Review: Feser Part 5

Part1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism:The Decline of Western Civilisation

Well naturally I am an atheist leftist with scientism tendencies and amateurish & patchy love of analytical philosophy. I’m not likely to find Aquinas convincing. However Feser finds it not only convincing but LOGICALLY compelling. He regards the sum total of Aquinas’s work as actual proof of the existence of the Christian god and that Aristotle’s metaphysics as the only rational scheme that could be adopted. More than, Feser claims his position on this is like a mathematical proposition – that it is as odd and irrational to doubt the existence of god and Aquinas’s scheme as it would be to doubt Pythagoras’s theorem.

So why would people doubt it? More importantly why did Aquinas fall out of favour long before this current secular century? To Feser this abandonment of Aristotelean metaphysic and Thomistic theology was a massive error committed by multiple notable thinkers which inevitably led to the intellectual decline of Western thought. Feser notes Descrates and Kant and Hume as major culprits but also notes much earlier objections from Franciscan thinkers such as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Like Aquinas these were devote men with a strong interest in logic and rationality and yet these were not people convinced by Aquinas. If Feser is correct then it is rather like discovering two notable and influential mathematicians who weren’t keen on Pythagoras’s theorem – even if they are wrong, not something you can easily ignore.

Feser describes Scotus’s position like this:

Aquinas, in Scotus’s estimation, makes God and his actions too comprehensible, too rational, too open to our puny philosophical investigations. So radically free is God’s will, in Scotus’s view, that we simply cannot deduce from the natural order either His intentions or any necessary features of the things He created, since He might have created them in any number of ways, as His inscrutable will directed. Ockham pushes this emphasis on the divine will even further, holding that God could by fiat have made morally obligatory all sorts of things that are actually immoral; for example, had He wanted to, He could even have decided to command us to hate Him, in which case this is what would be good for us to do.

Feser seems to thing modern atheist interest in Scotus and Ockham  is incoherent because both men were arguing from a position of faith. However, there is a substantial overlap in their thinking with modern understandings of logic.

Simply put Aquinas’s position essentially makes his god subject to logic. A rational god is a logical god and a god which is necessary is a god which is confined to a framework of logic. The grand metaphysical framework is a giant case of passing the buck. God can be the ultimate explanation for nearly, almost everything exception things – logic itself. For Plato the supremacy of mathematics is no problem with his spiritual roots firmly in the Pythagorean ground. However, for Christianity elevating mathematics and logic above god or even just equal to god is a problem.

Feser carries on to criticise Descrates and Kant and Hume for the obvious sins of not being terribly enamored of the Thomistic scheme and searching for other views. Of those three Hume is the closest to a modern day atheist, whereas Kant and Descartes were men of faith. Fewer also has to struggle with the view that somehow the rise of modern science also caused a break with the Aristotelean position. Feser’s point here is that while advances in science and thinking about science (such as Newton or Galileo or in terms of very early modern thinking about science, Francis Bacon) may have ton substantial holes in accepted physical notions borrowed from Aristotle, the metaphysics of Aristotle could always been re-framed.

There is a trivial sense in which Feser’s claim here has to be true. Science doesn’t prove or disprove metaphysics. They are different domains of knowledge and use different methods of inquiry. However Feser is wrong to think that this was just some foolish error. Aristotle’s metaphysical scheme was attractive as a way of thinking about fundamental metaphysical notions of being because of the way Aristotle (and later scholastics and pre-modern natural philosophers) thought about the world.

Consider a world of essences and a world in which heretical taxonomies are at the root of understanding the physical world. This is very much NOT an insane approach. Categorising, cataloging, making sense of the world by seeing things in terms of sets of sets of ordered structures. It is a conceptual structure we employ in many aspects of our lives – ordering a library, building a relational database, programming a computer using a high-level object orientated language. It is this framework on which Plato and then Aristotle (who really did then do some substantial categorising) and later Aquinas and the scholastics engaged with inquiry into how our world is. The metaphysics matched the physics. So what happened?

