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Necessary Minimal Familiarity

In fideism on 19/07/2011 at 9:01 am

The philosopher Edward Feser has a response to the ‘gnu’-atheists that has been floating around for a few months. In the past week he’s brought up the response again. It doesn’t amount to much, but give it a read. Feser must think that the response is powerful enough to sway the critic (or at least powerful enough to quiet any doubts he may have) if he pulls it out more than once. My comments are below the fold.

Feser’s argument is as follows: (1) Since unfamiliarity often produces poor criticism, and since theology is–just like science–often poorly criticized, (2) there must be minimal familiarity with theology in order to properly criticize theology.

Some apparent problems in his dialogue:

(1) Who gets to say what amounts to minimal familiarity with any position? It is far too easy to shift the goalposts when confronted with criticism. No matter how many books are read on the subject, no matter how many years spent studying the topic, the defender can claim that the criticism misrepresents the position.

(2) Is it possible to criticize a position from without the position, rather from within? Criticism from within the position amounts to little more than a check of coherence. A physicist may criticize a biologist’s theories by calling up theories in physics that are incompatible with the biologist’s theories. So too can a critic criticize a theologian’s position by calling up anything at hand (call this ‘ X’) that is incompatible with the theologian’s position.

(3) Take critical rationalism as a case-study: most criticisms of critical rationalism are often dismissed as misrepresenting the position because they misrepresent the position. A proper explanation of where these misrepresentations occur, and why they do not criticize critical rationalism should suffice. In his dialogue, Feser forbids the scientist through the skeptic’s constant interruptions from giving such an explanation. This, so I conjecture, implies that theologians are merely forbidden by the skeptic’s inanity from giving an explanation. Has Feser or any other theologian or philosopher of religion explained how these are misrepresentations of theology by explaining exactly what their full positions amount to?

For instance, Feser defends the cosmological argument in its more advanced form, and that is a good thing indeed; however, Feser offhandedly notes that Aquinas spent hundreds of pages writing on the metaphysical assumptions that link the conclusions of the cosmological argument to the existence of the Christian god. Isn’t that far more interesting than the cosmological argument, which does not in-itself entail (and I’ll be charitable here) anything except that there was a necessary cause?

The dialectic then moves to discussing whether or not

(a) the theologian’s position is incompatible with X,

(b) the theologian’s position is compatible with all possible X,

(c) X is true or false.

If a, then move to c. If b, then the theologian’s position is compatible with anything. Bronowski said,

On the contrary, it is those who appeal to God and special creation who reduce everything to accident. They assign to man a unique status on the ground that there was some act of special creation which made the world the way it is. But that explains nothing, because it would explain everything; it is an explanation for any conceivable world. If we had the color vision of the bee combined with the neck of the giraffe and the feet of the elephant, that would equally be explained by the “theory” of special creation. Yet we do not have those features, and we do not believe they are biologically compatible. Therefore, our criterion of what is compatible sets a limitation on an acceptable explanation.

While Bronowski’s point attacked pseudo-scientific theories, his words apply in some respects to b: the theologian’s position is immune to criticism for it attempts to explain nothing. I do not think Feser is willing (or able?) to change his mind when confronted with a criticism of his theological beliefs, for I take it that he is fully committed to his faith, and his own personal opinions are none of my business. However, even the willingness to play by the dialectic would help third parties make up their own minds.

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