Encounters with Hitchens Hooligans

A few Hitchens Hooligans (I thought the USU band of ‘new atheists’ needed a name) came by my office yesterday for a quick discussion.  It led to some questions about Catholic Saints.  Some of the questions were quite good, though others were founded in stereotpyped misunderstandings that have been refuted for so long that I am surprised that people (atheists and many Protestants alike) still hold on to such things.  Anyway, predictably we made no progress.  They likely regarded me as a kook (I know the feeling, I used to be a dyed-in-the-wool atheist), and I looked at them as sadly impoverished.

At any rate, something occurred to me after the discussion.

The Hitchens Hooligans are marked out, primarily I think, by their attitude toward mystery.  I do not think it is too much to say that they hate mystery.  You can tell by the way they recoil with contorted faces anytime they hear the word (okay, they usually just make a snide remark).  I would contend that this hatred of mystery is itself a spiritual response to the unknown.  We all encounter the unknown, but Hitchens Hooligans recoil from it.  Their immediate response is bitterness (so much anger against religion!) following by a very predictable reductionist movement.  For Hitchens Hooligans, the mysterious unknown – far from something to be wondered at – is immediately reduced to mere mechanical explanations.  Formal and final causes be damned, right?  Those are hated almost as much as religion itself.

To my mind, this is no more a rational attitude toward the unknown as is the religious attitude.  They are both attitudes, comportments, toward the unknown.  These comportments work like ‘first principles’ (we cannot argue for them, and everything else we believe is deduced from them).  I would accuse the Hitchens Hooligans of lacking a spiritual imagination.  It is almost inconceivable to them that the world could involve more than mere mechanics.  Oh, but there ‘are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

Before any real argument is possible, what is needed for the Hitchens Hooligans is a ‘baptism of the imagination’ (CS Lewis).  Marcel is perhaps the best on this point.  He distinguishes between the ‘problematical’ and the ‘mysterious’.  The problematical is the world understood in merely mechanistic terms, where I am merely my [biological] functions and nothing more unique than that.  In the problematical world, science promises a total explanation of everything. 

Contrast this with mystery.  What is distinctive about mystery is that it constantly recedes.  While it seems like it could be grasped in a total rational comprehension, it always slips away.  As we disclose part of it, other parts become concealed.  In this comportment, the encounter with mystery does not explain by reducing but instead deepens and broadens the individual and his horizons.  (If you see Heidegger’s distinction between ‘thinking’ and ‘technology’ here, you are on the right track).

So the issue is, after all, a spiritual issue – how will we respond to the unknown?  Human existence is, at least in part, a spiritual question.  This is why thoughtful reductionists find themselves – perhaps despite themselves – drawn to the ‘spiritually literary’ works.  For instance, one of the Hitchens Hooligans in my office yesterday is a great fan of Dostoevsky.  Huenemann has a fairly serious love affair with Nz.  Dostoevksy and Nz – are there two more spiritual writers (even if they are spiritual in very different ways)?  I might add that Nz at least tries to overcome the lion stage in order to be like a child.  Hitchens and his Hooligans are stuck in vengeance (though it is unclear to me to what offense they are retaliating).  Perhaps their ongoing fascination with religion (why can’t they just leave it alone and move on?) itself speaks volumes about their own spiritual struggles.

By the way, Michael Novak has a new book out called ‘No One Sees God’.  I have only read reviews, but it seems that he is making a similar case there. 

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About Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

39 thoughts on “Encounters with Hitchens Hooligans

  1. Huenemann

    “One who fights monsters must be careful that he does not become a monster himself.” – Nz. It seems to me that Hitchens & Co. are retaliating primarily against the noisiest of fundamentalists. So far they haven’t said anything that really has any traction against more thoughtful, sophisticated believers. “One who fights stupid blowhards must be careful…” It would be pleasant, wouldn’t it, if by some miracle the public arena offered a discussion among intelligent theists and atheists who had read the same books, and had experienced what each other describes?


  2. Alex

    Just to try and further this along…

    In response to H: We can obviously read the same books (whether we understand them, though, is a different story!) but can we experience the same things? Can an atheist and a theist REALLY sit down and discuss things? I have been frequenting this blog for awhile now, and it seems that there is simply no way for an atheist and a theist to work things out – I know Kleiner and you have tried!

    I just don’t see the public arena ever offering up an intelligent discussion of this… the ‘first principles’ are constantly muddling the discussion. Unless you are attempting to work out your own thoughts by challenging others’ beliefs (which I assume most people truly do intend), there won’t be any significant ground made in the argument. But then again, you did use the word ‘miracle’ (facetiously, perhaps?!).

    So, unless we all take off our ‘first principles,’ take off our ‘lenses,’ and abandon them completely in search of a better, more universal lense, I’m afraid that Kleiner will continue to catch flak from the Hitchens Hooligans – and you’ll continue to catch it from Kleiner!

    Well, I’m going to go sit in the corner now and play with my own lenses (yes, I am trying a few out right now!).

    On a side note… I am sad to not be at USU this fall. I stayed in Arizona. /sadface

    PS – In thinking about my silly lenses, would it be safe to say that atheists have reading glasses on, and theists have binocular lenses on? :-)


  3. Kleiner Post author

    I have tried to stay away, mostly, from fighting the ‘stupid blowhards’. But I am starting to feel the need to get more engaged with the Hitchens Hooligans as these ‘new atheist’ books keep zooming up the bestseller lists. My sense is that most thoughtful theists have mostly ignored the rantings from Hitchens and his crew, knowing – as Huenemann pointed out – that their more thoughtful theism was pretty much immune from the new atheist attacks. But I don’t think we (I am presumptuously tagging myself as a ‘thoughtful theist’) can ignore it entirely anymore. I am afraid that Americans are being spoon-fed this stuff and that they, because they are poorly read and not very reflective, think that these guys have the last word or something. It reminds me of a well-meaning family member who tried to entice me into a discussion of the Da Vinci Code, calling it ‘a really profound commentary on theology and religion’. Sorry, but while it was an entertaining read, if that is what passes as profound reflection on religion and theology then our culture is in a right bloody mess.

    We cannot remove our ‘first principles’, we are in the midst of a hermeneutic situation. There is no absolutely ‘clean’ starting point. Instead, we have to build consensus through dialogue. While this is not easy, it is possible. Since we are reading Plato’s Republic very carefully right now for the 4900 course, I’ll use it as an example. Through dialogue/conversation you can build consensus and move an argument forward. But this is only possible if the participants are ‘friends’. It is no mistake that Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus are quickly dropped from the conversation. Cephalus is totally unreflective, so cannot engage in a real conversation at all. Polemarchus is also not a good dialogue partner, telling Socrates at one point that he ‘will not listen’. Thrasymachus, surely the brightest of these three (Plato makes a point of praising his rhetorical skills in the Phaedrus), also has to be dropped because he is an ill-tempered and arrogant sophist.

    While dialogue may not require a ‘yes-man’ like Glaucon, it at least requires partners who are willing to listen charitably. It requires that we love rather than hate reason, and that we trust reason enough to, after investigating positions together, follow her where she leads us. This is pretty rare, sadly, in what counts as our ‘public intellectuals’ today (who are far too ideological to be really reasonable). But what I don’t want to do is to somehow accept our post-modern/post-meta-narrative/ highly localized situation in such a way that we all just retreat to our own corners, convinced that my own experience and point of view is so private that it cannot be publicly discussed and debated.


