Refuting Catholic Philosopher Edward Feser’s Argument Against the Courtier’s Reply

Edward Feser: Back from Berkeley

Edward Feser, conservative Catholic philosopher, from his article in The American Enterprise Institute:

I once heard a fundamentalist preacher “refute” Darwin by asking rhetorically: “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” He didn’t elaborate. But he did chuckle disdainfully, and since his audience of fellow believers did the same, no elaboration was necessary. They all “knew” that he had just posed a challenge no Darwinian could possibly answer, and that was enough. None of them had ever actually read anything any Darwinian had written—and I highly doubt the preacher had either—but never mind. What would be the point? They “already knew” such writers could not possibly have anything of interest to say, in light of this “fatal” objection to evolution.

[Gary: I know where this is going. It is a popular tactic among Christian apologists, Protestant, evangelical, and Catholic, to compare the majority of atheists to undereducated, knuckle-dragging “fundamentalists”. The goal is to degrade the character and intelligence of the critic in the eyes of the audience and thereby draw attention away from the critic’s criticisms of Christianity’s superstitions. The two questions that I ask the readers of this post to consider is this: (1) Does one need a degree in philosophy to reject supernatural claims? And, (2) are Christian philosophers as eager to apply their sophisticated philosophical arguments to defend the far-fetched supernatural claims of Islam, Hinduism and other religions, as they are for those of their religion?]

Feser: This was some time before I became an atheist, which was some time before I became the observant Roman Catholic I am now. Oddly, the rhetoric of the New Atheist writers—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens among the most prominent—sounds much more like that of a fundamentalist preacher than like anything I read during my atheist days. Like the preacher, they are supremely self-confident in their ability to dispatch their opponents with a sarcastic quip or two. And, like the preacher, they show no evidence whatsoever of knowing what they are talking about.

Take Daniel Dennett. (Please.) In his book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, he assures us that: “The Cosmological Argument … in its simplest form states that since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause—namely God”; he then briskly refutes the argument by asking: “What caused God? The reply that God is self-caused (somehow) then raises the rebuttal: If something can be self-caused, why can’t the universe as a whole be the thing that is self-caused?”

Very good questions, it might seem—except that (as everyone who knows something about the philosophy of religion is aware) that is not what the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God says. In fact, not one of the best-known defenders of the Cosmological Argument in the history of philosophy ever gave this stupid “everything has a cause” argument—not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Thomas Aquinas, not John Duns Scotus, not G.W. Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne. And not anyone else either, as far as I know. Perhaps, like Dennett, you think that when trying to refute some of history’s greatest minds, a good strategy would be to attack an argument none of them ever defended. But if not, you might find something better to do with your time than to curl up with Breaking the Spell.

Richard Dawkins is equally adept at refuting straw men. In his bestselling The God Delusion, he takes Aquinas to task for resting his case for God’s existence on the assumption that “There must have been a time when no physical things existed”—even though Aquinas rather famously avoids making that assumption in arguing for God. (Aquinas’s view was instead that God must be keeping the world in existence here and now and at any moment at which the world exists, and that this would remain true even if it turned out that the world had no beginning.) Dawkins assures us that Aquinas gives “absolutely no reason” to think that a First Cause of the universe would have to be all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, etc.; in reality, Aquinas devoted hundreds of pages, across many works, to showing just this. Dawkins says that the fifth of Aquinas’s famous Five Ways is essentially the same as the “divine watchmaker” argument made famous by William Paley. In fact the arguments couldn’t be more different, and followers of Aquinas typically—and again, rather famously (at least for people who actually know something about these things)—reject Paley’s argument with as much scorn as evolutionists like Dawkins do.

And those are only (some of) the errors on pages 77–79.

You will find similar howlers throughout the works of the other New Atheists. Their grasp of the chief arguments for the existence of God and related matters is, in short, comparable to the scientific acumen of the college sophomore who thinks the lesson of Einstein’s revolution in physics is that “it’s all relative, man”—or that of the fundamentalist preacher of my opening example. It’s that bad.

