Review: The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism by Edward Feser

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:

  1. polemic and sarcasm aimed at prominent ‘new’ atheists writers – in particular Richard Dawkins, Daniel C Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris
  2. 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
  3. 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.

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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’.

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Review: Feser – Part 8

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

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.

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Review: Feser – Part 7

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

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.

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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.

Review: Feser – Part 4

Part1, Part 2, Part 3.

The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism: The Age of Aquinas

So time to cut to the chase. Thomas Aquinas 1225 to 1274, which was a long time ago but not as long ago as Aristotle and Plato. Aquinas wrote a lot and while much of it is related to both Plato and Aristotle his work was not simply a rehashing but an extensive program to put Catholicism on sound philosophical footings. You can read more here http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aquinas/#ThoAri

For the purposes of Feser’s argument we can concentrate on a couple of related aspects of Aquinas. Firstly that he shares Aristotle’s notion of causality and secondly Aquinas’s ‘Five Ways’ of demonstrating the existence of god. Fewer claims these Five Ways are just one set of a larger set of arguments for god’s existence and Feser also concentrates on just three of the five. Here is Wikipedia’s account of the Five Ways. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quinque_viae

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Review: Feser – Part 3

Read Part One and Part Two first.

menosquareThe Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism: Plato & Aristotle

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.

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