Rationality and Sentimentality

You often meet online a kind of person who goes on and on endlessly about “reason” and “rationality.” Just recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson made a bit of a fool of himself by proposing the creation of a “virtual country” called #Rationalia.  And of course a lot of the usual suspects got on board with this:


The addition of the C. S. Lewis quote is my doing. And maybe this isn’t that much of a bandwagon, since it was apparently necessary (or rational?) to include @CosmicPinot twice—but this sort of thing reminded me of an analysis this phenomenon given by philosopher Edward Feser, a thinker for whom I have a lot of respect.

Feser, being a Catholic and a Thomist, has often crossed swords with atheists.  And like anyone who argues with modern atheists, he has been struck by the contrast between their rhetoric of rationality and the manifest irrationality of their conduct.  This glaring contradiction cries out for an explanation, and I think Feser has put his finger on the best or primary explanation.  I’ll quote Feser and intersperse my own thoughts. If you’d like to read his entire blog post (which I recommend), it is found here: Walter Mitty atheism.

Needless to say, there is something truly pathological going on here. And that, by the way, is one reason Coyne, Krauss, and company are worth at least a little of our attention. Some readers have asked me why I bother replying to people who are so extremely irrational and dishonest, and therefore unlikely to respond well to serious criticism. Part of the reason is that though Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and many of their fans are indeed impervious to rational argumentation, there are onlookers who are not impervious to it. And those people are reachable and worth trying to reach. After all, Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and some of the other better known New Atheists are, though irrational and dishonest, not stupid. In their own fields, some of them even do interesting work. For that reason, some people who know as little about philosophy and theology as they do but who are rational and honest might falsely suppose that these New Atheists must have something important to say about those particular subjects. Hence it is useful now and again to expose Coyne et al. for the frauds that they are, so that well-meaning third parties will see that they are not to be taken seriously on philosophical and theological questions. The more they make fools of themselves, the more they should be discussed rather than ignored, at least so long as there is any intellectually honest person who still somehow thinks the New Atheism is anything but a bad joke.

I am also frequently asked this question, especially on Twitter, and my response is exactly the same.  I may not be able to convince my opponent or their ideologically blinkered followers, but third parties can often see who is making a reasonable argument and who is acting like an irrational ideologue.

Another reason for paying them some attention, though, is that Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and company are simply genuine curiosities. Again, they are not stupid, and indeed have serious intellectual accomplishments to their credit. And yet on the subjects of religion and philosophy they are incapable of seeing that their self-confidence is laughably, cringe-makingly out of proportion to their actual competence. They exhibit exactly the sort of stubborn, bigoted closed-mindedness and ignorance that they smugly condemn when they perceive it in others. What exactly is going on here? What makes these weird people tick? That is a question of real intellectual interest.

I agree.  This is a very interesting question. In fact, this question and Feser’s answer are so interesting I’m writing about them right now.  The general pattern of human beings contradicting their stated beliefs with their actions is commonplace. It is simple hypocrisy.  But the hypocrite that is genuinely blind to his or her own hypocrisy is interesting. What explains this?

The answer, according to Feser, following Roger Scruton, is something he calls sentimentality:

The answer, I would suggest, is sentimentality. I use the word in a semi-technical sense, following the analysis offered in The Aesthetics of Music by Roger Scruton (who was in turn building on some ideas of Michael Tanner). A sentimental person, according to Scruton, tends to be quick to respond emotionally to a stimulus, will appear to be pained but will enjoy his pangs, will respond with equal violence to a variety of stimuli in succession, will nevertheless avoid following his emotional responses up with appropriate actions, and will respond more readily to strangers and to abstract issues than to persons known to him or to concrete circumstances requiring time, energy, or personal sacrifice. In short, a sentimental person is one whose emotional life becomes an end in itself and loses its connection both to the external circumstances that would normally shape it and to the behavior that it ought to generate. Feelings of moral outrage, romantic passion, and other emotional states become valued for their own sake to such an extent that the actual moral facts, the well-being of the beloved, etc. fade into the background.

For instance, someone who constantly chats up the plight of the homeless, but without any real interest in finding out why people become homeless or what ways of helping them are really effective, might plausibly be described as merely sentimental. “How awful things are for the homeless!” is not really the thought that moves him. What really moves him is the thought: “How wonderful I am to think of how awful things are for the homeless!” His feelings of compassion function, not to get him to do what is necessary to help those who are homeless, but rather to provide him with assurance of his superior virtue. His high dudgeon functions, not to prod him to find out whether the homeless are really being victimized by evildoers, but rather to reinforce his assurance of his superior virtue by allowing him to contrast himself with the imagined evildoers. This kind of onanistic moralism requires a fantasy world rich enough to sustain it. Poignant or dramatic images of suffering and of injustices inflicted are far more likely to foster such fantasies than are cold statistics or the actual, mundane details of the lives of homeless people. Hence someone who is merely sentimental about homelessness might prefer movies, songs, and the like to social scientific study as a source of “information” about homelessness and its causes.

Now, the New Atheism, I submit, is exactly like this. The New Atheist talks, constantly and loudly, about reason, science, evidence, facts, being “reality-based,” etc. Equally constantly and loudly, he decries dogmatism, ignorance, wishful thinking, whatever is merely “faith-based,” etc. And he relentlessly denounces “religious” people, whom, he imagines, are central casting exemplars of the latter vices. But it is not reason, science, etc. that really move him. What really moves him is the pleasure that the thought of being paradigmatically rational, scientific, etc. gives him. Nor is he really moved by what religious people actually think. After all, he not only doesn’t trouble himself to find out what they actually think, but often will expend great energy trying to rationalize his refusal to find out what they actually think. (Consider e.g. P.Z. Myers’ shamelessly question-begging “Courtier’s reply” dodge.) Rather, what moves him is the self-righteous delight he takes in his belief in his intellectual and moral superiority over “religious” people. His “rationalism” consists, not in actually being rational, but in constantly chatting up rationality and constantly badmouthing those who, at least in his imagination, are not as rational as he enjoys believing that he is.

Here we have the heart of the issue, I think:

[I]t is not reason, science, etc. that really move him. What really moves him is the pleasure that the thought of being paradigmatically rational, scientific, etc. gives him


His “rationalism” consists, not in actually being rational, but in constantly chatting up rationality and constantly badmouthing those who, at least in his imagination, are not as rational as he enjoys believing that he is.

What is paramount to see is that this sort of ‘rationalist’ is not dedicated to reason or rationality in any real sense, but to his own feelings, particularly those touching on his self-image of “being a rational person”.  It gives him a great deal of pleasure to contemplate his own superiority to others, which he does by celebrating his “rationality” (defined in such a way that he cannot fail to be rational, do not doubt), both inwardly in his thought-life and outwardly by means of rationality virtue signaling. Anyone who has engaged atheists in online argumentation will also have observed this pattern of both self-congratulation and of fellow-rationalist-congratulation.  Both are ubiquitous and unmistakable.

Those of us who actually love truth for its own sake and seek it by means of reasoned inquiry experience a disconnect when talking to such people.  They say that they are in favor of reason and inquiry, and yet their actions bely their words.

When one encounters someone extolling the virtue of rationality, especially his own virtuousness as a paradigmatically rational person, odds are high you are dealing not with a real rationalist but with a sentimentalist.  And if you are going to engage a sentimentalist in debate or discussion, do not expect him to act in a rational manner.