If you have any doubt about this, feel free to pick up a copy or three of my book, The Last Superstition, which exposes the errors of the New Atheists, and lays out the case for the existence of God, at rigorous and polemical length. (Sorry, but you’re simply not going to get an adequate understanding of the arguments of a Aquinas or a Leibniz—any more than of Darwin’s ideas, or Einstein’s—from an op-ed piece.) Or, if you don’t like polemics and prefer a more sedate academic approach, try my book Aquinas. Or play it safe and buy both.

But you don’t have to take my self-promoting word for it. The intellectual frivolousness of the New Atheist literature is by now an open secret. Philosopher and prominent Darwinian Michael Ruse has said that Dawkins’s book made him “ashamed to be an atheist” and that Dennett’s book is “really bad and not worthy of [him].” Another atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel, has described Dawkins’s “amateur philosophy” as “particularly weak,” and his attempts to counter the philosophical difficulties inherent in his own position “pure hand-waving.” Literary critic Terry Eagleton—yet another atheist, and a Marxist to boot—characterizes Dawkins’ writings on religion as “ill-informed,” “shoddy,” and directed at “vulgar caricatures.” The list of the New Atheists’ fellow intellectuals and even fellow atheists who are critical of their work could easily be extended.

Now imagine that some of the friends and coreligionists of the fundamentalist preacher I quoted earlier let him know that his “refutation” of Darwinism was completely worthless, that he clearly knew nothing about the subject, and that he really ought to try seriously to understand it before commenting further. Suppose the preacher’s response to this criticism was to dismiss it as providing aid and comfort to the Darwinist enemy, and that since he already knew from his “refutation” that Darwinism was too ludicrous to take seriously, there could be no point in investigating it any further. “After all,” we can imagine the preacher slyly replying, “would you need to read learned volumes on Leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?”

Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens would, of course, be outraged by such a dismissal of Darwinism. And rightly so; it would be sheer, question-begging bigotry. For whether Darwinism is really comparable to “Leprechology” is of course precisely what is in question, and anyone who actually knows something about Darwinism knows also that such a comparison would be ludicrous. But the preacher will never know this, dogmatically locked as he is into his circle of mutually self-reinforcing prejudices. In his view, Darwinism must be too absurd to be worth taking seriously, because it cannot solve the chicken/egg “problem” he has posed for it; and the chicken/egg “problem” must be a serious objection to Darwinism, because he already knows that Darwinism is too absurd to be worth taking seriously. He is on a merry-go-round, but insists that it is the rest of the world that is moving. Even Richard Dawkins can see that.

Or maybe not. Because this is exactly the sort of response Dawkins has made to his critics. Indeed, the “Leprechology” line was in fact uttered by Dawkins himself, in reply to the suggestion that he should learn something about theology and philosophy of religion before commenting on it. Similarly, in the preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion, he says: “Most of us happily disavow fairies, astrology and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, without first immersing ourselves in books of Pastafarian theology.” Yet whether the work of Aquinas, Leibniz, et al., is really comparable to “Leprechology” or “Pastafarianism” in the first place is precisely what is in question—and precisely what people who actually know something about Aquinas, Leibniz, et al., know to be a suggestion that is simply too stupid for words. The reason Dawkins and Co. don’t see this is that, like the fundamentalist preacher of my example, they literally refuse to see it. The truth is sitting there, in easily available books, waiting for them to discover it. And yet these apostles of open-mindedness, free thought, critical thinking, and calm rationality insist that they will not look, that they will simply not bother to try to understand the ideas they criticize. (All the same, in the very letter to the editor of The Independent in which he makes his “Leprechology” defense, Dawkins whines that his views have been misrepresented and that the “decent” thing for his critics to do would be to read his book before attacking it! Apparently, the reason Dawkins will not study theology is that he has been too busy studying Yiddish, and wants to show off his mastery of chutzpah.)

What accounts for such madness—for the inability of the New Atheists to see that they are guilty of precisely what they accuse their opponents of, that their position rests on exactly the kind of hypocrisy, willful ignorance, and fallacious reasoning they would not tolerate in others?

