Sunday, December 20, 2015

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 4 Scholastic Aptitude - Part 3: Faith, Reason, And Evil)

Faith, reason, and evil

In the final section of chapter 4 Feser defends the notion of faith and its relationship to reason in Christianity and addresses the problem of evil. He makes so many points I want to address that I apologize in advance for how long this chapter's review as become.

Faith, Feser defines, is "the will to keep one's mind fixed precisely on what reason has discovered to it." (154) In order to keep things relatively short, I'll accept this as a definition of faith for this review even though I have objections to it. We also get Feser's definition of a miracle, which is "a suspension of the natural order that cannot be explained in any way other than divine intervention in the normal course of events." (154) This is the traditional definition of a miracle, but not the only one. In fact, some Christians like Kenneth Pearce have even argued that such a definition is incoherent with the traditional notion of an omni-deity. If that's so, I'm afraid Feser's view on miracles would have to be false, and if they are false, the central argument in his book for theism is even less plausible. This is just an extra layer of falsity in addition to the fact that Feser's view is already incoherent for requiring libertarian free will while his metaphysics refutes it.

Feser machine gun blasts several dozen points rapidly here, so let me address some of them one by one. Regarding Christianity specifically, he says:

If the story of Jesus's resurrection is true, then you must become a Christian; if it is false, then Christianity itself is false, and should be rejected. (154)

Um, it's false. We can be fairly confident of that. There is no reason why any rational person should accept the historical or miracle claims in the New Testament, even if one believes there is a god, or a person (or persons) that the character of Jesus was based on. We have plenty of reason to doubt his existence and his divinity if such a person existed.*

Given that God exists and that He sustains the world and the causal laws governing it in being at every moment, we know that there is a power capable of producing a miracle, that is, a suspension of those causal laws. (155)

Feser is of course proceeding as if his previous arguments from before have stuck, but we have no good reason of thinking they have. Some of them are flat out refuted by science or are internally inconsistent. How does an utterly timeless being "lacking any potentiality whatsoever" produce a miracle, like impregnating an under-aged virgin who gives birth to himself as "God incarnate"?

And if [the evidence for Christ's resurrection] is overwhelming, then there are by that same token conclusive rational grounds for believing that what Christ taught was true, in which case the key doctrines of Christianity are rationally justified. (155)

As Hitchens has argued, we can grant the historicity of Jesus and his virgin birth, and even his miracles claims and resurrection, and it would still be a total non-sequitor to declare that all of his preachments were morally perfect and without error based on that. It simply doesn't follow that because a person was born of a virgin, or raised someone from the dead, or died and came back to life, that therefore they're views are infallible and cannot be wrong in anything they teach. Feser has made a horrible blunder here that highlights the paucity of the religious intellect, and it's one that far too many theists overlook. The moral, political, historical, or metaphysical claims made by anyone must be independently justified, especially when so much is riding on them.

Pure reason proves through philosophical arguments that there is a God and that we have immortal souls. (155)

I see tons of flaws in Feser's arguments and no good reason why they should be taken as anything close to a proof. His arguments for the soul in the beginning of the chapter I think are based on some fundamental mistakes about consciousness left over from antiquated ideas and are refuted by neuroscience, physics, and plain old logic.

Now the historical evidence that Jesus was in fact resurrected from the dead is overwhelming when interpreted in light of that background knowledge. Hence pure reason also shows that Jesus really was raised from the dead. (155)

What?!? Pure reason can do many things. It can, for example, disprove libertarian free will is true a priori. That's one reason why we know strong scientism and verificationism are false. But pure reason that is based on false metaphysics will most likely be necessarily false. The historical evidence that Jesus was resurrected is terrible. The evidence that he even existed is terrible. Even if one believes in a creator deity, it is still terrible. Feser doesn't make the argument for Jesus' resurrection in this chapter. Instead he cites chapter 7 and 8 of William Lane Craig's apologetic handbook, Reasonable Faith, stating Craig is "one of the most prominent and capable defenders of the historicity of the resurrection." (238) That may be so, but Craig's arguments for the resurrection are full of holes and make unsupported assumptions. His entire body of evidence is basically the New Testament. (See my blog post "4 Facts That Aren't Really Facts"). Feser cites several other books by Craig and one of Richard Swinburne's. We're also told that "Every link in the chain is supported by argument." (156) This too may be so, but if the arguments all have flaws (and they do), then the chain is more like a series of leaky buckets: No matter how many buckets you have, if they all have holes, not a single one will be able to hold any water. The case for the resurrection is extremely weak on closer inspection. I can't say with certainty Jesus didn't exist, but we have plenty of room for reasonable doubt, even if we accept that there is a god. The story and evidence simply don't match up.

Next, Feser tries to compare the "faith" secularists have in authorities and experts like parents and scientists with the "faith" that Christians have in the Church and theologians for specific religious doctrines. It is true that your average secularist cannot explain scientific subjects like evolution or physics in any great detail because these things are far too complicated. So we rely on "authorities." But as Lawrence Kraus says, there are no authorities in science. Nothing any scientist says is above question or requires being taken on faith (in the sense of belief without evidence). One of the projects of science educators like Kraus and others is to make the evidence in science more accessible and understandable to the general public. Feser's point seems to be that your average Christian could in theory learn the arguments, but there is no problem with them believing from authority, just like the secularists do with science. In that respect, I agree. One doesn't have to know all the details of biology to be able to accept evolution. I just think that if and when one probes the details, things in science like evolution are much better supported by the evidence than the claims made in religion are. And, as I stated before, I think it makes little sense that god wants us to know him and yet makes our ability to demonstrate his existence rely on such complex esoteric metaphysics that most of us will never be exposed to, let alone understand.

