Saturday, November 19, 2011

Book Review: The Last Superstition by Edward Feser

The title of Edward Feser's book The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism sets the tone for the entire work, as it asserts in bold letters across the cover that atheism is the ultimate 'superstition'. This alone may tell you whether or not this book is 'for you' or not – it introduces Feser's polemic style, and it also tells you its goal. The contents, however, may surprise you.

This is not a book filled with the author's own opinions, rather it's a book that tries to lay out basic underlying foundations. Feser himself does little in the way of speculation. In fact, he is hardly even writing anything new at all. The tactic of The Last Superstition is to simply appeal to the classical philosophical tradition that has already been around for thousands of years, and show how that great tradition bears on the atheist claims that we hear so much of today.

But this strategy may be off-putting to some Christians as well – Feser is not only arguing against atheism, he's arguing against most of what is normally called 'modern' philosophy. The contention of The Last Superstition is that Aristotelianism is basically correct, and that philosophy more-or-less reached its zenith with Thomas Aquinas. Everything after Aquinas, Feser laments, has gone downhill. Not because Aquinas himself was ever refuted, but because he was ignored. As Feser puts it: “Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought”.

These waters are not only deep, but they are also quite contentious. Indeed, there are many Christian philosophers and apologists who hold to many of the beliefs that Feser works to refute in this book. This, however, is the main highlight of The Last Superstition and what sets it apart from other books written against the New Atheism. Whereas most books are content to offer point-by-point responses to the works of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett, Feser's strategy is to explain the fundamental philosophical ideas that atheism itself is based upon and attack those ideas at the root. This being done, he can simply sit back and watch as the atheist's entire house of cards collapses.

The subtitle of the book then, is a bit deceiving. Feser isn't technically giving 'A Refutation of the New Atheism' in the way we might normally think of someone offering refutations, he is going deeper – trying to explain not only what the New Atheists don't seem to understand about their own philosophy, but what they don't understand about the entire philosophic tradition. To do this however, he needs to explain some semi-technical concepts (Actuality and Potentiality, Aristotle Four Causes, Nominalism vs. Realism, etc.) and for this reason, the book also doubles as a excellent introduction to Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy as well.

It is Thomas Aquinas who is the hero of this book. After the excellent introduction to Aristotelian metaphysics, Feser sticks with Aquinas for the duration of the book, elaborating on his contributions to the scholastic tradition and in particular, his building upon the concept of Aristotle's Four Causes. This plays out in three main branches of argumentation - The Existence of God, The Immortality of the Soul, and The Natural Law.

Of these three, The Existence of God is truly the highlight. This is where Feser's greatest contributions to the field of apologetics can be found. His explanations of three of Aquinas' famous 'Five Ways' are superb. And again, his tactic here is pretty basic: Simply explain Aquinas' arguments. Even if you are a Christian who is not impressed with Aquinas, or 'classical apologetics' in general, this is must-read stuff for, if nothing else, the sheer convenience of having Aquinas' arguments explained cogently and relevantly.

Reading this book, it becomes immediately clear just how much the New Atheists (and some Christian apologists) simply don't understand Aquinas. To take just one example, in the book “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins refutes Aquinas' Fifth Way first by comparing it to William Paley's 'Complex Design' argument and then by showing how the Complex Design argument doesn't work. But if the goal is to refute Aquinas, Dawkins' comparison makes no sense. In fact, Feser himself would agree that Paley was wrong-headed in his thinking. The problem isn't that Paley failed, the problem is that Paley's design argument is fundamentally different than what Aquinas was arguing. Dawkins hasn't refuted Aquinas, he hasn't even addressed him. Apparently, he hasn't even understood him.

Aquinas isn't arguing that 'things are so complex that we can't explain them scientifically, therefore God must exist'. Aquinas is operating under different assumptions altogether. If you hear someone dismissing Aquinas by comparing him to Paley, or saying that Aquinas appeals to complexity, the only thing they are 'proving' is that they don't understand Aquinas' argument. Similarly, if you hear someone dismissing Aquinas' 'First Cause' by asking "But what caused God?", it means they haven't understood Aquinas' argument. If you hear someone scoffing at Aquinas' 'Unmoved Mover' by saying that “there's no reason to call that being 'God'", it means they haven't understood Aquinas' argument.

Of course Feser is not merely content to simply state this, as I just have, he spends many pages explaining why that is the case.1 After reading, anybody should be able to see for himself or herself that not only do these simplistic objections not hold up, they don't even address the arguments to begin with.

Feser himself actually seems to share the New Atheist's contempt of Paley, Intelligent Design, and Creationist arguments in general. He doesn't exactly say why, but it seems obvious after reading: These types of arguments always seem to be dependent on scientists not being able to figure something out. Even if these arguments do succeed, what happens when science discovers something new in the future?

Aquinas' arguments, on the other hand, don't depend on what science knows or doesn't know. They aren't trying to explain something we have limited scientific knowledge of, they are metaphysical arguments based on obvious observable truths (like 'things change'). If we think that perhaps our advancements in science have somehow negated these arguments, we have made a category error. As Feser states, “That Aristotle was wrong about physics simply does not entail that he was wrong about metaphysics; indeed, in the absence of Aristotelian metaphysical presuppositions, none of the sciences can ultimately be made sense of at all.”