Keeping Track

So Mark Houlsby asserts that God does not exist. I challenged him to prove this assertion. Here is his argument:

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I and others have attempted to refute this argument by arguing “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” We proffered plausible counterexamples: such things as protons (at one time), intelligent life in the Andromeda galaxy, and black holes (at one time). We argued that it is overwhelmingly likely that there are things for which we do not yet have evidence.

His response is odd.

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As should be clear from his argument,

  1. There is no evidence for God.
  2. ∴ God does not exist.

he has a suppressed premise. What’s premise 2?  It would have to be:

MH2: Anything for which there is no evidence does not exist.

Worse yet, he seems to hold

MH4: If X exists, necessarily there is evidence that X exists.

from his proton argument.

But evidence is an epistemological concept, pertaining to knowledge, to how we know that something exists or not, and what its properties are. Existence on the other hand is a metaphysical or ontological concept.

There seems to simply be no necessary connection between existence and evidence, such that either “a lack of evidence for X ⇒ X does not exist” nor “X exists ⇒ there is evidence that X exists.”

It seems perfectly obvious that there could be things which are unknown to us, because not yet discovered, or more strongly, things that are perhaps unknown to us in principle, given the limits of human cognition.   Given his response to protons in the 1st century, he might claim the evidence is there, because the existence is the evidence.  He would then be saying that the existence of X is the evidence that X exists.

This would make sense out of MH2 and MH4, but then he would be identifying existence and evidence, so his premises would translate (be substitution of equivalent terms) to:

MH2: Anything for which there is no evidence is something for which there is no evidence.

MH4: If X exists,  X exists. 

It would be impossible to deny these premises when formulated in this way, but the cost is that they are now vacuous tautologies from which nothing follows.  It would make his argument against the existence of God circular, because MH1: there is no evidence for God would just mean MH3: God does not exist.  When your first premise IS your conclusion, you are either begging the question (if you think you proved your conclusion) or you haven’t gone anywhere:

  1. God does not exist.
  2. ∴ God does not exist.

That’s valid, certainly, but it isn’t a proof.  Presented as a proof it is question-begging.

This is ongoing, so I’m using my blog to keep track.  Stay tuned!

On the question of evidence, I thought of perhaps an even better counterexample to Houlsby’s claim, after Thomas Nagel’s famous “What is it like to be a bat?” I was looking at my cat this morning, and wondering what it is like to be a cat.  If we accept that cats and bats are conscious beings, then they are “experiencing subjects of a life” and so there is “something it is like to be them.”  But human beings, it seems, can never know what it is like to be a cat. Because, by definition, a human being is a human being and not a cat.  Even if, hypothetically, one could hook one’s brain to a cat and have experience cat experiences,  this would still not be “what it is like to be a cat” but “what it is like for a human being to have cat experiences run through their brain.”  Short of magic, where a witch turns a person into a cat, it seems there is an in-principle barrier to knowing what it is like to be a cat.  Which is to say, there is no possible evidence that could tell us what it is like to be a cat. Again I Houlsby could make the move of saying “there is evidence, but it is completely unexperienceable by us as evidence.”  But of course to do this would, again, utterly defeat his argument that God does not exist, unless he knows, for a fact, that there is no evidence for God, which would include evidence which is in principle not experienceable by any human being.  But of course he couldn’t know such a thing.

His claim that MH1: There is no evidence for God is already defeated by AMH1: It is possible there is evidence of God that has not yet be discovered.  I of course hold there is evidence for God, and plenty of it, but even if Houlsby rejects everything put forward as evidence, he is still not warranted in claiming there is none, but only that he has not seen any. Even worse, his peculiar definition of evidence seems to entail AMH1′: It is possible there is evidence for God that is not in principle experienceable by any human being (since he seems to hold that evidence can exist apart from it doing any evidentiary work for anything or anyone).  This also radically undercuts his claim that there is no evidence for God since on this understanding, literally anything could be evidence for God, in such a way that it is, objectively, evidence, but it is unknown to anyone that it is evidence and how it is evidence. For all Houlsby knows, his fallacious argument that there is no God might be evidence for the existence of God; since he asserts evidence exists independently of its being known by anyone to be evidence, he has know way of knowing.  Someone might discover a sound argument in which Houlsby’s fallacious argument for the nonexistence of God is actual evidence for the existence of God.  I’m not saying that it is; I’m saying he can’t rule out the possibility that it is not, since for him “to be evidence” does not require evidence to do any evidentiary work for anyone.


Classical Atheists vs New Atheists

Most people know “New Atheism” as a term for the particularly militant, aggressive, populist, anti-intellectual, noxious atheism of the second half of the first decade of the 20th century, typically represented by writers such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, lesser lights such as Michel Onfray, Victor J. Stenger, Michael Shermer, Lawrence Krauss, and their epigones.  But the thing was misnamed. There wasn’t really anything new about New Atheism, except one thing.  As Tom Flynn wrote in 2010,

New Atheism Not New

Since there wasn’t really anything new about the New Atheism, except as a popular novelty, one which has now worn off, it seems fairly safe to say that the New Atheism is more or less over.  New Atheism is passé.  It has suffered the fate of everything foolish enough to put the word “new” in its name suffers: it stopped being new, and got old, as things do.

However, just because New Atheist phenomenon has burnt out doesn’t mean that we can’t repurpose the name, which could still be useful.  This is a suggestion made by a Twitter friend of mine, @philosophynerd2, one I heartily endorse.  He suggests that we classify atheists as either Classical Atheists or New Atheists, defined as follows:

A Classical Atheist is an atheist who understands atheism to mean the denial of the existence of God, and who holds that God does not exist.

A New Atheist is an atheist who accepts Antony Flew’s redefinition of the term “atheist” and understands atheism to mean a lack of belief in the existence of God, and so is an atheist who doesn’t deny the existence of God, but only insists he does not accept the existence of God.

Flew himself used the term negative atheist to describe his new kind of atheist, as opposed to the older positive atheists.  That never caught on, since it sounds strange to call a denial of the existence of God positive (it makes sense, but it still sounds wrong to most people).

Back in the early 1990s, when I used to lurk on Usenet’s alt.atheism, the terms strong atheist and weak atheist were used to distinguish those who denied the existence of God and those who claimed in a Flewian fashion only to lack a belief in the existence of God. Sometimes the weak atheists would complain that the term “weak” made them sound a bit, well, weak.  To which the strong atheists would usually retort that they were weak, that they should man up, stop being pussies, and become strong atheists (which were still generally regarded as atheists proper).  It wasn’t that weak atheists weren’t considered atheists, but they were definitely widely considered to be an inferior or second class kind of atheist. But that was then.

I think the assessment of the strong atheists was and is entirely correct. Weak atheists are an inferior kind of atheist. They are inferior in intellectual rigor and intellectual honesty—largely because the accept not only Flew’s redefinition of atheism but also his contention that it follows from this redefinition that atheism is the presumptive “default position” and that the burden of proof in the atheism/theism debate lies entirely on the theist.  As it happens, Flew is wrong.  Neither of these things in fact follow (and are no longer taken to follow in the philosophy of religion, largely thanks to the work of Alvin Plantinga, who made such a powerful case for the rational presumption of theism that he essentially single-handedly rolled the discussion back to its pre-Flew state).

