Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A Sneer Is Not A Refutation

Jerry Coyne gets schooled re: The Argument From Motion.

The philosophy-in-a-nutshell piece ends thusly:

Furthermore, contra Coyne, the conclusion that a First Mover is logically necessary to explain change in the natural world is the denouement of extraordinarily detailed “further explanation”; in Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas devoted hundreds of pages of meticulous philosophical reasoning to the explication of the argument. Coyne again:

The people who make this argument are claiming, in effect, that God is by definition an uncaused cause, but we can properly ask “What caused God?” with exactly the same tenacity that theists ask “What caused matter?”

Coyne can indeed ask what caused the First Mover with “tenacity,” but not with cogency. The logical conclusion of the Argument from Motion is that the First Mover can't be "caused." The First Mover is pure actuality. The First Mover cannot move from potency to act (i.e., "be caused") because it has no potency. Matter (substance) is caused because it has potency; it's not pure actuality. It changes, and thus it is a mixture of potency and act. Matter (substance) cannot be the First Mover, because it's not pure actuality. Coyne:

And why is God exempt from having a cause, but matter or physical laws are not? This is just sophistry.

Coyne doesn’t understand the Argument from Motion. The natural world needs a cause that is pure act because an essentially ordered series requires a First Mover that is Itself unmoved. This isn’t sophistry — it’s a detailed logic argument that Coyne doesn’t understand.

Faitheist philosophers are always telling us that we don’t grasp the subtleties of theological argument, but that won’t wash here…

The Argument from Motion was originally made by a pagan (Aristotle), not a “faitheist philosopher.” It has been held by countless thinkers representing an enormous range of metaphysical persuasions. It is an argument that depends entirely on philosophical, not "theological," premises. And if you make a modicum of effort to understand it, it's not particularly "subtle." It's routinely mastered by freshmen in Introduction to Philosophy courses.

There have been brilliant atheists (Hume, Russell, Quine) who have struggled with the profound philosophical issues raised by Aquinas’ Five Ways and by a host of other demonstrations for the existence of God. Their contributions warrant respect, but they have never successfully refuted the classical arguments. These powerful and elegant demonstrations of the necessary existence of a First Cause have been set aside by stipulation, not by refutation. It is merely fashionable to deny them. Yet this denial isn’t a denial of the truth of the arguments; it’s a denial of philosophical rigor. It’s a sneer. It now seems that our materialist intelligentsia’s understanding of classical philosophy has degenerated to the point where public intellectuals like Coyne can make arguments that would embarass a teenager in a first semester philosophy course.

Coyne doesn't understand the Argument from Motion. His arguments are too uninformed to even be sophistry. He’s all spittle. But there are people who do understand, and they’re taking notice. Thanks to the high public visibility of New Atheists like Coyne and Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens and Dennett, the anti-intellectual nature of New Atheism and the sheer malignity and fatuousness of what passes for New Atheist thought is becoming increasingly apparent to those who are paying attention to this debate. Many non-theists are cutting ties with New Atheism. The damage that Coyne and other New Atheists are doing to their own atheist cause is incalculable.

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