  4. Huenemann

    I think HK is right about dialogue requiring good listening and reasoning — and also a willingness to work out your partner’s own position. This is what is lacking among both the fundies and the pop atheists, along with what HK called spiritual imagination, and what I would call skeptical imagination. The fundies need to take seriously the possibility that everything is pointless, and the pop atheists need to take seriously the possibility that some significant forces may not be measurable or testable. I’m not sure where things go from there.

    I think one reason for Plato’s wonderful success is that he, after all, was writing both sides of the dialogue. (If you think that makes the whole affair too one-sided, go read some Plato — with care.) Maybe what’s needed on this ‘God’ issue is not more genuine dialogue, but more thinkers who are willing to undertake a genuine internal dialogue and write out the results — sort of a new “Dialogues concerning natural religion,” ala Hume, but with post-Darwinian and post-Heideggerian/Buberian/Whateverian insight.


  5. Mike

    To me, understanding is a matter of building and envisioning a compelling structure for that other person in order to better relate to them. Like Charlie says, writing both sides of the dialogue. The problem with discussion is you often get to the point where what the other person says makes no sense to you and you rarely have the freedom, in that moment, to work out their view in what would be a satisfying way to you. In discussion you can get a better and better idea of what that person actually thinks but that doesn’t mean anything you get from them will be, to you, reasonable. Every real man is a straw man because we only ever inhabit our own world. Start with the belief that the view you disagree with is reasonable and work out the structure of it from there (faithseeking understanding).

    “Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you do criticize them, you’ll be a mile away, and have their shoes.” – Jack Handey


  6. Kleiner Post author

    I agree with much of what Huenemann and Mike have said.
    On Mike’s post: I have written in the past on how these difficulties with discussion that you mention are exacerbated by the lack of intimacy/familiarity in ‘blog-ologing’. Anyway, I think Mike is right up to a point, but I get a little iffy at the end. Whenever I hear things like ‘we only ever inhabit our own world’ I think we start sounding too solipsistic. Maybe I am just showing my pre-modern colors here, but the ‘my own world’ way of thinking about things is far too ‘Kantian’ (for lack of a better name) for my tastes. It makes the wrong-headed modern assumption that my self/mind is somehow irreparably disconnected from the world.

    I am surely over-interpreting Mike here. What he meant was probably something like ‘we only inhabit our own perceptions of the world, and we cannot inhabit the perceptions of others’. In a certain sense that is obviously right – I can only have my own experience, not someone else’s. That said, we are all human beings and all share the same nature. I am inclined to think that our experiences are not nearly so different as the modern cult of individuality would have us think.

    It reminds me of a story I have heard (I think I heard it from a fellow named Dean Giannini, an Episcopal priest): He flew a lot and since he was wearing his collar was usually asked about religion. His interlocutors usually said that they had their ‘own spirituality’ and did not subscribe to an ‘organized religion’. But, over the years, he came to see that each of these ‘individual world-views’ (Jane-ism, Bob-ism, Fred-ism, etc) were remarkably similar.

    The condition for the possibility of [public] philosophy, and of dialogue in general, is a presumption that we, for all of our individual differences, are the same KIND of thing, that in sharing a human nature we share the same basic experience/questions/fears/doubts/hopes.


  7. Kleiner Post author

    Yeah, I like your ‘faith seeking understanding’ approach. While Plato has, in some sense, ‘stacked the deck’, it is noteworthy that the dialogues that end in failure are those that involve an interlocutor who does not think Socrates is reasonable. The dialogues that end in some kind of success involve interlocutors who are much more charitable.

    We should remember the dia-logue does NOT mean ‘speech between two’. Rather, it means (in the Greek) ‘speech through two’. Dialogue is not a tit-for-tat between two ‘combatants’ Rather, dialogue is an investigation of a position, where neither defends one position over and against another but instead investigates the position at hand in order that reason might lead them to a conclusion about it.


  8. Ben

    As I was reading about the encounter with “Hitchens hooligans”, there was one thing that kept coming to mind. It is a little off track from the other comments left here, but I thought it important enough to bring up none the less.

    In thinking of how some regard mystery, such as these guys, I can’t help but feel somewhat sympathetic. Not that I agree with their reasoning, or lack there of, and being a religious person myself I have a healthy respect for the mysterious, however, sometimes I can’t help but think that not everything some claim to be mysteries, are in fact mysteries, and calling them mysteries is a simple way of comforting one’s lack of knowledge. I do not claim to have the wisdom to be able to tell when something is simply a mystery and when through searching and a lot of help from the All Mighty one can come to a true understanding of a principle, But I can’t deny that sometimes I do feel that people use the word ‘mystery’ too often as an excuse for their lack of knowledge.



  9. Kleiner Post author

    I agree with you Ben, and the ‘sloppy’ use of the word ‘mystery’ is surely a large part of what irritates the Hitchens Hooligans so much about appeals to mystery. I think they are right, we shouldn’t make cheap and easy appeals to ‘mystery’ as some convenient crutch every time we run up against something we cannot yet explain (for instance, the formation of tornadoes).

    So, how to know which are the real mysteries and which are not? Well, here is a modest proposal: Let’s say that we have belief X on the table.
    a) If the skeptic can prove that X cannot be true, then any appeal to mystery is a cop out and is frankly misological (hatred of reason).
    b) If the believer can disarm any arguments against belief X, but cannot make a positive argument for belief X, then an appeal to mystery is legitimate.

    This is, in large part, the work of ‘apologetics’. In defending a faith on reason’s terms, one does not pretend to be able to prove the faith. Rather, they hope to disarm any objections to the faith, to show that while the faith cannot be positively proven it is not irrational to believe.

    Here is how Aquinas states the matter:

    “Thus sacred scripture, having no superior, can debate with one who denies its premises only if the adversary concedes some part of divine revelation. In this way we debate with heretics on the basis of sacred doctrine, using one article which they accept to support another which they deny. If the adversary believes nothing of what is revealed in sacred doctrine, then there is no way left to prove the articles of faith through reason. It is still possible to refute arguments advanced against the faith, however. Since the faith rests upon infallible truth and it is impossible to prove what is contrary to truth, it is clear that arguments against the faith are not really proofs and can be refuted.” (Summa I.8)

    In the first case one argues using reason while accepting the data of divine revelation. This is the way, for instance, a Catholic might argue against a Mormon (both agree that the OT and NT are revelation). The task here is to arrive at a proper and reasonable understanding of the inherited revelation.

    The second case is how people of faith must argue against Hitchens Hooligans. The task here is to defend the faith by disarming arguments against it. Note Aquinas’ extreme confidence in his Catholic faith, and the tall order he puts before himself. He is committed to the claim that any argument that seems to disprove a [properly interpreted] doctrine of his faith must be in some way fallacious and that we could show this through reason alone. This is unsurprising in light of Aquinas’ extremely robust synthesis of faith and reason and his commitment (which I entirely share) to the claim that authentic claims of reason and authentic claims of faith can never possibly conflict. Any apparent conflict between faith and reason is either (a) only apparent or (b) suggests the faith has been misinterpreted or is false or (c) there has been a mistake in the reasoning somewhere along the way.


  10. Doug

    First of all I must say to HK, dont take the Hitchen Hooligans too serioulsy. You have moved to a state in which many students have felt religioulsy persecuted for being different. Many men and women in Utah have endured (including myself) being turned down for jobs, apartments, dates, and even movies because they are not members of Utah’s predominate faith. (I was recently turned down for a job because I did not posess a temple recommnend card-I was literally asked if I had one). We all go through phases of rebellion, so it becomes easy to regurgitate some angry anti-theists rhetoric like Hitchens. So dont get too offended with these young students, because they are really just trying to find a way to vent their frustrations.

