- Taschenbuch: 299 Seiten
- Verlag: St Augustines Pr Inc; Auflage: First Edition,. (10. Dezember 2010)
- Sprache: Englisch
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- ISBN-13: 978-1587314520
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The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (Englisch) Taschenbuch – 10. Dezember 2010
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Feser's central argument is the Cosmological Argument (First Cause or Uncaused Cause or Unmoved Mover). For years the Cosmological Argument has been put forth by believers as the ultimate defense for the existence of God, and just as often nonbelievers have found it all too easy to discredit. Part of the problem is that both the believers and the nonbelievers (especially nonbelievers who are biologists with little understanding of philosophy) all have a weak grasp of the concept and are only aware of simplified versions of the Cosmological Argument. Fortunately Feser does not make this mistake. Feser starts with Plato's Theory of Forms. He then shows how Aristotle modified Plato's theory and came up with his version of the Cosmological Argument. Feser then traces the evolution of these ideas through Augustine and later Thomas Aquinas.
Feser's starting point is a bit questionable. I tend to think that there are major problems with Plato's Theory of Forms, but I am too ignorant of philosophy to be able to explain why I believe it is wrong. But from that foundation and appropriate modifications of those ideas over time, Feser puts together a very solid argument about how Greek philosophers and Catholic theologians anticipated the arguments against their proofs of God, but the arguments still stand.
Feser's book is definitely a polemic, and this is the aspect of the book I have the biggest problem with. He spews forth flaming insults against the New Atheists just as much as they have insulted believers. And I take great issue with Feser's strong anti-homosexual bias. This is in no way an attempt to be a level-headed scholarly book.
However it is the scholarly elements that make the book worth reading. Believers and nonbelievers alike will benefit from the philosophy lessons Feser gives us. This book provides an education of classical and medieval philosophy that I have never found in such a neat, readable little package - assuming that all of Feser's homophobia and gay bashing don't make you vomit all over the book first. I don't expect this book to change my mind regarding the existence or non-existence of a deity, but it is nice to see a thoughtful, educated, philosophical argument for God for a change rather than the garbage that we have been exposed to. At the very least it's a good book on the history of philosophy.
The Last Superstition is the book I had been wanting, not because it is a tract against the New Atheism, but because it summarizes the best arguments for an Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics in the face of modern objections. This metaphysics is presented as it developed historically, beginning with the pre-Socratics, on through Plato and Aristotle, to its full flowering among the Scholastics. Feser covers change, actuality and potency, form and matter, the four causes, arguments for the existence of God, and the rational foundations of morality.
By succinctly providing this history, Feser is providing a service to all those who have forgotten, or never truly knew what are the main features of an Aristotelian philosophy. For Feser's most damning criticism of Richard Dawkins et al. is that they have simply not bothered to do their homework. By not collecting the relevant data, they have sinned against the spirit of the science in whose name they crusade. To publish a scientific paper without any evidence would be scandalous, but is precisely the case that Feser makes against them. None of the New Atheists demonstrates any familiarity with the actual arguments of historical theist philosophers except for Rev. William Paley, who functions as a convenient whipping boy.
By way of example, Feser quotes the admission of philosopher Anthony Flew in 2004 that he now believes in the existence of God despite a lifetime of argument to the contrary. Flew admitted that he had never actually considered the Aristotelian arguments for the existence of God, and was forced to admit their cogency upon doing so. Those whom Feser targets in The Last Superstition have not yet bothered to consult the texts. Feser documents this amply through quotations from the New Atheists' works.
The weakest part of Feser's argument is in the section on natural law. The difficulty is not that the best contemporary formulation is not presented. The difficulty is that contemporary natural law arguments use human, homo sapiens, and person univocally. These are not just different things, they are different kinds of things. To use the Scholastic terminology, each belongs to a different genus. However, this failure leaves Feser's main argument untouched, because Aristotle and Aquinas were alike able to discern rational foundations for morality without the benefit of a modern doctrine of natural rights that makes use of equivocal terms.
