Saturday, November 21, 2015

Papal fallibility

Catholic doctrine on the teaching authority of the pope is pretty clear, but lots of people badly misunderstand it.  A non-Catholic friend of mine recently asked me whether the pope could in theory reverse the Church’s teaching about homosexuality.  Said my friend: “He could just make an ex cathedra declaration to that effect, couldn’t he?”  Well, no, he couldn’t.  That is simply not at all how it works.  Some people think that Catholic teaching is that a pope is infallible not only when making ex cathedra declarations, but in everything he does and says.  That is also simply not the case.  Catholic doctrine allows that popes can make grave mistakes, even mistakes that touch on doctrinal matters in certain ways.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Augustine on semantic indeterminacy

St. Augustine’s dialogue The Teacher is concerned with the nature of language.  There are several passages in it which address what twentieth-century philosophers call semantic indeterminacy -- the way that utterances, behavior, and other phenomena associated with the use of language are inherently indeterminate or ambiguous between different possible interpretations.  Let’s take a look.  (I will be quoting from the Peter King translation, in Arthur Hyman, James J. Walsh, and Thomas Williams, eds., Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Third edition.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Long list o’ links

You’ve long longed for a list of links.  And it’s been a long time since I listed any links.  So here’s a long list of long longed-for links. 

Chris Kaczor is interviewed at National Review and America magazine about his new book The Gospel of Happiness.

At Nautilus, philosopher Roger Trigg explains why science needs metaphysics.

Sexual ethics and the modern academy: a Princeton Anscombe Society panel discussion with John Haldane, Candace Vogler, Roger Scruton, and Robert P. George.

The Wall Street Journal on how Steely Dan created “Deacon Blues.”

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Dumsday and Vallicella on Neo-Scholastic Essays

At Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, philosopher Travis Dumsday kindly reviews my book Neo-Scholastic Essays.  From the review:

Edward Feser writes as an historically informed Thomist who is also thoroughly conversant with the analytic tradition…

[T]his volume nicely exhibits Feser's clear writing style and uncommonly strong facility with both the Scholastic and analytic traditions. Those of us attempting to integrate these traditions can profit from his example.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Red herrings don’t go to heaven either

They say that pride goeth before a fall.  And if you’re Jerry Coyne, every fall goeth before an even bigger fall.  The poor guy just never learns.  Show him that he’s shot himself in one foot, and in response he’ll shout “Lock and load!” and commence blasting away at the other one.  It seems the author of Why Evolution is True has got it into his head that a Darwin Award is something it would be good to win.  And this week he’s made another try for the prize.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Repressed knowledge of God? Part II

We’ve been discussing the thesis that human beings have a natural inclination toward theism, and that atheism, accordingly, involves a suppression of this inclination.  Greg Koukl takes the inclination to be so powerful that resisting it is like “trying to hold a beach ball underwater,” and appears to think that every single atheist is engaged in an intellectually dishonest exercise in “denying the obvious, aggressively pushing down the evidence, to turn his head the other way.”  (Randal Rauser, who has also been critical of Koukl, calls this the “Rebellion Thesis.”)  In response to Koukl, I argued that the inclination is weaker than that, that the natural knowledge of God of which most people are capable is only “general and confused” (as Aquinas put it), and that not all atheism stems from intellectual dishonesty.  Koukl has now replied, defending his position as more “faithful to Paul’s words” in Romans 1:18-20 than mine is.  However, I don’t think this claim can survive a careful reading of that passage.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Koukl responds (Updated)

Christian apologist Greg Koukl kindly sent me a response to my recent post about the discussion generated by his recent comments about atheism, natural theology, and Romans 1:18-20.  With his permission, I post it here.  I’ve been thinking of writing up a follow-up to my recent post anyway, and when I do I’ll comment on Greg’s remarks.  But for the moment, here is Greg’s response, for which I thank him: 

Feser’s concern, I think, is partly the result of taking general remarks made in a video blog about Romans 1 and asking of it the kind of precision not generally possible in that format.  In a brief verbal summary of an issue there is little opportunity for nuance regarding the kinds of concerns brought up in Feser’s thoughtful 2,500 word blog, which may account for my own remarks appearing “glib."

Friday, October 16, 2015

Repressed knowledge of God?

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

Friday, October 9, 2015

Walter Mitty atheism

While writing up my recent post on Jerry Coyne’s defense of his fellow New Atheist Lawrence Krauss, I thought: “Why can’t these guys be more like Keith Parsons and Jeff Lowder?”  (Many readers will recall the very pleasant and fruitful exchange which, at Jeff’s kind invitation, Keith and I had not too long ago at The Secular Outpost.)  As it happens, Jeff has now commented on my exchange with Coyne.  Urging his fellow atheists not to follow Coyne’s example, Jeff writes:

If I were to sum up Feser’s reply in one word, it would be, “Ouch!” I think Feser’s reply is simply devastating to Coyne and I found myself in agreement with most of his points.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Why can’t these guys stay on topic? Or read?

