Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Irrational Feser - Part 1: The Review

I saw that Ed Feser wrote a review of Jerry Coyne's book, Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, which is posted in First Things, and I was interested to see how Feser would address the issues raised by Coyne.  Upon reading it, I realized that this "review" was little more than a diatribe against Coyne, and does little or nothing to satisfy the questions of someone who is interested in hearing arguments against Coyne's central thesis: that science and religion are incompatible.

Since it is a brief review, consisting of 12 paragraphs, I'll take a look at the the entire article here.

Paragraph 1
Faith versus Fact is some kind of achievement. Biologist Jerry Coyne has managed to write what might be the worst book yet published in the New Atheist genre. True, the competition for that particular distinction is fierce. But among other volumes in this metastasizing literature, each has at least some small redeeming feature. For example, though Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing is bad as philosophy, it is middling as pop science. Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great was at least written by someone who could write like Christopher Hitchens. Though devoid of interest, Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation is brief. Even PZ Myers’s book The Happy Atheist has at least one advantage over Coyne’s book: It came out first.
This amounts to an ad hominen attack on Coyne, leaving the reader with no choice but to conclude that he is the worst of the "New Atheist" authors mentioned, since their works each have some "redeeming feature" (as Feser notes by damning them with faint praise), but Coyne's does not.

Paragraph 2
The book flies off the rails before it reaches page one. In an unintentionally comic passage in his preface, Coyne explains what he has in mind by “religion.” First, he tells us that his main target isn’t religions that emphasize practice, such as “the more meditation-oriented versions of Buddhism.” Rather, it is religions that emphasize controversial truth claims about the world—in particular, “theistic faiths,” those that affirm the existence of a God or gods. But even more specifically, he says, he will “concentrate on the Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.” Two sentences later we learn that in fact it is “mostly the various brands of Christianity that occupy this book.” But far from all the brands, since in the very next sentence he adds that, actually, he “will talk mostly about science and religion in the United States.”
So Coyne informs us that he's talking mainly about the kind of religion that is found in the US, and Feser finds this to be comic, and even flying "off the rails".  Perhaps there was some particular passage that set Feser off, but the ones he quoted don't seem overly bizarre, so we can only wonder what his beef is.  "Off the rails" seems a bit over-the-top as a description.

Paragraph 3
By the following page he qualifies this even further, indicating that the views of “regular believers” interest him more than do the fancy arguments of theologians. Next it is conceded that it is “only a few specific areas of science,” such as Darwinism, that are rejected by religious believers. Yet, as Coyne admits, even “evolution . . . is accepted by many Jews, Buddhists, Christians, and liberal Muslims.” In short, when all the qualifications are in, it seems that Coyne’s paradigm of “religion” is Bible Belt creationism. Apparently, he was absent the day his college statistics class covered the notion of a representative sample.
Coyne's mention of believers who reject evolution does not narrow the field to any one brand or denomination of believers, as Feser seems to think, and it does not limit his discussion to something that constitutes less than a representative sample.  I think Feser believes the book is not representative because it doesn't specifically address his own scholastic Thomism, which is held by a subset of Catholics.

Paragraph 4
But to be fair to Coyne: He doesn’t always use the term “religion” in this idiosyncratic way. And that’s the problem. He has no consistent account at all of what religion is. On one page, he will tell you that Jainism is not really the sort of thing he means by “religion.” Forty pages later, he’ll offer Jainism as an example of the sort of thing he means by “religion.” If the views of some theologian are clearly compatible with science, Coyne will assure us that what theologians have to say is irrelevant to determining what is typical of religion. But if a theologian says something that Coyne thinks is stupid, then what theologians have to say suddenly becomes highly relevant to determining what is typical of religion. When churchmen refuse to abandon some doctrine, Coyne tells us that this shows that religion is dogmatic and unwilling to adjust itself to modern knowledge. When churchmen do abandon some doctrine, Coyne tells us that this shows that religion is unfalsifiable and desperate to adjust itself to modern knowledge. It seems Coyne also missed that lecture in logic class about the fallacy of special pleading.
Feser continues with his rant about what kind of religious beliefs are the subject of the book.  It seems he can't stand the fact that the Thomistic classic theological conception of God is not considered typical religious belief, but the fact is that even most Catholics do not share that conception.  And he completely misses the boat on Coyne's discussion of the unfalsifiable nature of church dogma, and how is it only subject to change when the church has backed itself into a corner by holding to a belief that defies common knowledge as revealed by science.  This is not special pleading.  It is at the very center of understanding why religion is incompatible with science.

