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The Last Superstition: Pie in the Sky When You Die

Chapter 4: Heaven and whatnot

Continuing his exploration of “natural law”, Feser “reminds” us that

First of all, since knowing God is our highest end, our moral duties include, first and foremost, religious duties: duties to pursue knowledge of God, to honor Him as our Creator and the giver of the moral law, to teach our children to do the same, and so forth.

This is another of Feser’s non sequiturs: even if we accept that humans are supposed to know God, how does it follow that we’re supposed to worship it? The goal of nuclear physics is to thoroughly know the atom. Does that mean that physicists shoud worship it? Do literary scholars worship Shakespeare and Cervantes, and teach their children to do likewise? Feser hasn’t even demonstrated that God is intelligent, let alone that it wants or deserves honor or worship.

He then tells us that if you don’t think there’s an afterlife,

This life, in both its good and bad aspects, takes on an exaggerated importance. Worldly pleasures and projects become overvalued. Difficult moral obligations, which seem bearable in light of the prospect of an eternal reward, come to seem impossible to live up to when our horizons are this-worldly. Harms and injustices suffered in this life, patiently endured when one sees beyond it to the next life, suddenly become unendurable. This is one reason secularists are often totally obsessed with politics and prone to utopian fantasies. They do not see any hope for a world beyond this one

This fits well, I believe, with one of Karl Marx’s more famous quotations:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

But I think Greta Christina put it better than I could in “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?”:

If people believe they’ll be rewarded with infinite bliss in the afterlife — and there’s no way to prove whether or not that’s true — people will let themselves be martyrs to their faith, to an appalling degree. More commonly, if people believe in infinite bliss in the afterlife, they’ll be more willing to accept an appalling degree of oppression and injustice in this life. From anybody.

Oddly, this is often framed as a plus. “Religion gives people hope in hardship.” It gets presented as a feature, not a bug. But I fail to see how encouraging oppressed people to suck it up until they get pie in the sky is a good thing. (For the oppressed, anyway. Why it’s good for the oppressors is crystal clear.)

[Chapter 3, “Succumbing to political oppression”]

It’s also worth noting that Feser mentions “an eternal reward”, but nowhere has he attempted to justify this. He has argued that some ill-defined thing he calls a “soul” survives people’s death (perhaps in the same way that “triangularity” persists after you’ve erased an individual triangle), but nowhere does he argue that souls are conscious, or that the afterlife can be pleasant or unpleasant, or that this is in any way connected to a person’s actions in life. In other words, the word “reward” here slips in an awful lot of presuppositions through the back door, with no justification. This seems to be part of Feser’s modus operandi: start by making and defending a weak claim (e.g., there is something worth calling “soul” that persists after a person dies), digress for a few pages or chapters, then claim that he has successfully demonstrated a much stronger claim (souls are conscious and enjoy eternal bliss or suffering).

Series: The Last Superstition

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The Last Superstition: No Kinky Sex!

Chapter 4: Natural law

We now get to the section on “natural law” morality, which Feser begins by telling us that New Atheists and secularists hate “traditional morality”, by which he means homophobia, and insinuates that Richard Dawkins is, if not a pedophile, then at least an apologist for pedophilia.

He starts by going back to final causes, applied to organs: eyes are for seeing. And it’s not wrong to wear glasses, if you need them, because they help you to see, and seeing is what eyes are for.

He tries to preempt the “being gay is natural, and has a genetic component” argument by comparing homosexuality to having a clubfoot or a predisposition to alcoholism: harmful genetic defects that impart no blame to the victim, but also conditions that we are expected not to wish for:

Even amid the depravity of modern civilization, most people realize that the life of an alcoholic is simply not a good thing, even if the alcoholic himself thinks it is and even if he “doesn’t hurt anybody else.” We know in our bones that there is something ignoble and unfitting about it. […] We all know in our bones that someone obsessed with masturbating to pictures of naked toddlers is sick, and not living the way a human being ought to live [p. 134]

If you’ve spent any time discussing gay rights, you know how this dance goes: pedophiles are icky and bad, zoophiliacs are icky and bad, necrophiliacs are icky and bad. So what about gay people? Well, homosexuality is defined by buttsex, which is icky and thus, by induction, bad. To which the obvious rejoinder is that if you don’t like buttsex, don’t engage in it.

Feser tackles this argument thusly:

Now I realize, of course, that many readers will acknowledge that we do in fact have these reactions, but would nevertheless write them off as mere reactions. “Our tendency to find something personally disgusting,” they will sniff, “doesn’t show that there is anything objectively wrong with it.” This is the sort of stupidity-masquerading-as-insight that absolutely pervades modern intellectual life, and it has the same source as so many other contemporary intellectual pathologies: the abandonment of the classical realism of the great Greek and Scholastic philosophers, and especially of Aristotle’s doctrine of the four causes. [p. 135]

In other words, homosexuality and any other icky sex is immoral because of the ick factor, and the ick factor is a reliable guide to morality because Aristotle, even if you fools are too foolish to recognize his brilliance.

Feser then explains, at length, that living beings have an essence, and conforming to this essence helps them to live in a way that promotes health and well-being. Sex was designed for reproduction, and “Mother Nature very obviously wants us to have babies, and lots of them [p. 142]”, and it’s immoral to choose to go against what nature wants.

Now if there really are Aristotelian natures, essences, final causes, etc., then the lesson of all this for sexual morality should be obvious. Since the final cause of human sexual capacities is procreation, what is good for human beings in the use of those capacities is to use them only in a way consistent with this final cause or purpose. This is a necessary truth; for the good for us is defined by our nature and the final causes of its various elements. It cannot possibly be good for us to use them in any other way, whether an individual person thinks it is or not, any more than it can possibly be good for an alcoholic to indulge his taste for excessive drink or the mutant squirrel of our earlier example to indulge his taste for Colgate toothpaste.

