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So You Think You Understand the Cosmological Argument?


NOTE: Dr. Feser's contributions at Strange Notions were originally posted on his own blog, and therefore lose some of their context when reprinted here. Dr. Feser explains why that matters.


Most people who comment on the cosmological argument demonstrably do not know what they are talking about.  This includes all the prominent New Atheist writers.  It very definitely includes most of the people who hang out in Jerry Coyne’s comboxes.  It also includes most scientists.  And it even includes many theologians and philosophers, or at least those who have not devoted much study to the issue.  This may sound arrogant, but it is not.  You might think I am saying “I, Edward Feser, have special knowledge about this subject that has somehow eluded everyone else.”  But that is NOT what I am saying.  The point has nothing to do with me.  What I am saying is pretty much common knowledge among professional philosophers of religion (including atheist philosophers of religion), who – naturally, given the subject matter of their particular philosophical sub-discipline – are the people who know more about the cosmological argument than anyone else does.

In particular, I think that the vast majority of philosophers who have studied the argument in any depth – and again, that includes atheists as well as theists, though it does not include most philosophers outside the sub-discipline of philosophy of religion – would agree with the points I am about to make, or with most of them anyway.  Of course, I do not mean that they would all agree with me that the argument is at the end of the day a convincing argument.  I just mean that they would agree that most non-specialists who comment on it do not understand it, and that the reasons why people reject it are usually superficial and based on caricatures of the argument.  Nor do I say that every single self-described philosopher of religion would agree with the points I am about to make.  Like every other academic field, philosophy of religion has its share of hacks and mediocrities.  But I am saying that the vast majority of philosophers of religion would agree, and again, that this includes the atheists among them as well as the theists.

I’m not going to present and defend any version of the cosmological argument here.  I’ve done that at length in my books Aquinas and The Last Superstition, and it needs to be done at length rather than in the context of a blog post.  The reason is that, while the basic structure of the main versions of the argument is fairly simple, the background metaphysics necessary to a proper understanding of the key terms and inferences is not.  It needs some spelling out, which is why Aquinas and The Last Superstition each devote a long chapter to general metaphysics before addressing the question of God’s existence.  The serious objections to the argument can in my view all be answered, but that too can properly be done only after the background ideas have been set out.  And that too is a task carried out in the books.

I will deal here with some of the non-serious objections, though.  In particular, what follows is intended to clear away some of the intellectual rubbish that prevents many people from giving the argument a fair hearing.  To get to the point(s), then:

1. The argument does NOT rest on the premise that “Everything has a cause.”

Lots of people – probably most people who have an opinion on the matter – think that the cosmological argument goes like this: Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause; so God exists.  They then have no trouble at all poking holes in it.  If everything has a cause, then what caused God?  Why assume in the first place that everything has to have a cause?  Why assume the cause is God?  Etc.

Here’s the funny thing, though.  People who attack this argument never tell you where they got it from.  They never quote anyone defending it.  There’s a reason for that.  The reason is that none of the best-known proponents of the cosmological argument in the history of philosophy and theology ever gave this argument.  Not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne.  And not anyone else either, as far as I know.  (Your Pastor Bob doesn’t count.  I mean no one among prominent philosophers.)  And yet it is constantly presented, not only by popular writers but even by some professional philosophers, as if it were “the” “basic” version of the cosmological argument, and as if every other version were essentially just a variation on it.

Don’t take my word for it.  The atheist Robin Le Poidevin, in his book Arguing for Atheism (which my critic Jason Rosenhouse thinks is pretty great) begins his critique of the cosmological argument by attacking a variation of the silly argument given above – though he admits that “no-one has defended a cosmological argument of precisely this form”!  So what’s the point of attacking it?  Why not start instead with what some prominent defender of the cosmological argument has actually said?

Suppose some creationist began his attack on Darwinism by assuring his readers that “the basic” claim of the Darwinian account of human origins is that at some point in the distant past a monkey gave birth to a human baby.  Suppose he provided no source for this claim – which, of course, he couldn’t have, because no Darwinian has ever said such a thing – and suppose also that he admitted that no one has ever said it.  But suppose further that he claimed that “more sophisticated versions” of Darwinism were really just “modifications” of this claim. Intellectually speaking, this would be utterly contemptible and sleazy.  It would give readers the false impression that anything Darwinians have to say about human origins, however superficially sophisticated, is really just a desperate exercise in patching up a manifestly absurd position.  Precisely for that reason, though, such a procedure would, rhetorically speaking, be very effective indeed.

