Thursday, March 1, 2018

Hart on Five Proofs

At Church Life Journal, David Bentley Hart kindly reviews Five Proofs of the Existence of God.  From the review:

Edward Feser has a definite gift for making fairly abstruse philosophical material accessible to readers from outside the academic world, without compromising the rigor of the arguments or omitting challenging details… Perhaps the best example of this gift in action hitherto was his 2006 volume Philosophy of Mind: A Beginner’s Guide (at least, speaking for myself, I have both recommended it to general readers and used it with undergraduates, in either case with very happy results).  But this present volume is no less substantial an achievement

It is also a virtue on Feser’s part that the only God he cares to argue for is the God of “classical theism.” He does not waste any attention on debates (of the kind all too depressingly common in Anglophone philosophy of religion) over the possible reality of a single “supreme being” who exists alongside other, lesser beings, on the same ontological plane (so to speak), and set off from them only by virtue of his “maximal greatness,” or some other property that makes him far larger and far older than all other things.  Feser clearly grasps that, even if one could prove that such a being exists, this would bring us no nearer to an understanding of the true source of all reality (which for monotheists, presumably, is what the word “God” ideally refers to), but would merely provide us with one more entity whose existence must be accounted for…

The third argument Feser calls the “Augustinian” proof; it proceeds from the reality of universals, propositions, abstract truths, logical possibilities, and so forth, to that reality in which all these things must necessarily subsist: which (so the argument at last concludes) must be the divine intellect… Feser manages to bring out the logical force of this approach better than most of its other expositors…

In sum, Feser’s is an admirable achievement, and this book can be recommended for the classroom quite vigorously – but also, happily, not only for the classroom.  It accomplishes much in a fairly compact space, and does so with exemplary clarity.  In fact, it is among the best such volumes currently available in English.

End quote.  I thank Prof. Hart for his very kind words.  Hart also raises a couple of minor but useful criticisms, which I may address in a future post.  As they say, read the whole thing. 


  1. Very nice to see Drs. Hart and Feser in warm agreement!

  2. Hart is attempting to read PSR in a 'Divine Simplicity or "what caused God?" ' way.

    Really a lot of these people who talk about classical theism verses theistic personalism blur together a large number of different metaphysical and epistemological issues (specifically Thomist claims about existence and the analogical theory of language being prime examples). Note: I am not accusing anyone here of this - my barbs are more aimed at Radical Orthodoxy - but the easy way some of these theologians dismiss substantial philosophy of religion smacks rather of Myer’s ‘lepricology’ jibes about theology itself.

  3. It’s an other-worldly moment to see these men being nice to each other. Next thing you know, cats and dogs will be friends.

  4. Maybe they could do a collaborative project as co-editors (and, of course, contributors) on a volume about classical theism.

  5. A welcome change of tone. As much as I agree with Hart's overall assessment, I'm not sure there actually is another comparable volume in English on natural theology, at least not one that was published recently and aimed at a popular audience.

  6. Hart just highly recommended Feser’s book? Did the universe just implode into the Twilight Zone?!

  7. The difference between Hart and Carriers commentary is night and day.

  8. Well, that was a good review, and I agree with Hart's two points (about PSR and the best possible world)

  9. I like discussing ideas and dislike discussing people, so let me put this in metaphorical terms:

    The human mind is like chariot where the intellect is the horse and the spirit is the charioteer. When the horse and not the charioteer drives the chariot then one can get a fast moving chariot but not one that wins the race.

    Or: When trying to find one’s way in a thick forest, to be very capable in finding ways to overcome an obstacle is useful, but only if one is also is capable of seeing what the obstacles are.

    What I mean here is that having a fine intellect is not sufficient. One can be very clear-minded in one’s thought and quite myopic in one’s understanding. First open your eyes to perceive the light of the divine and then use your intellect.

