Tuesday, February 3, 2015

New Atheism and Edward Feser’s Thomistic Gambit

Imagine living in a country that’s been run by a dictator for decades. The dictator’s removed from power by progressive rebels, then humiliated and imprisoned. Instead of using his time in prison to reflect on the error of his ways and to repent, the dictator becomes bitter: holding the bars of his prison cell door, he excoriates the new administration’s progressive ideals and accuses his people of being fools for not allowing him to reign over them once more.

That’s an analogy for the uppity Catholic’s chutzpah. If you think the species of pompous, haughty Catholics is extinct, having been killed off in the last few centuries by skeptical hunters of dogmas, take a look at Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of New Atheism. To be sure, Feser, a philosophy professor, likely fills that book with disdain because he’s guided by the lex talionis, the principle that what goes around should come around: new atheists have sneered at and ridiculed Christians for long enough, so proud Christians should respond in kind. But this doesn’t entirely explain the tone of that book or of Feser’s blog in which he celebrates the absoluteness of scholastic theology. The question is how Christians today can find it in them to be proud of their faith, given that, like the dictator, the Church has lost its totalitarian control over Western life. How can a Catholic, in particular, examine Western history from the classical period to the modern one, and conclude not just that modern philosophy has been a farcical blunder but that the only solution is to return to the medieval way of thinking perfected by Thomas Aquinas?

The question is rhetorical, but this is exactly what Feser’s done and it accounts for the uncanny match between the style of his response to the current popularity of atheism, and the stereotype of modern Catholic apologetics as being mainly an expression of pretensions mixed with bitterness. In this respect, the Catholic polemicist is rather like a conservative Briton, exemplified by Niall Ferguson who admires the old British Empire. Not chastened but passive aggressive, these conservatives have the gall to side with the bully even after the bully’s disgraced himself. But whereas Ferguson does so for pragmatic rather than moralistic or philosophical reasons (Ferguson says the British Empire pioneered free trade and globalization, maintained global peace, and stood against the much worse empires of Germany and Japan in the last century), Feser argues that Thomism annihilates the philosophy of New Atheism.

You see, Feser isn’t merely playing a role, taking revenge against atheistic screeds for their hostility towards Christianity, or pursuing a marketing strategy. He seems genuinely furious because he thinks that New Atheism is so obviously false to those who know how to reason, that atheists are clueless about that fact, and that few recognize that Thomism is the supremely rational worldview. He’s thus very much like a resentful devotee to the imprisoned dictator, who labours under the delusion that his master was born to rule. The downfall of such a smug, sanctimonious institution as the Catholic Church is sublime, meaning that when the members of an institution become so powerful and thus naturally deluded and corrupt that an infinite abyss emerges between their inflated self-image and the reality of what they’ve become, their sudden fall echoes in that abyss like a mighty thunderclap heard around the world. Pride goes before the fall, but this is a secret recipe for the most exquisite comedy, because the greater the pride, the more monstrous the dupe who sets herself up for a pratfall, and we’d rather laugh at than be terrified by monsters. Not that all supervillains get their comeuppance, but when they do the comedy is poetically just. However, when the supervillains or their henchmen continue to curse those who’ve engineered their demise, vowing revenge even while wriggling beneath the superhero’s boot heel, there comes a moment when the impulse to pity them overtakes the urge to laugh at them.

Thomism’s Bastardization of the Perennial Philosophy

But let’s prepare ourselves to look at how Feser sees the world. Mind the lightshow now as we travel back in time to periods governed by strange, obsolete mindsets. According to Feser, the new atheist is hardly a superhero because she’s utterly blind to the nature of the conflict at hand. Often unwittingly, the new atheist subscribes to scientism, which is a form of idolatry in which science is regarded as the only source of knowledge. Thus, the new atheist mistakes all scientific progress for an intellectual development away from religion, whereas there’s no conflict between religion and science itself. Science is neutral on religious questions, because the terms of those questions are philosophical and theological. Science is only one kind of Reason, another being the philosophical evaluation of ideas which was developed long ago in the West by Plato and Aristotle and perfected by Augustine and Aquinas.

So while science itself is silent on whether theism or atheism is true, Reason turns out to favour theism. This is because the modern philosophical interpretation of science, which the new atheist confuses with the scientific picture itself, is only the self-defeating mechanistic (materialistic or naturalistic) one that reduces rationality and morality themselves to illusions. In this way, the mere power of advanced industrial societies can be mistaken for a sign of the truth of the science-centered, materialistic philosophy shared by new atheists. Materialism is a universal acid that eats away the very ideas of truth, freewill, and morality, so that the atheist is left with rationalizations of libertinism, the beastliness of postmodern culture, and the farce of scientistic idolatry. Far from the light of Reason turning back savage Christians and their theistic superstitions, the classical philosophy overturns all idols so that we can behold the light of God. All of nature testifies to God’s glory, as shown by Thomistic philosophy which is the synthesis of Aristotle’s metaphysics (his hylomorphism and teleology) and Aquinas’s systematic elaboration of the Catholic worldview.   

There’s some truth in this critique of New Atheism. Scientism is indeed a scourge in new atheistic havens on the internet, because the science-centered dismissal of philosophy for being too close to theology entails a dreary sort of Philistinism which befits those being groomed as drudges in our kleptocracies. Alas, Feser is in no position to tout Thomism or the classical or perennial philosophies on which it’s based. Before I explain why, here are the rudiments of the philosophy in question. Perennialism is the idea that the world’s major religions share an essential spiritual message. In the West, this message started with Plato’s formulation of the secrets of the Mystery cults which later were elaborated by Gnostic religions and which found their way into orthodox Christianity through Aquinas’s incorporation of Aristotle’s naturalized version of Platonism. (The perennial philosophy has independent origins in the East, based ultimately as it is, I believe, on speculative assimilations of universal psychedelic experiences that began with the earliest, shamanic religions.) Rather than perfecting perennialism, though, as Feser says, Aquinas bastardized it so it could serve the purposes of Catholic theocracy, since the philosophical perspective in question is subversive and thus had been reserved for esoteric circles, such as for the marginalized shamans or the underground Eleusinian Mysteries.

As for the philosophy’s content, it’s superficially dualistic and normative, but ultimately monistic and mystical: the present, material world is regarded as a shadow of hidden, transcendent reality, the latter being in all ways better than the former. Epistemically, enlightenment is possible but burdensome, because the material world acts as a prison, distracting us so that we tend to lose our chance to be liberated from our bodies and to gain access to the Supreme Being that reposes in a supernatural domain. The seeker must be physically and mentally purified before she’s able to perceive the final truth, which is that ultimately only God exists and so each of us is inwardly divine. Plato crystalized all of this in his Cave analogy, while Aristotle started the adulteration that Aquinas would complete, by naturalizing the abstract, immaterial Forms as well as draining God of his vitality, turning him into a loveless, do-nothing intellectual. Nevertheless, Aristotle was no materialist in the modern sense, since he preserved perennialism’s normative framework: God, the prime mover, exercises a kind of magnetic force of goodness, like the Force in Star Wars or the Way in Daoism, so that all things in nature try to fulfill their purpose. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas, the kingdom of heaven is spread upon the earth and people don’t see it; likewise, Aristotle would say that the heavenly forms aren’t transcendent or alien since they’re manifest as the endpoints of all natural processes in which potentials are actualized. Seeds tend to grow into trees, and that’s a natural purpose and thus a good that’s achieved. Even when rain falls downward from clouds rather than flying in all directions, that’s also the achievement of a good, indicating the equivalent of a virtue that might have been otherwise in a more chaotic world in which things didn’t gravitate towards God’s perfection.

For Aristotle, God’s immateriality removes him from the material plane and he’s preoccupied with abstract, intellectual matters, following again from his incorporeality, so that God is supposed to retain just enough alienness to motivate the Gnostic disgust for the material world. But there’s really little such motivation for Aristotle, who evidently loved nature. The essence of the perennial philosophy is the subversive and ego-destroying suspicion that the entire natural universe is fallen and perverse compared to a secret, supernatural world that’s mostly beyond our comprehension. Aristotle wanted a compromise between, on the one hand, Gnosticism and Platonism, not to mention the exoteric versions of that spirituality in mass Greek religions, as codified by Hesiod and Homer, and on the other the atheistic materialism of most classical Greek philosophy, as in Democritus’s atomism. Aristotle replaced a fully personal God with a more abstract, philosophical ideal, as Plato had done, and he posited a means by which the heavenly Forms—that is, the Universals of which all embodied things are instances and imperfect copies—nevertheless participate in the fallen world. The means are the dynamic of potentiality and actuality, along with the force that binds things fulfilling their potential with the ultimate good. But his reason for thinking that the First Cause is perfect is little more than an elitist preference for philosophical contemplation, which is, of course, also nakedly anthropocentric. If it could care about anything, why would a seed or a raindrop care to be in alignment with an aloof, narcissistic Intellectual who can merely cogitate rather than do anything? Without such alignment, though, the First Cause’s alleged perfection doesn’t transfer to any normative status of the fulfillment of natural functions, and so Aristotle’s compromise fails. Nature would remain full of morally neutral processes, the end states of which being neither objectively good nor bad.

Plato, too, had trouble explaining why the Forms are better than their material copies. The Forms are eternal and changeless, but that doesn’t exactly make them good—terrifyingly alien in their death-like finality, perhaps, but not necessarily better than being copies in the changeable, material realm. We betray our preference for that supposedly fallen realm when we imagine ourselves in heaven as having “spiritual bodies” capable of pseudo-motion and change. Perhaps Plato anticipated the modern obsession with originality, since he seemed to despise material things just for being secondary. More precisely, though, Plato’s idea was that the immaterial, transcendent world is better because it’s more real than the material world. The visible cosmos is like a parade of shadows on a cave wall cast by things outside that are struck by rays from the sun. Enlightened philosophers see natural things for the illusory shadows they are and want to know the truth of the abstract Forms that interact more closely with the equivalent of sunlight. But Plato has little to say about Goodness itself, about the mystical analogue of the sun that sets out these metaphysical dimensions and relations. For Plato, the metaphysical truth aligns with goodness and beauty, and so the latter two properties increase as we approach the highest reality, which we do through rational contemplation. To the extent that we’re preoccupied with the pleasures of sense experience, we’re liable to be misled into thinking that only the impermanent copies are real, in which case we live as animals rather than potentially illuminated humans.  

