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"Five Proofs of the Existence of God"

Five Proofs of the Existence of God
November 29th, 2017

Edward Feser is a very readable and insightful author, not to mention a prolific one![1] And this work is no exception. There was only one thing overlooked, however, and that was a failure to attach the following warning for the protection of the new atheists: abandon all hope, ye who enter here. For in presenting his extensive case for classical theism, he dashes to pieces the pretensions of the new-atheists. (And it's not the first time he's done so.)

I like the cover
Perhaps, the first bad omen for Dawkins and Co. is the list of thinkers Feser draws from: Aristotle, Plotinus, Leibniz, Augustine, Aquinas. 'Who the hell are these people?' is probably all the new atheist can say. If knowing your enemy is half the battle, there is certainly no hope for the new atheists; however, Feser clearly knows the arguments of the new atheist and serious atheist alike. (The two camps, if they overlap, only do so only slightly.)

The book is divided into seven chapters, five for the five arguments for God's existence that he presents: (1) The Aristotelian Proof; (2) The Neo-Platonic Proof; (3) The Augustinian Proof; (4) The Thomistic Proof; (5) The Rationalist Proof. (The first four are kinds of cosmological arguments.) The sixth chapter is devoted to completing the work of explaining why we can know that God has the divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, etc.), which he only touches on in the course of giving his five arguments, as well as explaining how God relates to the world. The seventh chapter more fully addresses objections to the arguments and project of natural theology. And it is with such objections, and Feser's responses, that I'll begin my summary.

Perhaps you don't see what's so great about cosmological arguments. How could you write 300 pages arguing that, since everything has a cause, and the universe has a cause, therefore, God exists. What caused God? Wouldn't God need a cause? Yet, if he doesn't, why think that the universe does? It's just so obviously wrong, right! Wrong! and Feser shows why.

While this straw-man is surprisingly popular among atheists, even among philosophers who should know better, it is nowhere embraced by any theist thinker. Indeed, the question the atheist should be asking isn't 'How could they believe something so obviously wrong', but 'Since they aren't idiots, even if they're wrong, this can't be what they're actually saying, so what are they actually saying?' If you read the first four chapters, you'll see what they actually are saying, and if you still don't get it by the seventh, he'll remind you again: theists don't say that everything has a cause, but that everything that begins to exist, is contingent, has an essence distinct from its existence, is composite, is a mixture of act and potency, etc. has a cause, which is a very different claim from 'everything has a cause'.[2]

Thus it will it not do for an atheist to dismiss the cosmological arguments that Feser presents as being mere superficial variants of a purported 'basic version' of the cosmological argument which argues that from the premise that 'everything has a cause'. One might as well dismiss evolution on similar grounds: sure no one actually says that humans descended from monkeys, but this is the basic version of evolution, everything else being mere superficial alterations to this basic claim, which is obviously wrong; thus we can easily dismiss evolution. Evolutionists would be rightly irked at such lazy thinking; well, us theists expect the same from you atheists.

Since the claim isn't 'everything has a cause' (where God is somehow arbitrarily exempted from this principle), saying that God lacks a cause whereas everything that isn't God has one isn't ad hoc. The claim is principled. Those things which are contingent, mixtures of act and potency, whose essences are really distinct form their existence, etc. must have a cause given the kind of things they are, but something which exists necessarily, and is pure actuality, and just is existence itself, etc. need not - indeed, could not - have a cause because of the kind of reality that He is.

Now before discussing the five proofs a bit, perhaps a word is in order about the word choice (i.e., "proof"). Doesn't "proof" seem a bit over-confident? Isn't "proof" only applicable in math or science? Actually, no. By "proof" Feser is indicating that the arguments rest on metaphysical positions that cannot coherently be denied (e.g., one can't coherently deny that change exists, or that composite objects exist, or that there are propositions that are necessarily true independent of human awareness of them), and the argument proceeded premise by premise deductively, and hence the conclusion they arrive at is certain. This isn't to say that every person who examines the arguments will accept them, at least not after the first few times they consider them. But this, he maintains, doesn't change the fact that they are proofs. (For comparison's sake, the Pythagorean theorem doesn't become less sure because I might ignorantly doubt or disbelieve it.)

As to his arguments I'll be brief, since I expect to argue for God's existence at greater depth elsewhere. First, to aid in understanding, some preliminary remarks are proper. Not only do these arguments not depend on the claim that 'everything has a cause' (a claim which he rejects), but they also don't rest on the claim that the universe as a whole began to exist or has a cause. Concerning the former claim - that the universe began to exist - these arguments would go through even if the universe was past eternal; concerning the latter - that the universe as a whole has a cause - this certainly is true, but it isn't a claim his arguments rest upon. You could start with the existence or activities of a rubber ball, a table or a water molecule and find out that God must exist as that things first cause here and now (and, by extension, anything else relevantly like that rubber ball, table or water molecule, namely, everything that is not God).

