About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Gary Gutting on being Catholic

by Massimo Pigliucci

I shouldn’t be surprised at the mental gymnastics that even some professional philosophers go through when they talk about their own religion. After all, mental gymnastics (in the positive sense of exercising one’s critical faculties) is what philosophy is all about. Still, the latest defense of Catholicism by Gary Gutting in the New York Times really rubbed me the wrong way. Here’s why.

Referring to something Gutting often hears from fellow philosophers, he sets out to answer the question: “Can reflective and honest intellectuals actually believe that stuff?” As the reader will have quickly surmised, my own answer is a resounding no. But let’s proceed with order.

Gutting thinks that his Catholic faith is a matter of self-respect, and he defines the latter as respect for the sources of one’s self. Fair enough, as far as it goes. The trouble begins immediately afterwards, when he proceeds to tell his readers about the two sources from which his own self identity emerged: the Enlightenment and the Catholic Church. This will prima facie sound a bit strange, considering that it was one of the Enlightenment’s foremost exponents, Voltaire, who famously took to signing his letters with “Ecrasez l’infame,” let us crush the infamous, where “the infamous” was, you guessed it, the Catholic Church! [Incidentally, Voltaire was a deist, not an atheist, and he actually thought atheists were a pernicious element of society. Pobody’s nerfect...]

In order to rationalize (I really can’t find any other suitable term here) his conviction that he can juggle within his philosophical framework both the Enlightenment and Catholicism, Gutting has to explain why he is attached to the latter (presumably he feels — and rightly so — that as a philosopher committed to the role of reason in human affairs he doesn’t have to justify his intellectual kinship with the thinkers of the Enlightenment).

Upon reflection, Gutting finds himself attached to the Catholic Church because of three deep convictions he inherited from his education by Ursuline nuns and Jesuit priests. Here is his summary, verbatim:
First, it is utterly important to know, to the extent that we can, the fundamental truth about human life: where it came from, what (if anything) it is meant for, how it should be lived. Second, this truth can in principle be supported and defended by human reason. Third, the Catholic philosophical and theological tradition is a fruitful context for pursuing fundamental truth, but only if it is combined with the best available secular thought.
Let’s unpack all of this a bit. (1) The fundamental truth(s) about human life: I have written about this very recently, but it seems to me that by far the most defensible answers here are that (a) life came from a process of physical and then biological evolution that had nothing whatsoever to do with supernatural forces; (b) life is not meant for anything, it just is (although we do construct meanings for our own existence); and (c) it should be lived in a way that is both moral and allows individuals to flourish in whatever way suits them best. These three conclusions are in diametric opposition to every teaching of the Catholic Church that I’m aware of (and I was raised Catholic too, though I managed to avoid a Jesuit education in favor of public schooling in Rome).

(2) Indeed, the above truths can be supported and defended by human reason. Too bad for Gutting and any intellectually self-respecting Catholic that such support and defense have nothing whatsoever to do with the teachings of their Church.

(3) The Catholic philosophical and theological tradition is not at all a fruitful context for pursuing these fundamental truths, and is in fact in direct contradiction with the best available secular thought. Oops.

Not happy with this egregious piece of philosophical gerrymandering, Gutting goes on to explain how he connects Catholic metaphysics, the Church’s teachings, and the ethics that derives from them:
Traditional apologetics has started with metaphysical arguments for God’s existence, then argued from the action of God in the world to the truth of the Church’s teachings as revealed by God and finally justified the ethics of love by appealing to these teachings. I reverse this order, putting first the ethics of love as a teaching that directly captivates our moral sensibility, then taking the history and metaphysics as helpful elucidations of the ethics.
Nice move, but a profoundly misguided one. Let’s agree that the “ethics of love” that is taught by Catholicism is indeed ethical and loving [1]. Even so, one could (indeed, rationally should) accept the ethical teachings, say, of Jesus, but reject both the truth of other Church teachings as revealed by God (because there is no such thing as gods, reason tells us), and of course accept that all the metaphysical arguments for the existence of said God are no better than the exactly parallel arguments one could advance in favor of the existence of Santa Claus (which is why no truly self-respecting philosopher should indulge in apologetics).

At some level, Gutting is aware that he is pursuing a sophistic path out of an impossible conundrum, which is why he attempts to explain that even though his positions hardly qualify as Catholic in certain quarters (like, say, in the infallible opinions of the last three Popes), he bravely states that he is not willing to leave the Church in the hands of the orthodox and will keep fighting the good fight.

Well, of course Gutting or anyone else who grew up within the Church has the right to engage in whatever fight they think is appropriate to defend that institution. Or they could try to be really true to their selves, admit that the institution is rotten to its core (metaphysically, historically, and ethically), leave it to crumble, and start something more worthwhile. Just a friendly suggestion, you know.


[1] There is, naturally, quite a bit to quibble about here: is the current position of the Church towards gays, or women, really ethical and loving? Shall we pick and choose which of the teachings of Jesus qualify? Shall we entirely forget about the monstrous and vengeful god of the Old Testament? I will leave these questions for the readers as useful exercises...


  1. Massimo,
    You really showed Gary Gutting. I didn’t click on the link regarding “the existence of Santa Clause” but the comparison between proofs for the existence of God and the existence of Santa Clause sure makes him look like a fool. In H Allen Orr’s review of “The God Delusion” he points out that the proofs for the non-existence of God are just as contrived and unscientific as the ones that supposedly prove his existence. So I am not sure how reason shows you that God doesn’t exist and how you can so ridicule someone who isn’t as sure as you are.

    In the last post where you skewered Gary Gutting there was a distinction between knowing “about” something and actually knowing it – e.g. between knowing about swimming and knowing how to swim.
    You seem to know about a lot of things, but I sometimes think you don’t know as much as you let on regarding morality and value and art and anything that is not science. Gutting is a part of a Catholic community. Catholicism is his culture. As you point out here and have pointed out in many other places there is much wrong with the Catholic Church’s position on civil and individual rights. And that authoritarian hierarchy needs to go. Gutting has argued in his op-ed pieces that the Catholic Church is a democracy, whether the leadership chooses to recognize it or not. He is a part of a dialogue working inside the church, changing it from within. I like the idea of someone as influential as a philosopher at the University Of Notre Dame saying the things he is saying. It gives me hope that changes can happen from within the church.

    I know some Catholics who are human rights workers. You know a lot about human rights but I think they know more than you do. Morality is more than sitting in your study and making assumptions and then attempting to “unpack the logical consequences of such assumptions”. It is a dialogue. It is learning to get along with others. Being engaged in a community is taking part in a moral dialogue. Kenan Malik, someone you turned me on to, makes that case here:

    Life is more than just thinking. It is more than knowledge about things – which is really all thinking and science can give us. I have learned a lot from you. I like that yours is a voice of reason within the skeptic community, responding to the B.S. of the likes of Alex Rosenberg, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, etc. They preach a scientistic dogma that for me is much scarier than the Catholic Church’s. As you know a science of morality isn’t possible, but a technology for controlling people (what Harris and Shermer would call science) is more real and therefore more horrifying than hell.

    You seem more tolerant of the Shermer, Coyne and Rosenberg than you do Gutting. That is unfortunate because I think he’s less dogmatic and more reasonable than they are. All they know is science; and life is more than just that.

    1. Massimo's never presented a proof for the non-existence of god himself because he knows they're logically invalid. Given you started your comment with such a straw man, I take the rest of your comments with a big grain of salt.

    2. You don't read closely enough Gadfly . . . I didn't say Massimo presented a proof for the existence of God. I did, however, respond to this comment that that he made: "because there is no such thing as gods, reason tells us"

    3. I'll venture that "reason" in the quote you mention was shorthand for "empirical observation plus abductive reasoning" or similar. And, assuming that it was, I stand behind him.

    4. I don't care where you stand. You don't read well, so I take your comments with a grain of salt.

    5. And, having seen both your main comments, as well as your responses to me, I don't care that you don't care where I stand.

      That said, I'm going to respond to a couple of other comments.

      Gutting is part of a "democracy" within the Catholic Church? That's about as laughable as Willis continuing to complain about Catholicism but never voting with his feet. Willis may be a cultural Catholic, but Gutting is more than one, as his tortuous reasoning shows, including his refusal to admit that the Euthyphro dilemma applies to said reasoning.

      As for the "tolerance" issue, Massimo's more than addressed that himself. As have other commenters. But, if you want to continue to believe that Gutting is being especially martyred, I'll suggest a book for you — Candida Moss' "The Myth of Persecution."


  2. Mr. Massimo Pigliucci

    Of course you can believe that "there is no such thing as gods", you are entitled to your personal beliefs (as anyone else), but claiming that that particular claim is what reason told you, makes me wonder if reason came to you and whispered that so that only you could hear, or maybe you were on drugs, or something of the kind.

    I do not understand why, but atheists often claim to own rationality (as if it was a law of thermodynamics). It is a bold presumption, but it just waht it is. Anyway I think you are entitled for the delusions you see fit.

    (just a note: the Popes are not infallible as you claim, neither do they claim it. By the way, it would be nice if you could avoid this type of grosse BS. At least try to educate yourself before producing bold claims like this.)

  3. Yeah, Vasco Gama is right. Popes only claim infallibility at rare moments, and I don't think there's been any such moment since 1950. Still an absurd doctrine, but it doesn't apply to the last 3 popes.

  4. While I am no fan of religion, I am a bit disturbed that you seem to single out the Catholics here -- as opposed to other religions -- or for that matter other dogmas. I must echo Patrick's comment that you seem more tolerant/repectful of Coyne and others who are just as irrational and dogmatic (to the point of racism/Islamophobia) as any religious kook.

    Ditto your propensity to attack alternative health care while ignoring irrational practices of traditional medicine that are much more prevalent and do much more harm.

    Don't get me wrong, I admire you and your website. I just wish you were more even handed in giving examples of irrational/harmful behavior, instead of always dwelling on the easy targets.

  5. As a child and teenager my family and I belonged to what is now called a "liberal mainstream Protestant" denomination (the UCC). Even back in the 1960s, you could be a virtual atheist and be comfortable in that church, even with its Reformed heritage. Today, there would be no barrier to a gay or lesbian who was same-sex married to be elected leader of that denomination (which today performs gay weddings, of course).

    I don't understand from what he wrote what Gary Gutting actually believes. Maybe it is his Catholic upbringing or his position at Notre Dame, but it seems to me beyond reason to believe that the Catholic Church would ever change its policy in this regard (in any practical future).

  6. Tom et al.,

    I really don’t think your perception of bias on my part is fair. I have criticized other religious denominations before, and I have delivered plenty of (sometimes harsh) criticisms to Jerry Coyne and other “new atheists.” Just do a quick search on this blog and you’ll see what I mean.

    As for the infallibility of Popes, to begin with that was meant as a little ironic poke at Gutting, not as an argument. Still, the doctrine of infallibility remains part of the official teachings of the Catholic Church, regardless of how often it is invoked. And since Gutting is questioning a number of basic teachings that have been repeatedly affirmed ex-cathedra by a number of Popes, he is in flagrant contradiction of Church doctrine.

