A response to Dean Esmay; part two

Ok, Dean Esmay’s book arrived the other day. Let’s have a look at it.

The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (drum roll)…

Firstly, let’s address the Christian/Right Winger Persecution Complex on display. Its bloody everywhere! The preface alone comes off like a conspiracy theorist’s manifesto about gay marriage being some secret government backed program to erode America’s moral fibre. Atheists are presented in the same light as Soviet era communists, lurking behind the icecream stand, ready to snatch your children away and teach them socialism. Indeed, ‘Atheist’ and ‘Liberal’ are used synonymously and with the same manner as one would use the word ‘paedophile’.

Feser makes the usual assertion that secularism/atheism/liberalism is a religion, never explaining why in anything other than the most vapid terms. Naturally, we atheists are all irrational, immoral, sinful, blah, blah, blah, blah. But of course, the religious out there are possessed of a moral superiority, an intellectual rigour and a virtuous disposition. I cannot disagree more. There is nothing virtuous about believing in unsupported religious metaphysical claims that derive from superstitious Bronze-age tribesmen who knew less about how the universe works than your average primary school pupil.

The book is a bit of a slog because you’ve got to get all the sycophantic pandering to the Christian Apologists out of the way first. Oh, and the constant insults to the morals, intelligence and character of the secular community. And quote mining. And the homophobia.

Secondly, I want to address the phrase ‘New Atheist’. Arguably I think we have Sam Harris to blame for the term, and Hitchens as well as Dawkins. I know of no atheist who actually calls themselves a ‘New Atheist’ and based on the wiki article it would appear to be a publishing term more than anything. In brief it refers to the criticism of religion. That’s a new thing? What were people like Diagoras of Melos, Epicurus and Meslier doing? Oh, I get it, they were philosophers, right? They just happened to be atheists.

People like Dean tend to say things were better when atheists knew their place – note that I am not attributing this to Dean, merely its sentiment. Well, chummy, I quite like being able to tell the man in the robe that I think he looks a tit and that I think mutilating someone’s junk is horrific. Dean and I both agree that feminism has flaws and the only way we can correct those flaws is by challenging it. The same is true for religion.

Anyway.

Feser, the author talks about the hostility and distortions of the new atheist movement while hostiley distorting their positions. This is classic Chicken vs Egg; I am scornful of you because you are scornful of me. In a way it’s clever – Feser drags everyone down into the mud with him, making all positions tawdry and tedious, never delivering a killer argument or evidence and cutting off the responses as ridiculous. He plays the wounded man of humility when it suits him, trying to convince us that the atheist’s condescension is unwarranted, and therefore his position has merit.

Naturally internet atheists like me are scornful and mocking – we think your ideas are bad and you should feel bad for having them. Feser, however, never addresses any of the published work on the issue of god, belief and the superiority of a secular society.

But, finally, under all that you get to the good stuff; God’s Existence.

Refuting each point would take me years and would be as rewarding as wanking while beating myself in the face with a hammer, so I’ll do a brief hatchet job on some bits that interested me.

Feser has a weird view of rationality, saying that ‘we shall see, exactly what morality is from the point of view of Aristotle and Aquinas: the habitual choice of actions that further the hierarchically ordered natural ends entailed by human nature….The highest fulfilment of the distinctively human power of intellect, then, is, for Aristotle and Aquinas, to know God.

The only response I can think of to that is why God? He had me right up until ‘to know God.’ A little limiting perhaps, but functional and at least not directly abuse-able. But what part of rationality directly relates to god? And why should we care about what Aristotle and Aquinas say? If we want to be rational why tie ourselves to ideas and principles put forward by old men from bronze age Greece? Surely, a more robust definition of rationality is one that excludes the association with individuals and focuses on the immediate environment one finds one’s self in?

Feser talks about the soul, and the perception ancient philosophers had about it. Needless to say, none of them make sense. For example; a rational soul has free will, yet this is logically incompatible with the Aristotelian principle, making it a self-refuting position to take. Additionally, all the things that allow us to do this ‘living’ thing are adequately explained by science so why use a word as antiquated and inaccurate as ‘soul’ to describe them. Also, when did the rational soul begin to exist? Did Homo erectus have it? What about Neanderthals?

Feser says that when we think of the nature, essence, or form of a thing (eg; when I think of the cupcakishness of a cupcake), it’s necessarily the same thing as the nature, essence, or form we are thinking about (my idea of a cupcake is a cupcake) and if we didn’t think think about the things, whether they be triangles, cupcakes, or whatever then we wouldn’t be able to think about them because they wouldn’t be real. What things are is determined by their essence or form, basically. Which is absurd.

Feser tries to make an argument against abortion based on his belief in the soul (the essence, nature, structure, organizational pattern of a living thing). It boils down to; consciousness begins at conception. The problem with this is that we know it doesn’t.

He pulls out another tired old hat about DNA being literal code and programing language, forgetting that these are just analogies. We use computer terminology to describe DNA because today computer references are the one thing we’re all passingly familiar with and are a perfect short hand for ‘big complex, much science, wow’.

Feser tries to show that realism is true and that nominalism and conceptualism are false (ie; you only think numbers are concepts, numbers are in fact really real, no seriously you guys, don’t give me that look). The reason why he’s trying to do so starts becoming clear when he does his triangle bit; ‘A triangle is a triangle only because it participates in the Form of Trianglarity… By the same token, something is going to count as a better triangle the more perfectly it participates in or instantiates triangularity…’

There’s a real problem with comparing the “essence” of a one thing to another. This is the prefect essence of one thing, but can we determine the perfect essence of another? Remember that bit in Conan; the Barbarian; ‘What is best in life?’ Yeah, it’s like that, because everyone is going to have a different idea of what something’s ‘essence is’.

Feser goes on at great length about causality and Aristotelian metaphysics, reminding us that ‘there cannot be efficient causes without final ones.’ Why he has such faith in bronze age philosophy I don’t know, and his assurances that they cannot be refuted are like a child clinging to the belief that if they can’t see the monster then it can’t see them.

His arguments for causality boil down to ‘I ate cheese and it made me sick. Therefore cheese’s purpose is to make people sick’.

Conclusion.

Feser’s purpose here is to attack the opposing position, rather than shore up his own. He does this by being biased, hyperbolic and condescending, all the while claiming his position’s virtues are the superior, despite displaying none.

So, Dean, is that the best you got?

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