Tuesday, October 13, 2015

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 3 Getting Medieval)

Feser starts chapter 3 lauding Aquinas' lifelong chastity and devotion to god, as if that's supposed to impress us. Religious obsessions with chastity always reminds me of how masochistic it is. There's also something about serious Catholics that I really don't like. I've always hated Catholicism, but it's hard to hate most Catholics today because most of them are so non-religious that they act almost indistinguishable from your average secular atheist. But the ones who take their religion seriously, like Feser, get me agitated. Feser is convinced his religion is true and wants the world to conform to it, and that's dangerous. I suppose then that it's a good thing he doesn't get much traction.

It's in chapter 3, called Getting Medieval, that Feser lays out his argument for god. He starts by making several insults about the New Atheists and their apparent failure to address the "greatest philosopher of the Middle Ages," especially Richard Dawkins, who is arguably the most famous atheist in the world. As a reminder once again, I haven't fully read The God Delusion, and so I unfortunately cannot speak on Dawkins' behalf. But, from what I did read, Dawkins does make a lot of common sense arguments against the belief in a theistic intervening god - the kind who ensures you have parking space at Walmart while he ignores the prayers of millions of kids starving to death. Hitchens' God is Not Great is really a critique of religion, specifically the Abrahamic ones. He doesn't really try and refute the existence of god per se. Perhaps this is a weakness, but I think his criticisms against Abrahamic theism are strong enough that no argument anyone can make could establish the probabilistic existence of Yahweh. The biblical god and the religions that derive from him are just too absurd to be taken seriously, even when Aquinas' arguments are met head on, as we're about to see.

Feser makes a big deal about the New Atheist's criticisms of William Paley's popular design argument. The reason why so many atheists mention Paley's argument is because it's a very popular argument that a lot of theists make. It's also a very simple argument; one doesn't need to learn complex, esoteric metaphysics like one has to do in order to understand Aquinas. That's why Paley's argument keeps coming up again and again, and the New Atheists (and atheists in general) have to make it a point to address it. Aquinas' arguments are generally too complex and require too much philosophical knowledge for your average wannabe apologist to successfully make. It's much easier for them to memorize the simple premises of the cosmological argument, or remember the scene involved in Paley's watchmaker analogy. It's fair to say that it isn't a straw man to attack design arguments of the Paley variety as Feser thinks on page 81. It's a legitimate argument for god, albeit a really bad one. No, a more proper straw man is like what Feser did in his opening chapter when he says your average secularist thinks strangling infants or fucking corpses or goats is perfectly normal in order to show how secularism is "irrational, immoral, and indeed insane," without even defining what he means by "secularism."

Feser's attitude seems to be that none of the New Atheist's arguments mean anything, until they refute Aquinas. And to be fair, the New Atheists have, by and large, not taken up Aquinas. Feser accuses secularists of swallowing "anything their gurus shovel at them." (80) But he must realize how absurd it is for him to make such a claim, when everyone knows it's organized religion that brainwashes its masses and requires its adherents make statements of faith, usually starting at childhood. And the Catholic Church is about as organized as organized religion can get.

Anyway, moving on to Aquinas, Feser notes how Aquinas' arguments for god are metaphysical and are not akin to scientific hypotheses whereby we weigh evidence and determine a probability of correctness. Aquinas' metaphysical arguments are more like mathematical theorems, Feser says, in that they're "all-or-nothing". He states:

Scientific arguments start from empirical premises and draw merely probabilistic conclusions. Mathematical arguments start from purely conceptual premises and draw necessary conclusions. Metaphysical arguments of the sort Aquinas was interested in combine elements of both these other forms of reasoning: they take obvious, though empirical, starting points, and try to show that from these starting points, together with certain conceptual premises, certain metaphysical conclusions follow necessarily. And the empirical starting points are always so general that there is no serious doubt to their truth: for example, they will be premises like "More than one object is red," or "We observe change going on in the world around us." Hence Plato and Atristotle argue in their different ways that, given the nature of things as we observe them, there must necessarily be forms or universals that are neither purely mental nor reducible to matter. Hence Aquinas argues that, given that we observe things that exist, undergo change, and exhibit final causes, there necessarily must be a God who maintains them in existence at every instant.