    However, even though it is easy to regurgitate philosophical garbage those that are athiests should try to understand the view of the theist, without immeadiately dismissing theism. On the other hands, theists are just as stubborn if not more so. You cannot use religous texts (since there is no proof they are real nor correct) to formulate your arguments, it is absurd. I remember having to grade an english research paper entitled “Proof Jesus was the Savior”, and it was filled with Book of Morman quotes, and Biblical quotes.

    There is philosophical garbage on both sides. Rather than attacking just the Hithens Hooligans, why not also attack those 19 year old boys that come to your door and bare their testimonys based on theological rhetoric? Why not attack religious zealots like William Donohue, Falwell, and Robertson?

    My point is both sides have their extremists. The real movement in the argument must come from those that are willing to debate each subject on its reasonable and logical merits. The problem is, we all know (and lets not be ridiculous and say we dont) that unless some spectacular mircale happens, proving either side will not be possible.

    Let me leave you with a great quote from Thomas Jefferson on this subject, “Shake off all fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”


  11. A "Hitchen's Hooligan"

    You make some interesting, but ultimately vacuous, observations. But before I address your arguments, I should disclose that I am one of those “Hitchen’s Hooligans” who came to visit you.

    I think you mischaracterized our “encounter.” Of the three who visited you in your office, only I was a “new atheist.” Jordan Daines is wary of the so-called new atheist movement and wouldn’t want to be pigeonholed as an adherent. My other friend wasn’t an atheist at all, but a recently returned missionary for the LDS Church.

    Perhaps I’m reading too much into your post, but you also seemed to portray us as antagonists–that we came to your office to make snide jabs at your faith. Our purpose for visiting you, though, was innocent enough. My returned missionary friend simply wanted to be admitted to your class. The topic of religion cropped up as an afterthought–as did our discussion of Leo Strauss and neoconservatism. If you were uncomfortable with or offended by our discussion of religion, then my apologies.

    Now, as for your argument: What is it exactly that you are arguing? That because atheists disbelieve in angels and beatified persons, we lack imagination? That we fail to appreciate mystery?

    I just don’t see how naturalism and mystery are mutually exclusive. Believing that all things can eventually/potentially be explained doesn’t deplete one’s sense of mystery about those things that have yet to be explained. If everything were explained, then yes, there would be no mystery. But when will have everything explained? Never. Today, despite all our advances in science, there is not deficit of mysteries (take quantum mechanics). Indeed, these mysteries drive science.

    You’ve caricatured atheists. Carl Sagan, an avowed atheist, is renown for his sense of awe and wonder about the world. Richard Dawkins, has routinely said that he remains open to the possibility of God’s existence. And Sam Harris practices eastern spirituality–even committing to a year’s vow of silence in meditation.


  12. A "Hitchen's Hooligan"

    One last thing.

    You’ve accused me of being angry and hateful. Why? Because I’m critical of religion?

    I wasn’t foaming at the mouth or anything. At most, I smirked when you said you believe in guardian angels haha. But really, why is that belief less smirk-worthy than, say, a belief in Thor? The evidence for either is the same: none.

    In a way, though, my criticism is your faith is an expression of respect. Secular philosopher Austin Dacey put it best: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02fHWRnGYGo

    The shrill and obnoxious Dinesh D’Souza similarly wondered why Hitchens had written “God is not Great,” and not “Unicorns are not Great.” I mean, he disbelieves in both. Why pick on the Judeo-Christian God?

    Well, the answer is pretty simply. We don’t live in a society where nearly 90% of people believe in unicorns. Religion, whether you sign onto it or not, is a pervasive force in our world.

    Mormonism especially is hard to “move on” from–in Utah, at least. Emotionally and spiritually, I’ve been ready to move on from Mormonism for years. But it’s not something you can escape here. And even when I don’t make my atheism an issue, someone else will.


  13. Kleiner Post author

    Clearly, the intent of my post was lost in translation somewhere. You seem to be angry and frustrated by my post, and that was obviously not my intent. I’m going to spend a little time explaining myself since I really don’t want to start off the semester on the blog, in my classes, or in my office with a negative feeling.

    First: I did not mean to so mischaracterize the conversation. I know Jordan would not want to be called a “Hitchens” anything, and I don’t know enough about the other two students to really say (I made the assumption that you were all a part of SHAFT, and then made some apparently unjustified assumptions from there). Anyway, the conversation got me to thinking about Hitchens and the neo-atheists, so I used the encounter as a springboard into a post about the new atheists and their relationship to mystery. I kept the names of the people anonymous since I knew I was sort of stretching the conversation a bit in order to use it as a segue. And I likely imported a whole load of things from past discussions I have had with Jordan about the new atheism into the discussion with you three. My apologies for making a sweeping generalization and for, frankly, using our quick discussion for my own ends.

    Second: If you ask Jordan, I think you will find that I am not easily offended when it comes to discussions about religion, and I certainly did not take any of your comments as ‘snide jabs’. In fact, I rather enjoyed the conversation! And again, your friend Jordan will tell you (I hope!) that I try to be very respectful of thoughtful atheism. I really do try my best to be open and charitable in my philosophical discussions.

    Third: I think Hitchens is angry. I cannot imagine anyone suggesting that he is not. Again, my post was not directed toward you three visitors. It was directed toward the phenomena of ‘new atheism’ as I have, for the most part, encountered it. I did not mean to accuse you of anything, I used the conversation as a segue to a broader discussion, nothing more. Also, I was making an apparently bad attempt at humor in the original post.

    Fourth: I don’t think I have caricatured atheists. (I think I understand atheism pretty darn well, as I was raised an atheist and was a deeply committed atheist (of a Sartrean bent) for some time. In fact, I think I am in a position to really speak to/from both sides in an understanding way). I just think that people like Sagan, when they speak of their ‘awe’, mean something very different by the encounter with mystery than I do. As for the others, I do not mean to sit in the judgment seat about the private spiritual lives of people like Harris, or even Dawkins (who I think is a FAR better spokesman for atheism than is Hitchens, he is not nearly as angry). I was talking in admittedly pretty sweeping generalizations about how most of the ‘new atheists’ I know (and they are ‘Hitchens-esque’ in this regard) comport themselves toward mystery.

    Anyway, you have my apologies and, I hope, no hard feelings. Now to the philosophical point:

    Obviously I disagree that my observations were ‘ultimately vacuous’. While I could be moved from this view, I do think that naturalism and mystery are mutually exclusive. Of course, we need to get clear on what we mean by ‘mystery’ first.

    What you seem to mean by ‘mystery’ is something like: whatever is not yet explained by science, whatever is yet still unknown.
    That is not what I mean by mystery. What I mean by mystery is something deeper. Mysteries are not just things that are as of yet unknown, mysteries are things which in themselves cannot be comprehended in any complete way by human minds. The mysterious is that which resists [egological] totalizing comprehension. It always recedes, it cannot be held by the human mind in a total way at once. This is why I made appeals to Heidegger’s ‘aletheia-ology’ up above.

    In other words, for you things are mysteries in a ‘contingent’ sort of way, by the accidental fact that we have not [scientifically] understood them yet. On my definition, mysteries are mysteries ‘essentially’. It is not an accidental fact that we do not understand them, it is not in our nature to be able to rationally understand them. So I would not call the unknown workings of quantum mechanics ‘mysteries’. They are things that we could, in principle, know but do not yet understand. Instead, I would point to something like the Trinity.

    Now you might disagree with my characterization of ‘mystery’, but I am inclined to think that naturalism and mystery (as I understand it) are incompatible.


