Monday, August 17, 2009

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Reality: Edward Feser's "The Last Superstition"

Where has Ed Feser been all my life? The exposition and defense of Aristotelianism in his new book The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism would have saved me years of hunting down old dusty out-of-print tomes by guys with "S. J." after their names that have been long forgotten and which many people would consider out-of-date and irrelevant.

Don't get me wrong, I like hunting down old dusty out-of-print tomes, no matter what letters the authors may have after their names. In fact, it's one of my favorite things to do. And, actually, had I not gone to the all the trouble, I may not have fully appreciated Feser's achievement.

Feser makes a bold statement in his book: "Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought." It is, as I say, a bold statement, and one that sets the bar at an altitude over which few philosophers could jump. Feser does it with ease. In fact, let me put it this way: The Last Superstition is not only the best refutation of the New Atheism yet penned, but is one of the most important books written in recent years, and is certainly the best book of Christian apologetics in recent memory. You can now take all those books trying to defend the "Christian worldview" and box them up now. Almost without exception, they miss the point altogether. Feser is one of the few who actually gets it.

And what is 'it'?

In preparation for a conference presentation I was giving this summer on the classical view of nature, I was doing a little reading. It was one of those times I am thankful that I have a large personal library from which to draw, and thankful also that I had a good excuse to read several books that had been sitting on my shelf that I had wanted to read for some time: E. A. Burtt's The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science; R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of Nature; Basil Willey's 17th Century Background and 18th Century Background; and, perhaps most notably, Alfred North Whitehead's The Origins of Modern Science.

As I went through them, a distinct theme began to emerge: the key change in the history of ideas underlying contemporary thought was the abandonment of Aristotelianism. Anyone having spent time reading about issues of philosophical metaphysics will have already concluded that the only Christian philosophy worth the name was that of St. Thomas Aquinas, a conclusion confirmed every time another book is published purporting to set such a thing forth. My own logic textbook, Material Logic, is mostly an explication of the Scholastic version of some key points of Aristotle's Metaphysics (which is essentially what most of material logic is).

In fact, it a strange thing: as I was reading my Google Reader (my chief and almost exclusive source for news these days), I pulled up one of Feser's blog posts in which he was recommending four books on the modern view of science. They were the very four books I had been reading--in the precise order in which I had read them. I commented on his blog, "Ed, this is almost creepy, I had read Burtt's book about a month ago, Willey's right after that, and I just finished Collingwood's today, and then I read your post." He responded, saying, "Martin, creepier still is that I see we both studied philosophy at UC Santa Barbara. I smell a conspiracy. Maybe they installed the same model computer chip in each of our brains...?"

It was this particular post, an excellent rundown of the role the rejection of Aristotelianism had on the development of science, which prompted me to read Feser's book in the first place, and I'm glad I did.

And they say there are no purposes in nature.

Feser mentions the same passage the implications of which I have been chewing on since I first read it years ago: Richard Weaver's remark in Ideas Have Consequences in which he points to William of Ockham "as the best representative of a change which came over man's conception of reality at this historic juncture":
It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one's view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. With this change in the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism. (Ideas Have Consequences, p. 3)
Ockham's key role in the decline of Western thought and civilization (the real subject of Feser's book) is completely lost on most of those who spend their time analyzing it. In fact (as I have written elsewhere), the Protestants go-to man on this subject, Francis Schaeffer, was not only completely blind to it, but, in a bizarre irony, places the blame for the decline of the West on the man who managed its greatest intellectual achievement: St. Thomas Aquinas!

Ockham's move (or that of his overenthusiastic followers, depending on who you listen to) involved rejecting the idea that things have natures or essences. When you say, "Man is mortal," all the term 'man' really is is a label, a name (Lat: nomen) that you slap on to things that have a similar set of characteristics. It doesn't signify, as everyone thought before Ockham (or at least before Peter Abelard, who first broached any doubt on the subject), any such thing as a human nature or essence common to every man. Men are nothing more than those featherless bipeds that go around eating, drinking, building houses and office buildings, writing books, chattering to each other at restaurants, raising children and sending them to college, and saving for retirement. But they do not really share anything other than these, and a few other characteristics. There is nothing in their fundamental being that makes them men rather than something else.

This move by Ockham exemplifies the ontological problem with modern thought: the denial of formal cause. In his Physics and Metaphysics, Aristotle had laid out four "causes": four aspects of a thing that determined what a thing was. There were, he said, formal cause, material cause, efficient cause, and final cause. Formal cause was the ontological pattern of a thing: that aspect of a thing that makes the matter out of which a thing is made a man, or a horse, or a tree, or a piece of granite, and not something else. The material cause is simply that of which a thing is composed. The efficient cause is that which brings a thing about. And final cause is the purpose of a thing: what a thing is for.

