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Do Atheists Simply Repress Their Knowledge of God?

BuryHead

Christian apologist Greg Koukl, appealing to Romans 1:18-20, says that the atheist is “denying the obvious, aggressively pushing down the evidence, to turn his head the other way, in order to deny the existence of God.”  For the “evidence of God is so obvious” from the existence and nature of the world that “you’ve got to work at keeping it down,” in a way comparable to “trying to hold a beach ball underwater.”  Koukl’s fellow Christian apologist Randal Rauser begs to differ.  He suggests that if a child whose family had just been massacred doubted God, then to be consistent, Koukl would -- absurdly -- have to regard this as a rebellious denial of the obvious.  Meanwhile, atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder agrees with Rauser and holds that Koukl’s position amounts to a mere “prejudice” against atheists.  What should we think of all this?

I would say that Koukl, Rauser, and Lowder are each partly right and partly wrong.  It will be easiest to explain why by contrasting their views with what I think is the correct one, so let me first summarize that.

Do we have a natural tendency to believe in God?  Yes, but in something like the way in which someone might have a natural aptitude for music or for art.  You might be inclined to play some instrument or to draw pictures, but you’re not going to do either very well without education and sustained practice.  And without cultivating your interest in music or art, your output might remain at a very crude level, and your ability might even atrophy altogether.

Or consider moral virtue. It is natural to us, but only in the sense that we have a natural capacity for it.  Actually to acquire the virtues still requires considerable effort.  As Aquinas writes: “[V]irtue is natural to man inchoatively… both intellectual and moral virtues are in us by way of a natural aptitude, inchoatively, but not perfectly… (Summa Theologiae I-II.63.1, emphasis added), and “man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training” (Summa Theologiae I-II.95.1).

Now, knowledge of God is like this.  We are indeed naturally inclined to infer from the natural order of things to the existence of some cause beyond it.  But the tendency is not a psychologically overwhelming one like our inclination to eat or to breathe is.  It can be dulled.  Furthermore, the inclination is not by itself sufficient to generate a very clear conception of God.  As Aquinas writes:

"To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man's beatitude… This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching…" (Summa Theologiae I.2.1, emphasis added)

In other words, without cultivation by way of careful philosophical analysis and argumentation, the knowledge of God we have naturally will remain at a very crude level -- “general and confused,” as Aquinas says, like knowing that someone is approaching but not knowing who -- just as even natural drawing ability or musical ability will result in crude work if not cultivated.

Moreover, few people have the leisure or ability to carry out the philosophical reasoning required, and even the best minds are liable to get some of the details wrong.  This, in Aquinas’s view, is why for most people divine revelation is practically necessary if they are to acquire knowledge even of those theological truths which are in principle accessible via purely philosophical argumentation:

"Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors."  (Summa Theologiae I.1.1)

Now, these theses—that an inclination to believe in God is natural to us, but that without cultivation it results only in a general and confused conception of God -- are empirically well supported.  Belief in a deity or deities of some sort is more or less a cultural universal, and is absent only where some effort is made to resist it (about which effort I’ll say something in a moment).  But the content of this belief varies fairly widely, and takes on a sophisticated and systematic form only when refined by philosophers and theologians.

Even an atheist could agree with this much.  Indeed, I believe Jeff Lowder would more or less agree with it.  In the post linked to above, he opines that his fellow atheists need to answer the arguments of religious apologists rather than ignoring them because:

"The scientific evidence suggests that humans have a widespread tendency to form beliefs about invisible agents, including gods… I can think of no reason to think such tendencies will go away with a contemptuous sneer."

Now, Jeff’s basis for this claim lies at least in part in evolutionary psychology rather than Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical anthropology.  (It wouldn’t be the first time that the two approaches led to similar conclusions.)  But the bottom line is for present purposes the same: The belief toward which we are inclined is inchoate (“invisible agents, including gods”), but the inclination is a natural one.  Indeed, the inclination goes deep enough in our nature that it takes some argumentation to overcome it (rather than the mere “contemptuous sneer” of the New Atheist).

An implicit acknowledgment of an inclination toward some kind of theism is arguably also to be found in some comments from atheist physicist Sean Carroll, recently quoted by Jerry Coyne in a post to which Jeff refers (and to which I recently replied).  In the passage quoted by Coyne, Carroll says:

"[T]he ultimate answer to “We need to understand why the universe exists/continues to exist/exhibits regularities/came to be” is essentially ‘No we don’t.’…
 
Granted, it is always nice to be able to provide reasons why something is the case.  Most scientists, however, suspect that the search for ultimate explanations eventually terminates in some final theory of the world, along with the phrase “and that’s just how it is.”  It is certainly conceivable that the ultimate explanation is to be found in God; but a compelling argument to that effect would consist of a demonstration that God provides a better explanation (for whatever reason) than a purely materialist picture, not an a priori insistence that a purely materialist picture is unsatisfying."

Carroll is essentially acknowledging here that we have an inclination to think that “That’s just how it is” is not an appropriate terminus of explanation, and that we find it “unsatisfying” to leave things there rather than moving on to something which is not a mere unintelligible brute fact but exists of absolute necessity—the God of Scholastic and rationalist theology.  He just thinks we have good reason to resist this inclination.  (As I’ve noted elsewhere, Carroll in fact does not have a good reason to think we should resist it, but that’s neither here nor there for present purposes.  Even if he had an excellent reason, the point is that Carroll seems implicitly to acknowledge that some kind of inclination is there.  To be sure, whether he’d say the inclination is natural, I don’t know.)

So, Koukl is, I think, correct to this extent: We do indeed have a natural tendency to infer from the natural world to a divine cause, and this tendency is strong enough that it takes some effort (in the form of philosophical reasoning) to get ourselves to conclude that we ought to resist it.  And again, I think even an atheist could agree with that much (as Jeff and perhaps Carroll apparently do).

However, Koukl also seems to think that the existence of God is simply blindingly obvious, so that our inclination to believe in God is nearly overwhelming—again, as difficult to keep down as a beach ball under water.  And that, I think, is simply not the case.  He also implies that nothing short of culpable irrationality and blatant self-deception could possibly lead one to resist this inclination.  And that, I think, is simply not the case either.  There is no good philosophical or theological reason to make either of these extreme claims.  And the claims are, I think, pretty clearly empirically false.  For one thing, there are lots of atheists who, though deeply mistaken, are nevertheless intellectually honest and do not have a difficult time resisting belief in God.  (I used to be such an atheist, and I knew, and know, other such atheists.)  For another thing, there are religious believers who have crises of belief—who find themselves doubting even though they don’t want to doubt.

Obviously, such a religious believer is not like someone trying to hold a beach ball underwater; rather, he is like someone trying to get a submerged beach ball with a leak in it to come back up to the surface.  And the intellectually honest atheist is like someone whose beach ball has completely popped and sunk to the bottom.  What each person needs is, not to be told to stop holding the beach ball down, but rather help in repairing it.

Certainly Koukl does not give a good argument for his extreme interpretation of the thesis that a tendency toward theism is natural to us.  The closest he comes is to appeal to Romans 1:18-20.  But “The Bible says so” is, of course, not a good argument to give someone who doesn’t accept the authority of the Bible in the first place (as the atheist does not).  Nor is it a good argument to give someone who thinks you are misinterpreting the passage in question.  And the passage does not, I think, make the extreme claims Koukl seems to be attributing to it.  For one thing, it need be interpreted as claiming merely that we have a natural inclination of the weaker and inchoate sort, rather than of the overwhelming sort (which is how Aquinas seems to understand St. Paul -- soon after the passage from Summa Theologiae I.2.1 quoted above, in Article 2 of the same Question, he quotes Romans 1:20).

For another thing, St. Paul need be understood as claiming merely that atheism and/or idolatry on the large scale, as mass phenomena are maintained by a kind of sinful suppression of the natural inclination in question.  And I think that’s true.  As I argued in a recent post, the New Atheism—not atheism in general, but the shallow, boorish, ill-informed atheism of Dawkins, Krauss, Coyne, et al., which has turned into something of a mass movement—is maintained by intellectual dishonesty, and is fundamentally motivated, not by a genuine concern for truth and rationality, but rather by the pleasure New Atheists take in feeling superior to those they caricature as irrational and ignorant.  It is intellectual pride that drives the New Atheism, and that is, of course, a grave vice.  It is also obvious that many secularists (not all, but many) are motivated by hostility to the sexual morality upheld by traditional religious belief, and that such hostility is (as I argued in another recent post) often extreme and irrational.  Certainly, from a Thomistic natural law point of view, sexual vice is another major component of the hostility to religion found in large sectors of the contemporary Western world.

However, it simply does not follow that every single atheist is fundamentally motivated by pride, lust, or some other vice—as opposed to simply making an honest intellectual error or set of errors—and Romans 1:18-20 need not be read as asserting this.  It is perfectly possible for someone mistakenly but sincerely to believe that there are good arguments for atheism, and thus good arguments for resisting our natural tendency to believe in some sort of deity.  He might think that such a tendency is like our tendency to commit various common logical fallacies—a kind of congenital cognitive defect.  This is in my view completely wrongheaded, but that it is wrongheaded needs to be shown, not merely asserted or proof-texted.

So, while we do have a natural inclination toward an inchoate theism, and while atheism as a mass phenomenon is, I would agree, sustained by grave vices—so that to that extent I concur with Koukl—nevertheless, to dismiss all atheism as such as merely an intellectually dishonest refusal to admit the blindingly obvious would be a serious mistake.  And to that extent I think Jeff is right to hold that the suppression thesis can amount to an unfair “prejudice” against atheists. (In my atheist days, I used to roll my eyes at the suggestion that all atheists are simply sinfully repressing what they know deep down to be true, and I can certainly understand why other atheists would roll their eyes too.)

What about Rauser’s remarks?  Well, to the extent that he thinks Koukl’s position is too glib, I agree with him, for the reasons just given.  However, in fairness to Koukl, I don’t think Rauser’s specific example is really a good counterexample.  Rauser writes:

"Koukl seems oblivious to the fact that his argument turns every failure to believe in God’s existence and nature with maximal conviction into an immoral instance of rebellion.
 
Think, for example, of fifteen year old Emil whose family was just massacred in a home invasion gone awry.  As tears roll down his cheeks, Emil looks to heaven and cries out “God, are you really there? Do you really care?”"

The trouble with this example is that it is not clear that someone like Rauser’s imagined Emil really doubts God’s existence so much as his goodness.  Rauser imagines Emil asking God: “Do you really care?”—and you can only ask such a thing of someone you believe exists.  (No one who comes to doubt the existence of Santa Claus lets out an anguished cry like: “Santa, do you really care?”)  Moreover, Rauser speaks of a lack of “maximal conviction,” which is not the same thing as atheism.  So, Koukl could respond to Rauser: “I’m talking about someone who outright denies that there is a God.  But you’re talking about someone who merely to some extent doubts the existence of God, or even just doubts God’s goodness rather than his existence.  That’s very different.”
 
 
NOTE: Dr. Feser's contributions at Strange Notions were originally posted on his blog, including this article, and therefore lose some of their context when reprinted here. Dr. Feser explains why that matters.
 
 
(Image credit: The Marshall Report)

Dr. Edward Feser

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Dr. Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. He has been a Visiting Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton. He is author of numerous books including The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (St. Augustines Press, 2010); Aquinas (Oneworld, 2009); and Philosophy of Mind (Oneworld, 2007). Follow Dr. Feser on his blog and his website, EdwardFeser.com.

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  • ClayJames

    For me, the best argument against a personal conception of God, that wants to be present in all of our lives, is the one from divine hideness, not how it relates to salvation but based on the idea that God wants to have a personal relationship with each one of his creatures.

    • Lazarus

      I recently skimmed through JL Schellenberg's new book on the hiddenness argument - strong stuff indeed.

    • What if God wants each one of his creatures to understand a different aspect of him the best, and wants his creatures to communicate these aspects to each other? Our insistence on 'objectivity'—such that everyone can see the same thing—would completely obscure this goal. One way God could thwart our stupidity about autonomy is to require further development in our getting to know God to depend on others' quests to know God, or efforts to grow their seed of religion. You know, ecosystem-style.

      This doesn't mean that what is 'objective' is limited to some finite level. However, the way it is grown might require respecting the particulars and not idolizing the universals. Perhaps that should be next in my blog sequence:

           1. Intersubjectivity is Key
           2. Si enim fallor, sum.
           3. Expanding particularity to generality

      That 3. seems hard. :-/

      • ClayJames

        That is a very interesting point. Would you even go as far as to say that being an atheist that is very interested in the God question can, at some level, help this person to know God? Can there really be divine utility from coming to the conclusion that God doesnt exist?

        • Thanks! I've been chewing on it for quite some time. It gets at the whole "unity in diversity" thing, which can be seen all over scripture, but perhaps most succinctly and poingantly in the triad, Mt 5:43–48, Jn 13:34–35, Jn 17:20–23. I've also been chewing on the question of what service atheists provide to God. (I think God also serves them, but that's a topic for another comment.)

          I once read a First Things article on how atheists can serve God much more than is traditionally thought. First, I think we need to separate out the 'superstitious atheist' which Calvin's seed of religion characterizes, and instead focus on the atheist trying to make a consistent system of thought. Those who are lawless or extensively contradictory in their thinking are of limited help. Second, I think we need to do a better job of taking [fairly] consistent systems, and applying the Ceteris Paribus Laws concept to them—to find which domains they're quite accurate in (that is, where they make good models, whether as good as F = ma is in low-gravity, nonrelativistic speeds, or not quite as good). Third, I think we need to soften the confidence folks have, of said [fairly] consistent systems, the further one gets away from the 'domain of validity'.

          One way to characterize the belief that "God doesn't exist" is to take the following thought from Ian Hacking and make it ontological:

          An inane subjectivism may say that whether p is a reason for q depends on whether people have got around to reasoning that way or not. I have the subtler worry that whether or not a proposition is as it were up for grabs, as a candidate for being true-or-false, depends on whether we have ways to reason about it. The style of thinking that befits the sentence helps fix its sense and determines the way in which it has a positive direction pointing to truth or to falsehood. If we continue in this vein, we may come to fear that the rationality of a style of reasoning is all too built-in. The propositions on which the reasoning bears mean what they do just because that way of reasoning can assign them a truth value. Is reason, in short, all too self-authenticating? (Language, Truth, and Reason)

          If you believe God doesn't exist, then there is no way to find out how the various [fairly] consistent systems can actually be stitched together in a cohesive whole. We see this pattern in the parable of the blind men and an elephant. But what if those blind men expanded their investigations into each others' "territory", just a little bit? Then they could stitch together their various sense-perceptions and theorizing, and obtain a unified whole. To believe that the God of the OT and NT exists is to believe that there is a discoverable whole, if only we become properly confident and properly humble and properly meek.

