Thursday, August 4, 2011

On the superficiality of the New Atheists

Edward Feser often complains that the New Atheists have a superficial and inaccurate understanding of the traditional arguments for God (for example, see the posts here, here and here).  There is considerable merit to Feser's complaint, as an inspection of Ch. 3 of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion will readily confirm. What interests me here, however, is not showing the inadequacy of Dawkins's treatment of Aquinas's Five Ways (Feser does a better job of that than I ever could), but the relationship of New Atheist thought to its original inspiration in the Enlightenment. Specifically, Dawkins et. al. seem unaware of the movement of thought that gave birth to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment never "refuted" the reasoning of the classical philosophers; instead, in a bold move, it simply put the classical tradition aside and started philosophy afresh.

Perhaps the most succinct statement of the Enlightenment attitude toward the philosophical tradition is expressed by Immanuel Kant in the Preface to the Second Edition of his Critique of Pure Reason (from Cambridge Edition of the CPR):

Whether or not the treatment of the cognitions belonging to the concern of reason travels the secure course of a science is something which can soon be judged by its success. If after many preliminaries and preparations are made, a science gets stuck as soon as it approaches its end, or if in order to reach this end it must often go back and set out on a new path; or likewise if if proves impossible for the different co-workers to achieve unanimity as to the way in which they should pursue their common aim; then we may be sure that such a study is merely groping about, that it is still far from having entered upon the secure course of a science; and it is already a service to reason if we can possibly find that path for it, even if we have to give up as futile much of what was included in the end previously formed without deliberation.

Kant's paragraph simultaneously reveals what the Enlightenment sees as the problem with classical philosophy, and provides the Enlightenment solution to it. The problem (as the Enlightenment sees it), is this: Philosophy, as traditionally practiced, is futile. Rather than continue along the traditional lines, Enlightenment philosophers prefer to jettison the philosophical tradition altogether and make a fresh start, a start that promises to support the new science then emerging and perhaps make progress in its own right. But how does one reasonably dismiss the philosophical tradition as futile? Something is futile if it fails to do what it proposes to do. It seems like the Enlightenment philosopher must therefore be a master of the philosophical tradition, at least enough to understand what it proposes to do and to show that it fails to achieve it, and will continue to fail.

Understanding the philosophical tradition, however, is a task for a lifetime, and it is just this task that the Enlightenment philosopher is desperate to avoid; at all costs he must avoid engaging the classical philosopher in a never-ending roundabout concerning the meaning and "end" of classical philosophy. What the Enlightenment philosopher requires is a means to summarily dismiss the philosophical tradition, a means that relieves him of the task of engaging the classical philosopher on the latter's preferred ground and allows him to get on with the modern project of reconstructing philosophy.

In the Preface, Kant both proposes such a means and applies it. He writes that a "treatment" can "soon be judged by its success." We immediately hit a snag. Mustn't we understand the philosophical tradition so that we can know what "success" means with respect to it? We are right back to engaging the classical philosopher in his favorite game of never-ending debate. Kant first deals with this problem rhetorically, by hurrying the reader past it with that "soon." He then sidesteps it by proposing, or rather asserting, several measures by which a project of thought may judged. First, does it "get stuck" when it approaches its end (i.e. goal)? Second, does it repeatedly start over again in frustration? Third, does it result in unanimity of opinion as to its conduct?  Kant applies his criteria to logic, mathematics and the new science of physics in turn, not surprisingly concluding that they all pass the test. He then turns to metaphysics (i.e. classical philosophy):

Metaphysics - a wholly isolated speculative cognition of reason that elevates itself entirely above all instructions from experience, and that through mere concepts (not, like mathematics, through the application of concepts to intuition), where reason thus is supposed to be its own pupil - has up to now not been so favored by fate as to have been able to enter upon the secure course of a science, even thought it is older than all other sciences, and would remain even if all the others were swallowed up by an all-consuming barbarism. For in it reason continuously gets stuck, even when it claims a priori insight (as it pretends) into those laws confirmed by the commonest experience. In metaphysics we have to retrace our path countless times, because we find that it does not lead where we want it to go, and it is so far from reaching unanimity in the assertions of its adherents that it is rather a battlefield, and indeed one that appears to be especially determined for testing one's powers in mock combat; on this battlefield no combatant has ever gained the least bit of ground, nor has any been able to base any lasting possession on his victory. Hence there is no doubt that up to now the procedure of metaphysics has been a mere groping, and what is the worst, a groping among mere concepts. (again from the Cambridge Edition of the CPR).

