Reply to Steve Fuller

As I noted in a recent post, the Spring 2012 issue of Theoretical and Applied Ethics contains a symposium on Ethics, Atheism, and Religion, with a lead essay by atheist philosopher Colin McGinn.  I wrote one of the responses to McGinn’s piece, and one of the other contributors, Steve Fuller, wrote an essay with the title “Defending Theism as if Science Mattered: Against Both McGinn and Feser.”  What follows is a reply to Fuller.  (Readers who have not already done so are advised to read McGinn's essay, mine, and Fuller’s before proceeding.  They're all fairly brief.)

Fuller contra McGinn

My piece was very critical of McGinn, and as the title of his contribution indicates, Fuller is critical of McGinn as well.  But our criticisms are significantly different, and in fact I would take issue with some of what Fuller has to say against McGinn.  In particular, Fuller seems to think that McGinn’s “belief… in the ultimate efficacy and significance of scientific inquiry” is one that “presuppose[s] the existence of God, specifically, the monotheistic deity of the Abrahamic tradition,” whether McGinn realizes this or not.  Fuller also indicates that he thinks that “from a strictly Darwinian standpoint” the value we place in science “is very puzzling.”  In the absence of “a belief… that we are created ‘in the image and likeness of God,” Fuller says, “it is not at all clear why we should continue to hold science in such high esteem.”

He is not much more explicit than that and I would not want to put words in his mouth, but it would seem that what Fuller is claiming is that a high degree of confidence in science is justifiable only if we suppose that both the order of the universe and the reliability of our cognitive faculties are guaranteed by a divine intelligent designer.  (I interpret him as taking this position both on the basis of what he says in this essay and because Fuller has been associated with the “Intelligent Design” movement.)

If this is Fuller’s argument, then in my view it is much too quick.  I agree that neither the order of the universe nor the reliability of our cognitive faculties are intelligible given the conception of the material world associated with naturalism.  But from the falsity of this conception, the truth of theism does not automatically follow.  For suppose that (as I have argued in several places) the Aristotelian teleological and essentialist conception of the material world is correct.  Then the immediateexplanation both of the order that exists in the natural world and of the reliability of our cognitive processes is to be found in the natures of material substances themselves -- in particular, in their substantial forms and in the teleology or directedness toward an end that is immanent to them given their substantial forms.  

Does this inherently teleological and essentialist natural order itself require an explanation in terms of a divine cause?  I certainly think so (and have argued for that conclusion too in several places).  But that claim requires further argumentation.  For the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition -- in contrast to the “design argument” associated with Paley -- we cannot go directly from the existence of order in the world to a divine intelligence; an intermediate step is required.  And the reason is that A-T is opposed to the whole picture of the universe as a kind of artifact and God as a cosmic artificer, at least insofar as this picture implies that there are no inherent essences or teleology in nature.  The time-telling function of a watch is not in any way inherent to the parts of a watch but derives entirely from its maker; hence if you know that something is a watch, it follows directly that there must be some intelligence that put that function into it.  But the teleological features of natural substances are inherent to them; that’s what makes them natural (in the A-T sense of the “natural”).  Hence it makes no sense to treat them as comparable to “watches” in need of a “watchmaker.”  That’s just the wrong way to proceed in arguing from the world to God.  (See my many posts on the dispute between A-T and ID theory for more on this subject.  And see The Last Superstition, Aquinas, and my American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” for defense of the main A-T arguments for the existence of God.  You can read the latter online by Googling the article’s title, going to about the third search result, and clicking on “Quick View” just below the link.)

Indeed, it is only on the A-T sort of view, rather than the Paley sort of view, that science is intelligible.  For even though God is the ultimate cause of the world and its intelligibility, we do not need directly to appeal to Him or His intentions in order to understand the specific ways in which natural substances and processes work.  For example, even though God is the ultimate source of all causal power, you can know that sulfuric acid will corrode metal without having to make reference to Him, because that is the sort of effect sulfuric acid will have given its nature.  And you can know that roots are for taking in water and nutrients and that eyes are for seeing just by studying roots and eyes themselves, without reference to the intentions of a designer, because that is what they are for given theirnatures.  Science is possible precisely because natural substances have essences, teleology, and causal power immanent to them, and thus knowable apart from the intentions of their Creator -- precisely because it is really they who act, and not God who does everything, as in the occasionalistpicture of divine causality.  The immanent or “built in” character of the essences and teleology of natural substances goes hand in hand with the A-T view (which occasionalism denies) that natural substances are true secondary causes.  And to deny that they are true secondary causes is implicitly to deny that there is a natural order for science to uncover.  (Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, part of the problem with the view of nature implicit in arguments like Paley’s is that it tends -- even if Paley and his defenders do not intend this -- to collapse into either occasionalism or deism.)