This comes across as a variation on the naturalistic fallacy (which, it amuses me to note, is often used by crunchy-granola hippie types whom Feser would, I’m sure, abhor), combined with condescension, with Feser in the role of the parent telling his child, “No, you can’t eat the entire bag of cookies. You may not realize it, but it’s bad for you. Trust me.”

Unfortunately, he fails to explain why the sorts of sex acts he doesn’t like are bad for you. He just says that they’re not in line with what nature intended. He also repeats his earlier mistake, of thinking that there are only two possibilities: either everything has an Aristotelian final cause, or nothing does.

But lest you think that he’s simply a prude who doesn’t want anyone having fun in bed, he magnanimously concedes that there’s more to sex than merely delivering sperm to a vagina;

All sorts of lovemaking might precede this. It does mean, though, that every sexual act has as its natural culmination [dare I say “climax”? — arensb], its proximate final cause, ejaculation into the vagina, and that the man and woman involved in such an act cannot act in a way to prevent this result, nor act to prevent the overall process from having conception as an outcome, whether or not that outcome is what they have in mind in performing the act, and whether or not that outcome would be likely to occur anyway even in the absence of their interference. It also means, partly for reasons evident from the foregoing, that they may indulge in this act, in a way that is consistent with its procreative final cause or natural end (understood in the broad sense of not only generating children but also rearing them, with the need for stability that that entails), only if they are married to one another.


In other words, blowjobs are immoral. Hand jobs are immoral. Frottage is immoral. Hell, go to your favorite porn site, click on “categories”, and cross out everything except “creampie”.

Feser’s moral code is remarkable in that it seems to take little or no account of what a person wants; it places a fairly low value on personal freedom. You shouldn’t use your sex organs just for fun because someone else designed them for reproduction:

Nature has set for us certain ends, and the natural law enjoins on us the pursuit of those end. [p. 147]

It’s also remarkable how many hoops he’s willing to jump through to justify doing the things he likes, while condemning the things he doesn’t like: on one hand, he considers slavery to be immoral, as we all do. But Aristotle, on whose ideas he basis his moral system, endorsed “natural slavery”. He gerrymanders his way out of this dilemma the same way that so many apologists do, by saying that slavery as endorsed by Aristotle (or Old Testament Hebrews, in the case of other apologists) was very different from that practiced in the antebellum south. In other words, it’s not intrinsically wrong to own another human being as property; it’s just that Americans did it wrong. (See p. 147 and endnote 9.) Ditto polygamy, which permeates the Bible, on p. 151.

If the penis is meant for ejaculation, and you’re only supposed to use organs for their intended use, then that would make peeing immoral. He gets around this by saying that the penis is designed for both ejaculation and urination, and that it’s only immoral to act against one of these functions (for instance, I’m guessing, by having a vasectomy). But then, that would imply that it’s not immoral to, say, have oral, non-procreative sex with your partner, as long as you retain the ability to have procreative sex at some other time. (I’m guessing that similar reasoning allows him to use his ears and nose to hold up his glasses without having to say penance.)

It’s also not immoral, he tells us (p. 148) for a sterile couple to marry, as long as their sex always ends with semen in a vagina. And no kinky stuff!

Finally, we get to his opinion on gay marriage:

The $64 question in recent years, of course, is: “Does natural law theory entail that homosexuals can’t marry?” […] they can marry someone of the opposite sex. What they can’t do is marry each other, no more than a heterosexual could marry someone of the same sex, and no more than a person could “marry” a goldfish, or a can of motor oil, or his own left foot. For the metaphysics underlying natural law theory entails that marriage is, not by human definition, but as an objective metaphysical fact determined by its final cause, inherently procreative, and thus inherently heterosexual. There is no such thing as “same-sex marriage” any more than there are round squares. Indeed, there is really no such thing as “sex” outside the context of sexual intercourse between a man and woman. Sodomy (whether homosexual or heterosexual) no more counts as “sex” than puking up a Quarter Pounder counts as eating; […] For if “same-sex marriage” is not contrary to nature, than [sic] nothing is; [p. 149]

In other words, reproduction involves sex, so Feser decrees that nothing you do with your genitals aside from trying to conceive counts as sex, and further defines marriage as being for sex. And this definition must on no account be changed! In short, Feser has come up with a rationale to pretend that his prejudices and opinions are objective facts.

There’s a bright side to the above: if nothing other than semen-in-vagina counts as sex, and if pornography is a depiction of sex acts, then nothing outside of the aforementioned “Creampie” category counts as sex, and whatever you masturbate to ouside of that category isn’t pornography.

Series: The Last Superstition

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The Last Superstition: Black and White Morality

Chapter 4: Reference: My ass, personal communication

For the most part, Feser’s opinions are private, harmless affairs: whether he thinks that all things have final causes, or only some; or whether he thinks things have “essences” “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”, as a famous person once said. But then he uses these opinions to advocate policies that cause unnecessary suffering:

Again, the soul is just the form of the human organism, so it is necessarily there as long as the living organism is. Hence it “leaves” only when the organism dies; and that means death, not severe brain damage, and not a person’s lapsing into a “persistent vegetative state.” […] abortion necessarily counts as murder at any point from conception onward, and whatever the circumstances of the conception, including rape and incest […] if you do agree that every innocent human being has a right to life, then you cannot consistently fail to take a “pro-life” position and thus favor outlawing all abortions (and all forms of euthanasia too) just as you’d favor outlawing any other form of murder. [p. 130]

The reason he mentions “persistent vegetative state” is Terry Schiavo, whom he mentions several times in the book. He argues that both she and a fertilized egg have “rational souls”: neither one is rational in the sense of being able to think or speak, but both have the potential to do so: ova by developing into adult humans, and Terry Schiavo by, presumably, recuperating.