Feser's references are very good, providing further information for the many points which could be elaborated upon. Covering as much ground as this book does would be impossible without considering a great many complicated and subtle topics briefly. However, this is not to say that Feser does not adequately address his topic. He makes short work of the New Atheists due to the poverty of their arguments, and then briefly presents arguments that modernity is more comprehensible if one considers modern problems in light of broadly Aristotelian philosophy. In particular, many of the perennial questions of modern philosophy, such as the mind-body problem or the validity of inductive reasoning become explainable with Aristotle's more robust account of causation. Feser's task is made easier here by the latent Aristotelianism lurking in every corner of Western Civilization. We do not notice our debt to Aristotle for the same reason that fish do not feel wet.
Edward Feser's The Last Superstition is a worthy introduction to the realist philosophical tradition, and is enlivened by Feser's sharp wit. Good for anyone who would like to know more about Aristotelian philosophy.
By Feser's own admission, the book is meant to fight a little dirty. He perceives (rightly in my estimation) that the New Atheists were the first to strike below the belt in the dispute over religious belief, and he deems it appropriate to respond to them in kind:
"[T]his book will be as polemical as it is philosophical, though hardly more so than the books written by the 'New Atheists' to whom I am responding. I believe this tone is appropriate, indeed necessary, for the New Atheism derives whatever influence it has far more from its rhetorical force and 'sex appeal' (as I have called it) than from its very thin intellectual content. It is essential, then, not only that its intellectual pretensions are exposed but that its rhetoric is met with equal and opposite force" (p.25).
Although my response to Feser's book overall is quite favorable, I do question the aptness of his chosen technique. I have been following Christian philosopher William Lane Craig for a number of years now (Feser ranks himself as an admirer of Craig's work) and, despite abstaining from hitting atheists below the belt, Craig has managed to publicly expose the intellectual shortcomings of atheist philosophy with a great deal of success. (In a 2011 debate with Sam Harris, Harris described Dr. Craig as "the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of god into many of my fellow atheists.") Having noted my reservations, I will admit that I found Feser's polemics quite entertaining. He's a fine writer, and he pulls the insults off with some style. For example, he takes a swipe (one of many) at Dennett this way:
"Several years ago, Dennett famously suggested in a New York Times piece that secularists adopt the label 'brights' to distinguish them from religious believers. His proposal doesn't seem to have caught on (perhaps because a grown man who goes around earnestly chirping 'I'm a bright!' surely sounds rather like an idiot)" (p.3).
He takes a swipe (again, one of many) at Dawkins thus:
"One is almost tempted to think Dawkins's research for the philosophical chapters of his book consisted entirely of a quick thumbing through of Philosophy for Dummies....[S]ince [Philosophy for Dummies] seems not to have been 'dumbed down' enough for [Richard Dawkins], [Philosophy for Dummies author] Dr. Morris might want to consider a simplified sequel aimed at the 'New Atheist' audience. He could call it Philosophy for Dawkins" (pp. 76-7).
In addition to causing a few chuckles in the theistically-sympathetic reader, Feser's jabs further feed the vengeful appetites of those readers who nurse more than one bruise from encounters with belligerent atheists. Feser comes off as that kid on the playground who finally musters the balls to return a bully's harassment with a fist straight to the nose. Those of us on the playground cannot help but feel a sense of triumph accompanied by a guilty sense of satisfaction, whereupon we quietly think, "Take that you obnoxious blowhard. You asked for it." The aftermath leaves us reassured when we finally see that the bully also bleeds.
But, as I say, this is a kind of "guilty" pleasure. In the long run, Dr. Craig's more congenial approach is probably the more effective one. That said, it would be a profound mistake to assume that these polemics represent all, or even a sizable portion, of Feser's project. Quite the contrary. Feser's book is by any reasonable measure a substantive work of philosophy that takes each of its claims very seriously. Let us now turn to some of these claims.