Aquinas, of course, adds much to God’s biography, informing us as to how exactly nature is consummated in supernature. God is indeed the supreme intellect but he’s not aloof from the world. Aquinas is a theist, not a deist: his god isn’t just a philosopher but a creator, and so God designs and produces everything, assigning them their functions and thus the natural laws that have prescriptive force. Nature is defined by the functions which all things tend to fulfill according to their essential capacities, which are all established by God’s intentions, and natural law is the extent to which the material world participates in the divine reality that’s run by eternal law and that’s known imperfectly by means of our rational capacity. The natural world is good because it was created by an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent deity, but this world is also imperfect and fallen, because it’s currently in the process of fulfilling God’s plan. Only in the end times will natural and eternal law align and God’s intentions for creating a world be fully revealed.

As I said, Aquinas’s theism represents a step towards vulgarization and away from the esoteric insight at the heart of perennialism. This is because Aquinas derives the normativity of natural functions from his personification of God, which merely moralizes the value of natural tendencies. Thomists err in thinking of natural moral laws as being objective, and so Feser evidently believes he can hide his disgust for homosexuality, for example, behind an alleged rational judgment that homosexuality is unnatural and thus bad as a matter of fact. If natural (rather than legal or human social) laws carry prescriptive rather than just descriptive weight, that is, if they tell us what ought to be done, because they’re determined by God’s design so that everything becomes artificial, the laws are still only subjectively good, depending on whether you agree with the designer’s reason for implementing them. In exactly the same way, we can approve or disapprove of the purpose behind creating some piece of technology, and there’s nothing more to the technology’s value than that evaluation of the purpose. Just because the design is objectively implemented in a material thing that tends to achieve its function doesn’t mean the function itself is normatively praiseworthy. If a scientist creates a doomsday weapon that would wipe out all life on the planet, the mere fact that the device would naturally work wouldn’t make its use good rather than bad. Obviously, the normative evaluation depends on an evaluation of the designer’s purpose; only if all life deserved to be wiped out, for example, might the weapon’s ability to fulfill its function be justly praised as akin to a virtue. But that praise would be subjective in that it wouldn’t follow merely from any set of facts. That’s the price of dealing with prescriptions and not just with descriptions: subjectivity—not that Aquinas, the theist, could afford to keep the difference straight. In any case, not even Aquinas’s theism accounts for the alleged teleological dimension of nature, since he leaves God’s intention for creating the world a mystery, put off until the end of days. The best we can do now is trust in scriptural revelation that God is good and that he has his reasons, but that’s where scholastic philosophy ends in a fallacious appeal to authority.

Here a Thomist might point out that Aquinas was no naïve literalist, since he agreed with mystics that we can know God only by way of negative theology. As Aquinas said, “We cannot know what God is, but only what He is not.” But Aquinas added positive to negative theology, so he wasn’t simply a mystic, which is to say a true perennialist. He argued that analogies can tell us about God’s essence and character, since the similarities hold as long as we understand that God has none of the limitations present in nature. Moreover, Aquinas believed the Bible is inerrant revelation and he defended the traditional Catholic interpretations of scripture. For example, he says God is a Trinity of persons. Like Aristotle, then, Aquinas was caught between the elitist mystical, philosophical conception of God and the vulgar, literalistic, personal conception. Unlike Aristotle, though, Aquinas was part of a vast institution that had to cater to naïve ideas about God to please its supporters. Thus, Aquinas wasn’t seeking a compromise so much as neutralizing the mystical, depersonalized conception by showing that it’s consistent with Christian revelation which obviously depicts God as a person, not as abstract Being itself. In the same way, scholasticism as a whole is meant to show that classical Reason doesn’t discredit Church dogmas, but complements Christian faith. 

To return, though, to how Aquinas bastardizes rather than perfects the perennial philosophy, keep in mind that the perennial way of reconciling the apparent duality of mind and matter with their hidden unity depends on mysticism, and so you lose the insight as soon as you personify the Great Beyond, as Aquinas did. Doing so is Aquinas’s gambit for explaining how reason supports the Christian faith, since we should have no trouble understanding the goodness of artifacts; after all, we who are supposedly made in God’s image design and build many things of which we approve, and so we can imagine how much more wise must be the whole world’s creator. But the price of that analogy is a loss of any mystical basis for ecstasy, and perennialism’s recipe for achieving that altered state of consciousness is the true source of its mystique. True perennialists aren’t interested in mere moral goodness, since that value is all-too human and thus a symptom of our fallenness or mythical imprisonment. Perennialists are seekers after transcendence, bored by the familiar and allured by the strange; they’re not interested in worshipping a personal deity, since worship for them consists not in mouthing platitudes or performing empty ceremonies, but in an authentic religious experience, as in sheer ecstasy which is an encounter with that which can’t be fathomed. Not the mere stale goodness of God, but the holy terror of his alienness is what motivates worship of him in the perennial tradition. Those who blather on about divine morality are evidently in the service of an orthodoxy that has an ulterior, typically political agenda besides any spiritual one. As Aristotle brought Plato’s Forms down to earth, so too Aquinas trivializes the Sun’s analogue in the Cave analogy, taming the perennial philosophy so that it could serve the Roman Catholic Empire that Jews rightly saw as wholly idolatrous in identifying a particular crucified man with God. Perennial worship of God was supposed to lead to ascetic withdrawal or at least to disgust with natural processes, since the perennialist is mesmerized by God’s mysteriousness, by the tantalizing promise of a strange world beyond the present one. Genuine ascetics don’t set up earthly empires or ally themselves with any such thing.

The transcendence of the supernatural, that is, its alienness to knowable forms of matter and energy, inspires the perennial value system. The primary value is amoral since this value is mind-altering horror, an obsession with unsettling hints of understanding the bizarreness of that which is metaphysically primary and thus miraculously freestanding. Aquinas maintains that God is simple rather than complex, meaning that God has no parts. In that case, the entire theistic explanation of the relation between the natural and the supernatural is lost, since God is denied his personhood, including his abilities to think, design, and create. To get around that implication, Aquinas engages in empty word games such as saying that God doesn’t have love as an attribute but is love, just as he is goodness and wisdom and power and so forth. Indeed, in the perennial philosophy God is simple, if only because this philosophy is mystical and so doesn’t allow us to say anything definite or coherent about the transcendent being. God would be as simple as the silence brought on by awe during a mystical encounter with the supernatural.

In this regard, Lovecraft’s cosmicism and the existential philosophies that prioritize the emotions of angst and dread are true inheritors of perennialism. The horror of perennial metaphysics is just the horror for the Other and for the loss of personal identity in our realization that everything is fundamentally one. Thomism tames the source of that horror to make perennialism fit for mass consumption, because that’s Catholicism’s modus operandi, meaning that that’s what Catholics have done ever since their New Testament scapegoated Jews and Hellenized Judaism to make some Jewish scriptures suitable for adoption by the Roman Empire: if they couldn’t wipe out heresies by force, Catholics incorporated the opposing ideas and practices by sleight of hand. Thus, the Eucharist ceremony co-opts the fertility rites of Dionysus and Osiris, the adoration of Mother Mary co-opts the worship of Isis, the celebration of Jesus’s birthday on December 25 co-opts sun worship, and so on and so forth. Augustine incorporated Plato into the Catholic ideology and Aquinas did the same for Aristotle, thus giving pagans all the less reason to resist converting to Christianity.

Catholicism became universal by bastardizing everything in sight, becoming all things to all people. Meanwhile, the actual perennial philosophy went underground in Gnostic and other mystical heresies, including eventually Protestant ones. Perennialism is subversive because the whole point is to have contempt for all earthly constructions, once your eye is set on the alien Beyond. Indeed, militant fundamentalists of all stripes, including the radical Islamists who behead people and thrive in political chaos are likewise genuine heirs to the perennial philosophy, although their dream of a Caliphate runs counter to their mysticism: the fundamentalists are metaphysical dualists who regard the present world as nothing compared to supernature; they consider themselves enlightened elites and dismiss the masses for being captivated by illusions. So when Feser lauds the classical philosophy, he ends up with strange bedfellows—as least until the fundamentalists kick him out as a Thomistic adulterer.

Why, then, is Feser in no position to stand for classical philosophy? Partly, because he’s wrong about Aquinas: Aquinas vulgarized rather than perfected the world’s basic religious teachings. Indeed, Aquinas’s systematic format in Summa Theologica betrays his non-mystical agenda, since no mystic would pretend to have any such exhaustive understanding of spiritual matters. The whole scholastic method of arguing about intellectual issues with excruciating thoroughness is beside the point of perennialism, since the goal is religious experience and the means of achieving it isn’t just the training of the intellect but the purification of the whole person. An authentic perennialist would have to regard systematic theology as an obscenity and a sign of the theologian’s woeful arrogance which is the opposite of the humility needed to fulfill our spiritual purpose. In fact, from the perennial viewpoint, it’s very telling that according to Catholic tradition, Aquinas left the Summa unfinished precisely because he had a mystical experience which led him to think of all his writings as “mere straw” by comparison. So much for Aquinas’s alleged perfecting of classical wisdom.

