“It’s Getting Old” Isn’t A Rebuttal

One response that I see a lot on Twitter and elsewhere is some variation on “calling Trump supporters racist is getting old”. And maybe I’m growing stupid as I grow older, but it finally dawned on me what was bugging me about that.

I’ve been in plenty of discussions where one side or another used an argument that had been debunked long ago — I used to debate creationists on Usenet, after all. But this feels different. It’s “Oh God, here we go again”, but not in a “now I need to dig up the FAQ one more goddamn time” way.

“Calling me racist is old” is all about style, not substance. It doesn’t say “I’m not a racist”, it merely says “Stop using those words”. It’s not about hearing a false factoid that just won’t die; it’s about hearing a joke for the millionth time that wasn’t even that funny to begin with.

It’s the sort of thing you say when you’re trading insults or yo-mamma jokes with someone. It’s not serious. It doesn’t matter. Certainly neither you nor anyone you know or care about is in danger of losing their health insurance, or die from a back-alley abortion, or have ICE break into their home and ship them to a foreign country.

It is, in short, something said by those who have the luxury of caring only whether their team wins, not whether said win is going to have any real-world repercussions.

The Last Superstition: A Slippery Slope to Sounding Weird

Chapter 6: How to lose your mind

Feser opens the last chapter of his Refutation of the New Atheism by quoting a New Yorker article in which neurologist Patricia Churchland describes her mood to her husband and colleague Paul in neurochemical terms:

Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting. “She said ‘Paul, don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren’t for my endogenous opiates I’d have driven the car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I’ll be down in a minute.’” [The New Yorker, quoted on p. 229 of Feser]

If you’re wondering who Patricia and Paul Churchland are, you’re not alone. I didn’t know, either. Nor is it obvious what they have to do with New Atheism. The God Delusion doesn’t cite them. Neither do The End of Faith, god is not Great, or even Breaking the Spell, which you’d think might mention prominent neurologists.

From the Wikipedia article on Paul Churchland, I gather that they believe that a lot of our feelings are illusions, and that the way that we talk about them will change as we gain new insights into how the mind works. This strikes me as a fairly radical but defensible position. But yes, some of their ideas sound pretty wild, as does the passage Feser quoted above.

After lambasting the Churchlands for a bit, Feser tells us why he brought them up:

eliminative materialism is simply the last stop on the train leading away from Aristotelian final causes, the inevitable consequence of following out consistently a mechanistic-cum-materialistic picture of the world. [p. 231]

Basically, he’s making a slippery slope argument: abandon Aristotle, and pretty soon, you’ll sound weird when you talk about feelings!

There’s a common argument made against atheists that goes something like, “If there’s no God, then life has no purpose, and all there is to do is to while away the hours in empty hedonistic pursuits while waiting for the inevitable embrace of death. Camus had the good sense to realize this; you should be more like him.” My usual response is, “please, Mr. Concern Troll, stop telling me how I’m supposed to feel. I can figure it out on my own”, and I feel the same thing applies here.

As much as Feser tries to portray the Churchlands’ ideas as normal and mainstream, or at least the logical end-result of rejecting aristotelianism, he doesn’t actually quote anyone who agrees with them. So either his premise is incorrect, which is unpossible, or else perhaps he thinks that we all know so many Churchlandites that to mention them would be redundant. Yeah, that must be it.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Back to the Cave

Chapter 5: Back to Plato’s cave

This last section of Chapter 5 is basically a long jeremiad against everything and everyone Feser doesn’t like, with paranoid rants about the motivations of those who prefer post-Thomistic philosophies:

More precisely, their desire to re-orient human life toward this world and reduce the influence of religion led the early modern thinkers to abandon traditional philosophical categories and to redefine scientific method so that reason could no longer provide religion with the support it had always been understood to give it, at least not in any robust way. [p. 221]

The sexual revolution:

Traditionally, sodomy has been classified together with murder, oppression of the poor, and defrauding a laborer of his wages as one of the four sins that “cry out to heaven for vengeance.” [p. 223]

I can’t help wondering why sodomy — an ill-defined category that traditionally includes at a minimum anal sex, but also often includes oral sex — “cr[ies] out to heaven for vengeance”. Who, exactly, is being wronged? Who needs to be avenged? (Obviously I’m not talking about anal rape, where the operative word is “rape”.)

The word “traditionally” is an appeal to antiquity, the idea that an idea is good because it it old. In 1860 in the US, one could have defended slavery on the grounds that it has always been practiced.

Feser ends the chapter with an appeal to common sense (boldface added):

When we get clear on the general metaphysical structure of reality – the distinction between actuality and potentiality, form and matter, final causality, and so forth (all of which are mere articulations or refinements of common sense, and thus on all fours with the ordinary man’s belief in what his senses tell him) – we see that the existence of God, the immateriality and immortality of the soul, and the natural law conception of morality all follow. [p. 228]

Again, if there’s one thing we should have learned from the past few centuries of scientific endavor, it’s that what common sense and our senses tell us is often wrong: the earth orbits the sun. The tiny speck Betelgeuse is many times larger than our entire world; over 90% of all the matter in the universe is invisible and barely deigns to interact with us; heavy objects do not fall faster than light ones; objects in motion don’t just stop on their own; light beams sometimes behave like waves, and sometimes like ball bearings; two events aren’t simultaneous or non-simultaneous in an absolute sense.

