Movies, comic books, and sequential art

I had occasion recently to take a few of the kids to see Captain America: The First Avenger.  As a lifelong movie, comic book, and science fiction fan I was preprogrammed to like it so long as it met the minimal standards a comic book flick is expected to live up to these days.  And I think the movie not only met but exceeded them.  Characters like Captain America and the Red Skull can look striking on a comic book cover, if you’re into that sort of thing.  (Some nice examples from over the decades can be found here, here, and here.)  But getting them to look anything but ridiculous in flesh and blood is very hard to pull off.  Yet the filmmakers did it.  Indeed, what I found most remarkable about the movie was just how gorgeous the thing looked up there on the big screen.  Its art deco, pulp magazine aesthetic conveys an almost completely convincing science-fiction version of the 1940s.  (I say “almost” only because I thought the Hydra agents’ uniforms and weaponry could have been given a somewhat more retro look.)  Similar things have been done in the Indiana Jones movies, The Rocketeer, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but Captain America raises the bar.

In general, one might be tempted to say that movies have finally caught up to comics.  One of the strengths of comic books as an art form is that when done well they can visually represent fantastic scenarios in an aesthetically compelling way.  Prose can represent such things non-visually, of course, and movies can easily visually represent non-fantastic or everyday scenarios.  But visually to represent the fantastic without the result looking simply laughable is, as I say, very difficult.  Ed Wood movies provide the paradigm cases of the laughable, but even many much better science fiction and horror films from the earlier decades of the history of movies are at least visually disappointing.  And even after horror and science fiction movies started to become reliably impressive in their special effects -- perhaps in the late 1960s or early 1970s, with movies like 2001 and The Exorcist -- the superhero genre lagged behind.  Trying to watch the 1970s television versions of Spider-Man or Captain America is just painful.  The 1960s Batman series gained whatever success it did precisely as a goof, something not even trying seriously to capture the spirit of the comics.  Only fairly recently -- probably with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 -- did superhero movies really come into their own, and begin to provide a visual representation of their subject matter as plausible as that of the comics.

It is not surprising that it took so long.  The superhero genre provides a kind of test case for what can be successfully represented visually, insofar as it takes the science fiction and horror genres to their limits.  Indeed, the first superheroes came out of the pulp magazine milieu of the late 1930s, which had been largely dominated by science fiction, horror, and adventure themes.  Superman, after all, is essentially an alien from outer space; Batman, a scientifically savvy costumed detective; the original Human Torch was an android, a scientific experiment gone wrong; Captain America, the result of a governmental scientific research program; and so forth.  DC Comics’ superhero revival of the late 1950s -- led by editors and writers with science fiction backgrounds, like Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox, and John Broome -- also featured characters (the Flash, Green Lantern, Adam Strange) with science fiction origins.  The new breed of superheroes Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee co-created in the early 1960s with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko -- the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Daredevil, and so forth -- in many ways reflected the aesthetic of the science fiction and monster comics Marvel had been publishing in the preceding years.  The Marvel characters just mentioned all derived their powers from radiation of one sort or another; Iron Man, from high technology; Ant Man, from biochemical research.  Dr. Strange and Thor did not have science fiction origins -- the former is a “master of the mystic arts” and the latter a Norse god come to earth -- but are not too far from the sorts of characters one might find in an old horror or adventure pulp magazine, and Lee and Kirby added a heavy science fiction element to Thor (essentially turning the Norse gods into a race of extra-dimensional aliens). 

In effect, the superhero genre takes the bizarre and otherworldly themes of science fiction and horror and situates them not only in ordinary contexts but in otherwise ordinary individual human beings -- the man on the street, but with a superheroic secret identity.  Now, visually portraying the man on the street -- a soldier, say, or a nerdy teenager who attends high school in New York City -- is pretty easy.  Visually portraying someone with unusual powers and a costume is harder to do successfully, but can be done if both the person himself and his context are also very unusual -- hence fantasy and science fiction movies can be made to work as long as the special effects are good enough.  But harder still is visually portraying someone with unusual powers in a costume while at the same time keeping him and his context otherwise as ordinary as possible -- say, a soldier with super strength who dresses like an American flag, or a nerdy high school student who has the powers of a spider.  Special effects aren’t enough to make this work.  If such effects aren’t combined in just the right way with an ordinary setting, or at least the appearance of an ordinary setting, the result will just look ridiculous.  (Notice that the appearance of an ordinary setting is really what movies like Batman, Spider-Man, and Captain America give us.  Not the real New York or the real World War II, but something close enough to evoke those setting while different enough to make a guy in a bat suit or red and white tights seem not too out of place.)

It is no wonder, then, that the superhero genre came to dominate comic books even more than did the horror and science fiction genres (which had their comic book heyday in the 1950s).  Superheroes were perhaps the one thing that only comic books could do well.  Only the comics’ mode of visual representation was far enough removed from real life to allow for the suspension of disbelief.  Movies, for a long time anyway, couldn’t successfully combine the fantastic elements with their naturally greater visual realism.  

Since that isn’t true any longer, are comics now redundant?  No, no more than movies could make novels redundant.  The film version of a novel is, after all, an adaptation or interpretation of it; it is not the novel itself, and it cannot do exactly what a novelist can do.  And something similar is true of film versions of comics.  While both movies and comics are forms of visual art, they are very different forms.  Comics are not a second-rate attempt to do what movies do, any more than painting or photography are.  They do something different, and not only insofar as they can more easily portray bizarre scenarios.

This is true of comics even at their most movie-like and realistic.  Consider the first and last pages of Bernard Krigstein’s celebrated artwork for “Master Race,” from E. C. Comics’ Impact #1.  The last panel of page 1 cleverly conveys the movement of a subway train.  The sequence of panels on the last page conveys the movement of a character’s body as he falls into the way of an oncoming train.  (Similar effects are to be found in the last two pages of the Krigstein-illustrated story “Key Chain,”  from Crime SuspenStories # 25.)  The effect has been described as “cinematic,” but it is achieved in a way very different from the way a movie would achieve it.  For in fact a movie doesn’t “achieve” it at all, and there is no “effect” -- the subway trains in a movie like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (for example) really are moving.  Of course, there is a sense in which such a movie gives you only the illusion of movement -- physically speaking, the movie is “really” just a series of still photographs seen rapidly one after the other -- but even so, it does not represent movement, but merely records a movement which has actually occurred.  

Contrast Krigstein’s panels, which are seen all at once rather than one after another, and do not give us an illusion of movement at all.  Rather, what they give us just is, precisely, a visual representation of movement, but a kind of visual representation that is not possible for either a movie -- a series of images seen one after another -- or for a single image taken in isolation.  It is the simultaneous sequencing of images that is part of what makes the medium of comics unique.  (Will Eisner famously characterized comics as a kind of “sequential art.”)  To be sure, a painting like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 certainly represents movement in a single image, and in an interesting way.  But it is able to do so precisely because of its lack of realism.  What Krigstein is doing that Duchamp is not is representing movement with a kind of realism, and doing so precisely by using a sequence of images.  (For a more disturbing sequential representation of movement in comics form, check out Johnny Craig’s “buried alive” story “Star Light, Star Bright” from Vault of Horror # 23.)

