Edward Feser, a Catholic philosopher and associate professor at Pasadena City College, has taken strong exception to my complaints about having to read theology. In response, he’s written a long critique on his blog, largely in the form of a dialogue, called “A clue for Jerry Coyne.”
It doesn’t really merit much discussion, since in the end he pushes one line of “strong” evidence for God (see below), but I would be remiss if I didn’t address his claims. Feser first takes exception to my taking guidance from Eric MacDonald for a theology reading list. He implies that MacDonald isn’t neutral but biased against religion. Well, Feser can stuff it here: yes, Eric rejected faith and resigned as an Anglican priest, but the stuff he’s recommended to me is straight-out mainline theology, written by distinguished theologians—most of them good Christians. Nothing he’s recommended has been critical of theology, much less written by agnostics or atheists.
The main part of Feser’s post is an imaginary dialogue between two people: “Scientist” and “Skeptic,” designed to mock my disparaging remarks of theology. “Scientist” tells “Skeptic” (someone who wants to learn about science), that to master the field he has to read all kinds of stuff. That stuff, according to “Skeptic” (read Feser here) is just as pretentious and obscure as theology, and, further, never provides evidence for its claims. Here’s part of the dialogue.
- Skeptic: Not in what I’ve read these last few weeks. For example, read a book like Gregory’s Eye and Brain and you’ll find he talks about how evolution did this or how photons do that. But he never gives us any argument for the existence of these “photon” thingies, and he never answers all the objections people have made to evolution. It’s all based on faith.
- Scientist: He doesn’t address those things at length because the book is about vision, and not photons or evolution per se. He can take that stuff for granted because other people have argued for it elsewhere. He isn’t even trying to answer skeptics about evolution or modern physics in a book like that. Really, do you expect every science book to start from square one and recapitulate what others have already said about every issue that might be relevant to a subject, just to satisfy skeptics like you?
- Skeptic: But their belief in these things is not based on argument. It’s based on peer pressure, groupthink, the fear of being ostracized. The so-called “arguments” you refer to are just rationalizations for what scientists were indoctrinated into believing while in school and what all their colleagues expect them to believe when they go to conferences, try to get tenure or funding or to get their papers accepted for publication, etc. It reflects the worship of science that dominates our society – its pop culture, its educational institutions, commerce and industry, you name it. It’s all socially constructed, not based in reality.
According to Feser, if you replace “Skeptic” with “Coyne” and “Scientist” with “Theologian,” then “you’ve got a dead-on summary of Coyne’s attitude toward theology”.
Well, pretty much—except for one thing. Two actually. First, unlike theologians, scientists do have credible evidence for the existence of photos, evolution, and other claims about science. Second, you can get the evidence for, say, evolution, in pretty much one book: WEIT, or Mayr’s What Evolution Is, or Futuyma’s Science on Trial, or Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth. You don’t have to read a whole library, or endless exegeses (is that the right plural?) to see why scientists accept scientific facts. There is no “naive” science or “sophisticated” science. There’s just science, much of it accessible to the layperson.
Now Feser’s point is this: in my un-serious quest to learn theology, I am neglecting the Very Powerful Evidence for God that Dawkins failed to present in The God Delusion. What is that evidence?
Aquinas’s cosmological argument!
Recall what that argument is: it’s a First Cause argument, which has various versions, most involving the claim that every contingent being (or the Universe itself in the Kalām version) had to have a cause, and contingent beings can’t ultimately be caused by other contingent beings. Therefore there must be a necessary being—a First Cause—to get it all rolling, and that’s God. QED. Alternatively, what “caused” the Universe. It couldn’t cause itself, so there must have been God.
The counterarguments to this claim are well known, and in fact Dawkins summarizes them well. The most obvious one is the unsupported claim that the First Cause doesn’t need a cause itself: it is, uniquely exempt from cause. In other words, you’re not allowed to ask, “What caused God”? But that’s not a proof but an unsupported claim. And, of course, there are some things in the universe that don’t have causes, one being radioactive decay. As far as we know, that just happens without any cause. And, likewise, the Universe could just “happen”, as physicist Victor Stenger maintains.
These are only a few of the many problems with the cosmological argument; you can see others in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosphy entry.
Now, according to Feser, my summary above is surely unsophisticated, and I guess so is the Stanford Encyclopedia’s. You must, he says, read many books to grasp the subtlety and strength of this argument:
Traditionally, the central argument for God’s existence is the cosmological argument, and (also traditionally) the most important versions of that argument are the ones summed up in the first three of Aquinas’s Five Ways. But the typical modern reader is simply not going to understand the Five Ways just by reading the usual two-page excerpt one finds in anthologies. For one thing, the arguments were never intended to be stand-alone, one-stop proofs that would convince even the most hardened skeptic. They are only meant to be brief sketches of arguments the more detailed versions of which the intended readers of Aquinas’s day would have found elsewhere. For another thing, the terminology and argumentative moves presuppose a number of metaphysical theses that Aquinas also develops and defends elsewhere.
So, to understand the Five Ways, the modern reader needs to read something that makes all this background clear, that explains how modern Thomists would reply to the stock objections to the arguments, and so forth. Naturally, I would recommend my own book Aquinas, since it was intended in part precisely as an up-to-date explanation and defense of these arguments, and will provide the reader with a useful survey of what not only Aquinas, but the Thomistic tradition more generally, has said about them. (I do some of this in The Last Superstition too, of course. But that book does not deal with the Third Way, as the Aquinas book does. Moreover, New Atheists – who have a sense of humor about everything but themselves – are likely to make the polemical tone of TLS an excuse for dismissing its arguments. This is unreasonable, of course, especially given their own excessive polemics – I’m only fighting fire with fire – but there it is.)
Feser goes on to list seven more books and six articles that I have to read, including stuff by William Lane Craig. There is never an end to it! Like the Cosmological Argument itself, grasping it apparently requires an infinite regress of reading, and if I still reject the evidence after reading Aquinas and Feser’s own book, well, I just have to read more books. And if I still don’t grasp the argument then, well, there are shelves of books in the University of Chicago Library that I must consult.
This is madness. And if I reject the cosmological argument, there are other “subtle” theological arguments for God that I don’t fully grasp, and shelves of books to support them. Unless you read literally hundreds of books, you don’t qualify for your Discussing Theology merit badge. In contrast, you can read only one book to fully grasp both the tenets and evidence for evolution.
Well, I think the Cosmological Argument is just dumb, and so do many philosophers. But to do Feser a favor, I will read Aquinas. Fortunately, someone, and that someone is the creationist Paul Nelson, placed a copy of Aquinas in my department mailbox this week—just in time! Now that’s proof of God!