Review: Feser – Part 9

Part1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 , Part 6 , Part 7 and Part 8

The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism: The New Scholasticism in Action

Feser’s book is relatively thin on original ideas as it is intended to be primarily advocacy for Aquinas’s approach to philosophy. Fewer does attempt though to apply his position to modern issues and in doing so he provides a neat illustration of the New Scholasticism works. He describes the approach to ethics as follows:

That is, as we shall see, exactly what morality is from the point of view of Aristotle and Aquinas: the habitual choice of actions that further the hierarchically ordered natural ends entailed by human nature.

Feser goes onto the describe the nature of the human soul which is, it seems, the abstract form of a given human. In other words in the same that triangularity is the abstract form of a given triangle, Edward Feser’s soul is the abstract EdwardFeseriality of the material Edward Feser. The soul is abstract form and is abstract will and, for humans, can exist indefinitely because it is form and hence can’t lose its form.

Guess when the soul joins a human body? Go on, guess. Did you guess ‘when a person becomes a rational being who exerts their will in a purposeful man different from say, animals which Feser says do not have souls’? If you did you get 10 points for rational consistency and zero points for realising that it the soul joins a human body when it is politically convenient for Feser. So, surprise, surprise, it is at conception because that is when a human first forms. Do a sperm and a soul have half a soul each – as they together dictate the form of a human (ignoring epigenetic issues)? Feser doesn’t say but it would be reasonable to guess that his answer would be ‘no’.

There are several characteristics of the kind of scholastic thinking here:

  • Categories as being neat and strict. Something either is or is not in a given category. A newly fertilised ovum either is a person with all the inherent natural rights of a person or it is not. ‘kind-a-sort-of’ isn’t an option even though biology indicates that it is a thing in a state of development.
  • Some traits – will, morality, rationality (sort of) – are associated with the metaphysical world. Fewer poo-poos the ‘is-ought’ distinction of more modern philosopher (courtesy of Hume) but a variation on the distinction exist on how he divides up the world. Somethings get to be physical and (‘is’ things) and somethings he treats metaphysically (generally ‘ought’ things).
  • End-causes and potentiality are important. Feser doesn’t claim that a newly fertilized can exert will or shows rationality but rather because it has a human soul and because a human soul carries with it the potential for will and rationality that therefore so does the newly fertilized egg.
  • Neatness matters. This is an unspoken aspect of the argument but it reoccurs throughout scholastic reasons, wanders back to Aristotle, carries on past Plato and can be found in the followers of Pythagoras. Allegedly the Pythagoreans were discombobulated by the fact that the square root of 2 can’t be expressed neatly as a fraction. The square root of 2 is (we now know) an irrational number with a decimal expansion that can be extended indefinitely without forming a repeating pattern. In Feser’s case he takes it as a given that a developing human can’t acquire a soul 17.5567 seconds after conception or after 391.5 heartbeats or some other odd point. It has to be a distinct point. Why? There isn’t really a reason but it was the kind of thinking that meant that planetary orbits HAD to be circles and sort connects with the view of causality. Put simply things happen for a reason in the scholastic view of the world. Fewer obviously can’t check when a soul becomes attached to a developing human but it has to be when it becomes one thing rather than another thing.
  • The style of thinking doesn’t cope with change well. A biologically developmental process is awkward because it involves one thing becoming another thing. The newly fertilized egg has the potential to become an embryo, and embryo has the potential to become a fetus, a fetus has the potential to become a baby. Each of these should fit into abstract categories but that makes for a complex ethical scheme because the generic properties of these things do not have the traits that Feser wants. Embryo’s in general are not rational and do not exert will and embryo is a big category covering lots of examples beyond people – all of which have a lot of similarities and none of which are noted for being rational things.
  • Rationality and will are ethically pre-eminent. This can seem surprisingly modern but it is the thinking aspect of humanity that Feser identifies when it comes to ethics. However, by attaching that aspect to an immortal soul he can then apply that aspect regardless of whether rationality and will specifically apply.

It isn’t hard to adopt the overarching principles of Feser’s philosophy and come to quite different conclusions. However, the purpose of Scholasticism has rarely been to discover new truth (ethical or practical) but rather to rationalize the beliefs that have already been formed. To assume a human has a soul of will and rationality only when a human has the FORM of a being with will and rationality would allow somebody to rationalize infanticide. Feser would counter that the zygote/embryo/fetus must have already had such a soul because to develop rationality it must have already had the potential for rationality. Of course three lines have the potential for triangularity but that doesn’t mean they have the abstract form of a triangle regardless of how they are arranged even if we accept Platonic realism – indeed ESPECIALLY if we accept Platonic realism.