          Note that there are at least two distinct activities:

               (I) mapping out the territory where your perspective works
              (II) stitching together multiple territories

          I claim that both of these can be used to draw closer to God. The atheist can do (I), at least [s]he can do a decent approximation of it. The theist is called to also do (II), and this can be very painful, because it involves telling the (I)-person that [s]he is not as smart as [s]he thought [s]he was. Most people don't want to hear this. (They don't want to be freed from the Matrix.) But hey, the theist, at least the Christian, has hope that (II)-work, even if painful, is worth it. The Christian can justifiably believe that there is no ontological gratuitous evil, only phenomenological gratuitous evil. Gratuity is in the appearances, and it is the appearances which make it gratuitous (because one then doesn't try to make it non-gratuitous, with God's help, of course).

  • Doug Shaver

    This is the first article by Feser that I generally agree with. I saw a few nits in it that I could pick, but none of them bear on the overall point.

  • Lazarus

    A well-argued article, generally speaking, and I am particularly pleased to see that the offensive accusation of some form of intellectual and/or moral culpability perpetrated by the stubborn atheist is denied.

    I have practically always accepted this to be the case. What is of greater interest to me is the logical consequences of arguments like this (and those of say Plantinga and others) on certain of the Church's teachings. How do we, how should we view concepts like hell, punishment and ecumenism/evangelism in the light of these insights. Again, to me the results must be rather obvious given these assumptions.

  • Paul Brandon Rimmer

    This article assumes that traditional theism is true and then asks why people do not believe that traditional theism is true. Several theories are proposed. Since I do not assume theism is true, I do not know what to think of any of these theories. It seems strange that a true belief needs to be cultivated to be maintained. If I stop practicing my viola, I may play badly, but I don't lose my belief in the viola. If I stopped studying math, I wouldn't notice my belief in math fading. Just my ability.

    I suspect that if I still believed in traditional theism, I would accept something like Feser's theory to explain those who did not.

    • Rob Abney

      What is your belief in the viola? Why do you expect that you will never lose that belief even though you lost your previous belief in traditional theism?

      • Paul Brandon Rimmer

        I have never practiced the trumpet. I think trumpets exist. I suspect that something similar would happen if I stopped playing the viola; I would retain my belief that violas exist.

        • Rob Abney

          So your belief in the viola is that it exists? and you believe the trumpet exists. Did you believe in the existence of either of those instruments before you had seen either of them?

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            I don't remember. Probably not. I probably saw them well before I believed that they existed. In fact, I probably did not believe that they existed, properly speaking, until years after I first saw them.

          • Rob Abney

            It seems as though your belief in viola, you didn't properly believe until well after you saw them, is consistent with the natural belief in God. You heard about the viola but didn't believe in it until you had more knowledge of it. You heard or sensed God early on (you said you previously believed in traditional theism) but you then failed to have evidence that convinced you to continue to believe.
            So, I don't understand your first assertion that it seems strange that a belief would need to be cultivated to continue.
            Feser is asserting that without evidence and experience someone can lose their initial belief, even if that evidence is erroneous.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            Violas are more like trumpets than violas are like God.

            I suspect, although cannot prove, that not playing the viola would not affect my belief that violas exist. This has probably not been the case concerning, e.g. prayer/Church attendance/theological study and God belief. God seems like a different sort of animal than musical instruments.

          • Rob Abney

            I agree but am trying to understand why you used the comparison in the first place to dismiss the statement. That wasn't meant as a "contemptuous sneer" was it?

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            Now I have even less idea what you are talking about than I did to start. What are you trying to get at?

          • Rob Abney

            I am in agreement with the article, that there is a basic natural belief in God or a supernatural power but that that inchoate belief will be lost if not nourished with more knowledge. But you said that you would believe in viola even if you quit playing viola. So my primary question is, why did you lose that natural belief in theism that you had originally?

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            Maybe because unlike violas, the God of traditional theism does not exist. Or maybe God is a strange sort of entity belief in which needs to be fed to be sustained.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            I realized that you might be asking why I personally lost my Catholic faith, rather than why people in general tend to lose their faith in God when they stop practicing it, but not their faith in violas when they stop practicing them. If that's the case, I can give a brief account of how I lost my Catholic faith. It started with contraception and the Eucharist, went to the authority of the Pope, and continued on to doubting the existence of a personal God, and finally coming to believe in Spinoza's God. I doubt I'm done wandering, but who knows?

          • Rob Abney

            You were Catholic then you started questioning the Church's judgement. Then without that trust you lost your faith in God of classical theism but left yourself open to other teachings about God.
            Did you ever truly believe in the God of classical theism or was it just a notion that you were taught as a young person?

          • David Nickol

            Did you ever truly believe in the God of classical theism or was it just a notion that you were taught as a young person?

            How do you know if you truly believed something (of a "spiritual" nature) in the past, or whether you believe it now? I remember an old Catholic elementary school story told us by the nuns about a very learned man who knew an enormous amount about Catholicism, but he did not have the "gift of faith." He said something—so the story went—along these lines: "If I believe what Catholics believe about the Eucharist, I would prostrate myself before the altar and never get up." So why don't believing Catholics prostrate themselves before the Eucharist and never get up? If Catholics really believed in the Eucharist, how many would dare to take communion?

            I have no doubt that if I met the pope, I would be nervous and flustered. Why should it not scare the wits out of any normal people to encounter Jesus Christ "body, blood, soul, and divinity"? Can we be sure anyone really believes this?

          • Rob Abney

            Right, that is why those with strong faith and/or a strongly developed understanding of the faith are usually very devout and pious, and sometimes commit to extreme ascetic practices to demonstrate that.
            Those of us who believe in the Eucharist and do not prostrate ourselves are still in development perhaps.

          • Adrian Johnson

            It would indeed scare the wits out of any normal person who saw Jesus Christ in an apparition unless He himself prevented the person from feeling the entirely natural fear. (That's why after the Resurrection, his first words upon appearing to His friends was "Fear not.")
            People who have had this extraordinary experience don't usually talk about it, but when they do -- they speak of incredible beauty, power, gentleness and kindness despite knowing that He is all powerful, all knowing, eternal. . . in short, a very dangerous God, but an entirely lovable and understanding friend of incomprehensible goodness-- at once all justice, and all mercy. The speak of wanting to die of terror, love, and joy, all at once. It is a great mercy that Jesus remains invisible in the Blessed Sacrament so that we will feel at home with him, in the family sense of a child at ease in his father's house.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            You were Catholic then you started questioning the Church's judgement. Then without that trust you lost your faith in God of classical theism but left yourself open to other teachings about God.

            I think that's a good summary.

            Did you ever truly believe in the God of classical theism or was it just a notion that you were taught as a young person?

            What does it mean to "truly believe" vs to simply believe? If someone had asked me if God is simple, I would have truthfully said yes, but I don't think I really understood what that meant.

          • Rob Abney

            Based on the assumption from Feser there is an initial natural belief in God. In my experience, then there is probably a cultural belief for young Catholics, and then there is an adult understanding that needs to be developed.
            If that adult understanding is not developed or cultivated then it may not continue.
            Did you begin to develop a true belief prior to rejecting Church teachings?

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            I don't understand the question. Can you reword it, without using the phrase "true belief"?

          • Rob Abney

            Did you begin to develop your natural and cultural belief into a more developed belief prior to rejecting Church teachings?

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            I never really had a cultural belief, since I wasn't born into a Catholic family. My belief was as developed as it was; I had read quite a bit of Aquinas and studied a good deal of the CCC and read Ratzinger's Intro to Christianity, and done a handful of other things like this while part of RCIA. I was then an altar server at the Latin Mass and a member of a Catholic Student Society at Ohio State University, where I did my graduate work. It was near the end of my PhD program that I left the Catholic Church for a traditional Anglican Church, then for a liberal Anglican Church. By the time I got to St Andrews, I had mostly abandoned traditional theism.

            It is difficult for me to really determine how well developed the belief was. I like to think that I developed out of my belief. The more I understood, the more absurd I found certain Catholic teachings to be, until finally I developed into a different set of beliefs.

          • Rob Abney

            If you don't mind continued dialog in this vein, what caused this change?
            "It was near the end of my PhD program that I left the Catholic Church for a traditional Anglican Church"

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            Contraception and the Eucharist. Soon after, gay marriage. Then the authority of the Pope. I had always wrestled with contraception and eucharist teachings. Near the end of my PhD, I took some time off to figure out the basis of these doctrines. Mostly this is because my first son was born and I realised it was going to fall on me, in part at least, to teach him this stuff. The more I looked into Catholic Eucharistic theology, the more I found it to assult my reason. I also came to the conclusion that natural law can defend contraception under certain circumstances. The only fallback I had for two doctrines, increasingly absurd in my mind, was Ecclesial Authority. I then came to question the basis of that authority. Soon after, my Catholic faith was toppled.

          • Rob Abney

            You believe in the God of Spinoza, that God is in everything. How does that preclude you from believing that God can be in the Eucharist?

          • Michael Murray

            My impression from discussions with the more liberal end of Catholic belief like Matthew Newland or Jim "Hillclimber" is that they feel Catholics are entitled to disagree with the Magisterium on matters of doctrine. Did that idea attract you or did you not think that you could do that and stay Catholic ?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I have no strong objection to being called a liberal Catholic, but I don't think there is anything particularly liberal about my views on this point.

            I can appreciate that, colloquially, it would be unproductive and misleading to call myself a Christian if I did not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. And colloquially, it would be unproductive and misleading to call myself a Roman Catholic if I didn't care at all about magisterial teaching, or if I didn't believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

            But theologically (on Catholic teaching, that is), it is neither my belief in the Resurrection, nor my deference (such as it is) to magisterial teaching, nor my perception of the ontology of Eucharist that makes me a Catholic. If I have truly become part of the Mystici corporis Christi (only God knows if this is truly the case), I am so because God has anointed me through my baptism, and in the depths of my heart (not necessarily my brain) I have responded to this calling.

            I don't think what I have put forward there is either a liberal Catholic or a conservative Catholic viewpoint. I believe you can find all that, more or less, in the catechism.

          • Michael Murray

            Thanks for the further explanation Jim. I wondered if my summary of your thoughts was less than adequate! It's difficult to go back and find old discussions in Disqus.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            After I found out that I disagreed with the Church on contraception and the Eucharist, and then on gay marriage, I started looking into papal authority. I did explore the cafeteria Catholic option, and ultimately decided against it for two reasons.

            First, I became convinced that both Eucharistic doctrine and the doctrine of Magisterial authority are essential to the Catholic faith, and so I felt it hypocritical for me to claim to be a Catholic while not believing these things.

            Second, I became uncomfortable about guilt by association, especially as regards gay marriage. I didn't want to be part of an institution that, in my opinion, took a bigoted position on this issue.

            These two reasons probably would not have been enough to get me to leave, if I had been born into the Church. I would then have cultural reasons to remain Catholic. But since I was not born into the Church, I had no such reasons to keep me there, and two compelling reasons (in my mind) not to stay.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I did explore the cafeteria Catholic option,

            I much prefer a term that Johnboy Sylvest used in his comments here: "banquet hall Catholic" :-)

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            That is a kinder term, although it makes me think of a line from Big Trouble in Little China.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Never saw that one. Looks ... like it might stay that way :-)

            FWIW, on my limited reading of Church history (which is probably less impressive than your own reading, but I offer my view anyway ... ), assent to magisterial authority has generally been understood to be consistent with a degree of "banquet hall Catholicism". It seems to me that magisterial authority -- while undeniably important -- has always been a heavily caveated concept, and magisterial teachings have always been situated in a somewhat murky "hierarchy of truths". In theory, even dogma (optimistically assuming that one can identify which teachings are dogmatic), in its particular expressions in human language can be "wrong" in the sense that it may not adequately point individuals to the underlying truth that the language is meant to express. In any case (as you know) there has never been any systematic litmus test along the lines of: "Jim holds 14 heretical views, and this exceeds the allowable limit of 10 heretical views, therefore Jim can no longer be considered Catholic". Origen, one of the most celebrated Catholic theologians of all time, believed in reincarnation, for example.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Origen, one of the most celebrated Catholic theologians of all time, believed in reincarnation, for example.

            Most celebrated? Let us remember that he was considered a heretic and for his heresy he was one of the only fathers not to be sainted. When I learned Catholicism, I was advised to stay away from Origen till I had a very deep faith, because he was a heretic and could lead one to doubt and subsequent perdition. People like Origen and Merton were considered worse than Hume and Russell, because they came as wolves disguised as sheep. Heretics disguised as true teachers.

            Of course, these sort of conservative Catholics would also think your liberal Catholicism casts serious doubts on the future of your immortal soul. I was talking to a more conservative Catholic about charity, and he remarked that liberal Catholics should not even be called Catholic.

            Now, you seem to want to deflate level of dogma attached to dogmas and doctrines. I've asked you this before at a site that you consider unfriendly (I don't blame you), and you did not answer, but I am hoping that you will indulge me here. If Catholics are free to disagree with doctrinal statements, why does the Catholic Church go through so much trouble to explicate various statements as doctrines and even insist that Catholic must believe certain doctrines?

            The CCC is a few thousand pages, we have the Code of Canon Law, and the various encyclicals and other conciliar documents. Let us take contraception. We have an encyclical forbidding it, the CCC also forbids it, and every examination of conscience that I have ever read includes it in the sins that are considered mortal. How can one remain Catholic and also believe that contraception is moral? You have to deny quite a but of ancillary church teaching.

            Now Jim, I will say that if I was around more Catholics like yourself when I was Catholic, there is a chance that I would still be Catholic today. I doubt it, but I could see myself feeling more at home in a community more interested in social justice and charity then enforcing dogmas and doctrines.

            I will say you and Johnboy did quite a bit to assuage much of the negative feelings I held toward the Catholic Church. Most of the Catholics on here seem to want to undo that, but I try to ignore.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Thanks for the kind words IR, I've always enjoyed your engagement as well. You've got a few questions in there, so let me focus on the one where the rubber really meets the road, so to speak (<-- really bad pun hidden in there).

            How can one remain Catholic and also believe that contraception is moral?

            Let me first give an answer that I suspect almost all readers will find to be a "non-answer". While I don't expect this answer to be convincing to anyone, I give it anyway because this best expresses how I truly feel about it. At the risk of over-quoting Josh Garrels (I quoted a different song of his just a few days ago), he expresses my thoughts better than I can:

            The wild man he just killed my religion
            He cut it to the bone like a needed incision
            The cancerous growth of formulaic precision
            That blocks the life-blood in rebellious collision
            Cold constructs robbing faith from decision
            But where’s your rubric for the man that was risen
            He is my vision, he is my vision, be Thou my vision

            (https://joshgarrels.bandcamp.com/track/sweet-river-roll)

            I, likewise, have a vision, and I would even say, a relationship, with a living reality, and I see that living reality as being in continuity with the historical Nazarene, and so I am comfortable saying that this living reality is Christ. And, while I have come to that relationship with the aid of (among other things) Church teaching, I absolutely refuse to let that relationship be calcified or corrupted by "formulaic precision". So, at that level, it is actually very simple for me: I have a relationship that is more important to me than anything else (certainly more important than the road signs that led me to this relationship), and I simply refuse to let anything compromise the health of that relationship.

