Reading Rosenberg, Part I

I called attention in an earlier post to my review in First Things of Alex Rosenberg’s new book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  Here I begin a series of posts devoted to examining Rosenberg’s book in more detail than I had space for in the review.  The book is worthy of such attention because Rosenberg sees more clearly than any other prominent atheist just how extreme are the implications of the scientism on which modern atheists tend to base their position.  Indeed, it is amazing how similar his conclusions are to those I argue follow from scientism in chapters 5 and 6 of The Last Superstition.  The difference is that whereas I claim that these consequences constitute a reductio ad absurdum of the premises that lead to them, Rosenberg regards them as “pretty obvious” and “totally unavoidable” truths about an admittedly “rough reality,” which atheists should embrace despite its roughness.  How rough is it?  Writes Rosenberg:

Science -- especially physics and biology -- reveals that reality is completely different from what most people think.  It’s not just different from what credulous religious believers think.  Science reveals that reality is stranger than even many atheists recognize. (p. ix)


The right answers are ones that even some scientists have not been comfortable with and have sought to avoid or water down. (p. xii)

What these answers amount to is nothing less than a pretty thoroughgoing “nihilism,” though a nihilism that Rosenberg assures us is of “a nice sort,” or at least can be made bearable given that “there’s always Prozac.”  Part of what he has in mind is what you’d expect any atheist to claim -- that there is no God, no life after death, and that neither the universe as a whole, nor history, nor any individual human life has any point or purpose.  He also has in mind claims that some atheists try to resist or qualify but which many of them would allow are at least hard to avoid given their metaphysical assumptions -- that free will and morality (including any secular system of morality) are illusions.

But Rosenberg goes well beyond these familiar atheist themes.  In his view, when followed out consistently, scientism entails that introspective consciousness does not give us genuine knowledge of our own nature or of the causes of our behavior.  Indeed, it entails that the self is an illusion.  It entails that meaning and purpose are illusions even at the level of the individual human mind -- that none of our thoughts is really “about” anything at all, and that no individual human being ever really forms plans or has any purposes of his own.  And it entails that history, the humanities, and much of social science, to the extent that they presuppose that there are selves with meaningful thoughts who plan and act purposively, give us no genuine knowledge about the world -- they are, at best, mere entertainments.  In general, narratives or stories of any sort (including allegedly “true” narratives or stories, and including allegedly true secular narratives or stories) are sheer fictions.  Only the “formulas, wiring diagrams, systems of equations… geometrical proofs” and the like of scientific discourse give us actual knowledge.

What Rosenberg is committed to, then, is the claim that the scientism upon which modern atheism rests entails a radical eliminative materialism (though he doesn’t employ that term in the book, perhaps so as to avoid too much technical jargon in a work aimed at a largely non-philosophical audience).  Common sense takes it to be obvious -- indeed, so obvious that it seems that only philosophers ever bother calling attention to the fact -- that the things we say and the thoughts our words express have meaning, that they are about or refer to things in the world.  That is to say, they have intentionality, the philosopher’s technical term for a thought’s meaningfulness, “aboutness,” or “directedness toward” an object or referent.  Eliminative materialism (or the version of eliminative materialism Rosenberg endorses, anyway) holds that this is an illusion, that intentionality is not a genuine feature of the world and ought to be eliminated from our picture of reality.  Much (though not all) of what Rosenberg has to say rests on this fundamental thesis.

Some of this ground was already covered by Rosenberg almost two years ago, in his online article “The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality.”  (I replied to that article in an earlier series of blog posts, here, here, and here.  What I said in those posts applies to the book as well, though naturally I will have new things to say in the present series of posts.)  The article is useful reading for anyone who wants a précis of the book, though (perhaps for marketing reasons) the book is slightly less downbeat than the article.  (The last line of the article is “So much for the meaning of history, and everything else we care about.”  The subtitle of the book is “Enjoying Life Without Illusions.”  On the other hand, by the time of the book’s last line, Rosenberg is advising his readers to “Take a Prozac or your favorite serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and keep taking them till they kick in.”  I hope Duke University’s health plan affords Rosenberg a generous prescription drug benefit!)

The article also seems a tad more explicit than the book is about just how radical the implications of denying intentionality are.  To be sure, the book makes it clear enough that Rosenberg holds that none of our thoughts is really “about” anything.  But except for an allusion here or there, it does not make it as plain as the article does that this entails that linguistic meaning (including the purported meanings of the very words in Rosenberg’s book and article themselves) is also an illusion, and that strictly speaking there are no such things as beliefs, desires, and the like.  Perhaps Rosenberg was concerned that even the average secular reader would find it difficult to read such claims sympathetically.  As a combox remark following his original article indicates, Rosenberg is impatient with what he regards as facile attempts to show that eliminative materialism is self-refuting (“He says he believes that there are no beliefs!” etc.)  So, perhaps Rosenberg hoped to forestall such objections by putting the emphasis on the idea that the “aboutness” of our beliefs is illusory, rather than on the theme that beliefs themselves are, or that the “aboutness” of even our words is.