  10. Hart mentioned an argument to the effect that the very distinction between necessity ad contingency might be used as an argument for the existence of God.

    What would such an argument look like though? It strikes me almost as if one were to take the very idea of essence and existence and thereby argue towards the high likelihood for the existence of that which is simple and without composition, simply from the existence of the distinction, without even having to argue for a causal explanation as to why anything has essence and existence combined, but simply a conceptual point that the very distinction would be unintelligible if it weren't for the actual existence of something that is existence itself.

    Another argument along this vein is arguing for the existence of God on the very basis of intelligibility. The very notion of intelligibility wouldn't even make any sense if there wasn't something that was the grounding of any and all intelligibility, that which was supremely intelligibile in itself. Heck, maybe the very existence of any explanation at all requires a grounding of intelligibility for there to even be anything even slightly explicable.

    The above argument would actually also be independent of PSR, and would work even if we accepted the actual existence of brute facts.

    Another interesting thing, though, is that the very notion of brute fact is a negative notion. We say that brute facts are facts without an explanation, meaning that they are a negation and privation of explicability.

    Something tells me that a Fourth Way style argument could be mabe for the existence of a supreme ground of intelligibility, similar to how we can show there is an ultimate Good since evil is just the privation of the good.

    1. I think the Augustinian proof, insofar as it seeks a grounding for possibilities and necessary truths, would be the type of argument to deal with such things. Is intelligibility as such merely the product of the human mind? No, quite the other way around, and also of course there are necessarily intelligible facts such as mathematical ones. Could it exist as a platonic form? No. Hence, neoplatonic/patristic/scholastic realism.

      The fourth way could be close too.

    2. @Miguel,

      "Could it exist as a platonic form? No."

      Wait, are there people who would want to claim that Intelligibility is a Platonic form? You know, intelligibility as such, like the Good and Being?

      "The fourth way could be close too."

      What exactly do you mean by this?

      When I said that intelligibility could lead us to God similar to the Fourth Way, what I was refering to is the fact that brute facts are negative in nature and are always conceived of as privations of intelligibility.

      Even brute facts have some sort of intelligibility, namely that they lack explanations, in a similar way to how evil is intelligible as a privation even though it doesn't actually exist.

      What I was mostly thinking of was an argument to the effect that just as things are called good insofar as they meet a certain standard of goodness, intelligibile things are intelligible insofar as they meet a certain standard of intelligibility.

      But goodness as a standard inevitably leads to that which is Goodness itself, so intelligibility as a positive standard inevitably must also lead to that which is Intelligibility itself, aka God.

      The argument sketched out above would also have the bonus of being independent of PSR, allowing for actual brute facts, which in this case would be akin to evil, namely privations of a higher positive reality rather than a reality unto themselves.

  11. This is very nice to see. It was the works of Feser and Hart that helped me to understand the truth of classical theism more clearly.

    These classical arguments, to me, become more profound and so obviously true as time goes by. Once you see it, you can't unsee it.

  12. Hart of Gold, Closer to the Hart, Kickstart My Hart...

    I'm disappointed in you, Professor.

  13. I think that, for those who follow philosophy of religion, the gem of the book is the chapter on the Augustinian proof. The other chapters are really good and present solid defenses of important arguments, but they're all variations on cosmological arguments (start from a feature of reality, PC/PSR, rule out a regress, concludes the existence of a causally effective independent being). Those who follow the literature will be familiar with them. By contrast, the Augustinian proof is a completely different argument, and hasn't received nearly as much attention in contemporary philosophy as cosmological arguments have, and Feser gives it a really good treatment. Because of that, it's likely to be the more "innovative" chapter of the book for those who are already familiar with natural theology.

    1. @Miguel,

      "start from a feature of reality, PC/PSR, rule out a regress,"

      In other words, 3 of the arguments in the book can be viewed as using variations on the PSR/PC.