    1. Massimo, you were actually kind to Gutting. You didn't even mention the Euthyphro dilemma to undercut "the ethics of love" ultimately leading back to the beliefs and god of the Catholic Church.

      @ Tom: Here's the link about the Euthyphro dilemma yourself. That said, I've seen liberal "Ground of Being" Christians ... in grad school for divinity ... claim that it only applies to the Olympic pantheon and not the one true god.

      And, I know Gutting damn well knows what it is. Massimo ... why don't you ask him directly about it yourself? :)


    2. Well, I belled the cat myself. Gutting, because of his reverse arrow of metaphysical causation, claims Euthyphro doesn't apply to his chain of thought, as I suspected he would claim.

    3. And, without making public details of a second round of email exchanges, Gutting, IMO, made clear that, well, that he wasn't practicing philosophy at this point.

  7. Concerning the question on your footmark:

    Yes! The current position of the Church towards gays or women (or any other type of person) is ethycal and loving. Why do you think otherwise (or is it one of those self evident trues that are the backbone of your beliefs).

    Concernig the Old Testament, the Catholic Church clearly opposes to a literal interpretation of its content (however I guess you were beeing ironic).

    1. "Yes! The current position of the Church towards gays or women (or any other type of person) is ethycal and loving."

      Surely you're joking or maybe you're are just a straight male?

    2. I am afraid I am not joking, and this has nothing to do with me beeing gay or straight. There are gay and straight people who agree with the Catholic Church position on that matter (which is irrelevant for the matter of beeing ethycal and loving, the Curch is not bound to justify the private choices of anyone, even if a lot of people share those choices).

    3. Just because individuals believe something to be ethical doesn't make it so. How exactly is it ethical to deny equality to women? You are aware of how the church has treated women in places like Ireland, no? There is absolutely no ethical reason that women cannot be priests, bishops, cardinals or popes - none - I would hardly call misogyny ethical, would you? There is nothing ethical or loving about denying sexual relations to consenting adults. If sex outside of marriage is deemed immoral, then why deny any individual the right to marry?

    4. I am tempted to verbally abuse you and then claim how ethical and loving I am. (this would work better if I could use some four letter words but I think the host would frown)

    5. Mr. Michael Fugate

      Nature provides the evidence that man and women are different. You can pretend that men and women are equal (and believe they are), however they are not.
      I do not deny that women may have been treated unfairly occasionally, I do not believe it happens generally and it is an absurd (at least for me) to consider that the Church would not oppose to that. I do not know exactly the situation of women in Ireland, but I suppose it must be very much alike to the situation in other places around the world (in Europe or North America), and I don’t think the Irish are particularly evil, as compared with people from other places.
      The issue of women becoming priests is something that concerns only to believers (I could try to explain but it could take a while, and you would not agree with it so I will not try to do it).
      Religious believe is a private matter (and is volunteer, at least in the western world), the rules (and morality) of the church is something that each person determines if he must follow them or not (in the Christian believe no one is not supposed to judge other people sins, that is considered to concern God alone). Among Christians there are a lot of people who interpret those rules quite loosely and it is ok, the church can’t force people against their reason and will.
      There is no misogyny in the church, but there is plenty outside the church.
      The church does defends morality, however it can’t coerce individuals to do what they do not consider reasonable. So claiming that the Church denies sexual consensual relations is absurd, but it is beyond reason to expect that the Church should bless anything, just because you (or I) consider it acceptable.
      And I guess you are right, the Church has its own conception of marriage that you don’t share, it is not a big deal (again, expecting that the church should agree with you is not reasonable).

    6. The only difference between males and females is a tiny bit of DNA (~2% of the human genome) and you and I share many more genes with our mothers than we do with each other. This is a totally arbitrary difference. In no category could you not find overlap between males and females - especially in any needed to be a priest. Intellectually women are as smart as men and always have been - so why, other than misogyny did the Church, which ran universities for much of history, deny education to women or restrict it to nuns? For males education was not restricted to priests. If we look at the Gospels and their commentary on women, many Catholic priests and theologians have concluded that Jesus treated women as intellectual and spiritual equals and the church's ban on women priests is unwarranted. Catholic theologians do not speak with one voice.

      I find it difficult to understand why you support an organization that you know so little about. Let's take Ireland for example of which you claim be ignorant. The Church singled out young women who had "sinned" usually premarital sex but even for flirting, farmed out their children for adoption if born outside of marriage, and enslaved the women in workhouses often for their entire lives. Men who engaged in premarital sex were never punished. Why the double standard, if not misogyny? In Africa, the Church has campaigned against birth control even when condoms could save women's lives - even claiming in some instances that condoms increase the spread of HIV. Wives having sex with infected husbands are the victims here - and so are their HIV-infected children.

      Although you claim the Church cannot force their "morality" on others, they continually try. In the US, Church-affliated hospitals deny birth control to non-Catholic women and delay abortions even when the mother's life is in danger. Often these women have no choice but to get services from these hospitals because of health insurance contracts. It is one thing to deny same-sex marriages in Catholic churches, but why should they be able to dictate what other churches or even the state does by campaigning against same-sex marriage for everyone?

    7. Mr. Michael Fugate

      I will not discuss with you the differences between man and women (but trying to resume that to the DNA is absurd). The Church position regarding the issue of woman becoming priests is clear, the Church claims not to have power to change what was the norm with Jesus (on the basis that no women was included by among the apostles). The Church doesn’t stand this position on any other argument (and the claim that this is based on the inferiority of woman is ridicule).
      Unlike what you say, the Church as no bias against woman and the misogyny claims concerning the church are pure and simple unfair mythology. The claims about the past are interesting but must be framed on the time they occurred and if they correspond to Church positions, or if those the result of wrong and erratic actions (eventually involving clergy members), and in this sense they happen they were mistakes, but this as not correspondence with the times we live in. Woman have been important to the Catholic Church since its foundation and still are. In this respect I think you are misinformed, along human history the Catholic church positions concerning woman (and woman condition) were in general more progressive and fair than the secular perspectives. Your comments concerning restrictions education to woman are absurd, if woman had access to education it was supported by the Church.
      The Church doesn’t approve most abortive techniques of birth control, and doesn’t approve abortion, so it is not reasonable to expect the Church to support such things and it is only reasonable to expect that the Church doesn’t want to take part in things (such as abortion) it considers as crimes (it is a violence to pretend that the Church should go against its believes).
      The Church does not consider that the cohabitation and eventual sexual relationship involving people (of the same gender or not) can be considered marriage. So, in its right, it prefers not to celebrate those things. Anyway the church does not dictate anything, simply the church as not the power to dictate on these matters.
      In the present the Catholic Church expects (and prays) that the non believers (atheist or with other creeds) may be tolerant and accept that the Catholic Church and the catholiques to think the way they do.

    8. The apostles weren't many things - why is being male the only qualification and being female an automatic disqualification? Most apostles were minimally educated, if at all - should priests be unable to read? rejected for attending college? Should at least 1/3 be fishermen? Should 1/12 be tax collectors? Should they all be from the Middle East? Should they all be converted Jews? Like you said, one must look at these things in the context of the times - so if today women are equal under the law, why hasn't the Church changed on this issue? At the time, perhaps Jesus knew his mission would be harmed by choosing women, but that is not the case today. As I said before, it clear that he had close female followers who Jesus taught and respected. In a like manner, the apostles were unlikely to be unmarried and celibate, no? Times change, don't they?

      You say, "...if woman had access to education it was supported by the Church." Then in a like manner, if they didn't have access to education it was opposed by the Church. This would mean 99% of women were denied education by the Church. If they can be wrong on education for women, then they can be wrong on anything, no?

      I am not trying to force Catholics to do anything. If they don't won't to use birth control, no problem, if they don't want to conduct same-sex marriages, fine. They just can't force their beliefs on non-Catholics. If my health insurance allows me to obtain birth control, then a Catholic pharmacist or a Catholic hospital chain that administers my health plan should not be able to deny any service. If a majority of citizens wants to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, then the Catholic church should not be able to stop it. It is the Church that is intruding on the rights of others, not the other way around. A non-Catholic in Catholic country should not need to go a non-Catholic country to get birth control (most of which is non-abortive). If you want respect, it works both ways.

    9. Mr. Michael Fugate

      I think that in the perspective of the Church, Jesus (as God) would understand the importance of including woman among the apostles and He didn’t (even if it was symbolic). I think you have different view of the problem (again this is no big deal), there are people in the Church that think that woman could become priests.
      The progressive view of the Church concerning the rights of women is a fact (in spite all the myths that were spread again and again by those who opposed the Church). You can easily verify it, beside the common anticlerical mythology.
      You are right when you say that “Catholics “can't force their beliefs on non-Catholics” and they don’t. However catholics and Catholic Church must be able to express their values. Unlike you are implying the Catholic Church has no power to force legislators and executive power to do what they don’t want to do. This thing you call a catholic country that enables woman from doing birth control I think it doesn’t exist (but I am not sure what exactly is a catholic country (besides the Vatican).

    10. "You are right when you say that “Catholics “can't force their beliefs on non-Catholics” and they don’t. However catholics and Catholic Church must be able to express their values. Unlike you are implying the Catholic Church has no power to force legislators and executive power to do what they don’t want to do. This thing you call a catholic country that enables woman from doing birth control I think it doesn’t exist (but I am not sure what exactly is a catholic country (besides the Vatican)."

      This just shows how completely divorced from reality you are. Please look at what is happening in the US, Ireland, and, as Paco mentioned, Mexico - to name three countries. You keep denying things because you are ignorant of what is happening in the world.

      The Church is not progressive on the rights of women - it never has been. If it were, women would be priests and women who need abortions to save their lives would not be dead.

    11. I dont understand your argument either.
      Regarding the Catholic Churchs political influence in different countries, She has EVERY right to make her voice and her followers voices heard through the legislative and executive branches. If you dont like it, lobby harder! But, how do you dare to tell a Catholic Hospital that it has to provide abortion?? I guess you deny the free exercise clause of the Constitution? Are you suggesting that I as a Catholic pharmacist should be required to give you birth control? Im sorry, the 1st Amendment rights of my free exercise of religion take far more precedence than your perceived right to birth control on demand! If my company doesnt want to allow me the right to refuse service, then they have the right to fire me or allow another person to wait on you. But simply because your health plan offers that service, you cant force EVERYONE to provide it to you. The Catholic pharmacist or hospital should expect that they may lose that insurance contract but how can you expect the government deny the religious their right to their free exercise of religion? While I cant expect the Catholic pharmacist to keep his job if his company requires him to provide contraception, you cant expect the government to violate the 1st Amendment either. Free exercise of religion is NOT just the ability to worship in the Church. Its all other aspects of ones life in which one follows his religion.

