Tuesday, July 17, 2012
The road from atheism
As most of my readers probably know, I was an atheist for about a decade -- roughly the 1990s, give or take. Occasionally I am asked how I came to reject atheism. I briefly addressed this in The Last Superstition. A longer answer, which I offer here, requires an account of the atheism I came to reject.
I was brought up Catholic, but lost whatever I had of the Faith by the time I was about 13 or 14. Hearing, from a non-Catholic relative, some of the stock anti-Catholic arguments for the first time -- “That isn’t in the Bible!”, “This came from paganism!”, “Here’s what they did to people in the Middle Ages!”, etc. -- I was mesmerized, and convinced, seemingly for good. Sola scriptura-based arguments are extremely impressive, until you come to realize that their basic premise -- sola scriptura itself -- has absolutely nothing to be said for it. Unfortunately it takes some people, like my younger self, a long time to see that. Such arguments can survive even the complete loss of religious belief, the anti-Catholic ghost that carries on beyond the death of the Protestant body, haunting the atheist who finds himself sounding like Martin Luther when debating his papist friends.
But I was still a theist for a time, though that wouldn’t survive my undergrad years. Kierkegaard was my first real philosophical passion, and his individualistic brand of religiosity greatly appealed to me. But the individualistic irreligion of Nietzsche would come to appeal to me more, and for a time he was my hero, with Walter Kaufmann a close second. (I still confess an affection for Kaufmann. Nietzsche, not so much.) Analytic philosophy would, before long, bring my youthful atheism down to earth. For the young Nietzschean the loss of religion is a grand, civilizational crisis, and calls for an equally grand response on the part of a grand individual like himself. For the skeptical analytic philosopher it’s just a matter of rejecting some bad arguments, something one does quickly and early in one’s philosophical education before getting on to the really interesting stuff. And that became my “settled” atheist position while in grad school. Atheism was like belief in a spherical earth -- something everyone in possession of the relevant facts knows to be true, and therefore not worth getting too worked up over or devoting too much philosophical attention to.
But it takes some reading and thinking to get to that point. Kaufmann’s books were among my favorites, serious as they were on the “existential” side of disbelief without the ultimately impractical pomposity of Nietzsche. Naturally I took it for granted that Hume, Kant, et al. had identified the main problems with the traditional proofs of God’s existence long ago. On issues of concern to a contemporary analytic philosopher, J. L. Mackie was the man, and I regarded his book The Miracle of Theism as a solid piece of philosophical work. I still do. I later came to realize that he doesn’t get Aquinas or some other things right. (I discuss what he says about Aquinas in Aquinas.) But the book is intellectually serious, which is more than can be said for anything written by a “New Atheist.” Antony Flew’s challenge to the intelligibility of various religious assertions may have seemed like dated “ordinary language” philosophy to some, but I was convinced there was something to it. Kai Nielsen was the “go to” guy on issues of morality and religion. Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification was a doorstop of a book, and a useful compendium of arguments. I used to wonder with a little embarrassment whether my landlord, who was religious but a nice guy, could see that big word “ATHEISM” on its spine -- sitting there sort of like a middle finger on the bookshelf behind me -- when he’d come to collect the rent. But if so he never raised an eyebrow or said a word about it.
The argument from evil was never the main rationale for my atheism; indeed, the problem of suffering has only gotten really interesting to me since I returned to the Catholic Church. (Not because the existence of suffering poses a challenge to the truth of classical theism -- for reasons I’ve given elsewhere, I think it poses no such challenge at all -- but because the role various specific instances of suffering actually play in divine providence is often really quite mysterious.) To be sure, like any other atheist I might have cited the problem of suffering when rattling off the reasons why theism couldn’t be true, but it wasn’t what primarily impressed me philosophically. What really impressed me was the evidentialist challenge to religious belief. If God really exists there should be solid arguments to that effect, and there just aren’t, or so I then supposed. Indeed, that there were no such arguments seemed to me something which would itself be an instance of evil if God existed, and this was an aspect of the problem of evil that seemed really novel and interesting.
