Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dear Theology: Show Me the Money!

Theologians, I have a very personal, very important thing you are going to do for me: show me the money.
I will sheepishly enter the fray of theology once again, this time to consider points by Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher Edward Feser.

Feser has issues with both intelligent design and atheism, as each departs--albeit in different ways--from the scholastic philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Feser’s gripe with atheism targets the New Atheists. He chides them for dealing with a persistent caricature of Thomistic thought and for refusing to address the real arguments in the proper Thomistic context. Feser says:
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 sympathize with Feser's point here. To fairly understand and address the arguments of Aquinas, or anyone else, one ought to consider these arguments in their proper context and with sufficient background. I also get Feser's frustration at seeing people argue against a caricature argument rather than the real one.

On this latter problem, Feser appears to understand that atheistic arguments get caricatured by eager would-be opponents all the time. Feser's schtick, in part, is to suggest that the New Atheists are not immune from the ignorance that they ascribe solely to their religious brethren.

Fair enough. Now, let's get a sense of how we might understand Aquinas's arguments properly:
Both critics and defenders of arguments for the existence of God as an Uncaused Cause often assume that such arguments are essentially concerned to explain the universe considered as a whole. That is true of some versions, but not all. For instance, it is not true of Aquinas’s arguments, at least as many Thomists understand them. For the Thomist, you don’t need to start with something grand like the universe in order to show that God exists. Any old thing will do – a stone, a jar of peanut butter, your left shoe, whatever. The existence of any one of these things even for an instant involves the actualization of potencies here and now, which in turn presupposes the activity of a purely actual actualizer here and now. It involves the conjoining of an essence to an act of existence here and now, which presupposes a sustaining cause whose essence and existence are identical. It involves a union of parts in something composite, which presupposes that which is absolutely simple or incomposite. And so forth. (As always, for the details see Aquinas, especially chapter 3.)
Let's see if we can parse this:
  1. Anything in the world can be taken as the starting point in a long, logical chain that leads back to the existence of an uncaused cause.
  2. That chain, going forward, is: sustaining cause (whose essence = existence) [to] act of conjoining an essence to existence [to] actualization of "anything in the world."
  3. That chain, reformulated a bit, is: that which is absolutely simple or incomposite [to] an act of uniting parts in something composite [to] actualization of "anything in the world."
I can only assume that Feser and Aquinas have some backup on the "sustaining cause," on how we know its essence and existence are identical, on how we conceive of absolute simplicity and the like, and the mechanisms by which the act of conjoining and uniting might take place.

It's a safe assumption, of course. Here is Feser with a brief comment on divine simplicity:
the doctrine of divine simplicity is absolutely central to classical theism. To say that God is simple is to say that He is in no way composed of parts – neither material parts, nor metaphysical parts like form and matter, substance and accidents, or essence and existence. Divine simplicity is affirmed by such Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, and Averroes. It is central to the theology of pagan thinkers like Plotinus. It is the de fide teaching of the Catholic Church, affirmed at the fourth Lateran council and the first Vatican council, and the denial of which amounts to heresy.
Here is Feser again on divine simplicity:
The doctrine of divine simplicity holds that God is in no way composed of parts. Not only is God incorporeal and immaterial, and thus not composed of form and matter, He is also not composed of essence and existence. Rather, His essence is His existence. There is also no distinction within God between any of the divine attributes: God’s eternity is His power, which is His goodness, which is His intellect, which is His will, and so on. Indeed, God Himself just is His power, His goodness, etc., just as He just is His existence, and just is His essence. Talking or conceiving of God, God’s essence, God’s existence, God’s power, God’s goodness, and so forth are really all just different ways of talking or conceiving of one and the very same thing. Though we distinguish between them in thought, there is no distinction at all between them in reality.
To both of these lovely passages, we may pose a very reasonable question: you assert that God is simple and that His existence is his essence, and you talk about the way we conceive of God in our thought and how that's a bit different from what God is "in reality." Pray tell, how in reality do we establish that which know about God? If we can distinguish between our mental model of God and an actual God, and if we can make indicative assertions about God's properties in reality, then from where are we getting this actual, real knowledge? Feser, the good philosopher, has an answer:
Now, for the Thomist...when we predicate goodness, knowledge, power, or what have you of God, we are using language in a way that is analogous to the use we make of it when applied to the created order. It cannot be emphasized too strongly, though, that this has nothing to do with “arguing from analogy” after the fashion of Paley’s design argument; indeed, it is diametrically opposed to Paley’s procedure. It has to do instead with Aquinas’s famous “doctrine of analogy,” which distinguishes three uses of language: Words can be used univocally, in exactly the same sense, as when we say that Fido’s bark is loud and that Rover’s bark is loud. They can be used equivocally, or in completely unrelated senses, as when we say that Fido’s bark is loud and that the tree’s bark is rough. Or they can be used analogously, as when we say that a certain meal was good, that a certain book is good, and that a certain man is good. “Good” is not being used in exactly the same sense in each case, but neither are the senses unrelated, as they are in the equivocal use of “bark.” Rather, there is in the goodness of a meal something analogous to the goodness of a book, and analogous to the goodness of a man, even if it is not exactly the same sort of thing that constitutes the goodness in each case.