            At a more intellectual level, it is indeed harder! I think it is only with some degree of study that one can begin to discern that "hierarchy of truths" and then determine whether one is aligned with the teachings at the most essential levels of that hierarchy. For all of the ambiguities, I think some things are clear. For example, it is clear that the Church teaches both the Nicene Creed and the immorality of certain methods of family planning. It is equally clear that the interdiction against certain methods of family planning is not remotely as central or essential to the faith as the Nicene Creed and other long-standing dogmatic statements.

            I would say that the "point" of doctrine, and the point of insisting that it not be ignored, is precisely to challenge us! I treasure Church doctrine (even those doctrines that I disagree with) precisely because it challenges me. I don't want to live in a pick-and-choose fantasy world that is of my own making. At any given time, I am obliged to use my conscience as my final arbiter of what is right and wrong, but I want my conscience to be challenged so that it matures.

            The debates are endless as to where essential / dogmatic teaching ends and where non-essential teaching begins. It is like those ring species of birds that were discussed a while back on EN: one can identify sets of non-interbreeding birds, but at no point is there any clear demarcation. At a certain level, I don't care where one draws the line. If someone wants to draw a line in the sand and tell me that I am on the non-Catholic side of the line, fine. I don't care about the label. The label is not much more than a shorthand that I use for the purposes of conversation. The living relationship is what matters to me, and I find that I get at that relationship through my participation (imperfect though it may be) in the Roman Catholic communion.

            There is much more that I could say, but this is already quite long, so I will stop there.

          • Lazarus

            A drive-through take-away type of Catholic ;)

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Who, me? I hope not! I try take it all seriously and I try to let it inform my whole life. I try especially to understand the reasoning behind teachings that I disagree with. Thusly informed, I ultimately follow my conscience (as the catechism itself directs me to do). If I disagree, I disagree, but I try not to be cavalier about it.

          • Lazarus

            No, no, no, sorry, you mentioned the cafeteria Catholic, I simply suggested, on that culinary theme, another description of the fast food approach to Catholicism.

          • Rob Abney

            Your loss of faith reminds me of another story, that has an unhappy ending.

            Henry VIII was a strong Catholic until he fell in love with a non-catholic. Then he found that he didn't agree with church teachings, especially papal authority. He left the church and lived his life according to the practices that he was comfortable with. He eventually had 6 wives. He also bankrupted the country (he had to borrow money to go to war against France). His heirs became rulers of England but their line ran out, he had no grandchildren to inherit the kingdom.

            I think Feser's article points out that the prelude to a faithful life is the natural belief that we all initially have, but the difficult part is the need to keep developing that faith even when the world is offering other attractions.

            EDIT: Paul, my apologies for making this too personal, I'll have to work on my writing skills. I'll leave it up as a public confession and penance.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Risk factors notwithstanding, I predict that Paul actually will not behead his wife or tank a national economy.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Rob, more seriously, I have to object to your reasoning here. The implied moral of your story is Pelagian in nature. Why imply that it was some lack of focus on Paul's part that led to his falling away? Why not simply assume that God has not called Paul to an explicit relationship with the Church? Also, isn't a bit ... well, just wrong, I guess, to cast Paul's wife as some sort of worldly distraction?

            For my part, I can say with relative confidence that I would not be a practicing or believing Catholic if not for my wife. An atheist might suggest that this "worldly attraction" must have derailed my pursuit of truth (as if to suggest that I would have otherwise pursued truth in some ahistorical / non-contingent way). I find that to be a silly objection, so I'm afraid I have to call "silly" when the argument is made in the other direction as well.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Jim, you do realize that these sorts of arguments are standard form for your more conservative brethren? I'm glad to see a Catholic pushing back on them.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Well, sure. Of course. People of all stripes -- conservative, liberal, Catholic, non-Catholic -- all have deficient thinking to greater and lesser degrees. (Myself included, of course!)

            I hold that stupidity is non-denominational.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Let me add: while I have no problem with external critiques of Catholic thinking, I would like to point out that many (I would actually say "all") such critiques can also be made from within the tradition. On the specific point in question, for example, some Catholics simply need to be made aware that they are unknowingly engaging in a form of the very old heresy of Pelagianism.

            I try to push back here and there where I see it, but honestly it is not my job to fix all the errant thinking on the internet. For the most part I try to look for openings to fruitful dialogue, not for opportunities to correct people.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Of course! I wouldn't expect you to take on the mantle of correcting crazy thinking. However, if Catholics on a Catholic site are saying things that make Catholicism look bad, I would think you would want to step in so us atheists don't get a bad impression.
            Just as I would correct a myther or some other silly atheist fancy.

          • Rob Abney

            My apologies to Paul and his wife, I shouldn't have made that so personal. I really didn't mean that she was the problem but I see that I wrote it as if she were.
            I do believe that many of us are not complete without a spouse so I should not have implied, even unintentionally, that she was a distraction.
            But I was trying to dig a little deeper to see what can lead a man away from God. You seem to be saying that it is only faith or providence that determines that, what about our cooperation through our will? What about those who have little faith but a well reasoned intellectual understanding?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            But I was trying to dig a little deeper to see what can lead a man away from God.

            I wouldn't equate "relationship with God" with "participation in the Roman Catholic communion".

            I hold that God calls all people to an implicit relationship (or an "anonymous" relationship, to use Karl Rahner's terminology) with the Church. But I can only assume that God did not intend for all people to have an explicit relationship with the Church (if that was His intent, it was rather poor planning to have so many people live and die without an awareness or understanding of Jesus.) This is consistent with the Biblical theme of "election", in which God calls only certain people to sort of "lead the way", but does not thereby have a less meaningful or less salvific relationship with the non-elect.

          • Rob Abney

            Is it your position that all will be saved? My thoughts are that the Catholic Church offers the surest way to be saved but not the only way. But I am fearful that a rejection of God might be a definite way to lose salvation.
            (I write these posts to participate in dialogue, not to win every point)

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I interpret Jesus's descent into hell (in the Apostles' Creed) as a sort of "baptism" of hell: an affirmation, or at least a suggestion, that perhaps even the eternity of hell is eventually outlasted by the eternity of grace (perhaps the mathematicians in the crowd can explain the ordering of different types of infinities). However, I appreciate the Church's caution that we should not presume that all are eventually saved. If we were to know that with certainty that all eventually find ultimate belonging, I can see where that would invite some very unhealthy temptations.

            I do not by any means think that explicit participation in the Catholic Church is the surest way for everyone to be saved. For example, some people are viscerally repulsed by the Church because of bad childhood experiences. I doubt that it is always possible for such a person to deepen their relationship with God through explicit participation in the Church. I believe that God wants every person to follow his conscience. Aquinas said as much, and the catechism affirms it. It is very clear to me that some people who do exactly that are led away from the Church, not towards it.

          • Rob Abney

            Thanks for your answers. Now, could you explain how my thinking was Pelagian? I do believe in original sin and that concuspience makes it difficult for us to see and act clearly, I believe in God's grace and mercy above all.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            As I understand it, it is the view that, by dint of our own efforts, we can work ourselves into a right relationship with God. Said negatively, it is the view that it is our fault if a particular relationship with God does not arise. I would contrast it with this view offered by Pope Francis (bold emphasis mine) :

            God is always first and makes the first move. God is a bit like the almond flower of your Sicily, Antonio [(the name of the interviewer)], which always blooms first. We read it in the Prophets. God is encountered walking, along the path. At this juncture, someone might say that this is relativism. Is it relativism? Yes, if it is misunderstood as a kind of indistinct pantheism. It is not relativism if it is understood in the biblical sense, that God is always a surprise, so you never know where and how you will find him. You are not setting the time and place of the encounter with him.

            I extrapolate that last sentence to imply more generally that we do not set the terms of our encounter with God, including whether we will encounter Him through participation in the RCC.

          • Rob Abney

            I don't understand your negative statement, that the Pelagian would believe that it is the individuals fault if a relationship with God does not arrive.
            Does that mean that the orthodox view is that it is God's fault if the relationship doesn't arise?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I don't think you could say that, because to use the word "fault" is to imply wrong-doing, and we can't coherently say that God does things wrong.

            Before I go further, let me clarify that I am not claiming that orthodoxy logically prevents us from inferring that a given person, of his own free will, failed to responsibly nurture a relationship with God. That line of thinking may be uncharitable, but there is nothing particularly Pelagian about it. The error of Pelagian thinking (as I understand it) lies rather in the presumption that the fault necessarily lies with the person in question. As a corrective to that line of thinking, we can remember that, first of all, there may not be anything "wrong" at all - God's present hiddenness with respect to the person in question (or God's option to not relate to the person via the RCC) may be part of a larger, grander plan. Also, we can remember that even if there is indeed something wrong, there are other "free agents" who may be to blame. God and the individual in question are not the only two players in the game. Most dramatically, there is this "dark" freedom in the universe that we situate outside of ourselves and call Satan. More mundanely, we can observe that the free actions of an entire human community have shaped the context in which an individual person develops, or fails to develop, his faith.

            There is no single orthodox interpretation of situations like this. The bottom line is that -- while we are all entitled to our guesses -- we generally have no epistemic rights to assign blame to the individual in a situation like this, nor do we even have epistemic rights to assume that anything is wrong in the first place.

          • VicqRuiz

            It may not be God's fault, but it may certainly be (as in my case) God's will.

          • Rob Abney

            I'm not sure what you mean Vic, are you saying that God doesn't want you to be in a relationship with Him?

          • VicqRuiz

            I'm saying that I've lived 50+ years without ever hearing from him.

          • Rob Abney

            Based on my own experience, I have been best able to "hear" from God when I am less concerned with my self and instead start to actively recognize the numinous.
            I think Jimhillclimber is saying that God may be hidden from some of us for a specific purpose that only God knows.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            What you have wrote is at least somewhat offensive.

            Your loss of faith reminds me of another story, that has an unhappy ending.

            Why must Catholics presume that loss of faith always has something to do with some inner sinful desire and not that the faith that we are supposed to hold is not in tune with our individual reason.

            Henry VIII was a strong Catholic until he fell in love with a non-Catholic.

            First of all, Paul gave you the intellectual reasons why he eventually lost faith. Second of all, he explained that his reasoning for evaluating his faith was that he was going to want to teach what he believed to his child. Thirdly, this is historically inaccurate. Henry did not fall in love with a non-Catholic. He wanted his marriage to be annulled, so he could try to have a male child with another women, who was Catholic. Popes were usually accommodating in these matters and Henry VIII expected his request to be honored. However, the Pope was the prisoner of Henry's wife.

            Then he found that he didn't agree with church teachings, especially papal authority.

            Nope. Henry VIII only had concerns with a male heir. The War of Roses was recent history and he wanted to prevent a future civil war. Actually, the rituals and teachings of the remained unchanged in England during his reign.

            He left the church and lived his life according to the practices that he was comfortable with.

            Sigh. He left for political reasons. This is what happens with the Church mettles in things that are in Caesar's domain. Sadly the Church still tries to mettle in these things.

            He also bankrupted the country (he had to borrow money to go to war against France).

            This is true, but it has nothing to do with his annulment. The English and the French tended to fight a lot of wars.

            His heirs became rulers of England but their line ran out, he had no grandchildren to inherit the kingdom.

            This was the exact think he was trying to avoid by getting an annulment. Staying married to Catherine would not have helped this situation.

            I think Feser's article points out that the prelude to a faithful life is the natural belief that we all initially have, but the difficult part is the need to keep developing that faith even when the world is offering other attractions.

            Feser does not show what you or he thinks he does. If I ever meet a Catholic who does not think highly of Feser, beers will be on me.

          • Lazarus

            I read "The Last Superstition ". I will email you my physical address for those beers.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Wait, atheists will give you beers for reading stuff? How did I miss this? Talk about evidence for God.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            And for having good taste about said reading material. :-)
            Reminds me when the steward in Man for All Seasons remarks "I wish rain water was beer!"

          • Rob Abney

            "What you have wrote is at least somewhat offensive."

            Thanks for pointing that out, I didn't intend for it to be.

            "Why must Catholics presume that loss of faith always has something to do with some inner sinful desire and not that the faith that we are supposed to hold is not in tune with our individual reason."

            I didn't mean there was an inner sinful desire, I did mean that the faith was no longer in tune with individual reason. But does that mean the faith is wrong?

            "First of all, Paul gave you the intellectual reasons why he eventually lost faith. Second of all, he explained that his reasoning for evaluating his faith was that he was going to want to teach what he believed to his child."
            Yes, we were having a good dialogue and I was continuing to delve into the reasoning.

            "This was the exact think he was trying to avoid by getting an annulment. Staying married to Catherine would not have helped this situation."
            He did get a male heir and it still didn't work out for him.
            But you are taking the anti-Catholic view on all the issues concerned in the story, I don't think it could really have been as one sided as you make it out to be.

          • David Nickol

            This has to be one of the most ill-considered comments I have ever read on Strange Notions.

          • Michael Murray

            Thanks Paul.

          • Lazarus

            "There are worse things than not being a Catholic—when it becomes unmistakably clear that being a Catholic is not what one is."

            Richard John Niehaus

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Of course an objection to gay marriage must logically follow contraception, since if you can do whatever you agree to in your marital sexual relations, why can't some other pair or group of people do whatever they agree to in their sexual relations?

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            I think that's pretty-much right. By modus tollens, that means rejecting gay marriage rights will logically entail rejecting contraception rights. Few people today argue that people have no right to access contraceptives.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I would say that no one has the moral right to do either one. People have the freedom to do both (due to free will) and they have the legal right in most places today.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            I think that, if you are correct that support of contraception logically entails support of gay marriage, it will be difficult to argue effectively that gay marriage should not be a legal right, without also arguing that access to contraception should not be a legal right.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Right. Neither should be a legal right. State laws against contraception in the US were struck down in 1972. The legal right to contraception is something that Catholics like me will have to tolerate.

          • David Nickol

            Right. Neither should be a legal right. State laws against contraception in the US were struck down in 1972.

            This is not accurate. Massachusetts was the last state to strike down anti-contraception laws, and the door was opened by Cardinal Cushing of Boston:

            In 1963, while a guest on WEEI radio, Cushing took a question from an unidentified female caller who asked if he considered the birth control ban to be “bad law.” Yes, Cushing replied. “I have no right to impose my thinking, which is rooted in religious thought, on those who do not think as I do.” (The anonymous caller, I discovered decades later, was Hazel Sagoff, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts. A month earlier she had learned from a Cushing confidant that support for the state’s ban was dwindling within the local church hierarchy.) It was the first time that the cardinal publicly announced a willingness to accept revisions to the state’s contraception law.

