Debunking Natural Law Theory – The Unnecessary Science: A Useful Summary

Debunking Natural Law Theory – The Unnecessary Science: A Useful Summary November 14, 2020

This is the summary of a book by Gunther Laird (criticising natural law theory) that I recently edited. The summary has been written up by the author for your delectation.

While The Unnecessary Science: A Critical Analysis of Natural Law Theory [UK] is written with an eye to philosophy, by no means is it of interest only to philosophers. The monograph connects the abstruse and seemingly airy-fairy metaphysics (which it explains in terms readily accessible to laymen) to many concrete political and cultural issues of pressing interest to both believers and non-believers today. A summary of the book will aptly demonstrate this.

After setting the metaphysical stage in chapter 1—explaining esoteric Aristotelian philosophy so readers can understand exactly what Feser means by “actuality and potentiality,” final causality, the Problem of Universals, divine simplicity, and so on—chapter 2, “Fallible Faith” addresses religion directly. Describing how Feser’s Aristotelian metaphysics can’t prove Catholicism over its Protestant competitors, then explaining how those metaphysics can’t even prove Christianity generally above the other Abrahamic faiths and even old-school paganism, it ends with a wry but powerful defense of Locke’s arguments for religious liberty, which most sympathetic readers here would very much enjoy.

Then comes the spicy stuff—Chapter 3, “Contraceptive Causality” deals extensively with sexuality, making it of compelling interest to participants in the debates over gay marriage and abortion. I explain how Feser fails to distinguish uses that are “contrary to” an organ’s purpose as opposed to merely “other than,” and also how non-procreative ejaculations can be considered legitimate uses of the male “sexual faculties,” thus demolishing Feser’s argument against homosexuality. I continue this analysis—again, entirely on Feser’s preferred metaphysical grounds, making it that much more effective against him—to prove that marriage is an artifact (in the sense Feser uses the word), making gay marriage perfectly acceptable. Then I use Feser’s own metaphysical premises to explain how Plato and Aristotle might have justified abortion—a useful section for anyone looking for ways to defend Roe v. Wade, given ACB’s recent nomination to the Supreme Court!

Chapter 4, “Aristotelian Atrocities” is historical in nature. I examine how, contrary to what Feser implies in The Last Superstition, slaveowners and Nazis had been enthusiastic proponents of the “classical tradition,” defined as the teleological ethical thought one finds in both Aristotle and Plato, although the Nazis, in fairness, preferred Plato to Aristotle. I then go on to describe how the Communists—who Feser, and most conservatives, take to be the ultimate evil—were very enthusiastic students of Aristotle, and finally briefly address some very nasty Christian regimes of the 20th century (notably the Ustashe of Croatia and the Nationalist side during the Spanish Civil War) to cast doubt on the idea that Thomism (as opposed to Aristotelianism or Platonism alone) could have warded off these rather horrifying ethical lapses.

Chapter 5, “Fallacious Forms,” returns to the metaphysics to explain why Aristotelianism, and Aristotelian-Thomism, have failed to provide a coherent basis for morality. I argue that final causality cannot actually solve the issue of the fact-value distinction Hume brought up so long ago, and that even if it did, the epistemological difficulty of discerning what Forms and Final Causes things actually have (and what God wills for them, anyways) would cripple the classical ethical tradition anyways. I offer some alternatives, such as a slightly modified version of Phillippa Foot’s Aristotelianism, but finally conclude that even being as generous as possible to Feser, the “religious duties” he enjoins on us cannot be considered rationally binding.

Chapter 6, “Exasperating Existence” is the most “metaphysical” of all the parts of the book, though still entertaining and accessible. I explain how Plato, Aristotle, and indeed Aquinas and Feser haven’t really solved the various metaphysical problems Feser claimed they did—I go through a sizable list, exploring how the act-potency distinction can’t actually explain change, how a purely simple God makes it difficult to understand change as well as free will and the problem of universals, and how Feser’s account of essence and existence doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusions he wants—among several other interesting asides and discussions!

The last chapter is an effort to directly address a challenge Feser has given his critics, and I think people who debate atheism as an identity will really enjoy this one. I explicitly tackle the Problem of Universals and a set of criterion Feser says any proposed solution to it must address, and come up with three alternatives: Deism, Lovecraftian Theism, and finally a pantheistic sort of atheism.

Politics, ethics, and history—there’s a lot more to The Unnecessary Science than dry contemplation of complicated metaphysical meandering! If this intrigues you, I hope you’ll give the book a look—either physically or electronically, as the eBook is at a most affordable price-point!

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