For the Thomist, this is the key to understanding how it can be the case that God’s goodness is His power, which is His knowledge, which is His essence, which is His existence. Such a claim would be nonsensical if the terms in question were being used univocally, in exactly the same sense in which we use them when we attribute goodness, power, knowledge, etc. to ourselves (and as they are used in Paleyan “arguments from analogy”). But neither are the senses utterly equivocal. Rather, what we mean is that there is in God something analogous to what we call goodness in us, something analogous to what we call knowledge in us, and so forth; and in God, it is one and the same thing that is analogous to what are in us distinct attributes. From a Thomistic point of view, it is precisely because theistic personalists apply language to God and creatures univocally that they are led to deny divine simplicity and in general to arrive at an objectionably anthropomorphic conception of God.
OK, so we can say/know that God is, for instance, absolutely simple through analogy. Yet we cannot really know God. We can observe that a certain piece of music is sweet and say that God is sweet too, except that God has a God-appropriate sweetness that is utterly different and superior to music-type sweetness. Thus, we draw a nice circle around God and His qualities, a circle that occludes him and keeps Him worthy of worship. Just take anything you think is pretty decent and tell yourself that the God-level type of decency is unfathomably better.

The perceptive reader will notice that I'm starting to think that ultimately we are dealing with very logical and nicely constructed bullshit here. It makes lovely sense and demonstrates the wonderful ingenuity people have. But it's bullshit until we get to an area that is not imaginary, is not occluded, and is not accessible only by analogy. Right now, it appears we always travel down a one-way street from reality to imagination, and we never return.

Perhaps I am being unfair to this philosophizing? Perhaps I am making demands on it that are legitimately beyond its scope? Perhaps I ask of theology what I do not ask of my own primary disciplines, literature and history? No,  don't think so: if God is going to be posited as a real entity, then God needs to be shown to have tetherings in observable reality. If God can be known by people--and not just imagined--then we need to be able to mechanize and computerize this way of knowing. 

Let's read some more Feser on divine simplicity and knowing God:
Precisely because God is simple, though, there is in Aquinas’s view a sense in which we cannot strictly know His essence. For we know things in the strict sense by being able to define them in terms of genus and specific difference, and since God is absolutely simple, there is in Him no distinction between genus and difference, and thus no way to define Him (again, in this technical sense of “define”). God is not merely a unique member of some general class of things; the fact that there is one God is not some metaphysical accident, but an absolute metaphysical and conceptual necessity. But precisely for that reason, precisely because He is so radically unlike anything in the created order, we simply cannot expect to comprehend Him with anything close to the sort of clarity with which we can understand the denizens of that order.
I have had enough already of this theology. God is this, God is not that. Assertion, assertion, assertion, assertion. And though Feser's arguments are well reasoned by themselves, at some point the theology departs from the texts that are the source of God's revelation to humankind. For instance, Feser surprisingly offers "the fact that there is one God." Well, someone forgot to tell this to God because God suggests in the Torah that there are other Gods and he's the top of the line (i.e., henotheism). One may object that I have mis-interpreted the Torah, but it is indisputable that the Bible presents a complex, divergent picture of the divine population:
  • Rachel the matriarch and her family of household gods (teraphim).
  • The idols in the period of the judges (as in Micah's story).
  • The cults of Ba'al and Asherah (various passages in 1 and 2 Kings).
  • The picture of Adonai as king of the gods (Ps 95:3; Ps 82).
In the end what do we have with the theology of Feser and Aquinas? We have an intricate, nuanced, and well-reasoned human system. We have a deep study on the kind of being Feser and Aquinas would feel comfortable worshiping. That's about where it all ends, for there doesn't seem to be much to do with theology outside of saying "Yes, that is it" and moving along to a pew.
Theologian 1: God is simple.

