207 Back to Aristotle & Aquinas with Edward Feser

It’s always delightful to discover an erudite scholar engaging his world with wit and wisdom.  These qualities mark The Last Superstition:  A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend:  St. Augustine’s Press, c. 2008), wherein Edward J. Feser takes seriously St. Thomas Aquinas’ warning that “‘A small error in the beginning of something is a great one at the end’” (p. vii).  To illustrate, he begins his treatise by examining the California Supreme Court’s 2008 decision to permit homosexuals to “marry,” arguing that “the most important thing to know about ‘same sex marriage’ is not that it has been lawlessly imposed by certain courts” but that “it is a metaphysical absurdity and a moral abomination.” (p. ix).  In truth, neither the courts nor the people can “define” marriage any more than they can decide whether or not the axioms or Euclidean geometry are true.  Marriage, if it stands for anything at all, is “an objective metaphysical fact determined by its final cause, inherently procreative, and thus inherently heterosexual.  There is no such thing as ‘same-sex marriage’ any more than there are round squares.  Indeed, there is really no such thing as ‘sex’ outside the context of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman” (p. 149).  Furthermore, “if ‘same-sex marriage is not contrary to nature, then nothing is; and if nothing is contrary to nature, then . . . there can be no grounds whatsoever for moral judgment” (p. 150).  

The California court, however, revealed the progressive, secularist  mindset (considered “the last superstition” by Feser) which “is, necessarily and inherently, a deeply irrational and immoral view of the world, and the more thoroughly it is assimilated by its adherents, the more thoroughly do they cut themselves off from the very possibility of rational and moral understanding” (p. 3).  Committed, as they are, to a thoroughly (and irrationally narrow) materialistic conception of reality, considering only the findings of empirical science, progressive secularistgs have divorced themselves from the rich, classical philosophical heritage of the West.  Consequently:  “The irony is that to anyone who actually knows something about the history and theology of the Western religious tradition for which [Sam] Harris, [Daniel] Dennett, [Richard] Dawkins, and [Christopher] Hitchens show so much contempt, their books stand out for their manifest ignorance of that tradition and for the breathtaking shallowness of their philosophical analysis of religious matters” (p. 4).   

Feser knows this position well, for he was “for many years a convinced atheist and naturalist” (p. 6).  Slowly, by carefully reading philosophers such as Gottlob Frege, he became persuaded that “there exists, in addition to the material world and the ‘world’ within the human mind, a ‘third realm’ of abstract entities, in particular of meanings and of mathematical objects like numbers” (p. 6).  He then discovered, through Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre, the perennial relevance of Aristotle.  Finally, notable philosophers of religion, such as Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig whetted his appetite for St. Thomas Aquinas.   “All of this led me eventually to a serious reconsideration of the Aristotelian tradition in philosophy in general, and of Aquinas’s adaptation of it in particular, and the end result was that I became convinced that the basic metaphysical assumptions with modern secular philosophers rather unreflectively take for granted, and which alone can make atheism seem at all plausible, were radically mistaken” (p. 7).  Thus this book!

To build his case, Feser begins with a brief survey of philosophy’s Greek origins.  With Plato it becomes evident that “when we grasp the essence or nature of being a triangle [for example], [what] we grasp is not something material or physical, and not something we grasp or could grasp through the senses” (p. 33).  We “know the essence of triangularity is something universal rather than particular, something immaterial rather than material, and something we know through the intellect rather than the senses” (pp. 33-34).  Such universals cannot be reduced, however, to mental states—mere ideas within the mind.  “For what we know about triangles are objective facts, things we have discovered rather than invented” (p. 34).  What we know about things are their essences—their immaterial, objective, forms.  And knowing forms leads us to discern, with Plato, the ultimate “Form of the Good,” the “source of all being” (p. 37).   Knowing any form (whether triangularity or beauty, squareness or justice) “itself requires in turn knowing the Form of the Good by reference to which it counts as a perfect archetype.  The Form of the Good is thus the highest of the Forms, their source, and indeed the source of all being” (p. 37).  Plato does not specify this ultimate Form as God, though his followers (including Christians such as Augustine) certainly did.

