Kenny on TLS in TLS

Sir Anthony Kenny very kindly reviews The Last Superstition in the July 22 issue of The Times Literary Supplement.  From the review:

Edward Feser’s book The Last Superstition sets out to give a definitive death blow to all of [the New Atheists] at once.  

In this good cause he does not hesitate to use the same weapons as his atheist adversaries: tendentious paraphrase, imputation of bad faith, outright insult.  Fortunately, the book contains far more argument than invective, and in order to keep the reader’s attention Feser has no need to descend to vulgar abuse, because he has the rare and enviable gift of making philosophical argument compulsively readable.  The book fascinates because of the boldness of its metaphysical claims combined with the density of the arguments offered in their support.  One of its major merits is to present a forceful revisionist picture of the entire history of Western philosophy.

There is a popular master-narrative of the history of philosophy… Feser rightly rejects this entire story.  He tells us that abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought… It was the abandonment of Aristotelianism, he claims, that threw up the pseudo-problems that still haunt us… 

In preparation for his thesis, Feser takes the reader through the history of philosophy from the Presocratics to Aquinas.  He moves at such a steeplechase gallop that an informed reader constantly expects him to be unhorsed at some of the major fences of ancient and medieval metaphysics; but no, he keeps in the saddle despite the obstacles, and never seriously misleads the reader…

It is sometimes thought that Darwinism gave the final death blow to teleology; but that, as Feser stresses, is the opposite of the truth.  Darwinian scientists have not given up the search for final causes.  On the contrary, contemporary biologists are much more adept at discerning the functions of structures and behaviour than their ancient, medieval, or Cartesian precursors … [Darwin’s] successors propose to translate final causes into efficient causes… Feser ingeniously argues that this translation is not possible…

Feser also presents dense and plausible versions of the First and Second Ways [of Aquinas], but each of them, I believe, is ultimately fallacious… 

But Feser has serious reasons for all of his assertions.  Unlike many of the other contributors to the recent theism-atheism debate, he is always well worth arguing with.

The publisher’s blurb tells us that this book has been widely hailed as the strongest argument ever made against the New Atheists.  Having read and reviewed quite a number of other similar books, I concur with this judgment.  (The Last Superstition, in fact, is something rather more than that, and while reading it at times I felt it would have been a better book if it had never mentioned Dawkins and co at all.)  But though Feser offers decisive criticisms of the arguments for atheism, his own forceful arguments for theism, I have maintained, are less than conclusive.  The default position, after as before the debate, is surely one of agnosticism.

I am honored by and grateful for Prof. Kenny’s review.  In defense of his rejection of Aquinas’s proofs for God’s existence, Prof. Kenny refers us to arguments he has defended in his book The Five Ways and summarizes a point he defends in Aquinas on Being -- books I have profited from and which Prof. Kenny does not need me to recommend to others.  (I recommend them anyway.)  For readers who are interested, I respond to Kenny’s criticisms of Aquinas in my later book Aquinas


Rosenhouse redux

In fairness to Jason Rosenhouse, I want to call attention to some comments he makes in the combox of the recent post of his to which I replied earlier today.  First, in reply to some comments by Vincent Torley, Rosenhouse makes some remarks which include the following:

I intend to read [Feser’s book].  For what it's worth, I've actually enjoyed some of Feser's purely philosophical posts in the past.

Considering the heat that has characterized our exchange, this is very gracious, and I appreciate the kind words.  Unfortunately, he also goes on to say:

But the fact remains that in the posts that triggered this little kerfuffle he has been behaving very badly indeed. Prickly and combative is one thing, but flinging ad hominem attacks (as he did with Eric MacDonald), or calling someone sleazy and contemptible based on a gross distortion of what they said (as he did in pretending that Robin Le Poidevin was trying to make theistic philosophers look foolish by placing a bad argument in their mouths when it's completely unambiguous that he was doing no such thing) is quite another. 

None of this is fair.  First of all, as I have already noted, Rosenhouse fails to give any example of how I “grossly distorted” anything Le Poidevin said.  It is pretty obvious that what he is really upset about is that I used words like “sleazy” and “contemptible.”  But I never said that Le Poidevin himself was a sleazy or contemptible person.  For all I know, he is a very fine fellow indeed.  What I described as “sleazy” is the common atheist practice of presenting the “Everything has a cause, so the universe has a cause” straw man as if it were the basic thrust of the cosmological argument.  I cited Le Poidevin as merely one writer among others who engaged in this practice and I explicitly said that I was not claiming that he was deliberately trying to mislead his readers.  I said only that he should know better than to engage in this practice.  To say “This practice is sleazy; Le Poidevin shouldn’t use it” is very different from saying “Le Poidevin is a sleazy person.”  Again, I never said that, and would not say it.  Rosenhouse, who claims that I have not represented Le Poidevin’s views carefully, has himself not represented mine carefully.  In any event, as I’ve complained before, it is risible for Rosenhouse to try to find some gnat to strain out of my remarks while ignoring the camel of misrepresentation that so many of his fellow atheists swallow when they attack crude straw men instead of what writers like Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. actually said.

Second, I never made any ad hominem attack on Eric MacDonald, nor indeed any attack on him at all.  I simply noted that if someone is looking for advice on what to read in order to understand theology (as Coyne was), it is questionable whether “an ex-Anglican priest” who maintains that “religious beliefs and doctrines not only have no rational basis, but are, in fact, a danger to rational, evidence-based thinking” is likely to be the most objective source of advice. If Rosenhouse can’t concede even that much, then I submit that he is merely being argumentative.  

Third, Rosenhouse has a helluva nerve complaining about my aggressive tone.  In the post that began this series of exchanges between Coyne, Rosenhouse, and myself, Coyne dismissed theology as “drivel” and said that he was starting to believe that the “obscurantism” of which he accuses theologians is “deliberate.”  In his own first post, Rosenhouse characterized theology as “sewage” (!) and then dismissed my response to Coyne as a “temper tantrum.”  This despite the fact that judging from their remarks, Coyne and Rosenhouse have little or no knowledge of what the most significant theologians -- Aquinas and thinkers of similar stature -- actually had to say.  Even worse are the bizarre denizens of Coyne’s combox -- a nightmare world of ignorance, shamelessly begged questions, gratuitous nastiness, and Stalinist ideological policing if ever there was one.  And, as I pointed out in my recent post on the cosmological argument, ill-informed attacks on straw men are routine among New Atheist writers when they deal with arguments like the cosmological argument.  In response to this kind of stuff, I have indeed been aggressive, and justifiably so.  