This, of course, makes a mockery of the word “potential”: Schiavo had massive brain damage, and couldn’t possibly have recuperated without the sort of miracle that, elsewhere (p. 128, if you’re curious), Feser rules out in considerations of what “potential” means.

So in practice, when Feser says that X has a “rational soul”, this means little more than “X has human DNA”. And to the extent that he does this, he weakens the argument that the presence of a rational soul, by itself, makes it immoral to kill a being. Is it really murder to terminate an ectopic pregnancy? Or to help someone suffering an incurable disease to end their suffering?

We can all agree that it’s wrong to kill people. We all want to enjoy life, and to have more of it; and by the same logic, we can see that everyone else does, and we’ll all be happier if we don’t go around killing each other, and stop people from killing others. But as we consider cases further and further away from this simple, ordinary case, we can run into cases where the assumptions that led to the initial conclusion no longer hold, and thus the conclusion may no longer be the same. But it looks as though Feser wants a world of black and white morality.

Well, it’s nice that he wants that. And people in Hell want ice water, as a friend of mine used to say.

Series: The Last Superstition

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The Last Superstition: Software Is Immaterial

Chapter 4: Minds Are Not Material

In order to prove that human souls are immortal, Feser has to prove that there’s some part of a person that survives death, and the destruction of the body. If there’s a part of a human left behind when you remove the matter, that part must presumably be immaterial, and independent of the body (and in particular of the brain). Let’s watch how he does this:

Consider first that when we grasp the nature, essence, or form of a thing, it is necessarily one and the same form, nature, or essence that exists both in the thing and in the intellect. The form of triangularity that exists in our minds when we think about triangles is the same form that exists in actual triangles themselves; the form of “dogness” that exists in our minds when we think about dogs is the same form that exists in actual dogs; and so forth. If this weren’t the case, then we just wouldn’t really be thinking about triangles, dogs, and the like, since to think about these things requires grasping what they are, and what they are is determined by their essence or form. But now suppose that the intellect is a material thing – some part of the brain, or whatever. Then for the form to exist in the intellect is for the form to exist in a certain material thing. But for a form to exist in a material thing is just for that material thing to be the kind of thing the form is a form of; for example, for the form of “dogness” to exist in a certain parcel of matter is just for that parcel of matter to be a dog. And in that case, if your intellect was just the same thing as some part of your brain, it follows that that part of your brain would become a dog whenever you thought about dogs. “But that’s absurd!” you say. Of course it is; that’s the point. Assuming that the intellect is material leads to such absurdity; hence the intellect is not material. [p. 124]

Notice what he’s saying here: to make a triangle, you arrange matter in the shape of a triangle; to make a dog, you arrange atoms in a certain way, in the Form of a dog.

And, he tells us, in order to think about triangles, something in our cognitive process has to become like a triangle; to think about dogs, something has to become dog-like (including being dog-shaped). But since there’s no part of the brain (or, indeed, any other material part of the human body) that becomes triangular when we think of triangles, something else must be responsible for that aspect of cognition; something immaterial.

The most polite thing I can say here is “wow”. Clearly this is someone who doesn’t know the first thing about how software works, on the most basic level. I don’t expect Feser to be a programmer, but surely he realizes that the National Hurricane Center computers that simulate hurricanes don’t actually create rain and wind in the data center. That when you play World of Warcraft, there aren’t actually orcs running around somewhere.

(This reminds me of a post by Gil Dodgen at Uncommon Descent, about how a computer simulation of evolution would have to include random changes to the processor, OS, and so on. (My original response to that post here.))

Even if we granted Feser’s reasoning, above, it would only get him as far as “there’s more than just the brain; understanding the brain doesn’t mean that you understand the mind.” But he goes farther than that, telling us that “there is the fact that even though the intellect itself operates without any bodily organ” (p. 127).

If the soul can, unlike the form of a table, function apart from the matter it informs (as it does in thought), then it can also, and again unlike the form of a table, exist apart from the matter it informs, as a kind of incomplete substance. [p. 127]

Again, wow. This is like saying that since software is not hardware, it can run without any hardware. Or that since music comes down to vibrations, and since CDs don’t vibrate, that CDs aren’t involved in playing music. You wouldn’t expect to see tiny pictures if you look at a DVD through a microscope, or hear dialog if you listen to it closely enough, and yet this is the sort of mindset that Feser seems to be seriously considering, as far as I can tell.

I can understand Aristotle and Aquinas making these sorts of mistakes: they lived at a time when people didn’t really distinguish between a book, and the words in the book. So it’s natural that, in groping around for these concepts, that they would make some mistakes. But Feser doesn’t have this excuse. Not only do we distinguish between book-as-words and book-as-object, we can put a price tag on this difference: as I speak, the hardback edition of The Last Superstition sells for $18.85 at Amazon, while the Kindle ebook costs $7.36 less.

There’s a bit in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where two philosophers object to the use of a computer to figure out the Great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. One of them says, “I mean what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?” I feel we’re at that point with the “whatever it is that is the thing but isn’t matter”: Plato called it Form, Aristotle and Aquinas called it essence. We call it data, information, software, and we use it every day.

We understand software. Feser has no excuse for promulgating the sort of primitive thinking above.

Helpfully, Feser tells us why he doesn’t notice when his train of thought jumps the rails and plows across a field before getting stuck in a ditch:

Here, as elsewhere, the arguments we are considering are attempts at what I have been calling metaphysical demonstration, not probabilistic empirical theorizing. In each case, the premises are obviously true, the conclusion follows necessarily, and thus the conclusion is obviously true as well. That, at any rate, is what the arguments claim. If you’re going to refute them, then you need to show either that the premises are false or that the conclusion doesn’t really follow. […] The “findings of neuroscience” couldn’t refute these arguments any more than they could refute “2 + 2 = 4.” [pp. 125–126]

That is, Feser is so convinced that his premises are true, and that his reasoning is correct, that he doesn’t even bother with reality checks, though he does bring up science when it suits him:

When does the rational soul’s presence in the body begin? At conception. For a soul is just the form – the essence, nature, structure, organizational pattern – of a living thing, an organism. And the human organism, as we know from modern biology, begins at conception. [p. 128]

Not that he bothers citing any biologist to confirm this statement. Maybe this is one of those “obviously true” premises that he doesn’t feel the need to defend.

