“The Last Superstition”: Review and Summary

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The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism
Author: Edward Feser
Hardcover & Paperback: 299 pages
Publisher: St. Augustine’s Press (2009)
Reviewer: G Veale

In 2003 Britains’ education secretary, Charles Clarke declared that British Universities existed to serve the economy. Universities should only focus on subjects that benefitted society, like engineering and science. History, philosophy and literature were luxury goods; perhaps the idle rich could dally in them, but they should not expect the tax payer to foot the bill. It might be nice to keep the occasional mediaevalist around for “decorative purposes”, but Britain should really only invest cash in subjects that produced practical results.

The historian John Tosh responded that Clarke’s pronouncement depended on a remarkable lack of historical sense. History provides the modern world with a rich intellectual and experiential resource, which allows us to see radically different answers to practical problems and to conceive alternatives to modern prejudices and biases. Without the benefit of history and philosophy we are at the mercy of whatever intellectual fashion happens to be in vogue. We are left as helpless subjects in a tyranny of intellectual conformity.

Edward Feser, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California, seeks to free us from such a tyranny in his remarkable book The Last Superstition. This is a popularization of contemporary philosophy, a piece of cultural criticism, a history of Western thought and a response to the New Atheists. With a breezy style and biting humor Feser places writers like Dawkins and Dennett in historical and philosophical context. In the process he demonstrates that, while aggressive secularism is popular and respectable, it is not at all compelling or persuasive. Secularism is now little more than an “anti-religion”; its content is determined solely by its hostility to revealed religion.

Feser argues that contemporary secularists certainly know what they are against, but are less certain about what they actually stand for. The secularist values freedom, rationality and science; but then, so do Christians. What the secularist really means is that he values rational objections to Christianity, freedom from religious ethics, and the rather quaint, outmoded historical thesis that there is perpetual conflict between science and Christianity. Secularism has no distinctive vision to offer the world, no deep insight into ethics or meaning. This stands in sharp contrast to a philosophical tradition that Feser values, and argues passionately for: scholasticism in general, and the theology of Aquinas in particular.

We tend to think of a cause as something that has an effect. The scholastics went deeper, and understood a cause as whatever is necessary to account for a fact; therefore, the quest to understand the universe became the search for causes. They distinguished four types of cause, two of which seem familiar to us, and two which do not. Material causes refer to the “stuff” that things are made of; a table’s material cause is wood, for example. An efficient cause is the power to bring something into being; the power to actualize the potential in another entity. Efficient causation occurs when one object exerts a power that actualizes another object’s capacity. A brick actualizes glass’s capacity to shatter; a photon actualizes an electron’s capacity to be excited.

Every object also has a formal cause, an organizational structure not reducible to that thing’s parts. Feser uses the simple example of a triangle. We can draw a triangle in chalk, or make it out of steel or plastic. No triangle will exemplify triangularity perfectly; each will have certain flaws, lacking perfectly straight sides for example. So triangularity cannot be identified with what triangles are made of, or with the physical features of triangles. Mathematicians discovered that the angles of a triangle in Euclidean space add up to 180 degrees; they did not invent that truth. Triangularity is something that they learned about; they did not create triangularity. So the Scholastics believed that the form of triangles exists independently of human minds.

The scholastics also believed in final causes; a thing’s purpose, the role that it has to play in the universe. The final cause determines all the other causes, directing them to certain effects. The heart’s final cause is to pump blood; the sun’s is to provide heat and light, and to hold the planets of the solar system in their orbits. Final causality includes, but is not limited to, biological function. Aquinas referred to it as “the cause of all causes”. Without understanding the heart’s final cause we cannot understand why it needs to be made of certain tissue (its material cause), and why it must have ventricles and arteries (its formal cause).

Yet final causality does not merely refer to the functions of complex organs like the heart, or the bacterial flagellum made famous by the Intelligent Design movement. Feser has some harsh words for Paley’s design argument; it relies on probabilities rather than philosophical demonstration, and it depends on a mechanistic view of nature. In the scholastic worldview everything has a distinct role to play in the universe. Every part of the world has been shaped and formed for a particular task. A water droplet has a distinctive role in the weather cycle, and can play a role to enable life. So water is shaped and formed to that end.

The scholastics also made a distinction between act and potential. Rubber has the potential to stretch and to be made into a sphere. A rubber ball has the potential to bounce. But the rubber cannot make itself into a ball; and the rubber ball cannot make itself bounce. Both need to have their potential actualised by something beyond themselves. Aquinas believed that he could use this observation to demonstrate the existence of God.  The rubber ball depends on the attributes of the rubber that it is made of; this depends on the state of the rubber’s molecules, which in turn depends on the state of the atoms that make up the molecules, and so forth. Underlying all these causes must be a First Cause; not first in time, as the scholastics conceded that the universe could be infinitely old. This first cause maintains the universe, keeping it in existence from minute to minute. And this, as Aquinas says, is what everyone means by God.