I see from a look at my old school papers that I was expressing this idea in a couple of essays written for different courses in 1992. (I think that when J. L. Schellenberg’s book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason appeared in 1993 I was both gratified that someone was saying something to that effect in print, and annoyed that it wasn’t me.) Attempts to sidestep the evidentialist challenge, like Alvin Plantinga’s, did not convince me, and still don’t. My Master’s thesis was a defense of “evidentialism” against critics like Plantinga. I haven’t read it in years, but I imagine that, apart from its atheism and a detail here or there, I’d still agree with it.
I was also greatly impressed by the sheer implausibility of attributing humanlike characteristics to something as rarefied as the cause of the world. J. C. A. Gaskin’s The Quest for Eternity had a fascinating section on the question of whether a centre of consciousness could coherently be attributed to God, a problem I found compelling. Moreover, the very idea of attributing moral virtues (or for that matter moral vices) to God seemed to make no sense, given that the conditions that made talk of kindness, courage, etc. intelligible in human life could not apply to Him. Even if something otherwise like God did exist, I thought, He would be “beyond good and evil” -- He would not be the sort of thing one could attribute moral characteristics to, and thus wouldn’t be the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (Richard Swinburne’s attempt to show otherwise did not work, as I argued in another school paper.) The Euthyphro problem, which also had a big impact on me, only reinforced the conclusion that you couldn’t tie morality to God in the way that (as I then assumed) the monotheistic religions required.
Those were, I think, the main components of my mature atheism: the conviction that theists could neither meet nor evade the evidentialist challenge; and the view that there could be, in any event, no coherent notion of a cause of the world with the relevant humanlike attributes. What is remarkable is how much of the basis I then had for these judgments I still find compelling. As I would come to realize only years later, the conception of God I then found so implausible was essentially a modern, parochial, and overly anthropomorphic “theistic personalist” conception, and not the classical theism to which the greatest theistic philosophers had always been committed. And as my longtime readers know, I still find theistic personalism objectionable. The fideism that I found (and still find) so appalling was, as I would also come to see only later, no part of the mainstream classical theist tradition either. And while the stock objections raised by atheists against the traditional arguments for God’s existence are often aimed at caricatures, some of them do have at least some force against some of the arguments of modern philosophers of religion. But they do not have force against the key arguments of the classical theist tradition.
It is this classical tradition -- the tradition of Aristotelians, Neo-Platonists, and Thomists and other Scholastics -- that I had little knowledge of then. To be sure, I had read the usual selections from Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and Anselm that pretty much every philosophy student reads -- several of Plato’s dialogues, the Five Ways, chapter 2 of the Proslogium, and so forth. Indeed, I read a lot more than that. I’d read the entire Proslogium of Anselm, as well as the Monologium, the Cur Deus Homo, and the exchange with Gaunilo, early in my undergraduate years. I’d read Aquinas’s De Ente et Essentia and De Principiis Naturae, big chunks of Plotinus’s Enneads, Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, Augustine’s Concerning the Teacher, and Bonaventure’s The Mind’s Road to God. I’d read Russell’s History of Western Philosophy -- hardly an unbiased source, to be sure -- but also a bit of Gilson. All while becoming an atheist during my undergrad years. And I still didn’t understand the classical tradition.
Why not? Because to read something is not necessarily to understand it. Partly, of course, because when you’re young, you always understand less than you think you do. But mainly because, to understand someone, it’s not enough to sit there tapping your foot while he talks. You’ve got to listen, rather than merely waiting for a pause so that you can insert the response you’d already formulated before he even opened his mouth. And when you’re a young man who thinks he’s got the religious question all figured out, you’re in little mood to listen -- especially if you’ve fallen in love with one side of the question, the side that’s new and sexy because it’s not what you grew up believing. Zeal of the deconverted, and all that.
