Smiting the Philistines

I just finished reading Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. In spite of its title, the book is less a discussion of the “New Atheism” (Dawkins, Dennett, et. al.) than a wonderfully clear overview of Thomism. As such, it emphasises its response to the insights and inadequacies of previous systems, its close relationship to common sense as well as Christian doctrine, and the rational necessity of its basic positions—and therefore, the author argues, of its conclusions and the traditional Christian outlook on the world in general. The polemic style, and the sharp criticism and jibes at modern thought (and its self-demolition at the hands of Feser’s targets) mostly serve to motivate and add zip to the presentation of Thomism. There’s not enough in the New Atheism itself to provide much to comment on.

For me the most helpful part of the book was the discussion of final cause. My usual complaint about the way people think today when they’re trying to be intelligent is that it’s too analytical and can’t deal with functional patterns (e.g., those related to family life—masculinity, femininity, marriage, chastity, and so on). The results include oddities like “gay marriage” and contemporary feminism. It turns out though that “final cause” in Thomism doesn’t mean “conscious goal” but is a much broader principle that can deal with any sequence of functional states. So talking about a functional pattern is the same as talking about a form together with its corresponding finality. All this time I’ve been talking Thomism.

Based on the kind of arguments he presents the author views something like traditional Christianity as a clear rational necessity. If you don’t accept it you don’t understand the argument, or you’re unwilling for extraneous reasons to follow it where it goes. On such a view faith, at least for an educated man, becomes the habit of standing by views that are demonstrably correct in the face of nonrational temptations to abandon them.

I can’t help but think there’s more to it than that. At the end of his life Saint Thomas referred to his theological and philosophical writings as so much “straw.” It seems we should take him at his word, at least on some (no doubt very high) level. It’s not clear how much can be viewed as truly demonstrable when demonstrations depend on concepts regarding very general matters that may be—and in my view very likely are—inadequate and confused in some way. For that and other reasons faith can’t be simply ancillary. In addition to demonstration we also need Anselm’s credo ut intelligam, Pascal’s esprit de finesse, and Newman’s illative sense, to tell us how to operate when demonstration falls short.

UPDATE: Dr. Feser clarifies a couple of points I had made obscure through loose speaking. To add my own clarifications:

  1. When I said he thought the arguments in his book demonstrated “something like traditional Christianity” and “the traditional Christian outlook on the world in general” I didn’t mean he thought they demonstrated Christianity itself, only that he thought they demonstrated basic claims that notoriously distinguish Christianity from modern secular thought, such as God, immortality, and basic Christian morality.
  2. When I said I seemed to have a broader conception of faith than he does I didn’t really mean (although it sounded like I was saying) he thought everything could be demonstrated directly by philosophical argument. I meant that even when direct demonstration is possible I think faith is needed because the demonstration may not be as good as we think: there may be some hidden problem with the concepts on which it relies or the situation in which we are applying it. So even if we have definitions and syllogisms we still need Anselm, Pascal and Newman, not to mention God’s grace.

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