Compare that to Le Poidevin’s procedure.  Though by his own admission no one has ever actually defended the feeble argument in question, Le Poidevin still calls it “the basic” version of the cosmological argument and characterizes the “more sophisticated versions” he considers later on as “modifications” of it.  Daniel Dennett does something similar in his book Breaking the Spell.  He assures us that the lame argument in question is “the simplest form” of the cosmological argument and falsely insinuates that other versions – that is to say, the ones that philosophers have actually defended, and which Dennett does not bother to discuss – are merely desperate attempts to repair the obvious problems with the “Everything has a cause” “version.”  As with our imaginary creationist, this procedure is intellectually dishonest and sleazy, but it is rhetorically very effective.  It gives the unwary reader the false impression that “the basic” claim made by Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. is manifestly absurd, that everything else they have to say is merely an attempt to patch up this absurd position, and (therefore) that such writers need not be bothered with further.

And that, I submit, is the reason why the “Everything has a cause” argument – a complete fabrication, an urban legend, something no philosopher has ever defended – perpetually haunts the debate over the cosmological argument.  It gives atheists an easy target, and a way rhetorically to make even their most sophisticated opponents seem silly and not worth bothering with.  It‘s a slimy debating trick, nothing more – a shameless exercise in what I have elsewhere called “meta-sophistry.”  (I make no judgment about whether Le Poidevin’s or Dennett’s sleaziness was deliberate.  But that they should know better is beyond question.)

What defenders of the cosmological argument do say is that what comes into existence has a cause, or that what is contingent has a cause.  These claims are as different from “Everything has a cause” as “Whatever has color is extended” is different from “Everything is extended.”  Defenders of the cosmological argument also provide arguments for these claims about causation.  You may disagree with the claims – though if you think they are falsified by modern physics,you are sorely mistaken – but you cannot justly accuse the defender of the cosmological argument either of saying something manifestly silly or of contradicting himself when he goes on to say that God is uncaused.

This gives us what I regard as “the basic” test for determining whether an atheist is informed and intellectually honest.  If he thinks that the cosmological argument rests on the claim that “everything has a cause,” then he is simply ignorant of the basic facts.  If he persists in asserting that it rests on this claim after being informed otherwise, then he is intellectually dishonest.  And if he is an academic philosopher like Le Poidevin or Dennett who is professionally obligated to know these things and to eschew cheap debating tricks, then… well, you do the math.

2. “What caused God?” is not a serious objection to the argument.

Part of the reason this is not a serious objection is that it usually rests on the assumption that the cosmological argument is committed to the premise that “Everything has a cause,” and as I’ve just said, this is simply not the case.  But there is another and perhaps deeper reason.

The cosmological argument in its historically most influential versions is not concerned to show that there is a cause of things which just happens not to have a cause.  It is not interested in “brute facts” – if it were, then yes, positing the world as the ultimate brute fact might arguably be as defensible as taking God to be.  On the contrary, the cosmological argument – again, at least as its most prominent defenders (Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al.) present it – is concerned with trying to show that not everything can be a “brute fact.”  What it seeks to show is that if there is to be an ultimate explanation of things, then there must be a cause of everything else which not only happens to exist, but which could not even in principle have failed to exist.  And that is why it is said to be uncaused – not because it is an arbitrary exception to a general rule, not because it merely happens to be uncaused, but rather because it is not the sort of thing that can even in principle be said to have had a cause, precisely because it could not even in principle have failed to exist in the first place.  And the argument doesn't merely assume or stipulate that the first cause is like this; on the contrary, the whole point of the argument is to try to show that there must be something like this.