Aristotle’s Teleology as Bloodless Animism

But there’s another problem, which is that Feser’s anti-scientistic account of Reason is all wrong. To make room for theological knowledge, given science’s branching off from armchair philosophy, Feser thinks he has to show that what we’d now think of as mere metaphysical speculation can be more or less rationally responsible. As the philosopher E. A. Burtt says in The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, metaphysics is inevitable as soon as you start thinking deeply about anything. Positivism is the laziness involved just in not paying attention to your nonscientific assumptions, whereas the task of metaphysics is to make them explicit. Scientific experimentation is one kind of reason, producing objective knowledge, while metaphysical argumentation is another kind producing knowledge that’s equally secure. The question, though, is about the nature of knowledge. Feser likely agrees with the tripartite platonic conception, according to which knowledge is justified, veridical or true belief. Thus, a scientist arrives at a justified, true belief about, say, the mechanics of rainfall, by observing the phenomenon and testing a hypothesis, while a philosopher like Aristotle arrives at a justified, true belief about rain’s having a purpose in addition to some immediate causes. Both beliefs are supported by reasons, such as evidence or logic, and both are true in that the symbols comprising the beliefs stand in a relation of agreeing with certain facts. Philosophical reflection generates knowledge and thus we can know on that basis rather than just on faith or scripture that nature’s potential to transcend itself is in the process of being fulfilled.

To see what’s wrong with this traditional conception, consider Aristotle’s analysis of causality and Aquinas’s proofs of God’s existence. Aristotle distinguishes between material, formal, efficient, and final causes, using the famous example of the cause of a sculpture’s coming into being. If you want to understand what causes the sculpture, you can ask four questions. (1) Out of what does the sculpture come, the answer being, let’s say, bronze. (2) What is the statue’s shape, or what attributes does the material take on in becoming an instance of some type, the answer being, say, that the statue is caused or formed to look like a man. (3) What is the source of change or rest that leads to the sculpture, the answer being the artisan or the art of bronze-casting. (4) What is the sculpture’s purpose, or what good is the sculpture which accounts for why the sculpture comes to exist, the answer being, say, the addition of some beauty to the world or the demonstration of the artisan’s excellence in his craft, which inspires virtue in others.

The limitations of that fourth question are obvious from the example Aristotle chooses. Sculptures are artificial, not entirely natural, meaning that they’re made by sculptors who are creatures that happen to have ideas about the goodness or badness of events. Why assume that natural processes in general have purposes, given that natural as opposed to artificial or intelligently designed causes have no intentions, neither directly nor indirectly, as Aristotle (but not Aquinas) concedes? Aristotle begins with the sculpture to illustrate the difference between the four causes, but there’s apparently a leap involved in extending this analysis of causality to all of nature, given the rarity of artifacts in the universe. Nevertheless, Aristotle contends not just that final causes are found in nature (e.g. in the growth of teeth or the falling of rain) and not merely in artifacts, but that they’re explanatorily primary whenever they’re found, which means that they’re what we mainly want to know when we ask why some event happens. The reason for this is supposed to be that the other three causes don’t explain regularity, which is the essence of causation. For example, an efficient, which is to say a mechanistic cause can explain why rain falls at a particular time, but not why rain tends to fall, or why it generally does so under certain conditions. The teleological answer that events unconsciously conspire to bring about that end because that end is good is supposed to provide just the answer that’s otherwise lacking.

However, Aristotle’s nontheistic teleology does no such thing, since his teleology is just hollowed-out, demystified and thus vacuous animism. If rainclouds were embodiments of gods, as the Greek masses would have assumed, then of course rain might fall literally for some reason, because the reason would be found in the purpose that’s mentally represented in the god. Animism leaves no room for a metaphysical distinction between the natural and the artificial, between something like rain and something like a statue. But when you banish the gods and maintain that natural events nevertheless happen for the good, you’re offering no explanation of such unconscious, unintentional purpose. In particular, there’s no mechanism by means of which rain might naturally fall for the good or to achieve some purpose, for example, once the rain god is eliminated from the picture. Rainclouds have no way to strive towards the good even were there such a thing as objective goodness, given that they have no thoughts or desires.

To his credit, Aristotle appreciated this, as I said, which is why he adds the unmoved mover to his metaphysics of natural substances and purposes. This prime mover would have to be immortal, immaterial, beautiful, intellectual, and unchanging to be the source of all natural motions. With respect to teleology, the prime mover’s most important feature is its beauty, since this supplies the ultimate good to which everything aims, drawn as they are by something like the power of magnetism. The first cause doesn’t directly involve itself in the lower order of beings but merely provides a model for those beings to emulate as best they can. Rain does this by falling instead of rising, because the actual result that tends to happen has as its ultimate final cause the fact that rain strives to achieve the perfection represented by the prime mover, and rain falling is better than rain rising. Again, as to the mechanism of this emulation, given that rain has no perception or conception of anything whatsoever, Aristotle posits a kind of magnetism uniting everything to the prime mover. This magnetic force is merely the ghost of animism past, though, a placeholder to make for Aristotle’s compromise between the mass religion and what he regarded as the absurdity of the purely mechanistic view of most of his contemporary intellectuals. The pseudomagnetism would be a means by which goodness itself draws everything towards its own good.

Probably the deepest problem with this quasi-theological basis of Aristotle’s teleology is that the prime mover seems ideal only to those of a philosophical persuasion. This prime mover is entirely self-absorbed and powerless, having no body but only an intellect which traps itself in its cogitations for eternity. This bloodless god is oblivious to the universe since it’s absorbed in its speculations. The problem is that even if philosophers would seek to emulate such a being, why suppose that everyone would, let alone that material events should be drawn to this ultimate intellect? If rain could speak, why would rain praise Aristotle’s prime mover? What has the one to do with the other? This raises Moore’s Open Question Argument. Even were there a magnetic force joining everything to the prime mover and compelling them to emulate the latter, why infer that the emulation would be good?

If God is alien to us, why assume he’s a higher, better sort of being? Why not a worse one?—a possibility entertained by Gnostics who distinguish the creator god (and architect of natural evil) from the true, transcendent deity that wouldn’t stoop to build anything (rather like Aristotle’s prime mover). How can we compare things that are perfectly alien to each other? If the prime mover is so removed from our plane of existence, why think there’s any normative continuity between nature and that loftiest of intellectuals? And of course, if the prime mover doesn’t transcend nature, because he’s a thinker, after all, Aristotle’s metaphysics becomes absurdly anthropocentric and is refuted by the flood of modern scientific findings of nature’s alienness and indifference to us, and of the parochialism of our intuitions and moral judgments. To the extent that Aristotle’s metaphysics is culturally elitist, he’s left with the question of whether the prime mover is objectively or only subjectively supreme. The activity of thinking deeply may not be good in itself, but only deemed ideal to those with a fitting sort of character. There’s no reason at all, beyond the archaic anthropocentric prejudice, to think that what’s best for all of us, let alone just for some of us, is best also for everything in the universe.

What I’ve shown is that Aristotle’s teleological metaphysics requires theism or animism for it to make sense. Without the prime mover, the goodness of natural tendencies would be inexplicable and gratuitous. But once the anthropocentrism is added, Aristotle’s metaphysics suffers from the familiar embarrassments of mass religion.

The Anthropocentrism of Aquinas’s Principle of Sufficient Reason

Now consider Aquinas’s Five Ways. Feser thinks new atheists ignore these theistic proofs, because they’re scared of facing up to the emptiness of atheistic philosophy. But instead, atheists might appeal to Lewis Mumford’s assessment in The Condition of Man:
[Aquinas’s] Summa Theologica is not a book; it is not even an encyclopedia. One cannot treat it as a literary achievement in the degree that one might refer in this fashion to the work of Aristotle, who is a model for academic exposition: the Summa is rather to be considered a work of engineering, conceived on a cyclopean scale, by one of the ablest technical minds of any age. Roger Bacon, in the thirteenth century, dreamed of motor-driven carriages and airships; but Thomas Aquinas erected a fabric that had nothing to equal it in technical organization until the great textile mills of the nineteenth century were designed and built. Even works of engineering may show imagination and esthetic command; but those are the last qualities to look for in the Summa. An immense textile factory, with a thousand looms, each bringing forth a uniform product—that is the closest image. (131-2)
Again, the Summa is a “complete museum of the medieval mind” (426), which is naturally why those with modern minds usually ignore it. “Only one proof is missing,” Mumford goes on to say. “Unfortunately, it is that on which every other part depends for both its function and its end: the proof of God’s existence…All Thomas Aquinas’s care is devoted to the superstructure, and that, accordingly, is solid and tight; it is the foundations that remain shaky” (133).

Feser contends that Aquinas does prove that God exists and that Christian theism supports Aristotelian teleology, by supplying the divine intentions that govern natural regularities. As in animism, the difference between the natural and the artificial is rendered illusory at best, since God creates everything else and assigns created things their functions, which is why they can work more or less well. As for the theistic proofs, the Oxford Jesuit Frederick Copleston summarizes them in his History of Philosophy:
St. Thomas gives five proofs, and among these five proofs he gives a certain preference to the first, to the extent at least of calling it the via manifestior. However, whatever we may think of this assertion, the fundamental proof is really the third proof or ‘way’, that from contingency. In the first proof the argument from contingency is applied to the special fact of motion or change, in the second proof to the order of causality or causal production, in the fourth proof to degrees of perfection and in the fifth proof to finality, to the co-operation of inorganic objects in the attainment of cosmic order. The argument from contingency itself is based on the fact that everything must have its sufficient reason, the reason why it exists [my emphasis]. Change or motion must have its sufficient reason in an unmoved mover, the series of secondary causes and effects in an uncaused cause, limited perfection in absolute perfection, and finality and order in nature in an Intelligence or Designer. (345-6, vol. II)
Indeed, this interpretation agrees, for the most part, with Mumford’s:
“Every part of the work is directed toward a single goal: life perfected in the sight of God, consummated in Eternity…In Thomism, the Catholic Church found a logical doctrine of evolution from nature to supernature: from the potentialities of this world of flux and change and imperfection to the actualities of complete realization in a state of rest and immobility in another world. This philosophy allowed for the fact of change within the temporal process: it accepted the imperfections and shortcomings of biography and history. But it transferred the ultimate meaning of life to an eternal realm in which the historic process was both consummated and rationally justified in terms that transcended mere human reason (my emphasis). (132)
Copleston goes on to raise the famous worry about whether Aquinas’s necessary being need be the same as the personal deity worshipped by Christians. It might seem “rather cavalier behaviour on St. Thomas’s part,” says Copleston, “to assume that the unmoved mover or the first cause or the necessary being is what we call God. Obviously if anything exists at all, there must be a necessary Being: thought must arrive at this conclusion, unless metaphysics is rejected altogether; but it is not so obvious that the necessary being must be the personal Being whom we call God” (342, my emphasis). I think we can ignore that question and focus on Copleston’s revealing off-hand remark about the principle of sufficient reason. You see, one feature of the medieval mind which Mumford speaks of is the scholastic presumption that metaphysics in general requires everything to have an ultimate reason why it exists. This is why Aquinas’s proofs ban the possibility of an infinite series of this or of that, since such a series would leave us without an ultimate metaphysical explanation of the whole hierarchy. But the principle of sufficient reason is itself anthropocentric, which is why Copleston is strictly correct when he says that “thought must arrive at this conclusion,” not that the rest of the world must give a damn what we think. To assume, on the contrary, that because we prefer not to live with doubt and we grasp at ultimate explanations even to the point of believing in myths and fairytales, the external world itself must bow to that predilection is to assume that the human search for reasons is objectively fundamental to the universe. The obvious reason why that dubious implication would be so, of course, is that God arranged for the symmetry. And so the scholastic understanding of metaphysics practically begs the theistic question at issue.