            Poor health prevented Cushing from appearing before the legislative panel considering the Dukakis bill in March 1965, but he dominated the hearing nonetheless. In a written statement he declared that “Catholics do not need the support of civil law to be faithful to their own religious convictions and they do not seek to impose by law their moral views on others of society.” He found it unreasonable to “forbid in civil law a practice that can be considered a matter of private morality.” What’s more, he observed, laws needed a “reasonable correspondence” to community standards to be effective and enforceable. Cushing, however, could not endorse the proposed change to the ban, because he felt that it lacked “proper safeguards” for the young. He requested that Gov. John Volpe appoint a commission to craft a repeal to “satisfy the conscientious opinions of the whole community.”

            Also, in 1965 the Supreme Court struck down laws that prohibited married couples from obtaining contraceptives, affirmed the right of all couples to obtain contraceptives in 1972, and affirmed the right of any woman to obtain contraceptives in 1973.

            It seems to me you are about fifty years (at least) out of date with Catholic attitudes toward Church and state. The Catholic Church no longer advocates that all countries be run as Catholic theocracies or that all tenets of Catholic morality (sexual or otherwise) be imposed by law.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            The point is that contraception has been illegal. The laws in the US were not there because of Catholics--we were a minority when they were passed. Cushing certainly does not speak for the Magisterium in this case.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Hold on, you are conflating two issues. To argue for the morality of contraception in the context of family planning is not to argue that "whatever you agree to in your marital sexual relations" is OK. One may coherently agree with the Church's general point that we should properly direct our sexuality towards a higher good, and that the unitive and procreative aspects of our sexual lives should be integrated, while disagreeing on specific questions of methodology for family planning.

            Let's remember that it is entirely possible, in the eyes of the Church, to use NFP for immoral purposes. From that we don't conclude that NFP itself is intrinsically wrong. Similarly then, I have no problem acknowledging that a man might get a vasectomy for immoral purposes. I just don't see how it follows that use of that particular methodology is always intrinsically wrong.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            > "One may coherently agree with the Church's general point that we should properly direct our sexuality towards a higher good, and that the unitive and procreative aspects of our sexual lives should be integrated, while disagreeing on specific questions of methodology for family planning."

            Sure, if you want to cast a smokescreen around the thinking of the Church. It is not a question of "integrating" the unitive and procreative purposes of the conjugal act but rather of never intentionally separating them.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Kevin, I'm open to correction of my views, but that's an unkind and unnecessary inference as to my motives. Isn't at least theoretically possible that what I really want to do is reveal the essence of a very beautiful and necessary teaching that I feel is obscured by a Pharisaical obsession with the letter of the law?

            I would simply say that it is not obvious, to put it mildly, how off-cycle sex in the context of NFP is anything less than a deliberate separation of the unitive and procreative aspects of sex (unless, that is, one adopts a more flexible view of what it means to integrate the unitive and procreative, a move that you obviously dismiss). I have read all sorts of material about why NFP doesn't really deliberately separate the unitive and procreative aspects in any conjugal act, and I know I am not alone when I say that I find it entirely unconvincing. Maybe the arguments are correct, but they seem to require the very same sort of jesuitical fine parsing of subtle meanings that you seem to abhor.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I would characterize what you wrote as a smokescreen because you didn't present what the church actually teaches when you presented what you said the church teaches. You could have said, "The Church teaches X but I think Y is a better way to look at it."

            NFP could not possibly separate the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act because the husband and wife do not perform the conjugal act. There is nothing subtle or Pharisaical about that! They could have a bad reason for not performing the conjugal act but that speaks to intent.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            the husband and wife do not perform the conjugal act

            I must be a real philistine, because this "non-subtle" maneuver seems pretty slick to me!

            I think everyone here is pretty clear on the particulars of Church teaching on contraception. That is not in dispute, and I'm not daft enough to think that I can mislead anyone in that regard. What can be validly disputed is the matter of what, in Humanae Vitae is essential versus what is a culturally-conditioned and impermanent expression of the timeless essential content. We can debate where exactly to draw that line, but to suggest that there is no such distinction is, dare I say it, a very Protestant understanding of how Catholic teaching works.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Making the distinction between what is essential and what is culturally conditioned is more smoke, in my view.

            HV explicitly teaches that the prohibition against contraception is essential and permanent. That is totally clear from the text.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Yes, and if we were discussing Vix Pervenit 50 or so years after its publication, I'm sure we would find that language to be equally clear. However, subsequent doctrinal development (also known as "smoke", in some circles) has changed the way we now read that document. The underlying essence of the teaching on usury (the "spirit of the law") has been preserved (or so the Church argues, and I agree), but the particular interdiction has been removed because our understanding of the way that money works has changed. Similarly, it seems at least possible that as our understanding of the psychology and physiology, and sociology of sexuality changes, we might similarly preserve the underlying intent of Humanae Vitae, while abandoning some of the particular interdictions.

            Now, you may well be able to argue that there are important distinctions between HV and VP, and that's fine. But at the very least it seems be something that is a valid subject for debate. It is not as clear-cut as you suggest.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            We have almost 50 years of dissent already on HV. What is left to debate?

          • David Nickol

            It's interesting you think fifty years is a long time to debate issues in the Catholic Church. What is the fate of babies who die without baptism? Is a willful untruth always a sin? May divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receive communion without obtaining an annulment? These issues are still under discussion. (I would not be surprised if you are among those who are worried that Pope Francis is endangering Catholic teaching on the matter of divorce and remarriage.)

            How long was the Immaculate Conception of Mary debated before it was formally defined as dogma? When was slavery declared intrinsically evil? How long did it take for sacramental theology to develop and for marriage to be declared a sacrament? How long did it take for the Church to decide priestly celibacy was mandatory? All of these took more than a thousand years.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I think a better question is, how many Catholics wanted to debate the IC after 1854?

          • David Nickol

            I think a better question is, how many Catholics to debate the IC after 1854?

            I know there are some people who claim that Humanae Vitae (or the teaching in it) is infallible, but there is certain no consensus. However, it is universally agreed (at least by those who believe in the infallibility of the pope under the appropriate conditions) that the following from Ineffabilis Deus clearly met all necessary conditions:

            Accordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: "We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful."

            Hence, if anyone shall dare—which God forbid!—to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should are to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart.

            Can you quote anything even remotely similar from Humanae Vitae?

            And of course it is of no practical significance whatsoever if Mary was or was not "immaculately conceived." Also, exactly what the dogma means becomes more and more uncertain as it becomes increasing difficult to define original sin.

          • Kevin Aldrich
          • Rob Abney

            Good article Kevin, here's the take-away summary:

            "Well, if Paul VI wanted to make this teaching "ex cathedra," why didn't he make it "really obvious"? Why didn't he add a few more big words ("declare, pronounce and define"), a few more flourishes ("for the glory of God and the salvation of souls"), or pile up a few more expressions of authority ("by the authority of Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostle Peter, and Our own authority?").
            "One is reminded here of the story of how the atheist Emile Zola was shown an array of discarded crutches at Lourdes. He is said to have replied stonily that he would be more impressed by artificial limbs. Just as one can always resist the evidence for a miracle by demanding something still more miraculous, one can always evade the force of clear language by demanding still greater clarity."

          • David Nickol

            "Well, if Paul VI wanted to make this teaching "ex cathedra," why didn't he make it "really obvious"?

            I think that is a perfectly legitimate question, and I would venture the opinion that Paul VI did not intend to make an infallible declaration, particularly in light of the fact that he rejected the findings of the overwhelming majority of the committee who advised him. (I believe the vote was around 65 in favor of contraception and 7 opposed.)

            "Just as one can always resist the evidence for a miracle by demanding something still more miraculous, one can always evade the force of clear language by demanding still greater clarity."

            It is not that Humanae Vitae is not clear. It is that it is not clearly infallible. There is a major difference. If it has been Paul VI's intent to make an infallible pronouncement, all he had to do was say so.

            I have no wish to be involved in an argument over whether Humanae Vitae is infallible, or meets the criteria of believing Catholics to qualify as infallible. It seems clear to me you could take a poll of the theologians of the world, or even the bishops of the world, and there would be no consensus. It will forever remain an open question, unless of course another pope writes another encyclical on the matter and explicitly declares the teaching infallible or unless it is proclaimed dogma in a Church Council.

            This being the case, every Catholic has the liberty to decide for himself or herself whether the teaching is infallible. Of course, the conclusion that a teaching was not infallibly proclaimed doesn't mean there is not a serious obligation to assent to it. But it seems to me that, in practice, the Church is exerting very little pressure on individuals who decide as a matter of conscience not to abide by the teaching.

          • David Nickol

            Kevin,

            I said the following:

            I know there are some people who claim that Humanae Vitae (or the teaching in it) is infallible, but there is certain no consensus.

            You recommend to me an article that states in its third paragraph

            Certainly, Lio's thesis goes against the common view of theologians (both those who assent to "Humanae Vitae" and those who dissent from it), who have usually described the encyclical as being, in itself, a "non-infallible" document. Very often this conclusion seems to be drawn merely from the fact that there is no definition of a "dogma"—a point of "revealed" truth to be held as "of faith" ("de fide")—in Pope Paul's encyclical. . . .

            On the strength of your own article, then, the "common view" of theologians—even those who assent to Humanae Vitae—is that it it not infallible. I only said there was "no consensus." I did not venture to claim there was a majority view. But it seems to me your article does identify a majority view—Humanae Vitae is not infallible.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            A better point is that the common view of theologians is certainly not infallible, but the article itself goes to great lengths to show why the encyclical is.

          • David Nickol

            A better point is that the common view of theologians is certainly not
            infallible, but the article itself goes to great lengths to show why the
            encyclical is.

            So you expect people who are told in the third paragraph of a 16,195-word article that it is presenting the view of a minority of Catholic theologians to slog through the whole thing and decide the majority is wrong?

            You have said you are taking theology classes. Does that qualify you to announce on a Catholic-sponsored web site that the majority of Catholic theologians are not to be trusted on the matter not of contraception itself, but on whether Humanae Vitae meets the criteria for infallible teaching?

            Of course, you have a right to your opinion, but it seems a little strange to me to have Catholics arguing on a Catholic-sponsored web site, one dedicated to dialogue with atheists, that if we are looking for the truth about Catholicism, we must not believe that a majority view of Catholic theologians will be credible. Presumably if we are to understand Catholicism, we must find sources who are more Catholic than Catholic theologians!

          • David Nickol

            You seem to be inventing a drastically modified version of the slippery slope argument by making the slope into a 180-degree vertical drop. By this line of reasoning, if anything you oppose is deemed permissible, then it logically follows that everything you oppose is permissible, too. After all, if one person can do one wrong thing, why can't all persons do all wrong things? If a husband can say, "No, that dress doesn't make you look fat," why should anyone ever again tell the truth?

            I fully support same-sex marriage and contraception, and certainly the Catholic arguments against them are closely related. But certainly all of Catholic sexual morality does not hinge on Humanae Vitae (which has failed the sensus fidelium test, in my opinion).

          • Kevin Aldrich

            The principle of no deliberate separation between the unitive and procreative purposes of the conjugal act has a bearing on just about every aspect of sexual morality. I can't think of any but maybe you can.

          • Lazarus

            In Catholic bioethics contraception is not so much a sexual act as an anti-life act. If that is understood, would you still say that the objection must follow?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I'd say that the separation of the unitive and procreative nature of the conjugal act will take on widely different characters based on how that separation takes place.

            But in contraception, the husband and wife say, we want to have sex but not babies. If that is morally okay, then why can't two men or women say, "If you can have sterile sex, why can't we?"

          • Lazarus

            Indeed. Why can't they.

          • Rob Abney

            What religion does your wife profess?

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            I'll let her answer that question if she ever decides to participate in this forum. She probably won't; she considers my commenting here to be a waste of my time. A cute waste of time, at least.

          • Rob Abney

            I was curious if her religion was Anglican since you left the Church early in your married life. Was her religion a factor in your decision?

          • Lazarus

            You may have misheard her when she said "Paul, your commenting there is an accute waste of time!".
            ;)

          • Kevin Aldrich

            To me, the authority of the Magisterium of the episcopate, the Eucharist, and the evil of separating the unitive from the procreative dimensions of the conjugal act are the least difficult things to accept about Catholicism.

          • David Nickol

            the least difficult things to accept about Catholicism

            And what are the most difficult things to accept? Or is there anything you find to be a potential stumbling block? I would really be interested to know.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Actually, nothing. There is nothing proposed for belief or action in the Catholic faith that I find a stumbling block. The only difficulty is that some things are very hard to do. And what things are hard to do? Any things that require fortitude or temperance!

          • David Nickol

            Actually, nothing.

            Then perhaps you misspoke when you identified the Magisterium's authority, the Eucharist, and the Church's teachings on contraception as the "least difficult things to accept about Catholicism." If there is nothing difficult to accept about Catholicism, then I don't understand why it would make any sense to categorize some things as the least difficult to accept.

            I think we have to consider the possibility that you were just trying to shame PBR by showing him that the things he found difficult to accept presented no problems to a good Catholic such as yourself.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Or consider the possibility that you are trying to shame me by trying to twist your way into my motivations.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Did you ever truly believe in the God of classical theism or was it just a notion that you were taught as a young person?

            Is classical theism church teaching? I see no reason why a Catholic couldn't reject Divine Simplicity and remain Catholic.

          • Rob Abney

            That's seems true, but maybe I don't understand the difference. How do you describe the difference?

          • Ignatius Reilly

            What difference?

          • Rob Abney

            The difference between classical theism and divine simplicity.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Divine Simplicity is a property that classical theists believe God has. If one is a classical theist, then one will believe that God is simple.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_simplicity

    • Do you believe that humans can have a neutral point of view? If not, I don't see what your objection is; everyone has to start from a context, from a particular, necessarily idiosyncratic, understanding of reality. The only question is whether we will expand our understanding and attempt to merge it with others, or refuse to do the hard work of getting to understand where others are coming from, when their context is at significant variance with our own.

      • Paul Brandon Rimmer

        I think articles can be written from a common starting point. The starting point of this article is so far away from my own, I cannot really follow where the author leads. I do not think that is a critique of the article itself. It is just something that doesn't happen here very often, so I thought it worth the remark.

  • Doug Shaver

    It is also obvious that many secularists (not all, but many) are motivated by hostility to the sexual morality upheld by traditional religious belief, and that such hostility is (as I argued in another recent post) often extreme and irrational.

    Considering how many theists are sexually immoral, why does anybody need to deny God in order to be sexually immoral?

    • Lazarus

      The general answer would be that while a person is acting sexually immoral, for the duration of such conduct, that person is de facto denying God.

      • Doug Shaver

        By de facto, do you mean in effect? Or are you claiming that they actually become atheists for the duration of their immorality?

        • Lazarus

          Ha, I would get into trouble by claiming they become atheist ;) No, more in effect. It's a legalese answer. While you're naughty you're not following God's will.

