Reply to Prof. Feser’s Second Question

Ed, I would like to respond to each question first before responding to your responses; otherwise things could get confusing.

Here is your second question:

2. Could you tell us where in your writings or in someone else’s that we can find what you take to be the strongest criticisms of the Scholastic arguments for the doctrine of divine conservation?

Good question. Actually, I think that recent atheist writers have been remiss in not addressing this question or Thomistic metaphysics in general nearly as much as they should. Nicholas Everitt does have an interesting discussion of the Cartesian conception of continuous creation on pp. 271-274 of his book The Non-existence of God. In general, however, recent atheist writers have focused on the more recent theistic arguments, such as those by Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, William Alston, William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Robert M. Adams, Peter Van Inwagen, and others. This is too bad since Thomism remains a respectable tradition with many knowledgeable and articulate supporters. BTW, in teaching my history of philosophy class today, I still draw on Etienne Gilson’s little classic Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages. Gilson’s writings were some of the most useful when I was studying theology and the history of philosophy at Emory University in the 1970’s.

My view of divine conservation is that it is rather plainly a gratuitous notion. Why would, say, an electron or a quark (considered fundamental particles in the Standard Model) need any help in remaining in existence? The idea seems very odd to me, like the idea of “vital force” to a modern biologist. We know that highly respectable biologists of the past, like Louis Pasteur, adhered to the doctrine of vital forces, but it eventually was discarded as non-explanatory. Similarly, I have to ask what explanatory work is done by the principle of divine conservation. What legitimate questions does it answer? Is there anything missing from an electron that would have to be filled in or supplied from outside?

There is nothing in our physical theories that indicates such a lack. Of course, there is the famous “measurement problem” of quantum mechanics. The dynamic properties of quanta have no specific value—but are represented as a superposition of possible values—prior to measurement. Still, whatever solution to the measurement problem we favor, I do take it that most scientific realists (like me) hold that quarks and electrons do objectively exist “out there” independently of us. As Ian Hacking notes, in many ways subatomic particles can be used and manipulated like other things. We can store them, shoot them, block them with barriers, and achieve all sorts of effects (some quite horrible) with them. As Hacking once said “If you can spray them, they are real!” I would say that if you can vaporize cities with them they are real.

Back to the point: It is, of course, not an argument against divine conservation that I express incredulity towards the idea. It seems an obviously dubious notion to me, but, of course, assertions of obviousness always do carry that “to me” rider, and so are not polemically potent to those for whom it is not obvious. But such statements do serve to state where we stand at the start of a discussion. Those who begin a discussion with very different priors (as you and I do) will diverge greatly on what seems plain or obvious. All we can do is state things as we see them and invite our interlocutors to supply reasons for seeing things otherwise. So, that is what I am doing here. I conclude, then, by putting the question to you:

Why does an electron, or any other fundamental physical entity, need divine aid to continue in existence?

About Keith Parsons
  • Scott Scheule

    Regarding your question, didn’t Feser specifically refer you to an article of his that purports to answer it?

    Feser: “FYI, I have defended the Scholastic position at length in my American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways,” wherein I respond to the arguments on this topic presented by J. L. Mackie, Bede Rundle, John Beaudoin, and others. I will be happy to email you a PDF of the article if you haven’t seen it, since I’d be very interested to hear which criticisms you think I’ve overlooked.”
    Are you just looking for Feser to sum up that paper for you and your readers?

    • Keith Parsons


      Thanks for the reminder. I will ask Ed for the PDF. Yeah, I think that in discussions in a forum like this, it is good to offer arguments and not just refer to previous writings. That gives a freshness to the exchange and keeps things lively and timely. Yes, it does involve some rehash at times, but this also is often good. Frequently I find that in expressing an argument succinctly in an informal forum (such as we have here) I will express things more felicitously than before. It is like teaching a class. No, you do not get to express things quite as precisely, but you do communicate the gist more clearly. Journal articles certainly have their place, but here I think the tone should be more conversational. Really, the only proper reply to a journal article is another article. So, if it is not too inconvenient, I would hope that Ed will outline his argument, and we can go from there.

