A little late, but not too late: My Book Review of Edward Feser’s “The Last Superstition”

Whooooo-eee! I am pretty late for this entry, my friends–I meant to post it up last friday. But it ended up being sooooo big I had to delay it to be happy with it! I think you’ll see why, because it’s nearly 40 thousand words! But I think it’s worth it, so I hope you can forgive me once you’ve had a chance to see what I’ve been up to!

Aristotle’s Curse: An Extremely Lengthy Review of Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition

If I may beg your indulgence, allow me to provide a bit of background as I start off this very long book review. This is my very first post dealing with philosophy specifically (rather than the philosophy of history or something related to it but not ‘purely’ metaphysics or ethics or another subfield of the discipline). As luck would have it, however, the book I’m reviewing today—Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism—is aimed at laymen such as myself, as Feser intends to introduce and explain many philosophical concepts to people unfamiliar with philosophy as a discipline.[1] Therefore, I hope this may earn me a bit of forbearance from any better-educated readers (in this profession anyways) as I begin my first dip into philosophical waters. And while I’m hardly so full of myself as to say I won’t make any mistakes on my first try, I do hope the proceeding essay contains a least good points here and there. I must also give thanks to several members of /r/askphilosophy who helped me craft this review by answering my questions about Aristotle: /u/Rivka333, /u/HippeHoppe, and others. With that said, I shall begin.

As you can tell from the title of his book, Feser’s intention is to disprove the claims made by several authors called “The New Atheists”—specifically, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. He hopes to disprove their assertions that religious belief in stupid and rationally indefensible, proving instead that belief in a certain kind of monotheistic God is not only rational, but indeed can be proven beyond any doubt with nothing but pure reason.

As far as such apologetics go, The Last Superstition has been very well received, at least by believers.[2] However, Feser (who is a professor of Philosophy at a California college) aimed to do a little more than just rationally prove the existence of God. He also wanted to prove the validity—indeed, the necessity—of certain philosophical positions: Aristotelian realism, from which is derived Aristotle’s distinctively teleology-oriented moral system, from which Feser’s particular religious philosophy (that of Thomas Aquinas, or Thomism) is descended. For Feser, Aristotle’s philosophy is more than merely the correct way to make sense of the world, but the very foundation upon which Western Civilization rests: “Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought. More than any other intellectual factor—there are other, non-intellectual factors too, of course, and some are more important—this abandonment has contributed to the civilizational crisis through which the West has been living for several centuries, and which has accelerated massively in the last century or so.[3]

This is certainly a bold claim, and Feser admits as much.[4] To his credit, he makes an equally bold attempt to back it up, spending most of the book first explaining Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies. He then does the same for Aquinas, and subsequently explains how other philosophers (Hume, Descartes, and Kant, among others, and moving on to contemporary philosophers such as Paul and Patricia Churchland), in his view, failed to refute the Greeks and Medievals. At last, he proceeds to explain how this failure also foiled the attempts of the present-day “New Atheists” to disprove God and “traditional” morality.

Feser’s efforts are muchly appreciated (by me, at least); his arguments and analyses are not only (reasonably) well-sourced but wonderfully lucid as well. I am a layman with little background in philosophy, and before you condemn me too harshly, Feser marketed this book for laymen, not only academic philosophers. From a layman’s perspective, then, he did a fantastic job: I found his explanations of Aristotle and Plato’s thought to be easily understandable, and given how obtuse and hard-to-follow philosophical writing tends to be, that Feser made it comprehensible speaks very well of his skill. He also manages to make the read quite jaunty and entertaining. While several commenters, both Christian allies and atheist enemies, have criticized the somewhat insulting and polemical tone of *The Last Superstition,* I didn’t mind it much. First, I can be and have been far nastier than Feser at his very worst, so it would be hypocritical of me to condemn him (as my friends at /r/badhistory have told me, it’s something to avoid, even if your opponent is more relentlessly annoying than anyone Feser criticizes), but more importantly, a little bit of rivalry and therefore harsh words between “intellectual enemies” can make an otherwise dry and technical philosophical monograph into engaging reading.  Some of his jokes, such as the ‘plump Scotsman’ one at Hume’s expense, are genuinely amusing, though they would have been inappropriate in a formal scholarly setting. Of course, the book isn’t all jabs and insults, Feser at least has a sense of humor and pokes a few jokes at his own expense as well, which are both funny and prove he doesn’t take himself more seriously than he warrants. Combined with the clear and cogent distillation of complex philosophical topics, this book at least has convinced me that Feser would be an excellent teacher. Were I to take one of his classes at Pasadena, I’m confident I would learn a lot and have a lot of fun doing it.

Unfortunately, despite these strengths, I still wasn’t convinced by most of the arguments Feser makes. I will say, to his credit, that he successfully proves religious belief is reasonable—though I must admit my bias here, I’m not an atheist, much less an anti-theist, and I always took a very dim view of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris (I haven’t read much Dennett). However, the substantial philosophical thesis I wish to defend here is this: *Feser largely fails to prove that the God of classical Greek philosophy and, by extension, Thomism, is an absolute necessity; indeed, Feser also fails to prove such a God is necessarily the Christian one. Even worse, despite Feser’s impressive efforts, he fails to prove the necessity, truth, or usefulness of Aristotelian moral reasoning, and Aristotle’s philosophy—at least as presented in The Last Superstition—still appears, if not utterly bankrupt, unsatisfying and problematic. Needless to say, the way Feser blames (what he calls) contemporary social ills on the “abandonment” of Aristotelianism remains equally unconvincing.*

Given this thesis, let me explain for just a moment how I’ll structure this review. While I’ll skim over the first chapters and pay some attention to chapters 5 and 6, I’ll concentrate primarily on chapter 2, “Greeks bearing Gifts,” and chapter 4, “Scholastic Aptitude.” Those chapters deal most heavily with Aristotle, so I figure a demolition of them will, by extension, also undermine the arguments of Aquinas as well as Feser’s justifications of various Catholic social teachings. After I’m done with those I’ll move on to some of the historical and political arguments Feser has made, especially in reference to Communism, abortion, gay marriage, and other such matters, which means I’ll be jumping around a little over the course of this review. So please bear with me.

The preface and first chapter, being introductory, are more or less what I have summarized above—Feser lays out his aim to defend Aristotelianism, the Philosopher’s God of Christianity, and therefore Western Civilization against the philosophically ignorant (in his view) attacks of the New Atheists. There are a few interesting tidbits (the opening anecdote concerns Anthony Flew’s conversion along with some nice things said about atheists Feser actually respects, like Thomas Nagel) but otherwise they’re the “opening arguments and chapter summary” chapters. Even here, however, there are a few problems which demonstrate, in my view, a sort of methodological sloppiness which will lead us to a lot of the problems I’ll point out later on. This is also a good time to demonstrate my own approach, which is extensive quotation from Feser’s book—later on I’ll also bring in both his blog entries and a few others I found to be particularly useful, such as the Aaron Boyden’s review at Protagoras.typepad.com. Of course, I’ll also be citing a few other sources ranging from books on Marxism to particularly apropos news articles to make some of my points. I should also note that while I’ll generally follow the progression of Feser’s book, I will jump back to earlier portions now and then if they make points directly relevant to later sections, and vice versa. With no further ado, let us start our journey into the meat of the text.

In the preface, Feser tells us, in an early assault on gay marriage, “it is no more up to the courts *or* the people to ‘define’ marriage or to decide whether religion is a good thing than it is up to them to ‘define’ whether the Pythagorean Theorem is true of right triangles, or whether water has the chemical structure H2O. In each case, what is at issue is a matter of objective fact that it is the business of reason to discover rather than democratic procedure to stipulate.”[5]

There are a few things one could say in response to this—off the top of my head, I could glibly reply by saying “public opinion” might not define H2O or triangles, but scientists and mathematicians certainly can if they so desire. If a geometrist even smarter than Pythagoras was able to prove the Pythagorean theorem incorrect, or physicists and chemists experimentially verified that water wasn’t H2O, Feser would have a little less ground to stand on. Of course, that’s a little silly—such things are very unlikely to happen, obviously. There are a couple of less glib responses. First, one could easily argue that Feser is committing category errors here. He himself has proven very annoyed when “New Atheists” do the same in claiming science to be the sole determinant of human knowledge—in [this blog entry]( http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/05/natural-theology-natural-science-and.html), for instance, he criticizes the assumption that all questions can be boiled down to science and notes that many, especially metaphysics, *require* a philosophical approach, not just a rigidly “scientistic” one.[6] But one could argue he’s doing the same here. Formal logic alone cannot answer whether or not religion is good and gay marriage is bad (or “incoherent) because human affairs belong in an entirely different category than geometric proofs or chemical equations, both of which not only regularly but *inevitably and unerringly* follow predictable patterns, which you can’t say for people–when studying people, there are few hard and fast objective and universal truths, so one ought rely on more holistic methods, so to speak. At the very least, such holistic methods are necessary to prove whether or not a given philosophical postulate is sound (as in, factually true) as opposed to valid alone. Of course, Feser would probably say this isn’t really relevant, because (and here I preview his upcoming chapters) he has Aristotelian metaphysics on his side, which supposedly allow philosophers to arrogate the analytical rights and responsibilities of humanists and social scientists (historians, sociologists, etc). His argument relies on “Essences” and “Final Causes”—he and I will define those terms later on in this review. Suffice it to say that I believe my critique of the normative force (morally obligating force) of those concepts, even if I allow for their existence, will hopefully cast at least a bit of doubt on Feser’s thesis.

Secondly, at least from a historian’s perspective—and while I freely admit to being an utter neophyte when it comes to philosophy, let’s just say history is something I know a little better—some of his assessments strike me to be at least as glib as anything I’ve said above. On page viii, he says the New Atheist critiques of religion are “sudden…atheist chic is now, out of the blue as it were,” very popular. But this isn’t correct—a great deal of this “New Atheist Chic” was in response to 9/11, especially Sam Harris’ polemic. This might seem like a bit of petty pedantry, but the reasoning behind this omission is quite important, IMO. If the arguments of the “New Atheists” really were spurred by only a childish resentment of religion, it would be easier to dismiss them—and I say this as someone who generally dislikes their writing as well. However, when those atheists can point to a great deal of actual misery caused by religion, especially 9/11, which even [Feser himself was deeply affected by] (http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/09/ten-years-on.html), it becomes harder to say they might not have any sort of point at all.[7]

Part 1: Aristotle Returns

But enough of this. Let us move on to the second chapter, “Greeks Bearing Gifts.” I will say that this demonstrates many of Feser’s strengths. As mentioned in the introduction, his exposition on Plato and Aristotle is both comprehensive and understandable. However, he also displays a great deal of grace and genuine appreciation even for philosophers aside from his two heroes. He compliments the pre-Socratic philosophers for their interest in the world around them and their earnest search for truth, and also admits they played an important role in the development of Western philosophy (as Feser says, you really can’t claim philosophy is just “footnotes to Plato” when his predecessors were important too).[8] In short, Feser demonstrates an intellectual openness and a generosity of spirit that’s quite refreshing.

Still, the fact that I like Feser is no reason for me to go easy on him. I’ll skip over his descriptions of the Pre-Socratic philosophers as well as Plato himself; they are important, but not relevant to the critiques I’ll be making of their successor, Aristotle. I’ll also skip over Feser’s defense of the philosophical position called “realism” generally (Aristotelianism is one variant of it), compared to others such as nominalism or conceptualism. I don’t have the necessary background to engage with that as well as I’d like, so I am forced to concede the field to him in that respect, and operate as if he has proven the truth of realism. Instead, what I will do is start with the discussion of potentiality and actuality on pages 54-55.

Here, we learn of Greek named Parmenides who said that change was impossible. Aristotle said it *was* possible (obviously) because of “actualities” and “potentialities.” To quote Feser:

>“while it is true that something can’t come from nothing, it is false to suppose that nothing or non-being is the only possible candidate for a source of change. Take any object of our experience: a red rubber ball, for example. Among its features are the ways it actually is: solid, round, red, and bouncy. These are different aspects of its ‘being.’ There are also the ways it is not; for example, it is not a dog, or a car, or a computer. The ball’s ‘dogginess’ and so on, since they don’t exist, are different kinds of ‘non-being.’ But in addition to these features, we can distinguish the various ways the ball potentially is: blue (if you paint it), soft and gooey (if you melt it), and so forth. So being and non-being aren’t the only relevant factors here; there are also a thing’s various potentialities…even if [for example] gooeyness doesn’t yet exist in the ball, the *potential* for gooeyness *does* exist in it, and this, together with some external influence that *actualizes* this potential (e.g. heat), suffices to show how the change can occur.”

All this strikes me as fair enough, and Feser literally tells me it’s “pretty obvious.” Then he says, “Once you make the simple distinction between actuality and potentiality, you are on your way to seeing *there is and must be a God.*”[9]

Whoah, now. Well, he and I will get to that later, but here’s the next paragraph, and it raises an important issue, so I ought quote it:

>“You might think, at least if you are a contemporary analytic philosopher, that a thing is “potentially” almost *anything,* so that Aristotle’s distinction is uninteresting. For example, it might be said by such philosophers that we can ‘conceive’ of a ‘possible world’ where rubber balls can bounce from here to the moon, or where they move by themselves and follow people around menacingly, or some such thing. But the potentialities Aristotle has in mind are the ones rooted in a thing’s nature as it actually exists, not just any old thing it might “possibly” do in some expanded abstract sense…Hence, in Aristotle’s sense of “potential,” while a rubber ball could potentially be melted, it could *not* potentially follow someone around all by itself.”[10]

This sounds reasonable. But if one thinks about it a little further—yes, perhaps even with some more thought experiments, even silly ones—one might find that the analytical philosophers might not be as far out as Feser implies—and that it should give moral realists a bit of pause, for reasons I’ll expound on later. The examples of potentialities the smug philosophers gave are indeed rooted in the thing’s nature—they weren’t being as silly as Feser implies. If you were to attach a strong magnet to the rubber ball, it would follow you around if you were wearing metal (and if you say that’s not a “potentiality” of the ball itself because you had to add something to it, the ball isn’t “potentially” blue either, because you have to add blue paint to it). It’s convenient for Feser to act as if a thing’s potentialities are easy to discern, but if we’re being rigorous, we find the task might be harder than we expect. I’m not denying that potentialities exist, and that objects have a limited set of them, but the fact that we can make *errors* in discerning them—for instance, denying them where they actually do exist, as I pointed out above—means they are not a perfect way of understanding the world, and that will be important later on (I think Aaron Boyden was exactly [right to raise this point]( http://protagoras.typepad.com/adrift_on_neuraths_boat/2011/10/feser-chapter-5.html), though I do think he was a little harsh on Feser as a whole).[11]

So let us move on for now (though we’ll come back to Feser’s other three notes on the importance of potentialities when we get to the existence of God and the morality of abortion). The next important bit of Aristotelianism we come to are his Four Causes. They are explained as such:

Look at a rubber ball. The *stuff it’s made of* is it’s “material cause” (rubber). The form it takes is its “formal cause” (a ball). How it was made is its “efficient cause” (it was made in a factory or by a toymaker or something). And it’s “final cause” is the purpose for which it was made (bringing amusement to children). However, Feser said all of these also apply to artifacts in the natural world, both living and non-living. The heart, for instance, is materially made of flesh, formally in the shape of an organ, efficiently caused by evolution, and finally caused (its purpose, or function) to pump blood.[12]

The important part of this is that Feser believes modern scientists and philosophers have dismissed the concept of final causes unjustly, and that the philosopher David Hume introduced some strange ideas about causation that have really mucked things up. According to Feser, Hume believed the relationship between causes and effects was much weaker than common sense tells us—for instance, Hume postulated that a brick thrown at a window would not necessarily break the window, but might possibly disappear before hitting it, so he believed events tended to be “loose and separate” rather than “necessarily connected” through cause and effect.[13] Again, I don’t know enough about Hume to comment on that, but I did detect some problems in Feser’s defense of final causes, which we’ll get to when we get to Aristotle proper.

Before then, we come to one last important principle: That

>“cause cannot give to its effect what it does not have to give, and it can be illustrated by a simple example. Suppose you come across a puddle of water near an outdoor spigot. You will naturally conclude that the puddle was caused by the spigot, either because someone turned it on or because it is leaking. The effect is a puddle of water and the cause is something fully capable of producing that effect, since it contains water in it already. But now suppose instead that you come across a puddle of thick, sticky, dark red liquid near the same spigot. In this case you will not conclude that the spigot was the cause, at least not by itself. The reason is that there is nothing in the spigot alone that could produce this specific effect, or at least not every feature of the effect. The spigot could produce a puddle of liquid alright, and maybe even a puddle of vaguely reddish liquid if there was rust in the line, but not a puddle of thick, sticky, dark red liquid specifically. You would be likely to conclude instead that someone had spilled a can of soda pop near the spigot, or perhaps that someone had been bleeding heavily nearby it. Even if these possibilities had been ruled out and you had evidence that the puddle came from the spigot after all, you’d conclude that somehow such a thick red liquid (blood, soda, or whatever) had somehow been put into the water line, or that if it had not, then there must have been something on the ground that when mixed with water from the spigot chemically produced this thick red liquid. What you would never seriously consider is the suggestion that normal water from the spigot all by itself produced the red puddle. For there is just nothing in water by itself that could produce the redness, thickness, or stickiness of the puddle; ergo there must have been something in addition to the water that produced the effect.”[14]

Fair enough, this seems sensible. But things might get more complicated when Feser, on page 68, mentions that this principle is not disproved by the evolution of intelligence between ‘potentiality’ and ‘actuality’—and, once again, I promise to get to that when Feser does in the chapters 4 and 5. I can only leave you off with Feser’s assessment of why all this stuff is so important:

>” I have referred to final causes as “all-important” for several reasons, all of which will become increasingly evident as we see the myriad implications of this idea in subsequent chapters. One reason worth emphasizing here, though, is their inherently preeminent place among the four causes. Aquinas refers to the final cause as “the cause of causes,” and for good reason. The material cause of a thing underlies its potential for change; but potentialities, as we’ve seen, are always potentialities for, or directed toward, some actuality. Hence final causality underlies all potentiality and thus all materiality. The final cause of a thing is also the central aspect of its formal cause; indeed, it determines its formal cause. For it is only because a thing has a certain end or final cause that it has the form it has – hence hearts have ventricles, atria, and the like precisely because they have the function of pumping blood. (“ Form follows function,” you might say, though Aristotle would have been horrified at modern architecture’s simple-minded application of this principle.) And as I have said (though for reasons that can be made explicit only after we cover some more ground through to Chapter 6), efficient causality cannot be made sense of apart from final causality. Indeed, nothing makes sense – not the world as a whole, not morality or human action in general, not the thoughts you’re thinking or the words you’re using, not anything at all – without final causes. They are certainly utterly central to, and ineliminable from, our conception of ourselves as rational and freely choosing agents, whose thoughts and actions are always directed toward an end beyond themselves. Yet modern philosophers, scientists, and intellectuals in general claim not to believe in final causality. I say “claim” because, like all normal human beings, they actually appeal to final causes all the time in their everyday personal lives, and even to a great extent in their professional lives. They contemplate and act on their goals, give their reasons for doing things, explain to their children what this or that body part is for. Biologists and other scientists constantly make reference to the functions of organs, to the role various species play relative to one another in the ecosystem, to future events toward which the stars, galaxies, and other astronomical bodies are inevitably moving, and so on and on, and couldn’t possibly carry on their work unless they did so. At the same time, these thinkers are in thrall to an official ideology according to which Aristotle’s doctrine of the four causes was somehow refuted by modern science. In particular, it is held that modern science shows that there are no formal or final causes, and that material and efficient causes are very different from what Aristotle and his successors took them to be. Any appearance of final causality is illusory, and descriptions that make reference to it are merely useful fictions that can be translated into descriptions that make reference instead to purposeless, meaningless, goal-free causes and effects. Let me be very clear about something. However widely accepted, these claims are, each and every one of them, simply untrue…

>”Here are the facts. First, early modern philosophers and scientists never came remotely close to disproving Aristotle’s doctrine of the four causes. Some of them did (as we will see) offer some feeble and easily rebutted objections, but for the most part it was simply decided to carry on scientific and philosophical practice as if one needed to appeal only to two (at most) of the four causes, and to ignore the others… Second, this rash move immediately created a number of serious philosophical problems that have never been settled to this day, but instead have only gotten progressively worse; indeed, these problems have led contemporary philosophers to conclusions historically unprecedented in their bizarreness and absurdity. Third, the original stipulative character of this move has been largely forgotten with the passing centuries, and philosophers’ and scientists’ faulty collective memory has transformed it into the “discovery” they falsely regard it as having been. Fourth, for this reason, the bizarreries and absurdities to which contemporary intellectuals have been led by their rejection of the four causes have been embraced as further surprising “discoveries” or “results” of philosophical inquiry, rather than recognized for what they are: a reductio ad absurdum of the premises laid down by their intellectual ancestors, and thus of the entire modern philosophical picture of the world to which they are committed. That they do indeed constitute a reductio ad absurdum – a set of manifest falsehoods that refute the premises that led to them – is, as we will see by the end of this book, beyond reasonable doubt.”[15]

Quite bold, but I’m not very convinced. Here are some reasons why:

1: Aristotle (at least if Feser’s description of him is accurate) seems to be committing category errors in the way he draws comparison between human-made objects and natural ones, or living objects and unliving ones, particularly in reference to final causes (and again, I’m not an Aristotle expert, but this struck me as a very annoying trait in Aristotle’s writing when I read him).

I think Feser may be right in saying we can’t dismiss the concept of final causes so easily. However, I also think we must be very, very cautious in extending their use to the fields of morality or normative obligation in general. *Feser may be right to say (and I bold this and use caps because it really is very important) that final causes are extremely useful, perhaps even necessary, in making sense of human behavior, but that is because it is very easy to discern final causes, or purposes, through talking with people or observing their actions. For living organisms, the final cause of particular organs is equally easy to observe; you only need to remove them to observe their effect on the creature. It is therefore more difficult to observe the final causes of organisms as a whole, since you cannot ask who created them what their “purpose” is. It is also more difficult to discern the functions of things like “sexual faculties” (as opposed to just individual organs like the penis) since the term refers to a vaguer concept that can’t just be removed from the organism like an individual organ can.

For instance, in the case of the rubber ball, you need only ask the guys at the factory why they made it to discern its “final cause” (they’ll tell you they wanted to make something fun for kids). For an organism, you need only remove its heart on the dissection table to discern the heart’s function (blood will stop flowing and the organism will die). But for natural objects, or even non-vital organs in a living body, this is much harder, and it is therefore very unwise to draw comparisons between these two categories, as Aristotle did. We can observe that the “final cause” of the moon seems to be to orbit the earth, but no matter how regular and unerring our observations seem to be, we cannot know with absolute certainty that the moon is “meant” to do this, because the moon has no “creator” we can just ask the way we could with the rubber ball and the guys who made it. Perhaps the orbit of the moon is decaying imperceptibly, so that in a million or a billion years it’ll fly off into space or crash into the earth. We can’t know for sure. Similarly, there are several organs whose purposes remain unclear to this day—nobody’s sure what your appendix or tonsils do, we can apparently remove them without much ill effect, but who knows if they’re actually doing something.* Needless to say, discerning the “final causes” of people and sexual faculties is just as hard. It therefore strikes me as unwise to call things moral or immoral based on “final causes” which, even if they do exist, are hard to get right and easy to get wrong.

