Examination of Feser's Last Superstition

by Aaron Boyden

Chapter I

I shall skip over the preface, as it contains no arguments.  On that basis, I suppose I should skip the first chapter as well, but that would leave me open to accusations of lack of thoroughness, so I'll say as much as I can about it.

It is not until page 6 that Feser so much as waves his hand in the direction of an argument, when he recounts what he claims was his own voyage of philosophical discovery.  He cites Frege as motivating his Platonism.  This naturally makes me wonder what Feser thinks about Russell's paradox, and more importantly of course Gödel's theorem.  But he never talks about such subjects, nor does he talk about subjects like the axiom of choice or Euclidean vs. non-Euclidean geometries.  It makes it hard for me to take seriously his analogy between mathematical and philosophical knowledge when he seems to have such a poorly developed theory of mathematical knowledge.

He also mentions that Russell influenced him by showing how little we can know of the intrinsic nature of the material world.  Of course, I think Russell was right about this, and in fact that he didn't go far enough.  Feser draws a contrary conclusion, perhaps on the basis that knowledge of intrinsic matters is the only real knowledge or that all knowledge must trace back to knowledge of intrinsic matters.  But he doesn't prove or argue for either of these claims, at least not here.  They have been much discussed in contemporary philosophy, so this is one of the many places where he is wrong to say that what he claims are the really important issues have been ignored by the modern naturalists.

He also describes Richard Swinburne as someone who employs "the most rigorous of modern philosophical methods to the defense of religious belief."  I am skeptical of this as a description of Plantinga (who also gets this praise), but applied to Swinburne, this can only be considered laughable.

Feser claims that to the naturalists, natural selection is a "pseudo-deity."  I suppose it has features in common with how Feser takes God to be, in that it is knowable a priori.  Once you understand natural selection, it is quite obvious that it must happen in any situation where there is a mix of some stability over time and some more or less random change.  Of course, that natural selection is responsible for specific phenomena, e.g. the diversity of life, requires empirical evidence in each case (evidence which is readily available in the case of many biological phenomena).  However, Feser's claim that natural selection could not in any "true or interesting sense" manifest design is unargued.  I suppose it depends rather heavily on what one considers interesting or what qualifies as manifesting design.

The remainder of the first chapter continues to provide no arguments, except a sort of inductive argument based on cases for Feser's theory of what motivates secularists.  Not all (only most) of his theories about this are wrong, though it goes without saying that they are all absurdly caricatured.  The naturalistic world view rejects ultimate authority.  That's what it is to be a naturalist.  Some, perhaps most, naturalists inconsistently treat naturalism itself as an ultimate authority, because people have trouble with the idea that there really is none.  They deserve to be called superstitious, though the fact that naturalism is so purely negative, consisting of little more than the rejection of all ultimate authorities, makes taking it as an ultimate authority a less bad error than most other cases of belief in ultimate authority.

However, contra Feser, there are good reasons to reject ultimate authority.  The concept is incoherent.  This is admitted by some of its defenders (e.g. Kierkegaard, or Heidegger), who insist that we must believe in it despite its incoherence; this is the reason that "faith" has become the popular line among so many defenders of ultimate authority.  Feser, of course, has no patience with this line, and indeed doesn't even bother to mention why he thinks so many on his side seem to welcome putting things in terms of faith.  It might be an enlightening topic for him to investigate.

Feser is obviously right to note that most atheist philosophers do not confront the issue of the existence of his God directly, instead engaging in various smaller detail projects in pursuit of naturalism.  But this is because the absurdity of his God as an ultimate authority is widely recognized, while forms of ultimate authority in narrow areas are less obviously unacceptable and so more controversial.  This is one of the areas where I agree with Feser; I think the reasons for rejecting his God are closely related to reasons for rejecting non-Humean causation, various forms of anti-reductionism, Armstrong-style universals, perfectly natural properties, and many other still popular philosophical speculations.  Still, the connection is not so strong that anyone who rejects God is obviously rationally required to reject all these more moderate views.  Feser naturally wishes to run the inference in the opposite direction, and argue that anyone committed to any of the more moderate views, and most naturalistic philosophers are committed to some of them, are committed to his God; the inference is also not immediate in that direction, as I mentioned in my review of his book on Amazon.

Feser ends his first chapter by asking atheists like myself to consider the possibility that we might be wrong.  I do frequently consider the possibility that I am wrong to reject the God of Plato, Spinoza, and Einstein.  Though as far as I can tell that has little to do with Feser's God, I'm afraid it's the best I can do.

Chapter II

In this chapter, Feser discusses Plato and Aristotle.  He accepts a fairly standard view on which Plato is the crazy metaphysician, and Aristotle tries to take the good parts of Plato's metaphysics and ground them with a healthy mix of common sense.  As I understand it, this is roughly Aristotle's interpretation, and I think it has misleading aspects, but it's at least partly true.  It's also why I like Plato better than Aristotle, which is of course the reverse of Feser's judgment.  The problem with tempering your philosophy with common sense is that it's actually pretty common for common sense to be wrong, and if you make a mistake as a result of faulty common sense, people may fail to notice the mistake for centuries, or even millennia.  On the other hand, if you make a mistake in your wild metaphysical flights of fancy, people are sure to call you on it, as they apparently did with Plato; the progression of the metaphysical theories in the dialogues seems to show that he was presented with a variety of criticisms, and tried to revise his theories in response to them.

But that's all very general; on to specifics.  First, on the progression leading up to Plato, it is perhaps not surprising that Feser bashes the sophists as early examples of liberalism.  Their presentation in Plato's writings is actually much more nuanced than this, and it is not clear that Socrates is well described as "vigorously opposing the sophists" (Aristophanes didn't think so, and Aristophanes was a fairly perceptive guy).  Gorgias comes off pretty badly in the dialogue named for him, but most of the other sophists who actually appear in the dialogues are much more complicated characters.

On to Plato.  Most of what Feser has to say about Plato is fairly orthodox, which is not to say I agree with all of it, but most of my suspicions don't seem very relevant.  Feser classifies Plato as a mathematical Platonist, which is reasonable enough though probably shouldn't just be taken as given.  But Feser gives an odd argument for mathematical Platonism, saying, for example, that "it is not up to us to decide that the angles of a triangle should add up to 38 degrees instead of 180."  I assume that he has heard of non-Euclidean geometries, so I am curious as to exactly what he means when he says this is not up to us.  Why isn't it up to us whether we adopt a Euclidean geometry or a hyperbolic geometry?  What forces one choice rather than another?  Or does Feser have some view on the relationship between the two which explains this?

Einstein thought that we should make a distinction between "pure" geometry and "applied" geometry.  Pure geometry is an entirely abstract science in which both Euclidean and hyperbolic geometries, as well as of course elliptic geometries, are in their own ways true as all they say is that certain conclusions follow from given axioms and in each case those conclusions do follow from the particular given axioms, but none of them tell us anything about how the world actually is.  Applied geometry, on the other hand, describes the shape of space, but is for that reason dependent on empirical results (and Einstein of course argued that an elliptic geometry best modelled the shape of space).  But Feser wishes throughout to argue that claims about the world can be established by purely rational means, so the sort of distinction Einstein draws here (and which is accepted by many others, including myself) would seem to undermine Feser's attempt to use mathematics as an example of the legitimacy of using purely rational means to discover facts about the world.

It seems to me that one of the major reasons for the decline of rationalism, not mentioned by Feser, is that in the early modern period it became quite apparent that traditional logic was entirely inadequate, and that traditional mathematics also had unacceptable limits.  Leibniz and Newton introduced calculus, and of course mathematical innovation continued and provided many valuable tools to the advancing sciences.  However, the new mathematics was also a theoretical mess, now known to have contained not a few outright contradictions which the mathematicians were simply fortunate in not accidentally drawing consequences from.  The criticisms of calculus by people like Berkeley were far from completely unwarranted, even if the needs of science meant they were largely ignored.

