Window dressing, or: Is the God of Thomistic classical theism as dumb as a rock?


[Courtesy of Unsplash.com & Kitti Incédi]

[Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey]

Dr. Gaven Kerr is a lecturer in philosophy at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland. In a recent online interview with writer and philosopher Pat Flynn on a Youtube video titled, “Philosophy Friday: Classical Theism and Divine Simplicity” (March 23, 2021), Dr. Kerr (who is a Thomist and a stalwart defender of classical theism) made nine incredible metaphysical claims (two about agents in general, and seven about God), as well as six philosophically controversial background assumptions. Below, I shall argue that when taken together, these claims and assumptions add up to a picture of a God Who is literally as dumb as a rock. Basically, He’s a black box. The exalted language which Thomists use to describe God is mere window dressing, obscuring the fact that the God they worship never even thinks about the creatures He has made: they depend on Him, but on the Thomistic view, God creates them without having to think any thoughts about them, like “Let there be light” or “Let us make man in our own image.” All God ever thinks about is Himself, and even His act of “thinking about” Himself consists in nothing more than His being Himself. In other words, God knows Himself (and His creatures) simply by existing. In this post, I shall argue that the Thomistic account of knowledge is downright nonsensical, that Thomists’ reasons for denying that God has any thoughts and feelings about us are based on faulty assumptions, and finally, that if their account of God were correct, it would be irrational of us to love God or to feel grateful to Him for anything. Taken to its logical extreme, Thomistic classical theism makes the hearts of believers grow cold, and it is a lucky thing indeed that most Christians (Catholics included) are blissfully ignorant of what it teaches about God.

For those readers who are interested, here is Pat Flynn’s interview with Dr. Kerr:

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An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity: W. The Sacraments

The vast majority of Christians agree that Baptism and the Eucharist are sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ, in which God’s grace is bestowed on those who receive them with the right disposition. In this essay I shall argue that notwithstanding believers’ protestations to the contrary, the standard Christian understanding of these sacraments is a magical one. In addition, Christian accounts of how the sacraments impart grace are, as far as I can tell, nonsensical: they explain nothing. Finally, the metaphysical schemes used by various Christian denominations to explain the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist all turn out to be philosophically incoherent.

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God as Author and the Problem of Evil: A Response to Feser

Abstract

In a recent article, Edward Feser argues that the logical problem of evil rests on a category mistake regarding the nature of God and of his relationship to the world, and that a proper understanding of God’s nature and how he is related to the cosmos enables us to resolve this problem. To help his readers achieve a correct understanding of the Creator and his relation to creatures, Feser proposes an analogy between God and the author of a novel: God is “the necessary precondition of there being any natural order at all, just as an author is the necessary precondition of there being any novel at all.” I maintain that there are several fundamental flaws in the “author” analogy which render it useless as a tool for eliminating the logical problem of evil, whatever its other merits may be.

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Gunther Laird critiques natural law in The Unnecessary Science

Back in 2008, Catholic philosopher Edward Feser wrote a spirited defense of classical theism and natural law theory, which made quite a splash. Although Feser’s book, The Last Superstition, was subtitled “A Refutation of the New Atheism,” it was primarily a ringing reaffirmation of teleology as a pervasive feature of the natural world – a feature highlighted in the philosophical writings of Aristotle and his medieval exponent, Thomas Aquinas. What Feser was proposing was that the modern scientific worldview, with its “mechanical” view of Nature, was a metaphysically impoverished one; that human beings have built-in goals which serve as the basis of objective ethical norms; that the existence of God could be rationally established; and that religion (specifically, the Catholic religion) is grounded in reason, rather than blind faith. Since then, Feser has authored several other books in the same vein: Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, Philosophy of Mind, Five Proofs for the Existence of God, Neo-Scholastic Essays, Scholastic Metaphysics, and most recently, Aristotle’s Revenge.