Well, as our preacher could tell you, one sin leads to another. Like the killer who has to commit a second murder in order to cover up his first one, Dawkins and Co. are able to blind themselves to their sophistries only by perpetrating a further and bolder exercise in rhetorical sleight of hand. In his book The Rediscovery of the Mind, philosopher John Searle once criticized eliminative materialism—a bizarre theory propounded by some contemporary philosophers according to which the human mind does not really exist (don’t ask)—for the dishonest way in which its adherents often respond to their many critics:

Another rhetorical device for disguising the implausible is to give the commonsense view a name and then deny it by name and not by content. Thus, it is very hard even in the present era to come right out and say, “No human being has ever been conscious.” Rather, the sophisticated philosopher gives the view that people are sometimes conscious a name, for example, “the Cartesian intuition,” then he or she sets about challenging, questioning, denying something described as “the Cartesian intuition”… And just to give this maneuver a name, I will call it the “give-it-a-name” maneuver. (4–5)

Well, the New Atheists have incorporated this “‘give-it-a-name’ maneuver” into their own rhetorical bag of tricks, and the name they’ve chosen is “The Courtier’s Reply.” The label comes from Dawkins’ fellow biologist and atheist P.Z. Myers, and it refers to an imagined defense a court sycophant might give of the naked emperor of Hans Christian Anderson’s famous story: “Haven’t you read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots?” etc. The idea is that complaining about a New Atheist’s lack of theological knowledge is no better than the courtier’s complaint that the naked emperor’s critics haven’t read the works of Count Roderigo. In other words, it is just the same old question-begging “Leprechology” and “Pastafarianism” pseudo-defense, now tarted up with a clever marketing tag.

How does it work? Well, suppose you confront a New Atheist with the overwhelming evidence that his “objections” to Aquinas (or whomever) are about as impressive as the fundamentalist’s “chicken/egg” objection to evolution. What’s he going to do? Tell the truth? “Fine, so I don’t know the first thing about Aquinas. But I’m not going to let that stop me from criticizing him! Nyah nyah!” Even for a New Atheist, that has its weaknesses from a PR point of view. But now, courtesy of Myers, he’s got a better response: “Oh dear, oh dear … not the Courtier’s Reply!” followed by some derisive chuckling. One’s intelligent listeners will be baffled, wondering how shouting “Courtier’s Reply!” is supposed to excuse not knowing what one is talking about. And one’s more gullible followers—people like the http://www.infidels.org faithful who have been buying up The God Delusion by the bushel basket—will be thrilled to have some new piece of smart-assery to fling at their religious friends in lieu of a serious argument. In the confusion, the New Atheist can slip out the back door before anyone realizes he hasn’t really answered the question. Call it “the Myers Shuffle,” and feel free to fling that label back at the next fool atheist who thinks yelling “Courtier’s Reply!” should be enough to stop you in your tracks.

So, the New Atheist covers up one fallacy with another. But how do otherwise-intelligent people get themselves into this rhetorical regress in the first place? Here we need to turn from logic to politics and psychology. Dawkins and Co. have an enormous political stake in the claim that religion is inherently irrational. They want a society in which religious believers are no more welcome in the public square than racists or Holocaust deniers are. To admit that there really are respectable arguments for religion—that it is something about which reasonable people can disagree—would be at once to admit that all the extremist talk about religion being tantamount to child abuse, no more worthy of respect than belief in the tooth fairy, etc., goes out the window. It would have to be conceded that Catholic theologians and Jewish rabbis, say, have as much right to be heard on matters of public policy as boozy Vanity Fair columnists and writers of popular-science books.