Jerry Coyne comments on my recent Public Discourse article about Lawrence Krauss.  Well, sort of.  Readers of that article will recall that it focused very specifically on Krauss’s argument to the effect that science is inherently atheistic, insofar as scientists need make no reference to God in explaining this or that phenomenon.  I pointed out several things that are wrong with this argument.  I did not argue for God’s existence.  To be sure, I did point out that Krauss misunderstands how First Cause arguments for God’s existence are supposed to work, but the point of the article was not to develop or defend such an argument.  I have done that many times elsewhere.  Much less was my article concerned to defend any specifically Catholic theological doctrine, or opposition to abortion, or any conservative political position.  Again, the point of the essay was merely to show what is wrong with a specific argument of Krauss’s.  An intelligent response to what I wrote would focus on that.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Harvard talk

This Friday, October 2, I will be giving a talk at Harvard University, sponsored by the Harvard Catholic Student Association and the John Adams Society.  The topic will be “The Immortality of the Soul.”  The event will be in Sever Hall, Room 113, at 8pm. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

All Scientists Should Beg Lawrence Krauss to Shut the Hell Up Already

In The New Yorker, physicist and professional amateur philosopher Lawrence Krauss calls on all scientists to become “militant atheists.”  First club meeting pictured at left.  I respond at Public Discourse.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Poverty no, inequality si

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt is famous for his expertise in detecting bullshit.  In a new book he sniffs out an especially noxious instance of the stuff: the idea that there is something immoral about economic inequality per se.  He summarizes some key points in an excerpt at Bloomberg View  and an op-ed at Forbes.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Risible animals

Just for laughs, one more brief post on the philosophy of humor.  (Two recent previous posts on the subject can be found here and here.)  Let’s talk about the relationship between rationality and our capacity to find things amusing.

First, an important technicality.  (And not exactly a funny one, but what are you gonna do?)   Recall the distinction within Scholastic metaphysics between the essence of a thing and its properties or “proper accidents” (where the terms “essence” and “property” are used by Scholastics in a way that is very different from the way contemporary analytic metaphysicians use them).  A property or collection of properties of a thing is not to be confused with the thing’s essence or even any part of its essence.  Rather, properties flow or follow from a thing’s essence.  For example, being four-legged is not the essence of a cat or even part of its essence, but it does follow from that essence and is thus a property of cats; yellowness and malleability are not the essence or even part of the essence of gold, but they flow from that essence and are thus properties of gold; and so forth.  A property is a kind of consequence or byproduct of a thing’s essence, which is why it can easily be confused with a thing’s essence or with part of that essence.  But because it is not in fact the same as the essence, it can sometimes fail to manifest if the manifestation is somehow blocked, as injury or genetic defect might result in some particular cat’s having fewer than four legs.  (See pp. 230-35 of Scholastic Metaphysics for more detailed discussion.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The absolute truth about relativism

I don’t write very often about relativism.  Part of the reason is that few if any of the critics I find myself engaging with -- for example, fellow analytic philosophers of a secular or progressive bent, or scientifically inclined atheists -- take relativism any more seriously than I do.  It just doesn’t come up.  Part of the reason is that many other people have more or less already said what needs to be said about the subject.  It’s been done to death.
It is also possible to overstate the prevalence of relativism outside the ranks of natural scientists, analytic philosophers, theists, and other self-consciously non-relativist thinkers.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Pigliucci logic

In a recent article (to which I linked last week), philosopher Massimo Pigliucci wrote:

[W]hile some people may very well be “Islamophobes” (i.e., they may genuinely harbor an irrational prejudice against Islam), simply pointing out that Islamic ideas play a role in contemporary terrorism and repression does not make one [an] Islamophobe, and using the label blindly is simply an undemocratic, and unreflective, way of cutting off critical discourse.

Furthermore, to insist that “Islamophobia” is the only alternative to regarding Islam as inherently benign is, Pigliucci says, to promote a “false dichotomy [which] is a basic type of informal logical fallacy.”

Friday, August 28, 2015

The comedy keeps coming

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but while we’re on the subject of humor, here’s another mistake that is often made in discussions of it: failing to identify precisely which aspect of the phenomenon of humor a theory is (or is best interpreted as) trying to explain.  For instance, this is sometimes manifest in lists of the various “theories of humor” put forward by philosophers over the centuries.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Dragging the net

My recent Claremont Review of Books review of Scruton’s Soul of the World and Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence is now available for free online.