But what Burtt and Collingwood and Willey and Whitehead also point out, and what is the other main point of Feser's book, is that, in addition to the rejection of formal cause by William of Ockham, modern thinkers also jettisoned final cause, leaving only material and efficient cause to keep each other company.

This second, or teleological move in modern thought--the rejection of final cause--was well-stated by Burtt:
Medieval philosophy, attempting to solve the ultimate why of events instead of their immediate how, and thus stressing the principle of final causality (for the answer to such a question could only be given in terms of purpose or use), had its appropriate conception of God. Here was the teleological hierarchy of the Aristotelian forms, all heading up in God or Pure Form, with man intermediate in reality and importance between him and the material world. The final why of events in the latter could be explained mainly in terms of their use to man; the final why of human activities in terms of the ultimate quest for union with God. Now, with the superstructure from man up banished from the primary realm, which for Galileo is identified with material atoms in their mathematical relations, the how of events being the sole objects of exact study, there had appeared no place for final causality whatsoever. The real world is simply a succession of atomic motions in mathematical continuity. Under these circumstances causality could only be intelligibly lodged in the motions of the atoms themselves, everything that happens being regarded as the effect solely of mathematical changes in these material elements. (The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, p. 98-99)
Final cause, requiescat in pace.

Someone might argue that Burtt is sympathetic the Aristotelian cause, as indeed are Willey, Collingwood, and Whitehead, although none were so bold as to come right out and say so--so tight has been the stranglehold of materialism on philosophy. But one of the most striking passages from Feser's book is a quote from W. T. Stace in an Atlantic Monthly article of 1948. Stace was one of the minor deities in philosophy when I was studying philosophy at the University of California at Santa Barbara in the early 1980s--a little earlier, I am guessing, than when Feser was there, a fact that makes what he says all the more powerful:
The real turning point between the medieval age of faith and the modern age of unfaith came when the scientists of the seventeenth century turned their backs upon what used to be called "final causes" ... [belief in which] was not the invention of Christianity [but] was basic to the whole of Western civilization, whether in the ancient pagan world or in Christendom, from the time of Socrates to the rise of science in the seventeenth century. ... They did this on the ground that inquiry into purposes is useless for what science aims at: namely, the predication and control of events. ... The conception of purpose in the world was ignored and frowned upon. This, though silent and almost unnoticed, was the greatest revolution in human history, far outweighing in importance any of the political revolutions whose thunder has reverberated through the world. ... The world, according to this new picture, is purposeless, senseless, meaningless. Nature is nothing but matter in motion. The motions of matter are governed not by any purpose, but by blind forces and laws. ... [But] if the scheme of things is purposeless and meaningless, then the life of man is purposeless and meaningless too. Everything is futile, all effort is in the end worthless. A man may, of course, still pursue disconnected ends, money, fame, art, science, and may gain pleasure from them. But his life is hollow at the center. Hence, the dissatisfied, restless, spirit of modern man. ... Along with the ruin of the religious vision there went the ruin of moral principles and indeed of all values. ... If our moral rules do not proceed from something outside us in the nature of the universe--whether we say it is God or simply the universe itself--then they must be our own inventions. Thus it came to be believed that moral rules must be merely an expression of our own likes and dislikes. But likes and dislikes are notoriously variable. What pleases one man, people or culture, displeases another. Therefore, morals are wholly relative. (quoted in The Last Superstition, pp. 225-226)
And Stace is not the only secular modern philosopher who understands the position materialism has placed modern man. Those with stronger dispositions might try reading Bertrand Russell's "A Free Man's Worship." Or try Nietzsche, Sartre, and a few other existentialists, who harbor none of the comforting illusions about the rational implications of the abandonment of the traditional Western metaphysics--unlike their more philosophically naive New Atheist brethren.

Feser's book not only contains a diagnosis--that modern thought labors mightily under the denial of formal and final causes, it also includes an excellent analysis of the symptoms brought about by this denial. In so doing, he provides a great illustration of Chesterton's assertion that a man must put the mysteries of reality, not what seem the obvious solutions, at the center of his philosophy.

In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton maintained that modern thought displays all the characteristics of madness. And it resulted, as he explained in another book (St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox), precisely from his refusal to start his thinking from the plain truths of Aristotelianism:
The man who begins to think without the proper first principles goes mad; he begins to think at the wrong end. ... But we may ask, ... if this be what drives men mad, what is it that keeps them sane? ... Mysticism keeps men sane. ... The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. ... The Christian ... puts the seed of dogma in the central darkness.