Perhaps Feser will say that this is a silly objection. But I’m not done with it yet, I’ll just ask him (and you, dear reader) to keep it in mind, for it’ll show up again when we get to Feser’s critique of consequentialism and utilitarianism. The same applies to my next argument:

2: Once again, even if we accept the existence of final causes, *they seem to be not objective but very much relative.* If you ask a guy at the ball factory what the “final cause” of the rubber ball is, he might tell you it’s to provide fun for children. However, if you ask the CEO of Acme Ball Corp. what its final purpose is, he’ll say it’s to be sold in stores to produce the greatest profit possible. So how do we discern what the “true” final purpose of the ball is? Is it to provide fun for children, or provide profits for toy manufacturers? Neither Feser nor Aristotle seem to give any clear answers to this question (and it doesn’t seem as easy to answer as in the case of drugs like opium, as we’ll get to later). Similarly, is the “final cause” of the moon simply to orbit the Earth, or is it to influence the tides or provide light at night? Neither Feser nor Aristotle provide much guidance in discerning this, at least not yet.

But they’ll try in future chapters, which we’ll get to after this next one. Meanwhile, Chapter 3, “Getting Medieval” is where Aquinas comes in. It starts off with an amusing anecdote on Aquinas on page 74, which (again) I’ll return to later, but it also by informs us that Dawkins and other New Atheists, in attacking Aquinas, were actually attacking straw men, and Feser endeavors to describe what the OG Thomist “actually” believed. Very well, let us see what that is.

Part II: Aristotle’s Successor

According to Feser, Aquinas never said something as jejune as “everything has a cause, therefore there must be an uncaused cause somewhere out there.” No, Aquinas was really talking about accidentally and essentially ordered causation. What are those? I’ll give the mic over to Feser:

>” Remember that for Aristotle, change or motion always involves a transition from potentiality to actuality. And since a potential is by itself just that – merely potential, not actual or real – no potential can make itself actual, but must be actualized by something outside it. Hence a rubber ball’s potential to be melted must be actualized by heat; hence the potential of an animal’s leg to move must be actualized by the firing of the motor neurons; and so forth. Remember also that Aristotle takes the immediate efficient cause of a thing to be simultaneous with it. The immediate cause of a pot’s being curved, for example, is the curved position of the potter’s hand as he molds it. Now, by the same token, the curved position of the potter’s hand is itself immediately caused by whatever events in his nervous system keep the muscles in his hand flexed in such-and-such a way.

>“But of course, we can also point to other, less immediate causes of the curved position of his hand. For example, it was remotely caused by the fact that his girlfriend asked him last week to make a pot for her; for he wouldn’t be sitting there right now curving his hand in just that way if she hadn’t made this request. This brings us to a crucial distinction Aquinas and other medieval philosophers made between two kinds of series of causes and effects, namely “accidentally ordered” and “essentially ordered” series (or causal series per accidens and per se, for you fans of Scholastic Latin). To take a stock example, consider a father who begets a son, who in turn begets another. If the father dies after begetting his son, the son can still beget a son of his own, for once in existence the son has the power to do this all by himself. He doesn’t need his father to remain in existence for him to be able to do it. If we imagine an ongoing series of fathers begetting sons who in turn beget others – and of course, such series really do exist all around us – then we can observe that in every case, each son has the power to beget a son of his own (and thus become a father) even if his own father, or any previous father in the series, goes out of existence. Considered as a “causer” of sons, each member of this series is in this sense independent of the previous members. Hence the series is “accidentally ordered” in the sense that it is not essential to the continuation of the series that any earlier member of it remain in existence. And in the same way, the potter’s curving his hand in making the pot occurs even though his girlfriend’s request happened a week ago. The causal link between the request and the hand’s curving is also “accidental” insofar as the latter exists in the absence of the former. But it would not exist in the absence of the firing of the motor neurons. Here we have an “essentially ordered” causal series, and we have one precisely because the cause in this case is (unlike the girlfriend’s request) simultaneous with the effect. The hand is held in the position it is in only because the motor neurons are firing in such-and-such a way; take away the neural activity, and the hand goes limp.

>”Or, once again to make use of a stock example, if we think of a hand which is pushing a stone by means of a stick, the motion of the stone occurs only insofar as the stick is moving it, and the stick is moving it only insofar as it is being used by the hand to do so. At every moment in which the last part of the series (viz. the motion of the stone) exists, the earlier parts (the motion of the hand and of the stick) exist as well. The stone, and the stick itself for that matter, only move because, and insofar as, the hand moves them; indeed, strictly speaking it is the hand alone which is doing the moving of the stone, and the stick is a mere instrument by means of which it accomplishes this. The series is “essentially ordered” because 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, in this case the hand. Without the earlier members, and particularly the first one, the series could not continue. Now an accidentally ordered series, like the fathers begetting sons who beget more sons (and indeed like the countless other causal series familiar from everyday experience that extend backwards in time), could, in Aquinas’s view, in theory go back forever into the past. He doesn’t think any such series does in fact go back forever, but he also doesn’t think it can be proved through philosophical arguments that they don’t. That is to say, he doesn’t think it can be proved, and doesn’t try to prove, that the universe had a beginning. The reason is that, since in an accidentally ordered series the members of the series have their causal powers independently of the operation or even existence of earlier members, there is nothing about the activity of the members existing here and now that requires that we trace it back to some first member existing in the past. But things are very different with essentially ordered causal series. These sorts of series paradigmatically trace, not backwards in time, but rather “downward” in the present moment, since they are series in which each member depends simultaneously on other members which simultaneously depend in turn on yet others, on so on. In this sort of series, the later members have no independent causal power of their own, being mere instruments of a first member. Hence if there were no first member, such a series would not exist at all. If the last member of such series does in fact exist, then (as the motion of the stone does in our example), the series cannot, even in theory, go back infinitely: there must be a first member.”[16]

According to Feser, for both Aristotle and Aquinas, this necessitated the existence of God. Let’s turn it over to him again:

>”For what we have here is an essentially ordered causal series, existing here and now, not an accidentally ordered one extending backwards into the past. And an essentially ordered series, of its nature, must have a first member. All the later members of such a series exist at all only insofar as the earlier ones do, and those earlier ones only insofar as yet earlier ones do; but were there finally no first member of the series, there’d be no series at all in the first place, because it is only the first member which is in the strictest sense really doing or actualizing anything. The later members are mere instruments, with no independent, actualizing power of their own. Suppose you see the caboose of a train pulling out of the station, and demand to know what is pulling it. A freight car, you are told. And what is pulling that? Another freight car. And that? Yet another freight car. All true enough; but none of these answers really explains anything, because the freight cars, like the caboose, have no independent power of motion of their own, and so no appeal to freight cars explains anything, even if the series of cars pulling the caboose went on to infinity. What is needed is an appeal to something that does have the power of movement in itself, such as an engine car. Similarly, should you see (though a hole in a fence say) a paint brush coating the fence with paint, and ask what is causing it to do so, the answer “the brush handle” will not explain anything, since a brush handle has no independent power of movement. And this wouldn’t change in the least even if we imagined that the brush handle was infinitely long. Again, the only genuine explanation would be something that did have independent power of movement and could therefore move the otherwise inert brush. The same thing is true of the sequence beginning with the moving stone. No member of the series has any independent causal power of its own, but derives what it has from something earlier in the series. As with the railway cars and the paint brush, this series too must terminate in a first mover which moves all the others, indeed moves through all the others. Now, a first mover in such a series must be itself unmoved or unchanging; for if it was moving or changing – that is, going from potential to actual – then there would have to be something outside it actualizing its potential, in which case it wouldn’t be the first mover. Not only must it be unmoved, though, it must be unmovable. For notice that, especially toward the “lower” levels of the series we were considering – the nervous system’s being actualized by its molecular structure, which is in turn actualized by its atomic structure, etc. – what we have is the potential existence of one level actualized by the existence of another, which is in turn actualized by another, and so forth. To account for the actualization of the potential motion of the stone we had eventually to appeal to the actualization of the potential existence of various deeper levels of reality. 16 But then the only way to stop this regress and arrive at a first member of the series is with a being whose existence does not need to be actualized by anything else. The series can only stop, that is to say, with a being that is pure actuality (or “Pure Act,” to use the Scholastic phrase), with no admixture of potentiality whatsoever. And having no potentiality to realize or actualize, such a being could not possibly move or change. That a stone is moved by a hand via a stick, then – and more generally, that things change at all – suffices to show that there is and must be a first Unmovable Mover or Unchangeable Changer. That is all pretty abstract, I realize; so much so that it might seem jarring when Aquinas goes on to say: “. . . and this we call God.” What he means by this is that, whatever else people might have in mind when they use the expression “God,” they mean to refer to whatever being is the ultimate explanation of the processes of change we observe in the world around us. It turns out that there really is such a being; and it also turns out that what it means for there to be such a being is for there to be a being describable in philosophical terms as “Pure Actuality,” even if this has (of course) never occurred to most people who believe in God.”[17]

For Aquinas and Feser, this God is the Christian one, and on pages 95-97 Feser tells us Aquinas spent millions of words proving it, as well as the idea that God must necessarily be all-knowing, all-good, etc. That would be a little beyond the scope of one book, and probably laymen, so Feser instead provides the work of William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne as an introduction to the matter. That’s problematic in and of itself, but it also comes up in a later chapter, so we’ll address that when we come to it. For now, here are my objections to Feser and by extension Aquinas’ arguments—or, more specifically, my main objection.

Feser and Aquinas want us to believe that the God is to the universe as the potter is to the clay or the boy with a stick to the rock—that is to say, an essentially ordered series. Indeed, it may be better to characterize Aquinas’ God as the “Unsustained Sustainer” rather than the “Unmoved Mover.” If I understand Feser correctly, the fact that God exists is why we see any regularity in the universe at all—why there are *Laws* of physics rather than just suggestions. God is with us every single millisecond of every single day, keeping the laws of physics regular; if it wasn’t for Him, the moon would zip around the sky randomly, matches would produce lilacs instead of flame, and we would more or less live in in total chaos. He pretty much keeps the laws of physics going in the same sense a kid with a stick keeps a rock going or a potter keeps clay going.

There’s one problem with this: Why should we assume the universe is part of an essentially ordered series rather than an accidental one?

Why couldn’t the relationship between God and the universe be more like the example of an accidental series Feser gave: A father and his descendants? The father “sets things in motion” by having a son, and then telling that son to have sons of his own. The son will attempt this even after the father dies. Why would this not necessarily be possible of God? Is it not at least conceivable that something like this happened:

God creates the universe and sets the laws of physics in stone. He then tells the laws of physics, “go do your thing and maintain this universe while I go off and do other stuff, like…I dunno, create another universe or watch football or something.” This is a silly example and I know God isn’t anthropomorphic like that (I’m just adding in a bit of humor here), but the underlying question seems legitimate: How can we be sure the universe isn’t independent of God in the same way a son is independent of his father, even if the father was necessary to cause (i.e conceive) the son?

According to Feser, the reason this isn’t the case has something to do with an Aristotelian concept he calls ‘essences,’ which were mentioned in chapter 2 but I haven’t yet addressed, because they’re even more important in the next chapter. He says,

>” Your mother gave birth to you, but she’s not what’s sustaining you in being here and now; what’s doing that is going to be something like the current state of the cells of your body, which is in turn sustained by what’s going on at the molecular level, and the atomic level, along with gravitation, the weak and strong forces, and so forth – all of these things being things whose essence is distinct from their existence and thus need a cause outside themselves. In other words, what we’ve got here is once again an “essentially ordered” causal series, which, for reasons we saw earlier, must of metaphysical necessity terminate in a first cause. *Even when we consider the physical universe as a whole, then, we have something that down to its last detail consists of elements whose essence is distinct from their existence, and thus cannot account for their continued existence from moment to moment.* Hence, everything in the universe, and indeed the universe as a whole, must be sustained in being here and now by a cause outside it, a First Cause which upholds the entire series. But could this being itself be just another entity composed of essence and existence? If so, then it would not truly be a first cause at all, for it would require something outside it to explain its own existence, and the regress would continue. No, the only thing that could possibly stop the regress and explain the entire series would be a being who is, unlike the things that make up the universe, not a compound of essence and existence. That is to say, it would have to be a being whose essence just is existence; or, more precisely, a being to whom the essence/ existence distinction doesn’t apply at all, who is pure existence, pure being, full stop: not a being, strictly speaking, but Being Itself.”[18]

The bolded section is not bolded in the original, I emphasized it because it’s important to a point I make in my review of the next chapter. Suffice it to say I will address it in my criticisms of Aristotle’s “essences.” Before that, let’s jump back quickly to one more defense of final causation:

>”But there is no way to make sense of [regularities in the universe] apart from the notion of final causation, of things being directed toward an end or 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. It is not just the case that the moon regularly orbits the earth in a regular pattern; it orbits the earth specifically, rather than quickly swinging out to Mars and back now and again, or stopping dead for five minutes here and there, or dipping down toward the earth occasionally and then quickly popping back up. And so on for all the innumerable regularities that fill the universe at any moment. In each case, the causes don’t simply happen to result in certain effects, but are evidently and inherently directed toward certain specific effects as toward a “goal.” As we saw when we first looked at Aristotle’s notion of final causality, this doesn’t mean they are consciously trying to reach these goals; of course they are not. The Aristotelian idea is precisely that goal-directedness can and does exist in the natural world even apart from conscious awareness.

“Still, it is very odd that this should be the case. One of the raps against final causation is that it seems clearly to entail that a thing can produce an effect even before that thing exists. Hence to say that an oak tree is the final cause of an acorn seems to entail that the oak tree – which doesn’t yet exist – in some sense causes the acorn to go through every state it passes through as it grows into the oak, since the oak is the “goal” or natural end of the acorn. But how can this be? Well, consider those cases where goal-directedness is associated with consciousness, viz. in us. A builder builds a house; he is a cause that generates a specific kind of effect. But the reason he is able to do this is that the effect, the house, exists as an idea in his intellect before it exists in reality. That is precisely how the not-yet existent house can serve as a final cause – by means of its form or essence existing in someone’s intellect, if not (yet) in reality. And that seems clearly to be the only way something not yet existent in reality can exist in any other sense at all, and thus have any effects at all: that is, if it exists in an intellect. Now go back to the vast system of causes that constitutes the physical universe. Every one of them is directed toward a certain end or final cause. Yet almost none of them is associated with any consciousness, thought, or intellect at all; and even animals and human beings, who are conscious, are themselves comprised in whole or in part of unconscious and unintelligent material components which themselves manifest final causality. Yet it is impossible for anything to be directed toward an end unless that end exists in an intellect which directs the thing in question toward it. And it follows, therefore, 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 that universe which directs things toward their ends.”[19]

This is a beguiling line of reasoning, one that fits all of our preconceptions, and seems true. There’s one problem, however: It’s unsound. One of its premises is factually false. Specifically this:

“And that seems clearly to be the only way something not yet existent in reality can exist in any other sense at all, and thus have any effects at all: that is, if it exists in an intellect…it is impossible for anything to be directed toward an end unless that end exists in an intellect which directs the thing in question toward it.”

Looking at the natural world, this is clearly untrue, unless we define “intellect” so broadly that just about every living thing, including single-celled bacteria, has it. Take an anthill or a termite hive—they are things that exist, but which are not “necessarily” existing, they require insects to build them *and* maintain them constantly (they turn back into dust if the hive dies) even though we humans can imagine such things. And while they’re much smaller and less complex than human buildings, they’re not entirely different from the examples Feser gives—what is an anthill or termite mound aside from a house for bugs, after all?

Yet these tiny creatures are able to create something from nothing *despite not being able to conceive of their hives, or anything else, on an intellectual level, like a human builder can plan out his home.* I mean, yes, they’re not literally doing that, the materials of their hives already existed. But they’re clearly instantiating the Form of their hives in the physical world (again, for my dear readers, I’ll explain this stuff about Form and Essence in my review of the next chapter, where they’re really important) despite having no ability to entertain the concept of Forms or Essences or whatever in their nigh-nonexistent minds. These little guys (girls, technically) really are mindless as we would understand it—they operate entirely on instinct, or at most in very primitive ways (stimulus-response, where pheromones are the stimulus, etc.). They have nothing resembling an intellect in any meaningful sense, unless Feser were to claim instinct is a form of intellect. But if he would, why, then, could not the Sustainer of the universe be such a beast? Perhaps God keeps the universe going eternally and with regularity, but without any understanding of why, or without possessing any of the divine characteristics a being of “Pure Act” has to have.

In any case, after this exposition on the necessity of a Sustainer, Feser goes on to criticize an “Intelligent Design” proponent named Paley for being philosophically jejune, and then attack Dawkins for picking on such a weak opponent. I don’t know much about ID, so I’ll demur to comment on this section. It is the last before we move on to chapter 4, “Scholastic Aptitude,” so that’s where I’ll head, with no further ado!

Part III: Eliminating Essences

I will spend the most time on chapter IV because I feel most confident in my ability to address it. I can admit I may have been out of my metaphysical/ontological depth in my criticisms of Feser’s “Unsustained Sustainer” and such, but I think I’m on much stronger ground addressing Aristotelian moral thought.

Let me thus summarize Feser’s thesis: Aristotelian “Forms” or “Essences” exist, and they thus determine what is objectively morally good, and would do so even if God didn’t exist (but of course, He does—hooray!) Why would this be so? Let’s skip back to chapter 2 quickly, just as I promised. Early on, Feser starts off with Plato:

>” What is a “Form”? It is, in the first place, an essence of the sort Socrates was so eager to discover. To know the essence of justice, for example – to know, that is to say, what the nature of justice is, what defines it and distinguishes it from everything that isn’t justice – would for Plato just be to know the Form of Justice. But what kind of thing exactly is it that one knows when one knows this or any other Form? And how does one know it? Is it a kind of physical object, observable through one or more of the five senses? Is it something subjective, an idea in our minds, knowable via introspection? Is it something conventional, a mere way of speaking and acting that we pick up from other members of our community but which might change from place to place and time to time? To the last three questions, Plato would answer with a very firm No, No, and No. To understand what he does have in mind, it will be useful to begin with a simpler example than justice. Consider a triangle; in fact, consider several triangles, as they might be drawn on paper, or on a chalkboard, in sand, or on a computer screen. Suppose some of them are small, some very large, some in between; some isosceles, some scalene, some obtuse, and so on; some drawn with thin lines, some with thick lines, some with a ruler and some more sketchily; some written in ink, others in chalk, others using pixels; some drawn with green lines, some with red, some with black, some with blue; some in fairly pristine shape, others partially erased, or with the lines not completely closed due to haste in drawing them. Now, a triangle is just a closed plane figure with three straight sides; that is its essence or nature. And it is by reference to this essence that we judge particular triangles of the sort we are taking as our examples to be triangles in the first place. But notice that all of these examples are inevitably going to have features that have nothing essentially to do with “triangularity” as such. They are all going to be either red, or green, or black, or whatever; but there is nothing in being a triangle which requires being any of these colors, or indeed any color at all. They are all going to be drawn either in ink, or chalk dust, or pixels, or some other medium; but there is nothing in triangularity as such that requires any of these things either. Nor is there anything in being a triangle which requires being large or small, or being drawn with thick lines or thin ones, or being drawn on this particular chalkboard or that particular book, this particular plot of sand or that particular computer screen. Notice too that all of our sample triangles are also going to lack, or at least not perfectly exemplify, features that are part of being a triangle. Due to damage or hasty drawing, some are going to have lines that are partially broken, or corners that are not perfectly closed. And no matter how carefully one has drawn them, every single one of them will have lines that are not perfectly straight, even if such imperfections might not always be visible to the naked eye. In short, every particular physical or material triangle – the sort of triangle we know through the senses, and indeed the only sort we can know through the senses – is always going to have features that are simply not part of the essence or nature of trianglularity per se, and is always going to lack features that are part of the essence or nature of triangularity. What follows from this, Plato would say, is that when we grasp the essence or nature of being a triangle, what we grasp is not something material or physical, and not something we grasp or could grasp through the senses.

>”This is even more evident when we consider that individual perceivable, material triangles come into existence and go out of existence and change in other ways as well, but the essence of triangularity stays the same. We also know many things about triangles – not only their essential features, but also that their angles necessarily add up to 180 degrees, that the Pythagorean theorem is true of right triangles, and so forth – that were true long before the first geometer drew his first triangle in the sand, and that would remain true even if every particular material triangle were erased tomorrow. What we know when 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. That does not mean, however, that in knowing the essence of triangularity we know something that is purely mental, a subjective “idea.” Nor is this essence a mere cultural artifact or convention of language. For what we know about triangles are objective facts, things we have discovered rather than invented. It is not up to us to decide that the angles of a triangle should add up to 38 degrees instead of 180, or that the Pythagorean theorem should be true of circles rather than right triangles. If the Canadian parliament, say, should declare that in light of evolving social mores, triangles should be regarded as sometimes having four sides, and decree also that anyone who expresses disagreement with this judgment shall be deemed guilty of discriminatory hate speech against four-sided triangles, none of this would change the geometrical facts in the least, but merely cast doubt on the sanity of Canadian parliamentarians….