Until now, Feser’s skeptical critics haven’t been able to land any decisive blows, and many of those who have tried have come away with bloody noses. (The Australian philosopher Graham Oppy, who recently took part in two very civilized online debates with Feser on the existence of God [here and here], is one of the rare exceptions; Bradley Bowen, who reviewed Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God three years ago, is another critic whom Feser treats with respect; Arif Ahmed, who went toe to toe with Feser on the existence of God, is a third critic who held his own against Feser.) However, Feser is now definitely on the ropes, with the publication of a new book titled, The Unnecessary Science, by Gunther Laird. The style of the book is engaging, the prose is limpidly clear, and the author possesses a rare ability to make philosophical arguments readily comprehensible to lay readers. As a further bonus, Laird is a true gentleman, whose book is refreshingly free of polemic. Throughout his book, he is highly respectful of Aristotle and Aquinas, even when he profoundly disagrees with them, and while he has occasional digs at Feser, they are lighthearted and in good humor. The scope of Laird’s book is bold and ambitious: the target of his attack is not merely the God of classical theism, but the entire Aristotelian-Thomistic enterprise of natural law theory, which he attacks on three levels: metaphysical, ethical and religious. Amazingly, despite the fact that Laird has no philosophical training beyond the baccalaureate level, he makes a very persuasive case: skeptics who read his book will come away firmly convinced that Feser has failed to prove his case, and that natural law theory needs to go back to the drawing board. And they will be right.
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An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity: Q. The Virginal Conception of Jesus

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico. Early Renaissance fresco. Convent of San Marco, Florence, ca. 1440-45. Image courtesy of Magnus Manske and Wikipedia.

[This essay is part Q in my series, An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity on the crisis in Christian apologetics. Other parts completed to date:F. Angels, demons and aliens and H. Human Origins.]

The question I wish to discuss in this post is not “Is it true that Jesus was virginally conceived?” or even “Is it possible that Jesus was virginally conceived?” but “Is there any good evidence (historical, prophetic or otherwise) that Jesus was virginally conceived?” What I want to argue in today’s post is that even for someone who accepts the evidence for Jesus’ bodily resurrection, the evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception is unpersuasive and the arguments marshaled in support of it are riddled with fallacies.

I would like to make it clear at the outset that I am not asserting that Jesus was conceived naturally. Generations of Christians down the ages have drawn hope and inspiration from their belief that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, and who am I to contradict them? After all, I’m one of them. What I am questioning is not the belief itself, but the justification for treating it as an essential teaching of the faith, as the vast majority of Christians continue to do (e.g. Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Calvinists and “Evangelical Christians”). As far as I can tell, there is no rational justification for doing so, and any attempt to argue for the Virgin Birth is sheer foolishness. Treating the doctrine as a “hill to die on” can only damage the credibility of Christianity, because it turns every argument against the doctrine into an argument against Christianity. Here’s why I think we should at least listen to the doubters, and why Christians who choose to believe in Jesus’ virginal conception should do so tentatively, acknowledging that they might, after all, be mistaken.

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An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity: F. Superhuman intelligences: angels, demons and aliens

Left: The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898). Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Right: Diorama of a Grey extra-terrestrial by G. W. Dodson, Roswell UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico, USA. Image courtesy of mr_t_77 from WV, USA and Wikipedia.

Let me begin with a confession. Temperamentally, I’m very much disposed to believing in angels – and aliens too, for that matter. I would certainly echo Hamlet’s famous saying, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The notion that human beings are the most intelligent creatures in existence strikes me as a monstrous vanity.

Now, I don’t claim to know what other kinds of intelligences exist in our cosmos. But one thing I do know: both angels and aliens pose genuine conundrums for would-be defenders of the Christian faith. In a nutshell:
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An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity: H. Human Origins

[For a brief explanation of my “An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity” series, and for the skeptical tone of this article, please see here. I’m starting my A-Z series with the letter H, and I’ll be zipping around the alphabet, in the coming weeks.]

In this article, I take aim at the Christian teaching that there was a special moment in history at which humans, who were made in the image of God, came into existence, and that a sharp line can be drawn between man and beast. I argue that on purely scientific grounds, it can be shown that such a view is highly unlikely. If the scientific arguments I put forward here are correct, then Christianity is in very big trouble.

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An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity (A new series on the crisis in apologetics)

The sinking of the Titanic, by Willy Stöwer, 1912.