The situation was largely cleaned up in the 19th century.  Still, the cleanup was not complete, and some of the remaining puzzles (like the Euclidean vs. non-Euclidean geometry issue already mentioned, plus in the early 20th century Russell's paradox, Gödel's theorem, and questions surrounding controversial mathematical principles like the axiom of choice), meant that confidence in mathematics as a source of eternal truth has not returned; to many of us, mathematics just seems more like something we make than a matter of eternal truths we discover.  Carnap's "in logic there are no morals!" seems the principle best suited to the variety and flexibility of modern logic and mathematics.

I presume Feser would disagree with this characterization of the history, but he makes no mention of anything that would indicate why he thinks it is wrong.

Of course, Plato does not only discusses mathematical forms.  At least he appears to discuss non-mathematical forms; there are at least two important caveats.  First, Plato expresses doubt on occasion as to whether some of his example forms are genuine forms, and indeed some of his forms seem to be intended as jokes rather than serious examples (e.g. the form of the bed in Republic).  Second, Plato may have believed that even forms which appeared not to be were ultimately mathematical, in line with the Pythagorean influences on his thought.  Still, setting aside those caveats, there is certainly discussion of apparently non-mathematical forms.  Plato has the form of the Good, which doesn't appear mathematical.  More importantly, while I don't recall him ever using Feser's specific example of the form of the squirrel, he does seem to have thought there were forms for biological species.  This is one of the points on which the ancients and Feser seem to be most clearly wrong; evolutionary biology has given us a very good understanding of biological species, and it is in conflict with this account based on forms, but more on that later since Feser does address evolution directly in later chapters.

It is not clear how much damage it does to Plato's system to eliminate the form of the squirrel.  A Platonist may still be able to maintain the form of the Good, and insist that morality is based on reason, by taking something like the Kantian view of ethics (in broad outlines, that is; there are many details on which the Platonist would likely continue to disagree with Kant).  How viable that is remains a hotly contested question; I reject Kantian ethics myself, but I think Korsgaard et. al. deserve considerably more respect than Feser gives them when he directly mentions Kantian ethics later in the book.

When he turns to Aristotle, Feser presents some quick arguments that forms are necessary.  He gives the example of mathematical forms, which he thinks are necessary for us to make sense of mathematics.  Maybe, or maybe not, but he continues to fail to note how problematic it is to equate mathematics with his own idiosyncratic examples of rationally acquired knowledge.  For example, some of the things which Feser says can be established by conclusive rational argument are quite obviously contingent (OK, it’s not obvious to Feser, but they are contingent, and Feser himself is constantly asserting things as obvious which are extremely controversial at best).  Whether something is contingent or not is itself a necessary truth (at least in S5; perhaps Feser is employing some other view of modality, but that would raise other problems of its own).  So it's necessary that those claims can't be established by conclusive rational arguments, since no contingent claim can be established by conclusive rational arguments.

Now, of course, it could be that the obvious contingency of the claims Feser thinks can be rationally proven is on a par with the obvious truth of Frege's Basic Law V.  But this applies equally to Feser's principles; if there's any way to settle who has the right of the matter here, Feser never supplies it, as he doesn't even consider this problem.

Feser defends a realism about categories against nominalism and conceptualism by claiming that our practices implicitly assume realism, and that nominalism and conceptualism couldn't do the job.  He waves his hand at the (entirely adequate) reply available to modern nominalists and conceptualists, namely an evolutionary story of concepts (Ruth Millikan has done especially impressive work in this area).  His criticism is that we need concepts to engage in evolutionary explanation in the first place, and that on this story the concepts we get from evolution have no "objective validity."  Unfortunately, this is only true if "objective validity" is defined in such a way that nothing has it.  The evolutionary story provides a perfectly adequate account of the origin of concepts, including providing us with reasonable justification for relying on the concepts produced by that process.

Though Feser isn't willing to give enough credit to the evolutionary story for him to consider this question, it occurs that somebody could ask about pre-Darwin nominalists and conceptualists.  They didn't have any adequate account of the formation of concepts, and yet they rejected realism anyway.  One might argue that this shows that they must have rejected realism for reasons involving the kind of biases Feser constantly attributes to his opponents, and so that this at least provides support for his position by showing how strong the biases are.  However, I would draw a different lesson.  Realism doesn't actually explain concepts; it just says comforting and familiar-sounding things about them until we stop worrying and think everything is all right with concepts.  The early nominalists and conceptualists decided that no explanation at all was better than the comforting pseudo-explanation offered by realism (in the tradition of Socrates' view that wisdom is knowing when you don't know something), and so they rejected realism even before there were rival explanations.  This did in fact turn out to be beneficial, in just the way Socrates says awareness of one's own ignorance is beneficial, as it spurred efforts to find genuinely good accounts of concepts, which we now have.  It seems to me that the early modern rejection of final causes also fits the same pattern as the nominalist/conceptualist rejection of realism; the early moderns rejected final causes as unhelpful despite lacking any replacements, and science proceeded in new directions, producing vastly more adequate explanations of the world as a result of rejecting unhelpful pseudo-explanations.  Again, things have now reached the point where the old pseudo-explanations aren't even superficially appealing in comparison to the genuine explanations modern science can provide.

Feser's criticism of Kant appears to be that while Kant avoids the relativism Feser sees in the nominalists and conceptualists, the deeper problem, the one already mentioned, remains.  I'm not sure what his basis is for attributing relativism to the nominalists and conceptualists (I suppose that as usual much depends on what is meant by the very slippery term "relativism"), but of course I've pointed out that the deeper problem isn't one, so Kant seems to be off the hook.

There's some interesting projection when Feser says liberals like Plato because they like his idea of philosopher-kings.  I've never thought Plato was very serious about that; after all, he made the rather impressively unpolitical Socrates the great hero of his dialogues.  I also find it somewhat odd that a person with a Ph.D. is so knee-jerk skeptical of intellectual elites, while being equally knee-jerk submissive to political and economic elites, but of course Feser is a standard conservative in that respect.  Further, according to Feser, the rejection of Aristotle is responsible for Star Wars Episode I (well, probably.  Feser blames everything else bad about the world on it.  Of course, perhaps I shouldn't assume that Feser didn't like "The Phantom Menace;" he doesn't show that much evidence of good taste elsewhere in the book).

In any event, one of the ideas from Aristotle that Feser thinks moderns are wrong to have abandoned is the concept of potentiality.  Unfortunately, he’s never as clear as he should be about what the concept actually involves.  Potentiality could be defined purely logically in terms of the actual future of things like the actual thing in question, or the range of futures of things identical to the thing in question in specified respects.  So defined, it would be unproblematic.  I would not quibble with someone wishing to introduce such a concept.  "In logic there are no morals!"  But Feser means more, and the question is whether his arguments establish that there is an interesting or even meaningful concept stronger than these bare logical potentialities which can do the work he requires.

The first feature that Aristotelian potentiality has is that it must be activated by something outside of the actual thing with the potentiality.  Feser says that absent this, it would be inexplicable why a potentiality would be actualized at one time rather than another, and so suggests that he thinks even bare logical potentiality would have to have this feature, but if that's what he thinks, he's obviously wrong.  It is not apparent why there would need to be an explanation, and considerably less apparent why the explanation would need to be something external to the actual thing.  Maybe some things just have it in their nature to actualize some potentiality that they have randomly, or some specific amount of time after they come into existence.  Or maybe something is going on that we haven't thought of.  Feser's usual pattern is to jump to a plausible-sounding but uninformative explanation to escape the horror of not being able to explain something, but there are lots of things that we don't know how to explain.  Another thing I like about Plato is that he seems to have realized this.

The second feature that Aristotelian potentiality apparently has that bare logical potentiality lacks is that it is, we are told, possible for something to be merely actual, with no potentiality at all.  At least, logical potentiality rules that out for anything except perhaps the final stage of something which exists at the end of time.  But there's something which is not the final stage of something which exists at the end of time which Feser says has no potentiality, namely God.

