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More Last Superstition [Oct. 23rd, 2012|10:09 am]
Scott
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Previously: Review of Last Superstition, Part I

I keep saying I'm going to review The Last Superstition and then not doing it. On the plus side, in between then and now I read Feser's Aquinas, so I have a little more idea where he's coming from and can hopefully do a slightly better job.

So okay, let's start with this.



Imagine you're a Calvinist, and your friend is a Calvinist, and you disagree about something. Maybe abortion. So you point to a chapter in the writings of John Calvin where he explains why abortion is wrong, and your friend concedes.

But maybe you have a different friend who's a Methodist. You can't convince your Methodist friend just by proving that Calvinism opposes abortion. In order to make that argument, you'd first have to prove Calvinism is true. You might do this by appealing to your shared Protestant principle of sola scriptura and proving that a literal interpretation of the Scripture supports Calvinism over Methodist. Then you can convince him that John Calvin's writings oppose abortion.

Or maybe you have a Catholic friend. Now you can't just cite John Calvin, and you can't even start by arguing that John Calvin better embodies Protestant principles. First you have to prove Protestantism. So you appeal to your shared Christian belief in Jesus, and argue that Protestantism better captures the message and meaning of Jesus than Catholicism does. Then you can prove that Protestant principles support Calvinism and that Calvinist principles prove no abortion.

If your friend is Jewish, you have an even tougher time. First you have to start by proving Christianity. A good place to start would be looking at the Old Testament, and claiming that the Old Testament prophecies the coming of Christ and embodies the Christian worldview. If you succeed, then you can prove that Christian principles prove Protestantism, that Protestant principles prove Calvinism, and that Calvinist principles prove no abortion.

If your friend is Hindu, you can't just use the Old Testament. You've got to appeal to your shared belief in God, and claim the Judeo-Christian God better embodies what we would expect of a divine being than the gods of Hinduism. Then you can use Judeo-Christian principles to prove Christianity, Christian principles to prove Protestantism, and so on.

If your friend is an atheist, you've got to start by proving there is a God. Since you can't appeal to any shared scripture or even to a shared belief in divinity, all you can do is reason from first principles. If you can prove the existence of God from first principles using reason alone, you can use the same arguments you used on the Hindu to support Judeo-Christianity, use Judeo-Christian principles to prove Christianity, use Christian principles to prove Protesantism, and so on.

If your friend is a post-modernist and doesn't believe in reason at all, I don't know what you can do. Kill him before he kills you, maybe.

The main lesson I took from The Last Superstition was that the part of the graph that I thought looked like this...



...could also, maybe more usefully, be organized like this:



Or it might be more accurate to label the node I've marked "Protestantism" as "Modern Christianity" and the node I've marked "Catholicism" as "Traditional Christianity", but it does seem to mirror the Catholic/Protestant distinction somewhat and I'm keeping it as it is for now.

Feser's argument is that most atheists arguing with Christians are pretty much the equivalent of a Calvinist going up to a Hindu saying "Look! John Calvin's writings totally oppose abortion! Why can't you see that?!".

And then when the Hindu isn't convinced, the Calvinist gets angry and says "Any reasonable person could see that John Calvin opposes abortion. Therefore, you must be unreasonable, and you must have decided to believe totally on faith that John Calvin supports abortion. That's the only possible explanation for your stupidity."

Atheists used to arguing with Modern Christians share most of their worldview with them. Atheists usually win these arguments, because the modern worldview logically implies atheism. The modern worldview is so pervasive that it is practically impossible for moderns to imagine anything else, and so if they meet a Traditional Christian, they will usually misinterpret everything they say and round off all of their arguments to the nearest Modern equivalent. These arguments almost but not quite make sense in a modern context, and so the atheist assumes the Traditional Christian has made a simple error and is just stupid.

(imagine a Calvinist so deeply enmeshed in the Calvinist worldview that any time a Hindu mentions the Bhagavad Gita the Calvinist assumes she is just using a Sanskrit name for the New Testament. This Calvinist would quickly develop a dim view of her Hindu friend's Biblical scholarship.)