Of course, it would for the same reason mean that as yet unsold copies of The God DelusionBreaking the SpellGod is Not GreatThe End of Faith, etc., would be consigned to the remainder bin, where they belong, for ill-informed extremist political tracts is really all they are. And that brings us to the last, psychological reason the New Atheists have worked themselves into such a fit of irrationality. One final thought experiment: Suppose you are Richard Dawkins, the former Charles Simonyi Professor in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. You’ve spent years criticizing creationists and Intelligent Design theorists for not doing their homework before attacking Darwinism. You’ve staked your reputation as a scientist (or as a science popularizer, anyway) on a years-long crusade against religion, dismissing it as the province of ignorant, bigoted yahoos and without a single serious argument in its favor. You’ve sold hundreds of thousands of copies of The God Delusion, presenting it as a once-and-for-all demonstration of the truth of this proposition. Experts in the relevant fields—theologians and philosophers of religion—have criticized you for not knowing what you are talking about. Fellow atheist academics have done the same. And you have dismissed them all as the objective allies of the fundamentalist bigots. The people who actually know the stuff are wrong (you claim) and you are right—despite the fact that this is the very attitude you condemn in fundamentalist bigots themselves.

In short, you’ve dug yourself into a very deep hole, and seem irresistibly compelled to keep digging. What are you going to do at this point—admit that the critics are right? Admit that you’ve been making a fool of yourself for decades and leading many less intelligent people to do the same? That you’ve done a grave injustice to the religious believers you despise, and who would relish your public humiliation? That you are a hypocrite? Not a chance.

Pride goeth before a fall. And before a fallacy. So “Courtier’s Reply!” it is, and damn the torpedoes. The New Atheism must of necessity be a New Philistinism, deliberately closing its mind to the wisdom of millennia—to the serious consideration, or even the reading, of the arguments of writers like Aristotle and Plotinus, Augustine and Aquinas, Leibniz and Clarke, lest these dangerous ideas tempt one to doubt the secularist creed. Or, in the words of a better-known exercise in doublethink: “Ignorance is strength.”

Edward Feser is the author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism and Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide.

Gary: This is exactly why I never debate Christians on the existence of a creator god. By doing so you are forced into the tall weeds of philosophy. Once in, you will never get out. Ask 10 philosophers a philosophical question and you will get 11 answers. Don’t go there! The brightest scientific minds of our time do not know the origin of the universe, so who do you think you are, my fellow atheists, arguing against the existence of a supernatural creator? Stop! Let’s simply admit that we do not know the answer to this question…(yet?).

I suggest that all atheists, agnostics, and other skeptics of Christianity admit: The existence of a creator god is possible.

But I am not interested in the existence of a generic creator god. The evidence indicates that if a creator god exists, he/she/they/or it is indifferent to human and animal suffering and is indifferent to being identified. No, I am interested in the existence of your god, Professor Feser. You know, that first century apocalyptic peasant preacher Jesus of Nazareth. Please provide good evidence that this man was born the son of the creator god, that he came back from the dead, and that he is currently Master of the universe. And most importantly, please provide good evidence that if I do not abandon my atheism and convert to Christianity, I will spend eternity enduring some form of eternal punishment.

Christian apologists and philosophers love to hide behind “the Creator God argument” because they don’t want to discuss the evidence for their god. Come out from behind the curtains, Professor Feser! Give us good evidence for your god! (and, no, contested 2,000 year old eyewitness testimony found in books whose authorship is disputed is NOT good evidence.)

Let’s now address The Courtier’s Reply. Here is my version of this argument which I left on Feser’s blog as a comment:

The Emperor’s tailors told the masses they were too ignorant to understand the concept of invisible clothing. Their sophisticated-sounding, complex theories of invisible thread convinced the masses that the tailors must be correct. But a child saw the truth. The sophisticated theories were pure BS.

-(holy) ghosts and virgins do not produce children
-human beings cannot walk on water
-brain dead corpses cannot be reanimated
-Hell and Heaven are no more real than Never Neverland.

Abandon your (sophisticated) superstitions, my Catholic/Christian friends. Truth matters.

My version of the Courtier’s Reply has nothing to do with a creator god. It has everything to do with the supernatural claims attributed to the Christian god. Yet Professor Feser seems to believe that his philosophical arguments for a creator god are valid responses to my questions regarding the Christian god. He is making a HUGE assumption.