  8. @Massimo:
    "(a) life came from a process of physical and then biological evolution that had nothing whatsoever to do with supernatural forces; (b) life is not meant for anything, it just is (although we do construct meanings for our own existence)"
    How do you differentiate the forces that regulate universal laws from what you claim are supernatural to those you seem quite sure are natural, except that you don't actually know what all the differences could be or might need to be?
    How do you know that the evolutionary process, where changes are predictable as both logical possibilities and probabilities, were not meant to be either possible or probable? How do you perceive or explain a universally persistent logical system of meaningless to begin with?
    How do you reckon we came to look for meanings that we can construct when there was no meaning in the universe until we humans somehow saw its lack and invented it?

    1. But then it seems you only reply to the easy questions, and otherwise we're left to assume this set was just too off the scale to be given any weight at all. May the metaphorical heaven help anyone who dares to think you'd rather give no answer than confirm your inability to deal with these concepts.

    2. I invite others here to read The Mind of God, The Scientific Basis for a Rational World, by Paul Davies. He's a physicist, yet he's also a much better philosopher than the one here who won't deign to answer what Davies sees as rather simple epistemological questions.

  9. I have what I think is a sentimental fondness for the Catholic Church I grew up with, and perhaps a fondness for certain aspects of its aesthetics and history as well, along the lines of what I think Santayana felt for it. Christianity, and especially Catholic Christianity, has always struck me as an amazing hodgepodge or assimilation of ancient Mediterranean religions and philosophies prevalent in the Roman Empire. I'm not an atheist; more a deist or pantheist in the stoic tradition. I have no contempt for religious beliefs in and of themselves.

    However, I don't think one can honestly call oneself a Catholic without accepting the doctrines of the Church which seem fundamental to it, e.g., the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, transubstantiation. It seems to me that Catholic philosophers (and Protestant ones too to the extent the divinity of Christ is concerned), or those that call themselves philosophers, prefer not to address such things or ignore them entirely when maintaining that Catholicism or Christianity is consistent with philosophy or with reason. They instead take positions and make claims which don't require them to assert a belief in such things, though they may not be logically inconsistent with them. In other words, they take positions any deist may take, for example. They eschew or abstain from those things which are peculiarly Catholic, or Christian.

    This sort of thing makes it difficult to take their defense of Catholicism or Christianity in particular very seriously. In fact, it makes them appear disingenuous.

  10. Massimo,
    There’s a difference between criticism and ridicule. Your response to Mr. Gutting is more like the latter. Some of your criticisms are well taken, but he doesn’t deserve the ridicule you give him. That’s how I see your bias expressing itself: you ridicule Gutting and his writing in a way that I rarely see you ridicule members of the skeptic (sometimes scientistic) community.

    For example Coyne wrote a piece for USA Today about how we had no choice in what we think we decided to have for breakfast this morning. Any reasonably educated person with an ounce of confidence in their own powers of reason laughed out loud and realized immediately that Coyne’s a bit of religious fanatic. He claimed in the article that the stuff our brains are made of, that give rise to consciousness, has to obey the laws of physics; as though the laws of physics are prescriptive rather than descriptive. As if our current understanding is the final word rather than a meager and more often than not distorted glimpse of reality. Coyne’s article is the stuff that scientistic satire is made of. You could have had a field day with it, but you were cordial.

    You were cordial and respectful toward Joan Roughgarden when she did a guest post at Rationally Speaking. Her point that religion is often an expression of community is something that is rarely mentioned here; where more often than not, religion a merely a list of stupid things that people believe. You and your readers have a field day with that kind of stuff. I don’t think you know what to make of the religion of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr or of the religion Joan talked about. Religion is something that people do. In the same way art and science are things we do. It is more than a mere set of beliefs that science guys who have seen the light can just pick apart and dismiss. A profitable scientific enquiry into community, culture and religion requires more thought and care than that.

    In his excellent review of Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape” Kenan Malik pointed out that Harris seems to think demonizing Muslims will bring us to a peak on the moral landscape. I have appreciated your criticism of Harris, but I rarely see you speak out against intolerance of this kind that amounts to a suppression of free thought and expression. You seem to think people will listen to your proclamations about God, appreciate your clear and logical reasoning, see the error of their ways and leave their religion and their community behind. You give me the impression that religion is little more than bullshit. It’s no wonder you can’t see your bias.

    I recall your friend Michael taking a stand against people who baptize their children. He seemed to be echoing the sentiment that Dawkins made about how raising your children in your religion (or culture) amounts to child abuse. I can’t help but imagining the browbeating Dawkins’ kid would get if she ever brought home a Christian or Muslim friend and told her old man she thinks her friend’s views are intelligent and reasonable. Neither Dawkins nor Michael seem to me to be defenders of free thinking. Parents more often than not do the best they can. A child is born into a family and a family is a part of a community. I can’t imagine a parent being a part of a community and not integrating her child into it. Michael’s stand against baptism seemed not only prejudiced but rather extreme. The mistakes that a parent makes and the dogma she passes down to her child are unfortunate. Hopefully the child will learn to question everything she has learned to think and feel. Hopefully Michael’s and Dawkins’ children will question the dogma and prejudices their fathers have passed down to them.

    Like you and Mr. Gutting I also grew up Catholic. I can’t put myself fully into church for all of the reasons I’ve seen you express over the years. But I have friends who are practicing Catholics and it makes sense to me to maintain some connection with them and the Church, for they are still a part of my community and my identity.

    1. "Neither Dawkins nor Michael seem to me to be defenders of free thinking."
      This seems unfair. You've speculated about a lot of what might happen without any basis, then concluded that they're not defenders of freethinking. You've not even fairly representing what Dawkins meant when he talked about the religious upbringing of children being child abuse.

    2. No it's not ridicule. Gutting claims to be practicing philosophy ... then crosses a line into non-philosophical, faith-based metaphysics. I won't detail what he told me by email, since I didn't ask him to speak for public consumption, but he made what I just said VERY clear.

      And, "intolerance"? Please. This is even worse than your initial comment.

    3. I grew up a protestant in sectarian ridden Belfast and I know how intolerance for the belief systems of others can manifest itself. I do not belong to a church or practise any religion but I have seen where disparaging the faiths of others whether they be religious or atheist can lead. In my not all that learned opinion comparing a belief in God to a belief in Santa Clause is ridiculing the former. I am not the first to say it, but I don't know of anyone who has given up a belief in Santa Clause and later come to the view he exists; I do know, however, of many who have come to believe in God from a position of avowed atheism.

      I plea for tolerance.

    4. "In my not all that learned opinion comparing a belief in God to a belief in Santa Clause is ridiculing the former. I am not the first to say it, but I don't know of anyone who has given up a belief in Santa Clause and later come to the view he exists; I do know, however, of many who have come to believe in God from a position of avowed atheism."
      The comparison is meant to say one ought to see no difference between God and Santa Claus. The analogy is to get people to see that we shouldn't treat the beliefs epistemologically any differently, not whether the beliefs manifest themselves differently. The analogy is made in full view of the fact that people convert late in life, or that people persist into adulthood - the question is whether there's any more warrant for a belief in God than a belief in Santa?

      Or, to look at another case, the fact that adults come to believe in astrology isn't reason to think that astrology is anything other than nonsense. Adults form nonsense beliefs all the time, the question is whether or not the reasons for holding the position are any good. In terms of atheists becoming theists, the important point is why they became theists. Without that, the analogy still holds. Or as Julian Baggini wrote in The Duck Who Won The Lottery that response (which Alister McGrath used) was a case of missing the point.

    5. Kel
      I understand what you mean. Analogies are made from all different perspectives with all kinds of motives and associated implications. The link Massimo provides is to an article by Barbara Drescher that does not seem to make the points you make. You may wish to talk in terms of ought and imply motives to others – I don’t. In my view you only seem to compound the ridicule by including ‘nonsense beliefs’ and ‘astrology’. You do make a good point (at least to me) when you seem to imply that perhaps we could try and understand why some atheists become theists. No doubt to do that may be going beyond the logical reasons you may require, I do not know – I am not (yet) there. My plea is not for theism but to give some respect to those who have a different belief system than mine. Massimo’s examples of those he would not tolerate are those of the Taliban and the KKK – groups who have in common intolerance for the beliefs of others. I would hate to be included with them.

    6. "In my view you only seem to compound the ridicule by including ‘nonsense beliefs’ and ‘astrology’."
      I honestly don't mind, I don't see the ridicule of ideas as a problem. Indeed, the strategy being employed with such comparisons is to draw a link between what both parties agree is ridiculous and the resemblance of the belief in question. The philosopher Stephen Law does this with his Evil God challenge, where he gets people to agree with the ridiculousness of an evil God, then proceeds to use the theodicies that are given as a solution to the problem of evil and uses them in defence of the evil God.

      Interestingly enough, I would wonder why it is you think it's okay to call mentioning astrology ridicule when there are again adults who believe in it. Don't you think you're being a hypocrite to take exception at a cherished and richly-explored topic like astrology? I personally don't care, I think it's nonsense myself, but I do find it odd that you're willing to throw other cherished beliefs under the bus when compared to a God belief. Don't you think you're being self-defeating by taking exception to something that meets your criteria for why God shouldn't be treated the same way?

    7. Yes Kel, I am probably not expressing myself clearly. In my day to day life I spend little time concerning myself with questions about God's existence, esoteric arguments about good and evil, astrology, Santa Clause or the tooth fairy. However I do experience intolerance expressed in terms of analogies designed to belittle, ridicule and dismiss the honestly held views of others. In my opinion Gutting was attempting to describe his world view in a rational way. He was not trying to convert others - in fact, I think it is impossible to rationally convince others of views they are not in some way predisposed to have. It is not, however, impossible to inflame latent prejudices and hatred. I have personally witnessed the ugly effects of ridicule expressed by fundamentalist preachers and ideologues - it was not pretty and I am horrified to think that we might be witnessing its inchoate emergence among the intelligentsia.

    8. To prove one is more intelligentsia than the other gentsia? What else is new.

  11. Connecting God and Truth with Aristolian logic

    If God is simply another name for everything,
    And everything another name for the Universe,
    And also Uni meaning One, as One meaning All,
    Then God is empirically, or equals = mathematically, One or All.

    Once this truth is understood, Life can be said to have evolved from the Oneness of the Universe, from infinitely everything, from the One, the God, the almighty, (for surely nothing can be more powerful than everything) from the Truth, is All.

    One can only try,

    Truth is,

    = is

    Oh bye and bye, the above is true unless of course you have been taught to believe in the sciences that divide the Universe into smaller and smaller pieces with their theories of uncertain unjust, inequitable, measurements, or the equally divisive and damaging inequities of religious dogmas or faith.
    Have you been led astray too?

    Nature is truly immeasurable and indivisible,
    Be one,

    1. Ahh, a New Ager in some sort of guise joins the Catholic apologists.

  12. Patrick (and Neil),

    I honestly don’t think this has anything to do with tolerance. Criticizing, or even ridiculing, someone is not an act of intolerance, at least not in open democratic societies. I am indeed intolerant of certain groups (the KKK and the Taliban come to mind), but not of Catholics. That said, it seems to me that a professional philosopher who engages in extremely sloppy reasoning for the sake of saving his faith needs to be taken to tasks, particularly when he does that in a very public forum like the New York Times.