The other features of potentiality that Feser comments on are that potentiality depends somehow on a thing's nature and that one can make distinctions between different kinds of potentiality; both of those appear to be true of bare logical potentiality.

Feser's discussion of form and matter leaves a number of issues unclear.  In particular, can one say anything true and informative about Aristotelian matter at all?  It seems that all of what one would ordinarily consider to be the properties of things are, on the Aristotelian picture, aspects of the form of the thing.  It is thus quite misleading when Feser attributes to the materialist the view that anything, such as his example rubber ball, is "just a piece of matter."  No materialist thinks it's just a piece of something like prime matter; that wouldn't make any sense.

Feser jokes about getting a martini before writing about Aristotle's four causes.  I kind of wish he was drunk while writing this section, and really the whole book; it wouldn't really be an excuse, but it would at least make the sloppiness somewhat more explicable.  In any event, his arguments do seem to become more sketchy and gappy whenever his writing gets more cutesy.  And, yes, his writing is fairly cutesy in most of the book.  The obvious inference is sound.

He continues to fail to clarify puzzling aspects of the matter/form distinction (perhaps because it's so obvious and common sense it doesn't occur to him to wonder if it remains coherent under closer examination)?  He identifies the rubber as the material cause of the rubber ball.  But surely it is some kind of form that makes something rubber.  And in fact it seems to be forms all the way down to the most basic substances that make up reality.  So what makes the cause "material?"  What does it have to do with matter?  And, at the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, if the forms are doing all the work, how can Feser even tell when matter is present and when it isn't (as he claims to be able to do with allegedly immaterial souls)?  Also, Feser will eventually explain that the material cause determines a thing's potentiality.  But surely what a thing is potentially depends on what it is actually like, and so depends on the properties (aspects of the form) of the thing.  I don't understand what role matter plays in this.

The formal cause is what a thing is like, and the efficient cause is whatever actualized its potentiality.  If potentiality is understood in the bare logical sense mentioned earlier, this would seem to make the efficient causes of Aristotle very similar to the view of later philosophers on all causes.

The final cause is the goal, end, or purpose of a thing.  Aristotle attributes final causes to inanimate things, making it less than clear how appropriate this "purpose" talk is.  In any event, it is obvious that one could construct a bare logical version of final causes along the lines of the bare logical versions of potentiality, and indeed the two would be closely related.  Again, the question is whether anything stronger than the bare logical version is coherent, and whether there is any reason to postulate or invoke it.

Feser casually dismisses Hume's discussion of causation, which has been tremendously influential for very good reasons.  Just because we encrust correlations with reassuring names doesn't mean that we understand them any better, and in fact once we remove the encrusting Aristotelian nonsense, what remains may look strange, but functions just as well or better.  Certainly Feser's rejection of Humean causation on the basis that  efficient causation is at work when an event is identical with itself strikes me as bizarre.

Feser says "an attentive reader may have noticed that Aristotle's account seems to entail a series of simultaneous causes and effects, and might also wonder where such a series terminates and how it can be explained."  Actually, I noticed instead that it's not obvious how to put simultaneous events into a series; if it really is simultaneous, it is not clear why it needs to terminate, so that worry didn't occur to me.

Feser also asserts an Aristotelian principle that whatever is in the effect must in some sense be contained in the cause as well.  It can't be said that he argues for it, though "in some sense" is so incredibly vague that it's also not clear what counterexamples there would be, or what the principle even means.  Certainly there's nothing about his rather narrow examples to suggest how this would generalize to all causation ever.

He says that naturalists reject this principle, and I suppose I reject some forms of it (Feser would have to say what he means by it before I could decide if I reject his version).  According to Feser, it is "sometimes suggested" that evolution contradicts this principle.  I have no idea who would suggest that; Feser's note on this sentence does not concern where this suggestion comes from.  I certainly don't see why evolution would be more in conflict with the principle than anything else in science; if the principle is stated in an unacceptable form, it probably contradicts evolution (and lots of other facts), and otherwise not.

There are a number of points Feser indicates he will explain in more detail later.  It's rather distressing how infrequently his later discussion is actually any more detailed or helpful, but more on that in future installments.

Chapter III

This chapter opens very strangely, with a story about St. Thomas Aquinas putting an uppity nun in her place.  I suppose it shouldn't surprise me; of course one of Feser's goals is to support the patriarchal order.  After effusive praise of Aquinas, which left a bad taste in my mouth given the way it started, Feser spends several pages talking about how pathetically the New Atheists have misinterpreted Aquinas.

It takes him an astonishingly long time to get from ranting about how horrible the misinterpretations are to actually mentioning what he thinks they get wrong.  Eventually, he points out that Aquinas intended to give a priori arguments (for the existence of God and various other things), and that many of the criticisms given by the New Atheists seemed to be treating them as empirical.  Naturally, he ignores the (extremely likely) possibility that the New Atheists in question, mostly good followers of Hume, think no argument for the existence of anything can be a priori, and so are attempting to be as charitable as possible by interpreting Aquinas in a way that isn't automatically doomed.  But if they have ignored the a priori features of the argument, I will not.

Still, before actually explaining how he thinks the arguments work, Feser digresses to spend some time describing his view of God.  He says that he follows Aquinas in believing that the properties we attribute to God should be understood "analogically."  To take one of the big examples, God is not literally a person "in the sense of being one individual thing among others who reasons, chooses, has moral obligations, etc."  But God is somehow close enough to being a person for that to be the best way to describe Him.  This notion of "analogical" properties seems to have the potential for endless abuse, and that potentiality, at least, is actualized in Feser; he freely uses the "analogical" nature of the properties to deflect problems, while dropping it when he wants to make specific claims derived from the alleged properties of God.  The primary use of "analogical" properties in chapter 3 is to deal with one of the questions everybody has when reaching the end of one of Aquinas' "five ways" of proving the existence of God; even if the proof shows that something exists, why think that's God?  The "analogical" properties enable Feser to be sufficiently vague about the properties of God to make drawing that connection much easier.

So, Feser's arguments for God:

1 (attributed to St. Augustine).  There must be forms, and in some cases they can't exist solely in material things, nor could they exist solely in human minds.  But Plato's proposal that they exist in a separate realm also doesn't work.  So they must exist in an eternal and infinite mind.  Given that God has only an "analogical" mind, I'm not sure that this is actually different from Plato's proposal.  It's not surprising that someone like Augustine, with a neo-Platonist background, would have proposed this.  This argument also obviously depends on the success of the arguments against nominalism and conceptualism.  Some of those were discussed in the previous chapter (and as I indicated in my examination of that chapter, I was not impressed), while some are discussed later in the book and will be examined as they come up.

2. (attributed to Aquinas).  The unmoved mover, or perhaps better the unchanged changer.  Feser says that Aquinas would grant that an infinite sequence of causes is possible if the causes are what he calls "accidentally ordered."  According to Feser, Aquinas is instead arguing from the impossibility of an infinite "essentially ordered" series.  In an essentially ordered series, each member depends on a previous member for its continued existence.  This requires that each member of the series be simultaneous.  I'm not sure that making it simultaneous makes the infinite series any more impossible, but perhaps more importantly it is far from clear to me that there's any reason to suppose there are such things.  His examples of essential ordering involve chains of causes that extend through space, so if they truly are essential orders, they would appear to violate relativity.

He could answer that relativity is after all only a scientific theory, and he's doing metaphysics, and he does after all largely dismiss evolution, but I doubt he would want to dismiss relativity as cavalierly.  I think it's more likely that he'd say the examples are only for sake of illustration; the real simultaneous causes are also all in the same places, and so no violation of relativity.  That seems to be his view in his book on Aquinas.  But if so, he needs to work a lot harder to prove that there are such simultaneous causes; providing examples of non-simultaneous causes certainly doesn’t do anything to establish that simultaneous causes must also exist.