Just to start with three examples:

To a Modern, the soul, if it exists at all, is some sort of ghostly substance that seems to exist around the same place as the body. To a Traditionalist, the soul is another name for the shape that the body currently has, and saying a human being has a soul is no more controversial than saying a chair is chair-shaped.

To a Modern, God is either an old man with a beard, or else a ghostly presence that escapes being an old man with a beard only through a technicality. To a Traditionalist, God is another name for existence itself, or, in the words of a Facebook friend of mine, "God is what a cat, an apple, and a chair have in common."

To a Modern, religious morality means doing things solely because God commanded them, and the Euthyphro argument is a devastating retort against it. To a Traditionalist, religious morality really has very little to do with God, and only involves Him at all because goodness is the same thing as existence and God is pure existence and therefore pure Good.

In other words, Traditionalist thinking starts off pretty incomprehensible to any Modern who hasn't studied it.

The average Christian today is probably a Modern Christian, just because Modernism has become so pervasive that it's hard for anyone, including Christians, to think outside that particular box. Probably the most obvious flaw in The Last Superstition's angry criticisms of atheism is that the majority of atheist beliefs and arguments are actually well-suited to the majority of Christian beliefs and arguments, because the majority of Christians are indeed operating out of a Modern tradition.

However, this doesn't mean we can totally ignore the Traditionalist worldview for several reasons. First, a lot of the most sophisticated Christian thinkers are Traditionalists. Second, a lot of the head honchos like the Pope are Traditionalists, and they're the ones setting marching orders for everyone else. And third and most important, Christianity comes out of a fifteen-hundred-odd year history of Traditionalism, and even though most Christians today have forgotten why they believe what they believe the original justifications were Traditionalist ones. Thus, people who point out how weird it is that so many Christians oppose homosexuality despite it being barely even mentioned in the Bible will find the explanation in the Traditionalist interpretation of sexual virtue, and even if most evangelical churches have forgotten this interpretation they have stuck with the result.

This argument, plus about a hundred fifty different fits, each more impressive than the last, about how HORRIBLE AND INTELLECTUALLY DISHONEST THE NEW ATHEISTS ARE AND HOW THEY SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF THEMSELVES AND THEY WILL STAND FOREVER IN HISTORY AS A MONUMENT TO THE WORST THAT HUMAN THOUGHT IS CAPABLE OF IF THEY SHOULD EVEN BE DEEMED HUMAN AT ALL makes up the first half or so of Last Superstition. The second half is an attempt to actually give a rudimentary understanding of what the heck the Traditionalist Worldview is.

I had strong opinions about this latter part, but in the two months or so since I read the book I have forgotten most of them. So my current plan is to re-read a little bit each day until I find a part I have a strong opinion on, then blog about it, then repeat until I reach the end or stop having strong opinions which seems unlikely.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-10-23 05:37 pm (UTC)
To a Traditionalist, God is another name for existence itself

Doesn't that contradict divine simplicity?
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-10-23 11:32 pm (UTC)

God as existence

A good response would take book, but perhaps a few lines might help.

In what is reviewed to as the "traditional" view here, God is existence not in the sense of him being everything that exists. Rather, he is the very actuality of existence. Think of God's self-identification from the burning bush: "I am who am." Everything else exists as a certain type of thing; God simply IS. Two implications: 1) Divine simplicity and excellence is secured even beyond our language. 2) All existing things exist insofar as they share in God's actuality in a limited fashion--thus, God is in all things without these things being God.

This is one point within a very subtle system of thought. I find it incredibly compelling.
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[User Picture]From: ice_hesitant
2012-10-23 05:49 pm (UTC)
To a Traditionalist, God is another name for existence itself, or, in the words of a Facebook friend of mine, "God is what a cat, an apple, and a chair have in common."

Your summary makes it sound like the book is written by a pantheist who is appropriating and taking credit for "traditional" Christianity. Pantheism is also traditionally a heresy.

Edited at 2012-10-23 05:49 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-10-23 11:02 pm (UTC)
No, he pretty clearly established that Aquinas believes the same thing as he does. The apple and so on aren't God, they're things immediately sustained by God since God is existence itself (ie in God essence is identical to existence) and the apple etc all exist.