  14. A "Hitchen's Hooligan"

    “You seem to be angry and frustrated by my post, and that was obviously not my intent. I’m going to spend a little time explaining myself since I really don’t want to start off the semester on the blog, in my classes, or in my office with a negative feeling.”

    Oh no no. It’s very difficult to offend me, I assure you. I competed in debate throughout high school, and I learned that you can disagree without being disagreeable. There are no negative feelings–none whatsoever. I may have been frustrated, but I wasn’t angry. I understand, though, that it’s hard to pick up on my tone in my writing. People always read nonexistent anger into my articles in the Statesman, too. I was just giving you an opportunity to clarify.


  15. A "Hitchen's Hooligan"

    “I think Hitchens is angry. I cannot imagine anyone suggesting that he is not. Again, my post was not directed toward you three visitors.”

    Hitchens is angry (or righteously indignant, depending on one’s point of view). But you were accusing Hitchen’s “hooligans’ of being angry as well. Case in point:

    “We all encounter the unknown, but Hitchens Hooligans recoil from it. Their immediate response is bitterness (so much anger against religion!) following by a very predictable reductionist movement.”

    Thanks for your definition of mystery. Still, I don’t see how this definition of mystery conflicts with naturalism. Naturalism doesn’t posit that every fact of this world is accessible to humans. I mean, facts exist independent of our ability to understand them.

    I’ve already conceded that we’ll never understand everything. And some things–I think your example of the Trinity is appropriate–are ultimately beyond our comprehension. I chose my words poorly in saying that “all things can eventually/potentially be explained,” because saying that something is explained implies that someone understands. What I should have said, instead, is that all things have answers–and most likely natural ones.

    Jumping back to a previous post: I forgot to finish a thought. I brought up Dinesh D’Souza, seemingly out of nowhere. I was meaning to segway into that thought, but left it hanging accidentally. You asked “why can’t [Hitchen’s Hooligans] leave [religion] alone and move on.” That just reminded me of D’Souza’s (ridiculous) musing that the new atheists aren’t writing books critical of unicorns, fairies, and the myriad of other things atheists disbelieve.


  16. Kleiner Post author

    My stab about the Hitchens Hooligans ‘recoiling’ was meant to be funny. Still, I do think many of them seem to have snagged their sweaters in Sunday school at some point and are having a difficult time getting over it. Anyway, glad we cleared up any of the personal misunderstandings.

    Last point on Hitchens: He is a brilliant writer, but most new atheists I know don’t really want to defend his tone. I don’t think he is ‘righteously indignant’ in his complaints about religion. For instance, Hitchens incessant claim that religion is the principle source of violence in the world is just false. The principle atheistic movement of the 20th century (communism) is responsible for the deaths of at least 75 million people (Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot) in less than 100 years. I think that beats religion hands down. Most religions are, have been, and will continue to be principally a force of the good in the world. I think this is why people like Huenemann would like to preserve religion (albeit gutted of its supernatural metaphysical commitments).

    But I really don’t want to argue these points since I think they are the weakest points the neo-atheist could possibly make.

    There are lots of brands of naturalism out there, but I will speak to what I think is the most common. I most frequently encounter scientific naturalism, which seems committed to these claims:
    a) There is no supernatural, all events and phenomena are natural.
    b) Reductionism. All natural events and phenomena can be explained in mechanical terms (that is, efficient cause only, no formal or final cause).
    c) Humans can understand the mechanical workings of the universe.

    This sounds like your clarified view, ‘all things have answers-and most likely natural ones’.

    Now I can imagine a naturalism denying (c) (perhaps they are a skeptic), but most naturalists I encounter love their science too much to really deny it. I think every naturalist I have encountered is committed to (a) and (b).

    Point is that naturalism (as I have characterized it) is resistant to mystery (as I have characterized it). It is not committed to the claim that we will know everything, in fact. But I think its mechanical reductionism paired with its commitment to science commits it to a claim like: ‘all natural phenomena (and that is all there is) are in principle capable of being understood by science’.

    Now, the fault here vis a vis mystery might be with reductionism rather than with naturalism per se, though I think they two almost have to travel together (what is naturalism but an example of reductionism, after all).

    One more point. Most naturalists I know heed naturalism in a sort of religious way. That is, the very thing that they snicker at religious people for doing (believing things without evidence) can be said of them. There is no evidence, nor could there be (you cannot empirically demonstrate it), for naturalism. It is a metaphysical commitment and starting point. Same can be said of reductionism. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard an argument for that ‘epistemic attitude’. In fact, Huenemann once confessed to me that most naturalists just assume the materialist/mechanical reduction, it is pretty much unquestioned and unargued. Most arguments you do hear stack the deck – arguing that scientific naturalism must be true because we have never empirically discovered any non-natural causes.


  17. A "Hitchen's Hooligan"

    “Hitchens incessant claim that religion is the principle source of violence in the world is just false.”

    Are you sure he’s said it’s the principle source of violence? I know that he thinks that, on balance, religion is a force for evil in the world.

    I don’t know if I can follow him there. I’m happy to entertain the belief that religion does more good than harm–although that’s impossible to measure. To me, it’s irrelevant to the validity of religions’ metaphysical claims.

    “The principle atheistic movement of the 20th century (communism) is responsible for the deaths of at least 75 million people (Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot) in less than 100 years.”

    I haven’t heard this one before. ;)

    First, let me thank you for excluding Hitler from that list. Nazism was a quasi-religious (neopagan) movement that was made possible by centuries of Christian Antisemitism and facilitated by the Protestant and Catholic churches of Germany.

    Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot were atheistic despots, but their evil actions are not something for which atheism must answer. Above all, these were fascist and communist movements. It’s not enough that these men were atheists, you have to show that it was because of their atheism that they killed millions.

    Most atrocities require a positive belief or dogma. And since atheism is a negative belief (insofar as it doesn’t posit anything), it’s difficult to find a causal link between atheism and immoral behavior. It is often easier and more reasonable to find immoral behavior rooted in some other belief held by the perpetrator.

    For example, Stalin ordered thousands of people executed because he thought they represented a threat to the establishment of communism, not because he was an atheist.

    And the last thought on this point courtesy of Sam Harris: “The problem with fascism and communism is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship.”

    “There is no evidence, nor could there be (you cannot empirically demonstrate it), for naturalism.”

    Right, I could never disprove the detached, deistic Creator of Spinoza and Jefferson, but that is not the god in which you believe. You’re committed to a theism (Christianity) against which I think there are mountains of evidence. That’s a debate for another day, I suppose.

    “Most arguments you do hear stack the deck – arguing that scientific naturalism must be true because we have never empirically discovered any non-natural causes.”

    Isn’t this, though, just inductive reasoning? At some point, I think the absence of evidence for supernaturalism becomes evidence (not proof) of absence. Again, I guess this argument doesn’t apply to deism. But on theism, you would expect to see God’s fingerprints manifest in this world. And yet, as science progresses, the gap God occupies continues to shrink–he becomes increasingly invisible. God is no longer the explanation for lightning, rain, biodiversity, etc.


  18. Kleiner Post author

    You defer the argument (which is fine), but I am extremely skeptical of your claim that there are ‘mountains of evidence’ against Christianity. I am tempted to call your bluff and make it ‘put up or shut up’ time. Perhaps you could present a paper to the Religious Studies or Philosophy Club in which you share the arguments that definitively prove that Christianity is false. (I am serious about that, if you have the arguments we should line you up to present and have a discussion).
    You make think this is folly, but I commit myself with Aquinas to the claim that any argument against a doctrine of Catholic Christianity can be disarmed (even if I cannot positively prove the doctrines). (See my post above for the full Aquinas quotation on this point).

