From the archives: Dawkins, Aquinas, and Feser

I was reminded of this post, originally published February 2011, while working on another post about Dawkins that will be going up shortly.

A reader writers:

In a blog post a while ago you mentioned you might give your thoughts on Dawkins’ take on Aquinas’ five ways.I’m currently trying to write something which includes Dawkins’ coverage of natural theology, and how far he’s given acceptable responses to theistic arguments. If you did have time to cover what you think of his take on them, it’d be very helpful to me. Even a few brief reflections in a message would probably be very useful.

Here’s a slightly edited version of the message I sent in response:

I think Dawkins’ treatment is not great but not terrible. It looks cribbed from an undergraduate philosophy textbook (in fact, I would be interested to find evidence of what books Dawkins might have been influenced by.)Dawkins has been accused of misrepresenting Aquinas on the grounds that Dawkins said Aquinas thought the universe had to have a beginning, whereas at one point Aquinas says the finitude of the past is something we only know by faith.

However, I don’t think Dawkins’ reading of Aquinas is so crazy – even if he later says otherwise, the things Aquinas says in his five ways do seem to commit him to a finite past.

Dawkins has also been accused of misrepresenting Aquinas on the grounds that Aquinas 4th way isn’t really the argument from design, and Aquinas thought any regularity at all in the world is proof of teleology.

This is a more plausible criticism of Dawkins, but linking the 4th way to the argument from design is somewhat reasonable, IMHO. Aristotle seems to have thought the clearest cases of telos are those involving biological complexity. He’s fuzzy on whether simple natural regularities require telos. So I think there is a tie here to Paley, evolution, and so on.

In general, I think Dawkins made a mistake in trying to tie Aquinas’ arguments to ones normal people make nowadays. Aquinas has the virtue of being much more systematic than even contemporary philosophers of religion, but he also relies on lots of assumptions that hardly anybody today finds plausible.

Rather than try to pick all his arguments apart in detail, it’s more interesting to ask why Aquinas made so many weird assumptions. The short version, I’m told, is that almost all learning in Western Europe was destroyed by the dark ages, so when Aristotle was reintroduced to the west he looked unbelievably awesome compared to what had been going on for the last several hundred years. And the translations of Aristotle weren’t necessarily that great.

In fact, I think calling Aquinas a medieval philosopher may be somewhat misleading. It might be better to use “proto-Renaissance” or somesuch label.

The reader wrote back, generally, agreeing, but also with a link to an Edward Feser article criticizing Dawkins. My reply:

I agree that Leprechaunology is not a great analogy for the work of Aquinas or Leibniz. But it’s easy to suggest better analogies: how about Spinozism or Hegelianism? I’d be surprised if Feser took either of those doctrines terribly seriously.The dirty little secret of philosophy is that just because a philosopher is held up as “great” to the public and considered required reading in undergraduate courses does not mean professional philosophers think his work is very good, or that they’re obliged to study him carefully before thinking his work is not very good.

Feser bemoans this when his colleagues do it to Aquinas, but he himself does it with plenty of modern and contemporary philosophers. The brand of rhetoric that Feser has made his name on strikes many professional philosophers as utterly bizarre, and with good reason.

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