think you were a bit heavy handed in your assessment.

    Best Regards,
    -m

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Mickey,

    Nah, when I look at even the latest stuff (e.g., Nagasawa), it really just sounds like more of the same to me. The "case for theism" has been made many times, and, though the details of arguments change, the basic problem remains the same: God is needed only if the universe is not enough. 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. Every attempt I have seen to show that God, uniquely, does not require a cause (because he is somehow "necessary," etc,)or that the universe cannot be the ultimate brute fact has been a dismal failure. After a while ennui sets in, and I look for other, more interesting issues towards which to devote my remaining time.

    Of course, there is a great deal of subjectivity in any such judgment, so if these topics sound interesting to you, go for it!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05912821497230325956 Mickey

    Dr. Parsons,

    In regards to your quotation, I'd say that it appears wrongheaded. The negation of 'If everything requires a cause' is 'not everything requires a cause' rather than 'anything can exist without a cause'. My rendition avoids the use of the modal idioms and commits us to 'something' not needing a cause rather than 'anything'.

    As for the rest of your post, I say OK. To each his own, I suppose. But, I still think you were a bit heavy handed.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Mickey,

    I do think that my remarks were "heavy handed" in one sense. There are still ways of making a "case for theism" that I think are intellectually respectable, and personally appealing. Consider John Hick's An Interpretation of Religion. Hick begins by admitting that naturalism is a completely reasonable option, but argues that a religious approach is also. This is getting off on the right foot. Whenever I see yet another appeal to the Principle of Sufficient Reason or yet another version of a modal ontological argument, my response is "ZZZZZZZZ." Hick then proceeds to argue for religious pluralism. Nothing wishy-washy or soft-minded here. The second edition contains sharp rebuttals to Plantinga and other critics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14642725101009530480 Larry Tanner

    For what it's worth, I've jotted down my impressions of Herrick's essay on my own blog.

    http://larrytanner.blogspot.com/2011/02/it-takes-more-than-just-having.html

    Best,

    LT


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