Unlike a painting or a single drawing but like a movie, comics are a form of storytelling, again precisely because of their sequential nature.  But unlike movies, and like paintings and drawings, they are illustrative, and they bring all the techniques of illustration to storytelling.  Hence a comic book adaptation of a story originally conceived in pure prose is also, like a movie adaptation, a new and unique interpretive work rather than a mere restatement of the original.  E. C. Comics’ many adaptations of Ray Bradbury’s short stories provide useful examples.  Consider, for instance, the Al Williamson-illustrated “A Sound of Thunder” from Weird Science-Fantasy #3, and compare the television adaptation of the story from The Ray Bradbury Theater.  (The best example, in my view, is Johnny Craig’s “Touch and Go” from Crime SuspenStories #17 -- an adaptation of Bradbury’s short story “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl” -- which I have, unfortunately, not been able to find online.  For my money Craig conveys the paranoia and obsessiveness of the main character better than the television adaptation did.)

It was only a matter of time before the philosophical comic book would be attempted, and it recently has been in Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth -- a graphic novel about Bertrand Russell and mathematical logic, with Frege, Wittgenstein, Gödel, and Whitehead as guest stars.  Can the comic book treatment of potency and act be far behind?  (Think of it -- conveying the theory of how change is possible in a series of static images.  Now that would be a tour de force!)


Vallicella on hylemorphic dualism, Part III

Bill Vallicella and I have been debating Aquinas’s hylemorphic dualism (HD).  Earlier posts (here, here, here, and here) have focused on Aquinas’s motivations for combining hylemorphism and dualism.  As we continue Bill and Ed’s Excellent Adventure, the discussion turns to questions about the internal coherence of the view.  In a new post, Bill summarizes what he takes to be one of the main problems with HD.  Give it a read, then come back.

Bill says that he thinks HD faces a problem similar to the one facing what he calls “compound substance dualism” (CSD), which is essentially Cartesian substance dualism together with the thesis that a person’s body is a proper part of him.  The problem with this view, Bill says, is that when we ask what exactly it is that is doing the thinking when a human being thinks, CSD seems to give us two answers -- that the soul thinks, and that the composite of soul and body thinks -- and that is one answer too many.  HD holds that it is the person as a whole, the composite of body and soul, which does the thinking.  So far so good.  But according to Bill, HD also seems to imply a second answer to the effect that the soul alone thinks, just as CSD does.  For HD takes the soul to be a subsistent form, capable of persisting beyond the death of the body, because it takes our intellectual powers to be immaterial and thus independent of the body.  And if they are independent of the body, then it is the intellect (or the soul in carrying out intellectual activities) that does the thinking, rather than the soul and body together.  And this wavering between two answers is as unacceptable in the case of HD as it is in the case of CSD.  (Bill seems to favor what he calls “simple or pure substance dualism” over either CSD or HD.) 

Now Bill’s comparison between CSD and HD is in my view mistaken, for I think he fails to take seriously enough the HD conception of the soul as a kind of form.  For CSD, the soul is a complete substance in its own right, and specifically a substance that thinks (res cogitans).  That is why CSD seems to lead both to the conclusion that the soul alone thinks (since the soul just is a thinking substance) and (since CSD wants to say that a person’s body is a proper part of him) that the soul and body together think.  But HD does not say that the soul is a complete substance in its own right, and it does not say that the soul is a res cogitans.  The soul is rather the substantial form of a substance (namely the living human body), that by virtue of which a human being carries out his distinctive activities -- not only thinking, but also seeing, hearing, digesting, walking, and so on.  And it is the human being as a whole which does these all of these things (including thinking) while a person is alive, and not the soul alone which does them.  

What leads Bill astray here is the HD claim that the soul persists beyond the death of the body and can think when it does so.  He apparently supposes that the way in which the soul thinks after death is the same as the way in which it thinks when conjoined to the body.  And since the way in which it thinks after death is (obviously) to do so independently of the body, this would seem to entail that HD is implicitly committed to the view that the soul thinks independently of the body even when it is conjoined to it, notwithstanding the official HD stance that only body and soul together think.  But in fact HD explicitly denies that the soul thinks after death in the same way that it does when conjoined to the body.  For our intellectual powers only operate when we are alive because of the data we get from the senses and the mental imagery this gives rise to; as Aquinas says, “the soul united to the body can understand only by turning to the phantasms” [where for the sake of simplicity a “phantasm” can be thought of, roughly, as a mental image] (Summa Theologiae I.89.1).  That is its natural mode of carrying out intellectual operations.  And for HD, sensation and imagination, unlike intellect, have a material basis.  (This is why for HD neural activity is -- as I have explained in a previous post -- a necessary condition of everyday cognitive activity despite the immateriality of the intellect, even if it is not a sufficient condition.)  Hence, while we are alive it is only body and soul together which think, and not the soul alone.

Now, after death the soul no longer has available to it its normal input from sensation and imagination.  If it is to think while disembodied, then, it must do so in a very different manner.  What this involves, for Aquinas, is “turning to simply intelligible objects” rather than to phantasms, as an angel (a wholly disembodied intelligence) would.  (Think of pure concepts divorced from sensation or imagination.)  And this entails a difference as well in the kinds of things the intellect can know after death.  As George Klubertanz says in a once widely-used manual of Scholastic philosophy: 

Knowledge of singular material things will be naturally impossible for the separated soul, and likewise existential judgments about material or sensible things.  It will also be impossible to acquire knowledge of previously unknown material objects…  On the other hand, in this life the soul has no actual direct knowledge of itself, because it is the form of a body.  Once separated in death, it will be actually intelligible in itself, and so the soul will directly know itself as an actually existing singular spiritual substance… Communication between separated souls and between souls and angels should be possible, at least in so far as states of mind and will are concerned… Whatever other knowledge is necessary will be given by God, in a fashion similar to the mode of angelic knowledge.  (The Philosophy of Human Nature, pp. 317-18)

To borrow and develop an analogy from an earlier post, you might think of the postmortem soul like a hand which has been severed from the body and which is not only kept alive artificially, but caused to move its fingers (and in this way to carry out something like its normal operations) via electrical stimulation of the muscles.  The normal state of the hand is to be connected to and controlled by the body in such a way that it is the entire organism, and not the hand alone, that moves the fingers.  But that does not entail that the hand might not also move them apart from the body, after being severed, by non-natural means.  Similarly, the normal state of the intellect is to be connected to the body in such a way that it is the entire organism, and not the intellect alone, which thinks.  But that does not entail that the intellect might not also think apart from the body, after death, by non-natural means.