There is a parallel here to the A-T conception of natural law.  Human beings, like every other natural substance, have for A-T a nature or substantial form, and what is good for them is determined by the ends or final causes that follow upon having that sort of nature or substantial form.  But just as we can normally determine the efficient causes of things without making reference to God, so too can we normally determine the final causes of things without making reference to God.  And thus, just as we can do physics, chemistry, and the like without making reference to God, so too can we do ethics without making reference to God, at least to a large extent.  For we can know what is good for a thing if we can know its nature, and we can know its nature by empirical investigation guided by sound (A-T) metaphysics.  At least to a large extent, then, we can know what the natural law says just from the study of human nature and apart from any sort of divine revelation.  That’s why it’s the natural law.  (And just as the conception of nature associated with Paley threatens to collapse into occasionalism -- on which it is only ever God who does anything, with nature contributing nothing -- so too does the view that ethics depends directly on God threaten to collapse into a view of morality as a set of arbitrary divine commands, with human nature contributing nothing.  I have addressed these issues in an earlier post.)

In my view, then, religious apologists make a serious mistake when they try to go directly from the reliability of science or the reality of objective morality to the existence of God.  One reason this is a mistake is that such arguments are unsound.  To show that the conception of nature associated with naturalism is false is, for the reasons I’ve indicated, not by itself to show that theism is true.  Another reason is that this sort of approach tends, in the ways I have also indicated, to lead to a seriously inadequate conception of God’s relationship to the world.  The right approach to natural theology (as I have argued in a recent post and also in the YouTube lecture linked to above) is to begin with premises drawn, not from natural science, but from the philosophy of nature and/or metaphysics.

Fuller contra Feser

If Fuller’s response to McGinn is inadequate, his criticisms of me are, not to put too fine a point on it, bizarre.  His remarks are equal parts hostile, unfounded, and inaccurate right out of the gate, as he begins his attack on my views by writing:

I do not buy into Feser’s self-serving, question-begging construct, “classical theism,” or his corresponding charge that McGinn is “pre-theistic.”  My guess is that in keeping with a certain strand of Catholic sophistry, Feser wants to banish the very idea of atheism as conceptually incoherent, and [sic] that self-avowed “atheists" are simply people who have yet to master the classical theist’s way of making sense of God…. [Feser] want[s] to ring-fence God from serious epistemic contestation…

Where exactly I have “begged the question” Fuller never tells us.  As to the accusations that I resist “serious epistemic contestation,” charge atheism with being conceptually incoherent, and claim that no one who understands classical theism could fail to believe it, what I actually wrote in my reply to McGinn was precisely the opposite.  I said:

A reasonable person might reject such alleged proofs [of classical theism], but to characterize the debate the way McGinn implicitly does is to make a basic category mistake…


Now, a critic might intelligibly question whether the arguments for such a divine Cause succeed… But to suggest that belief in the God of classical theism is relevantly comparable to believing in Zeus, werewolves, ghosts, or Santa Claus is to miss the whole point.


The point has nothing to do with whether or not classical theism is true, or with whether the arguments for it are ultimately any good.  Even if the atheist were correct, that would not be because it turned out that the God of classical theism really was the sort of thing that could intelligibly be said to require a cause of his own, or was composed of parts, or was merely one instance of a kind among others.

But it seems that Fuller’s animus is actually inspired, not by any purported unfairness on my part toward atheists, but rather by my objections to his own preferred conception of God.  He writes:

[Feser] basically wants to rule out of the discussion those who would argue that divine qualities differ from human ones only by degree and not kind.  Such a person, I include myself, holds that God is an infinite being, but the dimensions along which God is infinite are the same ones in virtue of which humans prove finite.  In that respect, if you scale up all of our virtues indefinitely and imagine them contained within one being, then you have God…

[T]his would not be Plato’s or Aristotle’s way of seeing things… but it would be familiar from defenders of a nominalist approach to universals and an univocal approach to predication, starting with the high mediaevals Duns Scotus and Ockham and leading to Hobbes and Mill in the modern period.  Indeed, it is the theological tradition whose bloody-minded literalness in envisaging God as the cleverest mechanic working with the most tools in the largest possible shop that [sic] animated the imaginations behind the 17th century Scientific Revolution.