Finally, in another combox remark I did not see before posting my most recent reply to him, Rosenhouse says this about Dennett’s treatment of the cosmological argument:

I wouldn't say this was Dennett's finest moment.  I think his desire to write at a popular-level got the better of him here, and he ought to have been a bit more careful about explaining what the issues are.

Well, kudos to Rosenhouse.  Unfortunately, he goes on halfway to take it back:

But it's still a far cry from how Feser makes it sound.  And I certainly agree with Dennett's conclusion that the lucubrations devised by theistic philosophers to prop up the argument are not compelling.

Here Rosenhouse simply misses the point again.  As I keep saying, what thinkers like Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz et al. are up to is precisely not trying to “prop up” lame arguments like the “Everything has a cause, so the universe has a cause” argument, any more than Darwinians are trying to “prop up” the claim that “Monkeys gave birth to humans.”  Yet the contrary impression is what Dennett leaves his readers with.

Still, even a halfhearted concession that Dennett’s discussion is flawed is something, and it may bring down upon Rosenhouse the wrath of the Dawkins Youth.  Hope he doesn’t get banned from his own combox!

Grow up or shut up

I’ve pointed out that the argument so many atheists like to attack when they purport to refute the cosmological argument -- namely “Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause; so God exists” or variants thereof -- is a straw man, something no prominent advocate of the cosmological argument has ever put forward.  You won’t find it in Aristotle, you won’t find it in Aquinas, you won’t find it in Leibniz, and you won’t find it in the other main proponents of the argument.  Therefore, it is unfair to pretend that refuting this silly argument (e.g. by asking “So what caused God?”) is relevant to determining whether the cosmological argument has any force.    

I’ve also noted other respects in which the cosmological argument is widely misrepresented.  Now, in response to these points, it seems to me that what a grownup would say is something like this: “Fair enough.  I agree that atheists should stop attacking straw men.  They should avoid glib and ill-informed dismissals.  They should acquaint themselves with what writers like Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. actually said and focus their criticisms on that.”  But it would appear that Jason Rosenhouse and Jerry Coyne are not grownups.  Their preferred response is to channel Pee-wee Herman:  “I know you are, but what am I?” is, for them, all the reply that is needed to the charge that New Atheists routinely misrepresent the cosmological argument.  

In particular, Rosenhouse, who is curiously silent on this charge -- though it is, after all, the point at issue -- has decided to change the subject.  Like the teenager who, when caught red-handed with the evidence of his drug use, responds by criticizing Mom and Dad’s drinking habits, Rosenhouse  works himself into an adolescent dudgeon over how I’ve allegedly misrepresented Robin Le Poidevin.  And how exactly have I misrepresented him?  That is never made clear.  I said that Le Poidevin presents a variation of the straw man as if it were “the basic” cosmological argument.  And he does.  I said that Le Poidevin presents the “more sophisticated versions” he considers later on in his book as “modifications” of that straw man.  And he does.  I did not deny that Le Poidevin addresses these more sophisticated versions.  I explicitly noted that he does.  Nor did I say that Le Poidevin claimed that Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. actually defended the straw man argument themselves.  Indeed, I quoted Le Poidevin as acknowledging that “no-one has defended a cosmological argument of precisely this form.”  Rather, I said that readers who are unfamiliar with what Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. actually wrote are liable to come away from a discussion like Le Poidevin’s with the false impression that what the major defenders of the cosmological argument are up to is, essentially, merely an attempt at a patch-up job on a manifestly feeble argument.  And I explicitly said that I was not claiming that Le Poidevin was deliberately trying to give this false impression, but rather that he should know better. 

So, again, how exactly did I misrepresent him?  It turns out that Rosenhouse’s real complaint, to the extent he has any, reduces to another adolescent trope.  My problem, you see, is that I need to lighten up.  I’m “overreacting” to what was merely a “pedagogical” exercise on Le Poidevin’s part.  Beginning his treatment of the cosmological argument with the straw man was simply Le Poidevin’s gentle way of ”introducing” a complicated topic to undergraduates.  

Well, we all know why this dodge won’t work.  Suppose a creationist writer began his exposition of Darwinism by presenting the claim that “Monkeys gave birth to humans” as “the basic” claim of the theory, of which the “more sophisticated versions” of Darwinism he would consider later were variants.  Naturally, he would have little trouble showing that this claim (which no Darwinist has ever made) is false.  But suppose he defended this odd approach as merely a “pedagogical” technique for “introducing” Darwinism to his readers.  And suppose he also held that any biologist who finds this procedure outrageous is merely “overreacting.”  Rosenhouse and Co. would, quite rightly, be unimpressed.  And neither should we be impressed by Rosenhouse’s lame defense of Le Poidevin. 

To be sure, Rosenhouse thinks he has preempted such a comparison: 

The claim that a monkey gave birth to a human is not an oversimplified version of Darwinism that might serve as a helpful stepping stone into a complex topic.  It is just a completely made up idea tossed off specifically to make evolution look foolish.  

But of course, this is no answer at all, but merely reinforces my point.  For the straw man version of the cosmological argument we’ve been discussing is no less a completely made up idea, one tossed off to make the cosmological argument look foolish.  How do we know this?  Well, here’s some pretty good evidence: First, as I keep pointing out -- and, you will note, as Rosenhouse and his ilk never deny (because they can hardly deny it) -- Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, and the other prominent defenders of the cosmological argument never gave the straw man argument.  Second, the only people who ever do pay the straw man argument much attention are atheist critics of the cosmological argument, and they typically present precisely it as a reason to dismiss the cosmological argument as foolish.

So, the cases are parallel and Le Poidevin’s procedure is no more defensible than that of our imaginary creationist.  No doubt Rosenhouse, as is his wont, will at this point just stamp his foot some more.  “The cases are not parallel!  Are not!  Are not not not not not!” 

But then, Rosenhouse isn’t one to notice when he’s merely making unsupported assertions or begging the question.  For example, in an earlier post, he had written: 

Feser seems rather taken with [the cosmological argument], but there are many strong refutations to be found in the literature.  Off the top of my head, I found Mackie's discussion in The Miracle of Theism and Robin Le Poidevin's discussion in Arguing for Atheism to be both cogent and accessible. 

