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The Last Superstition


Chapter 1: Bad Religion

Just an outline of what Feser is trying to achieve in the book, along with pithy stabs at the mental capabilities of the New Atheists and secularists. Much of his criticisms I suppose I would agree with. I think there is an annoying dismissal of philosophy, along with a belief that their arguments are great, when they lack rigor, often to the point of being brazen non-sequiturs.

He appears to be comparing something like pop-atheism with whatever he thinks are the most sophisticated defenses of his world view. I think any comparison like this is going to lead to some asymmetries. Comparing Dawkins’ and Dennett’s thought processes to the average Catholic believer would likely lead to the same mismatch in intellectual rigor. Even better would be to compare someone like Michael Martin, or Jeffrey Jay Lowder to almost any Catholic, philosopher, theologian, or the like.

Feser plans to argue that (Loc 531) the war between science and religion is really a war between two philosophical schools of thought- naturalism vs. classical Aristotelianism/Thomism.

Naturalism makes morality and reason impossible, whereas they are intelligible only on the classical view.

Therefore secularism (I guess that is synonymous with naturalism) must manifest irrationalism and immorality.

Although much of the earlier stuff doesn’t really apply to me, his main thesis does. I am a naturalist. Even if all of Feser’s attacks on the New Atheist do not apply to me, this main thesis does.

Chapter 2: Greeks Bearing Gifts

Feser outlines some Presocratic philosophy and also some Plato and Aristotle. Feser defends realism regarding universals. Things like “redness,” “triangularity,” “humanness,” etc. are real, and do not simply exist in our minds. The angles of a triangle, for example, add up to 180 degrees, whether or not minds exist to view them.

Nominalists say that we use the same labels for things, like “red,” but that it is only a name, and there is no such thing as redness, but Feser says that it wouldn’t make sense to use the same labels unless the objects had something in common (namely redness) that leads us to using the same label.

Maybe I need to understand it better, so we’ll see if my view evades any of his objections. When we see many things that appear to be the same color, we can think of what they have in common, abstracted from the objects themselves. The redness is real, instantiated in each object because they are red. They reflect light of similar wavelengths. But the abstracted concept only exists in our minds. “Redness” per se exists in our minds because we see specific things that exist that are Red.

Feser later talks about Aristotle’s metaphysics: Actuality vs. potentiality, the four causes (formal, material, efficient, and final). He is claiming that denying any of the four causes is philosophically foolish, and also that these four causes lead inextricably to God. I suppose that’s next chapter. Also the universals stuff leads to God. So be it. Let’s see the connection.

Chapter 3: Getting Medieval
-What Aquinas didn’t say
Feser lays into the New Atheists, each of the four in turn. Lots of unnecessary though creative insults flung at them. So they don’t get Aquinas. I got it.

Feser could have just listed the wrong things said about Aquinas. No, he doesn’t say everything must have a cause. No he doesn’t make Paley-like arguments from design. Most importantly, Aquinas doesn’t make a scientific argument, but a philosophical/metaphysical one. He’s not arguing inductively from pieces of empirical evidence, but deductively from good premises.

-The existence of God
Feser’s first argument is from universals. Universals, propositions, and mathematical truths can’t plausibly exist outside of a mind, and that mind could not be limited or finite, therefor it must be an eternal and infinite mind. That’s God.

I suppose I’ll have to look back and see why universals can’t plausibly exist outside of a mind, or why we must be “realists” about them. Sure, 1+1 equals 2, no matter what. Why can’t this be a necessary feature of reality? Why must a mind perceive such a thing? In a mindless universe, one rock is one rock. Another rock rolls next to it, and there are two rocks. Therefore God? What am I missing?

-The Unmoved Mover
Change involves a transition from potentiality to actuality. This must come from outside. In the case of a hand moving a stick, we can drill down deeper and deeper to neurons, electromagnetism and gravity and the strong and weak nuclear force, and so on, to see the deeper causes leading to the change.

Eventually we need to get to an unchanged changer. Otherwise all the links in the chain will fail to explain the change. Something must ultimately explain the change. This changer can’t be changed itself, because that would entail something outside of it or deeper than it leading to this change. This is what we call God.

