Goodreads is rife with a number of enthusiastic reviews of this book, and the general tone of those reviews is the same: this is a thoughtful and challenging book, dealing with the most substantial arguments available (within Catholic theology) for the existence of God. This is, basically, the sales pitch of the book, given by Spitzer in the introduction, and it is the way that the book was pitched to me, initially, by a friend and professor.
My review of the book will be harsh and thorough, responding both to inadequacies in content, in the styling of the philosophy, and the writing itself. Rarely do I take the time to respond to a single book so thoroughly unless it is directed at a very particular person or group. In this case, the response is merely a counterweight to the sycophantic reviews elsewhere. I did find the book very unpleasant, and so I am not simply being contrarian.
For those in the tl;dr approach to book reviews, a short summation: (1) The book is poorly written, jumping back and forth between dramatically oversimplified explanations of complex areas of physics and philosophy and incredibly technical neo-Thomist jargon. (2) The book misrepresents even claims that it quotes directly re: physics in order to increase the apparent philosophical consequence. (3) The book misunderstands many of the central notions that it invokes (e.g. probability, intelligibility, etc.) in the course of its arguments, and the accounts that it gives of these concepts are, at best, vacuous and, at worst, incoherent. (4) The book is seriously methodologically confused, bouncing back and forth between natural language and technical/quasi-formal analyses all while maintain that these analyses have an ontological (rather than merely conceptual) consequence.
I have debated working through the book claim by claim, but I have decided instead to offer straightforward arguments in support of each of these failures, for those who are interested and don't mind that I am directly quoting large portions of the book. (I don't really worry about spoilers in non-fiction.)
1. The book is poorly written, simultaneously over simplistic and dense with jargon
In the opening chapters of the book, Spitzer attempts to give a rough characterization of the concepts in physics that he is interested in. He gives a very simple folk-characterization of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, (pp. 24-25) using the classic examples of broken plates and billiard balls to illustrate the problem the way that an introductory physics teacher would for a class. This is absolutely fine, and a respectable way of offering an analysis, but only several pages later (pp. 30-32) he assumes a basic understanding of classical Big Bang cosmology, jumping immediately into Hawking and Penrose's work on the refutation of the classical model.
Neither of these things, in themselves, is a problem. It is fine both to assume no knowledge from an audience and to assume some knowledge from an audience; but generally we do not simultaneously assume a minimal knowledge of physics and a sophisticated knowledge of the details of classical Big Bang cosmology critiqued by Hawking and Penrose during the early 1980's. This is totally unreasonable, and explains the weird feeling among even the sycophantic reviewers that the book was "somewhat difficult to follow." It sells itself as accessible apologetics for non-physicists in the opening portion of the chapter, and then demands a substantive knowledge of physics and mathematics in the latter portion.
I suspect that there is actually something much more pernicious going on here, as I will address in sections (2) and (3). My suspicion is that the move into the excessively technical idiolect serves to mask incompetence in those areas, which can be illustrated by the fairly transparent errors that Spitzer makes in drafting the arguments and (more generally) in sketching the conceptual space. He disorients readers less familiar with stylized academic writing (and, generally, the target audience of apologetics texts are not familiar with academic writing) and so they focus on deciphering the structuring and miss things like overt misrepresentation of theorists or completely incoherent uses of terms.
Just so that you don't think that Spitzer's confusing writing is limited to the discussions of physics, where untrained readers might expect it to be hard to assume a wide knowledge base, he continues to do this throughout the book, in his discussion of philosophy.
In Chapter Four, Spitzer gives a very simple characterization of Lonergan's account of understanding (pp. 147-150) using examples like our first time perceiving an elephant and trying to make sense of, understand what that elephant is. He then immediately jumps into an incredibly jargon-heavy discussion of intelligibility in the simple states. (pp. 156-158) The jump is so sudden that basic questions, like "Isn't intelligibility a relation on the state and an entity with cognitive capacity?" are totally ignored, and we wind up with less curmudgeonly readers just being comfortable with bizarre statements like, "If any reality has restricted ineligibility, then it will leave coherent questions unanswered about itself," (pp. 156) the defense of which involves no account for the move from intelligibility as a joint relation on perceived states and mind-ed individuals (clear in his characteristic account) to a property of states.
