on 30 December 2011
This book contains several elements of very unequal value. The best, and fortunately the longest, part of the work is an introduction to Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics, with lucid accounts of act/potentiality, form/matter, efficient/final causation, and the rest, and proceeds to show how the rejection of Thomism in favour of empiricism in early modern philosophy created a whole range of unnecessary and unreal problems over personal identity, mind and matter, and the like. All would be solved if only we would go back to St Thomas. This is a fascinating and compelling argument.
The second element in this book, and the only one that directly counters the `new atheism', is a statement of some of the arguments based on Thomist metaphysics for the existence of God - Aquinas's famous `five ways'. Again there is lucid exposition, but attention should be paid to the objections raised by good metaphysicians such as Anthony Kenny. The argument here needs expansion if it is to be (as I believe it can be) fully convincing.
The third element in the book consists of recurrent invective against liberalism, particularly in ethics. Feser has a particular hatred of gay lib, and the book begins with a nasty swipe at those who treat `the family and sodomy' as being of equal value. One's inclination is to throw the book out of the window, and ill-tempered, malicious ranting disfigures later parts of the book as well; sadly, Feser habitually insults his opponents, careless of the danger that he will simply alienate those who don't agree with him already. This, I admit, is a major flaw. But I would advise readers to suppress their annoyance and persevere. The better parts of this book - and they make up most of it - provide a well-informed and hugely readable account of some of the main problems in the history of metaphysics.
on 29 September 2011
This is perhaps the most satisfying book I have ever read, because, positively, it deals with and establishes the truth of the three most fundamental issues that can possibly exist [the author repeats these three over and over throughout his book, e.g. on p. 25: `the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the natural law conception of morality'], and because it also demolishes the opposite view, delivering the promise made in the subtitle: "A Refutation of the New Atheism" which is propounded especially by the 'New Atheists' Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett. In other words, to use the words of a very ancient popular song, it "accentuates [in fact it establishes] the positive, and it eliminates the negative".
I make the point, though, that even at the risk of overloading the title or subtitle, the author could [or should] have included in it/them some indication that his purpose was twofold, first to establish the truth and the continuing validity of the traditional metaphysical and religious worldview established in the Judeo-Greco-Christian tradition, and secondly to refute the worldview of 'modern' mainstream European and US philosophy [Descartes, Hume, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Darwin, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, et al.] which threatened and partly took over from the previous worldview. This latter, naturalist, secular, anti-spiritual worldview is "a counter-religion , a counter-morality" [Feser's 'Last Superstition'], "that is ... deeply irrational and immoral, indeed the very negation of reason and morality" (p. 20).
I would like to stress that Feser establishes his second thesis, namely, the wrongness and the evil of the modern secular/naturalist worldview, by examining it in itself and in its results, and finding it wanting - and not merely by stating that it must be wrong and evil because it contradicts the `right, correct and good' Aristotelico-Thomist worldview of his especial heroes. These heroes are the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle (4th century BC), and Aristotle's principal follower and commentator, St Thomas Aquinas (12th century AD, known in the literature equally as Thomas or just Aquinas, the chief `Scholastic' philosopher/theologian of the vibrant scholarship - `Scholasticism' - of medieval European Roman Catholicism).
Feser constantly invokes the metaphysics of Aristotle, as explicated by Aquinas, in the defence of the logical correctness and compelling force of the arguments/proofs from reason (apart from `special revelation') for his three main points: the existence of God, the immortality of the spiritual human soul, and the moral law. His point, made over and over, is that the metaphysics of the `modern worldview' in turn leads of necessity to the intrinsically wrong and evil, irrational, immoral, and even, for him, `insane' worldview of the `New Atheists'. Feser says on page 51 (he puts the whole sentence in italics): "Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought".
Every page of the book contains one, or usually several, quotable analyses and summation statements by Feser. But although his book deals with the most fundamental metaphysics, I found it to be unusually comprehensible, for the genre. Nevertheless this is not an easy read.
Feser centres his argument for the three great issues on an analysis of the `four causes' for everything that exists, where the existence of that `thing' is contingent, caused, and not, as for God, the same as its essence. These causes were proposed by Aristotle and developed by Aquinas: 1) the MATERIAL cause; out of which something is made: e.g. a rubber ball is made out of rubber; 2 the FORMAL cause, or nature of the object: e.g. its `rubberyness': the rubber ball is a rubber ball, not a leopard or a housefly; 3) the EFFICIENT cause: who or what made the object: a given factory made the ball, Michelangelo carved his David, and so on; and (4), the FINAL cause, what a `thing' exists for. Feser's brief analysis of the final cause on page 70 merits quoting at some length: "Aquinas refers to the final cause as `the cause of causes' and for good reason. The material cause of a thing underlies its potential for change; but potentialities ... are always potentialities FOR, or directed TOWARD , some actuality. Hence final causality underlies all potentiality and thus all material cause. The final cause of a thing is also the central aspect of its formal cause; indeed, it determines its formal cause. For it is only because a thing has a certain end or final cause that it has the form it has ....And ... efficient causality cannot be made sense of apart from final causality. Indeed NOTHING makes sense - not the world as a whole, nor morality or human action in general, not the thoughts you're thinking or the words you're using, not ANYTHING AT ALL - without final causes. They are certainly utterly central to, and ineliminable from our conception of ourselves as rational and freely choosing agents, whose thoughts and actions are always directed toward an end beyond themselves" (emphases in Feser's text).