Whew. But he adds:

Now as with geometrical arguments, it is always possible that someone attempting a metaphysical demonstration has made a mistake somewhere; metaphysical reasoning is not infallible. But as with geometry, the kind of mistake involved will not be a failure to consider all the empirical evidence, a violation of Okham's razor, any other such thing. And even if someone claims to doubt the empirical premises appealed to - as, for example, Parmenides would claim to doubt that change ever occurs - it will typically be doubt of the sort that derives from some competing metaphysical theory, rather than from some scientific discovery of heretofore unknown evidence. In general, the starting points of metaphysical arguments aren't matters of scientific controversy, but rather premises concerning that which science, like common sense, necessarily takes for granted. (82-83)

This is a very important passage, because Feser is trying to buffer his arguments against any scientific evidence one can bring against his metaphysical arguments. This is going to be a point I argue against as we go into this chapter. Feser pays close attention to Dawkins' critique of the arguments for god's existence where he says New Atheists "fail to understand the difference between a scientific hypothesis and an attempted metaphysical demonstration, and illegitimately judge the latter as if it were the former." (83) And then he mentions how atheists might take the view that only scientific and mathematical reasoning are legitimate and labels this "scientism" and "positivism" and spends time arguing how they are ultimately self-refuting.

I personally agree that hard scientism and positivism are self-refuting and ultimately untenable epistemologies. I hold to what is sometimes called "weak scientism." Unlike strong scientism, which says that "the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society," weak scientism says that the natural sciences are given a privileged status over metaphysics and logic and all other methods of derived knowledge, but it stops short of saying that science and logic are the "only" ways of yielding true knowledge.* Furthermore, I apply this privileged status of science mostly when entertaining questions regarding ontology, such as the fundamental nature of reality—for which science is our most reliable epistemology, contrary to what Feser says. No logician could ever derive the physics of quantum mechanics from the laws of logic, or from metaphysics. Only empirical evidence could enlighten us to such phenomena, and the universe is ultimately quantum mechanical in nature. On the flip side, when dealing with questions of human nature, I don't emphasize physics, I turn to biology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. When dealing with literary criticism, I don't emphasize physics either, I use techniques established in philosophy, like literary theory. When dealing with math, I use logic, not science, and when dealing with the subjective human condition, I'm open to things like meditation shedding light on truths that may have to be experienced (I was a Buddhist years ago after all). But we have to be skeptical of deriving metaphysical claims about the nature of the universe from these subjective feelings because every religion derives incompatible conclusions from subjective experience with no way to test them. That's why science has to be the guiding light by which we shed the mysteries of the cosmos and existence.

The worldview that virtually all atheists hold to is naturalism and it's a metaphysical worldview. So unlike some atheists, I have no problem with metaphysics, and I think that atheists who reject metaphysics and philosophy, like Lawrence Krauss, are making a grand mistake. It's true what Feser says when he says that the worldview atheists hold to assumes certain things that are metaphysical in nature and cannot be proven scientifically. You cannot prove that the external world exists scientifically, you have to assume it on the additional assumption that your senses are at least partly reliable. Some philosophically naive atheists don't acknowledge this and start with these assumptions not realizing that they've assumed a metaphysic. But none of this grants Aristotelian metaphysics being true for which Aquinas' arguments are based off of.

Now to another claim derived from this metaphysic. "God is necessary as an uncaused caused even if we assume that the universe has always existed and thus had no beginning." We'll revisit this idea when Feser makes the argument for the "unmoved mover." For now, I want to pick on Feser's concept of god. On page 88 he gives several different descriptions of god including the one he thinks describes god the best. Reiterating the Thomist view of god, he writes:

God is not an object or substance alongside other objects or substances in the world; rather, He is pure being or existence itself, utterly distinct from the world of time, space, and things underlying and maintaining them in being at every moment, and apart from whose ongoing conserving action they would be instantly annihilated. The world is not an independent object in the sense of something that might carry on if God were to "go away"; it is more like the music produced by a musician, which exists only when He plays and vanishes when He stops. None of the concepts we apply to things in the world, including ourselves, apply to God in anything but an analogous sense. Hence, for example, we may say that God is "personal" insofar as He is not less than a person, the way an animal is less than a person. But God is not literally "a person" in the sense of being one individual thing among others who reasons, chooses, and has moral obligations, etc. Such concepts make no sense when literally applied to God.