I then pointed out that this merely begged the question against defenders of the cosmological argument, which (given the context) it quite obviously does.  But the obvious is never obvious enough for Rosenhouse, who in his latest post writes: 

My point was simply that I think the cosmological argument is not very good, and that I think Mackie and Le Poidevin provided cogent and accessible refutations of it.  How could I have been clearer?  I have no idea what question I was begging by expressing those particular opinions. 

Well, Prof. Rosenhouse, here’s a clue:  Whether the cosmological argument is “not very good” and whether writers like Le Poidevin and Mackie have actually “refuted” it are precisely what is at issue between yourself and defenders of the cosmological argument like me.  And merely to assume some proposition which is at issue instead of arguing for it -- as you did when, in response to my advocacy of the cosmological argument, you asserted matter-of-factly that the argument had been “refuted” by the likes of Mackie and Le Poidevin -- is a textbook instance of what logicians call “begging the question.”  But then, in between all those volumes on Aquinas and Leibniz you haven’t read, it seems there are a few logic textbooks you haven’t gotten to either.

Those who are interested in other curious examples of undefended assertion are directed to the rest of Rosenhouse’s post.  But beyond providing us with Exhibit 2,345 of the Higher Cluelessness that is the New Atheism, Rosenhouse’s remarks on this controversy are absolutely devoid of interest.  As I’ve said, in response to the points I made in my earlier post, an atheist who is also a grownup would at least be happy to acknowledge that atheists should not attack straw men and should deal instead with what the major defenders of the cosmological argument actually said.  Yet Rosenhouse can’t even bring himself to do that much before launching into his botched “Gotcha!” exercise.  And that pretty much says it all.


New ACPQ article

My article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” appears in the latest issue of the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly.  Here is the abstract:  

The “existential inertia” thesis holds that, once in existence, the natural world tends to remain in existence without need of a divine conserving cause.  Critics of the doctrine of divine conservation often allege that its defenders have not provided arguments in favor of it and against the rival doctrine of existential inertia.  But in fact, when properly understood, the traditional theistic arguments summed up in Aquinas’s Five Ways can themselves be seen to be (or at least to imply) arguments against existential inertia and in favor of divine conservation.  Moreover, they are challenging arguments, to which defenders of the existential inertia thesis have yet seriously to respond. 

The article is a supplement of sorts to the discussion of the Five Ways contained in chapter 3 of Aquinas.  It sets out the arguments in a more formal manner and is concerned less with Aquinas’s own way of stating them than with the way they have been developed and refined within the broader Thomistic tradition down to the present day.  As the abstract indicates, the paper is particularly concerned to show how each of the Five Ways – or rather, how each of the general patterns of argument that the Five Ways represent – when followed out consistently implies that the world could not in principle continue for an instant without the conserving action of God.  In the course of defending this claim the paper also responds to the contrary arguments of writers like Mortimer Adler, John Beaudoin, J. L. Mackie, and Bede Rundle.


Does morality depend on God? (Updated)

Not the way many people think it does.  A reader asks me to comment on this post by Trent Dougherty over at The Prosblogion.  Dougherty notes that if someone accepts Aristotelian essentialism, it seems to follow that he ought to allow that morality can have a foundation even if there is no God.  For from an Aristotelian point of view, what is good for a human being, and thus how we ought to treat human beings, is determined by human nature, and human nature is what it is whether or not there is a God.  Well, I think Dougherty is more or less right about that much, though I would qualify what he says in ways I’ll explain presently.  And as I’ve argued elsewhere (e.g. in The Last Superstition), it isn’t atheism per se that threatens the very possibility of morality, at least not directly.  Rather, what threatens it is the mechanistic or anti-teleological (and thus anti-Aristotelian) conception of the natural world that modern atheists are generally committed to, and which they (falsely) assume to have been established by modern science.
Keep in mind that from an Aristotelian point of view, teleology or final causality is immanent to the natural order in a way it is not immanent to artifacts, in the manner explained in my recent post on nature versus art.  To borrow an example from that post, a hammock made out of liana vines does not have its hammock-like function inherently, but only relative to an artificer who imposes it from outside.  The vines themselves, by contrast, do have their liana-like tendencies inherently, just by virtue of being liana vines.  The liana-like tendencies follow from their nature or substantial form, whereas the hammock-like tendencies do not, but result from a merely accidental arrangement (in the technical Aristotelian sense of “accidental”).  And so what is good for a liana vine – that is to say, what constitutes its flourishing as the kind of living thing it is (taking in water and nutrients, exhibiting such-and-such a growth pattern, etc.) – is determined by the ends that follow upon its nature or substantial form. 

Now, natural law theory as understood in the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition presupposes this understanding of natural objects.  Human beings, like every other natural substance, have a nature or substantial form, and what is good for them -- what constitutes their flourishing -- is determined by the ends or final causes that follow upon having that sort of nature or substantial form.  But just as we can normally determine the efficient causes of things without making reference to God, so too can we normally determine the final causes of things without making reference to God.  And thus, just as we can do physics, chemistry, and the like without making reference to God, so too can we do ethics without making reference to God, at least to a large extent.  For we can know what is good for a thing if we can know its nature, and we can know its nature by empirical investigation guided by sound (A-T) metaphysics.  At least to a large extent, then, we can know what the natural law says just from the study of human nature and apart from any sort of divine revelation.  That’s why it’s the natural law.  Goodness, or at least the possibility of it, is just natural to us (as Philippa Foot might say).

Now of course, human beings, liana vines, and everything else could not from an A-T point of view exist even for an instant unless God were conserving them in existence.  They also could not have the causal power they have even for an instant if God as first cause were not imparting that causal power to them at every moment.  All of this is (I would say) what the A-T versions of the cosmological argument, rightly understood, establish.  Similarly, human beings, liana vines, and other natural phenomena couldn’t manifest the teleology or final causality they do even for an instant if God weren’t continually “directing” them toward their ends.  That is (I would say) what the Fifth Way, rightly understood, establishes.  But just as A-T versions of the cosmological argument don’t entail that natural objects don’t have real causal power, so too the Fifth Way does not entail that natural objects don’t have inherent teleology.  To use the traditional metaphysical jargon, the reality of “secondary causes” is perfectly compatible with the A-T idea that all natural causes must ultimately at every moment derive their causal power from God; A-T firmly rejects occasionalism.  Similarly, the reality of immanent or “built in” teleology as Aristotle understood it is perfectly compatible with the idea that all teleology ultimately derives from God.  