Far from any of this being undermined by modern science, it is confirmed by it. For the nature and structure of DNA is exactly the sort of thing we should expect to exist given an Aristotelian metaphysical conception of the world, and not at all what we would expect if materialism were true.

Oh, really? Then I’d love to see the book where Aquinas predicts the existence of a double-helix with “backbones” made of coal and phosphorus, scooping those atheist materialists, Francis Crick and James Watson, by centuries. Unless, of course, he’s just doing the same thing that every other apologist does: wait until scientists do the hard work of discovering something, then say, “Pfft! My god could’ve done that. In fact, he did, if you squint at this scripture just right.”

Naah, it’s definitely medieval prescience.

Series: The Last Superstition

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The Last Superstition: Animal Souls

Chapter 4: Scholastic Aptitude

Having introduced his main themes in chapters 1-3, Feser now elaborates upon them, starting with

The Soul

a soul is just the form or essence of a living thing. [p. 121]

And the form or essence, you’ll recall, is the whatever-it-is that makes a thing the sort of thing that it is. For triangles, the essence is triangularity (i.e., being a three-sided polygon).

One might think, then, that the soul of a human would be whatever it means to be human. Humanity or humanness, that is. But from context, that doesn’t seem right: humanness is something shared by all people, while the soul has traditionally been an individual thing. That is, while Martha Washington and Nelson Mandela have the same essence of humanness, they have distinct souls.

He goes on to classify souls into a hierarchy: at the bottom are “nutritive souls”, which plants have, and allow them to take in nutrients and reproduce. Above that is the “sensory soul”, which does everything a nutritive soul does, plus sense the world around, and move. Nonhuman animals have sensory souls. And finally, there are “rational souls” — human souls — which have everything that sensory souls have, plus the capacity for abstract thought.

Clearly, this classification is based far more in medieval preconceptions than in modern biology. For one thing, the venus flytrap seems to have a sensory soul, since it clearly senses its environment. For another, there’s no mention of bacteria, which can fit in either category as well. (I’ll grant that, almost certainly, only animals can fit into the “rational” category.)

But the distinction between nutritive and sensory souls isn’t nearly as important as that between sensory and rational souls, since the point is to discuss the mind, and certain things that follow from that, like morality. And here is where Feser really ought to have done himself a favor and looked into current research on animal intelligence.

A quick Google search turned up this Scientific American article about, well, abstract reasoning in animals. I wasn’t surprised that apes exhibit abstract reasoning (the experiment was, roughly, to see whether orangutans and a gorilla could answer the question, “Here’s a picture; here’s another picture; is it the same kind of animal as the first picture?”), but I was surprised that dogs can exhibit abstract reasoning as well, being able to distinguish dogs from non-dogs by sight. Crows can this as well, distinguishing “this is a set of similar things” from “this is a set of dissimilar things”.

More recently, an experiment seems to have shown that apes have theory of mind. That is, gorillas and other apes can figure out what another individual believes, even when that belief is false.

Feser will, I am sure, reply that this isn’t the sort of high-level abstract reasoning that defines a rational soul, and put forth further criteria, but that’s exactly my point: the line between humans and other species isn’t nearly as wide as it might appear; certainly not as wide as Aristotle and Aquinas probably thought. And, of course, our ancestors evolved from clearly-non-rational animals to clearly-rational humans.

Do gorillas or orangutans have rational souls, if at least some of them can, at least on occasion, reason abstractly? It certainly seems to be one of their potentialities, as I understand Feser’s use of the term elsewhere.

More about rationality (emphasis and comments added):

Rationality – the ability to grasp forms or essences and to reason on the basis of them – has as its natural end or final cause the attainment of truth, of understanding the world around us. [Says who? I would have said this is the natural end of curiosity, not of rationality. — arensb] And free will has as its natural end or final cause the choice of those actions that best accord with the truth as it is discovered by reason, and in particular in accord with the truth about a human being’s own nature or essence. [What does this even mean? — arensb] 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. [Who decides which ends are natural? — arensb] But the intellect’s capacity to know the truth is more fully realized the deeper one’s understanding of the nature of the world and the causes underlying it. And the deepest truth about the world, as we have seen, is that it is caused and sustained in being by God. The highest fulfillment of the distinctively human power of intellect, then, is, for Aristotle and Aquinas, to know God. And since the will’s natural end or purpose is to choose in accordance with the furtherance of those ends entailed by human nature, the highest fulfillment of free choice is to live in a way that facilitates the knowing of God. [p. 122]

The description of free will, here, is not one that I’ve ever seen. The core of free will, as I’ve usually heard it, is the ability to make decisions without external influence; what Feser is describing sounds more like “figuring out what’s true, the better to attain a desired goal”. The two concepts are related, but different.

The definition of morality also looks weird. Feser seems to be saying that morality involves learning to live in accordance with human nature. But as I think any parent will tell you, children need to be taught not to steal, or hit their siblings and playmates. And thus, contra Feser, morality seems to be about learning to overcome the less-desirable aspects of human nature, that we might live together with minimal friction.

I pointed out earlier some of what I saw as quite shoddy reasoning on Feser’s part, and why I didn’t find his arguments for God convincing. And given that, as he tells us, Aristotelianism/Thomism has been abandoned by modern scholar, neither do a lot of other people. And thus at a minimum, Feser ought to use his rationality to come up with a better way of getting at the truth, either a better argument for God or an admission that the ones he’s using aren’t all that good.