I've had numerous discussions with Thomists over their concept of god. If the concepts we apply to god, like being personal and having emotions, don't even make sense in an analogous way in terms of how god really is, then the Thomistic concept of god is too vague and mysterious to be taken seriously. For example, god's "timeless," and yet does things that requires time; god's "personal," and yet doesn't reason, choose things, or have any moral obligations. If god doesn't reason or choose things in anything like the human sense of doing so, and he's timeless, how and why did he decide to create a universe that is apparently contingent on his will? The Thomistic concept of god as "pure being or existence" also, in a way, tries to define god into existence by making existence a property of god. And lastly, sustaining the universe "at every moment" sounds a lot like occassionalism, which says that all events are taken to be caused directly by god. This goes against scientific understandings of a universe sustained and governed by natural forces. Occassionalism, also seems to take away free will, which we saw in the last chapter is already incompatible with the Aristotelian principle. If every single atom is controlled by god, then the neurons that fire inside the rapist's brain that cause him to rape, were willed and sustained by god.**

The Thomist god is full of mystery, and the analogies give us little to no clue as to what god really is. When questioned, the Thomist will say that our finite minds can't fully grasp the true wonder of god. This response makes me respect the ignostics who hold that there are no coherent concepts of god to even believe in, and the Thomist concept of god adds further mystery to the already incoherent concepts of god. I see no reason to take the ontology of such a god seriously, especially given the lackluster evidence for god.

The Existence of God

A) The Unmoved Mover

The "Unmoved Mover" argument is probably as close as a theist can get to a "proof" of god's existence. The argument is complex and not easily explained and for that reason is less well known than the more simple cosmological argument. The argument says that "the very existence of change requires that there be a first unchanging changer of everything that changes," (91) which is supposed to be identical to god. Aristotle had argued that change or motion requires a transition from potentiality to actuality and that immediate efficient causes are simultaneous with their effects. But as I have argued in the last chapter, they are not truly simultaneous. The firing of neurons in the brain that makes the muscles in the arm move the hand that shapes the clay into a bowl, happened prior to the movement of the hand, and indeed, as neuroscience shows, can happen prior to the person's conscious awareness to move their hand. None of these things are truly simultaneous.

As if the metaphysics isn't already complicated enough, we now must learn of two more kinds of causes, "accidentally ordered" causes, and "essentially ordered" causes.

  • A series of causes is accidentally ordered if "it is not essential to the continuation of the series that any earlier member of it remain in existence." (92) For example, a father does not have to continue to exist in order for his son (which the father caused to exist) to go on existing. 
  • A series of causes is essentially ordered if "the later members of the series, having no independent power of motion on their own, derive the fact of their motion and their ability to move other things from the first member". (93) For example, a stone being moved by you holding a stick will "immediately" stop moving if your hand stops moving. 

Feser reiterates the idea that essentially ordered causes are all simultaneous, which I've already argued is not the case. He also reminds us that Aquinas didn't try to argue that the universe had a beginning and didn't think it could be proved using philosophy that it didn't begin because if the totality of causes in the universe is accidental, then it does not matter if the earlier members of the series exist here and now. But this is not the case with essentially ordered causes, which requires a first cause that simultaneously exists with the latter series of causes. "Hence if there were no first member, such a series would not exist at all," Feser writes, adding, "the series cannot, even, in theory, go back infinitely: there must be a first member." (93)

This all sets the stage for the argument itself, but without having established the real ontology of simultaneous causes, which is crucial for making the actual argument, I don't think Feser can establish it on good footing. He simply hasn't given us a true example of simultaneous causes. The firing of neurons in your brain do not have to exist in their initial state for your hand to keep moving the stone. The neurons fire electrical impulses that travel in time down your nervous system to the muscles in your arm and hand that then make you move the stick which moves the rock. By the time the rock moves, the neurons that fired those impulses are no longer firing them, and are either not firing anymore, or are firing different electrical impulses that will continue to make your hand move the stick at a later time. True, if the neurons stopped firing, your hand would eventually stop moving the stick and the rock would stop, but that would not happen simultaneously, it would happen later, even if it's just a fraction of a second later. Feser gives us no reason to think such events are literally simultaneous. (And if you throw Special Relativity into the mix, these events can be separated by very long time scales from another reference frame. Indeed, Special Relativity makes it so that no two events separated by distance can ever be said to be truly simultaneous in all reference frames. Even two events that really are simultaneous in one reference frame, unlike Feser's examples, wouldn't necessarily be simultaneous from another reference frame.) Feser's unsupportable belief that the atoms in one's brain that cause the firing of neurons, that cause the movement of a hand, that causes the movement of a rock are all happening objectively simultaneous violates the basic laws of physics. It's utter bullshit. This is what happens when you let metaphysics take precedence over physics.