Now, notice how different this is from the way a Cartesian res cogitans apparently operates.  To be sure, while conjoined to the body, the res cogitans does gather information through the sense organs, just as a Thomistic soul does.  But whereas for Aquinas the conscious processes associated with sensation and imagination are bodily in nature, for the Cartesian all consciousness resides in the immaterial res cogitans alone and the matter that makes up the brain is utterly devoid of consciousness.  (Interestingly, and as I noted in an earlier post, it is not so clear that Descartes himself -- who never entirely escaped his Scholastic inheritance -- put imagination on the res cogitans side of the divide between mind and body.  But if we think of imagination as a conscious process, then his position would entail that it resides entirely in the res cogitans.  And Descartes did of course notoriously deny that animals are conscious, precisely because they are material.  For the Thomist, who does not share Descartes’ entirely mathematicized conception of matter, there is no difficulty in attributing consciousness to animals despite their being purely material.)

Since cognitive and conscious activity alike reside, for the Cartesian, entirely in the res cogitans, the soul continues to operate in pretty much the same manner after death as it did before death.  Hence we get scenarios like W. D. Hart’s “seeing without a body” example (which I discussed in a previous post) on which the soul enjoys conscious perceptual experiences of just the sort we have in everyday life, only without any bodily processes whatsoever.  For the Thomist, this is impossible, at least naturally.  A disembodied soul, lacking the sensations and mental imagery that the body alone makes possible, simply could not have, on its own, the kind of experience Hart describes.  

Now the Cartesian position does not make much sense, in my view.  Precisely because it puts sensation and imagination on the side of the body, HD has (as I noted in an earlier post) a much easier time than the Cartesian does in assimilating what we know from modern neuroscience.  Bill seems to think the Cartesian view is much clearer than the Thomistic one, but in fact I think it is very much the other way around.  Aquinas’s position is a carefully worked out attempt to resolve the ambiguities in Aristotle’s approach and to capture, in the process, the middle ground between substance dualism and materialism -- to do justice both to the immateriality of the intellect that is revealed by philosophical argument, and to the tight relationship between mental processes and bodily ones that is revealed by experience.  Descartes’ position, by contrast, is an ad hoc attempt to fit the immaterial mind into a novel, post-Scholastic mechanistic conception of the natural world -- an attempt which led to bizarre consequences like the interaction problem and the denial of consciousness to non-human animals.

Be that as it may, the point to emphasize here is that the features of CSD which imply that the soul alone thinks, and does so in the same manner whether or not it is conjoined to the body, are not present in HD.  Thus HD is not open to the same objection that Bill raises against CSD.  In particular, HD is not open to the charge that it implies two, contradictory, answers to the question “What is it that thinks?”  When the soul is conjoined to the body, the composite of soul and body alone can be said to think.  When the soul thinks on its own, it does so only when disembodied, and in a very different manner.  Nor is this difference in manner an ad hoc device invented in order to avoid problems of the sort that afflict CSD.  Rather, it follows naturally from the Thomistic understanding of cognition as naturally dependent on phantasms.

Bill also suggests a second line of criticism, which will be familiar from his earlier posts on HD:

But 'subsistent form' smacks of contradiction.  How can a form be subsistent?  To say that a form is subsistent is to say that [it] is a primary substance, that [it] is broadly logically capable of independent existence.   But a form is precisely not a primary substance but a 'principle' invoked in the analysis of primary substances.  Aquinas cannot do justice to his own insight into the independence of the intellect from matter from within the hylomorphic scheme of ontological analysis he inherits from Aristotle.   This bolded (and bold) thesis is central to my critique of hylomorphic dualism.  His metaphysica generalis is at war with his special-metaphysical insight into the independence of intellect from matter.  

I have already addressed this criticism in the earlier posts in this series, but I want to say more about it here.  First, and for reasons I have stated before, I don’t think Bill can or would claim that hylemorphism is inconsistent with the notion that some forms might exist apart from matter.  (Indeed, in his most recent post he seems willing to allow at least for the sake of argument that a hylemorphist could conceive of God, though immaterial, as “pure form, the ‘form of all forms.’”)  Nor, as I have also noted before, is it correct to characterize HD as committed to forms existing all by themselves, without qualification.  Rather, for HD a form that exists apart from matter (whether an angel or a disembodied human soul) is always a form together with an “act of existing” (precisely because, as Bill implies, a form all by itself would be a mere abstraction).  So, Bill’s beef can only reasonably be with the idea that the form of a material thing, specifically, could exist apart from the matter that informs it, even as an incomplete substance conjoined to an act of existing.  

But why this is supposed to be problematic is not at all clear once these qualifications have been made.  One way it might seem problematic is if we think of the form of a material thing as a kind of shape or spatial configuration.  If we thought of it that way, then when HD characterizes the soul as persisting beyond the death of the body, it might sound like it is claiming that a shape or spatial configuration can persist when the matter that filled in the shape or the parts which were configured have disappeared.  And that does indeed sound incoherent.  But in fact a form (as that term is being used in the present context) is not a shape or a spatial configuration.  When HD says that the soul is the substantial form of the living human body, what it means is that the soul is that which gives a human being his nature or essence, and thus that by virtue of which a human being carries out his distinctive activities -- thinking, willing, seeing, hearing, digesting, reproducing, walking, and so on.  

Now, Bill presumably would allow that there is nothing incoherent in the notion of such a nature or substantial form -- that is, in the notion of a thing which by virtue of its nature carries out both material and immaterial operations.  There is, at any rate, nothing obviously incoherent in the notion.  (Consider P. F. Strawson’s famous analysis of a person as something to which both material and mental predicates apply.  Presumably Bill would allow that that analysis is coherent, and if we add to it the notion that mental predicates refer to immaterial attributes -- which Bill could have no problem with, since he sympathizes with dualism broadly conceived -- then we have the notion of a kind of thing which has both material and immaterial features.)

But Bill would still object to the notion of such a thing carrying out its immaterial operations entirely apart from matter.  But why?  As I have noted before, there is nothing incoherent in saying both that dogs by virtue of their nature have four legs and that this particular dog only has three legs because (given injury or genetic defect) it is not in its natural state.  There is nothing incoherent in saying both that moving the fingers is normally something done only by the entire person, rather than the hand alone and that this particular hand is moving its fingers apart from the body because (given that it has been severed but artificially preserved) it is not in its natural state.  So why should there be anything incoherent in saying both that normally it is only the soul and body together which think and that this particular soul is thinking apart from the body because (given the death of the body) it is not in its natural state?

Again, it would be no good for Bill to object “But how could a form subsist all by itself, given hylemorphism?”  The answer to that, as we’ve seen, is that no one says in the first place that the soul subsists all by itself; rather, it subsists, like the forms of purely immaterial substances do, together with an act of existing.  “But how could the form of a material thing do so?”  The answer is that the form of a purely material thing could not do so, but that the human soul is not the form of a purely material thing, but rather of a thing with both material and immaterial operations.  It is because of the latter that the human soul can persist beyond the death of the body; it is only the latter that it can carry out when separated from the body; and it necessarily does so in a very different way from the way it did while conjoined to the body.  So, again, what exactly is the problem?