A real Catholic can correct me if I'm wrong.
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[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-10-23 06:16 pm (UTC)
The last superstition is probably the belief that you can understand what other people are thinking by assuming that they're thinking the same way you are.
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[User Picture]From: celandine13
2012-10-23 06:36 pm (UTC)
If "traditionalism" mostly follows the examples you described, then to my surprise I find I'm a traditionalist. (Still not a Christian, though, if Feser means Christianity to have anything to do with Jesus or the Gospels.)

It would surprise me if "traditionalism" was in fact *older* than "modernism", but hey, I'm willing to be surprised.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-10-23 11:40 pm (UTC)

That's exactly what he said.

Traditional is older than modern. The reason those words are used, in fact.
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[User Picture]From: maniakes
2012-10-23 07:09 pm (UTC)
Interesting. This makes sense on a number of levels. My first reaction was that the Catholicism vs Modernity split goes a long way towards explaining why it's so easy when reading history and historical fiction (especially about the Renaissance through early Age of Enlightenment), it's so easy to cast traditional Catholics as the villains: Renaissance Humanists, early Protestant reformers, enlightenment philosophers, and their like were the intellectual forefathers of modernity, so we recognize them as being "on our side", and their Catholic, traditionalist antagonists were working against them from a largely alien (to us) perspective.

On the other hand, a major data point against Feser's thesis here is Against the Galileans, an anti-Christian tract by the fourth century Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate. It's been a while since I read it, but I remember noting that Julian (a Neoplatinist Hellenic Pagan, who should if anything be more traditionalist than the early Christians)'s criticisms of Christianity sound distinctly similar in many respects to modern atheist criticisms of Christianity.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-10-24 01:24 am (UTC)
Having briefly examined this tract, it appears that Julian is offering a tirade against a purely-literal understanding of the Bible, rather than against traditional philosophy. Remember that the development of Christian philosophy spans millenia.

Julian wrote this tract fewer than 50 years after the Edict of Milan, so Christian philosophy was still in its infancy (broad persecution of adherents only slightly hinders intellectual inquiry). Only in the early 5th century will Augustine bring Christian philosophy to maturity by the integration of Platonism. Aquinas won't assimilate the work of Aristotle until the 13th century.
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[User Picture]From: eyelessgame
2012-10-23 08:12 pm (UTC)
From your three examples I can't tell what epistemological difference there is between a traditionalist and an atheist - they appear to be using different names for the same things.

But since I'm certain there must actually be an epistemological difference, and not just a semantic one, I'm looking forward to the later parts of this review.

Edited at 2012-10-23 08:14 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: Thom Blake
2012-11-09 04:30 pm (UTC)
Indeed. The Traditionalist says "Of course angels exist - when a human does an unexpectedly generous thing, that person is an angel!"

Yesterday, I heard someone honestly arguing that Santa Claus does exist, since we all have a little Santa Claus inside us.
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[User Picture]From: xuenay
2012-10-23 08:51 pm (UTC)
Interesting. Now I'm tempted to buy those books.
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[User Picture]From: sniffnoy
2012-10-23 09:31 pm (UTC)
Not related to the content, but why does the link at the top link to ari_rahikkala's comment rather than the post itself...?
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-10-23 11:03 pm (UTC)
Not sure. Fixed.
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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-10-24 12:16 am (UTC)
The average Christian today is probably a Modern Christian, just because Modernism has become so pervasive that it's hard for anyone, including Christians, to think outside that particular box. Probably the most obvious flaw in The Last Superstition's angry criticisms of atheism is that the majority of atheist beliefs and arguments are actually well-suited to the majority of Christian beliefs and arguments, because the majority of Christians are indeed operating out of a Modern tradition.