If your metaphysics contradict physics, rather than explaining it, I’m pretty sure you’ve got a problem.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Material Brains, Immaterial Software

Chapter 5: The Mind-Body Problem

After spending several pages, as is his wont, trashing Locke, Descartes, and other people he doesn’t agree with, Feser tells us why materialist explanations of the mind are doomed: the human mind is all about final causes: we plan, we imagine, we make mental images and so on. All of these involve “directedness toward” some object or aim, or intentionality. In other words, the mind is obvious proof that final causes exist.

And it should be obvious that it is simply a conceptual impossibility that it should ever be explained in terms of or reduced to anything material […]: material systems, the latter tell us, are utterly devoid of final causality; but the mind is the clearest paradigm of final causality; hence the mind cannot possibly be any kind of material system, including the brain. [p. 194]

There’s that word “obvious” again. Feser really ought to stop using it, since it causes so much trouble. Here, he’s committing the fallacy of composition. In fact, what Feser is saying is listed as an example of the fallacy at logicallyfallacious.com:

Your brain is made of molecules. Molecules do not have consciousness. Therefore, your brain cannot be the source of consciousness.

By coincidence, I recently saw Daniel Dennett present his talk, Consciousness: Whose User Illusion is it? in which he used examples that apply here as well: you can pick up a camcorder at Best Buy, record a video, and burn it to a DVD, but there are no pictures on the DVD. You can look through a microscope, but you won’t see tiny pictures on the disk. You can listen as closely as you like without hearing people talking. The pictures and sounds are not there. And yet the DVD does quite well at recording pictures, sounds, and video for later playback.

So do camcorders have an immaterial component? What about my car radio, which, since it can tune in on a radio signal, has some infinitesimal amount of intentionality; does it have an infinitesimal immaterial mind?

This sort of thing is why I can’t take Feser seriously. It’s one thing to proceed logically from premises that I don’t accept, or to value different things differently and come to opposite conclusions. But Feser commits a lot of elementary logical fallacies (or at least allows them to end up in print), and so he comes across as either a sloppy thinker or a dishonest one; either he can’t see the fallacies that lead to his desired conclusion, or he’s trying to fool people into thinking that his (and, their, presumably) conclusions follow logically from uncontroversial premises.

Series: The Last Superstition

The “You’re Both Equally Wrong” Fallacy

Adam Weishaupt left a
comment
in another thread, and I’m conceited enough to think my reply is worth
reposting.

You know you will never agree, right?
This discussion can be likened with this: Imagine that there are only two people left in the world. One of them can only speak chinese, and the other can only speak arabic. No matter how much they talk with each other they will never understand each other. That is simply because they do not understand each others language. It is really the same with atheists vs christians or creationists vs evolutionists; the evolutionists leave out the possibility of the existence of God, so they can not understand the “language” of the Christians. On the other hand, the Christians leave out the possibility of the “non-existence” of God, so they can not understand the language of the atheists. Still, atheists try to prove their theories using their own language, and the same goes for the Christians.

You seem to be wrong on just about every point.

For starters, even using your analogy, I think you underestimate people’s ability to understand each other. A Chinese speaker and an Arabic speaker trapped on a desert island would, I’m sure, quickly work out some way of understanding each other.

the evolutionists leave out the possibility of the existence of God, so they can not understand the “language” of the Christians.

This is manifestly untrue. Kenneth Miller, the author of Finding Darwin’s God is an evolutionary biologist, the author of one of the standard High School textbooks in biology, was a witness at the Dover trial for the pro-evolution side, and is also a devout Christian.

Francis Collins, Obama’s choice to head the NIH, used to be the head of the Human Genome Project, is by all accounts a very good scientist, has said that even if there weren’t a single fossil, the DNA evidence alone would be sufficient proof of evolution, is also an evangelical Christian, and quite a vocal one. In fact, his book The Language of God is subtitled A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

Hell, even in the ID camp, Michael Behe accepts common descent of humans with all other living creatures. I know this because I he told me personally when I sent him email about it.

It isn’t hard to find evolutionary biologists who are also Christians. You need to look around a bit more.

the evolutionists leave out the possibility of the existence of God

As shown above, this is patently untrue. And even if you meant to write “atheist” instead of “evolutionist”, you’d still be wrong. Read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, who is both an evolutionary biologist and a vocal atheist. In this book, which is all about atheism, he spends several pages making it quite clear that he does not exclude the possibility of a god’s existence.

I can’t think of a single atheist, either among the famous published writers or my friends and acquaintances, who categorically excludes the possibility that there might be a god out there.

You should also google “deconversion story” and read some people’s accounts of how and why they left their particular religion. You’ll find that in many, probably most cases, deconversion doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long process that takes years. Often people give up each bit of faith only after a struggle.

Furthermore, most atheists, at least in the US, were raised religious and grew out of it. Many remember being believers quite well, so it’s not a question of never having thought the way a believer does.

On the other hand, the Christians leave out the possibility of the “non-existence” of God

Again, this is manifestly untrue. Every church I’ve ever seen has programs to help backsliders, help people strengthen their faith, ceremonies to help those who have stumbled in the faith to rejoin the flock, and the like. What does it mean to have “weak faith”, if not to admit the possibility that the god they were taught about doesn’t exist? In fact, the very existence of such programs and ceremonies tells me that even believers find it hard to believe in gods; that they want to believe, but often can’t manage to do so. After all, plumbers don’t have retreats to relearn to believe in water. Bankers don’t go to seminars to strengthen their belief in money. Yet theists apparently require these sorts of thing.

Or perhaps you’re saying that you, personally, are unwilling to admit even the possibility that there might not be any gods. That just means you’re closed-minded. You may want to work on that. It’s not a virtue.

(Thanks to
Eamon Knight
for the
title.)