Metaphysics: Between Mythopoeic Fiction and Technoscientific Power

I’ve shown, then, that Aristotle’s teleological metaphysics and Aquinas’s philosophical proofs of God’s existence venture into anthropocentric territory. This is because they’re vestiges of the primordial mythopoeic worldview. That is, metaphysical speculation is an adult form of play with symbols that approximates the full-time childhood likely experienced by the Paleolithic people, before agriculture led to civilization and decadence which required sages and prophets and gurus to search their unconscious to recall the perennial spiritual outlook. Before the mystical traditions of the major religions recalled how to interpret the world as an organic unity, the mythopoeic nomads had already dissolved the distinction between subject and object, occupying a world enchanted by their childlike unleashing of the imagination.

We can define “reason” however we like, but the vast differences between scientific reason and metaphysical speculation will remain. Reason evolved not as a truth-seeking virtue, but as a Machiavellian form of calculation of hidden motives, which helps social animals outwit each other and negotiate their dominance hierarchies. Reason was a technique for overpowering competitors for resources, by extending experience in a mental map that generalizes and allows for the drawing up of elaborate plans for manipulating conditions to achieve a goal. Our ancient ancestors learned to apply that social instrumentalism to nature, so that natural processes, too, might be outwitted and technologically altered. That move from the social to the natural context was easy because the ancients tended to erase the distinction: they freely imagined that nature is entirely alive, projecting personal attributes onto natural forces and processes. So magic was a protoscientific enterprise in which early engineers sought to manipulate the gods with prayers, sacrifices, and other spells. This was protoscientific in that animism amounted to a model of the world that provided its users with some advantage over nature, if only because the personifications would have made the relatively ignorant ancients self-confident rather than terrified of the wilderness. Animism was instrumental also in that it was devised to extend the human community so that our ancestors could play their mind games on a wider field. Of course, animism is unfalsifiable and unscientific in various other ways, but it was a bold attempt to extend (social) experience to enable the ancients to understand the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar.

Reason, then, began with instrumentalism, that is, with thinking of efficient means of achieving certain goals, and this holds also in the technological applications of modern science. But scientific reason includes the element of impersonality, which severs it from that prehistoric Machiavellianism. Reason now employs the imagination only by way of conceiving hypotheses so that the rational techniques can sort them in terms of their utility. An experiment tests the hypothesis, and if the experiment cheats in that it expresses its designer’s bias, the experiment is repeated by independent designers so that the psychological factor is eliminated. Next, the observations must be interpreted, and although this calls for some creativity, once again the community of scientists assesses models according to established criteria such as the model's simplicity, consistency, accuracy, fruitfulness, and so forth. Once again, truth isn’t crucial to understanding scientific rationality, since this kind of reason is thoroughly pragmatic. Scientists base their models on experience (observation) and use criticism to filter out the models that don’t work. A model that enjoys little empirical support will be deemed speculative. String theory, for example, has been harshly criticized on just this point, and its status as a scientific theory is in question. Indeed, in Mathematics: the Loss of Certainty, mathematician Morris Kline laments the fact that mathematics in general has become less and less empirical and more fragmented along with mathematized physical theories. The point is that reason, as it’s come to be defined in modern times largely by scientific progress, is supposed to be empirical and the more tenuous the connection to direct experience, the more tentative the conclusion that can be inferred, which is to say that scientific reason deals at best with probabilities, not with absolute truths. Even a model's probability is best interpreted as its utility in some instrumental endeavour, which is to say that scientific reason is more about power and control than truth in the sense of an agreement between symbols and facts.    

What, then, is rationality in metaphysics? Metaphysics deals with matters that are far beyond our experience, since metaphysical statements are the most grandiose generalizations. Nevertheless, such statements don’t seem subject to estimates of their probability, which is to say they’re not entertained as scientific models. They’re not testable hypotheses, but highly general stories we tell to round out our worldviews with a bid to making them ultimately coherent. For example, naturalists say there’s no such thing as miracles, ghosts, or gods that operate without any mechanism made of efficient causes. This generalization is philosophical, at best, because it can’t be scientifically tested. We can induce its probability based on accumulated experience, but the issue couldn’t be so easily decided, because what might seem miraculous might instead be the work of advanced technology that uses unknown mechanisms. Whether something counts as natural or as supernatural, then, is largely a definitional matter, which should be compared to the question of whether a new character fits into an established fictional universe. When Frank Herbert died, his son took on the role of adding to the science fictional universe of Dune, just as the task of continuing the Star Wars story in the movies has passed from George Lucas to J. J. Abrams. Whether fans welcome the later works into the fictional world that lives in their imagination isn’t a question of their rationality. What matters is whether the new story captivates them as much as the old one did. Likewise, naturalists and supernaturalists are divided not primarily by successes or failures in exercising reason, but by existential and aesthetic judgments about which story makes for the best backdrop for a person’s life.

Metaphysical generalizations are more like myths or artworks (abstract fictions or poems) than like scientific models. As such, they’re more like projections of the free-flowing imagination than like rigorous works of airtight logic. True, metaphysical systems can be more or less coherent as well as externally consistent with data, but the more such a system resembles a scientific model, the more likely it’s a piece of pseudoscience, that is, an untestable model that camouflages its fallacies of hastiness with a rigorous-sounding vocabulary. Metaphysics in contemporary continental philosophy is clearly artistic, the project being a game in which pretentious adults can convince themselves they’re engaging in high-brow evaluation of prose poetry even though their art is more like a child’s finger painting than a civilized exercise in austere rationality. Can the metaphysician write her gibberish without laughing like a gleeful child?—that’s always the unknown in the case of postmodern metaphysics. As for the analytic tradition, which is presently naturalistic, here we veer in the other direction towards positivistic pseudoscience, or as Feser puts it, towards scientism. All that naturalistic metaphysics adds to the scientific theories themselves is an opportunity to speculate about how we’d interpret the naturalness of something in a bizarre, counterfactual scenario dreamed up in a so-called thought experiment. Could minds be zombies? Could AIs be minds? Could water exist on a Twin Earth? These sorts of entertaining questions are rather like debating whether King Kong could defeat Godzilla. Either way, metaphysics has become more like a game as it’s diverged from science.

But scholastic metaphysics enjoyed its heyday well before that branching occurred, so Aquinas and his followers can be excused for regarding their disputes with the utmost seriousness—as though they weren’t just making stuff up or concocting ad hoc rationalizations at will for dogmas they were enjoined to believe anyway on the basis of faith in the Church’s authority and tradition. Feser has no such excuse. Aristotle’s teleology is a desiccated form of mass animism while Aquinas’s rational case for theism appeals to the anthropocentric principle of sufficient reason, treating metaphysics as absolute, as though the world were forced to pay attention to our stories. The proper evaluation of Thomism is therefore aesthetic, in which case the worldview’s antiquity counts decisively against it, since the fiction’s metaphors have become stale and clichéd. I say this without being facetious, since the scientismist indeed errs in thinking that scientific rationality is the only part of knowledgeassuming we can construe cognition broadly as the entire worldview that supports our rationally justified beliefs. We need stories and even religions to fill in the blanks, because we’re not purely rational animals. But not all stories or religions are created equal, and if Catholics pride themselves on their scholastic tradition’s pseudorationality, that’s all the more reason to think their religion fails to tell a satisfying story—just as we should be suspicious of a science fiction novel that reads more like a physics textbook than like a character-driven narrative. When Nietzsche said that God is dead, he meant that theism is no longer compelling as fiction in the modern world, so that we need a new grand narrative even though it’s hard to see how any could top the whopper of supernaturalism.

This is why I’m genuinely uninterested in determining whether Aquinas’s theistic proofs are sound, for example. Deductive arguments are most useful as conceptual analyses or as algorithms that reliably sort through a list of alternatives. But the more the premises refer to abstract entities that are beyond our experience, the less the logical connections between the statements are relevant. The argument won’t be refuted so much as rendered inconclusive by way of meaninglessness; that is, the issue of whether the logic rationally justifies the conclusion will itself be due to a category error. Aquinas’s arguments may be logically valid, but whether the premises are true is anyone’s guess because they’re abstruse. They can be interpreted in many different ways and have been so. That’s because these arguments are works of art for a rarefied audience, properly speaking.

For example, his arguments speak of the possibility of there being nothing in existence. Pure nonbeing is no part of anyone’s experience, so we can only speculate about how nothingness might relate to natural beings. Again, Aquinas speaks of the possibility of an infinite hierarchy of beings. But no one understands the nature of an actually infinite entity as opposed to a potential infinity like the process of counting the natural numbers. Finally, Aquinas refers to the need to speak of “some being having of itself its own necessity,” which everyone allegedly calls God even though most people think of God as a very old man with a white beard. How should we interpret the idea of something that just has to exist? Maybe this is merely a roundabout way of saying that if God didn’t exist, lots of people would be very, very sad, so that we can’t even tolerate the supposition of atheism; that is, atheism would be taboo. Again, necessary being is no part of ordinary human experience, so arguing about these metaphysical matters is like being a fanboy about whether you have to destroy a zombie’s brain to kill it for good. The entities in question are fictional, albeit abstract rather than concrete. Thus, you can define the terms however you like just as, when confronted by a blank canvas, you can paint whatever you can imagine. Unfortunately for Feser, imagination outstrips our understanding. Just because you can imagine something or write down a series of words, doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about. Thus, the entire question of Thomism’s rationality is beside the point.

