The New Albigensianism, PART II: Comte and the Combox

For Part I, click here.

Just as the woman with the hemorrhage reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ tunic, so do post-modern secular Westerners reach out to touch the hem of scientists’ lab coats. Despite the plain fact that any given scientist or doctor or other “expert” will be tend to be specialized in only some tiny sliver of his or her field, hopeless intellectual wanderers will gather at the feet of these people to learn all the mysteries of the universe… which is dumb. How did this happen?

Let’s take a step back.

The manifesto of the post-modern Westerner par excellence is this: “Real knowledge is only of irreducible information about the material world, and I can manipulate that same material world however I want in order to express myself and fulfill my desires.”

Herein we see two strands of thought colliding, one about the mind and one about the will: positivism and existentialism. Historically, they are not friends. How they have become fused together in post-modernity is a strange tale.

Today we will break open the first clause – real knowledge is only of irreducible information about the material world, the positivist element.

From the outset, we must make a distinction between “positivism,” which is an epistemic and social theory, and “logical positivism,” which is something more metaphysically aimed. My goal here is to show the roots of the broader idea of positivism, how it found its academic zenith in logical positivism, then how the aftermath of its fall has affected Western philosophy and science at large as well as in the minds of millennials.

A brief sketch of the positivist genealogy will suffice. We recall Descartes to point out his obsession with certitude, just as we note the empiricist thrust of Bacon, Locke, and Hume. We must mention Kant, both as the originator of the analytic-synthetic distinction (which will become enormously important) and as an influence to Hegel, who is notable for his approach to philosophy as something integral with history. Condorcet and Diderot should be pointed out as influential, being the greatest embodiments of the French Enlightenment, wherein reason and revealed religion are opposing forces. Marx, though he would reject positivism as a social ideology, helped inspire it along the same lines as Hegel had. The penultimate step was Henri de Saint-Simon, whose utopian socialism was all the rage during the French Revolution which was attempting to put his political theory into political practice.

Of course, these men were not positivists. It is Henri de Saint-Simon’s pupil, Auguste Comte, who brings us this unwanted gift of an empiricism so strong it entirely and unabashedly rejects any and all metaphysical knowledge outright. This led Comte to build a reducible hierarchy of the sciences based on their certainty or “positivity,” and he claimed (rightly) that the trend of empirical studies was heading toward a “social science.” This conception of a reducible scientific hierarchy – one where, for instance, biology can be put in terms of chemistry, and chemistry in terms of physics, etc. – was a rather new way of thinking… Previously, it had been more or less taken for granted that each science has its own irreducible terms and methods, even admitting some kind of hierarchy (such as with the classical progression of the liberal arts).

Not only was Comte the first real philosopher of science, he was also the first sociologist. According to Comte, humanity was passing from its first two stages, the theological and the metaphysical, into the third and final “positivist stage” where only empirical data would ground truth-claims about the world. Having evolved to a higher clarity about what the world is, and having built up enough of the more basic physical sciences to explore how that world works, sociology could finally occur. Mathematical evaluation of social behavior, rather than qualitative analysis, would serve as the proper method of the “queen of the sciences” in this new age.

Comte outright jettisoned religion qua supernatural and revelatory, but his intensely Catholic upbringing had driven into him such a habit of ritual that he could not altogether shake the need for some kind of piety. What was a French Revolution atheist to do? Well, start a “religion of humanity,” of course. (The “positivist religion” never became a major force, especially since Freemasonry already filled the “secular religion gap,” but it did catch on in some areas. Take a closer look at the Brazilian flag and its meaning, for example…) We should also note, for the record, that Comte was only intermittently sane.

The epistemic side of positivism almost ended up just as much of a flop as the pseudo-religion side of it. Unfortunately for the West, Durkheim and Littré became interested, and they, being altogether sane, effectively diffused Comte’s ideas and their own additions through the West at the start of the 20th century. Eventually, a group of like-minded academes started habitually gathering at a swanky café in Austria to discuss how filthy and naïve metaphysics was compared to the glories of the pure use of the senses and simple mathematical reason – the Vienna Circle was born.

Together with some Berliners, these characters formulated what came to be known logical positivism. When the shadow of Nazism was cast over Germany, some of these men journeyed westward to England and America, where their ideas were diffused.