...Symbols alone are of even a cloudy value in speaking of this deep matter; and another symbol from physical nature will express sufficiently well the real place of mysticism before mankind. The one create thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility.
To Chesterton, a Thomist, Christianity is necessarily Aristotelian.

Rejecting mystery altogether, modern thought begins at the wrong starting point. It demands that thought must begin with those things that can be proved, and finds that, once this has been accomplished, it cannot prove anything. Feser, employing an equally apt metaphor, describes the predicament of modern thought as one in which modern thinkers have positioned themselves out on a limb, and are enthusiastically sawing it off--all the while congratulating themselves on their cleverness in doing so.

If you go into your laboratory, boil reality over a low flame, check out the results under a microscope and conclude that because you cannot detect formal and final causes, they must not be real, and then go on to construct your view of the world on that basis, you may think you have made a great contribution to the world. But all you have done is undercut the basis for reasoning about anything at all. And not only have you done that, you have created for yourself a whole slough of problems for yourself--and made the problems with which you may already have been faced insoluble.

In one of the best chapters of his book, "The Descent of the Modernists," Feser explains the various problems the practitioners of what he calls the "Mechanical Philosophy" have created for themselves: the knowledge problem, the mind/body problem, the problem of induction, the problem of free will, the problem of morality, the problem of causation. These were not "problems" under the Aristotelian world view; they only became problems when it was rejected. In fact, Feser makes the ironic point that modern thinkers need God even more than their Aristotelian predecessors, since that is the only way they can hold their worldviews together at all.

Feser makes the important point that Aristotelianism was never discredited; it simply went out of intellectual fashion: "Far from being a discovery, the rejection of the four causes was a sheer stipulation, an act of pure intellectual willfulness." Or, as Willey put it, "What we need to remember, however, is that we have to do here with a transference of interests rather than with the mere "exantlation" of new truth or the rejection of error."

Feser's critics have charged that the the book's occasional polemical flourishes weaken the whole book. These passages don't bother me, but they have perhaps offered too inviting a target for those who have obvious trouble understanding his arguments. But I wonder if these critics have the same problem with atheists like P. Z. Myers, whose prose is five parts polemic and one part attempted rational discourse.

And there is the issue of whether some of his audience will understand some of the more involved passages of the book. It is obviously intended for the intelligent layman. On this score, I think Feser does about the best that can be done in explaining concepts that would otherwise be difficult to the philosophically uninitiated by writing is clear prose and avoiding the unnecessary jargon that plagues his profession. The reader of the book will obviously get more out of it the more familiar he already is with some of the issues he addresses. But this is a clarifying book, and its clarifications will be appreciated by those who have been pondering these issues and just need someone to help put their finger on the underlying problems with modern thought.

Aristotle has been threatening to make a comeback for the last hundred years. When Whitehead wrote Science and the Modern World in 1925, there were some who thought that the jig was up with modern materialism. How could it withstand Whitehead's--onslaught--which was based on his own peculiar modern formulation of what, at bottom, was Aristotelianism? In The Idea of Nature, Collingwood clearly believed that Whitehead had struck a mortal blow. But, alas, Collingwood's confidence in the cultural power of sound reasoning was in vain. Something had to give: reason or scientific materialism. It is unfortunate that the former was subordinated to the latter.

It would far surpass the recklessness of Collingwood's judgment to say that Feser's book will succeed where Whitehead failed. Whitehead's stature in the intellectual world of the early 20th century was, after all, unassailable: He had co-authored, with Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica, the book that fired the philosophical shot heard round the world, and which gave birth to modern philosophy. No logician could pretend to that title without having at least a familiarity with the book's interminable symbolic formulas, all premised on the idea that meaningful language could be captured in a formal system--an assumption that still plays havoc on the subject through the continuing predominance of quantification theory in the field of logic.

I wonder if Feser studied under Francis Dauer at UCSB, as I did. Dauer was a student of Willard Van Orman Quine, by whose mischievous influence, which still haunts the study of logic in American universities, the Aristotelian assumptions of classical logic were simply ostracized from its study.

Professionally speaking, Feser is small potatoes compared with Whitehead, and given his explicit Aristotelian inclinations, he must necessarily occupy that outer darkness prepared by the academic establishment for Aristotle and his angels. But those of us who paint our faces and wander the outskirts of the intellectual world waiting for the Return of Reason can still take heart from a book like this.


Interstellar Bill said...