Essentially ordered causal series are used to argue that an unmoved mover is required since the series cannot go on forever. For example, Feser argues that a caboose being moved by reference to the freight car in front of it doesn't answer the question of what's moving the caboose. Neither does referencing the freight car in front of the freight car. And if the series goes on infinitely that doesn't answer the question either. Reference is required to a car that has the ability to move itself, like an engine car. This is a common visual used to argue that postulating an infinite past is no rebuttal to the unmoved mover argument. There are several lines of evidence that I think challenge this notion.

First is the spacetime block universe we get from Special Relativity that says all moments of time, past, present, and future are all equally real and exist. In such a case the universe could have a finite number of moments in the past, or infinite, and would still be eternal. Hence this view of time is known as eternalism. Feser doesn't addresses this model in his book at all but does so on his blog:

[T]he block universe of Minkowski is supposed to be governed by laws that are contingent. And if they are contingent, then, the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher will argue, they are merely potential until actualized. That means that even if there were no real change or actualization of potency within an Einsteinian four-dimensional block universe, the sheer existence of that universe as a whole would involve the actualization of potency, and thus something like change in the Aristotelian sense (and thus in turn an actualizer or “changer” distinct from the world itself, though that’s a subject of its own).

In another post he writes:

On the Aristotelian-Scholastic analysis, questions about causation are raised wherever we have potentialities that need actualization, or a thing’s being metaphysically composite and thus in need of a principle that accounts for the composition of its parts, or there being a distinction in a thing between its essence or nature on the one and its existence on the other, or a thing’s being contingent. The universe, however physics and scientific cosmology end up describing it -- even if it turned out to be a universe without a temporal beginning, even if it is a four-dimensional block universe, even if Hawking’s closed universe model turned out to be correct, even if we should really think in terms of a multiverse rather than a single universe -- will, the Aristotelian argues, necessarily exhibit just these features (potentialities needing actualization, composition, contingency, etc.). And thus it will, as a matter of metaphysical necessity, require a cause outside it. 
That's all his writing I could find on eternalism and I'm just not buying this rebuttal. I think that the ontology of a block universe reshapes our whole notion of what it means to be contingent. It's logically impossible that an eternally existing universe that never came into being couldn't have existed. We can imagine it not existing, but the reality of it not existing could never be possible. To speak of an eternal block universe as needing to be "actualized" assumes that it did not exist or might not have existed and needed to be actualized by a god of pure act in order to exist. That's impossible if the universe is static and eternal. A static, eternal universe, is in some sense, the ultimate brute fact. And if you try to appeal to some kind of top-down, timeless "vertical cause" (whatever the hell that means) you make the universe as necessary as its "cause" because it could not have been any other way. It makes the idea that god could have chosen not to create our universe impossible because god and our universe would eternally coexist like a pair of conjoined twins. And that begs the question of why this god and this universe (and not any other universe, or no universe) co-exist for eternity. If the theist is really trying to say our universe is contingent on god in this way, then to answer this it seems to me that the only response is a brute fact.

The notion of movement is also affected by eternalism. Nothing truly "moves" in a static eternal universe in that nothing flows. The universe as a whole is static, and unchanging, and the movement of things is simply an illusion caused by different spacetime slices having a different ontologies. In one slice I'm 30 years old, in another slice I'm 40 years old. There is change from one slice to another, but the slices as a whole which make up spacetime are all static. Thus, the appearance of change or movement is apparent only when comparing static slices of spacetime with one another. In such a universe, no unmoved mover is required since nothing actually moves in the system as a whole. We even have experimental evidence that this is the way the universe works by time emerging from quantum entanglement.

Second, Feser is trying to apply act and potency references on what happens in the universe, to the universe, making what many atheists argue is the fallacy of composition. We know that within the universe, things have to act on other things to make them change into their potentials (that's why there cannot be free will), but outside of time and space, such notions make no sense. A timeless god cannot actualize a potential because that would require time. A changeless god cannot actualize a potential because that would require change. Thus the very notion of a creating and intervening god as "pure act" makes no sense. (We'll return to the fallacy of composition later.)