In the discussion of this argument, Feser also begins to address the traditional question of why we should think the unmoved mover is anything like the traditional conception of God.  It has to be the special kind of thing which wouldn't require further explanation.  And it seems that for Feser, and plausibly for Aquinas, the explanations which stop such regresses, which require no further explanation, are logical/metaphysical ones.  So, in essence, this depends on something like the conception of God mentioned in the previous argument; God imposes the logical/metaphysical order.  Perhaps God just is the logical/metaphysical order?  Probably not; Feser isn't that much of a neo-Platonist.  But the unmoved mover has to be the mind (well, the "analogical" mind) that contains the forms, the one we encountered in the previous argument.  So if that's God (big if!), the unmoved mover argument does get us to God.

In any event, Feser roundly mocks his New Atheist opponents for being so thick as to think God could require some further explanation.  I've already mentioned what I think is really going on; to reiterate; I suspect that none of them think logic can move anything (for the very good reason that it can't), so they try to interpret Aquinas as proposing a prime mover that would actually be capable of moving things.  But the sorts of things which actually can move other things do invite further regress.  Feser seems to argue that his foes are morons because they reject arguments as obviously flawed when they would work fine if further metaphysical principles, which also seem obviously flawed to them, were accepted.  I admit that this doesn't look as foolish to me as it does to Feser.

3.  (Also Aquinas).  The first cause.  Feser again condemns his opponents for failing to see that the argument is that ordinary things must be caused, while God is a special kind of thing.  And, again, it all comes down to the idea that ultimate explanation must trace back to logic/metaphysics.  It is part of God's essence to exist, while the existence of other things does not come from their essence, but must be explained by their being caused by further things.  Again, I'm sure his New Atheist opponents think it makes sense to ask what caused God because they reject Feser's theories about essences; if there are such things as essences at all, they are not the sort of things that could cause something to exist.  Since they assume pure logic can't account for God's existence, the New Atheists think some other explanation is needed, and point out that it's no easier to find a non-logical explanation of God's existence than an explanation for the universe existing without God.  And they are, of course, right.  Further, given what murky and mysterious things essences are, the New Atheists wonder how it is supposed to be so obvious that if there are any such things, there couldn't be some which aren't god-like but which suffice to explain the universe.  Again, as with the previous argument, Feser will say that since what's needed is a logical/metaphysical explanation, this requires the forms in the supreme mind (analogical mind, remember!)

For what it's worth, according to the modal theories of David Lewis, the universe necessarily exists.  So that theory gives us the kind of logical/metaphysical explanation of everything Feser wants, without God.[1]  I'm sure Feser rejects the Lewis metaphysics, but I have to say that I find them more plausible than Feser's.

4.  (Also Aquinas).  The argument from design.  I reconstruct Feser's version in this way:  there must be non-Humean laws of nature to explain the regularities we observe, and the only way there could be such laws of nature is if there were a divine mind legislating them (again, we go back to the first argument, the idea that the forms, this time those which give things their causal properties, must be in at least an "analogical" mind).  Of course I reject the need for non-Humean laws of nature, and I remain unconvinced that Feser would really have found God even if I had to grant this infinite and eternal "analogical" mind.  But here I think Feser is especially unfair to his New Atheist opponents.  As usual, he mocks them for asking for an explanation for God, but here I think it is unusually clear that they are being quite reasonable given their assumptions, and Feser needs a lot more argument and less mockery to displace those assumptions.

Feser explicitly draws an analogy between the way human intentions can lay out plans for something that hasn't actually happened and how God's mind is supposed to plan out the universe.  Now, we actually know quite a bit about human minds, and the way human minds produce design and order is itself a process that involves the operation of the laws of nature.  In asking for an account of God, the New Atheists are asking for something that can be found for the examples of minds we're familiar with.  It's true that Feser's God is supposed to be the source of the laws of nature, existing outside them, but there is a serious cost to trying to deflect the New Atheist demands by appealing to that.  Feser says that it's obvious that minds are the sort of things that can impose order because we know of minds that do that, but the only minds we know of that do that are minds that obey the laws of nature.  It is not particularly clear what it means for something to be a mind that does not obey the laws of nature; certainly we've never encountered such a thing.  And if the laws of nature are a kind of order which could, of course, not themselves be produced by laws of nature, to conclude that they must be produced by a mind, when in every other respect the explanation of their existence must be totally different from any of our normal explanations (since our normal explanations always use the laws of nature, and so couldn't explain them), is an incredibly huge jump.  Sure, it's only an "analogical" mind, but again Feser only seems to bring up the "analogical" feature when he has trouble.  If he were really serious about it (like Hume's character Philo in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion), it would be harder to find fault with his position, but of course his view would also have few, if any, consequences.

Conclusions:

Ultimately, Feser is correct that the arguments for the existence of God he gives depend heavily on his Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics, and fail horribly without those background assumptions.  Conversely, if the Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysical principles are granted, the arguments have considerable force, though I'm still inclined to doubt that what they establish is a particularly Christian God.  However, Feser's metaphysics are widely rejected, for an assortment of reasons, some of them quite good.  Some of them have been discussed already, and more will be in my discussion of the remaining chapters.  I also don't think there's any excuse for the way Feser treats opponents who clearly think his metaphysical theories are false as if they were simply ignoring the obvious.  I am most familiar with Dennett, and Feser's criticisms of Dennett on this score are quite egregious, insofar as Dennett's work contains extensive development of theories of mind incompatible with the Thomistic account.  Dennett doesn't think Feser's story of forms in the supreme mind makes sense because he thinks he has overwhelming reason to believe minds don't work the way Feser's theory requires them to.  Dennett could be wildly wrong about minds (he isn't, but that point is at least debatable), but given Dennett's theory of mind, it is as reasonable for him to dismiss the Thomistic arguments as it is for Feser, with his radically different theory of mind, to embrace them.

Chapter IV

So, chapter 4 of Feser's book gave me flashbacks to Hubert Schwyzer's Kant seminars.  I wonder if Feser ever took those; if not, it's unfortunate, as they might have helped him.  "Knowing is not like eating," as Schwyzer would say as he tried to explain Kant's struggles with the representational aspect of knowing.  Knowing something does not involve taking the objects of knowledge into our minds in the way that eating something involves taking the objects of eating into our bodies.  Rather, our minds somehow contain representations of the objects (of course, we may know things about our minds, but even in those cases the knowledge is not the same as what is known).

The very name "representation" may be tendentious, but I intend for it to be as content-free as possible; whatever it is in the mind that determines which objects are being thought about is the representation of those objects.  The Churchlands may think there are still hidden assumptions buried in this, and perhaps they are right, but leave those worries aside for the moment.  Considerable progress has been made on the nature of representation since Kant's time.  In particular, Ruth Millikan provides an extremely interesting account of how thoughts can represent the world in her Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories.  It would take a long time to go through all of the details, but it is an evolutionary story.  Words and thoughts have functions in roughly the sense that biologists speak of things as having functions; the functions are whatever they do that leads to their being favored by natural selection.  Millikan argues that a detailed account of these functions can enable us to pick out the objects of thought (in the case of representational thought), because of the way the functions relate to those objects (again, details are lengthy; I highly recommend her book).

The functional story of how my knowledge of the glass of water on my desk is related to the glass of water involves causal relationships between the glass of water and my thought (the functional/evolutionary story picks out which causal relationships are relevant), so the case of knowledge of abstract objects seems to be more difficult.  However, while nobody has yet filled in all the details of that story, I would say this much; a priori knowledge seems to contain a strong conventional component.  David Lewis provides a thorough account of conventions in his book Convention, one which connects very naturally to Millikan's theories about thought (Millikan harshly criticizes Lewis, but only on one issue, and I think she misinterprets his theory as being more different from hers than it is; I discuss this in my dissertation).  Millikan also has some things of her own to say about a priori knowledge; again, not all the details are filled in, but it all looks very promising to me.

