Monday, December 28, 2009

Review of TLS -- Promises kept, promises broken

This is the thirteenth part of my review of Dr. Edward Feser's The Last Superstition, and it will be the last one where I respond to the book directly. You can find parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, and twelve at those links. Having finished looking at the chapters directly, it's time to take stock of the promises made in Chapter 1, which I discussed in part 2 of my review, and see how well they have been kept. Below the fold I go over them one by one, and discuss my impressions after reading the book.

I haven't read or linked to this before, by the way, but the Uncredible Hallq did a review of the The Last Superstition in two parts, the first one on morality, and the second on the metaphysics. As an actual philosophy student, the Uncredible Hallq was able to point out philosophical errors and oversights I had no knowledge of (although that was the point of my response to begin with: is the book convincing on its own terms?).

Secularism is inherently immoral and irrational, only a specific sort of religious view can be moral, rational, and sane. This claim was based on the claims below. Dr. Feser made a decent argument that secularism is inherently amoral, but failed to be convincing that it is immoral or irrational. The specific sort of religious view turned out to have morals that were as arbitrary as any other, and the argumentation used to support it was not any more rational or sane than the arguments it was designed to rebut.

On intellectual grounds, atheism can not be true. All of the offered arguments for the existence of God had very serious flaws, as I detailed in part five.

Secularism can never spring from reason; its true grounding is from a willfulness and desire for it to be true. Dr. Feser proclaimed this many times in his book. He never offered a positive proof for it; this point rests entirely on what Dr. Feser considers to be the undeniability of Aristotle's four causes and the resulting proofs for God's existence. Since causes and proofs themselves were suspect, this point was just an unevidenced claim.

The basic metaphysical assumptions that make atheism possible are mistaken. This rests on the presumed undeniability of formal and final causes. However, Dr. Feser was never quite able to bridge the gap between mere descriptions and properties existing versus actual formal and final causes existing. He did try to cover this over by pretending there was no gap, but the effort was unconvincing.

Secular propaganda is the source of fideism. Dr. Feser's own presentation of history laid fideism at the hands of deeply religious men. If anything, he showed that fideism leads to secularism, not the other way around.

It is as impossible to say nature has no meaning or purpose as it is to square a circle. Again, this relies on his failed attempt to demonstrate the existence of final causes. Also, in Chapter 6 he abandons talk of final causes as purposes, so even he does not believe this can be proven.

Secularism is parasitic on religion for all its important ideas, it is strictly a negation. Dr. Feser only attempted the first claim, from what I can tell, by saying that the Mechanical philosophy adopted a more restricted form of material and efficient causes. I agree with that. The second claim I generally agree with, even though I don't think Dr. Feser's presentation was conclusive. It was at least evidenced.

What is characterized as a war between science and religion is really a war between competing metaphysical systems. This claim is based on the notion that Aristotle’s four causes entail the adoption of a particular moral system. In part eight, I find that claim is unfounded.

The classical metaphysical picture is rationally unavoidable, and thus so is the traditional Western religious view derived from it. As I have noted already, neither clause was proved in this book.

Given atheism and naturalism, there is no persuasive argument that allows you to trust in either reason or morality. By trust in, Dr. Feser refers to being able to reason your way to an objective opinion. I agree with his assessment, but find that Aritotelian/Aquinian philosophical positions offer no better basis; they are equally arbitrary.

The abandonment of Aristotle's metaphysics has led to the abandonment of any rational or moral standards that can be used to justify moral positions, and is responsible for the current civilizational crisis of the West. Since the metaphysics themselves don't lead to moral positions on their own, abandoning them can't lead to different moral moral decisions.

I don't know if anyone has bothered to read the whole series, but this was really an exercise for me. I was hoping to learn enough to see why many people adopt this philosophical framework and to deflect any claims that, if I only knew what they were saying, I could see how right they were. I think I have accomplished both objectives to some degree. I even find some interesting ideas in the notions of actuality and potential, and of the difference between material and efficient causes, that might enrich some of the ways I think about science. However, overall I found the book to be a failure by the standards it set for itself.


Rob said...

I read the whole series. I'm almost as sure Feser has as well.

It seems to me Feser has made two meta-errors.

1. Over reliance and bloated confidence in armchair speculation. He labels his own method "metaphysical demonstration". But we have no reason to think this is a reliable method of understanding reality.

2. Feser admits early on that his "metaphysical demonstrations" proceed from empirical starting points. Unfortunately for him, his starting points are either empirically false, or mere unfalsifiable assertions.

As an example "whatever is moved is moved by another" is the classic starting point for the first mover argument. But that's just empirically false. Of course Feser would claim he's not talking about physical motion but rather some metaphysical concept. But as soon as he makes that move, then he has abandoned his claim that his metaphysical demonstration proceeds from an empirical starting point!

Elsewhere I have seen this species of argument classified as "argumentum ex recto". Seems right.

One Brow said...


Your analysis seems fairly on-track. In general, metaphysical demonstrations are going to be within formal systems, and thus will always suffer from the defect that the argument can never exceed the reliability of the premises.

