Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Philosophers Reasoning Badly: Nicholas Everitt

The arguments for the existence of God are almost always misstated in popular atheist literature. Anyone who has endured the works of the neo-atheists knows their grasp of the philosophy of religion to be deficient. 

For example, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins all believe that one premise of the cosmological argument is that "everything has a cause."

Mistakes like that usually indicate that the writer has made no serious effort to understand the debate. No serious theistic thinker has based an argument on the notion that "everything has a cause."

One would hope these sorts of errors would be limited to pop-atheism. The trouble is that these wild misunderstandings keep popping up in the work of respectable philosophers. Graham Priest, for example, is no pamphleteer, but he makes these sorts of elementary mistakes in his short introductory book in logic.

Which brings me to Nicholas Everitt and his book The Non-Existence of God, where one finds this:
Aquinas argues in the second of his Five Ways that there cannot be an infinite regress of causes, because if the regress were infinite, then there would be no first cause, and if there is no first cause, there can be no subsequent or later events. So there must, he says, be a First Cause ‘to which everyone gives the name of God’. 
But this line of argument is worthless. The claim that if there is no first cause, there can be no later events is simply false. The whole point about an infinite sequence is that it does not have to start (i.e. to have an earliest or first member) in order to continue. If we assume that nothing happens without a cause (as Aquinas here does), then all that is required for the occurrence of later events is the occurrence of earlier causes, not of a first cause. If the regress of causes is infinite, then for every event we pick, it will be preceded by an earlier cause – which in turn will be preceded by an earlier cause, and so on.
According to Everitt, Aquinas argues that there can be infinite causal series, and therefore there must be a first cause.

This is enough to show that Everett did not do his homework. St. Thomas does not reject all infinite causal series on philosophical grounds. In fact, he thinks there is no rational way to prove that the world does not exist eternally. "By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist ..." ST I, Q. 46, art. 2.

Aquinas, in other words, did not argue that "there cannot be an infinite regress of causes," as Everitt claims. St. Thomas is making a claim only about essentially ordered series of efficient causes. 

Aquinas explicitly says that accidentally ordered causal series can be infinite in ST. I, Q. 46, art. 2, reply to 8. When Aquinas is talking about a "first cause," he's not talking about a first cause in time. He's talking about an original "per se" cause.

Now Aquinas may or may not be right about essentially ordered causal sequences being necessarily finite. But the point here is that Everitt's presentation of Aquinas' argument misses the argument entirely. Everitt does not appear to have read what Aquinas had to say on the subject. Nor apparently has he consulted any decent secondary source on Aquinas' arguments for the existence of God. The error he's making is an elementary one that would have been corrected had he done any research.

I don't want to beat up on Everett personally. There is a broader point here: when it comes to the philosophy of religion, there is a larger proportion of shoddy work than in other areas of philosophy. Everett's book was published by Routledge. Graham Priest's was published by Oxford University Press. Unfortunately, it is often the case that the philosophy of religion has low standards.

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