Third, a timeless, unchangeable being of pure act and no potential "whatsoever" cannot become a physical being (as the Christian god does) or a creator. Going from a potential creator to an actual creator actualizes a potential; it requires change. I've heard a lot of what seems like special pleading from theists trying to respond to this. They'll simply just assert that god is a creator, even when he hasn't created anything. That's like me asserting I'm a father without having a child. Or, some Thomists will argue that this isn't a change in god's nature, which they define as pure act and existence. They might distinguish between active and passive potency. Active potency is "the principle of change or of acting upon another inasmuch as it is another thing; a power; the capacity to do or make; a principle of action." Passive potency is "the principle which receives change from another inasmuch as it is another being. 2. the capacity to receive, to be acted on, to be modified. 3. the material cause; the modifiable (determinable) principle in a being."[1] God lacks passive potency, Thomists claim, but how can god create or become Jesus and not change? If all change is changed by another, god cannot just have active potency. Becoming a physical man represents an ontological change in god and a potential that he has, and to say that god's nature is pure "act and existence" doesn't avoid the problem because act and existence are a part of what ontology is. So to have the potential to acquire a physical form, would represent an ontological change, which is a change in nature. Thus, I can't see how the Christian notion of god is incoherent with the notion of god as "Pure Actuality, lacking any potentiality whatsoever."

Also, I think William Lane Craig argues persuasively that after the universe is created, god cannot logically be timeless. A timeless being that creates makes no logical sense. It must be a being in time. That would mean, under Craig's view, that god undergoes an irreversible ontological change once he creates the universe, by going from an atemporal being, to temporal one. Craig's view of god is incompatible with the Thomist conception, and although I have objections to Craig's description of god (in that I don't find it coherent either), it makes a little more sense than Aquinas' view of god's utter timelessness. Pure actuality is not a plausible concept when describing god, especially not a trinitarian god.

Fourth, the whole concept of something non-physical interacting with and having causal impact on the physical is marred with conceptual and evidential difficulties. Take for example the problems with dualistic interactionism, a theory of the mind popular with many theists which says that the mind is non-physical has the potential to interact with and cause the physical body to do things. How can something with no size, shape, location, mass, motion or solidarity act on bodies, or to put it in the current context, act on anything physical, but especially without violating the conservation of energy and quantum field theory? To quote from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy using the popular analogy of the freight train used by Feser, "To suppose that non-physical minds can move bodies is like supposing that imaginary locomotives can pull real boxcars."

Fifth, let's grant that essentially ordered series exist in the universe and are truly simultaneous. Why does the universe have to be essentially ordered? Why does an atom need to be continually held in existence by a god? Is it metaphysically impossible for god to create something physical that continues to exist without sustenance? Is that something god can't do, like creating a stone he cannot lift? It would have to be the case given Thomistic metaphysics. I see no reason to believe an atom must be continually sustained in existence, especially if eternalism is true, but even without it.

There's so much more I can write on this subject here but in the name of being "brief" I must move on...

Having argued that (a) the essentially ordered existence of simultaneous causality is not supported, Feser does not provide any working examples of them, and which is strongly challenged if not falsified by Special Relativity and neuroscience, (b) the problems that eternalism poses for Aristotelian metaphysics, (c) the incoherency of god as pure act and an unmoved mover, (d) the problems that occur when postulating physical with non-physical interaction, and (e) the lack of any good reason to think the universe must be essentially ordered even if essentially ordered causes do exist, I now move to the argument that an unmoved mover implies the god of classical theism.

Feser starts off by arguing that there cannot be two beings of pure act. I'm not going to refute this because I'm not a polytheist, but I will reiterate that god as pure act, makes no coherent sense. "For to lack a feature is just to have an unrealized potentiality," Feser writes, "and a purely actual being, by definition, has no unrealized potentialities." (97) Then such a being cannot do or create anything nor can it acquire a physical change such as when god impregnates Mary and becomes Jesus.

A being of Pure Actuality, lacking any potentiality whatsoever, would also have to be immaterial, since to be a material thing entails being changeable in various ways, which a purely actual being cannot be. (98)

How do I make sense of this given the concept of the Trinity where Jesus is god? Jesus is a physical being. He was born, he grew up, and he died (according to the Bible), and he and god are one. Some Christians hold the view that Jesus always existed in a spiritual form before becoming a physical person. That doesn't resolve the problem of Jesus being the same as god, and having the potential for being born as a physical human being at some point in time and space. The Christian concept of the Trinity thus makes god as pure act even less plausible. It also may be helpful to remember that I'm critiquing Feser's concept of god here, not theism in general, and Feser is a "traditional Catholic," a religion that dogmatically holds to the concept of a trinitarian deity.

