Feser Insults Readers of www.infidels.org

Here’s the insult.

And one’s more gullible followers—people like the www.infidels.org faithful who have been buying up The God Delusion by the bushel basket—will be thrilled to have some new piece of smart-assery to fling at their religious friends in lieu of a serious argument.

LINK

Speaking of “smart-assery,” Pot, meet kettle.

I’m not sure why Feser thinks that the readers of www.infidels.org or this blog (secularoutpost.infidels.org) blindly agree with whatever the New Atheists have written, but he’s wrong. Allow me to do my best to channel my “inner Feser” and spew some of his remarks right back at him.

Very good points, Ed, it might seem–except that (as everyone who knows something about the philosophy of religion is aware) that is not what atheists who specialize in the philosophy of religion say. In fact, not one of the best and most capable atheist philosophers of religion in the history of philosophy ever gave this Courtier’s Reply — not Mackie, not Rowe, not Schellenberg, not Q. Smith, not Draper, not Martin, not Oppy, not Phillipse, not Sobel, not Salmon, not Grunbaum, not Fales, not Post, not Tooley, not Gale, not Le Poidevin, not Maitzen, not McCormick, not Drange….

Feser himself admits that “atheist academics” have criticized the New Atheists. And, of course, we can add onto this the fact that we’ve been fairly critical of the new atheists on this blog. But, hey, why should those facts stop Feser from just gratuitously insulting the Internet Infidels and its readers?

I’ve just about finished reading Feser’s book, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. I think Feser makes some hard-hitting, probably fatal, objections to the arguments used by the “new atheists.” While Feser usually maintains a distinction between the new atheists and atheists who specialize in the philosophy of religion, his rhetoric sometimes gets the better of him. It’s as if he moves from “the New Atheists make mistakes A, B, and C” to “all atheists makes mistakes A, B, and C,” which is, of course, fallacious. I see something similar in Feser’s gratuitous insult to our readers.

See also: “Do Christian Apologists Spend Too Much Time Focusing on their Weaker Opponents?

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Ryan M

    I had to stop browsing his blog because I was too tempted to look at the comment sections. There are far too many theists there that seem to suffer from a sort of ‘Theist-defenderism’. That is, they will defend any theist at any cost so long as it is against an atheist, and will say practically anything to do so regardless of how juvenile or irrational their remarks are. I also got the impression that they often treat nearly any atheist (Philosopher or otherwise) as an imbecile in the same way many lay atheists treat William Lane Craig to be intellectually disabled.

  • http://mountincompetence.wordpress.com/ Nolan

    I’d love to hear some elaboration on Feser’s book. I’m planning on reading it soon, and am interested in checking with the more learned to see if my impressions of the book turn out the same.

    What arguments against the new atheists are fatal? And further, what arguments against the new atheists don’t apply to the atheist philosophers of religion that you list?

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      Off the top of my head, the big one (but by no means the only one) was his point that no 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.

      • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

        “no respectable theologian or theistic philosopher has ever made the claim, “everything has a cause.””

        When stated this way, it makes it seem that Feser is guilty of a No-true-Scotsman fallacy. But of course he’s not. The point is not that no theologian has ever made an argument with this as a premise. Who really knows anyway? The point is that this is a bad argument and that there are much better versions of the cosmological argument. To act as if one has defeated the cosmological argument by showing that “everything has a cause” undermines theism is to reveal one’s own ignorance.

        In any event, the claim that “no respectable theologian ever said X” is just bullshit. Who cares? And who decides who is a respectable theologian? Putting it this way invites concerns about appeals to authority. The point is that there are different versions of the cosmological argument that are not as easy to defeat.

        • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

          If it’s bullshit, then please provide a counterexample.

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            I didn’t mean bullshit as in false; I meant bullshit as in unnecessary, irrelevant, purely rhetorical, and probably not backed by sound justification.

            I am not a scholar of the history of theology. But can you, or Feser prove that no theologian has ever said that everything has a cause?

            I honestly have no idea whether that is so. He is correct that the “everything has a cause” argument is not a good argument and not representative of what defenders of the cosmological argument typically say. I am not questioning that. I just think that it is hard to justify negative existential claims and, in this case, the negative existential is completely irrelevant.

