Monday, February 17, 2014

P.Z. Myers, Coprophagist

A blogger named P.Z. Myers has responded to my article on Jerry Coyne. He begins by getting the author wrong, and things don't get better from there.

According to Myers, I was wrong to say that Coyne had criticized David B. Hart's arguments in The Experience of God—which Coyne admitted he had not read. Instead, Coyne was responding to "the ideas that other fans of Hart have promoted."

Myers must be a devotee of the coynian method (that is, the method of criticism by which one imagines what another has written instead of reading it). Had he actually read Coyne, he would have discovered that Coyne explicitly stated that Hart's argument for God is "immune to refutation" and therefore that "Hart's argument fails."

PZ Myers then recounts a series of coprophagic fantasies. Really. I do not share Myers' tastes, and I will leave it to the hardy reader to decide whether to read the more odious portions of Myers' post. (This certainly does not help the fact that Myers' blog seems to already have a reputation as a sewer.)

I have to add, again, that I am not trying to tar the whole atheist tradition with whatever one might find stowed away in the back of one of Myers' drawers. Myers would be just as lost in the works of sophisticated atheists (say, Gilles Deleuze or J.L. Mackie) than he is in the works of philosophical theology. As a taxonomic matter, one should not regard Coyne and Myers as belonging to the same species as Nietzsche or Feuerbach, but as distant and much less evolved second cousins.

Myers' is not a household name like Dawkins or Hitchens, and I have to admit the name sounded only faintly familiar to me. But, as it happens, I had apparently written a post previously on Myers inability to understand Hart and the philosophical issues at stake in the God debate:
This much, at least, can be reasonably inferred from his recent post on Pharyngula, a response to David Hart's new essay in First Things. Despite Myers' claim that he attacks all arguments for the existence of God, he frankly admits that he does not comprehend the terms employed in the cosmological proof for God's existence: "composite", "contingent", "finite", "temporal", "absolute plenitude of being", and so on. 
These terms are, of course, slightly technical; but they are the basic vocabulary used in metaphysics in general, and the cosmological argument in particular. Hart is prone to unusual verbiage, but this is simply not the case here. Anyone who is even slightly familiar with the cosmological argument from the original texts knows these basic terms. 
"Composite" just means a thing composed of matter and form; two elementary concepts from Aristotle's metaphysics. "Contingent" is simply a being that might exist or might not, but doesn't exist necessarily. "Finite" simply signifies that a thing is circumscribed within limits. "Temporal" signifies that a thing is subject to change over time. "Absolute plenitude of being" is simply a reference to God as pure actuality in Book VIII of Aristotle's Physics. This is Philosophy 101 level material. 
P. Z. Myers' bafflement indicates that he has not made the slightest effort to familiarize himself with the cosmological arguments as it appears in the primary texts or, for that matter, anywhere. Even Richard Dawkins would have made the effort to scurry on over to, so that he could at least find the (incorrect) stock response. Myers didn't even bother to do a quick Google search. 
I won't say the cosmological argument is easy; it certainly can be formulated in many ways, and implicates the deepest questions of ontology (as I've written about before here). In fact, my only complaint about Hart's piece is that he doesn't make the cosmological argument, he just describes it in an oversimplified way. It's a bit as though P. Z. Myers explains to someone that evolution is a biological process whereby fitter animals survive, speciation occurs, and the animal kingdom gets more complex over time, on which his interlocutor would express dismay that anyone could possibly understand the concepts "fitness", "speciation", or biological complexity. Myers would no doubt end the conversation there, and instruct his interlocutor to at least get the basic ideas down so that the subject may be intelligently discussed. 
The same thing is going on in Myers post. He doesn't understand the most basic of the philosophic issues involved, and he cannot expect competent philosophers or theologians to take him seriously. Why should they? They can't read the Physics for him; he must do that for himself. 
What would Myers think of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason? Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit? Heidegger's Being and Time? If he can't get the concept of actuality straight, I can only imagine what he would think of transcendental idealism or an immanentalist ontology. Or what he would think of David Hart's academic philosophical writings (which are actually difficult). 
In the end, Myers just proves Hart's point. Unlike the great atheists of yesterday, the neo-atheists don't have the faintest clue about the very arguments they claim to reject. Myers has the courtesy not to pretend that he does. For his honesty, I suppose, we should be grateful.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Jerry Coyne: The Lowest Hanging Fruit

Probably everyone has at one time or another been embarrassed by incompetent allies. In the debates over religion, Christians have too often suffered well-meaning but ultimately uninformed apologetic efforts. However, as atheism has increasingly left the confines of the cultured elite, it too has increasingly been vulgarized and adulterated.

