Hart’s New Book, Coyne’s Book, and Theology …

Jerry Coyne has been talking about David Bentley Hart’s new book “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss”. The latest thread about it is here. From this, I decided to buy that book, and also to pick up “Why Evolution is True”. Despite the fact that I argue against Coyne at lot on this blog (which is odd, since when I started the blog I thought it would be P.Z. Myers that I posted the most against, but since Coyne says things (even if often very, very incorrect things) while Myers tends to say very, very little with a lot of mocking words, Coyne gets more attention just for having content), I don’t think that I’ll have very much to say about his book. I mostly got it just to see if his claim that the average person could comprehend the evidence for evolution just by reading it. I mean, I’m certainly not the average person, as saying that I’m overeducated might be an understatement, but I’m not a biology expert so I want to see in how many places my eyes glaze over when reading the technical details just as Coyne’s probably do when reading theology. And on that, from the post:

And does Burkeman realize that I spent several years reading theology before I decided that it was mind-numbing and largely worthless exercise? It’s not like I haven’t heard their Best Arguments.

Considering the rather large number of times that I’ve commented on Coyne’s posts by showing that he didn’t really get their arguments, and for example went through his examination of Polkinghorne and ended up expressing massive frustration that he never addressed the arguments but instead simply mocked them, I think a case might be made that he heard by didn’t listen, or perhaps less confusingly looked but didn’t see. I’m also not sure where the “several years” comes into it. The post where he says that he’s now reading theology with Eric MacDonald’s help was written in July of 2011, that only counts as “several years” for very large values of “a couple of years” or perhaps “a few years”. And he only read some theology, but never really studied it, which makes any claims to his having acquired a deep understanding of the arguments about as plausible as, say, my saying that I’ll have heard and understood enough about evolution to be dismissive of it once I’ve read Coyne’s book since I read a couple of other books over a span of a few years. Essentially, just as I don’t know enough about evolution to judge it, or about biology to judge it or its writings as a whole, Coyne doesn’t know enough to really be qualified to judge theology and have us take his judgement seriously based on the amount of time he studied it. No, he’d have to make really good arguments about it … which, well, have been, in my opinion, rather lacking, probably because while Coyne tends to deny disliking philosophy and philosophical arguments, he tends to dismiss them all the time.

Case in point, when he goes to list the ways that Hart could be possibly giving the best arguments for the existence of God:

2. The philosophical argument that is most tricky, or hardest to refute: in other words, the argument for God that has the greatest degree of sophistry. This used to include the Ontological Arguments, which briefly stymied even Bertrand Russell. But we soon realized that “existence is not a quality”, and that, in fact, existence claims can be settled only by observation or testing, not by logic.

Well, see, if it is a philosophical argument, and philosophers can’t figure out how to refute it, then it just might, you know, be right. So it being hard to refute philosophically is indeed a reason to think that it’s a good argument, not just one that has the greatest degree of sophistry. And either Coyne is being really careless here or he doesn’t get the history of the debate at all, since while Russell did find it problematic, we didn’t discover that “existence is not a quality” after that point, but before … unless Kant really lived before Russell, and it isn’t like his discussion of the OA was ignored by those who studied him. So surely Russell was aware of that argument before his issues with the OA, and thus this implies — correctly — that while the Kantian argument is decent, it does have some problems with it, in that using “existence” as a predicate or quality isn’t obviously false. So, that’s probably not doing the work in minimizing Ontological Arguments. The “existence claims can be settled only by observation or testing, not by logic” is probably the idea that most drives people not finding Ontological Arguments convincing … but it’s never actually been proven true in any meaningful way, which allows for the modal logic OAs to take shape. Almost all scientists and a lot of philosophers accept that that claim is true, but none of them can prove it, so it’s still an open problem, and a specifically philosophical one.

In this short paragraph, Coyne implies that philosophers aim at arguments that are more sophistic than rational, ignores the history of philosophy, and makes an unfounded philosophical statement. I’d call that evidence of his having some issues with philosophy, consciously or not.

In discussing the “God is ground of all Being” argument that Hart is advocating, he says this:

…but I seriously doubt that. Aquinas, Luther, Augustine: none of those people saw God in such a way.

Except that Aquinas, as he followed on from Aristotlean views and invented Thomism probably does beleive that. I couldn’t find any simple quick quote that flat-out says it, but I did read Feser’s book on Aquinas, know that Feser believes in the Aristotlean “Ground of all Being” argument, and am pretty sure that Feser defends Thomism. In fact, Coyne argues that he doesn’t understand the “Ground of all Being” argument at all, but could read Feser’s book to get a decent sumamry of it, even if he doesn’t find it convincing. Thus, the “Ground of all Being” argument is not new, but has been around for arguably thousands of years, making it just as strong a contender for the way God really is as any other.

He finishes with what is rapidly becoming his most popular rhetorical flourish (for now):

So if I had to ask Hart three questions, they would be these:

1. On what basis do you know that God is a Ground-of-Being God instead of an anthropomorphic God? (In your answer, you cannot include as evidence the dubious claim that this is the kind of God that most people have accepted throughout history.)

2. How do you know that your Ground-of-Being god embodies truth, goodness, and beauty rather than lies, evil, and ugliness?

3. What would the universe look like if your God didn’t exist?

For 1 and 2, I’d have to re-read “Aquinas”, but I know it was addressed there. As for 3, the answer is simple to anyone who even has a vague idea of the argument: there’d be no universe. At all. I mean, how do you not get that from a claim that God is “The Ground of all Being”? Do you think that there is anything that exists if you take the ground of existence away? At best, it’s just a really bad question for the claim he’s addressing. Can he see, then, why so often I end up claiming that he doesn’t really understand the arguments he’s not only claiming to understand — or, at least, understand enough to call “ineffable” — but to have also evaluated and disproved?


2 Responses to “Hart’s New Book, Coyne’s Book, and Theology …”

  1. Review of “Why Evolution is True” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] As I said here, I recently ordered “Why Evolution is True”, and I just finished reading it. As expected, I didn’t really disagree with a lot of it; it was fairly standard, boilerplate evolution stuff. But the big thing I wanted to look at was if it really was as easy for the average person to get the evidence for evolution simply by reading it. After reading it, I do kinda say that that’s true … but I still don’t think I can recommend it to anyone to actually read. This isn’t because the writing is bad or confusing or anything — it isn’t — but that I just can’t think of an audience that would find this book enlightening over the alternatives that are out there. […]

  2. Review of “The Experience of God” (Part 1) | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] the “Ground of All Being” argument, as I understand it. And since this was spawned from Jerry Coyne’s comments on the book, I’d like to start by making reference to him specifically […]

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