But at the same years professional philosophers of religion were working out that Flew was wrong (and Flew himself was reading Aristotle seriously for the first time, which eventually led him to theism), Flew’s ideas were trickling down into the wider population, where they have now essentially become the new atheist orthodoxy.  This has had a number of bad consequences, especially with respect to the level of atheist intellectual discourse. Since the Flewian New Atheist considers himself not to hold a position, but to win by default, he has not, as a rule, cultivated much capacity in the way of making a rational case for his position (why should he expend the effort of time and thought to make a case for a position, when he wins by default precisely by not having a position?).  Now to win, even by default, the New Atheist does still have to make some arguments, but this is limited to criticism of theistic arguments. And as everyone knows, it is much easier to criticize and tear down than it is to create and build up. It is hard to make a detailed case for something; it is fairly easy, on the other, hand to attempt to poke holes in someone else’s case.  Not many people can successfully do the former; the latter lies within the range of most mediocre intellects.

One can’t help but of think of C. S. Lewis’ characterization of two English teachers who used a watered down Emotivism and the “fact/value” distinction to ‘debunk’ all claims involving an expression of emotion or value:


Worse still, since the New Atheist believes he wins by default and that atheism is merely “a lack of belief in God”, he can claim victory (of a sort) if a theist fails to induce in him a belief in God—something which is entirely within the power of his own will to prevent.

The New Atheist, if you let him define the terms of the debate in a Flewian manner, cannot lose: he wins by default if the theist fails to persuade him to believe in God, and this is something entirely within his power to refuse to do no matter what. You can see why a certain sort of atheist likes this situation very much—I suspect they are the same sort of people who play video games on “god mode”—but these circumstances are not healthy with respect to finding out the truth. A cheap and easy rhetorical victory is substituted for a serious inquiry and endeavor to find the truth.  This is why popular Flewian “New Atheism” tends to make one anti-intellectual, lazy, dogmatic, strident, arrogant, and willful.

I think I will adopt my friend Philosophy Nerd’s technique of requiring atheists to self-identify as either a Classical Atheist or a New Atheist.  “New Atheist” seems to be a perfectly good term which either is or will shortly be in search of a new use—and since Flewian “lack of belief” atheists represent an entirely new definition of atheism, it seems like a perfect match.

Atheist Weight Classes

If it were up to me to choose the atheist “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” I could do a much better job than the New Atheist four:


As a philosopher, Nietzsche towers above the others.  Sartre easily takes second place, although his thought is heavily dependent on Heidegger and Alexandre Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel.  Much of Freud’s thought is taken (uncredited) from Nietzsche, and almost all of real philosophical substance in Marx is borrowed from Hegel.  In terms of influence however, Marx and Freud certainly rank as high as any.

This got me thinking of them as atheist “Heavyweights.”  I didn’t know anything about boxing weight classes, but Google is my friend, so here we are.


Heavyweights: Nietzsche, Sartre, Freud, Marx, Hume, Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Stirner

Middleweights: Bruno Bauer, Auguste Comte, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Baron d’Holbach, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, Albert Camus

Welterweights: A. J. Ayer, Antony Flew, Michael Martin, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Leotard, Quentin Smith

Lightweights: Peter Singer, Kai Nielsen, J. C. C. Smart,

Featherweights: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Ayn Rand, Michel Onfray, Peter Atkins, Massimo Pigliucci, Michael Ruse

Bantamweights: Lawrence Krauss, Jerry Coyne, Michael Shermer, Victor Stenger, Alex Rosenberg, A. C. Grayling, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan

Flyweights: P. Z. Myers, Richard Carrier, Thunderf00t, The Amazing Atheist, David Silverman, Rebecca Watson, Infidels.org

Strawweights: 99.99% of atheists on social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. This idiot. These idiots.

Special: I want to include Dostoyevski among the Heavyweights, but since he’s a theist, it doesn’t seem right. Nonetheless, he thought through atheism as deeply as anyone (and certainly more profoundly that most of the atheists on this list) in, e.g. Demons and The Brothers Karamazov.

Some of these names may be a little obscure to people not in the field of professional philosophy or not conversant with the history of philosophy.  I didn’t really go back further than the 18th century, and then only to pick up Hume and the French Philosophes—this is mostly about modern atheism, beginning in the 19th century.  Hume’s just too damned important to leave out though.

Personally, I recommend you don’t go below the Lightweights if you are a serious inquirer. It’s around that point where rhetoric begins to replace argument, or when argument is to be found, the same arguments are found much better in the higher weight classes.  Well, that’s not entirely true; Thunderf00t and the Amazing Atheist are both pretty entertaining, and frequently have interesting things to say when not straw manning theism.

Let me know what you think.  Did I miss anyone?  Miscategorize anyone?


God, gods, and kamikazes

Suppose after a night of rather heavy drinking at a bar, I say to one of my friends “There were at least two dozen kamikazes in the bar last night!” As it happens, she was also at the bar last night, although not with me, and she disputes my claim, on the ground that there were no Japanese aerial suicide pilots in the bar, and “kamikaze” means “Japanese aerial suicide pilot.”

I explain that identical or similar words can have different meanings, and that a “kamikaze” is also a drink consisting of equal parts vodka, triple sec and lime juice.  I explain to her I am talking about the cocktail, not the Japanese suicide bomber pilots.  I further explain that I happen to be in privileged position with respect to my claim to know what it is that I am talking about.

She rejects this, insisting that “kamikaze” means “Japanese aerial suicide pilot” and nothing else, neither the common usage of the word among cocktail drinkers nor my usage of the word to mean a drink notwithstanding.  On this basis, she continues to insist that my claim about there “being at least two dozen kamikazes in the bar last night” is false.

What should we make of this argument on her part?

It seems obvious that it is a very bad argument, because she is failing to address my claim at all. Her objection is an appeal to a different sense of the word that has no relevant connection to my use of the word.  I recognize there is a very tenuous historical connection between the name of the drink and the Japanese aerial suicide bombers, but it likely isn’t anything more than someone at some point thinking “that would be a cool name for a drink.”¹

Consider also the names of various American car models: “Bronco” “Accent” “Caprice” “Passport” “Suburban” etc. Like my kamikaze example, it would seem merely fatuous to claim that the owner of a Hyundai Accent does not have an accent, because an accent means “a distinctive mode of pronunciation of a language, especially one associated with a particular nation, locality, or social class.” So it does, but it also means “a distinct emphasis given to a syllable or word in speech by stress or pitch” and “a car model produced by Hyundai.”

Very obviously, if a person attempts to refute your argument or claim on the basis of a sense of a word which you don’t mean, they are simply committing a fallacy of equivocation.  Equivocation is possible only because identical or similar words can and do have multiple senses, sometimes related, sometimes not.

Let’s take a third case and be as blatant as possible. I claim “Water is H₂O.” My opponent is a Humpty-Dumptyist who simply stipulates that he defines “water” as “lead.” He then argues that lead is not H₂O but Pb, and therefore I am wrong.  Has he refuted me?  Obviously not. But why not? Because when I said “water” I meant “water” and not “lead.” My claim is about water. His refutation required him to pretend my claim is not about water but about lead, which it isn’t.


