Wednesday, January 9, 2019

A Giant Among Pygmies

…[Thomas Aquinas] once came upon “a holy nun who used to be levitated in ecstasy.”  His reaction was to comment on how large her feet were.  “This made her come out of her ecstasy in indignation at his rudeness, whereupon he gently advised her to seek greater humility.”

Feser moves from Aristotle to Aquinas.  Much of this chapter is devoted to Feser’s examination of Aquinas’ proof of God’s existence, using and developing Aristotle’s metaphysical logic.  Further, Feser examines the feeble responses of today’s New Atheists – the group who claim that morality can be found without God, and in fact can only be found without God.

Why is this important to me at this blog?  It isn’t to prove the existence of God.  It leads right back to the idea of the necessity of a foundation – and a specific foundation – if we are to move toward liberty.  To greatly summarize: Christian ethics are a required foundation for liberty as we have come to know it in the west; without this foundation, we have no chance for liberty. 

New Atheists claim that these ethics can be had without God – and without God, our liberty will increase.  Many libertarians also believe the same – in fact, some will say that religion must be crushed for liberty to thrive.  Of course, I believe they are wrong, therefore – despite having the evidence of the last century or two on my side – it seems worthwhile to explore the reason as to why.

Feser begins by pointing out the paucity – if not complete absence – of New Atheist arguments contra Aquinas.  He really is funny when he does this – his ability to abuse with words is fabulous. 

One wonders how [Aquinas] would have reacted to the mental and moral midgets now being marketed as “New Atheists” who peddle stale “refutations” of theism that were themselves refuted long before Aquinas came on the scene.

What do these New Atheists do with Aquinas?  Dawkins – a biologist, not a student of philosophy – “is the only “New Atheist” to offer anything even remotely like an attempt to answer [Aquinas], feeble as it is.”  Sam Harris – who at least has an undergraduate degree in philosophy – finds room to mention Feser in his book End of Faith, yet says nothing of Aquinas and very little about the classical arguments for God’s existence.

Daniel Dennett – “a long-established “big name” academic philosopher” – in his 448-page book devoted to “breaking the spell” of religion, devotes three pages to addressing the classical philosophical arguments for God’s existence.  Even Dennett’s peers found his work lacking “philosophical depth”; Michael Ruse offered by email to Dennett: “I thought your new book is really bad and not worthy of you…”

Why Aquinas?  He has written perhaps eight million words examining God.  Feser describes him as a towering intellect with a single-minded devotion to God. When his brothers held him captive to prevent his joining the Dominicans, Aquinas memorized the entire Bible and the four books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard.

The Four Books of Sentences (Libri Quattuor Sententiarum) is a book of theology written by Peter Lombard in the 12th century. It is a systematic compilation of theology, written around 1150; it derives its name from the sententiae or authoritative statements on biblical passages that it gathered together.

A commentary on the Sentences was required of every master of theology, and was part of the examination system. At the end of lectures on Lombard's work, a student could apply for bachelor status within the theology faculty.

Puny thinker Aquinas was not.

The classical argument for God’s existence is attacked by these New Atheists as if a scientific hypothesis; instead, Aquinas is making an argument based on the reasoning evidenced in geometry or mathematics: for example, the Pythagorean Theorem can be reasoned through once one understands triangularity, etc.

Geometry doesn’t work that way.  It doesn’t involve the formulation and testing of hypotheses, after the fashion of empirical science.  This hardly makes it less rational than empirical science; it just shows that the sort of argumentation used in empirical science is not the only kind of rational argumentation that there is.

I will not attempt to present Aquinas’s arguments here; I will offer that these are built on the metaphysical arguments made by Aristotle: we observe things that exist, these undergo change, and exhibit final causes; therefore “there necessarily must be a God who maintains them in existence at every instance.”

Metaphysical arguments cannot be dismissed as “not scientific”; in fact, scientific arguments are built on metaphysical assumptions: there is a physical world existing independent of our minds, there are objective laws of logic and mathematics that apply to this objective world.  To dismiss metaphysical arguments is to dismiss science.

As E.A. Burtt offers: “But inasmuch as the positivist 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.”

In my previous post on Feser’s work, RMB asked: “Wonder how Aristotle defended the existence of the 4 causes. Or was it simply that he asserted and defended the distinction of actuality and potentiality?”  To which I replied, basically…I have no idea.  But, maybe, some hints of it can be found here – in this understanding of metaphysics: premises that are obviously known from our sensory experience.


As mentioned, I will not present Feser’s review of Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God – albeit I have marked up this section in my copy of this book perhaps more extensively than any other pages I have read anywhere.  I will just offer:

I realize, of course, that many will reply that there is still a fatal flaw in Aquinas’s argument insofar as final causes don’t exist. …But they are wrong to say it.  The reality of formal and final causes is rationally unavoidable, as we will see by the end of this book.

All I can say: if final causes don’t exist, I have no idea the point of life; if final causes don’t exist, we can all quit this libertarianism nonsense.


I am going out on a limb here, but I believe that it is through Kant that this idea of turning metaphysics into a science gained traction.  Reason must be limited to what we “know”: the physical objects of our experience.  

Turning metaphysics into a science makes it something man can manipulate.  And dominate.  Like making a triangle something other than a triangle; this could be “reasonable,” depending on who was doing the reasoning.

Aristotle finds cause in the essence of things; Kant finds cause in the physical thing – there is no essence.  Like there is no such thing as a triangle unless there is a physical triangle.  Per Kant, it would be unreasonable to assume otherwise.


  1. Really glad Feser/you touched on Aquinas and agree that there's never been a good argument against his "Five ways" proof.

    It's logically sound even if the conclusion doesn't lead one to believe in a Christian "god", but the existence of a god. Dawkin's attempt to discredit Aquinas's logic was a big fail and I'm not aware of any other serious attempt to discredit it.

    I was also not aware of "Sentences", when I get back to reading more seriously it'll be on my list- thank you.

  2. Doesn't the fact that you can picture a triangle in your mind prove Kant wrong? Even if thoughts are just the result of bio-electro-chemistry in your brain, the bio-electro-chemical movements/reactions are not in themselves triangles. Therefore the picture in your mind is distinct from the tangible things going on in your brain.

    Maybe I am too simple in my thinking, but it seems rather straight forward.

  3. BM,
    Paul Vanderklay is a Calvinist pastor in California who provides philosophical commentary on Jordan Peterson. His recent video lays credance to your suggestion that "it is through Kant that this idea of turning metaphysics into a science gained traction".