Mano Singham on The Unnecessary Science

Mano Singham on The Unnecessary Science September 25, 2020

Mano Singham, over at Freethought Blogs, has recently kindly reviewed a book I edited by Gunther Laird, The Unnecessary Science: A Critical Analysis od Natural Law Theory (UK)The book is particularly prevalent now as Natural Law Theory forms the foundation upon which conservative lawyers, lawmakers and justices stake their claims, and we have the whole debacle concerning nominating conservative justices for the Supreme Court:

A few weeks ago I received the manuscript of a book THE UNNECESSARY SCIENCE: A critical analysis of natural law theory by Gunther Laird who had seen my blog post about Feser and thought I might be interested in reviewing it. As the subtitle indicates, this book is a critique of what is known in theological circles as ‘natural law theory’. ‘Natural law’ is not about the laws of science but instead is about establishing the moral and ethical bases that should govern our lives. The basis of this was furnished by Aristotle and then formulated in the context of Catholicism by Thomas Aquinas. Laird’s book takes aim at the arguments of both those thinkers as well as the further refinements of natural law theory by Feser, one of its most ardent advocates. This book is essentially a critique of the natural law thesis as elaborated on by mostly Feser. Laird has studied the entire Feser oeuvre of books, articles, and blog posts and his book is a detailed point-by-point look at what Feser claims about natural law theory and the basis for his own specific claims.

It turns out that Feser has much more ambitious goals than Adler’s minimal one of just proving the existence of any god. Feser is not just claiming that there is irrefutable proof of his god’s existence. In his hands, ‘natural law theory’ that he claims follows in a direct line from the ideas of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas is a detailed, prescriptive theory that argues that traditional Catholic doctrines in their most rigid and doctrinaire forms, are a necessary consequence of it and Catholicism in its traditional form is unequivocally the one, true religion. This results in natural law theory’s justification of condemnations of divorce, homosexuality, abortion, religious pluralism, masturbation, and so on. Natural law theory is apparently quite influential in some circles and US Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas is supposedly a firm believer in it and uses it in his opinions, which explains a lot actually, given that Thomas is one of the most conservative justices on the court and almost always rules in favor of the worst options. This does not bode well for natural law theory being humane.

Religious apologists face the perennial problem of explaining how an omnipotent and benevolent god allows the existence of evil. Laird explains the tortured arguments that Feser, like other religious apologists, give to explain away this problem, based on the ethical arguments of Aristotle and Aquinas. But Laird goes on to show that those arguments can just as easily be used to justify the most horrendous evils. In fact, that is how much of the book is written. Laird gives the Feserian (and sometimes also Thomist/Aristotelian) argument in support for each position and then shows that those same arguments can be used in support of either its opposite or for some other awful thing.

While clearly secular in his sympathies, Laird is by no means a knee-jerk antagonist to the religious views of Feser. He says that Feser writes very clearly and that his explanations of what natural law theory entails are easy to follow. As far as I can tell (note that theology is not my field) he tries to give Feser’s arguments as sympathetic a hearing as he can and does not try to take his words out of context….

Laird’s goal is the opposite of Feser’s. The very fact that Laird spends about 360 pages closely critiquing Feser’s arguments and quotes him copiously suggests that this is no drive-by sniping. Feser should feel complimented that someone has gone to such a great extent to read all his writings and take the trouble to write an entire book containing an extremely detailed analysis of his views, even if his conclusions are not favorable. It appears that Feser has not as yet responded to this book.

Given that this is entirely a discussion of philosophy-based theology, you have to brace yourself for the writing style in that field which tends to be heavy on formal definitions and esoteric arguments. Laird has a breezy writing style with lots of down-to-Earth examples taken from everyday life and popular culture that makes the going easier than it otherwise might have been, but he cannot completely eliminate all the theological esotericism if he wants to give justice to the subject. So there is a lot of discussion of forms, actuality, potentiality, essences, and the like.

Laird’s book is an invaluable resource for anyone who seeks to really get to grips with natural law theory in general and Feser’s use of it to provide support for rigid Catholic orthodox doctrine on issues of doctrine, morality, and ethics, views that are shared by many conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians.

Read the whole review here.

I would like to thank Mano Singham for the time and effort he has put into the book and his review.

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