Readers are asked to move quickly into the jargon where some term is being used in ways that would appear idiosyncratic on the general characterization, but because the jargon is there, we assume that this idiosyncratic usage has (elsewhere in the technical neo-Thomas corpus) been established as acceptable. That may well be, but Spitzer feels no reason to justify it, or give us a place to look for its justification, illustrating radical change in his expectations of the reader.
2. The book misrepresents claims it quotes directly
In the discussion of physics, where the authority of physicists and their agreement with or support of Spitzer's conclusions is established by block quotation, it occasionally becomes clear that Spitzer misrepresents them in his summary. For example, he quotes the eminent physicists Borde and Vilenkin's discussion of temporal singularities as follows:
"Our argument shows that null and time like geodesics are, in general, past-incomplete [requiring a boundary to past time] in inflationary models, whether or not energy conditions hold, provided only that the average expansion condition Hav > 0 hold along these past-directed geodesics. This is a stronger conclusion than the one arrived at in previous work in that we have shown under reasonable assumptions that almost all causal geodesics, when extended to the past of an arbitrary point, reach the boundary of that inflating region of space-time in a finite proper time." (quoted pp. 34-35)
And, shortly afterwards afterwards, quotes Vilenkin individually:
"… The only assumption that we made was that the expansion rate of the universe never gets blow some nonzero value, no matter how small. This assumption should certainly be satisfied in the inflating false vacuum. The conclusion is that past-eternal inflation without a beginning is impossible." (quoted pp. 35)
Now, the quotes are clearly meant to established that there is a boundary to past time established solely on the basis that the net Hubble-value is greater than zero; this is an interesting finding. But Spitzer rehashes the statement immediately afterwards:
"The implications of Vilenkin's statement should not be underestimated, for he is claiming that the proof is value practically independently of the physics of any universe, and he is further claim that such a universe without a beginning is impossible." (pp. 36, emphasis in original)
But this is obviously not what Vilenkin said. What Vilenkin said is that, given that the Hubble-value is greater than zero, then there must be a boundary on the past. It is not independent of the physics, not even "practically" (where that word is misunderstood to mean "almost") independent; rather, in virtue of a feature of the expansion of the universe alone, we can establish a boundary for time. A value in the physics of the universe establishes that there ought to be a boundary on time. In furthering his agenda, Spitzer misdescribes a finding as a matter of modality (possibility and impossibility) when it is explicitly conditioned by a contingent feature. The statement illustrates simultaneous incompetence in physics and philosophy.
3. The book misunderstands many of the central notions that it invokes
I am now switching modes, though it may not appear that way, as the level of antagonism will remain largely unchanged. I tend to divide all intellectual work along two axes: (a) is it correct and (b) is it good? Generally, work that is good tends to be right, and vice versa, but it is important to criticize each independently. There are enough instances of philosophical literature where these things occur separately that it is worthwhile to pull them apart. The above two sections have dealt with why I think Spitzer's book is not very good, and I will return again to this in (4); here, though, I deal principally with why I think that Spitzer is clearly mistaken and (further) never really had any chance of being right, given the concepts that he was employing.
I suspect that the problems with Spitzer's concepts are largely interrelated, as he seems to understand them principally in terms of each other, but I don't have the time to show that the entire conceptual space is mistaken (What would that look like? It sounds exhausting.) and so will only issue severe problems in a central concept in the discussion of physics (probability) and in the discussion of philosophy (intelligibility) that set him up for failure.