I mention all of this because Feser's argument requires the assumption that there is one and only one way representation could work, and it is nothing like what I've sketched above.  Rather, Feser insists on what is surely one of Plato's biggest mistakes, repeated in Aristotle.  A Platonic form serves a dual role; it both makes things in the world the way they are, and makes thoughts the way they are, and so one can represent things in the world as being a certain way because the things in the world are made that way by forms that are also present in our thoughts about the world.  And so for Feser knowing is like eating after all, in a sense; the object of knowledge, the form, is actually in the mind.

Now, it is a great mystery how something could play such a dual role, especially on Aristotle's version; how can the same thing make a stone heavy and make my thought about the stone a thought about heaviness?  A thought being about heaviness seems very different from a thing being heavy.  The Aristotelian tradition has no explanation beyond that forms are just like that, and have to be like that to play the role that they do.  And what about knowledge of the forms?  Does that involve forms of forms, or is it some completely different process than ordinary knowledge and representation?  Plato already worried about these issues and many others, and scholars of Plato and Aristotle debate them to this day, but Feser sweeps all these controversies and questions under the rug.  Really, even if his story wasn't so problematic, it would still be fatal to his argument that it doesn't seem to be the only explanation possible.  It shouldn't be necessary to provide an alternative to his account to note that he hasn't proven his is the only possible account, but conveniently we even do have an alternative; the Millikan/Lewis story I allude to above.

Feser "proves" that the mind must be immaterial because the way that, say, the form of the dog works on material things is by making them dogs.  It is the form of the dog, on his account, which makes my thought about a dog be about a dog, and if my mind were a material thing, the way it would act on my mind would be by making my mind (well, my thought) a dog.  So my mind must be something else.  This is not actually valid even given Feser's other assumptions; there doesn't seem to be any logical reason why forms might not operate differently on different kinds of matter or under different circumstances, so even given the implausible assumption that knowing is like eating, that the same form must be present in the mind as in the things, it doesn't follow that the mind must be immaterial in contrast to the material things.  Some other difference could explain it.  And, of course, a more plausible account of representation would completely undermine this argument.

Feser's discussion of mathematical abstractions is if anything even worse, perhaps because he makes the common mistake of confusing the thoughts with the objects of thought in mathematical cases.  But even in mathematical cases they are not the same things, and so the triviality that mathematical objects are universal and determinate while nothing material is either universal or determinate is simply irrelevant to whether thoughts of mathematical objects are material; thoughts are not universal either, and even if I didn't already think they were material, I wouldn't have suspected them of being determinate.  Fortunately, for thoughts to be about objects it is not required for the thoughts and objects to be identical.  This is true even for Feser, of course; the same form must be involved in the thought and the object, but that falls far short of saying that the thought must be the object (as Feser himself says, the thought of a dog is not a dog).  Presumably this is obscured in the mathematical cases because Feser thinks the object of thought is the form in those cases, but that is another unargued assumption, and in any event that would not entail that the thought itself is the form in mathematical cases, as would be needed for his argument to be valid.

In other words, Feser's supposed "rational proof" that souls must be a certain kind of thing is anything but.  There are further problems with his idea that the soul is the form of a human being.  Really, there are endless mysteries and confusions here.  The soul is both a special kind of thing which the forms act on to produce knowledge, and it is itself one of the forms; how does it play both of those roles?  Feser thought he needed radical dualist metaphysics to explain the dual role of forms in affecting thought and affecting the world, but the dual role of the form of a human being passes without comment.  But, more importantly for Feser's subsequent discussion, post-Darwin, biological species are known to be poor candidates for forms.

A Darwinian species is a population united primarily by a certain history; it has related capacities for inter-breeding and similarities in appearance and features, but the history of how selection favored the ancestors of the current members of the population is the decisive element.  There is thus no such thing as a "perfect" or "ideal" member of a species, no exact template that members of the species are supposed to match.  We may speak of a member of the species as being defective if it lacks one of the traits that selection favored in its ancestors, but this is a somewhat loose way of speaking.  A deviation from what is most common among members of the species may be a disadvantage in some sense, or it may be an advantage of some kind (if it's a survival/reproduction advantage, selection will make it more common over time, of course), or it may be of no significance at all; species always display many kinds of variation.  This variation makes it impossible to even construct a bare logical form for a species; there may not be any traits which are universal among members of the species while absent from all non-members of the species (unless you include the having of a certain history among those traits, which would produce a very different kind of form than Feser intends).

Feser argues that human life begins at conception because that is when someone acquires the form of humanity (and so the soul).  Now, species-membership could, I suppose, plausibly be taken to begin with conception.  But one does not acquire the form of humanity at conception because there is no such form; "human" is a biological species, and biological species don't work like that.  And since the soul is not the form of humanity, it remains an open question when (or perhaps whether, depending on one's theory of souls) it is acquired.  So Feser's metaphysical anti-abortion argument fails.

Similarly, Feser's natural law morality relies on their being a form of humanity, so that deviations from the form can be classified as defects, and as immoral if they are under conscious control.  Absent such forms, one must have some other standard for identifying moral deficiencies.  However, in practice natural law morality tends to (somewhat ironically) identify traits as defects on grounds rather similar to those which lead something to be identified as an evolutionary disadvantage.  Notably both natural law theories and evolutionary stories see reproduction as a central human purpose.

And so Feser classifies homosexual sex as unnatural because of the reproductive function of sex, and so immoral because people can consciously choose whether to engage in it or not.  However, one difference between at least most evolutionary biologists and most natural law moralists is that evolutionary biologists recognize that it can be difficult to identify all of the functions and purposes involved in the traits and behaviors of a living thing, while natural law moralists seem to think identifying functions is easy (Feser thinks our bones are somehow involved in our mysterious ability to identify such functions).

Another difference is that even a consciously chosen evolutionary disadvantage does not seem to automatically be immoral (nor is an evolutionary advantage always moral), but whether homosexual activity is even an evolutionary disadvantage is unclear.  In general, humans have far more sex than they need to for the purposes of reproduction (most mammals have mating seasons to reduce the amount of effort and energy expended on sex).  It seems likely that this additional sex serves some purpose or purposes (or there would have been heavy selection pressure against it; the pressures that produce the mating seasons of other mammals), and mostly the evolutionary biologists seem to consider it an unsolved problem what those purposes might be (though they have plenty of guesses).

The natural law moralists also seem to feel the need for hypotheses about the purpose of all the sex we have, and try to provide them (as I said, they are eerily and ironically similar to the evolutionary theorists).  Generally the natural law story involves producing bonding in married couples, which is important for raising offspring.  Now, this not an absurd theory, but in the context of evolution it would be laughable to pretend that one could rationally prove it was the only possible story.  And if that isn't the whole story of the excess human sex (and, in fact, this story doesn't seem to work very well as an evolutionary account; our current evidence doesn't seem to suggest that the family structure implicit here was present in our distant ancestors, so it couldn't have been selected for), the other purposes of sex may include purposes for homosexual sex.

At this point, the natural law moralist could claim that this is an area where there theories are different from the evolutionary theories.  Unfortunately, they don't seem to have any more evidence for their claims about the purposes of sex than the kind of thing an evolutionary story could give (well, except for evidence gleaned by consulting the bones), so it is unclear how they rule out the possibility of such alternative purposes.  Feser mocks Andrew Sullivan for suggesting that the purposes of sex might be more complex than Feser supposes (Feser likes to mock a lot), but he doesn't actually provide any evidence that Sullivan is wrong.

Still, one of my biggest problems with natural law morality is just that its stories sound so much like evolutionary stories, and evolutionary stories don't sound to me like stories of morality.  So many horrible things are adaptive in the evolutionary sense.  Evolution produced the black death!  Admittedly, when something they intuitively judge as bad ("in their bones") seems to serve natural purposes, Feser and his ilk are not likely to call it good; they instead invent convoluted and implausible stories about how it doesn't really serve natural purposes after all.  But it all looks quite contrived and desperate.  Better to recognize that morality is about purposes humans choose, not purposes given to us by nature; Kant was right to advocate an ethics of autonomy, however inconsistently he may have done so in practice and however many details he might have gotten wrong.