Feser defends a comprehensive metaphysical system of thought that derives most of its philosophical foundation from Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. One of his primary contentions in the book is that the truth of theism follows logically and necessarily from the very plausible premises of Aristotelian/Thomistic arguments. As such, theistic belief is, contrary to popular atheist polemics, thoroughly rational. Feser does not for a moment give credence to atheist rhetoric equating secularist commitments with "reason" itself, while also branding all theistic belief as "faith-based" superstition--something akin to belief in Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy:
"Within the classical Western philosophical tradition, belief in the existence of God and the falsity of materialism has generally been thought to rest firmly and squarely on reason, not 'faith'" (p.5).
To show this, Feser lays out a metaphysical (as opposed to a scientific) case aiming to demonstrate the necessity--not, I repeat, not the mere "probability"--of God's existence. The fact that Feser defends a metaphysical system in this work is of crucial significance: Metaphysical argumentation transpires at a level of abstraction more fundamental than the level at which scientific argumentation transpires. Feser writes:
"Aquinas's arguments, like Plato's and Aristotle's, are metaphysical in character, not scientific. Contrary to the common muddleheaded use of the word 'scientific' as if it were a synonym for 'rational,' that doesn't mean they are not rational arguments; it just means they are of a species of rational argument different from the scientific (that is, if by 'science' we mean modern empirical science--Aristotle and his medieval successors used the term in a broader sense, which included metaphysics). They are in this respect like geometrical arguments" (p.82).
The entire enterprise of modern scientific inference, then, necessarily depends on certain metaphysical presuppositions to function at all--namely, the network of presuppositions Feser calls the "Mechanical Philosophy." The Mechanical Philosophy is simply the now-familiar conception of nature holding that our universe is like a grand machine pointlessly obeying determinate laws of energy and motion. This view grants that the parts of the machine and the determinate laws governing them (i.e. the particles and forces of physics delineating which "causes" entail which "effects") ultimately require no explanation for their existence--they are "brute facts" of reality, they are "givens." Feser targets this "brute fact" feature of the Mechanical Philosophy as plainly inferior to the purposive or "teleological" metaphysical system advanced by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Since the dispute between the Mechanical Philosophy and the Aristotelian/Thomistic Philosophy is metaphysical rather than scientific in nature, Feser's approach is, therefore, to completely disarm the atheist of his primary weapon--the authority of science.
By shifting the discussion to metaphysics in this way, Feser parts significantly with contemporary Intelligent Design theorists who mount a case for theism by first conceding the Mechanistic picture, then proposing God as a kind of hypothetical postulate that is "probably" true. The reason Intelligent Design arguments concede the Mechanistic picture is largely entailed by the fact that they see "design" as a kind of explanation always in competition with "chance" and "regularity" (or law-like "necessity"). For example, William Dembski, a well-known Intelligent Design theorist, proposed an "explanatory filter" in his 1996 book The Design Inference which operates systematically by first eliminating chance and regularity through probabilistic reasoning before inferring design. The major concession Feser is concerned with is the proposition that the designer (including all of His intentions and purposes) is, in a fundamental way, detached or separable from the world of objects exhibiting His design. By granting that some events transpire by virtue of "chance" or "regularity" at all, the Intelligent Design theorist implicitly accepts that some parts of the universe have an existence independent from God. That is, the Intelligent Design theorist supposes that there exists a self-sustaining physical world containing objects primarily manipulated by "random" and "routine" forces except when some independent, purposive force intervenes and inserts "design" or "order" into the self-sustaining world. Once this design is inserted, the purposive force can withdraw from the scene and let the mechanical forces resume autonomous control of the world, thus sealing the signature of design in the atypical arrangement of parts the designing intelligence left behind. This view is famously enshrined in William Paley's analogy of the watchmaker. The view supposes that God's relationship to the world is like that of a watchmaker who takes already existing matter and forges a watch out of those raw materials, only to exit the picture and let the watch run "on its own" from that point forward.