Throughout Spitzer's discussion of the probability of an anthropic universe, he invokes the notion that "pure chance" is unlikely to have instantiated values for universal constants which allow for life. (pp. 51) But it is completely unclear what "pure chance" is supposed to mean here. There are two ways of interpreting the concept consistent with its employment throughout the book, one of which is totally incoherent and the other is mind-bendingly weird.
The incoherent characterization is something like, "x occurs as pure chance if nothing conditions its occurrence." But there can be no value given for the probability of x independent of a set of conditions. In order to specify any value whatsoever for a probability of occurrence, we have to specify the set of conditions of occurrence. I will be charitable here, and presume that Spitzer doesn't have this in mind; if he does, then he has more serious issues than not understanding the role of probabilities in physics, because he doesn't even understand the most basic folk concept of probability.
The mind-bendingly weird interpretation is something like, "x occurs as pure chance if the only antecedent causes are logical and mathematical laws." This, I suggest, is a charitable way of interpreting Spitzer, but is still obviously a mistake. On the one hand, logical and mathematical laws seem to actually be conditions which could be given, and it seems consistent with a few of the odd theological positions he takes regarding abstract objects later. On the other hand, it seems obviously false to say logical and mathematical laws condition physical states, or could constitute a set of conditions for a physical state in the way that "pure chance" would entail on Spitzer's account. (Even among mathematical realists, it is uncommon to maintain that the sort of causal power exists among abstract objects.)
There is a problem with talking about probabilities in the way that Spitzer (or Swinburne, who is much less confused about what probabilities are, but still engages in a similar project) does. Probabilities require a set of conditions to be specified. "What is the probability of P given that x, y, and z obtain?" An antecedent state probabilistically determines (rather than wholly determines) a consequent state if its conditions do not entirely either allow or disallow the occurrence of the consequence state. There are interesting things to be said about models of antecedent states, and at times Spitzer actually touches on them, but at no point, then, are we dealing with "pure chance." We're dealing with chance in the mundane sense of underdetermination of consequent states… these sorts of mistakes are a part of the equivocation that emerges from speaking in both a colloquial and technical idiolect in one book.
The second is the account of intelligibility he presents as a part of the Lonergan tradition. It is, for all appearances, a basic prototype-theory of concepts with an empiricist account of concept acquisition. (pp. 146-153) It turns out that this account of concept acquisition is contingently false. When we introspect on our concepts, it can seem like we're comparing elephants to rhinos; that happens to not actually be what we're doing, as it is much more complicated, but if that were the only issue, then it'd be just an empirical point that Lonergan is wrong about concept acquisition.
The problem is actually that Spitzer is confused about the facts in virtue of which we are able to say that a certain state is intelligible. When Spitzer tells his superficial story, about the acquisition of a new concept of "elephant" and its comparison to our other concepts, he gets to say that the elephant is intelligible because we can perceive it and process it; that's the sort of state that it is. But the state is intelligible to us partly in virtue of its availing itself of our perceptual and cognitive architecture. He conveniently neglects this when he asserts the intelligibility of the simple states. (pp. 156-159) Intelligible to whom? (After all, "intelligible to God" begs the question.)
He carves up a conceptual space around "intelligibility" where we neglect the prepositional phrase that has to be present to give it any technical significance. "The state is intelligible [to me]." "The state is intelligible [to particle physicists]." and so on. We wind up, then, with the creation of a concept that needs a parameter, which we have not specified, and then we use the need to specify that parameter to justify the role for God in this discussion. "Well, if x is intelligible, then it must be intelligible to something…" This is an obvious mistake, and a striking one that develops over the course of the chapter, warping the argument until we wind up with some truly silly statements about the intelligibility of initial conditions.
In spite of Spitzer's extensive protestations otherwise, (pp. 219-225) similar demonstrations can be given for his interpretation of infinitude instrumental in chapter five and of causality utilized throughout the book. I have just taken the time to illustrate the two on which I am most authoritative. (My work on philosophy of mind and science puts a heavy stake in developing sophisticated characterizations of intelligibility and probability, though I have only scratched the surface here; I have very little stake in any sophisticated account of causality or infinity.)