The Superiority of Cosmicist Fiction

The upshot is that Feser is in no position to stand for Thomism, because the fictional universe in which that tradition counts as wisdom calls for an alien, virtually mythopoeic mindset. Pockets of that mindset remain in fundamentalist preserves, but modernists have stolen the fundamentalist's thunder, because those myths inspired modernists to build the colossus of democratic, capitalistic, free-thinking society. True, the Scholastics took themselves to be engaged in a rational activity. Indeed, they loved to debate, but their debate took place within the confines of Catholicism. They presupposed that rational discoveries would agree with the faith-based Christian creed, and they never had to test that assumption because their metaphysical disputes were just games. If a line of argument appeared to lead towards heresy, the terms could always be redefined because their religious universe of discourse was perfectly imaginary. Even were we to favour perennialism, we postmodernists (hypermodernists) who are more cynical than the medievalists would have to do so by treating the Thomistic domestication of classical wisdom as compelling fiction, not as quasi-science. 

But Feser wants it both ways: he wants Thomistic philosophy to have the dignity of science even though that philosophy is supposed to be nonscientific, which is what falsifies scientism for him. Instead, scientism is false because the platonic conception of knowledge is naïve; in particular, Truth has little to do with rationality, because reason is pragmatic and so we should speak of technoscience, not of purely theoretical science as the search for inapplicable discoveries. That latter sort of “science” is in danger of being no such thing, as in mathematized physics, as Lee Smolin and other physicists are coming to appreciate. So knowledge requires a useful set of beliefs that empowers us, and philosophy and religion are free to add coherence to the supporting worldview. That’s why scientism is dubious. But Feser is wrong to want metaphysics to be more like a science than an art, a kind of rational reflection rather than a comforting tall tale. Ultimately, the trouble is that Catholicism itself is by now hollow, like Aristotle’s teleology so that the elite Catholic has little conception of the pleasure to be derived from treating a myth as a mesmerizing work of fiction. This Catholic is something of a nihilist, while the mobs of more fervent “Catholics” are the impoverished and often illiterate folks in Central and South America, Africa, and Mexico whose actual religious beliefs are only nominally Catholic.  

In any case, as I said, the postmodern alternative to Thomism which does more justice to perennialism is something like Lovecraft’s cosmicism, which explicitly denies that there’s perfect agreement between what there can be in the world and what we can think—in short, between ontology and epistemology. Our capacity to understand things may not overlap with what can exist; moreover, that point can be generalized so that the universe can include dark zones that are necessarily unfathomable to all possible creatures. As implied by Mumford’s summary of Thomistic philosophy, the world’s consummation in Eternity should surpass reason and require faith, since the next life would transcend our cognitive capacities.

Is speaking of such dark zones, then, pointless? No, since we could suspect or even know that there are such zones, although we obviously couldn’t know more than that. This proof of the cosmicist concept moots the scholastic principle of sufficient reason. Moreover, science has shown not just that cosmicism is possible but that it’s probable, since the deeper we look into nature, the more alien it seems. Think of quantum mechanics, dark matter and energy, black holes, the Big Bang singularity, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, and so on and so forth. Also, the probability of the world’s indifference to the human demand for sufficient (ultimate) reason has an ethical implication, which is that if we wish to grow out of our childish phase in which we overcome the world’s alienness by projecting human nature onto it, we should be humbled as well as horrified. Humility and a proper horror for what it now means to speak of the natural as opposed to the artificial—those are hallmarks of enlightenment.

Most new atheists are not cosmicists and so they’re not so enlightened. Instead, they’re liberal secular humanists, which means they too, like Aquinas and Feser, glorify human beings. The Thomist does so by presupposing that the world must be as small as our understanding, while the humanist does so by affirming the supreme value of human animals. Thomism has been reduced to an obsolete fiction, while liberal humanism is undermined by the fact that the humanist’s commitment to science and to rationality obliges her to suffer also the horror of cosmicism, which negates the liberal’s feel-good values. Few postmodern atheists discharge that obligation, since they undertake the quest for earthly happiness through wealth, power, popularity, sex, and the like. That quest is as grotesque as Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills, in view of the zeitgeist that decenters us. Our happiness is as unbecoming as the soldiers’ stopping in the middle of WWI to celebrate a birthday even as they’re shot to pieces, as depicted in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. All atheists should be on a permanent war footing with the monstrous natural universe. The infamous atheist bus ad encourages everyone to “stop worrying and enjoy your life,” but atheists who best understand the difference between the natural and the artificial should ascetically resist at least some of their natural impulses, so as to avoid being contaminated by the world’s undead drive towards oblivion. At least, that would amount to an existentially authentic life inspired by a worthy and fitting grand narrative.

34 comments:

  1. Just wanted to say I saw your rants on Feser's comment board a few weeks back and thoroughly enjoyed.

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    1. Thanks! After I sent my long farewell blast from both barrels in that forum, I never looked back so I don't how it was received. I kind of like not knowing.

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  2. I realize it's mundane, especially as a response to such a post, but I was curious what your writing life is like? The nuts and bolts as it were. Do you tease the pieces out over a long period of time? You don't post nearly as much as I'd like, but at the same time you have a massive body of work at this point (thank you for the downloadable pdf's btw). I love your writing, it's deeply meaningful to me, but I do get curious sometimes about the simple day-to-day mechanics of producing it. If there's a good interview or piece I haven't run into that discusses the more personal in your work, I'd be happy to be pointed to it. Many thanks.

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    1. Thanks, Guthrie. I used to write more article per month, before I got my new job which gives me less time. If I wasn't working so much I'd still be writing one or more per month, because I have no shortage of ideas or topics.

      The nuts and bolts have changed as my blog has grown. I started by writing several keystone articles on a number of topics to outline the breadth of the blog and to challenge myself to develop a worldview (or to formulate the worldview that had been percolating during my days in philosophy graduate school). After I came up with the idea of the undead God, which became central, the task was to fill in the blanks. I had lots of ideas, which I jotted down on paper. I actually took some photos of those notes and of my workspace, which you can find on my Facebook page (link below). Now that the elements of the worldview have been worked out, I find I've been writing summary or synoptic articles and I'll want to apply the worldview to other people's work, mainly by criticizing certain books or articles, as I've done in the above article.

      As to how I go about writing an RWUG article, my process hasn't changed much. I often have the main points worked out in advance, having jotted down the logic on paper. I then start typing, often completing half or more of the article in one sitting, since I like to block out hours of writing time. So I don't forget what I want to say next, I often type a sketch of the rest of the article before I leave. When I return to the computer, I read over what I've written and edit it. I rarely make more than minor changes, mostly correcting typos, removing redundancies, checking the dictionary and thesaurus for better word choices, and making the sentences flow better.

      (Mind you, when I started writing seriously, years ago as an undergraduate, I had to make many more changes. I'd write my academic essays on paper first and eventually scratch out most of what I'd written, adding the new words, phrases, or sentences in bubbles on the page, with arrows pointing this way and that. I'm better now at writing because I've got a lot of writing under my belt, so I don't have to make those sorts of changes; more precisely, I make them in my head automatically, as it were, before I type the words of the first draft. I think you know you're a good writer when you hear the daimonic voice in your head, so that you can actually write without typing or putting pen to paper, just as great chess players don't need the chessboard to play; the whole thing happens in their head. More on this below.)

      Once I've read it over so it's all in my head, I write the next parts. My older RWUG articles were often ten pages single-spaced, but now they're mostly half that length and I find they tend to divide into introductions followed by two or three sections. It's good to work out the article's structure by thinking in terms of sections and it's good to write whole sections at a time while you have the flow in your mind. After the first draft is finished, I'll read it over again, make the changes and then it's ready for posting. If I wanted to polish it for academic purposes, I'd have to let the draft sit for a month or so and then come back to it cold and edit it with more ruthlessness. But I think blogs should read more like journals, so I don't mind a little stream of thought or rant-like tangents.

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    2. Often, I read the article days after it's been posted and I tweak it, deleting commas and changing a word here or there. In the case of this particular article on Thomism, though, I added whole paragraphs after the article was posted, as I realized later how a Thomist would likely respond to certain points. The paragraph beginning with "Here a Thomist might point out" as well as the last two paragraphs of the second last section were added later. I also made lots of tweaks to the posted article.

      As to how long it takes to write one, almost all of the RWUG articles were written over a weekend per article. The long ones take another day or two, which is to say another couple of blocks of maybe two or three hours of writing time. I'm a pretty fast typist, and now that my style and worldview have been worked out they're even easier and faster to write. The challenge is that I don't want to repeat myself, and I want to get closer and closer to the ultimate truth. My ideal is to write something that looks for all the world like it's an unholy revelation from a monstrously divine being, like a Lovecraftian god.

      One other, curious factor is that I have a childish habit which helps me work out what to say next while I'm writing. The best part of writing is when the ideas flow with little effort. You're just a conduit for the daimon, as it were. But sometimes you come to an impasse, such as an unknown as to how to respond to some point. Other times, I just get a little tired staring at the computer screen. So I take a peculiar sort of break by literally playing with old G.I Joe figurines, banging them together in simulated hand-to-hand combat and even making sound effects. (You can see the battered figurines in my Facebook photos.) That takes my conscious mind off the philosophical problem at hand. After a few minutes of this, the solution usually pops into my hand and I just keep writing. (There's a Big Bang Theory episode about the need for this sort of technique of letting the unconscious mind solve the conscious mind's problems, by distracting the conscious mind.) If that doesn't work, I might step away from the computer, watch TV, run errands or sleep on it. The solution often appears at odd moments, in which case I jot it down on paper so I don't forget. The surefire way, though, is to think about it while going to sleep. I often come up with cool ideas when I'm half-dreaming.