The non-scholastic thinker is necessarily draw to the question of how this soul process works. The exact moment of conception? Fertilization is itself a process and (as I understand it) the first point at which the two sets of genes are operating together isn’t until the first mitosis. The point is that Feser can’t pick some point between a sperm encountering an ovum and a blastocyst implanting itself on the uterus wall for the point when a human gets a soul but whatever point he picks it will still seem a bit arbitrary and still impossible to confirm.

Feser could then appeal to final-causes. A fertilized ovum has a final cause of developing into a human and therefore as soon as we can identify a think as having such a final purpose then it has a human soul. However, the same claim could be made about an ovum or a sperm – they aren’t complete and they can’t develop into a human by themselves but then that is true for an embryo. He could argue that final cause of a sperm is not become a human but to fertilize an ovum – fair enough, but then it can be argued that the final cause of an embryo is to develop into a fetus rather than a human and so on. It is just as plausible (and equally uncheckable) to claim that a human gets a soul when it becomes a being distinct from another human (for most of us at birth). [Note: I am certainly not arguing that is when a human gets a soul – I don’t think his whole concept of souls makes any sense. My point is just that rationally we could make many arguments.]

In terms of the ethics of abortion the issue is unresolved even if we go with Feser’s pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey point to when a human gets a soul. The ethical status of the woman still exists regardless and Feser offers no explanations of how another human’s should trumps hers.

From birth we can run to the other end of human life. Feser introduces the topic of the death of Terri Schiavo early (a notable case in the US about whether to terminate care for a woman in a persistent vegetive state) along with a range of other symbols of perceived modern moral failings:

[The logical implications of abandoning Aristoelianism] can also be seen in today’s headline: in the abortion industry’s slaughter of millions upon millions of unborn human beings; in the judicial murder of Terri Schiavo (as Nat Hentoff aptly labeled it) and the push for euthanasia generally; in the mostly pointless and certainly point-missing debate between Darwinians and “Intelligent Design” advocates; in the movement for “same-sex marriage” and the sexual revolution generally; and a thousand other things besides.

Feser doesn’t just want to establish that god exists but also that his political positions are also right for the same underlying metaphysical reasons. This means things are what Feser says they are and that the capacity of the Thomistic model to rationalize a prejudged position can be used to rationalize his conservatism.

Given the facts about the soul’s “entrance” into the body, there should be no mystery about when it “leaves”. Again, the should is just the form of the human organism, so it is necessarily there as as the living organism is. Hence it “leaves” only when the organism dies; and that means death not severe brain damage, and not a person’s lapsing into a “persistent vegetative state.” Though a person might not be capable of exercising his rationality, it is there nonetheless in potentiality, since the soul – the form, nature, or essence of the living organism – is still there, and rationality is part of this form, nature or essence. As Plato and Aristotle agree, for something to fail to instantiate a form or essence perfectly does not mean that it fails to instantiate it at all. Thus even poor Terri Schiavo, since she was still alive and thus still had a rational soul, was no less a rational animal than her husband and the judges who together condemned her to death, even if, unlike them, she could not exercise her rationality.

“Begging the question” is a phrase that has had a bit of a semantic shift of late but its original meaning refers to a fallacy identified at least as long ago as Aristotle. Assuming what you intend to show makes it easy to prove your point. In the above argument Feser takes it as given that Schiavo had a rational soul despite he substantial brain injury and hence that Schiavo was a rational entity and hence her form (and hence soul) was rational. In reality his argument works just as well with “alive” and a corpse. I’ll use my necromantic powers to summon ZombieFeser (no relation) to make the argument:

ZombieFeser: Being alive is part of the form of a human. Just because a particular human can’t exercise the “alive” aspect of its form it is there, and being alive is part of this form, nature or essence. As Plato and Aristotle agree, for something to fail to instantiate a form or essence perfectly does not mean that it fails to instantiate it at all.

Our imaginary ZombieFeser can more legitimately argue that the soul does not “leave” the body until the body no longer has the form of a human. Presumably the human soul gradually dissipates as the body rots [No, I don’t believe that but let us follow the ‘logic’]

Now consider what it is Feser’s notion here of the potential for rationality? With the zygote, it is easy to see what it could mean – a zygote might develop in various stages into a rational human being. We don’t know that it will but it is reasonable to say that in general it could. With Terri Schiavo he either means something different or just is ignoring the facts.