4. The book is seriously methodologically confused
This is a serious accusation; I am not asserting here that Spitzer is inappropriately mixing analytic philosophy and Thomism (something eminently acceptable among Catholic philosophers) or a weird brand of philosophy of mathematics with a dangerously counter-intuitive brand of philosophy of science. I am not asserting that certain contingent philosophical claims (like the non-existence of infinite sets) are clearly incompatible with other parts of the view espoused in the book (like realism about real numbers). All of those things are true, and could be constitutive of a longer philosophical argument against the sensibility of Spitzer's book.
I am not going to dive into that here, because I think such a project is useless until we get into the major methodological confusion underlying Spitzer's approach to both philosophy and science.
Spitzer is clearly of the view that the concepts that he is talking about in his various arguments are "real." He states over and over again that there is something "ontologically" important about so many of the claims. The problem, though, is that the method of conceptual analysis that he uses, the way in which he characterizes and interprets these concepts, is not sufficiently rigorous to allow for this strong claim. Rather, it shows only that the concepts behave in a certain way in our common use.
For example, he gives us an account of intelligibility, and then of restricted intelligibility. (pp. 157-163) Some state is intelligible in a restricted way if it avails itself of questions. If we can sensibly ask (e.g.) "Why is it that…" then the following phrase must be an intelligible state. Underlying this claim is an assumption that when we believe something is intelligible, we identify the sensible questions as being associated.
There's a methodological assumption here, and one that is obviously false. The assumption is that our evaluation of a given state is not defeasible. That is, if we judge that there are certain sensible questions about a state, then that state is intelligible. But it turns out that our judgments about the sensibility of questions are all defeasible, because whether or not a question about a phenomena is sensible is partly based on the empirical character of that phenomena. e.g. A child asks "What color is the night?" That child might judge this to be a sensible question, but it turns out not to be sensible, because color is not the sort of property that night has. The point is simple, our judgments about these sorts of things are defeasible, and so the underlying methodological premise taken up in the section is false.
There are a number of analogous problems with the philosophical methodology surrounding the use of natural language to justify the use of technical concepts when it is clear from the careful application of natural language philosophy that this method is inappropriate for the case, and further doesn't establish the strong ontological conclusions that Spitzer wants to use.
A conclusion and some additional notes
One criticism that can be aimed at Spitzer is that, by and large, the book is actually not really new. None of the arguments that are advanced in the book are novel, but even further than that, it does not take as source material hardly any philosophy of science or even experimental or theoretical physics from later than the '90s. As a result, much of the technical material is seriously out of date, both in the physics and the philosophy. In fields of philosophy that have fallen somewhat out of vogue (like the philosophy of time) Spitzer still has much of the best material available, but that seems largely accidental.
More strong as a criticism of the anachronism is that Spitzer takes as central to his approach a view of logic that is no longer held by most philosophers, a strong Aristotelianism where the Law of Non-Contradiction and the Law of the Excluded Middle are absolutely methodologically central. (It is obvious that he takes this for granted from the way that he talks about conceptual dichotomies throughout the book, and the use of negation and disjunction in his presentation of concept pairs like infinite/finite and so on.) There is an enormous body of literature in contemporary philosophy, increasingly mainstream, that dissents seriously from Spitzer.
Being in the minority in a view of logic is not a major detriment to the book, and so I don't mention it on my major criticisms. (it turns out that there are so many marginal views about logic that most folks are in the minority in some way or other.) The problem, though, is that he takes this for granted without noting that it has serious consequences for his argument, and that many prominent logicians and metaphysicians think that this is deeply and seriously mistaken.