Bill also calls attention to an earlier post of his which criticizes the HD approach to the interaction problem.  I’ll address that in a future post.


Development versus decay

A reader asks an interesting question: 

You write often of the loss of Aristotelian metaphysics (specifically as adopted and developed by St. Thomas) and all the modern philosophical "problems" that have arisen as a result. Discussions of God's existence, the mind-body relation, ethics, etc. all become "problematic" when we remove formal and final causality.  I find this amazingly effective in answering modern arguments because it is often their metaphysical presuppositions that cause problems in the first place.

My question is: were the concepts of final and formal causality present in the Patristic era?  As I understand it, most of the Church Fathers were only marginally (if at all?) influenced by Aristotle, and were typically more dependent on Platonic or Neo-platonic metaphysics.  Does this mean that up until the time of Aquinas, when Aristotle is "rediscovered" in the West, that Christian philosophy was incoherent because it depended more on a Platonic metaphysics than an Aristotelian metaphysics? 

The answer is no, it was not incoherent, but rather incomplete.  When a baby or child is developing, it cannot do everything an adult can do.  Yet that is not because the organism is defective, but only because it hasn't yet matured.  Thus it is perfectly healthy despite its lack of full development.  But when an adult becomes sick or otherwise does not function the way an adult ought to, that is not because the organism is immature but rather because it is positively breaking down or because things are at least temporarily not working together correctly.  This is decay or at least damage rather than development.  Now ancient Christian theology is like the baby or child.  The Scholastic tradition, I would say, is like the healthy adult.  Modern theologies which reject Scholasticism and try to substitute for it some post-Scholastic modern metaphysics are like the sick adult.  They typically preserve some aspect of the Scholastic inheritance, but take on board novel elements that are incompatible with it and/or leave out aspects without which the preserved ones cannot function.  (In my work I have described how Cartesian and Lockean approaches to theological questions exhibit this sort of incoherence.  See chapter 5 of The Last Superstition and my book Locke.) 

It is important to stress that the more Platonic approach that dominated earlier Christian thought was by no means like the post-Cartesian approaches that defined themselves against Scholasticism.  The latter approaches, as I often emphasize, tend toward a mechanistic conception of the natural world.  It is not merely that they don’t have the Aristotelian notions of formal and final causality.  It is that they self-consciously reject these notions and replace them with the understanding of nature first developed by the ancient Greek atomists (altering the details, of course).  There is nothing like that in Platonism or Neo-Platonism.  (This is one reason it is very misleading to assimilate Plato’s and Descartes’ views of human nature, as is often done.)  Furthermore, there is really no such thing as a purely Platonist or purely Aristotelian tradition in the first place.  It is more a question of which tendency dominates.  The Neo-Platonist tradition tried to incorporate Aristotle’s insights by “Platonizing” them, and Aquinas takes the insights of the Neo-Platonic and Augustinian traditions and “Aristotelianizes” them.  (Consider e.g. the Fourth Way and Aquinas’s use of the notion of “participation.”)   

Now, the various problems that I have said afflict modern thought are associated with the mechanistic and positively anti-Aristotelian tendencies specifically.  Since there is nothing like that in the earlier tradition, the earlier tradition does not have the same problems.  To the extent it did have problems, they are more like the problems a baby has in learning to walk (compare the tentative and inchoate use of Greek philosophical concepts by the early Christian theologians) or an adolescent has when he is just coming out of his childhood but not quite ready for adult responsibilities (compare the excesses of a thinker like John Scotus Eriugena).   

Modern theologies which do not endorse novel post-Cartesian metaphysical systems but seek instead to revert to some pre-Scholastic Neo-Platonism might therefore best be described in terms of a third comparison -- not to a child and not to a sick or dying man, but rather to a man going through a midlife crisis.  Such a man finds his middle-aged responsibilities tedious and longs to recapture the excitement of youth.  Similarly, theologians hostile to Scholasticism and its Aristotelian philosophical basis often complain that it is too dry, systematic, and logic-oriented -- interestingly, they often do not claim that it is false -- and prefer the more mystical and inchoate approach of pre-Scholastic and Neo-Platonic theologians.  (Platonism, as I say in The Last Superstition, is “sexier” than Aristotelianism, but also less sober and rigorous.)   

Now, a man faced with a midlife crisis might take it as an opportunity to spice up his life a bit in a healthy way -- to rekindle romance with his wife, to supplement the necessary routines of middle age with a return to some of the hobbies he has neglected, or what have you.  But he might go instead in an unhealthy direction -- by leaving his wife, neglecting his responsibilities in favor of foolish adventures, etc.  In mid-twentieth-century Catholic theology, there was much talk among critics of Scholasticism of going “back to the sources” -- to the early Fathers of the Church and in general to thinkers of the ages before the Scholastic tradition had taken definite shape.  If what this means is recalling and reapplying, within the existing tradition, neglected insights from an earlier era, then that is all to the good.  But if what it means is chucking out the tradition that the great Scholastics painstakingly worked out in a rigorous and systematic way over the course of centuries, then this is not so good and (as R. R. Reno pointed out in a piece in First Things some time back) it has had some very bad consequences. 



I want to call my readers' attention to Eric MacDonald’s blog post of earlier today, and in particular to the combox discussion it has generated.  As you will see from the latter (scroll down to my exchange with him), MacDonald has graciously and honorably offered to bury the hatchet, and I very happily accept his offer.  As you will also see, he and I and some of his readers have been having a fruitful discussion. 

A final word on Eric MacDonald

That Eric MacDonald’s criticisms of my book The Last Superstition are devoid of any merit whatsoever is clear from the evidence adduced in the two posts I have devoted to him already (here and here).  If there is any lingering doubt, the present post will dispel it.  A slightly chastened MacDonald has now himself admitted (in what he says will be his final word on my book) that he “was not comfortable with [the] conclusions” he had drawn after his first attempt to deal with the substance of my arguments, that he has “misunderstood” at least some of those arguments, and that his contemptible Himmler comparison “was perhaps over the top.”  Yet he commends to us his final feeble effort to respond to my arguments, still appears to cling to for the most part to his earlier criticisms, and retracts none of the nastiness he has relentlessly directed towards me personally.  (To be sure, he thinks this nastiness is justified by the polemical tone of my book and by my aggressive response to his nastiness.  It is not, for reasons I will get to presently.) 

I have said that MacDonald can be acquitted of the charge of grave intellectual dishonesty only on pain of conviction for gross incompetence, and I provided ample evidence in my previous post.  MacDonald’s latest effort succeeds only in providing yet further evidence for this charge.  For example, MacDonald writes: 

Now, probably most of you have never heard of eliminative materialism, but it is all the rage in some philosophical/cognitive science circles.  The “whole point of the theory,” as Feser says, “… is supposed to show how thought can be a purely material process.” (243) 

But the sentence MacDonald quotes from my book refers, not to eliminative materialism, but to computationalist theories of the mind.  This is no small mistake, since eliminative materialism, at least in some of its versions, does not try to explain thought but rather denies the existence of thought.  Hence MacDonald’s quotation leaves the false impression that I have fundamentally mischaracterized eliminative materialism.   