[After her death] Examination of Schiavo’s nervous system by neuropathologist Stephen J. Nelson, M.D., revealed extensive injury. The brain itself weighed only 615 g (21.7 oz), only half the weight expected for a female of her age, height, and weight, an effect caused by the loss of a massive number of neurons. Microscopic examination revealed extensive damage to nearly all brain regions, including the cerebral cortex, the thalami, the basal ganglia, the hippocampus, the cerebellum, and the midbrain. The neuropathologic changes in her brain were precisely of the type seen in patients who enter a PVS following cardiac arrest. Throughout the cerebral cortex, the large pyramidal neurons that comprise some 70% of cortical cells – critical to the functioning of the cortex – were completely lost. The pattern of damage to the cortex, with injury tending to worsen from the front of the cortex to the back, was also typical. There was marked damage to important relay circuits deep in the brain (the thalami) – another common pathologic finding in cases of PVS. The damage was, in the words of Thogmartin, “irreversible, and no amount of therapy or treatment would have regenerated the massive loss of neurons.”

It is sad to read of the extent of Terri Schiavo’s brain damage and her untimely death was tragic on multiple levels (not least of which was the political circus that eventuated). However, at the time just prior to her death she did not have the potential to be rational. Her brain was massively damaged. If the soul of a person is the form of a rational animal (Feser’s claim) then it makes sense that the soul leaves not when a person dies but when a person no longer has that form. Is that a sound basis for ethical decisions? I don’t think so because of my scepticism of Feser’s premise about souls. However, Feser’s claims about ‘judicial murder’ do not hold if we assume his basic principles about souls.

So we have hit birth (or at least conception) and death. Next Feser takes us to the interval in between with sex and marriage. Be warned – it gets awful pretty quickly.

Feser first wanders around the issue of what it is to be ‘natural’. In this case what he means is conforming to the properties of the inherent category. Squirrels, in general, have four legs. A given squirrel has squirrellyness and hence the inherent essence of four-leggedness. If the given squirrel has only three legs then it is a faulty squirrel as the squirrel does not accord in the leg department with the properties of its category. It is (in Feser’s scheme) unnatural for the squirrel to have three legs even if the three-leggedness occurred naturally. The leg example is mine, although Feser also uses squirrels in a more complex thought experiment with eating toothpaste (I’m not joking and kudos to Feser for including a toothpaste eating squirrel). If you can anticipate where this is going then you are probably right. A fair warning though – while I don’t think he is trying to be offensive, the following quote contains much that many people will find appalling:

To take just one of many possible examples, that there is a genetic basis for clubfoot doesn’t show that having clubfeet is “natural.” Quite obviously it is unnatural, certainly in the Aristotelian sense of failure perfectly to conform to the essence of nature of a thing. And no one who has a clubfoot would take offense at someone’s noting this obvious matter of fact, or find it convincing that the existence of a genetic basis for his affliction shows that it is something he should “embrace” and “celebrate.” Nor would it be plausible to suggest that God “made him that way,” any more than God “makes” people to be born blind, deaf, armless, legless, prone to alcoholism, or autistic. God obviously allows these things, for whatever reason; but it doesn’t follow that He positively wills them, and it certainly doesn’t follow that they are “natural”

I’ll pause before the punchline to remind readers that Feser’s chosen ‘proofs’ for the existance of god involved god being the ultimate cause of EVERYTHING and that god was pure WILL and rationality. It directly follows (indeed is central) to his arguments for the existence of god that god is constantly and actively willing everything along. Except, apparently, when it is inconvenient for Feser’s other argument.  It is notable how much more awful both in conclusion and reasoning Feser’s book in sections when Feser is doing something other than directly describing what classical philosophers thought. Back to the quote:

So, by the same token, the possibility of a genetic basis for homosexual desire doesn’t by itself show that such desire is natural. Homosexual activists often breathlessly cite this or that alleged “finding” that such a basis exists; someday they might even cite something plausible. “Whatever, dude,” as the kids say.

Feser is not directly equating a disability with moral badness but basically he does regard this notion of a kind of functional badness (in the sense that I’ve got ‘bad’ fine motor control) as being akin to the notion of ethical badness. They have the same root within not being in accord with a things ‘nature’ -where ‘nature’ is a higher order metaphysical quasi-platonic form of a thing. He casts this is a better light than above:

So, a good human being will be, among many other things, someone who pursues truth and avoids error. And this becomes moral goodness insofar as we can choose whether or not to fulfil our natures in this way. To choose in line with the final causes or purposes that are ours by nature is morally good; to choose against them is morally bad.