During the past 25 years, there has been a dramatic resurgence in Christian apologetics, as many talented individuals have written books and given public speeches in defense of the Christian faith. Some of these people have even gone so far as to claim that we are now living in the Golden Age of Christian apologetics (see here, here and here). More books are being published than ever before, and the New Atheist movement, which appeared so powerful ten years ago, has largely fizzled out. The future looks good – or does it?

In this series, I’m going to explain in detail why I believe this rosy view is utterly mistaken, and why Christians are actually facing a thirty-year winter. Continue reading

Freedom, Flossing and Fake history: A Response to Robert Sapolsky (and a coronavirus update from Japan)

Yesterday afternoon, acting on a recommendation by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, I sat down and listened to a 43-minute Scientific American podcast featuring Stanford biology professor and hard determinist Robert Sapolsky being interviewed by Robert Mirsky, on the topic, “Your brain, free will and the law.” Suffice to say that I was underwhelmed. I had high expectations, as Professor Sapolsky is not only a well-published author (whose most recent work is Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst), but also a professor of biological sciences, neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University and a research associate at the National Museums of Kenya. I was both disappointed and amused with what I heard: disappointed with the complete absence of any rigorous argument against the existence of free will, and amused by the fake history related by Sapolsky, in the course of his interview with Robert Mirsky. By the way, for those readers who are looking for a critique of the doctrine of free will that’s both hard-hitting and substantive, I’d recommend the online writings of physicist Sabine Hossenfelder – in particular, her articles, How to live without free will, Free will is dead, let’s bury it and The Free Will Function: Free will from the perspective of a particle physicist (but see also the conclusion to her prize-winning 2018 essay, The Case for Strong Emergence, in which she acknowledges a gap in her argument). [Full disclosure here: I have previously critiqued Dr. Hossenfelder’s arguments against free will, and although I continue to find her case less than convincing, I would now acknowledge her general point that top-down causation alone won’t rescue free will.]

Back to Sapolsky. Since he’s a professor of biology, neurology and neurosurgery, I had hoped that he would at least attempt to summarize the biological case against free will, but he didn’t. He alluded to experiments by Benjamin Libet, noted in passing that there were multiple interpretations of these experiments, and then proceeded to his central argument: the “shrinking pie” argument, which relied on a very heavy dollop of fake history. In a nutshell: science has already shown that we are not responsible for X, Y and Z, so in time, science will show that we are not responsible for any of our actions. (By the way, Sapolsky is a hard determinist, who has no time for compatibilism and who eschews any notions of personal responsibility for our actions: as he puts it in his podcast, “We have no control, ultimately, over anything we do… We have no agency, and the criminal justice system does not make any sense at all.”)

So, what’s wrong with the “shrinking pie” argument? Everything.
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Newman vs. Locke on Assent

Greetings from Japan! For those who may have been wondering, super-typhoon Hagibis caused no damage to my home, and my family is safe and sound. Around Japan, however, over 430,000 households are currently without electricity, including 148,000 in my prefecture. But tomorrow is another day, and Japan is an amazingly resilient country. People who’d like to know more are welcome to check out this Website.

Today’s post relates to an excellent one-hour movie on John Henry Newman (1801-1890), the Catholic Church’s newest saint (his canonization ceremony is on Sunday, October 13). The movie was created by Catholic theologian and author Bishop Robert Barron, founder of the Catholic ministerial organization Word on Fire. The movie, titled St. John Henry Newman: The Convert, may be viewed online here, but only until October 31. It is very professionally put together: the brilliant cinematography, combined with the uplifting music and Bishop Barron’s erudite narration, makes for thoroughly enjoyable viewing. The first half-hour deals with Newman’s life. at 30:54, Bishop Barron discusses Newman’s classic work, The Development of Christian Doctrine, elucidating its insights with limpid clarity in a segment which is well worth watching. At 40:00, the discussion switches to another work of Newman’s: The Idea of a University.

It has been a long time since my last post on this site. One reason for that is that I’ve been proofreading a forthcoming book (not by me), about which I shall say no more for now. Another reason is that I’ve been planning a talk which I hope to put up on Youtube next year. This is something I’ve never done before, so any technical, logistical and promotional advice would be greatly appreciated.

