Friday, March 2, 2012
Levering on TLS
Esteemed theologian Matthew Levering kindly reviews The Last Superstition in The Thomist. From the review:
In the preface to this marvelous book, Feser makes clear that he is seeking to reach a general audience with a simple thesis: the modern rejection of Aristotelian philosophy was a grave mistake whose consequences continue to escalate…
His account of the rise of mechanistic modern philosophy—the rejection of formal and final causality (and thus also of efficient causality linked with final causality)—is a tour de force…
[The book] subjects to a withering and wonderful critique the view that modern science has outmoded formal and final causality.
[T]his book places Feser at the forefront of contemporary philosophy. The author of books on Locke, philosophy of mind, and Aquinas that are notable for their clarity and largely neutral tone, he adopts a combative tone here in hopes of getting his bold message out to a popular audience. It is the message, however, that truly captures the attention. Could it be that the anti-Aristotelian emperor has no clothes? With a brilliant grasp of the salient points of ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary philosophy, and with clear and lively prose, Feser argues that it is so. Given faith’s urgent need for its preambles, his arrival on the scene is a cause for rejoicing.
Very kind! But Levering also offers some important criticisms. Regarding the book’s traditional natural law approach to sexual morality, Levering suggests that “the appeal to the teleology of the bodily organs could be more strongly joined to appeal to human teleology as a whole.” He is right, and a more thorough, book-length treatment of the subject (which I will get to someday) would devote greater attention to the psychological and social aspects of sex than I was able to give them in TLS. But I have said something about these matters in a couple of recent posts (here and here).
Levering also has some criticism of my treatment of the relationship between faith and reason:
It seems to me that Feser overestimates the claims of reason with respect to faith. Reason has a role that should not be neglected (one thinks of N. T. Wright’s valuable defense of the historicity of the Resurrection), but reason cannot by itself attain to the certitude that would compel our assent to God revealing and to what is revealed.
More nuance is also needed when Feser writes, “Establish that the resurrection really occurred, and you will have proven that Christianity is true” (161). This phrase… suggests that faith’s knowledge can be rationally proven…
Now, I certainly agree that reason can neither directly arrive at nor fully understand those truths that are available only via divine revelation, and that a complete treatment of the relationship between faith and reason would have to take account of the crucial role played by grace. On the other hand, I would deny that grace has anything to do with an irrational “leap of faith” or “will to believe” something for which there is insufficient evidence. And as I argued in a section on faith and reason in a recent post on original sin, Catholic theology also denies this. I hasten to emphasize that Levering would not necessarily disagree, and he is right to suggest that what I wrote in TLS is not the whole story. But the aim of the part of the book in question was merely to make it clear that there is nothing contrary to reason in faith properly understood, not to provide a complete treatment of the complex theology of grace (which would have been out of place in a book on natural theology).
Finally, Levering writes:
Feser’s discussion of the problem of evil also strikes me as insufficiently attuned to potential difficulties. He states that “since human beings have immortal souls, so that our lives in the here-and-now are but a trivial blink of the eye compared to the eternity we are to enter, there is no limit to the good result that might be made in the next life out of even the worst evils we suffer in this one” (162). I certainly agree, but the problem of evil goes deeper than he seems to recognize, because God does not need evil to accomplish good.
This is an important point. Like other Scholastics, I would reject Leibniz’s idea that God has to create the best of all possible worlds, so that the evil that actually exists must have been necessary. God could have instead created a very different world from the one He has created, including one devoid of evil. Still, it does not follow that there are no goods that could be achieved only by allowing some evil. And it does not follow that any of the evil that God does in fact allow is evil that He does not draw a greater good out of -- especially given that, as I have argued in an earlier post, He cannot fail to will what is good for us. My point in the book was that there is nothing in the evil that actually exists that is in any way inconsistent with the existence or perfect goodness of God. I was not attempting to provide a complete account of why God allows the specific evils that exist in the world He has created. (In the language of recent literature on the problem of evil, I was for the most part providing a “defense” rather than a “theodicy.”)