I mentioned in my discussion of chapter 3 that Feser treats God's attributes as "analogical" when he's in trouble, but most of the time ignores that part of his story.  His section on "Faith, reason, and evil" contains particularly egregious examples.  The miracles of Jesus are to be considered credible because of the proofs that there's a God who could produce miracles like that.  Sorry, Feser, we don't know that about the "analogical" God; miracles seem possible when you're thinking of God as being a person with human-like purposes that could be served by such interventions.  As Hume argued, if we think of God as the source of the laws of nature, then God's purposes seem to be clearly given by those, so we should expect God to never produce anything but consequences of those laws of nature.

Similarly, when he discusses the problem of evil, the evil in the world seems unnecessary in the way a parent's punishment can seem like an unnecessary bad thing to a child.  Sorry, "analogical" God isn't much like a parent.  Really, the problem of evil seems less serious for "analogical" God, but only because we have no way to know what to expect from such a God (and so for the same reason "analogical" God seems a poor basis for any religion, and certainly no help in shoring up Feser's shaky moral conclusions).  But here the shuffling back and forth is especially rapid.  God might have good reasons for evil which are very much like the good reasons a person might have for causing or enduring some unpleasantness, totally ignoring that for a person causing or tolerating something bad often seems like the best choice precisely because our options are limited, because we're not omnipotent.  But Feser hasn't forgotten God's omnipotence; it gives God endless capacity to bring unlimited good out of any evil.  And yet Feser's imagination suddenly stops again before the obvious next step, or perhaps God's omnipotence disappears and we're back to non-analogical human-like powerful God, as Feser doesn't even consider that God's omnipotence should surely extend to the endless capacity to bring all the same unlimited good out of no evil.

Chapter V

So, the theory of Forms has been one of the main topics of my discussion, as Aristotle's version of it is central to Feser's account.  I have consistently criticized Feser's attempts to insist that it is rationally compulsory.  Feser knows that Aristotle's metaphysics have been rejected in the modern era, and in chapter 5 he tries to explain why this is, attempting, naturally, to do so in such a way as to avoid the conclusion that the reasons why it has been rejected are any good.

One of his crucial moves is his attempt to sharply separate Aristotle's scientific theories from his metaphysical theories.  Aristotle himself would have recognized no such sharp separation, and Feser's appeals to Aristotle often bleed over into scientific matters (as with his insistence that there are forms corresponding to biological species, which is incompatible with biological facts).  But it is true that the new science didn't refute everything in Aristotle.  What the new science did incontrovertibly show is that Aristotle must have been in many cases wrong about which forms exist, and what their natures are.  The new mathematical physics did not show that the motion of bodies doesn't involve forms at all, but if forms are involved, they aren't the ones Aristotle thought existed.  And Darwin didn't show that there are no forms involved in life, but he did show that there are no forms of biological species.

But that result is already enough to have serious consequences.  The form of a human being is one of the things that science has discarded, and it is of course central to Feser's project.  Furthermore, the mere fact that Aristotle was so badly wrong about the forms casts serious doubt on the idea that the forms are somehow built into our minds.  One of the more puzzling aspects of Plato for a modern reader is that in a number of dialogues he spends a very long time wrestling with the problem of how it's possible for anybody to be wrong about anything.  That's actually a serious problem on Plato's theory; if we have access to the forms, and the forms make the world the way they are, why don't they give us infallible knowledge of the world?  Aristotle, as usual shallower than Plato, doesn't think through the consequences of his theory far enough to see why this is such a huge problem, and Feser naturally follows Aristotle in sweeping this problem under the rug of "common sense;" contradictions are fine, apparently, as long as common sense endorses both halves of the contradiction.

One natural way to keep forms and avoid the problem is to abandon the dual role of the forms; say they don't both control our thoughts and the world, in different ways, but that they only control the world.  If you keep only such single purpose forms, and both grant that Aristotle was largely wrong about which forms there are, and also draw the conclusion that knowledge of the forms can't be acquired by pure reason but must depend on scientific inquiry, you're David Armstrong (one of the modern naturalists that Feser says never actually thinks about the really serious issues).  I think it's better to dispense with the forms altogether, but Armstrong's view has a huge advantage over Feser's in that it is at least is not contradicted by firmly established scientific knowledge.

Feser's opium example may help illustrate the issue.  Feser criticizes the naturalists for inconsistency in claiming both that the explanation of opium in terms of a "dormitive power" is empty, and claiming that it's false.  But one of the central problems with scholastic forms is that they are so vague; interpreted one way, claims about scholastic forms are empty, interpreted another way they are false.

The false doctrine is that there is some single thing, a "dormitive power", which is fairly simple and works the same way in all the various things that cause sleep, and which doesn't do anything else and which is very different from the power of anything else to do anything else.  The empty doctrine is that there's something about opium that causes sleep.  It is true that the full account of the powers of opium can be described with or without forms; it involves the chemical properties of the compounds that make up opium and the chemical properties of animal life, which of course are themselves determined by the physics of the particles that make up those compounds, and one could go along with Armstrong and say that the properties of the physics particles are forms, or one could say that the story about forms isn't really adding anything useful (as I would) and do without it.  And the details of this underlying story make the false doctrine false; the properties of opium are very complicated, and there are things very similar to opium at the chemical level in very many ways which don't cause sleep, and things which cause sleep which are in very many ways very different at the chemical level.

Feser claims that these details, which he admits would have to be settled empirically, make no difference to the metaphysics.  Unfortunately, Feser's claims about the form of humanity are much more like the false version of the dormitive power story than they are like the empty version.  If he were to grant that we could be very wrong about exactly which forms are involved in human life and how they were connected to other forms, and insist only that forms are involved somehow, that would completely undermine his efforts to derive detailed moral conclusions from the form of humanity.

Feser maintains that the idea of secondary qualities requires dualism, but this is only true of one insists for some reason that, for example, a perception of redness must be red.  But that is, of course, absurd.  I myself lean toward a dispositional theory of secondary qualities; red is a disposition of surfaces to produce sensations of a certain kind.  Feser thinks dispositions require final causes; more on that next chapter, but if we're talking about final causes in the bare logical sense I mentioned at the end of chapter 2, it's not so much that dispositions require final causes as that they are final causes, and so final causes can't explain dispositions because if any explanation is needed, final causes need it to the same extent.  Of course, Feser's final causes are supposed to be more than bare logical final causes, but while Feser tries to define them as things which explain more, he actually doesn't have any account of how they could provide this additional explanatory help.

Feser also claims that intentionality cannot be accounted for on materialist grounds; he keeps harping on this throughout his book, but in only one place (in the next chapter) does he make any effort to directly address the best materialist story about intentionality (and his effort is disappointing, to put it mildly).  I am greatly annoyed by what appear to be Feser's frequent attempt to appeal to authority, and have tried to avoid such nonsense myself, but I feel I must note that many of the "allies" he cites for his anti-materialist cause think the materialists have won on the intentionality issue.  David Chalmers, for example, thinks this, and Frank Jackson not only has long granted that materialism can explain intentionality, he has even recently come around to agreeing that qualia aren't an obstacle to materialism either.

Feser's "solutions" to assorted philosophical problems:

Skepticism:  Feser says that the rejection of the Aristotelian view produces skepticism, since without Aristotle's claim that the same forms work on our minds and on the world, there's no guarantee that the world will match up to our thoughts at all.  But this is of course nonsense.  Skepticism became dominant at Plato's academy shortly after Plato's death, and not because they already anticipated Cartesian views.  I suspect it was partly because of Alexander the Great and the return of military autocracy as the default government pattern; if you don't claim to know anything, you are never claiming to know the rulers are wrong about anything, so you're slightly safer from hostile rulers.  Still, skepticism seemed to be an available option because all it actually requires is admitting that people can be wrong about anything.  Once that obvious fact is granted, it is hard to see how you can completely rule out the possibility that we're wrong about everything.