So what’s the point? Isn’t it obvious that this move of refuting something other than what a speaker means is fallacious?

It should be obvious, but I find it is very common tactic used by many atheists.  When I or other theists make claims about God, the atheists will claim, falsely, that we are making claims about gods. Now, I would not deny there is historical connection between the words “god” and “God” just as there is between “kamikaze” and “kamikaze” or between “accent” and “Accent.”  But the words denote very different things. This difference in denotation is in fact the reason “God” is capitalized whereas “god” is not—it is to mark the difference between the concept of “God” and the concept of “a god.”

Not only is this established usage, it is within the rights of the theist to define what he or she is talking about. You can dispute my claim that God exists if you wish to.  But you cannot dispute it by claiming that I am talking about something I am not talking about, or claiming something I am not claiming, and refuting the thing I am not claiming and not talking about.  Such a “refutation” is no refutation at all, nor does it undermine my claims in any way, since it is simply about something else, which I am not talking about.

So not only does the atheist seem to be confused about the distinction between God and gods, he is actively intellectually dishonest if he insists on redefining terms on the basis of “what they really mean” or (what comes to the same) “what he thinks they should mean.”

It should be obvious that if a person asserts something about something (S is P) that the truth or falsity of the assertion depends on the meaning and definition of the terms, and all else being equal, the one who asserts something has the right to define her terms, since she is in the epistemically privileged position of being the only one who knows what she is talking about.

“You mean something other than what you mean” is never a legitimate argument, since what I mean is both entirely up to me, and known only to me (up until the point at which I define my terms, thereby making it clear what I mean).

Atheistic appeals to gods are fallacies of equivocation when God is the subject at issue.

¹ Some further research reveals that no one knows the origin of the name of the drink for certain, but there is a widespread story that it originated with some American GIs at the officer’s club at the post-war Yokusuba military base; while the beers only did them minor “damage”, the cocktails were doing them major “damage” i.e. knocking them on their asses, so they named them “kamikazes” for the potential major damage a successful kamikaze could do to a ship.

A Dilemma for Scientism

Professor Paul Moser discusses some problems with scientism in his book The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined:


Our dilemma will bear on positions (i)–(vi), given that it bears on the aforementioned core statements of naturalism satisfied by those positions, namely:

Core ontological naturalism: every real entity either consists of or at least owes its existence to the objects acknowledged by the hypothetically completed empirical sciences (that is, the objects of a natural ontology).

Core methodological naturalism: every cognitively legitimate method of acquiring or revising beliefs consists of or is grounded in the hypothetically completed methods of the empirical sciences (that is, in natural methods).

These are core statements of ontological and methodological naturalism, and they offer the empirical sciences as the criterion for metaphysical and cognitive genuineness. They entail ontological and methodological monism in that they acknowledge the empirical sciences as the single standard for genuine metaphysics and cognition. These core positions therefore promise us remarkable explanatory unity in metaphysics and cognition. Still, we must ask: is their promise trustworthy? For brevity, let’s call the conjunction of these two positions Core Scientism, while allowing for talk of both its distinctive ontological component and its distinctive methodological component.

Core Scientism is not itself a thesis offered by any empirical science. In particular, neither its ontological component nor its methodological component is a thesis, directly or indirectly, of an empirical science or a group of empirical sciences. Neither component is endorsed or implied by the empirical scientific work of physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, or any other natural or social empirical science or any group thereof. As a result, no research fundable by the National Science Foundation, for instance, offers Core Scientism as a scientific thesis. In contrast, the National Endowment for the Humanities would be open to funding certain work centered on Core Scientism, perhaps as part of a project in philosophy, particularly in philosophical metaphysics or epistemology.

Core Scientism proposes a universality of scope for the empirical sciences (see its talk of “every real entity” and “every cognitively legitimate method”) that the sciences themselves consistently avoid. Individual sciences are typically distinguished by the particular ranges of empirical data they seek to explain: biological data for biology, anthropological data for anthropology, and so on. Similarly, empirical science as a whole is typically distinguished by its attempt to explain all relevant empirical data and, accordingly, by the range of all relevant empirical data. Given this typical constraint on empirical science, we should be surprised indeed if the empirical sciences had anything to say about whether entities outside the domain of the empirical sciences (say, in the domain of theology) are nonexistent. At any rate, we should be suspicious in that case.

Sweeping principles about the nature of cognitively legitimate inquiry in general, particularly principles involving entities allegedly outside the domain of the empirical sciences, are not the possession or the product of the empirical sciences themselves. Instead, such principles emerge from philosophy or from some product of philosophy, perhaps even misguided philosophy. Accordingly, Core Scientism is a philosophical thesis, and is not the kind of scientific thesis characteristic of the empirical sciences. The empirical sciences flourish, have flourished, and will flourish without commitment to Core Scientism or to any such philosophical principle. Clearly, furthermore, opposition to Core Scientism is not opposition either to science (regarded as a group of significant cognitive disciplines) or to genuine scientific contributions.

Proponents of Core Scientism will remind us that their scientism invokes not the current empirical sciences but rather the hypothetically completed empirical sciences. Accordingly, they may be undisturbed by the absence of Core Scientism from the theses of the current empirical sciences. Still, the problem at hand persists for Core Scientism, because we have no reason to hold that Core Scientism is among the claims or the implications of the hypothetically completed empirical sciences. A general problem is that specific predictions about what the completed sciences will include are notoriously risky and arguably unreliable (even though this robust fact has not hindered stubborn forecasters of science). The often turbulent, sometimes revolutionary history of the sciences offers no firm basis for reasonable confidence in such speculative predictions, especially when a sweeping philosophical claim is involved. In addition, nothing in the current empirical sciences makes it likely that the completed sciences would include Core Scientism as a thesis or an implication. The monopolistic hopes of some naturalists for the sciences, therefore, are hard to anchor in reality.

The problem with Core Scientism stems from its distinctive monopolistic claims. Like many philosophical claims, it makes claims about every real entity and every cognitively legitimate method for acquiring or revising beliefs. The empirical sciences, as actually practiced, are not monopolistic, nor do we have any reason to think that they should or will become so. Neither individually nor collectively do they offer scientific claims about every real entity or every cognitively legitimate method for belief formation. Advocates of an empirical science monopoly would do well to attend to this empirical fact.

The empirical sciences rightly limit their scientific claims to their proprietary domains, even if wayward scientists sometimes overextend themselves, and depart from empirical science proper, with claims about every real entity or every cognitively legitimate method. (The latter claims tend to sell trendy books, even though they fail as science.) Support for this observation comes from the fact that the empirical sciences, individually and collectively, are logically and cognitively neutral on such matters as the existence of God and the veracity of certain kinds of religious experience. Accordingly, each such science logically and cognitively permits the existence of God and the veracity of certain kinds of religious experience. We have no reason, moreover, to suppose that the hypothetically completed empirical sciences should or will differ from the actual empirical sciences in this respect. Naturalists, at any rate, have not shown otherwise; nor has anyone else. This comes as no surprise, however, once we recognize that the God of traditional monotheism does not qualify or function as an object of empirical science. Accordingly, we do well not to assume, without needed argument, that the objects of empirical science exhaust the objects of reality in general. An analogous point holds for the methods of empirical science: we should not assume uncritically that they exhaust the methods of cognitively legitimate belief formation in general.