MacDonald then says that “It is worthwhile adding that so-called ‘eliminative materialism’ is not as widely supported as Feser’s use of it suggests.”  But in my book I wrote: 

Few materialists are eliminative materialists; it is very definitely a minority view, and most materialists are happy to acknowledge the obvious, viz. that the mind exists. (pp. 235-6).

In the book, I discuss several arguments against computationalism and other attempted materialist explanations of thought.  These include John Searle’s argument about rule-following and algorithms, and an argument against causal theories of intentionality independently developed by Karl Popper and Hilary Putnam.  MacDonald conflates these two arguments, attributing to me the unintelligible mess that results from their conflation (and, into the bargain, leaves the impression that these arguments have something to do with my objections to eliminative materialism specifically, which they don’t).

With respect to the Popper/Putnam argument, MacDonald also claims (toward the end of his post) that “it is quite clear [that] Feser is suggesting that there is no way to delimit the chains of causation involved in perception” without bringing in “God [as] necessary, in the cosmic scheme of things, to bring order out of what would be (without it) the ‘blooming, buzzing confusion.’”  But the argument has nothing whatsoever to do with God.  Certainly Popper and Putnam do not use it to argue for God’s existence, and neither do I.  Rather, I use it to argue that there is no way to individuate the causal chains the materialist needs in order to make causal theories of intentionality work unless he is willing to recognize something like the existence of immanent, unconscious end-directedness of the sort Aristotelians affirm.  Whether this end-directedness ultimately has a divine source is, as I emphasize repeatedly throughout the book, a separate issue.

The trouble here seems to be that MacDonald, like other New Atheists, thinks in clichés.  He already “knows” that all theistic arguments, no matter how seemingly sophisticated, “really” boil down to the silly caricatures one finds in books like Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  Hence when he is confronted by a theist with a complex argument having to do with quite abstract matters like the individuation of causal chains -- an argument which has also been defended by a secular thinker like Popper! -- he simply cannot even understand it without “translating” it into one of the straw men he is comfortable with.  It must really be some lame “god of the gaps” argument in fancy disguise.  (Know your places, theists!  No deviating from the New Atheist script, please!)

As in his earlier post, MacDonald also simply doesn’t understand the points that I make in the book about algorithms.  Contrary to what he insinuates, I do not say that there is no sense in which algorithms might be said to exist in nature.  What I say is that the notion that there are algorithms that are inherent in nature (as opposed to just being useful fictions) can be made sense of only if we acknowledge something like Aristotelian teleology, i.e. immanent and unconscious directedness-to-an-end.   

MacDonald then slips into another meandering discussion of evolution and the role algorithms can be said to play in it -- even though the passages from my book that he is discussing are not about evolution at all, but rather about computationalist theories of the mind!  In general, as in his previous post, MacDonald gives the false impression that my book criticizes evolutionary explanations in biology, when in fact it does nothing of the kind.  As I have said before, what I criticize there are philosophical analyses of the concept of biological function of the sort associated with Millikan and Dennett.  In this connection I cite Jerry Fodor, which leads MacDonald into yet another egregious and even more embarrassing misunderstanding.  For MacDonald launches into an attack on the criticisms of Darwinism that Fodor has presented in What Darwin Got Wrong and elsewhere -- as if this had something to do with what I say in The Last Superstition.  But it has nothing at all to do with it.  The writings from Fodor that I cite are from years before he first developed his recent criticisms of Darwinism; and in part the writings of his I cite do not even concern biology at all, but rather concern controversies in the philosophy of mind.   

Here again we see MacDonald’s apparent incapacity for anything but rote thinking, at least when responding to the arguments of theists.  He “knows” from reading hacks like Dawkins that the debate between theism and atheism is “really” at bottom a debate about evolution.  Hence when some theist presents an argument that has nothing essentially to do with evolution per se -- like the arguments concerning issues in philosophy of biology and philosophy of mind that MacDonald attacks in his latest posts -- MacDonald simply cannot process it unless he can somehow transform it into an attack on evolution.  He never seriously engages my book at all, directing his fire instead at figments of his imagination.

So much for MacDonald’s latest effort.  But I would like to take this opportunity to respond as well to some of the other outrageous claims I have discovered in some of his other remarks.  In one of his combox remarks, MacDonald writes: 

One thing that I marvel at is the fact that Feser can present Aquinas’ arguments as though no one had ever critcised [sic] them before, as if Antony Flew or James [sic] Mackie or Richard Gale or Michael Martin or Kai Neilson [sic], etc. had never written anything on the subject… 

This is yet another one of those statements which, as I put it in my earlier post, “is either an extremely brazen lie -- anyone with access to the book can see that MacDonald’s assertion is preposterous -- or the assertion of a man so very filled with irrational hostility that he cannot allow himself to perceive the words on the page in front of him, lest he be forced to acknowledge that his opponent has actually made a case that needs answering.”   

The standard criticisms of arguments like Aquinas’s include the following: that the principle of causality on which they depend has been undermined by Hume; that they commit a fallacy of composition; that they fail to give any reason for supposing that causes cannot regress to infinity; that they presuppose outmoded theories in physics; that they establish at most a first cause but not a unique or divine first cause; that they arbitrarily exempt the first cause from the need for an explanation; that the Fifth Way amounts to a Paleyan design argument and has been undermined by evolutionary theory; and so on.  These are the sorts of objections writers like the ones MacDonald cites raise against Aquinas, and these (and other objections) are all dealt with at length in The Last Superstition.  I also deal with these and other objections at length in other places, such as Aquinas (which pays special attention to Mackie, since Mackie is an important critic of the Third Way -- an argument I didn’t discuss in The Last Superstition).   

I suppose that hostile readers who are hell-bent on believing MacDonald’s fantasies are not going to be satisfied unless I cut and paste the entire book to show how deeply unjust and dishonest this statement of his is; and even then I am sure some of them will not admit it.  If you are not going to read my book for yourself, though, at least consider that many readers who are unsympathetic to my conclusions would disagree with MacDonald’s bizarre assertion.  As I reported recently, Sir Anthony Kenny -- an agnostic and a prominent critic (indeed perhaps the most prominent critic) of Aquinas’s Five Ways -- has said that my book presents “dense and plausible versions” of Aquinas’s First and Second Ways (even though he ultimately disagrees with them), that “Feser has serious reasons for all of his assertions,” and that “unlike many of the other contributors to the recent theism-atheism debate, [Feser] is always well worth arguing with.”  Can anyone seriously believe that Kenny would say such things if (as MacDonald alleges) I had presented Aquinas’s arguments “as though no one had ever criticized them before”? 