And that's why Aristotle's view doesn't actually solve skeptical problems.  After all, we do make mistakes, so even an Aristotelian has to have some account of how such errors are possible.  And whatever the account is, it will always be possible to raise the skeptical worry that errors like that could be much more common than we think.

Induction:  The problem of induction suffers the same fate; Aristotelianism has a solution to the problem of induction if our knowledge of forms is infallible.  But if our knowledge of forms were infallible, we couldn't make a lot of mistakes we quite obviously make.  So the Aristotelian view doesn't actually solve the problem of induction, and so arguments like Goodman's can be run against the Aristotelian; how do we know we're not making one of our mistakes about essences in thinking that it's green rather than grue which can genuinely be part of the essences of things?  Not that I think an Aristotelian should actually be a skeptic, of course, but Aristotelianism alone is not an answer to the problem; the Aristotelian must join the rest of us in seeking other answers.

Personal identity:  Derek Parfit and other contemporary philosophers seem to have been rediscovering Buddha's insight that our concept of ourselves is in many respects deeply misleading, indeed incoherent.  Parfit also follows Buddha in thinking that good consequences follow from this insight (as they often do from recognizing the truth); the mistaken notion of the self is deeply implicated in destructive forms of selfishness, so recognizing the flawed notion of the self should help free one from those harmful selfish impulses.  Feser will of course have none of this; selfishness is central to the conservative mindset, and must be defended at all costs!  Now, of course the objectionable moral implications of Feser's view don't constitute evidence that his view is false (it's false because it involves the same impossible theory of souls that I've criticized all through his discussion), but since he's constantly harping on the supposed immoral consequences of modern naturalism, I couldn't resist giving a nod to the morally appealing consequences of the Buddhist view.  Incidentally, Feser insists that skepticism about personal identity originates with Descartes; I find it implausible that Descartes' influence was the source of Buddha's views on this matter.

Free will:  A free choice cannot be derived from the world as understood by the chooser; when you freely choose to do something, you don't examine your evidence to determine what choice you are going to make, you make the choice.  Hence, it must come from outside of the world as understood by the chooser?  Perhaps it must come from outside of everything?  Feser says not quite; it must come from outside of everything material, but that's fine, because there's the realm of souls and forms and final causes.  But that's actually no help at all, at least so long as we understand the realm of souls and forms and final causes (as Feser insists we do).  The problem comes from our understanding of the world, not the material nature of the world, so nothing we understand can possibly be of any help.  Kant recognized this, and so said free choices comes from an unknowable realm.  Others since have found the idea of an unknowable realm problematic (how do we know it’s there?  It's unknowable!) and so Heidegger and Sartre and others say free choices comes from nothing.  Crazy answers, to be sure (though much depends on how you interpret them), but at least they recognize that there's a serious problem here.  Compatibilists also take the problem seriously for the most part.  Feser does not take the problem seriously; he gives no explanation of what it is about final causes that is supposed to connect them to freedom, probably because to do so he'd have to say a lot of things that are contrary to the common sense he claims to be respecting.

Natural rights:  I of course am a consequentialist, and think doing without natural rights is an improvement.  But I would have thought this would be the place to discuss Kant.  Since Feser instead uses it as an opportunity to heap scorn on Locke, I have little to say about this part of his discussion; since Feser is unfair to nearly all of his opponents, I expect he is unfair to Locke, but I am not sufficiently a Locke scholar to say how.

Morality in general:  I haven't done a lot of quoting of Feser, because he usually buries his points in considerable excess verbiage (and ad hominem), but I'll quote this one.  He complains that Hume does not "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.  The Platonist, Aristotelian, or Thomist can say that such people are behaving in an inherently irrational and objectively wicked manner, given human nature.  All the Humean can say is 'Gee, I hope they don't succeed.'"  Leaving aside the somewhat suspect character of his list of sociopaths, does Feser really think it is of such overriding importance, or indeed any importance at all, what one says to Nazis?  Plato was not so foolish (Socrates himself could not move Callicles, or Meno for that matter, and the conversion of Thrasymachus is presented in such a way as to make its sincerity highly dubious, to say the least), and I hope no Platonist would be.  I am less expert on the Aristotelians and Thomists, but I had not heard that they believed in magic spells, for surely it would have to involve magic if a Nazi ever changed his behavior in the slightest upon hearing the incantation "you are behaving in an inherently irrational and objectively wicked manner."

Hume was actually a more practical sort; he favored saying whatever would work best, and employing other means, again whatever accomplishes the most for the least cost, when words fail.  I never cease to be astonished at how often people try to argue against consequentialism on the basis that it supposedly endorses policies with bad consequences. If your argument is that consequentialism is committed to a policy which has bad consequences, that is a sure sign that there's something wrong with how your argument interprets consequentialism, not that there's something wrong with consequentialism.  If the policy has bad consequences, then it's not the policy consequentialism will favor.

Now, Feser admits that his opponents may have space for a "pretense" of morality, but he thinks that unless they use the magic spells, that can have no impact.  Of course, a consequentialist moral theory is hardly a pretense of morality, but perhaps more to the point, Feser's discussion of this issue leaves me with grave doubts about his ability to assess moral claims.  He suggests that he thinks people behaved more morally in the middle ages than they do at present (elsewhere in the chapter he suggests that they were more devoted to wisdom as well!)  I usually don't think much of the incredulous stare as an argument, but I'm not sure where to begin with this aspect of Feser's discussion.

Feser is aware that the modern era has produced non-consequentialist ethics as well; Kant's moral theory is perhaps even more influential than any variety of consequentialism.  But Feser's discussion of Kant's moral theory would barely get a passing grade if it came from an undergraduate in an introductory ethics class.  Kant's central idea is that ethics is supposed to be both inherently universal, and chosen by humans.  So what we can choose is constrained only by the requirement that our choices must be consistent with the requirement of universality.  This means I cannot make choices that undermine the rights of others to their choices; I must treat all choices as mattering.  I don't want to try to give Kant's full story, but since Feser seems to think the modern worldview means you can't criticize anyone (perhaps the reason he doesn't like it; he loves to criticize!), I should probably at least mention that detail in Kant's approach.  One way of putting Kant's version is that we must be tolerant of everything except intolerance; we must treat impartially all perspectives which are not themselves partial.  If we respect the choices of others who do not themselves respect the choices of others, we are failing to respect the choices of their victims; if we give equal weight to the biased, we are in part sharing their bias.  So we can't fully respect the choices of the biased, of those who do not themselves respect the choices of others (of wrongdoers).  The closest we can come, Kant thinks, is to respect their choice to be biased by applying their standards to them; being biased against them.  Hence proportional retribution as the response to wrongdoers, which whether it is right or wrong seems rather different than the inability to respond to wrongdoing which Feser implies Kant’s theory leads to.

Feser only discusses the first form of the categorical imperative, and indeed the first form is very hard to sensibly interpret if one ignores the other two forms.  But Feser's criticism of Kant goes from being pathetic to high comedy when he complains that there is no way Kant could possibly derive detailed moral rules from "reason alone," using only his principles.  I know that Feser is under the delusion that his own Thomistic principles are clearer and less susceptible to conflicting interpretations than Kant's, but it certainly is nothing more than a delusion.

Chapter VI

Feser begins this chapter by mocking the Churchlands.  It is obvious from recent psychological research that there are mistakes and confusions in people's common understanding of notions like "belief" and "desire."  For that matter, this has long been obvious to those who have tried to understand those notions; many philosophers (Spinoza, Hume, and Nietzsche come to mind) anticipated some of the discoveries of the recent psychological research.  So the serious question is whether "belief" is more like "phlogiston" or "aether" or more like "heat" or "metal."  Thinking we know exactly what it refers to and that something exactly like that exists is absurd.  The Churchlands, of course, think belief theory is more like phlogiston theory.

