So I bought Edward Feser’s Aquinas (a non-review)

Recently, Edward Feser wrote a long blog post calling Jerry Coyne “unserious” and telling Coyne to read Feser’s book Aquinas. This prompted me to go buy Feser’s book off Amazon, but after my initial look at it, I don’t think I’ll be finishing it.

The few sections I’ve read basically try to show that certain objections to Aquinas’ views (including the assumptions that support Aquinas’ Five Ways) fail. Certainly if you’re enthusiastic about Aquinas, that’s going to interest you.

But showing that objections to a view fail is different than showing the view is correct, and as far as I can tell Feser isn’t even trying to do the second thing, at least in the bits of Aquinas I’ve read. That means that, personally, I don’t find the book very interesting, and I suspect most readers of this blog wouldn’t be terribly interested in a detailed critique (but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about that.)

On its own, this is a fairly mild criticism of Aquinas. It doesn’t show Feser is wrong to care about the stuff he talks about in the book. Where his writing gets ridiculous, though, is in his attacks on people who don’t care so much about Aquinas. (Exhibit A: the “brutal fact” that Keith Parsons’ work focused on people like Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga.) Because he doesn’t even try to show Aquinas was right, Feser can’t expect atheists to be very interested in his book.

I could say more about this, but I’d basically be repeating stuff I’ve said here and here. I’ll finish just by mentioning that this is the second time in recent memory that I bought a book because I heard a theist say that as an atheist, I absolutely had to read it, and then found the book didn’t look like it had any arguments that both (1) pertained to something important and (2) were new to me (the first time this happened was with Mike Licona’s book on the resurrection).

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9 Comments.

  1. Chris,

    I must say that your comments baffle me. I spend a long chapter of the book (chapter 2) explaining and defending the general Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical picture of the world. That is, I argue that we have good reason to think that that picture is true. Then I spend a second long chapter (chapter 3) explaining how the Five Ways show that, given those background metaphysical theses, the existence of God follows. And yes, I respond to various misunderstandings of the arguments, but the point of that is to show that the standard attempts to block the theistic conclusion all fail.

    Now that sounds to me like “trying to show Aquinas was right” and like an attempt to “show the view is correct.”

    I know you’ve admitted to not reading the whole book, but jeez, how much did you read? The back cover, maybe? Obviously not enough to give a credible representation of what’s actually in it. Trying to justify the adjective in your blog’s title, perhaps?

  2. I haven’t read the book and don’t intend to, but if the link to Feser’s blog postings is any indication, this is a pretty obvious case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. “You can’t appreciate the arguments unless you read Aquinas, and Anselm, and Plato, and Aristotle…” And how do we know that you’ve read enough Aquinas, and Anselm, and Plato and Aristotle? Well, because you appreciate the arguments. Still don’t seem convincing? Go back and read some more!

    We’re not arguing about the spin of a subatomic particle here. We’re arguing about the existence of an omnipresent all-powerful superbeing who is supposed to be intimately connected to the lives of every human being on earth. If that can’t be shown without logic-chopping and philosophical gobbledegook about Subsistent Beings and meaningless distinctions between act and potency and the like, then clearly that counts as an epic fail.

    It’s as if we were arguing about whether a particular skyscraper existed, and Feser was urging us to tilt our heads a little to one side and squint ever so slightly, and then we might see it…

  3. Chris Hallquist

    @Edward,

    I’ve read the first four parts of chapter 2 (i.e. pp. 8-23), and what I see is lots of exposition of the metaphysics, with a fair amount of examples and responses to objections. The closest thing I can find to an argument is in the middle paragraph of p. 18 where you say:

    “unless a cause were inherently directed towards a certain effect or range of effects, that is to say, unless that effect or range of effects were the cause’s own final cause – there would be no reason why it should bring about just that effect or effects.”

    I can see how this would be a premise in an argument for final causation–but even understanding that, I don’t see a clear reason to think the premise is true.