You can deduce more attributes of God by looking at what a unmoved mover must be. Causes can’t “give what they don’t have.” A fire has to come from something that has the power to give it, like another fire, or a spark or something. So God needs to have whatever leads to every power, so he’s all powerful. He needs whatever leads to will and intellect, so he’s omniscient.

And then of course the bad stuff that exists is a “privation” or lack of stuff. Blindness is a lack of sight, good a lack of evil.

-The First Cause
Seems to be basically the same as the argument above.

-The Supreme Intelligence
Here Feser argues from the regularity of the universe or the “Final Causes” of things to God. In contrast to much of creationism, all this argument would need is a single electron, acting as it does. To Feser, when things act as they do, falling, orbiting, burning, etc. in predictable ways, this is them acting so as to fulfill their “final causes.” It is goal directed. It is impossible for things to be directed toward anything without an intellect to hold the end in mind. Therefore God.

This all hinges on the actual existence of final causes, which Feser says some dispute. I’m skeptical as well. But he says that the defense if forthcoming. Okay.

Chapter 4: Scholastic Aptitude

-Natural Law

Feser defends natural law, including from some misunderstandings.

One of the first principles of natural law is that good is to be done and pursued, and evil to be avoided. For humans, the good is whatever tends to fulfill our nature- what helps us fulfill our natural ends.

Humans are made of many capacities. Our reason/intellect is pointed to attaining truth, so doing so is “good” for us.

I’m sort of confused as to what exactly this “good” is supposed to mean, and how it is supposed to bridge the is-ought gap. Feser things that having final causes and natures means that being a “good” human is the same as being a “good” triangle. It is when we most closely adhere to our essences. But still, we can ask why we ought to adhere to our essences, and follow our natures.

God could have made it so that, for example, using our capabilities to their fullest extent makes us miserable. I don’t see anything inherent in natural law that we are intended to be happy. In fact, I’m curious as to how we are supposed to find out what our natures are. How do we know we are essentially a rational animal? How do we know what purpose our parts have, except that they tend to do things a lot? I’ll have to extend this more fully in the future. . .

Feser says it is “obvious” what the natural purpose of sex is: procreation. Why just one purpose? How about pair bonding? Sort of like how hair can be both for warmth, or for beauty. If it is hot outside, one can still use their hair for beauty. Or if one decides, he/she could use a functional, yet ugly, hairstyle. It seems apparent that hair on the head is meant biologically for warmth and/or protection. Would Feser say it is immoral to have hair on the head when it is super, super hot out? Seems like a reductio.

I also wonder if Feser would defend polygymy. It seems to me that biologically, how men and women are different suggests that this could be ideal. This seems to be the real and true way to fulfill our natures.

Feser says that since the final cause of sex is procreation, therefore it is good for us to use our sexual capabilities for that purpose. Using it in any other way “cannot possibly” be good (2753). But once again, perhaps sex can have multiple purposes. And Feser still hasn’t bridged the is/ought gap very well. Nature has created general desires in us, but since situations are different, and human variability exists, sometimes adjustments to nature’s purposes are necessary. Perhaps nature made sex for us to reproduce, but it also made reason in order for us to realize when reproduction is not necessarily wise. Using reason may lead us to think that birth control is a good move.

Bad objection according to Feser: “It is immoral to use your leg to prop up a table!” Feser says this is false. You can use your natural capacities for other things, as long as it isn’t contrary to their natural function.

Bad objection 2: “You can’t perform a leg amputation to save a life!” Feser says this is allowed because the functions of our organs are metaphysically subordinate to the overall purpose- sustaining life and activities of the person as a whole (2815).

Next, Feser says that minor frustrations of nature are not a super big deal. Removing all ear wax may be unwise, but not necessarily immoral. Feser says that when it comes to the maintenance of the species or the well being of others, it is a big deal.

