Edward Feser is associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College, where he writes and teaches on contemporary analytic philosophy from a Thomistic perspective. He recently spoke with first things junior fellow Connor Grubaugh about three of his favorite books in the field.
The first book you’ve selected is Fordham philosopher Brian Davies’s The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil.
This is the best book in print on the problem of evil. It develops two key Thomistic insights: First, you cannot properly understand the problem of evil without understanding the nature of God’s causal relationship to the world. Second, you cannot properly understand the problem of evil if you conceive of God in anthropomorphic terms—as something like a human agent, only bigger and stronger. If the world is like a story, God is not a character in the story alongside other characters; he is like the author of the story. And just as it makes no sense to think of an author as being unjust to his characters, neither does it make sense to think of God as being unjust to his creatures. While God is perfectly good, it is a deep mistake to think that this entails that he is a kind of cosmic Boy Scout, and that the problem of evil is a question about whether he deserves all his merit badges. Davies also shows how, from a Thomistic point of view, the approach to the problem of evil taken by contemporary philosophers of religion like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne is misguided and presupposes too anthropomorphic a conception of God.
Is the idea here that human beings, as characters in God’s story, lack the epistemic vantage point to pose the problem of evil at all?
Well, that’s part of it. We don’t know the good that God will draw out of the sufferings of this life, any more than the characters in a novel know, in chapter three, what is going to happen in chapter nine. But the main point is a different one. It is that too many people think of God’s goodness as if it were a kind of super-virtuousness. As Davies likes to put it, they think of it as if it were a matter of God’s being unusually “well-behaved.” It’s as if they look at God as a heroic character in the novel, whereas the atheist who is troubled by the suffering in the world looks at God as a villainous character who behaves badly. But God is not a character in the novel in the first place.
Your second book takes up Aquinas’s famous proofs for the existence of God. Tell us about Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations, by Christopher F. J. Martin.
Analytical Thomist writers often write very well—clearly, elegantly, and even wittily. This is true of Davies, and it is true as well of Martin, who is both philosophically rigorous and funny, sometimes bitingly so. This book-length treatment of Aquinas’s Five Ways shows how the arguments cannot properly be understood without a prior understanding of Aquinas’s conception of how explanation works. It also shows how defensible Aquinas’s arguments are, once they are properly understood, even in the face of the sorts of objections a contemporary analytic philosopher would raise. Just a solid, well-crafted, enjoyable book. Unfortunately, though, it is also a very high-priced book from an academic press, which has contributed to its being unjustly neglected. (Honorable mention must be made of the excellent Atheism and Theism, by John Haldane and J. J. C. Smart. Haldane’s half of this book is in part devoted to defending Aquinas’s first three Ways in an analytic philosophy style. This is by far the best atheism-vs.-theism debate book available.)
If Aquinas’s proofs are so reasonable, what caused early modern philosophers like Hume and Kant to think them so absurd?
Actually, thinkers like Hume and Kant tend not to address Aquinas’s own arguments in the first place. Rather, they address later and weaker arguments from other writers. Arguments like Aquinas’s got lost in the shuffle, historically. And when contemporary philosophers do pay attention to them at all, they tend to read into Aquinas what they know (or think they know) from these later, very different and much weaker arguments. For example, people who read Aquinas’s Fifth Way often suppose that it is essentially the same as William Paley’s famous “design argument,” which compares the universe to a watch and God to a watchmaker. In fact, as Martin shows, Aquinas’s and Paley’s arguments couldn’t be more different, and Aquinas would not have had much time for Paley’s.
Your last book is David S. Oderberg’s Real Essentialism.
Some will dismiss the arguments of writers like Davies, Martin, and Haldane on the grounds that they presuppose a wider commitment to an Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical picture of the world. For it has become a cliché that the central commitments of that picture—for example, the claims that the world is made up of substances, that these substances have essences and causal powers, and that they are composites of substantial form and prime matter—have been refuted by modern science, by early modern philosophers like David Hume, and by more recent philosophers like W. V. O. Quine. Oderberg’s book puts the lie to this cliché. Erudite, wide-ranging, and rigorously argued, the book demonstrates that a neo-Aristotelian conception of nature is still defensible today in the context of modern physics, chemistry, and even biology.