Wherein does the flaw lie? It can't be that most Christians hold Modernist beliefs, because that is just argumentum ad populum , especially when they are doing so because they are living in a modern setting and not through reasoning themselves into them.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-10-24 12:41 am (UTC)
The flaw lies in that Feser was criticizing the atheists for being intellectually dishonest in making these arguments, but in fact it's totally legitimate to argue against the position your opponent actually believes instead of some position that some much better educated person might believe, especially if your goal is to convince your opponent.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-10-24 12:34 am (UTC)
I found this blog from facebook, and must say that I like the way you write/think/etc. I also like the way you explain the book's point. Maybe I just like the book's point itself... I'll check it out. You may enjoy C.S. Lewis' Abolition of Man, and G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy. Oh, and read Aquinas himself. it's worth it. then you can see how your view may differ from Feser. (my philosophy program has a policy of reading "the greats" instead of explanations of them, for just this reason)

have a great day, keep reading, and definitely keep writing!
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-10-25 10:44 am (UTC)
"To a Traditionalist, the soul is another name for the shape that the body currently has, and saying a human being has a soul is no more controversial than saying a chair is chair-shaped. [...] To a Traditionalist, God is another name for existence itself" I have never, ever heard anyone espouse such views, and I spend a lot of time interacting with what you call "traditionalists". Seriously, no-one thinks this. There may be some philosophers somewhere claiming that "God is existence", in some sort of attempt at pantheism, but no-one thinks "the soul is another name for the shape that the body currently has". No-one. Traditionalists generally assume that some aspect of humanity - be it intelligence, morality, subjective experience - requires something more than mere matter.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-10-31 01:54 pm (UTC)

Sure. And you can probably quote a traditionalist who says that then...?

Because Feser is one who says the opposite, so it looks like the evidence is Traditionalists who say that: 1, Traditionalists who don't: 0, but you bet there are loads.
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[User Picture]From: Randy Miller
2012-10-25 09:44 pm (UTC)

The last graph

reminds me a bit of (what little I've read of) Mencius Moldbug.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-11-04 12:34 am (UTC)

Да уж, хорошо написано

Если же мы понимаем, что брак – это союз мистический, это тайна, это чудо, это не только здесь, но и на небесах, это то, от чего зависит наше счастье всей нашей жизни и наших детей, если мы понимаем, какое великое это дело и какой великий труд, то мы, вероятно, должны учитывать, как повлияет на будущую семью мероприятие, с которого семья начнется. Ведь в нашей жизни все имеет значение и продолжение.Что же это за волшебное мероприятие – современная свадьба? Что это такое на самом деле?
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-11-06 02:16 pm (UTC)

Проще головой о стену удариться, чем все это реализова

Описанные в начале три юношеских критерия касаются не нашей реакции на людей, а скорее реакции людей на нас. Это гораздо менее точный критерий. И поэтому не стоит придавать этим признакам какое-либо значение.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-11-09 09:14 pm (UTC)

Для всего найдется что написать, вобщем еще не понятно

Наш с вами разговор не на уровне «нельзя-можно». Мы живем в реальном мире, а в реальном мире трудно совершать правильные поступки, особенно когда рядом мало или вовсе нет тех, кто так поступает. Реальность такова, что мы с вами к моменту прочтения этой книги, возможно, уже совершали ошибки, и поздно говорить о вершинах чистоты и добродетели. Но жизнь – не черно-белая, есть много оттенков. Мы говорим с вами о том, что полезно нам и что вредно, мы говорим о добре и зле как о полюсах, по которым настраивается наш компас. А дальше мы делаем выбор, причем каждый день много раз, в какую сторону идти и насколько настойчиво. Кто-то выбирает полюс сиюминутных удовольствий, полюс слабости, и за всю жизнь так и не создает настоящей семьи. Кто-то довольствуется среднестатистической долей двух-трех непродолжительных браков с несчастными детьми-полусиротами. А кто-то понимает, что жизнь одна, и обидно разменивать ее по мелочам, хочется выиграть главные призы. Крепкая счастливая семья, наполненная любовью, - один из самых главных, если не самый главный приз в этой жизни. Ради него стоит воспользоваться разумом и волей, которые для чего-то даны нам. [url=http://newcentralasia.ru/glavnye-novosti-dnya-v-rossii]Аksenov Erik[/url]
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