You’re pretty much just going through the motions at that point. And if, while in that mindset, what you’re reading from the other side are seemingly archaic works, written in a forbidding jargon, presenting arguments and ideas no one defends anymore (or at least no one in the “mainstream”), your understanding is bound to be superficial and inaccurate. You’ll take whatever happens to strike you as the main themes, read into them what you’re familiar with from modern writers, and ignore the unfamiliar bits as irrelevant. “This part sounds like what Leibniz or Plantinga says, but Hume and Mackie already showed what’s wrong with that; I don’t even know what the hell this other part means, but no one today seems to be saying that sort of thing anyway, so who cares…” Read it, read into it, dismiss it, move on. How far can you go wrong?
Very, very far. It took me the better part of a decade to see that, and what prepared the way were some developments in my philosophical thinking that seemingly had nothing to do with religion. The first of them had to do instead with the philosophy of language and logic. Late in my undergrad years at Cal State Fullerton I took a seminar in logic and language in which the theme was the relationship between sentences and what they express. (Propositions? Meanings? Thoughts? That’s the question.) Similar themes would be treated in courses I took in grad school, at first at Claremont and later at UC Santa Barbara. Certain arguments stood out. There was Alonzo Church’s translation argument, and, above all, Frege’s wonderful essay “The Thought.” Outside of class I discovered Karl Popper’s World 3 concept, and the work of Jerrold Katz. The upshot of these arguments was that the propositional content of sentences could not be reduced to or otherwise explained in terms of the utterances of sentences themselves, or behavioral dispositions, or psychological states, or conventions, or functions from possible worlds, or anything else a materialist might be willing to countenance. As the arguments sank in over the course of months and years, I came to see that existing naturalistic accounts of language and meaning were no good.
Not that that led me to give up naturalism, at least not initially. A more nuanced, skeptical naturalism was my preferred approach -- what else was there, right? My studies in the philosophy of mind reinforced this tendency. At first, and like so many undergraduate philosophy majors, I took the materialist line for granted. Mental activity was just brain activity. What could be more obvious? But reading John Searle’s The Rediscovery of the Mind destroyed this illusion, and convinced me that the standard materialist theories were all hopeless. That Searle was himself a naturalist no doubt made this easier to accept. Indeed, Searle became another hero of mine. He was smart, funny, gave perfectly organized public lectures on complex topics without notes, and said whatever he thought whether or not it was fashionable. And he wrote so beautifully, eschewing the needless formalisms that give a veneer of pseudo-rigor and “professionalism” to the writings of too many analytic philosophers. “That is how I want to write!” I decided.
Brilliant as he was as a critic, though, Searle’s own approach to the mind-body problem -- “biological naturalism” -- never convinced me. It struck me (and seemingly everyone else but Searle himself) as a riff on property dualism. But there was another major influence on my thinking in the philosophy of mind in those days, Michael Lockwood’s fascinating book Mind, Brain and the Quantum. Lockwood was also a naturalist of sorts, and yet he too was critical of some of the standard materialist moves. Most importantly, though, Lockwood’s book introduced me to Bertrand Russell’s later views on these issues, which would have a major influence on my thinking ever afterward. Russell emphasized that physics really gives us very little knowledge of the material world. In particular, it gives us knowledge of its abstract structure, of what can be captured in equations and the like. But it gives us no knowledge of the intrinsic nature of matter, of the concrete reality that fleshes out the abstract structure. Introspection, by contrast, gives us direct knowledge of our thoughts and experiences. The upshot is that it is matter, and not mind, that is the really problematic side of the mind-body problem.
