This begins a series of posts reviewing Ed (if I may call him that; for all I know he goes by the more elegant Edward) Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. (The posts won’t be contiguous.) We’ll also make use of Feser’s Aquinas, his Theory of Mind, and of his paper “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways,”1 which contains a tight, crystalline summary of Aquinas’s Five Ways.
Every atheist must read this book. Every atheist who is sincerely committed to his belief, that is. Casual atheists who would rather stick with unproven, but comforting, orthodoxies had best keep away. Because this book will be rough on them. Perhaps, some claim, too rough for a book from a Christian.
It is well to dispense with certain irrelevant matters immediately. Feser gives us a manly Christianity, in muscular language. His words oft have the tone of a teacher who is exasperated by students who have, yet again, not done their homework. The exasperation is justifiable. “Aquinas,” he tells us, “as is well known, always painstakingly considered all opposing arguments, and always made a point of attacking an opponent’s position at it strongest point.” Yet most of Aquinas’s modern-day opponents do not consider him at all. Or they gleefully poke at the remnants of a straw effigy theologians set fire to long ago, all the while congratulating themselves on their brilliance.
This does not compute for Feser, who does not suffer (arrogant) fools well—or at all. This perplexes some readers who undoubtedly expect theists to be soft-spoken, meek, and humble to the point of willing to concede miles to gain an inch. Feser is more of a theological Patton: he is advancing, always advancing, and is not interested in holding on to anything except the enemy’s territory. This stance has startled some reviewers. Typical is the (self-named) Unpublishable Philosopher who ignores the meat of the book and whines about “ad hominems.”
Now if a man, a theist, says, “Richard Dawkins is a jackass and here is a proof showing his attacks on God’s existence fail utterly” and a second man, an atheist, is interested in whether this proof is valid, then it is irrelevant to the proof that the theist calls Dawkins a jackass—unless that statement forms part of the proof. Which in Feser’s book, which is loaded with similar phrases, such statements do not. (Feser nowhere uses the word jackass.)
However, if the atheistic Dawkins fan hears the theist, all that penetrates through to his ossicles is jackass. The word lodges deep in his auditory canal and blocks further entrance: the proof goes unheard, or it is heard but badly distorted. And this is so—it is an empirical and not a philosophical question—whether Dawkins is a jackass. The proof is forgotten and the argument turns to whether the theist is himself a jackass for claiming Dawkins is; or if he is not a jackass, then whether he is a good Christian because (the atheist once read) good Christians don’t call people jackasses, even if their targets demonstrably are jackasses, or about the use of the ad hominem, etc. Then comes the final fallacy which says that because somebody who claims to be a Christian does an unChristian deed, Christianity must be false or unworthy of study. Or that Feser’s book needn’t be taken seriously.
Feser does spend a fraction of his time upbraiding his enemies for not heeding their lessons, and he isn’t shy about publicizing the “F”s he hands out. He says that Dawkins and Dennett are “ignoramuses” because of their “embarrassingly ill-informed dismissals” of proofs of God’s existence. He calls the work of Sam Harris a “disgusting spectacle.” He says that views held by eliminative materialists “are titillating and have, for obvious reasons, an emotional appeal for adolescents of all ages. But from a rational point of view, they are completely worthless; as David Stove once said, at the end of the day their proponents have little more to offer in their defense than ‘shit-eating grins.”
He says that “smugness is half the fun of being a liberal (the other half being the tearing down of everything one’s ancestors, and one’s betters generally, worked so hard to build).” He claims the “New Atheist’s pretense that a religious view of the world can only ever be the result of wishful thinking rather than objective rational argumentation is thereby exposed as a falsehood, the product, if not of willful deception, at least of inexcusable ignorance”. “No doubt”, says Feser, a New Atheist responding to his book will be “sputtering some response” but there is also no doubt that “the response will be superficial, ill-informed, and dogmatic, long on attitude and short on understanding.”
Dawkins’s attempts to counter the Unmoved Mover argument is a “serious lapse in scholarly competence and/or intellectual integrity”. Of the now-dead Hitchens and the other prominent New Atheists he says that one “gets the impression that the bulk of their education in Christian theology consisted of reading Elmer Gantry…supplemented with a viewing of Inherit the Wind“.
Well, gasp. Keep in mind, though, that these are all questions of fact, not metaphysics. If Feser can prove them—I say he can—this is fine. But if not, it does not imply he cannot prove his philosophy.
Warning Note: Many of the arguments to come, especially about the nature of causality, will be unfamiliar to us, and were once to Yours Truly, who was raised in the Scientific Way. If any of my summaries are suspect, defer to the book. It is vastly more probable that I have screwed it up than has Feser.
Warning Prediction: you may think you have discovered a shiny new, never-thought-of-before aha-zinger that guts classical metaphysics, leaving nothing but a greasy spot, but the chance of this is low. Philosophers have been gnawing away at these questions for hundreds to thousands of years. So while you may deliver us an argument which allows you to dismiss classical metaphysics, an argument which none of us here at the humble WMBriggs.com recognize for what it is (stale fish), this does not imply your discovery is unique, persuasive, or valid. The burden is on you to search the authorities, pro and con, and definitively prove your claim.
So today—and today only—let’s argue about whether Feser should or should not have called Dennett an ignoramus, whether Feser’s empirical claims about this or that political question are right or wrong, whether the pugilistic tone had better been left out of the book, etc., etc. Get it out of our system. Get it off your chest. Adopt the ton supérieur and educate us on just what the ad hominem is and why it’s use is discouraged. Because next time we start in on the arguments themselves and we can’t be distracted by irrelevancies.
Update To newcomers unused to our ways: swearing, threats, and other idiotic behavior is not allowed. All comments which are abusive will be summarily censored.
1American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 85, no. 2 (2011).