Paragraph 5
Coyne speaks repeatedly of “religion’s methods,” as if there were some common technique applied by scholastic logicians, Buddhist monks, and Appalachian snake handlers. The theology of Thomas Aquinas, Hindu nationalism, the cargo cults of Melanesia, Scientology—all of these and more are casually lumped together as examples of religion, as if the differences weren’t at least as significant as whatever similarities Coyne thinks he sees. This is like pulling random lines from a physics textbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, and an episode of Star Trek and then putting them forward as equally typical illustrations of “science” and of “science’s methods.”
So after berating Coyne for limiting his discussion to an overly narrow subset of religious beliefs, Feser now berates him for being too inclusive.  Go figure.  I think that Feser, being overly focused on finding fault in every word written by Coyne, simply wasn't listening when he discussed what kind of religious beliefs were the subject of his discussion.

Paragraph 6
Coyne’s own method, then, is to characterize religion however he needs to in order to convict it of irrationality. Nor is “religion” the only term Coyne uses in a tendentious way. The question-begging definition is perhaps his favorite debating trick. He characterizes “faith” as “belief without—or in the face of—evidence” and repeatedly uses the term as if this is what it generally means in religious contexts. Naturally, he has no trouble showing that faith so understood is irrational. But this simply is not how faith is understood historically in Christian theology. For example, for scholastic theologians, faith is assent to something that has been revealed by God. And how do we know that God exists and really has revealed it? Those are claims for which, the theologian agrees, evidence needs to be given.
Has Feser finally finished harping about what Coyne means by "religion"?  Now we turn our attention to "faith".  Again, Feser is upset that the definition doesn't match the apologetics' definition that attempts to make faith sound as if it is based on evidence.  But Feser's apologetic understanding of faith does not match what you typically find among ordinary believers.  I often hear things like "nothing can ever make me lose my faith".  This is not evidence-based belief.  It is blind faith despite any and all evidence to the contrary.  And this is quite typical, even if Feser doesn't think so.

Paragraph 7
Of course, Coyne will disagree about whether the evidence really shows what theologians say it does. The point, though, is that whether we should have evidence for what we believe is not what is in dispute. Coyne acknowledges that “theologians intensely dislike” the definition of faith he proposes. So, he not only attacks a straw man but implicitly admits that that is what he is doing. Indeed, you will find in Coyne’s book more straw men than you would at a casting call for The Wizard of Oz. Coyne mocks John Paul II’s claim that “truth cannot contradict truth,” insinuating that the pope sought merely to conform science to religious doctrine. In fact, the pope was no less concerned to emphasize that theology has to take seriously the findings of science.
I think that Coyne is quite correct here.  The church holds to its dogma until it is forced to change it, as discussed above.  In matters where there is still some room for doubt, dogma continues to take precedence over science.  The science of cognition is an excellent example of this.  Church dogma flatly rejects all scientific understanding of it, and will continue to do so, despite the ever-expanding wealth of evidence that already exists, until the day it finally becomes absurd to cling to the superstition in the face of indisputable scientific knowledge.