It is crucial to realize that  final causes are present in nature; the oak is present in the acorn even though the oak tree has not yet developed (and might never develop if the acorn is not planted.) Yet how can something that does not yet exist be present in the physical world? It can only exist like a plan exists in the mind of an architect or an artist. We are driven to conclude that there is a God. God not only keeps the universe in existence from moment to moment; God also provides everything with an end or purpose. God does not merely sustain the universe; he shapes and guides it also.

It is difficult to be unimpressed and unmoved by the portrait painted by the scholastics. It is sometimes alleged that they had an “organic” view of nature, as opposed to the “mechanical view” of the first scientists. But it seems more accurate to say that the scholastics viewed the universe as we would view a work of art, or even a vast musical symphony. Every part has its place in the overall picture, and each piece has been carefully formed to contribute to the overall beauty of the whole. Finally, the creator is fully present at each moment and in every area of his masterpiece. There is not one square inch of creation that does not point to him; every fraction reflects his glory.

Yet the early modern philosophers and the founders of modern science rejected scholastic explanations for a mathematical and mechanical description of nature. “Forms” cannot be quantified, and God’s purposes seem open to a wide variety of interpretations. It was simpler to focus on efficient and material causes, on matter and regularities in nature, which could be precisely quantified and measured. With less room for disagreement, the rigorous methods of the empirical sciences made rapid progress, giving us unprecedented insight into the physical world. At this stage, Feser argues, the Western mind took a wrong turn.

It is worth pausing to note that secularism has relied heavily on the myth of progress in which Western thought followed a trajectory from superstition to organized religion to secularization. This is why New Atheists feel such superiority to benighted Christians; they are in the vanguard of history, while the Christian is a living fossil. The problem, of course, is that it is no longer credible to maintain that history inevitably moves us towards more rational and humane societies. The Gulags, Operation Reinhard and the Minuteman missile put that idea to rest. It is entirely possible that we have rejected profound wisdom in our past; and if we are serious about the search for truth we will pay as much attention to our history as we will to the next edition of Nature.

Feser points out, quite correctly, that the early scientists were less motivated by metaphysics than they were by a pragmatic concern to discover what all observers could agree on, and by a desire to improve material conditions for humanity. If science does not search for formal or final causes, it is not at all surprising that it does not find them.  The progress of science does not, in itself, refute the metaphysics of Scholasticism. However, a materialist could argue that science has  “explained away” formal and final causes –  that we simply do not need to consider these concepts to understand the physical world. Therefore there is no plausible reason to believe that there are formal and final causes.

Feser aggressively rejects this charge, arguing that scientists cannot help talking about goals, purposes and essences in nature. Physicists rely on idealizations, like frictionless surfaces; their experimental methods discover mathematically exact regularities in highly artificial circumstances. Science is less about observing and measuring regularities in nature than it is about discovering the universal natures and inherent powers in things. It is in the essence of many things to behave in mathematically predictable ways. This would not have surprised many of the later scholastics who developed the experimental method; Feser points out that Galileo depended heavily on their work.

Feser insists that final causes will not be explained away in biology, despite the best efforts of some theorists to reduce biology to mechanical explanations.For example, the heart can only be understood if we acknowledge its function. Some philosophers attempt to explain the heart’s function away, replacing it with a selectionist account. The “function” of a heart is to pump blood, not to make thumping sounds, simply because it is the former effect that has led to hearts being favored by natural selection. This evolutionary account of the heart’s history explains why some organisms with hearts survived, and why their competitors did not.

But Feser makes it clear that ‘function’ cannot be reduced to ‘selection for’ some effect. It is not just that scientists can understand an organ’s role without any knowledge of its evolutionary history; even the smallest child knows what his hands and feet are for. And suppose that, contrary to Darwinian expectations, some complex organ like the heart developed by chance in a saltational leap, rather than by the winnowing effects of natural selection (this is vastly improbable , but not impossible). Even though that particular heart had not been ‘selected for’ it would clearly have played a role in the organism’s life. We need concepts like “purpose” or “function” to understand the heart.

Scientists refer to “genes for” certain proteins and phenotypic effects, and a genome which carries “information” for the developing organism. This seems to mean more than the systematic causal dependence studied in communication theory. If the information in the genome is cashed out in terms of co-variation, we could claim that the environment equally carries information for the organism. After all two populations of the same creature with the same genetic code can develop in radically different, yet predictable, ways in different environments.  The genes would be “channeling” information from the environment; and this is not what geneticists are driving at when they refer to information in the genome.