Although Feser does not comment in any detail on the degree of success Intelligent Design theorists have had in arguing for theism within the Mechanistic picture, he suggests that Intelligent Design advocates "foolishly concede the mechanistic assumptions of their opponents" (p.255). After exploring the arguments from Intelligent Design at some length myself, I do find them to be quite persuasive arguments for theism despite the fact that they concede what Feser is calling the Mechanistic Philosophy; however, after hearing Feser's argument in full, I do agree with him that his argument from Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics is, plausibly, stronger still.
In contrast to the Mechanistic picture, the Aristotelian/Thomistic picture places God at the very center of the world in such a way that God literally sustains the world in every moment. This is to say, if God were to detach Himself from any piece of the world at any time, the detached piece of the world would not run "on its own" like a watch in a drawer; instead, the detached piece would literally cease to exist. This is an incredibly interesting line of argument, as ancient as it is. Merely by entertaining it, one begins to sense the extent to which the atheist's picture is more severely threatened by metaphysical argumentation than it is by "probabilistic" argumentation characteristic of the mechanistic/scientific Intelligent Design camp. Part of Feser's own summary of the Aristotelian/Thomistic conception of God is as follows:
"God is not an object or substance alongside other objects or substances in the world; rather, He is pure being or existence itself, utterly distinct from the world of time, space, and things, underlying and maintaining them in being at every moment, and apart from whose ongoing conserving action they would be instantly annihilated. The world is not an independent object in the sense of something that might carry on if God were to 'go away'; it is more like the music produced by a musician, which exists only when he plays and vanishes the moment he stops" (p.88).
Given Feser's conception of God, the debate between theism and atheism centers on the question of whether anything in the universe can exist in the absence of God, not whether some things in the universe are so complex as to require God's designing hand (as the evolution/Intelligent Design debate would have it). On the face of it, this gambit puts the atheist in an awkward position: the atheist can no longer take the existence of the universe, including all of its particular physical laws, for granted; instead, he must be called upon to account for the existence of the universe itself--not just its "beginning" either, but why it persists from moment to moment. No appeal to a "multiverse" or "quantum vacuum" will suffice, since these are under the umbrella of universal entities needing explanation. The only plausible replies an atheist could provide would be something to the effect of "the universe just is," or "the universe is a brute fact," or "the universe causes and perpetuates itself." The theist, by contrast, appears to have a palatable explanation in the concept of God--God as pure being or existence.
To demonstrate God's existence, Feser provides three Thomistic arguments, each one drawing on concepts going back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle. These arguments are a) The Unmoved Mover, b) The First Cause, and c) The Supreme Intelligence. Each of these arguments are quite technical and require some history of philosophy lessons (which Feser skillfully provides in the book). Feser repeatedly emphasizes that these arguments are deductive (like geometrical reasoning) rather than inductive (like scientific reasoning). For example, one does not discover the truth of the Pythagorean Theorem by running around measuring a host of right triangles, then generalizing from these particulars that "any given right triangle's sides satisfy the equation A square plus B square equals C square." Instead, the Pythagorean Theorem is derived from the abstract properties of the concept "triangle" itself, and follows necessarily from the triangle's properties.
The Unmoved Mover and First Cause arguments are similar in structure. They both involve an analysis of causal series, where a causal series is simply A causes B which causes C which causes D and so on. The relevant question for such causal series is "Does the series require a first member?" To answer this question, Feser makes a distinction between an "accidentally ordered series" and an "essentially ordered series."
An accidentally ordered series is such that, for event C to cause event D, it is not necessary that events B or A exist at the time of C's causing D. Consider the case of fathering children. Suppose Andy fathers Bill, Bill fathers Carl, and Carl fathers Dave. Although Carl required Bill's existence at the time Carl was conceived, Carl does not require Bill's existence at the time Carl conceives Dave. Carl has the power to conceive Dave in the absence of Bill's existence. Likewise, Bill had the power to conceive Carl in the absence of Andy's existence. Because all of the members of the series do not need to exist simultaneously for the series to advance, it is in principle conceptually possible for this series to extend infinitely into the past (though there are good reasons to doubt that it actually does).