Should we expect a sound proof to convince everyone?  Michael Augros investigates at Strange Notions (in an excerpt from his new book Who Designed the Designer? A Rediscovered Path to God's Existence).

Intrigue!  Conspiracy!  Comic books!  First, where did the idea for Spider-Man really come from?  The New York Post reports on a Brooklyn costume shop and an alleged “billion dollar cover up.”

Then, according to Variety, a new documentary reveals the untold story behind Roger Corman’s notorious never-released Fantastic Four movie.  (I’ve seen the new one.  It’s only almost as bad as you’ve heard.)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Is it funny because it’s true?

In a recent article in National Review, Ian Tuttle tells us that “standup comedy is colliding with progressivism.”  He notes that comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Gilbert Gottfried have complained of a new political correctness they perceive in college audiences and in comedy clubs, and he cites feminists and others who routinely protest against allegedly “sexist,” “racist,” and/or “homophobic” jokes told by prominent comedians like Louis C. K.  In Tuttle’s view, the “pious aspirations” of left-wing “moral busybodies” have led them to “[object] to humor that does not bolster their ideology” and “to conflate what is funny with what is acceptable to laugh at.”

Religion and the Social Sciences

Check out the recently published Religion and the Social Sciences: Conversations with Robert Bellah and Christian Smith, edited by R. R. Reno and Barbara McClay.  The volume is a collection of essays presented at two conferences hosted by First Things on the work of Bellah and Smith.  (My essay “Natural Theology, Revealed Theology, Liberal Theology” is included.)  The publisher’s website for the book can be found here. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Marriage inflation

When everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.

W. S. Gilbert, The Gondoliers

Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.

Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion

If you printed a lot of extra money and passed it around so as to make everyone wealthier, the end result would merely be dramatically to decrease the buying power of money.  If you make it easier for college students to get an “A” grade in their courses, the end result will be that “A” grades will come to be regarded as a much less reliable indicator of a student’s true merit.  If you give prizes to everyone who participates in a competition, winning a prize will cease to be a big deal.  In general, where X is perceived to have greater value than Y and you try to raise the value of Y by assimilating it to X, the actual result will instead be simply to lower the value of X to that of Y.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Unintuitive metaphysics

At Aeon, philosopher Elijah Millgram comments on metaphysics and the contemporary analytic philosopher’s penchant for appealing to intuitions.  Give it a read -- it‘s very short.  Millgram uses an anecdote to illustrate the point that what intuitively seems to be an objective fact can sometimes reflect merely contingent “policies we’ve adopted,” where “the sense of indelible rightness and wrongness comes from having gotten so very used to those policies.”  And of course, such policies can be bad ones.  Hence the dubiousness of grounding metaphysical arguments in intuition.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Empiricism and sola scriptura redux

After my recent series of long posts on sola scriptura (here, here, and here), I fear that you, dear reader, may be starting to feel as burned out on the topic as I do.  But one final post is in order, both because there are a couple of further points I think worth making, and because Andrew Fulford at The Calvinist International has now posted a rejoinder to my response to him.  And as it happens, what I have to say about his latest article dovetails somewhat with what I was going to say anyway.  (Be warned that the post to follow is pretty long.  But it’s also the last post I hope to write on this topic for a long while.)

Following Feyerabend, I’ve been comparing sola scriptura to early modern empiricism.  Let’s pursue the analogy a little further and consider two specific parallels between the doctrines.  First, both face a fatal dilemma of being either self-defeating or vacuous.  Second, each is committed to a reductionism which crudely distorts the very epistemic criterion it claims zealously to uphold.  Let’s consider these issues in turn.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Fulford on sola scriptura, Part II

Let’s return to Andrew Fulford’s reply at The Calvinist International to my recent post on Feyerabend, empiricism, and sola scriptura.  Recall that the early Jesuit critique of sola scriptura cited by Feyerabend maintains that (a) scripture alone can never tell you what counts as scripture, (b) scripture alone cannot tell you how to interpret scripture, and (c) scripture alone cannot give us a procedure for deriving consequences from scripture, applying it to new circumstances, etc.  In an earlier post I addressed Fulford’s reply to point (a).  Let’s now consider his attempt to rebut the other two points.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Fulford on sola scriptura, Part I

At The Calvinist International, Andrew Fulford replies to my recent post on Feyerabend, empiricism, and sola scriptura.  You’ll recall that the early Jesuit critique of sola scriptura cited by Feyerabend maintains that (a) scripture alone can never tell you what counts as scripture, (b) scripture alone cannot tell you how to interpret scripture, and (c) scripture alone cannot give us a procedure for deriving consequences from scripture, applying it to new circumstances, etc.  Fulford says that these objections “essentially rely on a caricature of the teaching,” and offers responses to each point.  Let’s consider them in order.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Feyerabend on empiricism and sola scriptura

In his essay “Classical Empiricism,” available in Problems of Empiricism: Philosophical Papers, Volume 2, philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend compares the empiricism of the early moderns to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura.  He suggests that there are important parallels between them; in particular, he finds them both incoherent, and for the same reasons.  (No, Feyerabend is not doing Catholic apologetics.  He’s critiquing empiricism.)