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            Another point that is worth making is that philosophers/theologians don’t always assert all that they are committed to. The presentation and details of many versions of the cosmological argument are often obscure enough that it is not always obvious precisely what the particular theologian is asserting or committed to.

            I don’t think that it is unreasonable to suppose that some versions of the cosmological argument might be committed to the claim that everything has a cause even if that claim is not asserted. One might even think this of the Kalam. After all the Kalam makes what might appear to be an unjustified distinction, that between things that begin to exist and things that do not begin to exist. I can imagine an argument to the effect that if you assert that everything that begins to exist has a cause, then you are committed to the claim that everything has a cause since there are no things that did not begin to exist. One might argue that the notion of something not beginning to exist is incoherent, for example.

            I am not endorsing the above analysis of the Kalam, I am just using it as an example of an analysis that would entail that defenders of a version of the CA are committed to the claim that everything has a cause.

            Furthermore, it is very easy to formulate the Principle of Sufficient Reason in such a way that an obvious interpretation of it is that everything has a cause. Here is Peter Kreeft on his website:

            It [the first cause argument] is based on an instinct of mind that we all share: the instinct that says everything needs an explanation. Nothing just is without a reason why it is. Everything that is has some adequate or sufficient reason why it is.

            Philosophers call this the Principle of Sufficient Reason. We use it every day, in common sense and in science as well as in philosophy and theology. If we saw a rabbit suddenly appear on an empty table, we would not blandly say, “Hi, rabbit. You came from nowhere, didn’t you?” No, we would look for a cause, assuming there has to be one. Did the rabbit fall from the ceiling? Did a magician put it there when we weren’t looking? If there seems to be no physical cause, we look for a psychological cause: perhaps someone hypnotized us. As a last resort, we look for a supernatural cause, a miracle. But there must be some cause. We never deny the Principle of Sufficient Reason itself.

            Kreeft does not say, “everything has a cause” but in his discussion of the PSR, he says that we always look for the cause of a thing and “there must be some cause.” Now, probably he is just being sloppy, but I don’t know. One could be excused for thinking that Kreeft is committed to the claim that everything has a cause.

            By the way, the Institute for Creation Research website explicitly says, “everything has a cause.” But they are not respectable.

            I think that professional philosophers are often guilty of a certain kind of argument snobbery. We know that the “everything has a cause” argument is bad and we can’t imagine an honest, intelligent person making it. But it is made all the time in Churches, on websites, in books. It is not wrong for us to counter the argument even if it is not being offered by “respectable” theologians.

          • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

            I see your point and now realize I may have been sloppy in my wording. In my attempt to be brief in my original comment to Nolan, I may have been too brief. In fairness to Feser, he doesn’t use the exact words “respectable theologians and philosophers,” which is why I didn’t put that phrase in quotation marks.

            If I remember correctly, what Feser does is this. First, he identifies the theologians and philosophers who he considers the best representatives for classical theism. I think his list includes the following names: Thomas Aquinas, Leibniz, Samuel Clarke, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, and so forth. Second, he states that none of those authors have ever defended the claim, “Everything has a cause.” The point is that Feser doesn’t make the sweeping negative existential claim you think he does (due to my terse remarks).

            Although, as you point out, it’s not relevant to the argument, nevertheless it would be interesting to find out if there has ever been a theologian or theistic philosopher who actually did (or does) defend the claim, “Everything has a cause.”

      • Keith Parsons

        Jeff,

        You say “no respectable theologian or theistic philosopher has ever made the claim, “everything has a cause.” I am not sure how you mean to restrict the meaning of “cause.” if “cause” can encompass “reason,” as it has for various notable philosophers, then, most definitely some very respectable philosophers have said that everything has a cause. They said it by endorsing the principle of sufficient reason. Leibniz was a respectable philosopher if anyone ever was. Here is what Anthony Grayling says about Leibniz and the Principle of Sufficient Reason, from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy:

        “Leibniz held that the principle of sufficient reason is fundamental to all reasoning.It states, in his own words , that ‘there can be found no fact that is true or existent, or any true proposition without there being a sufficient reason for its being so and not otherwise, although we cannot know these reasons in most cases.’ In short, the principle is that nothing is without a reason for its being, and for being as it is: nihil fit sine ratione.”