This was truly revolutionary, and it reinforced the conclusion that contemporary materialism was shallow and dogmatic. And that Lockwood and Russell were themselves naturalists made it once again easy to accept the message. I got hold of whatever I could find on these neglected views of Russell’s -- Russell’s The Analysis of Matter and various essays and book chapters, Lockwood’s other writings on the topic, some terrific neglected essays by Grover Maxwell, some related arguments from John Foster and Howard Robinson. David Chalmers and Galen Strawson were also starting to take an interest in Russell around that time. But once again I found myself agreeing more with the criticisms than with the positive proposals. Russell took the view that what fleshes out the structure described by physics were sense data (more or less what contemporary writers call qualia). This might seem to entail a kind of panpsychism, the view that mental properties are everywhere in nature. Russell avoided this bizarre result by arguing that sense data could exist apart from a conscious subject which was aware of them, and Lockwood took the same line. I wasn’t convinced, and one of my earliest published articles was a criticism of Lockwood’s arguments on this subject (an article to which Lockwood very graciously replied). Chalmers and Strawson, meanwhile, were flirting with the idea of just accepting the panpsychist tendency of Russell’s positive views, but that seemed crazy to me.
My preferred solution was to take the negative, critical side of the Russellian position -- the view that physics gives us knowledge only of the abstract structure of matter -- and push a similar line toward the mind itself. All our knowledge, both of the external world described by physics and of the internal world of conscious experience and thought, was knowledge only of structure, of the relations between elements but not of their intrinsic nature. I would discover that Rudolf Carnap had taken something in the ballpark of this position, but the main influence on my thinking here was, of all people, the economist and political philosopher F. A. Hayek. The libertarianism I was then attracted to had already led me to take an interest in Hayek. When I found out that he had written a book on the mind-body problem, and that it took a position like Russell’s only more radical, it seemed like kismet. Hayek’s The Sensory Order and some of his related essays would come to be the major influences on my positive views.
But they were inchoate, since Hayek was not a philosopher by profession. That gave me something to do. Working out Hayek’s position in a more systematic way than he had done would be the project of my doctoral dissertation, “Russell, Hayek, and the Mind-Body Problem.” (Both here and in the earlier Master’s thesis link, by the way, Google books overstates the page count. I wasn’t that long-winded!) This was, to be sure, a very eccentric topic for a dissertation. Russell’s views were marginal at the time, and are still not widely accepted. Probably very few philosophers of mind even know who Hayek is, and fewer still care. But I thought their views were both true and interesting, and that was that. (If you want advice on how to climb the career ladder in academic philosophy, I’m not the guy to ask. But you knew that already.)
Spelling out the Hayekian position in a satisfactory way was very difficult. Lockwood had presented Russell’s position as a kind of mind-brain identity theory in reverse: It’s not that the mind turns out to be the brain, but that the brain turns out to be the mind. More precisely, visual and tactile perceptions of the brain of the sort a neurosurgeon might have do not tell us what the brain is really like, but present us only with a representation of the brain. It is actually introspection of our own mental states that tells us the inner nature of the matter that makes up the brain. It seemed to me that Hayek’s position amounted to something like functionalism in reverse: It’s not that the mind turns out to be a kind of causal network of the sort that might be instantiated in the brain, or a computer, or some other material system -- understood naively, i.e. taking our perceptual experience of these physical systems as accurate representations of their intrinsic nature. Rather, introspection of our mental states and their relations is actually a kind of direct awareness of the inner nature of causation itself. We shouldn’t reduce mind to causal relations; rather we should inflate our notion of causation and see in it the mental properties we know from introspection.
So I then argued, and wrote up the results both in the dissertation and in another article. But the views were weird, required a great deal of abstractive effort even to understand, and one had to care about Hayek even to try, which almost no philosophers of mind do. To be sure, Searle was interested in Hayek in a general way -- when Steven Postrel and I interviewed him for Reason, and when I talked to him about Hayek on other occasions, he even expressed interest in The Sensory Order in particular -- but this interest never manifested itself in his published work. Chalmers very kindly gave me lots of feedback on the Hayekian spin on Russell that I was trying to develop, and pushed me to clarify the underlying metaphysics. But his own tendency was, as I have said, to explore (at least tentatively) the panpsychist reading of Russell.