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Aristotle’s four causes versus pantheism

For the Platonist, the essences or natures of the things of our experience are not in the things themselves, but exist in the Platonic “third realm.”  The essence or nature of a tree, for example, is not to be looked for in the tree itself, but in the Form of Tree; the essence of a man is not to be looked for in any human being but rather in the Form of Man; and so forth.  Now, if the essence of being a tree (treeness, if you will) is not to be found in a tree, nor the essence of being a man (humanness) in a man, then it is hard to see how what we ordinarily call a tree really exists as a tree, or how what we call a man really exists as a man.  Indeed, the trees and men we see are said by Plato merely imperfectly to “resemble” something else, namely the Forms.  So, what we call a tree seems at the end of the day to be no more genuinely tree-like than a statue or mirror image of a tree is; what we call a man seems no more genuinely human than a statue or mirror image of a man is; and so forth.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Caught in the net

Some of the regular readers and commenters at this blog have started up a Classical Theism, Philosophy, and Religion discussion forum.  Check it out.

Philosopher Stephen Mumford brings his Arts Matters blog to an end with a post on why he is pro-science and anti-scientism.  Then he inaugurates his new blog at Philosophers Magazine with a post on a new and improved Cogito argument for the reality of causation.

Speaking of which: At Aeon, Mathias Frisch discusses the debate over causation and physics.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Marriage and The Matrix

Suppose a bizarre skeptic seriously proposed -- not as a joke, not as dorm room bull session fodder, but seriously -- that you, he, and everyone else were part of a computer-generated virtual reality like the one featured in the science-fiction movie The Matrix.  Suppose he easily shot down the arguments you initially thought sufficient to refute him.  He might point out, for instance, that your appeals to what we know from common sense and science have no force, since they are (he insists) just part of the Matrix-generated illusion.  Suppose many of your friends were so impressed by this skeptic’s ability to defend his strange views -- and so unimpressed by your increasingly flustered responses -- that they came around to his side.  Suppose they got annoyed with you for not doing the same, and started to question your rationality and even your decency.  Your adherence to commonsense realism in the face of the skeptic’s arguments is, they say, just irrational prejudice.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

There’s no such thing as “natural atheology”

In his brief and (mostly) tightly argued book God, Freedom, and Evil, Alvin Plantinga writes:

[S]ome theologians and theistic philosophers have tried to give successful arguments or proofs for the existence of God.  This enterprise is called natural theology… Other philosophers, of course, have presented arguments for the falsehood of theistic beliefs; these philosophers conclude that belief in God is demonstrably irrational or unreasonable.  We might call this enterprise natural atheology.  (pp. 2-3)

Cute, huh?  Actually (and with all due respect for Plantinga), I’ve always found the expression “natural atheology” pretty annoying, even when I was an atheist.  The reason is that, given what natural theology as traditionally understood is supposed to be, the suggestion that there is a kind of bookend subject matter called “natural atheology” is somewhat inept.  (As we will see, though, Plantinga evidently does not think of natural theology in a traditional way.)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Love and sex roundup

Current events in the Catholic Church and in U.S. politics being as they are, it seems worthwhile to put together a roundup of blog posts and other readings on sex, romantic love, and sexual morality as they are understood from a traditional natural law perspective. 

First and foremost: My essay “In Defense of the Perverted Faculty Argument” appears in my new anthology Neo-Scholastic Essays.  It is the lengthiest and most detailed and systematic treatment of sexual morality I have written to date.  Other things I have written on sex, romantic love, and sexual morality are best read in light of what I have to say in this essay.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Cross on Scotus on causal series

Duns Scotus has especially interesting and important things to say about the distinction between causal series ordered accidentally and those ordered essentially -- a distinction that plays a key role in Scholastic arguments for God’s existence.  I discuss the distinction and Scotus’s defense of it in Scholastic Metaphysics, at pp. 148-54.  Richard Cross, in his excellent book, Duns Scotus, puts forward some criticisms of Scotus’s position.  I think Cross’s objections fail.  Let’s take a look at them.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Review of Wilson and Scruton

In the Spring 2015 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, I review Edward O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence and Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World