On Thursday, I received two books which I had previously ordered from Amazon: Five Proofs of the Existence of God by philosopher Edward Feser, and The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry by Michael Alter, a Jewish author who claims to have discovered no less than 120 contradictions in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection. I’ve also ordered Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead?: A Surgeon-Scientist Examines the Evidence by Dr. Thomas Miller (a surgeon who is also the author of more than 200 scientific papers and the editor of three textbooks on surgical physiology), but that book hasn’t arrived yet. I’m going to blog about all of these books, but today, I’d like to begin by discussing Dr. Edward Feser’s book. Just to be clear: Feser’s five proofs are not the same as St. Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways. They are taken from the writings of five different philosophers: Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas and Leibniz. Feser refers to the arguments put forward by Aristotle and Plotinus, in particular, as cosmological or “First Cause” arguments, although Aquinas also advances a First Cause argument of his own. Leibniz argues to the existence of an ultimate explanation for the existence of contingent beings, using the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Augustine’s argument is the odd one out: it seeks to establish the existence of a necessarily existing intellect which grasps all abstract objects.
Feser’s book has received glowing reviews from four professors of philosophy, one of whom (J.P. Moreland) described it as “a must-read for anyone interested in natural theology.” Over at Secular Outpost, Bradley Bowen seems to agree. He concludes Part 1 of his ongoing review of Feser’s book as follows:
I don’t know at this point whether any of Feser’s arguments are good or bad, valid or invalid, sound or unsound, but even if they are all weak and defective arguments, I am still very grateful to Feser for providing a case for God that meets some basic intellectual requirements for making a reasonable case for God. Unlike the cases for God by Geisler and Kreeft, Feser’s case is NOT a Steaming Pile of Crap, and it is a great pleasure to consider a case that at least has the potential to be a reasonable and intelligent case for God.
Instead of reviewing Feser’s book from start to finish, I’m going to begin with the final chapter, where Feser refutes eighteen common objections to the arguments he presents for the existence of God. Philosopher Stephen T. Davis described this chapter as a gem, adding that “it alone is worth the price of this excellent work.” I’m going to enumerate these objections and quote some very brief excerpts from Feser’s replies. As we’ll see, most of these objections are puerile and idiotic, but a couple of them are not so ridiculous, and warrant further examination.
The passages I quote from Feser’s rebuttals to these eighteen objections are highlights only. Many of them are discussed in much greater depth in Feser’s excellent book, which I would strongly urge readers who are interested in arguments for the existence of God to purchase. And while I disagree with some of the book’s premises and conclusions, I have to say that it is about as good a defense of the best arguments for God’s existence as readers are ever likely to see in their lifetimes.
The eighteen objections listed below are not numbered in Feser’s book. I’ve rendered my verdicts on each objection in red, and I also comment briefly on Feser’s rebuttals to the objections. Please note that any remarks in square brackets, in passages quoted from Feser’s book, are my own interpolations.
And now, without further ado, here are the eighteen objections and Feser’s rebuttals.
1. “If everything has a cause, then what caused God?”
My verdict: ABSOLUTELY IDIOTIC.
This may be the single most common objection against arguments for a divine cause of the world. It is routinely raised by amateurs and by professional philosophers alike. And it is a staple of New Atheist literature. We have already seen why the objection has absolutely no force against any of the arguments defended in this book. None of the arguments rests in the first place on the premise that “everything has a cause.” … On the contrary, part of the point of the arguments is to establish that there must be something that not only lacks a cause but could not even in principle have had one, precisely because it lacks the very feature that makes things in need of a cause….
So, to ask “What caused God?”, far from being the devastating retort New Atheist writers suppose it to be, is in fact painfully inept. When interpreted in light of what the various arguments actually mean by “cause” and “God”, it really amounts to asking “What caused the thing that cannot in principle have had a cause?”…
Of course, the atheist might say that he isn’t convinced that these arguments succeed in showing that there really is something that could not in principle have had a cause… But merely to ask “What caused God?” – as if any defender of the arguments has overlooked the most obvious of objections – simply misses the whole point. A serious critic has to grapple with the details of the arguments. He cannot short-circuit them with a simple, smug question. (2017, pp. 249-251)
My comment: Of all the objections to the cosmological argument, this is surely the silliest. Feser wins hands-down here. The “Who made God?” objection completely misses the point, and should never be heard again.
In his lengthy rebuttal of this frequently repeated charge, Feser digs deeper, and investigates the question of how this “straw man”objection to the cosmological argument ever gained credence in the first place. It turns out that the objection goes back to Hume, who encountered the cosmological argument not in the writings of Avicenna, Maimonides, Aquinas, Scotus or Suarez (to name but a few of its stalwart defenders), but an eccentric variation of the cosmological argument which was developed by Descartes in the 17th century. Descartes argued that God was self-caused, rather than uncaused, as the medieval defenders of the cosmological argument maintained. Thus Descartes (and also Spinoza, who followed him on this point) would have accepted the premise that “Everything has a cause.” But the notion of cause employed by Descartes was a different one from that employed by medieval philosophers; for Descartes, a cause meant a sufficient explanation, whereas the medieval philosophers, when they were presenting this argument, understood “cause” in the sense of an Aristotelian efficient cause – something external to a thing which brings about a state of affairs in that thing, whether it be the very existence of the thing’s ultimate constituents, or its continuing to hold together as a stable entity over time, or a change in that thing. So when Descartes said that God is self-caused, he simply meant that God is a self-explanatory Being; whereas when the Scholastic philosophers said that God is uncaused, they meant that there is nothing outside God that maintains God in being, as He doesn’t need to be maintained in existence by anything else.
Here’s the thing, though: neither the traditional versions of the cosmological argument defended by medieval philosophers nor the quixotic version of the argument put forward by Descartes is vulnerable to the stock objection, “If everything has a cause, then what caused God?” Medieval philosophers would have rejected the argument’s premise: the whole point of their version of the cosmological argument was to show (by a reductio ad absurdum) that not everything can have a cause. Descartes, on the other hand, would have cheerfully answered that God causes God: in other words, He explains Himself. And he would have gone on to argue that things in the universe, on the other hand, are not self-explanatory: hence, they require God to keep them in being.
2. “Maybe the universe itself (or the Big Bang, or the multiverse, or indeterministic quantum events, or the laws of physics) is the uncaused, self-explanatory, or necessary being.
My verdict: IGNORES THE COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT, RATHER THAN REFUTING IT.
This objection, which goes back at least to Hume, is raised in various forms by New Atheist writers Dawkins, Dennett, Grayling, Krauss, Rosenberg, and Stenger. And like the first objection, it completely misses the point of each of the arguments defended in this book. As we have seen, whatever one thinks of these arguments, there is no arbitrariness or special pleading in their denying that God requires a cause while insisting that everything other than God does. The difference is in each case a principled one. And the principle in each case gives an answer to the question why the universe, for example, cannot be the terminus of explanation…
… [For example], according to the Neo-Platonic proof, neither the universe nor a multiverse could be uncaused, necessary, or self-explanatory, precisely because they are composite. Quantum events and laws of physics also lack the metaphysical simplicity that the Neo-Platonic proof argues we must attribute to the first principle of things. Their contingency is one indication of this, insofar as the fact that they could have been other than what they are entails a distinction between essence and existence. The Thomistic proof would for the same reason deny that the universe, the Big Bang, quantum events, or laws of nature could be an uncaused cause; only something whose essence just is existence could be that. The defender of the rationalistic proof would point out that all of these nondivine beings are contingent rather than necessary and thus could not provide an ultimate explanation…
Naturally the atheist might reject … the Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Thomistic or rationalistic accounts of why the universe cannot be an uncaused cause or self-explanatory or necessary being. The point, however, is that merely to suggest that the universe, the Big Bang, and so forth might be the terminus of explanation is not to give any reason for rejecting the arguments. It is simply to ignore the arguments, not to answer them. (2017, pp. 260-262)
My comment: Feser makes a powerful point here: anything in the cosmos – and even the cosmos itself – has properties that preclude it from being self-explanatory. In a nutshell, Feser’s contention is that anything composite, contingent, or non-essentially existent requires an explanation. If he is correct on this point, then the cosmos certainly isn’t self-explanatory. But if he isn’t correct, then it is the underlying premises in his philosophy which need to be criticized, not his conclusion that the cosmos has a transcendent Uncaused Cause. The glib suggestion that maybe the cosmos is the uncaused cause simply ignores the various cosmological arguments which Feser defends in his book, rather than refuting them.