An essentially ordered series, by contrast, does require the simultaneous existence of all its members for causation to take place. For illustration, consider a train. Say A is the engine, B and C are cars, and D is the caboose. In this series, D only moves insofar as C moves, and C moves only insofar as B moves, and B moves only insofar as A moves. Thus, it is not the case that C moves D "all by itself" the way Carl fathers Dave "all by himself." Instead, movement is simultaneously transferred from A to B to C to D, which means all members are essential to the series. Unlike an accidentally ordered series, an essentially ordered series must have a first member. This is so because the causal power must originate somewhere--e.g. the train must have a car capable of moving itself (the engine car). Feser works out many of the technicalities behind the Unmoved Mover and First Cause arguments that I've omitted here, but the logic behind an essentially ordered series applies to the Unmoved Mover and First Cause arguments and should give the reader a good sense of their structures. Once it is demonstrated that a first member is required in the cases of motion and causation, and the nature of the first member requires properties matching those of God, then God's existence follows deductively from the existence of motion and causation.
The Supreme Intelligence argument is somewhat different from the other two. This argument depends on some background knowledge of Aritstotle's famous "four causes": material, efficient, formal, and final. For a crash course in these four causes, consider a statue. If we ask the question, What is the statue made out of?, our answer might be, say, "marble." This answer tells us what the "material" cause of the statue is. If we then ask, How did the marble get arranged as it is in the statue?, the answer may be "by a chisel striking the surface." This would tell us what the (partial) "efficient" cause of the statue is. If we ask, What does the statue look like?, we may answer "a man." This answer tells us something about the "formal" cause of the statue. Finally, if we ask, Why was this statue created?, we may answer "for artistic expression." This answer addresses the "final" cause of the statue--it tells us the statue's "purpose." These four causes play a huge role in the Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics, and therefore play a huge role in Feser's project.
The contemporary Mechanistic metaphysics driving most scientific practice and atheist belief preserves Aristotle's material and efficient causes, but deletes the formal and final causes. Thus, the Mechanistic system purports to explain everything in terms of "matter in motion." The Aristotelian system, by contrast, asserts that everything in the universe, in addition to having material and efficient causes, is directed toward certain ends. For example, a match is directed toward the end of producing fire; plants are directed toward the end of recycling carbon dioxide and oxygen; rocks are directed toward the end of producing hardness or density; etc. Much more need be said in defense of Aristotle's formal and final causes, of course, but my purpose is simply to give a crash course to highlight Aquinas's Supreme Intelligence argument for God. Accepting for the moment that Aristotle was right about final causes, it follows that the ends or purposes embodied in the final causes of all existent entities must have been generated by some mind or intelligence. Since the final causes cover the very fabric of the universe itself--including all laws of physics and chemistry--it follows that no mere human intelligence will suffice. What is needed is a Supreme Intelligence giving ends and purposes to all universal entities. Such an intelligence is reasonably going to match up with our concept of God. Hence, the existence of final causes necessitates the existence of God.
What is important to note in these arguments is the absence of appeals to "divine revelation" or "biblical authority." One may say what he will about the cogency of these arguments, but Feser makes it clear that the charge that theism is entirely "faith-based" or "irrational" is utterly inane. He proceeds to show the various absurdities that follow from a denial of formal and final causes (and, therefore, God) in the Mechanistic picture, and in this respect anticipates the 2011 work of Alex Rosenberg called The Atheist's Guide to Reality, where Rosenberg announces that, indeed, all sorts of absurd conclusions follow from the Mechanistic picture (for example, Rosenberg claims that nothing is ever "about" anything, even the words in his own book). The difference between Feser and Rosenberg is simply that Feser finds the absurdities grounds for rejecting the Mechanistic picture, whereas Rosenberg finds the absurdities as evidence of how absurd our world really is. (See my previous review of Rosenberg's book for more information.)
