In the US a Christian college is sanctioning a member of its staff who asserted that Islam worships the same god as Christianity. Apparently this is a controversial notion and at odds with the college’s official doctrine. Now for an atheist the argument is a bit like asking whether Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny lee-Miller both play the character called Sherlock Holmes on television. Now that is a really fun argument to have but not one likely to get you sacked from your job if you take the wrong position. However, for people who are followers of the so-called Abrahamic religions this can be an important question.
Interestingly, it is a debate that is burning away over at Vox Day’s blog
In various previous posts I’ve looked at aspects of Feser’s book in some detail. In this last post I want to give a more general review.
The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism by Edward Feser claims to be an attempt to show that atheism is essentially irrational and that belief in god can be defended on rational grounds. Overall this is not what the book actually is.
The book is best understand as consisting of three components:
- polemic and sarcasm aimed at prominent ‘new’ atheists writers – in particular Richard Dawkins, Daniel C Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris
- an overview and defense of the metaphysical tradition of Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas – and in particular a defense of Aquinas’s views on the existence of god
- an account of how Feser applies Aquinas’s metaphysics to his own modern politics, in particular on the issues of abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia.
The polemic sections aimed at the atheist writers is the weakest part of his writing. Good snark can be amusing and given Richard Dawkins’s natural pomposity he should be an easy target and yet Feser continually misses. He repeatedly pretends to have no idea why Dawkins spends the effort he does challenging notions like ‘Intelligent Design’ and this makes Feser’s writing seem a bit shallow rather than disingenuous. Failing to achieve ‘disingenuous’ as a target is a substantial failing and demonstrates how far Feser’s writing falls from ‘good’.
The sections where Feser advances his own political views are weak logically and serve largely to demonstrate the flaw in the metaphysical system he advocates. His very selective and self-serving choices of natural categories or final causes, shows how easily his system, can be used primarily not as a rational system but rather as a system for rationalizations. Parts of it are just simply embarrassing and presumably require a strong devotion to the outcomes of the arguments to be palatable.
The historical account and defense of Feser’s preferred metaphysics is easily the strongest aspect of the book. It is deeply partisan and one-sided but it is also passionate and demonstrates his deep understanding as a philosopher. It is substantially weaker whenever Feser attempts to describe the critics of Aquinas and this is unfortunate. The motives and indeed systems of thought of some of Western philosophy’s most notable figures are rendered mysterious and are portrayed as odd and arbitrary to an extent that it should make any critical mind severely doubt Feser’s account.
Overall this is a very lazy book. The most well written parts are the potted history of the Aristotelian tradition in Western philosophy. Yet these really don’t amount to much more than overly partisan notes for the first term of a undergrad philosophy course. Around this framework Feser adds more original writing and yet this writing is largely weakly written and displays poor reasoning.
The book never lives up to its title. It is a sermon to the choir and even then more of a sketch that suggest maybe their prejudices could be defended with an intellectually respectable scheme. He doesn’t actually deliver such a scheme – more points in the vague direction of Aristotle and Aquinas and hopes for the best.
Should you read it? Maybe. It is short. If you are curious as to why certain people on the US right are now talking about Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas then Feser’s book might give you some insights. You might encounter somebody online who claims that Feser has demonstrated something rather than just asserted it and reading Feser’s book will help you see that no, he didn’t demonstrate anything in particular. Having said that much of the book is dull and the political parts tend towards awful even when Feser isn’t intentionally trying to cause offense.
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’.
The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism: The Scholastic Dead End.
In Part 7 I discussed how mathematics broke from Platonism and from a pre-dominant metaphysics. As I noted there, the various foundational crises in mathematics did not disprove or even really discredit Platonism, instead they made it viable to be agnostic on those issues. In addition the metaphysics no longer directly informed the epistemology. Indeed a philosophical rival to Platonism, mathematical formalism (in which axioms are like the arbitrary rules of a game) while flawed in a number of ways could still be a productive stance. The old question of whether mathematics was discovered or invented is not one that can be settled but in an age of invention and in an age of computer model ‘invented’ made a lot of sense as a way of working. While computer programming had old roots in the age of the Industrial Revolution, in the second half of the Twentieth Century it became a major part of humanities culture both intellectually and economically. Inventing formal languages, developing data structures and discovering surprising features of invented logical structures became something familiar and which we had a shared cultural experience of.
The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism: Mathematics and Geometry
Part Seven? Seriously? Do not be misled – that I am over seven thousand words into a review of a relatively short book does not indicate that this is a good book. I’ll do a more summative review when I’m done.
In the meantime I am onto another section that is reviewing what isn’t in the book – in this case any critical comparison with Feser’s views on the inescapable logic of his position and mathematics.
Why is mathematics important? Fewer tells us early on:
But it is important to understand that, certain details and rhetorical flourishes aside, the core of Plato’s theory is admitted even by many who are unsympathetic to his overall worldview to be highly plausible and defensible, and has always had powerful advocates down to the present day. The reason is that at least something like Plato’s theory is notoriously very hard to avoid if we are to make sense of mathematics, language, science, and the very structure of the world of our experience.
Read Part One and Part Two first.
Cue wibbly-wobbly flashback effect as we go back in time to Ancient Athens!
Plato, great writer, great thinker, proto-fascist and inventor of Atlantis. In part 2 of this review we left Feser taking potshots at the four-horsemen of atheism (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris & Hitchens) and among the many complaints Feser throws at them is this:
Nor do they evince the slightest awareness of the historical centrality of ideas deriving from classical philosophy – the tradition of thought deriving from Plato and Aristotle and whose greatest representatives within Christianity are Augustine and Thomas Aquinas – to the content and self-understanding of the mainstream Western religious tradition.
This is the essence of Feser’s ‘refutation’ of popular atheist writers – they are ignorant of a whole stream of thought within Western civilisation and hence have never properly engaged with it and hence are blissfully unaware of how wrong they are.
From there Feser can take us to the real core of his argument:
The classical metaphysical picture of the world, which derives from Plato, was greatly modified first by Aristotle and later by Augustine, and was at last perfected by Aquinas and his followers, is, as I came to believe, essentially correct, and it effectively makes atheism and naturalism impossible.
This is the premise of Feser’s book. What he needs to demonstrate is:
The metaphysics of Aquinas (adapted from that of Plato and Aristotle) is essentially correct and…
…given that it is correct atheism and naturalism is impossible.
Put another way – if the Aristotle’s metaphysics is right then god exists. Which would be kind of cool if Feser could pull it off.
Part 1 is here.
The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism: Refuting what?
The first thing that needs to be said here is that title of Feser’s book is deeply misleading. The book is not particularly a refutation of the New Atheism. Yes, Feser frequently makes rhetorical stabs at Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens but these barbs are more like asides rather than a pulling apart of their arguments. If anything Feser is primarily dismissive of these writers and a reader hoping for a blow by blow deconstruction of the arguments put forward by modern atheists will be disappointed.