Thomist philosopher Edward Feser has recently written a scathing review for First Things of evolutionary biologist and atheist Jerry Coyne’s new book, Faith vs. Fact. The crux of the disagreement between the two men lies in their different emphases on the value of metaphysics in relation to history and science.
Edward Feser writes books that are out of time in the sense that they are concerned with locking down metaphysical arguments in such a way that neither history nor science can disrupt their conclusions. Feser attempts to treat metaphysics as akin to mathematics, making history and science unable to touch metaphysics, even in principle. Hence the hyper-confidence and posturing he brings (and some of his thread followers bring) to his metaphysical conclusions, accepting, for example, God’s existence with 100% certainty (as a matter, supposedly, of airtight logical reasoning).
By contrast, Jerry Coyne has written two books that are, as it were, in time, one on evolution–a historical phenomenon–the other narrating his intellectual journey and musings on the contemporary religious scene, tracing the varieties of religious arguments (akin to following the varieties of organisms in evolution), and finding them wanting. Feser thinks this exercise is worthless because, for a philosopher like Feser, rehearsing the irrationality and fallacies of, say, Scientologists, doesn’t get you any closer to the truth of matters. It’s just a distraction.
But a secular Jewish scientist like Coyne, after the Holocaust, is naturally going to be concerned with history’s contingencies, and concerned with ideologies that become unmoored from science, reality testing, and historical concern. He’s going to want to think about that.
So just as a Christian who, after the Holocaust, is still a supersessionist (one who believes the people of the Church have superseded Jews as God’s Chosen People) is tone deaf to history, so it is with the metaphysician who is tone deaf to the Holocaust in relation to the idea that God is all good and powerful. The metaphysician seems to ignore the concerns of historians and scientists that ideas should not free-float too far from the lives of real human beings in time (gays, women, the victims of history, etc.).
The Holocaust, of all things that have happened over the past several thousand years, ought to give the hyper-confident metaphysician pause–exactly as Darwin’s Origin of Species ought to give the Protestant evangelical pause. That such things frequently don’t give pause–indeed, get ignored in the determination of metaphysical and theological belief–is going to be a distressing fact worthy of contemplation for a secular Jewish scientist like Coyne–and obviously, I’m with Coyne on this.
Put another way, the Holocaust ought to be a source of humility for anyone who pretends to be 100% confident of religious and ideological claims–exactly as evolution and historicism should be in general.
The Jewish philosopher, Theodor Adorno, after WWII, thought about this very issue: the Nazi’s hyper, Hegelian-style confidence that metaphysical forces were at work in history, and that these rendered contingent groups of people either invisible, in the way, or disposable, is part of what, Adorno posited, made the Holocaust possible. I think Coyne, as a secular Jew and scientist, is subconsciously troping this post-Holocaust era concern from the realms of political history to those of religious history and science: people come under the spell of their metaphysical systems and neither history nor scientific evidence influences their confidence and thinking.
By contrast, Feser, as a conservative Catholic (something I find bewildering to be after the Holocaust) has to subconsciously retreat into metaphysics because history is in many respects an uncomfortable and embarrassing issue for religious conservatives (from the treatment of women and gays, to Galileo, to historic Christian antisemitism, to the Church’s response to Hitler, etc.).