“Ultimately” is the key word here.  It is because secondary causes are real that natural science is possible.  When we study the physical world, we are studying how physical things themselves behave given their nature, not the capricious acts of God.  And it is because immanent teleology is real that natural law is possible.  When we study ethics, we are studying what is good for human beings given their nature, not capricious divine commands.  Ultimately the facts studied by science and the facts studied by ethics depend on God, because everything depends, at every instant, on God.  In that sense, science, ethics, and everything else depend on God.  But proximately ethics can be done at least to a large extent without reference to God, just as natural science can.  In that sense, many moral truths would still be true even if, per impossibile, there were no God -- just as the periodic table of the elements would be what it is even if, per impossibile, there were no God.  (All of this is discussed in chapter 5 of Aquinas.  And see the first half of this article for a sketch of A-T natural law theory.)

Now that doesn’t mean that God is irrelevant to ethics; far from it.  For one thing, only part of the natural law can be known without reference to God.  For example, that murder, lying, adultery, dishonoring parents, etc. are contrary to the good for us can be known from an examination of human nature alone.  But the fact that God exists naturally has moral implications of its own, and since for A-T the existence of God can also be known through natural reason, there are certain very general religious obligations (such as the obligation to love God) that can be known through reason alone, and thus form part of the natural law.  (Indeed, these are our highest obligations under natural law.)  Then there is the fact that the natures of things, including human nature, derive ultimately from those ideas in the divine intellect which form the archetypes by reference to which God creates.  (In this way morality is for A-T neither independent of God nor grounded in arbitrary divine commands, as I explained in a post on the Euthyphro objection.)  Furthermore, for A-T, a complete account of moral obligation requires reference to God as legislator (even if moral obligation can proximately be explained by reference to the natural end of the will).  Finally, divine revelation is also needed for a complete account of everyday moral life.  For one thing, divine revelation discloses certain details about morality that the human intellect is too feeble reliably to discover on its own.  For another, some aspects of the natural law are so demanding that many people are capable realistically of living up to them only given the hope of a reward in the hereafter, of the sort divine revelation promises.  (Again, all of these issues are discussed in Aquinas.  See chapter 8 of the first volume of Michael Cronin’s The Science of Ethics for a useful treatment of the proximate and ultimate grounds of moral obligation.)

All the same, since to a large extent the grounds and content of morality can be known from a study of human nature alone, it follows that to a large extent morality would be what it is even if human beings existed and God did not.  For, again, morality is not based in arbitrary divine commands any more than scientific laws are expressions of some arbitrary divine whim.  From the A-T point of view, “divine command theory” (or at least the crude version of divine command theory that takes the grounds and content of morality to rest on sheer divine fiat) is, I would say, comparable to occasionalism, and similarly objectionable.  (Cf. my recent post on Ockham.)

As I say, then, atheism per se is not a direct threat to the very possibility of morality.  Someone who denied the existence of God but accepted Aristotelian essentialism could have grounds for accepting at least part of the natural law.  So too could someone who endorsed an atheistic form of Platonism (if there could be such a thing).  But to opt for a completely anti-essentialist and anti-teleological view of the world -- one which holds that the natural order is entirely mechanistic and that there is nothing beyond that order -- is, the A-T philosopher would argue, to undermine the possibility of any sort of morality at all.  For it entirely removes from the world essences and final causes, and thus the possibility of making sense of the good as an objective feature of reality.  (See The Last Superstition for details.)  And since modern atheism tends to define itself in terms of such a radically anti-teleological or mechanistic view of the world, it too is to that extent incompatible with any possible morality.

UPDATE: Frank Beckwith comments on Dougherty here.


So you think you understand the cosmological argument?

Most people who comment on the cosmological argument demonstrably do not know what they are talking about.  This includes all the prominent New Atheist writers.  It very definitely includes most of the people who hang out in Jerry Coyne’s comboxes.  It also includes most scientists.  And it even includes many theologians and philosophers, or at least those who have not devoted much study to the issue.  This may sound arrogant, but it is not.  You might think I am saying “I, Edward Feser, have special knowledge about this subject that has somehow eluded everyone else.”  But that is NOT what I am saying.  The point has nothing to do with me.  What I am saying is pretty much common knowledge among professional philosophers of religion (including atheist philosophers of religion), who – naturally, given the subject matter of their particular philosophical sub-discipline – are the people who know more about the cosmological argument than anyone else does. 

In particular, I think that the vast majority of philosophers who have studied the argument in any depth – and again, that includes atheists as well as theists, though it does not include most philosophers outside the sub-discipline of philosophy of religion – would agree with the points I am about to make, or with most of them anyway.  Of course, I do not mean that they would all agree with me that the argument is at the end of the day a convincing argument.  I just mean that they would agree that most non-specialists who comment on it do not understand it, and that the reasons why people reject it are usually superficial and based on caricatures of the argument.  Nor do I say that every single self-described philosopher of religion would agree with the points I am about to make.  Like every other academic field, philosophy of religion has its share of hacks and mediocrities.  But I am saying that the vast majority of philosophers of religion would agree, and again, that this includes the atheists among them as well as the theists.

I’m not going to present and defend any version of the cosmological argument here.  I’ve done that at length in my books Aquinas and The Last Superstition, and it needs to be done at length rather than in the context of a blog post.  The reason is that, while the basic structure of the main versions of the argument is fairly simple, the background metaphysics necessary to a proper understanding of the key terms and inferences is not.  It needs some spelling out, which is why Aquinas and The Last Superstition each devote a long chapter to general metaphysics before addressing the question of God’s existence.  The serious objections to the argument can in my view all be answered, but that too can properly be done only after the background ideas have been set out.  And that too is a task carried out in the books.

I will deal here with some of the non-serious objections, though.  In particular, what follows is intended to clear away some of the intellectual rubbish that prevents many people from giving the argument a fair hearing.  To get to the point(s), then:

1. The argument does NOT rest on the premise that “Everything has a cause.”

Lots of people – probably most people who have an opinion on the matter – think that the cosmological argument goes like this: Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause; so God exists.  They then have no trouble at all poking holes in it.  If everything has a cause, then what caused God?  Why assume in the first place that everything has to have a cause?  Why assume the cause is God?  Etc.

Here’s the funny thing, though.  People who attack this argument never tell you where they got it from.  They never quote anyone defending it.  There’s a reason for that.  The reason is that none of the best-known proponents of the cosmological argument in the history of philosophy and theology ever gave this stupid argument.  Not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne.  And not anyone else either, as far as I know.  (Your Pastor Bob doesn’t count.  I mean no one among prominent philosophers.)  And yet it is constantly presented, not only by popular writers but even by some professional philosophers, as if it were “the” “basic” version of the cosmological argument, and as if every other version were essentially just a variation on it.