          • Doug Shaver

            I think you're making my point, or part of it, anyway. You admit that some people can be naughty even though they believe in God. But why, then, do some people need to actually stop believing in God in order to be naughty?

          • Lazarus

            It's not so much what I personally believe as the textbook answer, or at least one which I have heard often. Personally, and from personal experience, being wrong, bad, sinful, often has nothing to do with my belief in God.

          • Robert Macri

            It is not a mere profession of belief that is important, but rather the fidelity that flows from sincere belief.

            A person does not need to suspend belief to reject God (Satan surely believes in God's existence), but everyone who rejects God is by definition unfaithful to him.

            Anyway, I think that the point the article was trying to make in this regard is that attachment to some immorality or another could generate a psychological pressure that opposes theistic belief, in order to justify and perpetuate the behavior, not that a complete lack of belief is necessary for wrongdoing. (e.g. If I don't want to give up my obsession with chocolate and ice cream, I'm not going to join Weightwatchers.)

            That's obviously not going to be the main motivation for every atheist, but I think there is a very real tendency to let that which we want to believe to affect that which we actually believe. That goes for theists and atheists alike. It's the central problem of sin in the Christian view: the attempt to abrogate for ourselves the right to determine what is good or evil.

          • Doug Shaver

            It is not a mere profession of belief that is important, but rather the fidelity that flows from sincere belief.

            If someone says they believe in God, I'll assume they're sincere until I see clear evidence to the contrary. And I don't believe that a person's failure to comply with the rules laid down by his church is any evidence of insincerity.

          • Doug Shaver

            I think there is a very real tendency to let that which we want to believe to affect that which we actually believe.

            But of course. And how do you think we should try to counteract that tendency? Suppose I resolve to believe only the truth whether I like it or not? What could I do to make that happen?

        • Must it be so binary?

          • Doug Shaver

            If you can suggest possible alternatives to "He is actually an atheist" and "He is not actually an atheist," we can discuss them.

          • Consider the switch from:

                 (I) theist → atheist
                (II) atheist → theist

            Does that '→' happen in an instant, or can it perhaps be a slow, gradual process?

          • Doug Shaver

            Does that '→' happen in an instant, or can it perhaps be a slow, gradual process?

            In my lexicon, a person is a theist if he answers affirmatively when asked, "Do you believe that at least one god exists?" Otherwise, he is an atheist. Anyone who claims to be unsure whether he believes is not a believer.

            However, not wishing to sidetrack this discussion onto a semantic debate, I will stipulate: For some people, the transition from one to the other is instantaneous, and for others it happens gradually.

            But the origin of this discussion was a question about the credibility of the claim that some people become atheists in order to engage in immoral behaviors. I noted that this claim was undermined by the observation that many theists engage in immoral behaviors. You have in effect raised the question: Are they really theists while they're doing those things?

            I see no reason to suspect they're not. It is hardly uncontroversial to say that all people sometimes do things that are inconsistent with their stated values. We all agree, don't we, that nobody is perfect? I know there are atheists who accuse Christians of thinking they are perfect. I'm not one of those atheists.

            It could be that in some cases, a theist who is losing his faith will, during his transition from theism to atheism, do things that he would not have done when his faith was more secure. And in such a case, if he should regain his faith, then he might stop doing those things. Whether this happens rarely or often, I have no idea, but I have seen no reason to think it is a common occurrence. As far as I can tell from personal observation and credible reports, theists who behave immorally are no less convinced of God's existence than theists who live the way they're supposed to live. I therefore don't see why, when we see a moral theist become an immoral atheist, we should suspect that the change in belief was motivated by the change in behavior.

          • In my lexicon, a person is a theist if he answers affirmatively when asked, "Do you believe that at least one god exists?" Otherwise, he is an atheist. Anyone who claims to be unsure whether he believes is not a believer.

            Is that really how you want to deal with the phenomenon Eric Schwitzgebel discusses in his 2008 The Unreliability of Naive Introspection? I don't think this is sidetracking the debate; no, I think it is closer to being a central issue!

            But the origin of this discussion was a question about the credibility of the claim that some people become atheists in order to engage in immoral behaviors. I noted that this claim was undermined by the observation that many theists engage in immoral behaviors. You have in effect raised the question: Are they really theists while they're doing those things?

            I think one's loyalties can be split, and that we ought to acknowledge this in our models and theories. There is much discussion these days about a 'fragmented consciousness', you know.

            I see no reason to suspect they're not. It is hardly uncontroversial to say that all people sometimes do things that are inconsistent with their stated values. We all agree, don't we, that nobody is perfect? I know there are atheists who accuse Christians of thinking they are perfect. I'm not one of those atheists.

            That nobody is perfect ought not distract us from the process whereby one can become more or less perfect. The perfect can be an enemy of becoming better, but it is also required for becoming better (I can argue this via Fitch's Paradox of Knowability). This is like playing with sharp knives: you've gotta be careful if you don't want to simply dull the knife.

            As far as I can tell from personal observation and credible reports, theists who behave immorally are no less convinced of God's existence than theists who live the way they're supposed to live.

            If your convinced-ness doesn't flow into your actions, that seems important to track and characterize. A complete divorce here is known as epiphenomenalism, is it not?

          • Doug Shaver

            If your convinced-ness doesn't flow into your actions, that seems important to track and characterize. A complete divorce here is known as epiphenomenalism, is it not?

            Yes, it is, and I'm not arguing for a complete divorce. I am not any kind of dualist. I agree that behaviors are caused by mental states. What I am denying in this case is that one particular mental state, i.e. disbelief in God, can be caused by another particular mental state, i.e. a desire to engage in certain behaviors.

          • Yes, it is, and I'm not arguing for a complete divorce. I am not any kind of dualist.

            It's curious that you treat epiphenomenalism as entailing dualism; while I am of this opinion as well, I've had many long interactions with Disqus user The Thinker, who both embraces epiphenomenalism and eschews Cartesian dualism. It doesn't seem that he is necessarily being contradictory, but he seems awfully close to it. After all, if (read '⇒' as "causes" and '⇏' as "cannot cause"):

                 (a) brain ⇒ mind
                 (b) mind ⇏ brain

            , then epiphenomenalism is true, but one can also ask how one could possibly know about 'mind' in such a context. After all, surely we can only know about things which can causally impinge on us?

            I agree that behaviors are caused by mental states. What I am denying in this case is that one particular mental state, i.e. disbelief in God, can be caused by another particular mental state, i.e. a desire to engage in certain behaviors.

            That is a curious claim. Before I start guessing at your reasons, would you be willing to articulate them a bit, yourself, first? There are actually multiple facets this evokes:

                 (1) What causes belief in God?
                 (2) What causes disbelief in God?

            This can be broken down into:

                 (i) particular brain states as causes
                (ii) something ¬(i) as causes

            See, the notion of 'brain state' is but a model, and I believe it is subject to the philosophical phenomenon Ceteris Paribus Laws, which is perhaps illustrated by this excerpt of theoretical biologist Robert Rosen's Life Itself.

            We can then ask a two-by-two matrix: can (i) and/or (ii) cause each of (1) and/or (2)?

          • Doug Shaver

            It's curious that you treat epiphenomenalism as entailing dualism;

            How so? That's what it says in the Wikipedia article you linked to.

            I've had many long interactions with Disqus user The Thinker, who both embraces epiphenomenalism and eschews Cartesian dualism.

            That's why I said "not any kind." The dualism of epiphenomenalism is not Cartesian dualism.

            What I am denying in this case is that one particular mental state, i.e. disbelief in God, can be caused by another particular mental state, i.e. a desire to engage in certain behaviors.

            Before I start guessing at your reasons, would you be willing to articulate them a bit, yourself, first?

            So you're going to guess at my reasons after I tell you what they are?

            First reason: I have seen no evidence that it happens. This justifies my not believing that it happens, though not necessarily believing that it doesn't happen.

            Second reason: I think I do have good reason to believe that beliefs are not subject to mere acts of will. A will to believe a particular proposition can motivate us to do things that will engender the belief, and this effort will occasionally succeed, but the will to believe is not alone sufficient. A deliberate change of belief requires some action, and the action has to be actually supportive of the desired belief.

            This was all acknowledged by Pascal when he was discussing the wager for which he is famous. Thus, if for some reason I wanted to believe in God, I might start attending church, reading devotional literature, and pursuing other religious activities in order to get over my atheism. But it is hardly likely that I would think to myself, "Gee, I'd really like to start going to church, so I'd better start believing in God." And it's even more unlikely that if I did think such a thing, I could actually make it work.

          • How so? That's what it says in the Wikipedia article you linked to.

            I told you why: The Thinker holds to epiphenomenalism while ardently eschewing Cartesian dualism. Cartesian dualism is not the only kind of dualism FYI. What's not clear to me, in my conversation with TT, is whether he accepts any kind of dualism—e.g. property dualism. Actually, he is inclined to think that waves are more real than particles (think QFT), which pushes him away from dualism of any kind (I think). Anyhow, I'm trying to make sense of his position, if indeed it does not contain a true contradiction.

            So you're going to guess at my reasons after I tell you what they are?

            If you know anything about systems modeling each other, you will see that this is entirely a legitimate thing to do. The mere fact that you use the same words that I do does not entail that we fundamentally agree on what we're referring to. The technical term for where the difference can lie is the unarticulated background.

            I'll give you an example. The way most people seem to nest quotations is like this:

            Statement

            Response

            However, in this very comment, you chose this convention:

            Statement

            Response

            In "To Follow a Rule", Charles Taylor notes that in a culture where ray guns of various sorts are standard, an arrow (➔) might be seen to point in entirely the opposite direction as a culture which sees arrows the other way (to add my own contribution: perhaps as resembling arrow heads). (Philosophical Arguments, 165ff)

            First reason: I have seen no evidence that it happens.

            Have you ever seen evidence of causation? Recall that Hume said "no".

            Second reason: I think I do have good reason to believe that beliefs are not subject to mere acts of will. A will to believe a particular proposition can motivate us to do things that will engender the belief, and this effort will occasionally succeed, but the will to believe is not alone sufficient. A deliberate change of belief requires some action, and the action has to be actually supportive of the desired belief.

            This makes perfect sense to me. Wittgenstein would also agree, I think. This idea is central to James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom. He criticizes the virtually exclusive focus on "worldview" among Christians, noting that much 'belief' is subconscious—taking 'belief' to be of type (1): every action is predicated on a set of { A }.

            But it is hardly likely that I would think to myself, "Gee, I'd really like to start going to church, so I'd better start believing in God." And it's even more unlikely that if I did think such a thing, I could actually make it work.

            Do you have evidence for this "hardly likely"? If so, is it mostly of your own consciousness and being, or also others?

          • Doug Shaver

            Cartesian dualism is not the only kind of dualism FYI.

            That's what I said. Now you're trying to use it as a counterargument while pretending that I didn't know it?

            Anyhow, I'm trying to make sense of his position,

            Whether you can or cannot doesn't have anything to do with whether you can make sense of mine. Please try to remember that we materialists don't all think alike.

            The mere fact that you use the same words that I do does not entail that we fundamentally agree on what we're referring to.

            When I begin a discussion, I assume that my interlocutor and I are talking about the same thing when we use the same word. Any other assumption, I believe, would result in a waste of time and also be an exhibition of bad faith. When it becomes apparent that this assumption is unjustified, then, but not until then, I attempt to resolve the conflict. If the attempt fails, then I accept that we have not been and will not be talking about the same thing, and at that point I usually try to terminate the discussion.

            Have you ever seen evidence of causation?

            I have seen phenomena to which I attach the label "causation." Anyone can use a different label without contradicting me. Anyone who wants to dispute the existence of causation needs to claim that those phenomena don't actually happen.

            Recall that Hume said "no".

            That's not how I remember his essay on the subject. But even if he did say that, it wouldn't be the first time I disagreed with Hume. I have no problem disagreeing with any philosopher, no matter how famous he is.

            But it is hardly likely that I would think to myself, "Gee, I'd really like to start going to church, so I'd better start believing in God." And it's even more unlikely that if I did think such a thing, I could actually make it work.

            Do you have evidence for this "hardly likely"?

            Are you asking whether I have any evidence for what I probably can and probably cannot think? How about a lifetime (now approaching 70 years) of personal experience? Is that the sort of evidence you're asking for?

            is it mostly of your own consciousness and being, or also others?

            What other people can do with their minds has no direct bearing on what I can do with mine. There are some things I can't do that many other people can, and some things I can do that many other people can't. I very much doubt that any particular ability or disability that I have is unique to me.

            That noted, I can also note that I have never known any other person to actually perform the kind of mental gymnastic to which I was referring.

          • That's what I said. Now you're trying to use it as a counterargument while pretending that I didn't know it?

            I'm not trying to prove you wrong in any way; mostly I'm struggling with The Thinker's holding both to Thales' "everything is water" (TT: "everything is waves").

            Whether you can or cannot doesn't have anything to do with whether you can make sense of mine. Please try to remember that we materialists don't all think alike.

            If 'materialism' is a natural kind, then there will be some ways that all materials think alike. Furthermore, 'materialism' is a token of the type 'monism', and I'm pretty sure there are ways in which all monists are alike. These things being said, perhaps I have identified accidental instead of essential properties of materialists and/or monists.

            When I begin a discussion, I assume that my interlocutor and I are talking about the same thing when we use the same word. Any other assumption, I believe, would result in a waste of time and also be an exhibition of bad faith. When it becomes apparent that this assumption is unjustified, then, but not until then, I attempt to resolve the conflict. If the attempt fails, then I accept that we have not been and will not be talking about the same thing, and at that point I usually try to terminate the discussion.

            Too frequently, people misinterpret what I say much more quickly than matches your heuristic. What I do is assume that all but one or two words of what the other person says are a coherent whole; whether the last one or two are as well tends not to matter to me, because I try to snap the sentence or idea to the "nearest coherent fit". In my experience this works extremely well, especially with smarter folks who constantly want to learn new things instead of defend fortified positions.

            I have seen phenomena to which I attach the label "causation."

            Wait a second, are you deconvolving what, in those phenomena, are from you, and what, in those phenomena, are from what might be called 'mind-independent reality'? Here's what Hilary Putnam says about this matter:

                Indeed, the Humean notion of "fact" is simply something of which there can be a sensible "impression." When Hume asks, for example, what is the factual component in the notion of causation and what added to the fact by a sort of projection, and decides that it is the idea of necessitation (in other words, of bringing about) that is added by projection, all Hume has to do is ask whether there is such a thing as an "impression" of necessitation. (It is indeed interesting that so many philosophers who continue to think that Hume "showed" that there is now such thing as an ethical fact today reject the identical arguments that Hume offered in connection with causation! (The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy, 21–22)

            Now, you clearly don't need to accept Hume's position. However, Hume's general philosophy seemed to be to start with as few a prioris as possible (empiricism); I wonder if yours is different. If so, I would like to know how you test your a prioris, to see whether they are good or perhaps need tweaking if not outright replacement. One [partial] way to understand conversion to Christianity is the experience of change in how you attribute causation, of a change in your metaphysics of causation. That is, a change in your a prioris.