Since Feser's case for god is cumulative, building on various metaphysical concepts to a conclusion, if his initial concepts are false or unsupported, his conclusion therefore is either false or unsupported. He tries to derive omnipotence from god as pure act saying,

the Unmoved Mover, as the source of all change, is the source of things coming to have the attributes they have. Hence He has these attributes eminently if not formally. That includes every power, so that He is all-powerful. It also includes the intellect and will that human beings possess....so that He must be said to have intellect and will, and thus personality, in an analogous sense. Indeed, he must have them in the highest degree, lacking any of the limitations that go along with being a material creature or otherwise having potentiality. Hence He not only has knowledge, but knowledge without limit, being all-knowing. (98-99)

If a god did exist all it would have to do is create a universe. How hard is that? Well, we don't know for sure, but it might be fairly easy. In fact it might be possible for us to create entire universes in the lab that go on to exist in other dimensions. But who knows. If you do not accept that the creation of a universe requires an essentially order series, it would be possible for a god to create a universe that it doesn't have to continually sustain. To me, the only remotely plausible kind of god is a deistic one. Concepts of deistic gods differ, with some viewing god as an omni-deity that's all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. But not all of them. Given the world we live in with its immense suffering, some think a deistic god could not be omibenevolent. I think it's more plausible to view a deistic god as being amoral.

And to view god as the "cause of all change" is again to negate free will. I don't see how Feser and Thomists like him don't see this. To me, this is a glaring contradiction. Feser devotes just two pages to try and make the case for free will later in his book, and because I'm claiming the Aristotelian metaphysic is a incompatible with free will, I will comment on it here. On page 208, Feser argues that in addition to the material cause of human will (the neurons firing in the brain) there is a formal and final cause which "gives intelligible structure to the movements" and is the soul acting as a "kind of form" which has "intellective and volitional powers." I don't see an argument for free will here. How does the "soul" go from act to potency without something outside to actualize it? If the soul can change itself, then the Aristotelian principle is false. Feser's been arguing all along that potentials need something outside it to be actualized. If the soul has the potential to actualize the body, it needs an outside cause according to Aristotelian metaphysics. Hence, Feser has not made a good case for free will. Furthermore, we know how fundamental physics works in the regime of our everyday experiences and there is no room for a soul to have a causal impact on the atoms in our bodies.

God cannot have negative features according to Feser because to have a negative feature, like blindness, is to have a "privation," which is the absence of a positive feature, and the absence of something would be a failure to realize a natural potentiality. This also is supposed to apply to moral character flaws, but how does one make sense of Yahweh's jealousy and anger? Aren't they character flaws? When Dawkins argues that a first cause has not been shown to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, he's right. Feser has not shown that the unmoved mover can do everything, can know everything, and is supremely good. His metaphysics doesn't even make sense.

B) The First Cause 

The question Aquinas wants us to address regarding the first cause argument, is not whether the universe had a beginning, or what got things started, but rather what keeps them going. Feser argues that there is nothing in the nature of things in the universe that keeps them going. Knowing the essence of something does not tell you it exists. (I suppose this also applies to Forms.) Things like "rocks, trees, planets....come into existence and go out of existence all the time, which shows by itself that there's nothing about there nature that entails that they must exist." (103) The essence of something doesn't entail the existence (or non-existence) of it. So, Feser concludes, the essence or nature of things in the universe cannot be what accounts for their continued existence from moment to moment. This apparently does not apply to god, since through a game of theological wordplay, his "essence" is "existence."  I argue that nothing's essence is existence. Not god's. Not anything's. Existence is not a property.