Don’t take my word for it.  The atheist Robin Le Poidevin, in his book Arguing for Atheism (which my critic Jason Rosenhouse thinks is pretty hot stuff) begins his critique of the cosmological argument by attacking a variation of the silly argument given above – though he admits that “no-one has defended a cosmological argument of precisely this form”!  So what’s the point of attacking it?  Why not start instead with what some prominent defender of the cosmological argument has actually said?

Suppose some creationist began his attack on Darwinism by assuring his readers that “the basic” claim of the Darwinian account of human origins is that at some point in the distant past a monkey gave birth to a human baby.  Suppose he provided no source for this claim – which, of course, he couldn’t have, because no Darwinian has ever said such a thing – and suppose also that he admitted that no one has ever said it.  But suppose further that he claimed that “more sophisticated versions” of Darwinism were really just “modifications” of this claim.  Intellectually speaking, this would be utterly contemptible and sleazy.  It would give readers the false impression that anything Darwinians have to say about human origins, however superficially sophisticated, is really just a desperate exercise in patching up a manifestly absurd position.  Precisely for that reason, though, such a procedure would, rhetorically speaking, be very effective indeed.

Compare that to Le Poidevin’s procedure.  Though by his own admission no one has ever actually defended the feeble argument in question, Le Poidevin still calls it “the basic” version of the cosmological argument and characterizes the “more sophisticated versions” he considers later on as “modifications” of it.  Daniel Dennett does something similar in his book Breaking the Spell.  He assures us that the lame argument in question is “the simplest form” of the cosmological argument and falsely insinuates that other versions – that is to say, the ones that philosophers have actually defended, and which Dennett does not bother to discuss – are merely desperate attempts to repair the obvious problems with the “Everything has a cause” “version.”  As with our imaginary creationist, this procedure is intellectually dishonest and sleazy, but it is rhetorically very effective.  It gives the unwary reader the false impression that “the basic” claim made by Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. is manifestly absurd, that everything else they have to say is merely an attempt to patch up this absurd position, and (therefore) that such writers need not be bothered with further.

And that, I submit, is the reason why the stupid “Everything has a cause” argument – a complete fabrication, an urban legend, something no philosopher has ever defended – perpetually haunts the debate over the cosmological argument.  It gives atheists an easy target, and a way rhetorically to make even their most sophisticated opponents seem silly and not worth bothering with.  It‘s a slimy debating trick, nothing more – a shameless exercise in what I have elsewhere called “meta-sophistry.”  (I make no judgment about whether Le Poidevin’s or Dennett’s sleaziness was deliberate.  But that they should know better is beyond question.)

What defenders of the cosmological argument do say is that what comes into existence has a cause, or that what is contingent has a cause.  These claims are as different from “Everything has a cause” as “Whatever has color is extended” is different from “Everything is extended.”  Defenders of the cosmological argument also provide arguments for these claims about causation.  You may disagree with the claims – though if you think they are falsified by modern physics, you are sorely mistaken – but you cannot justly accuse the defender of the cosmological argument either of saying something manifestly silly or of contradicting himself when he goes on to say that God is uncaused.

This gives us what I regard as “the basic” test for determining whether an atheist is informed and intellectually honest.  If he thinks that the cosmological argument rests on the claim that “everything has a cause,” then he is simply ignorant of the basic facts.  If he persists in asserting that it rests on this claim after being informed otherwise, then he is intellectually dishonest.  And if he is an academic philosopher like Le Poidevin or Dennett who is professionally obligated to know these things and to eschew cheap debating tricks, then… well, you do the math.

2. “What caused God?” is not a serious objection to the argument.

Part of the reason this is not a serious objection is that it usually rests on the assumption that the cosmological argument is committed to the premise that “Everything has a cause,” and as I’ve just said, this is simply not the case.  But there is another and perhaps deeper reason.

The cosmological argument in its historically most influential versions is not concerned to show that there is a cause of things which just happens not to have a cause.  It is not interested in “brute facts” – if it were, then yes, positing the world as the ultimate brute fact might arguably be as defensible as taking God to be.  On the contrary, the cosmological argument – again, at least as its most prominent defenders (Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al.) present it – is concerned with trying to show that not everything can be a “brute fact.”  What it seeks to show is that if there is to be an ultimate explanation of things, then there must be a cause of everything else which not only happens to exist, but which could not even in principle have failed to exist.  And that is why it is said to be uncaused – not because it is an arbitrary exception to a general rule, not because it merely happens to be uncaused, but rather because it is not the sort of thing that can even in principle be said to have had a cause, precisely because it could not even in principle have failed to exist in the first place.  And the argument doesn’t merely assume or stipulate that the first cause is like this; on the contrary, the whole point of the argument is to try to show that there must be something like this.

Different versions of the cosmological argument approach this task in different ways.  Aristotelian versions argue that change – the actualization of the potentials inherent in things – cannot in principle occur unless there is a cause that is “pure actuality,” and thus can actualize other things without itself having to be actualized.  Neo-Platonic versions argue that composite things cannot in principle exist unless there is a cause of things that is absolutely unified or non-composite.  Thomists not only defend the Aristotelian versions, but also argue that whatever has an essence or nature distinct from its existence – so that it must derive existence from something outside it – must ultimately be caused by something whose essence just is existence, and which qua existence or being itself need not derive its existence from another.  Leibnizian versions argue that whatever does not have the sufficient reason for its existence in itself must ultimately derive its existence from something which does have within itself a sufficient reason for its existence, and which is in that sense necessary rather than contingent.  And so forth.  (Note that I am not defending or even stating the arguments here, but merely giving single sentence summaries of the general approach several versions of the arguments take.)

So, to ask “What caused God?” really amounts to asking “What caused the thing that cannot in principle have had a cause?”, or “What actualized the potentials in that thing which is pure actuality and thus never had any potentials of any sort needing to be actualized in the first place?”, or “What imparted a sufficient reason for existence to that thing which has its sufficient reason for existence within itself and did not derive it from something else?”  And none of these questions makes any sense.  Of course, the atheist might say that he isn’t convinced that the cosmological argument succeeds in showing that there really is something that could not in principle have had a cause, or that is purely actual, or that has a sufficient reason for its existence within itself.  He might even try to argue that there is some sort of hidden incoherence in these notions.  But merely to ask “What caused God?” – as if the defender of the cosmological argument had overlooked the most obvious of objections – simply misses the whole point.  A serious critic has to grapple with the details of the arguments.  He cannot short-circuit them with a single smart-ass question.  (If some anonymous doofus in a combox can think up such an objection, then you can be certain that Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. already thought of it too.)

