Metaphysics vs. History, Science, and The Holocaust, or Edward Feser vs. Jerry Coyne

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as a Christian who, after the Holocaust, is still a supersessionist (one who believes the people of the Church have superseded Jews as God’s Chosen People) is tone deaf to history, so it is with the metaphysician who is tone deaf to the Holocaust in relation to the idea that God is all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.).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in atheism, edward feser, God, philosophy, science, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Metaphysics vs. History, Science, and The Holocaust, or Edward Feser vs. Jerry Coyne

  1. Chris says:

    Hi, Santi

    I came to your blog, recently, via your posts about Feser – I recently read his book ‘The Last Superstition’, and found it extremely puzzling (as a ‘rational empiricist’ myself), so have been trying to figure-out where he’s coming from. Your posts have been quite helpful, in this regard, so I’ve tried to summarise, below:

    Given that Feser’s metaphysics/ontology was arrived at independently of any actual scientific realities, his metaphysics seems to function entirely as a set of presuppositions (or ‘worldview’) – which begs the question about how he arrived at his particular AT metaphysic, in the first place (but that’s another story). On this basis, then, the challenge – above all else – is to try to construct a metaphysic that is ‘internally consistent’. And, because it’s a ‘metaphysic’, it can only be criticised – effectively, at least – by showing some internal inconsistency, rather than by trying to show that it disagrees with a rational-empirical worldview, since a rational-empiricist worldview has already been rejected and, of course, *any* mere empirical fact can *always* be (re)interpreted through the lens of one’s own metaphysic, which is exactly the charge that Feser levels against his (naturalist/materialist) critics (accusing them of incoherency).

    So, to conclude, Feser is just another pre-suppositionalist, making ‘transcendental’ (TAG) style arguments, that his is the only ‘worldview’ that can make effective/coherent sense of reality (involving the Christian God, of course), while simultaneously trying to poke holes in the naturalist/materialist worldview.

    Does this sound about right to you?


    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hi Chris,

      Yes, I agree with your analysis. He treats metaphysics as something like mathematics, encapsulating it in such a way that reality testing can never seep in. Then he declares victory if he can make it all self-consistent. Occam’s razor never gets a turn.

      I actually gave up reading his site this past year. I may go back to having a look and commenting there again. When I first visited his site and read his books, I was interested in trying to understand neo-Thomism, and came away disappointed. His books and site promise a great deal, but don’t deliver. In the end, it’s unsatisfying intellectually and emotionally–and accounts (to my mind) for why very few contemporary philosophers are Thomists. If Thomism were a stock, it has moved from being the Google of the Middle Ages to a penny stock today. It’s temperamentally well-suited to a certain sort of conservative temperament and era, but takes (in my view) insufficient account of Darwin’s consequences to essentialist modes of thought. After the emergence of liberal democracy and Darwin, Thomism just doesn’t seem to have enough going for it to be a contender for most people’s intellectual and political loyalties. Feser’s a very smart cookie though, and I have a lot of respect for his intelligence. He just isn’t playing with a very good hand. Saint Thomas and Aristotle are also wonderful, given what little they knew of the world scientifically. I especially love Aristotle.

      One especially happy result of my wrestling with Feser’s books and Thomism is that I found myself wanting to read Wittgenstein as retort, and worked at reading and understanding him better, which proved far, far more rewarding to me than wrestling with old-school Thomism as filtered through Feser.

      Keep in touch Chris. I’m happy to kick this around some more with you if you want.

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