Metaphysics, according to Kant, fails all his tests for a successful "treatment of cognitions." It repeatedly "gets stuck", it must repeatedly start over, and their is no unanimity of opinion in its adherents. The question of the "success" of classical philosophy still lurks in the background, since a philosophy "gets stuck" to the extent that it no longer makes progress toward its end (goal); but it would seem one must know the end of something to know if progress is being made towards it, so Kant's conviction of metaphysics on the charge of "getting stuck" implies that Kant knows the end of classical philosophy. As noted, however, Kant wants to avoid the question of the end of philosophy at all costs, as it will (he thinks) lead him into the interminable debates of the philosophical tradition. He cleverly brackets the question of the end of philosophy by saying that metaphysics "does not lead where we want it to go", changing the objective question of the end of philosophy to the subjective question of whether it gives us what we want; and in Kant's case, it manifestly doesn't. And this is the bold stroke of the Enlightenment that allows it to summarily dismiss the classical philosophical tradition: It is the philosopher himself, and his subjective desires, that is the measure of philosophy.

We can sympathize with the motivation of the Enlightenment philosophers. The world seemed to be undergoing revolutionary change; from the discovery of new continents, to the staggering innovation that was the birth of modern science, to new, republican political ideas, everything was becoming new; and the philosophical tradition appeared (I emphasize appeared) to be inadequate to deal with it. What was needed was a revolutionary new philosophy to accompany the revolutionary new world in the making. Slogging through the finer points of the Five Ways or Plotinus to eventually disprove them would miss the point entirely. Columbus didn't spend a lifetime justifying his voyages to skeptics; he never would have gotten out of port if he had wasted time on the timid. Nor did Galileo or Newton puzzle themselves over whether their new physics could fit within Aristotelian metaphysics. Like Columbus, they simply and boldly went ahead with their investigations and discovered what would never have been discovered any other way. Aristotle must reconcile himself to the new physics, not the other way around. Similarly, the Enlightenment philosopher cannot bear to be bound within the philosophical tradition as in a cage. Like Columbus and Newton, he must leave the past behind and strike out for fresh lands.

But there is a key difference between Columbus and Newton on the one hand, and a philosopher on the other. In a certain sense it doesn't really matter if Columbus or Newton knew what they were doing; Columbus always thought he actually made it to the East Indies, and Newton spent much of his time in bizarre religious speculation. But you can still discover the Caribbean even if you're navigation is so poor that you think you've arrived in Indonesia. The philosopher, however, is the wise man, and the wise man, as opposed to the fool, knows what he is doing. Philosophy, perhaps, may even be defined as striving to know what you are doing. So the philosopher must be self-aware in what he is doing, and this holds true for the Enlightenment philosopher as much as the classical. Kant can't simply assert that he doesn't like classical philosophy and he's going to try something new; he's got to give a reason for dismissing classical philosophy.

As I've hope I've showed above, the reasons Kant gives for dismissing the philosophical tradition are a bit of a bluff. He says that philosophy has proven itself futile, but he never actually proves the point; he asserts that it has and hopes the reader goes along. He must bluff because the attempt to prove the point would lead him into the interminable arguments so beloved of the classical philosopher, and this is just what he wishes to avoid.

And this is what Richard Dawkins doesn't seem to understand. Similar to the typical Enlightenment philosopher, he doesn't really have time for classical philosophy, which he sees as a waste of time. He should, then, summarily dismiss it in the fashion of Kant. Not having the self-understanding of a true philosopher like Kant, however, he instead takes a halfway position that is unreasonable on any account. He gives a little time to classical philosophy, enough to rapidly refute classical arguments for God, he thinks. But all his simple refutations reveal is his simplistic and superficial understanding of the arguments involved. This doesn't bother him, however, because he has already decided on Enlightenment grounds (i.e. the manifest futility of classical philosophy) that the arguments are worthless. Rather than an insult, I suspect he sees his condescending to treat the classical arguments even in a superficial manner as generous, since from his perspective they rate no treatment at all.

Efforts like those of Richard Dawkins discredit the Enlightenment tradition (if we can call a "tradition" something that was born in the rejection of tradition). Kant dismissed classical metaphysics as a mere "groping" among concepts, but at least the classical philosophers knew what it meant to grope. Even more embarrassing is a contemporary thinker, supposedly freed two hundred years ago by Kant from even needing to address classical philosophy, blundering about in classical philosophical concepts in a manner that it would be too kind to call "groping."


Anonymous said...

Great summation on Kant and the enlightment as it concerns philosophy.


David T. said...

Thank you!

Pseudonoma said...