Different versions of the cosmological argument approach this task in different ways.  Aristotelian versions argue that change – the actualization of the potentials inherent in things – cannot in principle occur unless there is a cause that is “pure actuality,” and thus can actualize other things without itself having to be actualized.  Neo-Platonic versions argue that composite things cannot in principle exist unless there is a cause of things that is absolutely unified or non-composite.  Thomists not only defend the Aristotelian versions, but also argue that whatever has an essence or nature distinct from its existence – so that it must derive existence from something outside it – must ultimately be caused by something whose essence just is existence, and which qua existence or being itself need not derive its existence from another.  Leibnizian versions argue that whatever does not have the sufficient reason for its existence in itself must ultimately derive its existence from something which does have within itself a sufficient reason for its existence, and which is in that sense necessary rather than contingent.  And so forth.  (Note that I am not defending or even stating the arguments here, but merely giving single sentence summaries of the general approach several versions of the arguments take.)

So, to ask “What caused God?” really amounts to asking “What caused the thing that cannot in principle have had a cause?”, or “What actualized the potentials in that thing which is pure actuality and thus never had any potentials of any sort needing to be actualized in the first place?”, or “What imparted a sufficient reason for existence to that thing which has its sufficient reason for existence within itself and did not derive it from something else?”  And none of these questions makes any sense.  Of course, the atheist might say that he isn’t convinced that the cosmological argument succeeds in showing that there really is something that could not in principle have had a cause, or that is purely actual, or that has a sufficient reason for its existence within itself.  He might even try to argue that there is some sort of hidden incoherence in these notions.  But merely to ask “What caused God?” – as if the defender of the cosmological argument had overlooked the most obvious of objections – simply misses the whole point.  A serious critic has to grapple with the details of the arguments.  He cannot short-circuit them with a single, simplistic question.  (Also, if some anonymous commenter in a combox can think up such an objection, then you can be certain that Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. already thought of it too.)

3. “Why assume that the universe had a beginning?” is not a serious objection to the argument.

The reason this is not a serious objection is that no version of the cosmological argument assumes this at all.  Of course, the kalām cosmological argument does claim that the universe had a beginning, but it doesn’t merely assume it.  Rather, the whole point of that version of the cosmological argument is to establish through detailed argument that the universe must have had a beginning.  You can try to rebut those arguments, but to pretend that one can dismiss the argument merely by raising the possibility of an infinite series of universes (say) is to miss the whole point.

The main reason this is a bad objection, though, is that most versions of the cosmological argument do not even claim that the universe had a beginning.  Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Thomistic, and Leibnizian cosmological arguments are all concerned to show that there must be an uncaused cause even if the universe has always existed.  Of course, Aquinas did believe that the world had a beginning, but (as all Aquinas scholars know) that is not a claim that plays any role in his versions of the cosmological argument.  When he argues there that there must be a First Cause, he doesn’t mean “first” in the order of events extending backwards into the past.  What he means is that there must be a most fundamental cause of things which keeps them in existence at every moment, whether or not the series of moments extends backwards into the past without a beginning.

In fact, Aquinas rather famously rejected what is now known as the kalām argument.  He did not think that the claim that the universe had a beginning could be established through philosophical arguments.  He thought it could be known only via divine revelation, and thus was not suitable for use in trying to establish God’s existence.  (Here, by the way, is another basic test of competence to speak on this subject.  Any critic of the Five Ways who claims that Aquinas was trying to show that the universe had a beginning and that God caused that beginning – as Richard Dawkins does in his comments on the Third Way in The God Delusion – infallibly demonstrates thereby that he simply doesn’t know what he is talking about.)

4. “No one has given any reason to think that the First Cause is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, etc.” is not a serious objection to the argument.

People who make this claim – like, again, Dawkins in The God Delusion – show thereby that they haven’t actually read the writers they are criticizing.  They are typically relying on what other uninformed people have said about the argument, or at most relying on excerpts ripped from context and stuck into some anthology (as Aquinas’s Five Ways so often are).  Aquinas in fact devotes hundreds of pages across various works to showing that a First Cause of things would have to be all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, and so on and so forth.  Other Scholastic writers and modern writers like Leibniz and Samuel Clarke also devote detailed argumentation to establishing that the First Cause would have to have the various divine attributes.