3. “Why assume that the universe had a beginning?” is not a serious objection to the argument.

The reason this is not a serious objection is that no version of the cosmological argument assumes this at all.  Of course, the kalām cosmological argument does claim that the universe had a beginning, but it doesn’t merely assume it.  Rather, the whole point of that version of the cosmological argument is to establish through detailed argument that the universe must have had a beginning.  You can try to rebut those arguments, but to pretend that one can dismiss the argument merely by raising the possibility of an infinite series of universes (say) is to miss the whole point.

The main reason this is a bad objection, though, is that most versions of the cosmological argument do not even claim that the universe had a beginning.  Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Thomistic, and Leibnizian cosmological arguments are all concerned to show that there must be an uncaused cause even if the universe has always existed.  Of course, Aquinas did believe that the world had a beginning, but (as all Aquinas scholars know) that is not a claim that plays any role in his versions of the cosmological argument.  When he argues there that there must be a First Cause, he doesn’t mean “first” in the order of events extending backwards into the past.  What he means is that there must be a most fundamental cause of things which keeps them in existence at every moment, whether or not the series of moments extends backwards into the past without a beginning.

In fact, Aquinas rather famously rejected what is now known as the kalām argument.  He did not think that the claim that the universe had a beginning could be established through philosophical arguments.  He thought it could be known only via divine revelation, and thus was not suitable for use in trying to establish God’s existence.  (Here, by the way, is another basic test of competence to speak on this subject.  Any critic of the Five Ways who claims that Aquinas was trying to show that the universe had a beginning and that God caused that beginning – as Richard Dawkins does in his comments on the Third Way in The God Delusion – infallibly demonstrates thereby that he simply doesn’t know what he is talking about.)

4. “No one has given any reason to think that the First Cause is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, etc.” is not a serious objection to the argument.

People who make this claim – like, again, Dawkins in The God Delusion – show thereby that they haven’t actually read the writers they are criticizing.  They are typically relying on what other uninformed people have said about the argument, or at most relying on excerpts ripped from context and stuck into some anthology (as Aquinas’s Five Ways so often are).  Aquinas in fact devotes hundreds of pages across various works to showing that a First Cause of things would have to be all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, and so on and so forth.  Other Scholastic writers and modern writers like Leibniz and Samuel Clarke also devote detailed argumentation to establishing that the First Cause would have to have the various divine attributes.

Of course, an atheist might try to rebut these various arguments.  But to pretend that they don’t exist – that is to say, to pretend, as so many do, that defenders of the cosmological argument typically make an undefended leap from “There is a First Cause” to “There is a cause of the world that is all-powerful, all-knowing, etc.” – is, once again, simply to show that one doesn’t know what one is talking about.

5. “The argument doesn’t prove that Christianity is true” is not a serious objection to the argument.

No one claims that the cosmological argument by itself suffices to show that Christianity is true, that Jesus of Nazareth was God Incarnate, etc.  That’s not what it is intended to do.  It is intended to establish only what Christians, Jews, Muslims, philosophical theists, and other monotheists hold in common, viz. the view that there is a divine cause of the universe.  Establishing the truth of specifically Christian claims about this divine cause requires separate arguments, and no one has ever pretended otherwise.

It would also obviously be rather silly for an atheist to pretend that unless the argument gets you all the way to proving the truth of Christianity, specifically, then there is no point in considering it.  For if the argument works, that would suffice all by itself to refute atheism.  It would show that the real debate is not between atheism and theism, but between the various brands of theism.  

6. “Science has shown such-and-such” is not a serious objection to (most versions of) the argument.

There are versions of the cosmological argument that appeal to scientific considerations – most notably, the version of the kalām argument defended by William Lane Craig.  But even Craig’s argument also appeals to separate, purely philosophical considerations that do not stand or fall with the current state of things in cosmology or physics.  And most versions of the cosmological argument do not in any way depend on particular scientific claims.  Rather, they start with extremely general considerations that any possible scientific theorizing must itself take for granted – for example, that there is any empirical world at all, or any world of any sort at all.  

It is sometimes claimed (for example, by Anthony Kenny and J. L. Mackie) that some of Aquinas’s arguments for God’s existence depend on outdated theses in Aristotelian physics.  But Thomists have had little difficulty in showing that this is false.  In fact the arguments depend only on claims of Aristotelian metaphysics which can be disentangled from any outdated scientific assumptions and shown to be defensible whatever the scientific details turn out to be, precisely because (so the Thomist argues) they concern what any possible scientific theory has to presuppose.  (Naturally, I address this issue in Aquinas.)

Of course, many atheists are committed to scientism, and maintain that there are no rational forms of inquiry other than science.  But unless they provide an argument for this claim, they are merely begging the question against the defender of the cosmological argument, whose position is precisely that there are rational arguments that are distinct from, and indeed more fundamental than, empirical scientific arguments.  Moreover, defending scientism is no easy task – in fact the view is simply incoherent, or so I would argue (as I have in several previous posts).  Be that as it may, merely shouting “Science!” doesn’t prove anything.  

7. The argument is not a “God of the gaps” argument.

Since the point of the argument is precisely to explain (part of) what science itself must take for granted, it is not the sort of thing that could even in principle be overturned by scientific findings.  For the same reason, it is not an attempt to plug some current “gap” in scientific knowledge.  Nor is it, in its historically most influential versions anyway, a kind of “hypothesis” put forward as the “best explanation” of the “evidence.”  It is rather an attempt at strict metaphysical demonstration.  To be sure, like empirical science it begins with empirical claims, but they are empirical claims that are so extremely general that (as I have said) science itself cannot deny them without denying its own evidential and metaphysical presuppositions.  And it proceeds from these premises, not by probabilistic theorizing, but via strict deductive reasoning.  In this respect, to suggest (as Richard Dawkins does) that the cosmological argument fails to consider more “parsimonious” explanations than an uncaused cause is like saying that the Pythagorean theorem is merely a “theorem of the gaps” and that more “parsimonious” explanations of the “geometrical evidence” might be forthcoming.  It simply misunderstands the nature of the reasoning involved.

