Saturday, October 22, 2016

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 5 Decent of the Modernists - Part 1: Pre-birth of the modern & Thoroughly modern metaphysics)

iconIn chapter 5, titled the Decent of the Modernists, Feser explains his discontent on how rejecting A-T metaphysics has ultimately lead to the modern preponderance among academics (and I suppose society in general) of the secular and atheistic mindsets. Public enemy number one seems to be the "father of modern philosophy" himself, Rene Descartes (1596-1650). It was he, along with his predecessors John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham, the latter of whom helped foster nominalism and conceptualism to rival Aristotle and Plato's two versions of realism, lead to the "undoing of the Scholaic tradition". (167)

Pre-birth of the modern

According to Feser, both Scotus and Ockham's views on metaphysics and god lead them to conclude that god cannot be known through reason, and must be believed on faith. In other words, god's existence cannot be proved, they contend, and since Descartes' time this general theological view which rejects A-T metaphysics in favor of a more mechanistic view of nature has dominated Western thought. This, Feser says, is what many of the New Atheists pick up on in their critique of theism in general. Feser spends several pages on Hitchens' book god is not Great, criticizing his alleged ignorance of Ockham's razor. Feser argues that versions of it previously were addressed by Aquinas himself and even Aristotle. That may be so, but it doesn't show that change, causation, and final causality necessarily entail "God" — who is dispensed by the razor. Adding god into the mix just adds more unanswerable questions and logical problems.

Scotus' skepticism, Feser says, is motivated by an emphasis on god's will over his intellect.

So radically free is God's will, in Scotus's view, that we simply cannot deduce from the natural order either His intentions or any necessary features of the things He created, since He might have created them in any number of ways, as His inscrutable will directed. Ockham pushes this emphasis on the divine will further, holding that God could by fiat have made morally obligatory all sorts of things that are actually immoral; for example, had He wanted to, He could have decided to command us to hate Him, in which case this is what would be good for us to do. Thus we are brought by Ockham to the idea that morality rests on completely arbitrary demands rather than rationally ascertainable human nature. (168)

But wait a second. If god created that human nature, couldn't he have created us with a different nature, which would rationally entail a different kind of morality? Couldn't god, for example, have made humans reproduce by laying a large amount of eggs ensuring that only a few could possibly be raised to adulthood instead of giving birth to live young? What principle prevents god from doing that? In other words, was god's choice in creating our nature the way it is at all arbitrary, or is there some logically necessary reason why he created our nature the way it is? If so, what's that logically necessary reason? If not, then our morality is ultimately arbitrary even if it logically entails from our nature, because our nature itself would be arbitrary.

Feser takes a long swipe at Hitchens' critique of Ockham's views that we cannot prove a first cause with the traits typically associated with theism—omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omniscience, etc., and deal with the "unanswerable question of who designed the designer or created the creator." (god is not Great, p. 71) But this was answered "long before Ockham was born" Feser states. (170) This may be so, but it would make little difference to the question of god's existence if A-T metaphysics ultimately fails to make a convincing case proving a first cause with typical theistic traits must exist, as I think it does. I do agree with Feser that Hitchens does not engage deeply with the metaphysical arguments for god. God is not Great doesn't set out to disprove the existence of god, it's primary goal is to show how religion poisons everything by critiquing religious history, belief, traditions, and institutions, especially the Abrahamic religions. And I think it does a damn good job doing so. But Feser is focused on the metaphysical arguments, which you're not going to get in great detail with Hitchens, who was best at showing how absurd, stupid, and harmful religion is.

Regarding a Humean-like skepticism of not being able to know the objective causal connections between things which Feser says underlies Ockham's philosophy, he argues it threatens the very possibility of science:

For if there are no shared essences, and if we cannot get behind the appearance of things to their underlying causal bases, then molecules and quarks, gravitation and electromagnetism go the way of the First Cause and science follows theology into the scrap heap.....[but] no such problem - for either cosmological arguments or for science - faces the Aristotelian and Thomistic views of causation we looked at in Chapters 2 and 3. (169)

My view is that we don't need to know the totality of objective causal connections between things in order to be able to do science. We build our knowledge incrementally, and at some point our knowledge base becomes sufficient to be able to explain things scientifically. We have enough scientific data now to know there are no metaphysical souls or immaterial intellects having any causal effect on atoms. It's only fermions and bosons (and whatever the hell dark matter and energy is, which has no effect on our everyday lives). So I don't see any problem for the materialist doing science. I do see a problem for the A-T metaphysicist doing science, since science disconfirms teleology in the laws of physics in favor of dysteleology, and disconfirms formal causes, which I think is pretty much a useless and antiquated term. Fundamental physics has shown us that there is no causality at all which completely and utterly undermines the whole of A-T metaphysics. Once you understand fundamental physics and you see what causality really is, you'll see that causality is a useful word but it doesn't really exist. Science also disconfirms the A-T view on consciousness. This is why few scientists who work with the fundamental questions of existence, causality, or consciousness take A-T metaphysics seriously, or would take it seriously if they were aware of it, just like me.

