Friday, March 16, 2012

“When a wise man points at the moon the imbecile examines the finger.”

"“When a wise man points at the moon the imbecile examines the finger.” ― Confucius"

This is a brief review of an excellent polemic work I finished about a week ago.
Late last year I was given the heads up by a blogger friend, Dr Michael Egnor, on an excellent book by philosopher and sometimes apologist Edward Feser. The work  is called " 
The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism",  and I had tried in vain to get it on my book list. I waited patiently to no avail. I read reviews and several synops, but it never showed. Eventually, sick of my griping about it and no doubt sick of listening to my philosophical rants about Platonic and Augustinian ideas, my wife decided to change the channel and order it in from Amazon. 
What a treat!
It had been years since I rummaged through my inherited volumes of Aristotle and Aquinas (dad was a history/philosophy major/prof)...and I must admit the idea of picking up these HUGE works again was intimidating. Sitting on shelf in what is supposed to be a dining room they loom like Cathedrals next to the 
comparatively  teeny-tiny shack-like paperbacks by Descartes, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Locke and many other 'moderns'. Like comic books next to collection of Wells, Kipling, or Poe, the moderns seem much more accessible, but at the same time obviously less well thought out - even simply judged just by sheer volume of language.
Big ideas take big, long, explanations... and big long times to read. 

Feser came to the rescue. Here is a young, fresh, new take on the arguments that gave us logic and reason - before a few 'enlightened' minds repackaged them clumsily and tied them in ribbons of fallacy and self refutation. 
Feser is what is commonly known as an Aristotelian-Thomistic thinker (A-T henceforth). His logic and reason are OLD school. Like a breath of fresh air, he argues for the objective and common sense approach to science and reality. His purpose is purpose.
Perhaps it would be better to say he is counter-non-
He denies the trendy-hipster nihilism of today's scientific and philosophical elites with a real American flair. 

This wonderfully written work is not for the lazy minded or uninitiated in the works of the philosophical masters, You need a little background - but not much, as Feser does a great job of countering his own arguments, just as Aristotle and Aquinas did. He lists objections and demolishes them with military precision.

Some of the oh-so-hip ideas treated to a damn good tomahawk strike are eliminative materialism, Darwinism (social and dogma), Paleyism (intelligent design), the 'landscape', 'evolutionary psychology' and 'theory of the mind', positivism/scientism, and of course the academic elitism that promotes such pseudo-scientific nonsense as holy writ.  These concepts are shown as lunacy, fallacies, based on fallacy, or just sometimes banal and irrelevant. 
He discusses and dissects the popular arguments of men like Richard Dawkins, Michael Dennet, and Peter Singer. But he also takes on serious academics of the 'Enlightenment' . Hume, Kant, Locke, Descartes, and company. Feser exposes the real motive behind the movement and the costs and effects of that reductive trend.
Naturalism is not spared a very sceptical look, either.  
This is no 'flat earth' type argument or work. Quite the contrary.
Feser seeks to open the mind and expose modern dogma for what it is: Vapid and unguided self refutation in the name of nothingness and randomness; arrogant and very, very silly.
I could not agree on his central premise any more.

We do not, however, agree on every point.
There was some notable team sports-like 
'partisanship' that seems to infect every polemic work written in the United States for the last 30 or so years and lumps unrelated issues together to impress a target audiend. Constant references to an extinct 'liberalism' (the American word for 'secular progressive' or collectivism), comparisons between pot smoking and immorality (I am reminded of the Sesame Street segment 'Wich one of these things does not belong here? Which one of these things is not the same') but that can be forgiven considering the charged historical context in which it was written and the very nature  of this work; which is obviously polemic.
Another note of disagreement is the treatment that scholastics like Feser give the animal world. While I completely agree that humans are exceptional beings and that we hold a very special place and purpose in the order of things - I cannot agree that animals have no ability to reason.
Less? Sure.
Different? Definitely.
But I would not concede they do not reason at all. I have far too much personal experience with many types of critters to buy into that line. In all honesty I think the 'right' and 'left' both tell themselves this and include it in their stance with equal measure (ie man is superior to the lowly beast, or man is just another lowly beast) in order to justify the large scale industrial nastiness committed on them as a justifiable comfort or indulgence. I think we, as a people, tend to sleep better at night when we, in our utterly consumerist/materialist society,  imagine the animals we treat so cruelly to stock our meat aisles with cheap cuts as incapable of sorrow and pain and as soulless, or in the case of many scholastics like Feser as lesser souls more or less mortal, single use souls.
Again, the times we live in.
I prefer the guilt and shame of knowing the objective truth: Animals have a different purpose and final causality, but they TOO are God's creatures. They too transcend. I tend to think like the Hebrews of old along these lines.
All that noted, this book is a great work. Not just good, but great. The arguments against a strictly material approach to reality are flawless and inescapable; AND it actually makes you WANT to pick up those massive dusty volumes of the A-T and scholastics in order to get into them.
Over-all I would give his work a 4.5/5. Top notch stuff.
Feser ends his work with the title of this blog-post. He sums up his argument for function, purpose, cause and effect with a brilliant observation by the Eastern Master Confucius.

“When a wise man points at the moon the imbecile examines the finger.”
 And with that the finger is raised to new Atheism, who's faithful clergy clearly do not even notice the moon being presented to them. 

Personal note: Thanks for the tip, Mike. Hardcover has been ordered to sit next to my David Berlinsky collection and confuse my children for years to come;  and the "Summa"  and "Causes" dusted off and 'ready to rock'.  The wife will enjoy the change of venue, I am sure :P


  1. crus,

    Great review. I agree with the questions about animal reasoning. I have a dog who is quite crafty-- it's hard to believe that he doesn't have some kind of reasoning process.

    Feser is brilliant. His books on the mind and on Aquinas are superb as well, and much less polemic.

    He opened up a new world to me.


  2. Mike,
    Thanks again for turning me on to Feser. I agree! They guy is a VERY sharp intellect and I really enjoy his style. Very engaging indeed. An eye opener.
    I will have to order his books on the mind as well. Maybe I will get his work on Aquinas as a companion, but I intend to take that inquiry right to the source: Summa Time :P
    Great book. Thanks again for the heads up. I would not even have known he existed if it had not been for Egnorance!


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.