The scope of Feser's book broadens beyond the existence of God into the nature of the human soul and morality. However, since these topics are not his main focus, their development is, though interesting, less persuasive than his case for God's existence. His purpose in including them, though, seems to be to give a sense of the complete picture a commitment to Aristotelian metaphysics entails. Fortunately, he had the discipline to supply an exceptional number of references for the interested reader to follow up on.
All things considered, Feser's effort here is both entertaining and informative. If some atheist wishes to assert that any theistic belief is contrary to reason, this work decisively and colorfully refutes that claim.
Ed Fesser has written a book that can be taken as a great overview of Greek philosophy and the insights of Aquinas and the Scholastics. He shows the incoherence of the "materialist-mechanistic" view which seeks to banish the existence of non-material entities such as mind and soul. He writes in a down to earth manner, always defining his terms and giving examples that are accesible to laymen interested in the subject. He brilliantly defends Aristotelian thought, showing that it is relevant and true even in the present day. He shows how the "new atheists" have misrepresented Aquinas and set up strawmen to attack.
If you want to be able to defend religion and traditional morality, the arguments that Feser presents are a Godsend. As he makes clear, there is no appeal to "faith", his entire argument is based on reason and rational inferences. I cannot praise this book too much. Read it and you will see for yourself.
According to Feser, abandoning Aristotelianism broadly construed was the biggest philosophical mistake in the history of Western thought. Contrary to the standard account we heard in high school and in Philosophy 101 (for those of us who went to college), Aristotle's synthesis was not irrational and metaphysically overweight, which had to be overthrown before science, reason and ethics could advance. Even though some of the specific empirical views held by Aristotle and his followers (on the nature of motion, for example) turned out to be incorrect, the metaphysical categories and concepts he introduced-such as the distinction between material, efficient, formal and final causes, the view of matter as form-plus-essence and the distinction between potentiality and actuality-turn out to be Goldilocks just right for making sense of the world: "The structure of the world just happens to be as complex as he describes it, no more (perhaps) but no less either" (p.72). What's more (again according to Feser), something like an Aristotelian view of causality, matter and mind is indispensable to science itself, if we assume that it is in the business of delivering true knowledge of the empirical world (which is not the sum total of reality, however).
The truly astonishing implications of this view, however, are in the realm of morality and religion. In an Aristotelian framework the existence of God-the personal, transcendent source of being and value-is not just probabilistically likely, but demonstrably certain, the inevitable outcome of certain facts about causality and motion inherent in the framework. As it turns out Aquinas' five ways are much more cogent than skeptics give them credit for (most of whom, as Feser points out, haven't bothered to read past the brief summary in the Summa Contra Gentiles). To take just one example (grossly oversimplified), it is inevitable that the universe have a First Cause that is itself uncaused because of the distinction between essence and existence: we can know what the essence of a rational animal is in terms of the capacity to speak, imagine, etc. without knowing whether any rational animals actually exist. As it turns out all objects we have experience of in the material world are only contingently existent, which is obvious from the fact that things like trees, rocks and even planets and stars are constantly popping in and out of existence. Thus there must be some necessarily existing being to make all these potentially existent beings actually existent. Note that this is not William Lane Craig's cosmological argument that whatever begins to exist must have a cause, which relies on the Big Bang to establish a beginning for the Universe. The cosmos could have existed eternally, it could be a multiverse, it could be a continual cycle of Big Bangs and Big Crunches and this argument would still be valid.