Rosenberg is correct to hold that the eliminative materialist can easily avoid using locutions like “believes that,” so as to evade any direct self-contradiction of the “believing that there are no beliefs” kind.  The real question, though, is whether the eliminativist can, even in principle, entirely avoid stating his position in a way that does not presuppose intentionality.  And the answer (as I argued in my earlier posts on Rosenberg and in chapter 6 of The Last Superstition, and as I will argue in this series of posts) is that he cannot avoid it.  That much suffices to refute Rosenberg’s position.  But there are many other problems with it.

Scientism’s guide to reality

We’ll get to all that.  For the moment let’s look a little more closely at Rosenberg’s scientism.  The first thing to say about it is that scientism (the view that science alone gives us knowledge of reality), rather than atheism, is the true subject of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  Atheism is for Rosenberg just one of the consequences that he takes to follow from scientism, not something he argues for independently.  Indeed, while one could argue for atheism on non-scientistic grounds, one imagines that Rosenberg would have no interest in such arguments if they were positively at odds with scientism.  What he is interested in is spelling out what else follows from the scientism that motivates his atheism.

For this reason Rosenberg does not even bother saying much by way of criticism of theistic arguments.  Much of his justification for this neglect is New Atheist-style bluster to the effect that “belief in God is on a par with belief in Santa Claus,” etc.  (Rosenberg confesses that the tone of his book is bound to come across as “patronizing” and “smug.”)  But he does try to offer what he takes to be three substantive reasons for it.  First, he says, everything that needs to be said by way of philosophical criticism of theism has already been said by others, and indeed was pretty much said by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.  Second, the fact that theists persist in their belief despite these well-known criticisms shows that they are not going to be convinced by arguments anyway.  Third, atheists are, accordingly, better advised to devote their attention to exploring the implications of their own position rather than arguing against theism.

Needless to say, these are not philosophically serious reasons for refusing to engage theistic arguments, for they blatantly beg the question.  Rosenberg himself acknowledges that there are intelligent and well-informed people who are not atheists.  He surely realizes that they are not going to agree with him that Hume put paid to theism over two centuries ago, will also not agree with the insinuation that those who think otherwise are either ill-informed or dishonest, and therefore will disagree as well with the judgment that the atheist need not make any case for his position but can focus instead on spelling out its implications.  Rosenberg has offered them no argument for thinking otherwise, but only assertion.

No doubt Rosenberg would accuse those who would make such a retort of bad faith; indeed, his book is peppered with condescending accusations of bad faith against those who disagree with him.  But such accusations also simply beg the question, for whether contemporary theists really are acting in bad faith is itself part of what is at issue in the dispute between atheists and theists.  The only way to establish that they are would be actually to deal with their arguments, and to show (rather than merely to assert), not only that the arguments fail, but that they fail so spectacularly that no intelligent and well-informed person acting in good faith could possibly accept them.   

That would be a rather bold claim to make even if Rosenberg showed any evidence of being familiar with what serious philosophers of religion, past and present, have actually said.  In fact one suspects that his reading on the subject ended with whatever was in the anthology they used in his undergraduate PHIL 101 class.  Rosenberg comes across as a paradigm case of the sort of person the atheist philosopher of religion Quentin Smith had in mind when he judged that “the great majority of naturalist philosophers have an unjustified belief that naturalism is true and an unjustified belief that theism (or supernaturalism) is false.”  Their naturalism, Smith says, typically rests on nothing more than an ill-informed “hand waving dismissal of theism” which ignores “the erudite brilliance of theistic philosophizing today.”  Smith continues:

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

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

Now Smith, unlike Rosenberg, actually has expertise in the philosophy of religion.  He also has expertise in areas of philosophy for which Rosenberg no doubt has greater respect (such as philosophy of science and metaphysics) and in natural science as well.  Nor is Smith by any means the only prominent naturalist to regard many of his fellow non-believers as prone to just the sort of ignorance and dogmatism of which they accuse theists.  (See the passages from the likes of Thomas Nagel, John Searle, Tyler Burge, and William Lycan quoted at the end of this recent post.)  Rosenberg can hardly accuse such thinkers of ignorance of science and philosophy, or of having a theological ax to grind.  Yet if they are right, then atheists cannot pretend to have a so strong a presumption in their favor that they needn’t bother engaging the arguments of the other side.  And even if they are wrong, the atheist has to show that they are wrong, not simply assert that they are.