Proponents of Core Scientism might grant that it is not, itself, a claim of the empirical sciences, but they still could propose that Core Scientism is cognitively justified by the empirical sciences. (A “claim” of the empirical sciences is, let us say, a claim logically entailed by the empirical sciences, whereas a claim justified by the sciences need not be thus logically entailed.) This move would lead to a focus on the principles of cognitive justification appropriate to the empirical sciences. Specifically, what principles of cognitive justification allegedly combine with the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences to justify Core Scientism? More relevantly, are any such principles of justification required, logically or cognitively, by the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences themselves? No such principles of justification seem logically required, because the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences logically permit that Core Scientism is not justified. Whether such principles of justification are cognitively required depends on the cognitive principles justified by the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences, and the latter matter clearly remains unsettled. We have, at any rate, no salient evidence for thinking that the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences will include or justify cognitive principles that justify Core Scientism. The burden for delivering such evidence is squarely on naturalists, and it remains to be discharged.

Moser, Paul K.. The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined (pp. 76-80). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Ad Hominem

Ad hominem is a Latin expression that means “to the man.”  It is an informal logical fallacy of which attempts to refute or discredit a person’s argument by means of an appeal to some irrelevant personal characteristic of the arguer.

Like all informal fallacies, an ad hominem is fallacious not because of its form, but because of its content. That is to say, in order to establish that an ad hominem fallacy has occurred, it is necessary to show this in each case, because an appeal to personal characteristics of a person is not always fallacious.

People often confuse insults and unwelcome descriptions or observations for ad hominem fallacies, but this is a misunderstanding of the fallacy.  Consider the following three statements:

1. Your argument about tax policy is invalid because you are an ugly, foul-smelling, unpleasant person.

2. You have trouble getting dates because you are an ugly, foul-smelling, unpleasant person.

3. You are an ugly, foul-smelling, unpleasant person.

Of these three, only Statement 1 is an ad hominem fallacy.  The fact that a person is ugly, foul-smelling, and unpleasant is irrelevant to the truth of their views about taxation. It is this irrelevance that makes the fallacy fallaciousan ad hominem could be described as an “appeal to irrelevant personal characteristics.”

Statement 2 is not an ad hominem because being ugly, foul-smelling, and unpleasant is relevant to a person’s ability to get dates. The argument presented in Statement 2 may be unsound, the premise that the person is ugly, foul-smelling, and unpleasant may be false, but the argument is not fallacious.

Statement 3 is not an ad hominem fallacy, because it is not an argument at all.  It is simply an insult, or a description, or an observation (even if the description or observation is unwelcome).  Insulting someone may be impolite, but it cannot be fallacious.

For a charge of ad hominem to be justified, it must pass two tests:

  1. There must be a claim that a person’s argument is refuted, undermined, or weakened on the basis of some personal characteristic.
  2. This personal characteristic must be irrelevant to the matter at hand.

If you are going to charge someone with committing an ad hominem fallacy, you need to show both these things to be the case.

If an ad hominem charge fails either of these tests it is a false charge and may be dismissed.


Consider some other cases:

A.  A politician argues that a lucrative government contract should be awarded to company C. It is discovered that the politician is major shareholder in company C, and that if company C is awarded the contract in question, he personally stands to make a significant amount of money.  Is it an ad hominem to make people aware of the politician’s vested interest in the matter?  Answer: It is not, because a person’s motives in making a practical argument (an argument for doing something) are often highly relevant to our assessment of his argument. But where the personal characteristic(s) appealed to are relevant, there is no fallacy. The fact that the politician has a vested interest in company C being awarded the contract does not automatically refute his argument that company C should be awarded the contract, but it does factor into our reasoning about the issue.

B.  In matters of jurisprudence, we hold judges to have an ethical obligation to recuse themselves from any case in which there exists a conflict of interest. We expect a judge not to sit in judgment at the trial of, for example, his own son, or involving a company in which he is a major shareholder.  Is the concept of recusal unreasonable? What if a person were to argue that the expectation of recusal is based on an implicit ad hominem fallacy, namely, that a judge’s judgment will be invalid based on some personal characteristic of his, e.g. his familial connection to his son, or his financial connection to the company under indictment?  Answer: The idea of recusing oneself where there is a conflict of interest is reasonable.  We know in such cases that a human being’s judgement (judges are human beings) is likely to be biased in cases where deciding one way and not the other is directly in his self-interest; even if the man or woman in question is of exemplary moral character, we recognize that biases can sometimes operate subconsciously.  The existence of a conflict of interest does not just by itself prove bias; but it is enough, for example, if a previously undisclosed conflict of interest comes to light, to warrant a retrial. A conflict of interest in a matter is relevant to the assessment of a judgment or decision, just as it was in example A.

C. A history professor wants to argue the rather unobjectionable claim that “Hitler was a person of bad moral character.” Unfortunately for her, one of her students is also taking a philosophy class, in which they have just done a reading about informal fallacies.  The student charges the professor with committing an ad hominem fallacy, on the grounds that talking about Hitler’s personal characteristics appeals to Hitler’s personal characteristics, and any appeal to personal characteristics is an argument “to the man” and therefore an ad hominem.   Answer: It is an absurd misunderstanding to think that the existence of ad hominem fallacies rules out talking about persons or personal characteristics.  A person’s personal characteristics are supremely relevant to their personal characteristics; they are them.  Hitler’s moral character is entirely relevant to Hitler’s moral character; it is it.

ADDITION: Sargon of Akkad has helpful video distinguishing INSULTS and AD HOMINEMS.


Atheism: A Lack of Belief in God?

Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, has an excellent argument against the redefinition of atheism from “belief that God does not exist” to “lack of belief in the existence of God”—a rather shabby linguistic trick perpetrated primarily by philosopher Antony Flew in the 1970s, which really caught on because it allows the atheist to assume an unwarranted rhetorical advantage in argument.  It’s a kind of special pleading and shifting the burden of proof.

Here’s what the Maverick Philosopher has to say:

AtheismNonsense, say I.

Note first that atheism cannot be identified with the lack of theistic belief, i.e., the mere absence of the belief that God or a god exists, for that would imply that cabbages and tire irons are atheists. Note second that it won’t do to say that atheism is the lack of theistic belief in persons, for there are persons incapable of forming beliefs. Charitably interpreted, then, the idea must be that atheism is the lack of theistic belief in persons capable of forming and maintaining beliefs.

But this cannot be right either, and for a very simple reason. Atheism is something people discuss, debate, argue for, argue against, draw conclusions from, believe, disbelieve, entertain, and so on. Atheism, in other words, is a PROPOSITION: it is something that can be either true or false, that can be the object of such propositional attitudes as belief and disbelief, that can stand in such logical relations to other propositions as entailment, consistency, and inconsistency. But one cannot discuss, debate, argue for, . . . believe, etc. a lack of something. Atheism redefined as the lack of theistic belief is a PROPERTY of certain persons. Now a proposition is not a property. Atheism is a proposition and for this reason cannot be redefined as a property.