Not only is the existence of God demonstrably certain from an Aristotelian point of view, but this God must necessarily have the characteristics attributed to him by the great monotheistic traditions: omnipotence, omniscience, perfect goodness, etc. Also entailed by Aristotelianism (at least by way of Augustine and Aquinas) are the immortality of the soul and a concept of morality based on natural law. Final causality entails certain ends for every creature which hold true regardless of subjective preference or whim. For example, it is the natural end of a rational animal to seek the truth and when we consider that God is the final cause of everything that exists we realize that it is the natural end of human beings to obtain knowledge of Him and conform to His image. As for the problem of evil, Feser contends that this really has no bearing one way or another on the existence of God because as he sees it the prospect of enjoying the Beatific Vision completely overshadows any finite suffering we experience in this lifetime. Faith, he argues, is not a matter of holding to one's beliefs in the teeth of reason and evidence, but precisely of holding onto the deliverances of reason even in the face of emotional turbulence caused by witnessing apparently undeserved suffering (see for example Paul Manata's musings on the emotional problem of evil).
It is clear from Feser's account that Aristotelian Thomism (Aristotelianism by way of Aquinas and the Scholastics) was a rich, vibrant interpretation of reality with enormous scope and sophistication. What led to its abandonment? As it turns out here too the standard story is misleading. The early modern philosophers did not reject Thomism because it was too traditional or stifling for scientific research (as anyone familiar with the works of Jean Buridan, Nicole D'Oresme and other Scholastic natural philosophers can attest): as a result of the religious wars of the 16th Century and a newly resurgent worldliness there arose among early modern thinkers a desire to overthrow the traditional authority of the Church and rethink the European political project. These thinkers did not give any good arguments for abandoning Aristotelian categories. They did so because it was necessary in order to undermine the theologico-political complex of the Church. In fact, "When one seriously comes to understand the classical philosophical tradition...and not merely the potted caricatures of it that even many professional philosophers, to their shame, tend to rely on-one learns just how contingent and open to question are the various modern, and typically 'naturalistic', philosophical assumptions that most contemporary thinkers (and certainly most secularists) simply take for granted without rational argument." (p.5) The litany of evils brought about in modern philosophy by rejecting Aristotle is long and severe: skepticism about the external world, unsolvable problems of induction and mind-body interaction, free will and personal identity rendered mysterious or even incoherent, the undermining of any justification for morality and natural rights, etc. Most of these problems can be traced not just to the abandonment of Aristotelianism in general, but of final causality in particular and the embrace of a mechanistic conception of matter according to which the only things that are truly real are particles (or fields, or whatever) in constant motion, interacting blindly according to blind, non-teleological principles (as William Hasker described it in The Emergent Self). Abandon final causality, and reason and morality become incoherent.
As is apparent from the above all too brief summary, The Last Superstition is much more than just a response to the New Atheists, and it is certainly not the same kind of response that we have seen from others. It is a brief history of Western philosophy and an exposition of the key ideas and concepts that have informed our understanding of the world since the beginning of civilization. It is also a lucid argument for the existence and nature of God and a primer on the philosophy of mind and science. Feser has a great gift for explaining big ideas in simple, concise language which all philosophers could benefit from. To skeptics he will prove a very frustrating opponent, because he knows the skeptical arguments inside and out and embraces all of modern science, including undiluted evolutionary theory. He has no truck with intelligent design (Paley deserves to be the atheists' whipping boy, in his opinion, because he conceded all the mechanistic assumptions of his opponents and thus lacked the metaphysical grounds for a truly compelling design argument; see pp.110-119) and does not require the Big Bang to be true in order to demonstrate the existence of God, as we saw above. Indeed, his discussion is so comprehensive and enlightening and so consistently tough-minded that 'almost he persuadeth me to become a Thomist'.
Almost, but not quite. I do have a few objections to the book, some minor and some major. For one thing the tone of Feser's book is very, very abrasive. Words like 'stupid', 'evil', 'insane' and 'monstrous' come up frequently to describe his opponents as well as practices he disapproves of, such as homosexuality. To be fair, he does base his abhorrence for the latter on his understanding of natural law morality, but I associate this kind of rhetoric with a person who is very unsure of the validity of his positions. Despite the fact that atheists too use abrasive rhetoric in their manifestos, I definitely prefer on the Christian side to let arguments speak for themselves.