The champions of logical positivism were Hans Hahn, Otto Neurath, Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, A.J. Ayer, and Bertrand Russell. While Russell is no doubt familiar to some readers (think “tea pot”), the others fly lower under the radar. It is Ayer’s formulation of the logical positivist doctrine which we will use, however, for our analysis.

“We say that a statement is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express – that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false.” (Language, Truth, and Logic, 35)

Got that? What this means, in the context of the whole book, is that in addition to statements which are “analytic” (“all bachelors are unmarried”) being true necessarily, only statements which we can actually use our 5 senses to verify the truth of can be meaningful – that is, able to be true at all. These are “synthetic” statements. If I say that Pluto is made of bacon grease, I am making a meaningful statement, even though I cannot actually verify it; it suffices that it is hypothetically possible to verify it. If I say that the intellect is a power of the soul, this is not meaningful, since it cannot be verified with the senses. For the details, see Ayer’s book, which is rather short.

Needless to say, it is rare that a school of thought truly dies in academia. A thorough search of university philosophy departments in the Western world would yield a few die-hard fans of Plotinus, Al-Gazali, Maimonides, and maybe even Heraclitus. Perhaps the best or even only example of ideological death was logical positivism. W.V. Quine’s landmark paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” was such a blow to the doctrine that eventually Ayer actually admitted himself to be in massive error and repudiated his own work.

What was so blindingly erroneous about logical positivism?

First, the analytic-synthetic distinction, as formulated by the logical positivists, is groundless. Analytic statements supposedly don’t need real referents in order to be true, but they are instead simply about the meanings of words. For some kinds of statements which employ basic affirmation and negation, this might work, as it is simply just a dressing up of the principle of non-contradiction. Fine. But if one wants to start using synonyms to take the place of some of the parts of these statements, the distinction begins to disappear… What the relationship is between the synonym’s object and the original word’s object cannot be explained without a reference to real things (synthetic!), or without an ultimately circular appeal to the analyticity of the new statement through a claim of the universal extension of the synonym based on modal adverbial qualifications (like the word “necessarily,” which points to an essential characteristic which must either be made up or actually encountered in reality and appropriated by a synthesis). In other words, it is analytic “just because.” (Thus, the title of Quine’s paper: Two Dogmas of Empiricism. Read more here.)

Beyond that, logical positivism is a self-refuting on theory its face… If meaningful statements can only be about physically verifiable things, then that statement itself is meaningless because it is not analytic (or is arbitrary if it is, and we go back to the first problem) and cannot be verified with the senses so is not synthetic… How does one verify “meaningfulness” with the senses? Logical positivism is a metaphysical theory that metaphysics is meaningless. Once again, this can only be asserted, not discovered. Except with this dogma, it evidently claims itself to be meaningless.

But the cat was out of the bag: “Metaphysics has completely died at last.” Logical positivism had already made its way from the salons of Austria to the parlors of America and lecture halls of Great Britain. The fuel was poured on the fire that had started in England by Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore after they had decided to reject the British Idealism that dominated the scene by creating an “analytic” philosophy that didn’t deal with all those Hegelian vanities that couldn’t be touched with a stick or put in a beaker. Russell’s star pupil, Ludwig Wittgenstein, would also come to be a seminal force in strengthening the analytic ethos, after having already inspired much of the discussion in the Vienna Circle. Though Quine did indeed destroy the metaphysical doctrine that metaphysics is meaningless, the force of positivism continued nonetheless within this “analytic” framework – and it is with us to this day en masse in university philosophy departments, which has led several generations of students to miss out on a solid education in classical metaphysics and philosophical anthropology.

In sociology there arose the “antipositivism” of Max Weber, which insisted on the need for value-based sociology – after all, how can a society really be understood apart from its own values, and how can a society be demarcated at all without reference to those values, etc.? A liquid does not assign a value to turning into a gas, which it then acts upon, but a group does assign a value to capitalism, or marriage, or birth status which it then acts upon.

In the broader realm of the philosophy of science, Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn’s postpositivism came to the fore. Science in general cannot be best explained without regard for some kind of value, but that the possibility of and/or actualization of the falsification or failure of a scientific theory is the characteristic feature of the sciences – in contrast to the optimism of the positivists that we can “just do science,” and that that will be useful enough.

In “science” itself, an air of independence was diffused. Scientists do “science,” other people do other things, and that’s that; never mind that we have no idea how to define “science” as we understand it today, and never mind that values are always brought to bear in scientific evaluation, and never mind what might actually be done with what potentially dangerous knowledge is gained or tool developed. A far cry from the polymaths, such as St. Albert the Great or Aristotle, who never would have considered such independence.