Would Professor Feser use similar philosophical arguments to defend the supernatural claims of Mormonism and Islam? I doubt it. I will bet that like most Christian apologists he would hand-wave away the supernatural claims of these two religions by declaring that the founders of these religions were liars or drunks. But couldn’t the same criticism be applied to Christianity? The first alleged post-resurrection appearance of Jesus was to none other than Simon Peter…a world famous liar! Don’t give us your philosophical bs, Professor Feser. Tell us why we should believe the lying Simon Peter and not Mohammad and Joseph Smith!

Professor Feser demands that skeptics of Christianity obtain a degree in philosophy to properly analyze the veracity of the supernatural claims of Christianity. Ridiculous.

The Emperor has no clothes, Mr. Feser. Drop the philosophical smoke and mirrors and please provide actual evidence for the alleged supernatural deeds of your god!

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End of post.

22 thoughts on “Refuting Catholic Philosopher Edward Feser’s Argument Against the Courtier’s Reply

  1. The 2020 PhilPapers Survey surveyed philosophers on a number of subjects.

    Philosophers who accept or lean towards:
    theism: 18.93%
    atheism: 66.95%

    Why is it that these philosophy arguments for God fail so badly with people educated in philosophy?

    As a non-philosopher, I’m going to have to accept the expert majority opinion.

    https://survey2020.philpeople.org

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There have been a gazillion debates on the existence of god or a god, and it seems many Christians feel once they’ve argued for that, the heavy lifting is over, and it’s just a hop and skip to – Voila! Christianity. I suppose their atheist opponents feel they have to engage in these debates, but really, their time would be better spent arguing the case against the NT gospel’s reliability and all that comes out of that. Most non scholarly evangelicals don’t care about debates about god’s existence because they know Jesus lives in their hearts and Jesus is God, and the NT is reliable. what more evidence could an atheist possibly need. Their eyes just glaze over when talk of whether god exists or not occurs.

    Interesting that Fesser says he was an atheist before a Catholic, and also indicates a time before he was an atheist – I assume that means he was maybe Protestant? That’s an interesting path to take.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When a Christian claims to be a former atheist I have found it often means they were just non-religious. It rarely means that they had spent time studying works by atheists or works by skeptics of Christianity.

      If anyone knows Feser’s full history, let me know.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re right- people like Lee Strobel for example claim to have been atheists but one of his books details how he really just found church boring and silly before his conversion. One would expect someone like Fesser the philosopher, though, to know what an atheist actually is and not use the label if he wasn’t one. But maybe not. The bio on his website and Wikipedia make no mention of his past.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Thanks. I will read the entire thing tonight, but for now I did a super quick skim and caught some transitions which seem to this – raised Catholic but as a teenager came across Protestant ideas of Sola Scriptra and that Catholic doctrines were a continuation of Paganism and so he decided to become a protestant.
            Then went to college and discovered philosophy, and became an atheist. Says that lasted about 10 years, through most of the 90’s. Says he was always very conservative, even as an atheist which put him out of step with most atheists.
            Became unsatisfied with materialist explanations of the human mind and also language and meaning.
            While teaching intro undergraduate philosophy class decided to spice up arguments about the existence of God to make class more interesting, and in the process discovered aspects of Thomist philosophers and Aquinas himself, as well as other Christian philosophers.

            So the progression seems to be Catholic to Protestant before 18 years old, Atheist until roughly 30 or so, then back to Catholic from around 30 to the present – roughly 2000- present. Interesting that he mentions several time how “conservative he remained through all these processes. Usually that diminishes when one continually changes views, ( in my experience).

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Re: my quick summary. In my haste I forgot to mention I didn’t find Fesser saying he actually rejected the idea of a creator of some sort or god of some or any sort. His references to his atheism all seem to be that he’s rejected Christianity so therefore he’s an atheist. One would think he would know better. However: This is based on a quick skim, so don’t quote if I’m wrong (but go ahead if I’m right 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            1. The best counter to Feser’s arrogant philosophical dismissal of philosophy-ignorant atheists is the following comment from my reader “Koseighty”:

              The 2020 PhilPapers Survey surveyed philosophers on a number of subjects.