Of course, an atheist might try to rebut these various arguments.  But to pretend that they don’t exist – that is to say, to pretend, as so many do, that defenders of the cosmological argument typically make an undefended leap from “There is a First Cause” to “There is a cause of the world that is all-powerful, all-knowing, etc.” – is, once again, simply to show that one doesn’t know what one is talking about.

5. “The argument doesn’t prove that Christianity is true” is not a serious objection to the argument.

No one claims that the cosmological argument by itself suffices to show that Christianity is true, that Jesus of Nazareth was God Incarnate, etc.  That’s not what it is intended to do.  It is intended to establish only what Christians, Jews, Muslims, philosophical theists, and other monotheists hold in common, viz. the view that there is a divine cause of the universe.  Establishing the truth of specifically Christian claims about this divine cause requires separate arguments, and no one has ever pretended otherwise.

It would also obviously be rather silly for an atheist to pretend that unless the argument gets you all the way to proving the truth of Christianity, specifically, then there is no point in considering it.  For if the argument works, that would suffice all by itself to refute atheism.  It would show that the real debate is not between atheism and theism, but between the various brands of theism.

6. “Science has shown such-and-such” is not a serious objection to (most versions of) the argument.

There are versions of the cosmological argument that appeal to scientific considerations – most notably, the version of the kalām argument defended by William Lane Craig.  But even Craig’s argument also appeals to separate, purely philosophical considerations that do not stand or fall with the current state of things in cosmology or physics.  And most versions of the cosmological argument do not in any way depend on particular scientific claims.  Rather, they start with extremely general considerations that any possible scientific theorizing must itself take for granted – for example, that there is any empirical world at all, or any world of any sort at all.

It is sometimes claimed (for example, by Anthony Kenny and J. L. Mackie) that some of Aquinas’s arguments for God’s existence depend on outdated theses in Aristotelian physics.  But Thomists have had little difficulty in showing that this is false.  In fact the arguments depend only on claims of Aristotelian metaphysics which can be disentangled from any outdated scientific assumptions and shown to be defensible whatever the scientific details turn out to be, precisely because (so the Thomist argues) they concern what any possible scientific theory has to presuppose.  (Naturally, I address this issue in Aquinas.)

Of course, many atheists are committed to scientism, and maintain that there are no rational forms of inquiry other than science.  But unless they provide an argument for this claim, they are merely begging the question against the defender of the cosmological argument, whose position is precisely that there are rational arguments that are distinct from, and indeed more fundamental than, empirical scientific arguments.  Moreover, defending scientism is no easy task – in fact the view is simply incoherent, or so I would argue (as I have in several previous posts).  Be that as it may, merely shouting “Science!” doesn’t prove anything.

7. The argument is not a “God of the gaps” argument.

Since the point of the argument is precisely to explain (part of) what science itself must take for granted, it is not the sort of thing that could even in principle be overturned by scientific findings.  For the same reason, it is not an attempt to plug some current “gap” in scientific knowledge.  Nor is it, in its historically most influential versions anyway, a kind of “hypothesis” put forward as the “best explanation” of the “evidence.”  It is rather an attempt at strict metaphysical demonstration.  To be sure, like empirical science it begins with empirical claims, but they are empirical claims that are so extremely general that (as I have said) science itself cannot deny them without denying its own evidential and metaphysical presuppositions.  And it proceeds from these premises, not by probabilistic theorizing, but via strict deductive reasoning.  In this respect, to suggest (as Richard Dawkins does) that the cosmological argument fails to consider more “parsimonious” explanations than an uncaused cause is like saying that the Pythagorean theorem is merely a “theorem of the gaps” and that more “parsimonious” explanations of the “geometrical evidence” might be forthcoming.  It simply misunderstands the nature of the reasoning involved.

Of course, an atheist might reject the very possibility of such metaphysical demonstration.  He might claim that there cannot be a kind of argument which, like mathematics, leads to necessary truths and yet which, like science, starts from empirical premises.  But if so, he has to provide a separate argument for this assertion.  Merely to insist that there cannot be such an argument simply begs the question against the cosmological argument.

