Hey guys! Here’s something a little different tonight. A new commenter by the name of tru recently happened upon my posts on Aquinas (specifically, my critiques of Edward Feser’s “The Last Superstition” and “Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide”) and left some really thoughtful comments! You can see them in their original forms here:
They were so good I asked and received tru’s permission to feature them on the blog proper itself. Tru used translation software for a little bit of help turning their thoughts from German to English, so I’ve marked my own little corrections with brackets. So without further ado, here’s what could be considered the first “guest post” on this blog!
In “The Last Superstition”, Feser presents his stock-conservative Catholic views with passion, anger and malice. Unfortunately, in this way the book has become more of an extremely undifferentiated and extremely one-sided polemic than a serious, sober confrontation with interesting philosophical [insights] of Thomas Aquinas, which certainly are not known to everyone.
As an Aquinas expert, Feser should also know Aristotle like his own back pocket. But here he already commits a faux pas. From an arrogant attitude, he criticizes the modern secularists for the fact that, due to their narrow and limited view on metaphysical [matters], they know only one kind of change, namely local movement. But Aristotle had already realized that there were other kinds of change. As an example of another–quantitative change, Feser then refers to the case of water becoming one degree warmer or colder. This is a mistake (of course the quality had changed) that otherwise only a first semester philosophy student could make. The fact that something like this happens to a great admirer of Aristotle is somewhat strange. Feser also omits the important information that Aristotle ultimately attributes all kinds of change to local movement, as the mechanically thinking secularists in principle have always done. But not a word from Feser about it, not even about the fact that modern physics has already said goodbye to many mechanistic principles by itself.
(Gunlord note: Here, Tru makes a good point I hadn’t brought up–there are several different kinds of change, such as purely quantitative [Something’s temperature goes from X to X+1 or X-2 or whatever), but also qualitative [Something’s shape changes] and so on. It also seems that Aristotle’s explanation of change has to do with local movement more than Feser lets on, but I’m not as familiar with Aristotle’s original work as I am with Feser’s interpretation of him, so I’ll defer to Tru here).
Feser makes a lot of fuss about the fact that the secularists would not recognize the true basis of morality, more precisely the Platonic and Aristotelian forms. An immoral consequence of this misconception is the current high number of abortions worldwide, which are carried out without hesitation and without penal consequences. But Feser must keep one thing in mind. If even the fathers and discoverers (or only inventors?) of these philosophical forms/ideas could not see that infanticide (which they advocated under certain circumstances, especially in the case of disabilities and deformities) is something absolutely reprehensible, how can today’s secularists, who are extremely superficial in Feser’s eyes, let alone the uneducated, be capable of it?
Furthermore, Feser is not always completely honest with his readers. At least he often seems to keep important information behind the scenes. In the chapter about evil, Feser says that terrible suffering in this world is basically outweighed by eternally blessed visions in the hereafter. The victims of the Holocaust, for example, would not have suffered so much in vain. As a Catholic theologian, however, he must honestly admit that a very painful life alone is not enough to qualify as a promising candidate for a heavenly reward. One must at least be or have been a good Catholic, otherwise the papal church would make no sense in the end. Feser obviously could not bring [himself] to say that a Jew in a concentration camp who suffered terribly there and was tortured to death, perhaps even had to expect eternal hell (see also [the ruling] of the Council of Florence, 1442: [The Holy Roman Church …believes firmly, confesses and proclaims that no one outside the Catholic Church, neither pagan nor Jew nor unbeliever, or a person separated from unity, will participate in eternal life, but rather fall into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels if he does not join her [the Church] before death.)
Speaking of hell. According to Feser, nature wants us to give birth to many children. That’s why we should do it for moral reasons (natural law). But isn’t it a little cruel to irrevocably expose your children to the possible danger of ending up in hell? One can do one’s best in education, but the development of children is not always in the hands of parents. The children could fall away from their faith as adults and stand with one foot in the kingdom of Satan.
The first proof of God was not really convincing. What does it look like? I hold a stick in my hand with which I move a stone. This is a simultaneous causal series: arm, stick and stone, all moving simultaneously and in relation to each other. Feser believes that the series must end with a unmoved mover (immovable God). When it comes to determining which causal link is “in front” of the arm, Feser suddenly starts an [inward-looking] analysis. He comes to elementary forces, atoms and other physical properties. Why is Feser doing this? The inward-looking analysis still remains in the arm, I can zoom into it as deeply as I want, it does not lead us out of it. Either I go through the individual parts of the arm or I leave it completely in order to really expand the causal series. A third possibility is excluded. Moreover, it is surprising why Feser suddenly uses the language of modern physics, which actually contradicts his Aristotelian philosophy. I can also save myself the search for another link in the causal series and go straight to God. Whether there are still one or two things in between (i.e. between my arm and the unmoved mover) does not change anything about the conception of the supposed proof of God. But if I now fall back on God, he is also the one who moves my arm. That would only degrade me to a puppet of God. On the other hand, I could say that my intention moved my arm and with it the stick and the stone. So I no longer have to refer to God. The causal series ends with my intention, which has emerged spontaneously from my active will and has no (essential) cause, but a (accidental) reason for action. Feser’s argument merely showed that although there must be a primary mover, it only needs to be active in the respect that is relevant to the given case of movement. Nothing more. There is no reason to cite God for this, who according to Feser is active in every possible respect (pure actuality). This results in many worldly first movers, such as man, for example. Aristotle also saw it this way: “e.g. the stick moves the stone and is moved by the hand, which again is moved by the man: in the man, however, we have reached a [movement] that is not so in virtue of being moved by something else.” (Physics 256a-256b) The two other cosmological proofs of God (Aquinas names all proofs only paths to God) have already been refuted once and for all by Kant.