MacDonald also claims that “Feser never justifies his natural law morality, save for suggesting that there is no other foundation for ethics.”  This, too, is simply outrageous.  While it is true that I argue that there is no plausible alternative foundation for ethics -- and I do not merely assert this, but argue for it -- I also devote about twenty pages to making a positive case for natural law, and in particular to showing how moral conclusions of the sort associated with natural law follow from the metaphysical theses defended earlier in the book.  (And yes, in the course of doing so I respond to the so-called “naturalistic fallacy” objection commonly raised against traditional natural law theory.)  I have done the same thing elsewhere (such as in Aquinas), and readers interested in a brief rundown available online can find in here, in the first half of my Social Philosophy and Policy article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation.”

MacDonald claims further that “[Feser] begin[s] by saying that anyone who disagrees with [him] is deeply irrational and immoral.”  The allegation is preposterous.  Does anyone seriously believe that anyone would begin a book by saying “All of you readers who disagree with me are deeply irrational and immoral”?   In fact you will find on p. 26 of the book the following statement:  

I want to emphasize that I do not deny for a moment that there are secularists, atheists, and naturalists of good will, who are (apart from their rejection of religion) reasonable and morally admirable.  What I deny is that they have or can have – whether they realize this or not – any cogent rational grounds for their trust in reason or morality given their atheism and naturalism, and I deny also that they can rationally remain secularists, atheists, or naturalists if they come to a proper understanding both of the religious views they reject and of the difficulties inherent in their own position.  Of course, I am not so foolish as to think that no reasonable person could possibly fail to agree with me after reading this book.  No single book on any subject, however well-argued and correct in its conclusions, can be expected to convince every reasonable person, certainly not all at once, all by itself, or after a single reading; the way in which we human beings come to believe things is, for good or ill, much more complicated than that. ... Still, I urge secularist readers at least to consider that what I have to say in this book is merely the tip of an intellectual iceberg, and that if they explore more thoroughly the (no doubt far better) works of other writers in the tradition of thought my arguments represent, they will find that they have been far, far too glib in their dismissal of religious belief – and perhaps utterly mistaken in rejecting it. 

Quite obviously, the book is intended as an invitation to debate, not (contrary to MacDonald’s relentless smearing of me as a bigoted authoritarian) an ex cathedra statement demanding mindless assent.  It is true that I also say in the book that “only a (certain kind of) religious view of the world is rational, morally responsible, and sane” and that “an irreligious worldview is accordingly deeply irrational, immoral, and indeed insane.”  But as anyone who given the book a fair reading knows, what I am referring to here are what I take to be the logical implications of certain sets of ideas.  I am not talking about the actual moral or intellectual character of any particular person or persons.  In particular, I argue at length that the thoroughly anti-teleological and mechanistic conception of the natural world that is presupposed by modern atheism entails (even though most materialists do not intend this) a radical eliminativism about both moral values and the mind itself.  It is in that sense that I say that atheism is inherently destructive of reason and morality.  I do not say -- as the quote given above shows, I actually deny -- that all atheists themselves are in fact personally immoral or irrational.  I am, to repeat, talking about the implications of certain ideas.   

Note how beholden to the fallacy of special pleading (or arbitrary double standard) MacDonald once again implicitly is here.  MacDonald claims repeatedly that Catholic morality is “cruel and inhumane,” that it is comparable to Nazism, and so on ad nauseam.  He also characterizes certain individuals in these harsh terms, but clearly his intent is primarily to characterize the ideas rather than the persons.  I assume that if asked he would agree -- that he would say that he does not mean to imply that every Catholic, or even every conservative Catholic, is cruel, inhumane, and Nazi-like.  And I assume he would agree that that would be a fair-minded interpretation of his meaning, even given what he has acknowledged to be his “over the top” statements.  But if so, then if he is consistent he ought to afford me the same courtesy.  He ought to acknowledge that I can characterize certain atheist ideas as “irrational and immoral” without intending thereby to imply that all atheists themselves are irrational and immoral -- especially since I explicitly say in the book that I intended no such implication!

This brings us, finally, to the issue of polemics.  My book is, I readily acknowledge, very polemical.  Not all of my work is, by the way.  I do not think polemics are always appropriate or justifiable.  But for reasons I have explained several times -- such as here and here -- I do think polemics are sometimes justifiable and in some cases even called for.  They are certainly not appropriate or justifiable when dealing with serious atheist writers -- people like J. L. Mackie, Quentin Smith, J. J. C. Smart, J. Howard Sobel, and others.  But I maintain that they are justifiable and indeed called for when dealing with New Atheist writers like the targets of my book -- Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  The reason is that these writers are extremely, and unjustly, polemical in their own books on atheism -- unjustly because they demonstrably do not know what they are talking about, as I have shown in The Last Superstition and elsewhere.  They are arrogant and ignorant thugs, and their arrogance and ignorance not only deserves a harsh response, but can only adequately be exposed if one is willing to tell the harsh truth about them.  Hence my polemics are entirely defensive and retaliatory in nature.  I do not throw the first punch.  I am merely responding to the punches thrown by others.

Now MacDonald has admitted that such New Atheist writers “do use a tone of confident hauteur and contempt from time to time — a tone not always justified by events.”  But he still objects to my style in the book as “down and dirty personally abusive.”  Yet consider some of the things MacDonald has said about me.  If you scroll through the (as of this writing) eight blog posts and numerous combox comments he has written about me, you will find that MacDonald characterizes me and/or my work as “dishonest” and “nasty”; that he makes reference to my alleged  “arrogance,” “contempt for ordinary people,” “hardness of heart,” and “the immorality and inhumanity to which Feser’s reason drives him”; that he calls me an “extremist” who is “swimming in a polluted stream”; avers that “one can scarcely call [Feser] a philosopher,” that “it is hard not to believe that the man is himself not psychologically unhinged,” that my book is a “study in mental pathology,” and that he finds my “moral thought rebarbative and in many places plainly repulsive.”  In a couple of particularly classy moments, MacDonald says that “there is a reason that Feser is teaching at a small college” and that “Catholics got a bad bargain, I’m afraid, when they got him.”  And then, of course, there is his comparison of me to Heinrich Himmler.

Now if all of that is not “down and dirty personally abusive,” I don’t know what is.  And it is all because of stuff I said, not about him, but about Dawkins and Co, who had themselves been extremely polemical and to whose polemics I was merely replying.  To be sure, I have since also been aggressive in response to MacDonald himself -- you see, being compared to Heinrich Himmler can make a guy a little testy, and in any case I thought (and still think) that MacDonald was asking for it.  And yet MacDonald, while willing in his latest remarks to acknowledge that “comparing the pope” to Himmler was “over the top,” retracts none of the venom he has directed towards me personally (and conveniently ignores the fact that it was me, and not the pope, whom he had originally compared to Himmler).