Paragraph 8
If Coyne can’t get his story straight about what he means by religion, neither does he offer a coherent account of science. In the preface, he tells us that “science is but one form of rationality (philosophy and mathematics are others).” That makes it sound like he rejects scientism, the view that science alone gives us genuine knowledge. Yet he immediately goes on to add that science is “the only [form of rationality] capable of describing and understanding reality.” And in chapter 2 he emphasizes that the strength of science is its falsifiability, adding that “any ‘knowledge’ incapable of being revised with advances in data and human thinking does not deserve the name of knowledge.” That makes it sound like he does endorse scientism. Except that two pages later he concedes that “absolute and unalterable truth is for mathematics and logic,” which he distinguishes from science. So, it seems that there is, after all, knowledge to be had—indeed, “absolute and unalterable” knowledge—outside science. And in chapter 4 he indicates that “the humanities, social science, art, music, literature, philosophy, and mathematics” can also be forms of knowledge distinct from science.
In my opinion, this is where Feser goes off the rails.  In his mind, Coyne is guilty of "scientism", which Feser defines as "the view that science alone gives us genuine knowledge", but he is frustrated by the fact that Coyne says that he finds knowledge in other places.  Feser is apparently unaware that his view of "scientism" is a straw man and that Coyne isn't obliged to confine himself to such a narrow view.

Paragraph 9
Except that he immediately goes on to say, in the same chapter, that if any of these fields do yield genuine knowledge, then they must be “science broadly construed”—never mind that he earlier characterized logic (which is a branch of philosophy) and mathematics as areas of knowledge distinct from science. So Coyne really does embrace scientism, right? Not necessarily, since a couple of pages later he acknowledges that philosophy constitutes a “kind of knowledge,” and indicates that it is distinct from science but can be “useful to scientists.” Furthermore, he dismisses the accusation of scientism as a mere “canard” ritualistically flung at New Atheists. And so his settled position—at long last, the reader thinks—would seem to be that scientism is false and that there is knowledge to be had outside the boundaries of science.
Feser continues to be hopelessly confused and frustrated, because Coyne doesn't comply with his straw man of "scientism".

Paragraph 10
But not so fast, because a couple of pages after that he says that if scientism is the view that science is “the only reliable ‘way of knowing,’” then “most of my colleagues and I are indeed guilty of scientism” and “scientism is a virtue”—never mind that he has just dismissed the accusation of scientism as a “canard.” Reading Coyne trying to do something as simple as defining his terms is like watching him play tennis with himself. And losing.
Coyne is saying that if "scientism" is defined in a manner that is more consistent with what actual scientists believe, then it is a virtue, and not at all the canard that people like Feser make it out to be.  Feser is so stuck on his own straw man that he utterly fails to see the distinction.  Feser's definition of scientism is the canard.  A more realistic and nuanced view of what scientists actually think reveals the virtue to which Feser is blind.

Paragraph 11
Then there is the problem that to appeal to science alone in order to show that science is reliable is to argue in a circle. Coyne is aware of the problem, but answers, “I’ll pay attention to the circularity argument when someone comes up with a better way to understand nature.” Yet the only criteria of better and worse that Coyne will accept are scientific criteria. Hence his response to the charge that he has given a circular argument is to repeat the same circular argument.
Coyne rightfully dismisses the accusation of circularity because it seems he has a better understanding of epistemology than Feser does.  Coyne understands that in epistemology, beliefs based on the evidence of the senses are regarded as "properly basic belief".  In other words, they are foundational knowledge.  Beliefs based on empirical evidence are therefore considered to be epistemically justified, and resorting to the evidence of the senses as a basis for justifying scientific beliefs should not be regarded as circular reasoning.  Contrast that with Thomism, which is founded on the bedrock of theistic assumptions, which are used as the basis to justify theistic beliefs.  Feser lives in a glass house.

Paragraph 12
Viking Press has apparently cornered the market on paper and printer’s ink and had some overstock it needed to get rid of in order to free up warehouse space. There seems to be no other explanation for how this book came to be published—unless the press is subtly aiming at the market for critical-thinking and logic textbooks. For considered as an omnibus of concrete examples of elementary logical fallacies, Faith versus Fact is invaluable. Given Coyne’s standards of scholarship, I fully expect to see the last half of that sentence used as a blurb for the paperback edition.
Honestly?  Attacking the publisher for printing the book?  Snidely insinuating that it is a textbook of logical fallacies?  Feser would do well to take a closer look at himself.  What are the chances of that?