3. “It is false to suppose in the first place that everything has a cause or an explanation.”
My verdict: A PHILOSOPHICALLY INCOHERENT OBJECTION, BUT ONE WHICH CAN BE REFRAMED IN A COHERENT MANNER.
In putting forward this objection, [physicist and skeptic Victor] Stenger [1935-2014] attributes some events to “chance” rather than causation. Dennett and Rosenberg suggest that quantum mechanics shows that events can occur without a cause. Grayling reiterates Hume’s point that “we can conceive of effects independently of causes.”…
Hoary though the Humean objection is, there are at least three reasons why it will not do to pretend, as Grayling does, that the mere mention of it constitutes a “definitive” response to cosmological arguments. First, no working physicist, chemist, biologist, or neuroscientist would for a moment take seriously the objection that perhaps there simply is no cause or explanation when investigating some specific physical, chemical, biological, or neurological phenomenon. The critic of cosmological arguments thus owes us an explanation of how his appeal to such a suggestion in the current context is anything less than special pleading…
A second problem with the Humean move is that it is simply fallacious to infer from the premise that “we can conceive of effects independently of causes” to the conclusion that some event might in fact not have a cause. We can conceive of what it is to be a triangle without at the same time conceiving what it is to be a trilateral, but it doesn’t follow that there could be a triangle which is not a trilateral…
A third problem has been identified by Elizabeth Anscombe. Hume claims that it is conceivable that something could come into being without a cause, and he evidently has in mind something like conceiving of an object suddenly appearing, out of the blue as it were, where nothing had been a moment before. But what is it about this exercise that makes it a case of conceiving of something coming into being without a cause – as opposed, say, to coming into being with an unseen cause, or being transported from somewhere else in an unknown or unusual manner (by teleportation, perhaps)? The trouble is that the Humean scenario is underdescribed. (2017, pp. 262-264)
My comment: The suggestion that some events have no explanation and “just happen” is, as Feser correctly points out, a science-stopper. Scientists have consistently sought explanations for everything that they have encountered: indeed, they have tried to find explanations for everything that happens in our universe – including the universe itself. The proposal that maybe some events simply don’t have an explanation flies in the face of this noble quest. Additionally, it seems doubtfully coherent: can we even conceive of an unexplained event? And what would it mean to do so?
However, there is an underlying question not addressed by Feser in his response here: is God a scientific explanation of the cosmos or not? Feser seems to hedge his bets on this issue. On page 275 of his book, he writes sympathetically of Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ view that “natural theology itself constitutes a kind of science,” in contrast to the currently prevailing “narrow conception of ‘science’ according to which a discipline is only ‘scientific’ to the extent that it approximates the mathematical modeling techniques and predictive methods of physics.” Feser does not clearly commit himself to either view of science in his book: while he declares that “science cannot in principle provide a complete description of reality” because it ignores things’ qualitative properties (p. 278) and avers that “there are limits to what science can explain” because it presupposes the laws of nature which it invokes when explaining phenomena (p. 280), his arguments can be read as applying not to science per se, but to science as it has been conceived since the seventeenth century, when Cartesian mechanism became the dominant paradigm of how science ought to be done. If Aristotle’s view of how science should be conducted still held sway, then the scope and methodology of science would be very different from what it is now. So it is not clear whether Feser believes that the concept of God is a scientific concept.
Nevertheless, the question is an important one. If Feser is putting forward the idea of God as a scientific explanation of the cosmos, then in doing so, he needs to show that he is willing to accept the disciplinary constraints which scientists impose on themselves, when doing science. There are certain kinds of explanations, after all, which scientists simply don’t recognize as “scientific”: “Maybe the fairies did it,” for instance, is not a scientific explanation, whatever else it might be. Feser may reply that he, too, rejects magical beings, but he is perhaps vulnerable to the charge that the concept of God is too vague for scientists to critically evaluate it: even the very terms “existence” and “causality,” when applied to God, are held to mean something radically unlike (although somewhat analogous to) what they mean when applied to creatures. Contrast this with the concept of the wave function in Schrondinger’s equation: although its interpretation is highly contentious, and it does not correspond directly to anything observable, it can be rigorously described on a mathematical level. Feser’s theology is math-free. And while it would be absurdly reductionistic to claim that every phenomenon in Nature can be boiled down to mathematical equations, it would be equally presumptuous to claim that we can understand the true nature of anything without the aid of mathematics. Mathematics appears to be an ineliminable part of science – one which Feser rejects, however, when he is doing natural theology. But if Feser is unwilling to accept the constraints which scientists impose upon themselves when critically evaluating hypotheses and describing the natures of objects, then what he is saying, in effect, is that the concept of God lies outside science. But in that case, the objection Feser addresses above (that maybe some things don’t have an explanation) can be reframed: maybe there are some things which don’t have a scientific explanation. And it is not at all clear that there is anything incoherent in this proposal.
4. “Why assume that the universe had a beginning or that a regress of causes must terminate?”
My verdict: The assertion that the universe may not have had a beginning is an ABSOLUTELY IDIOTIC objection to the cosmological arguments discussed by Feser in his book, while the objection that an infinite regress of causes is possible FAILS TO ENGAGE THE LITERATURE ON THE SUBJECT.
…[A]s I have emphasized many times, First Cause arguments like those defended in this book are not concerned in the first place with the question of whether the universe had a beginning. They are concerned instead to argue that even if the universe (or multiverse for that matter) had no beginning, it would require a divine cause to sustain it in existence perpetually and to explain why it exists at all, even beginninglessly.
…Note also that level upon level of laws of nature would constitute a hierarchical series of the sort described in chapter 1 – laws at one level which would hold only as a special case of laws at a deeper level, which would in turn only hold as a special case of yet deeper laws – and we have seen why such a series cannot fail to have a first member in the sense of something which can impart causal power without deriving it. (2017, p. 265)
The following passage, although it is taken from the first chapter of Feser’s book, is very helpful for the purposes of clarifying Feser’s argument:
…[W]hat makes a causal series hierarchical rather than linear is not simultaneity per se, but rather the fact that all the members in such a series other than the first have their causal power in a derivative or instrumental rather than in a “built in” way. This … is why linear series of causes can in principle extend backward to infinity, while hierarchical series of causes cannot. Since each member of a linear series has its causal power inherently rather than derivatively, there is no need to trace any member’s action back to a first member, which imparts to it its power to act. Hence such a series need not have a beginning. By contrast, a hierarchical series is hierarchical precisely insofar as each member other than the first can only act only insofar as its power to act is imparted to it from outside. If D is actualized by C only insofar as C is in turn being actualized by B and B in turn by A, then until we get to something which can … impart causal power without having to derive it – then we will not really have explained anything. (2017, pp. 63-64)
My comment: As an objection to the cosmological arguments which Feser is defending in his book, the retort that maybe the universe didn’t have a beginning completely misses the point. Unlike William Lane Craig, Feser is not a proponent of the Kalam cosmological argument, according to which the cosmos must have had a beginning.