    As for my behavior toward Coyne, Dawkins, Harris and co., it sounds like you are not familiar with what I have written about them. I seriously doubt they will feel like I treated them differently from Gutting...

    1. @Massimo:

      Once again, I must agree with Patrick. You do indeed criticize the "New Atheists", but your criticism is as Patrick said, "cordial and respectful", a tepid criticism at best. If you deny this, then give us a link to one of your harshest criticisms, and let your readers compare it to the way it should REALLY be done: Glenn Greenwald's recent send-up of Sam Harris and the New Atheists here ===>


    2. By the way, the point is not whether Coyne, Harris, etc. will feel like you treated them kindly -- people like Coyne are extremely pugnacious, and will flare up if you dare to suggest that they are anything less than perfect.

      The real question is whether or not your criticism of them is commensurate with the idiocy that these characters often advocate.

      Whether they are happy with you or not is a non-sequitur -- it is a question of the level of criticism they have merited. The fact that you point towards whether or not they are happy with you as a touchstone just demonstrates your partiality towards them.

    3. "* Yet another damning review of The Moral Landscape. Why do some people take Sam Harris so seriously, one wonders?"

      Ah yes, here is Massimo being "cordial and respectful" in regards to Harris.

      Tom, you clearly just haven't done your research. I've followed this blog for a few years (I rarely post on here), and Massimo has been far more rough with Harris and Coyne than anyone else he criticizes. Take 20 minutes and actually read the articles.

    4. Patrick foams at the mouth more with each comment. Tom, so far, you've not followed him. I agree with plenty of other people here that Massimo's criticisms have been "commensurate" all around.

  13. Thanks, Massimo, for calling our attention to this article. While religion is something I departed from long ago, I'm always interested in how bright, educated people "keep the faith" and as usual appreciated your analysis.

    To those who say Massimo was too harsh, I personally didn't see any difference between this post and the tone critiquing some of the New Atheists. As far as philosophy and for that matter science in general goes, I would point out that debating is a way of life that many lay people , who are used to the (hopefully) more polite everyday conversation, often misinterpret. The scientists and philosophers I personally know seem to relish going before their peers and hearing arguments against what they have said; I would wager Gutting is probably no different.

  14. I second what TX Skeptic said. Massimo this post is another example why I love reading your blog. To those who say Massimo is singling out Catholicism, this is because the person he is critiquing is a self confessed Catholic.

  15. Comming from a country which is mostly catholic, I can say that the catholic church to this day is opposing the enlightenment's ideas. For instance, here in Mexico, they are trying to destroy the separation of church and state that was made possible 150 years ago. By trying to institute religious education in public schools.
    Also, religious figures of the catholic church keep saying the most bigoted, misogynistic and irresponsible things. And the same applies to every country where the church has bigger influence.
    Once you start giving power to the church, it shows it's true colors.

  16. Paco,

    What do you mean, when you say that “catholic church to this day is opposing the enlightenment's ideas”. To what exactly is the catholic church opposing? (a first hand testimony of the catholic church horrors is valuable).
    If the Catholic Church and the Mexican republic are separate entities, how is it possible that they become not separated (does the Mexican Church nominates people for the parlament or to the government?), Mexico bears still a democratic regime and its policies are determined by democratic elections (I guess).
    It would be interesting to know what “bigoted, misogynistic and irresponsible things” those figures of the church are saying, unless the definition of “bigoted, misogynistic and irresponsible things” are things different from your thoughts and values (then this is irrelevant).
    In respect to the weight of the church on western countries, the reality is that, unlike the atheists typical delusions our societies are no longer predominantly religious, and atheist are mainstream (however the morality of western countries is still a leftover from our traditional religious morality, that is a tradition that is not easy to destroy, when there is nothing else to offer as an alternative).

    1. First , the church opposes the idea of a secular society, since the last pope complained many times about it. Also there is the issue of equality between men and women(just see the recent conflict between the church and the American nuns).

      Examples of the catholic church interfering in Mexican politics are many. As I said, the church just last year had the constitution changed to open the possibility of teaching religion in public schools(which by the way, was approved on a midnight, and given no media coverage), also in the last election the candidates of the three parties had to go to a secret reunion with the church leaders, which is really suspicious of why they gave such privilege to the church.And finally, the millions of dollars the goverment spent last year to bring the pope to Mexico.

      And of course there are many propaganda attempts from the church to demonize figures of liberalism that made the reforms that where necessary in the past to change Mexico into a democratic and secular governments. And just recently he government of the state of Chiapas is promoting the use of chastity belts!

      A few examples of the church leaders behavior is the occasion when the Archbishop of Guadalajara Juan Sandoval said that the cause of rape was that "women don't dress decently". Also the many "wonderful" things the church has said about homosexuals, like saying that letting gays adopt will cause more child rapes!(how ironic). And also the behavior of catholic parent organizations in the State of Guanajuato, where they BURNED school text books, because they have sex education. Bottom line, the church seems to be more obsessed with sex than with anything else.

      Maybe for half of Europe societies have turned less religious, but for the rest of the world religion is still strong in society.

      I don't understand why people still fall for this idea that morality depends on religion, since both logically and historically it doesn't. Secular morality is a much better alternative, since it does not rely on outdated dogmas. The way I see it is that religious morality sees "Laws" as ends in themselves, just like a set of arbitrary commands.

      A better set of moral laws are supposed to be a means to an end(like the "eudaemoia" that Massimo keeps talking about). We can discuss which secular moral stance is the right one, but religious morality (whether it is the divine command theory or the natural law) seems pretty weak, no wonder why most moral philosophers (including theist philosophers) have given up on it.

  17. Excellent post Massimo. I was raised Catholic and I agree with your view on the Church. Let it crumble.

  18. If you didn't see it, you might be interested in the god-or-no-god "debate" between (Catholic) Stephen Colbert and AC Graying from last night's Colbert Report. Certainly fun to watch.


  19. Tom,

    as others have pointed out, it is questionable whether I have treated some of the new atheists, especially Harris, with "kindness." At any rate, in my mind ridiculous ideas come in degrees, and need to be treated accordingly. And Gutting's attempt at reconciling Catholicism and the Enlightenment ranks pretty high...

    1. Massimo,

      Well, it is your choice as to the targets on which to concentrate.

      I am just disappointed that you have never used the word
      “Islamophobia” in regards to Sam Harris – you have only used that word with regard to the kooks who think that Obama is a Muslim (again, the easy target – and see Glenn Greenwald’s comment that Islamophobia is not a term of propaganda, but every bit as clear as anti- semitism or racism – an utterly irrational point of view).

      In your most recent post on Sam Harris you went out of your way five times to say that you agree with him on various points. You discuss relatively trivial and esoteric issues such as the ethical obligation towards rocks, instead of dealing with someone who is Islamophobic, who says it is o.k. to torture people, and who says the European fascists have the right kind of ideas with regards to Muslims. I’d say that ranks pretty high on the “ridiculous idea” scale.

  20. Hey Massimo,
    Your claim that the church is “rotten to its core (metaphysically, historically, and ethically)” seems a little callous when I think of people like Sister Simone, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention last summer, or the nuns in Central America who have worked through great personal sacrifice to raise people out of poverty. That’s why your piece here comes off sounding a little biased.

    You colored and framed Gutting’s piece in a much sloppier way than it actually is. I don’t think you understood the nature of his attachment to the Catholic Church. Or at least you did not express an adequate understanding of it. It is where his family is from. The teachers who taught him and introduced the world to him were all Catholic. It is more than just doctrine; it is family.

    And a culture is a living thing. The Enlightenment grew out of Western culture and its ideas permeated through it. Why is it so difficult for you to accept that even Catholics have had to grapple with these ideas and integrate them into their own understanding of the world? Or that Catholics could accept criticisms of the church when they seem in harmony with basic ideas like love and forgiveness and a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of humanity that is for them a part of their understanding of church teaching? They might see the church as evolving (although admittedly at a glacial pace), and the criticisms highlight an area in need of change. There are lots of Catholic teachers in this world. Some are pretty good in science, art, history and even philosophy, etc. They are passionate about their field and like Gutting, for them the church is like family. They’re not all as stupid as this view of Catholicism you are giving us here.

    And Gutting’s piece was no more ridiculous than the one by Coyne that I mentioned above. Coyne published in USA Today an argument based on some surprising results from research that is relatively new and poorly understood that tried to make the case that our freedom is an illusion. He began with the premise that the stuff that makes up our brains has to “obey” our laws of physics as they are currently understood. How consciousness arises from the brain is as big a mystery as there is in this world and it is reasonable to assume our current “laws” will be stretched and reformulated when we someday develop a clearer understanding. Coyne’s effort was nothing short of incompetence. Look up your response; it was quite kind by comparison.

  21. He never said what you have in quotes, Patrick, because I searched the page. You get more hysterical with each comment you make here.

    1. Gadfly, you pesky little gnat! What are you talking about? In our exchange above I thought we agreed that neither of us really cares what the other thinks. I should have known you were just saying that because you went on to pontificate about something else that I can't remember what.

      You crack me up. We've already established that you don't read well, apparently you also make things up. There are three places in this post where I framed some text with quotation marks. The first one begins “rotten to its core . . .” and is taken from the second to the last sentence in Massimo’s original post on Gutting’s Catholic faith. The other two quotes are in my last paragraph where I am talking about Coyne’s USA Today article on free will. The first is the word “obey” and the second is the word “laws” and both words are contained in this sentence taken from that article:

      "The first is simple: we are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics"

      I thought it was weird in our exchange above (after I showed you that you don’t read well by showing you the quote I was referring to from Massimo’s critique on Gutting) how you tried to tell me what Massimo meant to say, as if you know Massimo so well you can actually speak for him. It made me think that you’re some kind of adoring fan or groupie. I figured you’re probably some high school kid who is still trying to develop a point of view of his own and who is reading science blogs because he likes science and Massimo likes to discuss just about any important topic. Now here you are policing Massimo’s blog, making things up, and making dismissive and insulting comments that have nothing to do with the thoughts and concerns being expressed. You’re a bully. You want everyone to agree with you and Massimo. You want to live in a world where you and Massimo don’t have to worry about critics and dissenters because you and Massimo together are going to put us all in our place. I imagine the times when Massimo stops and pays attention to the things you write he gets as weird a feeling about you as I do.

  22. Tom,
    I appreciate you posting the piece by Greenwald from the Guardian. I also appreciate your thoughtful critique of the way Massimo has responded toward Coyne, Harris and other so called “New Atheists”. They have been unkind in their dialogue with Massimo and their feelings about Massimo and the things he has said about them are not a good way to gauge whether Massimo has been even handed. It has occurred to me on a few occasions that Massimo is particularly harsh toward Christians and Catholics in particular because he doesn’t want to appear to others in the Skeptic Community (of which the New Atheists might be thought of as the militant wing) as soft on religion.
    I am not saying Massimo has been motivated by this, only that I have wondered about it.