      If PSR and PC were false, then this would entail:

      1) In the case of the Aristotelian argument that every moment of existence is a brute fact, a sort of popping into existence, which means that (if we deny PSR/PC) that there are as many brute facts as there are moments of existence. Literally.

      Just as the moment a blue ball pops into existence is unexplained, so is every moment it continues to exist, and the moment it begins to exist and all the moments it continues to exist are equally shockingly unexplained.

      2) In the case of the Neo-Platonic proof, everything composite is being composed for no reason. The consequences are the same as for 1).

      3) In the case of the Thomistic one, that essence and existence are composed for no reason. Same as 1) and 2).

    2. The case of the essence/existence distinction is interesting because one can derive an argument for PC (and perhaps for PSR) from it. Pruss defends it as the "Second Thomistic argument" in his book on PSR; basically, there is an interdependence between essence and existence in order to halt a vicious regress, but the regress cannot be stopped without a cause for beings whose essence is distinct from their existence. It's an interesting argument for PC that I have yet to see generate more discussion.

    3. I think that, for those who follow philosophy of religion, the gem of the book is the chapter on the Augustinian proof.

      I'm in agreement with you, Miguel. It's by far the most interesting proof in Ed's book.

    4. @Miguel,

      Are you talking about the Garrigou-Lagrange and Scott M. Sullivan argument based on the principle of identity and how things are distinguished from nothing?

    5. No, it's a different argument that follows from 1) the distinction between essence and esse 2) a vicious regress of essence/esse (does the esse of X have jts own essence and esse? No; but as the esse of X it must be so because of the essence of X; the essence of X must preexist the esse of X by being a general essence, but a general essence can only be instantiated through a being that has esse), 3) the interdependence of essence/esse makes it possible to avoid the vicious regress only if mixtures of essence/esse have causes.

      I might have gotten a few things wrong, since it's been a while since I've read the argument. It is the "Second Thomistic Argument" that Pruss discusses in his book on PSR. (There is a section called "three thomistic arguments" I think; he gives three attempted thomistic metaphysical arguments for PC and is ambivalent about the first and the third, but thinks the second works)

      As I said, it's an interesting argument and it hasn't been discussed enough.

  14. Btw, I second Hart's comments on "The Philosophy of Mind", it's the best introduction I've seen on the subject (in part because it doesn't have a naïve scientistic/materialist bent in its presentation). Start working on a specialized book about the soul already, ffs

    1. IIRC, he already is ;)

      I’m almost sure I’ve seen somewhere Prof. Feser saying that he’s got four books in the works: one on the philosophy of nature, one on sexual morality and one on the soul (don’t quite remember the other one right now... was it on the Trinity or maybe on the truth of Catholicism?...).

    2. Would be great if Prof. Feser wrote a few updated books. He has since changed his philosophical outlook since writing those early books has he not?

    3. My dream list

      Updated Scholastic metaphysics (I spotted an error in his treatment of the ERP paradox in relation to QM and principle of causality - it was a 2013 copy so I don't know if its been updated to correct it)

      A Collaboration with Dr Stephen Barr for a book on the scholastic take on QM - It would also be good I think for Dr Barr as he misunderstand's the proof from motion - at least in my copy of modern physics ancient faith).

    4. @Just another mad Catholic:

      "Updated Scholastic metaphysics (I spotted an error in his treatment of the ERP paradox in relation to QM and principle of causality - it was a 2013 copy so I don't know if its been updated to correct it)"

      What was the error? It was a while since I have read the book, but I have no recollection of any errors in regards to QM.

  15. @Anonymous at 12:00pm

    I may be mistaken, but I think I recall Feser saying that the fourth book would be on the motives of credibility of the Catholic Faith.

  16. Carrier is back


    1. Wow this is bad. I'm actually embarrassed for Carrier. Just a complete and total lack of self-awareness. Yet another great example of the kind of ineptitude you get when you combine disdain, arrogance, and ignorance.