Feser's entire book - and this is not an exaggeration - rests upon his being able to establish Aristotelian metaphysics, and particularly, Aristotle's Four Causes. Feser knows this, and understandably spends many pages establishing this foundation.

Of these Four Causes, the two which have come into disrepute in modern times are the Final Cause2 and Formal Cause.3 Feser does an extremely convincing job of explaining Final Causality, but drops the ball a bit with the Formal Cause. As the book progresses with his arguments for the Immortality of the Soul, and The Natural Law, his case becomes progressively weaker, as these sections are more heavily dependent on Aristotle's Hylomorphism.4

Feser convincingly shows throughout the book that Final Causation is inevitable. Even if someone might say they don't believe in it, no one can really escape it. But once the Final Cause is firmly established, Feser tries to sneak in the Formal Cause as well, by piggybacking on top of it. This seemed insufficient. Based on what Richard Dawkins in particular has written, evolution itself undermines the Formal Cause.5 He claims that there is no static 'Form', because life is constantly and mindlessly changing. Although Feser tackled the Final Cause aspect of this line of thinking extremely well, this reviewer would have liked to hear more about why Dawkins and others are mistaken about Formal Causality specifically. Especially since so much rests on it.

The section on Natural Law in particular was especially lacking. Feser does explain how some theologians come to the belief in the concept of Natural Law, but not much time is spent defending it, let alone explaining why certain things are 'moral' or 'immoral'. Though he does show that Natural Law is not 'Blind Faith' or 'Arbitrary Rule Choosing', some of his language is not justified by his arguments. He has some shockingly strong denunciations against specific 'immoral' behavior in the book that he feels is justified by his appealing to The Natural Law. But since The Natural Law isn't given an adequate defense in the book, one can't help but feeling that his rhetoric overstepped his arguments in these regards - especially considering that he begins the book with a rail against homosexual marriage. Hardly a tactful or even relevant opener for a book of this type.

If you are curious how a Thomist would respond to the New Atheists (or atheism in general) this should be the first book you go to. Feser practically reads straight from the Summa. This is a great benefit to the reader, but it is also perhaps a hindrance to Feser, since the only person who would be able to agree with his arguments fully, would be a fellow Thomist scholar.

The mere fact that The Last Superstition depends on Aristotelianism/Thomism will undoubtedly be seen by many as a major weakness, but this should not be the case. It was Feser's purpose all along to expose the problems of New Atheism by the light of the scholastic tradition. Far from a weakness, this is its strength. Feser explains himself this way: "Even if you do not end up agreeing with me that [the positions laid out in the book] are rationally unavoidable, you will understand how reasonable people could be convinced of this." If this is his goal, then Feser has achieved it. Even if you are a fellow believer who disagrees with his methodology, you will at least come away with a much greater respect for the Aristotelian tradition that Feser draws from.

As has been stated, some of the waters get a little deep in The Last Superstition, but this is a necessity. The problem that Feser is trying to tackle is that the New Atheists are too shallow. The only real solution therefore, is not to stay up next to them at the surface, but to go down deeper to the heart of the matter. This gets difficult at times, but it's an endeavor that simply must be undertaken for any serious-minded Christian looking for sincere explanations and not merely pat answers.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Chad Gibbons is an avid reader of theology, history, and apologetics. He teaches and occasionally preaches at the Brighton Nazarene Church in Brighton, Michigan, and blogs on classic literature at

1. For examples of how this plays out, you can read brief introductions to these concepts at Feser's blog, where he continues to write consistently substantial pieces. Specifically here: 
2. A complete explanation of the Final Cause is unfortunately beyond the scope of this review. But very briefly, The Final Cause of a thing is its purpose, or the end toward which it works. This is disregarded in most modern philosophy by ignoring any underlying purpose altogether, in favor of a mindless and purposeless universe. Feser shows that conscious goal-directedness is not necessary for the Final Cause, however. It still applies to a thing even if that thing doesn't 'know' its purpose. 
3. Briefly, the 'Formal Cause' is the structure, or pattern of a certain thing. 
4. A technical term that Feser succinctly describes as 'matter-formism'. Basically, it is the idea that a thing is not only made up of matter alone, but also certain 'attributes', or 'forms' as well. Thus, a brick might be composed of certain material elements, but it must also contain specific properties such as 'squareness' or 'hardness' for it to be what it is. You can't have one without the other. 
5. In “Unweaving the Rainbow”, for instance.


21st Century Scholastic said...

Great review. I agree with you that prof. Feser does not develop as thorough a case for the existence of formal causes as needed, but i believe this can be done.

Morevover, on Dawkins' (and others') objection, please check chapter 9 of David Oderberg's "Real Essentialism", where you'll find the best response available to the evolutionary argument against forms ( He pretty much puts the objection to rest IMHO.

BenYachov Jim Scott 4th said...

Feser has written a gentlemanly reply to your kind review where he responds to some of your critiques here and clarifies.

Speaking personally as a Feser Fan this is a lovely review. As for the criticism it's refreshing to read such from one who takes the material seriously.

But then again I am contrasting you with One Star reviews on Amazon from obvious Dawkins wannabe fan boyz who clearly haven't read the book and can't tell "Moetus" from "Change" from "momentum" from a hole in the head.

Well done.

Feser's response:

Gail F said...

I very much enjoyed this review. The comment above pretty much said what I think, so I won't repeat it.

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