    At first, I thought maybe the structure of the chapter would be exposition/argument in favor, but based on a quick skim ahead that doesn’t seem to be true.

    I think maybe you think the AT metaphysical picture is just obviously true, so that just explaining the view makes for a sort of argument for it. But I don’t find the AT metaphysical picture so obviously true.

  4. This may be a dumb question, but… is it even possible to give reasons for believing in Aristotelian metaphysics? Aren’t we dealing with broadly unfalsifiable, fantastical assertions about invisible, undetectable properties of the universe? If I wanted to investigate whether this stuff was true, what would I even do? Examine my navel?

  5. Edward Feser says:

    “I spend a long chapter of the book (chapter 2) explaining and defending the general Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical picture of the world. That is, I argue that we have good reason to think that that picture is true.”

    If that is accurate, then that is quite a departure from the strategy in The Last Superstition. In that book, he spends a hundred pages or so describing the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle, but never actually argues that this metaphysics is true.

    He then cherry picks from that metaphysics the premises to support his “demonstrations” that God exists.

    It’s a subtle bait and switch I have not seen pointed out.

  6. Chris Hallquist

    @Rob: I’ve read The Last Superstition, and the way it’s written is very similar to Aquinas. So thanks for the comment; it confirms my impression of both books.

  7. Patrick wrote:
    >This may be a dumb question, but… is it even possible to give reasons for believing in Aristotelian metaphysics? Aren’t we dealing with broadly unfalsifiable, fantastical assertions about invisible, undetectable properties of the universe? If I wanted to investigate whether this stuff was true, what would I even do?

    Well, not a dumb question, but it’s not quite as bad as you suggest.

    Suppose I want to verify the hypothesis that the properties and behavior of a plant are solely due to the atoms that make up the plant and how those atoms are hooked together. There is no simple, single experiment I can do that confirms that hypothesis. On the other hand, all of the work in cell biology, biochemistry, molecular biology, etc. over the last century is consistent with that hypothesis, and none is inconsistent with that hypothesis. By now, I think almost scientists (my Ph.D. is in physics, my wife’s in biology) think that this hypothesis is true: a plant just is all the atoms that make it up in the arrangement in which the atoms are arranged. No “vital force,” no “soul,” etc.

    A similar point can be made about the Big Bang hypothesis, evolution, special relativity, etc.: no single “killer argument” that proves they are true, but huge amounts of data that fit very nicely with those hypotheses and none that fail to fit.

    Aristotle set forth a framework for thinking in terms of matter/form, the different forms of causality, etc. that, at the time, seemed a plausible way to explain reality. However, it turned out that it was not the Aristotelian framework but the mechanistic/empirical framework that ended up succeeding in science. Anyone who is literate in science can read Ed’s books and see that his attempts to fit science into the Aristotelian framework fail (and, no, Ed, I do not intend to go into the details here: anyone who is scientifically literate can read the books themselves and see).

    I don’t know of many scientists who find the Aristotelian framework to be compelling: empirical reality has taken us elsewhere. But, of course, neo-Thomists/neo-Aristotelians such as Ed are driven by motives other than a deep interest in science.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  8. Rob wrote:
    > If that is accurate, then that is quite a departure from the strategy in The Last Superstition. In that book, he [Ed Feser] spends a hundred pages or so describing the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle, but never actually argues that this metaphysics is true.

    Rob, I don’t think that is quite fair: in “The Last Superstition,” Ed does give a number of examples from science that he thinks confirm, or at least illustrate, neo-Aristotelian metaphysics. Unfortunately, he repeatedly gets the science wrong.

    If Jim Bonner or Steve Hawking concluded that neo-Aristotelianism was truly the correct picture of reality, and gave scientifically accurate examples to demonstrate that, a lot of us would probably take them seriously.

    But Ed is no Jim Bonner or Steve Hawking!

    Dave

  9. Chris, could you do a blog post about the Mike Licona book?