An objection to natural theology

When we study (some) natural things, the question of their existence is established by a different power than the theoretical exposition we give of them. The existence of birds is established by simply seeing them while ornithology involves classificatory schemes, theoretical structures, etc. Because of this a problem or paradox or unthinkable conclusion in the theoretical structure of ornithology  does not count as evidence that birds do not exist.

Natural theology is not like this. The existence of the being it studies is established by the same sort of theoretical inference as we use to explicate properties. Because of this, a problem or paradox or unthinkable conclusion in the conclusions of natural theology does (or at least can) count as evidence that the God of the Philosophers does not exist. Said another way, while a strange or unthinkable conclusion in ornithology does not count as a reductio ad absurdum against the existence of birds, it does in natural theology.

But there are many unthinkable conclusions in natural theology (viz. a subject identical to its operation, a being that is free but unable to be determined by anything, a being that must be understood by both concrete and abstract terms, a being whose essence includes the notion of existence, etc.)

Therefore, the unthinkable conclusions of natural theology count as evidence that the God of the Philosophers does not exist.

(It might be better to make the argument turn on the fact that natural theology has no standard by which to distinguish a mere paradoxical conclusion from a reductio ad absurdum against the claim that God exists; and it seems to set the level of proof absurdly high to say we must reach a formal logical contradiction before we have a reductio ad absurdum.)


  1. thenyssan said,

    February 15, 2013 at 11:34 am

    I was just going over this a little with my younger guys yesterday. What do you think about the idea that paradox is divided from contradiction by beauty? To take one item from your list, a subject identical to its operation is beautiful/neat/cool in a way that a squared-circle is not.

    That might make the whole enterprise too vulnerable to claims of subjectivity/relativity but it seems (to me) a necessary step in the connection of natural theology to revealed theology…so why not handle it the same way in natural theology?

  2. February 15, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    That would certainly change either the character of natural theology or our general epistemology.

    I tend to think that there is just some formal or foundational-assumption problem here. But the objection itself took me about a month to formulate (this is what I tried to formulate last month with the idea that STA had to know a priori that existence and essence were possibly one) So any response to it will take some time too. No rush. Maybe this is the sort of objection one can only answer if, like STA, you go and beat your head against the tabernacle for a few hours. If that’s so, someone else is going to have to solve it.

    • thenyssan said,

      February 15, 2013 at 1:22 pm

      I think your objection is awesomely formulated by the way. Nodded all the way through it, except for the quick identification of the false and the and paradoxical. Maybe it would help to lay out some ideas on what exactly paradox is. I think my present course was set years ago by de Lubac on this.

      Another line of thought I considered here may smack too much of Scotus (I jest). In the confrontation with the infinite, paradox is something we should expect. I know that doesn’t really solve the problem–again, that only works simply in the move from natural to revealed–but I guess you could run some sort of modern possibility argument here.

      And it’s Lent…’tis the season for spending hours banging your head against a tabernacle. 🙂

      • February 15, 2013 at 2:21 pm

        The notions of paradox and unthinkable conclusion are weak in the post. A further development would have to turn on the Thomistic idea of judgment as opposed to intuition founding our knowledge of God (we don’t see a quiddity, we just make a judgment about things we do not intuit together).

        In one sense this argument is just an attempt to give a theoretical foundation to the argument from incoherence.

  3. MarcAnthony said,

    February 15, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    The problem with the reductio ad absurdum argument is that it could cut both ways.

    Take the old Thomistic standby (Which I agree with, by the way): Lying is always wrong, no matter the situation, because it is intrinsically evil.

    The classic Thomistic answer to the “murderer at the door” scenario looks an awful lot like an absurd conclusion, but we are still asked to accept it because the logic is valid-or at least SEEMS valid. Which a lot of people who come to absurd conclusions claim.

    What I’m really saying is that Reductio ad absurdium needs to be handled with a lot of care, lest it be turned around on us.

    • February 15, 2013 at 3:11 pm

      IT’s true that one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens viz. “If lying is intrinsically wrong, then lying to the Nazi’s at the door is intrinsically wrong”. Any valid argument runs both ways, and a tough conclusion might crash the whole system. But metaphysics and natural theology add a layer of difficulty on top of this: the very knowable existence of the subject, and therefore the possibility of the science itself, is at stake if the conclusions become untenable. It’s as if the Nazi at the door example threatened to destroy our ability to know moral facts.