There is also the crucial distinction that Feser makes between two kinds of causal series. The first is a causal series ordered per accidens, which he helpfully refers to as a linear causal series, the other ordered per se, which he calls a hierarchical series. Understanding this distinction between the two kinds of series is the key to understanding why these arguments don't depend on a temporal beginning to the universe, but instead argue that anything in it must here and now have a first cause. Thankfully, Feser provides illustrations for these two kinds of series to aid the reader in apprehending them.

Set Your Fesers to Fun!
A father begetting a son, who begets a son, who begets a son and so on - this is an example of a linear causal series, of the sort that could in principle be past eternal.[3] You pushing a stick, which in turn pushes a rock - this is an example of a hierarchical causal series. What's the difference between the two? Note that a man can have children of his own even if his father dies. So his causal power to beget a son doesn't depend on his father's existence, that is, it is not here and now derived from the previous member(s) of the series. However, in the second illustration, the stick only moves the stone insofar as it is being moved by your hand. That is, in a hierarchical causal series, each member depends on the prior members for its existence and/or causal power. They are all instruments of the prior members, and therefore, only exist or function if the previous members do; thus they must all operate simultaneously with each other if they are to exist / operate at all.[4]

Now, the above illustration of a hierarchical casual series, while a bit simplistic, it is sufficient to see that, in such a series, its members are all instrumental causes, and hence don't act (or exist) on their own. More accurately, all but one of the series is an instrumental cause, existing or having causal power in a derivative way. Now the reason why we say 'all but one' is clearly not ad hoc, since the series must terminate. If every member of the series is an instrumental cause, then nothing could happen or none of them could exist. (In that case, what would they be instruments of?) Something that derives it's existence / causal power derives it from something, or it doesn't exist or have causal power, and that which doesn't have existence or causal power can't impart these to anything else.

So there has to be a first cause to get the whole series going; first, not in the sense of existing a temporally before the other (secondary) members of the series, but in having underived causal power and existence which it can in turn impart to the secondary causes.

Feser argues that the existence and activities of objects of every day experience here and now, including ourselves, fit into hierarchical causal series, and hence there must, in actuality, be a First Cause. For example: here and now,we are beings whose existence (that we are) is really distinct from our essence (what we are), and hence there must be something that 'puts them together', as it were, here and now, and if that which does so also has an essence distinct from its existence here and now it also needs these to be conjoined, etc., which is a hierarchical causal series. Now, this must terminate in something that can impart existence without deriving it from something other than itself, that is in something whose essence just is existence. The other three cosmological argument Feser develops, while independent from each other (insofar as they take their starting points from different aspects of everyday objects), reason in similar fashion.

He doesn't argue that this First Cause is the God of the Bible, though, he does believe that this is so; but that isn't the focus of this book, so his failing to make this further argument is not a defect in the book. But, as noted above, he argues why this First Cause must have the divine attributes (intellect, will, power and so forth), and why there could only be one such First Cause / God. And this is as important a task as arguing for the existence of the First Cause. It's fine to say that there is a First Cause that is pure actuality, or existence it self, or is purely simple, but this doesn't sound personal, and hence, not much like God. I can't do justice to how he argues for attributing the divine attributes to the First Cause of all things, but I will say a word or two on this matter in summary.

Probably omnipotence is the easiest of the divine attributes that can be seen. As noted above, everything depends on the First Cause of its existence and causal powers (and anything else that could possibly exist would as well), and hence this First Cause is omnipotent.

And yet, this isn't a personal attribute. Feser says much to argue for God's intellect and volition and goodness. I'll say less. He argues that God has knowledge, and thus intellect, from the first chapter on, but it has pride of place in his chapter on the Rationalist Proof, and then is further developed in his chapter on the divine attributes and God's relation to the world (Chapter 6). One argument he makes for this First Cause having knowledge takes as its starting point the principle that everything in an effect must exist in the total cause of that effect in some way. There are various ways this it can exist in its total effect - formally, virtually, etc. - and Feser does well in illustrating these concepts to the uninitiated. I won't do that, however.

Suffice it to say that the principle that the effect must exist in some way in the total effect must be true, given that the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) is true. The PSR says that everything that exists has an explanation as to its existence and attributes. (Why believe the PSR? In short, the world acts as if is true, and not as if it is false. Also, to deny it is ultimately self-refuting.[5]) If some part of the effect didn't exist in the total cause, then its existence would lack an explanation. Feser argues that the way everything that God causes to exist exists in God is analogous to the way our own intellects can grasp things, and thus there is in God something analogous to intellect.