This sort of mistake is indicative of the lack of philosophical and general intellectual care taken in the preparation of this book. These issues are rich and complex, and require careful consideration; such consideration does not seem to have been given. Rather, what seems to have happened is that a Catholic read some basic material on protestant apologetics, (mostly William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne's works; Swinburne is Orthodox, but I'm lumping it in because of his invocation by many protestants) thought it had interesting interactions with the work of Catholic thinkers like Lonergan, and attempted to rehash that work in Thomist jargon suitable for a Catholic audience.
The result is slapdash from beginning to end; in the physics and in the philosophy, the results are exaggerated, poorly articulated, lazily argued, and ultimately uncompelling. I suppose there is a reason why the general view is that philosophy of religion is a dying field, and it is that books like this are considered (based completely on a lack of competition) the most substantial contributions to that literature in the year they're published.
I was prepared on seeing this to say that I think Silverman was making some obvious philosophical mistake or other. But I'm actually surprised. He articulates moral relativism well, and gets the major claims in the view mostly right. It's Turek who makes a bunch of embarrassing philosophical errors in a row.Bear in mind here, I think moral relativism is mistaken. It's not a view I adhere to.Turek's mistakes (which Silverman is either too nice or not quick enough or not allowed by the format to beat him up over) in chronological order:0:15 - Premises of the initial question. "x is immoral." and "There is no objective morality." are perfectly commensurable judgments. Relativism does not mean that there are no true moral claims; it means that a moral claim is evaluated as being true or false relative to some entity. (e.g. moral code, emotive response, etc.) Silverman points this out, though too nicely for my taste.0:45 - "Are you condemning someone else for having a different moral standard than you?" No. He's not condemning anyone, at this point, for holding a belief. He's condemning (taken weakly to mean "expressing disapproval of") an action.1:30 - "You saying that their [sic] is a standard, or that there is no standard, objective, outside humanity to which we should obey. This might be the most egregious embarrassment in the entire mess, partly because it requires not only not understanding relativism, but also not having listened to Silverman's particular account of relativism earlier. There is a standard and there is no objective standard. The standard is, according to Silverman's previous characterization, subjective.1:40 - "[We are responsible] to ourselves and to our society." OK. I said Dave gets relativism mostly right. This is where he starts to get a bit confusing with regard to which version of relativism he's espousing. There's a version of moral relativism where the claims are evaluated relative to a moral code (i.e. a social fact) or a version where they've [sic] evaluated relative to personal preferences. (i.e. something subjective) He starts to bounce from the latter, which is his view at the beginning of the video, to the former, which is more palatable to realists. (Maybe he thinks it will be more accessible to Turek, in which case, he was being far too optimistic.)2:30 - "But it's just a preference." This is where Turek seems to be missing the boat entirely, and where Silverman situates himself again in the subjective, rather than social, relativist position. It's a preference which acts as the basis for subjective moral judgments. The role that it plays in moral judgment is what's important on this account, and using "just" ignores that role. On the subjective account, our subjective moral judgments (formed by our preferences) undergird the truth value for moral claims. There's no "just" about it.2:35 - "If it's just an opinion then I don't know why you condemn..." So long as "condemn" means "make a negative moral judgment about" then the answer to this question is obvious. Dave makes the moral judgment because of his preferences; further, he maintains that the moral judgment is true in virtue of those preferences.It's hard to understand Turek's bafflement at 2:50, since it isn't as though Silverman is biting a new bullet here. He's been saying this the entire time. The schema is straight out of an introductory ethics textbook: I make a judgment about x. That judgment about x is either true or false. What facts make my judgment true or false? Find the facts and solve for the truth value.Anyone who has a truth-functional view of ethics (and relativists pretty much have to because it's part of the definition of being a relativist) adheres to this schema. There are theories of ethics in which ethical judgments are neither true nor false, but none of those are on the table