Consider also that Rosenberg’s sword cuts both ways -- that the move he makes could be made against atheists themselves.  Suppose a theist wrote a book called The Theist’s Guide to Reality, but devoted no attention to answering any atheist arguments against theism.  And suppose he tried to justify this by suggesting, first, that everything that needs to be said against atheism has already been said by others, and indeed was pretty much said by Thomas Aquinas; second, that the fact that atheists don’t acknowledge this shows that they are not going to be convinced by arguments anyway; and third, that theists are accordingly better advised to devote their attention to spelling out the implications of their position rather than arguing against atheism.

Rosenberg would no doubt regard this as delusional.  But of course, we theists regard his own refusal to engage the other side as delusional.  There is no way rationally to break this deadlock except to do what Rosenberg refuses to do -- actually to examine the arguments for both sides of the dispute between atheism and theism, rather than shamelessly to beg the question in favor of one of the sides and simply declare this farcical procedure to be the “rational” one.  (Any atheist reader tempted at this point to deploy the Myers Shuffle by shouting “Courtier’s Reply!” should know that that would simply be to beg the question yet again, since whether the arguments for theism are really comparable to those of a naked emperor’s apologist is precisely what is at issue.)

Writes Rosenberg:

[T]his book is written mainly for those of us who are already deniers, not just doubters and agnostics.  Although we will address the foibles and fallacies (as well as the wishful thinking) of theists, we won’t treat theism as a serious alternative that stills [sic] needs to be refuted.  This book’s intended readers have moved past that point.  We know the truth.  (p. xii)

“We know the truth.”  Replace “deniers” with “believers,” and “theists” and “theism” with “atheists” and “atheism,” and Rosenberg sounds exactly like Jerry Falwell (or at least like what liberals think Jerry Falwell sounded like).  This is not philosophy.  It‘s a shout-out to an amen corner, an appeal to the mob.  That those in the mob have advanced degrees and Darwin Fish on the trunks of their cars doesn’t make it any less so.

So much for what the book does not say.  In the next post we’ll get to the first of Rosenberg’s actual arguments -- the reason he thinks scientism is unavoidable.


Magic versus metaphysics

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke

Any sufficiently rigorously defined magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Larry Niven

Some atheists are intellectually serious.  Some are not.  There are several infallible marks by which an atheist might show himself to be intellectually unserious.  Thinking “What caused God?” is a good objection to the cosmological argument is one.  Being impressed by the “one god further” objection is another.  A third is the suggestion that theism entails a belief in “magical beings.”  Anyone who says this either doesn’t know what theism is or doesn’t know what magic is.  Or (no less likely) doesn’t much care one way or the other – it’s another handy straw man, useful for those who want to believe that theistic arguments are manifestly fallacious or otherwise silly, or who find it rhetorically useful to pretend that they are.

What is magic?  In Renewing Philosophy, Hilary Putnam makes some interesting remarks on the subject:

If a witch must have magical powers, then it is far from clear that the concept of a witch is a coherent one, because it is far from clear that the concept of a magical power is a coherent one.  We can certainly imagine possible worlds in which things regularly happen that superstitious people would regard as magic; but the very fact that they regularly happen in those possible worlds is strong reason for saying that in those possible worlds those things are not really magic—it is just that those worlds have different laws than the actual world.  The notion of a world in which things happen that are “truly magical” is, I think, an incoherent one; and that means, I think, that the notion of a witch is an incoherent one.

One might try to meet this difficulty by defining a witch not as someone who has magical powers but as someone who has supernatural powers, where the supernatural is understood not in terms of the notion of magic, but in terms of not falling within the categories of substance, space, and time.  It is extremely doubtful that the pagan witches, or the witches of present-day African tribes, are supposed to derive their powers from something which is supernatural in that sense.  It is a feature, in fact, of pagan thought that the gods, demons, and so on, are not supernatural in the sense which came into existence with the rise of Greek philosophy and the incorporation into the Jerusalem-based religions of a certain amount of Greek philosophy.  The notion that what is magical must derive from the supernatural, in the philosophical/theological sense of “supernatural”, is not part of the original meaning of the term. (p. 44)