After reading this review, I was left flat.  I knew better than to expect an objective evaluation of the book, but I thought at least it would give me a sense of the main points made by Coyne, and of Feser's response to those points.  I came away with neither.  Feser seems to be so obsessed with trying to belittle Coyne, that he forgot to highlight and address the main issues of Coyne’s arguments.  And frankly, I was a bit surprised to see how juvenile it was.

In Part 2, I'll have more to say about this review, and the irrationality of Feser and his cultists.  Stay tuned.


  1. Hi, everybody! Visitors to this blog should know, before im-skeptical deletes this comment in order to hide the evidence, about his previous comments and behavior, at

    1. Unlike some of your buddies, there is freedom to speak in my blog. And I welcome your comments here. One thing I can assure you is that if you have something reasonable to say, I will respond in a reasonable manner. That's something that I didn't see much of in Feser's blog.

      By the way, I am about to post Part 2, in which your own lack of reason will be highlighted (among others). Do look forward to it.

  2. You should have a post highlighting Brandon taking you over his knee and whipping you.

    1. Yes, Brandon was particularly ignorant with all his ad hominems. I think he spanked himself. Such is the intellectual prowess of the Feser cultist.

    2. Exactly what I expected. Totally incapable of recognizing the fact that you were totally dismantled and made to look a fool. That's one of the things I will always love about Christopher Hitchens. He had the balls to admit when he'd lost a debate. Go on though. Keep telling yourself how intelligent you are. Your genius is totally insurmountable. LOL

    3. That was no debate. That was a bunch of cultists in an echo chamber, all bleating the same single note. I'll happily debate with Brandon if he ever decides to grow up. As I said, if anyone would like to have a serious discussion with me, all they have to do is act like it.

  3. I have just spent an evening with Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. I drove up and back in a day from where I live to hear both men speak at the State Theatre in Sydney and then to meet them afterwards. I asked Dr Harris had he ever thought of inviting Feser onto a podcast for a conversation as he has done with many renowned people over the last ten years or so. I couldn't believe my ears. To my utter amazement Harris said, "Who's he?" So much for the 'fame' of Feser. After outlining Dr Feser being a Catholic philosopher who championed classical scholasticism and had written quite a polemic on the new atheists in his book, The Last Superstition", Harris genuinely was bemused when he replied, "No, I haven't heard of him. Does he come from here?" I said, "No,No. He's an American philosopher."

    What a small pond Feser waddles in.

    In respect of Coynes' latest contribution to societal rational thought, "Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible", Feser's review is a pugnacious but frightened response. He knows he has simply exhausted all philosophical ammunition, whatever there might have been that hasn't already been spent over and over ad nauseam over the centuries by apologists. He has resorted to using the last rounds in his arsenal, blanks; ad hominems.

    Brandon taking Skep over his knee? Now this is funny. I didn't think the religiose had a sense of humour. But this is really funny.

    1. I think in their mind, they have really struck a blow, when in fact, all they are doing is repeating mindless twaddle. Feser's review is a good example of this. He makes three points: I don't like Coyne's definition of religion. I don't like Coyne's definition of faith. Coyne is a scientismist. That's it. All the rest of it is in his mind. He thinks that defeats everything Coyne has said. He refuses to meet Coyne head-on by taking on his arguments, under the arrogant assumption that whatever he says is indefeasible, just like his religious beliefs. Mere mortals should just admit that he's supremely awesome, and not even try to argue against him, because he won't listen anyway.

  4. I too echo laubadetriste's comment for readers to visit Feser's site. Don Jindra, Santi and Skep do a sterling job in challenging the nonsense that falls under the rubric of religious thinking that shapes their bizarro worldview of 'things unseen', ghosts and gods and other things that go bump in the night. Read with interest and commit this moment to memory. As we have learned from the other events in the historical record, in years and decades to come new generations of people will simply not believe you how the mind of a religiobot operated and what they thought were the apparent 'serious' significant challenges facing humanity such as homosexuality, single parent families, women's healthcare and sovereign right over her own body, the evils of science [biology, evolution, neuroscience into religious belief], same sex marriage, secularism, humanism, issues over which they fought so hard against.

