Sunday, June 20, 2010

Review of The Last Superstition by Edward Feser

“[A] man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it.”

GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy

The God debate has been raging for centuries, and in recent years it has been especially animated. There’s a new breed of atheist and secularist who wants to do more than agree to differ with believers; they want to see the back of God. Failing that, they want to drive religion into a corner, tolerated as a private eccentricity, but kept out of policy-making, education and the public square. Extraordinary claims, they say, require extraordinary evidence; the “default mode” of reason is atheism.

The response from Christians has been rather muted. We hear appeals to the religious heritage of our societies; to religious freedom; to the usefulness of Christianity as a kind of social glue. All of which are important arguments, but none of which really face the secularist challenge head-on.

Edward Feser, professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College, in his tour-de-force The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (2008), takes a different tack entirely:

“But the most important thing to know about the belief that God exists is not that most citizens happen (for now anyway) to share it, that it tends to uphold public morality, and so forth. The most important thing to know is that it is true, and demonstrably so…Nor am I suggesting that these founding elements of our civilization be permitted, hat in hand, to maintain “a place at the table” of some great multicultural smorgasbord alongside the secularist liberalism that seeks to abolish them. I hold instead that they 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, and to which it would consign religious and traditional morality.”

Fighting words, but can Feser live up to them?

He can, and he does. In a stunning survey of Western thought from the time of the Pre-Socratics, he shows how the abandonment of Aristotelian principles was “the single greatest mistake ever made in Western thought”; how all the standard objections to Saint Thomas Aquinas’s famous proofs for God’s existence were made by Aquinas himself, and answered by Aquinas, too; how those same proofs are grossly misrepresented even by professional philosophers.

But he goes deeper. He shows how Aristotle’s “four causes”, regularly dismissed as pre-scientific, are in fact the basis of all common sense and all science; how it is conceptually impossible to have a purely physical explanation of consciousness; how even the most bullishly Darwinistic of philosophers smuggle concepts of function and purpose into their description of living systems.

The poster-boy of secularists, Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, claimed that there is no logical reason we should expect a rock thrown at a window to result in broken glass rather than, say, a bouquet of flowers. “Eliminative materialist” philosophers such as Paul and Patricia Churchland claim that beliefs, desires and other mental states literally do not exist. This sort of intellectual freakshow, Feser shows us, is not the lunatic fringe of materialism and atheism; it is its inevitable conclusion. The “common sense” of rationalists can’t help but end up in what Chesterton called “the suicide of thought”.

Throughout his book, Feser insists that his case is not empirical or based on some kind of balance of probabilities, or the best conclusion from the evidence; it is as airtight as a mathematical demonstration. To go back to my Chestertonian quotation; it is not a philosophy that something proves, but that everything proves.

Feser draws mostly on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. In Chesterton’s own famous book on Aquinas, The Dumb Ox, he writes:

“[T]he philosophy of Saint Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkeleian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists; since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble. But no pupil of Saint Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs. The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God. Thus, even those who appreciate the metaphysical depth of Thomism in other matters have expressed surprise that he does not deal at all with what many now think the main metaphysical question; whether we can prove that the primary act of recognition of any reality is real. The answer is that Saint Thomas recognised instantly, what so many modern sceptics have begun to suspect rather laboriously; that a man must either answer that question in the affirmative, or else never answer any question, never ask any question, never even exist intellectually, to answer or to ask.”

Eggs are eggs, whether they’re scrambled or poached or rotten. A human being is a human being, whether it is a foetus or a patient in a vegetative state. The thought of an egg is the thought of an egg, not the firing of neurons in the brain. And, I can’t help adding, atheists are left with egg all over their face at the end of The Last Superstition.

“But how does this all prove the existence of God?”, you may ask. In answer, I can only say that, though The Last Superstition is an entertaining book, it is not an especially easy book. I’ve read it three times and, though I found Feser’s arguments compelling, I would not even try to summarise his summaries of Aquinas’s famous ways to God. But I can’t imagine anyone reading this book attentively and coming away from it with the impression that physicalism has a leg to stand on.

The prominent atheist PZ Myers has described Edward Feser as a “clueless jerk”. If Western civilization is to survive, we need a lot more clueless jerks like him. I suspect that The Last Superstition is set for the same kind of epoch-making status as books such as Mill's On Liberty or Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies.

Professor Feser's always lively blog is to be found at

posted by Maolsheachlann


  1. Feser is also a regular contributor of

    I wonder where they took inspiration for the title of this blog. :)

  2. Sometimes they call it W4! I like that!

    I am a big admirer of Feser's writing, though I don't always grasp its subtleties. He wrote a particular article about the liberal-left stranglehold on higher education that I especially liked.