      I've written an article which addresses the issue of writing with a view to being prophetic, that is, to being subversive, having been inspired or cursed by a religious perspective (link below). Much of what I say there may apply to my writing.

      I've thought of writing an autobiographical article, linking my worldview to my life, but I'm not ready for that yet. The article would likely be called, "Who is Benjamin Cain?" or something like that.

      I've almost got enough for the next RWUG pdf. Thanks for reading, Guthrie!

      https://www.facebook.com/256751097761769/photos/pb.256751097761769.-2207520000.1423410576./325804710856407/?type=1&theater

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2014/01/artistic-creativity-angsts-antidote-and.html

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  3. Lovecraft (Liggoti's forerunner)was an anti-natalist..

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    1. He might have been; I don't know. From what I know of it, I think Lovecraft's worldview is incomplete. He lacks the existentialism which gives the possibility of redemption, or at least a noble purpose of life. However, Lovecraft does seem to agree with Nietzsche about the value of art. Lovecraft wrote strange fiction to give readers a taste of cosmicism. By doing so, I don't think he meant merely to taunt his readers or to ridicule their civilized preoccupations. He wrote his stories because the horror he talks about so much involves a sense of the sublime. His characters have a religious experience when they realize how small and insignificant they are next to the alien gods. That points towards the philosophy I've been working out on my blog and it points away from antinatalism.

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  4. Well, religion thrives during desperate/unpredictable times, within regions where there is little access to education, where critical thinking is not encouraged. Religion has always been our favourite whipping boy - attacking it has become pretty passe. Easy pickins. Wayyy too easy. God bashing these days is like whipping a dead horse. You're a good writer though and I do enjoy most of your output. I'd love to see you write more about the Canadian condition. One that relates personally to us. Our own post-modern ennui.

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    1. Your explanation of religion doesn't explain the anomaly of religion's popularity in the US. I haven't whipped religion on my blog nearly as much as I could have or as much as it deserves. On the contrary, I've distinguished between esoteric and exoteric religion and in a sense I've defend both. At least, I explore the Straussian line that the masses need to be deluded and the Nietzschean line that esoteric religion might be needed for the intellectual elites. I also defend the existential arguments for religion, stemming from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, William James, and Tillich, so I reject the notion that theism is rational. It's based on an existential choice, an aesthetic taste, and so forth, not on rational assent to overwhelming logic or evidence.

      Is religion easy pickings? Here I agree with New Atheism that a political push-back against American and Islamic fundamentalism was inevitable after 911, if not also richly deserved. American culture has in fact been poisoned by an appalling religious backlash against modernity. For Nietzschean reasons, though, I don't think the liberal secular humanists are the right critics for the job. So I do reject the scientistic, sentimental philosophy that tends to go with New Atheism.

      Thus, I'm afraid I disagree with your point that my criticism here of Thomism and Catholic smugness is "way too easy." On the contrary, I'm searching for something that doesn't currently exist, for a viable postmodern religion. I stand with social outsiders in being forced to reject both exoteric religion and the dominant secular worldview. It's much easier to fall in line with a large group of like-minded folks, whether it be some church or the new atheist movement.

      I am thinking of writing some more on Canadian culture. In particular, I've been thinking of Harper's bland conservatism and how Canadians aren't interesting enough to be evil. Canadians are pragmatic in lieu of having the sort of beating heart that drives American conservatives to their flagrant absurdities and grotesque egoism ("libertarianism"). So I'd like to compare the two kinds of conservatism. Ennui? Yes, because waiting for Godot with no respectable culture to pass the time is boring.

      Thanks for reading!

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    2. The thing about whipping anything is that the punisher gets enjoy it too much. That includes whipping religions with long articles as well as publicly flogging bloggers with 100 lashes as if Raif Badawi were actually guilty of something. You do this well;you write at length with complex arguments which if they don't pull folk in will repel them instead, like a good public whipping should divide I suppose. I have never quite recovered from reading 'In the Penal Colony' by Franz Kafka many years ago, and loving the display of cruelty and vice as virtue in the films of Jan Svankmajer. It must be much more difficult to write briefly, and use short words and short sentences-that would just not punish the guilty enough. But as regards Thomism, bastardisation of the perennial philosophy etc-there is no such thing as 'a new atheism', there might be a new science that is more cynical and nihilist in the interests of objectivity about the value of life than previous, on which is built a hatred of the 'the supernatural' and natural neighbourliness etc. But all cynicism is old cynicism, and it is not even cynical about itself-if it were it would disappear in a puff of it's own logic! The nearest I would get to agreeing with you is that The Catholic Church is the oldest working multinational corporation in the world and no multinational corporation has ever traded in honesty, it would shrink and die in an instant if it tried.

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    3. Bearz, you are extremely ignorant of history in terms of science and natural philosophy. The denial of the supernatural in the Western world goes back to the Renaissance and beyond, if only implicitly. Western Christianity has disdained the supernatural for over a millennium. It's practically sidelined.

      There is a "new atheism" in the sense that there's a bunch of atheists calling themselves "new atheists". How can you deny that? And they're surprisingly, depressingly un-cynical. They believe as much as a Catholic does (lel), but in some secular, technoscientific idea of "progress", whatever the fuck that means. All hail the colonisation of Mars--what a glorious endeavour that will be.

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    4. But the main point is as follows: Nothing you said makes any sense, Bearz. Write something that makes some fucking sense.

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    5. "There is a "new atheism" in the sense that there's a bunch of atheists calling themselves "new atheists". How can you deny that? And they're surprisingly, depressingly un-cynical. They believe as much as a Catholic does (lel), but in some secular, technoscientific idea of "progress", whatever the fuck that means. All hail the colonisation of Mars--what a glorious endeavour that will be."

      Its about "choosing" to die. Undead cyborgs don't just die like we do now- this is our destiny. By "undead," I mean not alive like our traditional concept of "alive." By "just die," I mean cease to be gathering and processing information....and by "our destiny," I mean, good luck choosing otherwise as "the result" for our time line. By "the result" I mean what we did in the past and what we do now cements what will come to be. There is not sufficient chaos in the system to alter our current trajectory. The last century fixed this condition.

      OK, well, that is unless you think you could be those cyborgs up and take their stuff form them.

      Colonizing Mars (which I think is bad strategy, but that is an aside), is equally as point less as you breathing your next breath. From that, guess what, you will take your next breath and we will colonize Mars. Its funny like that!

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    6. Bearz, this article is longer than most of my others. I wanted it to be more comprehensive than my average philosophical rant. I enjoyed writing it, but that's largely because I enjoy writing all my articles. That's why I write. But I also enjoyed writing it for the same reason that satirists enjoy their work all the more when they have an overly puffed up target that's just begging to be burst.

      Anyway, that's all beside the point. The question is who is right, Thomists or New Atheists. Your only substantive criticism is that there's no such thing as New Atheism. See my article "Clash of the Atheists," where I talk about the post-911 atheistic media campaign in the US. The ideas, arguments, and even attitude of New Atheists are indeed old. But the popularity of atheism in the US is new. It started after 911 when Sam Harris wrote End of Faith. It's about atheists coming out of the closet and launching a media campaign for public respect. Anyway, this too is hardly to the main point of my above article on Feser's Thomism.

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2013/06/clash-of-atheists.html

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    7. Anonymous, I agree about the lack of new atheists' cynicism, but I think this is largely about their need to put forward a winsome image for the sake of their media campaign. They don't want to appear dark or anxious even though philosophical naturalism entails the Nietzschean problems and forces the existential crisis on the authentic (non-self-deluded) atheists. See my article, "Clash of the Atheists" for more, if you're interested.

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2013/06/clash-of-atheists.html

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    8. Hi Benjamin I am glad the idea of enjoyment in writing has come into this, it is hard to quantify but it has to be present and noted. Thomism dates from the 13th century and scientific cynicism/atheism started with the enlightenment, in the 16th century. So we are sharing about two ideas that are quite old and slow-as measured by the speed of the information age we live in. Two tortoises compared with the informational hares of this age which lose us through the speed at which they so easily travel. Both Thomism and enlightenment atheism would have been adopted by relatively few in their time, both have been the cause of conflict and both have been vaguely and poorly understood by the many. Is either in their 21 century version right? I doubt it. I like the story about Thomas Aquinas ceasing to write in old age when he realized that his words meant far less than he thought they did. I also like any science by which we learn to be more humane towards each other, which also makes us aware of the fragility of the life around us on which we are dependent. Humans being putting themselves at the top of the world food chain has caused more extinctions of species than could ever be measured, and humans forgetting/ignoring this fact adds to the extinctions and devalues life. There is an absolute darkness there where we cannot see what we are endangering. If I could see where post enlightenment cynicism/atheism will help us humans to lower their place in the world food chain, enable more species to live in 'fair competition' [whatever that might be] and see that as a win for our' future and a win for the future of the planet I'd like that. For now what I see is the old models of religion being more self centered and internally muddled than their old adherents could ever admit, and new adherents of said religions truly having to have faith that they can draw a clean new life from old messes. I also see a modern secular science which in rebuttal mode defensively bats away anything it can't use with words like 'delusion' (c.f. Richard Dawkins) which repels me. The defensiveness devalues the genuine grandeur of science and makes for bad media. It makes science seem juvenile and petty when it could be more inclusive and grown up. Apologies for my lack of brevity-I do value it.

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    9. Bearz, I also criticize New Atheism, but we should be clear that New Atheism is a media movement, not a philosophical position, and that's why the recent atheistic slogans are flawed.

      More importantly, when you compare Thomism to Enlightenment atheism, you're comparing apples and oranges. Atheism isn't a positive philosophical viewpoint, meaning that it's only the denial of theism. Atheists need to replace theology with some philosophy, and most choose naturalism and liberal secular humanism.