here.)3:10 - "... we say we have no right, but that implies a moral standard too." No. No it doesn't. Rights are established as a matter of social fact; they are not subjectively constituted, even on the relativist view. Silverman actually hits this out of the park. ("Societal right" isn't a technical term, but who cares? It gets the point across.)3:35 - "... then there is no real way to condemn the Nazi's for what they did." Silverman is actually really nice in his response here, and it's definitely for pragmatic reasons. He wants to get the point across that this is an important issue, and a difficult one for his position. In moral relativism, conflicting judgments are a serious problem, and that's an interesting and important philosophical question for the view.On the other hand, the actual claim that Turek makes is based on an attempt to avoid equivocating by tossing the word "real" in as though it changes the tone of "condemnation" from the mode of making a moral judgment (based on preference, in Silverman's account) to the mode of absolute, objective and certain condemnation guaranteed (? - probably not, but Turek would like to believe this) by hard-line realists.3:55 - Turek bait-and-switches. "See, your view has this serious philosophical difficult, [sic] and my view doesn't have that difficult, therefore my view is [probably] right." Seems like decent debating; unacceptable even at the undergraduate level in philosophy.4:30 "The fact that people have abused morality [sic] shows that morality is relative." This is the first thing in the debate that Silverman says that is obviously false and embarrassing. (Those are no the same thing; this just happens to be both.) It obviously does not follow (and could not follow) from an analysis that systems are subject to abuse, even systematic abuse, that another (sometimes conjoined) system is not objectively grounded.4:35 - "No, you're confusing sociology and morality." No, he's not. He's just saying that something about the way that an empirical fact informs our concepts that [sic] turns out to be false. There's no domain error going on. It's all ethics.... [end of quote]
[Redacted]: And Silverman just doesn't get it... dude needs to take a philosophy class... or maybe a class in logic.Scott Klusendorf: Silverman would do better if he took the approach of Mackey, et al, and simply asserted that objective morals exist as brute facts of the universe. That wouldn't get him around the grounding problem (i.e. if morals exist as accidental features of the universe, why obey them?), but at least he could dodge the painful "gasp" moment.Scott Klusendorf: Michael Shermer is much more clever than Silverman. The former tries to dodge the problem by confusing epistemology with ontology. He'll (rightly) claim that atheists are perfectly capable of recognizing moral obligations and fulfilling them. True, but that's not the issue. At issue is how we ground those moral obligations that theists and non-theists both recognize. No doubt Frank was ready for the trick had Silverman gone there.[Redacted]: Arrogance and condescension seem to be common characteristics of many modern atheists. The recent Krauss vs. Craig debates in Australia are an excellent example. For me, it's a good reminder to remain gracious and respectful in the midst of deep disagreement or even outright personal attacks (such as the case of Lawrence Krauss attacking William Lane Craig). For us, we're not trying to 'defeat' our opponents, we're trying to save them.
Also, the thread from which the video is taken (since it does link to Klusendorf's wall) is the reason I've taken pain to be so exhaustive here. It embodies both things that lead me to my deep disapproval (both as an academic and a human being) of "apologists."1.) Individual commenters drip with condescension in their analysis of Silverman, suggesting that he lacks even a basic understanding of philosophy.2.) Simultaneously, they illustrate a profound ignorance even of the people that they invoke. Klusendorf himself writes "Silverman would do better if he took the approach of Mackey [...] that objective morals exist as brute facts of the univrse." Has he ever read J.L. Mackey? Mackey's most famous contribution to philosophy is his extensive defense of moral anti-realism and moral skepticism. Mackey literally opens his magnum opus with: "There are no objective moral values." A famous claim I didn't even have to go to my bookshelf to double-check because it's on his wikipedia page. (I didn't even need to consult John, my personal Mackie scholar for exegesis.With that in mind, the additional notes are important. First, because they illustrate the unfortunate fact that your approach is uncommon. Second, because they draw attention to what's become one of the resonant themes of our conversations over the last several months about my (admittedly very high) expectations for serious engagement in contrast to what I encounter in apologetics, whether they be pro-life or Christian.