The proposal that there could be an infinite regress of causes makes perfect sense (as Feser freely grants) for certain kinds of causal explanation. But it makes absolutely no sense when we are looking at a series of explanations, each of which is derivative upon some prior explanation. An infinite series of derivative explanations explains nothing at all.
5. “First Cause arguments commit a fallacy of composition.”
My verdict: THERE’S NO FALLACY HERE, WHATEVER THE CRITICS MIGHT SAY. HOWEVER, SOME OF FESER’S EXAMPLES ARE UNFORTUNATE.
I have noted already that arguments of the sort defended in this book do not, or at least need not, presuppose any claim about the universe as a whole. Hence there is no part-to-whole reasoning that could be accused of committing a fallacy of composition. We also saw in chapter 5 that the kind of part-to-whole reasoning that might, on one possible construal of the rationalist proof, underlie the claim that the universe as a whole is contingent, does not in fact involve a fallacy of composition.
For the benefit of readers who are interested, here is the relevant passage from chapter 5 of Feser’s book:
Take any contingent thing – a stone, a Lego block, a tree, a human being, whatever. A collection of three stones is obviously no less contingent than a single stone is, and a collection of three hundred or three million stones is obviously no less contingent than the collection of three stones. Indeed, the collections are if anything more obviously contingent than the individual stone is. The individual stone is contingent on things like the laws of physics continuing to operate in such a way that the atoms making up the stone don’t dissipate, for example. But the collection is dependent both on all its component stones being gathered together in just the way they are, and on each individual stone in the collection existing insofar as the laws of physics in such a way that the atoms making up the stone don’t dissipate, for example. The collection is thus doubly contingent. It is quite silly to pretend, then, that when we get to the collection of all the stones there are, or all the contingent things there are, we might suddenly have something that is not contingent. (2017, p. 156)
My comment: It seems to me that Feser has successfully rebutted the notion that there is any fallacy involved in arguing that the set of all contingent beings must itself be contingent. Unfortunately, Feser does not leave the matter there. In chapter 6, he continues to illustrate his point with some very poor examples:
However Grayling, once again citing Hume, claims that an argument of the latter sort [involving part-to-whole reasoning] commits a fallacy of composition insofar as it supposes that when each member of a collection is explained individually, there is something left over – the collection as a whole – which is yet to be explained. But such an objection simply misses the point. Recall that even an infinite series of moving sticks would still require a cause outside the series precisely because none of the sticks has individually or collectively the power by themselves to move, and that even an infinite series of mirrors reflecting the image of a face would still require an actual face outside the series since none of the mirrors either individually or collectively has the power by themselves to generate such an image. Points like these were made in the context of illuminating the notion of a hierarchical causal series.
My comment: These examples fail, precisely because they are not causes in a hierarchical series, but in a linear one. A stick’s power to move another stick is not in any way derivative; it possesses this power simply by virtue of having momentum. It may be objected that a stick has no power to generate movement – but this begs the question, as the whole point at issue is whether the motion of the stick was generated in the first place. (Additionally, the very phrase, “generate movement,” is vague and unscientific; rather, what we should say is that a stick has no power to accelerate itself, unless acted on by an outside force.)
The same line of reasoning applies to the infinite series of mirrors: each of them is perfectly capable in its own right of reflecting an image, even if it has no power to generate one. Now, if there were nothing in existence but the infinite series of mirrors, then of course we would not expect to find any image, whether of a face or a simple ball of light. The reason is very simple: mirrors don’t create light. However, photons of light are perfectly capable of existing by themselves from all eternity, without anything to generate them. A universe consisting of photons plus an infinite series of mirrors is not obviously in need of an explanation. Of course, one might legitimately ask why the photons being reflected resemble a human face, but that’s a separate question from the question of whether a series of mirrors plus photons requires an external light-generator, and I’ll say more about it in my comment below.
Fortunately, Feser redeems himself with a more insightful example, taken from Leibniz:
But Leibniz makes a similar point in putting forward his own version of the rationalist cosmological argument, when he notes that if we were told that a certain geometry textbook had been copied from an earlier copy, that earlier copy from an earlier one still, and so on infinitely into the past, we would hardly have a sufficient explanation of the book we started out with. For why does the series of books as a whole exist with precisely the content they have rather than some other content? Tracing the series of causes back forever into the past seems to leave the most important fact about the phenomenon to be explained untouched. (2017, p. 266)
My comment: This is a much better illustration. We might want to amend it by replacing the geometry textbooks with an infinite series of copying machines – or even a series of mirrors, reflecting the image of the book pages appearing in the preceding mirror – so as to remove the need for human transcribers. Even so, a geometrical proof, unlike a photon, is not the sort of thing that we would be inclined even for a moment to regard as capable of existing without a generator (whether human or otherwise). We feel impelled to ask, “Where did it come from?” (The same might be argued for a picture of a human face: if an astronaut were to come across such an image engraved on a piece of rock on a faraway planet, she would surely assume that the image had been put there by some agent. However, it is at least conceivable, albeit vanishingly unlikely, that such an image might arise by chance, whereas we would rightly reject this kind of explanation if we encountered a series of propositions, meaningfully arranged in the form of an argument that culminated in a geometric proof. Language requires an intelligent generator to produce it.)
6. “Even if there were a first cause, there is no reason to think it would be omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and so forth.”
My verdict: A CHEAP CANARD, WHICH COMPLETELY IGNORES THE LITERATURE WRITTEN BY CLASSICAL THEISTS ON THIS VERY SUBJECT.
Like “What caused God?”, this is commonly put forward as a devastating objection to First Cause arguments. And like “What caused God?”, it is in fact embarrassingly inept...
In fact, historically, proponents of each version of the cosmological argument have put forward a great many arguments claiming to show that the cause of the world whose existence they’ve argued for must have the key divine attributes...
… In any case, in each of the first five chapters of this book, and at even greater length in chapter 6, I have offered many detailed arguments for the conclusion that the first cause of things must be one, simple, immutable, eternal, immaterial, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and so forth. Though very common, the claim that even a successful proof of a first cause wouldn’t get you to the God of traditional [classical] theism is simply groundless. (2017, pp. 267-268)
My comment: As I will show in a future post, there are problems with Feser’s claims to have demonstrated the existence of a First Cause which is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good. But the key point is that Feser does not stop with his demonstration of a First Cause: he then proceeds to argue, in a carefully reasoned series of steps, that this First Cause possesses certain attributes (among them, omnipotence, omniscience and perfect goodness) which warrant it being called God, even though this God may not turn out to be the God of the Bible. Feser does not just assert: “And the First Cause is God.” Neither does Aquinas – and if you don’t believe me, you can have a look here (see questions 3 to 25). In short, the claim that defenders of classical theism jump from “First Cause” to God is a cheap canard.
7. “Even if it is proved that there is a First Cause, which is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and so forth, this would not by itself show that God sent prophets to ancient Israel, inspired the Bible, is a Trinity,
and so forth.”
My verdict: TRUE BUT IRRELEVANT.
