[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.