On to the arguments. The one striking, elephant-size absence from Feser's book is any discussion of how all these philosophical arguments line up with the Scriptural understanding of God, human nature and morality. Though he explicitly limits his discussion to 'natural' as opposed to 'revealed' theology, it is hard to see his project as distinctively Christian without paying attention to these issues. Though the project of Western theology can be summarized as the marriage of Greek philosophy with Hebrew theology, more than one great theologian has doubted whether the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle and God the Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jesus can be equated. What's more, though he would probably see it as yet another symptom of the modern malaise, higher biblical criticism has had just as much of an influence on contemporary theology and philosophy as the rejection of Aristotelianism. No doubt the two are related, but the objections of the higher critics to the historicity and integrity of the Bible did not all stem from their abandonment of supernaturalism. There are genuine textual difficulties which cast doubt on the exact scope and unfolding of the Exodus, for example and which have genuine theological consequences.
Natural law morality is certainly a rich, sophisticated tradition deserving careful attention. It may turn out, as Feser says, to be the only one which guarantees the objectivity and non-arbitrariness of morality. But I am consistently skeptical of natural law arguments because of the way they have been used throughout history to legitimize degrading, exploitative conditions for certain classes of people, such as slaves and women. In the face of abolitionism, for example, pro-slavery advocates turned to the 'science' of phrenology to establish the fact of the natural inferiority of blacks and hence the naturalness of their subjugation. Many slave-owners were almost paternalistic in this respect, sincerely believing that because of their constitution blacks could not survive or thrive without a master shouting orders at them, backed up by the whip and deprivation. And women throughout history have been discounted from playing active roles in politics, the economy and academics (it is noteworthy that all of the great philosophers Feser refers to are men) because of perceived deficiencies in intellect and temperament. So at the very least great care is required in employing natural law arguments, to make sure that they do not simply reinforce or legitimize an unjust or corrupt status quo.
My third and final major objection has to do with obstacles to truth and the possibility of skepticism. Feser is remarkably confident about the reliability of certain 'common-sense' philosophical intuitions about everyday objects and concepts that lie behind Aristotelianism. This leads him to reject representationism in the philosophy of mind (i.e. the idea that mental states are contingent representations of states in the external world which may or may not actually correspond to those states) and to use the words 'stupid' and 'insane' to describe people who do not share his intuitions about the world. Empirical research, however, has demonstrated that many of our intuitions about how things work are seriously misleading. What's more, people with damage to certain parts of their brain suffer from strange perceptual anomalies which seem to confirm the representationist view of the mind: phantom limbs (when a limb has been amputated but the person retains an awareness of it, as if it were still attached to the body), for example, can best be explained as the persistence of a representation of the limb within the brain even if the limb itself is no longer attached to the body. Despite his careful distinction between metaphysics and science, most neuroscientists today model human cognition as the construction (a word Feser really doesn't like when it comes to knowledge) of a representation of the inner and outer world in the brain (it should be noted, though, that I have not read his book Philosophy of Mind yet so it may be that he deals with these difficulties there). Feser also doesn't discuss the problem of widely varying philosophical intuitions between Occidental and Oriental traditions of thought. I would like to see an argument why an interpretation of the world in terms of Atman, Brahman, Dharma and Samsara is inferior to the Aristotelian synthesis, and if so how Oriental peoples came to have such different philosophical intuitions.
These caveats, however, are an inevitable result of the magnitude of the subjects Feser is dealing with and should not be seen as diminishing his positive achievement in making Aristotelianism seem an attractive and compelling philosophical project. Feser is a brilliant, erudite thinker and The Last Superstition is simply required reading for anyone remotely interested in the question of whether religious belief is rational and whether perhaps atheism is not the great superstition after all. I for one look forward to digging into those footnotes and learning from Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas for myself. I suggest skeptics do the same.