Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Reply to Andrea Weisberger, Part Four: Theistic Personalism, Classical Theism, and Compulsive Correctomania

[This is the fourth part of my reply to Dr. Andrea Weisberger's critique of my arguments in the first Loftus-Wood debate.]

As I have pointed out in previous posts, a person’s arguments often reveal something about his or her mode of thinking. In “Sophie’s Choice and Andrea’s Scorn,” for instance, we saw that Dr. Weisberger seems to criticize my claims even when there are no mistakes whatsoever. Another error on her part will serve as a brief introduction to two different camps of theists, who respond to the Argument from Evil quite differently.

In my opening statement, I was careful to point out that the arguments I would be using were by no means the only arguments theists could offer in response to suffering. Indeed, there were entire categories of responses that I would not be using. As an example, I pointed to a distinction between two views known as classical theism and theistic personalism. Theistic personalists believe that God is a person—that is, God is like us, only much more powerful and intelligent. Classical theists are quite different. They reject the view that God is a person. Thus, God is not the sort of being who might come to our rescue if we fall into a pit. To think of God in this way is, according to classical theists, shear anthropomorphism.

Most theists writing on apologetics today are theistic personalists, and this is the view I lean towards (although I sympathize with classical theists). This is quite relevant for discussions of the Argument from Evil, for if classical theists are correct, most of the atheist’s complaints make no sense at all. If God is not the sort of being who might come to our rescue, because God is not like us, then it makes no sense to say, “Why didn’t God protect me when I fell into a pit?”

Classical theists and theistic personalists agree that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and wholly good. The notion of personhood, however, means that these attributes are interpreted differently. As I said in the debate, when someone like Thomas Aquinas (a paradigm classical theist) said that God is good, he didn’t mean that God is an extremely well-behaved person. Classical theists don’t view God as a moral agent. When a theistic personalist, on the other hand, says that God is good, he means, among other things, that God’s behavior is exceptionally good.

The point of these opening remarks was to show that atheists shouldn’t presume that, if they defeat one theist’s collection of responses to the Argument from Evil, they have thereby refuted all theists. I don’t agree with classical theists when they respond to the Argument from Evil, but I recognize that their position is immune to certain challenges which I, as a personalist, must face.

Dr. Weisberger responded to these comments with some extraordinarily odd remarks:

Wood argues that the concept of god’s goodness is not a claim about personal behavior, but about essential features. Despite a misplaced reference to Thomas Aquinas’ pronouncement that ‘god is good’ (since Aquinas was loathe to apply moral predicates in any meaningful sense to god) this concept is abandoned.

That was her assessment of my comments, but there are a few problems in her dismissal. First, she says that I argue that God’s goodness is not a claim about behavior. This is, of course, false. I merely stated that this is the position of classical theists, and I specifically said that I lean towards personalism.

Second, Dr. Weisberger says that I was wrong to claim that Thomas Aquinas referred to God as “good,” since he was “loathe to apply moral predicates in any meaningful sense to god.” Here Dr. Weisberger has, quite surprisingly, confused Aquinas with certain other medieval theologians. Consider the following quotation from Aquinas, and judge whether I made a mistake in saying that he held that God is good:

We should especially associate goodness with God. For something is good in so far as it is desirable. But everything desires its perfection, and an effect’s perfection and form consists in resembling its efficient cause (since every efficient cause produces an effect like itself). So an efficient cause is desirable and may be called good because what is desired from it is that the effect share its goodness by resembling it. Clearly then, since God is the first efficient cause of everything, goodness and desirability belong to him. (Summa Theologiae, Ia13.2, Brian Davies, tr.)

It is true that some medieval thinkers held that we can only describe God negatively, e.g. by saying what God is not (for instance, “God is not corporeal,” etc.). But Aquinas is not in this camp. He believed that when we say that God is good, or holy, or glorious, or powerful, we speak sensibly and meaningfully. But he also held that when we say that God is good, we don’t mean the same thing as when we say that Bob is good. We apply terms to God analogically, but this doesn’t mean that our words are meaningless. This is, however, exactly what I claimed in my opening statement when I said that goodness, for Aquinas, didn’t mean good behavior.

Finally, Dr. Weisberger says that, after my “misplaced” (yet completely accurate) reference to Aquinas, I “abandoned” the point. But the whole purpose of my comments was to call attention to a position that I wouldn’t be defending, so that the audience would understand that theists differ on this issue!

I think these details are quite significant. In my last post, I showed that Dr. Weisberger criticizes my comments on the movie Sophie’s Choice, when I had made no mistake at all. Indeed, in her response, Dr. Weisberger appealed to rule utilitarianism and deontological ethics without realizing that these frameworks were completely consistent with what I had said. And we find the same mistake today, where she attempts to correct my reference to Thomas Aquinas, and bases her correction on her own mistaken view!

The purpose of my response isn’t merely to point out a blunder on Dr. Weisberger’s part. Since she hasn’t taught philosophy in a while, it’s understandable that she might make a few errors here and there (and we all make them). The point I’d like to draw attention to is that she approaches the writings of theists with a hypercritical mindset, which compels her to find faults even where there aren’t any. If I were to name this mindset, I might call it “Compulsive Correctomania.”

I also think this is related to her stance on the Argument from Evil. As I noted in the first part of my response, Dr. Weisberger believes that the Argument from Evil shows that theists are simply irrational. Yet many prominent proponents of the argument reject such a strong view. The difference, I would suggest, is that Dr. Weisberger approaches the argument with a stronger bias against theism. I can’t see any other explanation for why a PhD philosopher would respond to my arguments with errors regarding ethical issues and medieval philosophy that any good first year philosophy major would be able to spot.


Stunney said...

The impression of Weisberger I'm consistently getting is that her loathing of theism is so strong that she can't assess it in a rational frame of mind. The evidence you cite of her hyper-criticality is itself evidence of this loathing.

A phenomenon I've encountered often enough is that of people who don't believe in God because the concept of God has no emotional force in their lives. But there's no loathing of (or much of any interest) in theism or theists.

However, people who are militant, adamant atheists seem for the most part to be driven primarily, or at least in large part, by emotion, not by reason. The more loudly they proclaim their own supposed superior rationality and the supposed irrationality of believers, the more such proclamations sound laden with emotive rather than rational force, which is of course very ironic.

What can really infuriate the type of atheist who is smugly and supremely confident that s/he is much smarter than than religious believers is to encounter smart theists. This usually leads to over-hasty and contemptuous attempts summarily to dismiss the arguments of believers. And this haste and over-confidence, born of a deep-seated loathing, leads if not inevitably then at least quite typically to foolish errors, sloppiness, and sometimes absurdity in their efforts to argue their case.

For example, as Plantinga has pointed out, we get a self-styled 'bright' like Dawkins defining complexity in one book in a way that would mean God isn't complex, and then, forgetful of his own definition, declaring in another book that God is most unlikely to exist on the grounds that God suffers from excessive complexity! In other words, it appears Dawkins' loathing for theism is so strong that it generates a haste so frantic that ensuing intellectual carelessness comes as no surprise.

Rich said...

Another interesting example of this I recently encountered is in the arguement that first starts with God not answering personal prayers to help us find lost keys, for example, because he should be more concerned about the needless suffering than my lost keys. Such micromanagment doesn't make sense. then the tide turns to creating us so that we have a siezure when we attempt to harm someone or create us so that the worst kind of pain and suffering we encounter is a papercut. Now isn't that micromanagement?
By the way David it is a good post.

Amy Sayers said...


Your response to Weisberger so far have been *very* impressive, and I predict that when your work becomes well-known, it will be as much for the appeal of your writing as it will be for the originality of your thinking.

And, BTW, if Weisberger really is among the top-tier atheists arguing from the POE, and if you really are in the bottom tier of the theist-defense-camp, then atheists may as well abandon this POE ship. You are swabbing her review into the bilge.

Stunney said...

If God helped one person find their lost keys, Weisberger would seize on this as an injustice. Wouldn't an omnibenevolent God be bound in fairness to help everyone who ever lost their keys?

God caves in. This would have the effect that keys would then by nature be un-loseable.

This wouldn't get God off the hook, though, with Weisberger. Wallets too would have to be un-loseable.

Those would represent startling changes to our world. But that's not the half of it. If someone accidentally dropped their keys over the side of an ocean cruise-liner, God would have a problem concerning how to ensure the keys would remain unlost. Well, either keys could bounce up off ocean surfaces, or else oceans could automatically plunge whenever a key was heading their way, ensuring no sinking keys. That's easy.

Would this satisfy Weisberger? No. Keys are much less important than ships full of people. So we'd have to have unsinkability as part of the very essence of being a ship.

But wait a minute. Not many people are at risk on the high seas, relatively speaking. Cancer is the big killer now. God should abolish it.

But God wouldn't be fair if he only got rid of cancer. What about the people whho die of heart attacks? Does God not care about them?

Pretty soon one goes from recovering one set of keys to abolishing all causes of death in apparently obvious steps dictated by how an omnipotent all-good being clearly ought to behave.

Weisberger, however, forgot about sin. For with death abolished, there'd now be no limit to the number of years we could spend hating our brother. How miserable our brother would be knowing that his hate-filled sibling could express that hatred indefinitely.

Weisberger's advice to God would lead to horror within seconds of being followed.

I wonder if Weisberger ever pauses to think about that.