    The Catholic Church is not just doctrine; it is a culture. When Gutting say’s it is a part of him it is more than just propositions that can be true or false. It is a way of life. When you say things like it is “rotten to its core” you are projecting that nasty sentiment onto my brothers and sisters, the nuns who taught me in grammar school, Sister Simone, Dorothy Day, Roger Ebert, Stephen Colbert, etc. . . .There are a lot of nasty Catholics who to whom it applies, but a lot of others to whom it doesn’t.

    1. Dude he is attacking their beliefs not them. The Catholic Church is an extremely corrupt organisation that builds it's power on the backs of the probably decent people you mention. It does not matter whether they are nice people or not they've been sucked up by the RCC meat grinder.

    2. Louis,

      I think what Patrick is saying is that it is painting with too wide a brush to write off every single Catholic as being rotten metaphysically, historically, and ethically (I am interpreting "Catholic Church" here as being comprised of its members, not the organizational structure or leadership). As with any group, there are corrupt members, but there are also members who do good works. Many eminent scientists who made fundamental discoveries were religious. Many eminent scientists had other beliefs that were mistaken. Catholicism may be a mistaken belief, but I think it goes a bit too far to write off every single member as "rotten". And again, why single out the Catholics? Why not say the Mormans are "rotten to the core" or the Democratic Pary is "rotten to the core"? They also have mistaken beliefs and corruption among their ranks.

      @Massimo: why say the Catholic Church is rotten metaphysically? Are you saying that each and every Catholic philosopher (e.g. Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Pascal) added absolutely no value to philosophy -- in contrast with non-catholic philosophers who were totally without error?

      P.S. See list of Catholic Philosophers/Theologians here===> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Catholic_philosophers_and_theologians

    3. Tom (and others),

      here's what Massimo wrote in the post: "..., admit that the institution is rotten to its core (metaphysically, historically, and ethically)..." (all the way down at the bottom).

      The _institution_ is rotten - as Louis says, he is attacking the beliefs, the organization and the hierarchy, not the people per se. Simply put, if a Catholic philosopher added insights that work despite Catholic ideology, then he added value to philosophy. If Catholicness is necessary, then not. (And afaik, a few of those on the list did add value.)

      I respect people as people until they try their best not to be respectworthy. But their beliefs have a different status, Catholic, Shaman or FSM. If a philopher wrote a serious defense of FSM, everybody would expect the ridicule. Catholicism is older but certainly not more logical and considerably less fun...


    4. Hey Chbieck,
      My experience and understanding while being raised as a Catholic was the institution is the church and the church is its people. My experience with the nuns who taught me in grammar school is that their ethics were for the most part pretty good. I don’t care about the pope or the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. I never did. They weren’t a part of my daily life while growing up. To my mind the church was my grandmother, my father, my friends and family and the nuns who taught us.

      And Gary Gutting is a part of the church. He has chosen to stay in the church. He is a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame (you can’t get more establishment Catholic than that). So Massimo is unwittingly saying that Gutting himself is rotten to the core. I can’t imagine you or Massimo are intellectually or morally superior to Mr Gutting. I imagine if given the opportunity to defend himself here, he would hold his own. Maybe it is just semantics. But it is this type of sloppy holier-than-though rhetoric that fuels prejudice against a group of people (in this case Catholics). It allows skeptics like you and Massimo to feel somehow superior. Though you two seem like nice enough and fun guys, I don’t see it. I imagine you have have your dogmas and it is foolish to imagine Gutting's beliefs are so much BS just because he's Catholic. Gary Gutting also seems nice enough; and he doesn’t deserve to be called rotten to his core.

    5. Well, you see, Patrick, Catholics believe that humans are here to serve a religious purpose, and Massimo believes that not only are they wrong about the purpose being similar if not identical to God's, there is no God and on top of that no such thing as a purpose that humans could have been established here to serve. Which is about as mechanistically dogmatic as he can get.

    6. I don't know what Catholics believe Baron and I don't think you do either. You underestimate Massimo’s capacity for overstating things, being out of line and just being plain wrong. Dogmatic reasoning can be behind all those things. He’s really much more human than you think. For instance he really was out of line with that thing he said about the Catholic Church being evil to the core. If Catholics were Jews, he’d be anti-Semitic. Unfortunately there isn’t a label for someone who hates Catholics, except maybe one of those “recovering Catholics” or a New Atheists I suppose. Sam Harris sure hates them. Most educated atheists don’t feel that way though. Just look at Stephen Jay Gould, Noam Chomsky and Kenin Malik. They’re secure enough in their beliefs that they don’t feel a need to demonize Catholics. All three have spoken respectfully of them.

    7. Patrick, Massimo isn't critiquing what you think the Catholic Church is, he's criticising what it actually is. I come from a very loving Catholic family also with very religious grandparents who I loved dearly, still doesn't change the fact that RCC is absolute corrupt nonsense.

    8. Patrick,
      an organization is more than its people; simply put, it is also its structures, its processes, its values etc. Saying that the organization is rotten in no way automatically implies that the people of the organization are rotten - in this case even more so because the simple member of the Catholic church is not at all equal to the hierarchy of the church. Simple example: if somebody were to say that Microsoft was evil, you wouldn't automatically assume that he means users of Windows are evil, would you?

      Which actually brings me to one of the things that bugs me about a type of belief system like the Catholic one - the insistence that the belief defines the person 100%. A person is more than his beliefs, and the two are very well separable - if they weren't you'd never have converts. We are not talking about prejudice against a group of people, a lot of whom may be nice and most of whom we personally don't even know - we are talking about critizing (and, yes, ridiculing) a set of beliefs, which we do know and which continues to cause a lot of harm in the world even today. (It's the difference between Catholics and Catholicism. Massimo criticizes the latter.)


    9. Hey Louis,
      So you think Massimo is “criticizing what [the Catholic Church] actually is”? And you think he’s in a position to know all about that, huh? What I am trying to say is Massimo’s view of the Catholic Church (and apparently yours as well) is inadequate. And because of this he is as Tom so nicely put it, “painting with too wide a brush”. What Massimo was really trying to do in his original piece was not what you just said; his original post was a criticism of Gary Gutting’s Op-Ed piece from the NY Times. This is what Gary Gutting said the Catholic Church is:

      “The other is the Catholic Church, in which I was baptized as an infant, raised by Catholic parents, and educated for 8 years of elementary school by Ursuline nuns and for 12 more years by Jesuits. For me to deny either of these sources would be to deny something central to my moral being.”

      It is where he was nurtured by his parents and his teachers. Where he was educated and confirmed along with his friends growing up.

    10. Chris,
      You have it backwards in your description. The Catholic Church is first and foremost its people. That’s why so many Catholics have no problem going to church, baptizing their children, getting married in the church, and simply ignoring the Vatican regarding birth control, divorce, equality for women, etc. The Catholic Church is more than the organization that is headed by the pope in Rome. It is more than the structures, its process, etc. All these things exist for the community of people. They would lose much of their value (and all of them would disappear) if the people did not feel they belong together. The people build buildings because they want to gather together. They write and sing songs and create rituals like baptisms and confirmations because these corporate expressions are a means of expressing their unity.

      The comparison with Microsoft is invalid. Microsoft is an economic institution. The relationship between Microsoft and the users of its products (as well as the relation within Microsoft between its employees) is functional. The relationship exists because of the economic value the relationship brings to everyone involved. If people don’t get paid, then they would break the relationship.

      A church is different. It’s more like friendship and family. It exists for its own sake. That is why in spite of Massimo’s rationalizing (and the rationalizing of his apologists), most people would feel Massimo crossed a line and made a callous and mean-spirited statement about Catholics in general and Catholics everywhere. When Massimo says Catholic ethics is rotten to the core he is including Sister Simone Campbell in that (whether he meant to or not). You can’t get more Catholic than a Catholic nun. When people think about the good the Catholic Church does they think of people like her. Massimo is a philosopher. Is it unfair to expect him to read the papers he is critiquing with care, to distinguish between the Church (which is its people) and the conservative, corrupt, sexist, dogmatic and oppressive leaders who have less a part in the daily life of Catholics than you think.

      And I agree with your point that “a person is more than his beliefs”. The people posting here seem to think all Catholics think alike and since the Catholic Church is rotten to its core, they can just dismiss what any Catholic thinks. Of course that is foolishness. What I have tried to illustrate here is a religion is more just dogma, doctrine and the institutions the people build to support the church. It is the relationships that are nurtured over time between the members of the community. When Massimo argues as if the church is merely doctrine he is collapsing values into facts, the way Sam Harris wants to do.


    11. @Patrick: "I don't know what Catholics believe Baron and I don't think you do either."
      Well, you see, Patrick, Catholics believe that humans are here to serve a religious purpose. Because, you see, they read essentially the same bibles as the protestants do.
      All of which start with the same allegorical story of Adam and Eve, representing the conflict of purposes between God and his eternal adversary, The Devil. The religious purpose of the former was to create humans that would represent the good, and the latter of course wanted none of that. And we're off to the religious races.
      Thus that allegorical lesson persists in every Christian dominated culture, with similarly dichotomous tales persisting in virtually every human culture. And I'm fairly sure you believe in a force of evil, as does Massimo, except he can't explain it mechanistically any more than you can explain it at all.

    12. Hey Baron,
      I don’t believe in a force of evil. And I’m not sure what you’re talking about when you suggest Massimo might possibly try to explain it mechanistically. Unless you mean describing and explaining a chain of events from the big bang up to say the evil that was Ted Bundy. If that is what you mean, then I agree – I don’t think Massimo can do it.

      And that stuff you wrote that is supposed to be what Catholics believe, I am pretty sure Gary Gutting (the Catholic in question here) doesn’t believe it.

    13. Patrick,
      your description sounds nice, but a lot like wishful thinking to me. Obeying Rome is an essential part of Catholic doctrine; a priest disobeying papal commands faces consequences to his place in the organization. You can question within limits, but ultimately the Catholic Church is not a democracy; you might wish it to be first and foremost its people, but the power is in Rome.

      Take the pedophilia cases. An organization as large as this will have it's black sheep so power abuse is not unexpected although the hypocrisy grates. The cover-ups and the unwilligness to even offer an official apology to the victims - that's what really evokes the "rotten to the core" response. Millions of members of might be nice people and do good works, but the saying goes "the fish stinks from the head"...

      Put differently - if the church is first and foremost it's people, why have we never seen the good people of the church replace its "conservative, corrupt, sexist, dogmatic and oppressive leaders"? (Your words.) If they don't condone their actions, why do they accept them as their leaders? You don't have to, you know...

      Re the Microsoft comparison - you might not get economic value, but you do get value - if you didn't, you would break the relationship. The fact that you were immersed (or indoctrinated, depending on your viewpoint) from an early age doesn't change that fact.

      > The people build buildings because they want to gather together.
      That might be true for some church buildings today, but taken overall that is a gross misrepresentation of the history of church building. Churches were first and foremost about ego, not community. Myriads of people wstarved while the money to feed them was wasted building monumental edifices. You might say the church has changed, but has it really? Ever visit the Vatican museum? Again, why aren't the good people of the church demanding that something useful in the spirit of Christianity is done with it? If they are: why isn't it?