None of this entails that the cosmological argument is not open to potential criticism.  The point is that the kind of criticism one might try to raise against it is simply not the kind that one might raise in the context of empirical science.  It requires instead knowledge of metaphysics and philosophy more generally.  But that naturally brings us to the next point:

8. Hume and Kant did not have the last word on the argument.  Neither has anyone else.

It is often claimed that Hume, or maybe Kant, essentially had the last word on the subject of the cosmological argument and that nothing significant has been or could be said in its defense since their time.  I think that no philosopher who has made a special study of the argument would agree with this judgment, and again, that includes atheistic philosophers who ultimately reject the argument.  For example, I don’t think anyone who has studied the issue would deny that Elizabeth Anscombe presented a serious objection to Hume’s claim that something could conceivably come into existence without a cause.  Nor is Anscombe by any means the only philosopher to have criticized Hume on this issue.  I’m not claiming that everyone would agree that the objections leveled by Anscombe and others are at the end of the day correct (though I think they are), only that they would agree that it is wrong to pretend that Hume somehow ended all serious debate on the issue.  (Naturally, I discuss this issue in Aquinas.)

To take another example, Hume’s objection that the cosmological argument commits a fallacy of composition is, as I have noted in an earlier post, also greatly overrated.  For one thing, it assumes that the cosmological argument is concerned with explaining why the universe as a whole exists, and that is simply not true of all versions of the argument.  Thomists often emphasize that the argument of Aquinas’s On Being and Essence requires only the premise that something or other exists – a stone, a tree, a book, your left shoe, whatever.  The claim is that none of these things could exist even for an instant unless maintained in being by God.  You don’t need to start the argument with any fancy premise about the universe as a whole; all you need is a premise to the effect that a stone exists, or a shoe, or what have you.  (Again, see Aquinas for the full story.)  Even versions of the argument that do begin with a premise about the universe as a whole are (in my view and that of many others) not really damaged by Hume’s objection, for reasons I explain in the post just linked to.  In any event, I think that anyone who has studied the cosmological argument in any depth would agree that it is certainly seriously debatable whether Hume draws any blood here.

In general, critics of the cosmological argument tend arbitrarily to hold it to a standard to which they do not hold other arguments.  In other areas of philosophy, even the most problematic views are treated as worthy of continuing debate.  The fact that there are all sorts of serious objections to materialist theories of the mind, or consequentialist views in ethics, or Rawlsian liberal views in political philosophy, does not lead anyone to suggest that these views shouldn’t be taken seriously.  But the fact that someone somewhere raised such-and-such an objection to the cosmological argument is routinely treated as if this sufficed to establish that the argument has been decisively “refuted” and needn’t be paid any further attention.

Jason Rosenhouse plays this game in his response to my recent blog post on Jerry Coyne.  Writes Rosenhouse:

"Feser seems rather taken with [the cosmological argument], but there are many strong refutations to be found in the literature.  Off the top of my head, I found Mackie's discussion in The Miracle of Theism and Robin Le Poidevin's discussion in Arguing for Atheism to be both cogent and accessible."

Does Rosenhouse really think that we defenders of the cosmological argument aren’t familiar with Mackie and Le Poidevin?  Presumably not.  But then, what’s his point?  That is to say, what point is he trying to make that doesn’t manifestly beg the question?  After all, what would Rosenhouse think of the following “objection”:

"Rosenhouse seems rather taken with the materialist view of the mind, but there are many strong refutations to be found in the literature.  Off the top of my head, I found Foster’s The Immaterial Self and the essays in Koons’ and Bealer’s The Waning of Materialism to be both cogent and accessible."

Or, while we’re on the subject of what prominent mainstream atheist philosophers have said, what would he think of:

"Rosenhouse seems rather taken with Darwinism, but there are many strong refutations to be found in the literature.  Off the top of my head, I found Fodor’s and Piatelli-Palmarini’s discussion in What Darwin Got Wrong and David Stove’s discussion in Darwinian Fairytales to be both cogent and accessible."

Rosenhouse’s answer to both “objections” would, I imagine, be: “Since when did Foster, Koons, Bealer, Fodor, Piatelli-Palmarini, and Stove get the last word on these subjects?”  And that would be a good answer.  But no less good is the following answer to Rosenhouse: Since when did Mackie and Le Poidevin have the last word on the cosmological argument?