This is true, but completely irrelevant. Arguments like the ones defended in this book are not claiming in the first place to establish every tenet of any particular religion, but rather merely one central tenet that is common to many of them – namely, that there is a cause of the world which is one, simple, immaterial, eternal, immutable, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and so forth. If they succeed in doing that, then they show that atheism is false, and that the only remaining question is what kind of theism one ought to adopt… (2017, p. 268)
My comment: Any further comment here on my part is superfluous.
8. “The cosmological argument presupposes the ontological argument, which is unsound.”
My verdict: BADLY MISINFORMED.
This objection was famously raised by Kant, and has more recently been repeated by Grayling. The version of the argument that Kant had in mind was the one put forward by Descartes, according to which the notion of a nonexistent but supremely perfect being is self-contradictory, given that existence is a perfection.… Now if this argument works, then God’s existence would be necessary because he would exist by definition, just as a bachelor is unmarried by definition…
…[However,] Aquinas, and most Thomists following him, explicitly reject the ontological argument while endorsing the cosmological... [W]hen arguments like those defended in this book claim that God exists of necessity, they are not claiming that he exists by definition. That is not the only notion of necessity there is, and it is not the notion to which they are appealing. But Kant’s claim would have merit only if it were the notion of necessity to which they were appealing…
…[T]here are ways to spell out the notion of metaphysical necessity without either collapsing back into logical necessity or opting for merely conditional necessity [i.e. being nothing more than a necessary condition for the world to exist, as opposed to a being which could not fail to exist]. For the Aristotelian, a thing’s contingency derives from the fact that it is a mixture of actuality and potentiality; what is pure actuality and has no potentialities that need to be actualized or could be actualized therefore exists necessarily. For the Neo-Platonist, a thing’s contingency derives from the fact that it is composite; what is absolutely noncomposite or simple has no parts that need to be or could be combined, and is for that reason necessary. The Thomist would make a similar point, arguing that the first cause is necessary precisely because its essence just is existence, and thus need not have, and could not have, existence conjoined to it (which need is what makes contingent things contingent in the first place). All of these notions attribute to God a more than merely conditional necessity, but it is not the logical sort necessity that we attribute to propositions. (2017, pp. 269-270)
My comment: The real problem here is that Kant never read Aquinas. His criticism works well as a criticism of Descartes’ cosmological argument, which is bound up with (and inseparable from) his ontological argument. But Descartes’ version of the cosmological argument is nothing like the Scholastic one defended by classical theists like Aquinas and Scotus.
9. “The cosmological argument proposes a ‘god of the gaps’ in order to explain something which in fact either is, or eventually will be, better explained via a naturalistic scientific theory.”
My verdict: ABSOLUTELY IDIOTIC.
This is, I think it is fair to say, the central conceit of the entire New Atheist project. In the view of the New Atheists, if something is going to be explained at all, it is going to be explained by the methods of science. Therefore (so the argument goes) the appeal to God can at best be a kind of quasi-scientific hypothesis, and the problem is that it is not a good one… Krauss, Hawking and Mlodinow… think that science has already given us a complete nontheistic explanation of the world, or near enough. “Because there is a law like gravity”, Hawking and Mlodinow write, “the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing is a book-length attempt to make this sort of view plausible.
There are two basic problems with all of this. The first is that the characterization of the question of how to explain the existence of the universe as a matter for empirical science rather than natural theology to settle either completely misses the point or simply begs the question. For one thing, whether or not one thinks any of them succeeds, the versions of the cosmological argument defended in this book are not “god of the gaps” explanations. A “god of the gaps” explanation is one on which it is at least possible in principle that some nondivine explanation may be correct, and the claim is at most that the theistic explanation is more probable than these alternatives. The versions of the cosmological argument I’ve been defending, by contrast, are all attempts at strict metaphysical demonstration. They claim to show that there is no way in principle to account for what they set out to explain other than by reference to a purely actual cause, or an absolutely simple and noncomposite cause, or a cause whose essence just is existence, or a necessary being…
For another thing, the starting points of these attempts at metaphysical demonstration are not matters about which empirical scientific theory has anything to say in the first place. Rather, they have to do with what any possible empirical theory must itself take for granted. That is to say, their starting points are metaphysical rather than empirical…
The second problem is that the nontheistic scientific explanation of the existence of the universe proposed by Krauss, Hawking and Mlodinow is manifestly a nonstarter. “A law like gravity” is not nothing; hence, an explanation of the existence of the universe that makes reference to such a law is rather obviously not, contrary to what Hawking and Mlodinow suggest, an account of how the universe might arise from nothing. Krauss’ book is notoriously shameless in committing the same basic fallacy... At page 177 [of his book] he finally resorts to suggesting that perhaps there is just layer upon layer of laws.… Krauss himself … ends up acknowledging that his main “candidates for nothingness” are not really nothing after all. And what he’s left with – a basic level of physical laws or layers of laws – is not only not nothing, but cannot be the ultimate explanation of the world, for the reasons given earlier. (2017, pp. 271-273)
My comment: Whatever you might think of Feser’s arguments, they are certainly not “god of the gaps” arguments (which Feser cordially detests).
Feser also does a good job of deflating the pretentious New Atheist claim to have successfully explained how the universe might have arisen from nothing at all. Physicist Lawrence Krauss’ “nothing” isn’t nothing.
Feser is on more contentious ground, however, when he argues that even a set of laws isn’t nothing. The question, I should point out, is purely academic: as astrophysicist Ethan Siegel points out in his recent essay, The Four Scientific Meanings Of ‘Nothing’, when people claim to have explained how the universe arose from nothing, they aren’t talking about a mere set of laws, but rather, the zero-point energy, or the ground state of the Universe, which isn’t actually a state of zero energy anyway. Without this zero-point energy field, the laws of Nature would have nothing left to regulate: they simply would not apply to anything.
Elsewhere in his book, Feser sets forth the Aristotelian-Thomistic view of laws of nature, by quoting a passage from the philosopher David Oderberg:
The laws of nature are the laws of natures. For natures just are abstract essences in concrete operation. Nature is the collection of all the natures of things. So to say that the laws are of nature is to say that they are of the natures of things. (Feser, 2017, p. 240)
10. “Science is our only genuine source of knowledge, and our best scientific theories make no reference to God.”
My verdict: SCIENTISM TURNS OUT TO BE SELF-REFUTING (OR TRIVIAL AND RELIGION-COMPATIBLE).
The view that science alone gives us genuine knowledge, so that any philosophy or metaphysics worthy of consideration can only be that which is implicit in science, is known as scientism. It is a key ingredient of the New Atheism. But despite the self-confidence of its advocates, there are in fact no good arguments for scientism, and decisive arguments against it…
…[S]cientism faces a dilemma: it is either self-refuting or trivial. Take the first horn of this dilemma. The claim that “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything” is not itself a scientific claim, not something that can be established using scientific methods. Indeed, that science is even a rational form of inquiry (let alone the only form of rational inquiry) is not a claim that can be established scientifically. For science rests upon a number of philosophical assumptions: the assumption that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists; the assumption that this world is governed by regularities of the sort that might be captured in scientific laws; the assumption that the human intellect and perceptual apparatus can uncover and accurately describe these regularities; and so forth. Since scientific method presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle...