    It is more than just inductive reasoning. Here is the point: Materialistic naturalism assumes that the only legitimate proof of something is empirical evidence. BUT, one cannot empirically prove the claim that ‘the only legitimate proofs are empirical ones’. It fails its own test for legitimacy! This is because naturalism is not itself an ’empirical claim’, it is metaphysical position.

    Why think that empirical demonstration (which I readily accept, I am not anti-science) is the only way of disclosing truth?

    As for theism vs deism: Again, I don’t think I can prove most positive doctrines of my faith, I just think I can disarm objections to an intelligently held Christian faith. Now I do think we see God’s fingerprints all over the world, I call it final cause (not that each final cause is a ‘miracle’, but that the order of the final causes in the world suggests a perfect final cause). Final causes cannot be empirically demonstrated directly, but they can be understood through reflection on our experience. Naturalists typically reject final cause (they reduce final and formal causation to efficient causation). But the onus is on the naturalist to show that the teleological significances which are obvious in science are only ‘apparent’ rather than real. As best as I can tell, the principle argument against final cause is something like this: ‘Final causes must be only apparent lest I be committed to a metaphysical position that will inevitably lead to a kind of theism.’

    I say this over and over on this blog. The real fight is on whether or not the world is teleologically organized. Once we settle that debate, I think most everything else will fall in line.


  19. Mike

    I don’t know about ‘mountains of evidence’. Claims that cannot be verified like “jesus rose from the dead nearly 2000 years ago” can hardly have “mountains of evidence” against them (2000 years doesn’t really lend itself to ‘evidence’ and many of their beliefs are negotiable — e.g. some believe in evolution, some don’t). That being said, I think there are thousands of possible reasons to reject Christianity (and it’s not the only thing that can be believed or disbelieved for a thousand reasons). Here are Control-Z’s 25 reasons.

    I personally don’t like to dwell in the apologetics/anti-apologetics space because I don’t think either Chistianity or atheism is the major problem or major solution for the historical moment. Of course, certain ways of holding beliefs are always problematic but that’s a discussion that can be handled within the relevant context of the individual communities.


  20. A "Hitchen's Hooligan"

    I deferred the argument about Christianity for now. This single comment thread cannot do that debate justice; I’d rather have it extended over several posts throughout this semester.

    “Why think that empirical demonstration (which I readily accept, I am not anti-science) is the only way of disclosing truth?”

    I don’t know that it’s the only way. I just don’t see how we could discriminate among truth claims without empiricism (logical and experiential). I have no way to weigh those things you believe on faith against other faith-based claims.

    What other avenues to truth do you think exist? And do these avenues demand a for cessation of reason? Mormon philosopher Blake Ostler cautioned Mormons not to rationally justify their spiritual experiences: “Now let me be up-front about what I won’t do, because I can’t, and because it trivializes what I want to focus on. I will not give some argument or evidence to try to persuade you or anybody else that your spiritual experiences are valid and trustworthy. If I were to attempt to argue with you to prove that to you, I would only show and prove (quite conclusively) that I believe that in reality there is something more basic and trustworthy than spiritual experiences; that is, the arguments I would give you.”

    “Again, I don’t think I can prove most positive doctrines of my faith, I just think I can disarm objections to an intelligently held Christian faith.”

    This is a fundamental disagreement we have. That a belief cannot be disproved is no reason to believe it. I cannot disprove the existence of the flying spaghetti monster (I know invoking the FSM irks you haha), but surely it would be unreasonable for me to believe in it. Beliefs need be built upon evidence. So even if you could disarm my arguments against Christianity, I don’t think that rescues your faith.

    And could you explain this debate over teleology? I’m not familiar with it. Thanks.


  21. A "Hitchen's Hooligan"

    *And do these avenues demand a cessation of reason?

    I just caught one typo and I’m too afraid to find the others. So please overlook them. Ugh, I hate typos.


  22. Kleiner Post author

    I’m not trying to positively rationalize (prove) my faith/spiritual experiences (though I suspect I am far more inclined to ‘play the reason game’ than is Ostler and other Mormons). My point about apologetics disarming arguments against the faith is two fold.

    a) It shows that having the faith does not commit you so something irrational. I am deeply committed to the claim that authentic claims of reason could NEVER conflict with authentic claims of faith (even if reason and faith have a different scope). For that reason, I don’t see faith as a ‘cessation of reason’, as if you have to ‘turn reason off’. Faith and reason have different scopes (though I think we should be ‘reasonable’ about our faith, that is, use our reason to vet the claims of faith). To trade off some terms I will use below, I think it is important to demonstrate that the answers to our existential questions do not conflict with the answers to our scientific questions.

    b) Disarming arguments against the faith should slow the atheist down from thinking that Christianity can be dispatched so quickly with their alleged ‘mountains of evidence’ against it.

    I should add, I think there are good reasons to disbelieve. In particular, the problem of evil and the problem of miracles. I pick on the Hitchens Hooligans because, it seems to me, they too often rely on far weaker reasons.

    Why believe without evidence? Faith speaks to existential questions – questions of love, sacrifice, hope, and meaning. I think it is almost a ‘category mistake’ to expect to answer all of these kinds of questions through something like evidence-based research. Art, music, poetry, culture, and yes, religion are the spheres of disclosure where we find these existential questions informed. If we are to suppose that there is no more evidence for Christianity than for Flying Spaghetti Monster (I don’t really agree with that, but I’ll give it to you), then why believe? Here is why I choose to believe:

    I think that Catholic Christianity (the only religion I will choose to specifically defend) offers deep and profound explanatory power for our existential situation. For example, questions about why we perennially fail to live up to what we want to be are, I think, best explained by making appeals to original sin. And I think the claim that we are made in the image of a Trinitarian God speaks in a profound way to our existential experience of self-actualization through making a gift of ourselves to the other/neighbor (read JPII’s ‘Theology of the Body’). Anyone who practices philosophy knows that we are, in some sense, a deep mystery to ourselves. I believe that Catholic Christianity can help us to plumb those mysteries. Science cannot really answer these kinds of existential questions.

    In short, X-ianity can speak to existential questions in a way the FSM obviously cannot. As JPII put it, ‘Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life’. There will be no ‘proof’ of course (in particular, no empirical proof). It is an existential movement, not a scientific question. We believe for ‘reasons of the heart’, as it were. Science cannot give us reasons to love, sacrifice and hope. And to think that Christianity and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are on the same plane in this regard is, frankly, foolish.

    Religious faith is an existential movement. Christians experience, in an existential way, the cross in their lives. They believe because the cross (falling, sacrifice, reconciliation, redemption) gives a meaningful explanation to their existential situation and also because they have positively chosen an existential course of life. They have chosen to let God love them and have chosen to fall in love with God. The faith is ‘confirmed’, so to speak, existentially – in the existential actualization of self realized in relation with the Divine Other. (If I sound really Kierkegaardian here, I mean to). Even if the ‘final confirmation’ of faith must wait for the next age, ‘confirmations’ abound here and now in the stories of lives transformed, things that cannot be measured in brain waves.
    To concretize this to something I hope you have experienced: Surely you would agree that it would be silly to ask, of your spouse say, to prove her love as if she could do so empirically. Again, science is silent on these existential questions (the FSM is too). But does this mean that love is nothing? I certainly don’t think so! There is, we might say, a truth in love that is deeper, much more profound, than any of the truths that can be discovered in a laboratory. But we know that love (and also faith) ‘speak another language’ and are disclosed/confirmed in a different way.