“But that’s different!” I imagine Rosenhouse would say.  But how is it different?  This brings us to one last point:

9. What “most philosophers” think about the argument is irrelevant.

Presumably, the difference is in Rosenhouse’s view summed up in another remark he makes in his post, viz. “There's a reason most philosophers are atheists” (he cites this survey as evidence).  By contrast, most philosophers are not dualists or critics of Darwinism (though in fact the number of prominent dualists is not negligible, but let that pass).  Now if what Rosenhouse means to imply is that philosophers who have made a special study of the cosmological argument now tend to agree that it is no longer worthy of serious consideration, then for reasons already stated, he is quite wrong about that.  But what he probably means to imply is rather that since most contemporary academic philosophers in general are atheists, we should conclude that the cosmological argument isn’t worth serious consideration.

But what does this little statistic really mean?  Nothing at all.  Because Rosenhouse’s little crack really amounts to little more than a fallacious appeal to authority-cum-majority.  What “most philosophers” think could be relevant to the subject at hand only if we could be confident that academic philosophers in general, and not just philosophers of religion, were both competent to speak on the cosmological argument and reasonably objective about it.  And in fact there is good reason to think that neither condition holds.

Consider first that, as I have documented in several previous posts (herehere, and here) prominent philosophers who are not specialists in the philosophy of religion often say things about the cosmological argument that are demonstrably incompetent.  Consider further that those who do specialize in areas of philosophy concerned with arguments like the cosmological argument do not tend to be atheists, as I noted here.  If expertise counts for anything – and many atheist scientists are always insisting that it does – then surely we cannot dismiss the obvious implication that those who actually bother to study arguments like the cosmological argument in depth are more likely to regard them as serious arguments, and even as convincing arguments.

Now the New Atheist will maintain that the direction of causality goes the other way.  It isn’t that studying the cosmological argument in detail tends to lead one to take religious belief seriously, they will say.  It’s rather that people who already take religious belief seriously tend to be more likely to study the cosmological argument.  Of course, it would be nice to hear a non-question-begging reason for thinking that this is all that is going on.  And there is reason for doubting that this can be all that is going on.  After all, there are lots of other arguments and ideas supportive of religion that academic philosophers of religion do not devote much attention to – young earth creationism, spiritualism, and the like.  Evidently, the reason they devote more attention to the cosmological argument is that they sincerely believe, on the basis of their knowledge of it, that the argument is worthy of serious study in a way these other ideas are not, and not merely because they are predisposed to accept its conclusion.

The objection in question is also one that cuts both ways.  For why suppose that the atheist philosophers are more objective than the theist ones?  In particular, why should we be so confident that most philosophers (outside philosophy of religion) are atheists because they’ve seriously studied arguments like the cosmological argument and found them wanting?  Why not conclude instead that, precisely because they tend for other reasons to be atheists, they haven’t bothered to study arguments like the cosmological argument very seriously?  The cringe-inducingremarks some of them make about the argument certainly provides support for this suspicion.  (Again, I give examples herehere, and here.)

And there is other reason for suspicion.  After all, as philosophers with no theological ax to grind sometimes complain – see here and here for a few examples – their colleagues can too often be smugly insular and ill-informed about sub-disciplines outside their own and about the history of their own field.  And like other academics, they can be unreflective, dogmatic, and uninformed in their secularism.  Here too you don’t have to take my word for it.  Many prominent secular philosophers themselves have noted the same thing.

Hence Thomas Nagel opines that a “fear of religion” seems often to underlie the work of his fellow secularist intellectuals, and that it has had “large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life.”  He continues:

"I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.  It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief.  It's that I hope there is no God!  I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.  My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time.  One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about human life, including everything about the human mind… This is a somewhat ridiculous situation… [I]t is just as irrational to be influenced in one’s beliefs by the hope that God does not exist as by the hope that God does exist. (The Last Word, pp. 130-131)"

Jeremy Waldron tells us that:

