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 clich├ęs.  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.
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