Some readers may recall that a couple of years ago, I made fun of a press release issued by the publishers of a book by Edward Feser that had the title Five Proofs of the Existence of God and claimed that “the existence of God can be established with certainty by way of purely rational arguments” (my italics). The point of my brief post was that life was too short to read yet another book claiming to prove the existence of any god since there have been so many failed past attempts. I said that if someone had actually come up with an irrefutable proof, that would be be earth-shattering news and reported all over the media and so I would wait and see if that a happened before wading through yet another theological treatise.
I had not heard of Feser before that episode and it appears that he is a prolific writer on theological matters, churning out books and blog posts. I used to read a lot of theology and philosophy in the days when I was a religious believer but that was way back in the 1980s and earlier. After I stopped believing and became a materialist who required affirmative evidence to believes in the existence of anything, I felt that any attempt to prove the existence of any god by intellectual arguments alone sans evidence, which is what this type of theology tries to do, was a waste of time and so stopped reading in that field. The only current theologians I had even heard of were Alvin Platinga and Willam Lane Craig both of whom lean heavily on the so-called ontological argument for god’s existence which I do not find convincing at all. (By the way, what happened to Craig? At one time he was all over the place debating the existence of god but he seems to have disappeared.)
So my knowledge of theological writers is admittedly somewhat dated. I did read a book a few months ago that was sent to me by a friend because it had belonged to her father and she thought it might interest me. It is a slim volume titled How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th-Century Pagan by Mortimer J. Adler. (Although I had lost interest in such topics, when friends take the trouble to give me books that they think I will like, I make an effort to read them.)
Adler starts out by showing why all the earlier proofs for god’s existence are flawed and then proposes what he thinks is a superior one that is consistent with modern science. He does not invoke the creation of the universe as an argument for a god and thus foregoes the ‘prime mover’ argument. He concedes the possibility that the universe might have always existed and need not have been brought into existence at any given instant. Instead he tries to show that it is the continued existence of the universe that requires the existence of a deity. His god is a generic one and he does not come down in favor of any particular religious tradition, nor does he seek to base his arguments on any empirical evidence other than the self-evident one that the universe exists. The book was an easy read because Alder writes well. But it was unconvincing,
A few weeks ago I received the manuscript of a book THE UNNECESSARY SCIENCE: A critical analysis of natural law theory by Gunther Laird who had seen my blog post about Feser and thought I might be interested in reviewing it. As the subtitle indicates, this book is a critique of what is known in theological circles as ‘natural law theory’. ‘Natural law’ is not about the laws of science but instead is about establishing the moral and ethical bases that should govern our lives. The basis of this was furnished by Aristotle and then formulated in the context of Catholicism by Thomas Aquinas. Laird’s book takes aim at the arguments of both those thinkers as well as the further refinements of natural law theory by Feser, one of its most ardent advocates. This book is essentially a critique of the natural law thesis as elaborated on by mostly Feser. Laird has studied the entire Feser oeuvre of books, articles, and blog posts and his book is a detailed point-by-point look at what Feser claims about natural law theory and the basis for his own specific claims.
It turns out that Feser has much more ambitious goals than Adler’s minimal one of just proving the existence of any god. Feser is not just claiming that there is irrefutable proof of his god’s existence. In his hands, ‘natural law theory’ that he claims follows in a direct line from the ideas of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas is a detailed, prescriptive theory that argues that traditional Catholic doctrines in their most rigid and doctrinaire forms, are a necessary consequence of it and Catholicism in its traditional form is unequivocally the one, true religion. This results in natural law theory’s justification of condemnations of divorce, homosexuality, abortion, religious pluralism, masturbation, and so on. Natural law theory is apparently quite influential in some circles and US Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas is supposedly a firm believer in it and uses it in his opinions, which explains a lot actually, given that Thomas is one of the most conservative justices on the court and almost always rules in favor of the worst options. This does not bode well for natural law theory being humane.
