I finally got some motivation to finish up doing the Read Along for Feser’s The Last Superstition. That motivation is the fact that I started reading another book that I really wanted to share commentary on. So, I’m going to do what I should have done a long, long time ago: finish up with Feser’s book. In the last post, I covered his chapter “Scholastic Aptitude.” Now, we’re moving on to chapter 5 “The Descent of the Modernists.”
In this chapte, Feser gives us a brief tour of modern philosophy and he highlights some of the problems that came out of the modern period of philosophy. Feser’s first stop is a discussion of John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Feser claims that while these two would be classified more as medieval writers, they led to “the undoing of the Scholastic tradition” (167). Feser comments on Ockhams razor, his nominalism, and his conception of God and how they rejected how we could come to know God the way Aquinas postulated.
There was one thing that did catch my attention though. Feser notes the following, “Ockham’s pulverization of all reality into a collection of unrelated individuals also has a tendency to turn God into merely one individual among others (albeit a grand and remote one)” (170). God, in other words, is made more anthropomorphic and thus we see the beginnings of what today is called Theistic Personalism (This is one topic that I really want to discuss in the new book I’m reading!).
Feser now turns to discussing the relationship between modern philosophy and modern science. One point he makes is that many modern scientists will say that science has utterly done away with Aristotelianism since his science was shown to be proven wrong. Thus, his metaphysics was wrong too. I’ve heard this in countless classes and it’s no wonder a lot of people in philosophy classes today just end up ignoring Aristotle and all the other ancients, while they gravitate towards Hume and all the other modern dolts. But what Feser notes is that Aristotle’s metaphysical views are independent of his scientific theories. As a case in point, Feser lists “the distinction between actuality and potentiality, the doctrine of the four causes, [and] hylomorphism” (172). These metaphysical ideas are still as relevant today as ever before.
One of the trademarks of modern science is that it’s based on the modern philosophical assumption that the world is mechanical. Feser points out that the denial of final and formal causes comes with this territory. There are a few “famous” objections that Feser covers in this little section. One is a joke that makes fun of the explanatory power of final and formal causes. Basically, the joke is that a doctor explains that opium causes sleep because it has “dormitive power” that is, it has the power to cause sleep. The objection is basically that the explanation if tautologous since all the doctor was saying is “opium causes sleep because it has the power to cause sleep” (180). But this isn’t a tautology, as Feser points out, whereas to say “opium causes sleep because it causes sleep” would be one (180).
The statement that “opium causes sleep because it has the power to cause sleep” actually does say a lot. Feser articulates the point that this statement is saying that the ability to cause sleep is inherent in the nature of the opium and is not just some accidental feature that this opium just happened to have as opposed to some other pile of opium over there (180). This is just one example of the few objections by moderns that Feser deals with.
The next section “Inventing the mind-body problem” is probably one of my favorites. Feser notes that much of modern philosophy’s views started with Descartes. The first big modern “tendency”, as Feser likes to call it, started with the intro of subjectivism as postulated by Descartes, which is the idea that “all that we can know directly and with certainty are the contents of our own minds” (Feser’s emphasis 186). Another distinction that adds to this is the idea of primary and secondary qualities. These ideas contribute to a mind-body dualism in which the body is part of the mechanical world, and all these qualities of redness, hotness, etc. exist in the mind of the observer in some immaterial sense.
But at the same time, modern science has been trying to reduce everything, even the mind, to simply materialistic terms. The biggest problem, however, is that the denial of final causes is surely a problem for this project. As Feser notes, “The human mind manifests final causality more obviously than anything else. It intends or plans actions and outcomes that do not yet exist and may never exist, but remain directed towards those actions and outcomes all the same” (194). Moreover, because Descartes denies aristotelian-thomistic metaphysics and thus the form-matter relationship of the soul, the problem of the mind interacting with the body emerges since the interaction is no longer described as formal causation but efficient causation (196). Hand in hand with this is that given Descartes’ view of the mind/soul and the mechanistic conception of the world, Feser also contends that this opens up the problem of the gap between the mind and the external world.
But those are but a few of the problems opened up by the modernist philosophy. Feser goes on to list some more of this “universal acid.” One is the problem of skepticism, which the A-T conception of the soul helps by way of how the intellect grasps the forms of objects and the same form is abstracted in the mind. The problem of induction which comes from the denial of formal and final causes. The issue of personal identity also comes from the abandonment of formal causes, i.e., a man being a composite of form and matter (soul + body). With the discussion on free-will, Feser discusses how the intellect and will operate as “parts of the realm of formal and final causes” (209). Thus, when formal and final causes are denied, as we see in modern philosophy with the mechanistic view of the world, free-will becomes an even greater problem. Natural rights is another problem that Feser highlights as having arisen out of the denial of formal and final causality. Closely tied with natural rights is the idea of property, and Feser analyzes Locke’s view of property and how a denial of teleology in nature makes his conception harder to accept. Lastly, Feser discusses morality and spends his time criticizing Hume, Hobbes, and Kant. “The bottom line,” Feser writes, “is that by abandoning formal and final causes, modern philosophy necessarily denied itself any objective basis for morality. If nothing is objectively for anything — if nothing has any inherent goal, end, or purpose — then reason is not objectively “for” anything either, including the pursuit of the good. Hence there cannot possibly be any way of grounding morality rationally” (219-220). Feser blames much of the degradation of morality on this very denial of final and formal causes.
Feser does go into detail about how the problem came as a result of abandoning A-T metaphysics, and he explains how A-T solves it. My aim here was not to give a comprehensive summary, but a brief sketch of the topics he touches on. This chapter was a very fine treatment of how Modern philosophy is the cause of so many of the philosophical “problems” we see today. I did my best to just highlight the main sections of the chapter so you can get an idea of what he spoke about. The final chapter of the book will be covered in my next post, and that chapter is “Aristotle’s Revenge.” From what it looks like, Feser will be giving one last defense of the A-T model and we’ll see it in action in the last chapter.