Putnam surely captures one important sense of the term “magical” here (though there are other senses, as we will note below).  More to the point, he surely captures the sense of “magical” in which the notion of magic is thought by the atheist to be objectionable.  And rightly so, for it is objectionable.  “Magical” powers, as Putnam here describes them, are powers which are intrinsically unintelligible.  It’s not just that we don’t know how magic operates; it’s that there is, objectively, no rhyme or reason whatsoever to how it operates. 
That it is intrinsically unintelligible has to be what is objectionable about it.  For it is not reasonable to object to the notion of powers or causes which are intelligible in themselves, but which we simply don’t happen to understand, or perhaps even cannot understand given the limitations on our intellects.  There is, after all, no reason to think that whatever exists simply must be comprehensible to us -- especially for someone who regards our cognitive powers as the product of evolutionary processes that favor survival value rather than accurate beliefs per se.  Indeed, some naturalists have insisted that there are limits in principle to what we can understand, so that certain aspects of the natural world must remain forever mysterious to us.  There can be serious arguments for the postulation of such limits on our knowledge, and such a postulation can do real explanatory work -- again, for the naturalist or atheist no less than for the theist.  (In an earlier post, I discussed the various senses in which different aspects of the world might be said to be intelligible or unintelligible, from either an atheist point of view or a theistic one.)

So, again, what is objectionable about magic can only be that it is supposed to be inherently unintelligible, unintelligible even in principle and not merely in practice.  Appeals to magic in this sense can, of necessity, explain nothing.  They are rightly dismissed as pseudo-explanations or worse -- Putnam suggests that they are actually incoherent.  (He does not elaborate, but perhaps his point is that it is incoherent to suppose that an appeal to “magic” is any kind of explanation given that an explanation necessarily makes the explanandum intelligible, and the notion of magic is the notion of that which is inherently unintelligible.)

But the greatest theistic writers -- thinkers like Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, Leibniz, and the like -- would agree that the notion of “magic” in this sense is intellectually disreputable.  And when they argue for the existence of God, they are not appealing to magic.  On the contrary, they are appealing precisely to rational considerations about what the world must be like in order to be intelligible.  For example, the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) argument from motion rests on the distinction between actuality and potentiality (or “act and potency”), which was introduced by Aristotle as necessary to explain how change is possible.  Thinkers like Parmenides and Zeno had argued that change is not possible.  Their reasons are complex, but they involve the crucial assumption that a thing either has being or existence full stop, or it is sheer nothingness or non-being.  But change, they argued, would have to involve going from non-being to being, and thus from nothing to something; and from nothing, nothing can come.  Hence change is impossible, and the appearance of change illusory.

Aristotle argued that the assumption such arguments rest on is false, for in addition to that which is utterly non-existent on the one hand, and that which is fully real or actual on the other, we have to distinguish a third, middle ground category of what exists potentially.  A certain rubber ball might on the one hand be actually red, actually spherical, actually solid, and actually smooth to the touch; and on the other hand, it would be in no way a rabbit, or a quasar, or a Buick Skylark.  But in between these extremes there are the ways it potentially is, just given its nature -- for instance, it is potentially green (if you paint it), potentially flat and squishy (if you melt it) and so forth.  And that is how change is possible -- it does not involve going from sheer non-being to something actual (which would be impossible), but rather going from potentiality to actuality.  For while a potential is not actual, it is not nothing either.

But a potential, precisely because it is merely potential and not actual, cannot actualize itself; only what is already actual can actualize it.  And if that which actualizes a potential is itself being actualized as it does so, it must in turn be actualized by something else.  Such a regress of causes would be of the essentially ordered or instrumental kind; and it can only terminate (so the A-T philosopher argues) in that which can actualize without itself having to be actualized -- something which just is “pure actuality.”   And that is the metaphysical core of the A-T conception of God.

Now, there is more to the story than that.  The point for now, though, is not to develop or defend this sort of argument.   (I have done so elsewhere, e.g. here, here, and here.)  The point is rather to emphasize that there is nothing remotely “magical” about it.  You might disagree with the argument; you might think (quite wrongly, I would say, but let that pass) that it has somehow been superseded by modern science, or that in some other way it is fallacious or rests on mistaken premises.  What you cannot reasonably do is deny that such an argument is a genuine attempt at explanation, rather than an appeal to something inherently unintelligible.  The same can be said of the Thomistic argument from the distinction between a contingent thing’s essence and its existence to God as a cause whose essence just is existence; or the Neo-Platonic argument from the existence of multiplicity to a cause which is an absolute unity; or the Leibnizian argument from contingency to a necessary being; or indeed of any of the other major theistic arguments.  It is one thing to reject these arguments after a serious analysis of them.  But to dismiss them as appeals to “magic” is just silly.