>”Now if the essence of triangularity is something neither material nor mental – that is to say, something that exists neither in the material world nor merely in the human mind – then it has a unique kind of existence all its own, that of an abstract object existing in what Platonists sometimes call a “third realm.” And what is true of the essence of triangles is no less true, in Plato’s view, of the essences of pretty much everything: of squares, circles, and other geometrical figures, but also (and more interestingly) of human beings, tables and chairs, dogs and cats, trees and rocks, justice, beauty, goodness, piety, and so on and on. When we grasp the essence of any of these things, we grasp something that is universal, immaterial, extra-mental, and known via the intellect rather than senses, and is thus a denizen of this “third realm.” What we grasp, in short, is a Form.”[20]

For Feser, “Forms” are an absolute necessity for both intellectual and daily life, and he attacks philosophical schools which deny them, such as Nominalism and Conceptualism, which I mentioned earlier. However, Feser also thinks this stuff about “Realm of Forms” is a little too abstract, and according to him, Aristotle brings things back to earth. Back to you, Ed:

>“Against Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Plato, Aristotle insists that common sense is right in affirming that the ordinary objects of everyday experience – tables, chairs, rocks, trees, dogs, cats, and people – are paradigmatically real. With Heraclitus, he holds that these real things undergo change; with Parmenides, he holds that what is real cannot be change alone; and with Plato, he holds that form is the key to understanding how something permanent underlies all change. His basic idea is this: The ordinary objects of our experience are irreducible composites of potentiality and actuality, of the capacity for change and something that persists through the change. In particular, they are irreducible composites of matter and form. The blue rubber ball is composed of a certain kind of matter – namely rubber – and a certain form – namely, the form of a blue, round, bouncy object. The matter by itself isn’t the ball; after all, rubber could also take the form of an eraser, or a doorstop, or any number of other things. The form by itself isn’t the ball either; you can’t bounce blueness, roundness, or even bounciness down the hallway, for they are mere abstractions. It is only the form and matter together that constitute the ball. Hence we have Aristotle’s famous doctrine of hylomorphism (or “matter-formism,” to convey the significance of the Greek hyle or “matter” and morphe or “form”). Now some of the forms a thing has are non-essential. A ball is still a ball whether it is blue or red. But other forms are essential. If the ball is melted down, it loses its round shape and bounciness; and for that very reason, it is no longer a ball at all, but just a puddle of goo. Those features that are essential to a thing comprise what Aristotelians call its substantial form – the form that makes a thing the kind of substance or thing that it is, its essence. Being round is part of the substantial form or essence of a ball; being blue is not. Being a rational animal is (according to Aristotelians) the essence or substantial form of a human being; having black or white skin is not part of this essence, since someone can be a rational animal, and thus a human being, whatever his skin color. As with actualities, forms come in a kind of hierarchy. There is the substantial form or essence of a thing (e.g. being a rational animal in the case of human beings); there are various properties of a thing that are not part of its essence per se but which necessarily flow from its essence (e.g. having the capacity for humor, which follows from being a rational animal); and there are a thing’s “accidental” features, those which it may have or lack, gain or lose, without affecting its essence (e.g. being bald in the case of a human being).”[21]

So ‘hylomorphism’ is how Aristotle evades the weirdness of some “third realm.” Keep in mind the distinction between accidental and essential features, though, I’m going to focus heavily on them in a bit. The most important part of these early discussions, though, which is directly related to Feser’s thesis, is his explanation of how Plato and Aristotle both believed these forms/essences were normative:

>” Now as has been indicated, the Forms, as archetypes or perfect patterns, are the standards by reference to which particular things in the world of our experience count as being the kinds of things they are. A triangle is a triangle only because it participates in the Form of Triangularity; a squirrel is a squirrel only because it participates in the Form of Squirrel; and so forth. By the same token, something is going to count as a better triangle the more perfectly it participates in or instantiates triangularity, and a squirrel will be a better squirrel the more perfectly it participates in or instantiates the Form of Squirrel. Hence a triangle drawn slowly and carefully on paper with a Rapidograph and a straight edge is going to be a more perfect approximation than one hastily scrawled in crayon on the cracked plastic seat cover of a moving bus. Hence a squirrel who likes to scamper up trees and gather nuts for the winter (or whatever) is going to be a more perfect approximation of the squirrel essence than one which, through habituation or genetic defect, prefers to eat toothpaste spread on Ritz crackers and to lay out “spread eagled” on the freeway. This entails a standard of goodness, and a perfectly objective one. It is not a matter of opinion whether the carefully drawn triangle is a better triangle than the hastily drawn one, nor a matter of opinion whether the toothpaste-eating squirrel is deficient as a squirrel. That there might be habituation or a genetic factor in the latter case is irrelevant: behavioral and affective deviations from the essence are still deviations, whatever their cause and whether or not a creature which exhibits them has come to enjoy them. If a squirrel could be conditioned to want to eat nothing but toothpaste, it wouldn’t follow that this is good for him. Nor, if there were a genetic factor behind this odd preference, would it follow that it is normal for him, any more than a genetic factor behind blindness or clubfeet shows that being blind or having a clubfoot is normal even for those people who are tragically afflicted with these ailments. In every case, the thing in question is still a triangle, or a squirrel, or a human being or whatever – not instantiating a Form perfectly doesn’t mean that something doesn’t instantiate it at all – but it is nevertheless the case, given such imperfections, that it instantiates it only more or less well.”[22]

Read the whole thing again—that is the paragraph on which virtually all of Feser’s moral arguments (which make up most of chapters 4, 5, and 6) hinge. And the problems we see here may well prove fatal—or at least significantly undermine—those arguments (At this point, I should credit /u/Rivka333 and /u/MegistaGene for explaining to me that Form and Essence are more or less synonymous, at least in this case. There are subtle differences, but for the purposes of Feser’s argument they’re not really relevant here. See https://www.reddit.com/r/askphilosophy/comments/4idgw5/is_there_a_difference_between_form_essence_and/).

First, Feser—and Plato and Aristotle, assumedly—seem to be mixing up different senses or usages of the word “good” (I’m not sure the ambiguity is present in Greek as well as English, but I assume so). It’s possible to be “good” in the sense of “efficient” and effective” but in a sense entirely separate from “good” as “desirable” or “praiseworthy.” If someone were to say, “the Nazis were good at mass-murder,” they would be saying the Nazis killed millions of people very quickly, but they would obviously *not* be saying the Nazis were good in a moral sense, or that being “good” at mass murder is at all desirable. In fact, most people would take it as a compliment to be told, “you’re bad at murder/racism/destructive stuff generally.”

It’s an extreme example, but it still applies to triangles or squirrels. We can say a triangle is a “good triangle” without saying it’s necessarily praiseworthy or desirable in any way. Same with the squirrel—if we say one is a “good squirrel” in Feser’s sense, we’re just saying it’s “normal,” it doesn’t axiomatically follow that we mean to say “a squirrel eating nuts is praiseworthy,” and if we see a “bad squirrel” in Feser’s sense, we’re seeing an abnormal one, and it doesn’t necessarily and axiomatically follow that “a squirrel eating toothpaste” is undesirable or blameworthy. Indeed, most people, upon seeing a toothpaste-eating squirrel, wouldn’t say “that squirrel is Poorly Instantiating the Form of the Squirrel and ought to stop/is Worse than a squirrel that eats acorns!” Hell, most of us wouldn’t even say “that’s a bad squirrel!” or “that squirrel is sick!” Most of us would simply say “Huh, that’s weird,” and then go along our day with no further thought to the squirrel. We certainly wouldn’t dwell on whether it was “bad” or “sick” or whatever.

Now, Feser would say that moral or normative questions apply only to human beings, not squirrels or other animals, and even less to inanimate objects. That’s not really relevant to my point, though—I only refute Aristotle’s supposed assertion that “something is going to count as a better X the more perfectly it participates in or instantiates the Form of X.” This isn’t actually true; when we encounter something that deviates from the Form—i.e standard—of whatever it is, we might say it’s weird, but not necessarily that it’s “better” or “worse.” The fact that we would say it’s “weird” is proof that Aristotle was partially correct—there are regularities in the world, and when something doesn’t match those regularities, it’s noteworthy—but he was wrong in saying that deviations from these regularities are necessarily bad, as in “undesirable” or “worse” rather than simply “deviant” (a point I shall return to).

Maybe Feser would respond, “but of course such deviations are necessarily undesirable! A squirrel eating toothpaste is sick, isn’t it?” That brings me to my second critique of this sort of moral realism based on Forms/Essences: *Aristotelian ethics are more or less incoherent without recourse to something like consequentialism, which Feser subtly uses here, even as he inveighs against it later on.*

Let’s go back to both of Feser’s examples. Remember how he said a hastily drawn triangle may be a “worse triangle” than one drawn with a Rapidograph? Well, so what? Who cares? Why should we want to make “good triangles” rather than bad ones? The only convincing answers to this question lie in an appeal to *consequences* rather than anything about forms. You tell a kid to draw his triangles well not because “perfectly instantiating the Form of a triangle” is good in and of itself, but because other people will recognize a well-drawn triangle better and thus more readily grasp whatever the kid wanted to convey with his triangle—i.e his efforts would lead to a better outcome. How about the squirrel? Ask anyone why a toothpaste-eating squirrel seems “bad” in the sense of “sick” or “unhealthy,” or “undesirable” more abstractly. I guarantee most of them—even Thomists—would not say anything about the “moral necessity of more perfectly instantiating the Form of the Squirrel,” though a few of them might say it’s just weird. Instead, the vast majority, I would wager, would frame the squirrel’s badness in terms of *consequences:* A toothpaste-eating squirrel (even if congenitally inclined to this) would suffer from stomachaches, since squirrels can’t digest toothpaste. That is to say, it would suffer *pain,* which is an evil in consequentialist (particularly utilitarian) ethics, *not* failing to instantiate Forms. Even if for some reason you claim it wouldn’t, the squirrel would eventually die because toothpaste has no nutritional value—and, once again, death is another evil in consequentialism, since nobody wants to die either.

Thus, we can see that Plato and Aristotle’s attempt to derive a normative code of ethics from their theory of Forms/Essences is utterly toothless without recourse to some form of consequentialism, or at least that’s how it comes across in Feser’s explanation. If there really was something undesirable or blameworthy about “failing to instantiate the Form” in and of itself, and in the same axiomatic sense the Pythagorean Theorem was true, Feser wouldn’t have to use emotional, value-laden language which specifically refers to negative consequences—words like “sick” and “unhealthy”—to convince us.

Feser attempts to answer this a little later on, with reference to Hume’s is-ought problem, but (once again) we’ll get to that later. For now, let us return to chapter 4, especially pages 120-140, where Feser extends the thesis described above in his explanation of natural law, and where he begins to run (in my view) into his most serious problems. Once again, I’ll let Feser take the stage for some time. This is a long excerpt, hopefully the longest I’ll resort to, but it’s very important so I want you to read the whole thing.

>” The “nature” of a thing, from an Aristotelian point of view, is, as we’ve seen, the form or essence it instantiates. Hence, once again to haul in my triangle example, it is of the essence, nature, or form of a triangle to have three perfectly straight sides. Notice that this remains true even if some particular triangle does not have three perfectly straight sides, and indeed even though (as I’ve repeated ad nauseam) every material instance of a triangle has some defect or other. The point is that these are defects, failures to conform to the nature or essence of triangularity; the fact that such defective triangles exist in the natural world and in accordance with the laws of physics doesn’t make them any less “unnatural” in the relevant sense.

 

 

>”To round out this initial reply to some standard bad objections to natural law theory, while it is true that some defenders and critics of traditional sexual morality seem to worry themselves endlessly about whether homosexuality has a genetic basis, the question is actually largely irrelevant, and they shouldn’t waste their time. For it is quite obvious that the existence of a genetic basis for some trait does not by itself prove anything about whether it is “natural” in the relevant sense. To take just one of many possible examples, that there is a genetic basis for clubfoot doesn’t show that having clubfeet is “natural.” Quite obviously it is unnatural, certainly in the Aristotelian sense of failure perfectly to conform to the essence or nature of a thing. And no one who has a clubfoot would take offense at someone’s noting this obvious matter of fact, or find it convincing that the existence of a genetic basis for his affliction shows that it is something he should “embrace” and “celebrate.” Nor would it be plausible to suggest that God “made him that way,” any more than God “makes” people to be born blind, deaf, armless, legless, prone to alcoholism, or autistic. God obviously allows these things, for whatever reason; but it doesn’t follow that He positively wills them, and it certainly doesn’t follow that they are “natural.” So, by the same token, the possibility of a genetic basis for homosexual desire doesn’t by itself show that such desire is natural.

 

 

Of course, that by itself does not show that homosexuality is immoral either. After all, having a clubfoot is not immoral, and neither is being born blind or with a predisposition for alcoholism. These are simply afflictions for which the sufferer is not at fault, and can only call forth our sympathy. On the other hand, if someone born with normal feet wanted to give himself a clubfoot through surgery, we would find this at the very least irrational; and if someone concluded from his having a genetic predisposition for alcoholism that regularly drinking to excess would be a worthwhile “lifestyle” for him to pursue, then we would regard him as sorely mistaken, even if he could do this in a way that allowed him to hold down a job, keep his friends and family, and avoid car accidents. Even amid the depravity of modern civilization, most people realize that the life of an alcoholic is simply not a good thing, even if the alcoholic himself thinks it is and even if he “doesn’t hurt anybody else.” We know in our bones that there is something ignoble and unfitting about it. In the same way, should it turn out that a desire to molest children has a genetic basis, no one would conclude from this that sexual attraction toward children is a good thing, even if the person who has it was able to satisfy his disgusting urges without actually touching any children. We all know in our bones that someone obsessed with masturbating to pictures of naked toddlers is sick, and not living the way a human being ought to live, even if he never leaves the darkness of his own room and his own soul. Now I realize, of course, that many readers will acknowledge that we do in fact have these reactions, but would nevertheless write them off as mere reactions. “Our tendency to find something personally disgusting,” they will sniff, “doesn’t show that there is anything objectively wrong with it.” This is the sort of stupidity-masquerading-as-insight that absolutely pervades modern intellectual life, and it has the same source as so many other contemporary intellectual pathologies: the abandonment of the classical realism of the great Greek and Scholastic philosophers, and especially of Aristotle’s doctrine of the four causes. For we need to ask why there is a universal, or near universal, reaction of disgust to certain behaviors, and why certain traits count as unnatural even if there is a genetic factor underlying them. And when the “evolutionary psychologists,” “rational choice theorists,” and other such Bright Young Things and trendies have had their say, there can still be no satisfying answer to these questions that does not make reference to Aristotelian final causes – even if only because there can be no satisfying explanation of almost anything that doesn’t make reference to final causes.

 

 

>”Let’s back up then, and see what morality in general looks like from a point of view informed by Aristotelian metaphysics, and then return later on to the question of sexual morality in particular. Like Plato, Aristotle takes a thing’s form, essence, or nature to determine the good for it. Hence, a good triangle is one that corresponds as closely as possible to the form of triangularity, its sides drawn as perfectly straight as possible, etc. A good squirrel is one that has the typical marks of the species and successfully fulfills the characteristic activities of a squirrel’s life, e.g. by not having broken limbs, not gathering stones for its food rather than acorns, etc. So far this is obviously a non-moral sense of “good” – the claim isn’t that triangles and squirrels are deserving of moral praise or blame – and corresponds closely to the sense in which we might think of something as a “good specimen” or “good example” of some kind or class of things. But it is the foundation for the distinctively moral sense of goodness. Even from the squirrel example it is obvious that for any animal there are going to be various behaviors that are conducive to its well being and others that are not, and that these latter will be bad for it whatever the reason it wants to do them. So, to return to an obvious example from Chapter 2, if a squirrel has some genetic mutation that makes it want to lay itself out spread-eagled on the freeway, the fact that it enjoys doing this obviously does not entail that it is good for it to do so. Or, to take another but less obvious example from Chapter 2, if you somehow conditioned a squirrel to live in a cage and eat nothing but toothpaste on Ritz crackers, to such an extent that it no longer wanted to leave the cage, scamper up trees, and search for acorns, etc., even when given the chance, it wouldn’t follow that the life of a Colgate addict is a good life for this particular squirrel. The sickly thing is simply not as healthy and “happy” a squirrel as he would have been had he never got himself into this fix, even if he has (of course) no way of knowing this. And again, this would remain true even if the squirrel had a genetic predisposition to like the taste of Colgate and dislike the taste of acorns, one that was not present in other squirrels. That predisposition simply wouldn’t “jibe” with the overall structure of the natural physical and behavioral characteristics that are his by virtue of his instantiating the nature of a squirrel, however imperfectly. The predisposition would be a defect, like a puzzle piece that won’t fit the rest of the puzzle. Now, when we turn to human beings we find that they too have a nature or essence, and the good for them, like the good for anything else, is defined in terms of this nature or essence.

>”Unlike other animals, though, human beings have intellect and will, and this is where moral goodness enters the picture. Human beings can know what is good for them, and choose whether to pursue that good. And that is precisely the natural end or purpose of the faculties of intellect and will – for like our other faculties, they too have a final cause, namely to allow us to understand the truth about things, including what is good for us given our nature or essence, and to act in light of it. Just as a “good squirrel” is one that successfully carries out the characteristic activities of a squirrel’s life by gathering acorns, scampering up trees, etc., so too a good human being is one who successfully carries out the characteristic activities of human life, as determined by the final causes or natural ends of the various faculties that are ours by virtue of our nature or essence. Hence, for example, given that we have intellect as part of our nature, and that the purpose or final cause of the intellect is to allow us to understand the truth about things, it follows that it is good for us – it fulfills our nature – to pursue truth and to avoid error. So, a good human being will be, among many other things, someone who pursues truth and avoids error. And this becomes moral goodness insofar as we can choose whether or not to fulfill our natures in this way. To choose in line with the final causes or purposes that are ours by nature is morally good; to choose against them is morally bad.

>“But why should we choose to do what is good for us in this Aristotelian sense?” someone might ask. The answer is implicit in what has been said already. The will of its very nature is oriented to pursuing what the intellect regards as good. You don’t even need to believe in Aristotelian final causes to see this; you know it from your own experience insofar as you only ever do something because you think it is in some way good. Of course you might also believe that what you are doing is morally evil – as a murderer or thief might – but that doesn’t conflict with what I’m saying. Even the murderer or thief who knows that murder and stealing are wrong nevertheless thinks that what he’s doing will result in something he regards as good, e.g. the death of a person he hates or some money to pay for his drugs. I mean “good” here only in this thin sense, of being in some way desirable or providing some benefit. And that is all Aquinas means by it when he famously tells us that the first principle of the natural law is that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” This is not meant by itself to be terribly informative; it is meant only to call attention to the obvious fact that human action is of its nature directed toward what is perceived to be good in some way, whether it really is good or not. But when we add to this the consideration that the good for us is in fact whatever tends to fulfill our nature or essence in the sense of realizing the natural ends or purposes of our various natural capacities, then there can be no doubt as to why someone ought to do what is good in this sense.

 

 

>”Now modern philosophers, over-impressed as always by David Hume, have thought that there is a frightfully difficult problem of “deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’” or upholding morality in light of the “fact/ value distinction.” There are facts, and then there are values, you see, and knowing any number of things about the first – about what is the case – can (so it is said) never tell you anything about the second – what ought to be the case. To confuse the two is to commit the “naturalistic fallacy.” And so forth. The usual genuflecting to Hume’s supposed genius ensues, as does an industry of producing fruitless attempts to solve the “problem” of justifying ethical judgments in light of this purported chasm between objective reality and moral value. Well, there is such a problem if, as modern philosophers have done, one denies the reality of formal and final causes. But for those who avoid this foolish and ungrounded denial – such as Aristotle and Aquinas – there is no problem at all, and what has been said already shows why. Like everything else, human beings have a formal cause – their form, essence, or nature – and this formal cause entails certain final causes for their various capacities. So, for example, our nature or essence is to be rational animals, and reason or intellect has as its final cause the attainment of truth. Hence the attainment of truth is good for us, just as the gathering of acorns is good for a squirrel. These are just objective facts; for the sense of “good” in question here is a completely objective one, connoting, not some subjective preference we happen to have for a thing, but rather the conformity of a thing to a nature or essence as a kind of paradigm (the way that, again, a “good” triangle is just one which has perfectly straight sides, or a “good” squirrel is one that isn’t missing its tail). We are also by nature oriented to pursuing what we take to be good. That is another objective fact, and for the same reasons. But then, when the intellect perceives that what is in fact good is the pursuit of truth, it follows that if we are rational what we will value is the pursuit of truth. “Value” – or rather, as the ancients and medievals would put it, the good – follows from fact, because it is built into the structure of the facts from the get-go. 8 All of this falls apart if we deny that anything has a final cause or that there are forms, essences, or natures in the Aristotelian sense; and of course, Hume, like the moderns in general, denies just this. If there are no Aristotelian forms, essences, or natures, then there is no such thing as what is good for human beings by nature. If there are no final causes, then reason does not have as its purpose the attainment of truth or knowledge of the good. What we are left with are at best whatever desires we actually happen to have, for whatever reason – heredity, environment, luck – but these will be subjective preferences rather than reflective of objective goodness or badness. And the most reason can do is tell us how we can fulfill these desires; since there are no natures or essences of things, nor any final causes or natural purposes either, it cannot tell us what desires we ought to have. Thus can Hume say such things as that reason is the “slave of the passions,” and that there is nothing contrary to reason in preferring that the whole world be destroyed rather than that my little finger gets scratched. Thus can nearly universal reactions of disgust at certain sexual practices, which from an Aristotelian point of view are nature’s way of getting us to avoid what is contrary to her purposes, be written off as mere prejudices.”[23]

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I think this may be the most important section of the book. The objections I raise, therefore, will (again, in my view) form enough of a riposte to demolish much of the foundation for Aristotelianism.

*Major Objection 1: The heart of Aristotle’s (and by extension, Feser’s) moral philosophy hinges upon the assertion that “the sense of “good”…is a completely objective one, connoting, not some subjective preference we happen to have for a thing, but rather the conformity of a thing to a nature or essence as a kind of paradigm (the way that, again, a “good” triangle is just one which has perfectly straight sides, or a “good” squirrel is one that isn’t missing its tail) (page 139). However, there is no reason whatsoever to take “conformity to one’s nature/essence/form” as good in the sense of normatively obligating (‘desirable,’ ‘praiseworthy,’ etc). Feser’s attempt to defeat Hume’s is/ought problem with a bit of sophistry has failed.

Once again, as I explained above, Feser’s argument seems to rely on a quirk of the English language, and assumedly Greek, Latin, and the others Aquinas spoke: That the word ‘good’ can mean either ‘desirable or praiseworthy’ or ‘conforming to a standard’ is merely a flaw of these languages that leads to confusion, and really isn’t something to build a whole philosophy on. It is obvious that “conformity to a paradigm” is not and cannot be axiomatically desirable and praiseworthy. A mass murderer who kills hundreds of people is a “good mass murderer” in the sense that he conforms to the paradigmatic Essence of a mass murderer (he would be a ‘bad’ one if he only killed, say, half a dozen) but that obviously makes him *worse* from any sane moral perspective, not better.

We don’t even have to use such an extreme example—a few more from the animal kingdom will suffice. Feser’s fond of squirrels, but let’s go with something yuckier—ticks and mosquitoes.

Sucking blood is undoubtedly part of the “essence” of these gross little things. I’m sure Feser would agree, I can’t imagine anyone saying that “sucking blood” is *not* a defining feature of the critters, part of what makes them what they are (female ones, to be specific, but that’s not important). Now, let’s say we were to one day encounter a tick or mosquito that didn’t suck blood, for whatever reason—maybe its mouthparts were damaged or it just had no desire or ability to. Such a thing would be “bad” in the sense of defective, or Failing to Instantiate the Form/Essence of a Tick/Mosquito, or Failing to Fulfill the Final Cause of Sucking Blood (in order to produce eggs, specifically, but again, not important), but we would not consider it “bad” in the sense we normally consider bloodsuckers bad (that is to say, hateful and undesirable). This “defective” tick would annoy us a lot less than “more perfect” ones. In fact, we would likely call such a critter “good” (in the sense of ‘desirable’) and wish all ticks and mosquitos were like that. This is not a position contradictory to what we commonly understand as good, what Plato or Aristotle would understand as good, or what common sense or our intuitions tell us is good—what sane person wouldn’t want to live in a world where bloodsucking parasites “failed” to suck blood?

If that example was a little yucky, let’s return to Feser’s example of the squirrel eating toothpaste or laying on the freeway. As I mentioned earlier, this behavior can only be taken as “bad” in a consequentialist framework—if you ask any normal person (aside from a Thomist) why eating toothpaste or laying out on the freeway is bad, they’d tell you it’s because such behaviors harm the squirrel in the long run (death by starvation or death by car).