Then there are the “pop scientists” who try to do philosophy. A few examples of many will have to suffice to show that there exist three traits among pop scientists who are the go-to sources on religion and philosophy for countless curious millennials and Gen-Xers alike.

The first is an epistemic myopia, which derives immediately from positivism: if you can’t poke it or put it in a beaker, it’s not real. (Yes, it is a little more complicated than that, but you’ve read the section above describing positivism, right? Empirical verification is the only criterion and process for knowledge… Etc.) This is often manifested by a lack of awareness that “continental philosophy” (as opposed to analytic philosophy) often works in totally immaterial terms, like act, or mind, or cause, or God. This immediately creates equivocation – a pop scientist says “act” and thinks “doing something,” for example.

The second is an ignorance of basic philosophical principles and methods, which follows from the first characteristic. If you don’t know how to boil water, don’t go on “Hell’s Kitchen” – everyone will laugh at you and wonder what you are doing there in the first place. We might do well to have a philosophical version of Gordon Ramsay roaming about.

The third is the arrogance to pontificate on philosophy and theology nonetheless, and this of course follows from the second characteristic. They don’t know what they don’t know, but they got a book deal, so they will act like they are experts.

Everyone knows Dr. Stephen Hawking. (They made a movie!) But did you know that the average 6-year-old could debunk the central claim of his most recent book? It is now an infamous passage:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” (From The Grand Design)

I can hear the 1st graders calling out now: “But gravity’s not nothing!” And they would be right. The myopia of Dr. Hawking (and Dr. Mlodinow, his co-author) is evident in the inability to grasp that, as Gerald Schroeder pointed out, an immaterial law outside of time that can create the universe sounds a lot like, well, God. The ignorance of basic philosophical principles, in this case, the most basic, is clear from realizing that “gravity” can’t be both SOMETHING AND NOTHING. Then, the arrogance to go on pontificating anyway is self-evident by the fact of the existence of the book, and then a TV series which aired shortly afterward wherein we find philosophical reflection which is similarly wanting.

If you really want to do a heavy penance, watch this “discussion” between Hawking, Mlodinow, Deepak Chopra, and poor Fr. Spitzer – I had the displeasure of watching it live several years ago:

Then there are folks like Dr. Michio Kaku. He regularly shows up on those Discovery Channel specials on string theory, quantum mechanics, future technology, yadda yadda. All well and good. But here’s an… interesting quotation for our consideration:

“Aquinas began the cosmological proof by postulating that God was the First Mover and First Maker. He artfully dodged the question of ‘who made God’ by simply asserting that the question made no sense. God had no maker because he was the First. Period. The cosmological proof states that everything that moves must have had something push it, which in turn must have had something push it, and so on. But what started the first push? . . . The flaw in the cosmological proof, for example, is that the conservation of mass and energy is sufficient to explain motion without appealing to a First Mover. For example, gas molecules may bounce against the walls of a container without requiring anyone or anything to get them moving. In principle, these molecules can move forever, requiring no beginning or end. Thus there is no necessity for a First or a Last Mover as long as mass and energy are conserved.” (Hyperspace, 193-195)

The misunderstandings here are as comical as they are numerous… The conflation, found explicitly in the full text, of the first 3 Ways as “the cosmological proof,” which obscures the issue, the belief that “motion” is a term about something necessarily temporal, the thought that only recently did we discover that matter and energy don’t just appear and disappear, and then the most obvious blunder – Thomas does NOT start any of the 5 Ways by saying anything like “God is the First Mover, therefore…” There is no such ungrounded assertion which “dodges the question,” as Kaku puts it. One must wonder if he even bothered to read the original text – which is readily available. Kaku has even weaker arguments (unbelievably) against both the “moral proof” (which is a characterization I have never heard of the 4th Way until Kaku’s book, which troubles me from the start) and the teleological proof on top of this disastrous critique, but I won’t bore you. (Basically: “Because change and evolution.” Read it for yourself.)

Once again, we see three qualities: epistemic myopia (as evidenced, for example, by the error about “motion”), ignorance of the most basic philosophical principles (albeit these are a little more complicated than the one Hawking whiffed on), and the arrogance to pontificate about God and the act of creation nonetheless.