Notice that Putnam rightly distinguishes the “magical” from the “supernatural.”  As I have noted before, “supernatural” does not have, in traditional theology, the connotations that movies, television, and the like have given it in the popular mind.  In particular, it does not have any necessary connection with belief in ghosts or other paranormal phenomena.  The “supernatural” is just that which transcends the natural order.  And if it is not governed by the laws that govern the natural order, that is not because it is less intelligible than the natural order, but because it is more intelligible, and indeed the source of the intelligibility of the natural order.  The natural order is contingent; its divine, supernatural ground is necessary.   The causal processes in terms of which we explain everyday happenings within the natural order are secondary, having only a derived efficacy; the divine, supernatural first cause is that which has its causal power inherently, in an absolutely underived way.  (See again the post on essentially ordered or instrumental causes linked to above.)  And so forth.  

Again, even if this whole picture were rejected as outdated metaphysics, that does not entail that it is “magical.”  Outdated scientific theories which appealed to notions like phlogiston, caloric, celestial spheres and the like were not “magical”; they were mistaken, but they were not appeals to what is intrinsically unintelligible.  Similarly, even if it turned out that Aristotelian metaphysics, Platonic metaphysics, Thomistic metaphysics, and Leibnizian metaphysics were all mistaken, that would not make them appeals to “magic.”  

Nor will it do to insist that only scientific or naturalistic explanations could even in principle be non-magical.  For one thing, such a claim would presuppose something like a verificationist theory of meaning, insofar as it implies that non-naturalistic or non-scientific explanations are not even intelligible; and semantic verificationism is self-defeating.   For another thing, scientism and naturalism are themselves self-defeating (unless they are merely trivially true), and tend to rest on non sequiturs -- that is, when they are actually being argued for at all, as opposed to being merely asserted.  (I’ve discussed these problems here, here, here and here.)

Indeed, if any view is plausibly accused of being “magical” in the sense in question, it is atheism itself.  The reason is that it is very likely that an atheist has to hold that the operation of at least the fundamental laws that govern the universe is an “unintelligible brute fact”; as I have noted before, that was precisely the view taken by J. L. Mackie and Bertrand Russell.  The reason an atheist (arguably) has to hold this is that to allow that the world is not ultimately a brute fact -- that it is intelligible through and through -- seems to entail that there is some level of reality which is radically non-contingent or necessary in an absolute sense.  And that would in turn be to allow (so the traditional metaphysician will argue) that there is something which, as the Thomist would put it, is pure actuality and ipsum esse subsistens or “subsistent being itself” -- and thus something which has the divine attributes which inexorably flow from being pure actuality and ipsum esse subsistens.  Hence it would be to give up atheism.

But to operate in a way that is ultimately unintelligible in principle -- as the atheist arguably has to say the fundamental laws of nature do, insofar as he has to say that they are “just there” as a brute fact, something that could have been otherwise but happens to exist anyway, with no explanation -- just is to be “magical” in the objectionable sense.  In fact it is only on a theistic view of the world that the laws of nature are not “magical”; and the Mackie/Russell position is (as I argue in the post linked to above) ultimately incoherent for the same sorts of reason that magical thinking in general is incoherent.  As is so often the case, the loudmouth New Atheist turns out to be exactly what he claims to despise -- in this case, a believer in “magical powers.” 

Of course, there are other senses of the word “magic.”  For example, the term is also used to refer to phenomena that are paranormal or occult, but not intrinsically unintelligible -- phenomena which do have an explanation, but where the explanation lies beyond the everyday material order of things and is to a significant extent closed to our investigation.  Now, as I indicated earlier, there is no necessary connection between the “supernatural” (in the theological sense) and the “magical” in this paranormal sense.  Someone could be a theist and reject all alleged paranormal phenomena.  And someone could be an atheist and believe that there are some genuine paranormal phenomena.  (C. D. Broad was one example of such an atheist.  I do not know whether Stephen Braude would call himself an atheist, but his interest in the paranormal does not seem to be motivated by any religious concern.)

To be sure, many theists do in fact believe in paranormal phenomena.  Alleged paranormal practices of the sort often labeled “occult” or “magical” are condemned by the Catholic Church, not merely because they are often phony (though of course they often are phony), but because even if authentic they involve an appeal to demonic powers or lost souls.  Now angels, demons, and souls are of course associated in the popular mind with all sorts of superstitions and crude images.  But rightly understood there is nothing superstitious about them, and certainly nothing “magical” in the objectionable sense of being intrinsically unintelligible.  The traditional philosophical arguments for the immateriality of the intellect provide independent grounds for holding that it is possible in principle for there to be a disembodied intelligence.  And in traditional theology, that is exactly what an angel, a demon, or a postmortem soul is supposed to be.  Here too, while one could of course disagree with the arguments in question, they are not “magical” in the sense of appealing to powers regarded as intrinsically unintelligible.  (It is worth emphasizing that Aristotle himself, who had no Christian theological ax to grind, thought that there were such things as disembodied intelligences.)  