Of course, an atheist might reject the very possibility of such metaphysical demonstration.  He might claim that there cannot be a kind of argument which, like mathematics, leads to necessary truths and yet which, like science, starts from empirical premises.  But if so, he has to provide a separate argument for this assertion.  Merely to insist that there cannot be such an argument simply begs the question against the cosmological argument.

None of this entails that the cosmological argument is not open to potential criticism.  The point is that the kind of criticism one might try to raise against it is simply not the kind that one might raise in the context of empirical science.  It requires instead knowledge of metaphysics and philosophy more generally.  But that naturally brings us to the next point:

8. Hume and Kant did not have the last word on the argument.  Neither has anyone else.

It is often claimed that Hume, or maybe Kant, essentially had the last word on the subject of the cosmological argument and that nothing significant has been or could be said in its defense since their time.  I think that no philosopher who has made a special study of the argument would agree with this judgment, and again, that includes atheistic philosophers who ultimately reject the argument.  For example, I don’t think anyone who has studied the issue would deny that Elizabeth Anscombe presented a serious objection to Hume’s claim that something could conceivably come into existence without a cause.  Nor is Anscombe by any means the only philosopher to have criticized Hume on this issue.  I’m not claiming that everyone would agree that the objections leveled by Anscombe and others are at the end of the day correct (though I think they are), only that they would agree that it is wrong to pretend that Hume somehow ended all serious debate on the issue.  (Naturally, I discuss this issue in Aquinas.)

To take another example, Hume’s objection that the cosmological argument commits a fallacy of composition is, as I have noted in an earlier post, also greatly overrated.  For one thing, it assumes that the cosmological argument is concerned with explaining why the universe as a whole exists, and that is simply not true of all versions of the argument.  Thomists often emphasize that the argument of Aquinas’s On Being and Essence requires only the premise that something or other exists – a stone, a tree, a book, your left shoe, whatever.  The claim is that none of these things could exist even for an instant unless maintained in being by God.  You don’t need to start the argument with any fancy premise about the universe as a whole; all you need is a premise to the effect that a stone exists, or a shoe, or what have you.  (Again, see Aquinas for the full story.)  Even versions of the argument that do begin with a premise about the universe as a whole are (in my view and that of many others) not really damaged by Hume’s objection, for reasons I explain in the post just linked to.  In any event, I think that anyone who has studied the cosmological argument in any depth would agree that it is certainly seriously debatable whether Hume draws any blood here.  

In general, critics of the cosmological argument tend arbitrarily to hold it to a standard to which they do not hold other arguments.  In other areas of philosophy, even the most problematic views are treated as worthy of continuing debate.  The fact that there are all sorts of serious objections to materialist theories of the mind, or consequentialist views in ethics, or Rawlsian liberal views in political philosophy, does not lead anyone to suggest that these views shouldn’t be taken seriously.  But the fact that someone somewhere raised such-and-such an objection to the cosmological argument is routinely treated as if this sufficed to establish that the argument has been decisively “refuted” and needn’t be paid any further attention.

Jason Rosenhouse plays this game in his response to my recent post on Jerry Coyne.  Writes Rosenhouse:

Feser seems rather taken with [the cosmological argument], but there are many strong refutations to be found in the literature.  Off the top of my head, I found Mackie's discussion in The Miracle of Theism and Robin Le Poidevin's discussion in Arguing for Atheism to be both cogent and accessible.  

Does Rosenhouse really think that we defenders of the cosmological argument aren’t familiar with Mackie and Le Poidevin?  Presumably not.  But then, what’s his point?  That is to say, what point is he trying to make that doesn’t manifestly beg the question?  After all, what would Rosenhouse think of the following “objection”:

Rosenhouse seems rather taken with the materialist view of the mind, but there are many strong refutations to be found in the literature.  Off the top of my head, I found Foster’s The Immaterial Self and the essays in Koons’ and Bealer’s The Waning of Materialism to be both cogent and accessible.

Or, while we’re on the subject of what prominent mainstream atheist philosophers have said, what would he think of:

Rosenhouse seems rather taken with Darwinism, but there are many strong refutations to be found in the literature.  Off the top of my head, I found Fodor’s and Piatelli-Palmarini’s discussion in What Darwin Got Wrong and David Stove’s discussion in Darwinian Fairytales to be both cogent and accessible.

Rosenhouse’s answer to both “objections” would, I imagine, be: “Since when did Foster, Koons, Bealer, Fodor, Piatelli-Palmarini, and Stove get the last word on these subjects?”  And that would be a good answer.  But no less good is the following answer to Rosenhouse: Since when did Mackie and Le Poidevin have the last word on the cosmological argument?  

“But that’s different!” I imagine Rosenhouse would say.  But how is it different?  This brings us to one last point:

9. What “most philosophers” think about the argument is irrelevant.

Presumably, the difference is in Rosenhouse’s view summed up in another remark he makes in his post, viz. “There's a reason most philosophers are atheists” (he cites this survey as evidence).  By contrast, most philosophers are not dualists or critics of Darwinism (though in fact the number of prominent dualists is not negligible, but let that pass).  Now if what Rosenhouse means to imply is that philosophers who have made a special study of the cosmological argument now tend to agree that it is no longer worthy of serious consideration, then for reasons already stated, he is quite wrong about that.  But what he probably means to imply is rather that since most contemporary academic philosophers in general are atheists, we should conclude that the cosmological argument isn’t worth serious consideration.

But what does this little statistic really mean?  I’ll let Mr. Natural tell us what it means.  Because Rosenhouse’s little crack really amounts to little more than a fallacious appeal to authority-cum-majority.  What “most philosophers” think could be relevant to the subject at hand only if we could be confident that academic philosophers in general, and not just philosophers of religion, were both competent to speak on the cosmological argument and reasonably objective about it.  And in fact there is good reason to think that neither condition holds.

Consider first that, as I have documented in several previous posts (here, here, and here) prominent philosophers who are not specialists in the philosophy of religion often say things about the cosmological argument that are demonstrably incompetent.  Consider further that those who do specialize in areas of philosophy concerned with arguments like the cosmological argument do not tend to be atheists, as I noted here.  If expertise counts for anything – and New Atheist “Learn the science!” types are always insisting that it does – then surely we cannot dismiss the obvious implication that those who actually bother to study arguments like the cosmological argument in depth are more likely to regard them as serious arguments, and even as convincing arguments.