Next you have a man like Richard Dawkins, one of the nastiest examples of publicly evangelical atheism the world has to offer at present. Here’s one particularly embarrassing quotation from his seminal anti-theistic work, The God Delusion:

“However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable.” (p. 138)

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Can you see the three characteristics? Material beings only (or at least “things” with “parts”), no idea what metaphysical simplicity is and how it relates to God in Western philosophy, and yet here we have one book of many which address this theme.

It is not that these folks don’t believe in classical metaphysics – it’s that they don’t understand them in the least. They play a game of solitaire and claim to be winning a game of poker.

We won’t even get into discussing Bill Nye the Eugenics Guy… for now.

Okay, yes, quote-mining is easy. But this is the cream of the crop from a very large and fertile field. I am not sure I recall ever reading an important and sensible argument about religion or metaphysics from a world-renowned scientist who lived in the past 50 or so years. Someone prove me wrong in the comments.

All this leads us to the average “scientism” which one finds in the comboxes of Youtube videos about religion, threads on various websites, and debates on social media. Yes, there are plenty of religious people in those arenas, but the skeptics who try to make wild claims like “science disproves religion” or “evolution means God does not exist” or even just dismiss the idea of revealed religion outright with some kind of mockery ought to be seen as the children of positivism. It is the most probable explanation – the sources of their myopia, ignorance, and arrogance can usually be traced back through intermediate steps to a talking head like Dawkins who ultimately owes his own irrational ramblings to Auguste Comte.

Why is post-modern positivism so naïve? At the combox level, it is because these people, as all others, have an instinctive drive to trust in someone beyond themselves. For many it is due to circumstance and perhaps a certain kind of emotional insecurity and intellectual laziness that they latch on to the confident scientistic loudmouths to formulate their worldview – and it becomes a pseudo-religious dogmatic cult of its own, a little like Comte’s “religion of humanity.” At the pop-science level, it is just plain laziness and/or intellectual dishonesty combined with arrogance, as we have investigated. At the lecture hall level – and I mainly speak of the general closed-mindedness towards classical metaphysics found in analytic circles – it is a deeper kind of blindness which is the result of the academic culture created by the aforementioned ideological lineage. Each level has its own share of responsibility which it is shirking.

The truth is that matter is known by something immaterial – a mind or person – and this reveals to us a certain kind of hierarchy and order, seeing as matter itself does not know us. Man is indeed over all matter and ought to control it and master it, and all without the consent of matter; but this does not mean that there can’t be knowledge of things nobler and/or simpler than man, like substance or causation or God. Not looking at matter as the product of non-matter, and as being ordered to the immaterial in a certain way, is part and parcel of the New Albigensianism.

So there we have the first part of the manifesto explained. Irreducible facts (the ones devoid of metaphysics and value judgments) about the material world constitute the only real knowledge. The less reducible, the less it is really known. Even though the West is full of supposed “relativists,” it would be difficult to find a person who would truly let go of the objectivity of “science.” To say, “Christianity is your truth but not mine” is one thing; it is quite another to say something like, “Geocentrism is your truth but not mine.”

There is yet more to be explored… Next time, we will dive into the second half of the “postmodernist manifesto” with a look at its existentialist roots and how misconceptions about the relationship of the self to one’s bodily life have led to transgender bathroom bills.

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: The Positivist Temple in Porto Alegre, Brazil

Source: Tetraktys – User:Tetraktys, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3295600

Intercession and Science

Once in a while some zealous atheist, agnostic, or deist will throw down a challenge: “If God answers prayers, we should be able to prove it with an experiment. But we see no statistically significant difference between groups of sick people who are prayed for and groups who are not. Therefore: A) there is no God, or B) we can’t be sure if there is a God, or  C) God does not involve Himself with us.”

It seems like a strong argument at first. If God really does respond to intercession, then we ought to be able to observe that response in contrast with a lack of response corresponding to a lack of intercession. Intercession is an action, healing or whatever response is or would be an equal and opposite reaction, while on the other hand whatever is in motion tends to stay in motion – those who are sick or in need will continue to be so unless they are helped.

There are some problems with this argument.

First, let’s take a look at the Temptations of Christ (Mt. 4:1-11)… It is Lent after all.

  1. Turn stones into bread – Jesus could solve world hunger and win over all the crowds this way. (Jn. 6:26 – “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”) He responds, “One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
  2. Fly around Jerusalem – Jesus could publicly manifest Himself with abundant clarity in a way that would leave everyone in awe. (Mt. 16:4 – “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign…” And in the same chapter, v. 17 – “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.”) He responds, “You shall not put the Lord thy God to the test.”
  3. Make a compromise – Jesus could rule over the Earth without the Cross, without the public ministry, and generally without much effort. (Jn. 18:36 – “My Kingdom is not of this world.” And Lk. 24:26 – “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”) He responds, “Get away, Satan! For it is written, ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve.'”

Christ’s Temptations provide the first major counterpoint to the skeptic, which is that God is not primarily concerned with making this life easy for us. We are promised that we will receive whatever we ask in His Name (Lk. 11:9, Jn. 14:13), but we are also promised trouble and suffering, the acceptance of which is even a condition of discipleship (Mt. 10: 16-39). These two promises do not square with each other unless we see that Jesus does not mean we will be given whatever material convenience we want, like a genie would do for us, but that we will be given every spiritual gift truly suited for us for which we pray sincerely. Virtues are the goods which truly help us.

Furthermore, God is wise to our tests and designs (Jn. 2:24). And no, He does not care to play along. A mysterious kingdom needs a mysterious road to lead to it. The New Jerusalem is nothing like the New Rome. Citizenship in the one is gained by unyielding faith in a crucified carpenter as God Incarnate, while in the other citizenship would be gained by simple obedience to an opulent and benevolent dictator.

Let us consider another passage, Mk. 9:14-29, where Jesus heals a possessed child. The crowd gathers, and the boy’s father explains the damage the demon has done over the years… “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus does not take kindly to the word “if”: “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Then we are given the famous line, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus rebukes the spirit and tells his disciples that this kind of demon only comes out “through prayer.”

This episode gives us an insight into the project of the public ministry – it is not primarily about fixing people’s inconveniences, it is about fixing people’s souls. Jesus waited to do a good deed until the boy’s father manifested faith… This was His prerogative, since He came to draw people away from the world to Himself. The Christ did not open a miraculous hospital, or an infinite soup kitchen, or an infallible psychic hotline; rather, He told people to beg for God’s forgiveness (Mt. 4:17), to sin no more (Jn. 8:11), and to extend faith in God to Him as well (Jn. 14:1). Fixing people’s earthly problems were and are for Christ merely a means to an end: moving people to repentance, conversion, discipleship, and finally perfection in union with Himself and the Father. Just because we don’t get exactly what material convenience we want, when we want, how we want it, does not mean that God does not exist or concern Himself with us. When He doesn’t give worldly help, even when asked sincerely, it’s because He knows that to give us some particular opportunity to forsake the world and cling to Him in abandonment to His will is better than to give us what we’re asking for. (Remember the dichotomy of promises!)

We are not in the same position. It does not belong to us to help others conditionally to the same extent as God because we do not have the same privileged insight into people’s souls that He has, and even if we did we would not always know how best to use that knowledge. Sometimes we can be quite sure that withholding some help will be good for another – like when we allow a child to “learn the hard way” – but by and large we have a duty to provide basic goods for others we encounter and are able to help. We do need to open hospitals. We do need to run soup kitchens. (No psychic hotlines, however.) In fact, we would never be able to show love for each other without the opportunity to do these kinds of selfless acts.

So, can we test God’s response to prayer and prove with statistically significant results that He does indeed answer them? As it turns out, we actually can. Anyone who prays earnestly and frequently for help to become virtuous and holy will become virtuous and holy. And you can survey the lives of the saints and see that this is indeed how they prayed.

I will now teach you a short but powerful prayer which if you repeat often and with sincerity will change your life radically by changing you radically: “Oh Lord, help me to become a saint as soon as possible and at any cost to myself! Amen.”

Don’t be afraid to have this prayer answered.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

 

Main image: screenshot from the film Aladdin (1992)

Logical Positivism & the New Atheists

The 21st century has very few well-known intellectual movements to its name thus far. In fact, perhaps the only one that the average American (or Brit) would even be vaguely aware of is the “New Atheism.” Characterized by evangelical unbelief – that is, the spreading of anti-religious/theistic sentiments in an attempt to destroy all belief in God – and an unwavering belief in the monopoly of empirical science on knowledge, the New Atheism is not particularly friendly toward some of the most predominant thoughts arising out of Western philosophy, especially the existence of God. Despite its relative popularity, the New Atheism comes on the heels of the utterly failed school of logical positivism, and it is not to be mistaken for a serious philosophical movement.