            Are you asking whether I have any evidence for what I probably can and probably cannot think? How about a lifetime (now approaching 70 years) of personal experience? Is that the sort of evidence you're asking for?

            A lifetime of experience is a valuable data point, no doubt. However, it is still important to establish the domain from which one is sampling. That is what I was attempting to do. When arguing mostly from personal experience, one has to balance the poles of Eric Schwitzgebel's 2008 The Unreliability of Naive Introspection and Regina Rini's 2015 Consciousness Science and the Privileged Sample Problem.

            What other people can do with their minds has no direct bearing on what I can do with mine.

            What do you mean with the word "direct"? People are largely socially constructed, and there is a strong argument to be made that your conceptual structure is not all that different from those with who you can successfully communicate; see Donald Davidson's 1973 On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme. So it seems that you almost certainly share a tremendous amount in common with people near you in what we might call 'social space'. But perhaps reasoning from that 'social space' leads to the notion of "indirect bearing"?

            I very much doubt that any particular ability or disability that I have is unique to me.

            Sure. And if we map this particular ability/​disability, and find a part of 'social space' where it manifests, and a part of 'social space' where it isn't, that would tell us something interesting—right?

            That noted, I can also note that I have never known any other person to actually perform the kind of mental gymnastic to which I was referring.

            Would you describe what it might look like? In order to be conscious of something, you need to have a sufficiently good imagination of what it would be like, or you won't see the 'whole': Grossberg 1999 The Link between Brain Learning, Attention, and Consciousness (partial tutorial).

          • Doug Shaver

            but what are the priors, how are you doing the updates, and what are the posteriors?

            I'm not quite clear on what you mean by "updates" or "posteriors," so I'll just go through the analysis starting at the beginning.

            First a note about the particular formula I’m using. It is:

            P(H|E) = P(H)*P(E|H) / [P(H)*P(E|H) + P(~H)*P(E|~H)].

            The formula usually given is simpler than this, but some sophisticated algebra demonstrates that they are equivalent, and this one makes it clearer why the formula works as advertised. And keeping in mind that P(~H) = 1 – P(H), there are only three remaining variables to which values need to be assigned: P(H), P(E|H), and P(E|~H). And one more thing: For every term in this equation, there is an implicit “given background knowledge.” Written in full, every term would have a “.B” or "|B" appended. Since it appears in every term, we can simplify the writing a little by omitting it, but we don’t get to pretend it isn’t there. Now let’s proceed.

            We have a hypothesis: Monkeys experience concern for certain of their conspecifics that is, in some relevant sense, like the concern that we humans experience for certain of our conspecifics. We can say for short that they experience empathy.

            We have some evidence: the aforementioned experiment. To apply Bayes' theorem, we need estimates for three variables, all of them based on our background knowledge. The variables are the prior probability of the hypothesis, P(H), the probability of the evidence assuming the hypothesis is true, P(E|H), and the probability of the evidence assuming the hypothesis is false, P(E|~H). And our background knowledge, essentially, is everything, relevant to the hypothesis, that we knew or thought we knew before the evidence was discovered, i.e. before the experiment was conducted.

            So we start with P(H). How much credence should we have given the hypothesis before we found out about this experiment? Based on everything I thought I knew about the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens, I would have judged it to be more likely true than false. But let me not stack the deck. Suppose I had no particular reason to believe it. Even so, I would insist that I had no particular reason to disbelieve it, either. And for any proposition, if I have neither more nor less reason to believe it than disbelieve it, I must consider it to have a probability of 0.5, and so that is my P(H).

            Now for P(E|H). If the hypothesis is true, then we should have a high expectation that monkeys will do what they were seen to do in this experiment. I don't think we could justify saying they would certainly act that way. If we could, we would assign P(E|H) a value of 1.0, but since we can't, we need a lower value. Since the hypothesis asserts a similarity with humans, we could get a number by figuring out the probability that a human, placed in a similar situation, would act the same way. I don't happen to know of any hard data on that topic, so I'll have to guess, and I don't think 0.7 is an unreasonable guess. In other words, I'm estimating that at least 7 out of 10 people would skip a meal in order to prevent someone else from suffering. And then I'm supposing that, if monkeys experience the same motivation that humans experience in such a situation, then it is similarly probable that they will act the way humans do in that situation. This gives us P(E|H) = 0.7.

            As for P(E|~H), here we're asking: How probable is it that this evidence would exist if the hypothesis were false? If monkeys don't experience anything relevantly like human empathy, then how likely is it that, notwithstanding their lack of empathy, they would act as if they did have empathy?

            It is not immediately obvious how we might estimate this probability, but I think I can suggest a way. Those who deny the hypothesis are not just talking about this particular species of monkey. Their claim is that empathy is unique to humans, that no other animal experiences anything like it, even if some of them, on some occasions, act as if they do?

            Let's call this behavior, this acting-as-if, a simulation. Then we're asking for the probability that these monkeys would simulate empathy. And we could start by asking for the probability of any nonhuman species doing it. The claim is that only humans have empathy, and so if any nonhuman species seems to exhibit it, it's only a simulation. So then, in how many nonhuman species do we observe this simulation?

            Practically none, as far as I know, but it might be objected that it wouldn't be fair to sample all nonhuman species. After all, nobody is about to claim that insects have empathy, or fish, or reptiles, or even most mammals. So let's shrink the reference class as much as we can. Shall we just check the primates? How many primate species simulate empathy?

            Aside from these experiments, I don't know if anybody has even tried to look, but if it were common, I think it would have been noticed even without a deliberate search for it. This experiment, when reported, seemed to really surprise a lot of people, and so pending further discoveries, I think it reasonable to assume that such behavior rarely occurs among animals that don't really experience empathy. This gives us a P(E|~H) considerably below 0.5. Shall we say 0.2?

            Now we can run the numbers, and we get P(H|E) = .78.

            Those who think that figure is way too high have some options for counterarguments, but there are some mathematical constraints. Of course, if the counterargument is, "Bayes theorem is just irrelevant to questions of this sort," then the mathematical constrains don't apply. For the time being, I address my remarks to those who say, "OK, maybe you can use Bayes, but you must be using it wrong."

            But the only way to use it wrong is to use wrong estimates for the three variables. Let's see how the output changes as we tweak those estimates.

            Here is the first mathematical constraint: No matter what prior you use, if P(E|H) = P(E|~H), then the consequent probability of the hypothesis is equal to its prior probability: P(H|E) = P(H). In other words, if the evidence is just as likely to have obtained whether the hypothesis is true or false, then it is epistemically irrelevant to the hypothesis. It does nothing to either confirm or disconfirm it.

            Next constraint: If P(E|H) > P(E|~H), then P(H|E) > P(H), and the reverse inequality also holds. That is to say, whether the consequent probability is greater or less than the prior depends strictly on whether the evidence is more or less likely on the assumed truth of falsity of the hypothesis. Further, the amount of increase or decrease between prior and consequent depends on the degree of difference between P(E|H) and P(E|~H).

            Next constraint: If a prior probability of either 0.0 or 1.0 is assigned to the hypothesis, then evidence becomes irrelevant. For P(H) = 1.0, P(H|E) = 1.0 regardless of any probabilities assigned to the evidence, and likewise, for P(H) = 0.0, P(H|E) = 0.0 in all cases. For any other prior, the difference between P(H) and P(H|E) depends, as already noted, on the difference between P(E|H) and P(E|~H).

            Whatever the correct values, I think it apparent that the observed behavior must be judged more likely if monkeys really do feel empathy than if they don’t, which means P(E|H) > P(E|~H), by some margin. And for this reason, the consequent probability of the hypothesis must be higher than whatever prior probability we give it, thus P(H|E) > P(H). And, for reasons I have given, I think P(H) = 0.5 is a very low estimate. This results in a consequent probability greater than 0.5, meaning that given the evidence, the hypothesis is more likely true than not.

            But suppose you think my P(H) is still too high? In that case, whether the consequent probability exceeds 0.5 depends on how much higher P(E|H) is than P(E|~H). For any difference between P(E|H) and P(E|~H), you can find a value for P(H) that results in P(H|E) < 0.5, but you need to justify that value.

            So, I have explained why I think my estimates are reasonable. If you think they’re unreasonable, we can discuss your reasons.

            And if I’ve left some of your questions unanswered, let me know and I’ll try to get back to them.

          • Doug Shaver

            If 'materialism' is a natural kind . . . .

            It isn't. It's a purely artificial kind.

            then there will be some ways that all materials think alike.

            There are some things that all or most materialists will agree on. But if you're opposed to materialism, you're probably not going to be good at guessing what those things are. It's sort of like Protestants trying to guess what papal infallibility means or whether it's true that Catholics worship Mary. Protestants who sincerely want answers to those questions will ask Catholics for the answers, and they will assume that Catholics are telling them the truth about what Catholicism actually teaches and does not teach.

            I have seen phenomena to which I attach the label "causation."

            Wait a second, are you deconvolving what, in those phenomena, are from you, and what, in those phenomena, are from what might be called 'mind-independent reality'?

            I had to google "deconvolve." What I found has nothing to do with what I'm saying in regard to causation.

            Here's what Hilary Putnam says about this matter:

            I'm not debating Putnam. I'm debating you.

            Hume's general philosophy seemed to be to start with as few a prioris as possible (empiricism); I wonder if yours is different.

            I'm not sure what you mean by a priori. If you mean assumptions, then yes, I try to keep them to a minimum. If you mean something else, you'll have to tell me what.

            If so, I would like to know how you test your a prioris, to see whether they are good or perhaps need tweaking if not outright replacement.

            I test my assumptions by observing the real world. When I'm confronted with an irrefutable fact that is inconsistent with something I've assumed, then I revise the assumption, if I can, to accommodate the fact. If no accommodation is possible, then I discard the assumption.

            A lifetime of experience is a valuable data point, no doubt. However, it is still important to establish the domain from which one is sampling.

            I was talking about what goes on in my own head. What, other than myself, do you think belongs to that domain?

            What other people can do with their minds has no direct bearing on what I can do with mine.

            What do you mean with the word "direct"?

            It means that if someone tells me, "Other people can do X, therefore you can do X," they're talking nonsense.

            So it seems that you almost certainly share a tremendous amount in common with people near you in what we might call 'social space'.

            Of course. But that says nothing about whether I have any particular thing in common with them.

          • Both your comments are going to take detailed, careful reading and analysis, of the kind which is pretty mentally exhausting. I just lost one of my best friends, so I'm going to delay responding for a week or three. I have set a reminder to ping me every week, to get to your two comments. The time you put into them has not been wasted!

          • Doug Shaver

            My condolences. Take the time you need to do what you need to do.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      If I understood correctly, it was an argument that many animals are four-footed because they are horses, not that all four-footed animals are horses.

      It is also possible to people to screw around, treat women as sex objects, etc. and not be motivated specifically by hostility toward traditional sexual morality.

      • David Nickol

        It is also possible to people to screw around, treat women as sex objects, etc. and not be motivated specifically by hostility toward traditional sexual morality.

        It is also possible (and has been done for most of Christian history) to treat women abominably because of traditional sexual morality, or at least traditional religious belief about the role of men and the role of women.

      • Doug Shaver

        it was an argument that many animals are four-footed because they are horses,

        It was more specific. The argument was that some horses used to be cows but became horses because they didn't like being herbivores. Considered that cows also are herbivores, the argument is hardly compelling.

    • neil_pogi

      nobody has said that theists are morally perfect. if one theist commits murder, all atheists will say, 'there you theists, you are so immoral'.. so these atheists are judgmental. they only see one theist committing an evil act, and while millions of theists who are doing good is not recognized... so characteristics of cherry-picking!

      • Doug Shaver

        nobody has said that theists are morally perfect.

        And I didn't say they had.

        • neil_pogi

          you already have! review yours and theirs (atheists' comments)

          • Doug Shaver

            I know what I have said.

  • GCBill

    Humans seem to be inclined toward a personalist conception of God which is not merely "inchoate," but incoherent. As a result, it cannot be "natural" in the sense meant by A-T philosophers.

    • Lazarus

      Those who accept the concept of God clearly do not agree that the concept is "incoherent ". We can't start there then.

      Edit for terrible grammar lapse.

      • GCBill

        I'm not talking about the concept of God that classical theists use, or even the one that educated laypeople do. Edward Feser himself explains the personalist view in contrast to the classical one in another post:

        "Theistic personalists, by contrast, tend to begin with the idea that God is “a person” just as we are persons, only without our corporeal and other limitations. Like us, he has attributes like power, knowledge, and moral goodness; unlike us, he has these features to the maximum possible degree. The theistic personalist thus arrives at an essentially anthropomorphic conception of God."

        In said post, he is talking about some contemporary theologians who hold this view of God. As Feser explains, the personalist's take on God is incompatible with the classical theistic picture of God to which Catholics adhere. Now I contend that the type of "invisible agents" that people come to believe in "naturally" are of this sort as well.

        So why, then, should we regard belief in entities which the classical theist assures us do not come remotely close to satisfying the definition of "God," as evidence for God's existence? I don't think there is a good reason to, and I suggest that using terms such as "inchoate" understates the difference between the common view and the allegedly correct one.

        EDIT: I moved & reworded some sentences while preserving the same point.

        • Lazarus

          Thank you for the very helpful clarification. I'm still not sure that we have much common ground on the incoherency aspect. I do understand your point now.

    • The physicalist must struggle with how the laws of nature—the only causal forces in existence—can guide him/her towards the truth, while guiding some other ignorant fool away from the truth. The guiding seems 100% random, sort of like the choice of who is saved in Calvinism (and perhaps Jansenism) is 100% random—from the human perspective. After all, it is certainly not the physicalist's choices which lead him/her toward the truth! All [s]he is, is a causal nexus through which all causal chains pass through—none can originate there, because singular causation is not allowed.

      Actually, causation itself is problematic under physicalism, because a 'cause' is made of neither matter, nor energy. It is not clear how causation and monism can coexist. You see this when Sean Carroll conflates 'laws of nature' and 'unbreakable patterns':

      My attitude toward the above two premises is that (2) is completely uncertain, while the “obvious” one (1) is flat-out false. Or not even false, as I put it, because the notion of a “cause” isn’t part of an appropriate vocabulary to use for discussing fundamental physics. Rather, modern physical models take the form of unbreakable patterns — laws of Nature — that persist without any external causes. The Aristotelian analysis of causes is outdated when it comes to modern fundamental physics; what matters is whether you can find a formal mathematical model that accounts for the data. The Hartle-Hawking “no-boundary proposal” for the wave function of the universe, for example, is completely self-contained, not requiring any external cause.