All in all, though, this paragraph exhibits, in spades, the sort of thinking that gives theology a bad name: redefining common terms in unfamiliar ways, and making questionable-at-best leaps of logic from one clause to the next, to arrive at one’s desired conclusion.

Series: The Last Superstition

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The Last Superstition: The First Cause

Chapter 3: The First Cause

If you thought Feser’s “Unmoved mover” argument was just mental masturbation, the sort of sophistry that gives philosophy a bad reputation and evokes the image of a tweed-wearing ivory tower professor using five-dollar words to ask meaningless questions, then you can skip his First Cause section, because it’s more of the same.

He begins by asking,

In order for the universe to undergo change, it obviously must exist. In particular, it must persist in existence from moment to moment. So why does it do so? [p. 109]

In the previous section, we saw that Aquinas assumed, as so many did, that objects in motion stop of their own accord, and need something to keep them going; and that Newton showed that that’s not a general rule, it’s just the way things usually play out on Earth.

Feser’s question here seems to stem from the same source: that there has to be some sustaining force for the universe to not collapse on itself and disappear in an instant. It seems that “things are the way they were a moment ago” isn’t the sort of thing that needs an explanation. If the universe did disappear, that would be a big change, something that required an explanation.

But Feser prefers to go on for a few pages about essences and “creating cause[s]”. I’ll spare you. The main question is, if B caused A, and C caused B, what happens as you go up the chain of causes?

No, the only thing that could possibly stop the regress and explain the entire series would be a being who is, unlike the things that make up the universe, not a compound of essence and existence. That is to say, it would have to be a being whose essence just is existence; or, more precisely, a being to whom the essence/existence distinction doesn’t apply at all, who is pure existence, pure being, full stop: not a being, strictly speaking, but Being Itself. [p. 108]

I’m not sure why the above is a better ultimate explanation than “it’s just that way” (I mean better in the sense of helping us understand the world around us, not in the sense of being emotionally satisfying.)

You might wonder why, if the cause of the universe is, ultimately, existence, why we need a separate word, especially one with as much baggage as the word “God”. In the next paragraph, he tells us: the first cause is the prime mover, and “Hence, equally obviously, the First Cause is God. [p. 108]”

The Supreme Intelligence

True to form, Feser starts and ends this section with several pages of complaining about New Atheists and others. When he finally gets around to making his argument, he starts by raising the question of why the universe exhibits any regularities:

But there is no way to make sense of these regularities apart from the notion of final causation, of things being directed toward an end or goal. For it is not just the case that a struck match regularly generates fire, heat, and the like; it regularly generates fire and heat specifically, rather than ice, or the smell of lilacs, or the sound of a trumpet. It is not just the case that the moon regularly orbits the earth in a regular pattern; it orbits the earth specifically, rather than quickly swinging out to Mars and back now and again, or stopping dead for five minutes here and there, or dipping down toward the earth occasionally and then quickly popping back up. [p. 114]

This seems equivalent to asking, “why is it, in the general case, that things left to their own devices act in certain ways but not others?”

He continues:

And so on for all the innumerable regularities that fill the universe at any moment. In each case, the causes don’t simply happen to result in certain effects, but are evidently and inherently directed toward certain specific effects as toward a “goal.” [p. 115]

Note the teleology — or, if you will, the question-begging: things behave in a certain way, so that must be their end-aim, purpose, or “goal”. But you can’t have a purpose without someone deciding what the purpose is:

Yet it is impossible for anything to be directed toward an end unless that end exists in an intellect which directs the thing in question toward it. [p. 115]

I believe this is known as painting a target around the arrow: the moon orbits the earth, therefore its purpose is to orbit the earth. But since you can’t have a purpose without a mind, someone must have set it up that way.

Could such a Supreme Intelligence possibly be anything less than God? It could not. For whatever ultimately orders things to their ends must also be the ultimate cause of those things [p. 117]

By this logic, the architect who decided to assemble bricks into a house — that the house is the end goal and purpose of the bricks — is also the person who baked the bricks. It seems apparent that Feser is not interested in following evidence and logic wherever they lead, but rather in finding paths to his favorite conclusion. That is, apologetics.

Series: The Last Superstition

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The Last Superstition: The Unmoved Mover

Chapter 3: The Existence of God: The Unmoved Mover

First of all, “movement” in this context really means change of any kind, not necessarily motion through space. Yes, I know this is annoying and confusing.

Feser introduces two kinds of causes: accidentally ordered and essentially ordered. (Here, “accidentally” doesn’t mean “by misfortune”, and “essentially” doesn’t mean “more or less”; they’re terms of art.) A father causes a son, but if the father dies, the son can keep going; so the father and son are “accidentally ordered”. But if your hand pushes a stick that in turn pushes a stone along the ground, the stone will stop moving when the stick stops pushing on it, and the stick will stop moving when the hand stops pushing it; so the hand, stick, and stone are “essentially ordered”. You can have an arbitrarily deep essentially ordered stack of things that depend on each other, each one depending on the previous item on the list:

These sorts of series paradigmatically trace, not backwards in time, but rather “downward” in the present moment, since they are series in which each member depends simultaneously on other members which simultaneously depend in turn on yet others, on so on. In this sort of series, the later members have no independent causal power of their own, being mere instruments of a first member. Hence if there were no first member, such a series would not exist at all. [p. 93]

The emphasis on “simultaneously” is Feser’s, and at first I thought he was using the word in some technical sense that doesn’t mean “in the same instant of time”, rather the same way that “accidentally” doesn’t mean “by accident”, above. But no, apparently he does[1], and that’s a problem.

Aquinas and his predecessors couldn’t have known this, of course, but nothing is instantaneous. The stick in the example acts more like a very fast spring: when the hand pushes on it, it compresses the top end of the stick a little bit; this causes a wave to travel very quickly down the length of the stick and push on the rock, so really the rock starts moving a tiny fraction of a second after the hand starts pushing on it (and likewise when the hand stops pushing).