Before examining the New Atheism (which is really not all that new), it will be helpful to reflect on the school of thought which helped give rise to it: logical positivism. Two of the largest figures in what is perhaps the only school of thought ever to become truly extinct in university departments of philosophy were Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer. After being exposed to the New Atheism for just a short while, one will quickly come to realize that Russell is something of a hero of the movement. However, since Ayer wrote the book on logical positivism that Russell said he had wished he’d written, it will be more helpful to look at Ayer’s seminal work published in 1936, Language, Truth, and Logic.

Logical positivism is fiercely anti-metaphysical, such that it makes Kant look like kind of a sissy. According to Ayer, there are really only two kinds of truth-apt statements: tautologies and propositions directly available to verification by the senses. “We say that a statement is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express – that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false” (LTL, 35). Such an attitude places metaphysics and questions of value, according to Ayer, completely out of the realm of significance. In line with this, Ayer also espouses the emotivist vision of metaethics: “But in every case in which one would commonly be said to be making an ethical judgment, the function of the relevant ethical word is purely ‘emotive.’ It is used to express feeling about certain objects, but not to make any assertion about them” (LTL, 108).

It is just intuitively obvious that there are some kinds of truths that are not verifiable by the senses. As is so often repeated, “Man is a metaphysical animal.” An appeal to intuition is perhaps something of a cop-out, but to anyone who has thought about “the thing in itself” or a universal conception of some particular thing, it is clear that non-material things have existence and that on the heels of that existence closely rides significance. The problem is that one who is stuck in the materialism-positivism-scientism bent will have too narrow an idea of what “existence” is. (But of course, that one can have such an idea at all proves the point once again.)

There were other well-known criticisms of logical positivism. The most obvious is that the main ideas in the system are themselves unable to be true by the system itself. How is it that we verify by sense that there are no meaningful metaphysical statements? And is the thought that there are no meaningful metaphysical statements itself supposed to be taken for a meaningful metaphysical statement? W. V. Quine offered a sharp criticism of the analytic/synthetic distinction in his earth-shattering paper, Two Dogmas of Empiricism, and soon enough, the school of logical positivism was completely dead. Or was it?

If there are any New Atheists involved in the serious practice of academic philosophy such as one would find at a university, they are few and far between and do not seem to make much noise. However, this does not mean that it is irrational to conclude that there has not been any influence of the logical positivists on the New Atheists, however difficult it may be to trace the course of the influence in its entirety. The sort of men involved in the work of logical positivism were heavily influential on 20th century philosophy of science, so the intellectual heritage might very well have cut through there and into the minds of philosophically-curious scientists like Richard Dawkins.

Whatever the case, there are clear similarities between the New Atheism and logical positivism. There is perhaps not an overt disdain for metaphysics like Ayer and Russell had, but there seems to be a level of distrust that prevents them from understanding it. For instance, there is a general incomprehension of major metaphysical ideas like the deduction of the existence of a simple God. There is little concern with value-reasoning (even though the leaders of the movement constantly find themselves dealing with questions of value, such as the worth of religion, or the moral goodness of eliminating religious belief), and there is really very little attempt to understand anything in terms of essences, formal causes, or anything indicative of or contingent upon teleology (the study of natural purposes).

The most classic example of their collective metaphysical inanity is perhaps the most fundamental to the entire project of the New Atheism in terms of a philosophical critique. Just as nearly all of St. Thomas’ work flows out of his “Five Ways,” almost the entirety of the philosophical dimension of New Atheists’ project rests on objections to the traditional proofs of God’s existence. The foremost instance is probably the cosmological argument.

Misunderstanding the cosmological argument is easy enough to do for the layman; it requires a critical mind that can grasp abstract ideas like “act” and “potency” and “simplicity.” It should not, however, be too difficult for the full-time philosopher to understand. Nor should it be dismissed so easily by the skeptic: there are possibly serious objections to the cosmological argument, but it does not appear that any such objections are on the radar of the New Atheists. Rather, they just plain misunderstand it. For example:

“If the universe’s existence requires an explanation in terms of an intelligent designer, then why doesn’t God, with all of his supreme and complex attributes, beg for an explanation in terms of yet another intelligent designer, ad infinitum? Indeed, who designed the designer? Alternatively, if God can simply exist without requiring an explanation, then why can’t the universe simply exist unexplained as well, thereby removing the need to posit a designer in the first place?”

