The Last Superstition: A Grab-Bag of Objections
Chapter 5: Universal acid
Here Feser continues his earlier theme, listing more alleged problems caused by modernism. This is a grab-bag of philosophical problems, and while a lot of them are interesting in and of themselves, for the most part they have little or nothing to do with atheism — New or otherwise — and seem to be included here primarily so that Feser throw up his hands, declare these problems insoluble, and run back to aristotelianism. So I’ll be skipping a lot.
The problem of skepticism
In Aristotelianism, when the mind thinks about a thing, that thing’s essence exists in the mind. That is, when you think about a triangle, there’s triangularity in your mind. But if there’s no such matching of like to like (the universal triangularity impressing triangularity on your mind), how, Feser would like to know, can there be knowledge? Without universals, presumably there can be only representations.
I’m not sure I see a problem. This seems to be like asking how NOAA’s National Hurricane Center’s computer models can “be about” hurricanes without wind and rain in the data center.
In Feser’s view, a human being is a composite of soul and body, and a blastocyst is as much of a human being as Desmond Tutu or Terry Schiavo. But if we don’t start with these premises, then we have to figure out what constitutes a person. For instance, does the Star Trek transporter kill a person each time? (That is, it destroys one body and creates an identical one some distance away.) Various non-aristotelian approaches create paradoxes, or gray areas, or conclusions that Feser doesn’t like (e.g., that our lives have as much value as we give them), so they must be wrong.
In aristotelianism, there’s a significant difference between considered, voluntary action and involuntary action; between, say, proposing to your girlfriend after thinking about it for a year, and a hiccup (bold face added):
The formal and final causes of the action – that which gives intelligible structure to the movements – is just the soul considered as a kind of form, and in particular the activities of thinking and willing that are distinctive of the soul’s intellective and volitional powers. The action is free precisely because it has this as its form, rather than having the form, say, of an involuntary muscular spasm. [p. 208]
whereas under materialism,
human behavior differs in degree but not in kind from the behavior of billiard balls and soap suds. [p. 209]
This seems to be a case of mistaking the simplicity of the model for its purpose. That is, a person might say that the mind is ultimately deterministic, and bring up a model of a deterministic system that’s simple enough to be easily understood (billiard balls) by way of illustration. The other person thinks, “minds aren’t simple like billiard balls! This model must be wrong.”
But beyond this, I don’t see that aristotelianism really solves anything: Feser’s summary, above, seems to say that an action (like the decision to marry) is free if it has the Form of a free action. That sounds, well, arbitrary. How can we find out which actions have the Form of free actions? That is, how do we define “free action”? I’m sure there’s an interesting discussion to be had, but it’ll have to do with where to draw the boundary between “free” and “not free”, and I don’t see how casting this in terms of Forms or essences helps.
In Feser’s model, humans are rational animals by virtue of having human DNA, and we’ve all been given the same purposes: to know God, to reproduce, and so on. Thus, we have a right not to have those purposes interfered with.
But if you don’t start with Feser’s model, morality becomes messy and complicated. Not only that, but people come to different conclusions about what is and isn’t moral than they did in centuries past (Feser doesn’t say which, but I’m guessing he means gay rights). So he will have none of it.
Morality in general
This section boils down to, “How can we figure out what’s right and what’s wrong without being able to check our answers in the back of the book?” He throws in the usual conservative arguments about how if morality isn’t objective, then everything is just a matter of personal preference and whim:
Nor does [Hume] really have anything to say to a group of sociopaths – Nazis, communists, jihadists, pro-choice activists, or whomever – who seek to remake society in their image, by social or genetic engineering, say. [p. 213]
I like to point out that while the statement “life is better than death” is subjective — and you can find people who would disagree with it — the statement “the vast majority of people would rather live than die” is objective. And if we’re trying to come up with a set of rules that allow us to get along as best we can, then “don’t kill people” is a good one, since it’ll line up with their desires 99.999+% of the time, and they in turn won’t try to kill you back, which almost certainly lines up with your own desires.
Yes, a lot of the details, and even many of the broad strokes, are messy and uncertain. But I think we can all see a difference between, say, life under the British Parliament and life under the Taliban.
Well, maybe not all of us:
This attitude [acceptance of the “social contract” — arensb] has largely prevailed, though by no means completely, which is why modern Western civilization is only largely a stinking cesspool, and not yet entirely one. Give the Humeans and contractarians time though. [p. 215]
Thank you for that ray of sunshine.