But the most interesting part for visitors to The Skeptical Zone, begins at 47:15, and relates to Newman’s masterpiece, The Grammar of Assent. In this work, Newman criticized the fixation philosophers have with the idea of certitude. Certitude, he argued, is the wrong starting point; the right starting point is assent. Bishop Barron, in his commentary, carefully explains the distinction Newman drew between the notional assent we give to abstract propositions (the example Barron gives is the proposition that slavery is wrong), and the real assent we give to concrete things (for example, that the reality of slavery, which I see here before me, is evil). Real assent affects the way we act and behave. Newman maintained that the ground of real assent in matters of religion is conscience, which he defined as “a certain keen sensibility, pleasant or painful … attendant on certain of our actions, which in consequence we call right or wrong”. Newman was struck by the fact that conscience is often likened to a voice. Through it we know that we please or offend a Person by our acts – in Newman’s words, “a Judge, holy, just, powerful, all-seeing.” The next segment, starting at 51:32 and lasting about four minutes, is the subject of this post: it relates to the assent which we give to a proposition. From here on, I’ll quote Bishop Barron’s own words, which I have transcribed below.

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What do we know about Jesus’ burial?

In his final reply to my review of Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, Professor McGrew takes issue with my claim that the story of Jesus’ burial is improbable at multiple points, accusing me of doing a priori history, of relying on doubtful assertions by Biblical scholars, of making too much of the argument from silence” (which he rejects in toto), of finding contradictions between the Gospel burial accounts where none exist, and of arrogantly alleging that the Gospel authors, who were far closer to the facts than we are today, must have fabricated details in their accounts, simply because they clash with our contemporary interpretation of Jewish law at that time. Am I guilty as charged? Or is it Professor McGrew whose understanding of history is faulty?

While reading Professor McGrew’s reply, it immediately struck me that there was one thing that he didn’t do: namely, quote from contemporary Biblical scholars who support his position. That’s because there are very few Biblical scholars who would agree with McGrew’s claim that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are internally consistent, free from contradictions, and free from historical inaccuracies. With the exception of Ehrman’s contentious claim (which I defended, but did not endorse) that Jesus’ body was probably left to hang on the Cross for several days before being dumped in a burial pit, all of the other assertions made in my review regarding Jesus’ burial fall squarely within the mainstream of Biblical scholarship. In setting himself in opposition to the conclusions reached in my review, Professor McGrew (who is a philosopher, not a historian) is arraying himself against an entire field of scholarship.

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The elephant in front of the cross

In a recent post over at What’s Wrong With the World, Professor Timothy McGrew asks, Did Jesus’ Mother and the Beloved Disciple Stand at the Foot of the Cross? Professor McGrew’s answer is a decisive yes. Readers will recall that last year, in a lengthy review of Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, I summarized the reasons for rejecting the historicity of this episode in John’s Gospel (see here for the arguments I presented). My arguments were taken directly from Alter’s book – a book which Professor McGrew has not deigned to read. Relying instead on the brief summary contained in my post, he roundly declares that he finds these arguments unconvincing and unsubstantiated. Had he consulted Alter’s book, however, he would have found scholarly citations in abundance, as well as the answers to some of the questions he poses in his post.

In this post, I intend to address and rebut Professor McGrew’s objections, and to supply further documentation to back up the claims I made previously. But before I continue, let me begin with the candid admission that I may be wrong, in casting doubt on the historicity of John’s account of Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple standing near the foot of the cross. I have done a lot of digging and delving on the subject during the past couple of weeks, and I acknowledge that the issue is not as cut-and-dried as I had previously believed. Nevertheless, if I were a betting man, I’d still bet against the episode’s ever having happened, for reasons I’ll explain below. As I pointed out in my previous reply to McGrew, my chief concern is with those claims which a fair-minded historian would consider probable, when judging matters on purely historical grounds. Hence the title of my last post: Why there probably wasn’t a guard at Jesus’ tomb.