Feser even tries to rationalize the "mysteries" within Christianity away by claiming it "doesn't mean that they are inherently irrational and must be accepted on 'blind faith.' It means instead that, while they are in themselves perfectly rational and coherent, our intellects are too limited to grasp them very deeply, so they could not have been arrived at by unaided reason and require divine revelation." (158) This is absurd. They actually aren't perfectly rational and coherent; they're the opposite. It makes no sense to believe in a timeless being who does things that requires time, or a being with no potentiality "whatsoever" who becomes a man, or a being whose grand plan is to sacrifice himself, to himself, to save the humans he created from himself. These are more than mere mysteries. They're incoherent. And we cannot "know through reason that these mysteries have been revealed," as Feser claims in his analogy using a three-year-old's inability to know that people cannot breathe on the moon or that eating too much candy is bad for him, with what seems like our inability to know that not doing what Christ says will be bad for us. He seems to be saying that we're like three-year-olds when it comes to understanding the mysteries of Christianity, which by that he seems to mean the moral or metaphysical claims made in Christianity. I take this all to mean that the apparent incoherencies of Christian theism can be brushed aside and tacked up to "mysteries," because we "know" revelation assures us there is no problem. Not buying your argument Feser, and neither are a growing number of people.

The whole notion of faith in the Christian tradition is a complicated one. Jesus famously says in John 20:29, "blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." This is the same as belief without evidence. Some Christians accept that this is what Christianity requires. They're called fideists. But Feser says the Catholic tradition has always maintains that human reason was used to know the existence of god. Yeah, but it's based on outdated and false metaphysics.

Towards the end of chapter 4 Feser equates secularism with communism (159), a terribly stupid move. This is what happens when you don't define your terms. I complained about this right from the very beginning. I have no idea how Feser is using the term 'secularism' in his book. He seems to equate it with atheism at times, and even atheism and communism are not the same thing. That's a common mistake I'd expect someone like Feser to know better. He also mentions "the moral claims of atheism," when he mentions the "100 million corpses produced by Communism". (160) Atheism makes no moral claims. It is not a moral philosophy, nor is it a worldview. All it says is what a person is not. At most, depending on how one defines atheism, one can say that atheism implies no role for gods in anything viewed through it, including morality, but it does not entail communism or mass murder (or fucking corpses or goats for that matter) being A-OK.

Feser addresses the problem of evil as essentially "worthless" as an atheistic argument. I personally don't put a lot of weight on the problem of evil. I tend to focus more of the problem of natural evil, since its sting is much more painful to the theist. And Feser's predictable response to the problem of evil doesn't address the problem of natural evil at all:

If God can bring out of the evils that we actually experience a good that is far greater than what would have existed without them, then of course He would allow those evils. (161)

This is essentially the soul-making theodicy which argues that suffering and hardship provide us opportunities to grow our souls in ways we wouldn't otherwise have been able to. It's totally impotent against animal suffering, since on Feser's view, animals have no rational soul and don't go to heaven. Too bad for them. They get all of the suffering and none of the reward. God's perfect plan! Furthermore, it doesn't explain why compensation equates to justification. Who would say that the brutal rape of a teenage girl by a billionaire is justified because the rapist gives her a large sum of money as compensation? That's essentially what the theist like Feser is saying god does—you suffer now, but god compensates all of this for you with "the beatific vision" (unless of course you're an atheist, or you're not a Christian—you know, a mere 70% of the world's population.) The beatific vision is just one's subjective idea of what total happiness is, like the 72 virgins in Islam. But, "the only way the atheist can make it plausible to say that nothing could outweigh Auschwitz, etc., is if he supposes that there is no God." (163) No. The atheist can say many things in response to this. First, most of the victims in Auschwitz go to hell under traditional Christianity because they weren't Christians and weren't baptized Christian. So they suffer in this world and the next. Second, the soul-making theodicy that Feser describes above doesn't address how the suffering and death of young children makes their souls any better. They're too young to realize any of its supposed benefits and they're old enough to suffer horribly. It seems they get the worse of both. Third, the skeptic is quite justified in acknowledging how the apparent random existence of suffering and tragedy strike both believer and non-believer, young and old, rich and poor, pious and impious, and the spiritually fulfilled and spiritually unfulfilled alike. This makes no sense under soul making theodicy and is much better explained under naturalism. There is much more I can say on this but I have to cut it short, for we are at the end of chapter 4.

Interestingly, at the end of chapter 4 I am even more convinced that Feser's A-T metaphysics are false. His claims on how consciousness works are simply false. At the very least they are totally unsupported by any neuroscience. His argument for the soul is laughably inept, and basically garbage in, garbage out. Natural law theory is, while not totally as false as divine command theory, isn't even compatible with many of its own popular adherents like Feser. It arbitrarily labels certain things unnatural that disagree with Catholic doctrine and it seems to have to include other notions of ethics to weigh what is, from what ought to be, such as, among other things, consequentialism. The relationship between faith, reason, and evil is complex, and I understand Feser's view that his theism is based on argument at every "link in the chain". I just don't think his arguments hold up under scrutiny and in some cases are flat out false. To continue to believe something that has strong disconfirming evidence is one definition of faith that is particularly unkind, and that's what I think believing A-T metaphysics forces one to do.

*For further evidence look into Richard Carrier's On the Historicity of Jesus, and Bart Ehrman's Forged and How Jesus Became God

← Chapter 4 - Part 2

Edit: A theist who agrees with Feser took the time to critique my review and I responded to him. In my response I clarify many parts of my original critique that perhaps I should have worded better and I address many of his misunderstandings of my review. For further elaboration on my review, see A Reply To Steven Jake On The Last Superstition.

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