Modern science engaged with the world and that engagement based on practical experiment and observation discovered a world of bottom up rules and squidgy bits. This was a world that still had general principles but these were more like low level rules that operated underneath our grand schemes – force equal mass times acceleration rather than essences and final causes. Even abstract Platonic like properties such as ‘mass’ were oddly democratic and undifferentiated. A blob of mercury had mass as much as a bishop. Mass, force, energy accounted for everything within a Newtonian framework – which could still be Platonic (and Newton himself was very much not some modern atheistic materialist) but which didn’t really fit with the grand scheme quite so much.

Modern science pointed to a world which was complex but by virtue of being built up from small pieces following simple low level rules. An atomic world. A world of machine code, of pixels rather than structure vector graphics.

For well into the modern era there was one obvious hold out within the sciences. Biology remained very much a science of classification and of hierarchical taxonomies rather than low level rules operating on some modular bits. The revolution in biology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by virtue of genetics, DNA and evolution by natural selection was also a completion of perspective on scientific knowledge towards this same sort of granular, algorithmic perspective. This perspective did not disprove the Aristotelean one but rather it made it un-self evident.

Logic has its own issues of infinite regress, particularly in the classical form. Euclid’s elements starts with a set of axioms or self evident truths. Such truths cannot only be asserted they neccesarily cannot be derived. Likewise the ‘rationality’ of Feser’s metaphysics has the same issue. There are things that need to be asserted as self-evidently true. Modern science doesn’t make these things false but rather the shift in the way people began to think about the world meant that people no longer saw things in those same terms. Self evident truths became less self evident and Aquinas’s work developed that ‘huh?’ feeling that a modern reader experiences.

Feser doesn’t see it this way. The break from Aquinas is due to all sorts of villains. Galileo being petulant, Descartes heading off in his own direction, Martin Luther extending ‘Ockham’s individualist tendencies in religion and politics’ and this all before Kant and Hume really get to work. To Feser it was the agenda of the push to modern thinking that moved people away. Which, well sort of – his characterisation makes everybody sound like wilful children. The book really flops around here – having overstated how compelling Aquinas’s position is, Feser nows struggles to adequately explain why people didn’t go along with it. He sums it up with:

Animus, attitude, agenda, but little in the way of argument. That, I have suggested, is what lay behind the intellectual revolution that displaced the classical philosophy of Plato and Augustine, and especially of Aristotle and Aquinas, and enthroned the modern philosophy of Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume and all the rest.

Feser things this is all unfair because the scholastics weren’t trying to advance the world technically and scientifically and hence shouldn’t be blamed for not doing so but the ‘moderns’ failed to properly disprove the Thomist wrong. Amid that petulant point is some truth. Thomas was abandoned while civilisation actually got on with doing stuff and rather than attempt to disprove the unproven but un-disprovable they spent their time doing something worthwhile.


6 thoughts on “Review: Feser Part 5

  1. Excellent summary of the whole flaw in this argument.
    Obviously I disagree with you to some extent (because I’m a believer where you are an atheist, although to be honest, I suspect that most people who call themselves Christian in the world would consider you and I to be practically indistinguishable!) but the notion that people will continue to frame the position as being a simple dichotomy – you can either have “Religion” or you can have “Science” but you can’t have both – still strikes me as being absurd. And it’s even more absurd that people continue to write books proclaiming this to be self-evident.

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    1. Feser does get sort of the notion of the disconnect – i.e. that science didn’t *disprove* his metaphysics. I agree with him in that it didn’t and hence it is possible to be rationally consistent and believe in god – but also something else.I think even Feser gets that his metaphysics comes close to suggesting a pantheism or a Spinoza like view of God (I need to double check but I don’t think Feser mentions Spinoza once – and given Spinoza’s approach and interests that sounds very much like Feser intentionally *avoiding* Spinoza).

      So, I agree, science does not disprove god but it for me it makes god something I don’t need philosophically (the question of whether I might need god ethically or spiritually is a different question to which I also answer ‘no’ but for other reasons 🙂 )

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