      I doubt Thomism itself caused wars, since Thomism was only a rationalization of the Catholic Church's power which corrupted it and which the Church inherited from a time long before Aquinas. Atheism itself is likewise not going to cause wars, since who's going to kill merely because there's no God? The question is whether naturalism or secular humanism is a cause of conflict. If we look at the French or Soviet Revolutions, we see that their cause was hardly atheistic belief. The revolutionaries were motivated by revenge against the aristocrats (for economic reasons) and later by the vices that come with too much centralized power, as in Stalin's megalomania.

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  5. I don't know if its the perennialism or the frying of the balls or what, but the synchronicity is uncanny.

    I should note though, this thing here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmicism, the principles, they were me before perennialism and the frying of the balls. It just seemed accurate in ultimate terms. My theory is it is a rare phenotype in humans similar to the the way a shaman is born rather than learned per se according to the what I read about actual shamans. I occasionally wonder what differing environments would do to my consciousness on a life scale.

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    1. Oh, I noticed in the authors responses after reading more carefully some statements that I think might benefit a little more exposure:

      "I also defend the existential arguments for religion, stemming from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, William James, and Tillich, so I reject the notion that theism is rational. It's based on an existential choice, an aesthetic taste, and so forth, not on rational assent to overwhelming logic or evidence."

      I always thought religion was just a mechanism for hierarchical staying power after realizing that I couldn't honestly agree with it after actually thinking about it. But then again, I think being dishonest with your self eliminates the possibility of being honest at all.

      Isn't it rational to do what needs to be done to keep the herd in its place? Isn't it rational to have a belief that works like Prozac for someone who "needs" Prozac? Isn't selling Prozac more preferable to planting beets for some?

      Oh, and " I don't think the liberal secular humanists are the right critics for the job. So I do reject the scientistic, sentimental philosophy that tends to go with New Atheism."

      I don't see how Naturalism isn't the right bet. It is always the right bet, it leads you to cosmicism ultimata. What gets me is the lack of acceptance of infinity as being a real thing (which is what makes cosmicism valid) and there can be infinite boundary conditions within and infinity, which is what makes the "understanding" an actual valid construct. From that, we are left with one of two options for a mind to apprehend reality with (not really though), random guess work (which is actually not even what dogma and religion are) or naturalistic attempts...

      As to the philosophers youve mentioned, my personality is to "Rosembaumesque" to care about what those people "think." People always ask me if I'm familiar with these people due to similarity of "ideas." Generally my response is I am not familiar at all with them because they are not necessary to think these things, and I am more into reading the apparently appallingly shameful magazine called Science (the result of my predispositions btw, my fam is totally not like that).

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    2. Brian, I agree that looking into the rational criticisms of theism and the history of modern, critical bible scholarship can undermine faith. But the rejection of a religion isn't yet the embracing of a worldview. The question is where do you go from here, after you've come to realize that traditional religious arguments are hardly conclusive. Now that you've lost your faith, what are you going to believe in? It takes a leap of faith not to see something's flaws, but to embrace something else despite the flaws in that thing, too, that you're bound to see one day.

      You say naturalism leads to cosmicism. I happen to agree, but the fact remains that most naturalists don't. Instead, they stop at relatively liberal secular humanism. Whether to agree with one or the other positive philosophy isn't a purely rational decision. You won't find sufficient guidance in any argument or experiment. Certainly, Science Magazine won't tell you what to believe about the world at a philosophical level. This is because philosophy is mainly an art. You have to find your inspiration within, use your imagination, and see which ideas move you, just as you evaluate fiction and other art forms.

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  6. "I am thinking of writing some more on Canadian culture."
    I wonder which culture would you pick ?

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    1. Jindra, as I say in my article on why Canada is boring, I'm aware that there are cultural differences between parts of Canada. Alberta and Quebec are obviously different. But these differences don't change the fact that Canada as a whole tends to do squat, which is why the world doesn't pay attention to Canada and thinks of Canadians only in terms of some trivial stereotypes about hockey, maple syrup, politeness, and winter hats. The main exception is Canada's participation in WWII.

      Anyway, I'd be focusing on the culture of the Canadian government, which derives from Britain.

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  7. Thank you Mr. Cain. You are right.
    But somehow I don't mind that the world doesn't give a squat about Canada.
    Fortunately, there are some countries full of squat and they don't mind sharing.

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  8. Thomism (Neo-Thomism) is different from many other philosophical systems also because it is not interested in cognitive and scientific process itself, except if only the latter poses threat for Catholic dogmas or morale rules. To say shortly, it asks questions to Theology but doesn't ask science. So, apologetic function is the only function of Thomism as philosophy. Methodological and practical functions of the philosophical system are almost absent.

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    1. I think you're right that a Thomist isn't a true philosopher who's interested in knowledge for its own sake, regardless of the inquiry's consequences. Thomists have prior theological commitments and they follow the Catholic principle that reason is an instrument created by God so that reason therefore can't possibly undermine Christian theology and can be used to defend the gospel.

      The alternative, secular view, of course, is that reason evolved due to blind natural forces, as a Machiavellian instrument in our ancestors' attempts to track each other's motives and to negotiate their power hierarchies. Science and philosophy are therefore exaptations, accidental spin-offs of reason's original, social function.

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  9. I enjoyed this rant. I've lurked on Feser's blog for a while now, mostly out of curiosity. I must say that I was for the most part put-off by Feser's arrogance and devotion to the Thomistic tradition, as if it's the cure-all to our problems. It's especially disconcerting that Feser seems willing to throw out practically all philosophy after Scholasticism as worthless. He's also entirely against homosexuality, and merely found a intellectual justification for his bigotry through natural law theory. So it's nice to see some thoughts from the other side, the side that isn't so enthralled in its make-believe universe, especially a side that I largely agree with.

    That being said, I don't know if I agree with your thoughts on metaphysics. I'm no naive realist, but neither do I think (all) metaphysics is empty fiction. MOST metaphysics is empty; but to quote Peirce (one of my favorite philosophers), this is not due to the field but to the practitioners. Peirce argued that metaphysics is such a desolate field because its practitioners were primarily focused on supporting their theological notions and not on the actual world. Metaphysics, to them, was like icing on a cake, meant to appease them and make them feel comfy-cozy. I'm always skeptical of those who think they can find these great truths of reality by sitting in their armchairs, as if the cosmic drama can be accessed right in their living room. These vast vistas of purely a priori reasoning seem ripe for destruction.

    At the very least, though, I think there are legitimate metaphysical questions, such as "why are things similar/different?" and "what is time?" and "what is the mind?" or "is the universe causally-closed?", even if we can't answer them. Certainly these questions can be complemented by scientific inquiry, as Peirce himself advocated. And some of these questions, like "what is the soul?" or "where did the universe come from" are either begging the question or an attempt to analyze a feature of our immediate reality that may not be transposed upon the rest of it, and thus might be meaningless.

    In other words, I advocate a more modest metaphysics, one that largely gets rid of philosophical cosmology and eschatology, and focuses more on the immediate, everyday experiences that everyone can access, as well as providing a deeper understanding of the theoretical structure of the sciences in a unifying role. It's a sober metaphysics, a metaphysics that doesn't take itself too seriously and limits itself to that which can be reasonably assumed to be universal. The metaphysics of the past might have been done wrong, but that's not a sufficient reason for not trying to do it better, even if this means severely limiting ourselves out of respect for our cognitive capacities. It also means that science needs to be a larger part of the future metaphysical enterprise.

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    1. When you say, Darthbarracuda, that I think "all metaphysics is empty fiction," that's a bit of a strawman. Specifically, I'd remove the word "empty." That's why I compare some metaphysical systems, maintaining that some are better than others. The point is we should bring to bear aesthetic criteria, so the question isn't whether a metaphysical generalization is "empty," but whether it's obsolete and deadening. Some guide us better, given our present state of socio-economic development.

      As I say in the article, if metaphysics is more technical-sounding than plainly poetic (as in the case of much analytic metaphysics), it verges on pseudoscience. The sciences themselves address what used to be metaphysical questions, so the generalizations that remain call for leaps of faith at least as much as they do for logical rigour.

      Just look at the examples of metaphysical questions you raise. The second is elucidated by physics, the third by psychology, and the fourth is more epistemological; that is, the fourth is methodological, and science-centered folks are bound to say we should assume every event has a cause and thus a rational explanation even if we can't prove as much. Hume showed that our concept of causality is largely instinctive and nonrational, so I don't see much room for nonscientific rational progress on that question.

      As for the first question, I think it's pretty subjective in the Kantian respect: it depends on what concepts (generalizations) we have on hand. Why does the world allow for creatures to understand events within it by employing categories that work by comparing things as instances of a type? That sort of question is handled by Darwinian reasoning: if the world weren't that way, such creatures wouldn't have been able to evolve to make those comparisons. Are two instances _really_ similar or do we merely lack the resources to investigate further to notice the underlying wealth of differences? Nietzsche agreed more or less with Hume and Darwin, that the similarities and differences we notice are hardly absolute. They're objective in Kant's sense of being universal for our species.

      You agree that science should inform metaphysics, but the question is what to make of the philosophical part of metaphysics that extends beyond science. What to make of philosophical speculations? I don't know if I call them fictions, exactly; rather, I say they're more like myths or fictions than like measured scientific statements that proceed from instrumental, experimental reasoning.

      Take, for example, naturalism, which I discuss in the link below. It's rational to say--with methodological naturalists--that all parts of the world we presently understand well are natural in that they're understood by scientific methods which assume materialism, causality, and so forth. But the metaphysical naturalist goes further and insists that all beings must be natural in that respect. How is that sort of anthropocentrism--since it assumes the epistemic sufficiency of human reasoning and ingenuity--substantially different from the old theistic sort? Why isn't it a new form of myth that rationalizes new sorts of social arrangements?

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2015/08/the-incoherence-of-naturalism.html

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    2. I should add that I have no objection to what you call "modest," "sober" metaphysics. I like your description of its aims, and I wouldn't call its pronouncements empty. But I wonder whether you're shortchanging the power of fiction to move creatures like us. If you think metaphysics should move the world instead, by being objective, it's technoscience that moves the world in the only way it can be moved: by physical force in service to imaginative redirections of nature's flow.