              Philosophers who accept or lean towards:
              theism: 18.93%
              atheism: 66.95%

              Why is it that philosophy arguments for God fail so badly with people educated in philosophy?

              As a non-philosopher, I’m going to have to accept the expert majority opinion.

              https://survey2020.philpeople.org

              Like

              1. Fesser’s answer would most likely along the lines of be a quote from his section of the book:

                This reexamination of Aquinas had two immediate effects on me. First, it enabled me to improve my teaching. Though initially I was still not quite convinced by Aquinas’ arguments, covering the Five Ways no longer seemed like shooting fish in a barrel, and I was able to present the debate between theism and atheism in a more philosophically substantive and interesting way. Second, it hammered home the lesson that academic philosophers, even when speaking on philosophical topics, often don’t know what they are talking about. They are as prone to prejudice, ignorance, and circular reasoning as anyone else. To be sure, I already knew this from my experience of the political climate in universities. Again, I was conservative even in my atheist days, which put me out of step with most academics. I found that left-wing philosophers, like left-wing academics in general, are often ill-informed and prejudiced when it comes to conservative ideas and arguments. But I had been accustomed to thinking that on religious matters, at least, the academic conventional wisdom was well-founded and the self-confidence of secular philosophers justified. Now I found out that, at least with respect to Aquinas, that was not the case. “What else have they gotten wrong?” I began to ask myself.

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                1. Sorry, my garbled first sentence should read – Fesser’s answer would most likely be along the lines of a quote from his section of the book

                  Like

                2. And my response to that would be: Your positions still represent a minority view among philosophers, Professor Feser. You can complain about a liberal bias but what about a conservative bias?? Bottom line: I accept majority expert opinion on all issues, and since 70% of philosophers are atheists, I reject your theistic minority views.

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                  1. Although I guess what we need is a survey of philosophers world wide, as I think the numbers for theist philosophers would increase if all cultures were included, not just first world English speaking philosophers. Or maybe not. Maybe the secular Europeans in Germany, France, etc would balance the Middle Eastern and North African Philosophers, who probably wouldn’t even be able to teach if they professed atheism. South East Asia? India? I’m not sure what they’d say.

                    Like

              2. I read through Fesser’s entry in its entirety last night, and I think my initial comment on his religious progression was accurate. The last 1/3or so of his entry I found the most interesting, as it’s describing his return to theism and then how he chose Christianity over other religions and then the Catholic version. Ultimately, it’s based on buying into the arguments of people like Aquinas and Leibniz. Yet, as you’ve noted, most philosophers reject those arguments. I can only conclude that Fesser’s admittedly very conservative nature meant he was always going to return to Catholicism, and the arguments he chose held special sway with him for that reason. I can’t say what his 10 years of atheism really entailed, He claims to have totally rejected Theism and therefore Christianity. I guess we will have to take him at his word.

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            2. Well, he does mention Mackie and Russell, so I think it’s safe to assume he was a full-throated atheist in his younger years (p. 31)

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              1. I agree, although that’s an inference, as I didn’t see him actually say it in my admittedly quick superficial read through

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              2. Sorry, in my previous reply to you I said that was an inference. That was redundant was you already said you were assuming his full throated atheism. At any rate, I agree with you. Fesser tends to be too long winded for my liking, I wish he would have just stated what meant by calling himself an atheist.

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                1. Yeah. A clearer statement of outright disbelief could have cut down the word count of that section at least a little.

                  Like

  3. It’s not our tools for detecting and measuring reality that are inadequate. It’s that the supernatural is not part of reality. It has no independent existence outside the human imagination.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. If you’d forgive me for shilling another book–not my own this time, but my editor’s 🙂 — I think you’d really like Jonathan Pearce’s critical assessment of the Resurrection and the reliability of the Gospel accounts:

    Like

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