And yet my own development of Hayek might itself seem ultimately to have flirted with panpsychism. For if introspection of our mental states gives us awareness of the inner nature of causation, doesn’t that imply that causation itself -- including causation in the world outside the brain -- is in some sense mental? This certainly went beyond anything Hayek himself had said. In my later thinking about Hayek’s position (of which I would give a more adequate exposition in my Cambridge Companion to Hayek article on Hayek’s philosophy of mind), I would retreat from this reading and emphasize instead the idea that introspection and perception give us only representations of the inner and outer worlds, and not their intrinsic nature.
This, for reasons I spell out in the article just referred to, offers a possible solution to the problem that qualia pose for naturalism. But because the view presupposes the notion of representation, it does not account for intentionality. Here my inclinations went in more of a “mysterian” direction. I had long been fascinated by Colin McGinn’s arguments to the effect that there was a perfectly naturalistic explanation of consciousness, but one we may be incapable in principle of understanding given the limitations on our cognitive faculties. I thought we could say more about consciousness than McGinn thought we probably could, but I also came to think that his mysterian approach was correct vis-à-vis the intentional content of our mental states. Lockwood and Hayek said things that lent plausibility to this.
I would later largely abandon the Hayekian position altogether, because it presupposes an indirect realist account of perception that I would eventually reject. (That took some time. The influence of indirect realism is clearly evident in my book Philosophy of Mind.) But I had come to some conclusions in the philosophy of mind that would persist. First, as Russell had argued, physics, which materialists take to be the gold standard of our knowledge of the material world, in fact doesn’t give us knowledge of the intrinsic nature of matter in the first place. The usual materialist theories were not even clearly thought out, much less correct. Second, a complete naturalistic explanation of intentionality is impossible.
But I was still a naturalist. It was also while still a naturalist that I first started to take a serious interest in Aristotelianism, though at the time that interest had to do with ethics rather than metaphysics. Even before I became an atheist I had been introduced to the Aristotelian idea that what is good for us is determined by our nature, and that our nature is what it is whether or not we think of it as having come from God. After becoming an atheist, then, I became drawn to ethicists like Philippa Foot, who defended a broadly Aristotelian approach to the subject from a secular point of view. Her book Virtues and Vices and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue were the big influences on my thinking about ethical theory during my atheist years.
One consequence of this was that I always took teleology seriously, because it was so clearly evident a feature of ordinary practical reasoning. (How did I reconcile this with naturalism? I’m not sure I then saw the conflict all that clearly. But in any event I thought that teleological notions could be fitted into a naturalistic framework in the standard, broadly Darwinian way -- the function of a thing is to be cashed out in terms of the reason why it was selected, etc. I only later came to see that teleology ultimately had to be a bottom level feature of the world rather than a derivative one.)
After Virtue also taught me another important lesson -- that a set of concepts could become hopelessly confused and lead to paradox when yanked from the original context which gave them their intelligibility. MacIntyre argued that this is what had happened to the key concepts of modern moral theory, removed as they had been from the pre-modern framework that was their original home. I would later come to see that the same thing is true in metaphysics -- that the metaphysical categories contemporary philosophers make casual use of (causation, substance, essence, mind, matter, and so forth) have been grotesquely distorted in modern philosophy, pulled as they have been from the classical (and especially Aristotelian-Scholastic) framework in which they had been so carefully refined. As I argue in The Last Superstition, many of the so-called “traditional” problems of philosophy are really just artifacts of the anti-Scholastic revolution of the moderns. They flow from highly contentious and historically contingent metaphysical assumptions, and do not reflect anything about the nature of philosophical reflection per se. And the standard moves of modern atheist argumentation typically presuppose these same assumptions. But I wouldn’t see that for years.
I was on my way to seeing it, however. Several crucial background elements were in place by the late 90s. Fregean and related arguments had gotten me to take very seriously the idea that something like Platonic realism might be true. (I would later see that Aristotelian realism was in fact the right way to go, but the basic anti-naturalistic move had been made.) The arguments of Searle and others had shown that existing versions of materialism were no good. Russellian arguments had shown that modern science and philosophy had no clear idea of what matter was in the first place. Whatever it was supposed to be, though, it seemed it was not something to which one could assimilate mind, at least not if one wanted to avoid panpsychism. Naturalism came to seem mysterious at best. Meanwhile, Aristotelian ideas had a certain plausibility. All that was needed was some systematic alternative to naturalism.