Rejecting A-T metaphysics in favor of Ockhamite metaphysics also tends to leads one towards a lower grade conception of god, Feser argues, as an anthropomorphic super being that is "merely a superhuman external spectator, arranging things from the outside," and thus opening up "village-atheist polemic" strawman attacks. (170) Feser may have a point here. The theistic personalism most popular among Protestants tends to get much more traction than A-T metaphysical conceptions and justifications of god, and atheist debaters tend to focus mostly on the former. True. But the "grade 3" A-T view of god that Feser outlined in chapter 3 is not any less incoherent than the anthropomorphic "grade 2" view of god as the invisible person in the sky.

Feser does lament over the prospects of A-T metaphysics being false in light of the nominalistic and conceptualistic views of Ockham and expresses the exact views I have about the former:

But suppose that we interpreted this vocabulary in terms of a nominalist or conceptualist metaphysics, rather than a realist one. Then all those complicated technicalities would reflect, not objective reality, but only our subjective ideas or the way we decided to use words. The scholastic philosophy that inherited this terminology would come to seem an exercise in mere wordplay  and irrelevant hair-splitting, rather than a serious investigation of the real world. (171)

Exactly Feser, exactly.

Thoroughly modern metaphysics

In this section of the chapter, Feser tries to argue that "modern science did absolutely nothing to refute Aristotle's metaphysics." (173) I beg to differ. If it is the case that Aristotelian metaphysics requires that the intellect "cannot possibly require a material or bodily organ for its operations," as he states in chapter 4, then modern science has indeed shown this to be false.

We also discover the purpose of life—according to A-T scholastic metaphysics:

[T]he highest kind of life is one devoted to the contemplation and service of God, that the goal of our lives here and now ought to be to prepare for the next life, and that to the extent God wants us to concern ourselves with earthly affairs, it is largely to build families (preferably with lots of children) and to find our fulfillment in sacrificing our petty desires and selfish interests for the same of their well being. (174)

Typical smoggy day in Beijing
I couldn't disagree more. Contemplation of god may be an interesting metaphysical exercise, but in and of itself isn't anything good. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader of ISIS, for example, is devoted to the contemplation and service of god a whole lot and is preparing for the next life (which I'm sure he thinks includes many female virgins).* Building families with lots of children actually is a selfish act. We live in a world with finite resources and finite space, and we're 7.4 billion and growing. We're killing hundreds of millions of animals daily and we're destroying the planet's natural resources in the process of satisfying our ever-growing appetites. Look at what your average Chinese city looks like now and realize that if we don't stabilize our population growth and try and achieve 100% renewable energy, China's fate will be the world's fate, only it will be far worse. Far from sacrificing selfish interests, having lots of kids is a selfish interest. It may have been a wise idea during antiquity when all labor was manual and a large percentage of children died before reaching the age of five, but it just isn't practical today. Besides, the money and time one spends on raising a house full of kids could be spend towards helping those in need. I would agree somewhat with Feser (and the current Pope Francis) that contemporary society is far too preoccupied with the consumption of material goods. I personally would like to see a popular return to more intellectual endeavors. I would like for it to become "cool" to be into philosophy, history, politics, economics, and science, and for knowledge and wisdom in these fields to become the preferred social currency, instead of showing off an expensive watch, or a pair of shoes, or a car, or how much money you make.

Feser argues that the real reason why Aristotelian thinking fell out of popularity from the Middle Ages to the Modernists is that in addition to Ockham and Scotus, Martin Luther's Protestant reformation ushered in new social norms (like divorce) with an emphasis on "individual conscience" and fragmented Christianity into competing camps and ensuing wars, which by the time Bacon, Hobbes, and Descartes were writing in the 1600s, the emphasis on "increased wealth and a new sense of individual freedom - led to a desire for more of the same," whereby the "agenda determined the arguments rather than the other way around." (174-175) According to Feser, the early figures of modern science, like Francis Bacon, were concerned with mastery of nature to further the betterment of our earthly terrestrial lives, instead of focusing on the next life. I see nothing wrong with this, and I see something very wrong with focusing on the next life, which we secular progressives think is an utter waste of time.

So it's just not true when Feser states, "modern science, far from refuting Aristotle's metaphysics, was simply defined in such a way that nothing that smacked of Aristotelian formal and final causes and the like would be allowed to count as truly 'scientific.'" (175) We have plenty of reasons (some stated above) that show that modern science and A-T metaphysics just aren't compatible and anyone who denies this is either a liar, is ignorant, or is a fool who can't face the music. With that, much of Feser's pontification over the demise of A-T metaphysics in Western philosophy is moot. I'm not well read on the historical details of its demise, but I do know that it's incompatible with modern science. So even if in the early years of the scientific revolution and the enlightenment the arguments made by the "early moderns" didn't quite fully make the argument against it, we certainly today have good reason for jettisoning this antiquated and false metaphysic. This will become even apparent as we continue through this chapter.

*al-Baghdadi has a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad.

← Chapter 4 - Part 3

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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