    14. @Patrick: "Unless you mean describing and explaining a chain of events from the big bang up to say the evil that was Ted Bundy. If that is what you mean, then I agree – I don’t think Massimo can do it."
      It seems you've just described the deterministic force of evil. Which I don't believe in but it seems you actually do. Except that I was right that you can't explain it, you just iterate the deterministic dogma. Which ironically is the mother of the Catholic dogma.

    15. Baron,
      You misinterpreted what I said. I was just trying to figure out what you were talking about. I don't believe in a force of evil; and I don't believe in determinism. But you do have a nasty tendency to tell people what they do and do not believe.

    16. Chris,
      You are right priests can be reined in, although there are a couple here in Chicago e.g. Father Bob Bossie and Father Pfleger who have pushed the limits farther than you think. What I told you is not wishful thinking it is the experience of most Catholics - Catholics who are not priests, Catholics who use birth control, who if asked about transubstantiation would say they don’t believe in it and would probably even be surprised the Church teaches it. It is well known (and Gary Gutting alludes to it in the essay that inspired this discussion) that Catholics often feel compelled to pick and choose the church teaching they can accept; and still they go to Mass and participate actively in the life of the Church.

      But you missed my point. The experience I am talking about is an emotional one. I am talking about the attachment and everything that goes with it that makes people feel they are Catholic. I imagine it is not unlike what a Muslim feels or what a Jew feels. The point is it is more than just doctrine. And it has absolutely nothing to do with what you call “the power in Rome”. On a daily basis Catholics are oblivious to what happens in Rome. I went twelve years to a Catholic School without ever meeting a cardinal or even a bishop. You make it sound like it’s the military. It ain’t. If it were I imagine the power in Rome would soon be overthrown and run out of town on a rail.

      I wish the church would clean house; I hate all those bastards who are running things. But people tend to endure injustice, lies, tyranny and all sorts of hardship. Americans are the same way. The United States Government is every bit as rotten as the Pope and College of Cardinals. Large institutions are prone to rottenness. That war in Iraq and the sanctions that preceded it killed so many people and destroyed so many lives. And now our government is using drones to kill people. Whatever happened to due process? Our species needs to learn how to do politics better than we do now, because we Americans are about as incapable as Catholics of reining in government abuse. Still even Noam Chomsky, my favorite voice crying in the wilderness in the whole wide world does what he can and then continues on to live to fight another day. We all want change, but it is sometimes so hard. You sure make it sound easy.

      I don’t know what you’re trying to say with the Microsoft analogy. My point was you are describing an economic relationship – a relationship that is a means to an end as opposed to a relationship that is an end in itself. People create friendships and communities because it is in their nature to do so. The community is an end in itself. The relationship people enter into with Microsoft are a means to an end.

      The church was rich and it could afford to build nice buildings. That they did so on the backs and sweat and blood of the working poor is a surprise to no one. We have already established that institutions have a tendency to be rotten. Nevertheless, the buildings are there for the people. But I don’t care if you agree.


    17. Patrick,
      I do understand your point; you call it "pick and choose" . Seems to me a pretty Protestant way to look at it, though (and incidentally, American way), but we have to continue this tomorrow or per email, as it's getting awfully late here in Europe. (If you want.)

    18. Patrick, if you subscribe to a chain of events as causative, you're determinative.
      If it was then, as you've suggested, causatively determined that Bundy would be evil, it would seem logical (from an indeterminate point of view of course) that he was forced to be.
      it doesn't bother me that you haven't understood these things, it informs me as to what you must intuitively feel, whatever rationalization has told you that you don't.
      Here's something else that you won't understand, which is that determinism is arguably stupid. It won't work without having had at least a former determiner, and yet if it has an active, as in Godlike, determiner, it's not determinist as much as it's reactionist.

    19. Hi Chris,
      I appreciate the thoughtful debate. I apologize if I’ve repeated myself while trying to hammer home this distinction between Catholics as a church and a people and the institution that supports the church and the doctrine that is more tradition than an actual Catholic world view held by all the members of the church. Sister Simone is good. She is also very, very Catholic. And Massimo did unwittingly (as Tom put it), paint “with too wide a brush” when he said the institution is “rotten to its core”.

    20. Patrick,

      just some selected points:

      > ...an actual Catholic world view held by all the members of the church...

      I seriously doubt that the "pick-and-choose" view of Catholicism is even held by a majority of people who identify as Catholics. Remember, only a fraction of Catholics live in the U.S., and whether a progressive East Coast city like Boston is representative even of the U.S. is another question. (I'll take a leap here and guess that you have some Irish heritage? Ever compared notes?)

      > Sister Simone is good. She is also very, very Catholic.

      By the first I assume you mean sth like the actions you see from her are good? Not sure why the conjunction of the two statements is important: do you mean she does good _because_ she is Catholic? Or despite her being Catholic? The reason I ask that is simple: what is more morally praiseworthy: doing good because it is the right thing to do, or because of a supernatural carrot-and-stick belief system?

      From further up (@Microsoft)
      > People create friendships and communities because it is in their nature to do so. The community is an end in itself. The relationship people enter into with Microsoft are a means to an end.

      It's also "in our nature" to barter and fight and countless other things; that makes neither trade nor war an end in itself. Nothing we do is an end in itself; we do what we do because it fulfills one or several needs. Seeking community is no exception - it makes us feel safe and provides stability and coherence. You don't need religion to provide community, although a shared ideology of any kind does provide a stronger glue than a shared economic transaction. On the other hand, the fruit company is not called "the church of Jobs" by accident. ;-)
      But any club, at least of the European kind, will do. Most clubs I know, whether sports, music or other, also have community as their strong binding element, with a shared interest providing the rest of the glue.

      I understand that you would like to believe the Catholic church is something special, but whether you look at it from the (objective) standpoints of either organizational theory or system theory, the difference between the Catholic church and other organizations/systems is fairly small, be they churches, clubs or companies.


    21. Baron,
      How exactly does one find out for what purpose supernatural agents created humans?

    22. michael,
      Read the bible that it's claimed they wrote. Would they lie?
      But on the other hand if you think that creation of life in any form with or for a purpose requires a supernatural source or a supernatural creator, you're as bad a philosopher as the rest here. I mean if you foray into science philosophically, you should deal a bit more closely with the things that good scientists philosophize.
      Because if you are implying that you're with Massimo in contending that most events in nature, and especially those that humans didn't orchestrate, don't have or serve a purpose, I'll say again that you're a bad philosopher.

    23. Hey Chris,
      You’re getting rather nit-picky. I think you can figure out the meaning to my statements from the context.

      I’m not saying the “pick-and-choose” view (as you call it) is held by a majority of Catholics. I am not saying it is held by 10%. The point I was making is the doctrine that Massimo is comparing to a belief in Santa Claus and characterizing as “rotten to the core” is more tradition than an actual world view. I am with you when you say people are not defined by their beliefs. One reason this is so is because the beliefs held by Catholics (and other religious folk) can be very varied. Catholics are fairly well educated. There is certainly a fair number who don’t give much thought to the official dogmas. The point is Massimo isn’t very careful in his analysis. I am questing Massimo’s conception of the Catholic ethics that he’s saying is “rotten to its core”.

      The comment regarding Sister Simone is a personal valuation based on hearing her speech at the Democratic National Convention last fall and other speeches online. She led an effort to inform voters about how the working poor would be affected by the Republican Party’s mean spirited budget that was authored by Congressman Paul Ryan. She is a living exception to that sweeping “rotten to its core” statement. But she is not the only one. Perhaps you heard last summer that the Vatican was persecuting an organization of American nuns that represents about 80% of all the nuns in this country for not adhering to church doctrine. Massimo may not be talking about practice, but his theory is grossly inadequate for describing the whole church.

      I don’t have time to go into it but human action can be broken down into “means” and “ends” for analysis. Kant was fond of this. Your biological metaphor regarding fulfilling needs is inadequate. I can both postpone and deny the satisfaction of my needs. I can value something so much I am willing to sacrifice my happiness for it and even my life.

      The problem I had with Massimo’s statement is that it is not objective. Its reference to the church is biased and does not adequately describe these nuns who are at odds with the Vatican. And if it doesn’t describe these nuns, then it cannot possibly be said to describe the whole church. These nuns have a fair number of supporters within the church including (I am sure) Gary Gutting. All I have been trying to do is show that Massimo’s statement was not completely true. You can say it is if you like.

      I think that’s it.

    24. Patrick,
      regarding human actions I am not talking metaphors but actual psychology. It is fairly uncontroversial that religion (including its community aspects) fulfils a need.

      > The problem I had with Massimo’s statement is that it is not objective.

      Then you are completely missing the point of a blog. However well thought out, it is always a PoV, which by its nature is not objective.

      Which brings me to the first sentence, me being nitpicky. Maybe, but the whole source of disagreement is a nitpick - I think it is pretty obvious that Massimo means something different than you do when he writes about the Catholic church. What you mean when you say Catholic church = its members. What Massimo means when he say Catholic church = its dogma and its hierarchy (Correct me if I am wrong, Massimo - if you are even still reading ;-) ). In my completely unscientific (and therefore unobjective) opinion, the second bit is also how the majority of other people would mean it - the hierarchy is where the power is and the dogma is how it keeps it.

      You say you understand the difference between doctrine and the individuals (below in your answer to Massimo) or that a person and his beliefs are separate. Ok, but you left one point unaddressed that I asked about the sister that IMO is really important. I'll repeat it:
      do you mean she does good _because_ she is Catholic? Or despite her being Catholic? ... What is more morally praiseworthy: doing good because it is the right thing to do, or because of a supernatural carrot-and-stick belief system?


    25. Chris,
      I will give you a fuller explanation later that will include ethics and the idea of means and ends (of which you said "Nothing we do is an end in itself").

      The scenario about Microsoft being evil and so someone then deciding that users of Microsoft products are evil is an invalid comparison. The user of the MS Word is not a part of Microsoft in the same way that a nun is a member of the Catholic Church.

      You are wrong about POV's. They can be more or less objective. I can make my thoughts conform to the world around me. I can verify whether they are true - if it turns out my thought does indeed refer correctly to the world, then it is objective. If it turns out I am projecting an untrue idea on to the world, then it is not. It is biased. My point is Massimo's "rotten to the core" comment does not jive with my experience of Catholic nuns. I think he is biased. His theory needs to be expanded to include the work of nuns who are as Catholic as you can get. It needs to be expanded to better understand the attachment Catholic's feel to the church. Massimo doesn't understand Gary Gutting's attachment. He is not even trying because to him it is just about the doctrine and the leaders of the church. He is clearly biased. Gutting wants to be a part of the church where Ursuline nuns taught him to read and write. I am not being nitpicky; I am saying his "rotten to the core" statement is derived from a narrow view of Catholicism that doesn't include the experience Gutting is referring to. And that is what Massimo was supposed to be trying to understand when he read Gutting's paper. That is what he's supposed to be critiquing.