Perhaps Feser would try to say that this is just proof “instantiating one’s Form/Essence” really is what’s good in terms of consequences, but that’s not necessarily so. Let’s modify the example Feser gave earlier a bit. He said, “if you somehow conditioned a squirrel to live in a cage and eat nothing but toothpaste on Ritz crackers, to such an extent that it no longer wanted to leave the cage, scamper up trees, and search for acorns, etc., even when given the chance” this would be bad as the squirrel wouldn’t be instantiating its Essence. However, let’s change “eating toothpaste” to “eating nutrition pellets” or “eating peanuts” (i.e eating something that’s actually edible for squirrels, but that they don’t normally eat in the wild). This squirrel would “fail to instantiate its Form” to at least a similar extent as the toothpaste-eating one, but it’s a lot harder to argue it’s just as worse off. Squirrels in the wild, “scampering up trees,” have to worry about being eaten by owls or cats or whatever, and also starvation if they can’t find enough acorns. However, our “domesticated” squirrel (and domestication is something we’ll get back to) won’t have to worry about being eaten by predators or starving to death. Or, to put it as clearly as I can:

*In a meaningful, objective sense, the squirrel who lives in a cage eating nutrition pellets is better off than one which lives in the wild—it doesn’t have to worry about starvation or predation, and will therefore almost certainly live longer, and likely “happier” than a wild squirrel, despite the wild one “more perfectly instantiating its Form.” Therefore, at least from the example Feser gives us, there is no reason to assume “conformity to a paradigmatic Form” is necessarily what is good (desirable, praiseworthy, morally normative) for anything—squirrels, humans, whatever.

To address Feser’s thesis directly, it seems *the definition of “objective good” as merely and necessarily “conforming paradigmatically to Form/Essence” is useless in practical terms and utterly unconvincing on its own merits. Common sense and empirical experience tell us that there are many instances where “failure to instantiate an essence” is a *good* thing by any reasonable definition aside, of course, from the one Feser and Aristotle give us. Hume’s is-ought problem, therefore, remains unaddressed.*

This also applies to Final Causes, by the way. The mere fact that “Final Causes” exist does not give them any normative or obligating power; indeed, cannot, as I prove in Major Objection 3. That “good” and its cognates in European languages can mean either “fulfilling Final Causes” or “desirable and praiseworthy” is simply one flaw of the language that leads to confusion, not something to build a philosophy out of.

Major Objection 1a: Not every defection from an Essence or paradigm is necessarily bad (as in undesirable).

This is a corollary to the first major objection, so I’ll try to make it a little more lighthearted. Let’s take another animal example this time, but something cuter than ticks or mosquitoes—cats! As cat-lovers know, cats have five toes each, this is part of their “essence” along with being furry, having tails, meowing, etc. However, some cats are born with six toes (or more). According to Feser, this would be deviation from the Form of the Cat and therefore bad. However, this “defect” is not considered a bad thing at all. Six-toed cats are widely considered to be lucky, and according to Wikipedia the “defect” helps them climb and hunt rats better. How can this be, if “conformity to paradigmatic Form” is the only “good?”

Perhaps more snidely, it’s not necessarily easy to discern what is a “defect” and what’s actually a mere difference in being, or perhaps even an advantage. The six-toed-cat is an example, of course—what seems like a defect can actually be useful upon closer examination—but it applies to humans as well. When describing homosexuality as a defect, Feser compares it to several other things: “nor would it be plausible to suggest that God “made him that way,” [clubfooted] any more than God “makes” people to be born blind, deaf, armless, legless, prone to alcoholism, or autistic. God obviously allows these things, for whatever reason; but it doesn’t follow that He positively wills them, and it certainly doesn’t follow that they are “natural.” So, by the same token, the possibility of a genetic basis for homosexual desire doesn’t by itself show that such desire is natural.” [24]

In the list of defects (defined as whatever hinders one’s ‘natural purpose’), some of the entries seem uncontroversial—it’s hard to imagine being born blind, legless, or alcoholic to be good things in any sense. However, a few things on that list are a little harder to pin down. Strange as it may seem, some folks don’t consider being deaf to be a disability but rather a different way of being. I don’t want to get into this too deeply now, but look up “Deaf Culture” if you’re interested. Even more important is Feser’s choice of “autism” as a defect. Now, I’ve been chastised more than a few times on various places for using “autistic” as an insult, so I’d like to clarify I’m not doing that here—Feser is. But even on Feser’s own terms, we have a problem with this example: Is autism actually a defect? The answer to that is not necessarily obvious, especially when you consider that Aquinas is one of the heroes of Feser’s book. Aquinas himself was likely autistic, or somewhere on that spectrum. According to Feser, Aquinas was known for memorizing the entire Bible, chasing a prostitute out of his room, and being so caught up in his intellectual flights of fancy he wouldn’t notice a candle burning his hand.[25] Those all sound eerily like the symptoms of autism, and I’m not the only person who’s noticed this.[26] And if Aquinas was autistic, it seems likely he owed his intellectual accomplishments, in part, to his autism—nobody could have written 8 million words on abstruse theological and philosophical topics without the single-minded obsessiveness and attention to detail that often comes along with autism. Therefore, it seems likely, contra Feser, that God may well will some of us to be autistic, at least some of the time.

So how does one discern whether a deviation from the human norm is necessarily a “bad” (undesirable) thing? Just as a deviant six-toed cat can be better at some things, the same applies to a ‘deviant’ human, as some ‘defects’ like autism can be useful under some circumstances. You could argue (and this is a point Feser brings up a little later, which I’ll address) that some defects actually aid in fulfilling an organism’s final cause—thus, a polydactyl cat is “good” (in Feser’s sense) because it fulfills its “final cause” of hunting rats better, and that an autist…uh, autistic person like Thomas Aquinas could better fulfill his “final cause” of worshipping God. But that leads us to a tension in this Thomistic and therefore Aristotelian moral framework: Is it more important to “conform to one’s paradigmatic Essence” or “fulfill one’s Final Cause?” For instance, Feser thinks that someone who wanted to make themselves blind or cut off their own arms would be sick, because they would make themselves less able to instantiate the Form of Man, which is sighted, two-armed, etc. But what if they wanted to do so in order to glorify God, which is mankind’s Final Cause, and assumedly a higher metaphysical priority than anything else? Christ did say, after all, to take out your eye or cut off your hand if either led you to sin. Would someone blinding himself as an act of religious devotion be “bad” or “good?” How could Feser tell?

Major Objection 1b: The theory of forms/essences isn’t coherent from an evolutionary standpoint.

On a related note, the way evolution works would seem to pose a significant challenge to any meaningful conception of “Forms” in relation to biological organisms. It is a gradual process, with one species becoming another only over many generations, and it’s difficult to set hard and fast boundaries between ancestors and their descendants. The evolution and domestication of the dog is a great example. I’m sure Feser would agree that part of the Form or Essence of a wolf is to prey on animals like sheep, while the Form or Essence of a good shepherd’s dog is to protect sheep and other farm animals. Yet the sheepdog evolved from the wolf, and the way humans domesticated it (well, dogs in general) was by selecting wolves with un-wolflike qualities (that is to say, “bad” ones from an Aristotelian perspective) and breeding them for those qualities over time. So at what generation did these creatures stop being “bad” wolves, imperfectly instantiating the Form of the Wolf, and become “good” sheepdogs, perfectly instantiating the Form of the Sheepdog? Indeed, an Aristotelian might argue it was somehow unethical to domesticate dogs because we humans were selecting “imperfect” specimens to breed. Of course, most sensible people, concerned with actual consequences rather than conformity to abstract notions of Forms or Essences, would simply point out that dogs, regardless of how much they may be “imperfect wolves” have proven themselves very useful, and there’s no point caring about when, exactly, Fido became a “fairly perfect dog” rather than a “very imperfect wolf.”

Major Objection 1c: How does Aristotelianism deal with subcategories of things?

This discussion of dogs is an excellent jumping-off point for my next sub-objection. Even if we assume Forms/Essences are real, it seems obviously and equally necessary that sub-categories of Forms, or distinctions between similar Forms, exist, because there are obviously extant divisions or subgroups of all sorts of things. For instance, there may exist a certain essence of Dog-ness, but there are many different breeds of dogs—each of them would have to participate in both the Form of Dog as well as the Form of the aforementioned Sheepdog, or a Rottweiler or Shiba Inu or whatever. Similarly, there may be a Form of the Squirrel, but there are many different sub-species of squirrel, each assumedly with their own Form. The American Grey Squirrel lives in North America and has grey fur (which is its Form) while the Eurasian Red Squirrel lives in Eurasia and has red fur and tufted ears (which is its Form); but both squirrels participate in the general Form of Squirrel by living in trees and eating nuts.

OK, so far, so good. But what would Feser (and Aristotle, and Aquinas) say about subcategories of a particular Form with attributes that directly contravene those of its parent Form?

Let’s go back to cats. The Essence of a Cat, as I’m sure Feser and most people would agree, is to be furry, four-legged, meowing, and a predator of small animals. There are many breeds of cat (Siamese, Russian Blue, etc.) but they all instantiate this general Form to some degree. There are some exceptions, however. Take the case of the Sphynx breed. This particular breed, like all the other ones, is four-legged, meowing, and hunts rodents. However, they have no fur–they’re hairless (not totally, but close to it, they don’t have the long hairs which form up the fur coat of a cat).

Most people as well as Feser (I assume) would, at first glance, say a hairless cat is defective, both in terms of genetic ailment and in a failure to substantiate the Form of a cat. Yet there is nothing wrong with sphynx cats. The genetic “defect” that causes their hairlessness has been passed on to no detriment of the breed, and it is now officially recognized. That hairlessness has challenges, but it’s an advantage for owners who don’t want cat hair over everything.

So what would an Aristotelian make of this kitty? On the one hand, hairlessness is a “deviation from the Form of the Cat” and so the Sphynx would be “bad” to the extent it failed to instantiate that Form. However, hairlessness *is* a defining feature—that is to say, part of the Form or Essence—of the Sphynx breed (or sub-species) of cat. Thus, how could Feser say whether the Sphynx is “good” or “bad” in the Aristotelian sense? It fails to instantiate the Form of a Cat in general, but successfully instantiates the Form of the Sphynx Cat specifically.

Sensible people, of course—that is to say, those of us who aren’t Thomists or Aristotelians—can easily avoid this entire paradox. We need only concern ourselves with the consequences hairlessness has on the animal’s health and happiness (and fortunately, aside from needing to stay inside during winter, Sphynx cats are otherwise generally healthy). *It seems to me that far from providing any sort of moral clarity, rigid Aristotelian definitions of “good” as “conforming to certain norms” lead us instead into ridiculous and unnecessary quandaries based on pointless nitpicking over intellectual abstractions.*

Now, perhaps Feser might say I’m defining Forms incorrectly for cats, or that fur is merely an “accidental” characteristic of them rather than an “essential” one (quick recap: ‘essential characteristics’ are those a thing *must* have to be the thing it is, a triangle *needs* three angles, for instance, while accidental characteristics are those that can be whatever without changing what something is; for instance, a triangle can be of any color while still being a triangle). How convenient, as this leads me into my second major objection:

Major Objection 2: Aristotelianism runs into severe epistemological problems (how we know what we know). Essences (and by the same reasoning, Final Causes) are too difficult to discern to be of much use in moral reasoning, which means it runs into as many problems as consequentialism and utilitarianism do. Particularly difficult is separating accidental properties from essential ones (As an aside, I’m indebted to Aaron Boyden for much of this[27]).

It seems to me that it’s easy enough to discern the forms of some things, along with their accidental and essential characteristics—triangles, for instance, axiomatically need three sides, while their color is irrelevant—but the business is much, much harder when it comes to living things. Once again, let us come to the squirrel. Feser tells us “a squirrel who likes to scamper up trees and gather nuts for the winter” is a more perfect instantiation of the Form of Squirrel than one who doesn’t.[28] So it seems he considers the Form to refer to both physical attributes (two eyes, grey fur, bushy tail, mammal) and behavioral attributes (living in trees, eating nuts, burying acorns).

But how does he know this? Why should this be the case?

Feser would almost certainly admit that it’s possible to be wrong about what the Form of something is. If I were to say, “No, Dr. Feser, the Form of the Squirrel is to eat toothpaste or live on freeways, and a squirrel that does is a Good Squirrel!” or “Triangles *must* be black, any that aren’t are Bad Triangles!” he would obviously tell me I was incorrect.

But on what basis? It’s never made particularly clear in *The Last Superstition.* Again, it’s easy enough for triangles, nothing in their axiomatic definition says anything about color. But squirrels? It may be easy enough to determine their essential physical attributes by looking at them, but how’d Feser figure out their essential behavioral attributes? And how did he decide those attributes were essential rather than accidental?

Feser might say these are silly questions, but not so fast—we need to consider these epistemological issues because they seem to highlight some conceptual problems with Aristotelian morality. Plato tells us (according to Feser), a thing’s Form or Essence “defines it and distinguishes it” from everything else. They “are the standards by reference to which particular things in the world of our experience count as being the kinds of things they are.”[29] But if these “standards” define a creature, who “defines” these standards? Why should we listen to Feser when he tells us eating nuts is part of what defines a squirrel (i.e its Form/Essence)? The dictionary certainly doesn’t agree:

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/squirrel
It says a squirrel is “a small animal with a long tail and soft fur that lives in trees.” You’ll notice it says nothing about diet (or even number of legs, etc. but let’s leave that for now). Going by that definition—those “objective standards,” which supposedly thus determine the “Form of Squirrel” and therefore what is “Objectively Good or Bad” for it—its diet is an accidental, not essential characteristic. A squirrel that ate toothpaste would Instantiate the Form of Squirrel just as well as one that ate nuts as long as it had a long bushy tail, fur, and lived in trees, for the same reason a green triangle instantiates the Form of Triangle as well as a black one.

Again, Professor Feser might say I’m still being silly. “Of course we know that eating nuts rather than toothpaste is an Essential Characteristic, not an accidental one!” And once again, I would ask how. I have support from the dictionary, and where else are we supposed to go for definitions but a dictionary? Is it a question of logic? I would be very interested to see him axiomatically demonstrate though pure logic and/or mathematics that eating nuts is an essential, defining characteristic of a squirrel, in the same way that the Pythagorean Theorem can be demonstrated through a logical syllogism or geometric proof. This, by the way, should be casting a few more aspersions on Aristotelianism right now—it seems to rely on taking a methodology useful in some fields (formal logic, geometry, mathematics) and inserting them in very different ones (biology, human affairs); a sort of category error, if you will.

But in any case, perhaps Feser would say, “stop being obtuse! Sure, sure, we can’t determine what a biological creature’s form is through formal logic, but we have Empirical Observation and Common Sense!”

Well, the problem is, Feser’s own reasoning doesn’t make it clear that he or Aristotle or Aquinas would accept defining Forms based on empirical observation. Sure, I’ll admit Feser’s probably not wrong in his assessment of Mr. Squirrel. Our ‘empirical observations’ of squirrels everywhere are probably on point, the critters generally don’t eat toothpaste. But should that matter? If triangles were more often one color in our observed experience, would that mean color is an “essential” characteristic of triangularity? Feser could also argue that toothpaste is poisonous to squirrels, as can be demonstrated by digestive biology. But in that case, he would be deriving its form (an acorn rather than toothpaste-eating creature) from what was good (healthy) for it, rather than the other way around, as he says we should.

Second, both common sense and empirical observation can be and often are pretty badly wrong. ‘Common sense’ once told us that the sun orbited the earth, but as we all know that’s not true. ‘Empirical observation’ once told us the orbits of the planets were circular rather than elliptical, but that changed with Kepler. And even if our empirical observations aren’t outrightly false (again, though they often are), they can often be incomplete too. The squirrel proves this once again—Feser’s description of its Form, even if we were to accept it as broadly true, is actually not 100% true or complete either. As it happens, it’s not enough to say squirrels “bury acorns.” The interesting truth is, they only bury certain species of acorn, and are much more likely to eat other kinds immediately:

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1998/11/981126102802.htm

So Feser’s summation of the Squirrel’s Form is incorrect, or at least incomplete—and I’m very certain he didn’t know this until now. It’s not entirely correct to say the Form of a Squirrel is to live in trees and bury acorns, or that its Final Cause is to just bury acorns, it’s to “live in trees, eat white acorns (specifically) more often, and bury red ones (specifically) more often.”

I know what you’re saying. “Nitpicking about squirrels and acorns? That doesn’t actually refute Aristotelianism, does it?” Maybe not, but it should raise some pretty significant doubts about the system. At the very least, I have proven it is possible to be wrong about Essences and Final Causes when you have to rely on means other than formal or mathematical logic to discern them. And if Feser was wrong, *even slightly,* about squirrels and acorns, if his assessment of their Form and/or Final Cause was even slightly incorrect, what else might he (and by extension, Aristotle and Aquinas) be wrong about? Again, this is not just snide nitpicking. It’s merely funny if someone’s wrong about, or has misperceived, the true Form/Essence or Final Causes of a squirrel, but things can get very serious if we misinterpret, say, the Form of Human Beings or the Final Cause of our sexual faculties, even if we only get them slightly wrong, as that would have huge consequences for what we consider to be moral and how we organize society. Or, to put it another way:

Our ability to perceive Forms/Essences (and by extension Final Causes/Purposes) is quite obviously limited and imperfect. Therefore, relying on these things, which we may be wrong about, to ground our morality, leads us into the same problems utilitarianism and consequentialism do.

Forgive me for skipping ahead a bit: Feser dismisses utilitarianism because it

>“famously regards morality as a matter of promoting “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Nowadays the talk is all about “maximizing the satisfaction of preferences,” or some other purportedly more precise substitute for happiness. Either way, the “happiness” or “preferences” in question are inevitably defined subjectively à la Hume, and it is notoriously difficult to explain why anyone should care about the happiness or preference satisfaction of the “greatest number” – as opposed to just his own, or that of some group he favors – without appealing to a “sentiment of generalized benevolence” or some such thing. But what happens if some people don’t have this sentiment? We’re back again to saying, “Well, they’re just not like us, and we’d better make sure they don’t win out.” “Morality” becomes at best an assertion of the prevailing (and in principle ever-shifting) sensibilities of the majority, or at least of those with the loudest mouths. It has no ultimate basis in objective fact or in reason, but only in sentiment and existing custom.”[30]

But as I have proven above, one can levy criticisms at least as powerful at Aristotelianism. It is notoriously difficult to explain why some attributes are essential and others are accidental, as well as why we should care about them. The “objective good” of something is to conform to its paradigmatic Form? As I’ve demonstrated with multiple examples above, there are many instances where “conforming” in this way is morally bad, and defecting is advantageous and morally good. And how do we determine what Forms or Final Causes are? If it’s through experience and common sense, both can be wrong, and even then there’s an element of subjectivity in determining those forms. There’s no clear reason we should define the Form of Squirrel as something that buries acorns rather than simply a furry tree-dwelling mammal, and even in that case, we may be wrong about exactly what sort of acorns it buries.

The same applies to human beings. How can we be sure the “Form of Man” is a rational, truth-seeking animal? Why couldn’t it simply be a “two-legged, hairless ape,” with rationality being an accidental characteristic?

If Feser thinks this is a callow objection, I’d say it’s quite serious. Again, Feser, Aristotle, and Plato tell us a thing’s Form or Essence is what makes it what it is, what defines it, what differentiates it from other things. But is “rationality” or “reasoning” or “grasping abstract concepts such as Forms” really what “makes us what we are, and not ravens or octopi? As it happens, several species of birds and octopi are capable of comprehending “Universals.” Grey Parrots, at least, seem capable of comprehending numbers as abstract concepts.[31] It’s harder to do for octopi, but what evidence we have suggests they are capable of categorizing objects based on extrapolating larger categories from individual instances they’ve encountered, indicating some awareness of universal Forms.[32] Therefore, animals *do* have a capacity to grasp what Plato called Forms—abstract concepts that are nevertheless instantiated to some extent in physical reality. That capacity may be far abrogated in our little buddies—Alex and the octopus would not be able to understand the abstract arguments of The Last Superstition—but it is a matter of degree, not kind.

Aristotle and Aquinas didn’t know this, of course, which was why they claimed rationality was what made us uniquely human. But we know other creatures can “reason,” even if not as well as the best of us–they are capable of grasping abstract concepts and “universals” like color. Thus, it can’t be “rationality” alone that separates us from them. And even if it were, it’s not the only distinguishing trait we have. Why can we not take other “uniquely human” behaviors to define what a human is? For instance, why could an alcoholic (from Feser’s example, of course) not say “the Form of Man is an alcohol-drinker (since no other creature on Earth has invented beer, alcohol-drinking is what makes us human as opposed to something else) and therefore his Final Cause is to drink as much and as many different types of booze as possible! Let’s get soused!” How would Feser prove that wrong? That we “know in our bones” the life of an alcoholic is a bad way to live? But “moral intuition” has also told us obviously wrong things—people have been disgusted by miscegenation and “knew in their bones” it was wrong, and I somehow doubt Feser is going to campaign against interracial marriage with the same enthusiasm he condemns alcoholism (or gay marriage).

This ambiguity and uncertainty also has dire consequences for Feser’s theology as well. At this point we can finally come back to an argument he used to demonstrate the necessity of God: He told us nothing else but God could have an essence synonymous with existence, and since such an Essence is necessary to serve as a Sustainer, God must exist. But how do we know that the essence of something else is not synonymous with existence? As I have proven above (and Aaron Boyden has mentioned), our ability to comprehend Essences is limited and we are often incorrect. Maybe there’s something else besides God with that property. Maybe we’ll eventually find out that the Essence of gravity or some other fundamental force is *not* distinct from its existence, and can therefore fulfill the sustaining role. Feser might say this is impossible, but I say it’s possible we just haven’t discovered it yet. After all, it has taken time for humanity to discover other necessary truths. Nobody knew the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle until Pythagoras proved it, didn’t they? All the people before him assumedly lived in ignorance. So perhaps it’s possible that some physicist in the future—a hundred years, a thousand, who knows—will discover that the Essence of Gravity or the Weak and Strong Forces or whatever is actually synonymous and indistinct from its existence, therefore fulfilling God’s “necessary” function. Feser might have proven that belief in God is not entirely irrational, but he has failed to prove it’s absolutely necessary, and axiomatically true in the same sense the Pythagorean theorem is.

I suppose, at this point, Feser might fall back on ‘Final Causes’ rather than Forms to undergird his “objective morality.” He says as much here:

>“Our tendency to find something personally disgusting,” [Feser says people like me] will sniff, “doesn’t show that there is anything objectively wrong with it.” This is the sort of stupidity-masquerading-as-insight that absolutely pervades modern intellectual life, and it has the same source as so many other contemporary intellectual pathologies: the abandonment of the classical realism of the great Greek and Scholastic philosophers, and especially of Aristotle’s doctrine of the four causes. For we need to ask why there is a universal, or near universal, reaction of disgust to certain behaviors, and why certain traits count as unnatural even if there is a genetic factor underlying them. And when the “evolutionary psychologists,” “rational choice theorists,” and other such Bright Young Things and trendies have had their say, there can still be no satisfying answer to these questions that does not make reference to Aristotelian final causes – even if only because there can be no satisfying explanation of almost anything that doesn’t make reference to final causes.”