Someone who understands this might nevertheless maintain that ‘negative atheism’ is a proposition, namely, the proposition that there are people capable of forming and maintaining beliefs who simply lack the belief that God exists. Admittedly, one could use ‘atheism’ as the label for the proposition that there are such people. But then atheism so defined would be trivially true. After all, no one denies that there are people capable of beliefs who lack the belief that God exists. Furthermore, if ‘atheism’ is so defined, then theism would be the view that there are persons capable of belief who have the belief that God exists. But then theism, too, would be trivially true. And if both are true, then they cannot be logical contradictories of each other as they must be if the terms are to mean anything useful.

Now what is the point of the terminological mischief perpetrated by these ‘negative atheists’? It is terminological mischief because we have just seen it ruin two perfectly good words, ‘atheism’ and ‘theism.’ If atheism and theism are worth discussing, then atheism is the view that no gods exist and theism is the view that one or more gods exist.

The point of the cyberpunk definition is to avoid being pinned down, to avoid being committed to a positive thesis. But of course the claim that there is no God is a positive claim about Reality, namely, the claim that Reality is godless. And so our cyberpunk commits himself nolens volens.

Let’s go through this point by point:

Point 1: “Atheism is a lack of belief in God” cannot be correct, because this would make all inanimate objects atheists, which is absurd:


Point 2: “Atheism is a lack of belief in God by persons” cannot be correct, because then would we have to count persons incapable of forming beliefs as atheists, e.g. those in comas or persistent vegetative states:


A typical atheist

If this were correct, my friend Chris Lansdown would be right in his sardonic remark that the surest way to “persuade” someone of atheism would be beat them in the head with a tire iron until they were incapable of having a belief in God.  This is also absurd.


Persuading someone to become an atheist

Point 3: “Atheism is a lack of belief in God by those person capable of forming and maintaining beliefs.”  This also can’t be correct, because atheism is a PROPOSITIONAL POSITION (as are all other -isms).  It is something that one can do things with that can only be done with propositions: discuss it, debate it, deny it, argue about it, conceptually analyze it, etc. It also has the unique propositional property of being either true or false. A mere factual property or state of lacking a belief is neither true nor false. It is simply a fact that such-and-such person has such-and-such property: Person A factually lacks a belief in God. Person B factually has a belief in God. Neither of these states of affairs logically entails anything. One might redefine theism as “The factual possession of a belief in God by persons capable of forming and maintaining beliefs.”  If this is what “theism” means, then the argument for theism is trivially true: “Person B factually possesses a belief in God; therefore, theism exists.”  It is utterly uninteresting to discuss whether some people lack a belief in God and others possess one.  Both are obviously, trivially true.  The proposed redefinition of atheism amounts to the assertion “there are atheists.”

Point 4: The point of the redefinition of atheism is to secure an unwarranted rhetorical advantage.  The atheist redefines his position as a nonposition in order to escape responsibility for rationally defending his position, while at the same time insisting that the theist has the very responsibly of rationally defending his position from which the atheist exempts himself—this is why this redefinition is an exercise is Special Pleading:


Frankly, it’s simply intellectually dishonest, and there are atheists who do not engage in this sort of thing.  All too many, however, do, and they should be mercilessly called on this dishonesty whenever they engage in it.

I suppose I can understand the allure of defining your position in such a way as to render it unassailable, but remember that such “victories” are hollow, since they are not actually won in the realm of reason and truth, but only of words. Rhetorical victories are only that. They have no bearing on truth. If you care about truth, you should disdain merely rhetorical victories. If you do not care about truth, then I have no interest in talking to you.

As David Bentley Hart writes,

A straw man can be a very convenient property, after all. I can see why a plenteously contented, drowsily complacent, temperamentally incurious atheist might find it comforting— even a little luxurious— to imagine that belief in God is no more than belief in some magical invisible friend who lives beyond the clouds, or in some ghostly cosmic mechanic invoked to explain gaps in current scientific knowledge. But I also like to think that the truly reflective atheist would prefer not to win all his or her rhetorical victories against childish caricatures. I suppose the success of the books of the “new atheists”— which are nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men— might go some way toward proving the opposite. Certainly, none of them is an impressive or cogent treatise, and I doubt posterity will be particularly kind to any of them once the initial convulsions of celebrity have subsided. But they have definitely sold well. I doubt that one should make much of that, though. The new atheists’ texts are manifestoes, buoyantly coarse and intentionally simplistic, meant to fortify true unbelievers in their unbelief; their appeal is broad but certainly not deep; they are supposed to induce a mood, not encourage deep reflection; and at the end of the day they are probably only a passing fad in trade publishing, directed at a new niche market. It is hardly surprising, moreover, that the new atheist vogue should have arisen chiefly in English-speaking countries, where philosophical subtlety is not a virtue very assiduously cultivated in schools or universities. The movement’s only real interest is that it is symptomatic of a larger cultural forgetfulness on the part of believers and unbelievers alike. I may occasionally mention the new atheist books below, as providing examples of the sort of confusions that I want to get past, but I do not think they warrant more attention than that.

Hart, David Bentley. The Experience of God (pp. 5-6). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Point 5: As we’ve seen, the appropriate response to “I lack a belief in God” is “I have one.” Both, as mere assertions of states of affairs are no more than that: statements that certain persons have certain factual properties. However, one can still force the atheist who insists that atheism is a lack of belief in God to answer the question whether his lack of belief is an irrational, willful lack of belief.  After all, he could be saying “I do not believe in God because I have a blind faith that there is no evidence supporting the existence of God, and no sound argument for the existence of God. I maintain this belief by irrationally, willfully dismissing any proffered evidence as nonevidence and declaring any argument unsound a priori.” Obviously, such a willful maintenance of a lack of belief in God would be utterly irrational. The “lack of belief” atheist therefore has a choice:

  1. He can agree that his lack of belief in God is an irrational act of blind faith, or
  2. He can assert that his lack of belief in God is a rationally warranted position.

If he choses option 1, there is nothing more to be said. He admits his lack of belief is simply irrational, an accomplishment of blind faith, and there is no point in discussion.

But if he choses option 2, then he is committing himself to a propositional position, namely, that belief in God is unwarranted, and that the rational position with respect to belief in God is to suspend judgment, that is, to deliberately lack a belief, because it is rational to do so.  But if he does this, he has undermined his own evasion, because he has now admitted that atheism is indeed a propositional position, rather than merely a factual property of some persons.

The atheist must now show that theism is not rationally warranted, that the theist is making some sort of epistemic error in believing in God; merely announcing the fact that he, personally, is unpersuaded amounts to nothing, since as we saw, this could be the result of an irrational refusal to be persuaded; personal incredulity proves nothing, after all. Instead, the atheist must argue that his rejection of belief is rationally warranted; he is thus epistemically in the same boat as the theist.  The atheist’s attempted evasion of responsibility for argument fails, if he claims his atheism is rationally warranted. If he refuses to claim his atheism is rationally warranted, then his atheism may be rationally dismissed as irrational.

What he cannot do is have it both ways, insisting that his position is both (1) a rationally warranted position, and (2) a nonposition for which he need supply no rational warrant.

Point 6: Finally, even if one wishes to engage in the dishonest special pleading involved in redefining atheism as “lack of belief in God” (even though, as we have seen, the evasion fails on anything but the most superficial rhetorical level), the evasion fails in a deeper way as well, as I demonstrate here in Atheism Cannot Evade the Existence Question (following Alvin Plantinga).  Please go read that for a discussion of why the evidentialist position in atheism fails.