I just said analogously. What is the significance of that? Basically it is that we can't talk about God univocally. He doesn't exist in the same way as you or I do, he isn't good in the same way as you and I are, and so forth. However, we can predicate existence, goodness, intellect, power, etc. to God in a meaningful way; that is, we are not predicating existence, goodness, power, etc. to God equivocally compared to how we can predicate it of human beings. The senses are not wholly dissimilar. Feser provides arguments for analogical predication, also noting that we even employ it to describe the findings of science. Analogical predication, which Feser explains with technical precision, makes sense of the fact that God, as the most metaphysically fundamental reality is going to be unlike created things like you or me, and yet can be partially grasped; thus, when talking about God, we are not just limited to negative statements about God (God is not X), but can make positive ones too (Gos is Y). So this is an important part of natural theology, and one masterfully developed by Feser.

Before I finish my summary and officially recommend this book, I must describe what he says about God's relation to the world. Above, I noted that God is the source of the existence and causal power of everything that is not God. This would seem to indicate that God determines everything that happens as far as secondary causes are concerned. How can you are I have free will, if our causal powers stem from God? Here Feser usefully explicates various views on secondary causality (including human causality) opting for divine concurrence, which preserves human freedom, and the fact that secondary causes are true causes, and yet respects the fact that God is the first cause upon which everything depends. He has more to say about this as he describes God's relation to the world, of course, which just goes to show that this is quite an exhaustive work.

So, should you read Feser's new book? Yes! He gives a useful 300 page defense and explication of theism, gives important insights into how we can talk and think about God, and pushes back against numerous objections to both the project and arguments of natural theology. I only hope that my summary hasn't made it seem otherwise. And if it moves you to buy this book, I'm pleased.

P.S. It might be helpful to first read The Last Superstition and Aquinas.[6] Moreover, if one is up for a much more technical book, Scholastic Metaphysics goes into greater depth about many of the themes that Five Proofs. And of course, these books, like any worth reading, should be read multiple times, for that is how one profits the most.

[1] Here's a list of books that he's written (as of November 29th, 2017): (1) On Nozick; (2) Philosophy of Mind; (3) The Cambridge Companion to Hayek; (4) Locke; (5) The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism; (6) Aquinas; (7) Aristotle on Method and Metaphysics; (8) Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction; (9) Neo-Scholastic Essays; (10) [with J. Bessette] By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment; and (11) Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Not to mention he's also a college professor, essayist, blogger and father of six children!

[2] Given the popularity of this caricature of the cosmological argument, one wonders how well justified the atheism of most atheists really is. This should indicate that the case that Feser and his ancient predecessors make is at best only out of style, not refuted; and that listening to it on its own terms is urgently needed.

[3] At least as far as Feser is concerned in this book. In one of his blog posts, he indicates he is agnostic about the Kalam Cosmological argument (KCA), which argues that the universe is past finite. (This argument is defended by the likes of William Lane Craig and David S. Oderberg.) Myself, I tend to think that neither kind of causal series can be past infinite, though, I'm not entirely sure about the KCA.

[4] Simultaneity is not to be confused with instantaneous-ness.

[5] If it was false, then we would have no reason in principle to think that anything else of our experience has an explanation, even things which we think we have explanations for. That there seems to be an explanation is merely a brute, ultimately inexplicable fact. Indeed, this goes as far as undermining rational thought. While we take the reasons for a conclusion as explanations for why we accept that conclusion, given a denial of the PSR, we would have nor reason in principle to think that we deny the PSR for any reason, even if we think we have a reasons to deny it. Thus to deny the PSR is self-refuting.

If the PSR was false, then we should expect things to come into being without an explanation all of the time. Root beer bottles should be appearing everywhere, and yet that doesn't happen and my thirst is not quenched. Instead, the world (in itself, if not in our finite grasp of it) is rather regular and orderly, which would be a miracle if the PSR is not true.

[6] The Last Superstition is rather polemical, mean spirited some might say. However, that book should be understood in context, namely as a response to the works of the new atheists, who are, when it comes to matters philosophical and theological, as ignorant as a mule, but as flamboyantly derisive as all get out. Feser gives them a taste of their own medicine here, but then out does them in that he provides solid argumentation. Most of his other works, such as the one under discussion here, however, are more dispassionate, since they respond to (or are in part meant for) more sober minded and reasonable atheist critics.

This post first appeared on Witness Seeking Orthodoxy, please read the originial post: here

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"Five Proofs of the Existence of God"


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