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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