… There is also the question of how to interpret what science tells us. For example, is the world fundamentally composed of substances or events? What is it to be a “cause”? What is the nature of the universals referred to in scientific laws – concepts like quark, electron, atom, and so on? Do they exists over and above the particular things that instantiate them? Do scientific theories really give us a description of objective reality in the first place, or are they just useful tools for predicting the course of experience? Scientific findings can shed light on such metaphysical questions, but can never fully answer them. Yet if science depends on philosophy both to justify its presuppositions and to interpret its results, the falsity of scientism is doubly assured. As John Kekes concludes: “Hence philosophy, and not science, is a stronger candidate for being the very paradigm of rationality.”
Here we come to the second horn of the dilemma facing scientism. Its advocate may now insist that if philosophy has this status, then it must really be a part of science, since (he continues to maintain, digging in his heels) all rational inquiry is scientific inquiry. The trouble now is that scientism becomes completely trivial, arbitrarily redefining “science” so that it includes anything that could be put forward as evidence against scientism. Worse, this move makes scientism consistent with views that are supposed to be incompatible with it...
The point is … that if the advocate of scientism defines “science” so broadly that anything for which we might give a philosophical argument would count as “scientific”, then he has no nonarbitrary reason for denying that natural theology could count as science. Yet the whole point of the appeal to scientism in this context was supposed to be to provide a justification for dismissing natural theology out of hand as unscientific. Hence, if the advocate of scientism can avoid making his doctrine self-defeating only by defining “science” this broadly, then the view becomes completely vacuous. (2017, pp. 273-276)
My comment: Feser devotes many pages of his book to refuting this objection, and the quote provided above merely addresses one part of his lengthy argument, albeit what I consider to be the most important part. Is Feser’s rebuttal conclusive? I think not, but it definitely puts the ball back in the court of the advocate of scientism, who is now obliged to come up with a non-trivial definition of “science” which includes philosophy, but at the same time rules out natural theology.
One way in which the advocate of scientism might do this is to argue that philosophy, even when it identifies the presuppositions of science and proposes an interpretation for them, is still bound to use the language of mathematics, if it is to explain anything at all. It is not immediately clear how it could do this, even in principle, since there is no obvious way to apply mathematics to metaphysics, but perhaps it might be suggested that a probabilistic logic applied to our rival metaphysical claims about the cosmos (for instance, through performing a Bayesian analysis on the various possible hypotheses that have been put forward about the ultimate framework of the world) could do the trick. Nevertheless, such a bold claim fails to address underlying questions such as: what is a cause, anyway? And should we interpret scientific claims about the world in a realist or an anti-realist sense? Nor does it address the nature of qualitative (as opposed to quantitative) properties.
In short: the notion that mathematics alone can explain the whole of reality appears radically misconceived. And if that notion is wrong-headed, then there can be no good reason to include philosophy within the scope of “science” while at the same time excluding natural theology.
11. “The fundamental laws of nature are best regarded as an unexplained ‘brute fact’ rather than as something in need of any explanation, theological or otherwise.”
My verdict: MISSES THE POINT; EXPLAINS NOTHING.
One problem with this view is that it is incompatible with the principle of sufficient reason, and as I argued in chapter 5, the principle of sufficient reason is true. Hence there must be an explanation of the fundamental laws of nature, and this objection is just a nonstarter.
Another problem with this view is that it is entirely ad hoc. There seems to be no motivation at all for adopting it other than as a way to avoid having to accept arguments like the ones defended in this book – an ironic result given that atheists often like to accuse theists of tailoring their philosophical premises to fit a desired conclusion! One would have an independent motivation for taking it if objections to the principle of sufficient reason grounded in Hume’s philosophy or quantum mechanics succeeded, but as we have seen, these objections do not succeed…
A third problem, though, as we saw in chapter 5, is that if the fundamental laws of nature have no explanation, then none of the higher-level laws of nature can explain anything. In particular, to “explain” some phenomenon P in terms of a law of nature A, and laws of nature A in terms of law of nature B, but then to say that law of nature B itself has no explanation but is just a “brute fact”, is like placing a book on a shelf, and the shelf on two brackets, but then letting go of the brackets in midair and expecting the book and shelf to stay aloft. A regress of laws is like a hierarchical series of causes of the sort discussed in chapter 1. It must terminate in something that is self-explanatory and can thus impart explanatory power without having to derive it. Something that is unexplained cannot do that. (2017, pp. 286-287)
My comment: I think Feser is right here. Given that (i) a hierarchical series of purely derivative causes must ultimately terminate in some Uncaused Cause; (ii) the laws of nature constitute an explanatory hierarchy; and (iii) terms which are themselves unexplained are incapable of explaining anything else, Feser’s conclusion that there can be no unexplained “brute laws” seems inescapable. An atheist who contends otherwise must therefore attack premise (i), (ii) or (iii).
12. “A designer of the universe would be even more complex than the universe itself and thus require a cause of its own.”
My verdict: NOT A COMPELLING OBJECTION AS IT STANDS, BUT MORE POWERFUL THAN FESER APPEARS TO THINK.
This objection goes back at least to Hume, and is given special emphasis by Dawkins. It should be obvious by now what is wrong with it. One problem is that the objection is directed at “design arguments” like those associated with William Paley and “Intelligent Design” theory... [Any argument proceeding from the existence of functionally complex natural objects to an intelligent designer] prompts the objection that if the designer is like us, then he too will be complex in just the way described. Hence, if other complex things require a cause, then he too will be complex in just the way described…
The arguments defended in this book simply have nothing to do with “design arguments” of this sort. For one thing, none of them appeals to “complexity” in the relevant sense…
Second, none of the arguments in this book is at all concerned, as the “design argument” is, with questions about the “probability” of this or that object coming about through natural processes… The arguments are attempts at strict metaphysical demonstration, not (as design arguments are) mere exercises in inductive or abductive reasoning… To refute any of the arguments in this book, one has to show that it fails as a demonstration…
But third, and most importantly, all of the arguments defended in this book would agree with Hume and Dawkins that a cause of the world which was itself complex would require a cause of its own. That is why they conclude that the ultimate explanation of things must be something absolutely simple or noncomposite rather than complex. That is true of the God I’ve arrived at by the arguments I’ve been defending, and it is not true of anything Hume, Dawkins, or any other atheist would posit as an alternative terminus or explanation. Considered as an objection to the kind of natural theology defended in this book, Hume’s and Dawkins’ objection completely misses the point. (2017, pp. 287-289)
My comment: Unlike many other theistic philosophers, I don’t laugh at Richard Dawkins’ “Ultimate 747” gambit. Contrary to what Feser contends in his rebuttal, Dawkins’ argument is not merely based on the complexity of organisms; in his best-selling book, The God Delusion (Black Swan, 2007, pp. 147-149), Dawkins maintains that an entity that monitors and controls every particle in the universe and listens to every human being’s thoughts and prayers (as God is widely supposed to do) cannot be simple. Feser would answer this objection by pointing out that on the traditional view espoused by Scholastic philosophers, God does not monitor anything, whether it be particles of people: rather, His knowledge is entirely active, and He knows things by causing them to happen. (I disagree with Feser on this point, but that’s a subject for a future post.)
Even if we grant that Feser’s account of how God knows events happening in the world may be correct, I think there are real problems in explaining how an absolutely simple Being can entertain concepts of entities (such as ourselves) which are not simple – especially when so many of these entities possess complexity all the way down to their metaphysical marrow, so to speak. How does a simple Mind contain the concepts of such entities? The question is not an idle one, and unless theistic philosophers can resolve it, they will have to give up the notion of divine simplicity.