    • Keith Parsons


      BTW, I apologized to Ed for my nasty remarks last week. I will also apologize to you and others for other nasty remarks about Ed’s regular readers. These were statements made in anger, and, like practically all statements made in anger, later regretted.

      • Scott Scheule

        Thank you. I said some nasty things too, which in retrospect were uncalled for (though my “ad culum” comment is still funny).
        The entire tussle was a result of you dismissing Feser’s field as a “fraud” (no matter how you qualified it). I can understand why you said that–if you don’t believe the field’s arguments pass muster, then the only honest thing to do is state as much. At the same time, I can certainly understand why Feser was angered by such a blanket dismissal.
        Such a situation is bound to be dangerous to navigate without some party being nettled. And so it went. But to the credit of both of you, you seem to have patched things up. I’m enjoying the exchange thus far, and my respect for the both of you, already there, has only grown because of it.
        Thanks for allowing us to witness this back and forth.

        • Keith Parsons


          Ditto all you say here. The “fraud” remark was intemperate and inappropriate, however qualified. There is an object lesson here: Engage brain before opening mouth.

  • being itself

    ‘Why would, say, an electron or a quark need any help in remaining in existence? ”

    Well it seems that according to quantum field theory those particles depend on the electron and quark fields to remain in existence. But I guess Feser would just push his demand one step back and say that God is required to keep the fields going.

    But in my experience the Thomists are not interested in any particular facts about the real world, and much prefer to steer the conversation into their metaphysical weeds. And their metaphysics is all derived from Aristotle’s physics, which was wrong about just about everything.

    • Kiel Gillard

      On the contrary, if you had more experience with Thomism or, more specifically, the act-potency distinction, you’d realise your closing paragraph is laden with fallacies.

      • being itself

        Thanks for proving my point by diving headfirst into the weeds.

        • Gary Black

          Really insulated yourself from criticism there haven’t you? Any non-trivial discussion of the subject is diving into weeds. It’s a wonder why you would frequent sites that are about weeds.

          • being itself

            I have no intention of insulating myself from criticism. Rather, I will not attempt to argue with a Thomist by taking on his overloaded raft of extravagant metaphysics. In order for a conversation to be at all fruitful, there must be some common ground.

        • Kiel Gillard

          Assertions and weed. No arguments, just weed. Have you had any ‘transcendental’ experiences with weed recently?

          I ask rhetorically. I don’t actually care, unless you want to, you know, show us where we can find an argument (or give us one) demonstrating the disconnect between Aristotelian metaphysics and facts about the world.

          • being itself

            You miss my point. I’ll try and make it more clear.

            Thomists make arguments based on an extravagantly constructed metaphysics. Part of the construction process involves immunizing the metaphysics from empirical refutation. Feser has asserted that no possible finding from science could possibly make him change his metaphysical views. He “knows” the truth of his metaphysics by other means – armchair naval gazing.

            And that is where I end the conversation.

          • Kiel Gillard

            Thanks for the reply, but it leaves me wanting for it does not offer to demonstrate the disconnect between Thomistic metaphysics and facts about the world.

            Consistent with the spirit of your initial post, this reply also demonstrates your characterisations of Thomism, metaphysics and Feser are misunderstandings — straw men. Consider,

            “The philosophy of nature is a middle ground field of study, lying between metaphysics and empirical science. Unlike metaphysics, it is not concerned with being as such, but with changeable, empirical reality in particular. But neither is it concerned merely with the specific natures of the changeable, empirical things that happen to exist. It is rather concerned with what must be true of any world of changeable, empirical things of the sort we might have scientific knowledge of, whatever their specific natures and thus whatever turn out to be the specific laws in terms of which they operate.”

            “In Aristotelian philosophy of nature, these fundamental features of any possible empirical reality (or at least any sort we might have scientific knowledge of) include act and potency, substantial form and prime matter, efficient and final causality, and so forth. (That is not to say that some of these concepts don’t also have broader metaphysical significance. But the philosophy of nature approaches them from the point of view of the role they play in making sense of the empirical world, specifically.)”

