Friday, December 21, 2012

My Review of Edward Feser's work The Last Superstition (Abbreviated)

Firstly, I would like to thank Dr. Feser for producing a work that effectively (for the most part) dismantles the fragile straw house of ideas that has been constructed by the so-called "new atheists" (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens). Feser employs wit, mental acuity and reason to refute the claims made by Dawkins and company. I have enjoyed reading his work, although like any other book, it has strong points and weaknesses. In reviewing this publication, I have pointed out what I perceive to be strengths or weaknesses.

1. The discussion on nominalism versus realism (theory of universals) was one of the best parts of Feser's book. While I do not agree with his depiction of nominalism in toto, I believe that the discussion is relatively simple. The author's illustration of realism which involves the example of a rubber ball was excellent. Since I teach undergraduates, I really appreciated his approach and how it helps one to understand the Aristotelian or Platonic claims regarding universals. See pages 57-62 for Feser's treatment of Aristotelian hylomorphism along with a discussion of both moderate and extreme realism.

2. Feser also critiques the Humean "attack" on causation/causality (pages 105-110). David Hume (1711-1776) argues that he is able to conceive a thing (a bowling ball, for example) coming into existence without a cause. However, Feser addresses this "argument" by noting that Hume is conflating or confusing the verb "conceive" with the verb "imagine." But the two actions delineated by the respective verbs "conceive" and "imagine" clearly are not the same acts. It is conceptually possible to grasp the concept of a "chiliagon" (a thousand-sided figure) but that does not mean it is conceptually possible to form a distinct mental image of a chiliagon. Hume's argument suggests that he fails to understand this important distinction.

3. The Last Superstition continuously exploits the notion of Aristotelian final causality. The final cause is the telos (i.e. end, result, goal, function or purpose) of a thing. One might say that an oak tree is the final cause of an acorn or that the final cause of a human embryo is a full grown adult. Aristotle believed that most everything in our natural world has a final cause: trees, humans, animals, and artificial objects all have a telos. Thomas Aquinas thus used Aristotle's thought on causes to build a case for the existence of God via unaided natural reason. See pages 114-119 of Feser's work.

4. Having mentioned some positive things about Feser's work, please allow me to include some critical feedback in this portion of my review. Feser has a wry sense of humor. Sometimes his jokes hit the mark and sometimes they do not. There are paragraphs in this book wherein the sarcasm and cockiness just drips like water. Some of the remarks are indeed amusing. Moreover, Dawkins and company probably deserve the sarcasm directed at them. Nevertheless, I would have loved to see less sarcasm, less of a smart-alecky tone and more seriousness pertaining to the task at hand.

5. Feser might also have stayed on task a little more rather than being diverted by political issues or didactic moralizing about contemporary moral topics. The arguments that he makes, for example, against abortion do not contribute directly to his general thesis, although I concur with his take on the issue.

6. Finally, Feser responds to the new atheists on the subject of mind. He contends that universals must exist and if they do in fact exist, then our thoughts about triangularity or squareness (two universals) must be immaterial. After making these observations, Feser maintains that neuroscientific findings cannot rightly be used to refute this Aristotelian and Thomist concept since Aquinas is not doing science (understood in the modern sense of the word) but metaphysics when he insists that universals especially qua concepts and the mind cannot be material things. I do not agree when Feser says that the findings of neuroscience (for instance) should not count against Aristotelian metaphysical demonstrations. Nor does it seem that one must construe mental concepts as immaterial, based on what neuroscience and reflections from modern philosophy of mind have yielded. The findings of neuroscience (like other forms of human knowledge) are provisional. But accounts regarding consciousness being a higher-level brain process have already been developed by philosophers and neuroscientists.


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