Now, Feser thinks he has several unassailable arguments for God’s simplicity, and that the question I’ve raised above can be satisfactorily answered: God, he suggests on pages 215-216 of his book, understands finite creatures by something akin to a process of subtraction from His own infinite perfections. We’ll have a look at this answer in a future post. I have proposed a different answer to Feser’s: I maintain that God’s essence is simple but his operations are complex. I also deny that God’s Mind stores or contains concepts of complex entities; instead, I propose, He has immediate epistemic access to these concepts, as “facts at His fingertips,” so to speak. I’ve written more about this proposal here.
In any case, the point I’d like to make here is that Dawkins’ “Ultimate 747” argument, coupled with his argument that a simple God cannot know what is going on in the world, constitutes a genuine difficulty for classical theism – not an insoluble one, but a difficulty nonetheless.
13. “Anyone who rejects Zeus, Venus, Thor, Quetzalcoatl, and the other pagan gods – as Jews, Christians and Muslims no less than atheists do – should, to be consistent, go one god further and reject also the god of Western monotheism.”
My verdict: ABSOLUTELY IDIOTIC.
Proponents of the “one god further” objection implicitly suppose that it is a question of whether there exist one or more instances of an unusual class of entities called “gods”, understood as “supernatural beings” comparable to werewolves, ghosts, and Santa Claus. And they think of the God of classical theism as merely one of these gods or beings alongside the others, such as Zeus, Venus, Thor, Quetzalcoatl, and so forth. But as we have seen in the course of this book, this is simply not the case. The God of classical theism is not a member of any species or genus – including the species or genus “gods” – because if he were, he would be composed of parts (such as genus and species difference), and he is instead absolutely simple or noncomposite. He does not share an essence with other members of some class of things called “gods”, because if he did, then there would be a distinction in him between his essence and his existence, and in fact he just is existence itself. He is not merely one unusual cause among others but rather the purely actual actualizer and thus the source of the causal power of all things other than himself (including gods like Zeus, Venus, Thor, Quetzalcoatl, if they existed). According to the stories we read of them, these other gods are in various respects limited – they exhibit fluctuating emotional states, have physical bodies, come into existence, have parents or other causes, can have their efforts frustrated, are ignorant of certain things, exhibit various moral vices, and so forth – whereas the God of classical theism is immutable, immaterial, eternal, uncaused, omnipotent, perfectly good, and so forth. Each of these various gods is “a being” alongside other beings, whereas the God of classical theism is not “a being” – that is to say, something which merely has being and derives being from some other source – but is rather underived or subsistent being itself, that from which anything else that exists or could exist derives its being. (2017, pp. 289-290)
My comment: Feser wins this point hands-down. Any fair-minded person would have to acknowledge that the God of classical theism – and for that matter, the God worshiped by Jews, Christians and Muslims – is radically different from the gods of Greek, Roman, Norse and Aztec mythology. Gods of the latter variety are material, mutable, caused and finite. Of course, skeptics might retort that the God described in the Bible was originally just such a Deity: Yahweh, according to many scholars, was originally only the national god of Israel, and he had a wife named Asherah. What is indisputable, however, is that after the Babylonian exile (587-538 B.C.), many of the Jews had come to accept a strict monotheism, in which the very existence of other deities was denied, and Yahweh was held to be utterly transcendent – indeed, making any image of Him, and later, even speaking His name were regarded as totally taboo. This is the kind of God who has been worshiped by the Jews for 2,500 years. Wherever the notion of such a God came from need not concern us here: what matters is that such a God doesn’t belong in the same basket as Zeus, Venus, Thor, Quetzalcoatl, and the other pagan gods. The same goes for the God of classical theism.
14. “The God of philosophical theism is not the God most ordinary religious believers believe in.”
My verdict: DOUBTFUL AND IRRELEVANT.
There are two problems with this objection. First, it would be irrelevant even if it were true. If the arguments defended in this book succeed, then the God of philosophical theism exists and atheism is therefore false. The only question is whether some religion such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam gives us further, divinely revealed knowledge about this God. The serious remaining debate will be between theists of various stripes, not between atheism and theism.
But the objection in question is not true….
…[T]he average religious believer belives, just as the philosophical theologian does, that God is the cause of the world, that he is uncaused and never came into existence, that he is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, and so forth. He does not articulate or defend these beliefs in the way the philosopher would, but that doesn’t entail that he doesn’t believe in the same God that the philosopher does. Rather, he just has a less sophisticated understanding of that God. (2017, pp. 292-293)
My comment: The objection contains a kernel of truth: laypeople picture God in somewhat different terms from the way in which Jewish, Christian and Muslim philosophers in the classical theistic intellectual tradition have pictured him. In particular, laypeople tend to envisage God as a Heavenly Spectator of events here on Earth: that is, they picture him as being informed by creatures (albeit timelessly) of what transpires in the world. But the response Feser could make here is twofold: first, the similarities between the God of the philosophers and the God worshiped by common folk far outweigh the differences; and second, either the philosophical arguments for the God of classical theism hold water or they do not. If they do, then religious laypeople are simply wrong in what they believe about God. But if these arguments do not hold water, then it is incumbent on the critic to show where they fail.
15. “The reality of suffering and other kinds of evil shows that God does not exist.”
My verdict: INCONCLUSIVE, BUT VERY POWERFUL; FESER’S REBUTTAL RAISES PROBLEMS OF ITS OWN.
The appeal to the “problem of evil” is, of course, one of the classic objections to theism… [I]s the existence of suffering and other kinds of evil logically inconsistent with the existence of God? … To justify an affirmative answer to …[this] question is to give a defense of theism against the atheistic objection from evil. ..
Since providing a defense is sufficient to rebut the present objection …, that is the aspect of the issue I shall focus on here. And it is not difficult to give such a defense. More ambitious versions of the atheistic argument from evil allege that the existence of evil is strictly inconsistent with the existence of God. For example, J. L. Mackie once argued as follows: God is supposed to be omnipotent and perfectly good. But there are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do, and a good thing will eliminate evil as far as it can... [For example, God could have chosen] to create a world in which there are creatures with free will but where they only ever freely choose to do good and never choose evil. And if God is perfectly good, Mackie says, then that is the sort of world he should have created.
… [For argument’s sake], [w]e can agree with Mackie that God could have created a world with free will and no evil. We can even agree that in such a world there would be many morally significant choices made, such as the choice not to murder or steal from others. That is to say, a world in which free creatures never choose to do evil need not be a world where only morally trivial choices are freely made (e.g. choices about what to eat for dinner, where to buy a house, etc.). It doesn’t follow from that, though, that God could have created a world with free will, no evil, and all the moral good that actually exists in this world. For there are still certain kinds of exercise of free will that presuppose the existence of people who choose to do evil. For example, acts of forgiveness and mercy are not possible unless there are people who actually do things for which they can be forgiven, and therefore deserve punishments which we might mercifully refrain from inflicting. Then there are moral virtues which do not presuppose that some people choose to carry out evil actions, but which still presuppose that there exists evil of other sorts. For example, you cannot have courage unless there is danger in the face of which you are tempted to avoid doing your duty, but choose to do it anyway…
Would it follow from this that there is no courage in Heaven, since the blessed in Heaven are safe from any danger? No, because while still on earth the blessed were in danger and thereby developed the courage that they retain in Heaven. They don’t lose this virtue any more than an eighty-year-old war veteran loses the courage he acquired in battle decades earlier…
So, Mackie’s argument fails. Indeed, Mackie in later years conceded that … “we cannot, indeed, take the problem of evil as a conclusive disproof of traditional theism.” Still, the later Mackie claimed that not all the evil that exists could be accounted for by the method suggested. (2017, pp. 223 n. 60, 294-297)
1. Feser’s response to Mackie proves too much. If God wants to create a world containing certain goods (e.g. forgiveness, mercy and courage) which presuppose the existence of moral and/or physical evil, then he has to create a world in which the occurrence of these evils is guaranteed. As I’ll show in my next post, Feser is a predestinationist: he believes that God knows future events by causing them. At the same time, he maintains that we possess full libertarian freedom. So presumably Feser believes that God could bring about a world in which moral evils are committed by free agents, and where subsequently, acts of forgiveness and mercy are performed.