            Unless you can provide a quote from his or a related work proving otherwise, its seems like Thomistic metaphysical principles are informed by findings from science, viz. philosophy of nature.

            Finally, by Feser saying “these fundamental features of any possible empirical reality (or at least any sort we might have scientific knowledge of)”, it suggests that for his metaphysical views to change, some previously unknown scientific discovery would have to demonstrate the falsehood of a principle. If you’d read any of his work, you’d see he considers supposed objections, such as inertia, to metaphysical principles.

            And that is where I’ll end the conversation, too.

          • DonJindra

            “It is rather concerned with what must be true of any world of
            changeable, empirical things of the sort we might have scientific
            knowledge of, whatever their specific natures and thus whatever turn out
            to be the specific laws in terms of which they operate.”

            IOW, Feser believes he has found “what must be true” of things we know empirically. This demonstrates beingitself’s point. Feser rules out any empirical/scientific means of falsifying “what must be true.” How could it falsify his “what must be true” since the scientific process is supposedly impossible without that necessity? If science falsifies “what must be true,” that would prove science is incoherent.

          • being itself


            When I said “and that is where I end the conversation” I meant any conversation where my interlocutor has declared his views dogmatic and exempt from modification. I was not referring to this conversation (yet).

            You introduce a ton of metaphysical baggage with “act and potency, substantial form and prime matter, efficient and final causality, and so forth”. You can label it metaphysics if you wish or “philosophy of nature”, it does not matter to me.

            What does matter is I see no good reason to think any of it is true or useful.

          • Gary Black

            Since when is fallibility a necessary condition for truth? What scientific study could convince you that the law of non-contradiction is false? Or modes ponens? There are underlying assumptions that allow us to have intelligible thoughts in the first place. These assumptions are not up for “scientific” scrutiny.

            However, even if an idea is not up to scientific scrutiny it is not necessarily dogmatic. Various metaphysical assumptions can be shown to be false. They might be internally contradictory, lead to obvious error (such as the idea that our thought is illusory), or any number of other things. These are fleshed out by demonstration and argument, not in a laboratory.

            Now if you consider the various ideas you listed as superfluous, I suggest you familiarize yourself with why they exist. What problems do they solve? How would you solve them in a more simple way? IOW, prove to us they are unnecessary – don’t merely assert it. You’ll probably have to do this through demonstration though, we haven’t quite figured out how to do it in a lab coat.

          • DonJindra

            “What problems do they solve?”

            None, which is why they are superfluous.

          • DonJindra

            “Feser has asserted that no possible finding from science could possibly
            make him change his metaphysical views.”


  • Edward Feser

    Hello Keith, thanks for this. I have responded to your first post over at my blog and will get to this one in a day or two so that, as you say, things don’t get too confusing. I will also try my best to keep my own remarks no longer than yours so that there’s not tons of stuff to reply to. Any order you want to respond to my comments (all at once, piecemeal, whatever) is fine with me. I’m sure Jeff will intervene if things get too chaotic!

    • Keith Parsons

      Thanks, Ed. I will be posting my responses to questions 3 and 4 today and tomorrow. I have a huge stack of papers to finish grading which will take through Thursday. I will get a response to your reply early next week.

  • Thomas Cothran

    I think this post might benefit from a short description of divine conservation, because (1) there are different understandings of it, even within the scholastic tradition, and (2) even though Feser and Parsons might have a clear and univocal understanding of it, the readers probably don’t.

  • Alan Le Fevre

    The question:

    “Why would, say, an electron or
    a quark (considered fundamental particles in the Standard Model) need any help
    in remaining in existence?”

    Has been addressed by a quantum physicist (My introduction to
    the paper here):

    This is no proof, and indeed a proof is probably
    beyond the range of physics at the moment, but he does present a mathematical
    model that is fully consistent with a universe that survives by sustainment
    from without.