From here Feser goes on to tell us the ultimate purpose of sex is procreation (i.e. that is the natural purpose and other aspects are secondary). That the natural role for women is the “fairly heavy burden” of being frequently pregnant, giving birth and raising children (and we should note even though Feser doesn’t, that in the “natural” state without modern medicine childbirth for humans is very dangerous). As a consequence: “nature’s taking its course thus seems to leave mothers and offspring pretty helpless, or at any rate it would do so if there weren’t someone ordained by nature to provide form them.” If you guessed “robots” you would be wrong – the answer is “fathers”. Feser’s chain of “reasoning” is that therefore:

The teleology or final causality of sex thus pushes inevitably in the direction of at least some variation on the institution of marriage, and marriage exists for the purpose of generation and nourishing offspring not only biologically but culturally.

Note that Feser is anticipating objections that infertile couples can marry – not every marriage needs to involve procreation just that the overall point is procreation.

Ahhh, I won’t quote the next bit when Feser starts getting into the shape of a penis and a vagina. I’ll leave it to you imagination.

Woman can have orgasms too

OK I quoted that bit because it wasn’t the worst bit but sums up the overall feel. Then more squirrels, clubfeet, toothpastes and so on. It really is not very good and it goes on and on.

The $64 question in recent years, of course, is: “Does natural law theory entail that homosexuals can’t marry?” And the answer is that they can marry. But of course, what that means, as a matter of conceptual necessity, is that they can marry someone of the opposite sex. What they can’t do is marry each other, no more than a heterosexual could marry someone of the same sec, and no more than a person could “marry” a goldfish, or a can of motor oil, or his own left foot. For the metaphysics underlying natural law theory entails that marriage is, not by human definition, but as an objective metaphysical fact determined by its final cause, inherently procreative, and thus inherently heterosexual.

The correct objective metaphysical response is “bollocks”. In Feser’s own argument the purpose of marriage was to enable the upbringing and protection of children. Now that purpose in turn was to do with procreation but Feser assume a kind of back transitivity which he applies when and where it suits him. Thus marriage has to be heterosexual even though procreation can occur without marriage. It is, by Feser’s own argument, bringing up children that makes marriage necessary and hence the question of whether it needs to be heterosexual or not should be applied to the ACTUAL purpose of marriage rather than the general field. For example schooling is also a part of bringing up children – does it therefore have to be ‘heterosexual’? Feeding a child is part of bringing up a child does it therefore have to be ‘heterosexual’? No, the questions don’t even make sense.
He goes on to say:

No Legislature or opinion poll could possibly change these facts, any more than they could repeal the law of gravity or the Pythagorean theorem.

And yet that is exactly what has occurred. In such circumstances the right thing to do is to re-examine one’s assumptions. Same-ex marriage is a legal reality in many countries and even without a formal legal definition, same-sex couples have been bringing up children as families regardless. If gravity has been repealed and people are floating about then it would be wise to not say that you can’t repeal gravity.

It is notable that after all the high talk of metaphysics and great theologians, the whole thrust of Feser’s book comes down to this: if you adopt his approach you can rationalize badly some shitty beliefs. Which is all kind of sad, more than anything else.

2 thoughts on “Review: Feser – Part 9

  1. As someone who believes in the soul – but then again, I also believe in the mind too; I’m a trinitarian – I certainly agree that trying to create an artificial point at which the soul and the body are somehow conjoined is absurd, and people who attempt to claim an answer to that or, indeed, to other things like sexuality, that happens to justify their own moral position should probably be treated with suspicion. (Then again, I think that anyone who claims any sort of answer at all to metaphysical questions should be treated with suspicion. Even the Church Fathers didn’t really like that as much as is commonly thought. Likewise I have my own answers but I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that they would work for anyone else, let alone forcing people to believe in them.)
    Good job on collapsing the “God is responsible for everything except these bits” argument too.

    I do find it extraordinary that Feser still conflates the notion of marriage and sexual relations, although to be fair, it’s a view that has held sway for several millennia. But to me his error appears to be in arguing that whilst marriage is for the nurturing of offspring (which may be true but it’s a moderately recent idea, and there are definitely other reasons for marriage including both social and legal niceties), and that sex is for procreation (which does not appear to be true at all but is probably a much longer standing idea), one must inevitably be tied to the other. I don’t particularly see any reason why that should be the case at all. There’s an old joke that every person needs three other people to make their life complete: the person they eat with, the person they have sex with and the person they have children with, and that for something approaching happiness you should settle for getting any two out of three.


    1. I’m not wholly averse to the notion of the soul being essentially the abstract ‘message’ of which a person is the physical medium. Of course in that sense the soul exists, like any message, in the social and intersubjective understanding of who you are and of which you are the primary author. Such a view would be in Aristotlean in many ways.

      The various sections where Feser tries to tie his modern politics to Aquinas or Aristotle are easily the weakest bits of the book.His arguments have so many holes that you could drive a truck through them.


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