And even if Feser didn’t know this, surely he has a driver’s license, which means he must have taken a test that required him to know about braking distance, which is a problem because it takes time for a nerve impulse to travel down from the brain to the driver’s hands and feet. So the rock will stop moving a larger fraction of a second after the person holding the stick decides to stop pushing.

Or consider a mountain stream that’s fed by a glacier, which in turn is built up by regular snowfall. If the weather patterns change and snow stops falling, the glacier will melt and the stream will stop flowing… eventually. A century might elapse between the cause stopping, and the effect stopping.

So simultaneity doesn’t work, here (and I’m not even bringing up relativity and the fact that two observers might not agree on whether two events are simultaneous). But perhaps it’s possible to salvage this idea: the big distinction seems to be between effects that get kickstarted by their cause, and ones that are sustained by their cause. So let’s go with that. More on this in a bit.

Another problem with the stick example is that the stone doesn’t stop simply because the hand stops pushing it: as Newton explained, four hundred years after Aquinas, a body in motion continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an outside force. The outside force, in this case, being friction with he ground. It must be remembered that Newton’s first law was quite counterintuitive and revolutionary for its time, so we can forgive Aquinas for not counting the earth as an important actor in this example, but Feser ought to know better.

At any rate, we were talking about essentially-ordered series, where each element is sustained by the previous one.

How far can it go? Not that far, actually; certainly not to infinity. [p. 95]

Okay, why not? Feser doesn’t say. He uses the example of an infinitely-long train, where car 1 pulls the caboose, car 2 pulls car 1, car 3 pulls car 2, and so on, but there’s no engine at the head of the train.

Well, yes. Infinities are counterintuitive (see this short video about the Hilbert Hotel, which has an infinite number of rooms). And the idea of an inifinitely-long causal chain is unsettling (at least, I find it unsettling), but I see no reason a priori why there can’t be an infinitely-long causal chain.

Worse yet, since time does weird things at huge relativistic scales, and at tiny quantum scales, I can’t rule out the possibility of a closed loop of causes, where A causes B and B causes A.

But okay, maybe there’s something I’m overlooking. Where’s Feser going with this?

Now, a first mover in such a series must be itself unmoved or unchanging; for if it was moving or changing – that is, going from potential to actual – then there would have to be something outside it actualizing its potential, in which case it wouldn’t be the first mover. […] The series can only stop, that is to say, with a being that is pure actuality (or “Pure Act,” to use the Scholastic phrase), with no admixture of potentiality whatsoever. And having no potentiality to realize or actualize, such a being could not possibly move or change. [pp. 95–96]

[…] Aquinas goes on to say: “. . . and this we call God.” [p. 96]

So that was a long and bumpy road to say that “God” is the first cause.

For some reason, Feser never explores any cause-effect relationship other than chains. We saw above that the rock stopped moving for two reasons: the earth and gravity exerted friction, and the hand and stick were no longer applying sufficient force to overcome this friction. So an effect can have multiple causes, and those causes can in turn have multiple causes, and it’s not always as simple as A causes B causes C. Perhaps there are gazillions of uncaused causes all around us.

And now we see why Feser insisted that essentially-ordered causes and effects be simultaneous: he wants there to be a god now. Just having sustaining causes, as with the glacier and stream, would imply that it’s possible that God started and sustained the universe (like the snow on the glacier), but then disappeared, and the universe will eventually notice and stop running, but hasn’t done so just yet.

Of course, all this makes the unmoved mover sound rather abstract, more like an abstract principle than the sort of anthropomorphic deity who cures cancer when prayed to.

“Well, uh, OK, then,” you might be thinking; “but what does that have to do with God as the average person understands Him?” A lot, actually. For once we have this much in hand, we can go on to deduce all sorts of things about what a being of Pure Actuality would have to be like, and it turns out that such a being would have to be like the God of traditional Western religious belief.

How? Because Courtier’s Reply is how. Aquinas and other theologians have written thousands of pages on the subject — thousands! — therefore it must be so.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair:

Now recall the Aristotelian principle that a cause cannot give what it does not have, so that the cause of a feature must have that feature either “formally” or “eminently”; that is, if it does not have the feature itself (as a cigarette lighter, which causes fire, is not itself on fire), it must have a feature that is higher up in the hierarchy of attributes (as the cigarette lighter has the power to generate fire). But the Unmoved Mover, as the source of all change, is the source of things coming to have the attributes they have. Hence He has these attributes eminently if not formally. That includes every power, so that He is all-powerful. It also includes the intellect and will that human beings possess (features far up in the hierarchy of attributes of created things, as we will see in the next chapter), so that He must be said to have intellect and will, and thus personality, in an analogical sense. Indeed, he must have them in the highest degree, lacking any of the limitations that go along with being a material creature or otherwise having potentiality. Hence He not only has knowledge, but knowledge without limit, being all-knowing. [p. 98]

“And that, my liege, is how we know the Earth to be banana-shaped.”

What a remarkable reversal! At the beginning of the paragraph, Feser tells us that a lighter can cause fire despite not being itself on fire; at the end, he says that God caused intelligence, and therefore must be intelligent. Presumably the explanation is that God’s intelligence is eminent, i.e. God is intelligent in the same way that a car’s cigarette lighter is on fire, which is to say, it isn’t. We now see why Feser defined causation the way he did, using language that suggested that things have attributes inside them that they can release onto other things: he’s defined God to be an abstract principle, something perhaps akin to the Tao, but he also wants this god to have intelligence, benevolence, and so on. He squares this particular circle by playing word games, saying that a cause contains the effect “eminently”, where “eminently” means “doesn’t contain”.