Uh-huh. Well, I’ll respond to that with…

Major Objection 3: None of the criticisms of Aristotelianism rely on denying final causes entirely. One only needs to deny they hold any sort of normative power. Or, to put it another way, final causes exist, but they have no normative power in and of themselves; we must rely on some form of ethics aside from an Aristotelian one to decide which final causes to fulfill and which to frustrate—this is obvious from the natural world, looking at examples ranging from matches to water to anything else.

The mere fact that pretty much everything in reality is “directed” towards certain ends, rather than just…blowing up in a random maelstrom of chaos, carries no normative or moral weight whatsoever, and this really should be obvious after thinking about it for even a little bit. Feser and Aristotle fail to solve Hume’s is-ought problem here for similar reasons they failed to solve it in regards to Essences/Forms. It’s plainly obvious that any attempt to draw moral or normative conclusions from final causes ends in insanity.

For instance, returning to the big quote above, Feser tells us “it is not just the case that a struck match regularly generates fire, heat, and the like; it regularly generates fire and heat specifically.”[33] That is to say, generating fire and heat is the “final cause” of the match because they are the only things it produces, rather than lilac or ice or whatever. A very reasonable response to this is, “so what?” A match may be “directed” towards the production of fire as its “final cause,” this may tell us that we live in a “regular” universe rather than a chaotic one, and that things have certain “objective properties” which result in only a set bound of possibilities or outcomes. But again…so what? Does this mean we’re now obligated to help matches Fulfill their Final Cause by setting alight every match we see? Is it unethical to use matches in ways that don’t produce fire, like in arts and crafts for children? Is it “frustrating the final cause” of matches to get them wet so kids won’t be able to set things on fire with them? Of course not, at least not in any meaningful sense.

Similarly, most things have a range of Final Causes, not just one—in fact, Feser, and Aristotle, and Aquinas, would be on much stronger ground if everything actually did have only one Final Cause (other than the very vague, general one of “following the laws of physics,” of course). For instance, water has several final causes—in cold, the “Final Cause” of H2O is to be solid, a little warmer, its Final Cause is to be water, and when it’s hot, its Final Cause is to be gas (steam). So how do we decide which of these Final Causes to fulfill? They can’t all be fulfilled simultaneously. The answer, of course, lies in our practical purposes—if we need ice to keep something cool, we’ll lower temperatures, if we need water to drink, we’ll heat things up a little, and if we need steam for cleaning or power or whatever, we’ll heat things up a lot. All of this is in reference to practical human needs, not any inherent, much less objective, good in fulfilling final causes for the sake of final causes.

So, once again, we come to the question, “why should we care about Final Causes, and why should they have any normative power or moral obligation?” Feser would likely reply with something similar to what he gave us for Form/Essence: “We know through reason that what is Good For Us is really Fulfilling our Final Cause!” Well, no, we don’t, because of what I said above, and in Objection 1. It’s easy to think of plenty of examples where foiling a thing’s Final Cause is “good” in the sense of praiseworthy and fulfilling it “bad;” for instance, defusing a bomb would “foil its final cause” (that is to blow up and kill people) but still be morally good if you’re saving the lives of innocent people. And even if that weren’t the case, since most things in a universe have a multiplicity of Final Causes, a moral objective consisting of “the Good is in fulfilling Final Causes” tells us nothing of which Final Causes to fulfill. And lastly, it’s as hard to discern what a thing’s Final Causes may really be as it is for its Essence. Once again I point to what I’ve already written: Why couldn’t an alcoholic say the Final Cause of humanity is to get soused regularly instead of pursuing truth? The chain of logic that tells us we’re “rational creatures” is the same one that tells us we’re “boozing creatures,” because brewing alcohol is as unique to humanity as being rational is—arguably more so, given that several other animals, such as birds and octopi, are capable of grasping abstract concepts and universals (which define rationality).

And if that’s not enough, what if I showed you guys that this “Final Cause = Objective Good” stuff was internally inconsistent? Let’s move on to…

 

Major Objection 3a: In nature, final causes are often at odds with each other, ecosystems rely on the final causes of various organisms being frustrated in some form to some extent. Therefore, “frustration” of final causes cannot possibly be invariably wrong. Or, to put it another way, the occasional frustration of final causes is ironically enough part of the natural regularity Feser uses to prove they exist.

Bluntly stated: What is Good for one organism, in the sense of fulfilling its Final Cause, often by necessity obviates the Final Cause of another. The examples Feser himself uses are, again ironically, excellent demonstrations of this. Remember how he said that Good, for a squirrel, is to bury acorns? If we accept that as true (though a little more complex, as I pointed out), we have to consider that there’s a “Final Cause” behind that behavior. Squirrels don’t bury acorns for the sake of burying them, they bury them so they can eat them after the winter. So we can say that the Final Cause, or goal, of the squirrel is to eat acorns, and burying them is just a step towards that goal.

Now, obviously, a squirrel eating an acorn obviates the acorn’s Final Cause: It is “directed towards” growing into a tree. In my view, this poses a few more problems for the Thomist. If God, the supreme Good, desires the Good of all things (that is to say, fulfillment of their final causes), how can He necessitate that the Good for one thing (a squirrel) equates to the frustration of the Good, or Bad, for another thing (the acorn)? This isn’t just a defect, like a squirrel with three legs or a mutant acorn or something. This is built into the very structure of their Final Causes—it is an absolute logical necessity that one organism can fulfill its Final Cause (i.e achieve its Good) *only if* the other fails to (i.e suffers its “Bad”). How could something that is Pure Act, but also Pure Good, intend anything but the Good for its creation?

An answer to that would be that occasional frustration of Final Causes is a legitimate part of the natural order—and I use natural in both the sense of “mother nature” and Feser’s sense of “correctly ordered.” Squirrels eat most of the acorns they bury, but not all—some of the time, they forget about their hidden stashes, and that allows the acorns to grow in the soil and become oak trees. Now, this is certainly a frustration of the squirrel’s Final Cause, which we’ve established, is to eat acorns (not just bury them). However, as long as it happens occasionally, the long-term result is good, because there are more oak trees.

So one can be impressed by God’s foresight—analogically, of course. He may well have come up with a nifty way to maintain an ecosystem. However, this also pops a hole in Feser’s moral theory: *Frustrating something’s Final Cause is not always a bad thing, in fact nature seems to tell us that some degree of this frustration is actually necessary to maintain ecosystems and other types of things, indicating that frustrating Final Causes to some extent is part of the regularity and order which proves they exist in the first place.* If the Final Cause of squirrels were always to be fulfilled, the ecosystem in which the rodents live would be destroyed as there would be no more oak trees growing. Thus, it’s acceptable they forget where they bury acorns some of the time, *even though this is a frustration of the action’s Final Cause.* Similarly, it’s okay for the “Final Causes” of acorns to be frustrated some of the time, because if no acorns were ever eaten and all of them grew into oak trees, the squirrels would die of starvation and no-one would be left to bury the next generation of acorns, leading the forest to die out. And this truth is based upon the empirical fact that the forest ecosystem (or wherever) really is regular and ordered in such a way as to account for such frustrations.

Thus, we can conclude that if occasional Frustration of Final Causes is not necessarily inherently “unnatural” (i.e Objectively Bad) for the squirrel, it is not necessarily “unnatural” for human beings. For instance, how do we know homosexuality (a subject we’ll return to later) is necessarily bad? Just as the regular, natural order ordains that some squirrels Frustrate their Final Cause of eating acorns so that the larger ecosystem may be sustained, perhaps the natural order ordains that some people Frustrate the Final Causes of their Sexual Faculties to serve some other purpose for the “human ecosystem” (that is to say, society). Most squirrels (if they could think) would “sense in their bones” or “morally intuit” that something was wrong with one of their fellows that buried nuts and acorns and then forgot to eat them. However, if they had any capacity for foresight or long-term thinking, they’d realize that “defective” squirrels who forgot about their buried treasure kept the forest as a whole healthy. Similarly, even if we might “sense in our bones” or “morally intuit” that there’s something wrong with gay people, foresight and long-term thinking might be able to tell us that they serve a function in human affairs in at least some small numbers and to at least some extent, even if they’re “defective” for “frustrating their Final (Sexual) Causes.”

 

Major Objection 3b: Even if they do exist, final causes are relative anyways, and thus can’t be used to ground an objective system of morality.

Let’s skip ahead a bit, once again, to Feser’s defense of Final Causality against the charge of circularity. He provides us an anecdote from Moliere:

>“A particularly famous criticism of Aristotelian Scholasticism by early modern philosophers is enshrined in Molière’s joke about the doctor who pretends to explain why opium causes sleep by saying that it has a “dormitive power.” The reason this is supposed to be funny is that since “dormitive power” just means “a power to cause sleep,” the doctor’s answer amounts to saying “opium causes sleep because it has a power to cause sleep”; and this, it is said, is a mere tautology, and therefore explains nothing at all…But the statement in question says more than that. It says that opium has a power to cause sleep; that is to say, it says that the fact that sleep follows the ingestion of opium is not a mere accidental feature of this or that sample of opium, but derives from something in the very nature of opium as such.”[34]

This may be true, but it also implies something Aristotelians would do well to consider: Opium, or its “very nature,” possesses a “dormitive power” *only in relation to humans.* It either doesn’t do much to other species or even more, depending on their metabolism and brain chemistry. The only universal property opium (a kind of alkaloid) has is a bitter taste. In any case, its Final Cause—its biological function—is not to put things to sleep but rather act as a deterrent to grazing animals and insects that feed on plants.[35] So while opium may seem to have a “dormitive power” for humans, that’s not actually its final cause—the final cause of this substance is to provide protection for plants against herbivores.

What this means, of course, is that final causes are relative, not objective. Or, to put it another way, while the chemical or physical or whatever properties of any given thing are objective, it has “final causes” only in relation to other things it interacts with. So the “final cause” of opium in relation to humans is to put us to sleep, but its “final cause” in relation to, say, herbivores that eat poppy flowers, is to put bad tastes in their mouths (or perhaps kill them outright, depending on their resistance to toxicity). Thus, since final causes are necessarily relative, even if they are based on objective physical properties, it strikes me as difficult to use them for an objective basis of morality.

But, in my view, the doctrine of Final Causes is even worse than that. Allow me to move on to my biggest beef with Aristotelianism:

Major Objection 4 (The Big One): Aristotelian moral reasoning is either incoherent or overly restrictive. Either it forbids adaptation or improvisation (if you define it in ways that still maintain any meaning) or it’s entirely arbitrary (if you define it the way Feser does).

In Feser’s view, “natural law” morality, off of which Aristotelianism and Thomism are based, forbids things like homosexuality and extramarital sex. It’s often said of folks who oppose “natural law” that we only do so because we want to be sexual libertines, and there’s no reason otherwise to oppose the doctrine. I’ve heard the claim from a few people before, though thankfully Feser seems mature enough to avoid it here. Good, because that claim, at least for me, is false (and not just because I ain’t even gay). *My most important criticism of Aristotelian teleology, and the concept of using “final causes” as morally binding, is not that it says bad things about homosexuality, but because it obliterates adaptation and improvisation, at least when taken to its logical conclusion.*

First, I must give credit to some folks at reddit: /u/reallynicole, /u/thefeint, and /u/EdgarBGasm in these threads:

https://www.reddit.com/r/philosophy/comments/1zs7qk/a_reply_to_levins_paper_why_homosexuality_is/

https://www.reddit.com/r/philosophy/comments/260hkl/hsiao_on_why_homosexuality_is_immoral/

As you will see, I’ll be building on their arguments.

So, let’s go back to what Feser said about “final causes” and why they tell us homosexuality is bad.

>“Since the final cause of human sexual capacities is procreation, what is good for human beings in the use of those capacities is to use them only in a way consistent with this final cause or purpose. This is a necessary truth; for the good for us is defined by our nature and the final causes of its various elements. It cannot possibly be good for us to use them in any other way, whether an individual person thinks it is or not, any more than it can possibly be good for an alcoholic to indulge his taste for excessive drink or the mutant squirrel of our earlier example to indulge his taste for Colgate toothpaste…every sexual act has as its natural culmination, its proximate final cause, ejaculation into the vagina, and that the man and woman involved in such an act cannot act in a way to prevent this result.”[36]

First off, of course, just about all of this is false for the multitude of reasons I have given above. That “good” in European languages seems to mean both “conforming (to an Essence/Form/Final Cause, in this case)” and “desirable” is merely an unfortunate quirk of those languages, and not proof that the two senses of “good” are literally the same. One could take a squirrel eating nutritional pellets rather than toothpaste as an example of an “unnatural” act being good for it, and an alcoholic could claim the “final cause” of human beings was boozing rather than truthseeking. There are many instances where foiling the “final cause” of something is morally good, such as preventing a bomb from exploding. The mere existence of “final causes” does nothing to solve Hume’s is-ought problem because most things have so many “final causes” it’s hard if not impossible to tell which one of those final causes we should fulfill, and also because Nature herself and/or God Himself has apparently decreed that some Final Causes should be frustrated some of the time. And as the case of opium demonstrates, Final Causes are relative anyways (even if physical properties are objective)—just as the Final Cause of alkaloids is to cause sleep in relation to humans but disgust or aversion in relation to herbivores, perhaps the Final Cause of the penis is to make babies in relation to women but stimulate the prostate in relation to other men.

But OK, even disregarding all this, it would still be foolish to equate the Good to “using things for their Final Causes or in ways consistent with their Final Causes, and only those ways.” Why? Let me provide some examples:

1: A physics teacher is in a lecture hall full of college students, using a rubber ball to demonstrate some principle of motion. Suddenly, an Aristotelian bursts in and shrieks, “YOU’RE NOT USING THAT BALL FOR ITS FINAL CAUSE! IT WAS OBVIOUSLY INTENDED TO PROVIDE AMUSEMENT FOR CHILDREN, NOT TEACH COLLEGE STUDENTS! YOU ARE ACTING IN AN OBJECTIVELY WICKED AND IRRATIONAL MANNER!”

2: A bomb has exploded in a shopping mall (perhaps because someone told the bomb disposal squad that they shouldn’t Frustrate the Final Cause of the bomb) and many people are injured. A Good Samaritan sees someone bleeding and knows they’ll die before the ambulance arrives, but he has no first-aid kit with him. Thinking quickly, he takes off his shirt and prepares to use it as a makeshift tourniquet or bandage. Immediately he’s stopped by an Aristotelian, who screams “SHIRTS ARE INTENDED TO BE WORN! THIS IS BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS! YOU CAN’T USE ONE AS A BANDAGE, YOU’RE FRUSTRATING ITS FINAL CAUSE! YOU ARE ACTING IN AN OBJECTIVELY WICKED AND IRRATIONAL MANNER!”

3: The terrorists who set the bomb at the shopping mall have escaped and assaulted a nearby bank. They’re holding the employees hostage. While their backs are turned, however, one brave employee spots a nearby fire extinguisher and decides to take a chance. Stealthily, he grabs the device and prepares to bash it over the head of the distracted terrorist…before the Aristotelian from the mall spoils his opportunity by yelling, “THE FINAL CAUSE OF A FIRE EXTINGUISHER IS TO STOP FIRES, NOT BE USED AS A WEAPON! THIS ISN’T ALLOWED! YOU CAN’T USE A FIRE EXTINGUISHER AS A WEAPON AT THE SAME TIME YOU’RE USING IT TO STOP FIRES, SO YOU ARE THEREFORE ACTING IN AN OBJECTIVELY WICKED AND IRRATIONAL MANNER!”

Needless to say, in all three examples any sensible person would find that the Aristotelian was acting in an utterly foolish manner, and that an assessment of the consequences that would come of using the ball, shirt, and fire extinguisher in those ways would be far more important than any silly pondering over their “final cause.”

Of course, Feser believes he has addressed that riposte. As he said,

>“One also frequently hears objections along the lines of “Wouldn’t this theory entail such absurdities as that it is immoral to prop up a table with one’s leg, or to get a hysterectomy to save a woman’s life, or to clean the earwax out of one’s ears?” No, no, and no. Natural law theory does not condemn using a natural capacity or organ other than for its natural function, but only using it in a manner contrary to its natural function, frustrating its natural end. Hence holding a table up with one’s leg, or holding nails in one’s teeth, does not frustrate the walking and chewing functions of legs and teeth, especially since nature obviously does not intend for us to be walking and eating at every single moment. But having one’s leg amputated to make some sort of bizarre political statement, or throwing up one’s food so as not to gain weight would frustrate nature’s purposes and thus be condemned by natural law theory as immoral. Amputating a leg or removing other organs to save a person’s life, though, would not be ruled out by natural law theory, since these organs and their functions are metaphysically subordinate to the overall purpose of sustaining the life and activities of the organism as a whole, and can thus be sacrificed if this is the only way to prevent the loss of that life.”[37]

So in Feser’s view, using a ball to teach a class rather than amuse children is OK because teaching isn’t “contrary” to its function, and that using a shirt as a bandage or a fire extinguisher as a weapon against terrorists is OK because their functions are “metaphysically subordinate” to their overall purpose of sustaining human life, even if they preclude use as a clothing and a fire extinguisher, respectively.

Suffice it to say this strikes me as a rather flaccid (heh) defense. Why doesn’t any of this apply to homosexual behavior and our sexual capacities? How would sodomy necessarily “frustrate” the procreative function of the penis? You can have sex with a guy in the morning and just as easily have sex with a woman in the evening (Feser is aware bisexuality exists, I hope). As a poster in the Reddit threads above pointed out, if two gay men had sex then collected the semen for donation, wouldn’t they be fulfilling a “Final Cause” of procreation? Just like using one’s leg to prop up a table for a brief time doesn’t preclude you from using it to walk later on, individual instances of non-procreative sex do not preclude procreative sex from occurring later on. And nature “obviously” does not intend every instance of ejaculation to end in procreation or even “unitive bonding.” Feser is aware wet dreams exist, I hope? Many if not most men have nocturnal emissions where they ejaculate into nothing and no-one. This is clearly non-procreative and even non-unitive, since the man isn’t “bonding” with anyone except his bedsheets. But these wet dreams clearly serve a purpose, since nature has made them so common. Therefore, it is “blindingly obvious” that there are times when the natural order decrees ejaculation takes place with absolutely no reference to procreation or bonding or any other “final cause” Aristotle and Aquinas might have said inhered to sexuality.

Perhaps there’s some other reason we ought to loathe homosexuality (if not homosexuals themselves, at least not necessarily, according to Feser). It seems that “Natural law theory does not entail that every frustration of nature’s purposes is a serious moral failing. Where certain natural functions concern only some minor aspect of human life, a frustration of nature’s purposes might be at worst a minor lapse in a virtue like prudence. But where they concern the maintenance of the species itself, and the material and spiritual well being of children, women, and men – as they do where sex is concerned – acting contrary to them cannot fail to be of serious moral significance.”[38]

Hmm. Well, just off the top of my head, I can see one important way Feser is wrong here.

“Frustration of final causes” is often a way Nature maintains a species or organism. Remember the example of the squirrel above? Sometimes nature intends the “final cause of eating acorns” for the squirrel to be occasionally frustrated, so that new oaks can grow in the future. And sometimes nature intends the “final cause of growing into oaks” to be frustrated for acorns, in order to keep squirrels from starving (which would lead to future acorns not being buried). Same thing with gays. As I also implied above, perhaps the “frustration of the Final Cause of their sexual faculties” serves some purpose for the species as a whole. And as it happens, there’s some evidence for that:

http://www.livescience.com/6106-gay-uncles-pass-genes.html

It seems our fabulous friends do a good job of caring for the kids of their heterosexual relatives even if they have no kids of their own, thus helping to maintain the particular society (Samoa) they live in.[39] It may well be possible, and this article makes it seem likely, that homosexuality  serves a similar purpose for the maintenance of the species as a whole, even if that entails the frustration of an individual’s Final Causes in reference to sex.

And even if all this stuff about Final Causes were true, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s still relevant. If you’re worried “maintaining the species” and “the well being of men, women, and children,” you ought to be aware that all of those things are at least somewhat contingent on technology and social structures. Technology means gay folks can “procreate” in their own ways nowadays, thanks to things like in-vitro fertilization, pregnancy surrogates, and so on. This situation doesn’t seem like it’ll be reversed anytime soon, with the advent of artificial wombs, eggs and sperm generated from stem cells, and other technological wonders. Now, you might find such developments horrifying in a Brave New World kind of way, but you can’t deny they’re effective ways of “maintaining the species” outside of vaginal intercourse. And the well-being of children? Many monks and nuns have run orphanages where children were raised—successfully—without the help of caretakers of the opposite sex. Widows and widowers have raised children on their own (I’ll say nothing about single parents; it seems likely Feser would consider them an augur of social decay). It is, to put it mildly, less than absolutely certain the Tribe of the Rainbow is as socially detrimental as Feser claims.

I have, hopefully, demonstrated at least that some of Feser’s arguments aren’t as axiomatically airtight as he states. So now that we’ve worked over Aristotle’s thought as it pertains to morality, what does that say about God? Let us return to that subject.

 

Part IV: The Nature of God

As promised earlier, let’s get back to Aristotle’s potentiality and actuality, and then Thomas Aquinas and his 5 ways—and in this section, we’ll be touching on chapters 3, 4, and 5. I hit on this a little bit when I described the potentialities and actualities of a rubber ball (and how one might actually follow you around by itself) but a bit more on that: Aristotle also believed that no potentiality could actualize itself, so that the “potential” of a rubber ball to be blue would have to be actualized by someone painting it blue (it wouldn’t turn blue by itself). The second important thing is that actualities exist in the real world while potentialities exist only in the mind—a red rubber ball sitting in front of you is obviously real, but it has the “potentiality to be blue” only because you can *imagine* it being blue. For Feser and Aquinas, this means there has to be something out there that has no potentialities at all, it’s just “pure Act,” and that happens to be God. The last thing is a bit on the hierarchy of potentialities and actualities, but that’s more relevant to abortion so we’ll get to that later.[40]

The important bit is the “Pure Act” part. Here’s what Feser says it means, (to fully understand it, go back a bit and read the excerpt I quoted about causes and effects with the spigot):

>” First, there cannot possibly be more than one being who is Pure Actuality; hence the argument from motion leads inevitably to monotheism. One reason for this (there are others, one of which we’ll examine when we look at the next argument for God’s existence) is that in order for there to be two (or more) purely actual beings, there would have to be some way of distinguishing them, some feature that one of them had that the other lacked; and there just couldn’t be any such feature. For to lack a feature is just to have an unrealized potentiality, and a purely actual being, by definition, has no unrealized potentialities. So if we said, for example, that one purely actual being was more powerful than another, and that that is what distinguished him from the other one, then we’d be saying in effect that the other purely actual being had failed to realize his potential for power as fully as the first had – which makes no sense given that we’re talking about a purely actual being, with no potentialities of any sort. So, again, there is no feature that one purely actual being could have that another could lack, and thus no way even in theory to distinguish one purely actual being from another. So there couldn’t be more than one. 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. Such a being would not come into existence or go out of existence – both of these being instances of change – but simply exist always. In fact, he would have to be eternal or outside of time and space altogether, since to be within time and space also entails changeability. The Unmoved Mover is in any event that to which every motion or change in the material universe – not just moving stones, but melting glaciers, orbiting moons, budding flowers, growing boys and girls, and so on through all of nature – traces back. Being the common first member of all the various essentially ordered causal series that result in these instances of change, the Unmoved Mover is outside and distinct from them all, as that which sustains the entire world in motion from instant to instant.