The term “magic” is also sometimes used ironically -- for something that is so contrary to ordinary experience and existing knowledge as to seem unintelligible, but which is in fact perfectly intelligible in itself and can be made intelligible to us given sufficient advances in our knowledge (and which is thus not really “magical” at all).  This seems to be the sense in which Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven use the term in the statements quoted above.  And in this ironic sense, theological claims may well be “magical,” at least to those ignorant of what serious theologians and philosophers of religion have actually said -- just as scientific claims would seem magical to those unacquainted with modern science.  This suggests the need for a third law to supplement Clarke’s Law and Niven’s Law:

Any theological proposition will seem “magical” to someone insufficiently versed in the underlying metaphysics. 


Tollefsen channels Rawls

Over at Public Discourse, Chris Tollefsen has replied to my most recent contribution to our ongoing exchange over the death penalty.  (Go here for links to the earlier parts of the exchange.)  Tollefsen claims that I have not adequately addressed his arguments against capital punishment.  Echoing liberal political philosopher John Rawls’s conception of justice as “political, not metaphysical,” Tollefsen insists that just punishment, in particular, ought to be construed as political rather than metaphysical.  That is to say, it is a means of “restor[ing] a kind of equality between citizens that the criminal’s overly self-assertive act(s) of will had disrupted,” and not a matter of inflicting on criminals something that they “deserve… in some absolute sense.”  The trouble with my position, Tollefsen says, is that it is metaphysical, a matter of looking at justice “from the point of view of the universe, not of the state.”

Writes Tollefsen:

A political conception of retributive punishment makes somewhat softer claims about merit and proportionality than Feser does.  Merit is… necessary in this sense: punishment should only be done to those who are guilty of the assertion of will that punishment redresses.  Hence, if not deserved (merited), punishment should not be inflicted.  Proportionality, too, is somewhat softened by contrast with Feser’s account.  Feser supposes there is a precise, or specific, amount of punishment that is merited by the criminal and that ought, barring practical considerations and considerations of mercy, to be exacted.  The cosmic scales are finely tuned.

But political scales—not so much.  The degree to and way in which a criminal’s will ought to be restricted does not seem, even in principle, subject to such a fine-grained assessment… 

Now, this gives the impression that the difference between Tollefsen and me is this: I (so Tollefsen implies) am defending the claim that the state should strive to realize cosmic justice, which is why I defend capital punishment.  Murderers and the like deserve death in an absolute, metaphysical sense; the state is supposed to inflict on offenders what they deserve in this sense; so the state ought to execute murderers and the like.  Tollefsen, by contrast, regards punishment as a means of upholding what he called in an earlier piece “a political community” which is “constituted by an ordering of the wills of the community’s members.”  Since it has a merely political, this-worldly end, punishment is for Tollefsen not concerned with inflicting on wrongdoers what they deserve in some absolute metaphysical sense, but merely with restoring the order of the political community.  And capital punishment (so the implied argument might seem to go) is not necessary in order to realize this political end.  Since I did not address these differences over political philosophy in my earlier essays, Tollefsen complains that I have not adequately addressed his arguments.

Now Tollefsen and I do indeed deeply disagree over matters of general political philosophy.  I regard the state as a natural institution rather than as something “constituted” by “the wills of the community’s members.”  (Tollefsen here makes what many of us traditional natural law moralists regard as an unnecessary and unwise accommodation to Kantian liberal orthodoxy.  In fact such accommodation is not atypical of the so-called “new natural law theory” that Tollefsen represents, but that is a subject for another time.)  But getting into these matters is not in fact essential to the dispute between us, as the rest of Tollefsen’s latest essay makes evident.  That (together with the fact that I was laboring under a word limit!) is why I did not address them in my Public Discourse articles.

Tollefsen does, in any event, distort my position.  I do not claim that the state ought, in general, to try to realize cosmic justice.  Nor do I deny (contrary to the impression Tollefsen gives in his latest article) that there are aspects of the law that ought to be determined by “custom, prior commitment, or other considerations.”  My position is rather that what Tollefsen calls “metaphysical” justice is a necessary condition for just punishment, even if it is not a sufficient condition.  The state cannot perfectly realize cosmic justice and should not try to; all the same, the state should not inflict a punishment on a wrongdoer unless in some cosmic or metaphysical sense he does deserve it.  