      Carroll's interest in 'the arrow of time' is probably because he cannot explain time, without causes being fundamental (vs. derivative). He does try to explain time, in a huge book I couldn't make it through (I wanted the scholarly, condensed version): From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. I think he fails because he accepts the block universe, which doesn't permit true causation, per Michael Tooley:

          Of those two arguments, the more fundamental is the argument from causation. The thrust of this argument is that causation presupposes a dynamic world, and one, moreover, where the past and the present are real, but the future is not. If this conclusion is to be established, however, one cannot appeal to just any approach to the nature of causation: a quite specific account is required. In particular, the account that I shall employ is, first of all, a realist account, rather than a reductionist one. Secondly, it is a singularist account, according to which causal relations between events do not presuppose the existence of causal laws. Thirdly, it involves the claim that causal laws are connected with probabilities in certain ways. It is crucial, therefore, to offer support for this view of the nature of causation, and this I shall attempt to do in a detailed way. (Time, Tense, and Causation, 3)

      To explore the matter further, see David Braine's argument in The Reality of Time and the Existence of God: The Project of Proving God's Existence (Anthony Flood's review). Braine argues that time itself can only exist if God exists. He further links time and causation, as does Tooley; from The Reality of Time:

          We need pay no attention to those arguments to God's existence which do not bring in causal considerations. They have no bearing on the understanding of the thought of ordinary men or of the mass of men through the ages. True, there has existed a sense that God's existence was somehow, in itself, to the man of faith, indubitable: the very first certainty, the fixed point on which all other thought should turn. And, among philosophers, there has frequently recurred the theory that God's existence is evident from notions innate to the intellect as such, either from the existence of questions to which one or other answer must be true so that truth must exist; or from the idea of God as being, as such, 'something than which nothing greater can be conceived'; or from the idea of God as being as such, 'Ultimate Reality'; or from the idea of God as being, as such, qua God, infinite or possessed of all perfection, including existence or necessary existence.[1] These instincts, hunches, or 'thoughts' have provided the inspiration for attempts to develop a so-called 'ontological' argument, i.e. an extended (often short) piece of reasoning from the very definition of the 'essence' or 'idea' of God to His existence. But this type of argument has found its existence and continues its life almost solely among philosophers, and they have come to use it as a kind of plaything, interested only in diagnosing the fallacies which its different versions contain. All other arguments turn out to have a causal element: e.g. moral ideas or experience, the idea of God or religious experience, or the general moral or religious agreement of men, are supposed to need some cause or explanation of existence. (2–3)

      To be more technically correct, I would say that the kind of causation permitted by Sean Carroll, permitted in a block universe, does not allow for the construction of the idea of 'life'. Theoretical biologist Robert Rosen argues this in his Life Itself, and uses category theory to show that modern science rejects formal and final causation at its own peril. Basically, by rejecting these, it imposes a mathematical straightjacket on reality. And given Grossberg 1999 The Link between Brain Learning, Attention, and Consciousness (partial tutorial), such a straightjacket can blind oneself to alternatives.

  • David Hardy

    However, it simply does not follow that every single atheist is
    fundamentally motivated by pride, lust, or some other vice—as opposed
    to simply making an honest intellectual error or set of errors—and Romans 1:18-20
    need not be read as asserting this. It is perfectly possible for
    someone mistakenly but sincerely to believe that there are good
    arguments for atheism, and thus good arguments for resisting our natural
    tendency to believe in some sort of deity.

    I appreciate the effort to challenge the idea that atheism arises from personal failings - it is difficult to truly be respectful of someone's view if you think it is the result of a character flaw. I would take this line of thinking a step further - The best way to foster respectful dialogue is to keep in mind that everyone is born into a world where one must make meaning of reality with limited information. Due to this, the person you are speaking with could be right, and you could be wrong, or you both might have valid but differing perspectives in some cases. This shows respect to the other person's experiences and ability to derive truth from them. Even if one thinks they are wrong, being open to the idea that the other person is right and not motivated either by character flaws or intellectual error fosters a more respectful and fruitful dialogue in my experience.

    Aside from that, my own view of the tendency of primitive cultures to infer spirits in the world is that it arises from a tendency to anthropomorphize. This has value in conceptualizing how to related to the world, especially in regards to domesticating animals and cultivating sustainable resources. Perhaps there is more to it than that, but I have not seen reasons that seem compelling to me to accept this is true.

    • Lazarus

      Agreed. To me this entire debate is a non-starter, aside from the offensive nature of most of its foundational ideas. As a study of apologetics, counter-apologetics, theology, comparative religion and even blogs like this show us daily, both Christianity and atheism can be rationally held, with a minimum of effort. It's as simple as that. The best we can say if we are so disposed, is that in individual instances, a person may not behave rationally in accepting one of these options.

  • Tim Dacey

    It may be, rather, that they lack the necessary 'desire'

  • Mike

    I believe that all ppl including the most die hard atheists believe that there is some unifying principle at work in the world than can explain everything; die hard atheists just seem to believe that that is some "brute fact" whereas theists that that is some "agent".

    • Paul Brandon Rimmer

      Not all atheists. Take Feynman, for example [video removed].

      He does say such a principle would be very nice, though.

      • Mike

        do you think that it is ultimately some "brute fact" that underlies everything?

        ps i can't see the vid at work.

        • Paul Brandon Rimmer

          No. I think it's a fact that, once understood, will be self-evident. It will be clear, if understood, why it is the way it is and not another way.

          • Mike

            but that reason that explanation won't be "extrinsic" to the universe you don't think, correct?

            btw if you do think it won't be 'external' won't that make the fact circular in nature, like an explanation that references the thing to be explained?

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            It may make sense to ask how to demonstrate that 1+1=2, but it doesn't make sense (in my mind) to ask why 1+1=2 and not 3 or 4.

            I think that the explanation for why the world is the way that it is, the world fact, will be something like "1+1=2", it will be the sort of fact that it won't make sense to ask why it is the way it is and not another way.

          • Mike

            so you kind of agree with ppl nowadays who say that the Why question isn't a "good" question?

            btw doesn't it make sense to ask why such a beautiful and true thing as "math" exists in the first place? not why does 2+5=7 and not 9 but why math as such with such elegance exists?

            to my mind by saying that it's not a 'valid' question just obv begs the question as the idea of 'question' doesn't stop at where i guess you think it does.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            I think there are some things for which the why question is not a good question. It seems you agree, when you say btw doesn't it make sense to ask why such a beautiful and true thing as "math" exists in the first place? not why does 2+5=7 ... which makes me think you do accept that that question isn't worth asking.

            I also don't know what it means to ask why math exists, or even whether math exists or whether numbers exist, by themselves. This may be more like asking why the world is the way it is, which I think is an excellent question. A truly satisfying answer will be one that won't admit more questions.

          • Mike

            it's not worth asking bc we know the answer to it but we don't know why math exists in the first place.

            i find it puzzling that you don't know what it means to ask why logic exists or math or order. obv it exists bc it was created to exist, no? ;)

            anyway i think that that "truly satisfying answer" is...well God. the ultimate answer, brute fact of existence is God not this universe, not the laws of physics not even some other theory we come up with but the seat of all existence itself, God.

            anyway thanks for engaging.

          • Mike

            btw i agree with that in this sense. that when we get to heaven or hell looking back on everything we'll realize that that was the way it had to be somehow that all things had their end and that ultimately only God himself can actually answer the ultimate Why.

            or something like that ;)

          • Bob Bolondz

            Clear as mud.

          • Mike

            it's supposed to elicit a spiritual/emotional reaction...it's not a comp void test damn it! :)

    • neil_pogi

      atheists really believe that there are eternal elements in the universe that caused living things to exist. for example, dawkin believe that a 'self-replicating molecules' is eternal by nature because it started the first living thing on earth. why on earth only? why not the whole universe?

      maybe atheists will say that 'not all atheists believe that'

      • Mike

        i think that many of them would rather believe in magic than in God.

        • Doug Shaver

          i think that many of them would rather believe in magic than in God.

          What I would rather believe is irrelevant. My preferences don't dictate my beliefs. If they did, I'd still be a Christian. What's not to prefer about thinking you will live forever?

          • Mike

            i hear you. but it was only once i realized that i had nothing to lose that i began to see that maybe things weren't as gloomy as they seemed.

        • neil_pogi

          magic = 'pop'!!! (they hate me using this term)

          dawkins didn't just or never explain how/where did the 'self-replicating molecule' comes from?

          • Mike

            that's why i say they seem to be more comfortable with magic popping things into and out of existence.

          • neil_pogi

            i think that's their explanation (just pop)!

          • Mike

            a metaphysical pop but a pop nonetheless imho.

      • Doug Shaver

        maybe atheists will say that 'not all atheists believe that'

        There is no "maybe" about it. You know they will. And we know you will ignore them.

        • neil_pogi

          so, atheists believe that a 'self-replicating molecule' did exist? hahaha..

          your god.

          • Doug Shaver

            so, atheists believe that a 'self-replicating molecule' did exist?

            Uh, yeah. We believe a self-replicating molecule did exist, and we believe it still does exist. So does every theist, so far as I'm aware.

          • neil_pogi

            then, if you believe in that, then why can't you also believe that an IDner does exists too?

            the argument from Design is overwhelming evidences..you just ignore them!

            then, no more evolution/creation controversy because..

            both worldviews have based their beliefs on mere faith!

          • neil_pogi

            then, why the need for evolution if the 'self-replicating molecule' of every living organisms are eternal?

          • Doug Shaver

            I said nothing about anything being eternal.

          • neil_pogi

            then tell me how it originated?

            or they just simply 'pop'? (i know you hate that word, but i have no other word to replace the 'pop')

          • Doug Shaver

            i have no other word

            Your decision.

          • neil_pogi

            what would i expect?

          • Doug Shaver

            Expect about what?

          • neil_pogi

            about your answer?

          • Doug Shaver

            You will expect not to believe it. You believe I have no answer, and so you won't accept, as an answer, any answer I claim to have.

          • neil_pogi

            that's why the 'better' or the 'best' explanations win. in atheism, there are no solid evidences about all their theories. for example, the claim that a single organism begins to evolve (why evolve? does it has some goals to achieve?). as far as i'm concerned, a single cell is a complete organism, no need to evolve into different forms of life. it is observe today that micro-organisms never evolve.

          • neil_pogi

            then tell me how your 'self-replicating molecule' originate? why hate the word eternal?

          • Doug Shaver

            why hate the word eternal?

            On what do you base your assumption that I hate it?

          • neil_pogi

            that's your assumption!

            or: why atheists refuse to believe in eternal entities?
            why atheists don't like the word eternal?
            why atheists don't feel the idea about eternal entities?

            if atheists don't believe in eternal entities, then, atheists should believe that a 'nothing' has creative power to do all things, including the vast universe?

          • Doug Shaver

            that's your assumption!

            "Why hate the word eternal?" was your question.

  • Ignatius Reilly

    Feser's argument is probably best summed up by his analogy here:

    Do we have a natural tendency to believe in God? Yes, but in something
    like the way in which someone might have a natural aptitude for music or
    for art. You might be inclined to play some instrument or to draw
    pictures, but you’re not going to do either very well without education
    and sustained practice. And without cultivating your interest in music
    or art, your output might remain at a very crude level, and your ability
    might even atrophy altogether.

    There are two ways to take this analogy. In the first way the analogy fails and in the second way it shows that his argument is likely false.

    Firstly, we could take the analogy as saying that belief takes sustained practice. This however, is not true for any other belief that I hold. I do not need to practice believing in prime numbers, clouds, or automobiles. Belief is irrespective of practice of belief.

    Secondly, Feser could be implying that if one studies philosophy enough then they will believe in God. Like someone who studies mathematics will believe that the circumference of a circle is given by 2*pi*r. I think this is the way Feser means his analogy to be taken, given the paragraphs that follow. However, most philosophers are atheists. Therefore, it cannot be said that studying God will actually lead to belief in God.

    • neil_pogi

      what if Feser is still an atheist? what would be your comments?

      • Ignatius Reilly

        Not at all sure what you are getting at here. If Feser was an atheist, I doubt he would have written the above article.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Do you believe in automobiles or do you know them to exist through your senses? Do you believe in prime numbers or do you grasp their mental existence through your reason?

      Do contemporary philosophers confine their investigations to God? In fact, do most of them ever professionally consider the existence of God?

      EDITED: for two missing words.

      • Ignatius Reilly

        Do you believe in automobiles you know them to exist through your senses? Do you believe in prime numbers or do you grasp their mental existence through your reason?

        I believe automobiles exist because of sensory data. I believe in prime numbers, because I have reasoned about their existence.

        Do contemporary philosophers confine their investigations to God? In fact, do most of them ever professionally consider the existence of God?

        No. Yes. Let me elaborate. Feser seems to be claiming that if one studies philosophy (specifically the God question) then it is likely that they will come to belief in the Abrahamic God. This is simply not true. On this site you have all sorts of atheists, who would possibly say something along the lines of I lack belief in all gods, but I suppose it is possible that a deist type god exists, however, I very much doubt that I am wrong about the Christian God. Here are people who are studying the God question, yet do not come to the conclusion that Feser thinks will happen with study.

        On this site we also have two very thoughtful theists, who do not believe in the Christian God. Feser's implication seems false based on empirical evidence.

        Feser seems to think that one can derive the full majesty of the Abrahamic God from metaphysics alone with careful study. This is false. Aristotle thought that the first cause was actually first causes. I am still waiting for a proof that Aristotle is wrong. Yes, I have searched for it.

        I would say that all professional philosophers consider the God question at one point or another. Some of them have considered the God question in depth. Atheism has more adherents among professional philosophers than nearly any other metaphysical position.

        I think usually, the real reasons why person X believes in God is cultural or environmental and usually reinforced by cognitive biases. (As atheism becomes more popular, this will probably also be the case with atheism.) I believed in God for many years before I even knew that it was possible to doubt God's existence. I devoutly believed in God before I studied a word of philosophy. Philosophy was the path away from God. This make sense. If one deeply evaluates their positions, there is always a chance that they will change their position.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          So, as you your first two points, you don't believe those things at all. You know them.

          As to the third, Feser addresses it via Aquinas: "Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors." (Summa Theologiae I.1.1)

          So, what evidence do you have that these atheist philosophers ever gave serious attention to metaphysical realism?

          • Ignatius Reilly

            So, what evidence do you have that these atheist philosophers ever gave serious attention to metaphysical realism?

            There is a rather long article in SEP on the challenges to metaphysical realism. That seems like serious attention. Realism in general has been give all sorts of attention.

            http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/realism-sem-challenge/

            http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/realism/

            As to the third, Feser addresses it via Aquinas: "Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors." (Summa Theologiae I.1.1)

            Punting to Aquinas doesn't really help us understand what the truth is of the matter. It only tells us what Aquinas thinks. What if the actual truth of the matter is that after sufficient philosophizing, human reason will discover that not being recognizable as the tri-Omni God of Abraham exists?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Just because the SEP has a long article does not mean that atheists philosophers have read it! Many of the articles in the SEP are very long, and ,name the issue, and you will see many challenges to it.