    Regarding teleology:

    I think the argument about teleology is important for two reasons. First, it is simply a question of truth. Is the world teleologically organized or not? Second, those that deny teleology deny purpose and meaning, and as such are infertile ground from which faith will struggle to grow. Once you have accepted teleology, this does not mean you will necessarily be existentially moved to faith (you might just arrive at a deism), but at least the soil of your soul will have been made for fertile for it. I am optimistic though. Taking my own experience as an example, you can lead a horse to water but cannot make him drink – but at some point he’s gonna get thirsty.

    I don’t have time here to totally lay out the case for teleology and the argument about it. I am hoping to bring in someone this year to defend teleological significations. Briefly:
    I think that, when we seek to understand things in our world, there are 4 questions we want answered.
    1) Of what is it made? (material cause)
    2) What is its principle of change / how did it come about? (efficient cause)
    3) What is it? (formal cause)
    4) What is it for / to what purpose does it naturally (by its nature) strive? (final cause)

    Aristotle calls these the 4 causes. Note that modern science explains only the how of the matter (only efficient and material cause). Aristotle thinks, rightly I say, that any explanation that excludes final cause is one that excludes the most important bit of explanation.

    I would encourage you to read something on this. If you want to dig right into it, read Aristotle’s ‘Physics’, I. II. Or an easy introduction to these Aristotelian concepts can be found in Ayer’s ‘Aristotle for Everybody’. A more substantive introduction can be found in Lear’s ‘Aristotle: The Desire to Understand’ (to my mind the best substantive introduction on Aristotle’s thought, a near must read secondary source for students of philosophy). For a quick review, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/

    I am pretty agnostic about the how (efficient cause) as I am not an expert on such things. I am pretty sure that, to quote JPII again, ‘evolution is more than just a theory’. But I don’t have the details worked out. I leave that to the scientists, they are better than philosophers at answering the ‘how questions’. When philosophers and theologians try to answer scientific questions, it rarely works out well (see the Galileo affair). But, on the flip side, scientists are not equipped to answer philosophical/theological questions. I wish the scientists would recognize that philosophers are better at answering the ‘why questions’! Science simply cannot answer, in virtue of the nature of science and its field of inquiry, questions like ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’.


  23. A "Hitchen's Hooligan"

    You didn’t need to explain why apologists seek to disarm arguments against Christianity–that’s obvious enough. My point, however, was that you’d need evidence for your beliefs in order for them to be rational. It is not enough that I can’t disprove them.

    Faith is irrational because it violates Occam’s razor. Even if Christianity explains the world (and I deny it does), it only does so by unnecessary assumptions–leaps of faith. Original sin, for instance, may explain suffering, but it is not the explanation that makes the fewest assumptions. You’d have to first assume–without reason–that God exists, he created Adam and Eve and commanded them not to eat an apple, Eve is prodded into eating the apple by a talking snake, etc. I’d sooner believe that we just live an a godless universe indifferent to our suffering, thank you.]

    The same is true of the FSM. Sure, it’s remotely possibly that there exists a Flying Spaghetti Monster, but that fact doesn’t give me license to believe in it.

    You’re only answer to this is that the FSM doesn’t speak to “existential questions.” And by this I suppose you mean that Catholicism affords you a meaning and a purpose to life. Well…so what? What bearing does the FSM’s silence on these existential question have on its truthfulness?

    Also, what makes you so sure that the FSM cannot answer these existential questions. Its believers are comforted by the assuring touch of the FSM’s “noodly appendage.” Then there are those who love the worship service, which is conducted in pirate talk and attended by congregants in dashing buccaneer garb. Believers can also find purpose in pursuit of the afterlife that awaits them: a heaven complete with a stripper factory and a beer volcano.

    Yeah, it’s silly. But why do you think Catholocism has a monopoly on the answers to existential questions? These answers could be subjective. Mormons seem satisfied by their religion’s answers, Muslims by theirs, and so on.

    And is all of Christianity really needed to answer existential questions? Details like the virgin birth and the Trinity are superfluous to existential concerns. And yet you (presumably) believe both as a Catholic. So if you are justified in believing these things without their answering existential questions, then why is someone not justified in believing in the FSM?

    You ask me to agree with you that asking a spouse to empirically prove his/her love is ridiculous. First, in comparing your faith to love you’re reducing Christianity to an emotion. But Christianity is not an emotion, it’s a set of truth claims: God exists; Jesus was born of a virgin; Jesus rose from the dead; etc.

    To answer your question, though, we all expect evidences of love. I cannot prove that someone loves me, but their love can be reasonably evidenced by romantic gifts and gestures.

    Also, love is already largely understood through science: http://www.oxytocin.org/oxytoc/love-science.html.

    You’ll probably cite this as yet another example of the atheist’s hatred of mystery. Meh.

    Thanks for your discussion of teleology. I still don’t see what challenge it poses to naturalism. But I plead ignorance on this subject.


  24. A "Hitchen's Hooligan"

    “Science simply cannot answer, in virtue of the nature of science and its field of inquiry, questions like ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’.”

    Some scientists, namely physicist Victor Strenger and Nobel-laureate Frank Wilczek, nonetheless attempt to answer that question. “Somethingness” is the natural order of things, they assert. The transition from simplicity to complexity is a natural one. “Nothingness” being the simplest state there could be is unstable. Nothing is unstable, thus: something.

    I don’t necessarily agree–just a thought.


  25. komm Post author

    A few quick responses, all that time allows:

    a) I don’t agree with your claim that you ‘need evidence for your beliefs in order for them to be rational’. First of all, that would preclude some knowledge in mathematics. Second of all, I think the assertion presumes that it would be possible to have perfectly rational beliefs. I don’t this is possible, and I frankly think that the desire to develop such ‘perfectly rational systems’ is a large part of what is wrong with modern philosophy in general. Strauss (who we quickly discussed in my office), is very good on this point.

    b) I don’t think I ‘have to assume, without reason, that God exists’. I happen to think that several of the proofs for God’s existence are pretty darn persuasive (in fact, they moved me from atheism to theism). If you choose to not be persuaded and choose to believe in an indifferent world, well that is your business. But don’t assume that theists have no reasons for their beliefs about God and his nature, they do (read Aquinas’s ‘Summa’, Question I). And, again, I think it is silly to compare the FSM with the Christian God (as if one has the same amount of existential explanatory power as another).

    c) I never claimed that Catholic Christianity had a monopoly on the truth. Rather, I think that a great many of the world’s traditions bear the fruit of truth. Of course, as a Catholic, I would argue that the Catholic (universal) Church bears the deepest and most complete witness. And I think that other traditions get some things pretty clearly wrong (for instance, I think you can prove that the LDS conception of God has to be false, that is, I think the LDS faith commits you to beliefs that are contrary to reason).

    d) No, not all of Christianity is needed to answer the existential questions. Kierkegaard remarked that all you need know is that ‘once there was a man who was also God’. But the rest of the story is a part of a tradition that I consider authoritative, not by argument but by faith. If you choose to believe a less colorful story, that is your business. I happen to think that Ockham’s razor gets mightily abused, and quickly becomes an excuse for unjustified reductionism. Even Nz resists that (dare to believe in something, he challenges!). Again, ‘there is more in this world than your philosophy can dream of’.

    e) Saying that love is an emotion is just another unjustified reduction. Love is not an emotion, it is a movement of the will. Faith is also a movement of the will. So my comparison of love and faith is not a false analogy. If you love your wife only when you ‘feel like it’, you will have a very short and unhappy marriage. If love were a mere feeling, it could not be commanded, and most everyone I know (atheist and theist alike) think we ‘ought to love one another’.

    f) I have read too much Levinas and Kierkegaard (read his brilliant book ‘Works of Love’) to think that romantic gifts and gestures count for much by way of evidence for love. Love does bear fruit, of course, but that fruit is never sufficient evidence of true love (which is like the ocean, its depths hide).

    g) Those that think that the truth of love can be reduced to a chemical reaction of some sort are just silly. We have blogged on that point here before. If you think that all that is happening when you kiss your lover is an arousal of chemicals in the brain, then I pity you and pity even more your lover.

    h) Interesting little tidbit on ‘nothingness’. But it sure seems odd to consider nothingness a ‘state of affairs’.