So, consider, on the one hand, a murderer, and on the other hand, someone who routinely lies to his spouse and friends.  Both of them deserve punishment in an absolute sense.  Now the state obviously has a reason to punish murderers (whether or not we think they should punish them with death) because murder is destructive of the very possibility of a political order.  But the state has no business punishing ordinary liars as such (except in cases of perjury and the like, where what is against the law is not lying per se but a specific kind of lying), because doing so is not necessary to maintaining political order and would even undermine it, given how draconian enforcement would have to be.  So, desert in an absolute sense is not a sufficient condition for the state’s punishing someone.  But it is a necessary condition -- the state can punish a murderer only because he deserves punishment, even if considerations additional to desert also play a role.

But Tollefsen, it seems, essentially agrees with this.  For he goes on to write:

Of course, such determinations [of what punishments are allowable] must be made within the scope of what is otherwise morally permissible, what the natural law requires; and if the natural law, as a matter of deduction, and not determination, requires that one never intentionally kill, then that choice is ruled out of the range of determinations one might make regarding punishment.

The real reason Tollefsen objects to capital punishment, then, is not that it plays no role in a purely political conception of justice.   It is rather that he thinks it is wrong in an absolute sense (indeed, we might say a cosmic sense).  Tollefsen believes, no less than I do, that questions of politics and punishment must be settled within boundaries set by natural law, even if we disagree about the grounds and content of natural law.  All the “punishment is political and not metaphysical” stuff is thus really irrelevant at the end of the day -- which, again, is why I ignored it in my earlier pieces.  

So, why in Tollefsen’s view is capital punishment inherently wrong?  Yet again, it seems to me, he fails to give us a non-question-begging answer.  Tollefsen says, rightly, that a murderer does wrong even if he does not succeed in killing his victim.  The reason he does wrong, I would say, is that he has willed to kill an innocent person, and such willing is bad intrinsically, even if the murderer’s will is frustrated.  Tollefsen says that the reason he does wrong is that he “wills contrary to the good of life.”  And that, of course, is why Tollefsen thinks capital punishment is intrinsically wrong, for it too involves willing contrary to the good of life.

But why is it always wrong to will against the good of life?  Tollefsen writes:

Here is a core aspect of my approach to ethics that seems to differ from Feser’s: I think that morality is ultimately a matter of the heart—of the will of the agent.  What is the standard by which that agent’s will should be guided and measured?  It is the standard provided by the various basic or fundamental goods of the human person, those goods that are constitutive aspects of every human person’s well-being and fulfillment, such as life, knowledge, or friendship.  That standard, when reason considers all the goods, in their bearing on all beings who, like us, are fulfilled in those goods, is one of openness: agents should promote and protect as possible all the goods in all persons; and agents should never will contrary to the goodness of those human goods, by a choice deliberately to damage or destroy an instance of one of those goods in a person.

All of this presupposes Tollefsen’s “new natural law” approach to ethics, which, as a traditional natural law theorist, I reject.  But even apart from that, there is the question of why no instance of what “new natural lawyers” call a “basic good” can be damaged or destroyed.  I argued in my previous piece that the principle of proportionality itself gives us reason to conclude that the good of life can, even if basic, legitimately be taken from someone if he is guilty of serious enough crimes.  Tollefsen does not really answer this point.  He gives the impression in the first part of his current article that drawing a distinction between political and metaphysical considerations suffices to answer it, but as we have just seen, it does not.  For Tollefsen himself agrees that questions about what forms of punishment can and cannot legitimately be employed for the sake of upholding the political order must be answered within the absolute boundaries provided by natural law, which (I assume Tollefsen would agree) are deeper than the political order.  

Now, I would say that the principle of proportionality is itself part of the more fundamental, natural law framework, not merely part of the political order to be built within this framework.  Hence, if he is satisfactorily to answer my argument, Tollefsen owes us an explanation, either of how his position on capital punishment squares with the principle of proportionality, or of why that principle should not be considered part of the natural law framework but only part of the secondary, political order constructed within it (if that is what he believes).

Tollefsen also tells us that there is in both Christian thought and natural law theory a presumption against killing, so that “intentional killing requires a special justification.”  I agree, but I also hold that the principle of proportionality shows that that presumption can be overridden.  Tollefsen’s response is that “the presumptive starting point is one of absolute opposition to intentional killing of beings created in the image of God, for which exceptions must be earned.”  But there are two problems with this statement.  First, it is false, or at least question-begging.  As Tollefsen himself would have to admit, the Christian and natural law traditions have historically almost universally supported the legitimacy of capital punishment, at least in principle.  Tollefsen thinks they are wrong to have done so, but he can hardly present his own absolutist opposition to capital punishment as if it represented “the” natural law and/or Christian position, at least not without begging the question.