Of course, humans beings generally love certainty, and I don't ecpect that to change anytime soon.

Thanks for reading the whole series. Hopefully I'll see you around in the future.

Rob said...

I have a question.

At some point in the book, Feser attacks Dawkins for Dawkins' bringing empirical science to bear against some alleged metaphysical argument. Feser accuses Dawkins of philosophic unsophistication because Dawkins does not understand the "type" of argument being made.

Elsewhere in a blog, in the course of making an argument for dualism, Feser writes:

"Whatever one thinks of arguments like this, it is important to understand that (like the other arguments I’ve presented in this series) they are not the sort that might be undermined by the findings of neuroscience, or any other empirical science for that matter."


Do you think this attempt at exempting an argument from empirical refutation is legitimate?

One Brow said...

I have no problem with saying that formal arguments are a completely different type of knowledge from empirical arguments, and you can't refure one with the other. Of course, that also means you can't make emiprical truths from formal arguments, either. Dr. Feser does not consistently apply this standard.

Of course, my opinions on Feser's argument for dualism is that he relies on a negative definition of the mind (a mind-of-the-gaps, as it were), and so his argument is faulty purely on metaphysical grounds.

J said...

While I don't generally agree with Feser, I think there are a few Aristotelian/thomistic chestnuts worth considering, mostly related to the First Cause arguments, though they generally boil down to the one biggy: why is there something (ie reality, the universe) rather than nothing? And that in itself hints at, or encompasses the unmoved mover, change-initiator problem--not sure Hallq got all that.

But I think the first cause arguments are analogies, based mostly on basic mechanics (Ari.'s own efficient cause): ie, who rolled the dice, broke the table, started the winds.....sort of quaint, but the ancients assumed that a chain of ordered events would not only have a beginning (like a break of a pool table), but...some Being who arranged the ordered events themselves. They are not necessary arguments, but more like metaphors. I mean, even planetary motion shows a certain order..things could have been different , chaotic, irregular or no life at all ...

Also, I think some of the Design people (or catholic types) are correct that evolutionary language often makes use of normative criteria: improved, adapted, progressed, developed, etc. That may not be sufficient to show ....monotheism, but does show something like teleology, though perhaps not a final cause. But it's a point the supposedly value-neutral evolutionary biologists overlook (or their allies, like Dennett).

J said...

Of course, that also means you can't make emiprical truths from formal arguments, either. Dr. Feser does not consistently apply this standard.

Yes, but the scholastic sort of empiricism is not the modern sort. Motion, cause, change may be empiricially knowable, but that's all the work of Deus (as is being able to know it). They sneak in necessity--really, I think there's a subtle problem--ie they suggest both necessity AND contingency, don't they?!? I mean, is nature contingent or not?? It would seem the theist must say it is (ie God can change His mind, intervene, cause miracles, at least by definition...). Yet a Feser or cleric also wants to say his precious causality (ie all four of them) is NECESSARY. They get it both ways. Yet how could natural laws be necessary, assuming G*d has the final word (not to say Aquinas' points on contingency)? In effect, they are sort of de fact Humeans in regards to positing the contingent aspect of natural laws.

And of course as a predictive hypothesis, the Aristotelian causality has little force, except as a . I mean you plant grass seed, and you will get grass, ceteris paribus, and not sunflowers. Chickens lay eggs, which usually are chicks, and not snakes. It's Aynnie Rand Tech., not exactly biochemistry.

But I'm not up to counting angels on the heads of pins right now.

AintNoThang said...

Aristotle, he kinda ROCKS, eh!? But he aint no Socrates, know what I'm sayin?

J said...

Sayin'? You don't spew, Thang. Your pop-relativity a bad joke a well.

As an example "whatever is moved is moved by another" is the classic starting point for the first mover argument. But that's just empirically false.

Well, it's not false for billiard balls, or even gravity (which depends on the mass of a planet--tho' the scholastics had not yet reached Newton). It might not apply to say isotopes. But billiard balls will not just start to roll on a normal table (sort of related to inertia, perhaps, ideas of which actually predates Newton). That's the point. Sort of basic kinetics.

That said, I sort of agree with OB the First cause arguments are not really decidable. And the theologians, even when chanting the Big Bang ad nauseum are not astrophysicists.

Kant said much the same. It's like an antinomy, man: one might argue for a infinite series, OR for finite series. So humans should not worry their pretty heads too much.

The substance/form potentiality discussions another issue. In some sense, we do acknowledge substantial-form, even in terms of biological taxonomy:i.e, mammals--warm blooded, vertebrates with fur. Cats beget cats. The ancients considered that a sign of some ordering Being, presumably. Aynnie Rand on the other hand says it proves A = A! QED.

AintNoThang said...

J said: "You don't spew, Thang. Your pop-relativity a bad joke a well."

Pop this, eh, J?

I gotcho spew richeea.

J said...

Go back to your boxcar, basura. Or better, post a real link, so we can locate your bum a** and like put you away.