Feser makes heavy weather of how hard it is to state their theory.  Since I don't myself reject beliefs, I can of course simply talk about what they believe, but as Feser notes, it seems that they shouldn't.  I do actually think it's a problem for them that they speak of these successor concepts without providing them; nobody did, or should have, rejected phlogiston chemistry before the rival oxygen theory was proposed.  But equally, nobody should have said phlogiston theory couldn't be replaced, and nobody should say that about folk psychological notions either.  Patricia Churchland makes a pretty convincing case for the thesis that folk psychology is deeply defective.  That doesn't make it clear how much should be revised and how much replaced, much less exactly what revisions and replacements should be made (Paul seems to make more radical claims about those things than Patricia, and to be less careful about citing evidence), but Feser seems to think everything is fine, and that's just absurd.

Perhaps the Churchlands should be taken as speaking about beliefs and desires analogically when they talk about what people think or want.  I complained when Feser said that God is "analogically" a person, because that seems to mean that God is a person when Feser needs God to have human-like features and not when those features seem to be problematic, but obviously the notion that something could be analogically like something else is not inherently defective.  I can't see how there would be any fatal confusion were Patricia Churchland to claim to analogically know her own mind better than Feser analogically knows it.

Certainly Feser doesn't provide anything like a decisive argument.  He is tacky enough to make jokes about the Churchlands' pillow talk.  I will not speculate on what it sounds like when Thomists talk to their lovers in private, but thinking of my own case, I certainly hope that it is not a strike against any philosopher that what they say to their lovers in private seems rather silly.

Feser also makes much of what he takes to be the a priori character of his own theories about mind and intentionality, suggesting that we should take the Churchlands no more seriously than we should take someone who says we should expect a new form of addition to be discovered according to which 2+2=23.  As usual, I think the mathematics analogies are misguided on many levels.  Further, even if intentionality were the same kind of a priori matter as addition, what would Aristotle or Aquinas have thought of the claim that there's a number n such that n is greater than 1 and n+n=n?  No doubt that whatever any future oddballs who proposed such a thing would be doing would not be arithmetic.  And yet I doubt that's Feser's own opinion of Cantor (it would be odd that he expresses such admiration for Frege if he rejects modern mathematical ideas like cardinal numbers).

Of course, most modern materialists are not eliminativists, as Feser grants.  Before talking about his specific arguments, I do want to mention one general issue which seems to me to be at work in some of his complaints.  It is logically impossible to theorize about everything, because the theorizer is part of everything, and including the theorizer among the objects of the theory generates self-reference paradoxes that should be familiar to anyone who knows anything about modern philosophy from Frege onward.  Having a total theory of everything requires being outside of everything; it requires the impossible "view from nowhere" in Thomas Nagel's memorable phrase.  This fact may generate theological problems (it may make divine omniscience incoherent), but it is no problem for materialism.  There is no principled obstacle to generating a complete material theory of anyone except myself, or to them generating a complete material theory of me.  It's puzzling that I couldn't borrow their complete material theory of me and use it as a complete material theory of myself, but a little reflection on the nature of the problem will show that puzzling or not, that's just how it must work.  A number of the problems Feser tries to raise for materialism seem to involve this required distinction between the thinker and the object of thought, but as indicated these are not actually problems (just facts), and if they were problems, Feser's view wouldn't solve them; the problem isn't that the thinker must be distinct from any material facts thought about, but that the thinker must be distinct from any facts at all that are thought about.  Souls and final causes don't make any difference to that issue.

It seems to me that this is part of the confusion involved when Feser makes heavy weather of the fact that a symbol must be interpreted by a thinker as representing in order to represent.  He's right to insist that how I as a thinker manage to do that interpreting itself involves me representing things, and isn't something that I can fully account for in terms outside of my thoughts.  But he fails to recognize that the reason is that it's something I can't fully account for at all (and it is something someone else could fully account for materialistically).

Still, Feser is right about another point; teleology is necessary to understanding thought.  And he briefly mentions the most popular way to explain teleology materialistically; use evolutionary accounts, as Millikan does in Language, Thought and Other Biological Categories.  Feser is not impressed.  He cites Fodor as saying we can make a shrewd guess as to the functions of many biological features without knowing their evolutionary history.  It is hard to see how anyone could take that seriously as an objection to the theory; it is as if someone objected to the theory that gold is the element with atomic number 79 on the basis that one can make a shrewd guess as to whether some substance is gold without counting the protons in any of the atoms the substance is composed of.

Feser also claims that on Millikan's story the first instance of some trait, or the traits of swampman, will not have functions.  For the first instance of a trait, there seems no reason not to say that it has a function based on how selection will operate on it in the future.  As for swampman, I think in that case it is less clear that swampman's organs do have functions (does Feser also think swampman has beliefs and desires?  If so, I wish he'd indicated that he holds that highly controversial view!)  But if we must say they do have functions, that still isn't really a problem.  It would hardly constitute abandonment of Millikan's principles to say the functions are determined by counterfactuals about how selection would operate on the traits of those organs in some suitable range of circumstances.

Still, Feser says the deeper problem is that the teleology in Millikan's theory isn't real teleology.  I think the confusion I mentioned above is at work here; part of the reason he's suspicious of it is that it doesn't provide the view from nowhere, but his view doesn't do that either.  At least, I can't see anything else that final causes are needed for that Millikan's "Normal functions" can't do perfectly well.  And it's clear that Dennett is talking about what Millikan is talking about.  The only sense I can make of Feser's complaints against Dennett in this section is that he thinks Dennett needs some "real" teleology which goes beyond that.  And the only sense in which that seems remotely true is the sense in which Dennett as thinker must be outside the kinds of things he's thinking about even when he's thinking about thought.  But that doesn't mean that some special kind of teleology other than Millikan's must be going on in Dennett; any different senses of teleology wouldn't have anything to do with the real sense in which a thinker must be distinct from the objects of thought.

Feser concludes with a discussion of the "new essentialists" and various advocates of non-Humean understandings of causation and scientific theories generally.  He oversimplifies the Humean view, as usual, and I actually think that if it isn't oversimplified the Humean approach is superior to the alternatives, but as he says this "new essentialism" is extremely popular, so he would have a lot of allies if it were as closely allied to his position as he believes.  But it isn't, for reasons I've already discussed from various angles.  Feser completely blurs the line between the minimal thesis that things have properties which determine their behaviors in some way (a thesis even Humeans accept) and the very substantial thesis that pretty much the essences Aristotle believed in are present in things and produce their behavior in pretty much the way Aristotle described them as doing.  It helps him blur this distinction that Aristotle was often extremely vague in his descriptions, but the details of Feser's philosophy depend on his getting very specific about them at times (as I've discussed extensively for the specific case of the form or essence of humanity).

The new essentialists are somewhere between the minimal thesis and the very substantial thesis, but they reject the very substantial thesis for the same reason the Humeans do; it's obviously false.  And so perhaps there are powers in the world of the kind Armstrong and Cartwright and others believe in; there's no evidence against that thesis, at least.  Or perhaps there are powers of kinds nobody has thought of; certainly there is no evidence conclusively showing there couldn't be unimagined powers.  But the potentials Aristotle described?  Unless we strip out all the details (in which case Feser can't make his claims about morality, God, etc.), there is plenty of evidence against those.


[1] I got this from memory, but the index of On the Plurality of Worlds is as wonderfully clear and informative as the rest of it, telling me that "nothing, possibility of" is discussed on pages 73-4, where, as I remembered, Lewis indicates that it is not possible for there to be nothing.  He also denies that this is an explanation of why there is something, and I agree with him about that, but his standards of explanation would also rule out most of Feser's explanations.  Lewis also notes that David Armstrong's very different modal theory has the same consequence.  I believe Carnap's may as well, though I can't seem to find my copy of Meaning and Necessity, and I doubt the index of that would be as helpful anyway.