Theologian 2: You don't say!

Theologian 1: He is so simple, like absolutely metaphysically ultimate-type simplicity.

Theologian 2: Wow.

Theologian 1: And yet, he is inscrutable in his essence. Totally beyond our mental abilities to comprehend.

Theologian 2: So true, and based on centuries of really intelligent people working out the logic of it all.

Theologian 1: So...we're agreed? God's really really unimaginably simple?

Theologian 2: Yes. I am with you one hundred and one percent.

Theologian 1: Mmm. Great. Now what?

Theologian 2: Let us pray....
I said before that I sympathize with Feser's point on how too many atheists don't know enough theology and religious philosophy--and they don't know the real arguments of Aquinas, in particular. I get that point. The scientists, philosophers, ID proponents and all the rest have closets full of straw men. We all do, and that's a problem we need to monitor constantly.

But perhaps Feser and the philosophers can do a better job of communicating where all the philosophizing is supposed to go. Great as Feser's logic and style of argumentation are, I don't see any particular grounding in what we might vulgarly call "meatspace." Feser and philosophy have no obligations whatsoever to articulate such a grounding, but it seems to me that they need to do like Jerry Maguire and "Show me the money!"


  1. Nice work. I stopped following your blog after you announced (as I dimly recall) that you were dropping the Jewish theme and turning to literature, but now it seems that you have continued to write sometimes about matters of religion and philosophy. I'll have to look at those posts. (By the way, I was led back here by a comment of yours on Feser's blog, to which I was led by a link on Rosenhouse's.)

  2. Thanks, MKR. I sincerely meant to scale back on topics of religion and atheism. But I write about ideas that move me, so here we are.

    How are you?

  3. Sarpedon12:37 AM

    I'm puzzled by your line or argument. You quote Feser as saying:

    "For the Thomist, you don’t need to start with something grand like the universe in order to show that God exists. Any old thing will do – a stone, a jar of peanut butter, your left shoe, whatever. The existence of any one of these things even for an instant involves the actualization of potencies here and now, which in turn presupposes the activity of a purely actual actualizer here and now."

    However, you then go on to say:
    "if God is going to be posited as a real entity, then God needs to be shown to have tetherings in observable reality."

    A stone, a jar, and a shoe are all real, observable things- and the argument proceeds from these real things. You have omitted most of how Aquinas argues this. For example, the observation that since causation works between things, infinite causation in a singular present necessitates an infinite number of things in that singular present. This is only one example, but the point is this- Aquinas builds his argument on existential terms, rooted in sensible reality.

    You may think Aquinas fails at this, but I do not see any reason for this in your post- you just quote a few random fragments and seem to conclude that the whole argument fails because the rest of the argument is not there.

  4. Sarpedon12:46 AM

    In regards to your argument about the relationship between Thomism and the Bible, you have to keep in mind that Catholic doctrine says that the Bible is written from a human perspective. The Bible is inspired, certainly, but only insofar as God guided the composition of human writers. This is in contrast to the Koran, which is claimed to be the literal, direct word of God, without a human medium. Because the Bible comes from a human pen, it makes sense that the Bible displays a more varied and anthropomorphic view of God than Thomism- it would be incorrect to confuse the hard-core reasoned philosophy of Catholicism with the organic experience of God as recorded by everyday people.

  5. Sarpedon,

    Thanks for the comments. Not much to say on your first one - I don't know where you're coming from.

    Regarding your second comment, I'm pleased we share an interest in the discrepancy between "the hard-core reasoned philosophy of Catholicism," on the one hand, and the Bible (a record by everyday people of "the organic experience of God"), on the other hand.

    One of the points I try to make in the original post is another discrepancy that I perceive: the one between "the hard-core reasoned philosophy of Catholicism" and "meatspace." As I said, I see Thomistic thought works backwards from meatspace almost to "God" (although, IIRC, we get not to God Himself bur rather to just before, where God seems a logical end-point).

    What I don't get is how one gets from "God" to "meatspace."


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.