Now I’m a big boy and I’ve had more prominent and capable people than MacDonald say even nastier things about me.  The point has nothing to do with MacDonald’s injustice to me; and if the pope somehow knows or cares what MacDonald thinks of him, I’d rather that he get MacDonald’s apology than that I get it.  The point, rather, is this.  MacDonald’s personal abusiveness has led him into yet another logical bind, yet another fallacy -- “one for the road,” as it were.  In particular, it has led him into yet another instance of the fallacy of special pleading.  For MacDonald has claimed that my alleged “personal abusiveness” is not justified even as a response to the obnoxiousness of the New Atheists.  (It seems that for MacDonald, the only response a theist can justifiably give to the abuse heaped upon him by New Atheists is that of Kevin Bacon in Animal House.)

Yet though MacDonald will not tolerate my alleged abusiveness, he is quite willing, as we have seen, to heap personal abuse on me, apparently on the grounds that my behavior has justified such abuse.  And thus we have another of MacDonald’s arbitrary double standards.  If I use polemics in retaliation either against the New Atheists or against MacDonald’s personal abusiveness toward me, that is very, very naughty.  But if MacDonald uses such polemics, that is fine -- indeed, it is OK for MacDonald to use them even though he was the one to initiate polemics in his exchange with me.  (I only got rough with him, after all, after he compared me to Himmler.  No doubt some will allege that I was nasty to MacDonald in my earliest remarks on Coyne, but I have already answered that canard.) 

But it is worse than that.  MacDonald constantly alleges -- falsely, as I have shown -- that I merely heap abuse on my opponents and do not present serious arguments against them.  And yet how does he propose dealing with people like me?  In one of his combox comments, after comparing Catholicism to Nazism some more, MacDonald says something very telling: 

The only way, in the end, to defeat that sort of thing is ridicule.  Feser is not going to be convinced by argument… 

And in a more recent comment he says: 

I admit to a [sic] some resentment towards Feser… until Feser can change his tone, I have no intention of responding to him in any detail at all, nor do I feel the need to…  it is only fair that [I] pay him back in some of his own coin. 

And so we come full circle.  Or MacDonald does, anyway.  His problem with me, he says, is that I ridicule others instead of trying to convince them with argument, which I should do even if they have themselves been nasty.  And the rational, reality-based, New Atheist response to this alleged behavior, MacDonald recommends…  is to ridicule me instead of trying to convince me with argument.   

So, is MacDonald a hypocrite?   Yes, I think he is that.  But mainly, I think, he is just a very bitter and confused man.   

But I would rather not end on a sour note.  While telling us that he intends to comment no further on my book, MacDonald says that he is “willing to discuss with [Feser], but I will not respond to the kind of hostility that I witnessed on his blog.”  I feel the same way.  I am unwilling to respond positively to someone who relentlessly and egregiously misrepresents my views, and who indulges in unjustifiable and unprovoked invective -- say, by comparing me to Heinrich Himmler.  But I would always be willing to discuss with anyone who sincerely wished at last to put such things aside.


Eric MacDonald’s assisted intellectual suicide

Having embarrassed himself by answering serious philosophical arguments with cheap ad hominems and other blatant fallacies, Eric MacDonald has now back-pedaled and decided that maybe he ought to address the substance of those arguments after all.  Unfortunately, he has succeeded only in further discrediting himself.  For MacDonald’s treatment of my criticisms of Daniel Dennett in my book The Last Superstition is an absolute disgrace.  He can be acquitted of the charge of grave intellectual dishonesty only on pain of conviction for gross incompetence.  Indeed, it is quite clear that MacDonald simply doesn’t understand the philosophical arguments he is dealing with.  Hence he prefers instead to criticize a few sarcastic quips of mine while ignoring the substantive arguments that occur in the passages from which he took them.  When that ploy doesn’t work, MacDonald “translates” my arguments into something he thinks he can handle, in the process mangling them beyond recognition.

Thus MacDonald assures his readers that I argue from “irreducible complexity.”  In fact I not only do not give any such argument, but -- rather famously, for anyone who has followed this blog for more than twenty minutes -- I have been extremely critical of such arguments and of “Intelligent Design” theory generally, not only in The Last Superstition but also in Aquinas, in a recent article on teleology, and in a great many blog posts.

MacDonald says that “it is principally [teleology] that Feser thinks is missing in and is necessary for doing or understanding science, and his criticism of Dennett concentrates on this point.  For Dennett argues, most notably in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, that evolution is not directional.”  This gives MacDonald’s readers the impression that my beef with Dennett is that he denies that evolution is directional.  But that has nothing whatsoever to do with my criticism of Dennett.  Indeed, whether evolution is directional is a subject I do not even raise in the book.

MacDonald says that “Feser claims… that material processes cannot be algorithmic.”  But I claimed no such thing.  What I claimed is that algorithms cannot be intrinsic to matter if matter is entirely devoid of all teleology or goal-directness whatsoever.   But they can exist in matter if they are either imposed from outside (as when we construct computers) or when a material substance or process has inherent teleological features (as on an Aristotelian account of nature).

MacDonald quotes me as saying that “another absurd implication [of evolutionary theory] is that nothing that didn’t evolve could possibly have a biological function.”  As the brackets indicate, the words “evolutionary theory” are not in the original; MacDonald has inserted them himself.  But as anyone with access to the book can easily verify, I was not referring to evolutionary theory in that sentence.  Rather, I was referring to certain reductionist accounts of the concept of biological function proposed by philosophers of biology like Ruth Millikan.  

In the paragraphs that follow this egregious misrepresentation, MacDonald only builds on it, conveying to his readers the false impression that what I was criticizing were evolutionary explanations in biology, when in fact what I was criticizing were (again) the analyses of the concept of “function” proposed by philosophers like Millikan -- analyses which are controversial even among naturalistic philosophers, and the debate over which has nothing essentially to do with the adequacy of evolutionary explanations themselves.

Similarly, MacDonald objects that “there is no reason to think that animal or plant species living today were somehow prefigured in that ancestry as the final cause” and emphasizes the haphazard character of evolution.  But I never claimed otherwise, because (again) I was not addressing questions about evolution per se in the first place.  My criticisms of Dennett have to do with controversies in the philosophy of biology rather than with biology itself.  MacDonald evidently does not know the difference and thus tries to wedge my arguments into the kind of “Intelligent Design” mold New Atheist types are used to attacking, and which I have criticized myself.