I really enjoyed reading this thoughtful post. New Atheists aside, it left me thinking a bit how Kant would respond (as I am, like you, a disagreeing admirer of his finely crafted thought). So let me play devil's advocate. I can't help thinking Kant would protest to your characterization of his manner of beginning anew; he seems rather to be at pains to avoid the possibility of the caricature you have made of his "critical turn". You conclude that

"the reasons Kant gives for dismissing the philosophical tradition are a bit of a bluff. He says that philosophy has proven itself futile, but he never actually proves the point; he asserts that it has and hopes the reader goes along. He must bluff because the attempt to prove the point would lead him into the interminable arguments so beloved of the classical philosopher, and this is just what he wishes to avoid."

Wouldn't Kant simply say something like: Esteemed reader, your caricature of my critique of the previous dogmatic tradition would be all but comprehensive had I applied the three conditions you cite from my first Kritik's second preface to the question as to whether the science of metaphysics is possible. But in fact the criteria you cite (namely "getting stuck, repeatedly starting over, and unanimity of opinion among its 'practitioners'") were, however, not assumed sufficient to DISMISS all existing metaphysics, but only to make this existence of metaphysics as an actual science QUESTIONABLE. In order to DISMISS previous metaphysics as having been impossible we would have to pursue this question regarding just what conditions would constitute the possibility of any metaphysics at all, thereby discriminating the limits of the pure use of reason according to which any actual attempt of this peculiar enterprise may be judged. Now, this latter pursuit, which lies outside the bounds of my prefaces and introduction, is precisely what I have patiently embarked upon in the body of the first Kritik itself, for which space it was exclusively reserved. And indeed I judge THIS drawn out and carefully elaborated beginning (contained in the entirety of the doctrine of elements), as the unassailable foundation upon which every dogmatist is welcome to ruin his ship upon --driven by the hot wind of whatever critique of it he may attempt. I have underscored precisely this in my Prolegomena when I insisted (on pg. 60 of Ellington's translation) that "there is no use in trying to moderate these fruitless endeavors of pure reason [which I call dogmatic metaphysics] by all manner of cautions as to the difficulties of solving questions so occult, by complaints of the limits of our reason, and by degrading our assertions into mere conjectures. FOR IF THEIR IMPOSSIBILITY IS NOT SHOWN, and REASON'S KNOWLEDGE OF ITSELF DOES NOT BECOME A TRUE SCIENCE, in which the field of its right use is distinguished, so to say, with geometrical certainty from that of its worthless and idle use, these fruitless efforts will NEVER be entirely abandoned."

David T. said...

I take your point and it is certainly a response in the "Kantian" spirit. I'm not sure it gets him out of the woods, however.

Whether the philosophical tradition is to be absolutely dismissed or merely questioned, a rational basis for skepticism is required. Of course, ultimately Kant's skepticism is founded in his critical philosophy, but in the Preface he is arguing why we should even give his philosophy a hearing at all (and by "a hearing", I mean extended study, since Kant himself maintained that it was no easy thing to master.) In what rational terms shall he make his case? Not in terms of the critical philosophy, since we don't know it yet. Neither can it be in terms of the categories of classical philosophy, since his point is just that the tradition of philosophy is naive. Is there then some "third category" of thought in which the Preface is conducted? It is this question that Kant wants to hustle us past in the Preface and hopes we don't notice.

But we have a right to reply to Kant: You have charged classical philosophy with getting stuck, repeatedly starting over, and not leading to unanimity among its practitioners. I ask you why these are the three chargers you proffer (why these three and not possibly others) and your basis for conviction. As it is, you simply assert the charges as self-evidently proved, and also as self-evidently damning. But the classical philosopher might reply that the charges are not true, and are not damning even if they are proven true. Take the last charge, for example. The philosopher is the one seeking wisdom who is not yet wise. While there is only one wisdom - and therefore unanimity among the wise - there is an infinite variety of ignorance, since wisdom can be fallen short of in many ways. It is therefore not surprising that philosophers disagree with each other, since, not being wise, they are each ignorant in their own peculiar way. So the lack of unanimity among philosophers is not a novel observation, but has been known to be the natural condition of philosophy since Socrates.

It is just this sort of exchange that Kant can't permit, since to allow it is to tacitly acknowledge that there is a category of thought that is legitimate prior to the critique (excepting math and the natural sciences, which Kant acknowledges to stand on their own, although they do so without true self-understanding). Of course, this category of thought is none other than the mode of classical philosophy; therefore Kant cannot allow the dialog to begin without undermining the legitimacy his project. Rhetoric and bluff are his only options in the Preface.