 

>”Now recall the Aristotelian principle that a cause cannot give what it does not have, so that the cause of a feature must have that feature either “formally” or “eminently”; that is, if it does not have the feature itself (as a cigarette lighter, which causes fire, is not itself on fire), it must have a feature that is higher up in the hierarchy of attributes (as the cigarette lighter has the power to generate fire). But 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 (features far up in the hierarchy of attributes of created things, as we will see in the next chapter), so that He must be said to have intellect and will, and thus personality, in an analogical 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. Does this mean that the Unmoved Mover has what we would regard as negative or defective features too – blindness, disease, heroin addiction, etc., “eminently” if not “formally”? Not at all. For every such feature is what the Scholastics called a “privation,” the absence of a positive feature rather than a positive feature in its own right. Hence sight, for example, is a positive attribute, being just what an animal’s visual apparatus (comprising the eyes, optic nerves, relevant brain areas, etc.) makes possible when it is realizing its natural potentialities, that is, functioning according to its essence and final cause. But blindness is not a different positive attribute from sight; it is rather a negative attribute, the absence of sight, a failure to realize a natural potentiality. The same thing is true of disease, of moral character flaws (as we will see in a later section), and of every other feature we would naturally consider a defect. The Unmoved Mover, being a purely actual being devoid of potentiality, cannot meaningfully be said to have any of these features even “eminently” (whatever that would mean in this case). In fact, since to have a positive feature or perfection is just to actualize a potentiality, and the Unmoved Mover, the source of all such features, is purely actual, with no unactualized potentiality, He can only be said to have every perfection (and no defect) eminently, and thus to be perfect and all-good (again, in an analogical sense – not being a creature with potentialities to actualize, the Unmoved Mover isn’t “good” in the sense in which a human being might be said to be good, e.g. striving to fulfill his moral obligations). To show that an Unmoved Mover exists, then, is just to show that there is a single being who is the cause of all change, Himself unchangeable, immaterial, eternal, personal (having intelligence and will), all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. It is, in short, to show that there is a God.[41]

If I’m understanding this right, we see (says Feser) that God must necessarily exist, be omnipotent, omniscient and be omnibenevolent. He must exist because everything in the universe is changing (i.e actualizing potentialities), but nothing can actualize a potentiality on its own; it must be actualized by something else that already is actualized, so there must be something that’s actualized every potentiality possible to actualize all those potentialities in the universe. Naturally, such a being would be all-powerful, since actualizing all possible potentialities means it can do anything that’s possible. Since intelligence, like everything else, also comes from God, He must also have the greatest intelligence imaginable, otherwise nothing could have actualized the potential for intelligence in the universe. And He must be all-good, since ‘bad things’ like being diseased or evil are not really “actualized potentials” but instead absences of properly actualized potentials.

Ooookay. Suffice it to say, yet again, that I’m not convinced.

I’ll admit that I probably don’t have the professional philosophical background to really address this, but from a layman’s perspective, this sounds hopelessly incoherent. First, let’s go back to potentialities and actualities with our rubber ball. It has the “potential” to be gooey rather than solid if you heat it up, the “potential” to be blue rather than red if you paint it, and so on. But it cannot be both of these things at once—certain actualities by logical necessity exclude other ones. If a ball that is actually solid actualizes its potentiality to be gooey, it by necessity cannot be solid (“actualize the potentiality of solidity”) at the same time. If a ball is red and you paint it blue, it cannot simultaneously be actualizing redness at the same time, or greenness or any other color (it can only be one color at a time, unless you paint it with polka dots or stripes or whatever, and in that case it can only be polka dotted or striped, not every imaginable combination of decorations at the same time). But if all potentialities—solidity and gooeyness, being red or being green, etc.—come from God, He must actualize them simultaneously. How can this be possible? How can God be red and blue and green, hot and cold, solid and gooey, at the same time?

Secondly, as I noted above, it’s not always that easy to discern what’s a defect and what’s not. Is God autistic? Aquinas probably was, indicating that autism might not necessarily be a defect, so would that make autism one of the potentialities actualized by Mr. Pure Act? What about homosexuality? As I also pointed out, it’s entirely possible homosexuality actually has a place within the “human ecosystem,” and is therefore not a defect from the proper natural order, or at least not invariably or entirely. I hardly expect Feser to agree, but at the very least, the difficulty in discerning which traits are “defects” and which aren’t should give us a bit of pause when we declare that something without any kind of defects necessarily exists.

But, once again, I can concede I might be missing something, not having a professional background in philosophy. Even so, however, there are a few other problems in Feser’s argument. So far, Feser has described a God, and a monotheistic one (as is necessary for a being of Pure Act), which we might think precludes the pagan pantheons of, say, Greece. But not so fast. Even if there can only be one Supreme God as Pure Act, that doesn’t necessarily disprove Greek paganism. One only needs to postulate that, say, Zeus was the one God, the omnipotent being of Pure Act, and that all the other Gods (Athena, Poseidon, etc.) were beings of both Act and Potentiality, just more powerful than humans. This seems to be the case, actually. As /u/HippeHoppe told me (here)[ https://www.reddit.com/r/askphilosophy/comments/4lvbor/what_did_aristotle_consider_to_be_the_penalties/d3qxpum?context=3]:

>” What I mean by this was that, although Aristotle offered his own peculiar view on the nature of God/gods and the universe, I’m fairly sure that Aristotle and his contemporaries directly lifted the conventional Greek religion onto this framework. There is one supreme God (Zeus) who is the universal telos, but then each of the celestial spheres are the lesser gods (this is true at least of some of the Neoplatonists).”[42]

This could also apply to the Norse pantheon or any other pagan religion. Thus, it seems that Feser hasn’t quite disproved polytheism after all. Any pantheon with any kind of supreme god (Zeus, Odin, whatever) could have that being act as God (Pure Act) and all the other gods as supernatural beings more powerful than humans but still not in charge of everything like Pure Act is.

But even if we were to disregard all this and insist only the monotheistic god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (and maybe Zoroastrianism…or Deism, obviously. Hmm.) is true, this still wouldn’t tell us Christianity is true.

Now, Feser tries to address this. He says, essentially, that since we know God is omnipotent (being Pure Act) we also know that He can do anything, including break the laws of physics, so it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume He might have instantiated Himself as Christ, healed the blind, walked on water, raised Himself from the dead, etc. Therefore, if the Gospels are accurate, and Feser thinks Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig have proved they are, the Bible is an accurate account of God breaking the laws of physics to do…Christ-y things and therefore proves Christ said and did most if not all of the stuff in the New Testament, meaning Christ really was/is God, meaning we should all do what He says, which is apparently be Catholic. To provide some specific quotes:

>“To establish the existence of God and the immortality of the soul through philosophical arguments is therefore to establish the realistic possibility of the sort of miracle on which Christianity rests its claim to a divine revelation…When interpreted in light of that background, as it should be, the evidence for Christ’s resurrection can be seen to be overwhelming. That, at any rate, is what the mainstream Christian theological tradition has always claimed. And if it is overwhelming, then there are by the same token conclusive rational grounds for believing that what Christ taught was true, in which case the key doctrines of Christianity are rationally justified. The overall chain of argument, then, goes something like this: Pure reason proves through philosophical arguments that there is a God and that we have immortal souls. This by itself entails that a miracle like a resurrection from the dead is possible. Now the historical evidence that Jesus Christ was in fact resurrected from the dead is overwhelming when interpreted in light of that background knowledge…

>”…If a monotheistic religion’s claim to be founded on a divine revelation is going to be at all credible, that claim is going to have to rest on a very dramatic miracle; there simply is no other plausible way in which an alleged revelation might be verified. The resurrection surely counts as such a miracle, for there are no plausible natural means by which a dead man could come back to life. What does Islam have to match this? Muhammad’s “miracle,” the Muslims tell us, is the Qur’an itself. This is, shall we say, rather anticlimactic, especially given that the contents of the Qur’an can be quite easily accounted for in terms of borrowings from Jewish and Christian sources. Jewish miracle claims are going to be the ones familiar from the Old Testament – Moses’s miracles, for example – but Christians accept those too, so even if their historicity were verified, they could not make the case for Judaism over against Christianity specifically. Moreover, the direct eyewitness evidence for these miracle stories is more controversial than the evidence surrounding the resurrection. All things considered, then, the one purportedly revealed monotheistic religion which can appeal to a single decisive miracle in its favor is Christianity. Establish that the resurrection really occurred, and you will have proven that Christianity is true; show that it did not occur, and you will, as St. Paul himself affirms, have disproved Christianity. There is no other world religion that opens itself up to rational evaluation so crisply and clearly.”[43]

Alas, there are a few other problems here. First, The Qu’ran is not the only miracle Muslims appeal to. Aside from the fact that they also believe a lot of supernatural stuff happened with Jesus (From what I recall, they don’t think He died and rose from the dead, they think God made it look like He died and then whisked him off to heaven somehow), Muhammad (according to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracles_of_Muhammad#List_of_miracles ) did things ranging from prophesy to moving trees to producing water. Feser would likely say all these miracles are dubious at best, and I would agree. I mean, there’s no point denying it, searching through my post history on a few websites will show that I’m an ex-muslim, so I might as well admit it, I think Islam is hooey and the Qu’ran is bad fanfic. But for the sake of intellectual rigor, Feser at least has to concede that it’s possible, using his metaphysical framework, that God, Mr. Pure Act, messed with the laws of physics on Muhammad’s behalf just as He did for Jesus, meaning it’s possible Islam is true.

And even if it weren’t, why should Feser’s Catholicism be true rather than some other denomination, Protestant or otherwise? After all, if Mr. Pure Act is capable of bending the laws of physics at His whim, perhaps He’s helping faith healers in the Midwest cure with a touch, or causing some of those folks in the (Protestant) Bible Belt to speak in tongues. Maybe He even appeared to Joseph Smith in a vision, as the Mormons say He did. Now, once again, Feser might argue that the Catholic Church has the best historical chops, all the Protestants are wrong, and the Mormons are, as South Park told us in that song, “dum dum dum dum dum.”[44] Maybe so (and I’m not entirely unsympathetic to that argument), but the metaphysical groundwork Feser has worked so hard to lay opens the door to the possibility of any of them being right.

Of course, it also leads us to question the motives of God. I mean, if all this is true—if it’s likely Jesus rose from the dead and performed all His miracles because we know a being of Pure Act exists that can break the laws of physics—why doesn’t God do this kind of stuff more often, or more comprehensively? If God, as Sustainer, is capable of suspending even the laws of physics as He sees fit—He could make a match produce lilacs rather than flame, or make the moon stop in its orbit, or raise Christ from the dead—why can He do no more than that? It would assumedly be simple for Him to either have Christ do…Christ-y stuff all over the world, or write a huge message in the sky, visible to every human being on Earth, saying “Christianity is true, start worshipping immediately” or something like that. Why didn’t He? I suppose it might not convince the hardest-core of the hardcore atheists, but it would certainly convince quite a few non-believers. If God wanted to save as many people from hellfire/eternal separation from Him (I think that’s a more accurate conception of Hell, at least according to some refined Catholic theologians), why not make it empirically and undeniably obvious He exists instead of forcing us to go through the trouble of reasoning first to His existence, and then to His religion?

This leads us to the problem of evil, which again, I don’t think Feser convincingly addresses.  According to Aquinas,

>“there is no reason whatever to think that an all-powerful and all-good God would prevent the suffering we see around us – for it is ‘part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it to produce good.’  If God can bring out of the evils that we actually experience a good that is far greater than what would have existed without them, then of course He would allow those evils. But God is infinite in power, knowledge, and all the rest – Pure Actuality, Being Itself, Goodness Itself, and so forth, as we have seen – and, since human beings have immortal souls, so that our lives in the here-and-now are but a trivial blink of the eye compared to the eternity we are to enter, there is no limit to the good result that might be made in the next life out of even the worst evils we suffer in this one. For even the worst evils we suffer are finite. Therefore there is every reason to think that God can and will bring out of the sufferings of this life a good that so overshadows them that this life will be seen in retrospect to have been worth it.

>”We are familiar with small-scale analogues to this from everyday life. Suppose your child is trying to learn how to play the violin. This will require much practice, and thus a sacrifice of time that could be spent playing. It will also require hours of frustration and boredom, some pain and discomfort as he gets used to keeping his arms and head in an awkward position for prolonged periods of time and builds up calluses on his fingers, and possibly humiliation when at recitals and the like he makes serious mistakes in his playing or sees how much better other students are than he is. He may often want to give it up, and keeping him from doing so may require not only encouragement but also occasional punishments for failures to practice every day. On bad days he might almost hate you for what you’re putting him through. But eventually he becomes very good indeed, and the frustration he once felt disappears entirely. He might even forget about it almost completely, and if he is a normal, sane human being he certainly will never hold it against you or think the suffering he once thought was unbearable is even worth thinking about now. Indeed, if anything, his accomplishment will have the value for him that it does precisely because he had to suffer for it. In hindsight, he might well say that he wouldn’t have had it any other way. Such examples could be multiplied indefinitely. Of course, I am not claiming that the relatively minor suffering in question is comparable to the death of a child, or bone cancer, or Auschwitz. But then, neither could the relatively minor joy of being a great violinist compare to the beatific vision. Indeed, even the greatest horror we can imagine in this life pales in insignificance before the beatific vision.”

I think Aaron Boyden put it as aptly as I could ever hope to:

 

 

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.[45]

This is a very telling criticism, in my view. Boyden is exactly right when he says the human willingness to tolerate short-term pain for long-term gain is a function of our very obvious lack of omnipotence. The only reason we tolerate the misery and inconvenience of learning the violin is because there’s no other way to get good at it, at least for now. If we had devices that could download knowledge into our heads directly (as existed in *The Matrix* movies) we would all use those instead of learning to play the hard way. God is supposedly Omnipotent, so He should be able to do that easily. Why doesn’t He? Why can’t He just make us all master violinists (or perfect Christians)? As Boyden notes, if an omnipotent being can bring limitless good out of limited evil, why can’t He bring limitless good out of no evil?

I think there are answers to that—I’ve pondered the question myself a few times, and perhaps it’s possible that there’s no such thing as good without evil, or joy without sorrow. But it’s not an argument Feser makes. Thus, I still find the explanation of the problem of evil to be unsatisfying.

At this point, I think I’ve hopefully demonstrated, or at least might have made a few readers think, that the metaphysics of Aquinas and by extension Aristotle haven’t quite proven beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of God. But even if they haven’t succeeded in that respect, perhaps their moral framework still possesses a great deal of social utility?

Or, as we will see, perhaps not.

Part V: Hiding Behind Aristotle

Chapters 5 and 6 of The Last Superstition deal extensively with the philosophers who came after Aquinas and rejected his (and Aristotle’s) metaphysical framework. Feser provides a concise but very serviceable overview of Ockham, Scotus, Descartes, and of course Hume, and why he thinks they were all wrong. My compliments of his earlier chapters stand: Even a layman such as myself would come away from them with a respectably sturdy grasp of what the modernists believed and what differentiated them from their predecessors, though I wasn’t entirely convinced they were as wrongheaded as Feser says. And make no mistake, he thinks they were very wrongheaded—according to him, modernism “triumphed” in the modern age because it was convenient, not because it was right.

Feser quotes Pierre Manent in saying of the modernists,

>“in order to escape decisively from the power of the singular religious institution of the Church, one had to renounce thinking of human life in terms of its good or end,” and then says that most people today bought into that because the Aristotelian view of the world encourages us to pursue virtue for its own sake, and Aquinas encouraged us to think of our eternal lives rather than mortal ones, while a non-Aristotelian metaphysics is more amenable to a society geared towards material prosperity and well-being in this life.”[46]

Maybe so—it’d be dishonest of me to claim that isn’t part of the appeal—but I’d like to say my reservations about Aristotle above might convince someone that there may be at least a few good reasons to be a little leery of him. Of course, I’m humble enough to admit that wouldn’t be enough to exonerate Descartes, et. Al, from the charges against them. However, when it comes to the social effects of modernism, I feel a little more comfortable in saying things might not be all that better if we’d stuck with Aristotle, at least from a sane moral perspective.

In the section of chapter 5 entitled “Universal Acid,” Feser explores some of the problems he thinks Descartes caused. A-D are epistemological ones I can’t really comment on, but E and F are moral ones I can. For E, “The Problem of Natural Rights,” Feser claims human beings can only be said to have such rights by taking Natural Law as both true and normative, as well as assuming God exists. If we’re all just mechanical bags of matter with no eternal souls, it doesn’t matter if we live or die. Only if we consider ourselves to be “God’s property” can our lives have meaning—as Feser says, “since, in order to respect God’s property, I am obligated not to harm you, it is *as if* you had a right not to be killed, maimed, enslaved, or stolen from. Hence talk of natural rights can serve as a useful shorthand for our obligations as stewards of what belongs to God.”[47]

This sounds convincing, but give it a little more thought. If we are all God’s property, and damaging another human being is like damaging God’s property, what if God orders us to damage other human beings? People order others to damage their property all the time—you tear down your house to build a better one if you want. Thus, it seems Feser has justified religious terrorism. Muslims destroying the Twin Towers—or turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, or slaughtering Christians by the truckload—would be acting in a morally correct manner, because some of God’s property has displeased Him by being Christian, and destroying them merely follows His commands, in the same way there would be nothing wrong in hiring someone to destroy your property—such as taking your car to a crusher, or bulldozing your house to build a better one.

Now, of course, Feser would say this isn’t true because Muslims are Objectively Wrong. But as I pointed out above, that’s not necessarily so, under Feser’s metaphysics it’s possible they may be correct. And even if it were, that would just give the “objectively correct” Catholics the “right” to dispose of God’s property as they saw fit. Protestants and atheists (like William Lane Craig and Thomas Nagel) might not be so happy about that—I’m sure they’d agree that Feser is a pretty nice guy, but one can’t be sure the same applies to Catholics in general. They may find it less than a good idea to put their destinies in the hands of an opposing religious group, however much it might claim to hold The Truth.

This brings us to what value human life has, and the implications of Feser’s metaphysical theories don’t bode well for it. Feser thinks “Darwinian reductionism” has led to “a debasement of man, the most brutal realizations of which were National Socialism and Marxism.”[48] However, it seems to me that Aristotelianism could very easily lead to moral conclusions uncomfortably similar to those the Nazis reached. Let’s jump back a few pages—earlier in chapter 5, Aristotle defended the concept of Aristotelian Forms against the charge that they didn’t exist because defective or mutant individuals (like “Elephant Man”) obviously failed to instantiate them, but were still considered human. The Aristotelian riposte would be “that to instantiate a form or universal imperfectly is not to fail to instantiate it at all. Deformed and mentally retarded human beings are just that – human beings who happen to be deformed and retarded – not members of another species or of no species, just as a copy of the Mona Lisa you buy at a museum gift shop is still a copy of the Mona Lisa even if it gets torn or you spill coffee on it.”[49]

All well and good, but this is a very dangerous line of argument for Feser. Yes, a copy of the Mona Lisa is still a copy even if it’s torn or ripped, but it’s worth less. If the original Mona Lisa can sell for a billion dollars, and a copy sold for 10, and a torn or ripped copy sold for 1, their value inversely related to their degree of perfection, does that not imply something about the value of human beings? Or, to put it more bluntly, those who “imperfectly” instantiate the Form of Man (whatever that may be) are, in important ways, not just defective but actually “worth less” than those who instantiate the Form more perfectly. Perhaps that inegalitarianism might appeal to some, but it also entails that the more “imperfect” ought to have fewer rights (and not just voting rights, which Feser is a little chary of), and that their fate ought to be of less concern to us. If someone damages or destroys the original copy of the Mona Lisa, it’s a terrible crime, but if someone damages or destroys a museum gift shop copy, nobody cares. By that line of reasoning, would not the Nazis be correct in saying that there would be nothing wrong with euthanizing the poor, or the metally ill, or the physically defective, because they were worth less than more perfect specimens?

Things get even worse for Feser when he talks about abortion. Of course, he can’t resist lumping in pro-choice activists with Nazis and Communists (the point he’s making here will be discussed soon),[50] but it’s obviously foolish on its face. Even if you think the “abortion holocaust” killed more people than the gas chambers and the gulags, they almost certainly caused far less pain in the process; most abortions happen before the fetus can understand what’s happening to it. And in any case, how do pro-choice activists pose a threat to anyone else? Even if you think they’re evil, at least their sights are set primarily on fetuses. The rest of us, on the other hand, are already born. The pro-choicers would therefore leave us alone, while Nazis and Communists assumedly want to kill us here and now.

But all that is tangential to the morality of abortion anyways, because it can be justified *on Aristotelian grounds.* It would be a monstrous justification, yes, but one that could be made by relying on Final Causes and concern for “maintenance of the species.” Here it is:

1: The Final Cause of human beings is the “maintenance of the species,” or to put it another way, the survival of the species as a whole.

2a: A species which is comprised of a higher proportion of members who are healthy, able-bodied, and intelligent is more likely to survive than a species with a lower proportion of such superior specimens.

2b: The crippled, retarded, and otherwise defective are dead weight upon the species and hinder its ability to survive as a whole.

3: It is therefore ethical to dispose of the defective-either through abortion or euthanasia-in order to ensure the highest possible likelihood of the survival of the species.

Now, you could say that the premises of this little (very informal) syllogism are incorrect—the final cause of man is not “maintenance of the species,” a species which expends resources on helping the weak survive is not necessarily less likely to survive as a whole, etc. But it seems to be valid from an Aristotelian standpoint—we’re merely quibbling over whether or not it’s unsound, not its underlying Aristotelian metaphysical premises (that Final Causes exist and we are morally obligated to fulfill them).

A line of reasoning similar to that is why the “natural” part of “natural law” makes it a little harder to condemn abortion and the related crime of infanticide. A brief recap: Abortion is wrong, in the Catholic view, because a fetus is not a “potential human being” but rather an actual human being who simply hasn’t realized his potentialities—just as in my case, I’m an actual human being with black hair that has the “potential” to be grey-haired, a fetus is an actual human being, just one with the “potential” to have hair, and arms, and a brain, and all that other human stuff after a certain point. It’s just undeveloped, not entirely un-human. So killing a fetus is the same as killing one’s own child, which Feser says is grievously unnatural in the Aristotelian sense—even without referencing God, the Final Cause of any organism is to reproduce and take care of its offspring, and filicide (killing one’s children) obviously directly contravenes that.[51]

Or does it?