I agree that abandoning Aristotle's philosophy was a huge intellectual mistake from which we have yet to recover, but let's not forget that much of the motivation for rejecting him lies in his disastrous anti-experimental physics. Why didn't Aristotle simply do some of Galileo's simplest experiments before he propounded silly physics ideas off the top of his head? Where do you think Ptolemey got his disastrous perfection-of-circles ideas?

When brilliant people go wrong, their intellectual train wrecks become very hard to undo - viz. Marx and Freud. As one of the most brilliant minds ever, Aristotle's screw ups were even more damaging than theirs. Although he invented logic wholesale, his physics stank, alas. His unquestioned authority stopped science cold for the good part of two millenia. Only Einstein has done comparable damage, with his relativizing of nowness. Ironically, the arrogant Einstein's convoluted version of relativity predicts GPS would never work, so his camp-followers are still frantically hand-waving to cover that up. Only Aristotle himself did more damage to science, which leaves a bitter aftertaste that drives most scholars, myself included, away from the rest of his work. Although I'm looking forward to reading Feser in order to recover what is good in Aristotle, I would never consider reading the original, since I basically don't trust him as I do Feser.

TheOFloinn said...

What is often overlooked by postmoderns and moderns is that Aristotle's Physics was pretty good, given what was both known and knowable at the time. There is a reason why heliocentrism was not empirically established until the turn of the 1800s. Keep in mind that almost nothing other than extension and weight could even be measured, although the medieval Aristotelians developed the notion that things like color and sound and heat were measurable in principle. In similar wise, Theodoric of Fribourg gave the correct cause of the rainbow using experiments with water-filled glass spheres; and Jean Buridan be Bethune enunciated Newton's First Law of Motion, all from Aristotelian principles. (It was widely held by then that, since Aristotle had not been a god, he was subject to error.) It was Bradwardine, iirc, who demonstrated mathematically that Aristotle theory of motion as Force over Resistance led to contradictions.

Thomas M. Cothran said...


You haven't grasped the basic issues in Aristotle's Physics. I'd get a copy of the Sachs translation, as it has helpful explanatory notes concerning Aristotle's relation to modern physics. Aristotle's aims and approach work quite differently than those of modern, "mathematical" physics.

To say that Aristotle had little interest in experiments further belies an unfamiliarity with Aristotle. Aristotle valued observation very much, and even had a Darwin-like exploration around certain Mediterranean islands to study zoology.

Aristotle argues against mathematical physics not in terms of any deficiency of explanatory power, but in principle. Mathematical physics subtracts everything from bodies except for their extension, and then studies this quality in isolation. No problem arises so long as the physicist understands that he is working in an artificial way. But if he confuses his study with that of actual bodies (which are never mere extension), then he commits an obvious methodological error.

Out of this error arises the idea that the fundamental physical constituents are bits of extended matter to which all other qualities are added by the conscious subject. It's just bad phenomenology.

In any case, Aristotle's problematic in the Physics does not belong in modern science's positivism, but operates phenomenologically with a view towards explaining nature itself (in a way analytic philosophers would call, wrongly, metaphysical). The methods of modern science are of course quite useful, but insufficient in themselves as a holistic explanation of nature as we encounter it.

KyCobb said...


Lets see, mysticism is reason, science is madness, and Western Civilization has been in decline for nearly 700 years. Shouldn't you be writing with a quill pen instead of blogging?

Thomas M. Cothran said...

Aristotle's definition of motion (the main topic in the Physics) was not force over resistance; Aristotle defines motion as the entelechia of potentiality as such. The examples he sometimes uses of particular motion (where force and resistance come up) don't play a crucial role in his overall argument.

Martin Cothran said...


At least people who wrote with quill pens had the basic ability to understand what they were criticizing. Given that nothing you mentioned in your comment has any bearing on what I actually said, it might be a good idea to purchase one and see if it helps.

TomH said...

I really enjoyed your post. I would like to get your opinion on the Pearcey/Thaxton book, The Soul of Science. Have you read it? It investigates the interplay of the various philosophical threads in the history of science.

Thomas, didn't Nancy Cartwright say pretty much the same things that you said?

Martin Cothran said...


I have that book sitting here on my shelf, but have not read it. I generally mistrust writers like Pearcey because they take Francis Shaeffer's view of this issue which I think is mistaken. However, I do note that the index indicates she (and/or her coauthor) have read all the right books.

Your post has prompted me to read it. Thanks.

Thomas M. Cothran said...


I've never read Nancy Cartwright, so I'm not sure. Judging by her wikipedia page, it might be similar. Anything by her you would suggest?