2. Feser’s response to the problem of evil contrasts strikingly with that of Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, who vigorously criticized the oft-heard view that God tolerates evils in order to bring a greater good out of them, in his essay, Tsunami and Theodicy (originally printed in First Things, March 2005; reprinted in May 2008). Hart writes:
“Being infinitely sufficient in Himself, God had no need of a passage through sin and death to manifest His glory in His creatures or to join them perfectly to Himself. This is why it is misleading (however soothing it may be) to say that the drama of fall and redemption will make the final state of things more glorious than it might otherwise have been. No less metaphysically incoherent — though immeasurably more vile — is the suggestion that God requires suffering and death to reveal certain of his attributes (capricious cruelty, perhaps? morbid indifference? a twisted sense of humor?)… I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery… [W]hen I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy.”
However, a critic might ask Hart why God allowed his enemy, Satan, to wreak so much damage in this world – and Hart would presumably justify this in terms of the “greater good” of angelic and/or demonic freedom. But that invites the further question: why couldn’t God have made only good angels?
3. In any case, Feser’s implicit assumption that only a “greater good” could justify God’s toleration of moral and physical evil in the world is dubious. In order to justify God’s allowing the occurrence of these evils, we don’t need a “greater good”; all we need is an irreplaceable good, which is morally valuable for its own sake, and which would never have come into existence had these evils not been allowed to occur. Each of us is one of these “irreplaceable goods”, as none of us would have come into being in a world where acts of violence were never allowed to happen. (If you have Viking blood in your veins, or if you’re descended from Genghis Khan, you’ll know precisely what I mean.) In a perfect world, there would be other people, but they wouldn’t be us. Maybe God could have made that alternative perfect world. But I would argue that He wasn’t obliged to. And that’s all that the classical theist needs to show.
Having disposed of the logical argument from evil, Feser now turns his sights on the evidential argument from evil:
Other atheists too have suggested that, even if the existence of evil does not strictly disprove theism, it still makes it probable that there is no God. This position has come to be known as the “evidential argument from evil”, and an influential version of it is presented by William Rowe. [The slow, agonizing, solitary death of a fawn trapped under a tree in the aftermath of a forest fire is an example given by Rowe of suffering which is utterly pointless, as there seems to be no “greater good” that might be drawn out of it.] … To be sure, Rowe concedes that “we are not in a position to prove” that there is no greater good drawn out of such examples of suffering and “cannot know with certainty” that there is not. There could in principle be such a greater good that we simply don’t know about. But he thinks it is rational to believe that there is not, and thus rational to believe that there is no God.
The problem with Rowe’s argument is that it can be rational to believe this only if we don’t already have independent reason to think that God exists, and this independent reason to think that there must be some greater good that God will draw out of instances of suffering like the one cited by Rowe. And we do have such independent reasons. For as we have seen in this book, there are at least five ways of demonstrating that God exists, and further arguments showing that he is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. Hence, we know, on the basis of these very arguments, that there must in fact be some greater good that God will draw out of instances of suffering like the one Rowe has in mind, whether or not we can know what that greater good is… Now by Rowe’s own admission there could in principle be such a greater good, and thus he would have to admit that if we really do have independent arguments which show that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good God, then we have independent reason to believe that there is in fact such a greater good. And in that case his “evidential argument from evil” fails. Certainly it is no challenge to the arguments presented in this book. For the evidential argument” to succeed as a challenge to those arguments, its defenders would have to first provide an independent refutation of the arguments of this book. And if they could do that, they wouldn’t need the “evidential argument” in the first place. (2017, pp. 297-298)
1. Feser’s response provides a striking illustration of the philosophical adage: “One Man’s Modus Ponens is Another Man’s Modus Tollens.” Feser insists that because he has cogent arguments for God’s existence, the suffering we observe in the world must serve some “greater good,” regardless of whether or not we can grasp what this good is. But the suggestion that all instances of suffering, including the pain felt by each of the sentient animals that lived millions of years before us, and the suffering endured by each of the victims of the Holocaust, serve some “greater good,” will strike many readers as preposterous and as a “bridge too far.” That being the case, I think we need to question the claim that only a “greater good” could excuse God’s refusal to intervene to prevent suffering in these cases.
2. Having said that, I think that a good case can be made for the proposition that most of the pain we observe in the animal world serves a useful purpose, and I would commend Dr. Jon Garvey’s excellent online book, God’s Good Earth, for its sound science, careful historical research and penetrating spiritual insights on the subject.
3. I’ve written at some length on the problem of suffering in my TSZ post, The Christian God and the Problem of Evil. However, that particular post addressed the problem from a Christian perspective, and invoked the Fall as an explanation for the human suffering we observe. The classical theism of the sort defended by Feser in his book cannot legitimately appeal to such an explanation. And while Feser adverts to the possibility of an endless afterlife whose goods would outweigh all the sufferings experienced in this life on page 299 of his book, he does not make this a part of his rebuttal; it is mentioned only as a brief afterthought.
4. It seems to me that in order for the evidential argument from suffering to really undermine theism, one would have to mount a strong philosophical defense of the notion of wrongful creation: in other words, that it would simply be wrong for the Creator of the cosmos to bring about (whether by act or omission) a state of affairs in which a sentient individual’s suffering exceeded a certain critical threshold value of X, because beyond this level X, life is not worth living. But even if one were to accept that some lives are not worth living, it does not necessarily follow that God was morally bound not to create them, or that He is morally bound to end them as soon as possible.
16. “If God really existed, then he would not be ‘hidden’ from us, but his existence would be obvious to everyone.”
My verdict: INCONCLUSIVE, BUT IT CERTAINLY CARRIES SOME WEIGHT.
This objection, which has gained some popularity in recent years, is sometimes called the argument from “divine hiddenness.” It rests on two crucial assumptions: first, that if God really existed, then his existence would be obvious to most people; and second, that his existence is not in fact obvious to most people. But why should we accept either of these assumptions?
…[Regarding the first assumption], [t]he claim is that since God would intend … a relationship with us, he would make sure that everyone knew he exists… But why suppose that God would intend such a relationship? Not all theists have supposed that. For example, Aristotle famously thought that the divine Unmoved Mover of the world contemplated himself eternally, but took no cognizance of us…
…[The objection] has no force against versions of theism which are happy to allow that God is or might be uninterested in human beings.…
Of course, I have also argued that God is perfectly good and that he loves his creation. [Feser is a Catholic.] … [T]he correct thing is to say that since the arguments of this book establish that there is a God who is perfectly good and loves his creation…, it follows that to the extent that he has not made his existence more obvious, there must be some greater good he is drawing out of this circumstance.…
What reason might God have for not making his existence more obvious? John Hick proposes that God creates us at an “epistemic distance” from him precisely so that we would be free to choose whether or not to enter into a personal relationship with him. Now, I think that Hick massively overstates the extent of this “epistemic distance.” … [Unlike Hick], I think there are decisive arguments for the existence of God...