There are many instances in nature where filicide is natural—and I don’t mean “occurring in nature,” I mean “in accordance with the natural plan, which is for an organism to have as many offspring as possible.” Many birds, for instance, will kill their chicks (push them out of the nest or whatever) if the unfortunate baby seems frail or weak. This might seem to be a “defect,” but it is actually specifically part of “Nature’s plan.” Mother birds, after all, can only acquire so much food for their spawn in a day. Let’s imagine a bird who has lain two eggs: One hatches into a strong, healthy baby, the other hatches into a weakling. Now, let’s imagine this bird is a valiant mother who loves both her babies equally and cares for both of them. The strong baby turns out normal, though not as strong as it could have been, and the weak one grows up into a runt, if it lives at all. The end result is that the strong baby manages to have two chicks of its own like momma, while the runty one only has one or even none at all.

Now, let’s imagine a crueler, harsher momma bird who kicks the runt out of the nest and spends all of her resources on the strong chick. While the weakling may have died, the strong nestling grows up into an exceptional specimen, and has four chicks of its own. Needless to say, this cruel mother would have ultimately fulfilled her “final cause” (in the sense of producing progeny, that is to say, grandchildren) better than the kind one.

This would seem to indicate that infanticide and filicide, at least on some occasions, might actually be part of the “natural” order, in the sense of evincing a regularity and purpose. And if this is true of birds, well…the frightful thing is it might be true of human beings, in which case abortion and infanticide are justified at least some of the time—aborting a fetus which may not turn out well, or killing an infant who seems to be sickly. This may well be a monstrous and evil line of reasoning, but it is not one Aristotelianism or doctrines of Natural Law can necessarily guard against.

Even more monstrous would be religious justifications for abortion or infanticide. But those, too, are arguably valid under an Aristotelian worldview.

Let’s back up again to what Feser said about amputations: “amputating a leg or removing other organs to save a person’s life, though, would not be ruled out by natural law theory, since these organs and their functions are metaphysically subordinate to the overall purpose of sustaining the life and activities of the organism as a whole.” This seems to indicate that it’s OK to “contravene the function/Final Cause” of something in order to fulfill a more important Final Cause, or whatever Final Cause they happen to be subordinate too. How to discern which Final Causes are subordinate to others isn’t exactly clear on its own, but let’s leave that for now. The important thing is that Feser and assumedly Catholics in general, along with Thomas Aquinas (and perhaps even Aristotle) would say that “Man’s overarching end is to know God…Obedience to the Natural Law is thus obedience to God…since knowing God is our highest end, our moral duties include, first and foremost, religious duties: duties to pursue knowledge of God, to honor Him as our Creator and the giver of the moral law, to teach our children to do the same, and so forth. These duties are not some optional extra tacked on to a rationally based system of morality; they are integral to such a system.”[52]

If our “overarching end” is knowing God and obedience to Him, it would seem reasonable to assume that all our other “Final Causes” are subordinate to this. This would seem to lead us into a moral quagmire as ugly as consequentialism supposedly is, except with God rather than “happiness” as its goal. What would Feser say about a mother who killed her children because of her belief that God told her so? Take, for instance, the example of Deanna Laney:

http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/03/29/children.slain/index.html?_s=PM:LAW

She smashed open the heads of her sons with a rock. Feser would—I hope—call such a woman deeply perverse and her actions profoundly, hideously unnatural. But look at the news article, and recall what her justification was: She sincerely believed God, the Christian God, told her to kill her offspring. And, from an Aristotelian or Natural Law point of view, would that not vindicate her? Remember, Dr. Feser, it’s okay to frustrate the “Final Cause” of a body part or faculty in order to fulfill a more important Final Cause it’s “metaphysically subordinate” to. And for humans, according to Feser, our “overarching end” is to know God, and assumedly obey Him. Thus, it seems reasonable to assume all of our other Final Causes are metaphysically subordinate to that end—which means it’s okay to “frustrate” them to fulfill that end.

So if God ordered you to crush the skulls and scatter the brains of your children, even your youngest infant, well…sure, that would Frustrate your Final Cause to care for them, but that Final Cause is “metaphysically subordinate” to the Final Cause of obeying God. So it’s God’s orders you have to follow. And besides, according to Feser, this worldly life is such a fleeting, insignificant thing, isn’t it? If the boys were innocent, they’ll be enjoying the “beatific vision” for all of eternity. So on what basis can a Thomist say Ms. Laney committed a grievous crime? That God didn’t really command her to kill her sons? How can you be sure? Mr. Pure Act, capable of bending the laws of physics at a whim, could have easily sent her such a vision. That she was Protestant rather than Catholic? I hope Feser wouldn’t say she was merely “following orders” if she had received a vision of Our Lady telling her to commit filicide rather than whatever heterodox dream she had.

I’m not saying Feser is necessarily saying this; in fact I would be willing to bet he’d be horrified at the suggestion. Neither am I saying Aristotle or Aquinas would necessarily countenance such horror either. I am saying, however, that the portrait of “natural law” Feser has painted thus far at least would not necessarily prevent such atrocities. It is of course true that most religious people—Catholic, Protestant, whatever—take a very dim view of someone who murders on the basis of some kind of vision. However, they must by necessity rely on something aside from “natural law” metaphysics. Protestants could say that such a vision was actually a trick from the Devil, while Catholics could draw on Church teachings (Tradition) to prove that God would never actually order such a thing, and both of course could quote from the Bible to prove that the woman was acting out of deep sickness rather than actual obedience to God. Yet in both cases they would have to rely on empirical or theological argumentation, Biblical exegesis, or historical background and could not just rely on natural law in and of itself, so long as obeying God sits at the top of natural law’s metaphysical commands.

“Very well,” Feser might say, “but what about consequences on a societal scale? Without natural law, slavery will return and the Commies win!”

I wouldn’t be entirely sure of that.

Part VI: The Skeletons in Aristotle’s Closet

In his attempt to prove that our abandonment of Aristotelianism was a “mistake,” Feser seems to paper over some of the less savory aspects of Aristotle’s writings. He also seems to gloss over the ways Aristotelianism can and historically has been used to support positions abhorrent to a traditional Catholic perspective. Shedding some light on these skeletons in Aristotle’s closet will be the purpose—the Final Cause, if you will (tee-hee)—of this section.

The first sin of historical obfuscation for which I will take Feser to task occurs on page 147 and its endnote on page 283. He claims that “we live in society with others—man being a social animal as well as a rational one, as Aristotle noted…Hence the existence of natural law entails…many other rights (such as a right to personal liberty that is strong enough to rule out chattel slavery as intrinsically immoral – the claim made by some that natural law theory would support slavery as it was known in the United States is a slander).”[53] He goes into more depth in the endnote, saying

>“That one human being can literally own another as his property, or can kidnap another and make him a slave, or that some races are naturally suited to being enslaved by others, are notions condemned by natural law theory as intrinsically immoral. It is true that natural law theory has traditionally allowed that lesser forms of “slavery” could in principle be justified. But what this would involve is a prolonged period of servitude as a way of paying off a significant debt, say, or as punishment for a crime…Even so, natural law theorists have tended to see the practice as too fraught with moral hazards to be defensible in practice; and the suggestion that the legitimacy of racial chattel slavery as it was known in early American history follows from natural law theory is, as I say, a slander.”[54]

As an aside, Feser makes almost this exact same point, with minor changes on his blog:

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/01/walters-on-tls.html

>“One must be careful in accusing classical natural law theory of entailing the justifiability of slavery. In fact the sorts of things most people think of when they hear the word “slavery” – chattel slavery, racial slavery, kidnapping, breaking up families, the African slave trade, etc. – are not justifiable on classical natural law theory. Indeed, classical natural law theory condemns these things as immoral even in principle. What it does allow as justifiable in principle is the much less harsh form of servitude involving a prolonged obligation to labor for another as payment of a debt, punishment for a crime, and so forth. And even this has rightly been regarded by modern natural law theorists as too fraught with moral hazard to be justifiable in practice. The common charge that natural law theory would support slavery as it was known in the American context is therefore simply a slander.”

(I bring this up to note that I have made a good-faith effort to see if Feser improved or extended his argument in The Last Superstition anywhere else. As far as I have been able to discern, he has not and this is the strongest argument he has available).

Alas, in both *The Last Superstition* and his blog, Feser is wrong. Terribly wrong. Indeed, I would argue that claiming anyone who sees a connection between natural law and American racial slavery commits slander *is itself* a slander. As we will see, going back in history to Aristotle himself, and then looking at his biggest fans in the U.S, there is ample evidence in the historical record to support such a connection, and honest, reasonable people can very, very easily assert it exists.

Again, Aristotle was very important to Natural Law theory–to remind you of what Feser said, “the moral views now associated in the secularist mind with superstition and ignorance [i.e the moral views Feser is defending from such calumnies] in fact follow inexorably from a consistent application of the metaphysical ideas we’ve traced back through Aquinas and the other Scholastic thinkers to Plato and Aristotle…in particular, this classical metaphysical picture entails a conception of morality traditionally known as *natural law theory.*”[55]

Given Aristotle’s importance to the natural law tradition, if it is true that slavery would be “condemned by natural law theory as intrinsically immoral,” one would expect Aristotle to have condemned it. But this is not the case-precisely the opposite. The great historian of slavery, David Brion Davis, in his equally great, comprehensive study of slavery in the Western world, does not allow Aristotle to escape his probing analytical eye:

>“The natural slave, according to Aristotle, could have no will or interests of his own; he or she was merely a tool or instrument, the extension of the owner’s physical nature. In an important passage that deserves to be quoted in full, Aristotle makes explicit the parallel between the slave and the domesticated beast: ‘Tame animals are naturally better than wild animals, yet for all tame animals there is an advantage in being under human control, as this secures their survival…by analogy, the same must necessarily apply to mankind as a whole. Therefore all men who differ from one another by as much as the soul differs from the body or man from a wild beast (and that is the state of those who work by using their bodies, and for whom that is the best they can do)—these people are slaves by nature, and it is better for them to be subject to this kind of control, as it is better for the other creatures I’ve mentioned…[A]ssistance regarding the necessities of life is provided by both groups, by slaves and domestic animals. Nature must therefore have intended to make the bodies of free men and slaves different also; slaves’ bodies strong for the services they have to do, those of free men upright and not much use for that kind of work, but instead useful for community life.’

While even Aristotle admitted that sometimes ‘slaves can have the bodies of free men’ and that free men could have ‘only the souls and not the bodies of free men,’ he could nevertheless conclude, in an argument that would have immeasurable influence in Western culture, that ‘it is clear that there are certain people who are free and certain who are slaves by nature, and it is both to their advantage, and just, for them to be slaves.’ While slaves in antiquity could usually be recognized by clothing, branding, and collars, and other symbols, the millennia-long search for ways to identify ‘natural slaves’ would eventually be solved by the physical characteristics of sub-Saharan Africans. [My emphasis added.]“[56]

Davis cites Aristotle’s Politics, quoted from Thomas Wiedmann’s Greek and Roman Slavery (1981). The translation seems to be quite accurate, for Aristotle’s Politics can be found here:

http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.1.one.html

Specifically, from the end of Part IV to the beginning of Part V. Looking at a little more of this translation, however, we can see things look even worse for Feser’s assertion. Again, Feser claimed classical natural law theory justifies slavery only in “the much less harsh form of servitude involving a prolonged obligation to labor for another as payment of a debt, punishment for a crime,” etc. But this is in direct contradiction to what Aristotle, assumedly a founder of the classical natural law tradition, believed. As the Philosopher states in the linked Politics section (courtesy of MIT), “is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” Aristotle explicitly says some people are “marked out for subjection from the hour of their birth.” This seems quite obviously to justify slavery as a lifelong condition, not as temporary punishment for some crime.[57]

I can’t fathom why Feser didn’t mention any of this—he would certainly be aware of Aristotle’s Politics, given his expertise on Aristotle generally, and would therefore be aware of Aristotle’s condoning of slavery. Maybe Feser did not want to weaken his argument by making Aristotle look bad, but then one could accuse Feser of, if not dishonesty, then at least less-than-forthrightness. I don’t think this is the case, however, because a criticism of Aristotle would have led Feser to a defense of Christianity specifically (rather than the “Philosopher’s God” generally), which is what he would have wanted to do as a Catholic. Later on in Inhuman Bondage, Davis praises many Catholics for their opposition to slavery.  Gregory of Nyssa (the great Catholic saint and theologian) was the first person in all of antiquity to condemn slavery in and of itself (though some Stoics and Cynics were also, well, cynical about the institution).[58]  Alas, St. Aquinas didn’t go as far—according to Davis, “Aquinas emphasized that the institution [slavery] was contrary only to the first intention of nature, but not to the second intention, which was adjusted to man’s limited capacities in a sinful world. Aquinas still thought of slavery as occasioned by sin, but he made it seem more natural and tolerable by identifying it with the rational structure of being, which required each individual to accept, along with old age and death, the necessity of subordination to a higher authority.”[59] While obviously not as forcefully antislavery as St. Gregory, Aquinas nonetheless identifies he institution as an undesirable necessity in a fallen world rather than a simple result of nature. Since Feser is defending not just Aristotle’s God but Aquinas’ more particular Catholic God, he would have done well to note how Aquinas was actually more advanced in morality than his predecessor.

Unfortunately, this embryonic antislavery impulse would not blossom within Christendom for many centuries. During that time, Aristotle provided very strong ground for proponents of American racial slavery to stand on; a fact to which a veritable panoply of primary sources attest. One could probably write an excellent historical monograph on this subject, but I’d rather not at the moment. First, I don’t have that much time, and second, I don’t want to scoop myself before seeing if I can make a book out of this ;D So forgive me if this is a little haphazard.

I’ll first note that David Brion Davis was not the only one to perceive the relationship between slavery and Aristotle’s philosophy, nor its connection with race. To quote Marek Steedman’s Jim Crow Citizenship: Liberalism and the Southern Defense of Racial Hierarchy, “race was an intrinsic part of the defense of slavery in the antebellum South. Moreover race naturalized slavery not simply by casting slaves as an inferior, but as specifically fitted for a domesticated, childlike dependence…Aristotle cast the division between the true master and true slave, at least on its face, in terms of a capacity for virtue. The true slave, incapable of full rationality, could at best follow directions, and was not capable of the complete practice of virtue Aristotle equated with human happiness and fulfillment…*Were it true, he [Aristotle] suggests, that ‘a good man is born of good men,’ and implicitly, that noxious creatures are born of noxious creatures, then it would be possible to justify the enslavement of the children of slaves.”*[60] (My emphasis added)

We can therefore see how racial slavery would be perfectly consistent with an Aristotelian conception of natural law. Even if both groups were human (and the popularity of ‘polygenesis’ theories in the antebellum South made this by no means an uncontested proposition), it just so happened that black humans had a different “essence” than white humans: The former were congenitally endowed with less reason and virtue than the latter, who, being noble, begat noble children. This meant that blacks were congenitally fated to serve whites, congenitally fated to rule—in short, a perpetual system of racial slavery. One can see this ‘directly from the horse’s mouth,’ so to speak. Just listen to Professor Thomas Roderick Dew in “The Pro-Slavery Argument” (authored with several other influential Southerners, such as senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina). He told us “Aristotle, the greatest philosopher of antiquity, and a man of as capacious mind as the world ever produced, was a warm advocate of slavery—maintaining that it was reasonable, necessary, and natural; and, accordingly, in his model of a republic, there were to be comparatively few freemen served by many slaves.”[61] Listen as well to The Southern Literary Messenger, a proslavery periodical widely read among educated men in the South, which posted many articles proving slavery was natural in the Aristotelian sense. In a passage that sounds eerily similar to something Feser might have written, an anonymous author declared “to Aristotle, one of the most profound of the philosophers of antiquity, we confidently appeal, and with more confidence, because in this iron age of utilitarianism, his material philosophy, fortified with all the powers of the ‘greatest, wisest, meanest of mankind,’ has been preferred to the spiritual sublimity of the divine Plato. Aristotle has expressly declared, that ‘in the natural state of man, from the origin of things, a portion of the human family must command, and the remainder obey; that the distinction which exists between master and servant is a distinction at once natural and indispensable; and that when we find existing among men freemen and slaves, it is not man, but nature herself, who has ordained the distinction.”[62]

To be fair, Aristotle did not say exactly the same things Dew and The Southern Literary Messenger did.. As S. Sara Monoson has pointed out, “Aristotle dismisses body type as a reliable indicator of free or slave by nature even though natural slaves will be especially suited to hard physical labour. As a matter of fact, he acknowledges, ‘Slaves often have the bodies of freemen.’ Moreover, it does not even occur to him to consider skin colour as a useful sign. He does not trust physical markers much at all.” She goes on to note that many Southerners were going off mistranslations of Aristotle’s writing or reading their own biases into him.[63] Unfortunately, the old philosopher cannot be let off the hook so easily. Some Southerners did engage Aristotle directly on his own points—Monoson gives George Frederick Holmes as an example. It seems that Holmes explicitly admitted Aristotle did not claim blacks were naturally suited to slavery—but then claimed this was merely because Aristotle did not have as much experience with blacks as 19th century Southerners did, and if he had, he would approve of racial chattel slavery! Holmes told his readers that “the distinct functions of different races in the onward march of human progress promises to be recognized as the principle axiom of historical science” and of course, predictably, the ‘function’ of the black race (in the Aristotelian sense Feser tries to defend in The Last Superstition) would be to serve.[64]

Even then, I suppose, Aristotle needs some defense. You could say that Holmes still failed to appreciate many of the nuances in Aristotle’s position; Monson argues that he certainly did. She points out that “Aristotle himself never marshals the ubiquity of slavery through history and cross-culturally as evidence of its roots in nature and justice. Instead, Aristotle insists on the logical separation of these issues.”[65] Since Holmes claimed the widespread usage of Africans as slaves meant that Africans were “naturally” slaves, Aristotle would likely disagree and tell Holmes that neither physical appearance nor common usage were sufficient to mark an institution like slavery as “natural” in the “natural law” sense.

But alas, once again, we can’t let Aristotle off too easily. Monoson tells us that Aristotle believed “a different observable form of activity—endurance of despotism without resentment—as a good sign that faulty deliberative capacities, and thus slavish natures, are widespread in a population.”[66] Surprise surprise, slaveowners “found” this trait amongst blacks. Proslavery literature abounded with descriptions of how happy blacks were to be enslaved. It was all BS, of course—many Southerners took slave songs as proof slaves were “happy” when in fact the songs were about how much working for Massa sucked; many slaveowners also whipped their slaves if the unfortunates acted too miserable (a literal case of “the beatings will continue until morale improves”). But the line of reasoning Southerners used was valid under Aristotle’s reasoning about slavery—it just wasn’t “sound” (it was empirically false).

I have demonstrated, I hope, the two main thrusts of my argument, specifically to refute Feser’s attempt at defending Aristotle. To review: Feser claimed that natural law theory, originated by Aristotle among others, condemned slavery as “intrinsically immoral,” and that it is slanderous to claim American racial chattel slavery could have possibly been legitimized by natural law theory. As the scholars I’ve quoted above prove, however, Aristotle never condemned slavery as a whole on natural-law grounds, instead saying it could be justified under certain conditions. And while American slaveowners weren’t 100% correct in their readings of Aristotle, they still used him enthusiastically to justify their regime. It is, therefore, not in the least a “slander” to say that the natural law tradition, exemplified by Aristotle at least, could be and has been used to justify racial chattel slavery.

Yet the errors in Feser’s reading of history go deeper than that. He blames a lot of things on our abandonment of Aristotelianism—most notably abortion and Communism. Once again, to quote him from page 51, “Abandoning Aristotelianism…is implicated in…mass-murder on a scale unparalleled in human history. Its logical implications can also be seen in today’s headlines: in the abortion industry’s slaughter of millions upon millions of unborn human beings.” The mass-murder bit is certainly a reference to Communism, since he mentions it produced “100 million corpses” on page 160.

I’ll admit I don’t know as much about Communism and abortion as I do about American slavery. What little I do know, however, is enough to make me a little suspicious about Big A’s ability to stop either of those two things (and I don’t want to get into a debate on whether they should be stopped, I aim *only* to contest Feser’s premises).

First, with reference to abortion, many of his disciples had and have no problem with the practice. Ayn Rand is the most notable example, see these:

http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/abortion.html

http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/aristotle.html

The first link shows us Ms. Rand was pro-choice, the second that she was pro-Aristotle. Now, Ms. Rand’s devotion to Aristotle was not absolute, she modified his theories significantly. Indeed, Feser would argue her defense of abortion was incorrect on Aristotelian grounds—she claims a fetus is not an actual human being but a potential one, while Feser would claim a fetus is an actual human being that simply hasn’t yet actualized its potentialities.[67] However, she still called herself an Aristotelian, and used Aristotelian reasoning (the bit about actuals and potentials). A bad Aristotelian is not one who has abandoned Aristotle wholly. Thus, if even an Aristotelian like her—and she’s a very famous one—could justify abortion, it is quite unclear that the “abandonment” of Aristotelianism led to widespread acceptance of the practice. Even if Hume hadn’t “infected” Western Civ with all his pernicious ideas (in Feser’s view), the example of Rand might lead us to suspect that Aristotelians would have ended up justifying the practice anyways, even if (again) Feser would claim they were following Aristotle poorly.

The same applies to Communism. Feser doesn’t mention this alongside his fervid denunciation of Communism and Marxism, but scholars (at least since the 80s, and I’m very certain it’s been noted long before then) have explained how Karl Marx owed a great deal to Aristotle. As an aside, it’s something that’s interested me for quite a while. I’ve always heard Marx had a ‘teleological’ view of history, and the idea that humanity ‘tends’ or ‘ought to be’ focused on a certain mode of development is hardly an anti-Aristotelian idea, even if that “telos” was a stateless society (for Marx) rather than an individual state of virtue/flourishing (for Aristotle). As it so happens, Philip Kain, George E. McCarthy, and Johnathan Pike (among others) can provide me a little bit of backup.

McCarthy acknowledges, in passages sure to please Feser, that Marx did owe a great deal to the “modern” philosophers Feser criticizes—Hume, Locke, Descartes, and others. However, McCarthy also says of Marx, “from his earliest interests in Greek and Roman history and mythology to the completion of his dissertation on the physics of Epicurus and Democritus, ancient philosophy formed a central focus of his intellectual life…Without an appreciation for Epicurus’ theories of happiness and nature or Aristotle’s theory of universal and particular justice, the purpose of Marx’s later analyses of the classical political economy of Ricardo, Smith, and Malthus would be lost. As unusual as it may sound, Marx’s analysis of Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation makes sense only within the context of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.”[68]

That’s the introduction, and the rest of the book goes on to defend that thesis—I don’t have time to summarize the whole thing, though I do recommend it to interested parties. Suffice it to say that McCarthy makes a very convincing case that Marx was greatly indebted to Aristotle, among others. While of course McCarthy also notes the myriad ways in which Marx modified the Philosopher’s thought, or disagreed entirely, no-one who reads this book can really assume that Marx, and therefore his Communist philosophy, “abandoned” Aristotle entirely. In fact, an essay published a few years after McCarthy’s monograph, in a collection he edited, goes even further in identifying Marx with Aristotle, and the natural law tradition specifically. This paragraph deserves to be quoted in full:

“It should be clear that Marx in many ways agrees with the natural law tradition. He holds that there is an independent moral ground from which to judge the validity of or justice of civil laws; laws are not valid simply because they have been properly instituted. He sees this normative criterion of civil law as rational and rooted in nature and, like many natural law theorists, sees a close relationship between descriptive laws of nature and laws as prescriptive social norms. Finally, as does much of this tradition, Marx holds a doctrine of essence—one very much like Aristotle’s.”[69]

According to the footnotes at the end of that essay, this is in reference to Marx’s dissertation, along with several other papers of his in the collected Marx-Engels reader.