Most geneticists seem to assume that genes carry the developmental information and nothing else does. There is no equivalent of the genetic code in an organism’s environment. Furthermore, and crucially, genes can be “misinterpreted”. As Kim Sterelny and Paul E Griffths argue

The idea that genes have meaning in something like the way that human thought and language have meaning is lurking in the background in many discussions of genetic information. For example, it is often said when an organism develops different phenotypes under different environmental conditions that the message of the genes is “Do this in circumstance A, do that in circumstance B” (a disjunctive genetic program). If genetic information is causal information, then this is just a quirky way of saying that changing the channel conditions changes the signal. A distinctive test of intentional or semantic information is that talk of error or misrepresentation makes sense. A map of Sydney carries semantic information about the layout of Sydney. Hence it makes sense to say of any putative map that it is wrong, or that it has been misread. Error and misrepresentation make no sense in the context of the purely causal notion of information. In the causal sense, a doorbell that rings because of corrosion in the wiring has not generated a false alarm. It is merely “reporting” a change in the channel conditions. Strikingly, genetic information is often described as if misinterpretation made sense. So no one says that the human genome encodes the instruction “when exposed to the drug thalidomide, grow only rudimentary limbs.” This really would be the instruction if we were talking about causal information. When the channel is contaminated by thalidomide, human genes really do, sadly, contain this causal information. Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology (Chicago:1999) p 103

Arguably, geneticists are talking about “intentional” or “semantic”, not causal, information; if this is the case biology has returned to a version of final causality.  So scientific discovery and scholastic metaphysics could be complementary. Concepts like final and formal causality might have little to contribute to scientific methodology, but the argumentation used in empirical science is not the only type of rational argumentation in town. The scholastics did not aim at the prediction and control of nature; their quest was for deep wisdom and insight. In Feser’s estimation they discovered a worldview that comprehended nature and our place within it. The undeniable success of the quantificational methods of science does not challenge the scholastic’s achievement in the slightest.

The New Atheist’s do not merely assert that theism is false; they assert that theism is obviously false. Belief in God is as irrational as faith in a Flying Spaghetti Monster, or an Invisible Pink Unicorn. Yet the founding fathers of New Atheism – Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris – seem completely ignorant of the intellectual tradition that has shaped their atheism. They are in no position to critically assess their own beliefs, and this lack of self-awareness is disturbing. Nor do they even so much as mention the scholastic conception of God; whatever their certainty is built on, it is not a rational consideration of all the arguments. So The Last Superstition succeeds as a refutation of the New Atheism.

Indeed, Feser points out that early modern philosophers like Locke and Hume failed to provide compelling critiques of the scholastic worldview (a point substantiated by Anthony Kenny in his magisterial A New History of Western Philosophy (Oxford:2010). Many influential arguments advanced by the Enlightenment men simply did not get to grips with the scholastic worldview; the early moderns tore down a straw man. Moreover, these “advances” came at a high cost; removing all reference to formal and final causes created the problem of induction, crises in ethical theory and the mind/body problem. Centuries later, and first year philosophy students are still wrestling with these problems in introductory text-books.

Still, we might wonder if Feser isn’t too hard on characters like Descartes, Pascal and Locke. Most of these philosophical puzzles only arise when we adopt the “mechanical world view” and couple this with atheism. God held a crucial place in the systems of the early modern philosophers. For Descartes God’s existence kept scepticism at bay. In Locke’s philosophy God guaranteed human dignity and human rights. Galileo’s disciples would argue that God “coordinated” the world of the subjective phenomenal states and objective, mathematically quantifiable matter (a point made several decades ago by Robert Adams in his famous article “Flavours, Colours and God”). Arguably we can live with the rejection of scholasticism; it was the rejection of theism was calamitous.

We might also wonder at Feser’s characterisation of the first scientists. Wasn’t it simpler to remove teleology to the mind of God, than to see “final causes” inherent in physical objects? And surely they were not merely motivated by the quest for technical expertise and the conquest of nature; they often viewed their science as an outworking of their faith. They yearned to “think God’s thoughts after him”. And didn’t the implicit gap between creator and creation in scholasticism make this an impossible quest?

Given the act/potency distinction, Scholastics like Aquinas believed that God was pure act. As the source of all change (and change is what the scholastics mean by “movement” in the argument for a “first mover”) God cannot be changed. God has no potential; God does not have a nature that needs to be actualised by another. The difficulty here is that God sounds more like an impersonal absolute than a personal creator. The God of the Scholastics is certainly intimately involved with his creation. But could this God choose, or love, or have any of the essential characteristics of personhood? Feser answers “yes, in an analogical sense”; but this does not do justice to the Biblical texts.  And can this God of pure act be Triune? This remains an open question in philosophy of religion.

Yet the scholastic explanation of God’s transcendence and immanence remains unsurpassed. Feser persuasively expresses this vision, and his introduction to Aquinas’ thought is more appealing and convincing than similar works by more established scholars. Some might feel uncomfortable with Feser’s humour; he certainly pulls no punches when dealing with the New Atheists. Yet the New Atheists are more than dismissive of Feser’s discipline and area of academic expertise; we can forgive him a little impatience. And his sense of fun permeates the book, making abstract metaphysical arguments fun and readable; this book is far more engaging and accessible than this review can convey.

The scholastics sought a deep understanding, a coherent picture of the world around them. The Last Superstition reminds us that there is more to wisdom than technical knowledge or expertise. Anyone who reads Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape will be equally impressed by Harris’s vast knowledge, and despairing of his inability to pull this learning together into a persuasive and insightful commentary on ethics. Anyone who reads Edward Feser will know that this is a man committed to a deep understanding of his life and his world. Above all, they will be grateful to a teacher who can take mediaeval scholasticism and contemporary Thomism, and make these most recondite topics gripping, exciting and relevant.

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