But there is arguably a kernel of truth in Hick’s position. Just as God allows us a very long leash with respect to errors in what we do – even to the extent of moral breakdown at the level of entire societies, genocides and other atrocities, and so forth – so too does he allow us a very long leash with respect to errors in what we think… Because our minds are finite, they are capable of error, and because we have free will, we are capable of turning our attention away from evidence and lines of argument which point in the direction of God’s existence and focusing it instead on evidence and lines of argument that seem to point away from it. And people can have various motives for wanting to do so… To the extent that there is “epistemic distance” between us and God, that is an inevitable result of the fact that we have finite minds and free will.
But in fact this “epistemic distance” is not great, which brings us to the second assumption behind the “divine hiddenness” objection – namely, that God’s existence is not obvious to most people. It is true that relatively few people have endorsed or even been familiar with philosophical theism of the sort defended in this book. But it hardly follows from that that most people are atheists or even doubtful about God’s existence. On the contrary, historically speaking, the vast majority of human beings have been theists of some sort. It is true that people have often disagreed over the details, with some people endorsing a theism on which God is distinct from the world, others endorsing some kind of pantheism, yet others believing some form of polytheism, and yet others having a more inchoate conception of the divine. But that there is some divine reality is something most people have not only affirmed, but affirmed with some confidence, despite their not having fancy philosophical arguments for their belief. (2017, pp. 300-303)
My comment: On the whole, I think Feser does a good job of rebutting this objection. Given that people have finite minds and free will, they are bound to come up all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas about life’s big questions: “Whence came we? What are we? Whither go we?” One might ask why God does not set us straight, but perhaps there is, as Feser suggests, some “greater good,” which comes from allowing us to think for ourselves. An atheist might retort that this argument proves too much: it seems to imply that God could never reveal Himself to anyone (at least, not until the end of human history). But all the argument really shows is that God could never reveal Himself in a fashion which compels belief. And it can be argued that even the Biblical God has respected this constraint: the Pharaoh of Egypt doubted the signs Moses gave him, and the apostles who saw Jesus after his crucifixion doubted whether they really were beholding someone who had risen from the dead (Matthew 28:17). In any case, as Feser points out, classical theists don’t need to believe in a God who reveals Himself to us.
Where I would take issue with Feser, however, is in his claim (in the passage quoted above) that throughout history, the vast majority of human beings have been theists of some sort. Here, Feser is even willing to accept pantheists, polytheists and believers in a big Something as theists. But this totally contradicts his argument in response to the “One God further” objection above (objection number 13), where he takes great pains to show that the God of classical theism is nothing like the gods of Greek, Roman, Norse and Aztec mythology: the latter are material, mutable, caused and finite, whereas the God of classical theism is immaterial, immutable, uncaused and infinite – indeed, He is generally held to be Being itself. Feser cannot have his cake and eat it: if the pagan gods are nothing like the true God, then believers in these gods don’t deserve to be called theists. Indeed, they should be called atheists. In that case, only Jews, Christians and Muslims, and perhaps some Hindus (although most of them appear to be panentheists, as far as I can tell), would qualify as theists, but not members of other religions. (Some Deists would also qualify.)
Out of the 108 billion human beings who have ever lived, it is estimated that around 13 or 14 billion have been Christians. We could generously add another 7 billion for the number of Muslims who have ever lived, and 1 billion for the number of Jews. That takes us to around 21 or 22 billion. Pace Feser, it appears that theism – defined either as classical theism or belief in some religion which is compatible with classical theism – has been a minority view throughout most of history. That doesn’t make it wrong: what it does mean, however, is that the argument from the common consent of mankind cannot be adduced in its favor, as Feser thinks. Today, however, theism is a majority view: around 55% of the world’s population is either Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Perhaps in about five centuries, it will at last be true that the majority of people who have ever lived have been theists; but even then, it will still be true that throughout most of human history, the vast majority of people have not been theists. At most, they have merely been supernaturalists.
17. “Arguments for God’s existence are just rationalizations of preordained conclusions, and thus need not be taken seriously.”
My verdict: ABSOLUTELY IDIOTIC.
In fact, as all logicians know, whether an argument is good or bad is completely independent of the motivation or character of the person giving it. (2017, p. 304)
In any event, … [w]hat matters is whether the arguments either side [of the theism vs. atheism debate] gives are good arguments, and that is something which can be determined only by actually examining their arguments, not by wasting time looking for excuses not to do so. (2017, p. 305)
My comment: This argument is rubbish. People have reasons for wanting to believe in God, but there are people with reasons for wanting to disbelieve in God, too. More importantly, people’s arguments for God are not just rationalizations of what people want to believe. If they were, then people couldn’t be convinced by them – or for that matter, deconverted by expositions of skeptical critics perceive as their fatal flaws. And yet people convert and deconvert on rational grounds all the time. So who’s right: the religious converts or the skeptics? The only way to answer that question is to look at the best arguments on both sides.
18. “No one can claim to have a proof or demonstration that God exists, since so many people doubt or deny his existence even after hearing the alleged proofs.”
My verdict: GROSSLY UNFAIR, BUT IT RAISES A VALID POINT.
…[T]hose who dismiss the very idea that the existence of God might be demonstrable typically hold arguments for God’s existence to a standard to which they do not hold other arguments. For instance, the mere fact that someone somewhere has raised an objection to an argument for God’s existence is commonly treated by skeptics as showing that “the argument fails” – as if an argument is a good one only if no one objects to it but all assent to it upon hearing it. Of course, skeptics do not treat other philosophical arguments this way. For example, that an argument for materialism or against free will has its critics is not taken to show that those arguments simply “fail.” The attitude in these cases is rather: “Yes, like any philosophical argument, this one has its critics, but that doesn’t mean the critics are right. At the end of the day, the objections might be answerable and the argument ultimately correct, and we need to keep an open mind about it and consider what might be said in its defense.” In general, even the most eccentric philosophical arguments are treated as if they are always “on the table” as options worthy of reconsideration. Mysteriously, though, arguments for God’s existence are refused this courtesy. The mere fact that Hume (say) said such-and-such two centuries ago is often treated as if it constituted a once-and-for-all decisive refutation. (2017, pp. 305-306)
My comment: I think Feser is right to complain of an evidential double standard here. Nevertheless, the question of why so many people (including even philosophers) are not persuaded by the arguments for God’s existence is a valid one. Scientists like to debate issues vigorously, until they have arrived at a consensus through a combination of rational argument and careful experimentation. Unlike scientists, philosophers do not resort to experimentation; nevertheless, they use reason and often appeal to the findings of science when thrashing out various questions. Eventually, they may arrive at a consensus. So it’s worth asking why there is no philosophical consensus regarding the “God question,” even among philosophers of religion. However, I feel bound to point out as a philosopher that there’s no consensus regarding the nature of the mind, either, or even the question of whether we possess libertarian freedom, or the power to do otherwise, when we make a choice: some philosophers believe in libertarian freedom; others (compatibilists) accept determinism, but argue that we are still free in a fashion; and still others (hard determinists and hard incompatibilists) maintain that we are not free in any meaningful sense. The free will controversy has been raging for at least 1,000 years, with no sign of a resolution. So perhaps we should not make too much of the fact that many people (including philosophers) are not persuaded by the traditional arguments for God’s existence.
Well, that’s my take on Feser’s rebuttals of eighteen common objections to arguments for the existence of God. In my opinion, most of Feser’s rebuttals hit the nail on the head, but a few are less successful. What do readers think? Over to you.