However modified and reformulated, “something like Plato’s theory is notoriously very hard to avoid if we are to make sense of mathematics, language, science, and the very structure of the world of our experience” (p. 40).  Having granted Plato’s greatness, however, Feser finds Aristotle even greater, for his “is the most powerful and systematic realist metaphysics ever developed” (p. 51).  Lamentably, as Feser demonstrates later on:  “Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought” (p. 51).  Aristotle’s insights, such as actuality and potentiality, causation (material; formal; efficient; final) and logic, cannot be abandoned without compromising the whole philosophical endeavor.  In short, “it was the logical development of Aristotelian ideas (primarily by his medieval Scholastic admirers) that provided the most powerful and systematic intellectual foundation for traditional Western religion and morality—and for that matter, for science, morality, politics, and theology in general—that has ever existed” (p. 52).  

Coupled with an appreciation for the ancient Greeks, Feser urges us to learn from Medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, the “greatest philosopher of the Middle Ages, and among the greatest philosophers, period” (p. 77).  His intellectual debt to St. Thomas Aquinas is further evident in his Aquinas:  A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford:  Oneworld Publications, c. 2009), devoted to his metaphysics, natural philosophy, psychology, and ethics.  When one turns to Aquinas after reading “new atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (who fail to grasp even elementary differences between science and metaphysics), the luminous superiority of the Angelic Doctor becomes instantly apparent.  Dawkins et al., for example, cannot think of creation except within a linear time frame, but when Aquinas endeavored to develop arguments demonstrating God’s existence, he aimed “to show that given that there are in fact some causes of various sorts, the nature of cause and effect entails that God is necessary as an uncaused cause of the universe even if we assume that the universe has always existed and thus had no beginning.  The argument is not that the world wouldn’t have got started if God hadn’t knocked down the first domino at some point in the distant past; it is that it wouldn’t exist here and now, or undergo change or exhibit final causes here and now unless God were here and now, and at every moment, sustaining it in being, change, and goal-directedness” (Last Superstition, p. 86).  

Aquinas held this because, along with other Medieval thinkers, he grasped the difference between “accidentally ordered” and “essentially ordered” events.  The former occur as a series within time, as illustrated in the biblical lists of sons begotten by their fathers; the latter must be traced not backward but “‘downward’ in the present moment [as when a batter swings the bat, moving his hands and the bat simultaneously, the arm and shoulder and hands causing the bat to move] since they are series in which each member depends simultaneously on other members which simultaneously depend on turn on yet others, and so on” (Last Superstition, p. 93).  When we grasp this distinction, and understand that God is “Pure Act,” we can begin to see why it is that He must, necessarily, exist.  Inasmuch as everything has an “essence,” what it is, it attains being by being actualized, deriving its existence from another, more basic Reality—Being Itself.  “As Peter Geach puts it, for Aquinas the claim that God made the world ‘is more like “the minstrel made music” than “the blacksmith made a shoe”’; that is to say, creation is an ongoing activity rather than a once-and-for-all event.  While the shoe might continue to exist even if the blacksmith dies, the music necessarily stops when the minstrel stops playing, and the world would necessarily go out of existence if God stopped creating it” (Aquinas, p. 88).  

The natural world, though composed of mindless matter, appears mysteriously ordered.  As Aquinas noted, “things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result” (Summa Theologiae, 1.2.3).  Trees grow upward, seeking the light; arrows follow a predictable trajectory; acorns drop to the earth, prepared if buried rightly to develop into a lofty oak.  In view of such manifest facts:  “It follows,” Feser says, “that the system of ends or final causes that make up the physical universe can only exist at all if there is a Supreme Intelligence or intellect outside the universe which directs things towards their ends.  Moreover, this intellect must exist here and now, and not merely at some beginning point in the past, because causes are here and now, and at any point at which they exist at all, directed towards certain ends” (Aquinas, p. 117).  Far from being a probable hypothesis, an intelligently ordered cosmos demonstrates, as Aquinas argued, the reality of an Intelligent Agent.  

Emphatically, Feser asserts:  “the classical theistic arguments, and certainly the arguments of such major philosophical theologians as Anselm, Aquinas, and Leibniz, are not properly interpreted as ‘God of the gaps’ arguments at all.  They are not ‘hypotheses’ or attempts to ‘postulate’ a quasi-scientific explanation for particular phenomena that science has not yet accounted for, but which it could in principle account for someday.  They are rather attempts conclusively to demonstrate the existence of a Necessary Being or First Cause of the world on the basis of premises (concerning the metaphysics of causation, say, or the contingency of the material world, or the concept of a greatest possible being) about which empirical science has nothing to tell us.  The question of whether they succeed or fail as proofs is thus independent of the current state of our scientific knowledge” (Philosophy Mind, pp. 236-237).  