  26. Kleiner Post author

    I really must take up your assertion, which you announce with astonishing confidence, that,
    ‘love is already largely understood through science’

    This gets right to the heart of the issue – the Hitchens Hooligans tendency to be (a) reductionistic and (b) extremely overconfident in what science can demonstrate.

    I am going to make a point that seems incredibly obvious to me, but often comes as a surprise to those who have been seduced by the inflated claims of cognitive science. Just because you can demonstrate that the brain is active during thinking does not prove that the brain is all there is to thinking. Just because you can empirically demonstrate that there is a chemical response to loved ones does not prove that the chemical response is all there is to love.
    All such empirical demonstrations prove is that, in thinking or in loving or in whatever else, our bodies (specifically our brains) are involved. Nothing could be less surprising, and this is really OLD news. Aristotle and Aquinas both knew this perfectly well (even if they did not have the fancy brain scans to back it up).

    To think that science (biology, chemistry) has said most of what can be said about love (that it has ‘largely understood it’) is not a scientific claim. It is an epistemological claim based on a metaphysical position of materialism that is 99% of the time unargued.

    The lesson to take from this: Don’t be so quick to believe with such certainty that empirical science has said everything there is to be said about this wide world (and what/Who may lie beyond it).

    The materialism debate has been had many times on this blog, so perhaps most usu bloggers are tired of it. If ‘Hitchens Hooligan’ (why must you remain nameless and faceless?) has not read any of those streams, look in the archives and you will see arguments on both sides.


  27. A "Hitchen's Hooligan"

    “I don’t agree with your claim that you ‘need evidence for your beliefs in order for them to be rational’. First of all, that would preclude some knowledge in mathematics. Second of all, I think the assertion presumes that it would be possible to have perfectly rational beliefs.”

    Your first criticism may well be true–I’m not very conversant in mathematics. I’d appreciate an example, though.

    I’m more suspicious of your second objection. I don’t think I’m presuming that it’s possible to be perfectly rational. I can’t ask that you be perfectly rational. But I can ask that you be rational at least in regards to your theism. I mean, are we presuming that moral perfection is attainable when we condemn certain actions?

    “I don’t think I ‘have to assume, without reason, that God exists’. I happen to think that several of the proofs for God’s existence are pretty darn persuasive.”

    Fair enough. And I imagine we’ll discuss those proofs in your class and in later debates. We can discuss those here in this thread too, but I fear this discussion has already lost its focus (if it ever had one).

    “And, again, I think it is silly to compare the FSM with the Christian God (as if one has the same amount of existential explanatory power as another).”

    I just don’t see what bearing its existential explanatory power has on its existence. If someone were really bored, they could flesh out the FSM and give it more existential explanatory power. The Judeo-Christian God acquired most of its existential explanatory power only after centuries of theologizing by men like Paul, Augustine, and Aquinas.

    “I think you can prove that the LDS conception of God has to be false, that is, I think the LDS faith commits you to beliefs that are contrary to reason.”

    Here we find common ground haha. But plan on me playing LDS apologist in class (because the Mormon students will need one).

    I’d submit that all of Christianity commits its adherents to absurdity. Virgin birth? Does that cohere with our scientific understanding? Here are some more Biblical absurdities: http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/abs/short.html

    Ugh, I keep attacking Christianity and then retreating behind the excuse “let’s debate this later.” Easier said than done–it’s not easy avoiding the topic. One reason I’ve been hesitant to debate it with you, though, is that I don’t know enough about your religious beliefs. I’m able to debate Mormons, as I understand where they’re coming from, but Catholicism is fairly foreign to me.

    May I ask why you converted to Catholicism, with all its historical baggage and colorful doctrinal tradition (guardian angels and the whole shebang)? Or could you direct me to a post where you’ve shared your conversion story?

    You seem to credit Aquinas’ proofs for your conversion, but his five proofs just leave you with a bare and skeletal theism. How did you come to accept that “once there was a man who was also God,” let alone the rest of Catholic dogma?

    About love: We’re talking past each other. Love is certainly an emotion, but you’re using it more as a verb, which it is as well.

    No, I cannot provide proof for love, but proof is an elusive standard anyway. You doubt my evidences of love, but you do put stock in them. You must. If I were to point to a random stranger and ask you if he loves you, you’d likely say no. After all, you didn’t even know the fellow. That demonstrates that there are prerequisites for love that can be used as evidence of its existence (familiarity with the person being one of them).

    “If you think that all that is happening when you kiss your lover is an arousal of chemicals in the brain, then I pity you and pity even more your lover.”

    Wanting the joy of kissing to be more than chemical arousal doesn’t make it so. It’s almost as if you oppose reductionism for no other reason than it robs you of the ability to wax poetic about things.


  28. A "Hitchen's Hooligan"

    “Just because you can demonstrate that the brain is active during thinking does not prove that the brain is all there is to thinking. Just because you can empirically demonstrate that there is a chemical response to loved ones does not prove that the chemical response is all there is to love.”

    False. When that part of the brain associated with love is damaged, so too is our capacity to love. This case study about moral behavior being contingent on our brain’s health is illustrative:

    It was on September 13, 1848, that railroad foreman Phineas Gauge had a terrible accident. Phineas, by all accounts, was an exceptionally good man: a leader in his community, and a reliable man to all who he encountered. Then a railroad spike was blasted in through his skull and out the other end, in effect destroying a region known as the prefrontal cortex. If you can imagine the area right behind your eyes, that’s about it. In the movie Hannibal, during the famous scene in which Hannibal Lecter feeds Ray Liota his own brain, he calls the prefrontal cortex, “the seat of good manners.”

    When his prefrontal cortex was destroyed, so was his likable personality. Phineas Gauge became a violent and belligerent man, and a pain to be around. This phenomena is universal in all people who suffer prefrontal cortex damage. It really is, “the seat of good manners.”

    And chemicals in the brain are both the consequence and cause of feelings. Dopamine, for example, can induce fear: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080708173226.htm


  29. Kleiner Post author

    This has been fun, even if (as you point out) our conversation has lacked focus. We’ve certainly covered a lot of ground!