TL;DR: If God exists, then the evidentialist objection to the existence of God, that there is insufficient evidence to rationally warrant belief in God, is almost certainly false.  Only on the condition that God does not exist, does the evidentialist objection have any significant rational weight. Thus, the evidentialist objection is either toothless, if God does exist, or question begging, if God does not, since all its force is dependent on the nonexistence of God. Thus, after stating the evidentialist objection, the atheist must then make the case that the objection has significant rational weight, and to do this, it is necessary that he show that God certainly or probably does not exist. So the evidentialist atheist needs to make a positive case for nonexistence of God anyhow. Unless and until he does so, his evidentialist objection will have weight only for atheists, but not for theists, or other nonatheists.


Plato, Moser, and Existentially Non-Neutral Knowledge

I was reading the entry on Philosophy of Religion in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  If you don’t know the SEP, it is an online encyclopedia of philosophy that solicits its entries from professional philosophers and is peer reviewed to ensure the quality of its entries.  As with anything, sometimes it fails to be perfectly neutral, as each author presents what he thinks is most relevant, but since the replies are done by professionals, often those outstanding in the areas they are writing about, and since they are vetted and peer-reviewed by other professionals, the general level of the SEP is very high quality.  It would be perfectly acceptable, for example, to cite the SEP in professional publications. In other words, it is not, for example, Wikipedia.

In the course of the entry, I came across a description of an argument strategy employed by Dr. Paul Moser, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University, expert in Theory of Knowledge and Philosophy of Religion, author of 8 books and 151 published articles, editor of 16 books, etc. Here’s his Curriculum Vitae for the curious. And a list of some of his books. I mention all this to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that Moser is an expert in the philosophy of religion and also in theory of knowledge.  This is relevant since his argument involves both.  Here’s the bit from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Taking a very different approach to theism, Paul Moser has recently criticized what he refers to as the preoccupation in philosophy of religion with what he calls “spectator evidence for God,” evidence that can be assessed without involving any interior change that would transform a person morally and religiously. Eschewing fideism, Moser holds that when one seeks God and willingly allows oneself to be transformed by God’s perfect love, one’s very life can become evidence of the reality of God (see Moser 2008, 2010). While this proposal may worry secular philosophers of religion, Moser is not out of keeping with the pre-Christian Platonic tradition that maintained that inquiry into the good, the true, and the beautiful involved inquiry in which the inquirer needed to endeavor to be good, true, and beautiful.

Being me, I made it into a picture card, so


The picture isn’t of anyone in particular. It’s a detail from a painting by Nicolai Fechin that I use sometimes. It didn’t seem appropriate to use a picture of Moser, since these aren’t his words, but a description of an argument strategy of his.

To the point at hand: It’s important to note a couple of things:

1. This is not an argument. This is a description of an argument strategy by Moser.

2. I have not studied Moser’s work as of this writing. The above argument strategy is intriguing—I have had some ideas along similar lines—and I found it interesting enough to (1) share it on Twitter, and (2) get a copy of Moser’s book, which I will be reading in the near future.

Naturally, Twitter being Twitter, I was immediately attacked for my “bad argument” by an angry atheist, the fact I wasn’t making an argument notwithstanding, the fact that Moser’s argument is not even being presented here, but only described notwithstanding—naturally, said angry Australian atheist felt that he had all he needed to dismiss the ‘argument’ in question out of hand.  This is not untypical of the level of discourse one finds on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 4.41.18 PM

Now, since just from the description it is clear that Moser is not making either of the following arguments,

  1. I imagine God exists.
  2. This makes me feel better.
  3. ∴ God exists.


  1. I have certain feelings.
  2. ∴ God exists.

it’s clear that MrOzAtheist is indeed constructing a straw man, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, and I (and others) called him on it. He belongs to that particularly noxious breed of online atheists who insist on telling you what you really mean and then ‘refuting’ this “real meaning” that he has told you you really mean—in other words, they have raised the straw man to a high art form.

In their defense (sort of), I honestly think that many of them are incapable, for whatever reason, of conceiving that there are or could be serious and substantial theistic arguments.  They are so ideologically blinded by their atheism, that they are literally unable to recognize the possibility that there might be strong evidence or good arguments which dispute their position. This is one reason that it is always unpleasant to argue with ideologues.  No doubt many of them have encountered Christian ideologues and are unable to see that they have become exactly what they think they are against.  Personally, I have primarily encountered this kind of ideological blindness among atheists, feminists, and Objectivists (i.e. Ayn Rand cultists).

I do have a point concerning Moser’s position and ideological blindness.  I think it is noncontroversial that certain belief-commitments and emotional commitments can induce a kind of blindness or inability to see, or to fairly or reasonably evaluate evidence and arguments.  In other words, one’s cognitive powers can become corrupted or distorted both by certain convictions and/or by certain passions.

If this is so, then it is entirely possible (and in fact very likely) that human cognitive powers, our reason, is not merely an existentially neutral instrument, as one of the usually unquestioned dogmas of the Enlightenment/Modernity suggests.  Indeed, going back at least to Plato, in the Image of Cave and elsewhere, the Western philosophical tradition has usually maintained that human cognition is existentially non-neutral, that there are things that one cannot know, that there are things one is necessarily blind to, depending on the condition of one’s ψυχή (psychē or soul).  Here’s an enjoyable presentation of Plato’s Cave Image in claymation on YouTube.

Plato compares the νοῦς, the intellect, to “the eye of the ψυχή” or “eye of the mind” and extends his analogy, arguing that just as it is not possible for one to turn one’s eyes around to see what is behind one without turning one’s head or whole body around also, neither is it possible to turn one’s νοῦς to the higher realities without a turning-around or reorientation of one’s entire soul or ψυχή in the direction of the true and the good, a μετάνοια. In other words, one must be in a certain state of the soul analogous to health, which Plato calls ἀρετή, virtue, to be able to see or comprehend certain truths about what is.  Those who are not in the right state of soul, those who are vicious, will be unable to see what truly is, due to their being “turned” the wrong way, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, who are not only facing the wrong way, but chained in such a way that they are unable to turn around.

Plato’s Cave Image is complicated (I hold that it recapitulates the entire Republic in miniature, occurring at the dramatic center of the dialogue, or the 7/12ths point—I don’t have time here to get into the musical significance of 7/12ths or Plato’s musical compositional structure)—but one thing it safe to say is that one primary meaning of the “chains” that bind the prisoners in the cave in place are their beliefs about the nature of what is.  Plato has in mind, I think, the ordinary beliefs human beings tend to form in all cultures as well as the ordinary beliefs human beings tend to form by growing up in a given culture—but in a democratic society, there is no reason one cannot forge one’s own chains by the adoption of an ideology.