      You can believe what you like. I just think you and Massimo are not being fair to Catholics.


    26. Patrick,
      don't bother with the fuller explanation - unfortunately this is going in circles. Massimo writes in response to you (all the way down)
      > You insist in not understanding the difference between Catholic doctrine and individual Catholics.

      and you prove his point by saying
      > My point is Massimo's "rotten to the core" comment does not jive with my experience of Catholic nuns.
      or further up
      > So Massimo is unwittingly saying that Gutting himself is rotten to the core.

      You might think you understand the difference, but you certainly don't accept it, as those two quotes and much of the rest of the discussion show.

      In the OP Massimo was critiquing Gutting's piece. The OP is well reasoned and adresses Gutting's _arguments_ in the NYT. (I actually read Gutting's piece before Massimo's.) Gutting's experiences might inform his motivations and explain his attachment, but they are irrelevant to his rational argument; as Massimo writes

      > But in the 21st century anything a philosopher said that begins with the premise “There is a supernatural being who is omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient” simply ought to be laughed out of court.



    27. Chris,
      Massimo statement below that you are referring to implies there is no relationship between theory and practice. There is. The theory is supposed to refer to and describe the practice. I don't know why you and Massimo don't understand this. Neither you nor Massimo seem to think the theory that the Catholic Church is "rotten to the core" requires verification. Like all theory - it does. You think you can say the leaders are bad and the dogma is ridiculous therefor ethically the Catholic Church is "rotten to its core". But what about these nuns? Is their mission "rotten to its core"? Why is it so unreasonable to you that I think Massimo went too far and that his theory requires revision?

      Let me make this more concrete for you. The nuns were being reprimanded for focusing on a mission of caring for the poor and the needs of women and not speaking out against abortion and gay marriage. These are Catholic nuns who are an integral part of the Catholic Church. Frankly, I'm amazed Chris that you can't see why I have a problem with this "rotten to its core" thing.

      Good luck; and try to remember that thing about theory having to be about practice. Don't let Massimo tell you how things are. Rely on your own experiences. Question everything and just because a small segment of a group is rotten (no matter how "powerful" they are) don't assume the whole group is. That's a form of prejudice.


    28. Chris,
      For what it's worth here is a link to a Daily Show interview with Sister Simone regarding the Vatican crackdown on nuns. I think Gary Gutting likes people like her. It’s like the Church is home and Sister Simone is family and he wants to work with her and other good women and men to make it better. They're a part of the “core” that ain't so rotten.

      I'd bet Samantha Bee and Jon Stewart would agree the "rotten to its core” comment doesn’t tell the whole story. And that it’s kind of a nasty thing to say.


    29. > Question everything and just because a small segment of a group is rotten (no matter how "powerful" they are) don't assume the whole group is. That's a form of prejudice.

      For the last time: nobody here is assuming that the whole group is. After so many clarifications you still insist on misunderstanding it. Sorry, that's no basis for a discussion.

    30. Chris,
      I was just messing with you. I thought we were done, so I thought I’d take one last playful jab at ya.

      Of course I can sense your frustration in your words. I found our exchange to be equally frustrating. I understand that Massimo wants to limit the scope of his “rotten to its core” characterization because he cannot defend the claim that all Catholic nuns are rotten. My point was his words unwittingly includes them. “Rotten to its core” implies from the outside all the way through to the center – the whole church. Your contrived attempts to defend Massimo’s wording do not ring true. Nuns are an integral part of the Church. The proof of this is that any Catholic (including thousands of Catholic nuns whose ethical behavior arguably outshines mine, yours and even Massimo’s) would be offended by what Massimo said. My point was Massimo's comment was reckless, insensitive and expressed an unreal prejudice against Catholics. A philosopher ought to be more careful because that kind of talk leads to others feeling justified in their prejudice.

  23. Hi Patrick,

    Well perhaps I have been a little tough on Massimo in my zeal to see the New Atheists get their comeuppance. I shouldn't focus my hostility on Massimo because he really is one of the few people who HAVE criticized the N.A. group.

    Still, I think the N.A. group deserves much MORE criticism. It is a cliché to compare someone to a Nazi, but that group really does have a smug, self-centered, self-important, intolerant, how-dare-you-question-the-fuehrer type arrogance that make me want to goose them or hit them in the face with a pie -- not out of malice, but just to bring them back down to earth and remind them that they are human and fallible. They have no humility and fail to recognize the limits of Science.

    When Dawkins was asked if he knew the full title of Darwin's "Origin of the Species", he replied, "of course", then was unable to name it -- the icing on the cake was when he muttered "oh god!" while trying to recall. In itself, it was just a normal and forgivable error. But from someone as arrogant as Dawkins -- it makes me want to treat him like a puppy that hasn't been housebroken: hold that error under his nose and hit him with a rolled up newspaper until he ADMITS he made a mistake and signs a full page ad in the New York Times to that effect!

    Dawkins generally stays above the fray, but nods approvingly at some awful things said by Coyne and Harris, and manages to say some awful things himself (e.g. “Dear Muslima”, or “I don’t need to actually READ the Koran to spout off endlessly about Islam” [I’m paraphrasing here] )

    Or take Jerry Coyne [please!]… He doesn’t even bother to carefully READ what his opponent has written – and he doesn’t need to, because his one-size-fits-all reply to any opponent is to make personal insults (including the time-worn sophomoric classic of making some variation on the person’s name), and snide sarcastic remarks (“You say ‘X’? Really?? Do you even know what ‘X’ means you idiot?”) and then declare himself the winner of the debate without ever addressing his opponent’s point. Even some of his sycophant followers felt obliged to point out to him on occasion that he was ranting about something he didn’t understand, because he obviously missed the point and hadn’t read his opponent carefully.

    And don’t even get me started on the fascist-admiring Sam Harris.

    The N.A. people get much more attention and respect than they deserve, and are hardly ever taken to task for some of their really bad, unscientific, crack-pot ideas.

  24. Tom,

    > why say the Catholic Church is rotten metaphysically? Are you saying that each and every Catholic philosopher (e.g. Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Pascal) added absolutely no value to philosophy -- in contrast with non-catholic philosophers who were totally without error? <

    Certainly not the latter, and have no idea where you would get that from. But insofar as Catholic (and other Christian) theologian begin with taking the supernatural seriously their metaphysics is hopelessly corrupt from a naturalist standpoint, which is where I stand.

    1. Massimo,

      Well, one definition of “metaphysics” is “The branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality and the relationship between mind and matter”.

      So, when you say a person or organization is “rotten metaphysically”, I can only conclude that you believe their philosophy regarding reality etc. is poorly thought out. That seems to be a very questionable statement given the stellar line-up of past Catholic philosophers who dealt with these philosophical issues.

      You may not agree with them, but I was not aware that the questions regarding metaphysics had been definitively settled in your favor with all other interpretations (including those of Aquinas, Descartes, Pascal, etc.) henceforth to be deemed “rotten”. There are other viewpoints besides the naturalist viewpoint.

      Let me ask you directly: do you believe that

      1) Mechanical philosophy is all encompassing, and there can be no truths except those understood in mechanistic terms.

      2) That the sheer possibility of there being something supernatural (e.g. outside the understanding of science) can be discarded? For example, can we logically and scientifically prove that there is no god?

      In this context, I would like to remind you that Hume said, “we are never sensible of any connexion bewixt causes and effects, and that ‘tis only by our experience of the constant conjunction, we can arrive at any knowledge of this relation.”

      Also, Newton said that action at a distance was “an absurdity” – that while his principles were not occult, “their causes only are occult”.

      Or, that Betrand Russell dismissed the very idea of an intelligible world as “absurd”.

      Or, that Galileo rejected “the vain presumption of understanding everything”.

      My point is, given that we know very little about this world for sure, are we justified in assuming that someone who embraces the possibility of supernatural events is necessarily wrong (or rotten)?

  25. Tom D,
    How do religions acquire knowledge? How are they able to determine what supernatural agents exist and what they are communicating? I don't have a problem admitting that there might be something else, but religions believe there actually is - so the issue is what do they know and how do they know it? If one looks up philosophy of science, one will find a wealth of information on what science knows and how it knows it. If one looks up philosophy of religion, one will find no such thing - no clear indication of what it knows or how it knows.

    Can you yourself or, if not, can you direct me to a source that will put religious knowledge on the same philosophical footing as scientific knowledge?

    1. Michael,

      Your challenge to put religion on the same philosophical footing as scientific knowledge pre-supposes that religion must compete in the arena of science – that the only way to “know” anything is via the methods of science. You are stacking the deck in favor of Science from the very beginning.

      I’m not an expert on religion, and I’m not even religious myself – but I would imagine that they would reply that they “know” by other methods.

      For example, if I asked you to demonstrate how you “know” that your toe hurts, you may have some difficulty explaining. Basically, you just “know” it on a deeper level from personal experience.

      Or, religious folks may say that the truth has been “revealed” in the Bible by a benevolent God.

      Once you grant the possibility of a supernatural being, the other details are not really a problem. The details being outside of the compass of reason, they do not have to correspond to what (we think!) we know.

      An analogy might be to challenge someone to explain relativistic effects in terms of Newtonian physics (explain how a one kilogram mass approaches infinite mass) – by definition the effects lie outside of that framework of reasoning.

    2. Why posit supernatural agents?
      I understand that if one believes in them, than a whole different universe becomes rational and reasonable. But again, on what basis would one hypothesize things outside nature?
      Religions claim to have knowledge of supernatural agents gained by methods different from science (major science organizations even tell us this is true) - all I am asking is what are those methods? Are you claiming that people say they "just know" there are gods, angels, devils, etc. and that is good enough? We should take them seriously?

    3. michael, why posit that any agent that you haven't developed evidence of must be supernatural? The mistake that religionists make is that they've defined the form and purposes of their supernatural beings and have admittedly acquired that knowledge by what logic tells us are irrational means.
      Yet you seem to make the alternate mistake of holding that if we've not found evidence of some directed intelligence in nature outside of life, and especially if that life is human, then we shouldn't even look for evidence of what now would seem unnatural intelligence elsewhere.

    4. "why posit that any agent that you haven't developed evidence of must be supernatural? "
      Since I didn't do this, I don't know why one would.
      What is directed intelligence?
      Why do you think there is natural intelligence outside of living agents?

    5. Yes, michael, that's clearly your less than logical position, that since you don't see intelligence in the universe as possible, then without a supernatural agent, intelligence outside of some life forms is for you not possible.
      But it's clear to a lot of us that there are physical systems in the universe that are intelligently constructed - in other words not explainable by non-purposive accident. Even Massimo has indicated some belief in mathematical Platonism, without of course conceding that this system could in any way have been directed by intelligence.
      Now I expect or hope to someday learn not only that the universe has evolved the means to intelligently construct itself, but how. And in case you feel that intelligence must be a perfect system or it doesn't work, you're unfamiliar with the fact that human intelligence has and has always had a trial and error basis. The question of course is how trial and error may work in the universe without a known trier, and yet there it seems to be, evolving the strategic bases of every element of the universe we've been able to examine.
      I suggested earlier that Massimo read The Mind of God by Paul Davies, or something of the earlier works of John A. Wheeler, both prominent physicists who have dealt with the concept of operative intelligence in nature. I suggest you might try to do so also, or at least discover there that intelligence is not a concept that we must relegate to use by the likes of humans.