Does this mean that the Unmoved Mover has what we would regard as negative or defective features too – blindness, disease, heroin addiction, etc., “eminently” if not “formally”? Not at all. For every such feature is what the Scholastics called a “privation,” the absence of a positive feature rather than a positive feature in its own right. [p. 99]

I suppose it follows that God does not lack a yeast infection, because that would be a privation. I guess it’s possible that “positive feature” here means “feature that someone wants; an asset”, but that would be begging the question. (Also, I thought addiction was basically poorly-tuned brain chemistry. How does it qualify as a “privation”?)

And while I’m sure the thousands of pages have an answer, it seems to me that the unmoved mover defined above isn’t the Christian God: Feser is quite insistent that the unmoved mover has no potentialities, i.e., it’s static; there’s nothing it can become that it isn’t already; no attribute it might gain that it doesn’t already have.

But Jesus’ life and resurrection is an important part of Christianity, or at least of Feser’s flavor of Christianity, Catholicism. According to the story, Jesus lived and was divine, and then died, at least his human body did. So God wasn’t incarnated, and then was incarnated, and then wasn’t. So incarnation must have been one of Yahweh’s original potentialities, which means that he can’t be the unmoved mover described above.

So maybe Muslims are right after all: Allah has no son.

[1] In a post on the subject, he had to reach into the depths of science fiction to come up with a non-simultaneous example.

Series: The Last Superstition

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The Last Superstition: Who Is This God Person, Anyway?

Chapter 3: The Existence of God

So when people say “God”, what sort of entity are they talking about?

Many secularists seem hell-bent (if you’ll pardon the expression) on pretending that religious people in general believe in a God so anthropomorphic that only a child or the most ignorant peasant could take the question of His existence seriously even for a moment. I know I’ve heard the stupid “Easter Bunny” comparison often enough to make me want to scream [p.87]

I’m afraid Feser needs to come down from the ivory tower more often. He’s making the argument that Daniel Fincke satirized at Camels With Hammers. If no (or only an insignificant minority of) religious people in general think that God is, basically, an old man who watches everyone, then who keeps buying Chick tracts and leaving them in public places? Who keeps handing me flyers with titles like “Heaven is real and hell is real”?

Feser prefers sneering over hard data, but there is data out there. This Gallup poll from June 2016, for example, tells us that 72% of Americans believe in angels, 71% in heaven, 64% in hell, and 615 in the devil. The Pew research Center’s 2015 Religious Landscape Survey also tells us that 31% of American adults think scripture is the word of God and should be taken literally. Gallup also tells us that around 40% of Americans think that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so”.

As I write this, Mother Teresa of Kolkata was canonized less than a week ago, something that required her to perform two miracles. In this case, two people were allegedly healed of their diseases (at least one while receiving medical care) and the Catholic church’s ruling that these are miracles means that yes, God somehow arranged for the natural course of nature to be suspended so that these people could be healed.

In fairness to Feser, though, I must point out that I wasn’t able to find any surveys on whether or not God has a beard.

But the point is that a lot of people do believe in God as a being who, if not man-shaped, certainly does many things that humans do, like watch over the ones he loves and intervene on their behalf. Feser can dismiss people who believe this as ignorant peasants if he likes, but he can’t claim that they’re an insignificant minority. And if this many people believe in “so anthropomorphic” a God, then Feser’s side has a lot of work to do, educating the people in the pews. And in the meantime, if he wants to say that there’s no man in the sky who’ll help you find a parking space if you pray to him, well, welcome to this side of the debate.

(Credit for the title goes to Douglas Adams.)

Series: The Last Superstition

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The Last Superstition: Reasoning With Aquinas

Chapter 3: Aquinas’s logical reasoning

Eventually, Feser settles down to tell us a bit about Aquinas. In particular, his method of reasoning:

What Aquinas is doing can be understood by comparison with the sort of reasoning familiar from geometry and mathematics in general. Take the Pythagorean theorem, for example. Once you understand the axiomatic method, the definition of triangularity, and so forth, and then reason through a particular proof of the theorem, you can see that the theorem must be true, and necessarily so. It is not a “hypothesis” “postulated” to “explain” certain “evidence,” and it is not merely “probable.” [p.81]

Metaphysical arguments of the sort Aquinas is interested in combine elements of both these other forms of reasoning: they take obvious, though empirical, starting points, and try to show that from these starting points, together with certain conceptual premises, certain metaphysical conclusions follow necessarily. [p.83]

In other words, Aquinas is trying to prove God the way you’d prove a mathematical theorem, through logic and reason, and most emphatically not through observation. You could sum this up as “it stands to reason”.

There are a few problems with this approach: while mathematics is undeniably useful, it also describes a lot of things that don’t actually exist. For instance, Wikipedia defines a Hilbert space as a generalization of Euclidean space, one that can have thousands, or even an infinite number of dimensions, instead of our paltry three or four or twenty-some.

More trivially, mathematics tells us that if you put six quadrillion apples into a basket, and add another eight quadrillion apples, you’ll have fourteen quadrillion apples in your basket. This is obviously false because there aren’t that many apples on the planet, and no basket that can hold them all. In this case, the math describes a world with fourteen quadrillion apples, which is not the world we live in.

The point of this isn’t that mathematics is broken, but rather that it’s important to make sure that you’ve picked the sort of mathematics that describes the world you’re living in, and specifically the problem you’re studying. Don’t go beyond its area of applicability: Euclidean geometry might work on the scale of a town, but not that of a continent, where you have to take the earth’s curvature into account, lest you get wrong answers.

Furthermore, the longer a demonstration goes on, the greater the odds that it’ll contain some error in reasoning, perhaps a subtle one. When Andrew Wiles presented his proof of Fermat’s last theorem, several reviewers went over it looking for errors (and found some). That’s why, when you’re drawing conclusions about the real world, it’s important to have a reality check from time to time to make sure you haven’t gone off the rails. But Feser sees no need for this.