    A few thoughts:

    a) Since this is a philosophy blog, I tend to keep the obviously non-philosophical (such as what moved me from bare theism to Catholicism) out of it for the most part. VERY briefly, it was a mixture of prayer and a reflection on mediation (the sacraments, the role and nature of the Church).

    b) If Christianity only acquired its existential explanatory power after many centuries of theology, then why were there any Christians before Paul, much less Augustine and Aquinas? Why would anyone have converted?

    c) As I pointed out above, the ‘problem of miracles’ (like the Virgin Birth) is, with the problem of evil, one of the best reasons to not believe. (Aquinas happens to name those two reasons as the only two good reasons to not believe). I like to think I can disarm arguments that show that such things are irrational, perhaps that is something we could go over sometime if you are interested (though those discussion tend to end in stalemates).

    d) I don’t resist reduction just so I can wax poetic, that is just a welcome side effect! I aimed to show that the reduced biological account just does not square with our experience. I resist needless reduction when the reduced account seems to fail to grasp the depth of the experience. I also resist reduction, such as in the case of materialism, when the reduced explanation fails to make sense of the basic phenomena (materialism cannot make sense of the obvious fact that words have meaning. See the archive for those arguments, or read Aristotle ‘De Anima’).

    e) Your brain damage case does not so obviously prove my point false. Really, did you think I did not know about these scientific findings, or that I was simply choosing to ignore them? Again, what the fancy brain scans demonstrate is really old news. Aquinas, in Question 84.7 of the Summa, makes the exact same point about the brain being damaged (well, he calls it a ‘lesion on a corporeal organ’). Again, this does not prove what you think it proves. All it shows is that the brain is a necessary condition for human thought, not that it is a sufficient one.


  30. Mike Otteson

    I just wanted some clarifications on some things that Professor Kleiner has said. First, I don’t believe in God. I don’t see why I have to come up with some massive philosophical or epistemological case to defend that. I know very little about the universe we live in, but I hope to learn more about it as I go through life (that’s why I’m at college, listening to people like yourself who are far more knowledgeable and intelligent then I am). Could there be something that suggests to me that there be a god? Sure, but I’ve never felt compelled to believe that there is one. Maybe someday I will. Do I believe that there are things that humans don’t understand and will never understand? Of course. But I want to wait and see which ones we can and which ones we can’t. I think that love, hate, beauty, and all sorts of other things exist, but I don’t think that those things are contingent on there being a higher power. Do you think that all atheists are like Hitchens, or do you think that atheists can be rational and fair human beings? I don’t mean to sound rhetorical or mean spirited, I just wanted to know what your position was. I look for ward to your class this semester. Thanks.


  31. Mike Otteson

    *Could there be something that suggests to me that there is a god?

    *I think that love, hate, beauty, and all sorts of other (for lack of a better word) metaphysical things exist.

    Sorry for the typos. Tell me if I didn’t articulate myself well enough.


  32. A "Hitchen's Hooligan"

    I, too, have enjoyed this discussion. We’ll have to continue it later, preferably in person.

    I’ll only address a couple points; you can have the last word if you want.

    I’m glad you recognize that atheism is reasonable; that’s little solace, however, given that your theology still promises me Hell haha. If not on the atheism count, then on the bisexual one.

    And some final thoughts on reductionism:

    Does a biochemical account of kissing and love really detract from their beauty? They’re still enjoyable. And you can still wax poetic about them (which you’re good at). Things are as meaningful as you make them.

    “All it shows is that the brain is a necessary condition for human thought, not that it is a sufficient one.”

    To me, it looks like you’re trying to force a soul into the ever-shrinking gaps in cognitive science. I can’t prove that the brain is a sufficient explanation for human thought. I just haven’t encountered a thought or emotion that can’t be reduced to cognitive functions. Your experience with love, though, convinces you otherwise; I understand. What would a soul add by way of explanation? It seems to raise more questions than it answers.

    Again, the last word is yours. Thanks for intellectually midwifing me along our discussion. ;)


  33. Kleiner Post author

    To ‘Hitchens Hooligan’:
    a) I don’t know who goes to hell and who doesn’t, and anyone who claims to know claims too much. I think, as a Christian, I ought to hope that all are saved.
    b) The bio-mechanical accounts are fascinating. But I am not sure that ‘things are as meaningful as you make them’ (sort of sounds like a Sartrean view, the world is pointless but we can choose our own meaning). My experience tells me that I discover meaning (find myself enmeshed in it) rather than create it.
    c) I am not trying to cram a soul into the gaps. I think there are really good arguments that show that the brain cannot be a sufficient explanation for human thought. Here is Machuga’s version of Aristotle’s De Anima argument that argues for immaterial form/intellect. For my Intro students, we’ll see an argument very close to this when we read Aquinas (Summa Question 75):

    1. All relations are either physical or non-physical (i.e., intentional).
    2. The relation between a word and its meaning is not a physical relation
    3. The person who understands the meaning of a word is active, while the word itself is passive.
    4. That which is capable of action must subsist.
    5. Therefore, the agent intellect that understands words must be immaterial and subsistent.

    By the way, we’ve discussed that argument a number of times on this blog (especially around the time last year when Machuga came here to give a lecture). Not that we can’t discuss it again, since there are new people here. But if we do, I should start it in a new stream.

    To Mike O:
    I pick on Hitchens since he is, to my mind, the most hot-headed public atheist around. Almost every atheist I know agrees. Not all atheists are like him, not by a long shot (thank goodness!). We have an atheist right here in our department who is level-headed, reasonable, and charitable. The case for God is not anywhere near being so airtight that intelligent people can’t disagree!
    One can make some sense of all sorts of proximate things without making appeals to God (scientists do this all the time, quite successfully). I happen to think that if you press toward ultimate explanations, theism starts to announce itself as a rational way of explaining things (like ‘why is there something rather than nothing’). And I think that, if you grant final cause, you are well on your way to being a theist. But, as has been rightly pointed out, that still puts you quite a way away from signing on to any number of religious dogmas.
    We will see both sides of many of these issues as we press forward in the Intro class. We’ll talk about final cause/teleology when we read Aristotle, and will also read philosophers that deny final cause is a legitimate concept. We’ll read theists and atheists. It is an ‘equal opportunity’ class in that sense. My only demand of my Intro students is that, no matter which side they choose, they really reflect on their beliefs and think hard about the reasons they might have for holding them.


  34. A "Hitchen's Hooligan"

    Sorry, Professor Kleiner. I know I gave you the last word, so I wont revisit the issues of dualism or reductionism (we’ve exhausted that for now), but it’s worth pointing out that you’re at odds with the Bible on Hell. All unbelievers are damned (Mark 16:16, John 3:3).

    Also, from here on out I’ll be posting under my name, Jon Adams–it’s more personable. I quite liked your moniker (Hitchen’s Hooligan), though. I thought of a few for you, including: “Catholic Crusader,” “The Pope’s Puppet” and–my personal favorite–“The Vatican’s Vassal.”


  35. Kleiner Post author

    I don’t mean to tit for tat back and forth here, but the question of hell (and who will populate it) is a difficult question. Richard John Neuhaus has a nice reflection on this in his book ‘Death on a Friday Afternoon’. While there are plenty of passages one can point to that seem to condemn certain groups of people, the matter is much more complicated than picking a passage or two (are we to believe that your cited passages indicate that all 1 year olds that die are damned? – I sure don’t think so). Those passages must be read in context (they might be exhortations) and more importantly must be weighed against both God’s mercy and what seems to be the clear ‘desire’ of God that all the world be redeemed (and Catholics in particular focus on being saved as a ‘people’, not individually). It is a complicated matter, which I why keep it simple – who is saved and who is not is God’s affair, not mans’. No one really knows, and the Biblical interpretation on this matter is more difficult than is usually thought.

    We are a long ways off from worrying about those details though, we don’t even agree on whether God exists!

    Funny monikers!


  36. Nathan Schneider

    I’m writing to invite you to see my recent review of Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God” at ReligionDispatches.org. Since I saw that you’ve discussed the book here, I thought you might be interested.

    I hope you’ll consider responding to my review, either at my blog, The Row Boat, or here. Please let me know if you do.

    The review:
    The discussion on my blog:



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