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    3. "The point is we should bring to bear aesthetic criteria, so the question isn't whether a metaphysical generalization is "empty," but whether it's obsolete and deadening. Some guide us better, given our present state of socio-economic development."

      Yes, I can agree somewhat to this. Although the goal of metaphysics should, like any other field of inquiry, be truth, not just socially helpful. Aesthetics should be a consequence of a theory, not the goal, even if it ends up being the most important aspect in the end.

      "As I say in the article, if metaphysics is more technical-sounding than plainly poetic (as in the case of much analytic metaphysics), it verges on pseudoscience. The sciences themselves address what used to be metaphysical questions, so the generalizations that remain call for leaps of faith at least as much as they do for logical rigour. "

      It depends on what metaphysics we're talking about. I agree that many metaphysicians today feel threatened by physics and science in general, hence the naturalistic turn (philosophers want to be on the "good side" of scientists especially since scientism is reigning). I'm all for naturalism but I'm also for autonomous philosophy, or philosophy that can do it's own thing AS WELL AS criticize what science discovers. A great example of this is Meillassoux's After Finitude.

      But generally analytic realist metaphysics tries to "carve reality at its joints"; the joints being the necessary, basic structure that allows reality to be intelligible in the first place. Which is why I think a good definition of metaphysics is a fusion of epistemology and ontology. We can see this kind of rigorous attitude in Aristotle, (and yes, Aquinas, although he did bastardize Aristotle like you said), Spinoza, Kant with his anti-realism and definitely Peirce and his semiosis.

      This kind of metaphysics uses terms that I'm sure you're already familiar with: particular, universal, object, property, relation, part(-hood), trope, cause/effect, power, essence, modality, perhaps even mind. Do you think these are fictions? These are largely concepts that are required for scientific inquiry to even get off the ground. It isn't entirely self-evident that science can tell us what a property is, or what a relation is, etc, without bending the definition of science so much that it lacks any real definition.

      For example, if we're to find out what the mind even is, it might be nice to have some general landscape of what the mental seems to be like, or the problems we see with the mind. Chalmers and co. is trying to make a science of consciousness out of phil of mind and cog sci. And in any case, there are some questions that, as Sider said, are "epistemically metaphysical". They can't be answered by other means unless we already presuppose other metaphysical positions.

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    4. (cont)

      Contemporary analytic metaphysics, including Thomistic metaphysics, has a rather poor epistemology for the most part. It's a reactionary movement to Kantian anti-realism. But it's also a selection bias - those who are realist do metaphysics, while the silent majority of anti-realists look on in skepticism.

      But there's some hope, perhaps, in some kind of naive realism or speculative realism. And if nothing else, there's very little reason to passionately believe any metaphysical theories as of now, and so there's very little consequences for being wrong. The most anyone could accuse them of would be of trying, or maybe wasting university funds.

      I will say that I disagree with your reduction of the aforementioned "metaphysical" issues to scientific or merely epistemology/methodological issues (for if they were merely scientific issues, why are philosophers still arguing about them?). If you ask the average physicist what time is, they won't be able to answer you any better than anyone else can, because there isn't a standard, accepted definition. It's a heuristic concept. Hell, Oxford releases fantastic 800+ page books on these kinds of things, from time, modality, causation, to phil of mind, written by scientists and philosophers alike. So I'm not sure what exactly you mean when you say these questions are reducible to science, unless you predict that they will be answered by science, sometime...in the future...

      Also, btw, I enjoyed reading some of the comments that you made over at Feser's blog. In general I agree with you that the internet is a poor place for legitimate discourse, and blogs like Feser are just hive-minds for people to circlejerk and pat each other on the back, congratulating themselves for how smart they are. If you are looking for a better place to share your ideas outside of your immediate blog sphere, check out philosophy forums (PF). I'm there and a ton of other people are there as well who would love to here what you have to say, and generally aren't influenced by the hive-mind.

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    5. When I said that those four issues you raised are scientific, I meant that science will take the biggest chunk out of them. Science will lead and philosophical clarifications or interrogations will follow. The world isn't listening any longer to philosophers when they declare what time or causality are. Science has taken that ball and run with it. Scientists often write popular books which are more philosophical or speculative than scientific, but those books likewise follow the work done in science departments and journals.

      Theoretically, I agree, philosophers could independently arrive at some useful concepts, by a priori reasoning. This is what the ancient Greek atomists did. But money will be made from the scientific confirmations (unless the philosopher becomes a self-help charlatan). The world turns now on science and technology. The rest is fiction--perhaps dressed up as pseudoscience or as occultist obscurity (as in the case of much "postmodern" philosophy).

      I see that we have a prior disagreement on the nature of truth. I don't pretend to have this all fully worked out, but I'm skeptical about the correspondence theory of truth. I prefer some sort of pragmatic conception of what we're doing when we best use our symbols. A scientific theory that has no potential use or technological application doesn't bear a relation of truth to the facts. More specifically, when we imagine such a relation, it's as if we were imagining Harry Potter. We're contemplating a fiction. There's no such action-at-a-distance between statements and facts, and that negative statement I just made shouldn't be interpreted as presupposing there's a more accurate conception of truth. When we speak casually of what is or isn't the case, and when we seem to presuppose the notions of fact and truth, we're using figures of speech that used to have magical and even theistic connotations and so are now mere anachronistic cliches we're too lazy to replace.

      The mark of literal truth is utility. Reason evolved to enable social creatures to out-smart each other in a social game. Nature-oriented reason is a byproduct, and so we attempt to out-smart the world, which at first naturally required that we anthropomorphize that world. So we projected gods and other minds onto nature and reasoned with them accordingly. Now that those nonhuman minds are gone, because we can no longer entertain the theistic fiction, we outsmart the world in a solipsistic context even if we must still fall back on a bare minimum of anthropomorphic nonsense, such as on faith in nature's rationality or beauty (as physicists and mathematicians are wont to have it). What, after all, could natural laws be with no law-maker? It's an outdated cliche, deriving from a deistic period of scientific work.

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    6. I'd have thought the average physicist would say that the question about the nature of time itself is outdated, since Einstein showed that time and space are parts of a four-dimensional continuum, called space-time. The experience of time's arrow the physicist regards as an illusion due to our limited perspective.

      I wouldn't go along with that last part, since even illusions aren't nothing at all. And if science won't deal best with subjective issues, such as with the nature of consciousness or of the experience of time, the question is whether reason in general is the next-best tool. I think, instead, we mustn't short-change the role of outright fiction in this connection. There are no facts of subjectivity, unless we're in the process of objectifying something mental. Facts and objective truth have no place in discourse about subjects. So science-centered criteria shouldn't reign when we're speculating or ruminating on what it's like to have a subjective inner life. Psychology will tell us about the objective, animal, or neurological aspects. And philosophy as a form of pretentious fiction that takes itself too seriously can illuminate us by indirectly provoking thoughts on these subjective matters.

      I'll check out that philosophy forum. Thanks for the invitation.

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  10. I discovered your blog through this post while trying to read up on Thomism, and I've been clicking through the map of the rants (particularly the religion section) for the past week or so. I'm in awe. You've done a great job with this blog. I think it might be my favorite philosophy blog I've come across.

    I'm a de-convert from Christianity and I've been doing a lot of research into the arguments for and against theism to help inform my worldview. I've come to suspect that theism is a failed case. The only thing that gives me pause is what you appropriately describe as the Christian/Catholic "chutzpah", which seems to be the only language Thomists speak in. The smug, holier-than-thou, cocksure way they talk about how Thomism is obviously right and everyone else is obviously wrong... it's like they think the only way people could possibly disagree with them is if they don't understand. Actually, I know that's what they think because I've seen them say it. I'm embarrassed to admit it has actually made me doubt myself and my worldview. I've tried my best to understand; I know what they mean when they say things like potency, act, forms, contingent, final causes, etc., it's just that I don't feel like it's a realistic way of looking at the world at all, especially with all the knowledge we have today. It's not the arguments or the Aristotelian metaphysics that are convincing - it's the Thomistic attitude. Why are they like this? Especially when it seems so likely that they're wrong?

    Anyway, I feel like this post was the dose of common sense I needed. You hit every nail right on the head here. Again, great job.

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    1. Thanks, Anon. You ask a very good question. The key to answering it is to notice, I think, that it's not just Thomists but Catholic intellectuals in general who are often unaccountably arrogant. Two Canadians come to mind: Michael Coren and Conrad Black. Coren was chastened due to a backlash of hyper-conservative Christians, which sickened him. But he was mighty pompous in his inadequate refutations of atheism and his defenses of Christianity. And have a look at Black's articles on atheism (links below). He's a great writer, but the smugness indeed calls for an explanation.

      There's a lot to say about this, but I'd start with the point that Catholicism is very old, and Catholics take themselves to represent original and thus authentic Christianity. Christianity, in turn, is very powerful through it's hold over the US, Russia, and parts of Europe. Thus, the arrogance of Catholic intellectuals could be a form of bullying. When a bully knows he's bigger than others, he can become cocky. In the case of Catholicism, the strength that might justify some pride is actually just obscurantism, which the traditions of Catholic theology have in full measure.

      There must also be a psychological explanation. Not just Catholics, but some born-again Christians too are smug as they look down on secularists. This smugness could be a personal defense against the anxiety that comes from an honest confrontation with reality's evident indifference towards us.

      It could also be a matter of character. Individuals who are innately smug might gravitate towards Catholicism, for the first reason. The age and power of that religion give these individuals an excuse to exercise their smugness. (Of course, Catholicism isn't nearly as powerful as it used to be. But there's always anachronistic hope that the Church could regain its medieval, theocratic status.) This would be especially true of converts to Catholicism.

      Regarding my article on Feser, you might also want to have a look at what I wrote on Christianity and the Axial Age. It might read a bit like a companion piece (link below).

      http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/conrad-black-the-shabby-shallow-world-of-the-militant-atheist

      http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/conrad-black-a-reply-to-my-atheist-critics-they-protest-too-much

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2016/04/christianity-and-axial-age.html

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