In a criticism of “scientism”, Feser says that science makes certain metaphysical assumptions:

Of its very nature, scientific investigation takes for granted such assumptions as that: there is a physical world existing independently of our minds; this world is characterized by various objective patterns and regularities; our senses are at least partially reliable sources of information about this world; there are objective laws of logic and mathematics that apply to the objective world outside our minds; our cognitive powers – of concept-formation, reasoning from premises to a conclusion, and so forth – afford us a grasp of these laws and can reliably take us from evidence derived from the senses to conclusions about the physical world; the language we use can adequately express truths about these laws and about the external world; and so on and on. [p. 84]

Maybe a scientist or philosopher of science will correct me, but this doesn’t seem quite right:

there is a physical world existing independently of our minds
I think this is a working assumption, one that could be proved wrong.

this world is characterized by various objective patterns and regularities
I’d call this a discovery, not an assumption. Things could conceivably have been otherwise; Greg Egan explores this possibility in his novel Schild’s Ladder in which there is a region of space where there don’t seem to be any consistent laws of physics; every experiment gives inconsistent results. My point is that if such a zone existed, we’d know it. So it seems reasonable to assume regularity, at least until there’s reason to think otherwise.

our senses are at least partially reliable sources of information about this world
there are objective laws of logic and mathematics that apply to the objective world outside our minds
our cognitive powers – of concept-formation, reasoning from premises to a conclusion, and so forth – afford us a grasp of these laws and can reliably take us from evidence derived from the senses to conclusions about the physical world
These all seem to be conclusions, or at worst working assumptions.

the language we use can adequately express truths about these laws and about the external world
But natural languages like English and Greek are often not up to the task of describing reality. That’s why the language of science is math, and why Newton and Leibnitz had to invent calculus. And of course every discipline invents its own jargon, to describe the objects and ideas specific to that discipline, as well as mathematical techniques for those areas.

It’s true that some of these may be basic assumptions, or at least working assumptions. In fact, Feser could just as easily have listed “God is not messing around with my experiment” as a working assumption. But most of them seem at least potentially falsifiable, like in the movie The Matrix, where Neo, the main character, did find out that he was a brain in a vat. I also like this article that uses supernova SN1987A to show that the speed of light was the same 300,000 years ago as it is today, using trigonometry, astronomical observations, and the decay rate of cobalt to cross-check each other.

This cross-checking and verification are things that make science so robust and reliable, and they’re things that I don’t see in Feser’s presentation. And given that he seems to be basing his reasoning on what a medieval monk thought was obvious, I think there’s good reason to be skeptical of his conclusions.

Series: The Last Superstition

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The Last Superstition: Let’s Meet Aquinas

Chapter 3: Getting Medieval

Having laid the groundwork in Chapter 2, Feser now moves on to the star of the show, Thomas Aquinas. He opens the chapter with a story of Aquinas overlooking a woman’s achievements, and instead interrupting her with a comment about her body:

he once came upon “a holy nun who used to be levitated in ecstasy.” His reaction was to comment on how very large her feet were. “This made her come out of her ecstasy in indignation at his rudeness, whereupon he gently advised her to seek greater humility.” [p. 74]

And one about attacking a woman, when his brothers locked him up in the family castle (bold added):

When the brothers upped the ante by sending a prostitute into his room, he famously chased her away with a flaming brand snatched from the fireplace and then used it to draw a cross on the wall, before which he prayed for, and received, the gift of lifelong chastity. [p. 74]

Section What Aquinas didn’t say

Feser starts out by spending five pages berating Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett. This can be skipped.

I should note that Feser berates both Dawkins and Dennett for either mangling or not devoting much space to the classical — i.e., Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s — proofs for God. But he also keeps telling us what a mistake it was for the world of philosophy to abandon these ideas. In other words, he criticizes Dawkins and Dennett for not paying attention to ideas that are not widely embraced even by philosophers and theologians. If he can’t convince his colleagues to accept Thomism, why should the rest of us spend any time on it?

The other thing I’d like to pause on is this quotation on p.79:

The author of a sympathetic recent study of Dennett’s philosophy acknowledges that the “consensus evaluation” of Dennett’s work among his academic peers is that while it is “undeniably creative and important,” it “lacks philosophical depth and is not systematic.” [Tadeusz Zawidzki, Dennett (Onewold Publications, 2007), p. ix]

This quotation comes from the opening paragraph of the preface:

I came to this project with some standard assumptions about Dennett’s work. I have been reading Dennett since deciding to major in philosophy as an undergraduate, and over the years I had come to accept the consensus evaluation of his work: although undeniably creative and important, it supposedly lacks philosophical depth and is not systematic. Consensus has it that Dennett’s approach is diffuse and piecemeal, involving clever discussions of specific problems at the intersection of philosophy and the sciences of human nature, without the backing of an overarching, philosophical system. Many of Dennett’s admirers, skeptical of the excesses of traditional philosophical systems, see this approach as a virtue (Rorty 1993, pp. 191–192; Ross 2000, pp. 16–23). Indeed, Dennett himself often blithely dismisses the importance of philosophical system-building (Ross 2000, p. 13; Dennett 2000, pp. 356, 359).

Writing this book has significantly changed my view of Dennett’s work. If the reader comes away with anything from the following, I want it to be an appreciation of the fact that Dennett’s work constitutes a deeply coherent philosophical system, founded on a few consistently applied principles.

I’ve underlined the parts that Feser quoted, and added bold emphasis.

Feser is doing the same thing that creationists do when they quote Darwin saying that the evolution of the eye seems absurd: taking part of a rhetorical construct and quoting it out of context to make it sound like a flaw.

Since the rebuttal of Feser’s implication is right there in the second paragraph; since he carefully selected this quotation to be technically true (well, some people say that Dennett’s a hack); and since he deliberately selected his quotations to just remove “supposedly”; it’s clear to me that Feser knew exactly what he was doing: selectively quoting Zawidzki to make him say something he doesn’t agree with. So I’m going to call him dishonest.

Series: The Last Superstition