Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Change you can believe in

No, I don’t mean that nonsense. I mean something I came across while doing some vanity Googling. Here is an atheist blogger who appears to have changed his mind as a result of reading The Last Superstition. (See also here and here.) He writes:

I suppose I'm going to have to call myself a theist now. Having worked through most of Feser's book I don't see any way around it. If his argument for the Aristotelian/Thomistic theory of causation is true -- and it seems airtight -- then some kind of God (the Unmoved Mover) is logically necessary.

Now that is change you can believe in. Unless he changes his mind again after rereading the book and discovering the crucial fallacy I carefully embedded in footnote 35 of chapter 6. Before he does, though, discover the life-changing potential of The Last Superstition for yourself. Reserve your own copy here.


  1. Congratulations, Professor Feser. It is a truly remarkable book and I'm not surprised that it produced this kind of transformation. I couldn't help but notice however the following:

    "Note that the Unmoved Mover is not necessarily the Christian God, or any god whose existence depends on revelation. I still think those gods, and the organized religions that flow from them, are a bunch of hooey. Feser's arguments for what amounts to the Christian God are based on Aristotle's definitions of "man" and "the Good," and accepting his metaphysics doesn't entail accepting those definitions (although I'm sure he'd say it does, and maybe I missed it. I get the feeling I'll be rereading The Last Superstition a few times)."

    It's the same case with Anthony Flew: as you say he read Conway's book on Aristotle's arguments, but he insisted that Aristotle's God was not the God of Christianity.

    Now it may be that for Christians your syllogism (Aristotle's God and the Christian God must be the same, since there is only one God) is persuasive, but for nonbelievers it seems like there's more work to be done to bring people to belief in the Christian God.

  2. JD Walters,

    I'm a fan of Ed's book, and I'd agree entirely. On the other hand, any God that can be shown to exist, or shown likely / reasonable to exist, is still a God atheists can't accept. Even St Paul seemed to believe that the recognition of God even in the most basic deistic sense was an important starting point. (I'm thinking of a couple places, but in particular Paul's reference to the altar of the Unknown God.)

  3. Hello JD and Anon,

    Yes, I don't claim to establish Christianity per se in the book -- not because I don't think it can be done (I do think it can be) but because that would take a book of its own. The space I needed to lay out all the necessary philosophical background required limiting the book's scope.

    Still, if the argument of the book succeeds, it does get us to a God who is intimately connected to the world at every point and at every instant (rather than a deistic God), who directly creates every human soul, who (given the soul's natural immortality) evidently creates these souls for an eternal destiny, who established a natural law for us to follow, etc. So we'll already have established a system that has real practical religious impact.

    Moreover, not all religions are equally compatible with the philosophical conclusions reached in the book (e.g. Eastern religions are not, and I would argue that Islam's conception of God's relation to the world is too "occasionalist" -- to allude to a metaphysics most famously associated with Malebranche -- to be consistent with them). But again, that's a whole other book's worth of argument.

  4. "not all religions are equally compatible with the philosophical conclusions reached in the book (e.g. Eastern religions are not)"

    A quibble. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you are saying that Eastern religions are not compatible with TLS's conclusions because they are polytheistic. Actually, in the case of Hinduism at least, my opinion is that this is not true - Hinduism is not really polytheistic, regardless of appearances. All of their many gods and goddesses are actually regarded by them as either demi-gods (creatures of a different order from humans, like angels), or simply as manifestations of the one God (Brahman). That there is really only one true God is a message that is endlessly repeated in their sacred scriptures, especially the Upanishads.

    So rather than rule out Hinduism based on its supposed polytheism, I would use the same sort of argument against it that you used in your book against Islamic claims. The Hindus' sacred scriptures, the Vedas (which includes the Upanishads), are claimed by them to be divine revelation. As with the Koran, what evidence is there to support such a claim beyond their word that it is so, or that their scriptures are beautiful or profound or whatever? None, so far as I can see. There is no test for the credibility of these claims to divine revelation as there is in the case of Christianity (the historical evidence for the Resurrection).

    As regards other Eastern religions, however, your statement bears more weight. Buddhist beliefs, for example, are clearly ruled out by the arguments in TLS. I know less about the far-Eastern traditions, and so won't comment on them.

  5. Hi Warren, what I had in mind was not polytheism, but rather pantheism.

  6. Ah! Well then, to quote Emily Latella.... "Never mind." :-)

  7. Prof. Feser,

    thanks for the link and the kind comments. Obviously I found your book a great read (though I haven't finished yet, or reached the carefully embedded exception in Ch. 6). I just wanted to warn folks, though, that I'm not "an atheist blogger" - the whole point of my site is for my friends to keep up with me while I'm on a long trip to India, so there won't be much (if anything) more on that topic....

    Still, thanks again for a wonderful book - you've certainly given me a lot to think about.

  8. If memory serves CS Lewis' choice when converting (or reverting) came down to either Christianity or Hinduism.

  9. Hi Brian, I'm sorry if I gave anyone a false impression. All I meant is that you were a blogger who (judging from some of your remarks) happened to be an atheist -- not that you were regularly blogging about atheism per se. Anyway, many thanks for your very kind remarks about my book. Hope you're enjoying your India trip -- I envy you!

    PS Just to break the suspense for those who don't have the book, the "fallacious" footnote in ch. 6 says... "Ibid." My idea of a joke.