So some potential objections as listed above- I’ll have to learn more to know whether I actually understand:

  • How do we know what our natural purposes are?
  • How do we know what the natural purposes of our abilities/organs are?
  • Why ought we do what nature intends us to? (Differences in current situation from ancient evolutionary situation exist).
  • If frustrating a part’s purpose can be okay because the part is subordinate to the whole, why can’t we thwart nature’s purposes for us to procreate in order to ensure the well-being of the whole? Why not thwart some desires to fulfill higher natural desires?
  • Is there a “natural purpose” to communities or groups? If so, perhaps thwarting some individual natures can better fulfill the purpose of the whole.
  • If nature’s purposes are already fulfilled (humans won’t go extinct), why can’t people use their capabilities for things other than nature’s original purpose? There is no chance that the original intent will be frustrated.
  • Teeth are for chewing and eating, but Feser says we can use it to hold things as well, because we don’t have to constantly be doing what nature intended. Still, holding a nail in the teeth does thwart the natural purpose of eating, if only temporary. Similarly, birth control thwarts the natural purpose of procreation, if only temporarily. What’s the difference?

-Faith, reason, and evil

Faith isn’t belief despite evidence. It is reasonably justified trust in the teachings of the religion and the church and God (2963) (although Feser seems to think it is possible to justify such trust 100%). This trust is warranted because Jesus rose from the dead and is therefore God.

Still, we can’t be certain that such a historical thing occurred, although one could try to make a strong inductive case for it. Because of this, such faith would have to include an aspect of uncertainty. Does Feser agree with this? Plausibly, though I’m not sure.

Feser responds to the problem of evil by saying it is simply an argument from personal incredulity on the atheists’ part. Since we’ve already proven God and that he is perfectly good, we can simply say that perhaps there is a good reason that God allows evil. It’s like the suffering of a child getting vaccine. She won’t understand the reason for the pain, but it’s better in the long run.

I think Feser doesn’t give enough due to an inductive approach. He seems to think that any amount of suffering would leave his all-good God unharmed. This I find going too far. When we have suffering that is apparently unjustified, and leaves no plausible reason for it, that is evidence against it being justified. Enough of this should be very strong evidence against an all-good God. If the smartest person in the world murdered a village full of people (hey, God caused a flood to kill people too), and gave us no reason she did it except maybe “you wouldn’t understand, but I am still good,” then I think that could be evidence against her goodness. If it happened enough, it’s time to send the Navy SEALS.

Chapter 5: Descent of the Modernists

Feser begins by arguing that Aristotle’s views were abandoned for bad reasons.

He next addresses a group of “philosophical puzzles” that he thinks his views can solve, but that modern philosophers can’t. I found this part poorly argued. We’ll take a look at just a few of his solved puzzles.

The Problem of Skepticism:

Feser thinks that the representational theory of mind leads to unsolvable skepticism. How do we know our representations are correct and caused correctly?

Feser thinks that this is not a problem on his view because “one and the same form” exist in reality and the mind. There’s no gap between the mind and reality like there is on the representational theory of mind.

Unfortunately this doesn’t account for how we can make mistakes. Since in reality we can make mistakes, I think that Feser still has to solve this problem. Whatever causes us to make mistakes makes it always possible that we’re mistaken for those same reasons. I can ask of the Aristotelian, “How can we know that our beliefs are caused correctly by the forms?” There is still a gap.

The Problem of Induction:

Without formal or final causality, we lose our reason to predict based on past experiences. But, if we assume things have essences and final causes that determine their actions, we have reason to predict, because they are working toward the same final cause.

Unfortunately, the problem of induction still remains since we can’t infallibly determine what the form of a thing is. For example, maybe something that we think is essentially “green” is actually essentially “grue” (green forever in the past, but blue after 8/4/2015). Feser acts like these problems are solved so easily by his philosophy, but I think he’s ignoring fairly obvious critiques.

There’s more on other topics like morality, rights, and such, which I discussed above. I don’t think Natural Law is a coherent view of morality, and I don’t think it successfully solves the is-ought problem. I think there are also some significant epistemelogical barriers to finding what a thing’s “final cause” or “essence” is, which is what we’d use to determine what is “good” for it.

Chapter 6: Aristotle’s Revenge

Feser talks about the impossibility of consciousness as well as natural laws without things like final causes, teleology, and essences.

I have some trouble figuring out what the difference would be between something having as it’s “goal” to fall, and just the fact that in certain gravitational circumstances, things tend to fall. When we zoom down to the very basic nature of the universe, it seems to me that things must just work “somehow,” perhaps inexplicably. This appears to be the case for teleological explanations as well. Sure, we can say that fundamental particles just have as their “goal” to act in certain ways, but that’s going to just be a brute fact at some point.

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