Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Thoughts on Feser vs. Ahmed Dialogue on Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley

Last week Dr. Edward Feser was a guest on the Unbelievable? With Justin Brierley. This radio show is a staple in Christian/non-Christian dialogue and I have always found it to be high quality. Opposite Dr. Feser was Dr. Arif Ahmed, a philosopher from Cambridge. Dr. Ahmed was a great choice for the dialogue. He seems to have a keen interesting philosophy of religion and takes theistic arguments seriously. Dr. Ahmed has debated the likes of Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Gary Habermas in the past, so he has shown a willingness to interact with some of the best in the theistic tradition.

The show was billed as a debate, but it was more of a discussion and interactive dialogue. A ‘mini-debate’ is perhaps a more accurate term. The discussion focused on two arguments from Dr. Feser’s latest book Five Proofs of the Existence of God. The two proofs discussed were the Aristotelian proof and the Rationalist proof. Overall, I thought it was an interesting exchange throughout. Each side made substantive points in their own favor and against the other. Both men were cordial and professional. This should be expected but is unfortunately too rare in our society.

I think the clear winner was the listening audience. Mostly because the stark contrast in philosophical approaches was so evident. Aristotelian-Thomism vs. Analytic philosophy was on full display. This is important because analytic philosophy is so radically different than Aristotelian-Thomism.  Many listeners to this dialogue will probably not be aware of how far apart these two systems are. It was regrettable that Feser did not have the time to make this point explicit. If one starts from the analytic model, it is unlikely that any of the proofs from Feser’s book, besides perhaps the Rationalist proof, will be convincing at all. The background conception of reality on each side is just too irreconcilable. Ahmed’s objections to the Aristotelian proof are some of the same that theistic philosophers offer in their critique. For example, Ahmed pressed on what he thought was a circular definition of causality (actualization of a potency, etc.). When Feser replied, he dove into some analytic type jargon (e.g. “counterfactuals”) to bridge the gap, which I think was helpful.

Ahmed seemed to operate from, and gave examples for, a Humean view of causality and disagreed in principle with the notion of essentially ordered causes. Ahmed argued that science can provide all that is really necessary for causes which we can (or potentially might know about) and that there is no need to posit the act/potency division of being to address Parmenides’ being/non-being dilemma. I think Feser could have perhaps pressed harder on the underlying principles of nature that result in one having to make a fundamental choice about being, act, and potency. The ancient Greeks are not so easily hurdled. But Feser did a fine job sticking to the argument and keeping the jargon digestible for the listening audience.

In analytic fashion, Ahmed argued that the non-contradictory nature of a proposition or event is sufficient to leave off positing anything like the Aristotelian causal regress. I think, at one point, Ahmed argued that the paradigmatic simultaneous causal notion of the hand moving the stick moving the stone was fallacious to the extent that the stick was posited as having no causal power. Brierley did a good job moderating, which in this dialogue meant helping to clarify concepts and spacing out time and response. It seemed like Feser got a bit more airtime than Ahmed, which was perhaps due to the brevity of Ahmed’s responses and questions aimed at critique with Feser defending.

The rationalist proof received less time that the Aristotelian proof. I think this was because it does not require as much in the way of background metaphysics. The rationalist proof is based on the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) and is quite close to Leibniz’ cosmological argument. Brierley pointed out that both proofs in the discussion turn upon the notion of the impossibility of an infinite causal regress, though this is inescapable when discussing causes or explanation. Ahmed essentially argued for limiting the PSR and seemed (at least to me) to come down on the side of brute facts like the universe. Feser did a great job showing the weakness and problems in limiting the PSR. I thought Ahmed’s objections against the Aristotelian proof were more substantive than those against the rationalist proof, and the Aristotelian objections demonstrated more of an outright rejection of Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics.

I encourage the interested reader to listen to the Feser vs. Ahmed dialogue. It will be enriching and a good example of how two people can respectfully disagree about something so important.

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