(Gunlord note: Here, Tru makes the point that the human soul could be considered a first mover, in a certain sense. This is something I’ve wanted to write more about for a little while, but it seems like Tru put it into words before I could–great minds think alike! I’ll credit Tru when I get the post up, eventually XD)
Feser’s weakest arguments can be found in the chapter on the universal acid. I expected much more from Feser. But so little came. The mere assumption of purpose and [formal] causes (which plants also have) should solve the profound problem of freedom of will in no time at all? This is downright ridiculous. Feser dedicates very few pages to this topic. But it is the most important and central theme of philosophy. If there is no free will, there is no morality. But any kind of essentialism (including Aristotelian) unfortunately excludes freedom of will in principle. Every essence (like that of the individual human being) can only act according to its essence, it cannot break through its essence (character and personality of a human being) without breaking itself. A genuine arbitrariness or freedom that somehow acts independently or outside of one’s own being is unthinkable (it would not be in our understanding a freedom that leads to responsibility, it would be determined by others, not self-determined), as well as one that occurs together with it as an inseparable unity (this would be logically absurd). Even the Thomistic conception that no potential (like certain potential human actions) can realize itself and thus requires something else from outside from which it is realized (circumstances that trigger those actions) makes it difficult to rationally grasp freedom of will. In the end, one must be content, for better or for worse, with a purely fideistic assumption of freedom of will.
The true universal acid, the really dangerous idea, is that of evolution. Dennett is right. If the theory of evolution is correct, then at least in the organic world there are no fixed Aristotelian forms. A squirrel, for example, with all its abilities and qualities, is a product of mercilessly brutal natural selection. And every generation of squirrels could undergo a change over time, which in turn would affect subsequent generations. Change would be part of their essence. Finally, man has evolved evolutionarily, so that even from a [hylomorphic] point of view it is no longer possible to speak of a metaphysical species of man (only of a biological species in a very loose sense). When it comes to morality, one can immediately ask oneself how nature in its organic form can at all be a firm and credible yardstick for moral action (that is what Feser assumes), if it is demonstrably subject to a constant evolutionary process?
I have noticed that Feser, who begins his book with explanations of Parmenides and arrives at Aquinas after a few stops, nevertheless, without intending to, returns in principle to the philosophy of Parmenides. For Parmenides there is only one existence, namely pure being, unique, indistinguishable and unchangeable, as Feser points out. Now one has to read what Feser has to tell about the God of Aquinas. To put it bluntly, it is the same as with Parmenides. The qualities of the Thomistic God are actually only different possibilities to refer to the sole pure being. While Parmenides speaks of illusions of diversity, Feser speaks of imperfect reflections in Aquinas. Feser’s course of argumentation, which runs through the entire book, thus takes a somewhat absurd turn. In the end, the God of Aquinas is the God of [the Eleatics], whom Feser had not really taken seriously and smiled at. This God in Thomistic garb would be, so to speak, a puppet player (already hinted at earlier) and we would be his puppets, which only really exist when he plays with them (if he should no longer play with them and throw them into a corner, he would have to look at them or at least think of them, otherwise they would immediately pass into nothingness). But while this God is playing, he falls into a strange deception, the deception that the puppets act on their own responsibility, autonomously and independently from him. He simply forgets while playing that he is pulling the strings, that he is solely responsible for every movement, power, existence, purposefulness, form and matter of the puppets. What is tragicomically added: For some reason (now as a blinded pseudo-viewer) their behavior doesn’t please him at all. The abstruse consequence is that he punishes them ( actually a part of himself) for it. The Thomistic God is not only the God of eleatics, but above all a God of self-deception.
The only thing that I can give Feser a halfway positive credit for is that he repeatedly points to important questions in philosophy, such as those concerning universals and teleology (questions that a philosopher or scientist cannot easily dismiss with a shrug of the shoulders).
There is one more thing I want to [address]. Feser’s constant complaints about modern times or modernity, that it has moved away from Aristotle to its great disadvantage, are not only somewhat annoying, but also partly inappropriate. For modern times did not simply distance itself from Aristotle without a goal. For various reasons it moved more in the direction of Plato again and took up elements and basic ideas of his philosophy in order to integrate them into its systems. These systems may have little in common with Plato’s philosophy here and there (if there ever was a closed one), but they must still be called Platonic (humanism or modern cosmology, for example, are or contain platonisms). Probably the current academic consensus also sees Plato (who is also highly esteemed by Feser) as the greater philosopher than Aristotle (who is completely anti-philosophy-of-language, anti-existential-philosophy, epistemologically totally naive and with outdated scientific assumptions), as seen in the Renaissance. Therefore Feser’s outcry actually echoes into nowhere.
Additionally, Tru also made a couple of other recommendations:
Quite an impressive set of comments! I’m definitely happy to have readers like this. In the future, maybe I’ll come up with a more particular way of soliciting and processing guest posts, these comments were a great read.