    6. You clearly cannot read - when did I say intelligence was impossible? Obviously life evolved, so it is possible. I merely asked for where to look for intelligence outside of life - I didn't say it couldn't be found. And, just because some guys you think are smart agree with you doesn't make you correct. Are you talking about feedback in nonbiological systems? Is that how you are defining intelligence?

    7. Feedback, for me at least, is evidence of a trial and error system at work.
      Sorry you don't like my references. They might or might not have taught you something.

    8. Why do you think you are smarter than everyone else? Is there something I should know about you that I don't currently? You automatically leap to conclusions without enough knowledge to get there - unless of course you are telepathic, is that it?

    9. Was there a conclusion there that you didn't like? Perhaps you'll tell us why you didn't like it instead of protesting that you'd be smart enough to do so if you wanted to.

    10. So now you are using the royal "we" - are you really that full of yourself? Can you fit your head through a normal sized door?

    11. Well, since for the most part you seem to be grandstanding, I assumed you thought you had a larger audience.

  26. Tom,

    > when you say a person or organization is “rotten metaphysically”, I can only conclude that you believe their philosophy regarding reality etc. is poorly thought out. That seems to be a very questionable statement given the stellar line-up of past Catholic philosophers who dealt with these philosophical issues. <

    Stellar by which criteria? As others have pointed out on this thread, if a Christian philosopher makes a contribution to philosophy that goes beyond, or is independent of, his metaphysical assumptions — as so many Scholastic philosophers did — then, qua philosopher, his contribution is valid, even stellar. But in the 21st century anything a philosopher said that begins with the premise “There is a supernatural being who is omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient” simply ought to be laughed out of court.

    > Mechanical philosophy is all encompassing, and there can be no truths except those understood in mechanistic terms. <

    I’m not even sure what you mean by “mechanical philosophy” (it’s a 17th century term), but no, I think naturalism — the philosophy I maintain — still has a lot to figure out. I also think its ontological tent, so to speak, is wider than some of my more scientistically oriented colleagues maintain (see my essays at RS on structural realism and mathematical Platonism, for instance).

    > That the sheer possibility of there being something supernatural (e.g. outside the understanding of science) can be discarded? <

    It is on par with belief in Santa and fairies, seriously.

    > Newton said that action at a distance was “an absurdity” – that while his principles were not occult, “their causes only are occult”. <

    Yes, Newton also believed in alchemy. He happened to be wrong.


    > When Massimo says Catholic ethics is rotten to the core he is including Sister Simone Campbell in that (whether he meant to or not). <

    You insist in not understanding the difference between Catholic doctrine and individual Catholics. There is no question that a lot of Catholics have done good in the world, just like any other group of people (and, like any other group, they’ve done horrific things). I am talking about the theory here, not the practice, and invoking the “whether he meant to or not” clause after I and others have explained exactly what I meant seems a bit disingenuous, frankly.

    > Massimo is a philosopher. Is it unfair to expect him to read the papers he is critiquing with care <

    Reminder: I was critiquing an essay by Gary Gutting. Yup, I read it. (I have also read plenty of other philosophy, including from Catholic philosophers, but it’s apparently easier for you to believe that I am a bubbling and arrogant ignoramus. Oh well.)

    > When Massimo argues as if the church is merely doctrine he is collapsing values into facts, the way Sam Harris wants to do. <

    That makes no sense whatsoever. First because I made no such statement (I was talking about Catholic philosophy and its incoherence with the Enlightenment, remember?), second because even if I did that analogy wouldn’t hold.

    1. Hey Massimo,
      I think I understand the difference. In fact I tried hard to make the distinction between theory and practice for your readers. I appreciate that you are now making this distinction yourself. You and your readers must be so familiar with it that it goes without saying. You can really tell that I am not a philosopher, huh? Please understand though that one of the reasons for my confusion was that it was the “practice” that was so much a part of Gary Gutting’s connection to the church. Here is what he said:

      “The other is the Catholic Church, in which I was baptized as an infant, raised by Catholic parents, and educated for 8 years of elementary school by Ursuline nuns and for 12 more years by Jesuits. For me to deny either of these sources would be to deny something central to my moral being.”

      And it is the practice that is the essential thing for most Catholics. It was the practice that caused such a stir within the church this past year between a group of American nuns and the leadership in Rome. The nuns were being “reined in” for not pushing church doctrine regarding birth control and homosexuality. They stood their ground and insisted that the things the Vatican was telling them to do wasn’t their mission. When I read your piece I couldn’t get it out of my head that the work of these nuns was being overlooked or mischaracterized by that “rotten to its core” comment.

      I didn’t realize that philosophers looking at the Catholic Church are supposed to look at doctrine and the actions of the governing body and nothing else. I got the crazy notion that although philosophy is theoretical it is about practice. And it is a philosopher’s job is to understand the things people do and include these observations and understandings about the practice in his theory. I was expecting you to somehow include the good works of the nuns in your overall assessment. So when I read that thing about being “rotten to its core” naturally I thought . . . Well you understand. Sorry about that.

      And I apologize for not being more clear when I made the reference to Sam Harris’s claim that values are about facts so he can essentially collapse values into facts. I wasn’t referring to anything you said. I was again referring to practice. As I have argued the core of Catholicism is the relationships that Gutting is referring to above. In fact it seems so odd to me that you want it to be all about doctrine and the actions of church leaders. When you reduce it in this way I feel like you are abstracting out the kindness, the disagreements, the working together, the sharing meals, singing of hymns and the communing together that are so much a part of being Catholic. One difference between the theoretical and the practical is the practical is laden with value. I think that’s why most Catholics when reading your critique of Gutting would feel you were being unkind.

  27. Massimo,

    You asked “stellar by which criteria”? I was speaking of Metaphysical criteria or course – but you continue to speak as if Metaphysical questions are now settled facts (it that your view?).

    I brought up Newton because he marked the turning point of Science abandoning the quest to understand physical reality (in terms of mechanical philosophy) and settling for the more modest goal of offering no PHYSICAL explanation for the phenomena of the material world. In short, the mind/body problem disappeared. In considering the “ghost in the machine”, it was the machine that Newton exorcised, leaving the ghost intact. The mind/body problem having died an ignominious death, it is ill-advised to speak of eminent Christian philosophers having “rotten” ideas on the subject, as we are no wiser today.

    You also speak as if, “well, Newton was wrong and today we know better”. I beg to differ – these are still unsolved problems. If Newton is too ancient for you, allow me to quote Linus Pauling who dismissed talk about the real nature of chemical bonds as “twaddle”, calling it “a very crude method of representing certain known facts about chemical reactions – a mode of representation” (because the concept could not be reduced to physics).

    My point is that there is an awful LOT that science doesn’t know, and may never know. If naturalism is not all encompassing, then it is ill advised to dismiss out of hand the supernatural: the equivalent of saying, “well I haven’t looked in every room of this house (and I'm not even certain I'll ever be able to get INTO some of the rooms), but I am certain none of the rooms contains a fish tank”. How could you possibly know that?

    To be sure, the burden of proof lies with the claimant. But it is just as wrong to say “I know for sure there is no God” as to say “I know for sure there IS a God” (with its implications for the validity of a given philosophy on metaphysics). In truth, we know very little about anything, and I beg you to have a more charitable attitude towards the eminent Christian philosophers I mentioned vis-à-vis their views on metaphysics.

    1. Actually, if Pauling meant what you said he meant, then he was wrong. Quantum chemistry uses Quantum Mechanics (Physics) to explicate these chemical 'bonds'. Actually, if I remember correctly, Pauling was actually one of the pioneers in this field.

      My understanding of Pauling's quote is that one cannot think of the interactions in Quantum Mechanics in a Newtonian way, so the concept of 'bonds' in a classical sense is a crude an inaccurate representation of the underlying physics.

      It is the generally accepted view that chemistry is entirely derivable from Quantum field theory and most of it derivable from relativistic Quantum mechanics. I don't believe it has been proved mathematically rigorously, but there appears to be enough empirical evidence that this is the case. I therefore challenge your claim "that there is a lot that science doesn't know" and prefer to replace that claim with, "there ARE things that science doesn't know".

  28. About the existence of God and the burden of proof

    As a Christian (and an ex-atheist), in my understanding of things, I believe that atheist are rational when they say that there they cannot believe that there is a God and in this sense they deny Its existence, and eventually claim (from believers) the absence of proof. This claim is reasonable and understandable. In my view God is essentially non-interventive and can be perceived only by faith. However it could not be otherwise, it would be absurd if God upon creation decided to leave an undisputable mark of its creation (and existence), as it would make us humans enslaved (to worship Him), which makes no sense as I believe that God made us free. In this sense the universe (and our existence) is rational either we possess that faith or not and for me this is the may sense of my belief that God made man on his image (God provided us the possibility of saying and believing, because it is rational, that He does not exist).

    I do not discuss the rationality of the atheist argument, but I have some difficulty to accept their presumption (and arrogance) of possessing any bit of extra rationality relative to the theists.

  29. As a parenthesis. For a good laugh, I recommend the book "Santa Lives! Five conclusive arguments for the existence of Santa Claus" by Ellis Wiener. I think it is out of print, but you might find it used.

    The arguments are chapters:
    1- the ontological argument
    2- the causal argument
    3- the argument from design, or the teleological argument
    4- the experiential argument
    5- the argument from morality

    Bonus: lesser arguments in an appendix! :-)

  30. b) "life is not meant for anything"... is not a fundamental truth. To me it is against all fundamental truth. Forget ontological and/or causal proof we are not provided with free reign to design and execute our life without ramification. To make something out of nothing. Our decisions often reaffirm life that was given to us or takes from it - but the freedom, if you will - is to decide what to do with it not create it. Our decisions have ramifications for our family and society. To support a child that is ours or not. To help a parent who is in need or not. Those decisions in the light of personal freedom have societal costs - and big ones. A Sorbonne study spoke about research into all known societies and the fact that the only ones that survived longer than 100 years had the underpinning of religion as a driving force. All others petered out and pretty quickly. We argue smartly about life being meaningless but most of us have had the benefit of being supported and raised and nurtured by people who believed in the meaningfulness of life with those religious and often catholic underpinnings. Take it away and the oxygen perhaps goes with it or at least it has in cultures past. Are we going to be different. Not if we have as a beginning postulate that life is meaningless from the get go.

  31. I'm rather anti-Catholic myself, yet the OP's blog has a somewhat glib, dismissive tone that makes me loath to return. Yet another online forum for preaching to the converted...

  32. You should read Gutting's latest piece, on whether Zeus existed. he seriously doesn't understand the overwhelming evidence against Zeus ever having existed, repeatedly claiming that there's no evidence against that proposition.


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