Similarly, Jonathan E. Pike has found that Marx’s critique of philosophers such as Bentham, as well as his analysis of economics, owes a great deal to Aristotelian concepts. As Pike informs us, “productive activity though, takes the place of Geist [a concept from Hegel] as the analogue for the Aristotelian soul, and takes the role of a form giving potency inhering in the persisting social matter that is the only transhistorical existent for Marx…he only permits real universals: universals that are actually instantiated, and not merely logical universals within his ontology…His overall approach is, in this sense, Aristotelian.”[70]

Pike’s footnotes refer to Marx’s Grundrisse, or outline of political economy.

Interesting stuff, certainly, but it’s even more interesting if you’re reading this (as I am) alongside The Last Superstion itself. These explanations of Marx, especially in regards to potency, change, and the purposes of things, sound eerily similar to many passages in Feser’s book. Once again, as you can tell, it doesn’t bode well for Feser’s thesis (at least in regards to Communism and other ‘modern ills’). It’s pretty easy (especially for conservatives) to cast Marx and his Communist philosophy as an evil villain responsible for the deaths of millions, but it gets a little harder to do when your villain is more similar to you than you might like.[71] As the examples above show, Marx was at least not entirely some sort of anti-Aristotelian; at the very least he was as astute a student of the old Greek as he was of modern philosophers. He certainly did not “abandon” Aristotle wholesale. Now, you could say he was not at all astute but rather a very poor student of Aristotle, and that Aristotle would find Marx’s theories abhorrent. I am not an expert on Marx or Aristotle, so I’ll not come down on that point one way or another. However, Marx was still a student of Aristotle, much like Feser—however much Feser might like to deny it. The syllogism Feser wants to get us to believe—that abandoning Aristotle leads to Marxism which leads to suffering[72]–is therefore not sound, i.e one of its premises is factually incorrect. Marx really didn’t abandon Aristotle, and Aristotelian ideas are an important part of his philosophy. If you want to lay “millions of corpses” at the foot of Communism…well, I won’t say that Aristotle must shoulder a bit of the blame, but I will say that you’ll be very disappointed if you think he could have shielded you from such horrors.

Again, I’m not blaming Aristotle; certainly not saying that Aristotelianism leads necessarily to abortion or “Communist mass-murder” or whatever (and, once again, this is not to get into a debate over whether abortion is moral or whether or not Communism is good or bad). It would be unfair to make that claim—if Aristotle’s disciples, even those more dim-witted than the relatively thoughtful Feser, were to criticize me for doing so, they would be right (a rare occurrence, at least for the dim-witted ones). Fortunately, however, I am *not* doing that. I am merely pointing out that Feser has very much failed to substantiate the proposition that “abandoning Aristotle” led to the ills he condemns.

Part VII: Moving Forward

As I bring this essay—finally!—to its conclusion, I must echo what Feser said in his preface. I don’t expect to have comprehensively refuted Aristotelianism and Thomism in just one article, no matter how long. I’ve conceded that they raised good points, and to really challenge them I’d have to read all their collected work, which would be of course far too much for a single blog entry. Needless to say, I also very much doubt to have firmly established the truth of atheism—not only are there many other defenses of God out there besides the Aristotelian one, but I’m not an atheist anyways, and as my compliments to St. Gregory and other Catholics imply, I’m not exactly as unsympathetic to Catholicism as this essay (or its predecessor) might suggest. What I have hoped to demonstrate, though, is that an Aristotelian metaphysics and morality is simply not absolutely necessary, and that Feser’s attempted proof for the logical necessity of God is not quite airtight. He may have proven that belief in God can be reasonable, but I hope I’ve proven that disbelief, and at least a great deal of skepticism concerning the normative force of Aristotelian “Forms” and “Final Causes,” is equally reasonable.

With all this said, I suppose it would be a bit disappointing if I didn’t hazard at least a few alternatives of my own. After all, it’s easy enough to criticize someone, harder to make something positive. So, what can I offer?

To be honest, I’m not really inclined to offer up a wholly materialistic account of existence—not only would that be far beyond my philosophical chops (it’s a job more for J.L. Mackie or somebody) but I’m not much of an atheist anyways. However, I think I could make a decent case for a distant, uninvolved Deistic god, at least going off of Feser’s metaphysics. Let’s concede that the universe requires a Sustainer, and that nothing else has an Essence synonymous or indistinct from its existence (though as I warned earlier, maybe we’ll find one someday). Let’s even assume it’s omniscient (though again, as I warned earlier, intellect or sentience isn’t necessary to turn concepts into actual reality, as ants and termites prove). However, we do not have to assume He is omnibenevolent, because, as I stated above, it’s difficult indeed to derive moral conclusions from Final Causes. There’s also no necessary reason to assume He deals with human affairs, as the same proof that leads to the truth of Christianity can also lead to the truth of its many variants—or none of them. And given that Mr. Pure Act and Eternal Sustainer, in this view, does not necessarily have to be involved with moral concerns nor human affairs, it’s possible there is no “beatific vision” (or its opposite) or hell. So perhaps a “watchmaker’s God” necessarily exists, or more specifically, a God who keeps the watch going, but not one who punishes the wicked and sends visions to people.

So we have a Deistic God, but that doesn’t lead us much to ethics. What to do about that? Frankly, I think Feser underestimates utilitarianism and social contract theory. If you don’t recall, his assessment of utilitarianism was “it is notoriously difficult to explain why anyone should care about the happiness or preference satisfaction of the “greatest number” – as opposed to just his own, or that of some group he favors – without appealing to a “sentiment of generalized benevolence” or some such thing. But what happens if some people don’t have this sentiment? We’re back again to saying, “Well, they’re just not like us, and we’d better make sure they don’t win out.” “Morality” becomes at best an assertion of the prevailing (and in principle ever-shifting) sensibilities of the majority, or at least of those with the loudest mouths. It has no ultimate basis in objective fact or in reason, but only in sentiment and existing custom.”[73]

Well, even if one couldn’t base an ‘objective morality’ off of sentiment and existing custom, it doesn’t necessarily follow that one could be based off of ‘final causes,’ since as I described above, those are relative themselves even if based in ‘objective’ physical properties. And given that any custom or prevailing sentiment would have had to have lasted for some time to become either an established custom or a prevailing sentiment, they don’t strike me as entirely terrible foundations for morality when compared to Final Causes and Essences, given how hard those can be to discern (as I’ve also demonstrated).

Still, I suppose they’re not perfect either, given how established institutions like slavery were, for instance (though again, “natural law” didn’t condemn that until St. Gregory came along). In that case, though, perhaps the long-term perspective provided by history can be of some use. Reading David Brion Davis’s work, for instance (I’ve cited a great deal of it in the preceding paragraphs) can tell us how slavery warps a civilization’s social and economic development, turning a “society with slaves” into a “slave society” (with all the cruelties and social problems that entails). Studying the development of cities, the subsequent economic effects their rise had on the societies in which they were built, and the interrelated efforts of their residents to make them better places to live (ranging from the charitable functions of nunneries and churches to the first “social safety nets” developed by Iron Chancellor Bismarck, of all people), might be able to tell us that compassionately caring for the “lower” orders of society can actually strengthen its stability and efficiency as a whole. In short, while we may not be able to figure out what the Form of the ideal society may be, nor what our “Final Causes” tell us to do, exactly, history (and the humanities and social sciences in general) can show us which societies have brought more peace, prosperity, and benevolence to their citizens, and which have subjected more brutality, inefficiency, misery, and degeneracy to theirs.

By this point, you know what I’m gonna say: “Of course, I could be wrong—this is just me throwing out ideas and thinking off the cuff, so to speak. I’m sure more experienced historians or (much) more advanced philosophers could tell me why *and* do me better.” But that means I’ll leave the task up to them. For now, I’ll just be satisfied with the hope that I’ve given them a jumping-off point, the inkling of an idea that there may be metaphysical and moral systems able to compete with Aristotelianism.

Good enough for a day’s work, as far as I’m concerned.

[1] Edward Feser, The Last Superstition (St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), 7. I shall refer to it as TLS from here on.

[2] Michael O’Halloran, “Reviewed Work: The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism” in he Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Jun., 2009), pp. 926-928, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40387780. Halloran states Feser “melds philosophic acumen with an acute sense of humor, steadily dismantling the philosophic claims of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet, and others.” Judging from the book’s high score on amazon.com, many Christians would seem to agree, though also judging by the low reviews, some atheists remain unconvinced.

[3] Feser, TLS, 51. The beginning part of passage is italicized in the original, Feser certainly meant Very Serious Business.

[4] Ibid., x.

[5] TLS, ix.

[6] Edward Feser, “Natural theology, natural science, and the philosophy of nature” at http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/05/natural-theology-natural-science-and.html, last accessed on 6/9/2016.

[7] Edward Feser, “Ten Years On” at http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/09/ten-years-on.html, last accessed on 6/9/2016.

[8] TLS, 27-28.

[9] TLS, 53-54.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Aaron Boyden, “Feser Chapter 5,” at http://protagoras.typepad.com/adrift_on_neuraths_boat/2011/10/feser-chapter-5.html, last accessed 6/9/2016.

[12] TLS, 62-63.

[13] Ibid, 65.

[14] Ibid, 67.

[15] Ibid, 70-72.

[16] Ibid., 91-93.

[17] Ibid, 96-97.

[18] Ibid., 104.

[19] Ibid, 114-116.

[20] Ibid., 32-34.

[21] Ibid., 57-58.

[22] Ibid., 36-37.

[23] Ibid., 134-140.

[24] TLS, 134.

[25] Ibid, 74-75.

[26] See https://syzygus.wordpress.com/tag/aspergers-syndrome/, and https://www.aspiescentral.com/threads/the-story-of-aspergers.5045/ (both last accessed on 6/13/2016).

[27] Boyde, “Feser Chapter 5,” http://protagoras.typepad.com/adrift_on_neuraths_boat/2011/10/feser-chapter-5.html

[28] TLS, 36.

[29] Ibid, 32, 36.

[30] Ibid., 214-215.

[31] Irene Pepperberg, “Abstract concepts: data from a Grey parrot” in Behav Processes. 2013 Feb;93:82-90. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2012.09.016. Epub 2012 Oct 23, available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23089384

[32] Annalee Newitz, “Three Arguments for the Consciousness of Cephalopods” published on io9 on August 31, 2010, last accessed at http://io9.gizmodo.com/5626679/three-arguments-for-the-consciousness-of-cephalopods on 6/13/2016. She quotes a researcher as saying, “It was eventually concluded that octopuses (that is, individuals of the species O. vulgaris, the common octopus) don’t use a set of simple rules to categorize objects. Rather, Mather argues, they “[evaluate] a figure on several dimensions and [generate] a simple concept, where [a] concept is an abstract or general idea inferred or derived from specific instances.”

[33] TLS, 114-115.

[34] Ibid., 181

[35] Margaret F. Roberts, ed., Alkaloids: Biochemistry, Ecology, and Medicinal Applications (Springer Science and Business Media, 2013), 4-6.

[36] TLS, 144-146.

[37] Ibid., 148-149.

[38] Ibid., 149.

[39] Clara Moskowitz, “How Gay Uncles Pass Down Genes” in Livescience, Feb. 11, 2010, accessed at http://www.livescience.com/6106-gay-uncles-pass-genes.html on 6/13/2016.

[40] TLS, 54-56.

[41] Ibid., 98-99.

[42] Granted, someone from Reddit isn’t necessarily an ironclad source, but HippeHoppe has proved he generally knows what he’s talking about in other philosophy threads, so I feel safe in relying on him. At the very least, some of what he’s said is backed up by scholarly sources; it seems Aristotle was not an “atheist” when it came to the Greek pantheon: See Alexander Kohanski, The Greek Mode of Thought in Western Philosophy, ( Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1984),  p. 71: “Aristotle did not oppose popular religion, nor did he try to reform it. He only conceptualized it and perhaps tried to resolve the supremacy of the Olympian idea of Zeus as the ruler of an orderly world against the rather disorderly, exuberant mysteries of Dionysus. On pages 39-40 of Luc Brisson, How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology (University of Chicago Press, 2004), Aristotle says many positive things about the Gods of the Illiad. It seems Aristotle might not necessarily have struck a death blow against paganism and for monotheism.

[43] TLS, 155-161.

[44] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tu4y7x9LRyY

[45] Boyden, “Feser Chapter 5.”

[46] TLS, 176, 174.

[47] Ibid., 210.

[48] Ibid., 222.

[49] Ibid., 182.

[50] Ibid., 213

[51] Ibid., 223-224.

[52] Ibid., 152-153.

[53] Feser, The Last Superstion, 147.

[54] Ibid, 283.

[55] Ibid, 132.

[56] David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford University Press, 2006), 33-34.

[57] There’s a curious essay which attempts to defend Aristotle on slavery: Peter Simpson, http://www.aristotelophile.com/Books/Articles/AristotleDefensibleDefenseofSlavery.pdf but I don’t have the time to get into it now. It argues Aristotle’s defense of slavery was a valid logical argument in that its conclusions followed from their premises without contradicting themselves (not that the premises were necessarily sound). Suffice it to say that I would not cite this paper if you wished to prove slavery was somehow contrary to natural law.

[58] Davis, 34-35.

[59] Ibid, 55.

[60] Marek D. Steedman, Jim Crow Citizenship: Liberalism and the Southern Defense of Racial Hierarchy (Routledge, 2012), 31-35.

[61] William Harper, Thomas Roderick Dew, et. Al, The Pro-Slavery Argument: As Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers of the Southern States (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968), 306.

[62] “Thoughts on Slavery, by a Southern,” The Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. IV, No. 12, Richmond, VA, Dec. 1838, 739. The whole thing can be read for free here: https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=_E4FAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PP1

[63] S. Sara Monoson, “Recollecting Aristotle: Pro-Slavery Thought in Antebellum America and the Argument of Politics Book I” in Richard Alston, Edith Hall, and Justine McConnell, eds., Ancient Slavery and Abolition (Oxford University Press, 2011), 265.

[64] Ibid., 270.

[65] Ibid., 271.

[66] Ibid., 266.

[67] Feser, TLS, 108.

[68] George E. McCarthy, Marx and the Ancients: Classical Ethics, Social Justice, and Nineteenth-Century Political Economy (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, inc., 1990), 1.

[69] Philip J. Kain, “Aristotle, Kant, and the Ethics of Young Marx,” in George E. McCarthy, ed., Marx and Aristotle: Nineteenth-Century German Social Theory and Classical Antiquity (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, inc., 1992), 220.

[70] Jonathan E. Pike, From Aristotle to Marx: Aristotelianism in Marxist Social Ontology (Ashgate Publishing, 1999), 35.

[71] This is not at all an unfair characterization of Feser; at least from The Last Superstition, his understanding of “Marxism” really is that jejune. Looking at his index, “Marxism” is referred to only on pages 16, 20, and 222, Comunism on 153 and 159-60. In order, his engagement with the philosophy consists of comparing Marxism (and secularism too) to religion (16), that “anti-communists” were more often than not the victims of “false charges” (20, the footnote refers to Senator McCarthy), that “post-communist” beliefs in a paradise on earth are at least as dumb as religious beliefs in an afterlife (153), the aforementioned “millions of corpses” line on 159-60, and on 222, that the “refutation” of Aristotelian metaphysics (which he believes to have been no refutation at all) led to the “debasement of man” in the forms of “National Socialism and Marxism” (his words, he apparently conflates the two).

[72] Say this in a Yoda voice.

[73] TLS, 216.

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6 comments

  1. A long but indeed very interesting read. I should definitely reread this essay another time. Anyway, I think you have done a great job in giving a fair but critical assessment of Feser book.

    1. Thanks, friend 😀

  2. Essentialists of all stripes have steadfastly refused to acknowledge that the jig was up with the death of vitalism.
    I guess it’s hard to let go of the idea that the universe has marching orders for you.

    1. It is an appealing line of thought.

  3. This is an impressive post. I didn’t read all of it, but I think your complaints about Feser/Aristotle come more from misunderstanding than from seeing an actual problem (although you do have some correct criticisms).

    First: you don’t make a distinction between artificial substances (like rubber balls) and natural substances (like the elements, humans, other animals, etc.). Artificial substances are less so substances than natural substances are. This is why artificial substances have less clear final causes than natural substances, as you point out. So you can’t exactly use artifacts as way to point out flaws in Aristotle’s theory of substance. More importantly, final causes are less about what some substance is “meant to do” and more about explaining why regularity occurs at all – why do some effects always follow some causes? You said:

    “We can observe that the “final cause” of the moon seems to be to orbit the earth, but no matter how regular and unerring our observations seem to be, we cannot know with absolute certainty that the moon is “meant” to do this, because the moon has no “creator” we can just ask the way we could with the rubber ball and the guys who made it.”

    It’s not so much that the moon’s final cause is to orbit the Earth. Rather, as I understand it, the matter making up the moon revolves around large bodies when they are nearby (like all matter, in fact). That it exhibits these effects when a large enough body is present, is due to a final cause – it is “pointed to” doing so. Of course, this is not the only type of final causes. Human minds exhibit final causes in different ways as well, where we are consciously aware of what we’re doing and the end for which we are doing it. I am not perfectly educated on this, but I think this is a generally correct response.

    Second: your question why God couldn’t have created the universe as a father creates a son is odd. The argument itself shows why that can’t happen – if it did, there would be no original source of the change we see.

    Finally: you are mistaken when you say final causes are sophistic attempts to avoid Hume’s is-ought problem. When we say for example, that a hammer is a good hammer, we are saying that it fulfills some ends we think are proper to a hammer – e.g., it can hit and drive nails well. When we say that a teacher is a good teacher, we are saying that she fulfills ends we think are proper to a teacher – e.g., she manages her classroom, she’s kind to students, she explains math well. In each case, to say each is good is to say that it fulfills ends proper to the sort of thing it is. To discover what these ends are, we obviously need to think about the nature of a hammer, or the nature of a teacher. Now, it is the same going even more generally: when we say a human is a good human, we are saying that he fulfills ends proper to humans. To think about what these ends are that need to be fulfilled, we obviously have to think about what defines a human. Now, this is obviously an open-ended question and we aren’t going to get as specific answers as we do when we ask what teachers are, or what hammers are. Aristotle tells us exactly this, in fact, when he says we can’t expect mathematical certainty in ethics. This is also why all Aristotelians place such a heavy emphasis on prudence, since you won’t always be able to logically derive the right thing to do. I think you are actually right, then, to critique Feser for sometimes putting too much emphasis on final cause considerations. Aquinas allows that sometimes it’s OK to subvert a final end of an organ for the greater benefit of the human as a whole. A good modern example would be live organ donation.

    Well, that’s all I can write now. Edward Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics book answers some of your objections in closer detail, especially relating to the “usefulness” of certain Aristotelian concepts in light of modern science. William A. Wallace’s Modeling of Nature book is also excellent for applying Aristotelian ideas to natural science. It really helps clarify things.

    1. Welcome to the blog, and thanks for a thoughtful comment! My responses:

      It’s not so much that the moon’s final cause is to orbit the Earth. Rather, as I understand it, the matter making up the moon revolves around large bodies when they are nearby (like all matter, in fact). That it exhibits these effects when a large enough body is present, is due to a final cause – it is “pointed to” doing so. Of course, this is not the only type of final causes. Human minds exhibit final causes in different ways as well, where we are consciously aware of what we’re doing and the end for which we are doing it.

      This is a good point, and it’s something I thought of raising in the essay, but ended up declining as I thought it was already long enough as it is, haha! But to go back to my draft, my thinking is that acknowledging “final causes” in this way actually undercuts (what I assume to be) Feser’s point that human beings and our various faculties have “final causes” in these ways as well.

      The moon isn’t just “pointed towards” orbiting the Earth, but rather it does so inevitably and unerringly. So, to, with most other physical phenomena–a match produces fire not just “regularly,” but inevitably and unerringly (so long as it’s not wet and there’s oxygen to burn, of course, and so on). The fact that physical phenomena *always* not just “regularly,” follow these rules is part of what makes knowledge of these rules useful, and also why I was willing to concede Feser’s case that “final causes” might have a useful role to play in understanding the sciences.

      The problem is, living organisms aren’t as utterly predictable as physical phenomena. Feser admits this when he allows that human beings have free will, but I also think we can’t say we have “final causes” in the same sense; either that or our “final causes” are much different than what Feser says they are. For instance, human sexuality is not “directed towards” the production of children the same way the moon is “directed towards” orbiting the Earth, because while the moon will always, inerringly, and predictably orbit the earth, procreation is (as we all know) a much more haphazard affair, even when everything is “ordered” the way Feser says it should be–it can be quite a challenge for heterosexual couples to conceive, even when both are fertile! So it seems to me much more caution is warranted when discussing the “final cause” of any organism, especially humans.

      Second: your question why God couldn’t have created the universe as a father creates a son is odd. The argument itself shows why that can’t happen – if it did, there would be no original source of the change we see.

      I address this later in my essay. Feser says the universe is “essentially ordered” rather than “accidentally” because constant regular change requires a being “whose existence is synonymous with its essence,” but I point out later that it’s possible a fundamental force may have an existence synonymous with essence. Read the rest of the essay for my full argument 🙂

      When we say for example, that a hammer is a good hammer, we are saying that it fulfills some ends we think are proper to a hammer – e.g., it can hit and drive nails well. When we say that a teacher is a good teacher, we are saying that she fulfills ends we think are proper to a teacher – e.g., she manages her classroom, she’s kind to students, she explains math well. In each case, to say each is good is to say that it fulfills ends proper to the sort of thing it is.

      I also address this point in “Major Objection 2.” Ctrl-F to that heading to read it quickly, but my argument is that there’s some confusion, perhaps due to the nature of the English language, in the connotations of the word ‘good,’ which can mean either ‘desirable/morally praiseworthy’ or ‘efficient at performing a function.’ For instance, a “good” hammer would be one that efficiently punches in nails, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily “good” in the sense of “desirable.” The only way to answer that question satisfactorily is by appealing to human interests–we want a “good” hammer because we want to finish a construction job quickly, therefore the only way a hammer can be “good” in a desirable/praiseworthy sense is by appealing to human concerns, which means that we have to incorporate some form of consequentialism into our moral thought for any concern with “final causes” to be very convincing. I mean, there are plenty of instances where things fulfilling their final cause are obviously undesirable. A bomb’s “final cause” is to kill people, to take an obvious example, so a “good bomb” would be one that kills many people very quickly, but we would certainly call that a “bad” thing in the sense of being morally undesirable.

      Anyways, as I mention, I’d have to read more on Aquinas to really address him, including Feser’s book on him, but this essay (long as it was) was meant mainly as a start to a more sustained critique, perhaps for people with more time than I–I already spent a lot on this as is! 😄

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