Then, in the late 90s, while still a grad student, I was given an opportunity to teach a philosophy of religion course, followed by several opportunities to teach “intro to philosophy” courses. In the latter, I wanted to focus on topics that would be of interest to undergrads who might have no general interest in philosophy. Since everyone had some interest in religion (even if only, in some cases, a hostile interest), arguments for God’s existence seemed a good topic for at least part of the course. Naturally, that was a topic for the philosophy of religion course too. So, I had a reason to revisit the subject after having given it relatively little thought for many years.
At first I taught the material the way so many professors do: Here are the arguments; here are the obvious fallacies they commit; let’s move on. I never came across like Richard Dawkins, but I no doubt did come across like Nigel Warburton (say): politely dismissive. And, as I gradually came to see, totally ill-informed. The “line ‘em up, then shoot ‘em down” approach was boring, and the arguments seemed obviously stupid. Yet the people who had presented them historically were obviously not stupid. So, it seemed to me that it would be interesting to try to give the arguments a run for their money, and to try to make it understandable to the students why anyone would ever have accepted them.
So I started to read and think more about them. I came to find William Rowe’s approach to the Leibnizian sort of cosmological argument interesting and pedagogically useful. He didn’t seem to accept the argument, but he made it clear that asking “What caused God?”, “How do we know the universe had a beginning?”, etc. weren’t really serious objections. He also made it clear that the thrust of the argument had to do with what was a straightforward and undeniably serious philosophical question: Should we regard the world as ultimately explicable or not? If not, then the argument fails. But if so, then it does seem to make it plausible that something like God, or at least the God of the philosophers, must exist. And it didn’t seem silly to wonder whether there might be such an explanation. Richard Taylor’s clear, punchy chapter on natural theology in his little book Metaphysics made the same point, and made for a useful selection for the students to read.
Naturally, I had already long been aware of this sort of argument. The difference was that when I had first thought about it years before I was approaching it as someone who had had a religious background and wanted to see whether there was any argument for God’s existence that was really persuasive. Russell’s retort to Copleston, to the effect that we can always insist that the universe is just there and that’s that, had then seemed to me sufficient to show that the argument was simply not compelling. We’re just not rationally forced to accept it. I had, as it were, put the argument on trial and it had been unable to establish its innocence to my satisfaction. But now I was approaching it as a naturalist who was trying to give my students a reason to see the argument as something at least worth thinking about for a class period or two. I was playing defense attorney rather than prosecution, but a defense attorney with the confidence of someone who didn’t have a stake in his client’s acquittal. Already being a confirmed naturalist, I could be dispassionate rather than argumentative, and could treat the whole thing as a philosophical exercise.
And from that point of view it started to seem that Russell’s reply, while it had rhetorical power, was perhaps not quite airtight philosophically. Sure, you could always say that there’s no ultimate explanation. And maybe there’s no way to prove otherwise. But is it really true? Is it really even more plausible to think that than to think that there is an explanation? Guys like Rowe and Taylor, by no means religious fanatics or apologists but just philosophers entertaining a deep question, seemed to take the question pretty seriously. Interesting, I thought. Though for the time being, “interesting” -- rather than correct or persuasive -- was all I found it.