Second, Tollefsen’s assertion here is in any event simply nonsensical.  If there is a presumption of “absolute opposition” to capital punishment, then by definition there is going to be no way to “earn exceptions” to it; while if exceptions can be earned, then the presumption is not in favor of absolute opposition!

I also noted in my recent piece that Tollefsen gives us no good reason to think that freedom (which he admits can be taken from a wrongdoer) is not as basic a good as life, and thus no good reason to think that taking a wrongdoer’s life is any less legitimate in principle than taking away his freedom is.  In response, Tollefsen distinguishes between “the capacity for freedom” and “the exercise of freedom.”  The former, he says, can never legitimately be taken away, but the latter can be, and that is, he thinks, sufficient to explain why a wrongdoer’s freedom can be taken away while his life can never be -- and thus to save his position from the arbitrariness of which I accused him.

But there are two problems with this move.  First, it has implications that I suspect Tollefsen would not be happy with.  Suppose it were suggested that instead of executing murderers, we put them into suspended animation, as in the movie Demolition Man.  Neither their lives nor their capacity for free action would be destroyed.  It is merely their exercise of that capacity that would be taken from them.  Or suppose we kept them in solitary confinement in a small space for the entirety of their lives -- again, thereby preserving both their lives and their capacity for freedom, and taking away (at least to a very great extent) only the exercise of the latter.  It would be interesting to know whether Tollefsen would regard such harsh punishments as intrinsically wrong and contrary to human dignity (as I suspect he would).  If so, it is hard to see how he could defend such a claim, given that it is only the capacity for freedom, and not its exercise, that we can never in principle destroy.  

Nor would it do for him to suggest that such punishments would be intrinsically wrong insofar as they frustrated the pursuit of other “basic goods,” such as skilled work, play, aesthetic experience, and the like.  For one thing, ordinary imprisonment frustrates the pursuit of these goods at least to a great extent, but Tollefsen is not opposed to ordinary imprisonment.  For another, even though (unlike ordinary imprisonment) suspended animation or solitary confinement in a small space would completely or very largely prevent the pursuit of these goods, it is still only their pursuit and not the capacity for their pursuit that is taken away.  And if preserving a capacity while frustrating its exercise is not intrinsically wrong in the case of free action, it is hard to see why it would be intrinsically wrong in the case of work, play, aesthetic experience, etc.

(It would be helpful in determining what exactly he thinks is and is not consistent with human dignity if we knew whether Tollefsen holds, as some other opponents of capital punishment do, that even life imprisonment is contrary to human dignity.  But though I raised this question in my earlier piece, Tollefsen has not answered it.)

A second problem is that Tollefsen’s distinction between the capacity for freedom and its exercise does not seem to sit well with other arguments typically given by “new natural lawyers.”  For example, such writers argue that masturbation, fornication, homosexual acts, etc. are intrinsically wrong because they are contrary to the “basic good of marriage,” as that is defined in new natural law theory.  But if Tollefsen is right, it seems that we could distinguish between the capacity for the basic good of marriage and the exercise of that capacity.  And while acts of the sort in question are contrary to the exercise of this capacity, they leave the capacity itself intact -- in which case, by analogy with what Tollefsen says about freedom, they would not be intrinsically wrong after all (or at least not intrinsically wrong by virtue of acting against a basic good).  

Now Tollefsen might reply that such acts indirectly damage the capacity itself insofar as they make it psychologically more difficult to exercise it.  Our capacity to realize the “basic good of marriage,” he might say, will be damaged by indulgence in acts of the sort in question.  But something similar could be said of taking away a criminal’s exercise of freedom, insofar as imprisonment can make one less capable of independent action.  Being directed by and dependent on others, the prisoner’s capacity for self-direction will at least be blunted, in some cases seriously.   (Think of the fate of the character Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption -- a movie no doubt beloved of opponents of capital punishment.)  And yet Tollefsen does not deny that imprisonment is legitimate.  

In short, it seems the capacity/exercise distinction can help Tollefsen get out of the difficulty freedom of action poses for his critique of capital punishment only by leading him into problems elsewhere in his overall “new natural law” program.

As most readers no doubt realize, in the area of sexual morality, I do in fact agree with the conclusions that the “new natural lawyers” defend; I just don’t think their arguments for those conclusions are any good.  (The right approach to sexual morality is in my view the traditional, Scholastic natural law approach, which I summarize in chapter 4 of The Last Superstition.)  Unfortunately, in the case of capital punishment, they don’t get even the conclusion right.
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