      • MarcAnthony said,

        February 18, 2013 at 7:39 am

        I believe Dr. Feser made the point once in passing that since Thomism seems like “common sense” so much of the time that when a difficult conclusion IS reached we should be able to give the system a little more leeway than we would with a system like, say, nihilism, where nearly EVERYTHING seems counterintuitive.

        In other words, because Thomism has shown itself to be perfectly sensible and reasonable so consistently then we should be willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the few difficult conclusions we draw from it.

        I wonder if that argument works. It’s an interesting one at least.

      • February 18, 2013 at 9:18 am

        While nihilism is certainly one system contrary to Natural Theology, a closer opposition would be the systems of say, Luther or Kant or Karl Barth or any number of fideist Protestant philosophies, and these aren’t without Catholic analogues – perhaps even in the fathers of the Church.

      • MarcAnthony said,

        February 18, 2013 at 1:24 pm

        Well, look at the conclusions Rosenberg draws in his new book on the philosophy of “Scientism”. Dr. Feser went through it, and you can’t deny that the man is honest. But the conclusions he draws are ridiculous, really.

        I just thought it interesting that Dr. Feser made that point in passing, when it’s a pretty significant statement just on its own, and not an uncontroversial one.

  4. G. Rodrigues said,

    February 18, 2013 at 6:09 am

    @James Chastek:

    Gorgeously fiendish argument.

    But I do think the parenthetical remark provides one way out, for insisting that we do reach a formal contradiction before we reach a reductio is not an absurdly high level — at least not uniformly and universally so.

    For illustrative purposes, consider the Banach-Tarski paradox: a ball can be cut in a finite number of pieces; we can move the pieces around by translations and rotations and reassemble them to get two balls. The existence of these paradoxical decompositions is not self-evident, but established by a non-trivial argument by invoking at one point the axiom of choice (*). It is a paradox, not in the sense of a formal contradiction in ZFC (till this date, none was found; unless you are a crank that is), but in the sense that it is highly counter-intuitive conclusion. So it could be used as an argument to reject full choice (AC for short) — and this is not a mere hypothetical; at least one mathematician has said this much to me.

    So it seems we have all the ingredients used in your scenario. A paradoxical conclusion that is not a formal contradiction. Can be used as a motivating reason to reject AC. And at the same time there is no absolute vantage point from which to decide the question between two mathematicians A and B with opposing opinions, for the mathematician B rejecting AC must commit itself to a formal system that denies AC. Assuming it is consistent, A and B can only agree on a smaller formal system that is too weak to decide anything, since the two stronger formal systems are consistent extensions of the smaller one.

    So it seems by your logic, we are obliged to conclude that mathematicians have “no standard by which to distinguish a mere paradoxical conclusion from a reductio ad absurdum” and must lapse into a paralyzing silence about the matter. But this is false to the facts. Not only that, the status and truthfulness of AC continues to be discussed, as well as the status of new foundational axioms of set theory like large cardinal axioms. Maybe mathematicians have given up discussing the matter and converting their opponents, but *new* mathematicians are being formed every day. If they deem the question worthy of an answer, they too will have to weigh the pros and cons, both to themselves and in the classroom and seminars, pondering over the old arguments, possibly coming up with new ones, and in general keeping the dialectics alive.

    (*) considerably weaker choice principles suffer, but stick to full choice for simplicity.

    • February 18, 2013 at 9:36 am

      I agree that it would be (often? usually?) unreasonable to dismiss a theory in the face of a single “paradox”, though one of the difficulties in my saying this is that one of the reasons we would call it a paradox (or “problem”) is precisely because we think we shouldn’t dismiss the theory because of it. I don’t know where this leaves the argument, though it does make it harder to make it work on a purely logical basis, and seems to force the argument to go forward evidentially and build up a cumulative case from a number of theological paradoxes. If we go this way, then we could avoid the difficulties in your example by stressing that we only have a single paradox when a larger evidential case would be necessary to reject AC. It comes at a cost though – we might even be able to argue that allowing for an evidential case presupposes that we have some ability to judge the evidence, and therefore an ability to establish natural theology.

  5. G. Rodrigues said,

    February 19, 2013 at 9:07 am

    @James Chastek:

    “If we go this way, then we could avoid the difficulties in your example by stressing that we only have a single paradox when a larger evidential case would be necessary to reject AC.”

    Other, different paradoxical phenomena can be listed as a reason to reject AC. For one example (but there others), Vitali’s construction of a non-Lebesgue measurable set can be adapted to provide an extremely counter-intuitive solution to the prisoners and hats puzzle. Once again, this is not a mere hypothetical, as I have read at least one mathematician enjoining this phenomena as a reason to reject AC.

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