Monday, May 6, 2013

Review of Edward Feser's The Last Superstion: A Refutation of the New Atheism

Edward Feser's 2008 work The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism is a provocative polemic that manages to skillfully do exactly what it sets out to do: refute atheism.  Feser's project is twofold: one, to expose the so-called "New Atheism" (a position represented by writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, among others) as a faux intellectual project whose pretensions of rational authority in the marketplace of ideas is bereft of philosophical justification; two, to demonstrate that theistic belief is, and has been for thousands of years, rationally supported by a number of painstakingly detailed arguments that, despite popular belief, have never actually been refuted by atheists--only ignored by them.

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, original italics).  
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.

1 comment:

  1. Never mind of course that the most common and seductive set of superstitions in the modern world, especially in America, are all associated with the myths/lies at the root of the Christian religion. Jesus of course was never ever in any sense a Christian - he was always and only a Jew.
    Please check out:
    And of course the real topic re speculations about the "soul" is Death, an illuminated Understanding of which can be found here: