Feser may suspect that I’m trolling, simply dishing out accusation of “atheism” just to get a rise out of people, or to get attention, or just for the joy of annoying others. But I’m afraid the claim is in earnest, and is carefully considered. It relates to a couple of papers I’ve been working on, off and on, for a couple of years.
One must keep in mind that by “atheism” I mean the denial of a monotheistic God. Thus, “atheism” is consistent with, but does not require the denial of all deities or any sort. Most often nowadays, by “atheism” people mean naturalistic atheism. But I suspect that’s never been the most popular sort of atheism. Only since Darwin, really, has it been taken seriously. This broader usage of “atheism,” by the way, goes way back. I’ll post on that another time.
One comment which touched a nerve is my claim that “most contemporary philosophers” understand “monotheism” (aka “theism”), or just, belief in God, as belief in a perfect self – what some call “theistic personalism.” Now, what I said is true, given I meant most contemporary analytic philosophers. And it’s not only the Protestants, or only the Christians, or only the SCP crowd – this is the conception of God shared with countless agnostics and atheists, not to mention many Hindus and Sikhs. It’s the conception of God at issue, for example, in the large scholarly literatures (in analytic philosophy) surrounding the problems of evil and the various argument for God’s existence. Ed knows all this. But, accusing me of “presentism” – not the position in philosophy of time, but basically, ignorance of past philosophy, he opines that if we added in all the dead Great Philosophers, this would show that he’s the majority, in holding to a belief in “God” as “Being Itself.”
Three comments. First, some of his examples are ambiguous cases. Perfect Being theology goes back to Plato, and some, while repeating Platonic standards about God being “beyond being” and so on, seem to think of God as a great self. No surprise there, of course, in the case of Bible readers. What’s interesting is how they held – or thought they held – these beliefs consistently together. Second, who cares who’s in the majority? Truth, I’m sure he’ll agree, is what matters. Third, it is telling that Feser starts with Plato and ends with Scotus and “a gazillion” Scholastics. Conspicuous by their absence are most of the Greats from early modern philosophy. Convenient, because most of them hold, with Descartes, that our concept of God is the
…idea of a Being who is omniscient, omnipotent and absolutely perfect… which is absolutely necessary and eternal. (Principles of Philosophy 14)
Such a Being – yes, Being – is, moreover, the free creator, the provident governor of the cosmos, is incorporeal, exists (yes) independently, and is not the author of sin. Philosophers and intellectuals generally, in this era, rejected the traditions of medieval philosophy as too deferential to authority, too unclear, and going nowhere. Locke says, with all the bitterness of one who was a student intellectually smothered by such masters,
…this artificial ignorance and learned gibberish prevailed mightily in these last ages, by the interest and artifice of those who found no easier way to that pitch of authority and dominion they have attained, than by amusing the men of business, and ignorant, with hard words, or employing the ingenious and idle in intricate disputes, about unintelligible terms, and holding them perpetually entangled in that endless labyrinth. Besides, there, is no such way to gain admittance, or give defence to strange and absurd doctrines, as to guard them round about with legions of obscure, doubtful, and undefined words. Which yet make these retreats, more like the dens of robbers, or holes of foxes, than the fortresses of fair warriors; which, if it be hard to get them out of, it is not for the strength that is in them, but the briers and thorns, and the obscurity of the thickets they are beset with. For untruth being unacceptable to the mind of man, there is no other defence left for absurdity, but obscurity. (Essay III.10.9)
Analytic philosophers are the descendants of these early moderns who tried to reboot Western philosophy. To some extent, they succeeded. The era from about Hobbes to Kant was a golden age of philosophy. We’re in a greater golden age right now. Of course, like all human golden ages, both are a tragic mix of brilliant and ridiculous, and of good and evil. Myself, I have a love-hate relationship with medieval philosophy and theology. I see it as a tragic mix of the brilliant and correct, and the ridiculous and disastrously false. Quite often I find the arguments unconvincing, and dependent on age and tradition for their plausibility. I think Locke goes too far – it is not all nonsense and deliberate obscurity. At the same time, I feel his pain. I have suffered through the agonies, for example, of trying to figure out Aquinas’s position on analogical predication.
Let me concede that of course, that Dale can’t understand something is no objection to it. It’s not that I haven’t tried, though. When I urge that “Being Itself” can’t amount to X or Y, that’s no refutation of it – that’s an invitation to tell me what it is. Ed tells me, in his post, that it is somehow somewhat like a Platonic Form. Sorry – that doesn’t help much. But I look forward to seeing what else Ed has written on this theme. I am not the kind of analytic philosopher who pretends to not understand things he disagrees with. I can hold an intelligent conversation, for a while at least, about the Dao, John Hick’s The Real, or the “three bodies” of the Buddha. Far from “kicking” Neo-Scholastics, I’m happy to engage them in discussion, as I did recently on a trip.
I do stand by my claim that this concept of “Being Itself” is obscure, in a way that the garden-variety concept of a god is not, and in a way the concept of a monotheistic God is not.
I’m not sure why Ed brushes aside appeals to mystical experience to support belief in an ineffable Ultimate. These are legion, and are common across many religious traditions. I guess he just prefers his metaphysical arguments…
Again, he gestures at supposedly devastating problems for the view that God is a perfect Self. I’ll post later on the one he mentions.
Finally (for now) I thank Ed for the reference to Hart – I’m going to get his book, and see if he can make good on his claim that “denial of divine simplicity is tantamount to atheism.”