    2. Carrier is a joke. He believes he is infallible and nothing can convince him. Feser should not waist time on him. I read enough Carrier's blog over the years.

    3. I'm not qualified to say whether Carrier succeeded or not, but what was "bad" about his response? At least Carrier goes in depth in his response to Feser, whereas Feser addressed only one of Carrier's arguments, and (if Carrier is right) did a poor job at it (e.g. the Platonism issue).

      "He believes he is infallible and nothing can convince him."

      Like many Catholics, who also think the Church's magisterium is infallible.

    4. Carrier's M.O.: Write a post, and respond to any attempt to rebut it with a post that's twice as long as the original post. Since Carrier doesn't have a real job, he can spend all day online writing ever longer responses, knowing that at some point, the other party will decide to call it a day. Carrier and his adoring fans will then claim victory. Most people who have actually studied philosophy will be able to see where the real ineptitude lies, and the opinions of those who know little to no philosophy don't really matter. Further, the latter group can always decide to read Dr. Feser's book(s) and decide for themselves who really knows what he's talking about (if they're serious enough).

    5. Feser should reply. Feser is not time wasting if Carrier still has a following. He is also an idiot for linking through to this blog, because his followers will see that Carrier is in fact an intellectual fraud.

      Claiming something is incoherent is not the same as saying one cannot grasp an 'oh so brilliant argument' Richard. Your argument was nonsense and didn't make sense, that was the issue!

      If you keep dangling yourself as a piñata for serious philosophers Richard they will keep striking. Of course you don't seem to be aware of what you are talking about so... Let the comedy ensue!

      On a more charitable note could I suggest you stick to your specialism or maybe read up a little on the philosophy of religion. I am sure you are capable of grasping that and articulating it with some sincere effort.

    6. As much as it may be irritating and Feser has other things to do I think Edward Feser should spend a lot of time to tear that post apart (even though it is not a serious or honest scholarly post).

      There are atheist's who may follow Carrier who deserve to know the truth about him as a 'scholar'. He doesn't even seem to understand anything he is writing about. Where did he get his credentials? Has he ever been published in a peer reviewed journal?

    7. A Counter Rebel

      Carrier certainly behaves as he is infallible. Probably the greatest intance of this was his exchange with astrophyicist Luke A. Barnes fine-tuning:

  17. I've been looking at Carrier's review, too. It's awful.

    Writes Carrier:

    "I ... explain how Aristotle actually solved that problem (of how forms and patterns exist), and it’s none of the options Feser gives in his premises. And Aristotle’s solution is actually the correct one. And that eliminates Premise 41 of Feser’s argument. Feser falsely claims he addressed that option in his book. He did not."

    And in his original post, he attacks Ed's premise 41 as a false dichotomy, remarking that "Aristotle took Plato to task for the mistake Feser is making, pointing out that it is not necessary that potential patterns actually exist in some concrete or mental form."

    Except that Ed's argument wasn't about potential patterns, but actual ones, as he explicitly states in premise 40: "So, the forms or patterns manifest in all the things it causes must in some way be in the purely actual actualizer."

    I might add that Ed addresses Aristotelian realism and why he thinks it fails, on pages 99 to 102 of his book, which Carrier never bothers to address.

    I find it amusing that Carrier thinks Ed is the one with reading problems.

    There's more. Carrier writes:

    "In fact, you can conceivably have a God only if there is a place and a time for him to exist (otherwise, he literally 'exists nowhere' and 'never exists,' which is by definition not existing). So God needs spacetime. Spacetime doesn’t need God."

    And here's the money quote from Carrier's link:

    "...[I]f God has no location, then by definition there is no location at which God exists. And if there is no location at which God exists, then God exists nowhere, which entails that God does not exist."

    Dumb as a rock.

  18. When you use abbreviations, please first write out the whole thing. I have absolutely no idea what 'PSR' is supposed to mean.