Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Book Notes: The Last Superstition
I read Edward Feser's excellent book a few months back, and rather than write a comprehensive book review in one post (which, given my schedule, would never happen before Ed was officially retired) I'd like instead to pick out one section of the book that struck me (and bearing in mind my background in philosophy is decidedly limited).

Feser's purpose in the book--and its major strength--is to look back over the evolution of philosophy in the West first, from the Greeks down to the present day, in order to more comprehensively explain a. where the new atheism derived from and b. why it fails.

In a sense, Feser had a predecessor in Etienne Gilson, whose Unity of Philosophical Experience also covered the evolution (or more accurately devolution) of modern philosophy from its classical roots.

But Feser's book, apart from being more up to date, is also more polemical. It's aimed at deconstructing the main arguments of the new atheists precisely by critically examining the sources of their arguments and venting a little healthy ridicule into the bargain.

Hume has long been something of a patron saint of atheists and materialists, because of his skepticism over the principle of causality. Visit any atheist blog and sooner or later the poster or one of his readers resorts to Hume the way Christian apologists resort to St. Paul.

I haven't read Hume in any great detail (or if I had to at some point for one of my courses in college, it's been so long I don't remember). But it always struck me as odd that many scientists were such admirers of his, since, to my mind the one thing Hume's critique of causality seemed to call into question is the very principle without which good science cannot be done in the first place.

But this seems to be one of the crippling presuppositions of modern materialists. To preface his argument about Hume, Feser pulls an excellent quote from E. A. Burtt's Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (still staring at me from one of my book shelves where it has sat since I bought it used, probably at Macintyre and Moore's or Harvard Book Store).

...even the attempt to escape metaphysics is no sooner put in the form of a proposition than it is seen to involve highly significant metaphysical postulates. For this reason there is an exceedingly subtle and insidious danger in positivism. If you cannot avoid metaphysics, what kind of metaphysics are you likely to cherish when you sturdily suppose yourself to be free from the abomination? (pp.228-229)

Your metaphysics will be held uncritically, Burtt adds, and any glance at the posts of bloggers like Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers, etc. will be enough to demonstrate this. (See Brandon Watson's excellent deconstruction of Coyne's presuppositions here, as an example.)

Feser goes right after the source of this metaphysical confusion by revisiting Hume, who famously attacked the principle of causality as his major argument against God as the primary Cause of all. (It's on page 40 of this edition of his Treatise of Human Nature.) As Feser summarizes, Hume claimed,
...that we can easily 'conceive' a thing coming into being without a cause, so that the principle is at the very least doubtful. What he has in mind is something like this. Imagine the surface of a table with nothing on it. Now imagine a bowling ball appearing--pop!--in the middle of it, 'out of nowhere' as it were. There, you've just conceived of something coming into being without a cause, right? (p. 105)
The conflation of conceiving something with imagining something should be an elementary philosophical mistake I should think, but apparently it's one that has escaped many atheists. As Feser points out, any math teacher can help you with the conception of a chiliagon, but I defy you to imagine the thousand-sided sucker at the same time. Your mind just can't do it. Any more than it can imagine more than three dimensions of space. Yet, as mathematical physicists interested in string theory have shown, we can coherently conceive of multiple dimensions. The intellect and the imagination are not the same thing, yet Hume's basic confusion of the two has become a basic talking point of those hostile to the principle of causality.

Of course, as Feser writes, even granting Humeans the right to imagine something appearing suddenly isn't even to imagine it coming into existence without a cause. No astronomer in his right mind, confronted with the appearance of something out of the ordinary, like for example the 1967 radio waves coming from the pulsar in the Crab Nebula, would just shrug it off Hume-ishly as uncaused and get back to his programming routine. No, she (and it was a she) began searching doggedly for the cause.

This is just one example of Feser's critique of the fathers of modern philosophy. It doesn't begin to touch on his excellent overview of Aristotle in the opening chapters and the development of medieval philosophy. But I highly recommend getting the book.

Note: some critics (in particular more than a few of the whinier reviewers at Amazon) take issue with Feser's tone. For myself, I found the sarcastic asides hit or miss. Sometimes they cracked me up, other times they seemed forced. Knowing a bit about writing and publishing, it would not surprise me if the tone of the book was encouraged by editorial and marketing, and may not have been part of the author's initial approach. But I would urge prospective readers not to be put off by this.

If Richard Dawkins can resort to ridicule in order to shore up the morale of his closeted hordes, why can't those who oppose him do the same for theirs?

1 comment:

torrant said...

Thanks for this review. I bought Feser's book a few months ago and am still trying to get to it. I really enjoyed his work on Locke so I am planning to read "The Last Superstition" this summer.

I've had Burtt's "Metaphysical Foundations" book since 1976 and have only read a page here or there when referenced elsewhere. Now I have to go back and read that section that Feser quotes from. I especially found this quote from Burtt apropos. "But inasmuch as the posivist mind has failed to school itself in careful metaphysical thinking, its ventures at such points will be apt to appear pitiful, inadequate, or even fantastic." bottom of p. 229.

Burtt calls Newton a positivist. If Newton is a positivist then the new atheists must be ultra-positivists. Certainly, they fall into the same philosophical errors. They certainly exemplify the folly of scientists trying to do philosophy without studying it first.

I am now more than ever ready for "The Last Superstition".