March 14, 2009

Chewed up and spit out...

I have to recommend a very good book, The Last Superstition, by Edward Feser. It's a debunking of the recent spate of "New Atheist" books, drawing on the classic arguments of Aristotle and Aquinas. I've long been aware that they, and other philosophers, had given proofs of God's existence, but I must confess I've never studied them. In fact, like many people, I had picked up a vague impression of what those arguments might be--impressions that are simply wrong! (For instance Thomas does not base any arguments on the universe needing a creator to get it started in the first place!)

The actual arguments are very interesting, and Feser presents them wittily, and with lots of snark at the lameness and ignorance of people like Christopher Hitchins and Richard Dawkins. If there are any people with enquiring minds left in the world, they could enjoy this book even without being interested in the actual questions... just to appreciate clear thinking.

...But enough of this unpleasantness. Let us turn to Aquinas. To understand his arguments for God's existence, you need first to understand what is wrong with the way philistines like Dawkins read them, or rather misread them. Like many who are not familiar with philosophical modes of argumentation, Dawkins assumes that Aquinas is engages in a kind of empirical theorizing, "postulating" God's existence as a "hypothesis" to "explain" certain pieces of "data." That is, he thinks Aquinas's reasoning is analogous to the sort of reasoning a detective engages in when he infers from a cigarette butt and the size of a shoe print that the suspect was probably a six-foot tall smoker...

...When understood in this light, arguments for God's existence inevitably come to seem like what are called "God of the gaps" arguments: "Here is something science hasn't yet explained; probably God is the explanation." Dawkins, Harris, et al., come along and have little trouble coming up with some imaginative materialistic exlanation of the evidence in question, and even if the proposed explanation is unsupported or far-fetched, it serves rhetorically to undermine any confidence their hapless readers might otherwise have in the whole enterprise of arguing for God's existence.

But Aquinas does not argue in this lame "God of the gaps" manner, and neither do any of the great philosophical theologians referred to above (Aristotle, Maimonides, Duns Scotus, Leibniz, et al.). I will admit that some theists argue this way: Paley did, and "Intelligent Design" theorists influenced by him do as well. But their faulty methodology should not be read back into thinkers who would have had no truck with it. Why atheists are so fixated on Paley, I cannot say, unless it is precisely because he is such an easy target: If he didn't exist, atheists would have to invent him, or find some other straw man to beat. Aquinas, as is well know, always painstakingly considered all opposing arguments, and always made a point of attacking an an opponent's position at its strongest point. (This contrast is one reason I compare the moral character of the New Atheists so unfavorably to that of Aquinas, and it is a reason they will be hard-pressed to dismiss, � la Hume, as a mere "monkish virtue.")...

...What Aquinas is doing can be understood by comparison with the sort of reasoning familiar from geometry and mathematics in general...

 

x Posted by John Weidner at March 14, 2009 5:54 PM
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