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The idea that this argument poses a serious threat to the cosmological argument is laughable, and indeed, it is almost embarrassing. Clearly, the God proposed in the cosmological argument does not possess “complex attributes,” or any “attributes” at all that are distinct from Himself. On the contrary, the universe is complex, thus necessarily implying a cause. Since there cannot be an infinite regression of causes (or else there would be no explanation for why there are any causes/effects at all), there must be some First Cause.

In his absolutely wonderful blog, Edward Feser notes that “most people who comment on the cosmological argument demonstrably do not know what they are talking about. This includes all the New Atheist writers.” The question is, why? Why is it that they do not understand it? Feser goes on: “[W]hile the basic structure of the main versions of the argument is fairly simple, the background metaphysics necessary for a proper understanding of the key terms and inferences is not.” Such “background metaphysics” might include a belief in or recognition of “actuality” being distinct from “potency.” This sort of language would be dismissed by Ayer as meaningless. Could a kind of hidden assumption of this thought account for the New Atheists having such trouble beginning to approach the cosmological argument? It is certainly a possibility.

God is not “a being” in the way that objects of empirical study are, although it appears that this is the current running through the entirety of the popular atheism generally fueled by the leaders of the movement. How else could the difficulties with the cosmological argument arise? This tendency to try to make something completely “beyond” the everyday kind of object to be very observable and even testable is indicative of distrust or even contempt for metaphysics. If the things of the immaterial world were really taken seriously by figures like Dawkins, they would not have such difficulties with the cosmological argument. Since the refutation of this argument is so critical, however, it is shameful that they do not even give a reasonably fair representation of it in their criticism.

Further evidence of this anti-metaphysical (and sharply anti-mystery) worldview is given in the widespread attempt to make “God” the object of scientific testing. After constructing a Bayes’ Theorem for God’s existence, Fishman concludes, “The fact that no devout Christian amputees have ever had their limbs grow back following prayers to the Christian God requesting limb re-growth is strong evidence that the Christian God does not exist.” Never mind that this is untrue – the deeper issue is that it is inconceivable to the New Atheists that perhaps God is wise to tests and chooses to abstain from participating in them, or that prayer is an altogether mysterious activity that will always escape science in some way. Instead, God is “a being” that can be measured, tested, and controlled just like any other being. This kind of God is not only rejected by the Bible, it is also rejected by Aristotle! It crams pre-conceived and wildly incorrect notions of benevolence, mercy, and intercession into the Christian (and Western) worldview.

Not only in the assessment of proofs for God’s existence is there a trace of logical positivism in the ideas of the New Atheism, but in the examination of value-claims as well. Dawkins writes:

“The question, ‘What is right and what is wrong?’ is a genuinely difficult question that science certainly cannot answer. Given a moral premise or a priori moral belief, the important and rigorous discipline of secular moral philosophy can pursue scientific or logical modes of reasoning to point up hidden implications of such beliefs, and hidden inconsistencies between them. But the absolute moral premises themselves must come from elsewhere, presumably from unargued conviction. Or, it might be hoped, from religion – meaning some combination of authority, revelation, tradition, and scripture.”

What is this “unargued conviction” he references? He does not say, but it is altogether likely that he means something very or indeed altogether subjective and/or arbitrary. He goes on to note that “some kind of liberal consensus of decency and natural justice that changes over historical time, frequently under the influence of secular reformists” provides us with most of our moral convictions rather than religion.

It might be shocking that Dawkins does not think that science can tell us about moral truth. It is maybe not that shocking that he does not appear to realize that he makes himself to be emotivist by this admission, if the foregoing explanation of “unargued conviction” is correct. If moral convictions are arbitrary or always subjective, and science can shed no light on the matter of moral principles, then we are left with an emotivist constructivism, since it does not seem that Dawkins would want to say that there can be “many moral truths” along the popular relativist line.

In the final analysis, both logical positivism and the New Atheism rest on turf highly unsympathetic to metaphysics and all things related. Being such, they both draw out the skeleton in the philosopher’s closet: science-envy. There are obvious remnants of Ayer and Russell in the work of the New Atheists, so regardless of how the influence came about it is clear that there exists one at least to some degree.

 

Main image: “atheos” from Ephesians 2:12