Jerry Coyne is emblematic of this trend. Those who appreciate the august tradition of atheism, which once counted Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Gilles Deleuze as members, are understandably hesitant to include under the same banner Jerry Coyne's the intellectually destitute writings. Even among the recent noisome crop of neo-atheists, Jerry Coyne stands out.

With Coyne, one sees the shallowest form of unbelief: his is an atheism without profundity, made up of second hand slogans rather than sustained reflection. He not only misunderstands theism; his understanding of atheism is without subtlety or accuracy. His arguments, such as they are, depend on premises that are both conceptually incoherent and historically ludicrous.

Consider Coyne's recent article, "The 'Best Arguments for God's Existence' Are Actually Terrible," which appeared in the New Republic. The article takes the form of a refutation of the arguments in David Bentley Hart's new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. Coyne admits that he has not actually read the book, but nevertheless concludes its arguments are false. He claims that Hart's conception of God is "immune to refutation," and therefore that "Hart's argument fails ...." This I designate the "coynian method": the rejection of an argument without first reading it, but with the promise to read it in the future.

(I should say, at this point, that I am not an adherent to the coynian method, and I have read his article prior to critiquing it. One can, however, see Coyne's point: his own argument is certainly stronger if left entirely to the imagination, and most who have read it would prefer, in retrospect, to have put off reading it indefinitely.)

What seems to annoy Coyne the most is the notion that if one is to reject theism, one should deal with the best arguments in its favor. This is an application of the principle that to disprove a position, one must deal with the strongest arguments in its favor.

Sophisticated theologians, according to Coyne, have produced a series of arguments for God's existence: first the argument from design, then the ontological argument, and now the notion of God as the "ground of being." When one argument is disproven, theologians retreat to the next. Hart's understanding of God as the absolute source of being is the current safe preserve for believers and, Coyne things a recently invented academic sophistry.

Anyone remotely familiar with the history of ideas will recognize Coyne's almost total ignorance of both the history and content of theistic arguments. The argument from design is hardly the earliest argument for belief in God. In fact, Paleyesque arguments are quite modern, relying as they do on modern mechanistic notions of nature. The idea of God as the source and end of being, on the other hand, stretches back to the very origins of rational thought: Plato, to cite the most obvious example. Coyne is so ignorant of the history of rational reflection that he manages to get it logically and chronologically backwards.

Coyne does not conceal his nescience behind a screen of vagaries. This much can be said in his favor: Coyne gets things wrong with great specificity. For example, Coyne claims that the idea of "God [as] the condition of possibility of anything existing at all" is not held by "Aquinas, Luther, [or] Augustine." (Nor does Coyne thinks he can explain this idea to his friends. This, at least, is beyond dispute.)

How could Coyne have arrived at this conclusion? Had Coyne actually read any of the three (in any of the arduous years he dubiously claims to have devoted to the subject of theology), he would have discovered that all three considered God to be the transcendent ground of finite being. The coynian methodology (refute first, (maybe) read later) has led Coyne to obviously false conclusions once again.

The virtue of Coyne's forthrightness is that it can be falsified easily. Augustine maintained that God is being itself,1 "the absolute fullness of being and thus the sole primeval source of all being ...."2 Luther's notion of God's otherness strongly distinguished divine from finite existence.3 As for Aquinas, one of the most famous aspects of his theology is his notion of God as "ipsum esse subsistens" (subsistent being itself), which, as Thomas Guarano puts it, means that "God is beyond being, for God is always supra ens, beyond common being."4

Coyne could not have been more precisely wrong. The notion of God as the source of being is not a modern phenomenon, but the traditional theistic notion of God. As Robert Barron quite accurately summarizes it:
"Our greatest theologians, from Origen, through Augustine and Aquinas, to Rahner and Tillich in this century, have maintained that God is not a being, even the supreme being, but rather Being Itself."5

Coyne also poses a series of questions to traditional theism. "[O]n what ground should we believe it?" And "[w]hy on earth does [it] have any force at all?" And again, "what would convince you the God you describe doesn't exist."