        The PSR has explicit defenders to this day, and, I would submit, it at least implicitly underlies various theistic arguments. Hence, as I argue in another post, the “New Atheists” might express things crudely, but they are not really that far off in many of their claims.

        Stop cringing!

        • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

          That’s very interesting. I don’t know if I think “cause” should encompass “reason” or not. I haven’t read Leibniz, so I have nothing to say about that. It would be interesting to get Feser’s response.

          But let’s suppose “cause” should (or does) encompass “reason.” Then Leibniz would be a valid counter-example.

          Do you think Dawkins had Leibniz in mind when writing The God Delusion?

          • Edward Feser

            Hi Jeff,

            It is standard in Scholastic writers, and I think in other traditions too, to distinguish “cause” and “reason,” certainly where “cause” means “efficient cause.” For “reason” in this context means something like “that which makes something intelligible or explicable,”
            whereas “cause” means “that which brings something into existence or changes it in some way.” These are just different notions, even if they are related. To
            have an efficient cause is one way of having an explanation or reason, but it is not the only way. Being a necessary existent, or pure actuality, or absolutely simple, or something whose essence = existence, would be other ways of having an explanation, and ways of having an explanation without having a cause.
            Hence Scholastic writers would say that everything has an explanation or reason, while denying that everything has a cause. And there is no exception in the case of God: he has an explanation too (precisely insofar as he is pure actuality, necessary, etc.), even if he lacks an efficient cause.

            Now, Descartes is one writer who sometimes seems to use “cause” and “explanation” interchangeably. E.g. his argument in Meditation III seems to entail that he thinks of God as self-causing. By this he seems to mean “self-explanatory” (or had better mean that,
            anyway, since like Aquinas I would say that the idea of a self-causing thing is incoherent if what is meant is efficient cause). For that reason the argument in Meditation III also arguably entails that “everything has a cause.” However (a) this is an implication of the
            argument rather than an explicit premise, (b) by “cause” he arguably means explanation, (c) he doesn’t make an exception in the case of God, since he thinks God too has a “cause,” and (d) his argument is in other ways very different from the hoary straw man “everything has a cause, so the universe has a cause.” (It’s the argument in which he’s trying to argue for God as what preserves the Cartesian ego in existence.)

            Here’s what, as far as I can see — and believe me, I’ve looked — you never find: Any theistic philosopher who says “everything has a cause” or “everything has an
            explanation,” but then goes on to make an exception in the case of God. In the first place, almost none of them would in fact agree with the claim that “everything has a cause.” And those rare writers who might say this (e.g. Descartes) don’t make an exception in the case of God, don’t seem to use the
            claim as a premise anyway, arguably mean “explanation” by “cause,” and certainly aren’t giving the straw man argument people like Russell attack.

            Leibniz does think everything has an explanation, but he would include God in that “everything.” And as he uses “explanation” it doesn’t mean “efficient cause.” God is in Leibniz’s view his own sufficient reason, but not his own efficient cause.

            (BTW, in chapter 2 of my forthcoming book Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, there
            is a very long and detailed defense of the principle of causality and the principle of sufficient reason and a discussion of their relationship to one another. I there pursue the matter in much greater depth than in TLS or in my book on Aquinas and respond to all the usual
            objections.)

          • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

            There is a lot to say here, and perhaps I just need to wait until your book comes out. But perhaps a few comments are in order now.

            There are many potential objections to scholastic metaphysics and that fact that one atheist philosopher of religion refuses to engage with you about those objections is really pretty irrelevant to the truth. Parsons doesn’t want to engage, you aren’t going to change his mind. My advice would be to look for someone else who will engage. I’m sure you can find somebody.

            Here is one objection to the concept of necessary existence as an explanation: That a being exists in every possible world is not a full explanation of its existence. That is to say, if a being exists in every possible world, that does not preclude there being a fuller explanation for that being’s existence.

