Response 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.

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