Religious apologists face the perennial problem of explaining how an omnipotent and benevolent god allows the existence of evil. Laird explains the tortured arguments that Feser, like other religious apologists, give to explain away this problem, based on the ethical arguments of Aristotle and Aquinas. But Laird goes on to show that those arguments can just as easily be used to justify the most horrendous evils. In fact, that is how much of the book is written. Laird gives the Feserian (and sometimes also Thomist/Aristotelian) argument in support for each position and then shows that those same arguments can be used in support of either its opposite or for some other awful thing.
While clearly secular in his sympathies, Laird is by no means a knee-jerk antagonist to the religious views of Feser. He says that Feser writes very clearly and that his explanations of what natural law theory entails are easy to follow. As far as I can tell (note that theology is not my field) he tries to give Feser’s arguments as sympathetic a hearing as he can and does not try to take his words out of context. Laird lays out the essence of Feser’s case.
Feser, as he so often does, explains precisely what the “natural law” tradition is in language you don’t have to be a Supreme Court justice to understand. From about the fourth century B.C, in ancient Greece, philosophers such as Plato and his student Aristotle started pondering questions like “what is change?” and “when we say two things share a certain property, what do we mean?” Eventually, the answers they arrived at led them (or at least some of their followers) to conclude that a single, eternal, omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient God existed, and that this allowed human beings to objectively discern what behaviors were immoral or moral. Centuries later, during the fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Middle Ages, Catholics such as St. Augustine and St. Aquinas took another look at the writings of pagan thinkers like Aristotle and Plato and married them to the Catholic religion, concluding that the answers to philosophical questions these Greeks had found also pointed towards the truth of Christianity (and very specifically Catholicism), as well as the truth of orthodox Catholic moral teaching. That meant no divorce, no gay marriage, and no abortion, among other things, along with state sponsorship of the Catholic church and official discouragement (to put it mildly) of atheism. This is the philosophical tradition to which Clarence Thomas belongs, and according to which Roe vs. Wade or gay marriage or public denial of a supernatural God overseeing human affairs are all offenses against the moral order and cannot be tolerated by any state, secular or otherwise. Regardless of whether or not the Founding Fathers subscribed to that tradition, its adherents claim it is objectively true and must be upheld even today, centuries after their deaths. As Feser tells us in The Last Superstition, “the classical theism and traditional morality of Western civilization…ought to be restored to their rightful place as the guiding principles of Western thought, society, and politics, and that, accordingly, secularism ought to be driven back into the intellectual and political margins whence it came.”
Laird’s goal is the opposite of Feser’s. The very fact that Laird spends about 360 pages closely critiquing Feser’s arguments and quotes him copiously suggests that this is no drive-by sniping. Feser should feel complimented that someone has gone to such a great extent to read all his writings and take the trouble to write an entire book containing an extremely detailed analysis of his views, even if his conclusions are not favorable. It appears that Feser has not as yet responded to this book.
Given that this is entirely a discussion of philosophy-based theology, you have to brace yourself for the writing style in that field which tends to be heavy on formal definitions and esoteric arguments. Laird has a breezy writing style with lots of down-to-Earth examples taken from everyday life and popular culture that makes the going easier than it otherwise might have been, but he cannot completely eliminate all the theological esotericism if he wants to give justice to the subject. So there is a lot of discussion of forms, actuality, potentiality, essences, and the like.
Laird’s book is an invaluable resource for anyone who seeks to really get to grips with natural law theory in general and Feser’s use of it to provide support for rigid Catholic orthodox doctrine on issues of doctrine, morality, and ethics, views that are shared by many conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians. You can get Laird’s book here and here and it will also be available on Kindle.
It turned out that Feser was really ticked off by my earlier post about his press release and had written a strong rebuttal. As a result, I had a whole host of Feser acolytes coming here and taking issue with me, leading to that post having nearly 300 comments! It reminded me of the ferocious response one gets from their acolytes when one writes anything critical of Sam Harris or Jordan Peterson. Most of the comments by Feser’s fans were harshly critical of me, saying in effect that I was not worthy to lick the boots of such a deep thinker as Feser and for saying anything at all about the book without having read it, ignoring the reasons I gave for not doing so. Fun times! Maybe they will return as a result of this post and if they do I just want to say “Hi, folks! Welcome back!”