Does accepting Aquinas’s metaphysical picture of the world require us to alter somewhat our understanding of modern science—what it is, and what kind of knowledge it is capable of discovering?
One of the things it requires us to see is that many people—including, unfortunately, many scientists, and sometimes even philosophers—tend to conflate scientific and philosophical questions. As a result, often when people say that “Science has shown such-and-such,” what they really mean, or should mean if they are thinking carefully and honestly, is that “Science seems to show such-and such if we read its results through the lens of materialist philosophy.” It is the background materialist philosophy, and not any actual results of empirical science, that is doing the work when people claim (for example) that science has shown that free will is an illusion, or that the human intellect is just brain activity, or whatever. But materialist philosophy is not the only possible framework within which to interpret the results of science, and in fact (as writers like Oderberg show) it is not the correct framework either.
How did you discover St. Thomas as a philosopher? And what drew you toward the analytical tradition within contemporary Thomism?
I was trained as an analytic philosopher, and was an atheist for many of my undergraduate years and all through graduate school. But I was drawn to take Aristotelian ideas seriously, in large part thanks to Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Furthermore, while teaching introductory courses as a grad student, I got bored doing the standard shtick when covering Aquinas’s Five Ways—lining them up and shooting them down with the stock objections. So I decided to make things more interesting by trying to help myself and the students understand why anyone would ever have taken these arguments seriously. As a result, I got into the Thomistic literature while preparing lectures, and the deeper I got into it the clearer it became that the usual objections philosophers raise against Aquinas’s arguments are just laughably bad, completely missing the point and aimed at straw men. I started to see that, when read against the broader Aristotelian metaphysical background in the context of which they were first developed, the arguments made perfect sense and were hard to dismiss.
Furthermore, I started to see how that background itself made sense, and that it too was typically dismissed by modern philosophers only because they badly misunderstood it and were aiming their fire at caricatures. It took a few years, but eventually I came around to concluding that the Aristotelian view of the world—including its theistic component—was essentially correct. (For any of your readers who might be interested, I’ve written on this intellectual journey in greater detail elsewhere.)
How would you respond to the common complaint against Scholasticism, that its excessive concern with fine distinctions and analytical precision leads to pedantry and dogmatism?
In my experience, people who say this sort of thing never bother to tell you exactly what is wrong with any specific Scholastic thesis or argument. They just leave it at the level of this vague hand-waving charge of pedantry. You give them a carefully worked-out argument, and they dismiss it by shouting “sawdust Thomism!” or “Baroque Neo-Scholasticism!” or some other cliché.
As to the charge of dogmatism, it really shows you how irrational and inconsistent these clichés are. Scholastics give careful arguments, consider possible objections to the arguments, try to respond to those objections, and invite further objections if the critic has any to offer. That’s precisely the reverse of dogmatic. People who fling labels like “dogmatic” at Scholastics just show how much they are responding emotionally rather than rationally.
I’ll grant that Thomists have the best arguments. But I’m still curious to know: If every philosophy is a way of life, which way is the Thomist’s?
For the Thomist, the real, the true, the good, and the beautiful are all really the same thing looked at from different points of view. Our intellects and our capacity for moral action and aesthetic experience are thus all at the end of the day directed toward one and the same reality. And ultimately, this is God, who is the most real, the most good, the most beautiful. As St. Thomas says, God is our first cause and last end. In my view, everything else is commentary.
It is the Thomist’s special calling, however, to elucidate how far the human intellect, specifically, can know this first cause and last end—how far, that is to say, religion is a matter of the mind and not merely of feeling and practice. In an age in which both New Atheists on the one hand, and religious people prone to cheap sentimentality and fideism on the other hand, disparage the rational credentials of religion, the Thomist’s message needs to be heard. Now perhaps more than ever.
Edward Feser is the author, most recently, of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, with Joseph Bessette.