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Why there probably wasn’t a guard at Jesus’ tomb

Christian apologist Professor Tim McGrew recently defended the historicity of Matthew’s account of the guard at the tomb, in a post put up by his wife, Dr. Lydia McGrew. Professor McGrew’s post was written in response to a challenge he issued to me, in response to my (generally positive) review of Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry (2015), which was published at The Skeptical Zone last year. Not wishing to address the bulk of Alter’s arguments, which he considered unconvincing, Professor McGrew challenged me to narrow the focus of our discussion, by listing three of Alter’s arguments which I had found particularly convincing. The first topic on my list which Professor McGrew chose to address was the question: was there a guard at Jesus’ tomb? However, it turns out that McGrew’s argument for the historicity of Matthew’s story of the guard is based on faulty math – a surprising flaw, coming from a man who has written extensively on the subject of Bayes’ Theorem and its role in Christian apologetics. Before we have a look at the math, though, I have a special announcement: Michael Alter himself has decided to weigh in on the controversy, and I have included his remarks in this post.

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How should TSZ handle racism and hate speech?

Elizabeth Liddle, who founded this Website, has recently declared that racist remarks on TSZ should be deleted. Moderator Alan Fox would like to additionally ban hate speech, incitement to violence, and discrimination, where these are proscribed by law. However, at the present time, nothing in the Rules of this Website prohibits racism or hate speech. And how does one define these terms, anyway? In this short post, I’d like to offer a few tentative proposals.

It seems to me that a rule that bans racism alone would be too arbitrary. Why ban racism but not sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia or transphobia?

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Aphrodite’s head: Eight questions for Douglas Axe

Over at Evolution News, Dr. Douglas Axe argues that merely by using very simple math, we can be absolutely certain that life was designed: it’s an inescapable conclusion. To illustrate his case, he uses the example of a rugged block of marble being transformed by natural weather processes into a statue of a human being. Everyone would agree that this simply can’t happen. And our conclusion wouldn’t change, even if we (i) generously allowed lots and lots of time for the statue to form; (ii) let each body part have a (discrete or continuous) range of permitted forms, or shapes, instead of just one permitted shape; (iii) relaxed the requirement that all body parts have to form simultaneously or in sync, and allowed the different parts of the statue to form at their own different rates; and (iv) removed the requirement that the different parts have to each form independently of one another, and allowed the formation of one part of the statue to influence that of another part.

In his post, Axe rhetorically asks: if we’re so sure that a rugged block of marble could never be transformed by the weather into a human statue, then aren’t we equally entitled to conclude that “blind natural causes” could never have “converted primitive bacterial life into oaks and ostriches and orangutans”? In each case, argues Axe, the underlying logic is the same: when calculating the probability of a scenario which requires many unlikely things to happen, small fractions multiplied by the dozens always result in exceedingly small fractions, and an event which is fantastically improbable can safely be regarded as physically impossible.

In an attempt to persuade Dr. Axe that his logic is faulty on several grounds, I’d like to put eight questions to Dr. Axe, and I sincerely hope that he will be gracious enough to reply.

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Fact vs. Opinion: A Distinction without a Difference?

My interest was recently piqued by an article in The Atlantic (October 23, 2018) claiming that “Americans over 50 are worse than younger people at telling facts from opinions, according to a new study by Pew Research Center.” Author Alexis Madrigal summarizes the results of the study: “Given 10 statements, five each of fact and opinion, younger Americans correctly identified both the facts and the opinions at higher rates than older Americans did.” But is the fact vs. opinion dichotomy a viable one? Philosopher John Corvino thinks not. In a hard-hitting article titled, The Fact/Opinion Distinction (The Philosophers’ Magazine, 4 March 2015), he surveys several attempts to elucidate the distinction, and concludes that they all fail.

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Resurrection redux II

In this post, I’d like to comment on some issues that have been raised by readers over at Professor Joshua Swamidass’s Peaceful Science forum, in response to my article on Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, which convincingly demolishes Resurrection apologetics. But before I do that, I’d like to discuss the Christine Ford case, and its relevance to the evidence for the Resurrection.

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Michael Alter’s bombshell demolishes Christian apologists’ case for the Resurrection

It is not often that I encounter a book which forces me to undergo a fundamental rethink on a vital issue. Michael Alter’s The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry is one such book. The issue it addresses is whether the New Testament provides good evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead. Prior to reading Michael Alter’s book, I believed that a Christian could make a strong case for Jesus’ having been raised from the dead, on purely historical grounds. After reading the book, I would no longer espouse this view. Alter has convincingly demolished Christian apologists’ case for the Resurrection – and he’s got another book coming out soon, which is even more hard-hitting than his first one, judging from the excerpts which I’ve read.

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