Then there was Aquinas. At the high tide of my undergrad Brash Young Atheist stage, I had taken a class on medieval philosophy with the late John Cronquist, an atheist professor at Cal State Fullerton who was absolutely contemptuous of Christianity. Campus apologists of the Protestant stripe were a frequent target of his ire, though he had a choice quip or two about Catholicism as well. He was one of the smartest and most well-read people I have ever known -- the kind of guy you find intellectually intimidating and hope not to get in an argument with -- and I liked him very much. One of the odd and interesting things about that course, though, was how respectfully Cronquist treated some of the medievals, especially Aquinas. He said that compared to them, contemporary pop apologists were “like a pimple on the ass of an athlete.” (I remember him dramatically pointing to his own posterior as he said this, for emphasis.) He obviously didn’t buy the Scholastic system for a moment, but he treated the material as worth taking a semester to try to understand. And he said a couple of things that stood out. First, for reasons I don’t recall him elaborating on much, he seemed to think that the Third Way in particular might have something to be said for it. Second, he said that the mind-body problem, which he seemed to think was terribly vexing, really boiled down to the problem of universals. For years I would wonder what he meant by that. (I now think it must have had to do with the way our grasp of abstract concepts features in Aristotelian arguments for the immateriality of the intellect.)
At the time I filed these remarks away as curiosities (just as I had then regarded the material we covered in the class as mere curiosities). But I think his example made it easier for me, years later, to take a second look at Aquinas as I prepared course material. I look back at my first lectures on the Five Ways with extreme embarrassment. If you’d heard them, you’d have thought I was cribbing from an advance copy of The God Delusion, if not in tone then at least in the substance of my criticisms. But that started slowly to change as I read more about the arguments and began to work the material into my lectures. A good friend of mine, who had also gone from Catholicism to atheism and was a fellow grad student, was familiar with William Lane Craig’s book The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz, and seemed to find it useful in preparing his own lectures on the subject. Our discussions of the arguments were very helpful. Furthermore, Atheism and Theism by J. J. C. Smart and John Haldane had recently appeared, with Haldane defending, and Smart treating respectfully, some old-fashioned Thomistic arguments for the existence of God. Such materials opened up a new world. The way I and so many other philosophers tended to read the Five Ways was, as I gradually came to realize, laughably off base.
The immediate effect was that I found a way to teach the Five Ways without seeming like I was putting fish in a barrel for the students to shoot at. I still didn’t agree with the arguments, but at least teaching them was getting interesting. I recall one class period when, having done my best to try to defend some argument (the First Way, I think) against various objections, I finally stated whatever it was I thought at the time was a difficulty that hadn’t been satisfactorily answered. One of my smartest students expressed relief: She had been worried for a moment that there might be a good argument for God’s existence after all! (Anyone who thinks wishful thinking is all on the side of religious people is fooling himself.)
None of this undermined my commitment to naturalism for some time. I published my first several journal articles while still in grad school, and two of them were criticisms of the doctrine of the Trinity. (I’m now a staunch Trinitarian, of course. But once again, it turns out that I still more or less agree with the arguments I then presented. The versions of Trinitarianism I then attacked are, I continue to think, wrong. But Trinitarianism itself is true.)
But the language of act and potency, per se and per accidens causal series and the like started to enter my lectures on Aquinas, and before long, my thinking. It was all very strange. Aquinas’s arguments had a certain power when all of this metaphysical background was taken account of. And there was a certain plausibility to the metaphysics. There were reasons for distinguishing between actuality and potentiality, the different kinds of causal series, and so forth. Yet no one seemed to talk that way anymore -- or, again, at least no one “mainstream.” Could there really be anything to it all if contemporary philosophers weren’t saying anything about it? And yet, precisely because they weren’t talking about it, they weren’t refuting it either. Indeed, when they did say anything about Aquinas’s arguments at all, most of them showed only that they couldn’t even be bothered to get him right, much less show why he was mistaken. Arguments from current philosophical fashion are bad enough. But when most philosophers not only do not accept a certain view, but demonstrate that they don’t even understand what it is, things can start to smell very fishy indeed.