So, nothing can cause itself; whatever comes into existence, or more generally, whatever must have existence added to its essence in order for it to be real, must be caused by another. This is the "principle of causality"....The principle says only what does not have existence on its own must have a cause. (104)

Additionally, Fesser addresses the fallacy of composition I mentioned earlier. He says it doesn't always apply, as in the case when red Legos are used to build a wall that is also red. This is true; the fallacy of composition doesn't always apply to parts and wholes. So, he argues, given "the fact that everything within the universe requires a cause outside itself....There is no reason whatsoever to doubt that the same thing is true when we reach the level of the physical universe as a whole." (107)

I want to address these two arguments. First, the principle above assumes the A-theory of time, also known as presentism, which states that only the present exists ontologically. The B-theory of time, which is eternalism, states that all moments exist ontologically, and is much better supported by the evidence. Under eternalism, the universe never truly "comes into existence." It's impossible to conceive of an eternal universe being created or not existing, because to imagine it being created or not existing is to be forced to imagine it not being eternal. But even under the A-theory, to imagine a cause of the universe outside of space and time is incoherent. All causes require time and space. Feser has failed to make a case for simultaneous causality. It is inconceivable to imagine a timeless cause without an eternalistic ontology, which would render outside causes irrelevant. Therefore, we have very good reasons to doubt Feser's extrapolation.

Second, I think experience and science shows us that everything within the universe has a cause, and Feser seems to agree at least with that, spending a page arguing against Hume's notion of an object appearing without a cause. But even on the A-theory of time, to apply causality to the universe assumes there was nothing, and then — *poof* — god created the universe. That's not what the standard big bang model says. The big bang model says there was a first moment of the universe; there never was a time before it for a cause to happen. Given that the beginning of the universe was the beginning of time and not a beginning in time, the universe did not "pop" into existence out of nothing, and the fallacy of composition applies.

When theists make their favorite first cause arguments and try to deduce from it the nature of the first cause, it's an area that I think exposes the flaws in their way of thinking. Searching for the need of a first cause makes the theist conclude that it's a spaceless, timeless, uncaused being "whose essence just is existence" where the essence/existence distinction doesn't apply. In other words, all of the things that apply to the universe, don't apply to the first cause. The universe is caused, so the first cause is uncaused. The universe is in time, so the first cause is timeless. The universe contains minds with bodies, so the first cause is a disembodied mind. The problem with this logic, is that once you appropriate a being with all the opposite attributes that characterize the universe, it no longer makes any coherent sense as a being. Saying god "just is" existence no more demonstrates that god exists than saying square circles "just are" existence. I really do think that the theist who rigorously questions god's nature will have to either give up, or come to a brute fact. There just seem too many unanswerable facets to take it seriously.

But fear not, because Feser admits that god's nature is a "difficult idea to get one's mind around." This is because "God is not something we should be expected to be able fully to grasp, given the limitations of our intellects." (110) I have another theory. Let's say the concept of god is made up and cannot fully be explained because it doesn't comport with anything that is real. Such an idea can be deliberately made mysterious in order to prevent prying inquisition. The old "God's ways are higher than ours" and its various forms can be used as a blanket rebuttal to any serious acknowledged inconsistency or incoherence. Too many theists do not take this serious enough and lose believers as the result of it.

C) The Supreme Intelligence

Here Feser makes Aquinas' Fifth Way argument but warns us that it has nothing to do with the common intelligent design arguments espoused by creationists and William Paley. He also assures us that "an evolutionary account for the origin of the species doesn't undermine the Fifth Way in the least, and might even slightly help it." (113) He laments over the thinking of modern intelligent design theorists who have essentially rejected Aristotelian metaphysics in favor of the "mechanical" universe that modernist philosophers accept and for pushing "God of the gaps" style arguments. We're also further assured that our capacity to form general concepts and to reason from them "demonstrably cannot be explained in terms of evolution or in any other materialistic way," according to Feser, but if it somehow could, "would not affect the Fifth Way specifically at all" because "the evolutionary process would itself...manifest final causality or goal-directedness" that would "slightly help [Aquinas'] case." (114)

Aquinas' case is that the world is filled with natural regularities, like the moon orbiting the earth, and the fire produced when a match is struck. "But there is no way to make sense of these regularities apart from the notion of final causation," Feser writes, "of things being directed toward an end or a goal. For it is not just the case that a struck match regularly generates fire, heat, and the like; it regularly generates fire and heat specifically, rather than ice, or the smell of lilacs, or the sound of a trumpet." (114-115) So here Aristotle's notion of final causes play a significant role in establishing the case for the Fifth Way. But as I've argued in my review of the last chapter, Feser has not plausibly established teleological final causes to exist. He simply takes the latter effects of a series of natural events and determines that to be the final cause. There's no rigorous proof that the earlier events were "directed" towards their effects in the same sense we think of a rubber ball being made for the purposes of being a child's toy. Things in nature just happen, and whatever their effects, are their effects. To believe, for example, that the 3.5 billion year history of life on earth, with its 5 mass extinctions and the horrible death and destruction of millions of species that resulted in untold suffering was all for the "goal" of make a species of primates "know" god (and so that the Pope can tell us not to masturbate), I've argued is ludicrous. This appears exactly like an undirected process with no teleological goal. Additionally, from the Aristotelian perspective, how could we even distinguish a series of events having a final cause versus a series of events that didn't? How is the notion of final causes even falsifiable when a variation of final causes is compatible with dysteleological naturalism that I mentioned in the last chapter review?