Now the New Atheist will maintain that the direction of causality goes the other way.  It isn’t that studying the cosmological argument in detail tends to lead one to take religious belief seriously, they will say.  It’s rather that people who already take religious belief seriously tend to be more likely to study the cosmological argument.  Of course, it would be nice to hear a non-question-begging reason for thinking that this is all that is going on.  And there is reason for doubting that this can be all that is going on.  After all, there are lots of other arguments and ideas supportive of religion that academic philosophers of religion do not devote much attention to – young earth creationism, spiritualism, and the like.  Evidently, the reason they devote more attention to the cosmological argument is that they sincerely believe, on the basis of their knowledge of it, that the argument is worthy of serious study in a way these other ideas are not, and not merely because they are predisposed to accept its conclusion.

The objection in question is also one that cuts both ways.  For why suppose that the atheist philosophers are more objective than the theist ones?  In particular, why should we be so confident that most philosophers (outside philosophy of religion) are atheists because they’ve seriously studied arguments like the cosmological argument and found them wanting?  Why not conclude instead that, precisely because they tend for other reasons to be atheists, they haven’t bothered to study arguments like the cosmological argument very seriously?  The cringe-making remarks some of them make about the argument certainly provides support for this suspicion.  (Again, I give examples here, here, and here.)

And there is other reason for suspicion.  After all, as philosophers with no theological ax to grind sometimes complain – see here and here for a few examples – their colleagues can too often be smugly insular and ill-informed about sub-disciplines outside their own and about the history of their own field.  And like other academics, they can be unreflective, dogmatic, and uninformed in their secularism.  Here too you don’t have to take my word for it.  Many prominent secular philosophers themselves have noted the same thing.  

Hence Thomas Nagel opines that a “fear of religion” seems often to underlie the work of his fellow secularist intellectuals, and that it has had “large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life.”  He continues:

I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.  It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief.  It's that I hope there is no God!  I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.  My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time.  One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about human life, including everything about the human mindThis is a somewhat ridiculous situation… [I]t is just as irrational to be influenced in one’s beliefs by the hope that God does not exist as by the hope that God does exist. (The Last Word, pp. 130-131)

Jeremy Waldron tells us that:

Secular theorists often assume they know what a religious argument is like: they present it as a crude prescription from God, backed up with threat of hellfire, derived from general or particular revelation, and they contrast it with the elegant complexity of a philosophical argument by Rawls (say) or Dworkin.  With this image in mind, they think it obvious that religious argument should be excluded from public life... But those who have bothered to make themselves familiar with existing religious-based arguments in modern political theory know that this is mostly a travesty... (God, Locke, and Equality, p. 20)

Tyler Burge opines that “materialism is not established, or even clearly supported, by science” and that its hold over his peers is analogous to that of a “political or religious ideology” (“Mind-Body Causation and Explanatory Practice,” in John Heil and Alfred Mele, eds., Mental Causation, p. 117)

John Searle tells us that “materialism is the religion of our time,” that “like more traditional religions, it is accepted without question and… provides the framework within which other questions can be posed, addressed, and answered,” and that “materialists are convinced, with a quasi-religious faith, that their view must be right” (Mind: A Brief Introduction, p. 48)

William Lycan admits, in what he himself calls “an uncharacteristic exercise in intellectual honesty,” that the arguments for materialism are no better than the arguments against it, that his “own faith in materialism is based on science-worship,” and that “we also always hold our opponents to higher standards of argumentation than we obey ourselves.” (“Giving Dualism its Due,” a paper presented at the 2007 Australasian Association of Philosophy conference at the University of New England)

The atheist philosopher of religion Quentin Smith maintains that “the great majority of naturalist philosophers have an unjustified belief that naturalism is true and an unjustified belief that theism (or supernaturalism) is false.”  For their naturalism typically rests on nothing more than an ill-informed “hand waving dismissal of theism” which ignores “the erudite brilliance of theistic philosophizing today.”  Smith continues:

If each naturalist who does not specialize in the philosophy of religion (i.e., over ninety-nine percent of naturalists) were locked in a room with theists who do specialize in the philosophy of religion, and if the ensuing debates were refereed by a naturalist who had a specialization in the philosophy of religion, the naturalist referee could at most hope the outcome would be that “no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding the rationality of faith,” although I expect the most probable outcome is that the naturalist, wanting to be a fair and objective referee, would have to conclude that the theists definitely had the upper hand in every single argument or debate.

Due to the typical attitude of the contemporary naturalist… the vast majority of naturalist philosophers have come to hold (since the late 1960s) an unjustified belief in naturalism. Their justifications have been defeated by arguments developed by theistic philosophers, and now naturalist philosophers, for the most part, live in darkness about the justification for naturalism. They may have a true belief in naturalism, but they have no knowledge that naturalism is true since they do not have an undefeated justification for their belief.  If naturalism is true, then their belief in naturalism is accidentally true.  [“The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” Philo: A Journal of Philosophy (Fall-Winter 2001)]

Again, Nagel, Waldron, Burge, Searle, Lycan, and Smith are not apologists for religion.  Apart from Smith, they aren’t even philosophers of religion.  All of them are prominent, and all of them are “mainstream.”  They have no motive for saying the things they do other than that that is the way things honestly strike them based on their knowledge of the field.

But scientists shouldn’t get smug over lapses in objectivity among philosophers.  For at least where philosophical matters are concerned, many scientists are hardly more competent or objective, as we have seen in an earlier post, and as the embarrassing philosophical efforts of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking illustrate.  And if you think even their “purely scientific” pronouncements are always free of anything but good old tough-minded “just the facts, ma’am” objectivity… well, as Dawkins will tell you, you shouldn’t believe fairy tales.  Biologist Richard Lewontin let the cat out of the bag some time ago:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural.  We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.  It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.  Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.  [From a review of Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World in the New York Review of Books (January 9, 1997)]

But here’s the bottom line.  The “What do respectable people say?” stuff that Rosenhouse, Coyne, and other New Atheists are always engaging in is juvenile, and futile too, since they are never able to tell us what counts as “respectable” in a way that doesn’t beg all the questions at issue.  It is amazing how much time and energy New Atheist types put into trying to come up with ever more elaborate excuses for not engaging their critics’ actual arguments.  If that alone doesn’t make you suspicious, then I submit that you are not thinking critically.

Addendum: For two followup posts in reply to Jason Rosenhouse, go here and here.
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