A reflective person would have attempted to answer these questions for herself by reading the argument in question and doing her homework on the basics of the subject. But the coynian methodology will not be enslaved by the chains of scholarly rigor.

Had Coyne read Hart, or any decent statement of theism, he would have discovered that God refers to the "one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason immanent to all things.... He is not a 'being,' at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is in whom (to use the language of the Christian Scriptures) all things live and move and have their being."6

I have no doubt Coyne finds this unintelligible. This, however, has more to do with the limits of his intellect and education than with lucidity of the formulation itself. To completely understand such a formulation requires a fairly solid liberal arts education--it would be useful to have read Plato and Aristotle, as well as have grasped the various doctrines of ontological difference. But the basic idea is by no means limited to an intellectual elite: confusing God with a particular being is idolatry--thus the traditional Jewish and Islamic opprobrium against images. As one finds in Job: "Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?"7

The only actual argument Coyne can muster is that the traditional notion of God cannot be tested. (Or, perhaps more precisely, Coyne expects that were he to study the classical arguments for God, he would it untestable. The Coynian method is pure fideism.) For, Coyne says, if a claim cannot be tested, there is no reason to believe in it.

Coyne's position here is a hash of the Vienna Circle's verifability principle.8 This view has been obsolete for half a century now, for at least two reasons.

First, and most obviously, the testability principle is not itself testable. It is self-contradictory. Second, and more fundamentally, the notion of testability is polyvalent. As Carl Hempel pointed out:

"[T]he criterion is either too strict, in that it rules out sentences which are part of science ('All quasars are radioactive' cannot be conclusively verified and 'Some quasars are not radioactive' cannot be conclusively falsified), or too liberal, in that it allows metaphysical sentences like 'Only the Absolute is perfect.')9
Different claims must be demonstrated by different means, according to the formal and material object of inquiry. The claim that life exists on Mars requires a different type of testing than the claim that all even numbers, when added to other even numbers, results in an even number. To even claim that mathematical or analytical theses are testable is to leave the bounds of empirical science and to expand the term "testable" so thin that it means little more than what one can provide an argument for. Testability and verifiability are equivocal terms. It is Coyne's claim that beliefs should be testable, and not the theistic concept of God, that lacks meaning.

But am I not guilty, like Coyne, of attacking the weakest opponents? If I am to refute atheism, had I not better criticize the intellectually competent rather than pick the low hanging fruit? To be clear, I do not believe atheism to be discredited because its worst arguments are false; nor do I mean to imply that the quality of its tradition should be judged on the basis of its most ignorant opponents. Jerry Coyne should not discredit the whole atheist enterprise. Just as Christian theism is not discredited by Pat Robertson, so atheism is not discredited by Jerry Coyne.


1 See, e.g., The City of God, XII, 2
2 St. Augustine, De Gen. Ad lit., V, 16 34
3 See B. A. Gerrish, "To the Unknown God": Luther and Calvin on the Hiddenness of God," The Journal of Religion, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Jul., 1973), pp. 263-292.
4 Guarino, Thomas G. Foundations of Systematic Theology. Continuum, 2005. P 250.
5 Barron, Robert E. Bridging the Great Divide: Musings of a Post-Liberal, Post-Conservative, Evangelical Catholic. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
6 David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss 30.
7 Job 11:7.
8 The question for them was not whether statements were worthy of belief, but whether they were meaningful. See Glock, Hans-Johann. What Is Analytic Philosophy? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 38-9. Though verificationism was no doubt wrong, it had much more subtlety than Coyne's own version.
9 Glock, Hans-Johann. What Is Analytic Philosophy? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 39.