            I quoted Aquinas because I think he is right and that he expressed the position better than I could.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Realism is a major topic within philosophy. I doubt professional philosophers have somehow managed to fail to engage with it. The actual fact of the matter is that Feser has failed to adequately deal with nominalism and conceptualism. From a review of his book:

            Feser defends a realism about categories against nominalism and conceptualism by claiming that our practices implicitly assume realism, and that nominalism and conceptualism couldn't do the job. He waves his hand at the (entirely adequate) reply available to modern nominalists and conceptualists, namely an evolutionary story of concepts (Ruth Millikan has done especially impressive work in this area). His criticism is that we need concepts to engage in evolutionary explanation in the first place, and that on this story the concepts we get from evolution have no "objective validity." Unfortunately, this is only true if "objective validity" is defined in such a way that nothing has it. The evolutionary story provides a perfectly adequate account of the origin of concepts, including providing us with reasonable justification for relying on the concepts produced by that process.

            The entire review is quite good. I think it is good reading for those who think Feser is largely correct.

            I quoted Aquinas because I think he is right and that he expressed the position better than I could.

            Fair enough. I do think it is the height of hubris though, for someone to think that they have derived the correct philosophical concept of God, especially after admitting that it is very difficult and most will have an admixture of errors. There are other possible conceptions of God, and I think in many ways those conceptions are better. This is why that quote is so frustrating. Feser via Aquinas is essentially asserting that he has the correct philosophical conception of God. Very smart minds disagree.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I'm sure Feser has something to say to your reviewer!

            I don't think there is any hubris involved at all. Aquinas saw Aristotle as "The Philosopher." Somebody has got to be the best. Even when it comes to purely natural knowledge, so much of it is so difficult that most of us will never get it on our own but instead it has to be revealed to us by the smart people who have discovered it and worked it out.

            To validly criticize Aquinas' notions, of course, one has to engage with them and show why they are lacking.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I'm sure Feser has something to say to your reviewer!

            I'm sure he would. I don't think Feser is aware of it. I do think the review is a good read for anyone who thinks that Feser is correct. It lays out some nice objections.

            I don't think there is any hubris involved at all.

            We disagree then. To say on one hand that a task is super difficult, near impossible, and that anyone who does it will most likely do it at least partially incorrectly, but then to claim that you have done it correctly is hubris.

            Aquinas saw Aristotle as "The Philosopher." Somebody has got to be the best.

            I wouldn't say that Aquinas and Aristotle are the best. Influential, yes. Important, yes. But not the best. Aristotle thought that the first cause was actually first causes, plural. I don't think Aquinas succeeds in proving that the cause is singular.

            Even when it comes to purely natural knowledge, so much of it is so difficult that most of us will never get it on our own but instead it has to be revealed to us by the smart people who have discovered it and worked it out

            This is rather undemocratic of you. William F. Buckley once opined (I am paraphrasing here) that he would rather be governed by the first two hundred names out of the Boston telephone directory than the faculty at Harvard.

            Or contrast with Descartes:

            The greatest minds, as they are capable of the highest excellences, are open likewise to the greatest aberrations; and those who travel very slowly may yet make far greater progress, provided they keep always to the straight road, than those who, while they run, forsake it.

            Yes, we should give weight to expert opinions, especially when we don't much knowledge on the subject matter, but I think it is preferable to form our own opinions while giving weight to the experts. I certainly would not consider Aquinas and Aristotle to be the last word on these issues. Kant rejects the cosmological and ontological arguments. I could certainly pick him as my expert. Besides, the expert philosophical consensus is that atheism is the correct position.

            To validly criticize Aquinas' notions, of course, one has to engage with them and show why they are lacking.

            This is something of a shift in the burden of proof. Aquinas's notions have been engaged by philosophers. They have also been found lacking.

  • Peter

    Philosophical reasoning or divine revelation are not the only ways to know God. There is a third way which is open to all. This way is being opened by science but, since it relies on scientific discovery, it is only in its infancy and is still incomplete. Nevertheless, it is a powerful way of knowing God for those who eschew the subtleties of philosophical reasoning or are sceptical of the authenticity of revelation.

    Science is slowly revealing to us that the universe has a purpose. Delicately-configured latent processes at the birth of the universe have guided the universe towards progressive complexity. This has culminated in the creation of living creatures, such as ourselves, who are capable of conscious thought. The universe is fertile for life and consciousness.

    We are not quite there yet, in terms of discoveries, to fully assert that the universe has a purpose. We can only suspect it, but that suspicion grows stronger every day since all new discoveries support the notion while none refute it. And the more we suspect the universe of having a purpose, the more we wonder who or what could have given the universe that purpose, and that's where we begin to suspect God.

    • Lazarus

      What would you say that purpose is?

      • Peter

        To create conscious beings.

        • Lazarus

          Let's accept that, for now. That then means, does it not, that merely by existing, by being, the atheist has fulfilled the purpose of the universe. Why would the "knowledge of God" or any specific set of beliefs and / or practices be necessary?

          • Peter

            A purpose requires a purpose-giver. To suspect something of having a purpose means suspecting the existence of a purpose-giver with the abilities of giving that thing a purpose.

          • Lazarus

            Let me grant you that unconditionally. How does that answer my question?

          • Peter

            I'm not claiming that it justifies religious practice because that is a question of faith.

          • Lazarus

            We agree then, except I'm not all that convinced on the purpose yet, even with faith.

          • Peter

            I think that being fully convinced of purpose is premature for anyone. That's why I admit that it can only be suspected.

            But that suspicion based on observation is no less strong an indicator of God than scholastic reasoning or ancient revelation.

          • George

            Does god have a purpose?

          • Peter

            Regarding purpose, I can only comment on what I can observe. I can observe the universe; I can't observe God.

    • Doug Shaver

      Science is slowly revealing to us that the universe has a purpose.

      No, it isn't. That is how some people are interpreting certain scientific discoveries.

      • Peter

        Take the last 10 or 20 years. Within that time, discoveries about the cosmos have progressively supported the notion that the universe is one vast cosmic factory for the ingredients for life and, with the discovery of countless planets, potentially for life itself.

        The whole mosaic is slowly coming together. It is still patchy in places, but filling the gaps it is just a question of time and technology.

        A few decades ago, life may have been generally regarded as a mere by-product of cosmic processes. Now we are beginning to suspect that, by virtue of their universality, the ingredients for life and potentially life itself are the end product.

        • Doug Shaver

          Take the last 10 or 20 years. Within that time, discoveries about the cosmos have progressively supported the notion that the universe is one vast cosmic factory for the ingredients for life and, with the discovery of countless planets, potentially for life itself.

          That doesn't actually contradict what I said, considering that very nearly the only people who agree that those discoveries support that notion are people who were already convinced, before those discoveries were made, that the notion was true.

          • Peter

            I disagree. Before as little as 30 years ago, no-one would have considered the sheer scale to which our galaxy alone, let alone the universe at large, is teeming with planets and heaving with organic compounds.

            No-one, not even believers, could have imagined a universe so positively brimming with the potential for life.
            In fact, many theists believed the opposite, that we were uniquely and exclusively created by God.

          • Doug Shaver

            Before as little as 30 years ago, no-one would have considered the sheer scale to which our galaxy alone, let alone the universe at large, is teeming with planets and heaving with organic compounds.

            You're conflating imagination with knowledge. Ever heard of science fiction? Just because the scientific community had not yet confirmed that it was so doesn't mean nobody thought it might be so. At least as early as the 1950s, plenty of people committed to naturalism considered it probable that life was abundant in the universe.

          • Lazarus

            And HG Wells also may have something to say about those 30 years ;)

          • Doug Shaver

            I sort of thought about him, but didn't know if he was an outlier in his time. But I grew up in the '50s and remember well what quite a few folks were thinking was plausible back then. And then along came the Drake Equation in 1961.

          • Peter

            Among believers that was not the case. Science fiction was mere entertainment. There was still a conviction that human beings were unique and of central importance in the cosmos.

            The recent discovery of planets and organic compounds has been a great blow to that belief. Despite that, there are still many who cling to the idea that we are unique and of central importance.

            As discoveries proceed, however, that notion becomes increasingly untenable. Even red dwarfs, those invisible stars that make up three quarters of all stars, are found to have planets. Theists have to face the likelihood that we are not alone, unique or central. However, even if we are no longer unique, we are no less special.

          • Michael Murray

            Peter: Phil Rimmer, who is now banned, asked me point you at this link

            http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com.au/2015/11/estranged-notions-do-atheists-simply.html#comment-2349351180

          • Doug Shaver

            There was still a conviction [among believers] that human beings were unique and of central importance in the cosmos.

            So far as I can tell, there still is.

          • Doug Shaver

            Despite that, there are still many who cling to the idea that we are unique and of central importance.

            As discoveries proceed, however, that notion becomes increasingly untenable.

            Yes, science keeps on deflating our egos. I don't see how that reinforces the idea that the universe has a purpose and that the purpose has something to do with life.

          • Peter

            Conscious beings, as the pinnacle of complexity, are the necessary product of a universe driven by entropy to maximise complexity whenever and wherever it can, in order to contribute to overall entropy. The universe has no choice but to progressively evolve towards the point where it creates conscious beings, when and where the conditions are appropriate.

            We, as conscious beings, have, with a few exceptions, an inbuilt desire to find our Maker. Our history is testament to that. Since the desire to find our Maker is a consequence of our consciousness, we can conclude that other conscious beings in the cosmos would have the same desire.

            We have a cosmos, then, which is eerily focused on the creation of beings who naturally seek out their Maker. Does that look like coincidence to you?

          • Doug Shaver

            The universe has no choice but to progressively evolve towards the point where it creates conscious beings, when and where the conditions are appropriate.

            I agree that our existence has nothing to do with any choice made by any person or any thing.

          • Peter

            You've hit upon an interesting point. Fr George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory, had claimed that God designed a fertile universe to create conscious races through natural processes, yet would not know which precise form each conscious race would take.

            He was saying that God did not specifically have humans in mind when he created the universe, only that conscious beings would emerge in whatever form depending on local conditions. In that respect, our existence as human beings has nothing to do with any choice made by any person or thing. It is a consequence of randomly prevailing conditions.

            Whether I agree with it is a different matter.

          • Doug Shaver

            By chance, I just got through watching an interview on YouTube between Coyne and Richard Dawkins. I think some folks here would enjoy it as much as I did: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3L15e2sNZsU.

        • Lazarus

          Given the topic of the thread and this comment, would we not then see if this was true a steady but very clearly discernible movement of scientists towards theism in general and Catholicism in particular? The people who are then dealing with this "mosaic" would then in a sense also be the first ones who would see these arguments developing.

          • Peter

            Scientists deal with facts not suspicions. They will not make a pronouncement about life on other planets until they are sure they have spectroscopically detected it. Perhaps many do indeed have their suspicions about the direction of the universe, but as scientists they will keep quiet until they are backed up with facts.

          • Lazarus

            So this purpose, goal, direction of the universe that you speak of, is a suspicion, not fact (as yet)?

            I am not being snarky, I am fascinated by all and any theories as to the purpose of the universe in general and ourselves in particular. It is a concept that bothers me from time to time, with a nagging central question that is as simple as it seems to be important : why create at all?

          • Peter

            It remains a suspicion, albeit a strong one, until we discover life elsewhere and until we make the link between organic compounds and life itself. We will then have the full picture, from the big bang to conscious beings.

            A universe configured to create conscious beings is a universe with a purpose. As conscious beings, we humans, except for a small fraction, have an inbuilt compulsion to look for our Creator. It is manifest in our history.

            The justification of the universe is the creation of conscious beings who naturally seek out their Maker. The Creator's motive, in making the universe, is to be sought out and discovered by those he creates.

          • Lazarus

            I can live with that.

  • Just to point out the obvious, people *in general* only have a tendency to believe in gods in the same way they have the tendency to believe in ghosts, haunted houses, spooky cemeteries, demons, etc., etc. These are superstitions that seem primed by various psychological biases.

    And in regard to "repressing the obvious" there is the flip side of that coin that religious believers of various stripes demonstrate all the time - the tendency to repress facts they don't like that contradict their particular religious beliefs. Just as one very obvious example: Belief in young earth creationism, and the manner in which young earth creationists deliberately ignore the facts you point out to them explicitly which show specifically and obviously that some particular pseudoscience claim they have made is completely wrong. We also find this exact same kind of behavior even when dealing with creationists (i.e., anti-evolutionists) who are not young earth creationists, including creationists going under the "intelligent design" umbrella.

    So the problem with the whole "repression" argument is that when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, the ones we see employing that actual repressing is none other than religious believers themselves. Indeed, this entire repression argument is another example of the double standards employed in a lot of Christian apologetics rhetoric.

  • I think that Leser is misrepresenting the position that atheists would agree with. The standard explanation for widespread theistic belief, which Jeff Lowerder references in the quoted excerpt, is that humans have an overactive agency detector. What this means is that humans have a natural tendency to attribute events around them to the actions of agents. This tendency does, indeed, predispose humans to believe in invisible agents, like deities and ghosts. But this doesn’t provide empirical support to the notion that we have a natural, or inchoate knowledge of god.

    Here's an analogy to illustrate. Imagine your house is full of mice, and you buy a mousetrap in order to catch them. Most of the time, when the trap goes off, you find it has killed a mouse. But sometimes it goes off without catching any mice. By Freser’s reasoning, this would be evidence that the true purpose of the mousetraps is to catch invisible spirit mice, and it’s just a coincidence that it works so well for regular mice.

    Within the naturalistic framework, we have an overactive agency detector, not in order to detect invisible agents, because humans spend most of our time and cognitive energy navigating relationships with actual, visible agents. There’s a saying “when all you have is a hammer, all problems begin to look like nails”. For the overactive agency detector, the comparable saying is “when your mind is highly specialised for navigating interpersonal relationships, everything you encounter will look or feel like a person”.

    The overactive agency detector is responsible for a lot of other things aside from belief in deities, like belief in witchcraft and superstition. Almost all human cultures are superstitious, which is simply to say that they will believe that agents can affect events in ways that would not be possible in a naturalistic universe, e.g. by breaking a mirror, carrying a lucky token, or casting a curse. There is also widespread belief in invisible agents that would not be considered deities, like ghosts, spirits, or witches.

    My point is within a naturalistic framework, the prevalence of beliefs in deities, ghosts, superstitions and a whole manner of other problematic beliefs are the product of the same underlying cause: a set of cognitive heuristics that we use because they are extremely useful for navigating normal, mundane social interactions. I’m not sure the theologians would be comfortable reaching a conclusion that unifies our “sense of the divine” with all of these other more mundane causes. If our inchoative intuition that the universe is ruled by a perfect, transcendent god is just as likely to lead us to believe that a rabbit’s foot brings us good fortune, then this “inchoative theism” must be very confused indeed-- enough that I would question our decision to call it “inchoative theism” in the first place.