Hume and his followers, notably the four `new atheists', destroy reality and reason, for Feser, because they eliminate formal cause and final cause. They eliminate the idea of a `nature' or `form' for any reality, and eliminate all causality and purpose. They admit only a material `cause' and an efficient `cause'. I summarize by quoting from Antony Flew's 2007 book `There is a God `: "I have long wanted to make major corrections to my book [an acclaimed commentary on Hume's Philosophy of Belief published by Flew in 1961]... in the light of my new-found awareness that Hume was utterly wrong to maintain that we have no experience, and hence no genuine ideas, of making things happen and of preventing things from happening, of physical necessity and of physical impossibility (p. 57)." Flew concludes with the delightful verdict, which I consider totally supports Feser: "Hume's scepticism about cause and effect and his agnosticism about the external world are of course jettisoned the moment he leaves his study (p. 58)." Feser demolishes and demolishes and demolishes Hume's `non-causality' throughout his book.
Feser argues that the modern philosophy of the past three centuries, if lived out in practice (not merely fantasized about in Hume's study) would have made impossible the very science which it claims has destroyed the need for a God and any purpose in the universe and any reality for rational mankind. Science, and mankind, need `form' and purpose, finality - or else there can be no science and no rational mankind.
I will conclude this all-too-sketchy review by adding Stephen Hawking to the rogues gallery of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett whom Feser ridicules. May I refer the reader to my review (published on amazon on 23 Sept 2010) of the absurd book `The Grand Design - New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life' published by Hawking in 2010. Basically, Hawking's book is cosmology, with occasional forays into the world of `the ultimate questions of life', where he flounders abjectly. Having told us on page 5 that `philosophy is dead', Hawking then nevertheless proceeds to give us the strictly metaphysical conclusions that the universe created itself out of nothing, and, furthermore, that it thus created itself according to necessary laws of nature (though nature did not yet exist pre-Big Bang!), that human beings have no free will, and (in the very last paragraph of the book, p. 181) that "we human beings ... are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature". Hawking claims that his book will tell us "Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? " (p. 171). His (purely cosmological) answers to these questions must be simply laughed out of court. It is laughable already that Hawking's book, aimed at eliminating design from the world around us, is called 'The Grand Design'.
Feser's book should be the subject of a compulsory introductory course for every philosophy undergraduate.
on 9 July 2015
Edward Feser has become recognized as one of the most keen and thoughtful defenders of a reconsideration of Aristotean/Thomistic philosophy as an opposition to the currrently in vogue modern positions of the so called 'New Atheists.' One can only applaud his careful and insightful reasons for not only criticizing these modernists, but also for providing a counterpoint of superior analysis basic on Classical and Medieval philosophy.
However, and despite the great rewards that might come to those readers who follow his thinking in these matters, his uncalled for and uncharitable invective about those with whom he does not agree seriously damages the beneficial effect his arguments might otherwise have.
As a former Dominican, the group to which Thomas Aquinas was a member, and as a retired professor of Humanities, I lament this current state of affairs but hope that the future will bring wise modifications from Prof. Fesser in his publications, perhaps even in a second edition to this book in question.
Since Fesser is a Christian I think it is only fair to point out to him St Paul's prescription that the three great virtues are faith, hope and charity, and that the greatest of these is charity, How then can he justify the name calling and uncharitable judgments made against those with whom he has differences? Does he really believe that this type of invective will win over believers to his cause despite the insights he might offer to the true nature of things?
By doing so Fesser has abandoned both Socrates' and Aquinas' attempts to put forth the best attempts of their opponents in a way as kind and should I say as unemotionally presented as possible. His highly charged psychological judgments of others, in turn, considerably weakens the good his fine thinking might otherwise garner good results.
For the reader who wants to keep an open mind to the logic of Aristotlean/Thomistic thinking, I suggest now looking elsewhere. Fortunately, we are now experiencing somewhat of a renaissance of interest in and upward reevaluation of Thomas Aquinas thinking, so it should not be impossible to find a good place to being or continue your search for truth in these matters.