            For example, suppose there is a being that is created in every possible world. In other words, the being exists in every possible (thus exists necessarily), but is also created in every possible world. (I think we have to assume that the being is timelessly created; but I don’t think that the scholastics would have a problem with that notion. Correct me if I am wrong).

            So, this being exists necessarily but there is more to the explanation of why it exists. In every world in which it exists, it exists because it was created. This shows that the fact that a being exists necessarily does not fully explain why it exists. Specifically, it does not explain why the being exists necessarily. A being that exists in possible world because it is created in every possible world possesses necessary existence for a different reason than one that is not created in every possible world.

            I develop this line of objection more here. As I said there is much more to say about this stuff. I think that we can stop worrying about Parson’s interest or lack thereof in debating and just talk about the issues.

            [Edit: My comments about Parson's being unwilling to engage were made before I saw his recent invitation. I hope the debate is enlightening.]

          • Edward Feser

            Hello Jason,

            Very briefly, Thomists and other Scholastic philosophers don’t, in the first place, buy the whole possible worlds framework in terms of which necessity is usually discussed these days. We think that’s just a wrongheaded way of approaching modality. In general, we’re just not at all approaching the sorts of issues that arise on blogs like this one the way recent theistic philosophers of religion tend to do, and in fact would reject a lot of what they do. (This may sound eccentric but in fact, historically speaking, it’s recent theistic philosophy of religion that is eccentric.)

            I’ve discussed the Thomist way of approaching necessity in the context of theistic arguments in my treatment of the Third Way in my book on Aquinas. I discuss the issue more generally in the forthcoming Scholastic Metaphysics book.

            Re: Parsons, I wasn’t trying to get him to engage with the ideas. I was just trying to get brief answers to those four questions, which need not have required any engagement if he wasn’t interested in that. Anyway, it seems from the other thread that he may respond to them after all, so we’ll see what happens.

          • Keith Parsons

            Jeff,

            Ed makes some important and useful clarifications and distinctions here, but let’s get back to your initial concern. You said that you “cringed” at the purported solecism of the “New Atheists” [NAs] in saying that theists hold that everything has a cause. Now, if the kind of cause they were talking about is efficient cause, then clearly this is silly. God, of course, has no efficient cause. Anything that had an efficient cause would not be called “God” by theists. However, as I argue in my post “Can the Arguments of the ‘New Atheists’ be made Stronger?” some of the claims of the NAs are imprecise but are in the conceptual ballpark, so to speak, of something true and significant. Such is the case here. Indeed, I am sure that even Dawkins realizes that theists do not hold that God had an efficient cause, and he meant
            “cause” in a looser or vaguer sense.

            You rebut the NAs by saying “No respectable theologian or theistic philosopher ever said
            ‘everything has a cause.’” But the notion of “reason” as it is invoked by Leibniz in the PSR, subsumes or at least broadly intersects the idea of “cause.” For Leibniz, the sufficient reason for our world is that God freely chose to actualize it out all the other possible worlds. God’s creative act is certainly a form of causation. Further, the “reason” for something in the sense of the PSR is not just what makes it intelligible, but what makes it intelligible in the sense of accounting for the fact that it is and for what it is. That is, the sufficient reason for X explains why X is and why X is what it is. The concepts “sufficient reason,”
            “explanation,” and “cause” are therefore quite closely related, and maybe a professional biologist (a non-philosopher) like Dawkins can be excused for muddling them a bit.

            Indeed, the NAs could have avoided problem altogether if, instead of saying that theists think
            that everything has a cause, they had said that theists think that everything has an explanation, a claim Ed appears to endorse. The NAs could then have
            proceeded to argue that it is eminently reasonable to hold that some things can exist without an explanation, i.e. as brute facts, and, further, that the notion of a self-explanatory being seems no more useful than the idea of a self-caused one.