Aristotle and Aquinas also developed the notion of “hylomorphism” (matter-formism) to explain the reality of and differences between nutritive (vegetative), sensitive (animal), and uniquely rational (human) souls.  Feser discusses this in more detail in Philosophy of Mind:  A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford:  Oneworld Publishers, c. 2005, reprinted, with a Postcript, 2006), as well as his introduction to Aquinas, wherein he defends what philosophers call hylomorphic or Thomistic dualism.  He probes such questions as:  “Is the mind nothing but the brain?  Do you have an immaterial and immortal soul, inaccessible to science and knowable only via metaphysical inquiry?  Can computers think?” (Philosophy of Mind, p. vi).  Debates concerning such things were launched by Rene Descartes, who “set the agenda for modern philosophy in general and philosophy of mind in particular” (p. 1).  His metaphysical dualism—severing the purely physical res extensa from the purely non-physical res cogitans—has been misrepresented and caricatured and largely rejected by modern thinkers.  But his fundamental insight, noting that there is a radical difference between things and thinking—as real and discrete as the difference between apples and oranges—retains its basic truth.  That we think with our brains does not mean that our minds are nothing but brains.

Philosophers who insist there is no difference between minds and brains—various sorts of materialists—now dominate academic discussions.  So Feser devotes much of Philosophy of Mind to an examination of their arguments.  Following the example of Aquinas, he explains their views judiciously and clearly.  He acknowledges their power and persuasiveness, especially when one limits his thinking to empirical science.  But in the final analysis, they all fail to adequately explain such eminent realities as qualia (an inner awareness of such things as pain and color), subjectivity, intentionality, consciousness, and rational thought.  To Aristotle and Aquinas:  “Rationality—the ability to grasp forms or essences and to reason on the basis of them—has as its natural end or final cause the attainment of truth, of understanding the world around us.  And free will has its natural end or final cause the choice of those actions that best accord with the truth as it is discovered by reason, and in particular in accord with the truth about a human being’s own nature or essence” (Last Superstition, p. 122).  In sum:  to Feser, “Descartes’s basic contention that the mind is irreducible to the brain or body has not been refuted” (Philosophy Mind, p. 211), though he famously failed to suggest how mind and body interact.  This resulted from his discarding Aristotle and Aquinas, losing their understanding of an immanent teleology in all that is.  He, and most modern philosophers, forfeited a better “conception of matter—in particular a conception in which matter isn’t utterly devoid of mental properties” (p. 219).  This we find in Aristotelian hylomorphism!  Form and matter are two distinctive aspects of all that is, explicable in terms of material, efficient, formal, and final causes.  

In us humans, the soul (from the moment of conception) forms the body, but it enjoys an existence apart from it.  Amazingly, recent scientific discoveries affirm this hylomorphic perspective, for “the nature and structure of DNA is exactly the sort of thing we should expect to exist given an Aristotelian metaphysical conception of the world, and not at all what we would expect if materialism were true” (Last Superstition, p. 129).   Importantly, to Aquinas, rational thought is “not strictly speaking a bodily operation at all, but an immaterial one.  But if the rational soul operates independently of the body, it cannot depend for its continued existence on the continued existence of the body.  In short, the human soul, unlike the souls of plants and animals and unlike any form of any other kind, is a subsistent form:  it is capable, in principle anyway, of continuing in existence as a particular thing after its separation from the body in death, and even after the destruction of that body” (Philosophy Mind, p. 225).  

While praising and appropriating insights from the Ancient and Medieval thinkers, Feser certainly casts a critical gaze at the “descent of the modernists.”  Following the trajectory of Medieval nominalists such as William of Ockham, who rejected the realism of Aristotle and Aquinas, modern philosophers have repudiated the very principles that justify the existence of their calling.  Rather than explore “the ultimate causes and meaning of things” they have sought “means of increasing ‘human utility and power’ through the ‘mechanical arts’ or technology (Bacon) and of making us ‘masters and possessors of nature’ (Descartes).  Usefulness would replace wisdom, and pampering the body in this life would push aside preparing the soul for the next” (p. 175).  In the soil poisoned by Bacon and Descartes, Hobbes and Hume, there sprouted a Mechanical Philosophy determined to reduce all that is to matter-in-motion, ratified (it was assumed) by Newtonian physics.  “The modern metaphysical picture entailed by mechanism, especially when conjoined with nominalism, thus opens up an unbridgeable ‘gap’ between mind and reality” (p. 201).  Yet each of them, as Elizabeth Anscombe remarked about Hume, should probably be ranked as a “‘mere— brilliant—sophist’” (p. 254).   Skepticism, determinism, nihilism all follow, working out the implications of the course chosen centuries ago.  