This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the case of ethics, as C. S. Lewis notes in The Abolition of Man.  One who has not been raised well and educated well (these are the same) will be unable to apprehend the principles of ethics:


Lewis is of course simply affirming the classical teaching of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as the Christian tradition including thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.  Not everyone is equally capable of apprehending the good; in particular, the evil cannot do so, and this blindness to the good is, in no small part, what enables the evil to be evil. We are apt to say things like, “How could anyone do a thing like that? Couldn’t he see how wrong it is?” Sadly, no, he couldn’t.  Here’s Aristotle:


Aristotle emphasizes the role of passions, and particularly of pleasure and pain in human education/upbringing.  Philosopher Edward Feser has an illuminating account of Aquinas’ teaching that disorder desire, particularly disordered sexual desire, has directly corruptive effect on the mind.  In “What’s the deal with sex? Part II” Feser discusses Aquinas’ argument that the first “daughter of lust” (there are eight) is “blindness of mind”:

Now, when, for whatever reason, we take pleasure in some thing or activity, we are strongly inclined to want to think that it is good, even if it is not good; and when, for whatever reason, we find some idea attractive, we are strongly inclined to want to think that it is true and reasonable, even if it is neither. Everyone knows this; you don’t have to be a Thomist to see that much. The habitual binge drinker or cocaine snorter takes such pleasure in his vice that he refuses to listen to those who warn him that he is setting himself up for serious trouble. The ideologue is so in love with a pet idea that he will search out any evidence that seems to confirm it while refusing to consider all the glaring evidence against it. The talentless would-be actor or writer is so enamored of the prospect of wealth and fame that he refuses to see that he’d be better advised to pursue some other career. And so forth. That taking pleasure in what is in fact bad or false can impair the intellect’s capacity to see what is good and true is a familiar fact of everyday life.

Now, there is no reason whatsoever why things should be any different where sex is concerned. Indeed — and this is part of Aquinas’s point — precisely because sexual pleasure is unusually intense, it is even more likely than other pleasures are to impair our ability to perceive what is true and good when what we take pleasure in is something that is in fact bad. In particular, habitually indulging one’s desire to carry out sexual acts that are disordered will tend to make it harder and harder for one to see that they are disordered. For one thing, the pleasure a person repeatedly takes in those acts will give the acts the false appearance of goodness; for another, the person will be inclined to look for reasons to regard the acts as good or at least harmless, and disinclined to look for, or give a dispassionate hearing to, reasons to think them bad. Hence indulgence in disordered sexual behavior has a tendency to impair one’s ability to perceive the true and the good, particularly in matters of sexual morality. In short, sexual vice makes you stupid.

Put another way: certain kinds of knowledge, knowledge about the highest things, e.g. the good, the beautiful, and the true, are existentially non-neutral kinds of knowledge: there are truths, that is, which are evident only to the wise and virtuous, because folly and vice, of themselves, have a corruptive effect on our natural cognitive powers.

It seems perfectly evident to me that this is true.  The Enlightenment conception of reason as calculative ratio is a wholly unwarranted reduction of reason to one of its lower functions, although it is perhaps true that reason as a merely instrumental ratio is a typical case of existentially neutral knowledge; at least I see no reason in principle why vice or folly or ideological dogmatism would make a person less able to do mathematical calculations and certain other types of reckoning.  But it seems flatly absurd to assert that all knowledge is like this.  Those who do seem to be people who are paradoxically and paradigmatically blinded by an ideology, namely, scientism.  Since their ideology requires them to conceive all knowledge as scientific knowledge, and they almost always insist that scientific knowledge is existentially neutral knowledge, they must deny that there is anything that can be known to the wise and virtuous that cannot be known to the unwise and vicious—despite the fact that this is evidently false.

To return to Moser’s position: if I read it correctly, Moser is asserting that knowledge of God is not a case of existentially neutral knowledge, or what he calls “spectator evidence of God,” but rather argues that evidence of God cannot be properly apprehended or accessed “without involving any interior change that would transform a person morally and religiously.”  In other words, to come to know God will necessarily be an existentially transformational event for a human being which will by its very nature involve a reorientation or “turning around” of the ψυχή—Plato’s “turning around” of the soul becomes in Latin convertio, conversion.  One cannot see God without a turning around of the soul (as a condition of the possibility) and one cannot see God without a being turned around of the soul (as a necessary consequence).

Again, I have not actually studied Moser’s argument.  So, necessarily, I am not elucidating Moser’s argument nor defending it. What I am doing here is showing how something like what I understand him to be saying is plausible—and also how it is manifestly not “God exists, because of feelings I have.”

Atheists tend to become angry and indignant when they are told that their atheism is a result of cognitional malfunction, but neither anger nor indignation is a sound counterargument.  As I have written elsewhere (following Plantinga), if God does exist, then it is highly likely that properly functioning human cognitive powers are such as to dispose us to believe this, and in a warrant-conferring way; and it would also then be the case that atheism is necessarily a result of some kind of cognitive malfunction or cognitive blindness.  This would explain why around 90% of human beings (at least) in all times and places do in fact form a belief in the existence of God or the divine.  Atheists need to account for this phenomenon, and needless to say, “atheists are smarter than everyone else” is false (although it is obvious that many atheists do believe this, and indeed, the pleasure they take in feeling themselves smarter than everyone else is one of the main motivators of their atheism).

It seems to me that “cognitive God blindness”, something loosely analogous to color-blindness, is a much better explanation—especially when one recognizes that some kinds of cognitive blindness are willfully motivated on the basis of ideological belief-commitments and passions.  Atheism is certainly an excellent candidate for a willfully-motivated dyscognition; recognition of the existence of God would require a radical reorientation not only of one’s belief-structure and comprehensive worldview but of one’s entire existence or being-in-the-world (to use Heidegger’s apt term)—no part of one’s life is likely to be unaltered.  And if one has a strong desire not to alter one’s life in a fundamental way (perhaps because one is habituated to some vice that he recognizes he would have to give up, and therefore the pleasure he his habituated himself to experience in indulging the vice—as, for example, St. Augustine’s addiction to womanizing), then one eo ipso has a strong motivation to prevent oneself from seeing evidence that might force one to recognize the existence of God, a recognition which would necessarily result in the upheaval of one’s life.

It seems likely that a common motivation for atheism in modernity is our peculiar conception of freedom as autonomy combined with our implicit belief that freedom as autonomy is the highest good—in such a conception, the existence of God becomes existentially intolerable, because God is necessarily a threat to my personal, infinite autonomy, more, God is necessarily incompatible with such a conception of personal autonomy.  If God is God, then I am not God, and modernity teaches that not only am I God, but that it is both my right and my highest good to be God.  Both these things are false, of course, since I am not God, but I cannot even maintain the fantasy of being God, if God truly exists and confronts me as God.  It also seems likely that the root of contemporary Western nihilism lies somewhere in this area; see for example David Bentley Hart’s “Christ and Nothing“, or consider Jacobi’s remark, contra Fichte, (which incidentally is from the same essay where Jacobi uses the word “nihilism” for the first time in a serious philosophical context):


To sum up:

  1. I promise a fuller account of Moser’s position once I have worked through his book.
  2. It should be obvious that it is possible both (1) that there is existentially non-neutral knowledge and (2) knowledge of God is almost certainly of this sort.
  3. The concept of existentially non-neutral knowledge as articulated by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Lewis, and others cannot be dismissed out of hand as a mere appeal to feelings. This is a completely absurd straw man that barely merits even the minimal response of pointing out that it is a straw man.

Galileo Was Not “the Father of Modern Science”

This is Tim O’Neill‘s account of why Galileo does not deserve the title “the father of modern science,” although Galileo has sometimes been called this.

You can read Tim’s original post on Quora as Why is Galileo Considered the “Father of Modern Science”?  here.

See also my “Galileo was a Dogmatic, Unscientific Ass“.

Galileo Father of Modern Science