"Secular theorists often assume they know what a religious argument is like: they present it as a crude prescription from God, backed up with threat of hellfire, derived from general or particular revelation, and they contrast it with the elegant complexity of a philosophical argument by Rawls (say) or Dworkin.  With this image in mind, they think it obvious that religious argument should be excluded from public life... But those who have bothered to make themselves familiar with existing religious-based arguments in modern political theory know that this is mostly a travesty... (God, Locke, and Equality, p. 20)"

Tyler Burge opines that “materialism is not established, or even clearly supported, by science” and that its hold over his peers is analogous to that of a “political or religious ideology” (“Mind-Body Causation and Explanatory Practice,” in John Heil and Alfred Mele, eds., Mental Causation, p. 117)

John Searle tells us that “materialism is the religion of our time,” that “like more traditional religions, it is accepted without question and… provides the framework within which other questions can be posed, addressed, and answered,” and that “materialists are convinced, with a quasi-religious faith, that their view must be right” (Mind: A Brief Introduction, p. 48)

William Lycan admits, in what he himself calls “an uncharacteristic exercise in intellectual honesty,” that the arguments for materialism are no better than the arguments against it, that his “own faith in materialism is based on science-worship,” and that “we also always hold our opponents to higher standards of argumentation than we obey ourselves.” (“Giving Dualism its Due,” a paper presented at the 2007 Australasian Association of Philosophy conference at the University of New England)

The atheist philosopher of religion Quentin Smith maintains that “the great majority of naturalist philosophers have an unjustified belief that naturalism is true and an unjustified belief that theism (or supernaturalism) is false.”  For their naturalism typically rests on nothing more than an ill-informed “hand waving dismissal of theism” which ignores “the erudite brilliance of theistic philosophizing today.”  Smith continues:

"If each naturalist who does not specialize in the philosophy of religion (i.e., over ninety-nine percent of naturalists) were locked in a room with theists who do specialize in the philosophy of religion, and if the ensuing debates were refereed by a naturalist who had a specialization in the philosophy of religion, the naturalist referee could at most hope the outcome would be that “no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding the rationality of faith,” although I expect the most probable outcome is that the naturalist, wanting to be a fair and objective referee, would have to conclude that the theists definitely had the upper hand in every single argument or debate.
Due to the typical attitude of the contemporary naturalist...the vast majority of naturalist philosophers have come to hold (since the late 1960s) an unjustified belief in naturalism. Their justifications have been defeated by arguments developed by theistic philosophers, and now naturalist philosophers, for the most part, live in darkness about the justification for naturalism. They may have a true belief in naturalism, but they have no knowledge that naturalism is true since they do not have an undefeated justification for their belief.  If naturalism is true, then their belief in naturalism is accidentally true. [“The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” Philo: A Journal of Philosophy(Fall-Winter 2001)]"

Again, Nagel, Waldron, Burge, Searle, Lycan, and Smith are not apologists for religion.  Apart from Smith, they aren’t even philosophers of religion.  All of them are prominent, and all of them are “mainstream.”  They have no motive for saying the things they do other than that that is the way things honestly strike them based on their knowledge of the field.

But scientists shouldn’t get smug over lapses in objectivity among philosophers.  For at least where philosophical matters are concerned, many scientists are hardly more competent or objective, as I showed in an earlier post, and as the embarrassing philosophical efforts of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking illustrate.  And if you think even their “purely scientific” pronouncements are always free of anything but good old tough-minded “just the facts, ma’am” objectivity… well, as Dawkins will tell you, you shouldn’t believe fairy tales.  Biologist Richard Lewontin let the cat out of the bag some time ago:

"Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural.  We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.  It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.  Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.  [From a review of Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World in the New York Review of Books (January 9, 1997)]"

But here’s the bottom line.  The “What do respectable people say?” stuff that Rosenhouse, Coyne, and other New Atheists are always engaging in is juvenile, and futile too, since they are never able to tell us what counts as “respectable” in a way that doesn’t beg all the questions at issue.  It is amazing how much time and energy New Atheist types put into trying to come up with ever more elaborate excuses for not engaging their critics’ actual arguments.  If that alone doesn’t make you suspicious, then I submit that you are not thinking critically.

Originally posted at Dr. Edward Feser's blog. Used with author's permission.
(Image Credit: Birst)

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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