And so they did. I already knew from the lay of the land in the philosophy of language and philosophy of mind that the standard naturalist approaches had no solid intellectual foundation, and themselves rested as much on fashion as on anything else. Even writers like Searle, who I admired greatly and whose naturalism I shared, had no plausible positive alternative. McGinn-style mysterianism started to seem like a dodge, especially given that certain arguments (like the Platonic realist ones) seemed to show that matter simply is not in fact all that there is, not merely that we can’t know how it can be all that there is. Some secular writers were even toying with Aristotelian ideas anyway. The only reason for not taking Aquinas and similar thinkers seriously seemed to be that most other academic philosophers weren’t taking them seriously. And yet as I had come to learn, many of them didn’t even understand Aquinas and Co. in the first place, and their own naturalism was riddled with problems. Against Aquinas, for naturalism -- the case increasingly seemed to come down to the consensus of the profession. And what exactly was that worth?
It isn’t worth a damn thing, of course. Careerists might not see that, nor might a young man more excited by the “question what your parents taught you” side of philosophy than all that “objective pursuit of truth” stuff. But a grownup will see it, and a philosopher had sure as hell better see it.
I don’t know exactly when everything clicked. There was no single event, but a gradual transformation. As I taught and thought about the arguments for God’s existence, and in particular the cosmological argument, I went from thinking “These arguments are no good” to thinking “These arguments are a little better than they are given credit for” and then to “These arguments are actually kind of interesting.” Eventually it hit me: “Oh my goodness, these arguments are right after all!” By the summer of 2001 I would find myself trying to argue my wife’s skeptical physicist brother-in-law into philosophical theism on the train the four of us were taking through eastern Europe.
There’s more to the story than that, of course. In particular, it would take an essay of its own to explain why I returned to the Catholic Church, specifically, as I would by the end of 2001. But I can already hear some readers protesting at what I have said. I don’t mean the New Atheist types, always on the hunt for some ad hominem nugget that will excuse them from having to take the actual arguments of the other side seriously. (God Himself could come down from on high and put before such people an airtight ontological proof of His existence while parting the Red Sea, and they’d still insist that what really motivated these arguments was a desire to rationalize His moral prejudices. And that their own continued disbelief was just a matter of, you know, following the evidence where it leads.)
No, I’m talking about a certain kind of religious believer, the type who’s always going on about how faith is really a matter of the heart rather than the head, that no one’s ever been argued into religion, etc. It will be said by such a believer that my change of view was too rationalistic, too cerebral, too bloodless, too focused on a theoretical knowledge of the God of the philosophers rather than a personal response to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
But the dichotomy is a false one, and the implied conception of the relationship between faith and reason not only foolish but heterodox. As to the heterodoxy and foolishness of fideism, and the correct understanding of the relationship of faith and reason, I have addressed that set of issues in a previous post. As to the “heart versus head” stuff, it seems to me to rest on an erroneous bifurcation of human nature. Man is a unity, his rationality and animality, intellect and passions, theoretical and moral lives all ultimately oriented toward the same end. That is why even a pagan like Aristotle knew that our happiness lay in “the contemplation and service of God,” whose existence he knew of via philosophical argumentation. That is why Plotinus could know that we “forget the father, God” because of “self-will.” While the pagan may have no access to the supernatural end that only grace makes possible, he is still capable of a natural knowledge of God, and will naturally tend to love what he knows.
As Plotinus’s remark indicates, that does not mean that the will does not have a role to play. But that is true wherever reason leads us to a conclusion we might not like, not merely in matters of religion. And once you have allowed yourself to see the truth that reason leads you to, what reason apprehends is (given the convertibility of the transcendentals) as good and beautiful as it is real. If you find yourself intellectually convinced that there is a divine Uncaused Cause who sustains the world and you in being at every instant, and don’t find this conclusion extremely strange and moving, something that leads you to a kind of reverence, then I daresay you haven’t understood it. Of course, there are those whose heads and hearts are so out of sync that they cannot follow both at the same time. But we shouldn’t mistake this pathology for an insight into human nature.
Speaking for myself, anyway, I can say this much. When I was an undergrad I came across the saying that learning a little philosophy leads you away from God, but learning a lot of philosophy leads you back. As a young man who had learned a little philosophy, I scoffed. But in later years and at least in my own case, I would come to see that it’s true.