Feser demonizes the nominalist tradition as "anthropomorphic" and "personalist" in its conception of God, as if that were a kind of intellectual corruption, if not blasphemy, or [sic] some otherwise settled sacred truth.

End quote.  Now, if Fuller wants to defend theistic personalism, univocal predication, nominalism, etc. he’s welcome to go for it.  I never “ruled out of the discussion” those who would defend such views; I simply disagree with them and have presented arguments against them.  That’s discussion, not a refusal to discuss.  (I address the dispute between classical theism and theistic personalism here, here, here, here, here, and here, and in some of the posts on the dispute between A-T and ID linked to above.  I have discussed the baneful theological and philosophical consequences of nominalism here and here.  These themes are also dealt with in The Last Superstition and Aquinas.)

Does Fuller have anything to offer other than pique?  Not much.  It is evident that one thing he likes about the doctrines in question is that they were, as a matter of historical fact, embraced by the fathers of the scientific revolution.  Is Fuller therefore claiming that they are logicallylinked to science, so that to accept science one has to embrace theistic personalism, univocal predication, and nominalsm?  Evidently not, for he allows that “Feser, in good Thomist fashion, can logically accommodate a version of scientific inquiry within what he calls ‘classical theism.’”  

So what’s the problem?  Fuller’s answer is as follows:

[O]n Feser’s view, science appears doomed to dwell in a shadow universe vis-à-vis the protected ontological zone reserved for theology.  While this neatly tracks the modern political separation of state and church, it undermines any strong reading of the New Testament doctrine of logos, whereby through language humans partake of the deity’s creative potential.  Without such an interpretation, which is arguably more concerned with the Bible’s literalness than its truth, Christians would not have been emboldened to make the great leap into the modern scientific world-view.

I must confess that I’m not sure what all of this means; or at least, I cannot find within it anything that is both (a) an argument and (b) remotely plausible.  Take the claim that on my view “science appears doomed to dwell in a shadow universe vis-à-vis the protected ontological zone reserved for theology.”  Is Fuller complaining that I think science can be conducted without reference to theology?  If so, then as I indicated above, I think that is indeed essentially the case.  But it obviously is the case, since scientists do it all the time.  They can determine the structure, function, causal powers etc. of tree roots, eyes, sulfuric acid and the like without asking themselves “Hmm, now what exactly did God have in mind when He made a world with roots, eyeballs, sulfuric acid, etc.?”  Empirical science is the study of the natures of material things; it isn’t a kind of roundabout divine psychology, an indirect way of reading God’s mind.  When the biologist discovers something about the structure of tree roots, it really is tree roots that he knows about, and when the chemist discovers something about the structure of sulfuric acid, it is really sulfuric acid that he knows about.  That is why a scientist can find these things out even if he is an atheist.  (Does Fuller deny this?  Presumably not.)

But doesn’t this entail that the world that science reveals to us could exist without God?  Not for a moment.  Determining that sulfuric acid has specifically this kind of effect rather than that requires no reference to God; but that sulfuric acid and anything else have any causal power at all in the first place, even for an instant, is unintelligible without God as Uncaused Cause.  That roots develop in this specific way rather than that can be known without reference to God; but that any change occurs in the world at all is unintelligible without God as Unmoved Mover.  It requires no theological knowledge at all to realize that eyes are “directed at” seeing, specifically, as their natural end; but that anything is directed to any natural end at all, even for an instant, is unintelligible without God as Supreme Intelligence.  

Arguments like the Five Ways establish these conclusions.  But they are not scientificarguments -- not because they are lesssecure than science but because they are moresecure, because they start, not with premises about this or that particular aspect of the natural world (which is what science is concerned with), but rather with premises concerning the very possibility of there being any empirical world at all for science to study in the first place.  That is to say, their premises are drawn from the philosophy of nature and/or metaphysics rather than from natural science (as, again, I explained in a recent post).

What about Fuller’s claim that this “undermines any strong reading of the New Testament doctrine of logos, whereby through language humans partake of the deity’s creative potential”?  Once again I’m not even sure what Fuller means.  Is he claiming that classical theism and/or the A-T view of the relationship between theology and science is incompatible with the Christian doctrine that human beings are made in the image of God?  How, exactly?  After all, the A-T view of human nature, which I endorse, is that our distinctively intellectual powers -- on which language rests -- cannot in principle be given a materialistic explanation, and that it is precisely these immaterial intellectual powers that make it true that we are made in God’s image in a way nothing in the rest of the material world could be.  How exactly is this undermined by the A-T view of science?