As the philosopher W.T. Stace noted, in an important article 60 years ago:  “‘The real turning point between the medieval age of faith and the modern age of unfaith came when the scientists of the seventeenth century turned their backs upon what used to be called “final causes” which were “‘basic to the whole of Western civilization.’”  Consequently, Stace continued:  “‘The conception of purpose in the world was ignored and frowned upon.  This, though silent and almost unnoticed, was the greatest revolution in human history, far outweighing in importance any of the political revolutions whose thunder has reverberated through the world. . . .  The world, according to this new picture, is purposeless, senseless, meaningless.  Nature is nothing but matter in motion.’”  Everything runs according to chance and necessity, without purpose or design.  Simultaneously “‘there went the ruin of moral principles and indeed of all values,’” which were reduced to little more than personal preferences and social conventions (p. 225-226).  

Evaluating such developments Feser celebrates “Aristotle’s revenge.”   Modern philosophy, so pervasively materialistic, in large part fails because it fails to recognize the perennial truth Aristotle discerned.  The world, in short, makes sense only when we think in an Aristotelian manner, for it is simply impossible to reason otherwise!  Thus Max Delbruck, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in biophysics, suggested we grant Aristotle a Nobel Prize “‘for the discovery of the principle implied in DNA,’ and ‘the reason for the lack of appreciation, among scientists, of Aristotle’s scheme lies in our having blinded for 300 years by the Newtonian view of the world’” (p. 257).  One cannot “eliminate final causality or teleology from the explanation of human action.  As Alfred North Whitehead once put it, ‘those who devote themselves to the purpose of proving that there is no purpose constitute an interesting subject for study’” (p. 247).  

So for Feser it’s back to Aristotle!  It seems to “be no doubt that a broadly Aristotelian philosophical worldview is still as rationally defensible today as it ever was.”  To think rationally cannot but involve following his footsteps.  Indeed, he has been rejected largely for ethical reasons, for if his metaphysics is true his ethics necessarily follow.  “Even in Aristotle’s own work, we find a very conservative ethics grounded in human nature, a doctrine of the immateriality of the human intellect, and an Unmoved Mover of the universe contemplation of whom is the highest end of human existence.  By the time Aquinas and the other Scholastics were done refining and drawing out the implications of the Aristotelian system, it was evident that it entailed nothing less than the entire conception of God enshrined in classical monotheism, the immortality of the soul, and the natural law system of morality.  To acknowledge the truth of the Aristotelian metaphysical picture of the world is thus unavoidable to open the door to everything the Scholastics built on it.  In short, Aristotle’s revenge is also Aquinas’s revenge; and for that reason alone, contemporary secular intellectuals cannot allow themselves to acknowledge it.  For the project of the early moderns is their project too” (p. 267).  

Feser is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College.  That a scholar of his caliber teaches at a community college reminds me of a remark Alexander Solzhenitsyn made when he addressed a gathering at Harvard University.  Cognizant of Harvard’s elite standing in the academic world, he noted that much of the best thinking in the nation took place in non-distinguished, out-of-the-way places where individuals were not subservient to the reigning dogmas of fashion and ideology.  I’d guess he’d be delighted to find a mind such as Feser’s working in an undergraduate college in Pasadena!   

Commending Feser’s endeavor in The Last Superstition, the noted literary critic and co-editor of The New Criterion, Roger Kimball describes it as:  “A thoughtful and theologically sophisticated sally into the ranks of the New Atheism.  Feser has written a lively and well informed polemic against the latest crop of Village Atheists . . . who have provided the public with so much entertainment and so little enlightenment these past few years.  This is a serious and passionately engaged challenge to the latest effort to impose a dehumanizing orthodoxy by religious illiterates.”