  10. Aristotle's God was not the God of Christianity.

    Das stimmt! Aristotle's Primum Mobile more like Zeus, however scary that might be to papists: a pagan god of the Roman Empire. See, the catholic wise guys realized early on the old hebrew text lacked a certain oomph: so like bring in Maestro Aristotle, player-coach to Team Macedonia, see. For the aristotelian ethos, read like Marcus Aurelius--who didn't think too highly of xtians (thumbs down).

  11. HL,

    Correct. CS Lewis always maintained that when it came to religions, Hinduism and Christianity were (I'm paraphrasing from memory) "the only two live options for an adult mind". Dom Bede Griffiths - the Catholic Benedictine monk who spent most of his life in India and called Hinduism "the other half of my soul" - was a student and lifelong friend of Lewis. So that's probably where Lewis' high estimation of Hindu thought came from.

  12. My comment may have been lost in the rather huge (55 comment) thread before, but I am eagerly awaiting your book, as a backwards third cousin "quasi-Randian" admirer of Aristotle.

    I took an entire course in Aristotle from a sympathetic instructor back home, but I can't remember the "unmoved mover" argument. I will wait for the book to arrive to assess what you mean by it, but here's a clip from JD's review:

    "To take just one example (grossly oversimplified), it is inevitable that the universe have a First Cause that is itself uncaused because of the distinction between essence and existence: we can know what the essence of a rational animal is in terms of the capacity to speak, imagine, etc. without knowing whether any rational animals actually exist. As it turns out all objects we have experience of in the material world are only contingently existent, which is obvious from the fact that things like trees, rocks and even planets and stars are constantly popping in and out of existence. Thus there must be some necessarily existing being to make all these potentially existent beings actually existent. "

    Is this quoted part similar to the Leibniz cosmological argument?


  13. Hi Darrin, no, despite a surface similarity, it is very different from Leibniz's argument. How? The short answer is that it rests on a broadly Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics rather than on the Principle of Sufficient Reason (as rationalist philosophers understand that principle, anyway).

  14. Principle of Sufficient reason, or cosmological-causal--about equivalent, and neither necessary proofs, but really analogies made to appear like necessary arguments (see Kant's first antinomy for hints): the idea that contingent things (ie if the world is really "contingent") must have been brought into existence by a necessarily existing Being is itself not a necessary argument.

    Leibniz doesn't have the papist "juice" that the old standby's Ari and Aquinas do, however--got to give him a few centuries.

  15. And so Perezoso demonstrates he has yet to actually read Feser's book.

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  18. Some of us actually read Aristotle's Metaphysics back in the day. Let's ask Doc Feser to defend the classical view of "substance": maybe have a few professors from the chemistry department attend the interrogation as well. Or defend any a priori forms, ideas, or causes, including the teleological cause. Or defend "necessity."

    Let's not forget Aristotle had no idea of modern atomism, or the periodic table, or Copernicus, or of Newtonian mechanics. Matter's a bit more complex than Ari. knew (and for that matter, Aristotle was an early biologist, and sort of doctor, as much as he was metaphysician). The greeks also did not understand statistics, or probability in any depth.

    While I am not a churchie, or pro-theologian I am of the opinion that hylomorphism (at least via Aristotle) rates as a type of pagan naturalism; in terms of modern philosophy closer to a Hegelian view than either empiricism or rationalism (and again, Kant's first antinomy offers convincing reasons why the supposed "necessitarian" arguments based on first cause, are not necessary--finitude and infinity themselves conditions of experience---and the question really beyond limits of reason (though Hawking might have some ideas on it).

    That said, I might purchase the book: pagan lit. does not lack a certain mysterious power.

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  20. That's an awful lot of posturing built up before "no, I did not read the book." Thank you for making as much clear, but then again, it was clear to begin with. ;)

  21. Posturing? Nyet. Rregardless of the tradition of...Rich Cordorban Leather, Aristotle was no christian, first off. Why do some theologians (mostly conservative) continue to use the right-wing, stoic-militarist, and empiricist Aristotle to support Christianity? never underestimate Ad auctoritas.

    anyone who relies upon rather ancient chestnuts of Aristotle to prop up any idea (even the supposed existence of G*d) should be prepared to defend those chestnuts against those upstarts who understand copernicus, gallieo, newton, kant, hume, einstein, etc

    here's a good un' from Hume: ""no ideas without antecedent impressions"". Even the Aristotelian "necessitarian" must deal with that epistemological point--tho' it's a bit difficult to refute, so a bit easier to just like invoke final causes, immaterial forms, a priori whatever etc.

  22. Yes, yes. Buy and read the book, P-chan. As it stands, you're just proving to everyone you not only haven't read it, but you have no clue what it's really about as well. ;)

  23. You have no clue. For one, Aristotle's metaphysics are like a bit ancient, aren't they (holy ptolemaic spheres, batman). Ari. didn't bother with epistemology, for one: he doesn't justify say a "priori-city", even in terms of his own categories, or syllogistic (then most theologians won't, since they can't: and knowledge from experience destroys the system) .

    Wow, Ari refuted in a paragraph (and really, Quine more or less suggests the same sort of refutation). Lacking any good grounds for "a prioricity", all metaphysical claims are suspect........

  24. Perezoso refuted all with name- and concept-dropping, as well as a kind of I-can't-deign-to-analyze-your-actual-argument-attitude.