The only other thing Fuller has to offer in the way of something like an argument against me is the following defense of nominalism:

While Feser is undoubtedly correct that an idealized triangle differs significantly from actual ones, including those drawn to represent the ideal, the key point is not the difference but the similarity. In effect, the ideal triangle serves as a goal or standard, against which actual triangles may be judged, so as to result in measures of distance and, by implication, progress towards realizing the ideal.  It follows that actual triangles are not imperfect versions of some pre-existent ideal but works in progress towards reaching a vividly imagined ideal. The ideal triangle exists for us more as a hypothesis than an indubitable a priori concept, let alone a metaphysical foundation.

Once again it takes a little effort to discern the argument within the murk, but it seems to be this:

1. The ideal triangle serves as a goal or standard, against which actual triangles may be judged, so as to result in measures of distance and, by implication, progress towards realizing the ideal. 

It follows that

2. Actual triangles are not imperfect versions of some pre-existent ideal but works in progress towards reaching a vividly imagined ideal.

But the argument is no good.  Fuller’s claim, as far as I can make out, is that the idealized triangle by reference to which we judge material triangles to be imperfect exists only in the mind, and not in any mind-independent reality.  But while this might conflict with Platonic realism, it is exactly what is affirmed by Aristotelian realists, who take universals to exist only in either the things that instantiate them or in minds which grasp them, rather than in a Platonic third realm.  Hence Fuller’s argument hardly establishes nominalism; at most it would be incompatible with some version of realism, not all of them.

To be sure, Fuller speaks of “imagining” the ideal rather than (as realists would) of “conceiving” it.  Here I assume he is either being sloppy or doesn’t realize that there is a difference between forming a mental image of something and grasping it with one’s intellect.  On the other hand, perhaps Fuller knows exactly what he is saying and means to deny the distinction realists would draw between imagination and intellect.  But in that case his argument is just a blatant non sequitur, for from the premise that an idealized triangle exists only in the mind it doesn’t follow that the wayin which it exists in the mind is as a mental image rather than as an abstract concept.  (I’ve discussed the difference between images and concepts in several places, such as here.  As you’ll also see from that post, if Fuller thinks Aristotelian realism claims that concepts are “a priori” he is sorely mistaken.)

It is also true that Fuller says that the idealized triangle is not “pre-existent,” and at least some Aristotelian realists -- for example, Scholastics like Aquinas -- would say that it pre-exists its instantiations in the world in the divine intellect (which is not the same as a Platonic third realm distinct from anyintellect).  But it is hard to see how Fuller could consistently deny this aspect of the Scholastic realist position.  For since Fuller is keen on the idea of God as a kind of Paleyan watchmaker, he would presumably want to say that the idealized forms of things pre-exist in this watchmaker’s mind, as the patterns in light of which he makes things.  

Group hug!

To conclude on a positive note, let me express some agreement with both Fuller and McGinn.  McGinn is perhaps the most prominent advocate of the “mysterian” view that there are certain philosophically problematic phenomena (such as consciousness) which, though they have perfectly natural causes, will probably never be explained scientifically given the limitations on our cognitive powers.  As I have said on other occasions, I think this is the most plausible way for a naturalist to deal with the difficulties facing his position -- and it is a principledway of doing so, given that the naturalist has independent, Darwinian grounds for holding that there are significant limits on our cognitive powers.  

This is one reason I have always found McGinn’s work very interesting (well, apart from what he has to say when he directly addresses religion, which is not very interesting or well-informed).  Fuller also has a kind word for McGinn’s mysterianism:

[T]o be fair to McGinn, he has form in refusing to defer to science as the final epistemic arbiter in matters of mind.  Indeed, he may be the most explicit of the "new mysterian" philosophers who deem consciousness, by virtue of its first-person character, to be beyond the reach of natural science.

So, some agreement between us all!

Except that mysterianism doesn’t work, at least not as a way to avoid theism, for reasons I have explained herewith some follow-up remarks here.  (See also my remarks on McGinn’s mysterian approach to consciousness in Philosophy of Mind.)

There, now I had to go and spoil all the ecumenical fun…
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