The Last Superstition Book Review

This book review was accidentally taken down in a site update. This is the most popular book review I have ever written, so it seems worthwhile to revisit. I've long been a fan of Ed Feser, and I recommend his work. The tone of The Last Superstition has been offputting to some, but Feser knew what he was doing. If you think Feser is bad, you should read the things his critics have said about him. At least Feser feels the need to prove his assertions. If that isn't your cup of tea, he has written plenty of books with a more academic tone. Philosophy of Mind is well done. I haven't yet read Aquinas, but I managed to acquire two copies already.

The Last Superstition
by Edward Feser
ISBN 978-1587314520; $19.00

Edward Feser's The Last Superstition is a polemical work. However, this should not be surprising for two reasons. First, Feser is dealing with amounts to not mere nonsense, but nonsense on stilts. Second, Feser once wrote an essay entitled, "Can Philosophy be Polemical?", pondering whether it is appropriate to engage in polemical debate over philosophical questions. In this book, Feser answers that question in the affirmative. He freely admits in the preface, "If this seems to be an angry book, that is because it is." (TLS, x) Feser regards the creed of the New Atheists as dangerous both personally and socially, and his response is écrasez l'infâme.

The Last Superstition is the book I had been wanting, not because it is a tract against the New Atheism, but because it summarizes the best arguments for an Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics in the face of modern objections. This metaphysics is presented as it developed historically, beginning with the pre-Socratics, on through Plato and Aristotle, to its full flowering among the Scholastics. Feser covers change, actuality and potency, form and matter, the four causes, arguments for the existence of God, and the rational foundations of morality.

By succinctly providing this history, Feser is providing a service to all those who have forgotten, or never truly knew what are the main features of an Aristotelian philosophy. For Feser's most damning criticism of Richard Dawkins et al. is that they have simply not bothered to do their homework. By not collecting the relevant data, they have sinned against the spirit of the science in whose name they crusade. To publish a scientific paper without any evidence would be scandalous, but is precisely the case that Feser makes against them. None of the New Atheists demonstrates any familiarity with the actual arguments of historical theist philosophers except for Rev. William Paley, who functions as a convenient whipping boy.

By way of example, Feser quotes the admission of philosopher Antony Flew in 2004 that he now believes in the existence of God despite a lifetime of argument to the contrary. Flew admitted that he had never actually considered the Aristotelian arguments for the existence of God, and was forced to admit their cogency upon doing so. Those whom Feser targets in The Last Superstition have not yet bothered to consult the texts. Feser documents this amply through quotations from the New Atheists' works.

The weakest part of Feser's argument is in the section on natural law. The difficulty is not that the best contemporary formulation is not presented. The difficulty is that contemporary natural law arguments use human, homo sapiens, and person univocally. These are not just different things, they are different kinds of things. To use the Scholastic terminology, each belongs to a different genus. However, this failure leaves Feser's main argument untouched, because Aristotle and Aquinas were alike able to discern rational foundations for morality without the benefit of a modern doctrine of natural rights that makes use of equivocal terms.

Feser's references are very good, providing further information for the many points which could be elaborated upon. Covering as much ground as this book does would be impossible without considering a great many complicated and subtle topics briefly. However, this is not to say that Feser does not adequately address his topic. He makes short work of the New Atheists due to the poverty of their arguments, and then briefly presents arguments that modernity is more comprehensible if one considers modern problems in light of broadly Aristotelian philosophy. In particular, many of the perennial questions of modern philosophy, such as the mind-body problem or the validity of inductive reasoning become explainable with Aristotle's more robust account of causation. Feser's task is made easier here by the latent Aristotelianism lurking in every corner of Western Civilization. We do not notice our debt to Aristotle for the same reason that fish do not feel wet.

Edward Feser's The Last Superstition is a worthy introduction to the realist philosophical tradition, and is enlivened by Feser's sharp wit. Good for anyone who would like to know more about Aristotelian philosophy.