    Just as we ridicule and shake our heads over ancient religions for their human sacrifices to past gods, the burying of children under foundations of buildings in order it receive the grace of God and good fortune, so too will humanity look back and shake its collective head about the bizarre beliefs of this current crop of religions.

    So yes. I encourage you to remember Feser and his faithful minions as they attempt to keep the sinking SS Goddidit afloat. While we may not want to live in interesting times we surely do.

  5. Heartily endorse im-skeptical's assessment of Ed Feser's attack on Jerry Coyne. Try a site search at Feser' blog to see the amount of space given to such attacks. One would almost think from Feser's lightweight and puerile tirade, that he had not read it. I found Faith vs. Fact well-written and well-argued and as such probably a threat to the reactionary misogynistic Catholicism that Feser champions.

    I had a similar experience visiting Feser's blog a while ago, venturing into the comment threads. It's an exclusively male echo chamber that erupts in vitriol when stirred by the odd rational comment.

    BTW I blogged on Feser's review here. Spooky similarity on names!

  6. PS re previous comment, I should clarify it's not my personal blog - it was set up by neuro-scientist Dr. Lizzie Liddle.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I concur with Alan Fox. Feser's review is a miscellany of rancourous spite.
    Skep, I do hope you continue to comment over at Feser's blog when you feel justified to do so because you do have something to say and Feser must be robustly challenged on the religious hokum he espouses. Because I have been banned from the site is not the reason I say this, in payback. You genuinely do have something to contribute over there, even if it is to simply to put on the record that there are sensible others in the community who for sound ontological and epistemological reasons find that his views are largely trite and clichéd theo-babble, tendentious and egregious nonsense of the apologetical kind; mutton dressed as lamb.

    1. I do expect to show up there from time to time. However, I always feel as if I'm skirting the edge of being banned. It's not that try to get myself banned, but people seem to react strongly when I point out some of their bullshit. I think it's funny because I try to be careful to remain relatively civil, especially compared to the jerks I encounter in these sites. And they act as if I'm the one who's behaving badly. Case in point: my discussion with steve at Tribalogue. Check out the things said to me by rockingwithhawking. And steve was getting ready to ban be before I quit the discussion.

      So I think I have to be careful. I'd like to be able to at least show up once in a while to throw in a quick comment.

    2. Yes. I've been banned from Triablogue as well. Another blog packed with theistic bunkum but this time from the metastatic canker of Calvinism.

      Don Jindra comments at Feser's site pretty much under that same perpetual trepidation of being summarily dismissed by way of a fatwa from Feser. He can dish it out but he cannot take it. Borrowing from Benjamin Barr Lindsey [d.1943], renowned American Judge and social reformer in Colorado:

      [People like Feser]..... used to win their arguments against atheism, agnosticism, and other burning issues by burning the ismists, which is fine proof that there is a devil but hardly evidence that there is a God.

      If history is any lesson, I have little doubt should Catholicism ever again inveigle itself into the corridors of political power as it had before the French Revolution, heresy and blasphemy, and simply being other than Catholic would be constituted as criminal offences. One need only witness the stridency against womens' right over their own healthcare and owning sovereignty over their own body, the utterly homophobic psychoses against gays and gay marriage, against the statute of Wade v Roe, against secularism, against humanism, against science [biology, evolution, neuroscience research into religious belief]. When one also considers the depraved indifference exhibited by the Catholic leadership to the victims of child sex crimes, by instituting collective punitive action against other clergy who rightly report these crimes to the proper authorities, one must seriously wonder, seriously wonder where Catholic morality is derived.

      As an institution Catholicism is ugly in thought and deed.

  9. Thanks for reproducing the entire review! I would have missed it otherwise and, as usual with anything by Feser, it is absolutely packed with wisdom and deep insight.

    1. A cry-baby wining because the book isn't about his Thomism that nobody believes in anyway. It is telling that you find this juvenile diatribe "packed with wisdom and deep insight".