In the book, I emphasize that the question of whether Aristotelian final causes exist has nothing essentially to do with evolution per se.  I emphasize that most of the teleology that Aristotelians would attribute to the natural order does not involve anything as complex as biological function, but involves nothing more than the “directedness” toward a certain typical effect or range of effects that is characteristic of efficient causes (including at the sub-biological level).  I emphasize that the Aristotelian notion of (unconscious) teleology is very different from the (conscious) “design” posited by William Paley and “Intelligent Design” theorists.  I emphasize that the question of whether any sort of teleology at all exists in nature and the question of what, specifically, are the final causes of this or that specific phenomenon, are distinct questions, and that mistaken answers to the latter sort of question do not entail a negative answer to the former.  I emphasize that there are distinct levels of nature at which teleology might be argued to exist, and that the kinds of teleology that can be said to exist at these different levels also crucially differ.  I give examples of each kind and provide arguments for the conclusion that none of them can plausibly be eliminated.  And I emphasize that attempts to eliminate teleology at one level invariably tend in any event only to relocate it at some higher or lower level.  Indeed, this latter point is the one I emphasize in my criticism of Dennett, and I develop that particular criticism across several pages.  I show that Dennett’s attribution of purposes to “Mother Nature,” if intended merely as a metaphor, does not do the explanatory work he needs it to do; and if not intended merely as a metaphor, implicitly attributes something like Aristotelian teleology to natural processes.  I show that his notions of the “intentional stance” and “real patterns” do not solve this problem but only exacerbate it.  And so forth.

MacDonald simply ignores all of this.  He falsely insinuates that a few references to other authors coupled with several acerbic remarks constitute my entire case against Dennett.  Indeed, he actually has the audacity to assert that “[Feser] does not discuss Dennett’s arguments at all, not once”!  That is either an extremely brazen lie -- anyone with access to the book can see that MacDonald’s assertion is preposterous -- or the assertion of a man so very filled with irrational hostility that he cannot allow himself to perceive the words on the page in front of him, lest he be forced to acknowledge that his opponent has actually made a case that needs answering.  

Nor is that the end of MacDonald’s self-immolation.  Though he assures us in the title of his post that he intends at last to direct his attention “To the Arguments,” MacDonald still won’t let go of his shameful comparison of Catholic moralists to Heinrich Himmler.  He simply cannot bring himself to do the grown-up thing, and the sane thing -- to admit that his previous tirade was over-the-top, perhaps the sort of outburst any atheist might write up soon after reading a polemical book like The Last Superstition, and which he should have slept on before posting.  No, he insists on giving this loser of an “argument” one more go.  So, let’s give it one more look ourselves, shall we?  MacDonald has, after all, asked for it.

The “argument,” of which MacDonald and some of his readers seem weirdly proud -- as if the argumentum ad Hitlerum were something they’d invented, instead of being the first refuge of every political hack who ever scribbled out a pamphlet or opened a Blogger account -- goes like this:  

[T]he cruelty and inhumanity of Catholic ethics still strikes me as disturbingly close to the kind of ethic that the Nazis practiced and enforced. The Nazis did it, of course, in order to bring about an earthly paradise, as they conceived of it; the Church does it to ensure a heavenly one; but it thinks that everyone without exception should be bound by its morality, and influences laws around the world to that effect, spreading its inhumanity around as widely as possible.  I leave it to the reader to judge whether either the Nazi paradise or the Catholic heaven is sufficient to justify inhumanity and cruelty.

I also think, for what it’s worth, that the fact that the Catholic Church went to enormous lengths to cover up the sexual abuse of children by priests and religious, and seems to be doing so still, is connected to the fact that sexual abuse itself does not engage the Church’s authority regarding matters of Christian doctrine, whereas matters such as women’s ordination, gay rights, or abortion do. [Etc. etc. etc.]

You don’t need to be a Catholic to be offended by such an “argument.”  You need only know a little logic.  For the “argument,” such as it is, commits three rather blatant fallacies:

1. Begging the question: MacDonald asserts, as if it were uncontroversial, that Catholic teaching is “cruel and inhumane.”  His beloved Himmler comparison rests on this claim.  Yet MacDonald gives no argument whatsoever for the claim.  He simply presents it as if it were obvious.  But of course, we Catholic moralists don’t agree that Catholic morality is cruel and inhumane.  MacDonald thinks we are wrong, but he hasn’t shown that we are, only asserted that we are.  And that means his “argument” simply assumes precisely what is at issue, and thus begs the question.  

No doubt MacDonald would insist that it is just “obvious” that Catholic morality is inhumane, that I am obviously inhumane if I can’t see that, etc.  But there are two problems with such a response.  First, it doesn’t change the fact that MacDonald’s argument begs the question; it only kicks the question-begging up a level, since those who disagree with MacDonald don’t agree with him either about what is “obvious.”

Second, MacDonald can hardly rest his case on what he takes to be obvious, because one of his complaints against me is that I too often appeal to what I take to be obvious.  In fact I do not do so; it is true that I sometimes say that I think something is obvious -- who doesn’t? -- but I never pretend that an appeal to what I think is obvious counts as an argument.  Here MacDonald is just attacking yet another of his many straw men.  But since he attacks it, he can hardly appeal to the “obviousness” of his judgments about Catholic morality, on pain of special pleading.

2. Special pleading: As it happens, though, MacDonald is guilty of special pleading anyway.  He complains that the Catholic Church thinks that “everyone without exception should be bound by its morality, and influences laws around the world to that effect.”  But MacDonald himself surely thinks the same thing about his own moral code.  In particular, he presumably thinks (to take his pet cause as an example) that “everyone without exception” should recognize that others have a right to assisted suicide, and that “laws around the world” should reflect this alleged right.  If that is true, though, MacDonald can hardly complain that the Catholic Church regards its moral teaching as having universal application and legal relevance.  Of course, he would object to the content of that morality -- though as we’ve seen, in criticizing me he has given no non-question-begging argument against it -- but he cannot consistently object to the claims to universality and legal relevance per se.

3. Red herring: That some Catholic priests and bishops have done evil things is completely irrelevant to whether Catholic teaching about sex, abortion, euthanasia, etc. is itself inhumane.  If Jack Kevorkian or Derek Humphry had been a child molester, that would not show that their support of assisted suicide is immoral.  And that some priests have been guilty of child molestation does not show that Catholic moral teaching itself is inhumane.  Hence, if MacDonald has raised this issue thinking that it somehow lends credibility to his Himmler comparison, then he is guilty of a red herring fallacy.

Nothing more need be said about MacDonald’s “argument” -- indeed, any attention paid to it is more attention than it deserves -- but if you’re so inclined, see Prometheus Unbound for some further apposite remarks.

MacDonald’s attempt at a more substantive response to my arguments, then, is as devoid of merit as his previous effort.  I have replied to it in detail, though, so as to expose his incompetence once and for all.  Jerry Coyne has described MacDonald as “a treasure,” a “serious man” with “serious arguments.”  If, even now, he is not embarrassed by those words, that will tell you nothing about MacDonald and everything about Coyne.  By lavishing on MacDonald such ridiculous praise, Coyne and MacDonald’s other New Atheist fans do him no favors.  The man needs an intervention, not enablers.  

NOTE: As I was finishing up this post I discovered that MacDonald has today put up yet another blog entry about me.  By my count that makes at least seven posts about me in less than a month!  I seem to have acquired another online stalker.  If history is any guide, MacDonald’s latest will be as unserious as his previous efforts have been, but I will give it a read when I have a chance.
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