            The upshot is that,
            like you, Jeff, I wish that non-philosophers would leave philosophy to the professionals. I certainly would never presume to instruct Dawkins on evolutionary biology. But the claim that theists say that everything has a cause seems more of a peccadillo than something that should induce cringes or outrage. You most admirably want to bend over backwards to be fair to theists, and thereby set a high standard all of us
            should emulate. Still, charity should not blind us to the value of arguments which, with a bit of work, might be made most respectable.

            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 acause, 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):

            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.
            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.

  • Steve Ruble

    “It’s as if he moves from “the New Atheists make mistakes A, B, and C” to “all atheists makes mistakes A, B, and C,” which is, of course, fallacious.”

    It’s not a subtle move, either. As I recall, in the preface or introduction to “The Last Superstition” Feser paraphrases Dawkins as saying that people who don’t believe in evolution are “ignorant, stupid, insane and wicked”, then applies the same judgement to secularists. (Of course Dawkins never actually said that, but it didn’t stop Feser from putting it in quotes.)

  • ccmnxc

    While I think your assessment of the fact that Feser’s comment about infidels.org was presumably unfair, I don’t agree with your attempt to turn the tables, since I think the parallel is somewhat crippled.
    When a New Atheist brings up the whole “Everything has/had a cause” straw man, the strikingly common impression (and it is admittedly, only an impression), is that they believe this is what defenders of Christianity in general think, without distinction between its more and less able defenders. With the Courtier’s Reply, Feser makes the point clear that this is a New Atheist tactic and seems more careful to discriminate between the New Atheists and some of the more sophisticated defenders of atheism (if not in the article, then at least in his writings in general). So an attempt to parody his spiel where he rattles off the names of other Christian philosophers, in a seeming attempt to paint him as a hypocrite, seems off. My two cents, anyways.

    • ccmnxc

      “While I think your assessment of the fact ”

      Should read: “While I agree with your assessment of the fact…”

  • Paul Carrano

    I’m interested that you list Paul Draper (who it might be worth noting is actually agnostic) as “one of the best and most capable atheist philosophers of religion”. I’m currently a student of his and I’m curious to hear more about his reputation. What work is he best know for?

    • Ryan M

      I’ll let Jeff talk about his reputation, but otherwise Draper has said in recent years that he is more so an atheist in regards to the traditional God of theism and that he tentatively affirms ietsism. You can find him saying that here: http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/2012/05/11/paul_drapers_bu/

      • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

        Ryan beat me to it. He linked to precisely the same site I was going to mention. That’s where Draper identifies as an atheist with respect to the traditional omnimax God, but otherwise as an ietsiest.

        Regarding his reputation, he is arguably the leading expert in the world on the evidential argument from evil for atheism.

        • Paul Carrano

          Thanks (both of you) for the information!

  • Frances Janusz

    It occurs to me that there is a pertinent question arising from this which is being ignorred. Is the “point” of counter-apologetics/philosophy or religion? The answer could be different for different people or in different circumstances.

    When I was a child and the local Catholic priest came to give us instruction he would say “We know there must be a God or the universe wouldn’t be here. It’s not possible that it could exist if it wasn’t caused. It’s like if I was to say “This ink satin on this desk – nothing caused it. It’s just appeared.” I’m not quoting word for word because we’re going back a long way, but still I am quite convinced that he was arguing for temporal first cause as the only way of explaining the existence of the universe. And perhaps more importantly, that was what I understood the argument to be and that was an argument which I considered at the time to be irrefutable.

    So when you dismiss those who argue against the first cause argument in that unsophisticated form, you might want to consider what they are trying to do. When you argue against it as set out by Aquinas, your primary motivation may be to advance top-level academic philosophical debate and that is a noble aim, but a more modest aim of arguing with those a little further down the philosophical food-chain is also a perfectly proper goal (assuming you accept that, all other things being equal, it is better to have true beliefs than false ones)

    This will also account for why apologists go for Dawkins rather than more obscure academics. Dawkins may not be at the top of the tree philosophically, but he carries a lot of clout with the public and that is why he is a more worthwhile target, from the apologists POV, than say Paul Draper, excellent though I’m sure the latter is.

    Anyway, what actually is a “New Atheist”? I’ve never quite managed to work out what their distinguishing charcateristic is.


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