The regularity Feser thinks implies the existence of god is better explained by the laws of physics. It is the unbreakable laws of physics which determine the moon's revolution around the sun (as well as the planet that struck earth over 4 billion years ago that resulted in our moon being formed). But then we get to an apparent dilemma in goal-directed final causes. How can something that doesn't yet exist (such as the final cause) direct the causes that will result in it? For example, how can an oak tree direct an acorn to go through all the changes it will take to result in the tree, if the tree doesn't yet exist? Only conscious beings can be directed towards a goal that does not yet exist, Feser explains to us, using the example of a builder who uses the idea of a house in his head to direct him toward building the house which does not yet exist. But acorns and trees aren't conscious. So, Feser argues from this that "the system of ends or final causes that make up the physical universe can only exist at all because there is a Supreme Intelligence or intellect outside the universe which directs things towards their ends." (116)

This is, I think, what happens when you pile garbage on top of garbage. You start from false premises, such as teleological final causes existing, and then from there you find a problem and try to resolve it by imagining an intelligence guiding it all, which as I've argued above is ludicrous. But Feser says it's "conceptually impossible that there could be genuine final causation without a sustaining intellect." (116) Well, the whole point, Mr. Feser, is that there are no genuine final causes in nature in the Aristotelian sense. There are simply things that happen by way of the laws of physics that we pattern seeking primates interpret as final causes because we're prone to look for intentionality and see purpose when there isn't any due to our evolutionary past. There is no knock down argument that Feser gives against the possibility of there not being dysteleological final causes or a sustaining intellect. He just asserts that without god the universe would just fly apart as soon as god ceased to exist. And that is, to quote Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, "pure applesauce."

And finally, Feser takes another swipe at Dawkins by way of his "central argument" in The God Delusion which is that any designer of a complex universe would have to be even more complex and would need further explanation. Many of the other New Atheists reiterate this point. I don't think any atheist should make this their "central argument" as it is not strong enough to rest your atheism on, but nonetheless let's examine this. Feser states god is "absolutely simple" and yet "is not something we should be expected to be able fully to grasp, given the limitations of our intellects." This means that although god is physically simple, in that he is not physical at all, god is conceptually complex, so much so that we cannot fully grasp him with our puny limited intellects (which god supposedly also designed). That means god is more complex than the most complex philosophical or mathematical concepts which are comprehensible at least to some. To rebut this by arguing god is "simple" is to assume that only physical complexity counts as complexity.


So, to wrap up, Feser has not shown the existence of teleological final causes, or of essentially ordered causal series whose parts literally are simultaneous, or that the essence/existence distinction as it applies to god is anything but wordplay, as well as many other claims he's made. It simply does not follow deductively that god exists as a being of pure act. I'm seeing Aristotelian metaphysics more and more as a really complicated and sophisticated way to make an essentially false argument for god's existence. But can refuting Feser really be this easy? Am I totally missing something here? We are promised that by the end of this book the reality of formal and final causes are "rationally unavoidable" but I'm getting a little impatient. We'll have to wait and see.


*This is of course after one grants their basic beliefs or foundational assumptions
**But Feser never seriously addresses this obvious logical conclusion from his own principle above. Without free will, his Christian worldview makes no sense. There is no justification for hell, or heaven, and the problem of evil becomes ever more potent without the "free will defense."
[1] Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy by Bernard Wuellner, S.J.
All quotes from Feser emphasis his.

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Edit: A theist who agrees with Feser took the time to critique my review and I responded to him. In my response I clarify many parts of my original critique that perhaps I should have worded better and I address many of his misunderstandings of my review. For further elaboration on my review, see A Reply To Steven Jake On The Last Superstition.

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